The Cube, According to Gatherer, Part Six – Kiss From a Rosewater
I wrote this sentence last.
I subscribe whole-heartedly to the Steve Martin school of writing. According to him, “Writing is Easy!”
Each rose represents a story, so I’m never at a loss for what to write. I just look deep into the heart of the rose and read its story and write it down through typing, which I enjoy anyway. I could be typing “kjfiu joewmv jiw” and would enjoy it as much as typing words that actually make sense. I simply relish the movement of my fingers on the keys. Sometimes, it is true, agony visits the head of a writer. At these moments, I stop writing and relax with a coffee at my favorite restaurant, knowing that words can be changed, rethought, fiddled with, and, of course, ultimately denied. Painters don’t have that luxury. If they go to a coffee shop, their paint dries into a hard mass.
Ever since I was a teenager and first read Pure Drivel, the second essay in Martin’s book flummoxed me. Because it’s meant to be an obvious joke: Steve Martin slaved over his word choice. At the height of his career in ’81, he quit stand-up comedy because the process of perfecting his act was an exercise in tediocity. He never stopped writing, mind you. His choice to ‘quit comedy’ led to a string of excellent scripts, including The Jerk, Roxanne, and L.A. Story.
The problem with ‘Writing is Easy!’ is while it’s meant to be parody written during a time of self-help mania, I really want to believe. I want to sit in a garden, stare deep into the heart of a rose, and tell a fully-formed story. I want Allen Ginsberg to be right. “First thought, best thought.” After all, Allen and the beatniks built a career on the pure genius sliding from brain pan to ribbon tape. It’s genius, at least, if you ignore all the kifiu joewmv jiw buried in the bottom drawers of the their desks; arguably better stories that will never be developed because they required their authors to struggle.
Why do I mention this? Because when I write these articles, I tend to write the introduction last. It’s the toughest nut to unnut. So I internut late in the process, hoping some denutting happens while I crack the rest of the article.
Good writing, like good card design, requires struggle. First thought is often worst thought. I can’t speak for other people, but when I design a card based on another card, my first reaction is to try to fix what is wrong, instead of discovering what is right. Don’t get me wrong. ‘Fixing’ obvious problems can be satisfying. White Knight is made more special by the presence of Black Knight. But if I always choose the obvious answer, the cube would suffer for a lack of variety and become unfun, in the same way that Crusade was made less special by the presence of Bad Moon.
Case in point:
This is problematic.
There is nothing wrong with Chameleon Colossus, that isn’t wrong with a tyrannosaurus rex with great white sharks for arms. It’s a potent choice for a potent cube full of potent potables. Unfortunately, our cube features winners like Illumination and Pull Under. The average random Gatherer selection settles between 2.75 stars and 3.00. Considering where we were, Green drafters would have been happy to crack Rumbling Baloth—a 4/4 beatstick for four—in pack two. Chameleon Colossus is strictly better* than the Baltoh in three distinct ways.
(*’Strictly Better’ is a problematic term players apply to Magic: the Gathering cards with an upgrade over another Magic card. The term is often applied erroneously, as it is applied here. For example, Chameleon Colossus can not be enchanted with Unholy Strength since it features protection from black, and will die to Tivadar’s Crusade since it is a Goblin. There are those who insist that ‘strictly better’ is an illusion, since even the Colossus’ ability to double its own power becomes a liability if your opponent can access green mana, and gains control of your Colossus. Use this expression with caution, since it often results in excessive and unnecessary clarification, i.e., what happened in this paragraph.)
Making a cube with Gatherer is like venerating the opinion of a four year old child who flipped my Magic collection out of the box, into a sandlot, and is now sifting in search for the cards with the prettiest pictures. I knew when I started this project that the occasional fifty ton gorilla would wander into the box looking for bananas. But since the top five percent of Magic cards should only appear… five percent of the time… I figured I could live with this ‘problem’. What I didn’t take into account, is that the top five percent of Magic cards tend to be reprinted multiple times in specialty products. Chameleon Colossus, for example, was printed in Morningtide, Archenemy, From the Vault: Twenty, and Commander 2015. In other words, the top five percent of Magic cards are likely to appear approximately ten to twelve percent of the time. I need to learn to live with it.
