Sullivan’s Satchel: Storybrook Brawl, Rucker Park, And Landfall

Patrick Sullivan answers mailbag questions on the deceptive simplicity of MTG’s landfall mechanic, autobattler games, and basketball at Rucker Park.

Plated Geopede, illustrated by Eric Deschamps

Hello, and welcome to this edition of Sullivan’s Satchel. Before diving in, I wanted to give my take on the “GG as a bluff” dispute that surfaced on Twitter earlier this week. For those of you whose brains aren’t leaking out of their ears and therefore missed it, a short summary: a player emotes “GG” in a position where it appears they are losing, but surprise, Settle the Wreckage! Was the player priced into attacking with everything regardless? Is it weird that “GG” is interpreted as a concession on a digital platform that has a separate “concede” button? Unclear, but not important from my perspective.

I think these moves are hilarious and should be encouraged. The ethics are a rounding error even in the uncharitable case (an Arena match on the ladder? Lower stakes literally do not exist). It requires the user to take a bunch of linguistic shortcuts one should not assume exist on the platform. Lastly (and maybe my least popular position in all of this), it is hilarious. Seriously, the amount of value it adds to everyone’s experience to witness something like this and have the opportunity to talk about it at length far outweighs the temporary pain the bamboozled party might experience. More of this please, not less.

With that, the questions. As always, you can send in yours to [email protected] or DM me on Twitter @BasicMountain. I answer them as is my contractual obligation to this website. As an added “bonus” I select one each week as Question of the Week™, with its author receiving $25 in SCG credit, which among other things can be bartered for the currency needed to purchase an upgraded emote set on Arena (I assume.)

From Joseph Schuster:

Online card games have all experimented with ‘mini expansions’. Hearthstone, Eternal, and of course Arena’s Historic Anthologies are all variations of the idea, and speaking directly to Arena the Anthologies generally seem well-received. Do you think this sort of thing would be good from a design perspective for paper Magic? Commander players get a bit of it in terms of the new cards in Commander precons and results seem mixed.

I do think there is something to this, purely as a product release. The issue here is that many of the costs for producing something physical are front-loaded. Artists need to be mobilized, marketing resources need to be generated, you gotta turn on the printers, design typically wants to come up with a mechanic even for small releases and that’s a lot of work at the beginning, and so on. When I worked on the World of Warcraft TCG, part of the justification for the Raid Decks (a multiplayer, non-competitive product, somewhat analogous to Commander content) was the Loot Pack (tournament-legal cards that ostensibly made the product “attractive” to non-casual players), but it would have been impossible to justify the expense of one without the other.

On digital platforms these are no-brainers. In some ways I think frequent, small releases are superior to the traditional “large set” model. Until you solve for the production costs, though, it’s hard to justify the economics. I’m not sure if $40 really reflects the total cost of doing Secret Lairs at an acceptable profit margin, but it isn’t just a cash grab. The price point needs to look something like that to make the product viable. Hopefully there’s a solution to this at some point. I think there’s a lot of value to them, but the economics are tricky right now.

From Jacob Hession-Kunz:

Question for the mailbag: I recently gave the newish autobattler game Storybrook Brawl a try. What do you think about autobattlers in general, both for yourself to play and from a game design perspective?

I think they’re dope and also not for me. Creative spaces that are similar to TCGs in a lot of respects (you have a “deck” of sorts, made from a variety of options) but offer significantly different puzzles (real exploration of spatial relations, among others) scratch an itch that’s both familiar and novel, at least for people who gravitate towards TCGs in the first place. I generally struggle with spatial relationships more complicated than adjacency. It is very hard for me to move past that feeling of frustration.

About Storybook Brawl specifically — I believe Matt Place is the design lead. Setting aside his impressive resume (set leads on Magic and Hearthstone, among other significant work) he’s the game designer from whom I learned the most when we worked together about ten years ago. I hold him in the highest esteem. If you were on the fence about checking the game out, consider this an endorsement.

