Call it luck or fate or whatever, but by whatever mechanism, I ran into Mark Rosewater the other day.
I mean, not in any kind of literal way. It was really happenstance, but...
You know what? Let's slow this down for a second.
The introduction for this piece is located here, published last week. Go there if you missed anything.
And yeah, yeah, I'll get back to Mark Rosewater. All you need to know for now is that it was very positive. I'll tell you all about it in a second, just hang tight.
You know, truth be told, I like being positive - or at the very least, informed and neutral - but there's no other way to get into the things we need to get into this week without getting a bit... real.
Let's get this over with.
The Death of Magic's Pseudo-Story Credibility
First off, maybe we should begin by making sure we've got a good working understanding of the distinction between taste and objectivity. It's a good investment, I promise. It'll go a long way toward understanding why Ikoria is...well, you'll see. Keep reading.
See, there's this confusion in places where a lot of people actually have no idea that the things they experi-ence, consume, look at, listen to, and so on, came from somewhere. The longer the human spe-cies survives, the more we forget that stuff needs some impetus to get started. Every door and window in every building you've ever been in had to be put there by someone. And before that, someone had to first think of the idea for a door and/or a window. This applies to film, food, smartphones, and Magic cards: they don't just appear - someone has to craft them. And to craft is to make individual decisions in the details. It's to nurture an idea until it's released into the custody of the physical world.
Think of a bridge. One person builds it; however, everyone then gets to use it. We start taking it for granted. The original effort starts to get further and further into the past as more and more people are born never knowing the world before the bridge was put there. The town or wherever it was built just "has a bridge."
As fast as it seems like Magic and its multitudes of related information can be at your fin-gertips whenever you want it, as instant and obvious as doors and windows seem now to every human being that lives inside the shelters attached to those doors, they all started as nothing more than an idea. It was an idea that required refinement, design, conjecture, and continual evolution through error cor-rection. This is the inherent nature of reality and progress. It's the difference between stuff that works on a deep, reliable level and just... you know, stuff.
Make mistakes. Study and understand them. Talk to others with different points of view to further eliminate potential blind spots. Accept the impossibility of perfection and keep trying. Your pride has no place in this part of the process.
Oh right, Mark Rosewater! I'll tell you in just a minute. But hey, speaking of Mark...
One of the hard-to-vary attributes of a great design is in what I call The Principle of Maximum Restraint. It's a Mark Rosewater-endorsed rule of thumb that a game should have the minimal amount of rules it needs to function. I'm paraphrasing, of course, and I don't speak for Mark, but I think that's more or less, you know, a known design song he'd sing some harmony on somewhere. Other truisms are located here in this article he wrote at the end of 2003, most of them relevant to what I want to focus on today. I'll reference it a few times, so keep it about, but it's definitely a funny read now.
You know what? I've written a lot already. Let's take a break.
Oh, I know!
Let's look at some pictures for a second! They're worth (at least) a thousand words on Ikoria. Hey, everything's bigger there, right?! Maybe we'll get a few thousand words out of it! Make it millions! Bil-lions of words! More is the ultimate!
Behold. Pictures you are probably familiar with by now.
Stay in the creative vein for a second. Don't think about the rules text or combat stats or the other character-istics that you're familiar with that clue you in that these are, in fact, real Magic cards. Don't worry about all those words about what the cards do in the game. Keep it strictly, "in-universe" here. You know, the universe (or Multiverse, if you rather) that Magic creative has been work-ing for years to get you to buy into using hyper-recurring planeswalker characters?
Well, as inconsistent and incoherent as most of those plotlines are/were/will continue to be - seriously, you can't leverage death as a great cost and/or sacrifice in a game where life means less than nothing - it was still trying to be a story.
Internal consistency. That's really what it's all about. Day one of fiction writing is internal consistency. Take the greatest, most atmospheric and immersive story, then drop a character from another intellectual property into it and watch as your epic, emotional journey becomes amateur fanfiction.
Magic is very much a fun, fantastical card game. But it's also among the most valuable game brands in the world, meaning there's an expectation of... professionalism.
Imagine you're watching an X-Files or Star Trek re-run. Imagine you're watching Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad. Imagine you're reading a Star Wars novel and f*** it, Godzilla shows up.
Whatever escapism was felt before that moment is now gone. It's chum, floating on the surface of the ocean for birds.
