Proliferate Expectations

Posted in Latest Developments on October 8, 2010

By Tom LaPille

Tom LaPille makes things. Some of the things he makes are card sets, like Dark Ascension and Born of the Gods. Sometimes he makes stories, too. Sometimes he makes unexpected things, like 16th-century Japanese clothing. He's probably making something right now.

Welcome to the last day of Proliferate Week. Before I begin, a warning: if you've got any -1/-1 counters or are getting close to ten poison counters, I suggest that you click on your back button before anything bad happens to you. You're not safe here.

Okay, that's better. If I'm not mistaken, I even see a few planeswalkers in the crowd. Those of you lucky enough to have a spark should enjoy this quite a lot. Let's go!

On Monday, Mark Rosewater told the story of proliferate's journey through design. Before I pick up the story at the design handoff, where Mark left off, I'd like to comment on something he talked about.

When proliferate was changed to affect all counters on any permanents at Mark Globus's suggestion, the design team discovered that having the addition of counters be mandatory caused some unfun moments. To quote Mark, "Sure, I give you a poison counter and weaken one of your creatures but I also give you an extra use out of your artifact and kill one of my creatures. Do I want to do this?" I don't know if I would. Rather than subject players to this choice every time they could potentially cause a proliferation, the designers changed proliferate to be optional for each counter. That made it easier to play with proliferate cards, because now you were just supposed to go ahead and proliferate without worrying about it.

The motivation for this change was to make playing proliferate cards more fun. Proliferate is one of two new mechanics in Scars of Mirrodin, and it wouldn't make sense to try to sell a Magic set on a mechanic that wasn't enjoyable to play with. We found that proliferate was more fun when we could always do it, so we made the change.

A side effect of this is that the choice about whether or not to cause a proliferation is simpler, but we aren't trying to make Magic simple. On the contrary, we have been able to keep making Magic for years and years because of its incredible depth and array of choices. In fact, there's almost nothing we can do to make Magic truly simple, and much of that complexity doesn't even live on the cards. For example, let's say you're playing in a Magic 2011 Draft. Your opponent played first. Neither of you played anything on your first turn, and both of you played Runeclaw Bear on your second turns. On your opponent's third turn, he did not play a land, and attacked you. Are you supposed to block?

This is a complicated question. I've played in several Pro Tours, but I can't answer the question for you without more information. Are you mana screwed? If you don't have enough lands to cast all your spells yet, you should block to try to make the game longer so you can draw out of it. Did your opponent sigh heavily after drawing his card, indicating that he might not have a third land to play after combat? In that case, you should take the 2 damage and try to win before your opponent draws out of his mana-light hand. If you have enough lands and you think your opponent does too, whose deck is faster? If you think your deck is better at racing, then take the damage; if not, block. That's a lot of questions, and we haven't even put a single word of rules text in a text box yet.

Another consideration is that in many cases, making cards simpler would make the game less fun, and in those cases we don't. Dragon Broodmother puts a complicated choice to its controller every upkeep, and I watched several players at the Alara Reborn Prerelease struggling to figure out what to do with a fresh token. Master of the Wild Hunt can be activated at any time, and requires you to manage your collection of wolves carefully. Conundrum Sphinx's text box is overflowing with words and works best if you know the contents of your deck. You can also use it to bluff having a card that you don't actually have, which I have seen players do successfully. Every word on every Magic card is scrutinized carefully along the way from design to print, and these cards have as many words as they do because we think Magic is the most fun that way.

One interesting note about the change to proliferate is that those who play proliferate cards in multiplayer now have opportunities to be political. Did Alexis attack the person you wanted her to attack on her last turn? Reward her with a counter on her Grindclock. Did Ken hit your Lux Cannon with an Oxidda Scrapmelter? Don't give him a loyalty counter on his Elspeth Tirel. He'll see what you did for Alexis, and maybe next time he'll do what you want him to.

The change to proliferate that made it work on counters of any type turned it into a Johnny's dream. Mark Rosewater is one of the Johnniest people I've ever met, so it wasn't a surprise that he fell in love with the mechanic and handed off tons of cards that used it. Scars of Mirrodin lead developer Mike Turian knew that there wouldn't be room for that many if we wanted to grow proliferate throughout the block, so he had to make some cuts. As Mark said on Monday, many of the cards that ended on the cutting room floor were one-shot proliferations. This is because Mike wanted to enable proliferate decks in Constructed right out of the gate, and multiple-use proliferate cards were much better at that than one-shot cards.

