As the year nears a close, I have a lot on my mind when it comes to our favorite hobby. This year has led to some interesting developments in the community and specifically in set design. Today I want to spend time tackling some of the things on my mind and looking at the state of Magic as we move into 2017.
While there are plenty of topics I could cover today, the three I want to look at specifically are the Holiday Cube, the new trend of theme-deck planeswalkers, and the state of Standard.
The Holiday Cube is out and if you play Magic Online, you almost certainly have indulged. There are three types of Cube players, as far as I can tell, but which player you are during any given draft can change.
Now, none of these are inherently bad or good and if you play Cube long enough, you will find yourself occupying each of the three. For instance, my typical cube experience is shaped by these three categories.
Usually, I like to begin as the Kid in a Candy Store. The draft is just beginning and everything is possible. There is no reason to aim for some boring, middle of the road deck just yet. Opening up something fun like Sneak Attack or something powerful like Ancestral Recall can be enough incentive to never leave the candy store. If I pick up on the fact that my deck isn't coming together or that I have received weak packs about five or six picks in, I will consider moving over into, "The Straight and Narrow." This will often leave me with a reasonable deck that I will often 2-1 with or occasionally spike a win.
I probably end up in one of these two scenarios 90% of the time I Cube. In that final 10% though, "The Fun Police" definitely comes out. Usually I end up drafting mono-red after a streak of losses or after opening up a sequence of packs where it just makes sense. Usually Sulfuric Vortex is involved.
Being able to swing top all three of these kinds of decks will lead to higher Cube win percentages, but more importantly you will actually improve your deckbuilding skills. Learning what kinds of things make a deck tick ultimately trickles down into more general lessons for the game in general.
I managed to record a Holiday Cube this weekend where I actively wanted to draft something super sweet and fun, but as, "The Straight and Narrow" player knows, you can't always just eat ice cream.
For those of you who may not be familiar, in my day job I am a game designer for Dire Wolf Digital. I focus primarily on digital card games and card design, so over the past five years the lens through which I view Magic cards has changed quite a bit.
As a player, you obviously look for power level and versatility in your cards. You look to see what archetypes are impacted the most and if a given individual design has an obvious home to play it. Those things are all important, but from a design perspective are a small portion of what you are looking for. Once you put on your designer cap, you being to pay attention to a card's "fun level," who it might appeal to and why, or simply the elegance of the design. With that in mind, let's talk about planeswalkers.
If you haven't noticed, Standard has become something of a planeswalker showcase. This has culminated in the recent decision to have weaker planeswalkers featured in planeswalker decks. I am all for this decision in spirit, as I think getting all players acquainted with the card type is a noble goal and these new walkers are designed with that player in mind.
However, given that these walkers are a thing, I wish they were designed with the base walkers more in mind. Having three Chandras in a format is a bit of a burden as is, but when two of those Chandras have the same mana cost, that adds to the confusion. Planeswalkers more often than not have "throwaway" secondary names. For example, Flamecaller and Pyrogenius are not tags that have any inherent identifying marks. To know which Chandra is which, you just have to know. Typically, having multiple of the same 'Walker in a Standard format is made easier by those walkers having different costs or distinct play patterns, but that isn't the case here.
We see this problem surfacing again with the newest set and Ajani's latest planeswalker. Both the constructed Ajani and the theme-deck Ajani cost 4WG and start with four loyalty. That just makes discussing new Ajani so difficult. And, again, "Unyielding," versus "Valiant Protector" doesn't do anything to hint to me which Ajani we are talking about.
I can't summarize new Ajani by calling it Ajani, or by calling it green-white Ajani, or by calling it six-drop Ajani, etc. This seems like a mistake to me. I think that if possible, I want there to be distinct differences between the theme Ajani and the set Ajani.
I bring this up because while it is a small issue now, I see this getting worse over time. Can you imagine three of the same planeswalker with the same cost? New Tezzeret and its theme equivalent give me hope, but I would like to see this more often going forward.
Everyone and their mother has an opinion on Standard, so I figured I might as well share mine. Many people are labeling this Standard format as one of the worst they can remember. I am not willing to go that far, but it does have a few high-profile mistakes that seem to be holding it back.
Most Standard formats that are considered "bad" have very few decks that are tournament viable. But that's not actually the case right now; as a brewer I feel like there are more viable brews and fringe decks than usual. Now, it may be true that the stable top tier is limited to just a few decks, but that isn't necessarily bad. What gets bad is when those few decks are warping the metagame and then still prevailing.
For example, if two decks like Black-Green Delirium and White-Blue Flash take up 60% of the Top 8s over a four-month period, but those other 40% of decks contain all sorts of stuff, the format looks healthy from a diversity perspective. After all, there are a wide variety of decks. The issue is that Delirium and Flash are not subject to the same forces that the other decks are. Those smaller decks will come and go but the titans of the format will still be sitting on top when all is said and done.
I think this is largely the fault of a few cards that are just abnormally high in power level. Emrakul is probably public enemy number one here. While the card does encourage a few different decks to use it, playing against the card is hardly fun and preparing against the card is an essential step before you can enter a tournament. Even if you end up with a positive match up against Emrakul, it is almost certainly through deliberate intention to do so.
This same power level argument can be applied to many of the cards in Flash, even if none of them are quite up to snuff with Emrakul. Without Emrakul in the format, just think about where Spell Queller, Avacyn, and Gideon would be. Those cards are arguably stronger than any non-Emrakul in the format and they all go into the same deck.
Focusing so much of the power level of Standard into these two decks has done severe damage to the metagame. If these decks were fun to play against, they could still have a positive impact on the format, but the play pattern of getting your spells countered or your turns stolen is hardly fun.
As a designer, you know that a format is bound to have a best card, but it looks like that was actually forced this time around. Emrakul seems to be intentionally pushed in power level to make an impact in Standard, and while this is great for marketing it is terrible for game play. I hope that as we see new Standard environments, this pattern of marketing influencing gameplay will be subdued a bit. Marketing is key to the health of the game, but not when it is compromising the health of the game.
Before I go, I wanted to leave everyone with a wish for Happy Holidays and fun Cube drafts! My birthday is Friday and I will be moving into a new apartment next week, so things are even more hectic for me than normal this year, but it's always nice to take some time to relax and appreciate the season. I hope everyone has an amazing New Year and let's do our best to make 2017 everything that 2016 wasn't. Happy Holidays!!!