Context is Everything

Posted in NEWS on December 21, 2007

By Devin Low

Is this Magic art good?

It's nearly impossible to know without context. Without seeing the rest of the art as a whole, it's impossible to know whether this particular portion of it is well-chosen and well-painted. To see this portion again in the context of the whole painting, click here:

Dauntless Dourbark

As it turns out, the art is good. Now here's a different question: Is this card powerful in tournament Magic? The answer is the same as for evaluating the tiny piece of the art: It's nearly impossible to know without context. So much of Magic revolves around the interactions between cards that evaluating whether any card is good in a Magic format depends enormously on the other cards available in the context of that format.

But then how do people evaluate cards when they don't have a complete context in which to evaluate it? The answer is that people, both players and developers, almost never have complete context in which to evaluate a card. And that means that both players and developers can almost never evaluate a card's exact power. Treefolk make especially good examples for showing how this phenomenon comes up in many different ways: for early preview cards, when the large set of a block comes out, and even when sets are being developed.

The Context of Early Previews

As a player, I was always psyched up when a new large set was about to come out. In the weeks before the Prerelease, a handful of cards got previewed, and they usually picked interesting ones to show off. A lot of the time when I read the previews, what I wanted to know was first: "Does the new block sound cool?" and second: "How powerful is this preview card??" The thing about the second question is that for a huge number of preview cards, it's impossible to know just from reading it whether it's powerful or not.

Vesuvan Shapeshifter

Think back in time. When Vesuvan Shapeshifter was previewed just before Time Spiral, did it seem like a Tier 1 tournament card to you? It's different enough from every other card in Magic that it's hard to compare right away to other cards you know. Since it can hide face down as a morph, it gets more powerful if there are other good morphs in the set. Upon seeing it during previews, clever players wondered: are there any other good morphs in the set? During previews, it's impossible to know. Vesuvan Shapeshifter gets more powerful if there are legends around that it can destroy by copying them and using the "legend rule" to annihilate both creatures. Are there any good legends in the Time Spiral Standard format? Again, without having seen many of the Time Spiral legends yet, it's impossible to know whether this use of the card is powerful or not. Vesuvan Shapeshifter gets more powerful if there a lot of creatures around with constructed-level "turn face up triggers" that Vesuvan Shapeshifter could use again and again. Are there any powerful "turn face up triggers" morphs in the new Standard? In Time Spiral previews, it's very unlikely that you guessed there were any other such triggers in the set at all, let alone ones as powerful and as powerful-to-recur as Fathom Seer, Willbender, and Brine Elemental.

And in some blocks, evaluating preview cards gets even harder. Mark Rosewater uses the phrase "linear mechanic" to describe a mechanic which gets more powerful as you put more cards with it in your deck. For example, Slivers and affinity for artifacts are both very linear mechanics. Each Frogmite you put in your deck gets more powerful as you add more affinity for artifacts cards, and each Gemhide Sliver in your deck gets more powerful as you add more Slivers. In general, tribal is a very linear theme. When the block's theme is a linear one, it gets harder to evaluate a preview card.


Imagine coming off of Onslaught block and seeing a single preview card from the upcoming Mirrodin set: Frogmite. Would it seem powerful to you? No, Frogmite would seem incredibly weak, because out of the hundreds of cards in Onslaught block, only nine were artifacts with which to make Frogmite cheaper. In the context of previews before Mirrodin comes out, Frogmite looks incredibly lame. But once the artifact-heavy context of Mirrodin, Darksteel, and Fifth Dawn was revealed, Frogmite dominated constructed Magic, won multiple Pro Tours, and got eight cards banned in Standard.

Gratz, Froggie.

As Frogmite himself might happily croak in your ear, context makes a pretty big difference.

Why do I bring this up during Treefolk week? Because Lorwyn's tribal theme is also very linear. Is Sygg, River Guide a powerful tournament card? Well, since it gets better when you have lots of good Merfolk in your deck, it depends which other good Merfolk are around. Our very first preview card for Lorwyn this year was the Treefolk lord Timber Protector. Inside Wizards, where everyone knew that there were tons of powerful Treefolk in the year to come, everyone who saw Timber Protector loved him on sight. When we previewed Timber Protector before any other cards in Lorwyn, readers didn't have that context of knowing how many Treefolk were to come. All they knew about were the tiny number of Treefolk in Time Spiral block and Coldsnap: a total of six. So while some readers loved Timber Protector on sight, some others didn't like him because he had so few minions to power up. They didn't realize that there were more sets coming out with serious Treefolk in them that would make Timber Protector ever more powerful over time.

If a preview card is Incinerate, players are pretty effective at evaluating it. It's a very straightforward member of well-understood category: burn spells. In addition, Incinerate was printed in Ice Age, Mirage, and Fifth Edition, so people have already had several chances to play it and know that it's good. But when a preview card is Vesuvan Shapeshifter, or especially a linear card like Timber Protector, it's almost impossible for people to evaluate the card's power level correctly. It's not their fault—they just don't have the knowledge of the surrounding set or the following two years of sets to come. They don't have the context.

