The Great Designer Search 2: In Pursuit of Elegance – 02

There’s less than 24 hours until the Great Design Search’s first round of contestants find out whether or not they’re advancing, or getting the chopping block. I don’t know how I’ll be doing, to be honest – I have confidence in my capabilities as a wordsmith, and think I’m on the right track more often than not with the questions, but even if the gross majority of the field suffers severely from Sturgeon’s Revelation (better known as Sturgeon’s Law), just taking the first GDS contest’s entries into account, that still leaves Wizards with ~110 “decent,” “good” or “genius” entries to sift through.

The population of Magic players has only grown. The community has only matured more. And, this time, people are prepared. For all I know, this may be the last GDS2-related blog entry I’ll be making – at least, as a participant.

However, the die has not yet been cast. And so some thoughts on why I disagree with Patrick Chapin about whether or not Cascade was a “punt” answer on the essay questions – namely, thoughts that take more than 250 words to express (I’m never short for words – usually the other way around. Yes, I can be a windbag at times – at least, if a keyboard’s in front of me).

The first thing that needs defining is the conceptual rupture between “OMG WORST MECHANIC EVAR” and what is simply a bad one. This is an IMPORTANT first thing, really, and something that I don’t think most contestants will get – also something Chapin possibly needs to expound upon more. A bad mechanic is merely one that is either functionally irrelevant (Chroma – you can literally delete the mechanic name, and it’d be fine as-is, versus Metalcraft, which if written as “Creature has Ability X so long as it has Metalcraft,” cannot operate without Metalcraft being explained. Chrome can’t even decide how many lands it wants involved.), barely above flavor fluff (Chroma), or punishes usage of the card (Chr- no, actually, Islandhome. Islandhome sucks so bad). They’re annoying to see when you crack open a pack. They can be made into gamebusting mechanics, as Chapin demonstrates with Chromapotence. But the general, public reaction to them is one big, fat, huge “Meh.

A bad mechanic is a clumsy and ineffectual mechanic. Either it doesn’t do enough to alter the gamestate, or it does so in ways that actively discourages its use. Bad mechanics are to be avoided by the designer if at all possible – at the very least, they fail to inspire the players, and that’s never good news.

But what differentiate “bad” from “worst” isn’t merely clumsiness or impotence. For a mechanic, in my eye, to qualify as “worst,” it needs to be worse than bad. It needs to do something that, on a level fundamental to the mechanic itself, is grossly unfair and/or overbearing.  And Cascade well and truly qualifies itself as a repugnant mechanic.

Look, unfair isn’t the same thing as broken. A broken mechanic can and often is unfair, but being broken is specifically when a card’s effect causes such a massive change to the game-state that the opponent has no means of reseting the odds against him. An enchantment that gives each player a token creature every time a creature is tapped – pretty damn broken! Its synergy with existing cards, not to mention its own combat-warping merit, should leave every player aghast at its sheer overwhelming potential – especially if, aha, you’ll note my lack of the usage of the term “non-token creature” for permanents that can trigger its effect.

But despite being broken, it isn’t necessarily unfair. It is a card that rewards good deck design and intelligent play. Even if, in a fit of absurdity and insanity, it was greenlighted to be printed for a single, lonely green mana, its evenly distributed effect, as weighty as it is, is something you have to design and play around. It’s not going to do your work for you.

An unfair mechanic does that. An unfair mechanic is one that offers a massive disparity of reward to effort – namely, too much damn reward for too little damn effort. Even if the mechanic isn’t printed in such a way as to be a Necropotence-level disaster, it requires very, very little interactivity from its user to execute whilst overweighing the effort required on the opponent’s part to work around.

Cascade is oh so very unfair.

Even if Bitunimous Blast and Bloodbraid Elf weren’t good cards on their own merit, Cascade would still be a terribly unfair mechanic. Cascade’s reward for utilization is simple: for casting a spell, you get to have two. And don’t worry about your card advantage – it’ll tutor through the top of the deck until it finds an applicable card. Worried about being milled to death? Don’t worry! We’ll put it all back to the bottom of the library – incidentally giving you a better idea of the odds of any one card in the rest of the deck! Counterspells frighten you? Cascade’ll take care of that too – we’ll trigger before spell resolution, so countering one spell won’t prevent you from digging up a second.

I sure hope your opponent was holding back the mana for two counters!

Let me remind you: for casting one spell, Cascade will act as tutor, as an alternate spell cost, and as inherent spell protection.

Is Cascade a “good” mechanic in terms of its relevance? Oh, god, yes. It might’ve gotten eclipsed by even more potent deck designs, but off the strength of Cascade alone, Jund dominated the tournament scene for a painful three months. It isn’t just flavor fluff, it’s quite clearly a keyword-worthy mechanic, and it sure as hell doesn’t punish you for utilizing it.

But of the “good” mechanics in Extended, it is by far the least elegant tool released by Wizards in recent years. It is, in fact, a goddamn Swiss Army Mallet – a plurality of brute-force solutions crammed together into one gestalt solution whose ugly thuggery is greater than the sum of its ugly, ugly parts. It is a mechanic that actively rewards laziness on part of its user, doing all relevant work for them.

That, no matter what Patrick Chapin might say, is Not Good Design.

Here, I might as well put my metaphorical money where my mouth is: this is how I would’ve designed Cascade – and even made it far more modular and flexible, without breaking my own rule about how the player should ultimately be the one doing the work:

Cascade X – When [Spell] resolves, remove the top x cards of the deck. Put a card with converted mana cost X or less into your hand. Put the removed cards on the bottom of the library in a random order.

Now you have an elegant and flexible tutor and card advantage engine that rewards smart design and decision-making. It’s quite clearly a keyword-worthy mechanic, it has what is still absurd play relevance, and it directly engages and challenges the player to make smart choices. Furthermore, it’s a more universal mechanic than its foundational template, rewarding a full range of deckbuilding design and strategies, rather than locking players into a single form (the lack of choice as to what spells get to resolve really hurt its utilization in Control-oriented tactics).

Wizards didn’t ask us what we thought the stupidest mechanic was in the current Extended. They asked us what the worst mechanic was, and especially from a design perspective.

As such, the answer is clear:

Mother. Lovin’. Cascade.


~ by Gonzo Mehum on October 11, 2010.

One Response to “The Great Designer Search 2: In Pursuit of Elegance – 02”

  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by James Chen, Billy Moreno. Billy Moreno said: The Great Designer Search 2: In Pursuit of Elegance – 02: a blog entry on why cascade is worst mechanic by James Chen […]

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