zaterdag 25 oktober 2014

Khans of Tarkir

Magic: the Gathering has brought out a new expansion recently. (Which is not that surprising. Given how many cards they produce each year, you could say that almost anytime and be correct.) And what do we do when a new Magic set comes out? We review it of course! Unfortunately, I'm not much of a tournament player. I just do some drafts for fun and play a whole lot of Commander. Thus I'm not very well equipped to review the power level of the new set. Instead, I thought I'd focus on something else: the design as a whole. Not that's something I find very interesting! I designed my first cards about a week after I was first introduced to the game, and have gobbled up any behind the scenes info Mark Rosewater has revealed about how to make cards. And what better way to get better at this design stuff then to pull apart an actual set?

Check the Khans of Tarkis set review, after the jump!

Khans of Tarkir's design started out with a question: what to do with the third set of the next block? Wizards of the Coast has struggled for a while with making the third sets interesting. You need to introduce new things, or it will feel like more of the same thing. But these sets also need to feel as a continuation of the first two sets. People got very annoyed when Rise of the Eldrazi didn't continue a single theme from Zendikar. For Tarkir block they decided to fix it in the following manner: The first and the third set of the block will be large sets, with the second set functioning as a connector. You first draft the first and second set together, and then when the third set is out you draft the second and third set. To make sense of this flavorwise they came up with a time travel storyline. The first set shows a world, the second will feature (presumable) the planeswalker Sarkhan Vol travelling through time in which (again presumably, we don't have all the details yet) something is changed in the past, and the third set will show the altered look of the world. (All this information comes from Mark Rosewater's many media outlets by the way.)

The flesh out that idea Wizards designed a war-torn world on which dragons had been hunted to extinction (The time travel would most likely result in the resurrection of the dragons, though I can't quite see how that will result in a more peaceful world.) A war-torn world needs factions to wage that war, so that idea was combined with something the player had been asking about for a long time: wedges. For the uninitiated, that's the term for 3-color combinations based on enemy colors, as opposed by the shards, the 3-color combinations based on allied colors. Shards had already got a three cards devoted to them in Alara block, and people have been asking for a wedge block ever since. The five wedge color combinations were each flavored as a clan, ruled by the eponymous Khans of Tarkir, and are the main feature of the set.

Given how they take centre stage, I'm almost surprised the set isn't called Clans of Tarkir rather than Khans. But I guess Khans better portrays the Asian feel of this world. A feel that I quite like. The clans shows influences from very different cultures (Southeast Asian, Tibetan, Mongolian etc.) making them very distinct and the world diverse. But as we westerners tend to put all these cultures in the one category of "Asian", Tarkir still comes across as a very coherent world. I don't think Edward Said would like such a deliberate invocation of orientalism, but it's ingenious nonetheless.

Of the clans, I think Jeskai and Sultai are the most striking. They certainly are the most unique. The Jeskai are the only clan that has monks, djinn and efreeti and are the only ones that live in the mountains. The Sultai are the only ones that have naga and zombies and are the only ones that live in jungles and swamps. On top of that, they have very clear mechanical identities. The Jeskai combine mediation with martial arts, as expressed through their Prowess mechanic which makes creatures stronger when you cast spells. The Sultai are necromancers, and their use of corpses is shown through the Delve mechanic, which allows you to play cards for cheaper by exiling cards in your graveyard. The flavor/gameplay match isn't 100% (How exactly is me casting a fireball a form of meditation? How does necromancy come in to summoning Hooting Mandrills?) but it's close and very grokable.

The Abzan and Mardu are also quite good, but a bit similar to my tastes. The prior are nomads who travel between desert oases, while the latter are nomads that travel through the steppe, a distinction that is sometimes hard to make apparent in the medium of small pieces of art on cardboard. On top of that, both clans are mostly made up of humans and orcs. I think the distinction between these clans could have been stronger if each had a signature creature type (Like how the Sultai have naga and the Jeskai have monks AND djinn AND efreeti.) I'd have kept the orcs purely black/red in Mardu, and then the Abzan could've had... spirits perhaps, to showcase their ancestor-connections a bit more?
Luckily there are a few things that set these two clans apart. For example, I absolutely love the giant rhinos and elephants that the Abzan use to haul entire castles. It's a great representation of how this is the clan that goes for the late game, and sets them apart from the Mardu which are all about speed. But what helps the distinction the most is the very strong mechanical identity of Abzan. Outlast reads a bit of a dull at first (don't attack for a +1/+1 counter), but when you see that most creatures with Outlast also grant abilities to each creature with +1/+1 counters on them they suddenly become much more interesting. And it makes them a very distinct group, similar to Slivers or Allies in the past. Mardu's Raid mechanic, which is just "you get a bonus if you have attacked this turn" is very simple, but also fits the clan of speed and sneak attacks quite well.

