Yawgmoth’s Whimsy #77: Thanks, Ferrett! Thanks, Wizards!

Back when the Onslaught spoiler came out, I wrote a review from a multiplayer perspective. I ranted about Blatant Thievery and Insurrection, and some other cards that I thought were just wrong for the format. The Ferrett brought the article to Randy Buehler’s attention and suggested that Wizards use a multiplayer group to playtest future sets… And he picked ours.

Now excuse me for a moment while I scream about these new cards, which I’ve known about for a year and have never been able to say a dang thing.

Sometimes, writing is a real chore. It is hard to string coherent thoughts together, hard to find something worth saying, and hard to say it in a meaningful way.

But sometimes your editor drops a plum right in your lap.

Back when the Onslaught spoiler came out, I wrote a review from a multiplayer perspective. I ranted about Blatant Thievery and Insurrection, and some other cards that I thought were just wrong. The Ferrett brought the article to Randy Buehler attention and suggested that Wizards use a multiplayer group to playtest future sets. Randy thought that idea had merit, and…

Excuse me one minute:




I know you know that – now – but I have been dying to say that for over eleven months!!

Back to the story. Randy said that R&D would try letting a multiplayer group do some playtesting. The Ferrett recommended my group to Mr. Buehler. (Let the name of Ferrett be praised forevermore.) Randy said yes. (Praise him, too.)

Playtesting a new set is every bit as cool as it sounds. Playtesting Bacon was the coolest Magic-related thing I have ever done, or am ever likely to do.

You know how hard it can be to convince a gaming group to play a new game or do something different? Some time groups just won’t change, no matter what. But try this:

“Guys, I want to do something different for a while.”

*grumble, grumble*”What?”

“Playtest Bacon.”

For those of you who don’t know, Bacon was Mirrodin without the artwork.

Now, before my email box gets completely clogged, I want to get a few things straight.

1) It was a one-set only deal. Just Bacon. We didn’t get to playtest Lettuce (Darksteel) or Tomato. I don’t know anything about those sets.

2) Even if I did, I wouldn’t tell you.

In eleven months, we didn’t tell a single Magic player that we were playtesting, much less talk about the cards. So don’t bother asking for inside info. We still aren’t talking.

I started my last article this way:

The new set is out, and I actually got some time to play multiplayer games with the new cards. The first games were with proxies, of course, and the spoilers weren’t always accurate, but the games were fun. But one card is still what the spoilers …

Yes, I do have some experience playing multiplayer games with this set. For about eleven months now. The first spoiler was from Wizards, and the first proxies were those nifty stickers you sometimes see in articles by Mark Rosewater or Randy Buehler. (Before you ask, no, I won’t send you some. And I won’t sell you some. Those things belong to Wizards. Besides, even if I could sell them, StarCityGames would have first crack.)

The little stickers are cool.

Since this whole article is a semi-random series of asides, let me change topics again. To all those casual players and multiplayer players out their that complain that Wizards only cares about tournament players – you guys are so wrong!

Wizards asked us to playtest. They specifically asked us to tell them what cards were fun, and what cards were problems in group games. They were looking for a more casual approach, and specifically aiming the review at those players.

When R&D first contacted me about my multiplayer group, I told them it consisted of level two judges (Chris and Ingrid), one really experienced player (Barry), one newer player (Jo), and me. Wizards said that the judges were more of a negative than a positive – that what they were looking for was casual players, not judges and tournament players.

So this time it was my group, next time it will be some other playtesters, but Wizards does look at the new set from all angles… Even casual and multiplayer. We have argued about this before, but I think this sort of proves it.

Did I mention that playtesting was cool?

It was pretty frustrating to have spent the last eleven months unable to say anything about it. We would read the rumors pages and listen to the speculation, and bite our tongues. We even got Christmas cards signed by everyone at R&D… And couldn’t show them to anyone.

Playtesting has given me a new respect for the folks at R&D. Tweaking and balancing cards is pretty tricky. A lot of the cards are slightly different in final form – a mana clipped here, one added there, certain pieces of Equipment slightly different. Some of the changes are things we recommended – although I would be surprised if other playtester hadn’t said similar things. Most of the changes make sense to us.

We didn’t comment a lot on card balance for Limited or for Standard. After all, at the time we were working hardest on the set, Legions, Scourge and 8th Edition were not yet out. We didn’t have spoilers for those. Cards like Isochron Scepter are hard to evaluate for Standard when you have little idea what instants will be legal. We commented on the obvious, like Boomerang, Counterspell, and Mana Drain, but we were not playing in the Future Future League.

What Wizards had asked was that we look at the set for multiplayer – that we add cards into our existing multiplayer decks and typical multiplayer games. We could look for new deck ideas, but some of us should play existing archetypes – so that we were simulating a”casual metagame.” (That’s my term – clunky, but it should get the idea across.) In other words, we shouldn’t all be playing all Bacon cards all the time.

