We Don’t Need No Stinkin’ Keywords!

It’s that time again. It’s time for the release of a new set, full of plenty of new cards waiting to be sprung upon the magic populace. New cards are, fundamentally, a cool thing. New toys to play with means more fun for everyone, right? And better yet, if those new cards have a new ability, some interesting mechanic to tinker with and build around, that creates even more possibilities! Every keyword added to the game gives players more options for deckbuilding, more choices of what direction to go. Keywords are an all-around good thing. This is Wizards of the Coast’s attitude, and I agree with them. To a point.

It’s that time again. It’s time for the release of a new set, full of plenty of new cards waiting to be sprung upon the magic populace. New cards are, fundamentally, a cool thing. New toys to play with means more fun for everyone, right? And better yet, if those new cards have a new ability, some interesting mechanic to tinker with and build around, that creates even more possibilities! Every keyword added to the game gives players more options for deckbuilding, more choices of what direction to go. Keywords are an all-around good thing. This is Wizards of the Coast’s attitude, and I agree with them.

To a point.

The point at which I stop agreeing with them is when, as we’ve seen over the past few years, a new keyword crops up in every single set. When the game jumps from one mechanic to another every few months, I find myself cringing. I dread the day Mark Rosewater previews a new keyword, a day when I should be on my toes with excitement. Every time previews begin, it’s like getting hit with another “Who Wants to Marry My Dad?” or “The Will.”

Honestly, I would be more excited if I wasn’t always expecting it, if it weren’t so common, but the last set that didn’t introduce a new keyword to the game was eight sets ago with Judgment, a streak I hope is broken sooner rather than later. Every four months since then, we’ve had at least one new word or phrase thrown at us, and I’m honestly getting sick of it. If I had to put money on it, I’d say it was the popularity of some previous keyword (don’t ask me which) that inspired this saturation, just as “Survivor” spawned the legions of reality shows we have now.

Betrayers of Kamigawa is bringing us two new keywords, which isn’t (or wasn’t) common for a small set, plus it also comes on the heels of five new keywords in Champions.* Two sets, seven abilities added to the Magic lexicon. Does this seem a little much to anyone?

Does anyone out there remember Invasion block? It was one of the best-received blocks in the history of the game, and the entire three sets contained only a single keyword, Kicker. Look it up. That single mechanic was deep enough to serve through the entire block instead of being used up and discarded in a set and a half. We have already added more keywords in the Kamigawa block than there were letters in the only keyword from Invasion. Not that there weren’t other mechanics scattered throughout the block – there were split cards, “divvy” cards, domain and gating – but those were executed without having to slap a label on them. Oh, those simpler, golden years.

To be clear, I don’t unilaterally hate all keywords. Some of them are really good, which I’ll touch on later. Even beyond quality concerns, there are certain benefits to turning an ability into a keyword. First, it reduces game text on the cards. By condensing two sentences’ worth of ability into one word, you save space for other abilities. However, it’s worth noting that this doesn’t always reduce the amount of total text, as reminder text that has the ability spelled out is present more often than not. Still, there are certain cases (like Flashback and Morph) in which actually spelling the ability out in rules text would take way too much room and the reminder text is only an abbreviated description – enough to remind players what it does without spelling it out completely. Morph in particular needs a game rule that declares all face-down creatures to be 2/2 colorless, typeless creatures.

Keywords also automatically create jargon for the players. It adds a word to the Magic vocabulary so that players can refer to the ability or the cards with it more easily, which can smooth out gameplay (even if it does make things more confusing for an uninitiated spectator). This is particularly important if the keyword appears on lots of cards and will thus probably be referred to a lot. By the same token, this is a lot less important when the mechanic appears on very few cards, or when simply describing the ability is already very easy. (Abbreviating “Doesn’t tap to attack” into “Vigilance” saves all of, what, three syllables? I don’t mind this one as much since it’s going to be a permanent addition to the game, but still…)

So it’s not just that keywords keep getting added. It’s that many of them, at least recently, are pretty bad. No, really, I mean it. Many of the keyworded mechanics we get these days are inferior to ones we’ve had in the past in terms of their value to the game. They fracture the game, spreading cards thinner without extensively exploring what any individual mechanic can offer before ditching it for the next one. The last keyword that was really well explored was probably Morph – Onslaught introduced it, Legions offered morph-triggers, Scourge brought alternate morph costs – and while that isn’t that far in the past, the more recent Mirrodin block causes me concern for how much less is being expected of these newer keywords. The number of Scourge cards with Morph: 16. The number of Fifth Dawn cards with Affinity: four. Whether this results from designers setting aside what they’ve already created or just the lack of depth in the Affinity mechanic itself, it’s problematic.

