Sullivan’s Satchel: Sower Of Temptation, More On Modal DFCs, And Roiling Vortex

Patrick Sullivan answers mailbag questions on Sower of Temptation, modal DFCs, and Roiling Vortex.

Roiling Vortex, illustrated by Campbell White

Hello, and welcome to this week’s edition of Sullivan’s Satchel. I had a little spare time on my hands this weekend and so I was able to check out the Mythic Championship. A few good friends of mine crushed it, which is always enjoyable, but watching the event sure was different from previous premier-level events. As much as I hate to admit it, I am a sucker for the lights and sounds of the big stage and missing out on that was a detraction, but there was something weirdly intimate about watching people play in their bedrooms, eating food and at the mercy of their browser history. It wasn’t a bad show.

Historic seemed okay, maybe less diverse than the SCG Tour Online Championship Qualifier earlier in the week suggested, but that’s frequently the case when people are playing for the highest of stakes. I’m not sure if the Muxus slot machine is the most fun thing for the format to be balanced around. But the games had a lot of play to it, and the structure of the format is such that it’s hard to imagine the same thing being too good for terribly long. Hopefully someone is working on getting Tivadar’s Crusade programmed onto Magic Arena.

With that, Dom Harvey asks:

Early mailbag submission: Following from the Control Magic question last week, how would you grade Sower of Temptation as an implementation of that effect? Sticking that effect on a creature creates both strengths and weaknesses and leads to the “cross your fingers and hope” moments inherent to Baneslayers. There’s also more room to build around it with sacrifice outlets and the like. Is that whole category of card just doomed to fail?

Sower of Temptation is a better stab at it than most, if not all, efforts to get Control Magic “correct.” Not only are creatures more interactable at a baseline than enchantments, the game engine gives players a powerful incentive to play with zero creatures (your opponent is stranded with creature removal they can’t use), and so the first creature you cast that is vulnerable to removal, like Sower of Temptation, gives the player a powerful incentive to just rip the Band-Aid off and play with a bunch more. Flying is a nice dimension as well — giving it a combat-centric keyword makes the puzzle of what to take a little bit more dynamic — do I take their ostensibly best creature, or their slightly weaker flyer and carve a path? It doesn’t make the biggest difference in practice, but it is something.

There’s still an issue of design resources and opportunity costs — the cards with the most downside on play pattern take a significantly greater amount of resources to “get right” than those that are less risky, because less goes wrong when you miss with the latter camp. So even if you get Sower “correct” (and you never know for sure with the powerful cards), the amount of time it takes to get it right pulls from other parts of the file with higher yield (making Draft fun, making the fun cards better, whatever.) When I took my design test with WotC about five years ago, the recent design I was most critical of was Encroaching Wastes, not because the card is too powerful, but why spend so much time trying to get Wasteland right? Just plug Radiant Fountain into the file and let’s do something better with our time.

Still, there’s some interest in creating a diverse ecosystem of text boxes. In spite of my deep reticence around Control Magic effects, they can be part of what’s going on and not be too ruinous. I think Sower is probably the best attempt of all time, and I wouldn’t be perturbed if it got reprinted or something similar and new was printed, but I think those designs can be a rabbit hole of time and resources with very little upside.

From Peter Leja, who I am unwilling to give Question of the Week to since he’s a previous winner but let the record show he regularly sends in the best questions:

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion surrounding modal double-faced cards (MDFCs) and their impact on gameplay. One topic that has me intrigued is the variance of missing land drops and how much that is reduced by having your spells also function as lands when you need it. Magic has seemed to focus recently on reducing the variance of bad opening hands, between the London Mulligan Rule, Once Upon a Time and cards like Growth Spiral and Uro encouraging players to play more lands. This has led to more games playing out to their conclusion but has also seemed to help more powerful strategies reach their endgame more consistently.

I’m wondering if this leads to fewer nongames where one player ends up not playing their cards by missing their land drops, but more nongames where the decisions by one deck matter less because the better endgame will more consistently happen. From your perspective, is the reduction of variance from modal DFCs (and recent rule changes/card designs) a positive or a negative? 

