Let’s talk about Rise of the Eldrazi!
WARNING: CONTAINS SPOILERS
E is for Epic
What is Rise of the Eldrazi all about? Why, the Eldrazi of course! To put it lightly, these guys are monsters. So far we know:
Emrakul, the Aeon’s Torn
Legendary Creature – Eldrazi
Emrakul, the Aeon’s Torn can’t be countered.
When you cast Emrakul, take an extra turn after this one.
Flying, protection from colored spells, annihilator 6.
When Emrakul is put into a graveyard from anywhere, its owner shuffles his or her graveyard into his or her library.
The “must attack each turn” drawback on U’s Crusher reminds me of a game my friend Eli once played at the Shards of Alara Prerelease. Why wouldn’t you attack with your huge monster? Well, sometimes you just have to block, and that’s exactly the position Eli found himself in when casting his Hellkite Overlord. Casting Hellkite Overlord passing the turn is one of the most depressing ways to say “go”. Imagine how Eli felt on his next turn when he had to cast his second Hellkite Overlord and again had to pass the turn without attacking. Those are some sad Hellkites, and unfortunately Eli lost. Rough beats.
But we’re not here to talk about Eli, dragons, or sadness – I just liked the story and happened to remember it. Instead I want to see if this new breed of monster will actually make an impact.
So for Ulamog’s minions are pretty tame. Sure they are huge, but they don’t give us anything that new. I see Ulamog’s Crusher being a cornerstone of the Limited format, one of the cards that makes the Eldrazi deck work, but that’s easy to say because it’s the only common monster we have so far. It’s funny to say, but Ulamog’s Crusher might actually end up being too small, which is kind of mind blowing. However, it’s not hard to imagine that the turn after you cast the Crusher your opponent casts his own, even bigger monster, eating yours on the next attack. I think this format will be a clash of the titans like we’ve never seen, a strange relief from the go-go-go format that was Zendikar.
The Annihilator mechanic worries me for the fun of Limited. I’m sure it’s a fun ability to wield, but getting hit by it is probably pretty devastating. I’m scared that whoever sticks the first Annihilator will win simply by making the other guy unable to cast his own giant monster, defeating the whole point of the format. It seems like a flagship mechanic that makes players sacrifice permanents isn’t the best for a set about casting giant expensive spells. This is just my first impression, and I’ve been assured that the format is actually a blast, so what do I know? On the “wow that’s totally awesome” scale Annihilator is a perfect 10, and I’m really glad it’s a keyword. Fun fun.
Two mana is more than one mana. How much more? Strategists argue that it’s more than double, but it’s all fuzzy logic anyway. I accept that casting an eight mana spell is more than twice as hard as casting a four mana spell, and probably much more than twice as hard. Magic’s mana curve isn’t linear – once you get past eight mana it’s really hard to evaluate spells. For Chapin’s UW control deck with the single Iona, Shield of Emeria, it’s easy to imagine when that spell comes online. The deck slows the game down, tries to make as many land drops as possible, and then closes the game up with Iona. How much mana is reasonable in this slot though? And can we really say Chapin’s deck is about casting monsters? To me, it’s incidental that Chapin can cast Iona, but it’s not like that was his goal all along.
What I’m getting at is, what happens to the mana curve when you actually set out to cast a massively expensive spell on purpose? Let’s say your goal is to cast Emrakul at a whopping 15 mana. In principal the spell is almost infinitely “harder” to cast than a one-drop, whatever that means, but that’s entirely out of context. Sure, if you just throw him in a Shards of Alara block draft he’s likely to never be cast, but in a format like this is he a first pick? I imagine you still have to spend a fair bit of resources to hit fifteen mana in this Limited format.
