I was convinced of the need for M10’s new rules a day before they were even released. Why? Because it was Tuesday, and Melissa was playing.
Tuesdays are multiplayer night at my house, and Jerry was winning because of Seshiro the Anointed. He was playing his usual Snake deck, which wins based on the back of Seshiro, Sosuke’s Summons, and tons of other Snakey spells. In this case, he had about ten 1/1 snake tokens that were now 3/3 thanks to Seshiro, and he was turning them sideways in an attempt to take three players out in one shot.
Melissa, a newer player, was being coached by Josh. She plays well enough to know the basic rules â€” she’s played casually for years â€” but she’s recently decided to try to learn the game from a more strategic perspective. She doesn’t want to win the Pro Tour; she just wants to play well enough to understand all those weird decisions we make, and to make the correct decisions on her own. So Josh was walking her through her options and showing her how we approach a given board situation.
In this case, the best thing to do was to let damage go on the stack, so Jerry’s 3/3 bad boys would kill her three other opponents, then use her Terminate to destroy Seshiro so he wouldn’t get any cards.
And this is where the problems began.
First, though Melissa is bright, she had immense problems with the idea of “damage on the stack.” Though we convinced her it was in the rules, flavorwise it didn’t make sense to her; Seshiro gave them a boost, and then she shrunk his snaketastic minions, when? In mid-swing? You could have a guy block and bounce him, leaving him to punch his opponent â€” but wait, his opponent’s punch whiffs? Was he solid when he swung? How the heck did he actually do damage when he was only there to hit but not to receive? How does that work?
It didn’t make sense to her, and it shouldn’t. Flavorwise, you can come up with rationales why it sorta-works, but realistically the underlying explanation is raw, unbridled rules. There’s no flavor logic to tie it together, so it took a lot longer to explain it to her than it did for the rules she’d absorbed long ago â€” things like “This one flies, so it just sails over this one” or “This one is a much larger and hard-to kill creature because these numbers are bigger.”
So we spent a lot of time trying to explain that it really didn’t make sense, it’s just the way the game worked. Then, once we’d explained it — and she got it tentatively â€” trying to explain that yes, the creatures dealt damage, and they were 3/3s when they’d put damage on the stack, but removing Seshiro at this very moment meant even though it said “You draw a card whenever they deal damage” meant that Seshiro had to be around when they dealt damage, even though the damage was on the way, and the bonus was here there and not there, well….
As Magic players, we were used to this stuff. But you could see Liss trying to slot this into some rational, flavorful explanation â€” and without one, it was much harder to keep in her head.
At which point I went, “Wow. There’s a huge difference between trying to teach someone a rule that makes mostly sense from a game perspective, and a rule that only makes sense mathematically.”
I thought back to a book I’d read recently. It’s called Why We Make Mistakes, and it’s all about how humans process and store information â€” erroneously and incompletely, as it turns out. There was a section in the book that quotes this instructional passage from another book:
The procedure is actually quite simple. First you arrange things into different groups depending on their makeup. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities that is the next step; otherwise you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo any particular endeavor. That is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run this may not seem important, but complications from doing too many can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. The manipulation of the appropriate mechanisms should be self-explanatory, and we need not dwell on it here. At first the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will become just another facet of life. It is difficult to foresee any end to the necessity for this task in the immediate future, but then one can never tell.
Thing is, though the actual words are fairly clear, as shown, people had a hell of a time keeping them in their head. In fact, a lot of people found it hard to read.
What’s lacking here is what these instructions are telling you to do. As it turns out, people don’t remember raw data â€” they slot it into context, remembering the essential bits, and then reconstruct what they know based on that context. The human brain isn’t complex enough to store everything it sees, so it has to place that data into some sort of framework for it to be adequately recalled.
In this case, the passage deals with doing laundry. And once you have that underlying key that tells you why X does Y, your brain can make sense of the instructions not as a jumbled set of orders, but as a whole.
One bit of context makes everything simpler. It’s a weird thought, but it’s absolutely true: when faced with complexity, we need some form of shorthand that allows us to tuck it away properly. This is just how the brain works.
