Madoka Magic – Fixing the Mana System
I began designing cards for this set for many reasons. A few fun top-down parodies, working around exile as a block theme (something that even Wizards hasn’t tackled yet), exploring the color philosophies with the five main characters of one of the greatest anime of all time and many other interesting little tidbits I’m going to discuss in good time. But now I want to talk about the big reason I began this endeavor to look at the heart of Magic through my new eyes that had seen another way of doing things from my experience with the rich variety of successful Japanese TCGs.
Lord Marlin: You recently defended mana flood and mana screw as an important part of Magic. I don’t see how these qualities of the game are defensible when you constantly say that not being able to play your spells is not fun. Please explain how such narrowly-designed cards as basic land could not or should not be rethought in order to fix a mana system that many players see as faulty.
MaRo: The answer lies in variance. It’s very important that games don’t all work the same. The mana system is one of the most powerful things that helps do that. Of course, games where you don’t get mana are unfun but games where you get it late and just barely eke out a victory are some of the most awesome games of Magic. Luckily the former don’t tend to be long games.
I was not satisfied with this answer. Yes, variance certainly leads to ensuring that each game is a unique experience, but that’s no reason you should receive so many dead draws. Drawing cards that may eventually be useful and waiting for the right time to make them count involves a lot of strategy and suspense. However, there’s a big difference between getting a card that may be useful and a card that will never be useful and Magic’s inability to easily allow players to get themselves out of a sticky situation because of the extreme limitation of 20% of the cards in the average deck is one of the key differences between Magic and Japanese TCGs.
Just over a year after that brief exchange with MaRo, I’d already begun designing Madoka Magic, when he began doing his podcasts, Drive to Work. In one of those podcasts, Magic’s head designer talks about the mana system and defends it as one of the pieces of the Golden Trifecta of Magic design, which he suggests if it were to be changed, it would fundamentally alter the way the game is played. This is very relevant to the next part of this story because I asked him a follow up question to that podcast and he had this to say:
Lord Marlin: In your podcast about the mana system, you didn’t address the reason I think it’s flawed. I actually agreed with 80% of what you had to say in its defense. But my problem is simply that lands are boring. With a few inefficient exceptions, you can’t do anything with them besides make resources. There are almost no other TCGs that require the player to devote 33% of his or her deck to unfun cards just in order to play the fun ones. This is why I think the mana system still has some big bugs.
MaRo: You brought up a good point that I didn’t hit. Lands make players have to worry about less cards in their deck. That just makes it easier to concentrate on the rest of the game. Instead of having to use brain power to monitor sixty cards, they only have to monitor thirty-six or so.
There are games where you have to spend a lot of brain power figuring out what resources you can have access to and I feel that makes a game overall less fun for everyone but the hard-core Spikes.
I did not like this answer whatsoever because I had always defended Mark against the players who constantly claim that he’s been dumbing down the game in recent years. But this is not only an admission that a simpler game is better (an opinion at best) he makes the mistake of claiming that lands make it so players have to worry about less cards in their deck. This is some of the most dishonest spin I’ve heard outside of politics. If Mark Rosewater actually believes that players aren’t thinking about lands, he’s become very misguided about his game.
An argument could easily be made that creating a well-developed mana base is one of the hardest skills to learn in Magic. If it’s not issues like, “how many lands fits this mana curve,” it’s “how many of each color mana do I need to play the spells I’m going with,” to “how many utility lands that only produce colored mana is too many?” and all other sorts of minutia I’m not going to go into here. If you’re not considering all of this carefully, you’re going to get mana flooded, mana screwed or color screwed every which way. Don’t try to tell me that the mere existence of lands suddenly makes the game simpler.
Dissatisfied with my interactions with Wizards’ hierarchy, I knew that my set design was going to include an attempt to fix the glaring flaws in the mana system. I felt the solution shouldn’t be to just change some fundamental part of how the game plays. Magic is a flexible game and one of the key things that makes a lot of card designs exciting is that at its heart, Magic is a game that allows the player to break the established rules for a price. Thus, I present the Build mechanic.
Lets look at Build’s moving parts. First of all, at its heart, what is it exactly? In basic terms, it’s kicker for lands. While that may not initially sound groundbreaking, even Mark Rosewater once joked that a lot of keywords are just variations on kicker and split cards. But what’s revolutionary about this new mechanic is that these are lands that tap to produce colored mana, don’t come into play tapped and have an additional ability. I can already hear the protests to this idea. By printing lands that are strictly better than basic lands, won’t that make the basic lands obsolete? Worry not, the design of the Build Lands was not something that happened overnight and it’s one of the mechanics I’ve actually given a lot of playtesting. After a fair amount of analysis, I have come up with four answers to this objection.
- First, no the basic lands will not be made obsolete by the Build mechanic because they will still be necessary for limited.
- Second, again no, because many powerful cards like fetchlands, the M10 lands and basic land tutoring care about the basic land types. If the issue at hand is the worry that the basic lands will become phased out as more Build lands are made, then the solution is to make the basic supertype matter more.
This block has several cards that do exactly that as a demonstration of ways to ensure that Build lands are not always “strictly better” than the basics depending on the strategy you want to play by.
- Third, the cost for the Build abilities is about double what it would be if the equivalent effect appeared on a sorcery. The whole purpose of Build is to alleviate the pain of late-game mana flood in situations where normally you’d be very upset to draw a land and you already have plenty of mana to spare anyways. Additionally, the effects are limited to things that are small bonuses and generally speaking can’t produce a win on their own.
- And lastly, I have to concede that this really could signify the end of basic lands as we know it. But let’s look at the issue here. Basic lands are boring, weak and add almost zero strategy to the game. Put simply, the argument I’ve been making this entire post is that Magic would be greatly improved if the basic lands were rendered obsolete. I would fully expect there to be a period of adjustment as players became used to the new power standard, but I can’t imagine it would be any bigger of a shakeup than the addition of the Planeswalker type was several years ago.
In conclusion, let me tell you that playtesting with the Build Lands is one of the most refreshing experiences I’ve ever had in the eighteen years I’ve been playing Magic. These cards accomplish exactly what I set out to do. Drawing a land hasn’t felt this good since Zendikar and I encourage everyone to put aside any preconceptions you may have about what impact these cards might have on the game, print out a playset and see for yourself the amount of stress these cards relieve from the game. Thanks for reading to the end of this very long post that I feel was necessary to properly summarize this creative journey. I’m convinced that I’ve found something revolutionary, but what are your thoughts? I’m eager to hear what others have to say about what I’m expecting to be a controversial idea, so please share any concerns you may have in the comments below.