Topical Blend #2a - Leader Of The Snack

Posted in Making Magic on March 13, 2006

By Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar

I've started my new job at Taco Bell, which so far has been fan-friggin-tastic. People work hard here, but they also have a tremendous amount of fun. They also have Taste Panels four times a day, which turns out to be an excellent way to have lunch for free. I'm starting to realize that a cost of this new job is not only the loss of my weekly writing gig, but also me getting really fat.

In fact, the Taste Panels aren't the only culprit. I've been a Taco Bell “mystery shopper,” where my job is to tour Taco Bells in a certain area and grade them on their cleanliness, food, hospitality, etc. Taco Bell's corporate office has one of the best cafeterias of any company in Orange County, so much so that people drive from all over to eat here midday. Cookies and treats adorn every administrator's desk. To top it off, on my first day in the office I was shown the infamous Snack Drawer.

What is the Snack Drawer? Imagine a wooden filing cabinet six drawers tall. Each of the drawers is deep and large enough that my four year old son could probably sleep there. In each drawer, filled to the top, is snack food. Popcorn, corn nuts, chips, candy bars, rice crispy treats, pistachios, animal crackers, gum (never mind for a moment the “is gum food?” debate), lollipops, granola bars, fruit, pretzels, and on and on. The drawers are pretty comprehensive, and it's a dizzying sight. When I asked my administrator why the Snack Drawer exists, she looked at me as if I was stupid and answered, “Because you might get hungry.” I still have no idea who pays for the Snack Drawer, but I sure am glad it's there.

Snacking is, apparently, my new hobby. The Snack Drawer has been instructive, and, dangit, it turns out that I have pretty strong snack-related opinions. Today I'm going to share some of these opinions with you, opinions revealed by the almighty Snack Drawer. I'm not suggesting you agree with me, but I am realizing that snack food is a window into some of life's fundamental lessons.

Of course, this isn't a Taco Bell column. It's a Magic column. Thus not only am I going to wax snackirific, I'm going to relate these opinions to a class of cards that show up once or twice within each Block: Cards that change controller when something specific happens. I don't have anything to contribute when it comes to the design of these cards, but I can relate my snack opinions to where I think some fertile design space exists. Consider today something of an opinion piece, delivered from an outside voice. I suppose Mark is as much my intended audience as all of you.

So break out your candy bars, popcorn, and soda. It's snack time!

Oldie But Gooey

First, let me define the boundaries of Magic cards I'm discussing today. I'm not talking about cards that give you permanent control of other cards like Dominate or Ritual of the Machine. I'm also not talking about cards that effectively give permanent control over other cards like Confiscate or Threads of Disloyalty. Finally, I'm not talking about cards that give you “until end of turn” control over other cards like Threaten or Spinal Embrace. No, today I'm discussing cards that either a) provide control over cards until a particular condition is met, a la Fractured Loyalty, or b) allow themselves to switch allegiance if a particular condition is met, a la Drooling Ogre. These are chaos cards, cards that can wreak havoc with lovers of order on the Magic battlefield. They are cards that can usually be used against you as effectively as you use them against others. As a result, they tend to be cards geared towards multiplayer aficionados, Johnnies, and people who are $%^# insane. You may suspect that I like these cards quite a lot.

Old Man of the Sea
As far as I can tell, there are four broad categories of “cards that change controller whenever something specific happens.” The first category is the most common and also the one that's been around the longest. These are cards that allow you to snag control of an opposing card (or sometimes multiple cards) until they become untapped or leave play. Magic's first expansion, Arabian Nights, contained Aladdin and Old Man of the Sea, setting the stage for this effect to get sprinkled across every color, from Seasinger to Hivis of the Scale to The Wretched to Preacher to Willow Satyr.

Bring back memories? That's because relatively few of these cards have shown up since Ice Age. Exactly one “until untapped” card (Hivis of the Scale) showed up in Mirage Block, one in Tempest Block (Rootwater Matriarch, but you could make an argument for Coffin Queen as well), none in Urza Block, none in Masques Block, none in Invasion Block, none in Odyssey Block, one in Onslaught Block (Callous Oppressor), and one in Mirrodin Block (Vedalken Shackles). Since then? Nothing. Nada. Zilch. Thus these “decision to untap” cards have become both more infrequent and more Blue as time has passed.

Snack Break!

