I was a bit surprised to read Zac Hill’s statement “One of the problems is that Mana Leak is simply a much more powerful card than we would be comfortable printing under modern development rules. Similar to why the Swords are so powerful—their costs were locked in before people really understood how to price Equipment—Mana Leak is a relic of a bygone era.”
I understand why the Swords are considered more powerful than contemporary equipment ought to be, they have quite a few powerful abilities crammed onto a 3+2 cost equipment. But is Mana Leak really a card that’s too powerful in current Magic?
Before trying to answer it, I need to make sure we’re all on the same page regarding what question we’re trying to answer. First, I’ll switch from “too powerful” to “undercosted” since clearly the text box is not too powerful at any cost. It’s just a matter of whether that text box is too good at 1U cost. Context is king, as I’ve said before. Doom Blade currently costs 2 mana for many reasons (historical as well as logical; Terror costs 2 in Alpha, threats are more powerful than answers from a game theory perspective). Because Doom Blade (and I’m just using it as a placeholder for all the removal like Go for the Throat, Oblivion Ring, Day of Judgment, Pacifism) costs 2, and we want big scary monsters to have big scary impacts on games, the big scary monsters start to look like Grave Titan, Primeval Titan, Olivia Voldaren, Bloodline Keeper, Baneslayer Angel, Rune-Scarred Demon, Havengul Lich. So the question is, “In the context of current and recent Magic, is Mana Leak undercosted?”
In the era of Titans and Friends alongside efficient mana ramping, it seems like the scales can tip towards a Valakut/Wolf Run metagame as easily as they can tip to a Blue metagame. Even in the current standard, I mean this exact standard as of the date of this writing, the Pro Tour of this format was a Wolf Run mirror finals, and the best blue deck played only 2 maindeck Mana Leaks. The largest tournament since PTDKA (GP Lille) was won by Zombies. Neither the Wolf Run or PTDKA nor the Zombies of Lille featured Mana Leak, but that doesn’t resolve much, it’s just one data point.
Why would we want a deck like Wolf Run or Zombies to be more prominent than a deck with Mana Leak? I’m not sure, though I would suspect an explanation would begin with “most people don’t have fun when their spell is Mana Leaked.” That’s certainly an argument against printing it, but it doesn’t lead to a truism that “fewer counters means more aggregate fun” since counters can also act as an offset to spells that aren’t fun to resolve, and they can also perhaps provide more fun to the caster than they take away from the opponent.
Since it isn’t a truism, let’s turn to the evidence and the context to see what Mana Leak is up to. My personal opinions about the metagame don’t carry much authoritative weight, but I don’t think they’re all that uncommon. With regard to Wolf Run Ramp, I don’t find anything about the deck “fun,” so you won’t convince me a shift away from Mana Leak decks toward these decks is a positive move. The GP Lille winning deck, Zombies, is a deck I do enjoy, and I’m glad it’s a good deck. But I’m also glad that UB control is a viable deck. I like diversity and balance among viable decks, including reactive control strategies. Delver is a special case because of Snapcaster Mage and Delver of Secrets, two cards that I think are so powerful in aggressive blue decks that they skew perception of other cards around them (like…you guessed it, Mana Leak).
Like I said, Mana Leak decks aren’t all that dominant, and without Snapcaster Mage and Delver of Secrets that would be even more clear. Looking at the total picture painted by current standard, I don’t think it provides a great deal of support for Mana Leak being too powerful relative to other contemporary designs.
The metagame might not provide a clear picture one way or the other, but what about the principle that the powerful-looking cards actually should be more powerful than the stuff that looks like Mana Leak? Scary-looking things being actually scary is good, but we shouldn’t all have to be boogeymen, some of us should get to play “villager” and try to answer the scary threats rather than playing our own. I can’t stand the card Consecrated Sphinx. Sphinx, just like the Titans, is too easy on the caster. Tap six lands, and you put a huge burden on the opponent to produce not just an answer, but the precise right answer. Oblivion Ring is great at dealing with Grave Titan and Consecrated Sphinx…if you like getting 3-for-1’d. Boogeymen being this easy on the caster pulls even the “villagers,” i.e. the control players, into the laboratory to try and summon big scary things (like a Sphinx). The threats should get to be good, but not this good, if Mana Leak is to be regarded as too powerful an answer?