That was tough. We all wanted to play the new stuff. The result was that we frequently brought several decks, with a mix of old classics and decks with Bacon cards.

Multiplayer games are often long. I can often remember playing a classic deck, and thinking,”Just kill me. I want to switch to something with tasty Bacon bits.”

The first problem we faced was deciding how much artifact kill to include in our decks. A huge number of the best Bacon cards were artifacts, so maindecking four Viashino Heretics and four Steal Artifacts would have been pretty good – but that would have hardly simulated a casual environment and would have skewed the testing. Instead, I looked at the decks I had been playing over the last few years. Typically, I had included two targeted artifact kills spells in 60 card decks. They were generally multipurpose ones like Creeping Mold. Since I love the Wish spells, I often had additional kill spells or creatures (like Woodripper) as Wish targets. In playtesting, I generally limited myself to three to four methods of killing artifacts, and avoided complete hosers like Null Rod, Shattering Pulse, and Titania’s Song.

It will be interesting to see how much this set changes multiplayer. I see a lot of newer players who don’t have a single Disenchant effect in their decks, but they tend to learn. Artifact removal is less common at the moment, but that’s partly because no one has needed it all that much. That will change.

In playtesting, we were playing T1 rules, and let people proxy cards if necessary. That meant that we didn’t do a lot of testing of the basic creatures that make up the bulk of any set. A generic 1/3 for 1U, like Lumengrid Warden, is nothing special, especially when you can play Serendib Efreet, Aquamoeba, or even Hammerhead Shark.

We commented on the cool cards, the interesting combos and the stuff we could break. Some of it did break, and some was really cool but had to change, and I can’t tell you about any of that stuff.

Nyah, nyah, nyah.

I can tell you that some of our recommendations were a bit schizophrenic. We frequently stopped games to talk about a card. Sometime we felt it was strong, sometimes weak, and sometimes we were passionately on both sides. Most times, we decided it was pretty good as is. Our comments to Wizards were probably a bit strange at times. If you have ever read something drafted by a committee, you know what I mean.

Mind’s Eye is a great example. We went rounds and round on this one. I still don’t really know if it is just great, or too good. When it first arrived, getting additional cards were free. That was clearly broken in multiplayer – absolutely and completely broken. One of our first emails to Wizards said”It’s broken. We’re trying it with a cost of one mana per draw.” Wizards replied”We found the same thing, and made the same change. Play it that way for now.”

We really did immediately restrict it in our group, but only because we didn’t want to increase the amount of artifact kill in our decks, and we wanted to see how other cards played. When Mind’s Eye gets cast, it sucks up artifact kill.

Even as it now exists, Mind’s Eye is still great. It may still be broken. I really, really cannot decide on this one. Taken on it’s own, it is the greatest multiplayer card drawer ever. It is probably a better card drawer in multiplayer than Ancestral Recall is in Type One – and I play a lot of Vintage. However, multiplayer has a resiliency and resistance to card advantage that duels do not. In a duel, if I outdraw my opponent by enough cards, I will win. In multiplayer, if someone drops a card like Mind’s Eye and starts to gain that kind of card advantage, the whole table will turn against them. In that respect, multiplayer is self-correcting, and that self-correcting nature is why I don’t think Mind’s Eye is broken. It isn’t good enough to win when the whole table makes the caster Public Enemy Number One.

At least, why I’m leaning towards great, not broken.

The other definitions of broken are 1) played in every deck and 2) define the format. I do think that Mind’s Eye may be played in every deck, but it will be like Sol Ring – played because it is great utility. I don’t know that it will define the format, either. It should definitely get people to play more artifact removal, but the new set will force people to do that anyway, whether or not they face Mind’s Eye.

Our emails to R&D about this one were all over the place. We told them it was a lot of fun, completely broken, a great card, that we had real problems with it and that it was amazingly cool. Sometimes, we said that in the same email. Among ourselves we discussed options like making it cost two, or target a single player and only trigger when that player drew a card, or making it more expensive. The first option would make it useless in anything but multiplayer, and dull there. The second option would make sure it wasn’t broken in multiplayer, but it would be less than exciting. Making the casting cost higher would not have that much impact in multiplayer games, but again render it unplayable in duels. None of the other options we could imagine made the card any better.

I did say that tweaking cards was tricky. Mentally, I still keep rethinking this one, and I’m still not sure whether I helped produce a great card or a big mistake.

Like I said, our responses to R&D were a bit erratic on this one. I still feel this way. Can you tell?

When I was first asked to be a playtester, I looked forward to writing”How StarCityGames Saved the World for Multiplayer.” I figured I would spot something that was a real problem in group games, suggest changes and bask in glory. The problem is that Randy Buehler and company are actually pretty good at their job. (Contrast this statement with some of my rants from a year ago – better yet, don’t. Consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds.) Even in the early spoiler, I can’t claim to have found anything really wrong. I questioned a few cards that I no longer see, but I don’t know whether my recommendation had anything to do with them.

