Friday, January 8, 2010

The Future of Blue

Today's latest article by Tom LaPille is going to be placed under critical examination for the next few months, perhaps years. It is about Wizard's developers' stance on blue and its power level. Of course, I will link to it so that you can read it yourself.

Many Magic players have been sending letters of complaint every day to WotC about the weakness of blue in today's Standard and in the latest sets. This is how much blue fans are devoted to their color and its state in Magic. Well, Wizards decided to post some sort of response through Tom LaPille. The one people are going to attack because he wrote the article. But I imagine he is prepared for the reaction. I can only hope he takes it all in a good-natured way.

Let's look at his points in the article; what people are going to say about them; and how we might react to this news. If it is, in fact, news of any sort.

Regarding blue card draw

I'm reading under the lines here, and it seems like Tom is saying, "blue card draw is always more powerful than we initially expect." In other words, development has serious problems evaluating the power of blue cards when they're developing them.

The way he words it, it feels like he's telling us development is still trying to figure out the underlying reason why blue card draw ends up being so strong. And that it's simply a matter of trial and error before they figure out what makes balanced card draw. But this is me being hopeful. I think what he really means is that they've given up on trial and error and are simply going to try different approaches altogether. There will no longer be "a card draw spell" that draws cards for the sake of card and tempo advantage. Instead, cards that draw other cards will always do something else. Divination is probably their idea of balanced card draw for the moment.

Presumably the "Draw Go" style of Magic is dead... and they are trying to prevent it from ever happening.

Regarding counterspells

I think funkyfritter on the WotC forums put it best:

The real issue with blue is that the common effects that the color is known for are inherently better then what other colors get. Counterspells are some of the most versatile cards ever made.

At the beginning of Magic, Richard Garfield and his friends made up this game. And they gave all the best stuff to blue without realizing it. They did it mostly for flavor reasons, I assume. Blue is the color of thought, of knowledge, of library manipulation and trickery. No doubt, they all felt somewhat aligned with the color because in order to play Magic, you have to use a lot of strategy, wisdom, and decision-making. One could theoretically say blue is the central color of Magic - we're all blue mages inside - because we so heavily require what blue mages love most. Thinking a lot. Decision-making. Logical reasoning.

Compare with the other colors for a moment. Green is about nature. (This has almost nothing to do with Magic at all!) White is about bonds, about teamwork, about upholding rules. (Magic is rarely a team game. It is about you vs your opponent. It IS about upholding rules, but that's not part of the strategy in Magic. You are automatically expected to uphold rules.) Red is angry, irrational, and chaotic... (if you play Magic like a red mage, expect to lose a lot.) Black is about gaining advantage over others no matter what... (and guess what, Black had the reputation of being the second best color in Magic for a while.) Strange parallels. But apt.

As such, blue got a lot of power. That's just the way blue is. Its main philosophy is at the core of every Magic player. In fact, it's at the core of every strategy game ever made.

Imagine a different world for a moment. Imagine white with counterspells, green with instant-speed card draw, black with bounce, and red with effects like Ponder. Man, that would be crazy as shit. But in the end, maybe it would've been better? Whatever the case, I think putting instant speed card draw and counterspells in the same color pie was the real mistake. Blue just got everything at the beginning, and now Development is stuck with this huge imbalance. And they have to fix it.

If instant speed card draw costed UU and counterspells had WW in the cost, there would be serious stretching of mana bases to play these things together. That cost might actually make up for the power of these two effects combined -- in Standard at least, where manabases aren't totally awesome anymore. The question is if anyone is prepared to completely alter the color pie to make the game balanced again. I think most people aren't. And that's why Development is resorting to different answers.

Let's be honest... counterspells really are just too powerful. And the effect of having every spell countered is kind of like getting rudely punched in the face in the middle of speaking.

"I play my--" "Counterspelled!"

The way Spikes feel about it is -- well, it's ok to get punched in the face if they can also punch other guys in the face when it's their turn to do so. And if it's a powerful effect, it should be used no matter what. That's how Spike thinks. As for people who genuinely hate counterspells, I think they'll all be happier with what Tom is saying here. And that's fair.

We're happy with this arrangement!

On the other hand, it's hard to say whether people would be just as happy with ways to beat counterspells at their own game. After all, we now have cards like Great Sable Stag, Summoning Trap, Volcanic Fallout, Banefire; as well as mechanics like Unearth and Cascade. These all make counterspells worse already. They do a good job, too. But we can't fully test how effective these are if there are no good counterspells to test them on.

It would be interesting to hear from people who are morally opposed to counterspells -- would they be happier if counterspells were all weakened or would they be happier if given powerful cards that punished people for using them? After all, Counterspells are kind of a deep part of Magic history. Maybe not the best part of it, but a lot of people have a deep respect and love for them. I often hear people joke, with a tone of hope, that maybe Wizards will give back Counterspell or Mana Leak or something like Remand. And there are others that speak with such fervor about blue spells like Force of Will and Fact or Fiction. It's like a blue cult out there, and if you play Magic, you definitely know some members.

On the other hand, if any of the other colors had traditionally the strongest cards, I don't think people would be clamoring like this about weakening any of those colors. Even black. People are just obsessed with blue because it's the color about giving the player options -- it puts power into the player's hands. It isn't about having "random" effects or "giant" effects (see Cascade). It's about making the player think. It's about letting the GAMER decide the game.

Cascade IS a very exciting mechanic for many players, don't get me wrong. But even real fans of Cascade, after playing with it maybe 100 times, are going to get bored. At some point, you simply aren't as involved anymore because you're not the one MAKING the awesome things happen. It's all being done for you. Magic should never be this way and should never disengage the player like that. Magic should always be geared toward letting the players make more decisions.

However, Magic can have this without powerful counterspells or powerful card draw effects. If they really want to stop making these kinds of spells, there is nothing we can do, and we must accept it. The game of Magic will still be here, and as long as they avoid things like Cascade, it will still have interesting decision trees and will still be a "deep" game. I hope, anyway.

I think development could consider just letting some of blue's colorpie leak into other colors. That way, we don't get cards like Cryptic Command, where all these powerful effects are combined into a single blue card. Instead, spread them out so that other colors have these effects -- which might make these colors more appealing to players who like making traditionally "blue" decisions. Blue got all the wealth to begin with; I think its time it shared some of that pie.

No Pie For You!