The one clan that I find a bit lacking in Temur. Their main visual is that they hang out in cold areas, but that can also be seen in a lot of Jeskai art. Quite a few of their cards feature wild animals or elementals, which detracts from them having a distinct look. And the only unique creature type they have are Loxodon, of which there are only two. Some more humans and perhaps a race of sapient bears would've done the Temur good.
In addition to that, they have one of the least exciting mechanics. Ferocious just gives you a bonus if you control a creature with power 4 or greater. Very simple, like Raid, but it doesn't have as much flavor. Why does my spell get better because there is a big bear somewhere in the vicinity? In addition to that, it's the least unique mechanic. Only Abzan wants to play lots of things with +1/+1 counters. Only Sultai wants to fill up its graveyard. But every clan wants creatures with high power.
Finally, of all the clans Temur seems to fit its wedge the least. While you have to squint a bit to see black in Abzan, blue seems entirely absent from Temur. They are just the Gruul with better coats and some ice elementals. Now it's not that they aren't blue. If you read the flavor articles on them it's clear that they "seek perfection", and try to understand the universe through their time-magic. But this does not speak from the cards. Mainly because there are no intelligent blue Temur creatures. All of them are elementals. Showing some more shamans to showcase how they are different from the red/green shamans we always see in Magic would've helped.

As the mechanics of the set were revealed, people online quickly started complaining about the fact that they were so simple. It was the usual outcry about how Wizards is dumbing down Magic, the usual declaring that the New World Order design philosophy is destroying Magic. It makes me wonder if it had been smarter to give NWO a less pompous name. "Let's not make sets so complex that they explode people's heads"-Order? After all, that's all NWO really is.

MaRo has given the expected response to those complaints. Time Spiral and Lorwyn were to complex and turned people off, so Wizards now tries to limit the amount of complexity in a single set. And since Khans has the five clan mechanics, plus a return of Morph (one of the most complex mechanics they've ever done) plus the wedge theme, it makes sense that the new mechanics are not among the most difficult to understand.

But I think there is another thing we should keep in mind as well: Wizards is using mechanics in a very different manner than they used to do. Way back when, the mechanics were the main draw of a set. In the pre-Prophecy era the selling point of every set was basically "Look, more cards!". And if that's your pitch, the new cards better have some unique new abilities. But since Invasion a very gradual change has been going on. The introduction of set themes first helped focus the creation of new mechanics ("Look, more cards! And they're multicolor!"), but it also gave every set it's own look, feel and play environment. And that influenced set creation. While the sales pitch for the sets after Invasion was still "Look, more cards! And they're tribal/artifacts/Japanese!", by the time Rise of the Eldrazi came around it was more "Look, a unique draft environment!". Well okay, and a little bit of "Look, new cards! AND THEY'RE HUGE!", but still. If you read the articles on the creation of Onslaught, the design philosophy seems to have been "The are cool mechanics, lets do more of those!". With Rise of the Eldrazi on the other hand, the environment and the feel of the set came first, and the mechanics were created to match that. This of course culminated in the latest "Age of Design", starting with Scars of Mirrodin. MaRo has stated that now they explicitly start by figuring out what they want players to feel, and work outward from that.

Khans is a set sold on the clans, on the wedge cards and on the draft environment. And on the Fetch lands. The mechanics reflect this. Morph helps with playing wedges in draft (And according to MaRo serves some other function in future sets), and the clan mechanics show the flavor of the clans. Mardu are nomadic raiders? They get bonuses from attacking. The Temur are big monsters? They get bonuses for being big. Now I have my problems with the Temur mechanic, as stated above, but not with the fact that it's simple. Raid is just as simple, but it gets the job of showing the Mardu flavor done. No problems there.

Final thing to remember: this set has six named mechanics. The sets in the good old days only had two. To make a complete comparison you also have to take into account the non-named mechanics of the older sets, which are usually a lot less complex than the named ones. Ayone remember the Spikes, the Gustcloaks or Gating? Those were just as simple as Outlast or Raid, just never named.

Of, and another final thing. Last year Wizards introduced Bestow, and people started complaining that it was to complicated. I don't envy MaRo's job. (Oh who am I kidding, I envy MaRo's job tremendously! But if I ever do get it, dealing with the fan responses is going to take some time to learn.)

Khans of Tarkir is a wedge set in the same way Shards of Alara was a shard set. Or maybe not quite. For starters, the number of multicolor cards is actually much lower. You want to play cards of the same clan because they work together mechanically, not because their mana cost forces you to. In addition to that, mana fixing has been increased, in quantity as well as in quality. I think this has worked out very well. Despite the lower number of multicolor cards the clans are still as recognizable as the shards were, thanks to their flavor and mechanical identity. And I am having much more fun drafting Khans than Shards. Back then I always ended up with bombs in all colors, but no mana fixing at all, or all the mana fixing in the world, but nothing but mediocre cards to cards with it. But there is one thing I worry about with this theme...

