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Careful Consideration – Mythically Misleading

It’s rare to see consumers have an emotional connection to the product they are purchasing. Brand loyalty does exist with a lot of brands, but it has more to do with consumers finding a product they know works for them and sticking with it. For example, if I want tasty peanut butter, I might go with Jif and keep buying that brand of peanut butter every time I run out. But if I got a job at Jif corporate headquarters, I don’t think my Jif-buying friends would say, “Wow, Zaiem! That’s a great job! I’m jealous!”

But if I got a job at Wizards of the Coast, the reaction would likely be much different. Granted, some of that has to do with the nature of the company; making games is more exciting and fun than making peanut butter, but that’s not all of it. If I took a job working at Konami working on Yu-Gi-Oh, even the Yu-Gi-Oh players wouldn’t give me the same congratulatory response that I would get if I took a job with Wizards.

People have a connection to the Wizards of the Coast brand like few other products, even though most of them have never met anyone who works for the company and would have no tangible reason to feel so committed. The only other area of business where I see this kind of loyalty is in professional sports. Why is that?

When a group of people have a shared, passionate interest in common, often a sub-culture develops. Fans of the Denver Broncos, fans of scrapbooking, fans of World of Warcraft, you name it. Sometimes there’s a large entity that is above the rest; fans of the Denver Broncos look up to the Denver Broncos and what this entity does dictates the reaction of the fans. Similarly, a new patch for World of Warcraft will change the behavior of the fans of that product. In these situations, the large entity provides a sense of being above the fans and not really part of the community.

Wizards of the Coast, on the other hand, has done a good job of creating a relationship with its customers that feels more intimate in nature. The magicthegathering.com website has provided a great opportunity for the company to connect with its customers. Mark Rosewater’s weekly writings about research and development of Magic has helped foster that sense of community and that feeling of being connected. They feel like they are part of the sub-culture. We love them because we feel like they love us back. When Wizards makes a promise, we expect them to be kept.

Which is why the issue of mythic rares has touched a raw nerve in some people, myself included. When Rosewater wrote in his column last year announcing mythic rares, he wrote the following:

This now leads us to the next question: How are cards split between rare and mythic rare? Or more to the point, what kind of cards are going to become mythic rares? We want the flavor of mythic rare to be something that feels very special and unique. Generally speaking we expect that to mean cards like Planeswalkers, most legends, and epic-feeling creatures and spells. They will not just be a list of each set’s most powerful tournament-level cards.

We’ve also decided that there are certain things we specifically do not want to be mythic rares. The largest category is utility cards, what I’ll define as cards that fill a universal function. Some examples of this category would be cycles of dual lands and cards like Mutavault or Char.

This was all well and good for the first couple of sets. As I wrote last week, I thought that the way Wizards handled mythic rares was good. Planeswalkers feel mythic. A freaking 10/10 for 10 with protection from everything definitely feels mythic. Even Baneslayer Angel, which has gotten some complaints about her mythicness, fits the bill in my opinion. It’s a freaking angel with protection from dragons and demons and stuff with lifelink and first strike. If you harness your inner Timmy when you play a Baneslayer Angel, you’ll probably find that it feels good to drop her and turn her sideways and smash some noses. Now that is a mythic rare!

So I was dismayed to see the following three cards:

Lotus Cobra

Mindbreak Trap 

Warren Instigator  

Now wait just a moment here. Rosewater set certain expectations around mythic rares, and now they seem to be broken.

I was holding off judgment until the Zendikar spoiler came out regarding the new mythics, but Lotus Cobra definitely set off a few people.

Lotus Cobra, if you play it, is going to be a four-of in the decks that play it. Yes, the effect it has is powerful, but it is a 2/1 for 2 and lacks the “whoa, holy cow!” factor that previous mythic rares have. There’s a blink test. If you look at it and it doesn’t fire up the inner Timmy, then it’s probably not mythic.

Maybe the card’s good. Maybe it’s just a good Leaf Gilder. But at any rate, it’s not mythic. And having the word “Lotus” in the name doesn’t make it mythic, either.

Lotus and Mox and I guess any Ancestral card that draws three fit well in with the mythology, but tacking the word “Lotus” on a card does not carry with it any inherent wow factor other than the initial curiosity of what a card with the word “Lotus” on it does. Birds of Paradise could have been reprinted in M10 as mythic with a different name like “Lotus Avian,” and it would still be a bad idea.

Someone in a Starcitygames forum indicated that Wizards R&D member Ken Nagle suggested that mythic cards have a new definition: they are ones that people would remember. I think getting a new R&D definition from a message board is a little dubious, but let’s assume for a moment that this is the case and that R&D really did change the definition of what a mythic rare should be.

The problem is that any card that sees any amount of play is going to be a card you remember. You know which cards I think of when I think of Time Spiral Block Constructed? Tarmogoyf and Mystical Teachings. Both mythic? What about Lorwyn block? Cryptic Command, Bitterblossom, Spellstutter Sprite, Mistbind Clique, Windbrisk Heights, Doran, and Figure of Destiny. Should all of those be mythic as well? They were all quite memorable.

Lightning Bolt is certainly a card I remember and will remember for quite some time. If they brought back Counterspell (but with a new name so it would be printed solely at mythic status), that would also be memorable. Psychatog was memorable. As was Bridge from Below. Remand was quite memorable. Path to Exile? Lightning Helix? Or dare I say it Char and Mutavault? All of these cards will be remembered for some time. Virtually any tournament-caliber card that sees any reasonable amount of play can fall under the blanket “would be memorable” definition.

Another argument is that Rosewater made the definition, not everyone in research and development. This argument is a little silly. When the face of the company speaks in a weekly column like Rosewater’s, then you can safely accept that he is speaking on behalf of the company. Rosewater is not some peon in R&D who may have a say here and there.

Mindbreak Trap is a playable version of Swift Silence. It may be a great card to bring in (or maindeck?) against cascade decks. Yes, it also has a powerful effect, but so do Bloodbraid Elf and Day of Judgment.

Warren Instigator is another creature that will be a four-of in the decks that play him. It’s not a big stompy splashy epic-feeling creature. It’s an efficient tournament staple.

These are efficient, tournament cards that lack the oomph that we were promised with mythics. Let me go back to what Rosewater wrote:

We want the flavor of mythic rare to be something that feels very special and unique. Generally speaking we expect that to mean cards like Planeswalkers, most legends, and epic-feeling creatures and spells.

I’m sorry, but these three cards do not fit the bill. There’s nothing epic-feeling about Lotus Cobra. Having a 1/1 double striking Goblin Lackey attacking on turn three is great and all, but so is casting a turn two Tarmogoyf.

Maybe Wizards miscalibrated this one, but there’s definitely a sense of lost trust here. Rosewater made a promise, then broke it, whether he realizes he did it or not. And in talking to people, they feel betrayed. Maybe it’s irrational for a customer to feel betrayed by a corporate entity, but Magic players aren’t your typical consumer. The loyalty and affection for a company is a rare thing to see in business, and if Wizards takes advantage of that, they will eventually lose customers and become just another business who wants people’s money, which hurts their product.

The worst thing about this is that had Rosewater not written anything about mythics beyond the initial announcement, I think people would be more fine with these cards. Having Rosewater’s assurances that they would not do precisely what they seem to be doing paints them in a bad light, and rightfully so. Setting an expectation and then not meeting it is one of the worst possible things you can do in business, and that’s exactly what Wizards has done. It’s worse than not saying anything at all.

Mythically miffed,
-Zaiem
zaiemb at gmail dot com

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