Sunday, December 16, 2018

The 6th sin: the Degrading and Casualization of Magic (part 2: Mechanics)

Naturally, my first article was controversial, as should be expected, both from the image that opened the article, along with the context of the article itself. At least one FB group I posted on has kicked me, due to it's content, but alas, I must go on.

It's hard to pinpoint the first time the rules, were simplified, but if we must, we shall go to Revised.

I often consider the time before Revised Edition (or 3rd to some), as a 'open beta'. The rules were a mess, the deck construction was murky, and the idea the game could last with these rules is hysterical. I remember when the 'Alpha Only' happened at Noobcon discovering the alpha rule for timing was 'simply try not to cast to many spells'.

So in the Summer of '94, Revised was launched. Besides for errata, clarification on timing rules, and explaining protection, it also gave us the infamous 4-card limit, which was an amazing (and practical) feat, that would come to define every card game that came out after it. This would create a trend, each additional edition that came out tried to improve or simplify the rules.

4th introduced the concept of playing a land as a 'special action', the concept of 'owner' in a game of Magic, and invented the term 'fizzles'.

5th edition rules were a hot mess, that I'm honestly not getting into.

Then Classic 6th Edition happened.

Ok that isn't honestly fair. In fact, there was a time before this that was an attempt at an 'Entry level product' for Magic: the Gathering.

The first 'Entry level' product was actually from Magic: Portal. It didn't have mana (lands just tapped), decks were only 30 cards, life totals were 15, creatures had no types (all creatures were 'summon creature', this was changed in Portal: The Secong Age), and it had no instants, only sorceries, some of which had timing rules written on the cards. Also artifacts and enchantments were excluded. Some other things to note, a thin line sat between the flavor text and the rules text, to separate the two, and power and toughness had a sword and shield next to them. In addition to this, most tapped abilities had a sorcery speed restriction to them.

As someone who actually liked Portal, the big kick in the nads was you weren't actually allowed to play with Portal cards outside of portal, unless it was printed in another set. All Portal cards by default were illegal for play, making that aspiring mage that got this suddenly have a load of useless spells. This would be changed in 2004, but until then, that is how this, and it's three cousins (Portal: the Second Age, Portal: Three Kingdoms, and Starter: 99) would work.

From Portal: The Second Age. Notice the sword, shield, and line. Also notice the knight with a gun, badass.

Example of the 'instant' sorceries.

Example of 'Summon creature' and the ability restriction.

Despite some improvements, and a good amount of fair, Portal wasn't very popular, and the game was a dud. Instead, people continued to play Magic. In fact, news about the rules change didn't even start creeping around until 1998. Naturally, back then, you had three sources for news, Magazines, Usenet forums (and other localized forums), or the original Magic website, The Magic Dojo. The Magic Dojo was a simple website were anyone could post a .txt file, and it was easy to be read. In a time of faulty dial up connections, simplicity was it's godsend, and the Dojo flourished.

It was here that the news of a new rules for Magic was leaked, and Peter Adkison (then owner of WotC) confirmed these rumors were correct. Naturally there was lots of disagreements over this, after all, the amount of rules it changed were staggering, and all at the same time.

"Folks, there isn't really any secret here. We've been saying for a long time that our goal is to make Magic: the Gathering a classic game like Chess or Go. What makes Chess or Go classic is that they have very deep strategy while having relatively easy rules. I'm sure that many of you would agree that Magic has very deep strategy, while many of you will also agree that the rules are not easy"--Peter Adkison, Why 6th edition will not kill Magic 

"Trying to make MTG like Chess or Go is ludicrous. MTG, like every card game I've seen is a game of luck. There is strategy involved, obviously, but when two players play perfectly, the outcome is decided solely by luck"--Russell P. Linnemann II, in response to Peter Adkinson, 11/24/98.

This is just a small example of posts made, many of which, have been lost to time. Naturally, the exact rules on how Classic 6th (the stack) worked weren't out yet, and speculation was abound across the board. In January of of 1999, a official statement was made by Bill Rose on the official Magic the Gathering website. 

