Where R&D Errs

How does R&D refusal to treat three-mana as a green weenie affect the environment? What does red discard mean to red’s strength as a whole? Why did white, which got weak madness activators, get the weakest madness cards as well? An analysis of what R&D didn’t do… And thoughts on what they could have done.

The only thing a player base should ask for from R&D – and hence Wizards – is that they listen to what the player base is saying and allow themselves to learn from it. The players shouldn’t directly feel they have the right to tell R&D what to do, as there is a certain balance within development that players just don’t feel. You can read what Rosewater and Buehler, or others, will write… But do you see patterns like that when you look at a set? They know things we don’t about Magic development. But we, the players, know things – or seem to know things that R&D doesn’t pick up on.

Odyssey Block, in my mind, is generally a successful experiment on R&D’s part. Not only does it contain some of the coolest new mechanics to come out in a while – Madness, Threshold and Flashback – but the block successfully executed two”Off balance” sets. Buehler gets into this in his”What I Really Learned From Worlds” article.

I am not sure if most players would agree with me that drafting Odyssey/Torment/Judgment is an interesting and different experience from normal drafting. The colour”swap” can be very rewarding or very risky, with an enjoyment stemming from both. Drafting white/black in pack one, then almost nothing but black in pack 2, and then suddenly into white in pack 3 works sometimes – and when it does, it’s interesting. I’m no expert on drafting Od/To/Ju, of course, having simply not gotten the chance to really draft Judgment all that well… So perhaps I’m just enjoying the”new set” feel and it actually is really boring!

“The green-white Judgment theme was somewhat apparent, but perhaps not as strong as it could have been… Glory is good and Anurid Brushhopper requires white mana, but we probably should have made more good white cards.”

What is interesting about this assessment (and the problem in general) is that R&D didn’t just make mistakes during Judgment itself, which is indeed an excellent set for white, but they made outright mistakes during the block – and mistakes that were previous to design, in my opinion.

The first mistake can be pointed out as simply as the contrast between Patrol Hound and Wild Mongrel. Currently, Green has the best two-, three-, and four-drops for creatures. (It may very well have the best one-drop as well, but that’s debatable.) White’s powerful”Weenies” aren’t there. Green’s simply got white beat, squarely, in that category.

The weenie problem stems from two design flaws: The first is that, for some reason, R&D doesn’t look at three mana as a weenie. If you look at White’s three-mana drops, the creatures become a touch questionable almost immediately, and its four mana drops approach absurdity. But three mana is a two-drop, consistently enough, for Green decks. That’s why Green decks have been packing Elves and Birds for years; it forces their mana curve out faster.

Look at it like this: A pure white deck can play a second-turn Phantom Nomad, Longbow Archer, or Patrol Hound. A pure green? Call of the Herd. A pure black? Nantuko Shade, although I haven’t seen one of those across the board in Standard for quite some time. White doesn’t have the best two-drops, and its three drops aren’t very good. Militant Monk? Mystic Crusader? Why are these cards so bad when White is supposed to have access to solid weenies in the early game?

Yes, there are good white weenies for three mana – Kirtar and Pianna, perhaps – but for some reasons white’s creature’s continue to remain small, or possess only terrible abilities – while green’s get bigger and bigger.

Do we really need to compare Resilient Wanderer, overpriced at four mana (and double white mana to boot) to those four-mana Roar tokens we’re all accustomed to seeing from time to time? No, not really. If you want to improve white, you can start by setting out a mana curve that makes some sort of logical sense when you compare it to Green’s – and sometimes even black’s or red’s – curves. I mean Flametongue Kavu is 4/2 with an amazing ability compared to White’s what for four mana?

The second, more interesting flaw, is simply that White hasn’t really been getting great spells in the block at all. Madness offers one of the most simple looks at the general flaw in the block: White’s (and Black’s) madness cards are underpowered, overpriced, or just generally useless. Frantic Purification in no way needed to be printed; it is a joke of a card, overpriced when hard cast, and then only able to target one type of permanent. While the set does offer white some interesting spells – Shelter comes to mind, as does Battle Screech and Prismatic Strands – there remains the question as to why R&D felt White, with its already weak madness activators, needed to be given such watered-down junk where other colours received environment-defining cards. Turn 2 Wild Mongrel, turn 3 Arrogant Wurm is so painfully obvious it almost hurts, and it leaves a gaping hole when one sits down to design a madness-oriented deck, or to use the powerful white cards alongside cards like Merfolk Looter or Wild Mongrel. White doesn’t mesh simply because the possible best mechanic in the block forgot about it completely.

(Actually, a friend and I joked about the second game, turn 3 Strength of Isolation’d Aquamoeba while building a Red/Blue/White Madness deck. Block that, Tog!)

There are of course some baffling cards out there as well. Why does Cremate let you draw a card, Decompose hits three cards, Coffin Purge has flashback – while Funeral Pyre has a drawback? What the hell?

The third flaw, and possibly a corollary to the first, is that some mechanics are generally overpriced. While getting your hands on a 1/1 white flier is cost efficient (Battle Screech and Suntail Hawk), where are the cheap 2/2 or 3/3 ones? 3/3 fliers are not a game-ending offensive, most likely fairly priced at four mana, perhaps even three when gold. However, in general the only”cheap” fliers are not white. Possessed Aven is a marginally-playable card sometimes – although why it’s playable might have more to do with its threshold ability vs. ‘Tog. Lightning Angel is perhaps one of the most cost-efficient fliers, but she’s not pure white.

