Ma1ntaining a Direct10n — 0nly 17.95!!!

Today’s article title stems from one of the more creative pieces of spam I’ve found in my inbox. It seems that this particular e-mail stemmed from a company who specialised in telling people who may or may not have the appropriate need exactly how much money they could save investing in pills and a crème that, combined, would lead to the spontaneous coalescence of a lardge pebnis.

Ingredients: This article contains absolutely 0% humor, instead using humor substitute and humor supplements, and may or may not be the result of reading someone far funnier’s blog. We’ll bet you can’t taste the difference!

Today’s article title stems from one of the more creative pieces of spam I’ve found in my inbox*. It seems that this particular e-mail stemmed from a company who specialised in telling people who may or may not have the appropriate need exactly how much money they could save investing in pills and a crème that, combined, would lead to the spontaneous coalescence of a lardge pebnis. Then, the e-mail went on to mention how, what with all that money you saved out of your pebnis-creation budget – money that you would have just frittered away on pointless spending, such as knocking down a wall and designing a small room in which to accommodate this particularly arcane piece of machinery, or perhaps purchasing foodstuffs and wine with which to woo ladies, who you could invite back to your home to examine the result of your e-mail spawned labors that instead – you could spend it on some oil stock the e-mail was nice enough to let you know about.

Now That I’m Rich And Famous

It set me thinking – as I’m sure you can tell, given the gibberish you have sprawled across your screen while you eat your ham sandwich, – that, really, the imitation of a process could often seem totally disconnected from the result. This e-mail, for no investment on my part, was imparting to me a secretive technique for attaining Pebnises – lardge ones, even, which sound like an exotic subspecies – and all the wealth my heart could desire! And all for a tiny investment, which was clearly going to be paid back by the vast, vast wealth that lay before me, shiny, alluring and easy to take, like that albino’s kickass pair of prescription sunglasses. But I wouldn’t see results – obviously – for a while after I sent the e-mail. Specifically, if I whipped out my credit card and dove for this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, I wouldn’t see the fruits of my labour until I’d been cleaned out by credit card frauds, fought tooth and nail in the courts for my money back, and eventually been murdered and buried in soft peat by a pair of Nigerian thugs with imported shovels.

Magic is a lot like that, with less murder, travail, court cases, and sexy results. Really, Magic and the metagame is an amazing creature to observe. Consider Standard. Standard is like unto a petri dish. You have a slowly-evolving format full of simple life forms. Standard decks are, in general, less complicated than Extended decks; they draw on smaller cardpools and let fewer mechanics rub shoulders with one another. Pure aggro strategies – usually the simplest and least successful – do their best in Standard. Aggro predates on slower decks – usually control – and is predated on by a more complex creature, usually combo.

(Note, these tiers can be completely reversed; in Mirrodin block, the #1 aggro strategy was defeated by a control deck while it outraced pure combo. There are probably other examples in the past, but moving on in the metaphor…)

Every four months or so, one of the higher-up forces, the grand white coat in the sky, injects a new substance into the dish, and lo how it stirs things up. It’s amazing; even though often, a set introduces roughly zero new decks, or even only a handful of good cards, it still stirs up a fuss. Consider, for example, Saviors of Kamigawa. Even without that many good cards in it for the Standard cardpool, people were still throwing Saviors around for a while. Because it just was.

So we get nice, sterilized packets of New Stuff on a triannual basis. That can often make it feel monolithic and slow. Growth and change seems to take forever! Consider that Wizards said “no more instant-speed card drawing” during the aftermath of Invasion block. Ravnica, Kamigawa, Mirrodin, Onslaught, Odyssey – that’s five years ago. And they’ve only just managed to whittle that draw down to a few cards.

It’s hard to see that as progress, because it happened so slowly. Fifteen sets between a decision being made and its impact being felt. Playable weenie fliers in White took only a short while – but that’s because Mirrodin block had an absolute heaping of them! Check it out sometime, it’s surprising how dense Mirrodin block was with flying weenies. That was a sharp decision and changed drastically – and the thing is, such drastic change could be painful at times. In the case of White Weenie, Affinity itself sucked all the “actual good” out of the set, making White Weenie a functionally unplayable deck for most of the standard environment.

The Rate Of Change

This isn’t an insider’s perspective on how Magic is made. It’s an observer’s and I speak as someone who has read every one of Aaron, Randy, and Mark’s articles – even Elegance. This means that I’m not really telling you anything you don’t already know. Consider this the cliff notes of the information. You could read through a few hundred articles (Only a few hundred? Wow, it feels like more), and honestly, I recommend you do – a lot of their work is quite good, and even the mediocre stuff is pretty light and easily digested.

R&D wants to make sure that some cards get played. Everyone who has a passing interest in Magic history will know about the term Homedicapped. Once upon a time, the DCI demanded that, in order to be qualified as tournament legal, a deck had to feature, between maindeck and sideboard, a certain number of Homelands cards. This, on its own, was enough to make Serrated Arrows one of the most common spells in the format – being as it was one of the few cards in Homelands that was any good.

