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Designer Fun – AVR Design Review (Part 2)

Are you sealing and drafting up a storm with Avacyn Restored? Do you like it so far? In my last article I talked about Miracles, and here I’ll talk about the other big mechanic of AVR, Soulbond.

Unlike Miracle, which I’m afraid I think is more gimmick than good, Soulbond is an excellent mechanic that offers fun, gameplay, interesting decisions, and the potential for powerful and exciting cards. It appears on twenty cards, with a very strange looking distribution. White and Red get three cards each. Yet Green gets eight cards, Blue six, and Black none at all. It doesn’t appear on any mythics, but does have three rares, six uncommons and eleven commons. The rarity distribution is reasonable, though I’m not sure why no mythic. Someone should do an analysis of new mechanics appearing at mythic. I might guess they usually get one, but without researching it I’m not going to make any claims about that. Even if they always do, not making one is not necessarily a bad thing.

The biggest problem with the distribution is that Black got zero cards again. I can understand having one new mechanic that is left out of a color. In certain sets, you can get away with very hard color-lines on a lot of mechanics (Ravnica comes to mind). What doesn’t make sense to me, is having a (non-core) set where one color gets zero new mechanics while the other four colors each get two new mechanics. That’s like saying to 20% of your players: “nothing for you in this set., move along.” Indeed, it seems overall that there are very few exciting Black cards in Avacyn restored, a blowout the likes of which we’ve not seen since Judgement. At least in that case, Torment was overloaded to make up for it. I didn’t feel White (or any color) was shorted in Innistrad or Dark Ascension, so why does Black get such a poor showing in AVR?

As a creature mechanic, I totally understand Green getting the lion’s share from the other colors, though nearly 3:1 is a bit much. What’s up with Blue? Blue gets 2:1 over Red and White? It certainly seems odd. I might not have felt it was so messed up if I wasn’t thinking so much about it due to the Black situation. You can certainly get away with, and should in many cases, have an uneven distribution of a mechanic across the colors. You can sometimes leave it out of a color entirely, or (as in Ravnica, Rise, Scars Block and others) split up multiple new mechanics across colors. The thing I wouldn’t do is make a set with exactly two new mechanics and leave one color out on both of them. That’s just mean.

Now, I’m sure you’re ready to call me on “last man standing” or whatever you want to call the “mechanic” focused on only having one creature in play. Yes, Black does get a lot of cards for that, but half of them are rather unappealing to the majority of players because they are drawbacks. Many players won’t even recognize it as a “real” mechanic because it doesn’t have a keyword. Oh, and another thing: this “mechanic” specifically doesn’t play at all with Soulbond. They can’t both work at the same time, so not only does Black not get the Soulbond, it has anti-synergy with it!

I’m afraid almost all players who love Black the most, as their favorite color, will feel cheated by AVR. I think that’s a design mistake, and so far the flavor justification has failed to convince me otherwise.

But I’ve digressed. Soulbond is the main topic today. I love what it does, and I love how it plays. The wording… could use some work. That’s surprising, considering the caliber of card-wording professionals in R&D. I’m usually impressed by their ability to squeeze down the wording on a complicated mechanic or effect down to the simplest, most elegant form. In Soulbond they’ve made one little mistake, and it came up again and again for me at the prerelease. In three of my four matches, plus just trying to work it out with a friend beforehand there was trouble and confusion with how the mechanic works.

Here’s the reminder text:
“You may pair this creature with another unpaired creature when either enters the battlefield. They remain paired for as long as you control both of them.”

The place where the wording falls short is “another unpaired.” On a technical level, this does carry the message of how the mechanic works, but for the vast majority of players it does not do a good job of explaining a critical feature of the mechanic. You cannot repair a creature with soulbond when a new creature enters the battlefield if the soulbond creature is already paired up. That’s what the “another” is doing. It says you can’t pair unless both the new creature and this guy are unpaired. Think of it like marriage. You can’t remarry until the first spouse dies. I would have gone with “you may pair this creature with an unpaired creature when either of them enters the battlefield if this creature is unpaired.” It’s slightly less elegant, but should help with the trouble area. Maybe not? Maybe they tested that and it didn’t help? I don’t know, but I do know that I spent plenty of time explaining it last weekend. I also had to explain that my [card]Zealous Conscripts[/card] borrowing one of their guys broke the bond, and that [card]Cloudshift[/card] broke the bond, even though you retain control over both creatures. Those are more understandable based on the wording, but it still came up more than once.

