Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Ieuan, the Baneslayer, or Why Nicol Bolas Sacs a Shinewend Every Time You Make Another Win Con, Part 3

(← Part 2)

At long last it's time to apply all that tedious analysis to designing (or redesigning, as the case may be) some actual cards. In addition to the cards I broke down in the previous section, I'll take a brief look at some amateur designs from an alternate win condition design contest over at the Goblin Artisans blog.

With each card, I'm going to spend just a few minutes brainstorming based on my analysis, with the goal of highlighting good features and eliminating bad ones. When I come up with something I'm satisfied with, or I spend more than five minutes thinking, or if I just don't feel an idea is worth improving, I'll move on.

It's obviously not always possible to make a card that you (or anyone else) will be satisfied with in every respect, nor does it always make sense to remove everything you dislike about a card. For example, I didn't like that most of the cards I analyzed weren't impactful, but if every alternate win condition was impactful, or enabling, or anything, they'd be much more homogeneous and would lose some of their sparkle.

Sometimes weaknesses and quirks can be good. People tend to value variety over perfection, and flavor often compels charming idiosyncrasies. Whichever snaggleteeth work best on a particular card is subjective, so try not to get into the mindset that there's always a right answer. I also encourage you to analyze my redesigns and decide for yourself how successful I was at improving on the originals.

Celestial Convergence

The mechanical concept is completely devoid of value, so I don't feel any need to be faithful to it. The redesign should have the same sort of handwavy religious ascension flavor, though.

Eightfold Path
Whenever a player plays a card with converted mana cost equal to the number of enlightenment counters on Eightfold Path, put an enlightenment counter on Eightfold Path and draw a card.
When Eightfold Path has eight or more enlightenment counters on it, you win the game.

Coalition Victory

Quick and easy, make it an enchantment (with the customary upkeep trigger) and make it cost WUBRG.

Chance Encounter

Game of Chance
At the beginning of your upkeep, draw a card, then discard a card at random. Put a luck counter on Game of Chance if the discarded card's converted mana cost was even.
At the beginning of your upkeep, if Game of Chance has seven or more luck counters on it, you win the game.

The remake addresses a number of problems: it feels more chance based and less strategy based, since the player has no control over the first ability triggering, it doesn't use coin flips, which are incredibly narrow, it helps red decks cycle through lands, and it refers to a number traditionally associated with luck, at least in Western lore.

Battle of Wits

Already perfect.

Mortal Combat

The win condition itself seems fine, but it explicitly limits your deck more severely than most others, since you must have at least twenty creature cards in your deck. In light of that, the requirement should be more lenient and the card as a whole could stand to have some immediate impact.

Mortal Combat
When Mortal Combat enters the battlefield, all creatures fight.
At the beginning of your upkeep, if there are twenty or more creature cards in graveyards, you win the game.

Test of Endurance

Since Wizards has already redesigned the mechanical concept of this card, I'll just use the name as inspiration.

Test of Endurance
At the beginning of each player's end step, if that player didn't cast a spell or attack with a creature this turn, he or she loses the game.

Of course, now the card can potentially screw over its controller, but there are two mitigating factors. The first is that the flavor is spot on. The second is that, like Day of Judgment, the effect isn't really reciprocal. Decks that play such cards are far better equipped to deal with and benefit from them.

Epic Struggle

The idea of gathering a massive army of dudes actually seems pretty awesome, but twenty seems excessively difficult, and even much smaller numbers will just win you the game anyway. Unless the creatures you're amassing can't deal any damage, that is.

The Meek Shall Inherit
At the beginning of your upkeep, if you control ten or more creatures with power 0 or less, you win the game.

You could also do something similar with creatures with defender, though that's even less green than The Meek Shall Inherit, and "Great Wall" was sadly wasted a long time ago.

Darksteel Reactor

If you really want a card like this, Helix Pinnacle and Azor's Elocutors are better executions of this mechanical concept, which isn't a great concept to begin with.

Door to Nothingness

It's tempting to call Wizards' decision to make this enter the battlefield tapped a development / power level concern, and ignore it. I don't like that for two reasons. First, I don't actually believe designers have no reason to be aware of and understand power level. Second, upon reflection, I think it's unlikely the ability was added because anyone thought the card was too powerful.