"Some of you believe that the Magic rules are being "dumbed down," that Wizards of the Coast believes starter-level products like Magic: The Gathering--Portal™ sets are the game's future, and that the removal of trample from Sixth Edition is the beginning of the end. This simply isn't true. The continued success of Magic lies primarily in one type of product: expert expansions. Magic R&D's number-one goal is to create interesting expansions that stimulate the Standard tournament environment and challenge current players"--Bill Rose, 1/15/99

In reality, I can honestly say that 6th didn't simplify the rules, as much as change them, for better or worse is anyone's call. However, the actually list, when looked upon, is staggering. 

  • The removal of Interrupts is the most famous of them. Interrupts were now cast as instants, and used the same timing rule as instants. This hurt fork, but nearly killed text/lace effects from the game. I often impose a house rule when using a lace or instant speed text effect about playing it as intended, but keeping it counterable. 
  • Introduction to the stack. Timing rules were unified, so this meant the removal of the 'regeneration step' the 'damage prevention step', and so on. 
  • In this regard, damage didn't happen at the end of a phase, or under 5th, after the damage prevention step. Instead, it happened upon resolution. This meant damage was now prevented before hand, instead of after it was 'assigned'. Many players who came back during Time Spiral complained about this, due to how much it changed the reflex on how to use damage prevention. This introduced the 'regeneration' shield controversy that eventually got regeneration removed from the game. Since you were suppose to regenerate a creature before they recieved damage. A long standing controversy that can still be heard on kitchen tables even today.
  • Triggered abilities changed, mainly come into play effects. Now they worked on the stack, allowing people to respond to them with instants. This would create the infamous 'O-Ring' glitch, though it would take a few years for it to be realized.
  • Tapped artifacts no longer turned off. In fact, for a few years (many years later) you couldn't turn off Winter Orb, because it never had errata text, but that was later changed due to player protest. Static Orb and Howling Mine was also printed with 'as long as untapped' written on them.
  • Phasing was lumped into the untap step.
  •  Any ability that checked 'when successfully cast' now automatically happened upon being cast.
  • Combat itself was simplified into 5 steps. Beginning, declare attackers, declare blockers, damage, and end of combat.
  • Blocked tapped creatures no longer didn't do damage. This allowed creatures to tap and deal damage. It also removed some versatility from twiddle and ruined Master of Arms.
  • Combat damage used the stack. We will get to that later. This also changed significantly how banding worked, particularly on how it worked with Trample, but since that was phased out of the game, no one seemed to notice. 
  • The phase of a turn was simplified to be 5 phases, beginning (untap, upkeep, draw), Main Phase 1, Combat, Main Phase 2, Clean Up (end step)
  • You automatically lose when your life hits 0.

"I believe the Sixth Edition rules are best for the long-term health of Magic play. The rules changes shift the Magic strategy back to the cards, where it belongs. As with all change, there will be some short-term costs"-Bill Rose, former lead designer

As mentioned above, the stack wasn't as flawless as they had hoped, and it came under trouble numerous times over it's history (I mentioned the O-Ring glitch earlier). However the grand time unification did what it was intended to do, and while certainly simpler, it didn't hurt the game, especially to some of it's naysayers.

7th introduced one rule change, drawing a card during the draw step no longer used the stack, which was actually changed shortly after 6th was released. 

First came Fetchlands. I dare say, right here, fetch lands were the first true casualization of the mechanics of MTG. It was so important, WotC even put the printing of them in Onslaught on the 25 years of MtG timeline.

Sure, this isn't entirely true, as the Mirage fetchlands had been printed years earlier, but those were different. These Fetchlands came into play untapped, and got you an untapped land for the cost of 1 life.

Now you might be saying 'but doesn't this make the game more skill based?' No. One of Magic's original philosophies was it should be harder to run more colors. Sure, the original duels often come up against this argument, but in a time of major color hosers, more then enough the duels are often as much of a drawback as a benefit. No, running five, four, or even three color decks have some inconsistency issues, and require a great deal of care to work. Or at least did.

The Mirage Fetches
Onslaught fetches

With the fetches, this makes the point moot. Mana fixing is simple, so the theoretical draw back is non-existant. Further more, while they are technically lands, they allow decks to run less lands. A deck with 8-10 mana producing lands and 12 fetches is more efficent then a deck running 20 mana producing lands, simply due to consistency. It also eliminates Magic's most important function to run, luck. Many would say luck is bad to have in a game, but remember, Magic isn't chess.


Then 8th edition came...

