Nov. 15th, 2019

The Illusion of Interaction and How It Destroys Choice

Opinion PiecesCompetitive Edge
The Illusion of Interaction and How It Destroys Choice

One of the worst things that can happen in a game of Magic is a non-game. A game that just happened, rather than be played. This can happen for a myriad of reasons. Maybe your opponent started with a mulligan to four cards. Maybe you were hoping to draw that third land for six straight turns. Variance happened, and it took away your ability to play Magic. Or maybe it's something that deliberately happens. Your opponent turbo's out a on one, or plays while you have a grip full of fetch lands. These at least are choices that your opponent made before the game. Sometimes it's a risk. They sat and considered if dumping resources into some kind of lock to stop the game from progressing for you was worth it. These apply to Prison decks, but you could say the same for hate pieces after sideboarding. You got to drop your , and your opponent had no immediate answer.

Sometimes the number of these non-games can be indicative of a real problem. During this past summer, took a stranglehold over Modern. Even with hate pieces getting packed into every player's decks, the number of games that the Hogaak / / decks wrought was much higher than normal. In that scenario, the non-games that occurred were mainly due to speed. An opponent didn't have enough time to make choices and they just ended up being dead. There also wasn't much of a choice before a match was played either. I think it's safe to say that that deck was one of the best decks in the history of Modern, so if you weren't playing it you were bringing a knife to a gun fight.

There's obviously always going to be a certain number of non-games that occur. Variance and chance are something that are just inherent to a card game like Magic. It's the losing side of the coin that causes the game to be fun and interesting in many other ways. Wizards of the Coast seems to want to reduce the number of non-games that occur, as they've taken steps to combat this unfun. Outside of just banning cards that are dominant and linear, and unbanning cards that are considered more non-linear (like ), they introduced the London Mulligan to try and stop non-games before they even start. Players like to play, and increasing the number of times that a player actually gets a chance to play increases the success of a format.

An explanation of non-game in archetypes

I don't think that many players will feel bad if I said that Combo and Prison decks cause more non-games than Midrange, Control, or Aggro decks. That part of the point and fun of them. Most players don't like getting destroyed by some strategy over and over again, but I'd say that most (but not all) are okay with losing in some spectacular fashion now and again. When you get killed by Storm, it might be because you hadn't factored them in to your game plan. And when you're playing those decks, you definitely get a little bit of joy out of just locking out your opponent and winning in 4 minutes, taking a break before the next round. Many players have a hatred towards these types of decks, and I think it mainly stems from the experience of non-games that they've had against those decks in the past. Which is fair. I know that I've had many games where I'm playing some kind of fair midrange pile, and eke out a little bit of an edge to win a game, knowing I'll likely get destroyed in game 2. But living on the edge of losing sometimes can cause a lot of thought and consideration of options in a game. Certainly not all the time, but sometimes.

I think this also does apply to Aggro decks as well, as they are probably somewhere between Combo and Midrange / Control as far as "fairness" goes. Sometimes you just get got by a few bolts to the face. I like to think of decks like Mono Red and Burn as just necessary evils that often do a good job of keeping a format honest. Good in moderation like the above. The idea that there are only mindless games involving Aggro decks is one that newer players might have, but I think more often than not there are few, but critical, choices that can be made during a match.

For many, though, they might find the above to be fine, and the real thing that rubs them the wrong way is Control decks. Some people just hate their cards getting countered. But if the above is true about Aggro decks, that the shortness of a game causes the gravity of individual choices to go up, then one could say that the length of Control durdle-fests have the opposite effect. The games go on so long that choices end up not mattering. The game plan of Control is inevitable. It will happen, no matter what you do. I think that in a stale meta this can certainly be the case, but I find the complaints about Control to be a little less vocal, since at the end of match where you lost against Control, it might have at least felt like you played magic.

And then we have Midrange. I think that the opinion of Midrange decks is that most games you play are actual games of Magic. You don't win out of nowhere. There's not a guarantee of winning if the game goes long. It's usually just a good, efficient, middle-of-the-road mana curve that tries to win in some sort of fair strategy. One of the reasons that I like playing Jund in Modern is the fact that I get to play more games. If I go to my LGS and take time out of my busy day, I'd like to be able to have a good amount of gameplay. I rarely see people that hate playing against Jund, and if I end up winning they usually are happy about how the game went down. I believe that one of the biggest reasons for this is because of the more interactive nature of Midrange. You can't just win faster than your opponent can do anything, and you can't just sit back and wait while your opponent tries to kill you before the inevitability of your deck chokes them out. You play cards to respond to your opponent. Your opponent does the same. You end your game with graveyards that tell a story. This is Magic as Richard Garfield intended.

The difference between interaction and choice

Formats needing more interaction has been a phrase that the community has thrown around for a good while. It is one of the things that Modern players would often complain about, and one of the things that Legacy players would stand behind as a key upside to their format. It's something that Standard players often wish for when dealing with hyper efficient threats. Interaction, for many players, is the way Magic is played. They aren't wrong. I definitely like playing cards. But I'd like to make the case that interaction is not the hallmark of a great game. The best games revolve around choice. That means that you have a good number of meaningful, distinct points in the game where you weigh your options, and choose to go down a path. There's one game in particular that I remember that could be seen as un-interactive, but felt anything but. I was on Jund and was playing against Amulet Titan. I had two s in my starting hand. I had put a into play on turn two. At one point, my opponent passed their turn. It was one of the earlier turns, and I had one mana open. They were at 20 life. On their end step, I thought for a good while about what I should do. They might end up having some really annoying little creatures in play. Should I hold onto my removal? I ended up sending a at my opponent's face. Two turns later, I won the game. Afterwards, my opponent asked me about my thought process, and I was able to explain it to her. I actually ended up losing that match, but I remember being very proud that I was able to make a distinct choice that ended up winning me the game.

