Aether/Or

Posted in Magic Digital on January 18, 2017

By Alli Medwin

Every set, I—Alli Medwin from the Magic Online design team in R&D—review the ways in which we implemented the new set and take you through a tour of some of the work we did. For Aether Revolt, we had no major mechanics that were complex for Magic Online to implement: revolt is a variant of Innistrad's morbid, and improvise is so close to Ravnica: City of Guilds and Magic 2015's convoke that it was a fairly straightforward task. We took this opportunity, then, to revisit some of Kaladesh's mechanics, plus make a few more broadly useful improvements to the game. I'm stoked about what's coming, and I think there's something here for just about every Magic Online player to appreciate.

Fear and Trembling

One of the most exciting cards in Aether Revolt is the powerful removal spell Fatal Push. It's also one of the cards that demanded the most attention to get the UX right. Fatal Push is one of a small family of cards that includes famous Pauper and Legacy staple Pyroblast and forgotten Future Sight rare Nix: cards that affect a narrower range of things than what they can target. Fatal Push's text, "Destroy target creature if it has...," means that it can target any creature, but will only destroy creatures with low enough converted mana cost.

What this means is that when choosing a target for Fatal Push, players don't have the help the game normally provides. Any creature is a legal target, and that means it's far too easy to target a creature that won't be killed. This is bad enough in paper Magic, but Magic Online is necessarily unforgiving here due to our mandate to follow the rules of the game completely. You need to be able to target things that won't die.

But you don't always need to be able to do that. With Fatal Push, we're testing a new form of targeting assistance. Soft targeting requirements like this one need to allow players to target anything, but we can do better. When you click a Fatal Push to cast it, you'll see a context menu with two options.

If you choose the normal "Cast" option, you'll be presented with your full suite of legal targets and can choose any creature. If you choose the second option, you'll see this targeting step instead:

This will intelligently update, so if you've had a permanent you controlled leave the battlefield this turn, the targeting assistance will update accordingly.

I expect this card will be cast a lot. I expect I'll cast this card a lot. And this will help keep players from accidentally Pushing the wrong creature. Pushing the wrong button leads to people's buttons getting pushed. And that leads to patience getting pushed.

...Okay, I'm done pushing limits now.

...Now I'm done for real.

Stages on Life's Way

Melira, Sylvok Outcast shows up in Modern decks from time to time. While it's often used simply as a defense against infect, it also doubles in some decks as a combo piece. If you control Melira, your creatures can't get -1/-1 counters from any source, even their own abilities. Creatures with persist (such as Kitchen Finks and Murderous Redcaps) that die will return to the battlefield without a -1/-1 counter, so that when they die again, their persist abilities will return them again...and again...and again...

All you need is a sacrifice outlet that doesn't require mana—Viscera Seer is popular—to get an arbitrarily large number of those enters-the-battlefield triggers.

This deck has been, let's say, challenging to play on Magic Online for quite some time thanks to a quirk in the rules of the game. Right-clicking an ability on the stack lets you yield to all abilities from that game object, so you don't need to keep clicking every time, but as soon as the creature dies or comes back or changes zones in any way, it's a new object. Yielding to all triggered abilities from a Kitchen Finks is pretty useless; that Kitchen Finks is only ever going to trigger once.

This long-established function is more useful against cards like Thermo-Alchemist, which will trigger quite often without changing zones. However, you need to yield to the triggered abilities of each Thermo-Alchemist separately, which is often unnecessary clicks.

So here's how we solved this.

Now, when you right-click an ability, not only can you choose to yield not to that Kitchen Finks, but to all cards named Kitchen Finks you control. When this Kitchen Finks dies, if I've used the first ability in that menu, I won't have to worry about seeing that trigger again. Or if my opponent is playing this deck, and I right-click her Finks's ability on the stack, I'll get the option to yield to her Finks's triggered abilities, which is a separate yield from the one for my triggers. After all, I might not need to respond to my components of the combo, but being able to deal with Melira or the Seer as she combos off is still important.

As a fan of Melira Combo, I tested the Viscera Seer/Finks loop. If you yield to both of Kitchen Finks's triggered abilities and Viscera Seer's activated ability, it's now only five clicks per loop. That includes the scry. And if you move the scry window near the Seer and/or Finks, you don't even need to move the cursor much.

Philosophical Fragments

I've said this several times in these set articles: as a game designer, my favorite word is "iterate." So it should come as no surprise that I'm pleased to have had the opportunity with Aether Revolt to revisit two of the mechanics we introduced in Kaladesh, iterating on their interface to improve the play experience.