It's more likely Door to Nothingness enters the battlefield tapped to bring it in line with the other win conditions, all but one of which give your opponent a minimum of one turn to deal with them. I personally don't think that's necessary here, but neither do I find it necessary to change.

Barren Glory

It's not a huge deal, but I'd remove the requirement that you be hellbent. I expect a fair number of people would contend it adds significantly to the card's flavor, though I disagree.

Helix Pinnacle

Some people like boring, slow, do nothing cards that let them sink all their mana into something at the end of their opponent's turn. I don't, but Helix Pinnacle is well designed for what it does. Plus, it's the core of everyone's first three card crapdeck.

Mayael's Aria

The bottom line is the alternate win condition of controlling a creature that can just kill your opponent in one hit anyway is fundamentally poor design. It's not worth improving.

Felidar Sovereign


Near-Death Experience


Laboratory Maniac


Azor's Elocutors

This is a pretty blatant flavor mismatch that really makes you wonder if there's something in the air up in Renton. It's not as egregious as Omniscience, but it's close. Azor's Elocutors should have a name (and counters) related to keeping the peace, which, conveniently, is something the Azorius Guild actually does. Filibustering in Magic is more like preventing opponents from casting spells, similar, perhaps, to the right honorable Augustin IV. That concept doesn't sound like a good one for an alternate win condition, however, so I’ll skip it. I will admit to being curious why Wizards feels the need to keep redesigning Darksteel Reactor, though!

Now it's time to examine the amateur designs from Goblin Artisans. I've been dreading writing this section, because I've witnessed firsthand how violently people can react to criticism, especially on the internet, where everyone's a stranger and every statement is necessarily interpreted as maximally offensive.

It's all fun and games when you critique official designs from Wizards. Wizards employees can't and won't respond, and will probably never read what a random person on the internet thinks about design, even if they cared to, which they don't. So nobody's feelings get hurt. That's not the case here.

But I hope that on the whole my words here will be more helpful than harmful. I can see that most of the contributors and commenters on Goblin Artisans sincerely want to be great Magic designers, but they're failing to realize their full potential for a lot of the reasons I talked about previously.

I say without any ill intent that virtually all of the designs (and related commentary) from that design challenge are awful. Your opinion on the matter serves as a litmus test of sorts. If you disagree with me, you have some mountains to climb, yet. I encourage you to reread Parts 1 and 2, and to repeat the exercise in Part 2 with a new set of cards. Get a friend to help if you can.

Also, expand your targets for analysis. Start picking apart books, TV, movies. Rage against the machine! Yell into a crowded movie theater, "The crime syndicates should just send old loopers back to be killed by DIFFERENT PEOPLE!! WHAT THE HELL!!! THIS AIN'T ROCKET SCIENCE, FOLKS!!!!" Then storm out and demand your money back.

Pen a letter to George R. R. Martin, first, to thank him for gifting us one of the most well written, painstakingly researched, carefully constructed, and finely crafted series of the last century, then explain to him that the melting point of gold is around 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, you couldn't possibly melt it in a stewpot over a campfire, and Drogo couldn't even have boiled water in the time it supposedly took him to make "a crown for king."
Or, “A crown for Cart King!” as he said in the novel.

Heck, start a blog and write a post pointing out all the mistakes I've made, and all my opinions that you disagree with, and why. Tell me why my redesigned Mortal Combat is way too good in games with more than two players, or why you think Mayael's Aria and Darksteel Reactor are superbly designed. Just engage your brain, question everything, and refuse mediocrity. Or don't. But don't hate me for trying.

Third Place:

Whenever a source deals damage to you, put a pain counter on Masochism.
When Masochism has nineteen or more pain counters on it, you win the game.

This is the ugly step-sister of Near-Death Experience. You could show Near-Death Experience to someone that's never even played Magic and they would get it. At least since the Pac-Man era people have been aware of video games and the concept of having one life left, which is itself just a modern spin on an idea that's older than our species. Near-Death Experience is visceral and intuitive. Compare that to Masochism.

Masochism is trying to do the same thing, but it's more awkward in a lot of ways. Nineteen pain counters is arbitrary and has no intrinsic meaning the way 1 life does. The use of nineteen is also misleading, as it really implies the card is keeping track of damage (which the game already does, anyway), but it's not. It's keeping track of the number of times you've been damaged. Masochism is also much harder to use effectively than Near-Death Experience (and Near-Death Experience is already plenty hard to pull off) because you can't just play it when you're near death. You have to play it, then take damage nineteen times (again, it's not 19 damage) with Masochism in play the entire time, and only then can you win.