R&D wants to make sure that the format remains reasonably stable. Shaking up the format every four months by spouting a dozen new top-tier cards is enough of a shakeup; that gives us a period where, for a few major tournaments, the game is wide-open, and anything can win. During these periods, you’ll note there are fewer pro tour events, and more common-man tournaments, like Champs and Grand Prix. You’ll notice that the pros get their first block event in an incomplete block format; this means that they can focus more on the cards they already know, and that Wizards can get a gauge on the format fairly solidly before the set is complete. Consider it taking the format’s temperature.

It’s a strange situation; the DCI are both medic and scientist, testing their subject with various prods and pulleys, and then undoing the damage as best they can. Oftentimes, the drugs that the subject is provided with just make it do something it’s never done before – like playing all five colors in a draft format, or make an aggressive, milling-based strategy feasible in Limited, or even make a deck with 36 creatures and 24 land a Tier 1 strategy. Sometimes, the drugs are just blatantly harmful. Sometimes, we get Affinity, and the trial has to be aborted.

It’s a mysterious process when you think about it.

With these two tenants, R&D are obviously going to want to make the new toys shiny. Fortunately, human nature kicks in well here. Commonly, people are going to want something new (Indeed, New, Sex, Free and Chocolate are the four most potent words in advertising) over something old. Ennui and frustration are two huge factors for the success of new sets, at least initially. When Onslaught was being spoilered, people were crowing with joy. Not because of the new cards; but because Onslaught heralded, simply by existing, the end of Deed, Fact Or Fiction, Prophetic Bolt, Mystic Snake, Absorb, Undermine, and a host of other villainously powerful cards.

Were any of them bad cards? God no. I’d love to own four of each. Indeed, with Snakes and FoFs, I do own four of each.

But, in Standard, people didn’t want to deal with them. They were fed up, sick to their teeth with them, and desperately wanted a change. Same thing when Mirrodin was coming in. People were breathing sighs of relief with the knowledge that, even if Mirrodin was 350 cards that said “Tap: Do Nothing,” it would still mean, simply by existing that Psychatog, Wild Mongrel, and other dominant tournament forces would be gutted.

It’s a very cleansing time, really.

However, the allure of the new only holds the glitter in your eye for so long. There has to be more – people want some commitment, damnit. An old set leaves, and suddenly the power level of the format drops; even if that old set is Homelands, the fact is, smaller cardpools are observably less powerful by dint of having fewer options. So with the loss of the old, the new can come in and bolster the power level of the format. In theory, this means that the new set is going to be able to pull the old set’s weight. This theoretically would indicate a strong-weak-strong-weak pattern of blocks; where no more than one “strong” set would be in a format.

Wizards don’t want that; it hurts sales of the “weak” one, which is bad. They instead want for a more consistent, stable level of power. For this reason, they distribute power as equally as they can. And then…

They make mistakes.

Consider this little conspiracy-theory inspiring tidbit: Wizards predicted that Onslaught was going to be a format dominated by Wizards while Odyssey was Standard legal, with beasts the aggressive deck to fight it, using their undercosted fat and explosive mana acceleration to bust through permission walls. The format was going to, in their FFL testing, be mono-Blue fighting lazily against an empowered Green-Red archetype, which used cycling cards to fight against permission. They simply did not notice Lightning Rift’s interaction with Astral Slide as a creature control plus win condition combo. Their foil to Psychatog – Goblins – was too strong, winding up being as big a problem as Psychatog did, and crushing the life out of the wizard deck.

Oh, and most of the wizards being awful was another contributing factor.

I find it mindblowing that Wizards consciously make this claim even while Randy was desperately putting out fires about Fact or Fiction, Wonder, Circular Logic, and Psychatog. Even if they were wrong about it, they still were making and planning a set even while Randy was publicly and repeatedly claiming that Wizards were going to downpower Blue and bring White back up to snuff. Onslaught block – in theory – was an awful follow-up to that claim; it made Randy look like a complete liar (though ultimately, while it did do the job Randy was talking about, it did so by accident, and Blue remained the tournament king). But in Mirrodin, there was a glut of good, White, weenies. There were beatdown creatures with almost unprecedented strength, skullkickers and dudes who interacted with equipment in a way you’d never believe. Blue had precisely zero good cards in the set, with most of the space they’d take being occupied by their interaction with artifacts. Awful, awful creatures like Broodstar and Hoverguard and Qumulox. Craphouse countermagic like Assert Authority and Override – how many artifacts do you expect to have by turn 3, anyway?

(Maro, at one point, mentioned that he thought Broodstar was rubbish; because players were far too likely to look at their best scenario for a card than they were the worst. They would consider Broodstar as an 8/8 for UU rather than as, what he felt was more likely, the 4/4 for 4UU. While his point was true – people are silly sometimes – he was clearly well-off-base for his assessment of the Affinity mechanic.)

