Running a tournament for the younger players in our community has a lot of perks. You get the players before they are jaded, hardened veterans of the game who have had their views colored by the rest of the community. Young players still love all the fun stuff about Magic. They wear their hearts on their sleeves and are open and friendly to most everyone they meet.
You also get the chance to see them grow as players. It is more than just becoming a better player by playing more games and learning the cards and rules, it also involves just straight cognitive development. Many of the six-to-eight-year-old crowd just needs to get older to understand how to best take advantage of the rules, or see how a card actually works. Watching someone grow through that is a gift.
I also get to see a lot of Magic in a short period of time. If there are issues with a set or a card, the judge calls tend to make that obvious pretty quickly. I also get to talk to a lot of players who are excited to tell me which cards have been great. Yes, this is often filtered through the lens of a 10-year old, but as the day goes on, you learn to break down what they see as good and what actually is good. I've found that they are often pretty good judges!
I wanted to share with you my thoughts on the set as a whole, then look at a few of the cards in the set in particular. While much of the article will be focused on a critique, I want to be clear up front that Unstable was loved by almost everyone! Players understood the crazy of the format and embraced it, trying off-the-wall things and embracing any weird changes I threw at them.
If I took eight of you reading this article right now and put you in an Unstable draft, you'd be fine. My readers likely have a pretty good sense of Unstable and the mechanics of the format. When players who are not as invested in Magic as we are get a look at Unstable while drafting, it is a different result. For the draft, I had 24 players so I fired three drafts. I tried to separate the players based on skill level so all the games in each pod would be fun. Not surprisingly, the most skilled players finished their draft in a reasonable time. The moderate group took longer, but were done five or 10 minutes later. The last group was another story.
Over half of the players had never heard of contraptions. Explaining them using the official terms sprocket, assemble and crank proved to be a difficult experience. While the mechanic is relatively easy to understand once you see it in action, explaining how to get to that point is difficult. I stopped the draft and spent 10 minutes trying to explain in simple terms how it worked. Clearly I did not do a great job, since players were making plenty of mistakes all through the first round of play.
Cards that require die-rolling, or alter how dice are rolled, require careful reading to understand. Most of the players understood the augment/host mechanic well enough to draft right away, but their decks suggested they didn't understand the best way to take advantage of those interactions.
In the end, that draft lasted 20 minutes longer than the others. I believe players who are vested in the game and know this information before the draft will be fine, but those that aren't will definitely enjoy the second draft much more than the first.
As someone who runs tournaments, I tend to favor faster formats. Slow formats lead to more games going to time, which means slower turns. Anyone who has ever been on a trip with a child knows the torture of, "are we there yet?" Imagine going on that trip with 28 players all asking, "when does the next round start?" "Who do I play in the next round?" "How much longer?"
And you thought Job had patience!
Unstable is a slow format. When players are trying to understand everything that is happening in a game and they find the mechanics complex, they take more time to think. When you want contraptions to be good, you need games that will go longer to get the full benefit. When you want augment creatures to be worth doing, you need to minimize removal. Add in limited evasion and you can see why many games would go long. I had three players with two or more draws in my tournament and I've only ever had one player with more than one draw in any of my tournaments before. Unstable produces many slow games.
Thankfully for many of you, this is irrelevant. When you Break Open a box with your friends in the coming days and weeks, if the games take longer, then so be it. But when your store is trying to run tournaments, this gets awkward.
Slaying Mantis. From a straight-up, "maximize-the-card" perspective, Slaying Mantis is junk. I've seen enough tosses online and live to know that the odds of it killing a creature are along the lines of winning a church raffle. When you understand that, you realize you are getting a 6/6 vanilla creature for seven mana. Let this go to the players who are willing to play the long odds in the hopes of killing some random creature.
From an Unstable perspective, this card is amazing! This is the card you will remember playing long after you have forgotten everything else. Standing three feet back and letting it fly is awesome! Your friends will be roaring with laughter if you miss the table completely, and trust me, you probably will. This card more than any other brings the fun. I was sure to be there to see every Mantis toss. I recommend kicking into your best pro wrestling commentator voice, shouting, "SLAYING MANTIS WITH THE ELBOW OFF THE TOP ROPE!"
Rules Lawyer. From a straight-up, maximize-the-card perspective, Rules Lawyer is a First Pick every time. You should be splashing this in your deck or hate drafting it so you won't have to play against it. The card is deceptively powerful, often creating games states where you simply can't die. This is one of the bomb rares in the set. I also wouldn't be surprised to see this card's resale value sit just slightly higher than most of the other cards in Unstable. There are a lot of lawyers who play this game who will happily buy up plenty of these cards.
From an Unstable perspective, this card is junk. It bogs games down. It is complex for the sake of complexity. "Rules Lawyer" is Magic slang to describe a player who focuses on rules minutiae to try to win games. This negative term fits the card perfectly. I seriously considered banning this card before the draft. I expected most of my players would have no idea how to play around this, or how to play with it and I was right. I had multiple games end in draws because Rules Lawyer made it so one player simply had no idea how to kill their opponent. I understand how this makes sense in an Un- set, but this joke wrecks games.
Spike, Tournament Grinder. From a straight-up, maximize-the-card perspective, Spike, Tournament Grinder is a First Pick every time. You are getting to play with the most broken cards in Magic and you can tutor for them! There were a handful of players who showed up with a "sideboard" of cards that could work if they happened to draft Spike. They were excited for a chance to play with cards that were "too good!"
From an Unstable perspective, this card completely depends on the player. Some players are looking to find the card that simply ends the game. Boring. Some players look at cards that really work with Unstable, like Cranial Plating. Fine. Some players are simply looking for crazy, like this young player:
Willing Test Subject. From a straight-up, maximize-the-card perspective, Willing Test Subject is okay in a deck as a 2/2 with reach for three mana. If you are running any amount of die-rolling cards, Willing Test Subject just gets so much better. It doesn't take much work for the Test Subject to be a 5/5 creature in short order. You should be aware that it has very little evasion, so its utility as an attacking creature is minimal. However, it stuffs your opponent's attacks from the ground or air beautifully!
From an Unstable perspective, this card is bonkers. I don't expect you'll be spending six mana to roll a die too often, but there are plenty of ways to roll two dice, so the numbers on this card get stupid. I saw the Willing Test Subject with more than 10 counters several times over the course of the tournament.
Better Than One. From a straight-up, maximize-the-card perspective, Better Than One is dangerous. By splitting your lands, you are limiting the cards you can play. This would encourage you to play this card much later in the game, when you can afford to split your land without suffering the negative effects of not being able to cast a card because you gave your lands away. However, Better Than One is essentially letting you draw two cards per turn and play two lands per turn, so it would seem that you would want to play it early.
The other risk is decking. When you realize you aren't going to play this card until there are only 30 cards left in your library (at most), how many of those are you willing to give to your new partner? The card gets better as the game progresses, but if it goes too long, you can quickly find yourself dead to even some moderate milling effects.
If you are a talented player and can see the pros and cons properly, then I recommend the card since you'll maximize or recognize the dangers and simply not play it.
From an Unstable perspective, the card creates weird scenarios. I watched many of the younger players add an older player to the game to help them maximize their plays and that was great to see. I also watched games where the extra player was also playing his game, which lead to slow games being even slower. Based on just the weird interactions, I think the card is a winner. Watching three players get under a table made Better Than One a winner for me!
In the end, I recommend drafting Unstable at least a few times! I think that as a format it can definitely be interesting for just about anyone!