And I could deal with all of that at face value, parody that it is, if at some point in the recent past the public face of Magic R&D hadn't from kind of nowhere expressed the idea that Magic story/creative right now is a super sacred thing. He went into detail on why he responded the way he did in another post, which I'm putting here just to cover Mark's good character as a follow up, but really, that's not the point. I don't even begrudge him for feeling the way he did initially. He should believe his colleagues are working hard on something that matters, just as they believe it.
But you can't go to bat for the integrity of Magic creative and also use whatever incidental intellectual properties you have available and lying around to render further incomprehensible an already brutally inaccessible Magic set. Cake, eating it too, and so forth.
This isn't a specialty product (something I've advocated for more of, by the way; a lot of these ideas could have gone into something like that, if they for some reason had to go an-ywhere tangible at all). We're playing with actual Godzilla on Standard-legal tables (except not really, but one baffling baby step at a time; if we try to untangle too many of these Ikoria Christmas tree lights at once we may choke ourselves to death).
Truth be told, I love Rosewater. He's probably a pretty happenstance stand in as a generally easygoing figure-head for a game with a hard to please audience. That's why I'm using a surprise interaction with him to frame this entire editorial!
That's still coming, just so you're aware.
Maybe he loved Godzilla Magic cards, maybe he hated them. It's not that important so much what he thinks now as it is that a few years before we got the world's lamest Smash Bros reveal imitation, this story stuff was super important.
And that's where I'm going: There's plain-sight tension going on, and it's not the only place you can find it in Ikoria's margins.
It's time to leave the absurdity of the creative part of this casserole and go even deeper.
The More the Scarier
Let's let go of the Godzilla stuff. It is after all, promotional, is it not? Yeah, it's dumb, but it's kind of ancillary, right? As humiliating as it is that we're tacking on non-card names with card names and vice versa to make this malformed idea come to rotting, messy, runny fruition, we still get to actually play with new Magic cards, right?
Yeah, they're pretty fun.
But turning aside the idea of using a property so out of touch they may as well have made a John Wayne card, what else is on tap in the new Standard release Magic vein? Do we have a saucy mechanic that will turn even veteran players upside down scratching their heads? Are we evolving counters to do new and interesting things, to go new and game state-muddling places? Are we changing some of the very struc-ture that we've always presumed Magic should have, destined to evolve in some pro-found new way where we combine Magic's most competitive format with its most popu-lar?
The answer is yes. We're doing all that. And more. Because apparently we just cannot help ourselves.
And I can't for the life of me understand why.
Seriously, no. Why?
Why in the world after years of deteriorating timeframes between when a new Standard-legal set is released and the time it becomes solved and deflated would you take on more development challenges? Why in the years following egregious development criticism would you complicate matters exponentially further for yourself? How is this a reasonable strategy? For anything?
When you walk into your home after work and see that your children have pulled out all of the babysitter's hair, it is not a signal for you to adopt two more kids and purchase an indoor horse for the kitchen. You slow that crap down until you have a handle on it, then you take steps again slowly.
Time Spiral was considered a big learning experience because of its mechanical identity as a new player nightmare. Here I am worried that the important lessons of Urza's Saga are slipping away, and we're redoing the lessons from much, much later.
Then again, this is the same mistake, and it happened not that many years apart, so who knows who is paying attention to what, really?
Shoving this much complexity into a set, especially in the era of Arena bringing in so many new or lapsed fans, does nothing for you. In fact, that's kind of the irony.
I love playing with Ikoria! Because I'm fortunate enough to already be two decades invested in Magic's rules. Magic is always going to be a complex game, but mitigat-ing it is always going to be better than what Ikoria is doing: making an inconvenience into an out-right problem.
In an era where attention spans are shrinking, entertainment is becoming more and more quickly accessible and for less, and the entire world is so busy that time means everything, who is this designed for? I don't think Godzilla promos are going to pick up the sloppy slack on this one.
And yeah, it is sloppy.
If a mechanic makes New World Order look silly without that much more even being on a card, especially at common, then it's probably not ready. And I really, really, really don't want to see a State of the Game article from Mark at the end of the year that says all this more gently like none of it was foreseea-ble. Regimes that don't have to ban Standard cards several times a year get more rope.
Target creature, eh? Yeah those creatures are really oppressing the planeswalkers these days. Can't have Te-feri in (mild) danger! I'm just kidding: Teferi turns off instant-speed anyway, so it probably wouldn't matter.
This has more words than most double-faced planeswalkers. Are there sparknotes somewhere?
