Sullivan’s Satchel: Decipher TCGs, James Harden, And The Four-Of Rule

Patrick Sullivan answers mailbag questions on retro TCGs, basketball trades, and why most formats avoid messing with the four-of rule.

Relentless Rats, illustrated by Thomas M. Baxa

Hello, and welcome to this week’s installment of Sullivan’s Satchel. I’m fresh off covering the SCG Tour Online’s Historic $5K Kaldheim Championship Qualifier, which was a “reliving your youth” sort of moment for me. From sound check to sign-off was over fourteen hours, with scant few breaks. Being alone in my furnace room brought back memories of some of our worst physical venues, as did the broad feeling of fatigue punctuated with fleeting moments of extreme focus (otherwise known as The Madness). I can confirm I’m not built as I once was, but Cedric and I managed okay on balance, I think.

Historic seemed pretty reasonable. Good diversity with some appreciably different play patterns among the best decks. I wish Goblins played with a more varied array of effects, and the Sultai stuff doesn’t produce the most interesting games (they aren’t bad, to be clear), but there’s something for everyone and none of the decks seem obviously superior to the other options.

I also think the red decks are poorly built. I’m not saying I can cook up something better than the best decks, but I’m positive there’s room for improvement on the “stock” lists. More on this to come.

As always, you can have your question answered by emailing me over at [email protected] or DM’ing me on Twitter @BasicMountain. One question is selected each time for Question of the Week, and that person receives $25 in SCG credit. With that,

Rahul Guha asks:

Hi Patrick, 

I recently became a father. I know you have a couple of kids, including a new one, yourself. I love watching my Bengals on Sundays with the little guy. Do you think the game of American football with all its injury risk will exist by the time our kids are having kids or will it become something more like 7 on 7’s or rugby?

First of all, congratulations on the kid. My children have been a tough sell on watching sports so far. Basketball has gotten the most traction because it’s fast and easy to understand and they’ve seen their dad play a little bit. Football is a bit more opaque and I think even being a fan of the sport is low-level problematic, so I’m not pushing that angle on them. Plus, they don’t need to see (and especially hear) me watching the Giants take on the equally putrid Cowboys, Eagles, or other Football Teams right now.

I’m skeptical that football is going anywhere. People like to bring up boxing as the analog, which was a key (maybe the key) sport in the United States in the middle of the 20th century before a broad cultural epiphany de-emphasized it. The analogy falls apart for me due to the sheer amount of money at stake. The NFL and big conference colleges are multi-billion-dollar business, and as long as they’re able to advertise and influence politics it’ll be hard to win any major PR or legislative victory over it. As an example, it’s been revealed the NFL knew that playing football kills you for about 50 years and people mostly don’t care.

I think the most likely path towards an eradication or extreme modification of football involves liability insurance becoming too expensive for high schools (this would require more damning research of the health impacts of playing at an early age, high-profile deaths, etc.), and that having a cascading effect to college, and eventually the pros. I could see non-power conferences pulling their programs for similar reasons; I’m honestly a little bit surprised the Ivys still have football. But I think the odds of all this are extremely long in my lifetime and I don’t think the public will attrition the game out through growing hostility and/or apathy.

From Ridiculous Hat:

I would be really curious to hear the perspective of anyone still playing Decipher TCGs, though seriously doubt that they would be contenders to Magic for a multitude of reasons

This statement (not exactly a question) came up when discussing Magic in comparison to other games, and the implicit argument about if Magic is objectively the best game in the genre, or just had the benefit of being first to market. To the extent there’s competition, I think I’d look at Pokémon or Yu-Gi-Oh! In terms of sales, longevity, popularity of organized play, those two are the only games in Magic’s league. But the Decipher games were around during Magic’s ascent, and because they are “adult” games (read: complicated), people with certain sensibilities have a lot of passion about them.

Decipher was able to snag a bunch of massive properties during their peak years — Star Wars, Star Trek, and Lord of the Rings are arguably the three biggest fantasy IPs, full stop, at least in the early 2000s. The games did do a great job of being narratively focused; the key characters were generally appealing and powerful, something that VS. System failed at during my time on the game. The cards looked pretty good, too.

