Sullivan’s Satchel: Lotus Cobra, More On The Party Mechanic, And Being A Johnny

Patrick Sullivan answers mailbag questions on reprinting Lotus Cobra, the Johnny psychographic, and Zendikar Rising’s party mechanic.

Lotus Cobra, illustrated by Chippy

Hello, and welcome to this week’s installment of Sullivan’s Satchel. Last week, Zendikar Rising debuted on Magic’s digital clients, and while most of you floundered around with a buggy Arena experience I availed myself of the true original, Magic Online, which was working just fine, as always (mostly).

I was hired by Play Design towards the tail end of Zendikar Rising. During that time, almost all the focus is towards Constructed, with the bulk of the Limited work happening earlier in the set’s life cycle. So, I had a general sense of the themes, but I didn’t get an opportunity to play the set “in house” in that respect. It was cool playing in sort of a middle space of information, privy to some of the underlying philosophies but without knowing any of the details. I enjoyed my drafts in spite of some theoretical reticence around party (I called the Lorwyn block version of this “jobs matter”), and I really enjoyed getting a “Prerelease, but only sort of” type of experience for the first time.

With that, a perhaps-less-charmed Ryan Overturf wants to know:

What’s up with Lotus Cobra?

I’m going to do some extrapolation and assume Ryan is asking me to unpack the design a little bit, plus the logic surrounding reprinting something so powerful that’s impacted things so quickly. This might also be a bit, but I’ll assume good faith.

Lotus Cobra is sweet. In many ways, I think it’s a sweeter design than Llanowar Elves or Birds of Paradise. It is generally less effective at allowing you to curve out as efficiently as possible since you have to pay an extra mana for the card and it’s not deterministic how much mana it will make on subsequent turns; sometimes it’s no mana at all.

In exchange, you get some wild spikes if you build around landfall synergies (sweet, go build a deck) and you get a second point of power, which makes you more interested in attacking than decks that play Llanowar Elves or Birds of Paradise. This is how it played out the first time, at least — Lotus Cobra was fun and subsidized a bunch of four- and five-mana creatures that liked to attack and block, and things were pretty fun all told.

It’s also really powerful and part of the range are draws that are so explosive that it’s hard to keep up even if you have the right cards. I’d argue that the design is high-variance enough that it’s fine if the spikes are infrequent, but the powerful cards risk ubiquity so “frequency” means something different there.

Then, there’s the elephant in the room — no matter how good Lotus Cobra is or the decks that it appears in are, there is no subsidization for it anywhere near as good or free as Misty Rainforest and Verdant Catacombs. That isn’t to say the card will play out worse in this format than the previous one, just that our association with the card’s rate is bundled with those lands. They appeared in Standard together, and to whatever extent it’s been part of Modern it’s involved the fetchlands as well.

I really like Lotus Cobra, as you can probably tell. I’m not sure how I feel about reprinting it versus printing something new but similar, an homage, but the design fundamentals are so sound with it and there’s something to reprinting something that feels “out of bounds” that I’m good with it.

From Thomas Roshlom, the greatest Magic writer you’ve probably never heard of:

Being able to find your own way to play was supposedly a demographic that Magic cards were designed around (the “Johnny”), but when some cards (Uro and the like) are so much more powerful than whatever else comes out in a set I find it increasingly hard to be excited about coming up with decks that try to attack the meta from new/different angles because it often feels like you can’t really beat whatever the “best” deck is with some rogue strategy.

In addition to that, the community seems to develop a certain attitude toward successful Johnnyesque decks (Tron, Nexus, Lantern) that gets reinforced even among the most visible players and casters, where typically less creature-centric play styles frequently receive flak for being “miserable to play against” or whatever. That also drains a lot of fun out of trying to play the game on your own terms. In short, where do you see Johnnys fitting into NWO/FIRE Magic? Is it time to pack it up and move on?

At root, I think the issue with the “Johnny” play pattern (game design slang for a demographic of player who likes combos and fancy stuff, playing the game on different rules of engagement, and so on) is that there’s no promise we get to have an interesting game on the table. It can be cool to watch you assemble Tron for the first time and pummel me with haymakers; after the tenth game it’s not cool or interesting anymore, and then we’re left with however interesting the games are in absolute terms. Lots of Magic’s best combo decks don’t score very well here, and so I think it’s appropriate for them to be marginalized in Standard.

I think it’s a different case once you get to older formats; part of their allure is getting to do stuff that’s different from in Standard, and so even if people complain about some of these decks, no action is taken against them and they get to coexist with the “normal” stuff just fine. The games are also more interesting when I can sideboard the appropriate tools or if my aggressive deck is capable of killing just as fast as the combo decks.

I think it’s possible to widen the stance of what constitutes a “combo.” It doesn’t just have to be Dark Ritual kills. A lot of the Jund Sacrifice stuff involves synergies and interlocking pieces and two-card “combos” (not the “kill you in one shot” type, but combos nonetheless) but also produces a game on the table, and I think there’s plenty of room for decks like that to exist, and even be very good, in low-powered formats.

From J_Swills:

What do you think about Party?

I love it in Draft. I think the set does a good job of making each individual type have its incentives to go all-in on it (Clerics-matter designs) but the party stuff is swirling around, and it’s rare even your Cleric deck is going to have twenty Clerics. So you end up dabbling, sometimes you want a quarter of each type (for party), and sometimes you want something like 70/10/10/10 (Clerics matter, with a few party cards), and sometimes you’re somewhere in between, and all that adds to a lot of replayability.

It’s good for the games itself, too. What you kill and how you sequence your stuff is informed by stuff other than whatever the abstractly best things are. I’m a big fan of things that make you care about a variety of things, and party is a huge success on that front, I think.

Lastly, and the winner of $25 in SCG credit, from bazer.corey:

Hello, I just wanted to ask: How are you doing? Hope you’re safe. Hope your family is safe. And most importantly, I hope that you’re going to stay healthy. Have a good one.

Thank you for asking. I’m doing okay — work is good and busy, in search of a new councilor, home renovation rounding down hopefully, home schooling the kids is a challenge but a fun one, Denver has a good energy to it, kids seem well; so hard to know right now with everything but they’re tough and resilient, need to find a Halloween costume, didn’t care too much about the Clippers collapse, I miss everyone but I’m being more mindful about staying in touch, starting to jog a little, need to cut the smoking out, but on balance I’m keeping my head above water, and I hope you are too.