Black also isn't the color of masochism, it's the color of sadism. Because black has no moral compunctions, the color will often do horrible things, and accept horrible outcomes (including personal pain) in exchange for even greater rewards, but black doesn't enjoy personal pain. Someone that derives physical pleasure from pain is red. Someone that derives religious enlightenment from pain (or punishes themselves because they "deserve" it) is white.

Second Place:

Diversity Day
At the beginning of your upkeep, you may reveal your hand. If you reveal both a sorcery and an instant card in this way, and you control at least one creature, one artifact, one land, and one planeswalker, you win the game.

This is awkward and inelegant. The cards that Diversity Day checks should all be in the same place, whether that's the hand, the graveyard, in exile, or on the battlefield. One commenter seems to reach the same conclusion but then strangely suggests the incorrectly templated "If at any time you control a sorcery, an instant, a creature, an artifact, a land, and a planeswalker, you win the game."

That's technically a simplification of the template, but it's vastly more complicated from a game play and rules perspective. Very few players would understand what the card is asking you to do, which is to cast a sorcery, then cast an instant in response, and do so while you control a permanent of each type. I am very confident this is ground Wizards will never cover in my lifetime, because it's just pointless complication.

Diversity Day is also the wrong color. You can justify, say, controlling lots of creatures with many different creature types in white, but that would make for a questionable win condition since it's so hard to count creature types, even without old cards that have been errataed to heck and back. You definitely can't justify collecting all the card types in white, it's too game-mechanical and arbitrary. Blue is the primary color of arbitrary, game-mechanical stuff like this. (Tarmogoyf is green mainly because blue shouldn't get efficient beaters.)

Despite all of those complaints, there is the kernel of a really fun and creative idea in Diversity Day. Here's my take on it:

Collector of Curios
Creature – Human Wizard
T: Draw a card, discard a card, then if the number of card types among cards in your graveyard is at least seven, you win the game.

First Place:

Invention's Promise
Artifact Creature – Avatar Construct
Whenever CARDNAME deals combat damage to a player, if it has flying, first strike, vigilance, trample, haste, lifelink, deathtouch, and hexproof, you win the game.

"This card rewards that impulse [of] ... making your own huge monster ... admit it ... you've always wanted to stack eight auras/equipment on one amazingly badass critter and smash face with it."

"Invention's Promise is awesome because it rewards something fun that usually isn't good enough."

Those comments don't make much sense to me. You don't need a special card to reward the impulse of assembling a huge monster with auras and equipment. Every creature in the game does that, and does it well. Some make it harder than others, like defenders, creatures with shroud, and the likes of Peacekeeper, but even the lowly Kobolds of Kher Keep can (and almost always will) easily obliterate your opponent(s) when sufficiently augmented. The assertion that a creature with an array of performance enhancing attachments sufficient to grant all those keywords -- plus at least 1 power -- "usually isn't good enough" just seems silly.

The flavor of Invention's Promise is also all over the place. It's a promise (or the idea of promise) that is a creature that is a construct that is an avatar, but of what? Avatars in Magic are manifestations of the player, a powerful emotion, or some high falutin' concept like awe, a race, or even an entire plane, but if Invention's Promise is a manifestation of anything, it's of a confused and counterproductive effort, much like its win condition.

It's a powerless artifact that does nothing, except care about whether itself somehow simultaneously acquires the abilities of Akroma, plus lifelink, deathtouch, hexproof, and a little numbers boost. And then you attack, and when you damage any player in combat, you win, for no reason, even if the player you damaged wasn't your only opponent in the game. When Phage did something similar, it made sense, and was exciting and original. Invention's Promise just comes across as arbitrary, flavorless, derivative, pointlessly complicated, and inelegant.

I could go on, but my goal really isn't to rant endlessly, or to humiliate anyone. I only hope I've provided some food for thought and made a small theoretical contribution to the amateur design community. And with that, I'll leave you with what was my humble submission to the Goblin Artisans alternate win condition design contest, Ieuan, the Baneslayer:

1 comment:

  1. I like your writing. It made me think a bit about how I design cards. Your designs are generally pretty cool, and I especially like Collector of Curios. He is a strictly better looter, but he's also a powerful alternate win condition in the right deck.