But what happens in Constructed? When you build the deck that can hit 15 mana, how much harder is it to hit 15 mana than, say, 13 mana? Once you’re there, your kind of there. At least, that’s how I imagine things are going to go down. Imagine there’s a deck that can actually cast Emrakul, and it’s actually good. Then the next morning Emrakul magically costs 16 mana instead. There’s a good chance the deck can still be good. However, if we woke up tomorrow and Tarmogoyf cost 2G instead of 1G, he probably wouldn’t even be playable.
The point I’m trying to get to here is that the upper echelons of our mana costs are really fuzzy. We just don’t have the tools to understand what it means to cost 15 mana. Is Emrakul efficient? Does it actually matter? How much mana would you spend on a spell that said “win the game,” and how close is that number to 15? What if Emrakul is just straight-up under-costed by two mana, how much does it really matter when you’re that high up the mana curve? Does “under-costed” even mean anything up there?
Kozilek is another giant thing we’ve seen, and again, 10 mana is just out of our normal spectrum. He also seems really good, and maybe undercosted, but once you’re up there, would you rather just find an extra five mana and cast Emrakul? I have a feeling that Rise of the Eldrazi is going to give us tools that stretch our manacurve to the max, but that it’s going to have a breaking point somewhere. There’s going to be a critical amount of mana you can reasonably assemble, in that most games with the number of cards you see you’re going to get to a turn where you have around X mana. Where that X lies, be it 9, 13, or even 20, is probably going to determine which monster we cast.
At least, that’s my gut feeling.
(…but not that one)
The next flagship mechanic of the set is Level Up. So far we know:
So far I’m very torn when it comes to the levelers. I’m excited to play with them, and assuming it’s not too hard to actually keep track of, I bet they are going to be a lot of fun. However, perhaps an odd statement to follow what I just said, but I don’t like them from a game design standpoint.
But first, what about their playability? The leveling cards we’ve seen so far look like great Limited cards, but they don’t impress me for Constructed. The mechanic lends itself a bit more to Limited play just by the fact that it’s asking you to invest a lot of mana into one permanent, even if over time, but that’s not to say there won’t be Constructed playable ones. So far I’ve found three primary questions to ask each of these creatures, and while they are pretty straightforward, it’s worth listing them out. These each apply to Limited and Constructed, though to varying degrees
1) How are the initial stats? If the thing starts big enough it might be Constructed playable just off of that fact alone, but that’s probably unlikely. Starting stats, however, may be the most important figure. Knight of Cliffhaven, for example, has a pretty good answer to question 1. This is about opportunity cast – what are you giving up in the short term to play this guy? When you’re casting a two mana 2/2, your not giving up anything.
2) How good is the second level, and how easy is it to get to? It’s possible to look at some of these creatures as starting on level two, it just costs (original mana) + (level up mana) * (Levels to get to next stat). For Limited, Lord of Shatterskull Pass has a very favorable answer to this question. A total of 4RR gets you a 6/6, not to mention his favorable question 1 score. Lighthouse Chronologist, however, requires 1UUUUU just to get to a 2/4, but he scores high in another department.
3) The final criteria is about pacing, and it’s the strength of the whole mechanic really. Leveling allows you to essentially pay for a creature over time by spreading your mana payments out. Paying 4RR for a 6/6 is much worse than paying 3R THEN 1R, and you net a 3/3 in the meantime. Good pacing usually implies a cheap level up cost, but it also matters how a leveler might fit into your curve.
Look at Guul Draz Assassin in terms of Limited, for example. His initial stats are pretty lowly; 1/1s for 1 are not known for their impact. Then, if you want to level up all at once, paying 2BBB for a 2/2, even with that ability, is not anything jaw-dropping. However, this guy paces so well it’s almost magical. First, you can play him on turn one, go to level 1 on turn two, then go to level two on turn three and give something -2/-2. That’s such a beating in Limited, and sacrificing your first three turns for something like this isn’t that big of a deal even if they do have the removal spell. Second, you can also just squeeze this guy onto the board sometime in the first three turns, finding a space B shouldn’t be that hard, and then double-level him on turn five and activate the ability. Snap!
