Madoka Magic – Fixing the Mana System

Plains 1 - Madoka Magic Island 1 - Madoka Magic Swamp 3 - Madoka Magic Mountain 3 - Madoka Magic Forest 1 - Madoka Magic

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.

It started early last year in a question I sent to Mark Rosewater on Blogatog in which I asked him to defend mana flood and mana screw, a recurring problem I’d been having with my games at the time.

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.

Hospital - Madoka Magic Library - Madoka Magic Warehouse - Madoka Magic

Piping - Madoka Magic Arbor - Madoka Magic

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.

  1. First, no the basic lands will not be made obsolete by the Build mechanic because they will still be necessary for limited.
  2. 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.

    Flow Witch - Madoka Magic

    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.

  3. 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.
  4. 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.

13 responses to “Madoka Magic – Fixing the Mana System

  1. Boba Fettuccini June 16, 2013 at 4:16 am

    Flavorwise, those build lands are terrible. The only ones that make sense are Library and Hospital.

    • Marlin-sama June 16, 2013 at 8:58 am

      I’ll admit that Arbor is a little off flavorwise. Any suggestions? I can change the art. As for Warehouse, you’d have to have watched the anime to get that one (a large group of people try to commit suicide there). And Piping is hot and it’ll burn you if you touch it (also it’s a reference to the anime, where two characters fight in that alleyway and one of them breaks a pipe).

  2. Dylan Barrett June 16, 2013 at 10:55 am

    Here’s my opinions on your lands (mind you I will probably have to proxy these and get around to play testing them to really give you my 2 cents), the build mechanic is great. What a wonderful concept. I mean, have you taken these cards to the table for play yet? I feel like the ‘build’ price for Warehouse and Arbor cost too much where as Hospital and Piping are underpriced for the ‘build’ mechanic. Library is fine…leave that where it’s at, but why discard a card when you have cards like Thought Scour that allow you to mill an opponent for 2 cards and draw a card costing the player only one blue mana? If you’re gonna make them drop 3 for that ability you oughta at least let them avoid discarding.

    Don’t take any of this personally, just voicing my opinions here. Also…I know this is a Madoka themed set, but Piping sounds straight up stupid IMO. Especially when you could probably pull another fire/heat/mountain themed structure from the series.

    • Marlin-sama June 16, 2013 at 7:36 pm

      I have indeed playtested with the Build Lands. These are the ones that have gotten more playtesting than any of my other designs for this block (probably by virtue of being able to go in any deck).

      As for the costs of the abilities, I basically looked at what those effects would cost on an average sorcery and doubled them to prevent them from superceding both the basic lands and the sorceries they were inspired by. I know one of the things this set is not is balanced, but I’m not trying to be a developer. If others want to give these cards a go and see what an appropriate cost would be for these abilities, you’re more than welcome to print some proxies and have at it. I just don’t have the time or the friends for doing that extensively.

      Lastly, as for the name of Piping, I think it’s fine personally. It was inspired by Izzet Steam Vents. I had a really hard time coming up with red-aligned stuff for this set. But if you have something better, by all means let me know. I want this to be the best it can and I’ll personally thank you on the spoiler page if I end up using your idea.

  3. Joseki June 16, 2013 at 3:04 pm

    These are just lands that cycle – like Tiago’s original invitational card. Simplicity is king – Secluded Steppe had decks build around it, these lands never will.

  4. bloodyana June 16, 2013 at 7:09 pm

    The idea is not bad, if you would reconsider the costs and what the lands do. Some effects look a little boring and generic.
    Anyway, you’ve already got assets to avoid mana flood, such as fetch lands, which ’empty’ your deck of lands so the more you crack, the less likely is that you will draw a land. This also comes with colour filtering at the cost of only one life. Also, there are lands that allow you to do things when you’ve got a lot of lands and no cards in hand, such as Gavony Township, which can get really scary and force your opponent to use up resources just to deal with it.
    Also, you don’t want to draw these lands before turn 4 or even later because you will just play them and lose the bonus, so no way you want to play four of them. You have playtested them, are you happy to see them in your opening hand?
    As for the idea that maybe basic lands should be rendered obsolete… Do we ban Blood moon and Price of progress, or what?
    If you’re playing and deckbuilding properly, mana flood and mana screw should only be circumstantial drawbacks. I can’t think on any decks where puking your hand onto the table is a good idea (well, maybe Naya Blitz from Standard, but that’s a deck that’s screwed if it hasn’t won after turn 4), so you should almost always have some sort of resources in hand at almost any time. Also, you will most likely have permanents on the table that have some sort of activation cost you can use to win the game. So if you’re mana flooded, you don’t have any permanents in play, you don’t have any cards in your hand… Maybe your opponent has outplayed you. If this happens more that occasionally, maybe it’s your deckbuilding that needs improving?
    Long story short, you haven’t really convinced me, the idea is good but i wouldn’t pay these costs to have these effects in particular.

