To hose or not to hose? That is a question that has faced R&D for a long time. When I arrived a couple of years ago, the prevailing philosophy was that hosers serve as a way to make sure the metagame never gets really out of whack. Even if R&D accidentally released a lot of cards of the same color that were all too good, not everyone would play that color because some people could do very well by playing a hoser deck, designed specifically to beat the dominant color. Then, of course, other players could do well playing the deck that beats the hoser deck. Thus even if R&D screwed up radically, Magic would still wind up in the familiar rock-paper-scissors metagame.
There are two fundamental problems with that theory, in my opinion. First of all, I’m not sure the theory actually keeps the environment healthy. For example, Sligh decks took over the winter of 1997-98 despite the presence of red-hosers in the environment. Similarly, Academy decks took over all formats for as long as they were legal despite the presence of hosers (like Wasteland, among others). Not everyone was playing these decks and the environments each had more decks than just a rock deck, a paper deck, and scissors deck; but that didn’t stop players from complaining that the environments were unhealthy. So the metagame never got all the way to the point where the hosers completely kicked in, but people were nonetheless complaining that things were hopelessly out of whack. I take this is evidence that the color hoser philosophy I sketched above is flawed.
The second fundamental problem with this theory is that actual games of Magic that involve really powerful color hosers aren’t all that much fun. While there might be plenty of interesting metagame decisions where powerful hosers are concerned (Should I run this in my main deck? Should I play this deck because it can sideboard those cards?), it just doesn’t take much thought to, for example, wreck someone with Perish. People spend a lot more time playing games than thinking about the metagame and I believe Magic is at its best when you are interacting with your opponent and you aren’t really sure what you should do. Since powerful hosers are notoriously easy to play (“wreck you…”), I don’t think the game should include any really powerful hosers.
I dream of a world where people modify and customize their strategies when they sideboard their decks. I don’t like it when you simply fill up your sideboard with hosers and then dump the appropriate ones into your main deck once you know what your opponent is playing. I’m not opposed to hosers in general, I just want them to be at a power-level where it isn’t always obvious that they should go in your ‘board and when you do bring them in, you don’t automatically win the game just because you drew a sideboard card.
If you look at the sets that have been printed since I got to Wizards, I think you’ll see that I pretty much won that fight. There’s a marked change in the kinds of hosers we’ve been printing. We still print playable color hosers, but Slay is no Perish and Stern Judge is no Karma (while it may look like Karma, you’ve got to keep in mind how good black is at killing enchantments – and how good black is at killing creatures). Color hosers still have great flavor (read Mark’s feature article for a good run-down on why the colors hate each other so much) and the game does need some incentives for people not to play mono-color decks, but the game does not need Hydroblast.
There’s a totally different category of hoser that we’ve started paying more attention to lately, by the way. While we’ve abandoned the “powerful color hosers will save the day if we screw something up” philosophy, that doesn’t mean we’ll never print powerful hosers. When we learn that something is more powerful than we thought, one of our ways to react (regardless of whether it was a “mistake” or not) is to consider printing a hoser. Tsabo's Web is a good example of this – it was known affectionately during playtesting as “Rishadan Port Hoser.” Tsabo's Decree was, of course, “Lin Sivvi, Defiant Hero Hoser.” Because of Fact or Fiction we made… oh, wait, that card is in Judgment. Nevermind! In addition, we’re still willing to put less-powerful hosers in just in case something goes wrong. Mask of Intolerance was put into Apocalypse just in case the domain deck turned out to be too good and this is one of the reasons why Stern Judge is in Torment.
Mostly, I think we’re good enough at balancing cards and environments now that we don’t need a safety net of immensely powerful hosers. (I hope I never have to eat those words!) Instead, we want to do flavorful hosers and the occasional somewhat-powerful hoser that’s targeted at a known threat.
Randy may be reached at email@example.com.