Endless Whispers 4: Magic 2010 Rules Changes
The new core set, Magic 2010 or M10, is bringing with it many changes to Magic: the Gathering. Core sets will have brand new cards in them for the first time, and new core sets will be released every year. Along with these changes there are going to be several rules changes, some big and some small, and I’d like to post my thoughts on them here. “To figure out exactly where the problems were, we got into the mind of the casual player-not the player knee-deep in regular sanctioned play or Magic Online, but rather the one who plays our game at home, at school, or at the small local shop.” As wizards have said these changes were designed for the casual player, I figure that gives me some right of reply. I originally wrote this article covering all the changes, but most of them I had very little to say about. One change in particular initially caused me outrage, and after sleeping on it I still feel its a change that simplifies the game for the sake of simplifying it, at the cost of many opportunities for skillful, tactical play in the combat phase. I started playing properly during Time Spiral block, so I don’t have the perspective of someone who played pre-6th edition rule changes. I only know the way the game exists now and I don’t like that some of the skill is being removed from it.
5) Combat Damage No Longer Uses the Stack
The Reality: The intricate system via which combat is currently handled creates many unintuitive gameplay moments. For starters, “the stack” is a difficult concept, even after all these years, so it is no wonder that many players go about combat without invoking it at all. Second, creatures disappearing after damage has been put on the stack leads to a ton of confusion and disbelief: How is that Mogg Fanatic killing two creatures? How did that creature kill mine but make your Nantuko Husk big enough to survive? How can you Unsummon your creature and have it still deal damage? While many of us may be used to the way things are now, it makes no sense in terms of a game metaphor and only a bit more sense as a rule.
The Fix: As soon as damage is assigned in the combat damage step, it is dealt. There is no time to cast spells and activate abilities in between; the last time to do so prior to damage being dealt is during the declare blockers step. This was a particularly tricky change to implement, as it had the potential to create bad experiences in situations where double blocking occurs and the defending player has access to a damage prevention ability (or anything similar). If damage was prevented to one creature, the attacker would just kill the other, which is unintuitive. Players expect to be able to use their healing spells to save creatures that are actually going to die. To solve problems like these, during the declare blockers step, if a creature is blocked by multiple creatures, the attacker immediately announces an order in which that attacking creature will be assigning damage to the blockers. When it comes time to actually deal the damage, lethal damage must be assigned to the first blocker before any can be assigned to the second, and so on. Now, in complex combat situations there will be some foreknowledge of which creatures are in the most danger before damage is dealt. This is not as sweeping as it sounds. In the majority of cases, creatures attack, creatures block, and combat looks the same way it did before-minus the chance for counterintuitive tricks after “damage on.” The majority of the explanation below covers multiple blocks.
Wow. This is really unexpected. I remember Tom previewing Duels of the Planeswalkers which already incorporates this change and thinking, huh, that takes a lot of strategy out of combat, but maybe they couldn’t code it properly. To have it affecting paper magic is a major change. While I’m not a tournament player I like to think I play with a reasonable degree of skill, as do the rest of my group. You’ll almost never hear “pass priority” around our casual table, but “Damage on the stack?” is one of the more common phrases uttered, especially in limited. This is one of the most skill intensive parts of playing magic, and it feels great to use your Sakura-Tribe Elder to kill a Savannah Lions and still get a land, or to Gluttonous Slime your dead guy after it has traded with your opponent’s guy. This rule is unintuitive at first but once you see someone do it, you may initially be annoyed but you want to learn how to do it yourself. The skill involved in playing magic is what makes it a fun game, and what keeps me playing it set after set. I don’t like this change at all. It’s not going to kill magic, but it is going to remove one of the areas where skilled players can gain an advantage.
When new players come to the game, they are introduced to creatures, combat, enchantments/artifacts, lands, sorceries and instants. They have to learn about the library, the hand, the graveyard, the mana pool, the phases of the turn, mulliganing, targeting, keyword abilities, win conditions, and so on. These are the very basic aspects of the game that set the scene, and there is a lot to learn just in this first step. Magic is an incredibly complicated game. Once they have these things down, though, they will note that they are losing to more experienced players. They’ll swap decks with the experienced player, and still lose. There must be more to the game, and this is where the experienced player (hopefully) shows them some tricks of timing, explains why card advantage is good, how to employ removal profitably, and so on. These are the advanced skills of the game, and using them is one of the most enjoyable things about magic. It makes you feel clever to play around a Counterspell by waiting until your opponent is tapped out to cast your Craw Wurm, or something as simple as casting Fog after your opponent has already declared attackers, instead of in their first main phase. Feeling clever is very enjoyable, and using your Mogg Fanatic to kill a Grizzly Bears makes you feel clever.
The most complicated part of the magic rules is undoubtedly the stack. However without removing it entirely, new magic players are required to learn it eventually. It is no more complicated to say combat damage goes on the stack than it is to say this spell goes on the stack. Removing this one part of the system just further obscures the stack as far as new players are concerned, and it doesn’t make it any easier to grok when they eventually come across the stack. Let me stress, Magic is not an easy game to understand. Compared to checkers or poker, there is way more to the basic rules of magic than there is to either of those games. The stack is not an easy concept to get if you have not come across anything similar previously. Putting combat damage on the stack is no more difficult than putting an instant on the stack on top of a sorcery. Removing this rule slightly uncomplicates matters, but not in a significant way when there are extremely similar events happening in other parts of the game. “I can respond to you casting your Elvish Champion by Shocking your Imperious Perfect” is just as easy to understand as “I can respond to these creatures dealing damage to each other by Shocking your Imperious Perfect.”
