Hello again! I'm here in full accordance with the official Latest Developments schedule and associated writing roster to talk about everyone's favorite rule-abiding yet fun-loving1 guild, Azorius, and its premier mechanic, detain.
I am quite familiar with WU. I love to play this cool, collected color combination in every format. Not sure what to draft? Try the classic WU draft archetype that combines fliers and ground stall. Standard event approaching? Run a WU control deck with huge card-draw spells like Sphinx's Revelation, or the best of tempo and control with all-stars like Geist of Saint Traft. Looking for a way to go deep at the kitchen table? Craft a Commander deck abusing Venser, the Sojourner and some of hundreds of ETB (enters the battlefield) effects. The skies are the limit!
Excerpt of Azor's Definitional Codex, 56th Edition, abridged:
...Magic is fun when we carefully maneuver around each other's plans, causing exciting moments of "does she have it?" and "I totally outthought him, so now my spell resolves!" and so on. It's not nearly as fun when there's no chance for those moments.
Contrary to popular belief, one can have a fun game of Magic even if the result of that game was undesired. For example, if a player loses, but loses because of a spectacular topdeck or a choice to follow one line of play when another would have won, that creates amazing stories that both players will find memorable.
I realize, however, that this sort of "fun" might be a bit one-sided. It only takes so many board sweepers, counterspells, and/or hexproof creatures before I can see the inevitable Death Stare 2 coalescing in the eyes of my opponents. "You're not letting me PLAY!" they say, and they aren't wrong.
Why does this occur, especially when white and blue cards are in the mix, and how can we as game designers provide a more healthy and fun framework in which WU is both viable AND fun to play against?
Playing to Win
Most natural incentives in Magic point toward winning the game. That is the nominal objective of a game of Magic, after all 3 ! So how does one win a game of Magic?
"Attacking for 20!" you cry. And you look confused as I shake my head slowly.
Dealing 20 points of damage, usually via creatures, is certainly the most common way a game of Magic ends, but it's not the most important aspect of most strategies to win. Such a strategy might take many forms:
- Aggro—I will play out my threats faster and close out the game before you can stop me.
- Midrange—I will play out my threats and deal with yours so that I dominate the battlefield.
- Aggro-Control—I will play out my threats and prevent you from interacting with them until the game ends.
- Control—I will stop your threats, then finish you with an indomitable threat.
If you think about these strategies, you'll note that there's a common theme running through them: the end state for the opponent is "out of options." This makes good sense—when your opponent can't stop you, you are essentially guaranteed to win; when you have an opponent who can interact with you, that guarantee quickly slips away. So, often the best way to win is to try to transform your opponent into a goldfish.
Since players play to win, and since this strategic pressure is to move the game into an "out of options" state where fun is hard to come by, we as developers and designers of the game spend a lot of time ensuring that players have opportunity to interact with each other in meaningful ways and that such interaction is part of winning strategies.
Interactivity forms the core of a fun player-versus-player game, but it is a tricky balancing act. If you have too much, players don't feel like they can build up their position to something spectacular over time because it is likely their opponents will knock them down. On the other hand, if there's too little interaction, it feels like a game of double solitaire 4 . Finding the right balance is very much an art we work hard at when we design Magic.
In the recent Pro Tour Return to Ravnica , which had Modern as its Constructed format, Stanislav Cifka's winning WU Second Breakfast/Eggs deck provides us with a study in interactivity. Cifka found and tuned an extremely powerful combination deck that intended to be as far as possible in the Goldfish Zone 5 . Had his opponents had the capability of interacting with him with discard or other disruptive elements, his powerful combo would have had a much worse shot at the top prize. However, a series of metagame shifts left him a path of noninteraction. The dominance of Grafdigger's Cage as catch-all choice for graveyard and Birthing Pod hate didn't touch his cantrip artifacts, and the shift in Jund away from Maelstrom Pulse to Abrupt Decay meant his Leyline of Sanctity was a perfect block to discard. The rest, as they say, is history6.
It's fun when there's a breakout combo deck, especially in larger formats like Modern—but what isn't fun is when that combo runs rampant so that the frequency of noninteractive games gets so high the character of the games you play changes. As is the case with fun within a single game, fun within a Constructed metagame requires a sufficient level of change such that things don't stagnate and become "solved" for too long. The problem with WU in a new set is this problem in miniature—we want to make sure there can be powerful decks from time to time, but not ones dominating game play in a negative-fun way.
(Luckily, a combo like Cifka's Second Breakfast depends heavily on being unknown, since there are entire classes of cards that interact with it in extremely powerful ways once the proverbial cat is out of the proverbial bag—Rest in Peace, Leyline of the Void, and so on 7 .)
Detained (on Suspicion of [REDACTED])8
This brings us to the detain mechanic. White-blue, and specifically Azorius, is historically very much in the "prevent my opponent from doing things" space. That's because white cards are thematically aligned with prevention/protection and rule-setting and blue cards with stopping spells (counterspells) and undoing events (bounce)—a veritable bonanza of fun 9 ! In developing Azorius's detain, we wanted to preserve the excitement of fun moments without strangling interaction.