Am I dismissing the possibility that Mana Leak and Primeval Titan are BOTH too good? To be fair, the Titans and Consecrated Sphinx might be regarded by R&D as too good, so why am I using them as a comparison point? It isn’t just the Titans, it’s the entire rationale behind them. Every spoiler includes many new plays on a “let’s make this big scary thing really scary” so it isn’t just the Titans, it’s a paradigm. Big Scary PLAYABLE Monsters aren’t going anywhere. My position is that, given Doom Blade and Oblivion Ring, Mana Leak is right where it should be. Mana Leak can answer more threats than Doom Blade can (Phyrexian Obliterator, Karn Liberated and Primeval Titan just don’t care all that much about Doom Blade), but to use Mana Leak you have to leave 2 mana untapped, your opponent must play the threat when you do so, and they mustn’t have 3 mana available when they do. That’s enough restriction to leave open the question of which answer is better in a given deck.
What the Titans do is make Mana Leak a very important component of the category of cards we might call: “answers.” Going back to “Context is King,” if the ramp spells and fatties were much worse than Rampant Growth/Solemn Simulacrum and Titans, Mana Leak is certainly not a needed component, and it might appear in that context to be “undercosted” and “overpowered.” We just don’t live in that world.
Here’s another key element of the current context: The power level of Ramp and Hexproof have also knocked out one of Mana Leak’s main predators, Red and Red-White Aggro. It isn’t too different from what happens when you take away a predator that keeps the deer population in check, for example. All of a sudden people start hating deer. Paul Rietzl put it to me this way, Snapcaster Mage plays a lot like Mystic Snake with Mana Leak in the ‘yard. If Steppe Lynx is putting a ton of pressure on you, that’s nothing special. These days, that predator, Steppe Lynx or Jackal Pup type beatdown, isn’t a healthy member of the ecosystem. Mana Leak ends up eating people’s azaleas.
Cavern of Souls
I’ve danced alongside the elephant in the ecosystem long enough I suppose. Cavern of Souls is R&D’s solution to the perceived Snapcaster Mage + Mana Leak problem. Is R&D doing surgery on the metagame with a scalpel or a sledgehammer? This card is very very good.
The way I think about designing hate cards is that there ought to be a tradeoff between power level against the “victim” (whatever it is the card is trying to hate) and power level elsewhere. With regards to mono-red hate, the graph might look like this:
This is perhaps a bit too abstract, but I think “sympathy for the victim” ought to determine the height of the line on the graph. Hate cards against Graveyard decks, towards which Wizards seems to have little sympathy, just get to be more powerful. Adding Graveyard Hate to the graph (the numbers are arbitrary reference variables and Chill isn’t really less devastating than Leyline of the Void, just bear with me it isn’t perfect):
Since we have less sympathy for graveyard strategies than we do for red strategies, the hate is stronger. Hopefully my less than perfect graph and rating scale haven’t made you close the window. These things are always a little fuzzier than graph-makers would like.
A card like Cavern of Souls seems to just buck the whole concept of the tradeoff. A land that produces multiple colors of mana and comes into play untapped is baseline extremely powerful. You get to choose your tribe, so this card will see play all kinds of places. With no reference to countermagic, the land will make its way into many decks. It also gets to be one of the most powerful anti-countermagic cards ever printed. At little cost, you can make sure important creatures resolve. It’s like printing a 25 vs. the victim and 10 everywhere else card, where Leyline is a 30 vs. the victim and a 1 elsewhere.
I feel like Mana Leak has been a shackle of sorts on the ankle of cards like Primeval Titan, and we might have just removed the shackle to let the beast run free. Since it doesn’t look like we can get the shackle back on (short of banning Cavern), I hope an appropriate downward adjustment to the power level of creatures is made. I won’t hold my breath.
On Delegitimizing Criticism of R&D
I respect Patrick Sullivan a TON, and I really believe he’s a great game designer with great instincts, but these kinds of posts are pretty frustrating to me:
Let’s suppose games exist along an “extremely simple (tic-tac-toe) to extremely complex (3D-multiplayer-chess) continuum,” and also, critical to this discussion, an “intuitive solutions (Dragons are the best cards) to counter-intuitive solutions (kill-your-own-stuff cards are the best cards) continuum.”