Now, using the mechanic once you understand it, that is awesome. You can pull a lot of crazy tricks with cards like [card]Cloudshift[/card], and you get to rebond if one creature dies, and you get to make all sorts of cool combo creatures – and every game is different because of it. Even now, just a couple of weeks later, perhaps most players understand it perfectly, and imperfect wording won’t hurt it in the long run.

Let’s look at the cards individually:

[draft]Spectral Gateguards[/draft]
Spectral Gateguards

Keyword mechanics are excellent on Soulbonders, and Vigilance is a White keyword, so this sort of card is an obvious inclusion.

[draft]Nearheath Pilgrim[/draft]
Nearheath Pilgrim

Same story here, Lifelink is a typical White keyword, and you don’t want a ton of it going around, so this card is uncommon. I wonder if you count Soulbonders as two of a keyword, since they are often giving it out to a second creature, of if you can average that a little with the times it will not be bonded?

[draft]Silverblade Paladin[/draft]
Silverblade Paladin

Double strike is a very exciting keyword which usually only appears on rare cards anyway, and the ability to grant it to some other creature that might have power much higher than the usual Double strike limit of 2 certainly makes for an exciting card. Players responded to this one right away and I love it too.

[draft]Elgaud Shieldmate[/draft]
Elgaud Shieldmate

I readily admit that I did not expect hexproof to turn out as badly as it has. A lot of players don’t like it, and it’s clear that it’s a little more dangerous than anticipated. Like Double strike, you have to be careful where you put it. I’m not a fan of it on a Soulbond creature because part of the mechanic’s risk is that they can kill the weakest of the pair and swing the game back in their favor. (Because when you Soulbond the game often swings heavily in your favor.) There’s so little removal in this limited format that having hexproof is both less advantageous and less troublesome that it could have been. Of course, the lack of removal is an issue in itself.

[draft]Galvanic Alchemist[/draft]
Galvanic Alchemist

This card made me think of the way I want this mechanic to return in the future. Mark, are you reading? You know how you love to try and craft Johnny combo sets? You tried with Fifth Dawn, Scars of Mirrodin, and I’m sure lots of other sets as well. Scars didn’t turn out very combotastic, because the aggro metalcraft and aggro infect decks were far stronger than the charge counter combo decks. Next time how about making artifacts that have a Soulbond-like mechanic? Combining them in pairs to power-up their abilities, as Galvanic Alchemist suggests, might finally make your goal of a combo limited environment into a reality.

[draft]Wingcrafter[/draft]
Wingcrafter

This is efficient as a way to counteract all the Angels flying around. Non-White decks need to be able to get to the air, and this card is very good at doing that. I expected Flying Soulbond, but at a higher CMC and lower efficiency. Being so cheap, this card itself has been a little obnoxious – ending games before they’ve begun. I feel that way about a great many cards in AVR, and my limited limited experience so far has shown the set to be a little too much like Zendikar limited. Fast and unanswerable, where you are dead before you know it. I want to give it more time before making the final call, but I’m worried.

[draft]Stern Mentor[/draft]
Stern Mentor

It’s difficult to put milling strategies into limited environments and get them at juuuuust the right level. A card like this, that can, in just the right circumstances (*cough* [card]Galvanic Alchemist[/card]), do all the milling by itself is a great design. It doesn’t require a huge commitment to milling, either from the draft or from the card slots in the set.

[draft]Tandem Lookout[/draft]
Tandem Lookout

Now we are starting to create a limited environment that feels a little silly. Curiosity is a fine mechanic and is no surprise on a Soulbond creature, but combined with [card]Wingcrafter[/card] or one of the other Soulbonders it gets out of hand very fast. The low-removal environment compounds this state of affairs.

[draft]Deadeye Navigator[/draft]
Deadeye Navigator

This design is another combo-engine type, one that looks for a different class of ability from [card]Galvanic Alchemist[/card]. The elegance of having its combo-creating ability also be an ability that can reset its pairing really takes it over the top (in terms of design).

[draft]Hanweir Lancer[/draft]
Hanweir Lancer

First strike is another obvious ability to have, and with Double strike in White, putting First strike on a Red card gives a better balance to set and reduces the similarity between the two cards. (Though they’re still both 3-mana 2/2s.)

[draft]Lightning Mauler[/draft]
Lightning Mauler

Haste, yet another obvious keyword to use with Soulbond. It plays a little awkwardly, however. If you want this creature to have haste you need to “waste” the pairing with a 1-drop that can already attack, or you lose out this turn and give your 3-drop haste next turn. Either way it feels like you screwed up because both creatures don’t really get the ability. It’s unexpectedly awkward, but not terribly so, and still a fine card.