Which is why rules that don’t have flavor are harder, much harder, to remember. There’s no context for it aside from “math” and “I said so,” which makes it difficult.
That’s why Magic, though it is a very hard game, is also a very efficient one to learn: the various types are wrapped up in a very flavorful way. We understand that the seemingly-random numbers in the lower right corner of a card indicate, in some way, a creature’s monstrosity, and everything about the card â€” from the name to the art to the creature type â€” helps fix this in place. Magic would be a hell of a lot harder if there was no flavor, and that 2/5 guy was called “Salad Bowl,” and the creature type was “Implement.”
It sounds stupid, but when you realize how people learn, you realize that to a large extent, flavor is learning. If you’re just starting out I can try to give you a laundry list of mechanics associated with the color Red, but it’s not until I tell you that Red stands for fire and anger that you acquire an easy way to hold all that in your head.
So Magic needs flavor. And particularly for beginners, Magic needs to have as much flavor as possible to help people learn â€” because there’s so much information to absorb at first that every adjunct of “flavor” and “rules” is the spoonful of sugar that makes the medicine go down.
That is why every time we can have a rule or a card make sense from a flavor perspective, it gives some new person a “hook” to hang it on. They might not remember everything that flying does, but they will probably remember that one creature flies over another and that makes it harder to block in some way. So whenever you can have the rules == flavor, you should.
Boo hoo, you say. Magic has lots of things that don’t make sense. And it’s true, there are always going to be Whippoorwills and Raven Guild Masters that don’t fly, and spells moldering in graveyards, and cards that only make sense from a mechanic perspective, and what the hell is a hand of cards, anyway? Is it a library, or a mind, or what?
But that doesn’t remove the fact that most of Magic’s rules make a kind of sense. You summon creatures, and attack with them. When they’re dead, they go to the graveyard. Some of them have haste, some of them fly, some of them have first strike. Putting all of it together leads to some weird situations, but mostly speaking, the situations a beginner is likely to encounter make flavorful sense.
By the time they start encountering a significant amount of exceptions, they’ll have the core rules down. You want to make it easy for them.
Why? Because Magic is really, really complicated. It’s the most complicated game in the world. Let me say that again.
IT’S THE MOST COMPLICATED GAME IN THE WORLD.
You have a hundred and fifty pages of basic rules, and then you have 10,000 unique cards, the majority of which adds some new rule to the game or bends an old one, or changes the situation in some way. Screw Chess, screw wargames; Magic requires strategizing on at least three levels (the game, deckbuilding, metagaming) with every game. It is catastrophically complicated.
And to keep new blood flowing into the game — which, may I remind you, is a good thing, unless you want the game to dwindle to the point where Cletus the Slack-Jawed Yokel and his inbred opponent Kastus are your only opponents — you want to make it as easy as possible to get in. You want new people giving Wizards money, so they can keep making cards and giving prizes and holding Pro Tours in cool places. They go out of business, the game is over.
Magic is doing fine now, but I guarantee you it also drives a lot of people away â€” people who could be fine players, if only we could convince them that it’s somehow worth acquiring this knowledge. And yes, while you may love your exclusionary little club, which proves that you have the smarts to get past the immense hurdle of the most complicated game in the world, Wizards wants more people.
The fact that you stuck with Magic does not make you smarter, it makes you more driven. That’s a wonderful trait, but don’t confuse the two.
So from Wizards’ perspective (and mine!), “damage on the stack” is a bad mechanic for a beginner; it’s a flavorless piece of kludge that really doesn’t hold up when you poke it in even the slightest ways. You can develop mental mechanisms that will hold it together, but they’re not intuitive — and if it’s not intuitive, then it fails.
I’ve seen that happen, time and time again. Hell, I saw it last week, when we were trying to explain it to Liss. And Liss felt stupid for not being able to pick it up. This is Not Good for the game.
From that perspective, removing that bit of rules whinery is a good thing. Damage on the stack should go.