We saw this happen before. Back in log three, I fretted over Tromokratis and Magmatic Force, but ultimately came to peace with those apes. Magic already includes a defense mechanism which prevents the gorillas from taking over the primate house. It’s called ‘the casting cost’, and it’s been keeping powerful cards in check since 1993. There’s nothing wrong with occasional monkey business, but if we want the rest of the animals in our zoo to thrive, we need to be careful how we dole out the bananas. A little resource denial goes a long way to keeping players off eight mana. Chameleon Colossus, however, costs four. There’s very little I can do to stop this silverback from smashing open his cage and ruling the menagerie without warping the fundamentals of the game.
When this sort of thing happens, the first design that springs to mind is often a direct answer. So, I made this:
‘Take That Shapeshifter!’ is a silver bullet aimed for Colossus’ head. All three creature types appear in the set, but never appear together on any non-shapeshifting Magic card. If Colossus is on the table, you can lock down that ‘Soldier Zombie Spirit’ while draining your opponent for three life per turn. Cool? I thought so. For approximately ten seconds.
This is really bad design, for two reasons:
One: For ‘Take That Shapeshifter!’ to do its job, your opponent needs to draft Chameleon Colossus, you need to draft TTS!, both of you need to put those cards in your deck (usually without knowing your opponent drafted Colossus. It’s a pack one, pick one, after all.) Then you need to draw it in a game where your opponent casts Colossus, and you aren’t already dead. That’s a lot of variables. The vast majority of the time, TTS! won’t do its intended job.
Two: When you play TTS! and it does do its job, it won’t be fun. Oh, it will be exciting the first time you get to use it. But most times, when it happens, it will feel like you cheated. Chameleon Colossus is a wrecking ball. When you play it, it should smash through walls like a wrecking ball. When you cast Rebuke or some other answer to stop it, it should feel like you dodged a wrecking ball. TTS! turns Colossus into a cosmic joke of a puttytat. It devalues the card, and ultimately devalues the game. If Chameleon Colossus is going to be in the cube, it should be valued highly because it is scary. Players shouldn’t be left wondering if one of the best cards in the cube might be a booby trap; the donkey behind door number three that you traded your all expense paid vacation for. Because when you’re drafting Green, even if it might be a trap, Colossus will still be your best pick. Nothing is gained by making the card worse on rare occasions.
Next, I tried to mentally balancing the cube by giving Colossus its opposite in Black.
We saw the Masquerade back in log one of this series. It seems like an appropriate ‘opposite’ for the Changeling ability.
While this balances the power level between Black and Green in the cube, it shifts the balance away from the other three colors in the process. And if I added equally absurd cards in those colors, the swingy nature of the cube would only get worse.
I can’t reset the balance of the cube by introducing new power cards, or by diminishing the power of Colossus, or by targeting any deck that would include a Colossus. I don’t dare design a card that’s synergistic with Colossus. So there’s only one option left: Ignore it. The next card I design should have nothing to do with Colossus. Besides, I give Colossus a fifty-fifty chance of getting cut from the cube after the first few playtests for being too good. It’s best if I pretend it isn’t even in the box.
I got here in a roundabout way. The Anti-Colossus reminded me that the set could use a few more cards with Masquerade. So I worked on a Masquerade lord… to little success. Meanwhile, I couldn’t help thinking that while I solved the initial problem that inspired Masquerade (there needed to be more cards for Behemoth’s Herald to fetch in order to make it a legit choice) there still wasn’t enough creatures worth sacrificing yet for the Herald to work properly. So I designed a red creature that liked to be sacrificed. You can always sacrifice Flamecore Pet using its expensive ability for a minor gain. But ideally you want to ‘cheat’ by sacrificing it to something cheaper while gaining a better bonus effect, like Innocent Blood.
