by Zaiem Beg
When I read the rules changes, I was just as shocked as everyone else. Though I was expecting the mana burn announcement (as this had been a prevalent rumor for several months now), the combat damage change surprised me, and my initial reaction was dismay.
“DO NOT LIKE,” I wrote in a chat to a friend in the minutes immediately following the announcement’s publication. “These changes make me want to set myself on fire,” I wrote.
(Quick digression: Whenever anything bad happens, I hyperbolically threaten to set myself on fire. In Hawaii, Zac Hill showed me just how much I have to learn. He was tossing out gems like, “That made me want to jump in front of a train,” and, “that made me want to stab myself in the eye with a spear.” He has a fine repertoire of self-harm threats, while I’m firmly stuck in self-immolation mode. Just another thing to add to my self-improvement agenda.)
But after thinking and talking about it, I realized that there was no reason to reach for the kerosene and matches. There has been a fair bit of backlash over the changes, and I want to tell you why, in the long run, this is good for the game.
First of all, if you haven’t read the announcement, read it here.
The reaction to this announcement has been staggering. On the magicthegathering.com bulletin boards, the number of responses to the rules announcement is approaching thirty-five hundred posts. And although I haven’t read all of the messages, the response appears to be overwhelmingly negative. So why should Wizards do something that looks to be by and large hugely unpopular?
For the same reason why Sliver Queen is a $30 card.
We live in a bubble.
Readers of this website are likely to fit a certain demographic: the competitive player. It’s no coincidence that channelfireball’s launch was tied closely with the name of co-editor LSV, as using the name of arguably the world’s best player served as a great marketing tool. Want to play like LSV? Why, go to his website to drink from the knowledge of his brain!
It’s very common for a Magic player in that competitive demographic to only interact with other competitive players for the vast majority of his or her Magic life. We look at Top 8s of Grands Prix, we look at draft walkthroughs on Magic Online, and we read all the major strategy websites daily. Magic-related discussion is often about how XYZ deck is good or bad, or what the correct play is in a situation, or which card you take over another in a draft.
There was an episode of “30 Rock” (which might be the funniest show currently on television) where one of the guest characters was so good-looking, people treated him differently and made him believe that he was an intelligent, successful doctor/tennis pro/motorcycle rider despite the fact that he was grossly incompetent. He lived in a bubble, oblivious to the world outside his skewed perception of reality.
Competitive Magic players also live in a bubble. Dark Confidant, a $12 card, makes sense. He sees play in every format where he’s legal, and he’s one of the best creatures of all time. Doubling Season, on the other hand, is an unplayable card for competitive play and has never seen play in any format. Yet it’s also $12.
Who is driving up the cost of Doubling Season? [Me. –Riki/Experiment Kraj]
There’s a huge casual market, and they are the ones who actually provide the financial backbone of Wizards of the Coast. Singles sales and the occasional pack-buying from competitive players are a drop in the bucket. The casual players are the ones buying boxes and cracking packs and are searching for cards to fill out their collections. We don’t see them because we live in a bubble, but they are out there, and they exist in droves. They are the ones who are driving up the cost of Sliver Queen ($30) and Glimpse the Unthinkable ($10).
Keeping those people in mind, the ones who actually drive the finances of Wizards of the Coast and keep them in business, we can’t just look at 3500 forum responses and immediately conclude that this is an overwhelmingly unpopular decision. It’s only an unpopular decision inside the bubble.
Wizards must adapt, or Magic really will die.
Magic is not dying. Wizards is doing relatively well given the economic climate, and attendance for Grands Prix has been record-breaking. And this will not kill Magic either.
Once upon a time, before MMORPGs were around, there were these text-based MMORPGs called MUDs. Think World of Warcraft with no pictures. Despite its graphical limitations, the games themselves were quite complex and richly developed, with intricate combat structures and social implements like guilds, clans, and races. I spent a lot of time developing a particular MUD for the better part of a decade, and at the time, the game was thriving. We would average 100-130 players at a time, which was a pretty impressive feat for the mid-1990s. We spent hours upon hours writing code, testing mechanics, balancing the power of creatures, weapons, and equipment, and we generally had a good time. Life-long friendships were made, and our lives revolved around the MUD much in the same way World of Warcraft or Magic players’ lives tend to revolve around their hobby of choice.
But as games like Everquest and World of Warcraft came out, the MUD started to die. Graphical games had always existed as a competitor to our MUD, but people would play them and get bored and come back to our MUD. With Everquest and World of Warcraft, they provided an entertainment alternative to our game, which looked woefully inadequate by comparison. And the game we loved slowly died out. We had no way to recruit new players. Now the game is lucky to get 30 players on at a time.
If you don’t adapt, you will die. If you don’t replenish your player base, you will die.
The changes that Wizards is making are aimed at those outside the bubble. They are aimed at people who haven’t even started playing Magic yet. Adding flavor to the game (the in play zone now being “the battlefield” and the removed from game zone being “the exile”) is one way to do this. Personally, I would play Magic if it was just a series of bland numbers and arbitrary designations to indicate the creature’s power/toughness. I love a mathematical resource management game as much as the next guy (which is what Magic is when you strip away all of the flavor), but that’s not the most enticing marketing plan.
Numbers: The counting. The mathematical resource management game that’s fun for the whole family!