When I was in high school, I played a lot of role-playing games. Mostly my friends and I were into superhero role-playing, delving at various times into Champions, Villains & Vigilantes, GURPS Supers, and a British game called Golden Heroes. I still remember fondly the exploits of my hero Lobo and the longtime game I GMed involving The Outsiders. Ah, memories.

(As an aside, it wasn't until I started getting heavily into Magic and met my wife Sarah that my tendencies morphed from superheroes into the traditional fantasy represented in Dungeons & Dragons. I've often wondered whether this change was more due to Magic's influence or the fact that my wife is more of a fantasy nerd than a comic book nerd.)

Although the games and characters we played changed, the location remained a constant. My friend Kevin had a big house with lots of space, including a large, low table in his living room and a kickin' stereo system. Most importantly, the house had Kevin's mom to make us an unending supply of munchies while we played. In retrospect, this was a brilliant strategy by Kevin's mother; If her kids and friends were at home playing games, she always knew they weren't getting into trouble.

Of the many delights Kevin's mom created for our group of would-be heroes, by far the most famous was her gooey rice-crispie treats. About five inches high, dripping in marshmallowy goodness, they were as messy as they were satisfying. At least every other week, Kevin's mom would bust out the box of Rice Krispies to a round of adolescent cheers.

As I was rummaging through the Snack Drawer last week, I happened upon a box of packaged rice crispie treats. They were a lot smaller than what Kevin's mom made, and neither warm nor gooey. They were relatively (and I mean relatively) lower in calories, though, so I popped one open and brought it back to my desk.

You know what? It was good. Maybe not fresh-out-of-the-oven-homemade good, but the simple combination of Rice Krispies and marshmallow just plain tastes yummy. I wondered how I had possibly made it through college, graduate school, and over eight years of corporate life without ever picking up a snack I had liked so much in high school.

You may wonder what any of this has to do with cards that allow you to gain control of other cards as long as they're tapped or in play. The lesson is this: I can't figure out a single reason why these cards have disappeared from Magic. Everyone I know who played during Fallen Empires gets a fond, gentle smile on their face when looking at Seasinger. The Wretched is a fan favorite. Sure, Rootwater Matriarch and Callous Oppressor were relative duds when they were printed (although I always thought that the Matriarch was lost amidst overpowered peers and deserves some love), but Vedalken Shackles is one of the most sought-after cards from the Mirrodin Block.

I suppose I can agree that given the updated color pie, the effect of tapping to gain control of a creature is either Blue (long-term), Red (temporarily), or both. We won't see Preacher reprinted anytime soon. Still, if there is a concrete reason why such tap-to-control cards have disappeared from Magic, I can't figure it out. Vedalken Shackles is proof that such cards have merit. I also think that nabbing other sorts of permanents like artifacts (Aladdin and Scarwood Bandits), lands (Orcish Squatters), and enchantments is an interesting twist on these sorts of cards, more interesting than nabbing creatures of a specific type (Thrull Champion and Willow Satyr). Bring back rice crispie treats, I say, and we all may remember why we liked them so much. Remember, too, that you probably don't have to change it much for us to like it, since the original mechanic was fun as it was.

Dawn Of A New Pretzel

Risky Move
A second category of control-changing cards are those that change controllers, without fail, every turn. Remember that these aren't the temporary, one-shot control cards like Grab the Reins. These are instead cards that will force control to pass around the table repeatedly and predictably. The first card to work this way was, as far as I can tell, Wellspring. I'll admit that when it came out Wellspring confused the heck out of me, but I eventually figured out that it was meant to give you and your opponent each access to the same land every turn.

Although they sound boring, these cards can be incredibly fun and chaotic. Risky Move is probably my favorite of the bunch for multiplayer, but certainly many a deckbuilder has worked out a Karona, False God deck sometime in their deckbuilding history. More recently, Jinxed Choker saw use in some sideboards of competitive decks. Which is to say, these cards have captured a very diverse set of Magic players' imaginations. Notice how different each of these cards is from a design standpoint, too. Risky Move is completely unreliable, Karona is so good you don't want it to be passed, and Jinxed is more of a “hot potato” card you want anyone but you to control.

Mmmmm... potato.

Snack Break!

The grocery store Trader Joe's near my house has a pretty neat shtick for kids. Amidst the various decorations around the store, they always hide a stuffed toy monkey (I think it's actually a lemur, but my son always calls it a monkey and the staff doesn't seem to mind). If you can find the monkey and tell the cashier where it is that day, he or she will give you a treat. As you can imagine, this makes for great entertainment for the kiddies while the parents are shopping. My son is much less focused on grabbing what he wants from the shelves than he is scanning every corner for the elusive monkey.