Game designers might want to take their game a step towards simplicity and away from complexity, or towards intuition and away from counter-intuition, in order to increase what they perceive as the appeal of their games to a wide audience and/or an aggregate increase in the quality of the gameplay experience.
Critics of policy changes – changes which WotC directly or at least implicitly claim make the game more fun in the aggregate – can have several types of legitimate complaints: 1) I’m not in the subset of users that gets to have more fun (whether this is legitimate criticism of policy is a matter of opinion, but it doesn’t necessarily entail that you don’t understand what’s going on when you make it, so it can be made by intelligent and well-informed people, and is legitimate in that sense), 2) the claims about more aggregate fun aren’t accurate, 3) there’s an alternative design that achieves even more aggregate fun, 4) the shift is short-sighted, i.e. it’s more aggregate fun now, but won’t remain more fun, 5) not all types of fun are the same, and I can easily get this new type of fun elsewhere.
The first 4 probably need little explanation, but that 5th category I think houses several legitimate complaints that aren’t obvious. Magic is so great at providing high-level gameplay that’s deeper than Checkers and not as frustrating as Chess. It provides a certain type of fun to certain players who enjoy seeking out solutions that aren’t the most obvious ones, enjoy making decisions under uncertainty, and want to do both of those things in an engaging and unpredictable way. There are other players who want to create cool events within games that feel like epic interactive stories, and there is a good deal of overlap between these two groups. Think of it as a simplified version of the well-worn psychographics often discussed (I don’t use the psychographics here because I don’t feel like arguing about their usage). We all understand (hopefully) that both types of players (and other types) exist and you can’t make everyone happy every time with design and development policy decisions.
Getting back to that 5th category of complaints, I think replacing the fun for the storytelling and epic moments folks is easier than replacing the fun of the complex, intricate, but not too “chessy” gameplay folks. This might be entirely a product of my bias as a member of the latter group, but it seems so hard to satisfy that need for consistently interesting and deep gameplay. Video game RPGs, Table top RPGs, other forms of interactive entertainment, and perhaps most importantly here: casual Magic with soft-bans on things the group the finds “cheesy” like countermagic can all satisfy the urges of the storytelling/epic-moments folks.
Appealing to a wider audience doesn’t eliminate the smaller audiences. Importantly, people in the smaller audiences (those who might prefer complexity or counter-intuitive solutions) are allowed to complain about the shift. We haven’t even addressed the issue of whether WotC assumptions about how the audiences relate to changes along the continuums is correct, which I’ll turn to next.
Magic is More Successful Because of a Dose of [Policy X], Let’s Increase the Dosage!
Magic is very popular these days, and you hear people cite all kinds of reasons for this. One of the reasons is that the game is simpler and more intuitive now than it used to be. For the record, I don’t contend otherwise. Whatever you believe caused the current boom, you still have to ask yourself, “Could more changes in that direction go too far along that continuum?” Too much of a good thing is a legitimate concern, and can be the basis of a potentially legitimate complaint.
“This has worked in the past” is a dangerous notion sometimes. Multivitamins have a negative mean impact on the health of a normal person if you consider even a moderately wide range of dosages. All kinds of “beneficial” medicine or dietary changes, including multivitamins, benefit the user more and more as dosage is increased until an eventual plateau and then a sharp decline in health related to toxicity. Even water intake follows this pattern (benefits up to plateau, followed by toxic catastrophe). People who find themselves standing in the more “more works better!!” part of the yield curve are not advised to continuously increase their dosage seeking better and better results, unless they are very sensitive to toxicity warnings. I offer my criticism of the Titans and of Cavern of Souls and of the power level of certain rares in limited as a toxicity warning regarding recent trends in Magic design.
Some extra simplicity and intuitiveness has been good; that doesn’t mean more is better. Nothing is simpler or more intuitive than a cool looking dragon that says “you win the game when this enters the battlefield” being the best card in Magic. You can cost this card so that everyone who looks at the file will know it is the best card. Obviously that card would go too far. Once we admit there is a point-too-far, i.e. a toxicity threshold, debate over where that threshold is located is a worthwhile activity. Criticism and argument about whether current or spoiled cards go too far must be considered carefully, not delegitimized as the ramblings of players who just don’t get it that certain things are inherently more intuitive and less frustrating than other things.
Thanks for reading,
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