It’s always neat when you stumble onto something Wizards has yet to do. There are plenty of creatures that sacrifice, and a few cards like Bloodbriar that like it when you sacrifice. But I don’t think there are any creatures that want to be sacrificed, and don’t care how it happens.
Outside of an anti-flying sub-theme, Red is lacking a theme in this cube. That’s because Red cards refuse to randomly appear. But I like this mechanic. And if Gatherer won’t give me any red cards to build a mechanic around, then ‘the Flamecore Pet ability’ seems as good a place as any to start.
Okay Gatherer! Show me another card!
Replicate! Talk about an underappreciated mechanic. Replicate first appeared on ten red and blue instants and sorceries in Guildpact, then nowhere else. That’s a shame, since it’s simple, efficient, easy to explain, and there’s plenty of design left to explore. For example, Wizards never made a card with a Replicate cost that was different than the card’s casting cost…
Originally, I made the base spell cost , and put the Replicate at . I liked how the card got fractionally more efficient the more mana that was at your disposal. But it’s unlikely you would be able to use the card as an effective answer to an opponent’s removal spell if it cost . So I swapped the two costs. It’s less exciting this way, but probably more useful.
I’m using my veto power on Balduvian Shaman. Not because of complexity, though. The Shaman is a wordy common (?!) but it isn’t that confusing. His main function is to turn Circle of Protection: Red into Circle of Protection: It’s All Good (now with bonus cumulative upkeep of .)
I talked before about how I don’t like color hosers, so I could cite that for my veto. But as I said before, I’m okay with hosers with a light touch. A Seal of Cleansing that gains you 3 life if it destroys a black permanent, for example.
No, the real problem is I’d need to design cards for Balduvian Shaman to target. I’m guessing at least ten white enchantments must be made, each of which did something when the color word on them changed. If this was week one or two, I’d take up that challenge. But this is week six, multiple mechanical identities are established, I can already see myself struggling in the weeks ahead to fill in design to make those identities work, and shoehorning this theme at this point would be too disruptive. Sorry Shaman, you’re late to the party. Maybe next time.
Ah. An archenemy scheme. Well that won’t fit in the cube, so it also gets an automatic veto.
For what it’s worth, I really like this effect. I tryed sneaking it in by assigning it a cost, making a sorcery out of the scheme. The result was underwhelming. This ability is really good in multiplayer, but I prefer to play tournament-style one-on-one games with cube drafts. With only one opponent, I imagine OBEYN would cost . But in a multiplayer game, it probably costs . I could change the wording to say target player… but then I’m rewriting what the original scheme does. It’s best we move on.
Another giant, overpowered mythic rare ape. Once again, this game changer is kept in check by its cost. Six mana isn’t difficult for limited, but the eight mana necessary to destroy the board will remain out of reach for a number of games.
One of these times, I’m going to design a card that helps accelerate into the end game. But that will probably be on the heels of an expensive, weak card, like Scaled Wurm. For now, we need a few more cards to keep these power cards checked. I feel bad for not making a proper spell out of “Only Blood Ends Your Nightmares”, so I played with its theme and made this:
Cards like this need a natural point where they must stop. Using charge counters was a natural fit, since the set already included a counter theme. I kept bouncing around the number of counters versus the cost, until it occurred to me that if I tied the two together using , that the card was acceptable at every cost. It’s nice when things align. It’s a pity Xenic Poltergeist from log five can’t attack with an animated Scythe, but it can blow up an opponent’s scythe on command. That’ll do.
Time to punch Gatherer in the button!
Oh! I’ve never seen this card before. ‘Just Fate‘ may sound like the latest Hugh Grant / Juliette Lewis romantic comedy, but it’s a secret Rebuke printed thirteen years ago in Portal: Second Age. Technically, Rebuke is the strictly better* card, since Just Fate restricts when it can be cast. If you play Just Fate for the goofy artwork, and your opponent flashes a Giant Growth during the declare blockers step, you just got fated, son.