I played Star Trek for a time and the game was laborious to set up, it was complicated, and the lack of clear editing meant that I often encountered situations that weren’t clearly covered by the rules. The games themselves took a long time. The “interaction” was opaque and didn’t regularly emerge in a satisfying, visceral way. I didn’t play much of the other games but my understand was that these characteristics were shared across the board. None of this is meant as a pure indictment. TCG design was a much more raw art in the early 2000s; I’m confident I wouldn’t have done much better. But these games didn’t find long-term success for no reason, either.

I’m glad these games still have a following. I think TCGs are about community as much as anything else and the World of Warcraft TCG, for which I was the lead for several years, is seeing a similar resurgence. But I think it is hard to craft an argument that these games were “better” by any metric, especially when their success was subsidized by some extremely powerful brands.

From Dank Ritual:

Would you rather play/cast a format that is well established and has a predictable metagame that can be studied and analyzed or one that is more exploratory and full of surprises?

I like calling both, but I’d rather call more of the former than the latter. I think the commentary and viewing experience is at its best when everything is understandable, tethered to things that people understand, but with little surprises woven in along the way. But Week 1 of Standard is fun, too, and that typically involves exploration and surprises. That experience week-over-week overserves the most invested and leaves more casual viewers behind, and the former camp is pretty well-served by the established stuff, too.

From The Coach:

How does a Harden trade to the Nets actually work and are they the favorites if so?

To make salaries work (assuming Kyrie is off the table) it has to be LeVert, Dinwiddie, Allen, and some other stuff. That doesn’t even sniff fair value for Harden (in my opinion, which is about as pro-Harden as it gets), so then you’re probably looking at two future first and two pick swaps plus four second-rounders, and I wouldn’t be surprised if the Nets had some cultural reticence around such a deal given the outcome of the Garnett/Pierce deal from a few years back. Harden is younger and better than those two, but you can’t help but think of the comparison.

If Harden wants to go to only Brooklyn and Houston is willing to start over, that’s as good as you’re getting. But there are two years left on his deal, they’re under no obligation to trade him, and other teams could decide they’re willing to roll the dice on selling him long-term. A theoretical Sixers offer built around Ben Simmons easily trumps what the Nets can offer, in my opinion.

If it was actually open bidding, Minnesota could build something around Edwards, salary, and picks. I don’t think that’s remotely likely to happen, but I love the fit around KAT and Russell. Miami is out of picks but they have a bunch of good young players; I think most trades I could cobble together are worse than the Nets deal and Miami might not want to shake things up too much after the season they just had. The Suns aren’t dealing Booker and Paul George is on the last year of his deal. Boston would be my dark horse in this scenario; Brown and Smart almost matches salary, Boston has some salary flexibility with Hawyard off the books, and Houston probably isn’t doing better than Brown if Philly won’t put Simmons in a deal. But all this is speculative; if Harden only wants to go to Brooklyn his price in a trade is probably too high for any two-year rental.

And lastly, the question of the week and winner of $25 in SCG credit, from Colin Meenan,

There’s been some chatter about changing the deck building restrictions for other formats. Specifically limiting older formats to 2/3x copies of a card. What sort of things, from a game designer perspective, are good and bad for creating more nuanced rules in different formats?

These chats aren’t just recent; I’ve heard these topics casually discussed since I started playing Magic. It makes some sense; Vintage already has a Restricted List and it’s fun to play with different cards. As the card pools get more powerful the number of “auto-includes” goes up and so the formats can feel static and unlikely to change with new cards.

Two big hurdles exist. One, tracking a list of discrete legality rules for each format is burdensome. It’s fine to say “these are invested players, they keep track of this stuff,” but it’s not nothing.

The biggest one is that it runs afoul of a core conceit of Magic — that past the “four-of” rule you kind of just go. I think it chips away at what makes Magic cool and elegant to create weird and different parameters across the different formats, and “set legality,” though a parameter of sorts, fits into the core conceit more cleanly and intuitively than “2x in Modern, 3x in Pioneer” or whatever.

Also, what if you get it wrong? Do you change it again? I think better to design, develop, and ban around known architecture than trying to change the architecture and retrofit things against it.