Ruined FOREVER: The Magic 2010 Rules Changes by Zvi MowshowitzWill Price | June 10, 2009 | 3:03 pm
Magic always has been, and always will be ruined forever. That’s part of what makes it such a great game. The cards and occasionally even the rules are constantly changing, presenting the players with new challenges. If Magic didn’t live on the edge where cards risk being broken and there are difficult trade-offs to be made between casual and hardcore, between Timmy, Johnny and Spike, between tradition and innovation, between online and offline then that means the decisions are tilted too far in one direction. That doesn’t mean that every change is for the better, as we shall see, but change is good and change is necessary. Change is Magic’s only constant.
Let’s go over the rules changes in order, with the details to be found here:
Change 1: Simultaneous Mulligans
Summary: Everyone mulligans at the same time.
Pros: It’s faster and only sticklers at tournaments waited around anyway.
Cons: A marginal decrease in dramatic tension. I had to stretch to come up with something.
This change is nothing more than common sense. Making the other players wait costs time and that time could be better spent playing Magic rather than waiting around for other players. This one is long overdue, a small but pure win with no real downside.
Change 2: Terminology Changes
When you play Terminology Changes, counter any number of target Old Terminologies that have been played, play with the new wordings and then put those wordings directly into play so that others can play with them. Old Terminologies can’t be played while playing. Or are we just playing with you?
Change 2A: Play is now The Battlefield.
Pros: New wording is flavorful, clearer and more precise.
Cons: Having to constantly use the word Battlefield, transition costs.
Magic, like love, is now a battlefield. My issue with this change is that battlefield is a mouthful and requires a definite article, which slows down speech and requires more text on cards. I agree that the word play was severely overloaded. We were using it for a zone and as the way cards are used, including multiple ways in which cards are used, which is confusing, and either change individually is pretty much a no brainer. Battle can be used as short for battlefield, and play has been reduced to one meaning.
Change 2B: You cast spells and activate abilities, but you still play lands.
Pros: New wording is flavorful, clearer, intuitive and more precise.
Cons: Transition costs, some cards will now have ugly wordings.
By unifying the playing of spells with the casting of spells, we were allowed to say “When you play X” or “When a player plays X” or “Players can’t play X” now all such things will need to say “play or cast” if they are to retain the same meaning. We also get gems like “Activated abilities can’t be activated” but that does make sense. There will be some awkwardness, but the long term result will be a strategic shift that is probably a wash. Besides, we were all saying we were casting spells anyway. That’s what makes them spells!
Change 2C: Removed-from-game is now the Exile zone.
Pros: Shorter, more flavorful and accurate.
Cons: When you wish upon a star.
The name is a great idea, but the functional change could have been mitigated. It’s not a huge point since such cards are rare and old but I think we can all agree that getting back removed cards this way is strategically interesting and fits the Rule of Cool so we should errata the Wishes and other such cards to retain their old functionality. There isn’t anything stopping us. This is a minor quibble in any case.
Change 2D: The end of turn step is the end step, and we now say “At the beginning of the end step” rather than “At end of turn.”
Pros: Players can now tell what the heck is going on.
Cons: Players can now tell what the heck is going on.
I weep for you rules lawyers who tried to trick your opponents with this one, I really do, but it is time to move on. Good change all around.
Change 3A: Mana Pools Emptying: Mana empties at the end of every step and phase.
Pros: Far easier to understand.
Cons: Takes away some cool strategic decisions.
While it was great fun deciding when to float or not float mana into your draw step it didn’t come up anywhere near often enough to justify how anti-intuitive this rule used to be. Now it makes sense, and that’s by far the most important thing.
Change 3B: No Mana Burn
Pros: Players can’t hurt themselves by accident, and there’s one less rule.
Cons: Loss of strategic depth.