Beastbreaker of Bala Ged is another good one. You can hardly expect to get better out of your second and third turn than an attacking 4/4, at least in Limited, and maaaybe in Constructed.
You could then ask a fourth question, 4) How good are its final stats? But that’s kind of what I’m trying to get at through all of this – you don’t need the fourth question. At least, you shouldn’t need the fourth question assuming the cards are designed with a powerful top level. It doesn’t really matter how good that top level is, though. If the creature has good enough initial stats, and is easy enough to get to a good set of secondary stats, or paces well enough, then the final level is just incidental. I don’t imagine there could be a powerful enough final ability that you’re going to slog through two sets of bad stats with terrible pacing just to get there.
Now what about leveling from a game design perspective? I bet my friends and I are going to have a lot of fun with these cards. You’re probably going to have a lot of fun. However, what about the new player who’s first pack is Rise of the Eldrazi? Their pack is filled with giant monsters (yay!) but also these weird, highly (and I mean highly) complicated levelers, and at common! These are the most complicated commons we’ve seen in ages. First, they are complicated to play with. You’ve got level counters to track and the card has THREE different power/toughness sets you’ve got to analyze. I walk in to on-board tricks as it is! Second, their frame is funky. We’ve already seen the negative impact funky frames has on new players with Time Spiral block’s timeshifted and futureshifted frames, and this is a whole new level.
Also, perhaps not as important, but one of the cool things about planeswalkers were their unique frames. Now that a similar layered frame is appearing on some commons, maybe that will diminish some of the awesomeness of a planeswalker? I’m sure planeswalkers will continue to be awesome, but it’s worth thinking about. I do kind like the idea of the card frames loosening up, and if this goes well Wizards might be able to do some other cool things. That being said, I would have started with a much smaller frame change to test the waters, instead of jumping in head-first with THREE whole power/toughness blocks. I hope for Magic’s sake that I’m wrong on this one. Even if I’m not wrong the game will certainly survive, I just like to avoid any hits we can.
Before I’m done talking about levelers, I should mention two rules about leveling I hadn’t noticed at first glance. Did you know you can only level as a sorcery? Sure it says that right on the card, but my gut reaction to a leveler is that it’s a great place to sink your leftover mana and get value. When does mana become leftover? Right at the end of your opponent’s turn. If they never did anything that makes you play that Neck Snap, then might as well level up. However, Wizards decided that they wanted you to at least have to commit to a leveler on your turn, a choice I can agree with now that I see it, but one I’m not sure I would have come to on my own. I also think this means that instants are going to play a smaller role in Limited than we’re used to as leaving mana open instead of leveling is a pretty clear sign.
The other rules quirk that I probably never would have noticed is that when you go up a stat block, your creature keeps any abilities on any previous stat block. For example, you get Enclave Cryptologist to level 3, gaining the “T: Draw a card” ability, but it still has the ability from levels 1-2 “T: Draw a card, then discard a card.” Isn’t that funky? Personally I find it very misleading as the card layout says, about as straightforward as you can get, that from level 1-2 this creature has ability X. It does not say level 1+. I imagine this was done for grokability, and I can agree with this choice, but it’s quite strange. I imagine that most of these creatures have been designed to have ability upgrades so that you’ll rarely want to use old abilities anyway, but I still find it kind of strange. Hopefully I heard this correctly and this paragraph isn’t just straight-up incorrect.
Hopefully you’ve enjoyed my thoughts on the upcoming set. I like to take a look at things from not only the typical Limited and Constructed stance, but magic strategy as a whole as well as game design. Hopefully that showed in this article.
I look forward to the new Limited environment. More than anything I look forward to drafting with real packs again. Lately all we’ve been doing is cube cube cube, mostly because people are looking for a break from Zendikar-Zendikar-Worldwake between seasons. If Rise of the Eldrazi
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