However, there are a couple of basic arguments/complaints I’ve seen against the rules change, so let’s go over each of them in turn.
“I Learned It, And So Everyone Else Should!”
As one person said to me, “This sounds a lot like frat boys who’ve been hazed, demanding that since they’ve endured beatings the next generation should.” The question is not whether you learned it — obviously, you’re a serious Magic player. If you didn’t learn how to play by the rules of the game, no matter how complex they were, you’d be an idiot.
(Although I do note with satisfaction that several judges have read pages of the outcry on Wizards and have noted that about four out of ten players complaining about the loss of “damage on the stack” clearly had no idea how it worked in the first place. Be careful what you’re complaining about. You may well be an idiot.)
So yes, you picked it up and learned it. But just because you struggled through some arcane rules point doesn’t mean that everyone else should. If we can make it simpler and easier for people to learn THE MOST COMPLICATED GAME IN THE WORLD, then why not remove one hurdle from a game that is nothing but hurdles?
(Oh, you think it simplifies the game? Hold yer yap, I’m getting to that.)
Dude, just because you managed to pick up a flavorless rule that makes little sense doesn’t mean that it’s a good thing. Asian footbinding thrived for years because the mothers, who’d gone through having their feet crammed into painful shoes that compressed their feet and toes into two things the size of a small carrot, decided that if they’d done it, then it was good enough for their daughters.
“I had to” is never a good enough lesson.
“I Learned It, And Now All This Knowledge Is Wasted!”
Dude, what game are you playing?
I hesitate to point it out to you, but every four months a new set comes along that adds cards with new rules and rulings. The decks that won your FNM three months ago? They’re outdated. New tech comes along, new strategies, new decks. This is game is nothing but new learning.
And hey! Welcome to this scary world called The Internet, wherein hey! The browsers, programs, and websites you visited ten years ago? They have also changed. You’ve learned how to Bittorrent, how to use new word processors, download plugins for Firefox, got Twitter apps for your iPhone. I think, probably, you can handle a new combat step, too, no? Or are you going to sit in your dial-up computer, browsing the Usenet groups and griping that nobody ever wants to play multiplayer Doom II anymore?
If learning one new rule is the straw that breaks your camel’s back, don’t let the door hitcha where the Good Lord splitcha.
“I Learned It, And I Never Had Any Troubles With It!”
Amazing. With all that intelligence, you have not figured out that you are a statistical outlier. Most new players do have troubles with it. If you’re so damn smart, you should be able to say, “Wait, maybe my experience is not the typical one,” and then rethink your whole line of thought.
(Note here that I’m not just parroting Wizards’ corpo-speak here: having taught my share of casual players in the past ten years gives me the experience to argue that yes, people do have problems with it.)
Furthermore, as “Why We Make Mistakes” will cheerfully tell you, we tend to forget anything that doesn’t make us look good. If you’re a good Magic player now, there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve focused on the positive aspects of your game and reduced your negative aspects. Which is to say that if you think you had no problems and learned the game without a hitch, you’re either a frickin’ genius or are rewriting your own history to make yourself look very, very smart indeed.
“It’s Taking All The Strategy Out Of The Game!”
Now, a lot of people are complaining that this has “simplified” the game, whining that Magic is now as stupid as Yu-Gi-Oh. They claim that this has reduced the opportunity to outplay their opponents.
Fact is, we don’t know this yet; it takes away some tricks you can use, yes, but it also makes other decisions much more complicated. It’s hard to say. But honestly, yeah, I think this will make Magic simpler.
After you introduce the M10 rules, there are only a handful of ways left to outplay your opponent. I can think of only a couple, such as:
- Never forgetting to attack when you have a creature that should attack.
- Knowing when to attack because you are the beatdown.
- Examining all possible blocks so you’re always blocking with the right creatures.
- Asking yourself what an opponent has when he makes an unusual attack/block.
- Not committing too much to the board and getting annihilated by a sweeper.
- Not committing too little to the board and getting devastated by a trick at the wrong time.
- Getting them to commit one too many creatures and then playing a sweeper of your own.
