Academy: The Darker Side of “Cool”
Mike Eaton, Play Unplugged
When I talk about Magic: the Gathering, my favorite game in the world, you may have noticed that it isn’t usually about strategy. It isn’t usually even about sharing the game with others, though that’s the best way to experience it.
No, I’m pretty hung up on the flavor of the game. The mechanics and art of the cards. How outright cool they are, right? Strategy out the window, you might think, when Mike’s piloting!
This is often the case. But I do play Magic, and I like to think I can play it well. And while I like “cool” cards that don’t play especially well, they do have a profound effect on the product. And when cards are designed to be interesting, but don’t play well, this can really damage our experience. Why so?
The issue is that to get Magic cards, we have to open packs. Even if we buy singles, the people who got those singles (mostly) opened packs to get them, and the costs trickle down to us. If a four-dollar pack of cards sometimes results in a goofy, one-off EDH card, that’s neat. That’s the gamble! But when you riddle your set with the unplayable? We stop wanting to buy packs.
In Magic 2013, Wizards of the Coast‘s rare selection is . . . interesting, at best. They’re continuing in the grand tradition of resonant, flavorful selections, and that’s a great thing for story-building, and for keeping players immersed in the world. (And I am in love with Jenna Helland’s new flavor column). But, when there are enough deadweight cards at rare that players don’t want to buy packs (outside a draft) you have to wonder what’s gained in actually printing the design — especially reprinting one.
Let’s start with Magic 2010, and talk a little bit about the cards that made opening Core Set packs a nightmare for some of us. (Note: I’m skipping weird Mythic Rares, because Mythic is a slot designed for players not to get very many copies of a card. Sometimes, cards are placed at Mythic because the designers understood how rarely they’re useful — like Lich’s Mirror.)
Magic 2010 gave us Gargoyle Castle, a land that basically says, “Sacrifice an untapped land: Overpay for a creature.” In the same batch we have Mirror of Fate, which switches our deck with seven exiled cards. When exactly we exiled seven cards that we want more than our entire deck, I have yet to learn; what, do I use Doomsday to exile everything but Mirror of Fate, just so you can bring a two more cards in than I already can with Doomsday? And while I love the idea of Lightwielder Paladin, he’s basically worse than Air Elemental — which is perhaps the most strictly bad card I’ll run in a sixty-card casual deck (mostly for the Alpha flavor text, which describes all of these cards perfectly).
Magic 2011 brought a whole new crop of fun rare cards, and some of them were extremely cool and extremely useful, like Fauna Shaman. Awesome, remember? But ask anyone who’s pulled a Cyclops Gladiator how much she liked that pack, and she’ll probably still be busy trying to process why she should make room for three red on one suicide card, even in a draft. Red didn’t do much better with Hoarding Dragon, the five-plus mana artifact tutor that tried so hard to be Body Snatcher but failed. And for my part, pulling four copies of Necrotic Plague, the Takklemaggot for a new generation, made me lose faith in packs of large sets in general, and Core Sets specifically.
You know what? Let’s give Takklemaggot some credit. You could at least force your opponent to wipe out a token every turn. Plague has to switch sides of the table, or it dies — i.e. “WHAT?!” Gah, this card!
And while Magic 2012 gave us some gems in Grand Abolisher and Skinshifter, they also decided to make the least readily useful card in years, in Scrambleverse. Everyone who ever wanted one had too many after ten packs, and I heard that guy’s very happy with his Krark’s Thumb deck.
And the Lord God King of the Why (the “why” was no doubt indestructable cards, but there were like five of them) for Magic 2012? Worldslayer. Play it for five! Equip it for five! If that somehow goes through, everyone loses! . . . Cool?
I have actually seen more than one copy of Worldslayer eaten, by a human being, in protest.
From Magic 2013, the new rare legend cycle is pretty solid. Serra Avenger is back. The mythics are extremely powerful, and will be amazing to crack open.
But every copy of Battle of Wits that I open, I’m going to angry. Because as cool as it is, I don’t want a 250-card deck. It is literally useless in any normal-size deck, and in EDH. Are you telling me there weren’t enough copies in existence to satisfy demand, already? It’s like printing more pennies, this card.
In “Why don’t I just play Ball Lightning” news, Hellion Crucible could be useful in a Sealed Deck game — some day — but is just a resource hog that turns into Gargoyle Castle 2.0.
And, continuing our “Mirrodin block isn’t all gold” story, someone thought it was useful to print more Door to Nothingness. Because you’re never going to build more than one deck in your life around this guy and his ten, pan-chromatic mana. And you have to blow it up just to do it! Auto-winning the game is undoubtedly, inarguably awesome. When it’s almost-unusable, even at your kitchen table, and it eats up your rare slot? It’s just more discouraging than anything else.
This, dear readers, is the dark side of cards with cool effects, that aren’t necessarily useful. When you’re full up but still want some fresh, random cards, they push the hope of a brand new pack through a Door to Nothingness.