Coming Home to Magic

Posted in Savor The Flavor on July 28, 2010

To all of you who pointed out the play mistake in my last article, I thank you. The evil Kelly-Bolas-cheater (or more accurately, the all-of-us-misreading-the-Scheme-card) shouldn't have been able to nab Adam's Rampaging Baloths with My Wish Is Your Command, as it specifies "noncreature." Chalk it up to our limited experience with that Scheme—or maybe to Nicol Bolas's unlimited experience with devious deception. It would have been a very different game had Kelly summoned, say, Ajani Vengeant from Adam's fertile brain; I'm curious to see how we would have fared with Jenna having more life and with her Oblivion Ring presumably hitting the stolen Ajani instead. That happens in casual games sometimes—cards get misread, there's no judge or Magic Online rules engine to correct us, and you move on.

Moving on in 3 ... 2 ...

    The Unwatched Pot

While you were reading about multiplayer last week, I was on vacation, visiting family far from my native Seattle. I was Internet-blind the whole week, and after I returned this last weekend, I kept noticing changes that had taken place since I left—way more changes than I expected. There's a new pothole on Monster Road (a monster's hoofprint, no doubt) that everybody already seemed to be accustomed to avoiding—except me. The next season of Mad Men started all of a sudden, and I hadn't even seen an ad about it. All the basil in my garden went from thriving to sad, gray, and withered. And suddenly there's a huge construction project on the bridge I take to work, complete with cranes and concrete barriers and a massive traffic phytobezoar. (A phytobezoar is a plant-based intestinal obstruction. Who else has a dad who's a nutritionist? Holla!)

All these abrupt changes struck me as odd until I realized that, if I had been around for that week, I would have seen those changes happen gradually. They would have come up one by one, probably with some advance notice, and I would have adapted to them in turn. In fact, most of it would have been under my threshold of perception, and I wouldn't have said that much of anything changed at all. But by diverting my attention for a week, I let the world move ahead an amount greater than my usual rate of adaptation, so everything looked different.

That was seven days. Now imagine you haven't played Magic in seven years.

    The Welcome Reset

We think a lot about players who return to Magic after a long absence, and how the game will appear to have changed to them. We intentionally cause Magic to zig and zag this way and that, with new twists and turns in both mechanics and flavor; by design, Magic is a game that evolves. So there's a danger that players who haven't been following the game closely may feel overwhelmed by accumulated changes when they return. Those of us who keep up with the game take small, evolutionary changes, such as a new form of Sarkhan or tweaks to the deathtouch rules, in stride. But to those folks who've been away for a while, the game may seem to skip forward discontinuously as the number of changes outstrips their perceptual threshold. Imagine missing a season of Lost or skipping a couple of the Harry Potter books. That character's evil now? They killed off that person? What's going on?

But we all know that there's plenty of fun Magic to be had. Sure, there are those kooky planeswalker cards now, and the levelers and colorless monstrosities from Rise of the Eldrazi might look odd at first glance, and Llanowar Elves counts as a Druid now, and you don't mana burn from your Mana Flare effects anymore. But just on the other side of those changes is the same Magic they remember. All those changes stand out to them only because they were away for a while, just like the sudden-seeming changes that stood out to me since my vacation. All those returning players' need is a gentle refresher, an on-ramp that lets them get up to speed with the rest of us.

Enter the core set. For us devoted players, Magic 2011 is a grocery bag filled with new goodies for us to gnaw on, with Titans, Leylines, and planeswalker signature spells providing the stereotypical greens and baguette peeking out from the top. But for the returning player, M11 serves as a combination welcome mat and reset button. M11 returns Magic to its reassuringly familiar origin state of burn spells and Giant Growths, flyers and tramplers, artifacts and Disenchants. Whatever Ramp;D does to shake up the game in other sets is unshaken again in the core set, providing a nice, stable environment for those prodigal sons and daughters to saunter back in the door. See also Duels of the Planeswalkers—a way to play Magic to your heart's content, against a nonjudgmental computer (if you like), with challenges to let you dip your toes into what's new and a rules engine to remind you of what's the same.

But Duels and even the modern conception of core sets are relatively fresh innovations compared to another crucial design features of Magic. There was one decision made early in Magic's history that was so subtle and fundamental that we don't even consider it today, yet so impactful and powerful for players that, in retrospect some seventeen years later, I see it as nothing short of visionary.

    One Back, One Game

Richard Garfield said on this site once that they had originally considered a model for Magic in which each expansion would serve as its own stand-alone game. In that model, Magic: The Gathering (what we think of as "Alpha") would be a game unto itself, Arabian Nights would be a game unto itself, and the same with Ice Age, and so on. You could play a game of "The Gathering" with friends who had those cards, or a game of Arabian Nights if your friends had some of those cards instead. Or if you both had both games, you could mix them, as they would likely be mechanically compatible—but in that model, their card backs would have been different.