So the next time you see a new set's preview cards, think carefully as you evaluate the preview card's power level—especially if it has a linear mechanic. Is the set likely to have other cards in the same theme? If it's a major theme, the answer is almost certainly 'yes.' And if it's a major theme that's linear, the answer has basically gotta be 'yes.' Maybe the card will end up being stronger than it looks, and maybe it will end up weaker than it looks. Just don't fall into the trap of people who analyze only whether the preview card would be good in the previous block's decks. Because it almost always won't be. Just ask a Frogmite previewed at the end of Onslaught block.

It drives me crazy when some people analyze cards during preview weeks so short-sightedly, proclaiming that cards like Frogmite or Vesuvan Shapeshifter are super-weak. It makes me roll my eyes when I read people saying during early Mirrodin previews:

"The only good standard decks right now are Mono-White Decree of Justice, Mono-red Goblins, Red-Black Goblin Bidding, and Red-White Lightning Rift/Astral Slide. That new Thirst for Knowledge card doesn't fit into any of those decks, and it isn't enough to make anyone add blue to any of those 4 decks, so Thirst for Knowledge is just cardboard trash."

Then lots more artifacts come out in Mirrodin block, and "that new Thirst for Knowledge card" goes on to win dozens and dozens of tournaments across Standard, Block Constructed, Extended, and Legacy. The lack of context means that these early naysayers are often incredibly, comically wrong. What a linear card looks like it can do in its first preview week is often not close to what, with three to six more sets of cards helping them out, Frogmite, Thirst for Knowledge, Vesuvan Shapeshifter, and Wizened Cenn can become.

The Context of the Single Set

So then the preview week ends, and the whole set is released. All is revealed, and context in which to evaluate the new cards is finally complete! ...or is it?

Merrow Reejerey

Take Lorwyn as an example. Say you decide to evaluate Merrow Reejerey. You take the context of the entire Lorwyn set into consideration, and you decide Merrow Reejerey's pretty good. "Finally!" you might cheer. "A fully informed evaluation!" But of course, through no fault of your own, it isn't a fully informed evaluation. Because I can reveal to you now something that the savvy have already predicted: that Morningtide has many additional Merfolk in it. And among its other themes, Morningtide has several additional "Merfolk matter" cards. Since "Merfolk matter" is a very linear theme, all the existing "Merfolk matter" cards and all the Merfolk creature cards get more powerful every time additional powerful "Merfolk matter" cards come out in a new set. So the cards you haven't seen in Morningtide are already destined to make Merfolk Reejerey do more than you might have thought, and be a different card than you might have thought. And if (hypothetically) Shadowmoor has further powerful Merfolk, and the following set has even more Merfolk, then Merrow Reejerey does even more still.

Let's go back to evaluating Dauntless Dourbark. Over the course of its lifetime, will this card be powerful in Standard? The first step in considering how future sets' context will affect this Treefolk's power level is to combine the question "What other Treefolk are in current Standard?" with predicting "How many other Treefolk will appear over the next two years?" But focusing on Treefolk alone won't produce all the relevant context here. Like many other Treefolk, Dauntless Dourbark also has a symbiotic relationships with Forests, and gets more powerful the more Forests you have in play. So it also becomes important to ask "How many other cards and themes are there that promote all-Forest land bases?" "How many cards have lots of G in their mana cost?" "How many cards promote having lots of lands (and thus Forests) in play very quickly?" "How many four-mana green creatures compete with this guy for slots in my mana curve?"

And all of that is just the context of cards you could play. The context of what cards you expect your opponents to play is also incredibly relevant to how good Dauntless Dourbark is or is not. "Is the tournament environment full of chump blockers like Sakura-Tribe Elder and Mogg War Marshal?" If so, Dauntless Dourbark's trample becomes much more relevant. "Is this a format full of Oona's Prowlers and Soltari Priests where no one ever blocks?" If so, trample becomes much less relevant. "Are opponents' removal suites packed with Incinerates and Mogg Fanatics?" If so, Dauntless Dourbark looks very resilient. "Are opponents' removal suites packed with Shriekmaw and Eyeblight's Ending?" If so, Dauntless Dourbark looks very fragile.

These questions are the very core of what "the metagame" is, and what it means to play the metagame to your own advantage. The metagame for a particular tournament environment is both quite global and acutely local. If Oblivion Ring is popular around the world, you have to think about it more. And if it's not popular in your local store, you have to worry about it less.

The context of the metagame also changes over time. Sometimes a card like Phyrexian Ironfoot catches fire around the world, then some months later he isn't popular anymore. Then some months later, Phyrexian Ironfoot has a second resurgence and it gets really popular all over the world all over again.