From Alex Wang:

Big fan of your content. One thing I’ve been wondering about is how recent standard Limited environments all have had smoothing mechanics like foretell, learn/lesson, cycling, and land MDFCs. I think they make for better Draft experiences. What do you think if Wizards of the Coast (WotC) included one such mechanic in every future Limited environment? Do you think there are smoothing mechanics that are underexplored? Thanks, and looking forward to your response.

I think it’s reasonable to say, and wouldn’t be controversial among members of Play Design, that Magic’s game engine does not support two-color decks in a method that’s satisfying without efforts to smooth it out. How you go about “smoothing it out” can take a lot of different shapes, as you mentioned above. In spite of Magic being significantly more disciplined with cards with multiple mana symbols at lower rarities, it seems that the best Limited formats go beyond that sort of file management.

The executions I like the most speak to novelty, to the mechanic having purpose beyond just smoothing it out, etc. Foretell is a great example; I don’t think a lot of players even perceive it as a smoothing mechanic, just a thing that’s going on, but it quietly helps the issues you’re speaking to, which is great. The MDFCs are a bit more heavy-handed, but they provide an excellent opportunity for storytelling, for making satisfying reads, and for novel visual presentation. Unsurprisingly, cycling is my least-favorite way of doing this; still, it is effective in relatively small doses, which is worth something.

I would imagine something along these lines will appear in each set, but also what qualifies is confusing. Learn/Lesson is very powerful when you’re flooded but is much worse when you’re light on mana. Many of the other examples you gave cut both ways. That isn’t to say not to do learn — I love it as part of the range, and it does do some work, and keeping things fresh is a more valuable goal to me than optimizing each mechanic for alleviating screw.

From Old School Magic legend Kurtis Hahn:

In your travels, have you ever seen a game at Rucker Park?

I have not. I would like to at some point, but not at the perceived cost of going into NYC, a place that made me feel overwhelmed and claustrophobic before COVID, much less after. NJ hoops is better than the city game anyway and it’s been that way for decades. Why buy into the city worship, anyway?

Lastly, the Question of the Week and winner of $25 in SCG credit, from romloops:

Hey Patrick, I had a question for the Satchel™. I don’t much like landfall as a mechanic, but I’m not really sure why. It just feels like a “fake mechanic” a lot of the time, if that makes sense.

That said, I’m clearly in the minority here. What makes landfall so appealing to some players, and is it really a mechanic worth coming back to so frequently?

I get the feeling of it being “fake.” Calling out perhaps the most basic, repeated game action a player opts into isn’t the most natural thing, maybe doesn’t evince that much creativity on behalf of the designer, whatever. A common designer joke when Rosewater talked about “lands matter” in the original Zendikar was some variation of “Lands matter? Finally; I was wondering what I was doing with them all this time.” That said, it is a masterpiece. While I can’t speak to why individual players may or may not like it, I can speak to why it recurs as a mechanic.

  1. Simple, easy to execute, easy to feel like “you’re doing it” — many mechanics are opaque in functionality, assume large card pools, or present other barriers to new or inexperienced players. Landfall is as easy as it gets.
  2. Since lands typically enter the battlefield on your turn, the designs naturally gravitate towards proactive, while the act of triggering it on your opponent’s turn feels like you really accomplished something, even if the output is modest. Very good distribution of incentives, novelty on edge cases, etc.
  3. User has a lot of agency to scale the experience up or down however they want. The cards “just work” if you play a normal deck, and you can also build decks around triggering landfall multiple times a turn. Very few mechanics cover the entire range well in the first place; probably no mechanic does it better than landfall.
  4. Encourages players to play more lands in a way that’s obvious, organically smoothing out the early stumbles of games without stripping all the variance out of it. I spoke about this a bit in last week’s article about cycling, and landfall grades out well in terms of mechanics that naturally and obviously encourage more lands.

It isn’t perfect; it might be too powerful as a tool to prevent “catch-ups” (since the winning player’s draw steps are all live, there’s way less room to “flood out”), but that pales in comparison to all the upside both in gameplay and deckbuilding incentives. One of the greatest of all time, in spite of (maybe partially because of) its simplicity.