Of course, some of you are saying that this is just my opinion, and as far as that goes, you’re right, but allow me to show you why I think a lot of these new offerings aren’t living up to previous standards. After some thought, I’ve boiled down what I think makes up a good keyword to five elements. I’d like to think that most people can agree that these things are important factors to the quality of a mechanic, although even most good ones won’t necessarily rate highly in all five. Take note: these properties can be applied to any mechanic, keyworded or not. However, my concern is really only with those that Wizards encodes into the rules via a keyword; it’s the barrage of new words to learn that comes with each set that exasperates me. (Besides, it’s not always easy to pin down where several cards that do similar things end and a “mechanic” begins.) Let’s have a look.

Universality – This is the breadth of a keyword’s territory, usually coming down to the amount of cards it can go on or interact with. Many keywords can only appear on certain types of cards, but others can go on anything, offering more “bang for the buck,” so to speak. Most mechanics are available to only a few types of cards, and many are specific only to creatures. A mechanic like Flashback is only available to instants and sorceries, which is about par for the course, while Threshold can go on any card at all. A keyword can also have added universality due to cards that interact with it; although Flying can only appear on creatures, other card types can feed off of it with cards like Wing Snare or Levitation.

Independence – This is a mechanic’s usefulness if removed from its home environment or block and its ability to interact with the larger pool of Magic cards. A good keyword is still relevant in games that include cards printed both before and after it, whereas a “dependent” mechanic relies heavily on cards used with it. Most keywords are pretty independent, like Bushido, which functions the same regardless of the others cards in the game. Splice onto Arcane, on the other hand, is the ultimate example of a dependant mechanic as it can only work alongside other Arcane spells, a very small subset of instants and sorceries.

This bears less relevance when considering Limited formats (which include only cards from a certain block that are intended to accentuate a keyword) or Standard (which only adds one other block to the mix), but a dependent keyword will suffer in longer-running formats like Extended or Legacy and find itself to be less compatible with most of the card pool. As a result, any competitive deck featuring cards with these mechanics will often find itself playing mostly or only cards from that mechanic’s block, as other cards aren’t as compatible with it, if they are at all.

Flexibility of effect – This a term for what exactly a mechanic can do when employed. Most keywords are static abilities like Shadow or Buyback, which will always do the same thing, no matter what card it is on. Certain other mechanics, for instance Threshold, can produce almost any effect you can think of; sometimes a creatures gets larger, sometimes a damage spell hits harder, sometimes a card gains new abilities. There isn’t much in the way of middle ground here (something’s usually either just flexible or not), but with things like Cycling triggers (on cards like Renewed Faith), a keyword that seems to always have the same effect can be given a little more depth.

Flexibility of use – This indicates how flexible the card is for the player and the options it makes available in the game. The more different ways a mechanic allows a card to be used, the more flexibility of use it has. Most mechanics offer little (if anything) in this area, so almost any strength here would be considered above average. Cycling, of course, gives any card it’s on an alternate use and Madness provides a second (usually primary) way of getting a card into the game. Something like Affinity simply is, applying its effect without any input from the player. While it may make it easier to fit playing the card into your game plan, it still always does the same thing.

Flavor – This is the keyword’s representation of in-game concepts. This is the only criterion that isn’t directly based on the mechanic’s application to the game itself, but it’s something I think is worth thinking about. While it won’t sell me on something that fails in all of the other areas, I can’t deny the cool-factor of, say, Ninjutsu. The idea of “It was a Ninja in disguise all along!” is very engaging. Something like Scry, however, is very abstract and doesn’t evoke any real imagination. It applies to the game directly and has very little, if any, flavor.

Noticeably absent from this list is power. While how good a mechanic is tends to be what most tournament players look for, it’s very elusive when looking at a keyword is as a whole, because when it comes down to it, while there are powerful cards, there’s no such thing as a really powerful keyword. All (well, most) keywords offer some sort of benefit that is presumably desirable, but how powerful it actually is depends on the cost you need to pay to get it. Roar of the Wurm, for instance, was a very powerful flashback card, but it was only powerful because it could be flashed back so cheaply. Sometimes almost every card with a keyword can be brutally powerful (Affinity for Artifacts comes to mind) but even that speaks less to the quality of the keyworded mechanic than the individual cards themselves. When I call something a “good” or “bad” keyword, I don’t mean that it’s good or bad at winning you a game of Magic, but that it has (or lacks) depth and value to the game as a whole.

So with all the technicals on the table, let’s have a look at a mechanic whose exploits I’ve already noted. Kicker carried an entire block; does it hold up under the microscope? In universality, Kicker is excellent, being available to any non-land card. For independence, again Kicker is top tier, not relying on anything other than the player’s ability to pay the Kicker cost. Its flexibility of effect is limited only by the designer’s imagination and any card with it automatically offers the player an extra degree of flexibility of use by being playable both kicked or unkicked. Its flavor is average, being more imaginable than something abstract like Scry while not being quite as evocative as, say, Flying. Excelling in four of the five areas makes Kicker, quite frankly, ridiculous. It’s hard to imagine another keyword surpassing these kinds of marks.