As shocking as it sounds to us today, the idea made sense, in a way. The worry was that a play group that had a bunch of "The Gathering" cards might not accept all these crazy new cards and mechanics from Arabian Nights or Ice Age; the different card back would clearly distinguish between those different editions and let players keep to their own card pools as they wished. Other games at the time worked like this, with new editions providing separate, stand-alone experiences that could be played, not played, or mixed together, as the each individual play group decreed.

But imagine that world seventeen years later. Imagine different card backs for M11 and Zendikar and Shards of Alara, and different play groups at different gaming stores that only allowed subsets of them. Imagine getting into the game and assembling your deck of Zendikar Block and M11 cards, only to find that your local store's group only allows cards from sets that released before you started playing. Imagine being a new player returning to Magic after a few years, seeing the dozens of new stand-alone Magicgames with nigh-but-maybe-not-quite-compatible rules, trying to fold your brain around the contours of the Magicstand-alone-scape.

As I understand it, the decision to keep the same Magic: The Gathering card back for Arabian Nights came down to a dramatic phone call, ringing in at the last minute like a governor's pardon. That other, "what-if" timeline, is the stuff of my nightmares. That decision laid the foundation for the ultimate on-ramp for returning players—the shining, diamond-hard fact that Magic is one game.

    Compatibility Allows Change

It can be a challenge to get back into Magic after a long absence, although it's much easier than it could have been. There is another benefit of the inclusiveness of Magic cards; I believe that the game's flavor is allowed to go places it otherwise couldn't. The power of Magic's flavor comes from the continually changing but universally compatible nature of the game. The sand-swept world of Rabiah and the cold hinterlands of Terisiare, for example, are starkly different from the fantasy world of Limited Edition Alpha. Because their flavor is so different, I sympathize with the early designers' impulse to push those expansions apart into different stand-alone games. But truly, putting all cards under the universally compatible rubric of Magic: The Gathering makes the variety of those far-flung worlds possible. Change is a barrier to entry for new and returning players—but compatibility blasts open those barriers and allows those players to rejoin the game. The safety net of M11 and Duels, and the basic stability of the game rules all allow us to perform riskier stunts of flavor and more daring settings. The strong foundation of the five colors and the well-established mana system lets us explore beyond the boundaries of default fantasy. That makes my job as exciting as the day I joined it—and I hope it makes the returning player just as excited to see what the game's been up to.

Crack open a booster pack. What expansion is it? What mechanics does it use? What plane is it set on? What storyline does it encompass? Doesn't matter. Whatever you've got—it's Magic. Set your life total to 20 and let's play. Welcome home.

    Letter of the Week

Next week I'm doing a mailbag column—a whole article of answering your questions about the art and flavor of Magic. So now's a good time to click the "Respond via email" link at the bottom of this article and shoot me a poser. Or pose me a shooter? Your choice.

For now, a letter about the planeswalker-themed creatures in M11:

Dear Doug Beyer,
After watching a discussion about why planeswalkers are mythic, I was wondering if there is a flavor reason why creatures like Chandra's Spitfire and Garruk's Packleader are not legendary? How many spitfires does Chandra have? I read that you wanted to print the creatures to increase exposure to planeswalkers, so you would want to print them at lower rarities. I also understand that those lower rarities shouldn't really get legends, but there just seems to be a slight flaw with the flavor.

Certainly there would be an issue with printing legendary creatures at such low rarities; we almost always keep legendary creatures at rare or mythic rare (the Brothers Yamazaki and a handful of other uncommon legends from Kamigawa (most of them flip cards that don't start out legendary) are counterexamples, but I couldn't find any others in the modern era, unless you count Legends cards that have appeared as uncommons in Magic OnlineMasters Editions). And there's the problem of printing legendary creatures in the core set—Tenth Edition had two cycles of legends as an interesting twist, but we tend to leave the complexity of having to know about the "legend rule" out of core sets.

But those printing traditions are tangential matters, as far as this column is concerned. The real flavor question is, does Garruk's Packleader represent a particular Beast, or just a certain type of Beast that Garruk frequently summons? The name "Garruk's Packleader" certainly makes it sound unique, like "Hermione's Cat" or "Luke's Lightsaber." But the feel here is more like "Urza's Tower"—it's not a single, one-of-a-kind tower, but one of many towers built by Urza to help him extract mana from different locations. The Garruk Wildspeaker card can of course summon many 3/3 Beasts for you—and similarly, Garruk's Packleader is one of the many savage sidekicks that he calls on when the time is right. He (and you) can even summon more than one of them at a time, augmenting your primitive pack with multiple monstrous overseers. The flavor is more "when I, Garruk, am in a bind, I like to call on one of those hornbeast alphas from that one jungle plane" than "I, Garruk, call upon Skrang, that particular alpha hornbeast who is my constant traveling companion."

Next week: you, me, a whole bunch of your letters, and an Elemental Ox!

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