8th was a major change to the aesthetic to the cards themselves, but also introduced formally the rules of 'Subtype' and 'Supertype'. A Supertype was things like 'legendary' were as a subtype was, creature types, and land types. At this time, basic lands stopped checking their names, and now checked their types, Desert, Lair, and Urza's X also became types at this time. When announcing the Modern format, they even said '8th edition was when we changed how we designed Magic cards'.

It also gave a minor change to the draw step, but that was an actual good rules update.

However, this seemed to open the floodgates. In one block in, and only a year later, Legend was removed as a creature type, and instead, turned into Legendary creatures. It also herald the first change to the 'legend' rule since Ice Age. You see, once a Legend was in play, any attempt to cast another one would simply fizzle. If two were in play at the same time through an effect, they would both be destroyed.

Instead, they made it so two (or more) legendary permanents of the same name would destroy each other as a state based action. This made Legendary lands into potential awesome kill spells. It also turned clone effects into kill spells for sometime. In fact, in the early days of EDH, people ran Clone and Dance of Many as versatile kill spells (but we will get to that format later).

Magic's second set of twins was designed around this mechanic.

The reason for this change, actually first came up, several years earlier, with one of the few creatures ever banned in multiple formats.

Hail to the queen baby.

Lin Sivvi was so powerful in draft that it usually translated to winning the event, especially if you got her first pick and knew to build around it. She was also banned in block constructed (I believe she was the last card to be done so).

However, that wasn't the recent issue involving the legend rule at the time, but instead was Akroma, Angel of Wrath, who saw so much play as a finisher in control, it wasn't uncommon to see people topdecking her while staring one down. The new rule gave an incentive to cast them (as a kill spell of sorts). This rule would cause two major tournament cards to be used, if as nothing else, then a kill spell, Jace Beleran (which technically was a similar rule called the Planeswalker uniqueness rule), and Umizawa's Jitte.

Finally in 2013 they changed the rule again, this time so everyone can have a legendary permanent of the same name. Mark Rosewater has stated numerous times he hates legendary as a mechanic, and would rather it be a 'marker' with no rule baggage. This also was effected due to EDH/Commander, but we will get to that format down the line.

This rule change in my opinion is the most heinous rule change. Besides for it's opinion for ruining the flavor of the mechanic itself, it also largely removed legendary as a drawback, and for that, I hate it. Planeswalkers went through an even worse fate, but I will get to them later.

While on the subject of rule baggage, they also at this time removed 'Walls can't attack', instead they said they were phasing out walls entirely, instead going to a mechanic called Defender which stated 'this creature can't attack.' Now for sometime, there weren't many walls printed, and Ravnica (a plane that originally was so crowded that it was urban decay) had not a single wall in it. Yes, a poor time to make such a decision. Me and my brother use to say 'Ravnica has no walls' as a joke, and all the stone work in Ravnica was just powerful illusions. This came full on its head, when the next time we visited Ravnica, it had a single wall, that was an illusion.

With this they removed 'creature rule baggage'. Creatures no longer had rules attached to them, and instead they rules got attached to the cards themselves.

Planeswalkers were introduced in just a few short years, in Lorwyn. The 'Lorwyn 5' would mark in a change in the games focus, but I've already discussed this in another post. Instead I will aknowledge no one, but two major rule changes to Planeswalkers. First one is the 'planeswalker uniqueness rule' which is there can be only one walker of a character out at a time.

You see, each Planeswalker, has a 'type' that is his name. Since most of my readers are Old School, I'll show you an example.

Bolas has a name the type 'Bolas'. Under the original rules, only one Bolas could be in play at a time, when they changed the legend rule, they reduced this to each player could only have one. Then they phased that out entirely, allowing players to have as many as they want. They just can't have the same name. Which means I can have two different Nicol Bolas's in play, at the same time. Which is fucking stupid, but the dumbest thing of all, is that they could easily get rid of the subtype all together, if they hadn't shot themselves in the foot.

What's the buzz?
A year prior to this rule change, they decided to make Planeswalker theme decks, and have cards that checked for those Planeswalkers. Well now here they are, so the subtype has to stay.