While I do not want to see a load of cheap common white fliers, the odd well-priced uncommon flier isn’t a bad idea, nor are some better rare ones. I understand Serra Angel does see casual play, but it’s a bit out of the competitive curve. It’s pretty easy for a person to compare the threat factor of Phantom Centaur and Phantom Flock, and wonder what the hell went wrong.

If I could go back and do it over, I would almost certainly turn Elephant Guide into a white card… And instead give, say, +2/+2 and flying and then put a 2/2 flier into play.”

I really do hope that this card sees the light of play on day. Of course, I should point out one of the basic flaws in creature enchantments with white in the current environment, and why”Flier Guide” might not see play in the current environment: The card needs to read”Protection from White will not remove this enchantment,” as the lack of synergy with the best white card in block, Glory, basically makes creature enchantments very hit or miss.

I did testing with a friend for a local tournament an attempted to pack Armadillo Cloak to win the mirror match up against other Red-zone style decks. While the card works – nicely on Phantom Centaur especially – the whole”Glory then kills my Centaur*” process was a touch annoying.

“Another change might have been to make Wonder a white card… The problem is that if the white uncommon Incarnation gave flying, what would the blue one do? … In fact, the simplest, most elegant blue ability is clearly flying and that’s why Wonder wound up in blue.”

I admit statements like this make me worry for the future of the game. If something is too strong within one colour and was supposed to be adjusted, then adjust it! Don’t come back a couple of weeks after saying”White will now be the flying colour” and say to your readers (paraphrasing),”Well, we wanted white to be the flying colour, but we just weren’t creative enough to figure something out for blue, so, uh… We just didn’t do any hard work like that.”

Come on, guys – you’re R&D! Who else is going to come up with the creative, new blue abilities to make up for the would-be-lack of flying?

It’s not like Judgment is filled with mistakes like that one, nor do I feel good about painting Mister Buehler in such a negative light… As Judgment really is one of those”Wow, this is neat” sets and Odyssey block generally comes off as successful. But it is one of those moments where you wonder how serious they are about removing the flaws between the various colours. Green became strong by stomping on White, and growing larger than the useable red burn. That’s not really where a lot of people wanted Green to go, as those two colours – Red and White – are probably the worst Standard colours.** This is the stuff a lot of people would like to see change.

While I do commonly complain about White, I do wonder where Red is going. On one hand, Red has been given a mechanic of its own for this block – the cheerful Punisher mechanic. The Judgment cycle of spells – Book Burning, Browbeat and Breaking Point – are all surprisingly well priced and perhaps very powerful cards which have not yet been well explored. On the other hand, modern red appears to be somewhat of an anomaly.

I would make the following suggestions to R&D, although it’s debatable whether or not I’m right about them.

The first is that random discard is being set up improperly. Take a powerful card, like say, Necropotence; now make its cost random. Just imagine Necropotence’s cost reading:”Pay X life, where x is the four-sided dice’s roll, minus one”; it would make you wonder about the design of the card.

It’s true that random discard can be balanced effectively, but all throughout Odyssey Block it simply wasn’t being done. Why? I can’t really say. Perhaps it’s vengeance against red for the”insult” of Sligh to Magic, but a lot of us might wonder who exactly would push for something like that, or even believe such a thing?

Random discard is an expensive cost: It’s hard to use effectively unless the discarded card is the only card in your hand, something which essentially removes the fact it was a random discard. Red was given a relative horde of cards burdened with random discard where other cards got powerful cards with choose and discard effects. Is Pyromania actually stronger than Compulsion or Narcissism? Is Hell-bent Raider’s ability actually that much stronger than Wild Mongrel’s that it had to be random while Mongrel’s is not? I’ll leave that one open, but I think the answer is a bit obvious.

I’m not of the belief that random discard is bad if balanced properly. In fact, I somewhat like the fact that there’s an element of luck within Magic beyond”Bad draw, mana screw, mana flood.” Those elements do exist within Magic… And while people don’t have a fondness for coin flips and random discards, maybe R&D just isn’t using them right. It would be my personal preference that if they’re going to imply Red as chaotic, and develop cards which highlight that chaotic element, that R&D be willing to let those”Chaotic” cards be strong enough to give red an advantage when luck holds out. If they aren’t willing to print good chaotic cards, then don’t fill rare slots or use up cycles on them. Pointlessly-made cards (like Golden Wish) don’t please most people.

Besides that flaw in red, which is a frustrating one, there is a real question of what Red’s creatures are going to be. I think, however, one should reserve comment on Red beyond what has occurred within Odyssey block, since many people have whispered that Onslaught will be a great Red set. Time will tell. But hey, they’re bringing back cycling!

Iain Telfer

* – This occurred only a single time in testing, but it was one of those”Ah, damn it” moments where I screwed up a game I might have won otherwise. Not good.

** – While Hot Tog is encouraging, Tog is essentially a blue deck that fills in its weaknesses through black and then splashing red to give it as much adaptability in its matchups as possible.