Contrast this with some of what we’ve been given since “the streak” began in Onslaught block. Morph was a fairly good mechanic overall, rating well in flexibility of use as it gives every creature it’s on an alternate use. It also has good independence as Morph creatures are playable whether or not you use others (although that allows the bluffing factor to come into play). It also has decent universality, being able to show up on any creature (the most common card type), and adequate flavor (although I personally could never get into the whole clay-spider thing). Its flexibility of effect isn’t great, but triggers do add a slight bit of variety. Good marks in two areas while not tanking in any others is enough to get a stamp of acceptance.

Later in that same block, however, we ran up against Storm. Universality? Just instants and sorceries, so again, adequate. Independence? Well, it does have that; the only thing you need to make a Storm card work is other spells. Flexibility of effect and flexibility of use? Thumbs down on both. I’m sorry, but I don’t consider waiting for many storm copies to build up to be a “flexible” use; it’s just good timing. And as for flavor… well, granted, flavor is sort of subjective, but I honestly have no idea what Storm is supposed to be “doing” in game terms. So here we have a keyword that only rates well in one category (the easiest one to do so in, at that) but flops in three of the others. This is not a very good keyword, justifiably crammed into a smaller set (if it had to exist at all) as it couldn’t possibly have supported a block.

In Mirrodin, Affinity for X, another fairly weak mechanic, came into being. While it’s very universal and can theoretically go on any nonland card that has any colorless mana in its mana cost, it was restricted to Blue and artifact cards (alright, and Furnace Dragon). It is not very independent, as it requires the player to incorporate a number of X cards in order to make use of it. Its flexibility of both use and effect are nearly non-existent and its flavor can be characterized as “average” at best. I’m frankly unsurprised that so few cards still had Affinity in the later sets, although perhaps if it were expanded beyond the confines Wizards kept it in, it could have made a slightly more respectable showing.

But let’s fast-forward a little more, to Kamigawa. Bushido performs respectably in independence and flavor, but the only selling point on Splice onto Arcane is the flexibility of use it adds to other arcane cards. (Not that that’s stopped me from tinkering with it, of course.) However, the keywords that I think best show the decline of recent mechanics are Soulshift and, from Betrayers cards like Patron of the Kitsune, Offering.

In both cases, the keyword is not only restricted to creatures, but to a specific subtype of creatures – Spirits. (Offering is further restricted to Legendary Spirits, and expensive ones at that, but that is a design choice and doesn’t reflect on the mechanic itself.) Both are very dependant, relying heavily on the player’s deck featuring the appropriate type of creature in order to make any use of the ability. Each keyword has only one function, either cheapening the creature or returning another creature from the grave. (I’m sorry if you count the fact that Soulshift has a variable value as “flexibility of effect.” I do not, as it still causes the same thing to happen.) Offering at least creates some flexibility of use for the Offered creature, allowing it to serve both as a warm body and an accelerant, but while creatures with Soulshift have the added ability to bring back another Spirit, this is not an option to be exercised by the player.

The one area where these two mechanics really excel is in flavor. Like Bushido and Ninjutsu, these keywords are very evocative of “in-game” events, which is not entirely surprising given the Kamigawa block’s emphasis on a deep, rich, flavor-heavy and legend-dense world. Taking that into consideration, it is perhaps more acceptable to have these solely flavor-based keywords here, rather than in some other block, but as I said above, having only flavor will not sell me on something that fails everywhere else. This is especially the case for something like Offering, which appears on so few cards that it could easily have been printed without having been keyworded. In this case, I honestly don’t see the harm in just spelling the ability out on the few cards it appears on (which they do in the reminder text anyway), nor enough of any other benefits in slapping a label on them.

It’s not that I expect every block to have some incredible mechanic like Cycling or Kicker; I’ve admitted that it would actually be nearly impossible to match the latter, and the former was good enough to already be repeated. It’s only that, at the very least, I’d just like to see more keywords that have the depth to carry over an entire block and less of single-set mechanics that only show up on ten or twelve cards. When I see a new keyword, I want it to be something that I can really sink my teeth into, something with a variety of interesting cards in it, and not complete garbage except for the three cards that completely break the tournament scene wide open. Not that I mind a mechanic having powerful cards, but when was the last time you saw a “casual” Storm deck? A “casual” Madness deck? Yeah, I haven’t either.

Am I being unreasonable in my desires? I ask anyone who disagrees to try to change my mind – I really don’t like being upset every time I see another keyword dropped into a set. I’d rather be excited about it, but as long as I keep seeing decline, my disappointment will linger. This would just be a lot easier if I could see some improvement. Even a return to some older, classic mechanics would be fine with me. It worked for Cycling – it can work again.

Hey, I’ll bet Kicker still has some miles left in it yet.

Signing off,

Andy Clautice

clauticea at kenyon dot edu

* — In fairness, defender doesn’t actually add to the rules. It only moves rules previously attached to a creature type onto a keyword.