The thing is, he was telling the truth. He was, at that time, done with Onslaught – hell, by the look of things, he wasn’t even that consciously aware of Onslaught. No, he was thinking of Mirrodin. Because ultimately, the Wizards guys are two years ahead of us at any given point in time. Maro’s teasing us about Dissension right now. You think that he’s touched a Dissension card lately? Hell no, at least not as a designer. Maro’s been hammering out the final parts of Snap/Crackle/Pop and is most likely, right now, working on the early parts of the middle set of the block after that.

This is the rate of change. Don’t look to the next set to see the change; look to the one after it.

Aside: The Other Side (Or, Coldsnap)

If you look back over the past few expansions, you’ll notice that those cards that polarise into “most expensive” and “least expensive” can usually be found as one of two different categories. “Design Mistakes” (most often the former) and “Attempts to fix the most recent design mistake” (most often the latter). It’s not a coincidence that the “most expensive” category also happens to hold “defining tournament cards.”

Let’s jump back to Onslaught block (fairly recent in people’s memories). Goblin Piledriver was explicitly given Protection from Blue to give goblins game versus Psychatog, a card that R&D had thought they’d “fixed.” When they blinked, looked up and said “oops!” as Dr. Teeth ate Standard and Extended alive, they realised they had to do something to fix it. Wild Mongrel was also a problem, and so, Smother was born – with only one creature between U/G Madness and Psychatog’s entire maindeck that Smother didn’t kill, it was suspected that smother would force Psychatog to play a more “fair” game, playing with more win conditions and less permission. Of course, that’s not the case – ‘Tog decks just ran Smother to shore up their matchup versus madness, and countered the Smother whenever it would matter.

Now, it’s not too common for R&D to print these specific fixes. Imi Statue and Samurai of the Pale Curtain were two options. So was Kataki, War’s Wage. Seedtime was designed to poke Fact or Fiction in the eye. And overall, they did a piss-poor job of it.

What are the defining tournament cards right now? Sakura-Tribe Elder (an attempt to give control decks a way to fight broken aggro decks, i.e., Affinity). Meloku (a design mistake). Jitte (another design mistake!). Pithing Needle (foil to those mistakes). Curious, is it not?

Basically, right now, Wizards is in a more-or-less constant backpedal mode. They’ve been trying to cover their asses while walking forward for some time now, and they’re doing a great job at it. But tournament formats and competitive magic are still going to be defined by the pure, congealed evil that is Better Cards Than I Can Afford.

Wizards releases three sets a year in Standard. Four every other year. This year, we’re going to get four expansions, which is pretty awesome. It even makes it nice and seasonal, and may even lead to the DCI making more routine bannings than they currently do (allowing for them to react and affect stagnating formats more quickly).

I think Coldsnap is going to be a testing of the waters. Wizards are dabbling their foot, seeing how well sales go with four sets a year. There’s going to be a lot of novelty around Coldsnap, and, barring for a stupid idea like not releasing Ice Age to go with it on MTGO, there will be draftings aplenty of it. If Standard’s cardpool expands by a little more… and its release dates speed up by a liiiittle bit more… we might actually get these responses in a timely fashion.

Tying It Together

Consider working in R&D. You go to work and have seventeen thousand monkeys throwing poo at your car as you go, because each and every monkey is under the delusion that it does your work better than you do, and that you, individually, are somehow just part of a giant sentient monolith that feasts upon the happiness of small children. When you arrive at work, you spend your day doing sixteen different things, discussing cards, testing precedents, playing a lot of Sealed (and speaking a someone who’s worked in toy design, games become drudgery after a certain point, especially when you’re playing with untested stuff), and trying to keep atop the ball the whole time. Then, it’s back home, with the monkeys flinging poo every step of the way.

It’s no wonder Maro doesn’t respond to every e-mail. Would you want to talk to the monkeys after all this?

(This particular monkey is aware of the irony of his words, by the by, no need to point it out.)

At this point, I’m running out of steam, looking back on this entire stream of thought and wondering what exactly my purpose was, beyond “R&D take a lot of flak for stuff they’re trying to fix.” I guess in the end, if I could sum up my desires and express them to the Magic community – removing those that would get Mr. Tait putting a restraining order on me – it would be quite summed up thusly:

Don’t be a dick.

If you have an opinion about Magic, make it heard. But please, make sure it’s an informed opinion. But here’s the crucial part of it all: You are not your opinion. If someone attacks what you have to say, if they disagree with you, don’t take it personally. Don’t run away from them, or ignore them. Find out why they say what they do, and find out what merit they have. It’s called communication, and we could all do a bit more of it.

Especially when it’s telling R&D what we think and feel.

Hugs and Kisses.
Talen Lee
Talen at dodo dot com dot au

* This, incidentally, is a lie. But by the time you get here and find out that this piece of spam is badly fabricated, you’ll have read the whole article, right? Surely everyone reads exactly like me.