The Feedbackening 2011

Posted in Savor The Flavor on August 17, 2011

It's Feedback Week, the week where we columnists respond to your feedback! It's... sort of like every week in this column. Except cranked up and mass-distributed to the rest of the columnists!

Really I like to think of Feedback Week as a thematic recognition of the fact that Magic is more your game than ours. We do the work to make the pliable materials, but you do the sculpting. It's time set aside to recognize that technology is allowing Magic to become greater than the sum of its parts. We've become a network of allies united by shared passion and linked by clever communications tech. In this game we are all both fans and creators, audience and participants, readers and authors. I suppose that's a metaphor for life or something too. Hold on! Is it too early in the article to learn something about ourselves as humans? Maybe. I think yes. So let's double-click on our shared human experience and start feedbackening already.

Collective Voyage | Art by Charles Urbach

    When Planeswalkers Help

The official Savor the Flavor Mail Dirigible always bears promising cargo. The first airdrop brings us this question from Nathan.

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding the letter of the week in your article "Magic's Exclusive Creatures":

That letter got me thinking about how the Planeswalker cards in magic, flavor-wise, are able to operate. They cast their own spells without you sending them any mana to use (not including the mana that's required to summon them). Which means one of two things: either they use their own manabonds or they're somehow casting spells without mana (as in manaless dredge). Now some Planeswalkers (the good guys, mostly) I can totally understand using their own manabonds to help you. But what about Nicol Bolas? He doesn't seem like he'd want to share, especially with a Planeswalker powerful enough to summon him.


Why do self-serving planeswalkers show up? Shouldn't Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker just emit a bemused snort when he hears your interplanar-summoning ring tone—and make some underling pencil in killing or mind-wiping you on the schedule at some future date—rather than drop everything he's doing and planeswalk into the middle of the fray for you? Let alone spend his own resources to lob potent spellcraft at your opponent? Why do villain-types arrive and lend their help?

I don't think summoning a planeswalker is compulsory, first of all—the for Ajani Goldmane or the for Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker represents the mana it takes to beckon that planeswalker. It may not be a command performance—you're certainly not enslaving the mighty Bolas. So that means they'll come if it's worth it to them.

For Ajani and other benevolent planeswalkers, the mere situation of someone in need may be enough justification to answer the call. For Bolas and self-serving planeswalkers like him, though, it comes down to what he gets out of it. Maybe a portion of the mana you spent to summon him actually adds to his reserves. Maybe the spells he throws at your opponent are so second nature to him that the resource expenditure is trivial, and he gets enough pleasure out of wielding his powers that getting involved in a planeswalker scuffle is a good way to pass an afternoon.

But perhaps more likely, he might be getting something else out of the arrangement. Maybe he's happy to show up when you call him because he gets the opportunity to forge a relationship with you. Bolas is a long-term dude and he's a bit of a... let's say collector, in the creepiest sense possible. Sarkhan Vol is now Sarkhan the Mad; Tezzeret the Seeker is now Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas. Maybe you're destined to become Nathan, Mad Agent of Bolas once you owe him enough favors. That's probably worth him spending a bit of his own resources to blast a few opponents out of your way!

    Fungal Misstep

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Magic's Exclusive Creatures":

Oh man, this was a great article, but you completely whiffed on the Thallids / Saprolings. Thallids are in multiple blocks, and Saprolings are freakin' everywhere. Dominaria, Alara, Ravnica... where were my fungus people, Doug? Thelon of Havenwood, creator of the race, is a sad elf right now, and Ghave is about to go do some whuppin'. Otherwise, cool article.


Oversight. Pure oversight. Yes, the Thallids and their seemingly omnipresent offspring the Saprolings belong on the list of official Magic exclusives. Thanks, Jeremy, and the others who spoke up on behalf of the fungal contingent.

Thelon of Havenwood | Art by Kev Walker

Judging by some of the feedback wafting down on me from the Dirigible, I may have missed a couple other important categories as well. It may be worth revisiting that article topic at some point.

    Regime Change on Mirrodin

Dear Doug Beyer,

There is a little question that has been bugging me since the release of New Phyrexia.