One big concern development had with the detain mechanic was whether using it at low rarities (and therefore at high frequencies in Limited) would cause a repetitive, noninteractive game. In playtesting, we found it was really fun to detain a single permanent, especially a key creature on a key turn or (even more spectacularly) a Planeswalker about to ultimate 10 —that's exactly the kind of interactivity that generates fun stories and exciting moments. However, when EVERY permanent on the opposing side becomes detained repeatedly, we get into the realm of unfun games.
(Yes, this is undesirable even when the detaining player is cackling with glee in a quite un-Azorius fashion.)
The development team, led by Erik Lauer, found that a handful of common detain spells gave sufficient frequency to have cool moments and still give the opposing player the chance to breathe free air and form a coherent game plan.
You can see this in the commons with detain in Return to Ravnica, each limited in its own way:
Azorius Arrester is an efficient attacker with detain, but asks a difficult strategic question: Do you play him to start applying pressure and lose some value from detain, or do you hold on to him so you can detain an important creature later on? Games can be won or lost on that decision—exactly the kind of choice a WU mage loves to have.
Inaction Injunction benefits from being a "nearly free" cantrip, but can't advance your own board position.
Isperia's Skywatch is the perfect blend of evasive threat and detain, but at six mana it asks you to pay quite a hefty price for the privilege.
Once we move on to uncommon and higher, there are the very powerful versions that one could imagine strangleholding the opponent—one of my favorite plays in draft is to pick up my Azorius Justiciar for reuse with Faerie Imposter and Dramatic Rescue 11 —but because that sort of thing happens with lower frequency, it becomes a fun part of the ebb and flow of Limited. We want you to dream about locking up all of your opponent's creatures turn after turn—we just don't want it to happen more than every once in a while!
In the end, development happily approved detain (at the appropriate quantities and frequency) and Azorius finally found a fun mechanic that went hand in hand with its identity.
(One final fun note about detain—daydreaming about the Return to Ravnica Prerelease in a meeting at work about a month ago, I tweeted a mini-game you can play when you are Azorius in Limited! It's simple: whenever you detain an opposing permanent, be sure to let your opponent know the infraction he or she committed. "This district is only zoned for Elementals of 7 power and smaller. I'm going to have to detain that Elemental token.")
I hope you enjoy the new face of Azorius as much as I do! The lesson of detain is a valuable one—just because a mechanic appears unfun at first blush doesn't mean it can't be made to work; the key is understanding what about it is unfun and working from there to improve it.
Enjoy Return to Ravnica, and be sure to have exactly the allowable amount of fun with detain!
2. Although death stares are most commonly used by those classified as Gorgons, Basilisks, and Cockatrices, further investigations have found most eye-possessing sentient beings can focus a lesser form of "wish-you-were-dead" energy. (return)
3. Although nominal objectives are the focus of this section, further subdocuments discuss other contingent objectives—see references j, [REDACTED], and x.iii.7b. (return)
4. Double Solitaire, while a popular pastime of the general Ravnican populace, is not an approved game for use within the Senate chambers, due to previous excessive losses of productivity. (Codex of Senate Behaviors, subsection C-q.iii) (return)
5. The "Goldfish Zone" is not an actual, physical zone. It is a metaphorical space of noninteraction governed by the regulations set forth by the Subcommittee on Metaphysical Behaviors. (return)
6. History in this case is subject to approval by the Reviewing Elocutors Discussing Active Committee Tasks [REDACT], the subcommittee responsible for this document. (return)
7. Ordinarily, this parenthetical would itself be a footnote, but due to the structure of this governing document, liberties have been taken i . (return)
8. THIS FOOTNOTE REDACTED, ON AUTHORITY OF VENERATED JUDGE. (return)
9. The standard unit of fun as outlined by the Measurements and Standards Subcommittee is a millicarnival, which does not convert easily into bonanzas. (See also references to studies of surviving attendees of Rakdos revels; it has been determined that a full carnival is usually a fatal amount of fun.) (return)
10. The existence of other worlds beyond Ravnica should be considered hearsay and not part of any meaningful legislative discussion (c.f. Extradimensional Studies and You ii , Izzet League). (return)
11. It should be noted that the Senate is still split on whether this qualifies as a true "rescue" and therefore should be protected from countermagic under the Protective Magics Agreement (post-Guildpact). (return)
i. Liberties shall be taken in a governing document only when approved in triplicate by a duly appointed Clerk of Justice. (Isperia's Edict, Provision I.XII.42) (return)
ii. Enforcers of doctrine shall take extreme precautions in the vicinity of any banned or pre-banned technology of the Izzet League, most especially those concerning extradimensional energies. (Arresters' Codex, section VI: Other Guilds) (return)