Two Lessons From the Last Two Years of Magic
A little over a year ago, still in the midst of a string of about three years of Standard bannings, I wrote an article discussing how to fix magic. While it's too early to tell whether the key ideas in the article have been taken to heart by Wizards of the Coast, we are currently 11 months away from the most recent Standard ban. This is the longest time period with no Standard bans since Attune with Aether, Rogue Refiner, Ramunap Ruins, and Rampaging Ferocidon bit the dust. It was then another 21 months until Field of the Dead opened the floodgates, the first of an unprecedented fourteen cards banned over the following two years.
For the duration of those two years, Magic was in emergency mode, and all the oxygen in the room was sucked up by discussion of the large-scale problems of which the banned cards were symptoms. With those days behind us for the time being, we can now look back at some of the smaller-scale lessons learned, from both failures and successes, that were hidden by the herd of elks rampaging past.
1. Card Advantage Mechanics are Their Own Payoffs
When Wizards wants to push a new mechanic into being constructed-playable, there's one surefire way to do that.
“Whenever you [do the mechanic], [get card advantage].”
Looking through the mechanics listed above, we have Cycling, Enchantments, Auras, Exploring, and cards with Flash. Of these, only Explore had a chance to generate card advantage, but Wildgrowth Walker also has a chance to not generate card advantage.
Now, how about these?
Adventure spells are cards which are literally two spells. Without any support, Bonecrusher Giant, Lovestruck Beast, and Brazen Borrower are all easily good enough to see Standard play. Stomp reads, “Deal 2 damage, put a Bonecrusher Giant in your hand.” But it's actually better than that! Because the Giant doesn't actually go to your hand, so it can't be discarded. Additionally, you always have the flexibility of skipping Stomp and just casting the Giant upfront. So not only are Adventures built-in card advantage, they're modal spells, one of which is guaranteed to draw you a card.
As such, Edgewall Innkeeper and Lucky Clover actually read, “Whenever you draw a card with an adventure, draw another card.” These problems are only enhanced by the fact that Edgewall Innkeeper is a one-mana spell, which means it's easy to hold it until you can double-spell and get the card draw. Lucky Clover is an Artifact in a two-year stretch with no special focus on Artifacts, which means that there's not a whole lot of maindeckable Artifact hate. Even maindeckable cards that would've been able to deal with it, like Binding the Old Gods, would likely do so at a loss because of Clover's absurd two-mana price tag.
When mechanics do not generate card advantage, having a payoff that generates card advantage is a good way to get them to see play. When a mechanic does generate card advantage as its primary function, it makes no sense to create a payoff that generates card advantage – the mechanic already does that!
Imagine if we had a Lucky Clover or an Edgewall Innkeeper for Flashback, Eternalize, or Cascade. It would likely push already playable mechanics into dangerous territory, just like it did for Adventure.
Perhaps, though, the goal of Innkeeper and Clover was not to incentivize Adventures getting played, but to incentivize entire Adventure decks. First of all, when there's a mechanic that automatically draws cards, players are naturally incentivized to play more of them together. But let's give Wizards the benefit of the doubt here; maybe they knew Bonecrusher Giant and Lovestruck Beast were locks, but thought the others needed a bit of a push to get played. Could they have incentivized that without a card advantage engine? Of course! They've done it plenty of times. Any of the following would've been a safe way to encourage the Adventures deck:
Whenever you cast an Adventure spell/creature that went on an adventure:
- Surveil 1 (not keyworded, obviously) – this plays well with Escape from Theros
- Deal 1 damage to each opponent – incentivizes a more aggressive shell
- Target creature can't attack or block until your next turn
- Create a 0/1 Plant token
- Gain [some playtested number of] life
- Target player puts the top [playtested number] of cards from their library into their graveyard
- Tap or untap a permanent
- Put a +1/+1 counter on target creature
- Until end of turn, target creature gains your choice of menace, lifelink, deathtouch, flying, trample, or indestructible
- Target creature must be blocked this turn if able
Scrolling through Gatherer gives a huge number of variations of effects like this, which provide advantages that are not worth a card. Of course, if you want this hypothetical Adventures payoff to be playable with Adventures, you'd have to do extensive playtesting and balancing of the format, but there's definitely room between “unplayable” and “Lucky Clover.”
Personally, I think Adventure is a sweet mechanic, and I hope it returns someday. However, I hope that Wizards won't use card advantage to incentivize players to play mechanics, like Adventure, which already generate card advantage.
2. Competitive and Casual Formats are Meaningfully Different
I've criticized the Companion mechanic at length from the perspective of variance. Companions, particularly in Pioneer and Modern, restrict for all eternity the space of possible decks. Lurrus in particular is so strong, that it's erased 4+ drops in Black midrange decks in Modern. Furthermore, decks with Companions play out more similarly every game than decks without companions, mitigating variance to a degree that threatens to make gameplay feel repetitive.
In isolation, the lessening of variance at both a metagame level and a gameplay level is the issue with this mechanic. However, it's relatively obvious that this mechanic, especially in its original form, was inspired by Commander. The train of thought is clear: in 2019, Mark Rosewater suggested that Commander had surpassed Standard as the most-played Constructed format. Naturally, Wizards is incentivized to figure out what was making Commander so popular and try to replicate it in its other Constructed formats. This, I suspect, is where Companions came from.
The problem with this line of reasoning is that Commander and Competitive Constructed formats like Standard and Modern are different not just in rules and cards, but in the motivations of the players who play them. This has been recognized for years. In 2015, Mark Rosewater provided a valuable answer on his blog:
This sentiment has been echoed by others throughout the years. The vast majority of players at the PT level are playing to win, and they will play whatever cards they believe will give them the best shot at that, even if they hate the cards or playstyle. In Commander, on the other hand, it's common for playgroups to come up with their own rules, ban cards, and utilize other social contracts to ensure that everyone in the playgroup is having fun.
The social contracts in Commander playgroups are vital to players having positive experiences and can assist with format balance. Additionally, for playgroups that play largely with each other, there are quick and efficient metagame forces that punish broken or unfun things.
In competitive Magic, there is no social contract, and generally, building your deck entirely to hate out another will leave you cold to the rest of the metagame.
Understanding this should give Wizards pause for introducing Commander-like mechanics into competitive Magic. The success of Commander is not built purely on the rulebook or the legal cardpool – it is built by the community of players who enjoy playing the format. Trying to port Commander-style play to an entirely different community of players is unlikely to lead to positive experiences, as the two communities are optimizing for different things.
Consider one final anecdote: it is not uncommon for Commander players to have a particular Commander (or multiple!) who they really love? I've seen Commander players share their decks as works of creativity, talk about why a particular Commander is meaningful to them, and the reasons why they love a particular Commander (and it's rarely because that Commander maximizes their win rate). I have never seen a Competitive Constructed player pull out a Lurrus and share an emotional connection-based love of the card. Because the goals of competitive constructed are different from the goals of Commander, the resonance of mechanics like Companions are going to hit differently as well.
Wizards regularly consider the resonance of themes with players when designing new sets. Theros hit well because of widespread familiarity among players with Greek mythology. One of the reasons Kamigawa missed was because “the creative, while true to the source material, wasn't resonant enough.” [Blogatog] In the same way, Wizards should consider how well individual mechanics will resonate with the community of players they're designed for.
Ryan Normandin is a grinder from Boston who has lost at the Pro Tour, in GP & SCG Top 8's, and to 7-year-olds at FNM. Despite being described as "not funny" by his best friend and "the worst Magic player ever" by Twitch chat, he cheerfully decided to blend his lack of talents together to write funny articles about Magic.
Buylist Hot Buys