Monday, February 17, 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.

Herd Gnarr (Time Spiral, 2006)

Well, this is a pretty boring card. Oh, I'm sure it's somebody's favorite, under the same principle that every comic book character is someone's favorite. But on its own, out of the context of its block, our friend Herd Gnarr is just another in a long lineage of boring common creatures made to fill holes in the Limited environment but without much in the way of longevity outside of the most focused of decks. (If you had a deck filled with creatures and enough room in your curve for an overpriced 2/2, this might fit. Or if you have a deck designed to pump out lots of token creatures, that might actually make this card playable.)

While the card itself is nothing much, the story behind the card is actually much more interesting. Herd Gnarr was printed in 2006's Time Spiral block. Time Spiral is a unique block that remains wildly popular with experienced players but which sold poorly at the time. The reason for this was simple: it was a very complex play environment. Time Spiral was Magic for people with PhD's in Magic, and there wasn't a lot of room left over for casual players - in fact, the complexity of Time Spiral design is one of the leading factors in Wizards rededicating themselves to restricting complexity at common in order to create less alienating play environments for casual players. There's a phrase for this: New World Order. If you have any interest at all in game design or just design in general, I recommend you click on that link. Understanding the ways in which complexity is rationed in Magic is one of the most important factors in understanding the development of the game over the last twenty years, as well as the game's massive resurgence over the last five or six.

The premise of the Time Spiral storyline was fairly simple, even though the execution was exceedingly complex. It was an attempt to create a time travel story in the context of a card game. The block was composed of three sets - Time Spiral, Planar Chaos, and Future Sight. The first set which we're discussing here today was dedicated to exploring Magic's history, the second set was devoted to the idea of alternate universes and divergent timelines, and the third was focused the future. (I'll put aside any discussion of the second and third sets in the block, with the understanding that Gatherer will probably spit out cards from these sets at some point for future discussion.) There was also a prominent post-apocalyptic theme to the story, as the time distortions were a result of massive destruction wreaked on Dominaria (Magic's original plane) by the events of the game's original storyline, the Brothers War from Alpha, and the subsequent Phyrexian invasion that formed the metastory for the second half of the game's first decade. (If all that's Greek to you, don't worry, my knowledge is strictly secondhand as well.) So, because Dominaria had been almost destroyed a few times, and was facing a definitive end as the result of Teferi's hijinks, time went cattywompous, and Wizards got to play around with time travel for a year.

Since the gimmick for TIme Spiral was the past, every card had resonance with a part of Magic's history. Herd Gnarr may be unimpressive in isolation, but players with long memories may have appreciated the callback to Apocalypse's Glade Gnarr and Bog Gnarr. Of course, it is debatable whether or not this was a callback worth making: neither card is particularly fondly remembered, and it should be no surprise that the Gnarr creature type has not been since again. Gatherer assigns every card a rating based on community feedback, and the Magic community has not rated any Gnarr above a 2.7 (out of 5) - a ringing endorsement if ever there was.

Herd Gnarr is an interesting example of Wizards' storytelling ambition, even if the result is less than stupendous. Of course, it also needs to be said that not every card can be good - this is something else the company is surprisingly honest about: bad or mediocre cards have to exist in order for good cards to stand out. And even a seemingly bad card can be a good in the right context - as I said, this might be a perfectly fine card in a Limited pool, even if it has probably seen little play in the years since the release of Time Spiral.


timoneil5000 said...

That's more or less when I stopped playing first time around myself. Right after ICE AGE and then ALLIANCES, which frustrated the hell out of me at the time because it seemed like it sold out everywhere before I could get any. I barely got any MIRAGE, and soon that was that.

Starting around a decade ago Wizards realized that creatures were far too weak, and most competitive decks were dominated by spells and artifacts. So they made a conscious effort to improve creatures. Guys like Herd Gnarr are really only playable in Limited nowadays, because the bar for playable creatures was raised a while back - 4 CMC for a 2/2 that will only sometimes pumps up is a poor bargain. But, as I said, it's not a terrible card in that there are certainly decks you can imagine that could exploit the Gnarr's ability to best effect. But you'd have to work for it.

John said...

Too bad I quit then, I guess. I loved creatures and always preferred big/fast creature decks in red, green, and black. ALLIANCES was really a great set for me, and I remember thinking things went downhill fast after that, when it was really probably just that the schoolyear had started again and I had less time for Mirage and Visions. My "type I" deck back then, although I was not a tournament player, was this pure cheese designed to get 4 mana as fast as possible so I could play a Balduvian Hordes or Juggernaut or Ernham Djinn on turn 2 and start clobbering people on turn 3.

I also had a few fail-saves and reset buttons because a deck premised on getting a 4 or 5 power creature out ASAP tends to lose games unless the outcome is in hand right away. Nothing like watching the tide slowly turn against you, the smirk growing on your opponents face as your flash-in-the-pan cards have been used up and he's still got 10 life or whatever, only sacrifice another forest to the Lumberjack, tap everything, burn every land into your Zuran Orb, and cast Jokulhaups then -- "Now, it looks like I've still got 4 mana...Ach! Hans, run!"