This change saddens me but I understand why it was made. Before, taking mana into your mana pool when you might not need it required balancing the potential need for the mana and the risk that you would burn. This created especially interesting situations for combination decks, but it also came up when responding to various forms of mana denial and in other odd places. Now taking extra mana is risk free, and risk free decisions are not decisions. There’s also the loss of the ability to intentionally lower your life total, which comes up rarely but is almost always very cool when it happens. I’d also note that while Pulse of the Forge got worse, Pulse of the Fields got much better since many players will have no good way to dodge it. The bottom line is that we’d never consider introducing mana burn if it wasn’t already there, as it is rules complexity (and sometimes player demotivation) with only rare strategic benefit. Players like me will miss it but it was the right call.
Change 4: Tokens are now owned by whichever player controls them first.
Pros: That actually makes sense.
Cons: Some cool tricks don’t work anymore.
There will now be new cool tricks based on future cards to make up for the old ones, and the old ones were fun but let’s face it, they were never actually any good. In exchange we get to clear up some confusion, since the research indicated that players intuitively think the way the new rule works.
Change 6: Deathtouch: Deathtouch kills the same way lethal damage kills.
You’ll noticed I skipped number five. I’ll deal with that one last, because it’s the doozy.
Pros: Cleans up the rules, makes intuitive sense, saves time.
Cons: Will be covered under Change 5.
There’s no real reason for a deathtouch creature not to work this way. Deathtouch happens to turn into a convoluted mess of an ability in Magic 2010, but this change is not the reason why.
Change 7: Lifelink gives you life as you deal damage and does not stack.
Pros: Saves time, is intuitive to players who don’t know the rules.
Cons: Lack of strategic depth, deprecates stackable lifelinks.
I hate that this means you can no longer double up on lifelink abilities, but it’s not the kind of change that makes any practical difference because it almost never comes up. This also prevents players from gaining so much life the games slow down, which is some compensation for the lack of coolness. This also closes the chance for players to kill their opponent before lifelink can save them, which makes this a more powerful tool on blockers than it used to be especially for larger creatures. It is very cool to kill someone with their lifegain on the stack and it creates moments of high tension because you often sacrifice or risk a lot to make that happen.
Change 5: Combat damage does not use the stack. It just happens. Also, if you block with more than one creature they have to choose an order for them and then they can only damage creatures in that order and have to kill them each in turn. Unless there’s deathtouch involved, because that’s a protected class now so they can still do damage however they like.
This replaces: Combat damage works like every other ability in the game. You can assign damage however you like.
Pros: Word of God says that this is better.
Cons: Severely weakens entire classes of spells and abilities. Makes combat, Magic and decks in general less strategic and more straightforward. Makes the rules more complex rather than less complex in order to have them mimic intuitions.
This is the change that has the potential to do some serious damage to the game. The more I think about it, the more furious I am because this change makes no sense. The argument for it is that the change makes combat more intuitive to new players, because the stack is not intuitive. The problem with this is that the stack is still in the game! The stack is a confusing concept, but it’s something you have to understand in order to play Magic according to the rules under 6th Edition or under 2010.
The genius of the 6th Edition change was that combat worked like everything else, because combat damage was just another ability. This made combat harder to understand but it also meant that once you understood the stack you got combat for free. If you’re not going to understand the stack you can go ahead and play the whole game wrong in the meantime, so the rules work however you want them to. If you understand the stack, then how is combat damage using the stack unintuitive? Magic’s effects are consistant, or were: You say what you want to do and to what, and the other player gets a chance to do something about it.
Let us now divide this change into two scenarios for practical effect: Single blocking and double blocking.
Single blocking is the simpler case. Here, the change is that players are unable to assign damage and then cast spells and activate abilities (which is quite the mouthful compared to play spells and abilities or even simpler to play stuff) after assigning combat damage. This means that in order to do anything you need to expose yourself. For example, if I attack with a Chameleon Colossus and am blocked by a 4/4, I now must pump my Colossus before doing damage. If my opponent then uses that opportunity to kill the Colossus, they keep their creature, thus making pumping abilities much worse. Pump spells are even worse. If I cast Giant Growth, I have no choice but to expose myself to a 2-for-1. Then there is bounce. Before I could use a bounce spell to save my creature and kill yours. Now I cannot do this, making bounce far weaker in combat except when you’re given a gift because the opponent must pump before damage. Damage prevention has the same problem as well. There are special classes that become worthless – oh my god, they killed Morphling, you bastards – but individual cards can and will be replaced. Creatures with sacrifice effects are now crippled, which is the more common case, and we shall see if the plan is to make such cards stronger to compensate. In the meantime, the strategic depth of such cards will be lost.