- Not committing too many creatures to the board when you have your own board sweepers you’re waiting to use.
- Using your removal on the creatures that actually matter.
- Bluffing them into not blocking and taking damage by faking a trick.
- Bluffing them into losing their best creature by faking not having a trick.
- Playing your threats in the correct order to avoid a counterspell or removal.
- Waiting for the right moment when they’ve tapped down to cast that equipment/creature enchantment that will wreck them.
- Saving removal for the right turn so when they cast that creature enchantment/boost, you kill it in response.
- Not falling for the counterspell war at the end of the turn.
- Instigating the counterspell war at the end of the right turn.
- Knowing which threats matter enough to start a counterspell war over.
- Knowing which spells will get you the right card advantage when you Remand them.
- Knowing how to overload an opponent when they have counterspells and you don’t.
- Knowing which spells in an overload attack must be countered, and which ones can resolve if it absolutely has to.
- Knowing which combos you can routinely expect to overwhelm with counterspells, and which ones you’ll have to play the beatdown against.
- Knowing what cards in a combo spell are the ones to disrupt.
- Figuring out an alternate win condition when the key cards in your combo deck have been nerfed.
- Knowing when to go for it with a combo deck.
- Sacrificing the right creature when you have to.
- Taking the right creature when you cast that Sower of Temptation.
- Tutoring for the right card when you Vampiric Tutor.
- Knowing when to throw burn at your opponent’s face and when to use it on their creatures.
- Knowing which card to take away when you cast a discard spell.
- Naming the right card with Meddling Mage.
- Bringing back the right creature from the graveyard.
- Correctly anticipating what top-end threats are in your opponent’s deck and deciding to attack fiercely before they can reach that Stage 3 threat.
- Correctly understanding what you have to do to survive an opponent’s Stage 1 quick-rush beatdown and survive his mop-up burn spells.
- Correctly anticipating what trick he has in hand and playing around it.
- Correctly anticipating what trick he has in hand and drawing it out with a pseudo-threat, then playing the threat you actually wanted to play.
- Telling your opponent that you know he has the trick so that he thinks you have the answer, and thus refuses to play it yet.
- Not falling for his bluff that he has the trick in hand, and not giving him the extra turn by playing around a phantom.
- Casting removal during your main phase when they’re tapped out so they can’t trick you.
- Maneuvering them into making a trade that’s very much to your advantage.
- Recognizing when you need to play fast, consistent threats to keep them under pressure.
- Never forgetting to tap that Prodigal Sorcerer at the end of the turn for damage.
- Never forgetting to use that tapper before they declare attacks.
- Tapping the right creature before they attack.
- Never forgetting to regenerate when you have the mana.
- Never forgetting to flash in that creature you wanted at the end of your opponent’s turn.
- Never forgetting to take the counters off the Umezawa’s Jitte, etc.
- Never forgetting to cast that instant card-drawing spell you meant to cast at the end of your opponent’s turn.
- Never forgetting any creature trick on the board, ever. (Which is a miracle in and of itself.)
- Never forgetting to pay the mandatory upkeep effects.
- Always remembering to do the optional, positive upkeep effects.
- Playing your lands in the proper order so you can always cast the right threats on turns 2, 3, and 4.
- Tapping the correct mana in the correct order.
- Keeping excess lands in your hand so your opponent won’t know you’re helpless.
- Knowing when to play every land, even if your opponent does know your helpless, because you have to get to eight mana in this game or die.
- Knowing the rules well enough to count them at the right time.
- Playing as if you will topdeck the one card that will save you so if it arrives you have that single out.
- Not blocking when it suits you to take the damage.
- Not blocking because you need to retain tempo.
- Attacking at the right time in order to maintain tempo.
- Knowing when you should attack the player, not the Planeswalker on the board.
- Knowing when to not worry about that Millstone effect, since you can win before they finish.
- Knowing how to fight past an arbitrary number of Fog effects.
- Thinking several turns ahead to ensure that you’re going where you want the game to go.