One thing that I might have actually affected: in playtest, Soul Foundry (then called Clone Machine) had an activation cost of four, not X. I told R&D about a game where I was pumping out Teeka’s Dragons, or tapping nine mana to crank out a Crater Hellion, untap the Foundry with Voltaic Key, then crank out another. That clears the board pretty well. It was also a pretty good reason to make the activation cost X.

“End of your turn, tap nine mana, make two more Shivan Hellkites.”

Hee hee hee. I did that, and because R&D fixed the card, you never will.

Playtesting had some other interesting problems. Multiplayer games are long and slow – you cannot play all that many games in the time available. This can lead to some strange results. Wizards had specifically asked us about one card: Growing Boy. We put it in decks, but no one could draw it… Or at least, not in a meaningful way.

“Hey, I drew it – I cast Growing Boy! Now we’ll see-“

“In response, Lightning Bolt you.”

“…See not a lot, I guess. I’m dead.”

That was early on, when we thought it would show up again quickly. In the end, it did hit play, two weeks later. The card didn’t seem unreasonable in multiplayer – just good.

Playtesting has had two lingering effects. First, because we saw the cards early, we cannot play sanctioned events for the first few weeks. That meant that we had to judge the prerelease and ask for our pay in cards, just to see the artwork that went with the cards we knew. Players were impressed at how quickly we judges could figure out some of the new cards. (The one suggestion Wizards did not adopt, but wished they had: Timesifter should have been legendary. In my second pod, one kid had two – and played them both maindeck. Every match, I hear the cry”Judge?” and I’d come over to spend some time with this happy little kid and a very confused opponent.)

Having playtesters as judges was good because of the second problem – I know the cards by their playtest names, not the real names. It is hard to say Mind’s Eye, when we spent months talking about it under another name. So when I wanted to check a ruling with one of the level 2 judges, and could only remember the playtest name, it didn’t matter.

I really liked some of the other names. Stompy Stomp was a cool green card, but I’m not telling what it did. Here’s one you can probably guess:”I’m Not Decked Yet” is in print. But by far the coolest name was…

Before I given the name, I should mention that Wizards got to preview this article, and Randy approved, or disapproved, each use of a name or fact about playtesting.

Anyway, the coolest playtest name was {sorry, Pete, you can’t reveal that one. – RB}

As I said, I haven’t been asked to playtest the next set. It could be that our emails weren’t helpful enough. It could be that schizophrenic wasn’t the style they were looking for. But I think the real reason was that I said I hated Gleemax. (See Mark Rosewater article, here, to see why that probably wasn’t so smart.) But what can I say? Friends always used to wreck me with Word of Command, and I have never recovered.

I can make my own blunders all by myself, thank you very much.

I should probably introduce my multiplayer group. My conscience says to include them; my ego says to put them towards the bottom.

I’ll start with the person who nearly disqualified us. Chris (a.k.a. Kriz-Riktr) is a moderator on the rules board at MTGNews. Since MTGNews loves spoilers, and Wizards hates having information released early, you can guess how well that went over. Chris is primarily a Limited player, and a Level 2 judge.

Memorable comment (Me to Chris):”Four Congregate and four Blatant Thieveries in the same deck!”

Ingrid (a.k.a. Atravers3) is my wife. She taught me to play years ago, is another L2 Judge and a guru on the Wizards and MTG rules board. I have mentioned her before.

Memorable comment (me to Ingrid):”Of course I’m coming after you first – I know what your deck does.”

Barry has been playing magic since Fallen Empires. His signature deck is probably”Fecal Burst,” built around Fecundity, Saproling Burst, and using Goblin Festival as a kill – and the fact that he came very close to T8 at a big Extended PTQ with that deck shows his play skills. He’s better than I am.

Memorable comment (Table to Barry):”Oh, $H#T.” (He had just cast Regrowth, targeting Stompy Stomp.)

Jo is the newest player in the group, and has the smallest card pool. Despite this, she spotted some really good stuff in the Bacon card pool and some of her decks were pretty solid. Once we loaned her some dual lands for her multicolored decks, they were competitive.

Memorable comment (Me to Jo, after I died):”I still say that a squirrel couldn’t wield that sword and all that other equipment. And no squirrel should be able to run over Teeka’s Dragon.”

I have about a dozen articles worth of anecdotes about playtesting, but I can’t tell them. The Wizards folks have better things to do than proofread my articles and decide whether to let me include various secrets, so this will be the only article about the playtesting experience. I will write about the multiplayer decks we used, and some of the anecdotes will be from the playtesting period, but they won’t include anything you couldn’t get from the printed cards. Sorry.

To close, I just want say thanks to Wizards R&D for letting us playtest. That’s from everyone in my group.

Would we do it again?

In a heartbeat.