I'm off track though.
The next major rule change came almost a decade ago with the release of Magic 2010. The changes went as following:
A poorly followed rule on how combat works, forcing blocking creatures to 'line up', each damage would be checked one by one. It's the shittiest rule ever and no one has ever followed it.
Combat damage no longer used the stack. The second most controversial rule change.
Damage could no longer be divided by the attacking player so neither blocking creature died. One creature HAD to receive lethal. Ironically neither of these applied to banding, which still uses the pre-M10 rules.
A change to bands with others to make it play like everyone assumed it did.
A change to the clean up step. The removal of a game mechanic I can't remember the name of that didn't actually appear on a single card.
then finally: The removal of Mana Burn.

"Of all the rules changes that went into effect with Magic 2010, the one I continue to get email about is the removal of mana burn (combat damage on the stack died a relatively quiet death). The mail is not from people that want their opponents to lose a random point for tapping their Birds of Paradise in response to a Lightning Bolt, but rather people that occassionally try to win the game via mana burn with cards like this one"--Aaron Forsythe, Gatherer comment on Power Surge.

It's removal in all honestly is still one of the most controversial rule decisions in the game. As Aaron said, it's still common to get complaint emails (at least when the forums were still up). Even the most casual of players somehow knew the removal of it. Mark Rosewater has claimed 'it didn't hold it's own weight'. But when you design cards that deliberately say you can't suffer mana burn, you are taking away potential design space from the mechanic itself. It should be noted it was almost removed back in 6th edition, but Mark Rosewater fought to keep it in the game. This design was also changed because it was believed new players didn't like taking damage from their own resources, especially by accident. 

Press F to pay respects

"The game did lose something with the loss of mana burn, I acknowledge that. But I still think the rule wasn’t worth having around. Now that it doesn’t exist, players aren’t just tapping lands willy-nilly and floating mana without repercussion just to mess with each other (at least not players I’ve interacted with), which was one fear of removing it. Occasionally a Cabal Coffers or Gaea's Cradle will over-perform and no punishment is meted out, but that’s hardly a big loss. In return, newer players never need lectured on the hidden dangers of their own mana producers."--Aaron Forsythe

"But Magic is an awesome game. How would we ever stop attracting new players? The answer is what I consider to be the biggest danger to the game: complexity creep. Let me explain. The game keeps evolving. As it does so, it continues to add new elements to the game. Complexity can only grow. Here's the problem: The entry to the game is always the same. The beginner knows nothing. They have to make the jump from knowing nothing to knowing enough to play. But that line, "knowing enough to play," is a moving target. As the game gains in complexity, the line goes up. At some point the differential is too high and not enough new players can make the jump."--Mark Rosewater, Magic Lessons.

Of coarse, if you complained about this change, you were called an old foggy that couldn't keep up with the times and wanted the game to stagnate.

In the same article, he said it free'd up design space, since it let you do something that wasn't originally intentional (lower your life total). 

One of the two 'freed up design space'

Because killing someone with mana burn is so wrong...

There was however, one more major change in Magic, Origins.

In Origins, they again changed the design of the card, this time, the border. They also added a little glowing emblem on the bottom 'to fight counterfeits'.Most recently they added a line, just like in Portal, between the rules text and flavor text, though they didn't add a sword and a shield (yet). They also have written off the text 'to your mana pool' for card effects.

Rant: We have a decade of Llanowar Elves largely looking the same. This isn't it.

 Since this article is getting long, here's a few other things:

Mythic Rares: Added a fourh chase rarity, and would eventually fertilize the idea for Masterpieces and buy a box promos.
EDH/Commander: Turned a fan format into an official format. Creating a major wedge in an already broken base. Basically an entirely different game using the MtG 'engine'. Cards exist specifically designed for this format.
NWO (and NNWO): Basically simplified commons to the point of unplayability. Anything that would have traditionally been a common, got up-ticked to an uncommon (and uncommon to a rare). This was done as a means of 'helping new players adapt' and 'increasing the strategy of hexproof'. In reality it made buying packs an even worse investment.
The removal of Protection and Shroud: Both of these mechanics had inherit drawbacks, which made them bad for newer players. Both have been replaced with 'Hexproof', a one sided version of shroud.
Protection also was cited for confusion.

It should be said, in the past it was also discussed removing the mana pool (which the recent change has me worried it will happen) and max hand size has been discussed, but currently that hasn't happened.

So thank you for reading. Tune in soon for part 3: Tournaments.

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