Sullivan’s Satchel: Mox Opal, Faithless Looting, And Networking

Patrick Sullivan answers mailbag questions on banning cards, making connections, and designing for maximum fun.

Mox Opal illustrated by Volkan Baga

Hello, and welcome back to Sullivan’s Satchel. This past week has been some of the most fun I’ve had sort of observing Magic in quite a while, between the Arena Sealed event (somewhat analogous to a Grand Prix, I guess) and a reinvigorated Magic Online League scene in the wake of a bunch of bannings. I’ve re-engaged with Modern after a long break, first with Burn (modest, too many two-mana cards, can’t beat anything on the draw) and now Prowess (glorious, equally capable of winning on Turn 3 or Turn 20, Mishra’s Bauble still legal somehow, etc.). Everyone else seems to be doing something similar, building decks from 2018, maybe with a new card or two (Storm in particular got some cool new tools, though none of them move the needle much in its red matchups).

Bunch of new projects are up and running. The Resleevables, a set-by-set review of everything with Cedric Phillips, and my own short video series Recurring Insight, are up on YouTube. Special thanks to everyone at SCG for helping me get them off the ground. Early reviews (comments on YouTube + Twitter DMs from strangers) seem very positive on first blush and because there’s no reason besides ego to do projects like these, I’m optimistic they’ll go on for a while.

With that, the questions. As always, you can send in yours over to [email protected] or DM me on Twitter @basicmountain. One question each time will be selected as Question of the Week, and its author will receive $25 in SCG credit. With that…

From Liam Cahalan:

How would you evaluate yourself at making a new card with only a vague directive/need to start from? For people who you believe are very good at this, what skills do they have that sets them apart from other designers?

I believe I’m at my strongest when the directive is to make something fun to read that plays well. I don’t think I do very well with the “make this specific game piece for this exact metagame consideration” type of stuff, and that’s part of the reason I work more in the initial design process than with Play Design. I enjoy the work the most when it’s just coming up with cool concepts and flavor beats without really worrying too much about how it fits inside of some competitive architecture, and each slot taken up by something like Tsabo’s Web could otherwise be something a human being might derive joy from reading and playing with under a plurality of circumstances. The other type of design work is valuable as well, just not something that inspires me a whole lot.

I don’t know if it’s a proprietary skill, but I try to imagine how to make pieces that are fun for everyone in the game. No small task when only one player is casting it and some of the cards aspire to be powerful, but single-card soft locks, “symmetrical” effects that incentivize the controlling player to ignore the downside altogether (Day of Judgement + playing without creatures), and the like don’t enter my field of view very often. There’s room for those designs too; I just leave that to other designers.

From AlphariusTV:

This question comes from a long time of not taking Magic as seriously as I used to. How exactly do you get your foot into the door of competitive Magic? (networking, collections, playtesting team, etc)

I had the good fortune of being close friends and going to high school with Eugene Harvey, one of the best players of all time not in the Hall of Fame. Had it not been for him, I think I would have been content to just play at the local card shops and maybe go to a big regional tournament every now and again. But Eugene was the best in our group, and he started getting more serious about it. I remember thinking that if Eugene could do well in the bigger area events, I could as well; Eugene was excellent but it’s not like I never beat him or anything. If he got blown out, cool, I guess we just aren’t good enough and we can keep playing amongst ourselves. He did well enough early on that I thought I could too and the rest of it is history.

Eugene went to college in Pittsburgh and got connected to the Magic scene out there. New Jersey had a ton of talent as well, and between those groups (and eventual off-shoots) we never had trouble putting together a draft or running a gauntlet of Constructed decks, either in person or online. And I was working at the card shop, so borrowing cards for events was rarely an issue. Pretty much the perfect collection of circumstances to grind tournament Magic, and one I’m sure is more difficult to pull off now than twenty years ago.

Nowadays, my ambitions are less serious but I’ve got people I can reach out to for advice when I’m feeling it, and I trust my own process for accumulating information more than I used to. As far as a collection goes, it helps to only play one color.

From Kevin Bell:

In the wake of the greatest, most exciting Banned and Restricted Announcement of our lifetimes, what are the chances Mox Opal and Faithless Looting get unbanned and Modern gets its identity back?

What follows is just my own opinion on this stuff in the abstract, not a reflection of any internal conversations or speculation on future events!

  • I am significantly more sympathetic to Mox Opal than Faithless Looting for a number of reasons.
  • I believe Mox Opal facilitates getting a game onto the battlefield in a way that’s interactive and engaging (with Game 1 cards) more reliably than Faithless Looting.
  • I think giving artifacts an appealing five-color enabler introduces some cool incentives and fringe cards in a way Faithless Looting does not.
  • I think Mox Opal has a very high “novelty value over replacement” rating. It is a singular enabler for a blend of strategies that are a bit short without it (not that this justifies an unban, just one more point of contrast). Faithless Looting isn’t appreciably different in function from Cathartic Reunion, Shriekhorn, Insolent Neonate, or a bunch of other cards people previously and currently play; just the rate is much higher.
  • I hate Izzet Phoenix. Any deck that starts with 24 cantrips and doesn’t win the game all that quickly is not something I feel fondly towards.

All of this is to say that I don’t think these cards belong in the same basket. Both are outrageous rate outliers, but I think the argument for one is much stronger than the other. I’m happy with both of them on the shelf for at least a little while; Modern seems very fun right now and Mox Opal and Faithless Looting both work to speed up the format considerably, and I wouldn’t mind more breathing space for relatively expensive cards.

Lastly, The Question of the Week, and winner of $25 in SCG credit, from Ryan Freeburger:

Question for Mailbag: When is a card worthy of being banned? What is your metrics?

None of what follows is an exact science but should give you some sense of what I look at. There are also metagame considerations (you may be more reticent to ban a card after recently banning a bunch, as an example) but I’ll set those aside for this.

Metagame share/win share. How popular is a card and how frequently does that card win? Pretty obvious metric. “55% win rate” is a vague Industry Best Practice™ in terms of a card or deck looking problematic, but that number isn’t gospel and how much it shows up matters as well. Rarity can be a factor here since it works as a more effective gate in lower Elo bands.

How cheap is it? The lower the mana cost, the more likely the card is to produce repetitive games and to lower the range of satisfying responses. If you assume their rates are roughly the same overall, Goblin Guide is an abstractly more worrisome design than Eidolon of the Great Revel because cards like Doom Blade and Anger of the Gods are more reasonable responses to the latter than the former.

How good is the gameplay? Even though Modern Infect is fast and powerful, there are a bunch of potential (not always realized, to be clear) interaction points available and counters, discard, removal, blocking, and a variety of other options that all have play against it. Cascading into a massive planeswalker allows for fewer windows for a satisfying and diverse range of responses.

Card type matters. It’s easier to interact with a creature than it is an enchantment or land, and so assuming everything else is equal you should ban enchantments and lands more readily than creatures.

Likely to get better/worse over time? A card like Questing Beast is likely to get weaker in big formats (more competition for good four-mana plays, less likely you want to play cards like that at all), while a card like Lion’s Eye Diamond is likely to get stronger in big formats (more pieces that work with narrow but powerful effects). Unpacking “Is this problem likely to get better or worse in a year?” is an important analysis in deciding to take action.