Monday, February 03, 2014

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Simic Sky Swallower (Dissension, 2006)

One of the problems with Gatherer is that it posts the cards at slightly smaller size than they would be if you were holding it in your hand, which can sometimes make it difficult to ascertain exactly what the art is showing. I found a larger version of the art for this card here, courtesy of some old promo materials. Scary dude.

Last week saw a huge creature from the first Ravnica block, and in a stunning turn of events, this week . . . also features a huge creature from the first Ravnica block. Someone asked me on Twitter last week if I could spend more time talking about how the storylines are developed in Magic, and in particular how a trading-card game can be used as a vehicle for any kind of long-form storytelling. That's a good question, and I realize that so far in this series I haven't discussed the process in itself. So let's discuss it now, keeping in mind this is a big topic that will take time to cover adequately.

The first thing that should be pointed out is that because Magic is such a large game, it has a variety of different types of fans and players. (I won't go into Mark Rosewater's famous "psychographics" theory here, but leave it be said that the game takes its responsibilities to each different type of player very seriously.) Some players are naturally more involved with the competitive aspects of the game, and could be described as either serious duffers or aspiring Tournament players. At the far extreme of this "type" are folks who probably wouldn't be too upset if the cards themselves came without any art or story attached, just stats and rules. But on the far end of the spectrum from these are players who really deeply care about the storyline and know all the intricacies from the game's twenty years' of continuity. These types of players aren't necessarily unserious or noncompetitive - anymore than serious competitors can't be interest in the game's story elements - but these are the two main poles of Magic fandom. (In technical terms, you have "Melvin" and "Vorthos," which aren't really player types but fan types.) What this means is that you're trying to sell the same product to two very different audiences: on the one extreme, highly-competitive math-oriented nerds (if the shoe fits...) who have no vested interest in the game as story; and on the other, fantasy nerds (if the shoe fits...) who love the story, the art, and the characters, but who may even in some instances not even play the game, who might collect the cards for the art, and who have little vested interest in the story as a game. Most players fall somewhere in between these two extremes, but that should give you an idea of the different masters that must be served by each Magic release.

To their credit, this is a tightrope they have gotten very good at walking. The game's early years were split schizophrenically between overpowered sets with less attention paid to story elements and drastically underpowered sets with highly-developed storylines. 1994's ultra-powerful Arabian Nights was the game's first real expansion set, also the only set to take place ostensibly in the "real" world of Earth myths, and also a set without a storyline of its own other than a basic adherence to Arabian myths and culture (they fixed that a few years later when they retroactively grafted a new storyline onto the Arabian Nights setting in a comic, I believe). With a few other single-card exceptions from the game's early years, Magic has stayed far away from Earth since then. But just a year after that Magic also published The Dark, a woefully underpowered set with an overdeveloped storyline and setting.

Cut ahead over ten years to the Ravnica block and you see the product of an extremely sophisticated design and development system wherein both gameplay and storyline are given prominence, and - most importantly - are no longer seen as competing for valuable resources within the world of the game. Ravnica remains one of the game's most popular settings and sets - popular enough on both scores to rate a sequel. The key here is that they figured out how to make story and play compliment each other. From one way of looking at things, Ravnica is a setting built around the mechanical interplay of ten two-color pairs - each possible two-color combination on the five-color wheel that defines the game. The challenge for a designer is to figure out how to make each two-color pair more or less equal in terms of gameplay and mechanical value. But from another way of looking, Ravnica is a giant city world defined by unceasing conflict - in terms of both political and literal warfare - between ten evenly-matched guilds, each guild being in turn a locus of fierce internal strife and dangerous political machinations within its own power base. As the storyline develops the game designers find new ways to reflect the story in the cards themselves - and similarly, as the set's mechanical profile takes shape, the creative team must rise to the challenge of explaining new game elements in the context of the storyline.

All of which brings us back to our friend, Mr. Simic Sky Swallower. This card is blue and green, which means it belongs to the Simic guild. This is an extremely well-designed card because it plays into the mechanical identities of both colors: green (as mentioned last week) is traditionally the color of large creatures, whereas blue is the color of evasion and trickery. Sure enough, the Sky Swallower is a giant beast - technically a "Leviathan" with square 6/6 stats and Trample. But it also has Flying - something that Green, with its focus on giant earthbound creatures, rarely gets, as well as Hexproof (or at least the ability which was later keyworded as Hexproof in a more recent rules update). Hexproof is very powerful, because it means the creature can't be the target of any opponent's spells or abilities - meaning it can't be destroyed by anything but another creature, or a spell or ability that indiscriminately kills multiple creatures without specifically targeting any. Flying creatures can only be blocked by other creatures with Flying, or Reach (an ability that allows creatures without Flying to block Fliers - the ability is often placed on spiders, to give you an idea of how it works). All of which adds up to a giant flying monster that cannot be directly killed and evades most attempts to destroy or control it - definitely in keeping with the Simic's guild philosophy as being the home of "mad scientists" who concoct dangerous and unstable biological hybrids.


Eric said...


Terrific as always, on this card. For popular/non-popular sets, what's the baseline for popular reception in the Magic community? (i.e.what makes Ravnica a highpoint, etc.?) Where does one look for sets doing well or sets bombing? Is it tea leaves of how the card creators reacted, or does a trusted outside source exist?

timoneil5000 said...

If you pay attention to official MAGIC mouthpieces like Mark Rosewater, the company is actually quite open about market research and relative sales. RAVNICA is considered a highpoint because it sold well, was well-received by the player base at the time (according to their detailed market research), and promoted a healthy tournament environment. The same can be said of INNISTRAD, THEROS (so far), and to a lesser extent, ZENDIKAR.

In contrast, KAMIGAWA block is considered a failure because it sold poorly, was poorly-received by a large segment of players (although there are still vocal boosters), and - especially coming on the heels of the disastrous MIRRODIN tournament environment - was considered a disappointment in constructed play. MIRRODIN sold well and was beloved by many players but was such a disaster for tournament play that when they revisited the setting in SCARS OF MIRRODIN the follow-up was significantly less powerful - they were providing a sequel to the popular story, not the lopsided and unfun tournament environment. LORWYN and TIME SPIRAL were poorly received by most metrics (although they have their vocal fans), while ALARA, SCARS and RETURN TO RAVNICA were apparently somewhere in-between.

The difference between the way Magic releases this data as opposed to, say, either of the Big Two comic publishers, is that Magic is very upfront about telling fans what worked and what didn't, in hindsight. This is especially important since the last few years have introduced the concept of returning to previous settings (since the game was limited to its first setting, the plane of Dominaria, for the first decade of its existence), and fans are always inquiring as to the likelihood of returning to certain planes. So when the company itself says that X set performed poorly and won't likely be revisited (as they've explicitly said about Kamigawa), it carries weight, because they're directly stating what did and did not make them money in the past.

(Also: I remember trying to get the compliment / complement right - that's one of those words that even the dictionary doesn't help with. I chose wrong.)