The Context of Development

Wort, Boggart Auntie

All of this makes it sound pretty challenging for players correctly to evaluate a card's power-level in the real world, because real-world players almost never have access to the complete context surrounding the card. The thing is, it turns out that Magic's Designers and Developers don't have access to the complete context surrounding the card either. So accurately evaluating the cards' power level is awfully challenging for us as well. Let's say Lorwyn is in development. We know there are lots more Goblins coming over the next two years of Magic. And we know there are more "Goblins matter" cards coming. But we don't yet know exactly what those cards are going to be. So when we are developing Mad Auntie, Wort, Boggart Auntie, and Knucklebone Witch, what mana costs and power/toughness should we give them? We want Goblins to be appealing and powerful when Lorwyn comes out. And we also want to be able to make Goblin decks more and more powerful as the sets of the next two years continue to come out, including more "Goblins matter" cards and tons more Goblins. Yet we don't want Mad Auntie, Wort, Boggart Auntie, and Knucklebone Witch to become so powerful after two years' more Goblins that they become utterly broken.

It's very important to R&D to have a lot of cards that allow cool combos with cards in totally different sets. But that means that Magic developers have to develop every card not just in the context of all the adjacent sets that come before that card, but also in the context of all the unknown, as-yet-unmade sets that will come in the following two years of sets. This is incredibly difficult to do.

Say we are developing a set with Card A and Card B that interact with each other, like Rings of Brighthearth and Liliana Vess. Once we playtest the interaction, if we decide we want to weaken the combo, we can change Card A or Card B. No problem. But now imagine that Rings of Brighthearth had been in Time Spiral instead. We finish developing Time Spiral without knowing that we will eventually do planeswalkers, and we ship Time Spiral. A year later, the planeswalker designers come up with planeswalkers and we put them into Lorwyn. Then when we see the interaction between Time Spiral's Rings of Brighthearth and Lorwyn's Liliana Vess during Lorwyn development, we no longer have the option of changing Rings of Brighthearth (Card A) because it's already printed and out there. If we thought the combo was too powerful or too annoying, we could weaken Liliana Vess (Card B) to account for Rings of Brighthearth by making her cost 4BB or something. But weakening Liliana Vess would suck! We want her to be powerful, and to read awesomely. And if we have to weaken her because of some strange artifact from a year earlier, people who read Liliana Vess won't see the reason for the weakening, they just see that she costs 4BB and is not as awesome. That is a horrible outcome! We work hard to prevent that from happening.

To avoid that, when we develop a weird combo piece like Rings of Brighthearth, we have to develop it thinking not just of every card in the previous two years that might combo with it, but also thinking about every possible card we might possibly make in the next two years to combo with it. If Card A is in Time Spiral, its development occurs a year before the development of Card B (in Lorwyn). Often, changing Card B to account for the combo is undesirable because we don't want to weaken Card B. So that means that during Card A's set development, we have to change Card A, to account for its combo with Card B, even though Card B doesn't even exist yet. This is tricky business. And what makes it tough is an incomplete context.

Context Ever-Changing

Teferis_Puzzle_BoxSo that's how incomplete context makes cards challenging to evaluate in power level: for readers in preview weeks, for players when a set comes out, and even for developers working on the inside. Here's the kicker: It's good that Magic cards are so challenging to evaluate, and that your evaluations are always changing as new sets come out. In fact, it's absolutely crucial. That's a lot of what makes Magic so intricate, so compelling, and so fun. You can think and think and play and play and learn and learn, and there will always be something new to explore and wonder about every time a set comes out. As you spend more time playing and thinking and deckbuilding, you can learn more and more about cards are good and what decks are good. But since the context is always incomplete, you'll never solve the puzzle completely.

If Magic was only a single, static set and never had to change, people would have a complete context, and the puzzle of what cards and decks are best could be well and truly solved. Fortunately, Richard Garfield's original genius vision for Magic is based on the game constantly changing, constantly providing new things to think about, and constantly being the game that you create yourself.

Last Week's Poll

How much do winning tournament decks affect the decks you build?
I usually start from famous decklists, then make my own adjustments. 1681 21.6%
I'm more likely to play famous winning cards , but I make up my own deck types. 1431 18.4%
I ignore published decklists. 1416 18.2%
I usually play famous deck types, but I build my decklist from scratch. 917 11.8%
I go out of my way to avoid playing famous deck types. 774 9.9%
None of the above 738 9.5%
I don't play famous decks, but I build my decks specifically to beat the famous ones. 546 7.0%
I usually play famous decklists 279 3.6%
Total 7782 100.0%

One of the most divided poll results I've had yet. When I wrote it, I wasn't sure if I had included too many options here. But it seems that every option was important, because so many people chose each of the different options. The tiniest percentage choice of all was "I usually play famous decklists." It seems the vast majority of people do not want to rely entirely on other people's ideas. Much more frequently chosen were several options that said "I take inspiration from other people's ideas, but I end up playing my own creation." A large hardcore group also took a strong stand against using any ideas besides their own, with almost 30% total saying "I go out of my way to avoid playing famous deck types." or "I ignore published decklists."

In my experience, this tends to be one of the most disagreed-upon topics in Magicdom.