New players are confused by the stack damage rules. They aren’t intuitive, and I remember having a hard time with that idea when I started playing Magic. You can Unsummon your guy with damage on and my guy still dies? And why is combat damage the only kind of damage that goes on the stack?
The lifelink and deathtouch rules are also not easy for new players. I’ve got a guy with lifelink in play? Cool. I’ll just take four damage that would put me to zero, but it’s okay because my lifelink guy will block another creature and I’ll stay alive this turn. Wait, that’s not how that works? You mean I just lost even with my cool life gain guy on the board? That doesn’t make sense!
If the market research shows that the complexity of the rules is driving away the acquisition of new players, then Wizards must adapt. Or else the game slowly dies away and we, the hardcore players, are the equivalent of those still hanging around on my beloved MUD, now struggling to get more than 20 players on at a time.
Life is good inside the bubble, too.
But I don’t care about what happens outside the bubble. I like the bubble, and the bubble is why I play Magic. I draft and play in 8-man queues on Magic Online and travel to PTQs and spend far too large a portion of my waking hours thinking about or playing Magic.
Although I’m wary of decisions by Wizards of the Coast that come from the people who are focused on marketing, finance, or even organized play, R&D has had a pretty solid record over the last half decade. Sure, there were mistakes like Skullclamp, Affinity, and Urza’s Block, but those were a good chunk of time ago and we have since had a pretty well-run game that has given formats that, for the most part, have been healthy and enjoyable for the players.
And R&D is filled with a lot of Spikes who understand the competitive aspect of the game, and understand that they also need to pay attention to those inside the bubble. On its face, the changes to combat damage appear to make the game simpler, and in a technical sense, it may. The mechanics of combat have been made simpler, hence the response of the game being dumbed down.
But while the mechanics have been simplified, the decision-making process has now become more complex. It’s simply a shift in where the complexity lies. Previously, if I attacked with my Dark Confidant into your Sakura-Tribe Elder, the correct play is to block the Dark Confidant and sacrifice it with damage on the stack to get the land. Under the new rules, the correct play is not as clear. You have to make a strategic decision and determine which resource is more valuable to you and your opponent. Here, there is plenty of opportunity for the player to make an error, where under the old rules, there really wasn’t. The game has not become dumbed down due to this change; it merely shifts the types of decisions you have to make, and the consequences of making the incorrect decisions are more subtle and nuanced, but equally important. Good players will still be able to take advantage of lesser players’ mistakes.
It may be a bit of an overreaction to praise R&D for executing a master stroke of genius; that they’ve manage to ostensibly simplify the game while actually making it more complex, but the possibility is not far-fetched. Right now it’s not clear just how exactly the game will change under the new rules, what new strategies will be developed, and how players will take advantage of them, but it is clear to me that it is not a cut-and-dried case of making the game dumber and simpler. It’s not like they got rid of instants and decided to move to Portal rules and templating.
Regarding the ordering of creatures for combat damage, this is a change I’m really not going to know how it plays out until I have a chance to play a lot of Limited under the new rules. Most of the examples where this would matter one way or another are a little on the contrived side, and they seem to be corner cases for the most part. Stack blocking in Limited is generally a risky play to begin with (lest you get blown out by removal or a pump spell), so the situations where this happens don’t come up a lot. How often do you really assign damage to multiple defenders and then follow it up with a post-combat Pyroclasm? These situations do come up, but not nearly as frequently as some of the 3500 (and counting) posters seem to indicate.
(One non-intuitive interaction which Wizards wisely decided to leave alone is the whole “I block your guy, then my guy goes away, but your guy is still blocked” interaction. For example, if you attack with a 4/4 and I throw a 1/1 in front of it and you Neck Snap my 1/1, then the 4/4 still doesn’t get through. That doesn’t make a whole lot of sense from a flavor standpoint, but the consequences of changing this mechanic to be more intuitive would alter the game too drastically in my opinion. This leads me to believe that Wizards isn’t just “dumbing down the game” all willy-nilly, otherwise we’d be talking about this change as well, likely with torches and pitchforks en route to Renton.)
Mogg Fanatic just defriended me on Facebook
Although the rules changes do make some cards worse, there really aren’t that many that are affected by it. The only cards seeing play in Standard that really are affected by these changes are:
I may have left out a couple, but the number is not large regardless; it’s less than a dozen cards. In Extended, the list is even shorter:
(And with Riptide Laboratory rotating out, I don’t know how much Venser will actually see play in Extended.)
But this also creates room for new cards to be made that would otherwise be too powerful to be printed. Sacrifice effects are no longer two-for-ones. Imagine if Bloodpyre Elemental was printed without the sorcery speed restriction. Under the current rules, it would warp Limited and it would probably see a healthy dose of Constructed play as well. Under the new rules, would it really be that powerful? It would be slightly more powerful, but not overly so.
We may have to wait a while (perhaps M10, perhaps as late as somewhere in Zendikar Block) before we start to see the real fruits of the rules change, but there is design space that’s created by these changes, and we will see cards that would not see the light of day under the old rules. In the short-term it hoses certain cards, but in the long-term it balances out, or we may even come out ahead.
And to steal a quote from a fellow channelfireball writer:
“At the end of the day, we’re still playing Magic.”
And ultimately that’s what matters, isn’t it?
Madly in love with Magic regardless,
zaiemb at gmail dot com