- Knowing that if you attack right now, with these creatures, you’ll lose some of your best men but put your opponent at such a low life total that he won’t be able to attack back.
- Recognizing unexpected combos in a Limited deck and utilizing them at the proper time.
- Seeing unexpected weaknesses in cards that your opponent hadn’t counted on (like Disenchanting a Necropotence when your opponent has an empty library in order to have them lose by running out of cards)
- Chump-blocking with the correct creature.
- Shuffling your deck consistently and correctly to ensure as much randomness as is humanly possible.
- Not overvaluing rares in Limited.
- Remembering all the other cards that were passed to you in a Draft and knowing what’s likely to be in their deck.
- Knowing what common tricks are in a given format and playing to minimize their effect upon you.
- Watching your opponent to ensure that he is shuffling properly and not cheating.
- Keeping track of the board so that you’ll know in an instant if he sneaks anything onto the battlefield or off of it, and how many cards he should have.
- Keeping track of everything your opponent plays so that remember, without looking, what he’s revealed to you in the course of the match.
- Mulliganing when you have no lands/all lands.
- Mulliganing when you have lands, but recognize that they’re the wrong kind of lands.
Mulliganing when you have lands and spells, but what you have is too slow to avoid being crushed by this deck.
- Mulliganing when you have lands and spells, but they’re not the kinds of lands and spells that will actually win the game against this sort of deck
- Battling past “the fear” and mulliganing that six-card hand.
- Not mulliganing sketchy hands because you know, correctly, that this will be an awesome hand with a single land, and that one land is statistically likely in the next three draws.
- Knowing whether to play first or draw.
- Sideboarding in the proper hate cards when you have them.
- Taking out the right cards that aren’t useful in this matchup.
- Not sideboarding in cards that won’t actually hinder your opponent’s strategy, even if they look useful.
- Not sideboarding out the threats you actually need to give them.
- Keeping your sideboarding a mystery so they can’t actually know whether you boarded creatures into your creatureless deck, or kept them boarded out.
- Reading them properly as they sideboard so you know whether they kept the creatures out.
- Not giving up when you’ve made a stupid mistake that you could beat yourself up over.
- Not giving up when the odds are against you.
- Not playing on autopilot when the game reaches a stalemate.
- Playing slowly and considerately enough to recognize threats, and not speeding up just because you’re excited.
- Not playing sloppy against a “bad” opponent.
- Not going on tilt when that “bad” opponent beats you.
- Distracting your opponent with meaningless conversation that sucks away his concentration.
- Getting your opponents to agree with you so much they go on autopilot and agree to attack when they shouldn’t.
- Breaking your opponent’s attempts to interfere with your concentration.
- Getting your opponent to concede before he’s actually dead by faking tricks.
- Not scooping before your opponent shows you his kill card, giving him every opportunity to make mistakes.
- Continuing to play correctly when you’re just as exhausted and strung-out as they are.
My God! If you remove that one way of outplaying an opponent, all that’s left is that list â€” oh, and anything else I didn’t think to include above! Obviously, all the strategy in the game has been drained right the hell away!
It’d be awful to take away all of that complexity involved in that one trick in order to make it easier for new players to remember how to play properly. Oh, yeah, that’s clearly made the game a walk.
So yeah, I sympathize. I mean, technically speaking most of the time winning against an opponent thanks to a trick like “damage on the stack” means that your opponent didn’t understand “damage on the stack” properly, not making it outplaying him but rather outmemorizing the rules, making you kind of a putzy rules lawyer who really isn’t a better player but just a loophole-finder, but still.
Obviously, you’ve mastered each and every one of the above methods of outplaying your opponent, and this stack trick is all that stands between you and a string of back-to-back victories on the Pro Tour. No wonder you feel robbed! My God, you were so close!
And there’s no possibility of you outgaming them in the other, non-play areas like putting in better manabases, or having more tuned decks, or outmetagaming them, or just Johnnying them out of existence. Yes, clearly, this game is now as bland and strategy-free as Uno.
