Sullivan’s Satchel: Mercadian Masques, The London Mulligan, And The ‘Stache

Patrick Sullivan answers mailbag questions on Mercadian Masques, the London Mulligan, and his mysteriously disappearing mustache.

Ramosian Sergeant, illustrated by Don Hazeltine

Hello, and welcome to this week’s edition of Sullivan’s Satchel. It has been an intense week for people who play and follow Standard, with an announcement of an upcoming change – which turned out to be a banning of Uro, Titan of Nature’s Wrath – bookending two tournaments in which Four-Color Ramp dominated both the Swiss rounds and the Top 8. Uro getting the ax isn’t the most surprising result; the card was at the top of the list in many people’s minds well before rotation and Zendikar Rising, and it’s not surprising that a smaller card pool plus a set centered around landfall would make the card more powerful, if anything.

My doom-scrolling today suggested a lot of consternation — about the efficacy of the ban, about the overall process that lead to this. I think it does work to create a better world independent of what happens with other pieces of ramp, and I think there’s value in seeing the fallout of the ban before proceeding with other action. I don’t think an Uro ban is a panacea but it probably moves the needle a little bit and allows future actions, if any, to be made with greater information.

With that, the solicitation for questions due to my broken email account was especially fruitful, and so we have a bag full of questions from some heavy hitters. With that, from one of the best to ever write for SCG, Geordie Tait asks,

Talk about Mercadian Masques as a set re: adjustments made following a ban-filled Standard format and the virtues, if any, of correcting in that way.

Mercadian Masques represents the one set (or maybe block) that Wizards of the Coast (WotC) has publicly acknowledged as being a purposeful reset of power level. It was necessary in part because there literally wasn’t an alternative; Tempest and Saga block had cranked up the power to the point that I’m not even sure what a more powerful (or even equally powerful) block would look like. People died on the second or third turn all the time. The Standard decks of the time are more analogous to Legacy decks playing in a format without Force of Will than Standard decks of today. A reboot was necessary.

Masques is historically unpopular, and it is easy to draw a line between its reduction in power and that reality. I was around at the time, and the set was definitely less exciting than those that came before it in absolute terms, but there were some cards that could hang with stuff from Saga block; it wasn’t just 300 blanks. The bigger issue was the points being put into stuff that wasn’t much fun.

Rebels and Mercenaries are extremely repetitive; Ramosian Sergeant might be the least fun, most variance-reducing one-drop ever printed. A bunch of problematic reprints littered the experience — Stone Rain, Counterspell, Dark Ritual. To the extent new, powerful cards changed the terms of engagement, they were cards like Rishadan Port, Dust Bowl, and Thwart.

Invasion is proof-of-concept in the other direction. It is also substantially less powerful than Saga block, arguably even Masques block. But it is centered around kicker, gold cards, individually sweet stuff like a cycle of Dragons and Urza’s Rage. I don’t remember being angry how much less powerful the set was when Saga block rotated out with its introduction. I think things would be remembered a lot differently if Invasion came out instead of Masques.

It isn’t enough to just make things less powerful, even if that’s part of the goal. The terms of engagement need to be different; fun and exciting stuff needs to come in its place. Invasion did a good job of making the mana fixing more powerful (still much less powerful than the average Standard format today, but a massive upgrade over previous blocks at the time), and that was one way that the overall reduction in rate was concealed. There are a lot of ways to make the cards exciting that don’t involve dialing everything up to eleven, but you do have to find something.

From writing, playing, and commentary contemporary Emma Handy,

How did you get involved in game design. As in, did you go through any training, or did you just pick up on stuff as you worked?

Looking back, I had some intuition or perspective for the work once I started playing Magic in the mid 90s. I remember looking at Gray Ogre and Hurloon Minotaur and intuiting that the extra red mana symbol justified the third toughness because of the additional opportunity cost, but that was mostly fake because it wasn’t like I was trying to play either card in multicolored decks, so the Minotaur was more powerful. This is extremely silly by today’s standards of information but in the context of the time I might as well have been Issac Newton, observing the apple.

I got my foot in the door at Upper Deck Entertainment, the most explicitly criminal outfit I’d ever observed, including the card shop I played at as a kid that was actually a mob front. You do a lot of learning by listening and observing, and UDE had some heavy hitters, names you might know from Magic and elsewhere — David Humpherys, Brian Kibler, Justin Gary, Brian Hacker, and on and on. Still, everyone was green, no one really knew what was going on, and so we made so many mistakes that it’s hard in retrospect to know what we were thinking.

Eventually I moved to Cryptozoic Entertainment and worked alongside Matt Place, a former Magic designer most famous for his work on Rise of the Eldrazi. He put into words a lot of the theory that I could intuit but not intellectualize, and from there I had a springboard of sorts into having an ideologically cohesive understanding of game design. Still a ton of mistakes made, including present day. It isn’t a solved science, so the best you can do is keep your eyes open and learn from the sum of everything.

From Nick Prince, recently Reddit-certified MTG pro,

Has the London Mulligan done more harm than good for competitive Magic?

Depends what you’re optimizing for. It is better for each isolated game; it’s very rare nowadays for someone to just lose without doing anything. Because of that, it’s probably a better viewing experience on balance. I’ve covered enough Magic to know how disappointing and anticlimactic it is when a third game never gets off the ground, and it is so rare nowadays to see something like that I’ve almost forgotten what it’s like.

On the other hand, it is just one more thing that amplifies the frequency with which the best cards show up in an individual game, and the frequency with which the best player wins. Your tastes may vary on the latter, but I don’t think you can divorce the length of the Standard banned list from the quality of the information players have combined with their ability to find the best stuff at a low opportunity cost. As a coverage person I love the mulligan; I probably would have loved it as a player in 2002. Less clear to me how much I would have enjoyed it as a player with my sensibilities now or in the last few years.

From Zach_Fayden,

1. Who do you most want to replace Doc Rivers as head coach of the Clippers?

2. Who would be the most Clippers replacement for Doc Rivers?

Would like to promote one of the current assistants, assuming they don’t go with Doc to his next gig. Tyronn Lue would probably be my first choice — underrated Xs and Os chops in Cleveland, plus some championship pedigree for a team ostensibly contending next year. Kawhi and Paul are in the last year of their deals and I’d guess they’re going to put their finger on the scale one way or another.

The most Clippers thing to do would be to embrace the little brother LA thing, so some Lakers retread? Mike Brown maybe? Byron Scott? With Ballmer in charge I’m guessing it’ll be some big name, big contract sort of a deal.

Lastly, the Question of the Week, and winner of $25 in SCG credit, from @IllusionsDonate,

Do you still have the mustache? Why just the stash?

My end-of-the-world quarantine indulgence was a dirty, ill-groomed mustache that I rocked on some of the SCG Tour Online stuff. My family and I recently did a photo shoot which was nice, charming, wholesome, and not cheap, and you can’t bring that sort of heat to that environment.

The reason it’s just a stash is two-fold: it’s so outrageous, such an affront to norms and decency, that it’s the right thing for this particular place and time, and because my facial hair grows in so sporadically and unevenly otherwise that it’s more “groomed” than other options.

No question it’ll be back.