The only problem, of course, comes when the monkey is so well hidden that I have to spend an extra ten minutes at the store scouring the place for the $%^# toy just so my son can get his tiny $%^# treat. I mean, what the $%^#? I'm already spending my $%^# afternoon grocery shopping and now I have to waste time looking for a $%^# plush toy!?! I'm just sure there's some $%^# cashier laughing his $%^# head off as a dozen parents deal with crying kids and compare notes on finding the $%^# monkey-lemur that's hidden in the Employees Only room. I can't wait until that $%^# punk has kids.

Whoah. Sorry. Where was I?

Right. Trader Joe's. So the treats that my son gets for finding the monkey are pretty small. A page of stickers. A small bag of trail mix. Sometimes these weird little pretzel thingies. My son likes them all, especially the pretzel thingies, which are pretzel nuggets filled with organic peanut butter.

I can't exactly remember the first time I tried the pretzel thingies. I think maybe my son received two bags by mistake, or the cashier was generous and gave me and my son each one for a particularly well-hidden monkey. Whatever the case, we had been playing the monkey game for months before I first got my hand on those pretzel-coated, peanut-butter nuggets.

And man they were good! I've never been the biggest bagged pretzel fan because they also struck me as... dry. I always wanted to drink a gallon of water afterwards and the pretzel taste never seemed worth it to me. These Trader Joe's snacks, though, combined dry pretzels with one of my favorite substances on Earth in peanut butter. Although not quite as delicious as chocolate and peanut butter, I found that pretzels and peanut butter was a darned good combination. Trader Joe's marketing ploy worked wonders, too, since I now buy a large bag of the pretzel thingies whenever I'm there.

I started to wonder: How come more people haven't explored the idea of pretzels--and I mean the dry, crunchy, salted, traditional variety here--as a complement to other tastes instead of just a taste all by itself? Anytime a snack uses bread, couldn't they try pretzel as well? Would pretzels and ham be good? Pig in a pretzel, instead of pig in a blanket? Why are pretzels and cheese the exception rather than the rule? A hard pretzel shell with mozzarella, pepperoni, and sauce in the middle sounds awesome. These snacks very well may exist, but they certainly aren't popular enough to show up in the Snack Drawer yet.

The Magic design lesson is this: Sometimes a fun and successful type of card is just lying there, waiting to be explored. Those four “change controller every turn” cards I mentioned before--Wellspring, Risky Move, Karona, and Jinxed Choker--they are the only cards of their kind. Why? The idea of making a card so good that you want to play it but will get passed to your opponents, or a card so bad that you want your opponents to have it even though you'll eventually get it too, these are fun ideas with a lot of game potential. What's surprising is how little this idea has been explored. Sleeper Agent goes to your opponent once, but what if it came back to you and had either bigger stats or did more damage? What about defenders that are there on opponents' turns? Enchantments that double your life but orbit around the table? I'm just brainstorming here, and I'm clearly not a designer. What is clear to me, though, is that the idea of cards that change controllers every turn, without fail, are almost entirely absent from Magic. Much like the idea of pretzels as non-standalone snacks, this feels like a very basic idea with a lot of potential room for innovation.

And God Created Nuts

Starke of Rath
Although Magic contains very few cards that predictably change control with the passing of turns, it has significantly more that change control based on the actions of its controller. These are cards that aren't quite as predictable as their every-turn brethren, but they certainly provide control squarely into the hands of whoever happens to control the card at the time. Rainbow Vale is the card that I think most epitomizes this class of control-changers. When you use it, you lose it. Goblin Cadets, Starke of Rath, and Witch Engine are other good examples.

Of course, the benefit here is that you can choose when you lose it. You don't ever have to equip Shuriken onto a non-Ninja, for example. Rohgahh of Kher Keep merely requires a constant mana investment, and Question Elemental? merely requires that you always talk like a teenage girl from Seattle. If you design your deck expecting to use these cards, then you can often be prepared to keep control of them when and as often as you want to. Or, in the case of Jinxed Idol and Jinxed Ring, you can be prepared to lose control of them as often as you'd like.