    • Marlin-sama June 16, 2013 at 7:58 pm

      You’ve missed one of the big reasons I have a problem with lands. They’re boring. That problem doesn’t happen in Japanese TCGs that lack the mana system.

      And sure, Gavony Township and its ilk are powerful and have cool abilities, but you can’t play a deck with all ability lands because they don’t produce colored mana. So their problem is not being flexible enough.

      Also, I’ve never seen anyone play Blood Moon, Price of Progress or Ruination…ever.

      Perhaps it’s my own bias, but I think Magic can learn a lot from Japanese TCGs. After playtesting with these lands, I feel so much more relieved drawing a land late game and knowing it’s not a dud.

  5. Joseki June 17, 2013 at 5:22 am

    You’ve clearly never played competitive magic if you havn’t seen Blood Moon or Price of Progress played. I’ve lost a PTQ finals to Blood Moon before, and I’ve had it in the SB of numerous decks.

    Further, there are many more interesting lands that see tons of play (Manlands of all varieties – Treetop Village, Faerie Conclave, Raging Ravine, Celestial Colonnade, Mutavault which is a card that is badass in tribal decks – Ghost Quarter and Tectonic Edge, Pendlehaven, Tabernacle at Pendrell Vale, Academy Ruins, the list goes on) And every single land I just mentioned are far more interesting that the ones you designed. In fact, I’ve played all of these cards in tournament magic during the decade I’ve played this game. Academy ruins is insanely exciting to draw because I compare their power level to basic lands and decide that making a colorless mana is worth the effect of this card.

    Magic isn’t about all upsides – Basic lands have no drawback or upside (generally speaking) which makes then ideal for designing lands around. A land that comes into play tapped for U/W and gain’s you one life (Sejeri Steppe) is strangely *worse* than a basic island or plains in most decks. Shock lands in modern like Sacred Foundry do not replace the nessecity for basic lands, because you’ll either take tons of damage to play them, or get Blood Moon’ed out of the game, or have a terrible aggro matchup. These are all balancing factors in deck design, and good players recognize the necessity for simplicity where its needed.

    The fact of the matter is, I do not think basic lands are “boring”. I think they are the essential building block of card evaluation in both limited and constructed. They are magic’s one true constant, and as such the entire game is balanced around them. I believe magic’s strength as a good game for beginner and expert alike comes from its simplicity and subtlety. I think the necessity for basic lands runs much deeper than you think it does.

    • Marlin-sama June 17, 2013 at 6:48 am

      I’ve played Standard and Legacy tournaments for a long time at local card shops literally on both sides of the world. The only nonbasic hate I recall seeing with any frequency were Ghost Quarter and Tectonic Edge.

  6. Joseki June 17, 2013 at 5:24 am

    Also, your lands are in no way even close to “Strictly better” than basic lands in any meaningful capacity. Magic has tons of reference to basic lands in almost every set ever printed. Non basic lands are generally unsupported positively by effects, but rather they are pushed on to have to ability to punish greedy players and reward players who build proper manabases and sideboard well.

  7. G June 17, 2013 at 1:05 pm

    While mana flooding/screw is always shitty, I think that’s simply the price you pay for playing a game that requires the use of resources to play cards and do things. The exact same thing happens in games like pokemon, which require energy for many pokemon attacks and such. Having played a few different tcgs, I can say that, while resources can be a pain, they can also be very fun. I don’t know how many games I’ve had where I’ve amassed what seemed like a useless amount of mana only to tap out for a huge spell or some weird alpha strike situation. And pokemon has similar things as well. On the other hand, I and others have combed out in games like yugioh, which has much less resource use, on turns 1-3 regularly if your deck is built right. This is something that’s essentially impossible in a game like pokemon and rare in all but a few modern decks and legacy/vintage for magic. As others have said, even with the build mechanic, which, by the way, I really like, these are not strictly better than basic lands simply because they force you to want to hold them back until you can use their effects. Also, since you can only use them that one time, playing them may screw up other plans you could have made that turn with no further benefit after that, like a shockland, manland, etc would have later on. Non-basic hate is huge in older formats and things like commander, it could just be your meta that is different. There are problems with magic’s system of mana, but completely changing how lands work, changing a rule which is inviolate for magic, si not the answer.

  8. Chestnut_Rice September 3, 2013 at 1:11 pm

    Wow thank you SO much for making these. It’s a complaint that I’ve had with Magic for a very long time too that a lot of my friends don’t seem to understand: lands are dead draws. At least you’re trying! Keep up the good work.

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