Early Magic was much more optimized for the latter experience. Part of that was wild outliers like Moxes creating games that were very different from one another; part of that was Strip Mine meaning one player didn’t have mana on their main phase a good deal of the time. I remember playing for twelve hours straight and never getting bored, but I also remember a lot of my friends quitting along the way.

Magic is in the first camp nowadays. All other things being equal, I think this is correct; it is so much easier to collect a wide array of cards now, especially on digital platforms, that going and building another deck is an easier way to alleviate boredom, and so the games can err more towards “high quality and agency, lower variance.” The proof is in the pudding, too — Magic is so much more popular than it was 30 years ago that I think we can safely write off Strip Mine, Mana Drain, Nether Void, and Library of Alexandria as cards that were improperly pushed, to be charitable.

To the cards mentioned in the question — there is a multiplier here. One Growth Spiral can be a powerful reason to build a Simic deck, but so is Uro and Hydroid Krasis. At some point that’s just what the experience is and it’s so powerful that it makes up a lot of your rounds in a given tournament. Spread out that love among the colors a little bit more, and maybe there are different shades of ramp and big mana among the best decks but the colors are different, the details matter, all that.

I like players having a sense of agency even in the games where their draw doesn’t cooperate and they don’t do much. The new DFCs are an A+ on that front. If the rate is too much and they’re too ubiquitous, too “loud” in their games, that’s one thing, but in terms of reducing variance while still celebrating the game engine I think they do a great job. I’m interested to see how it all shakes out.

From Nic Woyak:

So Rolling Vortex, was that you? If so, how did that come about? Like straight up want to reprint Sulfuric Vortex and have to scale back, start by just wanting a fun riff on Sulfuric Vortex, something else.

Roiling Vortex was sort of mine, sort of not. My recollection, which is vague, was that something similar to it was floating around in the file, with the intent of being appealing in general but specifically good against Fires of Invention. I made the case that the design in question wasn’t powerful enough as it was, and suggested the design that ultimately went to print. I think “players can’t gain life” clause went from a static to something that requires mana, which I think is a massive gameplay improvement.

Of course, Fires of Invention is now banned in Standard and Roiling Vortex has enough rate and externalities associated with it that who knows if it will do anything related to the original purpose? The problems with making cards a year in advance.

Lastly, and our winner of $25 in SCG credit, from Rahul Guha:

If every card in magic had errata to add “Draw a card,” either on spell resolution, creature ETB or death would that make constructed better? Worse? Is that effectively where we are now?

Fun fact: we don’t have to speculate all that much, because that’s what Hearthstone is. Obviously not exactly the game, but you draw a card each turn + gain a resource each turn, so it is analogous to drawing two cards a turn. Additionally, you have your hero power, which always gives you something to do in a game where you never miss your land drops. Setting aside the direct attacking thing, what are the elements where Magic and Hearthstone deviate the most?

In Hearthstone, the puzzle is much more about “How do I tap out each turn?” rather than “How do I optimize for X” — once cards aren’t a gating resource mana becomes much more important, and so using it as efficiently as possible even at the expense of some short-term equity is more often correct in Hearthstone than Magic.

In Hearthstone, you are more compelled to play around whatever the thing is because your opponent isn’t going to miss their fourth land drop, which is part of the calculus on if you start playing around Shatter the Sky on your third turn.

Your opponent isn’t going to run out of stuff to do; all their draws are live and they have their hero power to boot, so Hearthstone centers much more around locking your opponent out of the battlefield rather than some ambient attrition shape that Magic often takes.

I think this game is worse, and is appreciably different (and appreciably worse) than even the least-charitable critiques of Magic’s current card flow would suggest is going on. I like when players run out of stuff, when the action is a little jumbled, when there are weird spikes and stumbles along the way. Once the card flow gets too generous, you lose a lot of the texture and character that makes Magic what it is.