Adapting the rules to this change has required a second change, in the way damage is dealt. This is to accommodate damage prevention spells which would have been totally worthless otherwise. After blockers are declared but before damage is assigned, the attacking creature’s controller declares how he is going to assign damage, assigning lethal damage to one blocking creature, then to the next, then to the next until he runs out of damage. How this rule change is more intuitive than “assign damage however you want” is beyond me. This has required another rule change, in how deathtouch works. Deathtouch creatures can assign damage however they want. I do like that deathtouch doesn’t get around regeneration, as that was rather difficult to understand at first and didn’t add anything much to the game, except for the satisfaction of killing your opponent’s creature twice.
Lets look at the ways I can think of or that I’ve seen suggested elsewhere, where things will be different under the new rules.
The first situation that comes to mind is the famous Mogg Fanatic. I attack with my Fanatic into Grizzly Bears. After stacking combat damage, I sacrifice my goblin to deal an extra damage to the Bears, which kills it. While this is not always obvious at first, this is a clever play that made me think wow, Mogg Fanatic is awesome! I want to play with some of those. I didn’t sook about my Grizzly Bears getting killed, because any player with any experience could tell me that Grizzly Bears isn’t a very good card. Now I play Mogg Fanatics all the time and they create interesting gameplay situations where I have to choose whether to keep my attacker around or zap my opponent’s Vithian Stinger or whatever. Similar cases to the Fanatic where I would currently sacrifice a creature with damage on the stack to gain some advantage are Festering Goblin, Sakura-Tribe Elder, Greater Gargadon, Loxodon Hierarch, Dauntless Escort, Nantuko Husk and Scarland Thrinax amongst many others.
A second situation involves the use of pump spells to save a guy. I attack with Grizzly Bears into my opponent’s Grizzly Bears. With damage on the stack, I play Giant Growth to make my guy a 5/5 that will take 2 damage when damage resolves. I do it with damage on the stack so that even if my opponent plays a Terror in response to my Growth, his bear will still take 2 damage from my bear and die. This is a complicated play, but using it makes me feel good about my playskill and seeing it played out will inform a newer opponent of what is possible with this crazy stack system. Pump spells have always been a major part of magic and this changes their utility significantly.
Another way to use instants in response to combat damage to gain advantage is by using bounce spells like Unsummon. My Grizzly Bears runs over to butt heads with my opponent’s identical creature, but after damage is on the stack I use Unsummon to save my creature. This is one of the most basic tactics of combat under the current rules, and it shows new players how a spell can have utility employed on your own creature, or on your opponents creature. Under the new rules you can still Unsummon a blocker to save it, but it won’t have dealt any damage at that point, which makes it an extremely weak play.
Another situation involves commonly played sweepers like Pyroclasm and Infest. I attack with my Grizzly Bears. My opponent blocks with two Ethercaste Knights, not knowing that I have cunning concealed my Pyroclasm in hand. I put one damage on each of his knights, my valiant Bears die, and I cast my Pyroclasm taking out his two Knights. Under the new rules I will have to put all the damage on the first knight, invalidating this play. This is completely unintuitive and makes no flavour sense, as his knights are not likely to wait in a queue to fight my bear.
One last situation that has been suggested is when I attack with my Woolly Thoctar into my opponent’s Hill Giant and Grizzly Bear. Currently I assign three damage to the Hill Giant and two to the bear, in order to kill both of them. My opponent Giant Growth’s the Giant to save it, turning it into some sort of really big giant. The Grizzly Bear takes two damage and dies. Under the new rules, I order the opponent’s creatures 1. Hill Giant and 2. Grizzly Bears. My opponent Growths the giant, it becomes a 6/6 and my Thoctar assigns 5 worthless points of damage to it. This is a major change to combat, it makes attacking much riskier and blocking while holding a combat trick much stronger. Its often said by pros that noone blocks in constructed, but this might significantly change that way of thinking.
None of these changes are going to ruin the game, or make me sell my collection in a fit of pique. I appreciate that they are trying to make the game easier on new players, but I think the combat damage change has nothing but negatives for experienced players and it reduces the appeal of advanced play for new players. They are minor changes in the grand scheme of things, but they imply that R&D is willing to sacrifice some of the skill intensity of the game to accomodate a subset of new players who are turned off by that very aspect of the game. One of the great appeals of magic for me is the mental skill involved in good play, and removing times when this skill can be employed leaves the game worse off. The difficult concept of the stack remains for new players to try and learn, and removing combat damage from it does not make this any easier.
I’d love for people to refute my argument in the comments, as I love playing magic and I want it to be the most fun it can be. If you think the changes are a good idea, please explain it to me in the comments. If you can give examples of new design space this opens up that was previously unavailable, or clever new tactics that you’ve thought of under the new system, please post those as well. I’m extremely interested to see what the mothership has to say on the subject in the next few weeks.