Of course, there are those who complain â€” with some justification â€” that some of the other rules are being simplified in favor of what people consistently screw up doing. And it’s true, that some of the new rules are basically what stupid people have been doing all along.
But why should we keep a rule that is that complicated? We should stand, of course, behind the complicated rules that really are core to the game, like state-based effects (which, trust me, no casual player understands, but Wizards is currently wise enough to retain) â€” but if people don’t understand token ownership and lifelink, then why not make the rules more intuitive?
Also see: Magic is complicated. Magic will continue to be complicated. Removing shards of complexity still leaves a butt-ton of complexity for you to exploit, while still allowing newer players to feel less stupid and more engaged.
Making rules that make sense whenever possible is, believe it or not, a good thing. Arcane syntax is bad. Enlightened understanding is good.
(Though trust me, as someone who adores putting a Loxodon Warhammer on a double-striking guy before casting Titanic Ultimatum, I am going to miss lifelink stacking more than almost any of you. Then again, having had to explain that lifelink stacks over and over and over again to new players, who were shocked to find out that worked, maybe not as much as you’d think.)
A Final Sum-Up.
All this may lead you to think that I am in love with the new combat system. I’m not. I still think it’s kludgy, and the deathtouch is a hideous, hideous workaround. Zvi and EDT have thrown around various alternatives, each with their own drawbacks; I’m not convinced that Wizards has done the correct thing.
But I will say that removing “damage on the stack” is a better thing. It’s a step towards intuitiveness, which is a fine goal. (Except for deathtouch, blech, but the number of creatures with deathtouch are mercifully small. Say it with me, kids: deathtouch is the new banding.)
As for the rest, I can’t say. I haven’t played with it. We’re gonna be holding our Tuesday game next week, with new players and old, and we’ll be playing by M10 rules. I’ll give you my impressions then.
But for now? Quit complainin’.
Oh, and one more thing:
If terms like “Battlefield” and “Exile” irritate you with their cutesiness, well, I guess you have a point. I mean, of course when you’re showing the girls your angel cards with the big boobs and the flaming swords, they’re thinking, “I’d totally think he was butch if only that place he was putting the droopy-hatted wizard card was called â€˜in play.'”
Dude, you’re playing a game where the very packs have pictures of dragons, demons, and snakes on them. If you’re really embarrassed by the power-tripping of nascent adolescents, I hate to tell you, but you lost this one already.
Yes, I know; you have a deep attachment to believing that the ludicrously-overpowered trappings of swords and demonfire are somehow cooler than spiky-headed superheroes. But scratch the surface, and both are simply an adolescent’s way of shouting, “I may get stuffed into toilets by bullies, but in my game world I’m totally frickin’ potent!”
Look. I understand that everyone plugs into their own power trip, and it’s a kick in the shorts whenever someone narrows yours down. I like sending a 6/6 dragon at someone, just because it’s totally frickin’ awesome. I will cop to feeling the thrill of knowing that yes, I’m attackin’ someone with a big ol’ dragon, and in my mind I’m riding his back and slapping his tail. And were Wizards to try to convince me that whoo, riding the wild parakeet is somehow just as cool, yes, I’d balk.
But a lot of the complaints don’t seem to stem from personal tastes; they hold up Yu-Gi-Oh as if it’s some sort of strange shield, as though Yu-Gi-Oh is the universal symbol of disgust among all – so everyone who thinks in the grave, serious tones that they do will universally be repelled.
Let’s be honest: The outside world thinks both D&D and Yu-Gi-Oh are pretty dippy. So rather than subfactioning and shrieking that no, really, totally big difference, you should look deep within yourself ask yourself whether you really should care all that much.
I love my dragons. But I don’t try to convince myself that somehow, this is a noble goal that will immediately gain the respect of all.
And if you really hate the terms? It’s all cool, man. You don’t have to use them. Trust me, I’m still stinging from the official loss of “bury” and “fizzle,” but dammit I still use them long after the new players have said, “What?” People will still be calling it “out of game” for years to come. You can, too. Nobody will blame you.
Welcome to the world of Being Old-School. You just get to do it earlier, is all.