There's a blurry ground with these “you are in control” cards. For example, you can theoretically hold on to a creature via Custody Battle, but the price is pretty steep. The same goes for Rogue Skycaptain. These cards are slightly different from Rainbow Vale, because of the pressure they provide to switch controllers. I wasn't even sure whether to include them in this category as a result. Still, I think the basic premise is the same: You as the controller have ultimate responsibility for keeping the card in your possession.

Oh, wait. Custody Battle flashback. Good times, good times.

Snack Break!

My mother-in-law loves eating sunflower seeds. They are by far her favorite snack food. When I make a late-night convenience store run to get everyone else candy and ice-cream sandwiches, she always requests a small bag of sunflower seeds. One by one she cracks the shells open, pries the seed loose, and tosses the empty shell into a plastic cup. Since she's retired, my mother-in-law has been renting a house in southern California (she normally lives in Connecticut) to be near us for three months, and I have seen her consume dozens of bags of sunflower seeds, filling countless plastic cups with shells.

One night I was feeling bad for my mother-in-law, always stuck with her boring old sunflower seeds while the rest of us had snacks that were, you know, good. I noticed that they made all sorts of different flavors for sunflower seeds, and I had never seen her try anything but the originals. In a moment of generosity, I decided to expose her to some variety, picking up a small bag of barbecue-flavored seeds and Frito Lay Flamin' Hot seeds.

Yep, she hated them. Oh, she was nice enough about it, but I noticed that she never made it through about a fifth of each bag, whereas normally a sunflower seed bag wouldn't survive the evening.

I was reminded of this story in a recent raid of the Snack Drawer. I picked up Cajun-style pistachio nuts to bring back to my desk. I'm not quite as fanatical about pistachios as my mother-in-law is for sunflower seeds, but I enjoy cracking open some shells now and again.

Anyway, it only took me about three nuts to realize that there is absolutely no reason to flavor pistachio nuts, just as, I suppose, there is no reason to flavor sunflower seeds. The original, with nothing more than salt, tastes good enough. Traditional pistachios and sunflower seeds have been selling since our great-grandparents moseyed on down to the corner store because they're yummy. Companies have recently tried flavoring classic nuts and seeds to differentiate them from the other snack foods crowding the shelves, but the truth is that they're not better, just different. In fact, by my way of thinking, no amount of flavoring is going to improve upon a normal pistachio. It sounds like a good idea, but in practice I'm not impressed.

Sometimes it's fine to leave well enough alone. This is sort of the reverse of my last snack lesson. Whereas dry pretzels represent to me an underexplored addition to snack foods, most nuts and seeds stand alone fine without being dressed up.

How does this relate to cards that give their controller the decision when to change control? I simply don't think these cards are all that interesting, and I would be happy if Magic designers left well enough alone here. Whereas cards that change every turn without fail provide some interesting game situations and cards that bounce willy-nilly around the table (the fourth and final category below) are fun, these cards just strike me as uninteresting. They are a category of the “change controller” cards that never really needed, in my opinion, to be explored.

How often have you looked at Starke of Rath or Witch Engine and set your deckbuilding mind a-racing? If so, you're a more creative deckbuilder than me. Goblin Cadets was used because of their aggressive cost, but the change-controller part was just an add-on disadvantage to mimic Jackal Pup. Shuriken's non-Ninja clause always seemed slightly clunky and only interesting in a Limited environment. Indeed, the only cards that really capture my imagination in this lot are the ones on the fringe: Custody Battle and Rogue Skycaptain. These cards at least provide some tension in the game that produce both interesting situations and make for interesting decks. These are the exceptions, though. Mostly, for whatever reason, when putting ultimate control of a card into its users hands the result is snoozeville. The whole point of change-controller cards is to move things around the table, so why sterilize it by giving players control over their own fate? It sounds like it should be interesting, but it just isn't.

There's No Wrong Way To Eat An Oreo

Thoughtbound Primoc
The final category of change-controller cards are, as I said, by far the most fun. These are the cards that embrace the idea of changing controllership, cards that trigger allegiance based on situations both you and your opponent control. The whole idea behind these cards is to produce wacky game situations and challenge deckbuilders. These are the Fractured Loyalties of the world, with terrific names like Chaos Lord, Measure of Wickedness, Wild Dogs, Drooling Ogre, and Goblin Festival. Most of these cards allow you to maximize the chances that you'll keep control of them (such as Wild Mammoth, Thoughtbound Primoc, and Sokenzan Renegade), but in reality there are a thousand ways for--OOPS!--control to slip away.