How did the planeswalkers know that Mirrodin had transformed into New Phyrexia? I mean let's say there is a group of planeswalker zoologists that travel from plane to plane and they go to Mirrodin every year to study the mating behavior of the Acid Web Spider, after Phyrexia's hostile takeover did they feel some kind of disturbance in the force or something? Or did they just notice when they saw the big billboard saying "under new management, coming soon: New Phyrexia"?

I think my question is: do planeswalkers have some kind of extraplanar awareness that allows them to know when something important happened in a plane where they have been?


Right—good question. We as players know that Mirrodin is under new management, because we got to see the packaging and the big logo that says NEW PHYREXIA, GUYS, SERIOUSLY. We even got to see the packaging for the alternative would have been, and a whole Guide that confirms for us that it's out with the old and in with the new. But what about the planeswalkers who don't get to fire up their web browsers? How do they work out what's happened?

Well, I don't think most planeswalkers get a gut feeling about it from afar. And there's no big signboard hanging above the plane that's kept up-to-date with the most recent world name. So they work out the nature of the environment the same way zoologists work it out: they go there. It may have been a while before any given planeswalker would have declared Phyrexia the victors. There may even have been disagreement for a while among planeswalkers about whether the Mirrans had truly lost authority over the plane. But after repeated observations, they would be forced to come to the conclusion on their own. There are too many examples of Phyrexian ascendancy to pretend that the Mirrans are in charge now. Even if you can't bring yourself to call the place New Phyrexia, you know it's not Mirrodin anymore.

In a way, this might be the grimmest way to come to this conclusion; it might actually be more merciful to have a nauseous feeling or a big sign to tell you in no uncertain terms that it's Phyrexia's world now. Instead, you have to reach that inference by gathering the available evidence. You have to witness the realities of what's going on there yourself. You have to do the hard work of changing your own term for the place after realizing that the old word doesn't fit anymore.

    Mr. Bolas if You're Nasty

Dear Doug Beyer,

Speaking of strange taxonomies, your recent discussion of planeswalker names got me to thinking: Why does Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker have the subtype "Bolas" while all the others have their first name? Why not Planeswalker -- Nicol?

Is this out of deference to his regal and elder status, (i.e. "Lord Bolas")? If so, I can understand this as surely, you don't say "Greetings, Nicol!" to him when you meat--err, meet--him. Or is there some other reason?

--David H.

You're right on the money, David. We identify Garruk and Jace and Liliana by their first names all the time, but it just didn't seem right to refer to the elder dragon as "Nicol." When we on the Creative Team talk about Bolas's master plans and Bolas's minions and Bolas's favorite toothpaste, we never use his first name, so it just seemed natural to diverge from the first-name pattern for the subtype of Mister B.

    Power, Toughness, and Granularity

Dear Doug Beyer,

I don't know why, but this question awakened on my head as I was reading your article.

The thing is: what do you see when you look at a soldier card or token? A strong guy with his armor, his claymore/longsword/spear, and maybe a shield or even a horse. And what do you see when you look at a rat card or token? A rat. Or maybe two of them. So, how is it possible that both of them are 1/1, or 2/1, or whatever? When they fight, they both die!

A friend of mine told me that you don't know the size of the rat, or even if the rat bears a disease or something, and I can understand this in cards like Ichor Rats or Hellhole Rats, but I still don't know how some Carrion Rats or Rats of Rath can even be a threat for an Akrasan Squire or a Leonin Shikari.

I suppose that it's all because of the mechanical part, I mean, you have to do rats small, and 1/1 is almost the smaller they can get, but I would be grateful if you explained the topic a bit further.

Yours truly

Thanks for the question, Dani! There are a couple of reasons why comparing the strength (flavorwise) of 1/1s (mechanics-wise) against each other can get tricky.

First, Magic's power/toughness system is granular. It's based on integers; there is no possible power between 0 and 1 (leaving aside Unhinged-style hijinks). That means that, at some point, a given creature either has to have 0 as its power or ratchet one full unit up to 1. Flavorwise, there might be tons of space between that 0 ("I never even scratch anything when I'm in combat") and that 1 ("I will at least trade with everything of toughness equal to 1"), but the granularity of the game just can't represent that.

