Monday, March 31, 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.

Faerie Noble (Homelands, 1995)

Ah, Homelands. Universally derided as the worst Magic set of all time, it came hot on the heels of similarly underpowered sets such as Fallen Empires and The Dark. It's interesting to imagine what might have become of the game if Wizards hadn't been able to follow Homelands with the beloved Ice Age. The learning process for Magic design was pretty steep, and the game's first few years are littered with failures that arose as a direct result of the company's inability to understand the new game's strengths and weaknesses. WIth one or two more bombs in the game's formative years, could Magic have weathered the unintended consequences of its early, runaway success?

Faerie Noble is a real stinker. I think I've mentioned in passing that Fairies have been one of the more dominant strategies of recent years, following their prominence in the Lorwyn / Shadowmoor block. They remain a staple of Modern. Our friend the Noble here hails from a time before Fairies were cool. To begin with, Faerie Noble is a Green creature, and Fairies have been primary in blue for many years - meaning even if you were looking for an older card to fill a hole in a Fairy deck, this guy would be useless unless you wanted to splash green. What's worse, even setting aside the negligible impact of his creature type, his stats are nothing to write home about: CMC 3 for a 1/2 flier who gives other Fairies a mild defensive boost. Yawn. Oh, and you can tap him for a minor offensive boost, which he can't even take advantage of because he's already tapped and therefore can't attack or block. The only reason why this card might be even vaguely playable is that green doesn't have very many fliers, aside from the occasional bird. But even given that, Faerie Noble is that most useless of cards: a meek tribal enabler without much of a tribe of which to speak.

Without wanting to get into details here (and really, you'd be better served by trolling Wikipedia if you are really interested), Homelands was built on an impressively complex storyline set on the plane of Ulgrotha. Placing the set in a separate plane allowed the designers to attempt to create a distinctive play environment built around the flavor and themes of Ulgrotha and its inhabitants. But the problem with Homelands isn't that it didn't have an immersive and interesting storyline, but that the storyline dictated gameplay to such a degree that the set was grossly underpowered. (Also, there was a desire on the part of Wizards to "fix" the problems of Fallen Empires, which was considered at the time to be an overpowered set. By any reasonable standard, however, Fallen Empires was also underpowered, so . . .)

Power level is a difficult thing to explain, and undoubtedly an even more difficult thing to design around. If cards are too powerful, too "good," they warp the game and create degenerate - that is, unfun - play environments. Imagine if there were special chess pieces that had super powerful effects which enabled your opponent to win the game easily. It might be fun for your opponent, but after a while it would be boring for everyone and disheartening for you. That's not even accounting for the probability that you would also invest in these super pieces, therefore creating a desperate arms race that would quickly transform chess into something very different from what it was originally intended to be. The Urza's Saga and Mirrodin blocks were both quite popular despite their status as the two most overpowered blocks since the original Alpha - the problem is that while in theory people love powerful cards, both blocks ended up decimating the tournament scene by enabling numerous absurdly powerful and woefully abusive strategies - the definition of "unfun." When tournament attendance flags, the game suffers - a trickle-down effect from the highest competitive level down to casual and occasional players. Conversely, a set with weak cards and unimpressive mechanics is just plain boring, and equally likely to repel players. Getting that balance right is tricky.

Magic managed to survive Homelands, however, just as it survived Urza's Saga and Mirrodin. The core appeal of the game - to say nothing of the enduring popularity of the pseudo-gambling collectors' model on which the game makes its money - is strong enough to endure despite occasional missteps. Homelands was one such misstep. So even though our pal Faerie Noble is a pitiful example of a creature, his very weakness represents an important lesson from Magic's history: it took a long time for them to figure out how to make this game, even years' after the game's genesis. There was a lot of trial and error along the way. Early success gave Wizards the momentum necessary to weather the game's earliest growing pains. Now we can look back at Homelands and laugh.

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