You see, Khans is a wedge set, but it is not the start of a wedge block. Wizards has been quick to mention this, to avoid disappointment of the fans. But I wonder if that has been enough though. For starters, how many Magic players did they actually reach with those comments? People who don't read the website or MaRo's tumblr will open packs, find a bunch of wedge cards, and then probably assume (on the basis of pretty much every block since Invasion) that the rest of the block will have them as well. And a wedge theme has been requested since Shards of Alara hit the shops. With such a popular theme, will even the people Wizards did reach be happy with just one set of it?

MaRo has responded in two ways to the question why the wedges are in only one set. The first answer is essentially "wait and see". Something in the next to sets will show us why they've done it. Very well, I'll wait and see before I pass judgment. So please read this part of the review not as hard criticism, just as me voicing my concern about a possible problem.

The second answer is that there is not that much design space in three color cards. To illustrate this he showed how they cheated a bit with Alara block. In the latter two sets of that block they supplemented the shards theme with more general multicolor stuff. I had noticed this before. When I took my own stab at designing a wedge set (as I'm sure every amateur card maker has done at least once) I analyzed Shards of Alara for inspiration and was surprised to find a low number of actual shard cards. Certainly at the lower rarities.

But here is my rebuttal of that example: we didn't notice. Only when analyzing the design did I realise how little shard cards were in the set. Alara still felt like a shards block, even with the "cheats". So given the demand for wedge cards, if I was Wizards I'd try to go down that path again. Keep the wedge theme throughout the block, but don't make it the only draw. There still is the time travel plot to showcase after all. The continuing usage of wedge cards, even as a secondary theme, would make people who have been asking for it very happy. As it stands, I'm a bit worried for another Theros-style backlash. When that set came out people thought they were getting an enchantment block and were annoyed to discover that this only became a main theme in the last set of the block.

A final bit of critique I have on the set is it's depiction of a war-torn world. As in, it doesn't look any more war torn than any other plane we've seen. Yes, there are cards that show conflict between the factions, but not more than we usually get. Most arts still show a creature in a cool pose, or a mage launching a spell. If this world really was supposed to be war-torn, where are cards like Blasted Landscape or Contested War Zone? Why is the blue vanilla a random elk, rather than "Destitute Refugee"? Why is the clan-neutral mechanic the not intrinsically flavorful Morph, rather than something to showcase the war, like Battle Cry?

Now, I don't know if this is a big problem. Considering Magic's usual worlds, I can't really imagine the time travel plot ending with Tarkir turning into a peaceful utopia. Surely the conflicts from Khans of Tarkir will simply be replaced by other conflicts. And if they are not going for a huge contrast between war-torn original Tarkir and peaceful new Tarkir, then it's not so problematic that the war wasn't showcased very well. But still, when the trailer is all about a world "torn by battle,ruled by khans!", it's a bit odd that from the cards the conflict between the khans is no more pronounced than those between the guilds of Ravnica. Mirrodin/Phyrexia, or Innistrad, those were planes where it felt like constant battle was going on!

Reading back what I've wrote, it strikes me that I sound a bit down on Khans of Tarkir. That's not true at all though. It's just that Magic generally has excellent design, and on the official website oodles of articles have already been written on the ideas that makes their designs so great. Thus it's much more interesting to focus on the things that could still be better.

The backbones of the set are all great: The three color theme is implemented better here than in Shards of Alara, making it an hugely fun set to draft. Morph is a great addition to a multicolor set, and also has better gameplay than in its first appearance in Onslaught (I haven't talked much about it, but that's because this improvement was already apparent in it's second showing, in Time Spiral). Finally the clans are all very cool and unique flavorewise, and apart from the Temur their flavor is very well implemented gameplaywise. (And Temur still has good gameplay, it just doesn't live up to the other clans in excitement or flavor-matching.) My main niggles are really worries for the future. If the next sets really have nothing to do with wedges, it'll be very difficult for them to match Khans. Such a popular theme is a tough act to follow. That the warring nature of Tarkir isn't front and centre doesn't have to be a problem at all. The clans are cool enough to warrant interest without their conflict. But if the war is supposed to be contrasted by something in the third set, that might fall a bit flat.

So Khans of Tarkir: great success, very cool set. The future? I see things that could trip Wizards up, but I've got faith in their expertise, so I'm going to reserve judgment until the sets come out.

And hey, if it does go wrong, we can always send Sarkan back in time to try and fix things again, can't we?

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