Other abilities can sometimes provide a little more flavor context that can play into that middle ground; for example, Flamekin Brawler is powerless and can't kill a 1/1 sometimes, but when he gets a mana infusion, he can kill a 1/1 or something even tougher. Same thing with Akrasan Squire; sometimes he dies to a rat, and sometimes he fights a Stoneforge Mystic and lives to tell the tale. But just looking at power and toughness alone, there's a limit to the number of options that creatures have.

That means that creatures tend to fall into these broad categories by their P/T stats, like "the class of all the 1/1s," and that simplified category eliminates some of the subtle flavor differences. Some of the members of that category would probably have been at the low end of that range if the P/T system had been more granular (a mundane rat, say) and others would probably have been at the higher range (a well-trained and well-outfitted soldier). The granularity means we lump them in with each other. (Note that this is an issue with all granular systems. For example, compare all the movies that you've rated three stars on your Netflix or Amazon account—the user-selectable ratings only go from one to five, so I bet there are some odd-looking comparisons at every rating.)

So, why not just add more "grains" to the granular system? The bigger the range of possible values, the more precise you could get about your various categories and the more carefully you can rank what would kill what. That brings us to the other reason this is tricky: Magic began with some assumptions about what counts as small, medium, and large creatures, and we've largely stuck to those assumptions. And frankly, it's a little cramped at the lower end. At the upper end, it's easy to make judgment calls about whether a Darksteel Colossus can kill a Krosan Colossus; there just aren't that many monsters at that super-massive end of the spectrum, so it's nicely spread out. Right now there are between 30 and 40 creatures of power and toughness 9 or greater.

On the other hand, when Magic's first set declared that the heroic White Knight was 2/2, we sort of didn't leave ourselves a lot of room at the lower end. There are only so many numbers in that 0/1 to 2/2 range, and only so much space for representing subtle differences in fighting ability between the various humanoids and small creatures. And yet, the game needs way more small creatures than it does super-huge ones. Have you seen everything that's crammed into the range from 2/2 on down? There are over three thousand of those. So there end up being a bunch of strange bedfellows at 1/1.

Now, we're not above a little bit of power/toughness activism to tweak the various flavor cutoffs (I recently discussed reserving the "3/3 zone" for medium-sized creatures rather than for giant-sized creatures), but at this point we don't feel that we can move the goalposts very much. If we had it all to do over again, we might have made that White Knight a 4/4 and Hill Giant a 6/6, so that you could have a 2/2 Average Joe that certainly dies to the Knight but also a 1/1 Mundane Rat that gets stomped flat even by the most average of Joes, and a 1/2 Cat between them, and so on.

Granulate | Art by Brian Snoddy

But even with that nice, flavorful granularity, there's a cost: when you spread out the range, the high numbers get higher, the math gets trickier. Note that Alpha only had one creature with power 8 or more (Force of Nature)—and I think that's no accident. Double-digit numbers are harder to add and subtract, which slows the game down. So there's value in our crunched-up, mostly single-digit range that Magic has, even when it generates some flavor oddities. Even if we could spread out the range—which, at this point, Dani, we would be very unlikely to alter—we might not do so. Thanks for the question!

And thank you to everyone who sent in feedback! A special shout-out goes to everyone who has mentioned, this week or any week, that this column hits topics they enjoy most about Magic. You guys rock and I'm pretty sure you're a slightly more advanced subspecies of homo sapiens. I didn't even come close to emptying the Savor the Flavor Mail Dirigible this week, so I have a good batch of solid Vorthos questions and comments to air in the weeks to come. All of this I file under "Exhibit A" of my case that this is a game where the line between creators and players is a blurry one. I hope the other columnists have as much fun seeing your feedback as I do. And I wish you all a good week interacting with all those lesser humans that surround you.

    Next Week: A Look at Magic's Next World

Innistrad card previews will be coming to this site before you know it. Or, well, maybe slightly after you know it, depending on the kinds of things you know and when you know them? They will be coming soon, is the important thing. But would you like to get a taste of the Innistrad setting before the card previews begin? Would you, perhaps, like to grab great chunks of concept art and world detail about Innistrad and smear it against your corneas? Then tune in next week for an introductory segment of a certain Guide. See you then!

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