The result of all this is clear. Spells that help me win combat and abilities that help me but require activation, especially if activating them makes me vulnerable, become much worse and thus much less interesting. Compensation via making them cheaper or bigger turns such spells into direct damage effects for pump spells, although it is potentially an option for other types. Creatures that involve sacrifice effects regularly used during combat are crippled and will need to become far stronger if they are to regain playability.
It is not obvious at first glance whether this adds or subtracts strategic depth from the combat itself, although it is almost certain at least in the short term to decrease the strategic depth of people’s decks and cards. There are clear scenarios it makes less interesting, and clear scenarios it makes more interesting but the ones where it gets more interesting it does so by disincentivising the player to have the cards in question in the first place because he no longer has a clean option available. Yes, as Aaron Forsythe has pointed out when you block with a Nantuko Husk and a Siege-Gang Commander you can change the situation from one where I have a clean option that wins me the combat into one where I have several options and it is not clear which one is best (technically that’s a double block but it’s the same idea). There will also be cases in which I used to have multiple good options and now have only one left. The problem is the most likely response to this is to not play with Nantuko Husk and Siege-Gang Commander. The deck in question is probably now unplayable.
Now on to double blocking. Here is where we see the cracks in the system at their most obvious. While we are not using “the stack” as such, we are using something else that must be separately explained and that is standing in for it, because otherwise the player dealing the damage has too big an edge. Rather than accept this as the way the game works now, a kludge has been introduced. Now I first sort of stack damage by announcing what order I will damage the creatures in, at which point we can do things before the damage is actually done. This plays remarkably like stacking damage, except that some of my choices are made later when the damage is dealt and some choices can’t ever be made.
For the attacking player, he is mostly in the same position as above. Anything he tries to do risks him not being able to deal his damage, which discourages him from trying anything. He can still remove blockers, which remains unchanged from before. The defending player has a few additional tricks he can now use, since the attacker is committed, although this comes at a cost. He can now pump up the initial target and not only save that creature but protect the others as well, which makes toughness pumping advantaged over damage prevention. The price he must pay is that now not only does protecting a creature risk having it not deal damage, it risks that creature not absorbing damage either and allowing your other creatures to be killed. Once again tricks get worse and brute force gets better.
To summarize the strategic implications, Magic will become strategically simpler and involve less skill. We will see more creatures with high power and high toughness and strong inherent always-on abilities. We will see less creatures with activated abilities such as regeneration, pumping abilities and especially sacrifice abilities. We will see more creature removal at the expense of pump spells, bounce spells and damage prevention. As cards rotate the cards may adjust to somewhat mitigate these effects.
To summarize the implications regarding ease of use, this change makes combat into a special case of the general case, with the general case being the stack that the rest of the game uses. All players must still learn the general case of how the stack works, but now must also learn the exception of how combat works. This makes the rules more complex, not less complex.
I believe that the error in both cases was to consider the new combat rules in isolation. This may be simpler (aside from the rules for double blocking, which are plenty confusing in their own right) for new players to understand, but the game overall is now harder to understand. The strategic complexity of combat may be the same or higher if players take the same cards into combat, but they won’t do that. New players will wonder why the stack isn’t being used in combat when it is used everywhere else and by all the new rules to make that happen, while old players will have to adjust to the new rules (sob, sob, I know) and deal with the loss of strategic complexity the game will suffer at least until new cards can rotate in.
The obvious disclaimer is that of course I have not played with the new rules or tried to explain them so all of this is speculative and could prove to be wrong. There are a lot of changes here that are good, and there’s no question the people who made these changes love the game and want it to succeed. I will try as much as I can to give them the benefit of the doubt on the last one, and hope that I am proven wrong.