The first of these was a change to Vehicles and the crew ability. Using the crew ability can be done at any time that you have priority, but the cost is tapping creatures. If you don't have creatures, you can't pay the cost, though, so we streamlined the interface and removed the ability to crew a Vehicle if you don't control enough power worth of creatures. And, in the case of Heart of Kiran, the alternative crew cost is only available when you control a planeswalker.

The more options you have available to you, the more time you need to spend thinking about them. Even an experienced mind takes a fraction of a second to process an option, and when that mind is taking in so many options and evaluating them every turn, analysis paralysis becomes a real risk. One of the ways that Magic Online helps combat this is to focus your attention on the available decisions with a soft white glow around cards you can use. When a card in your hand can't be cast, it doesn't glow, and now a Vehicle on the battlefield that can't be crewed won't glow either.

The second iterative change we made was to the energy mechanic. Most decks that use energy use lots of cards that make energy, and a lot of that comes in the form of energy-generating abilities rather than spells that provide energy.

My favorite energy-based Draft deck in triple-Kaladesh had a Panharmonicon, a few Thriving Ibexes, a Woodweaver's Puzzleknot, a Whirler Virtuoso, and a very greedy mana base. I was passing a lot of priority to all those enters-the-battlefield triggered abilities that did nothing but give me energy. It made me sad that we weren't able to address that issue in the Kaladesh release, but I'm happy that we did for Aether Revolt. Simply put, you can now yield to energy-generating abilities, regardless of source.

This yield will yield to just about everything, regardless of who controls the energy-generating ability. It's not exactly comprehensive, though, by design. There are two exceptions, both for Aether Revolt cards: Peema Aether-Seer and Lightning Runner. Peema Aether-Seer's ability grants a variable amount of energy, and Lightning Runner asks its controller to pay a bunch of energy when it resolves, and there are reasonable scenarios that would lead to you wanting to yield to most energy-generating abilities but respond to those two, so we carved out exceptions for them.

Repetition

"At the beginning of my upkeep, I'll move zero counters to your creature."

How many times do you need to say that before it becomes frustrating? My vote is one. Scrounging Bandar's vote, however, is higher than that. You'll want to move those counters to your own creatures occasionally—a creature with lifelink or an evasion ability can generally make better use of those counters than the Bandar can—but you'll rarely want to move them to your opponent's creature. Still, even if you know what the answer is, you'll need to choose a target for the upkeep trigger every turn; then when it resolves, you need to choose a number.

"At the beginning of my upkeep, I'll move zero counters to your creature."

We made a few choices to smooth things over. The simple thing we did was set the prompt box default to zero. This is pretty straightforward, as most of the time you're moving zero counters. Generally, each Bandar will give away its counters no more than once.

The problem is that you're not off the hook just because the only legal target(s) are controlled by your opponent. In those cases, we're allowing you to automate the decision to move zero counters. This saves several clicks, letting the ability resolve without further input.

"At the beginning of my upkeep, I'll move zero counters to your creature."

"Always yield to triggered abilities," "always zero to opponent's creatures," and now I don't have to say it quite so much.

The Sickness unto Death

Long before I joined Wizards of the Coast, I was a judge. And like many judges, I played Commander. I played a lot of Commander. And I played Magic Online. And once players had the ability to play Commander online, I found that my peanut butter tasted really good with my chocolate.

I rarely built decks that cared about commander damage. But when I did—and more importantly, when my opponents did—I found it difficult to track. The game log is just not a good place to be the single source of tracking such important information.

As with everything else in Magic Online development, it's a matter of priorities. Fortunately, of late, Commander has been enjoying a consistent level of play—mostly in two-player games—to justify allocating work to address the issue and provide a significant quality of life improvement: the ability to tell at a glance how much commander damage has been dealt.

The shield will always show up over the upper right corner of a player's avatar once they've taken some amount of damage from a commander. The number it'll display is the highest amount of damage any single commander has dealt to that player—the commander most likely to pose a threat. Clicking the shield opens a more detailed display that shows you each commander's damage count. It'll even identify the commander's owner, in case you aren't the only Atraxa player in the game. (As the designer of Atraxa, I admit I'm confused why anyone would ever play any other commander, but I don't need to understand why people don't love to proliferate as much as I do to accept it.)

And yes, it works with partners. And multiplayer games. And people playing partners in multiplayer games.

Concluding Unscientific Prospect

Between the commander damage indicator, improving the yield options available to players, updating Kaladesh mechanics, and creating systems to support some potentially complex Aether Revolt cards, we kept the cardset team busy for this release. We'd love to hear what you have to say about this set and these changes. You can always send feedback to MagicOnlineFeedback@wizards.com, and if you've got a question, that can be directed to the official Magic Online Tumblr.

Until next time, when I'll talk to you all about the value of a token effort.

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