A Look at Theros Design


I had originally intended to write my thoughts about the design of Theros and the inclusion of Thoughtseize therein as a single blog post, but my rant about Thoughtseize expanded to the point that I felt it was better served as its own entry.  So now I want to take a look at some other Theros designs that have stood out to me as somewhat troubled.

Now, I can appreciate a good block theme, but I have to say that I was somewhat apprehensive when I heard that Theros was going to be an Enchantment block.  Having a core block mechanic of a set be something that isn’t deeply connected to creatures can be problematic, because creatures attacking and blocking provide the fundamental source of interaction in Magic.*  Multicolor blocks and tribal blocks and artifact blocks can work because they mess with the nature of creatures, but the only previous block that attempted to be an “enchantment block” was Urza’s Saga, and that failed miserably.

When I saw the core mechanics for Theros, though, I was impressed.  I really like the implementation of the Gods – they’re super cool and flavorful.  As beings that only sometimes manifest themselves, it totally makes sense for them to be both enchantments and creatures – they also don’t work mechanically without the additional card type.  The fact that their power can be felt even when they are not themselves present is very cool, and I think they’re generally speaking solid A designs.


The only exception to this is Heliod.  Putting a token making ability on a card that builds toward a threshold generally suggests to a player that using the ability will make progress toward the satisfaction of that threshold.  Here, however, you can make literally infinite tokens with Heliod’s ability without ever getting closer to turning him into a creature.  It’s a fairly minor point, in the grand scheme of things, but Patrick Sullivan mentioned it when we first looked at the card, and it’s been bugging me ever since.


I can also understand Bestow requiring “enchantment creatures” to work properly, so they make sense.  The mechanic is a bit confusing for lower rarities, especially since the reminder text doesn’t actually explain how they work.  If you kill a creature that is being targeted by an aura in response, the aura fizzles due to lack of target on resolution, but if you kill a creature targeted by Bestow the Bestow creature actually comes into play on resolution instead.  Kind of messy, but I imagine it was a decision made because getting your expensive Bestow creature blown out by removal was too miserable – which was, incidentally, a big problem with previous attempts to make enchantments good.


The cycle that really bothers me is the “Legendary Enchantment Artifacts”.  Once upon a time, being an artifact meant something in Magic.  They were colorless.  It wasn’t until Shards block, I believe, that we saw our first colored artifacts (outside of a one-of Future Sight design).  That already started to blur the lines of what it meant to be an artifact, since it was now just an additional type on an otherwise normal card.  The introduction of colored artifacts made the card type lose a lot of its meaning.


Now we have not only colored artifacts, but colored artifacts that are also enchantments.  I understand what’s going on here from a story perspective – these are the weapons of the gods, so they’re enchantments like the gods and their other creations – but mechanically they’re pretty much nonsense.   These card could easily just be enchantments, or just be artifacts – unlike the Gods or Bestow creatures, there’s no mechanical reason for them to have both types.  In fact, putting both types on them just highlights how muddy the line between enchantments and artifacts has become.  Some will say that they can’t be enchantments because have tap abilities, but this isn’t the first time we’ve seen enchantments that can tap.


Now if these were equipment, I could buy it, because equipment actually have rules associated with them that are different than enchantments – they have an equip cost to go from creature to creature.  Being an Enchantment Equipment can actually mean something different than being just an enchantment or just an equipment, which is not true of being an Enchantment Artifact.  I understand that the reason that they weren’t made as such is because of type line text limits, which I can sympathize with, but the resulting designs just don’t really do it for me.



BowOfNyleaThe biggest offender, in my mind, is Bow of Nylia.  Look at this card.  When I first saw it unofficially spoiled online, I assumed it had to be fake, because it’s a complete mess.  This is a Legendary Enchantment Artifact with a static effect and an activated power with FOUR SEPARATE MODES, none of which is the least bit related to the others.  I have since been told that the four different abilities are meant to represent the four seasons, which is at least some kind of explanation, but in my mind not a very good one.  Even knowing that, the card seems barely coherent.  I don’t even know which ability is supposed to be what season, and they certainly don’t feel like they should all come from a single card.  As Patrick Sullivan said when we were talking about this one – “If someone had turned this in to me as part of a design assignment for a job application, they would not have gotten hired.”


Last, and in fact actually least, are the scry dual lands.  I think the scry dual lands are, by themselves, totally fine designs.  They’re probably actually quite powerful – I know that I’m looking forward to using them with Domri to give myself a better chance of hitting a creature.  They’re certainly going to find their way into constructed decks.  The problem with them is that they’re rares in a set immediately following a block that had Guildgates at common.  To many players, Scry 1 is barely an ability, whereas being a gate works with things like Maze’s End and Gatecreeper Vine.  These same players would probably be baffled to compare the Scry lands to the Zendikar Refuges, which were identical cards at uncommon with lifegain instead of Scry.  To those players, gaining life is clearly valuable, while Scry “does nothing if the card you want to draw is on top of your deck” **.


TempleOfMysteryI think the scry lands are perfectly fine cards – I just think they’re in an unfortunate place.  They would be much better received if they were introduced in a different context, without common Guildgates breathing down their necks.  I think many players who started playing recently will open packs and be very sad to find their rare is a Guildgate that they can’t play with Maze’s End.  Finding lands in your rare slot is already a sad experience to new players – I remember when I started, opening dual lands in my packs was disappointing, because they could have been Shivan Dragons – and that disappointment is magnified when what  you’re seeing is so similar to something you saw at common so recently.


Anyway – as I said in the beginning of all of this, I think Wizards is doing an excellent job with design in general.  Theros looks awesome overall, and I’m excited to play with it.  But that doesn’t mean they couldn’t do better.  I feel like it’s important to be critical of the flaws even in otherwise great sets, because otherwise things aren’t going to get better.  “Good enough” is how we ended up with Magic Online.



*I want to point out that this isn’t some kind of personal preference because I tend to enjoy playing a certain kind of deck, which is a suggestion some people have raised when I’ve made similar statements in the past.  From a game rule perspective, the only cards that fundamentally interact in Magic are creatures.  Without attacking and blocking, the only way any cards interact in Magic is if the card text explicitly says so.  That’s why it’s important for creatures to have a central role – they are the root of interaction between players.


**This is an ACTUAL critique I saw of the scry lands.  I point it out not to mock the person who said it, but to point out that it requires a certain level of sophistication to understand the value of the mechanic.


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