I think these are the cards that force a grudging smile from Magic players and make synapses fire. Cards that stay tapped down or cards you can anticipate changing control are strategically interesting, but they don't tend to generate quite the memorable stories that these cards do. Admittedly, I'm one of those rogue-itis Johnny types (and definitely a Constructed player), so I see Crag Saurian and immediately start making a pinging deck. These cards aren't limited to casual play, though. I've been in tournaments on the wrong end of Wild Dogs, Ghazban Ogre, Thoughtbound Primoc, and Wild Mammoth enough times to wince. Sure, the odd Loxodon Peacekeeper hangs around with restrictions too severe to use, but for the most part cards like Fickle Efreet are there to make for darned good Magic-al tales. You need only browse through Mark Gottlieb's reaction to Measure of Wickedness to see how these cards can inspire creativity.

Snack Break!

Several years ago, Nabisco finally figured out an advertising gem in their “There's no wrong way to eat an Oreo” campaign because so many people could relate to it. The truth was, there really were lots of different ways to enjoy eating Oreo cookies, and you could routinely find people who were adamant that their way was the “best.” The myriad of Oreo-eating strategies has even spawned various personality tests (for a funny example, go here). Try “ways to eat oreos” in an internet search engine and check out the weirdo results.

I am an Oreo lover, though I prefer Nutter Butter because of that whole peanut butter thing. In fact, Nutter Butters are the snack I most often fish out of the Snack Drawer. They are the number one reason I'm going to gain weight in this new job (though the two free bean burritos I had at today's Taste Panel won't hurt).

With both Oreos and Nutter Butters, I tend to twist off the top of two separate cookies, eat them, then mash the remaining halves to create my own “double filling” cookie. The double-stuff cookie I'll eat as Nabisco originally intended, chomping through wafer and filling by the mouthful. Other times I'll eat the cookie part alone, then save up the filling into a big ball that I eat separately. According to an Oreo personality test, this means that I have a highly curious nature. I take pleasure in breaking things apart to find out how they work, though I'm not always able to put them back together, so I destroy all the evidence of my activities. I deny my involvement when things go wrong. I am a compulsive liar and exhibit deviant, if not criminal, behavio-- Hey!

Anyway, the Magic lesson here is that variety is indeed the spice of life. Magic as a game is based on this premise, allowing players to mix and match thousands of different cards for near limitless variation. Card design works the same way. Cards that allow for diverse deck ideas and produce a wide variety of interesting game situations are going to be popular. This is as true for a small niche of cards like those “that change controller whenever something specific happens” as with most other types of cards. Perhaps it's even truer here, since controller-changing cards are meant to promote wackiness a bit more than the average card. As a result, I imagine that these are the one type of card that will never go out of style. What began with Ghazban Ogre has spawned a small but steady stream of control-changing cards, from Emberwilde Djinn up through the aforementioned Loxodon Peacekeeper. There's fertile design space here, especially if the card can give a player a sense of control yet maintain the potential to go horribly wrong.

So, to recap:

  • Rice crispie treats are yummy. Bring back tap-to-control cards.
  • More snack foods should try adding pretzels instead of bread. Magic needs more change-control-every-turn cards.
  • Nuts and seeds taste best with salt alone. Giving a player too much control over control-changing cards is boring.
  • There's no wrong way to eat an Oreo. Cards that bounce around the table are the most fun and rewarding type of change-controller cards.

I mean, obviously, right?

I've been intrigued in writing this article that Alpha contained not a single controller-changing card (as I've been defining them), whereas Arabian Nights contained several. It seems the templates established in Arabian Nights have fueled a lot of designs throughout the past decade. I'm happy and interested to discover that Magic's original expansion can still be contributing to design today, and even provide some handholds into mechanics never fully explored by Magic's designers. We'll see, I suppose, if this design space continues to get mined in future sets.

So ends my Rosewater-inspired weaving of Snack foods with change-controller cards. Hopefully Larry and the two people who voted for Fractured Loyalty enjoyed it. I can honestly say that I never thought I would write a full article on this topic, and I can also say that it's a lot harder to write Mark's column than Building On A Budget! Maybe that has something to do with me not being a Magic designer, though.

Tune in next week when Mark takes the wheel back from my sweaty grip and I return for my final Building On A Budget article.

Until then, may you enjoy Magic's many flavors.


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