Speaking of the artwork… I can’t. There aren’t enough words to express the majesty infused in this modern masterpiece. Thankfully, Gatherer commenter, idrinkyourmilkshake, boiled the narrative’s essence into this savory stew:
“Oh no — the buzzsaw is coming”
“Quick, feed the giant this awesome cauldron of soup I made!”
“Whoa, he looks really excited about that!”
This scene, expertly told, is crucial to making this story in pantomime work. Clearly, we will need to add it to the card as flavor text:
There’s no real reason why Just Fate needed to only be cast during the declare attacker’s step. That got me thinking about the kind of card that does need a reminder to only be cast through that narrow window.
I didn’t quite get there. Originally, Battle Alacrity said it could only be cast during the declare attackers step, but that wasn’t a necessary restriction. The point was to give players a chance to slip an occasional lucky instant or flash spell during the combat step. If a player was holding onto Battle Alacrity, and wanted to stretch for an emergency counterspell mid-combat, who was I to stop them?
Speaking of counterspells, Gatherer’s next random was this:
It’s a niche counter to be sure. Unified Will is best employed in a fast deck eager to drop early creatures, and protect those vulnerable creatures when other decks go online. It seems like a risky strategy. Until you find yourself on the receiving end, failing turn after turn to drop board wipes or key blockers into the assault.
The only ‘problem’ with Unified Will is that your opponent knows when it’s online. Sure, they may not know it’s in your hand… but that makes the card as surprising as any other counterspell. What would be fun is if a player surprised their opponent by suddenly having more creatures on the table, then countering their opponent’s spell on the stack with a Unified Will.
Sometimes, finding a simple art concept can flourish into an hours long Google/Bing/Deviantart expedition. There are plenty of Fantasy/Steampunk/Clockwork robots/drones/gnomes out there. But for the life of me, I couldn’t find a singular work of art featuring two droids together. I was on the verge of giving up and making the card create an artificer and their creation, when I stumbled on this work by Mr. Klein. If, in the future, I become a writer-slash-alcoholic, I’m blaming a general lack of artwork including two or more steampunk robots.
Gatherer tried feeding me bone soup with Rune of Protection: Black. But as I already said, I’m vetoing egregious color hosers. In an alternate universe, this would be a perfect follow up to the previously vetoed Balduvian Shaman. I’d like to see that cube. I doubt I’d like to play that cube, but I would like to see it.
Finally, Gatherer feeds me vanilla. Or, to be more precise, a virtual vanilla creature, since haste doesn’t do anything special the round after the creature it’s stapled to enters the battlefield. Okay, technically, if the creature is stolen… you know what? If you’re going to raise this many objections, why don’t you write this article? See? It’s not so easy, is it? Especially considering the article is already written, and you’re currently reading it. Bet you didn’t think of that, now did you?
You would think my first thought would be to make another vanilla (plain, virtual, or French) in another color. Instead, I tried creating a confusing artifact that combined sacrificing creatures, counters and a pile of hasty 4/1 elementals. It didn’t feel right. Eventually I realized I was trying too hard. The set needs a few simple creatures. And with the anti-flying theme floating around, we could also use a few decent flyers.
After deciding on a 3/5 flyer, I tied it to the Lightning Elemental by making it a cumulonimbus cloud: a storm cloud known for its dramatic lightning discharges. When I went to pull forward flavor text, I received a pleasant surprise. Lightning Elemental features the third and fourth lines of the first stanza of the poem “Mortality”. The first and second lines of the poem’s first stanza mentions ‘a fast-flying cloud’. William Knox: writing flavor text for imaginary Magic cards since 1825.
Twelve more cards down for a grand total of eighty total cards! The next log isn’t up yet, but you can always check out the According to Gatherer archive to see if you missed anything. Until next time, I’ll leave you with these words of wisdom from Steve Martin:
“Finally, I can’t overstress the importance of having a powerful closing sentence.”