I've discussed before how new mechanics sometimes force us to figure out how much adding a keyword mechanic should add to the cost of a spell.

Because creatures with infect don't deal regular combat damage, we didn't have to charge huge amounts of mana for it. The many one-shot spells that let you proliferate as a bonus gave us a sense for how much mana proliferating should "cost," but Steady Progress is the only card in Scars of Mirrodin that is that simple, so I can't go into much more detail than that at this point. Costing repeatable sources of proliferation had to happen on a much more card-by-card basis, so that's how we did it.

Now, let's talk about a few individual cards.

From very early in the process, this was meant to be a cool Constructed card. Proliferate is one of the new things in the set, and it's always good if people who want to play a new mechanic can find toys to play with. The main decision we had to make with it was how strong to make each part of the card. Earlier versions of the card were better at killing creatures and either cost more to proliferate or had to sacrifice to proliferate. We decided later on that we didn't want to step on small creatures so much and we wanted Constructed players to be able to proliferate over and over again, so we chose these numbers. We played this card a lot internally, and my guess is that you'll see some of it this weekend at State Championships.

This card changed a lot in development, but not because of anything that had to do with Contagion Engine itself. This card was always meant to be a bigger version of Contagion Clasp, so every time Contagion Clasp changed, this card changed to match it. By the end of the process, Contagion Engine was probably annoyed with us, but it wanted to be a Magic card bad enough that it didn't complain too much.

It seems inexorable that we would make a card that gives a block keyword to every spell you play. We often do this with enchantments, like we did in the case of rebound and cascade, but we sometimes do it in other ways, like with Wort, the Raidmother in Shadowmoor. Inexorable Tide is one of my favorites of these, as it fits more directly into my deck's strategy than others we have done. I've played it in several blue-black Limited decks that were built around poison and one strange deck that had tons of charge counters, and in both of those decks it felt like an important part of my strategy rather than a peripheral bonus that didn't have much to do with anything. I like it when cards do that.

I said above that we tried to make the proliferate cards in Scars of Mirrodin not be one-shot, so players could build decks around them. That's true, but I think it would have been a mistake to not have the ability to proliferate as an instant-speed surprise somewhere in the set. This card serves that role admirably.

This card is not as powerful in competitive Constructed as Contagion Clasp is. Just as I talked earlier about how Constructed players who want to use a new mechanic need to find cards to play with, the same holds true for Limited players. The problem with Contagion Clasp, for players who want to draft a proliferate strategy, is that Contagion Clasp is good enough in any deck that it's not likely to float around the table very long. Throne of Geth, on the other hand, is quite potent in a dedicated poison deck or in a deck that has lots of charge counter interactions like Lux Cannon. It is also quite weak in, say, a red-white metalcraft deck. This means that the copies of Throne of Geth that get opened in a draft will have more time to find their way to the people who need them.

Thrummingbird is somewhere between Throne of Geth and Contagion Clasp in its purpose. Cards that can kill creatures are strong enough for most people to play, and Throne of Geth doesn't do much if you aren't interested in counters. Flying 1/1 creatures for two mana aren't normally the sort of thing that any random deck wants to play, but the higher concentration of Equipment in Scars of Mirrodin can make any random creature exactly what your deck wants sometimes. I'm not usually happy to play a Thrummingbird without interactions, but I'm willing to do it. On the other hand, that makes this card stronger once it's actually in a deck that has good things to proliferate with.

This is not the end for proliferate, as Scars of Mirrodin is only the first set of its block. You'll see plenty more of it as the block progresses.

This weekend's State Championships (also known as the 2010s) will be the first large-scale Standard event using Scars of Mirrodin. We're excited to see what you all decide to do with the new cards, and we hope you'll make the trip to your state's event!

Last Week's Poll

What do you think of Scars of Mirrodin Sealed Deck?
I've played it, and it's awesome! 5219 33.8%
I've played it, and it's good. 3177 20.6%
I've played it, and it's okay. 1762 11.4%
I've played it, and it's bad. 890 5.8%
I've played it, and it's terrible! 1346 8.7%
I haven't played Scars of Mirrodin Sealed. 3031 19.6%
Total 15425 100.0%

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