I know everyone in Magic confuses puns with finding money, but this wordplay doesn't even work or rhyme! Either someone didn't know or didn't care. Either way it's bush league. In full disclosure, this isn't really an issue the way the other stuff I'm talking about is, but I still wanted to shame the card for having a (bad) play-test name that made it all the way through. I mean, what didn't?
I hope so much that the first card every brand new player reads after internalizing the keyword counter abili-ties is this one.
We literally just put out an Un-set.
R&D Needs to Learn About Emergence Yesterday
No, not just as an adjective to put in card names.
You know what the main problem is with putting your hands all over things people like? You never remember that it was there before your hands got there.
Nobody who was getting paid a salary from Wizards of the Coast came up with Commander. It was not creat-ed off of focus group data. It did not come to a company man in the middle of a long, introspective shower.
It is emergent.
Emergence is, generally speaking, when a series of smaller things interact at such a level of complexity that they become a new system without being able to be reduced back down to any of those components it came from.
Are you confused? Unlike Ikoria, I'm here to help you, newb.
Take the English alphabet. It's only 26 symbols. But if you combine them in certain ways you get literature, language, streamlined communication, and so forth. And moreover, if someone asks you what The Od-yssey is about or which greeting card they should get for someone, you're going to have a very hard time doing that if you're just singing them your ABCs one letter at a time.
In much the same way, Commander did not first appear as a top down initiative; it was a natural occurrence in the Magic wild that came from a natural creative instinct for different play patterns than the ones we were overexposed to in tournament Magic.
In other words, Commander didn't come from "Commander cards." Commander came from a bunch of cards that were designed without any awareness Commander would ever exist.
In case you haven't figured it out yet, that means the increasing "Commanderization" of Standard is com-pletely misguided. It is a targeted and uninspired attempt to replicate something that can't be replicated: Whenever you take something like Commander and point an algorithm at it, it stops being the same thing. Letting us have a "sort of" command zone/commander imitation in Standard isn't doing good things, even before we get to the crazy things it does to Magic as a structural card game with some semblance of coherent rules and balance. Trying to quantify and spotlight it all the time, let alone distort it into the dangerous and aggressively unclean companion mechanic, is a fool's errand. You aren't making Standard more like Commander; you're just making the Commander experience less special with hyper-intention and making Standard more of a balance risk than it already has been. Which if you haven't been around much the last few years, is an issue.
Wait...did I forget something?
A Mark Rosewater Story
Last month or so, I was back and forthing with someone who happened to be next to Mark Rosewater. Like physically in the same space as him.
They told me as such, so without thinking much about it, I did the same thing I did when I found myself talk-ing to Richard Garfield face-to-face ten years ago: I thanked him for the unimaginable positive effect Magic and his life's work have had on my life. And I meant it.
I really want to be able to say the same thing to him in ten years. In twenty. I'm not willing to let this game go unless it's a necessity.
When the guy who coined the term "Fatalism Intuition" is concerned, there's reason to be concerned. Ikoria is a very interesting set for veteran Magic players to mess with and contemplate. That's the good news.
The bad news is that it also includes things like promotional materials with convoluted price/prize tiers. It in-cludes a lack of humility in its design and development willingness to not only just push the mechanical boundaries of taste but also senselessly throw wrenches into Magic's strengths and most proven game structures - like not getting to pick one of the cards in your hand at the start of the game as an exchange for the pseudo-cost of having the deck's companion restriction completely iron out your deck-building mistakes for you all while transparently artificially changing the total number of appearances of "overpowered" cards in published Top 8s. It coincides with other bubble creep industry copycatting with its rote implementation of "road maps" and other AAA video game consumer freedom reductions.
It includes modern fighter jets in the background art. Airplanes.
Innistrad was Magic but with horror. Amonket was Magic but with an-cient Egypt. Mirage was Magic as depicted in African traditions.
Ikoria has Godzilla for some reason. It's got cards that guarantee you an eight-card hand each game, with so little drawback it makes Gitaxian Probe blush. And it's got so much more and all of this in plain sight to the point it scares even a steady hand like myself.
This is an indulgent Magic set that I feel excited its creators in the time before its release. Since it was unveiled, I presume said creators are now in two camps. One of those camps is studying and the other is bemoaning the fickle tastes of the Magic public, mourning that players don't know what it's like or how hard it is or that they don't get what you're trying to do. Magic players always complain!
But I'm usually not one of them, so maybe it's not a mutually exclusive thing. Maybe Magic players can be negative sometimes and this set is a lot of big footsteps in bad, bad directions.
Study and learn from this one. Please.
The Indestructible Danny West