[draft]Stonewright[/draft]
Stonewright

Firebreathing is often maligned as a weak mechanic, but it is actually very good. It got a bad rap after being printed on so many weak cards, like the card [card]Firebreathing[/card], for example.

I like how the three red Soulbonders play so well together. Firebreathing and First strike are a brutal combination. In the late game, Haste and Firebreathing can be game-ending out of nowhere. Haste and First strike aren’t too shabby, and in a tempo situation can get through as well as First strike and Firebreathing. Even with only three Soulbond creatures, all of which have low CMCs, they have created high potential for good games. The Red designs here are a model for fitting a lot into a tight space.

[draft]Diregraf Escort[/draft]
Diregraf Escort

Sure, whatever, flavor me to death with protection from zombies on Soulbond. This card is here to show the humans getting ahead of the monsters, but it’s very low on the interest curve.

[draft]Flowering Lumberknot[/draft]
Flowering Lumberknot

This is not actually a Soulbond creature, though it shows off something you can do with the mechanic. It’s a 5/5 creature for just four mana, but it’s not really there unless you have the set mechanic going. Hmm… what does that remind you of? [card]Rusted Relic[/card]! I wonder if that’s intentional. Most likely it just happens that 4-mana 5/5 is the fair yet exciting looking shape for a creature you need to jump through a hoop to get, so the two cards naturally gravitated toward the same numbers.

[draft]Geist Trappers[/draft]
Geist Trappers

Reach, one of Green’s basic keywords. Usually one spider is enough to hold off fliers, so getting a second creature to stick it’s hands up is less of a big deal than it is with most Soulbond abilities. A fine card.

[draft]Nightshade Peddler[/draft]
Nightshade Peddler

I have been really pleased with the appearance of Deathtouch in recent sets / years. It’s been used very effectively to nudge limited environments where they needed it, and a lot of the cards it has appeared on are more interesting than they may seem at first read. This card is no exception, although this is the second set in a row in which it is a little too easy to assemble the [card]Basilisk Collar[/card] + [card]Cunning Sparkmage[/card] combo.

[draft]Pathbreaker Wurm[/draft]
Pathbreaker Wurm

Trample, check. _____breaker Wurm is my go-to naming convention for 6/4 green commons. I’m sure there’s a cover band joke in there somewhere too.

[draft]Trusted Forcemage
Druid’s Familiar[/draft]
Trusted Forcemage & Druid’s Familiar

These two worry me a little. I can’t say I would avoid them, they are just the kind of thing you have to do, but I’m glad there are only three stat boosters in the set (instead of having some in ever color). What bothers me about these two, the common and uncommon, is that they appear frequently in limited and make the board very hard to understand. Players are used to remembering what keywords the opponent’s creatures have, but figuring out the sizes of a team of 5 creatures that includes one of each of these is a nightmare. Combine this with the glut of flicker effects in the set and you’ll find you never feel anything other than awful when you attack into or try to block these creatures.

[draft]Wolfir Silverheart[/draft]
Wolfir Silverheart

This card I love. Why an about-face from the [card]Trusted Forcemage[/card] and [card]Druid’s Familiar[/card]? Well, it’s rare, so it won’t show up nearly as much in limited. When it does, it’s rare, so you pay attention. More than that, it’s a big change in P/T – so big that the whole game is going to revolve around it and you won’t be forgetting the opponent’s creature’s stats or getting confused. Also so big that it’s more a matter of chump blocking to stay alive rather than getting blown out by a [card]Cloudshift[/card] (though that may still happen, it’s more likely that you’ll just be dead). It’s natural to do a vertical cycle of these, and I can’t say I wouldn’t do it either, but so far my play experiences with the common and uncommon have been a little miserable. I kept reminding my opponents that they shouldn’t attack into my two 4/4s with their 3/3s, or I would get blown out because my opponent wasn’t so courteous to remind me of his pairing situation. Sure, you can say I’m a bad player for forgetting – go ahead, just don’t come crying to me when you make the same mistake.

I want to end on a high note by saying that even if I’m not thrilled with one or two cards, Soulbond is very cool and very fun. The flavor of teaming up is outstanding, and perfect in a set about the humans teaming up to turn the tide against the monsters that were (b)eating them (even teaming up with the werewolves themselves). We are sure to enjoy it now and see it again in the future.

-Greg
@gregorymarques

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