Bolting an opponent's face does not seem very interactive, but it certainly can be. The context is the choice that the player had to make when doing it. The best players can often explain these choices that they make throughout a game. When they do, you can see the detail with which they consider all options. But even for great players, there are often moments where choice is taken away from them. There are just things that happen that need to be dealt with. There might have been moments along the way to this point, but right now, at this point, you need to deal with what your opponent is doing. Maybe your choice was actually taken away from you a few turns ago. You drew an answer to a card you knew had to come down at some point. You held onto it until now, and revoked any choice you could have made between the turn that you drew it and now. That often can be a rewarding experience, when you get to snipe an opponent's strategy just like you planned. But there are definitely ways where this can be a bad thing.

The problem that we're in now

The hyper efficiency of threats that have been printed recently have cause a few formats to become extremely unfun. They act in ways that might be seen as more "fair", but the fact that they are so necessary to deal with has caused choice to evaporate. I'd like to highlight my point in regards to the current Standard and Legacy meta-games. I think that this problem currently does not apply to Modern as much, but that is not to say that it won't eventually given the trend of printings that Wizards of the Coast has made this past year. Both Standard and Legacy are currently defined by decks that are dominant due to their threat pool being to vast and suite of answers not broad enough. In Standard, these are the Simic and Sultai Food decks that are all but certainly going to be facing a ban this coming Monday.

Sultai Food (Standard)

For Legacy, it's the recent dominance of RUG Delver, and to a lesser extent Four-Color Delver. Both these decks are great at sticking things that will kill you if not dealt with, and have ways to stop you from stopping them. In Food Decks, these threats are , , and , amongst others. They interrupt you from stopping them by boarding in things like , or removing creatures that would otherwise kill your planeswalkers with , or . In RUG Delver, its threats are , , , and interestingly the new inclusion of . They stop you stopping them with a suite of counter magic like , , and .

RUG Delver (Legacy)

Both of these decks are on the fairer side of things. Delver decks do cheat on mana, but they end up winning by hitting you with creatures. In a format where winning with an , , or storming off through various hate, I think it's fair to say that Delver decks are on the fairer side of the spectrum. The Food decks are definitely Midrange, while Delver decks are aggro with a recent affinity towards having mid and late game, thanks to various planeswalkers. They are not obviously busted. You don't read the deck list and figure out exactly what it's about to do to you. They're non-linear.

I'd like to talk about two ways in which these current meta games have choice taken away from the players. One is obvious, and one I feel is less so. The first can be shown by comparing efficient threats to efficient removal. If you look at the best ways to kill planeswalkers in Standard, you'll find that they really only come down to and . The best way to stop your opponent from doing that, if they are playing those spells, is by boarding in . If you play Oko, you should play . And in a format where fixing is pretty easy at the moment (thanks to and Shock Lands, but that is not really a problem on its own), you might as well play black to deal with opponent's Okos and Wicked Wolves. For Legacy, you want to be sure that you can handle getting hit by , since Delver decks are currently dominant. The best way to do that is to recur fetch lands with , so you'll always have a land to play. It also so happens to be that pairs best with , since you can recur the threat. You also want to be sure that you have enough removal or counter spells for your opponent's threats. The most efficient way to do that in a world where getting past a single land can be hard without is by playing cheap counter magic like , efficient removal like , or something uncounterable like (I notably left out since it is a beast on its own and while I think adds to this problem, also alleviates the problems for other decks, as it has done for years as the policeman of the format). In both these scenarios, you're left with decks that are dominant, but also are best beaten by themselves. That removes the choice of what you can viably play before you even get to shuffle your deck. You are bringing a knife to a gun fight.

The second, and more subtle reason that both these formats aren't very fun at the moment is due to their lack of choice within a game. The interaction for these decks is an illusion. If I'm playing against a Delver deck, and I have an in hand and a , I don't get a choice of what I should do. Their is scary, but their turn two play is likely to be scarier. can deal with the Delver, but can't deal with whatever they play next. I'm pigeon-holed into playing . This is an contrived example, but if you've been playing non-combo decks in Legacy for the past few months you likely have felt what I mean. Who drew more removal, who drew more threats. Those are often the determiners for who will win a game of Legacy at the moment. even gets rid of choice on your opponent's side, since it can't be countered. It's just a free kill on anything not named . In Standard, you might be able to interact a bit in game one, even if it still is just an Oko slam-fest. But especially in games two and three, you're going to be playing a game called "I have Oko and first. Do you have two removal spells?". You look at graveyards after a game. They tell a story, but it's the same story that you've heard a hundred times. Again and again. Both of you got to play spells, but you could have written out the instructions and give them to someone who has never played before to follow. If they do this, then do this.

How to solve this going forward

I think that the immediate thing that should be done for both these formats is a banning. The ban that has to occur on Monday for Standard to be even a little fun again is basically guaranteed. For Legacy though, I think that should be banned. It breaks my heart, since I love the card. I don't even think that it's that bad of a design. I think that the issue is that the efficiency that it gives to decks causes homogeneity to become the only reasonable outcome for the format. And that is something that I think will be true if similar printings get made moving forward. If Wizards of the Coast continues to push cards (especially planeswalkers) in the direction that they're going, without considering the balance that they need to strike with removal, than issues like this are going to continue to creep in to formats. Playtesting is hard, and I don't discredit them for getting things wrong occasionally. But the issue I see is not with individual cards at the moment. It's with trends. This past year has seen a lot of pushed cards make their way into older formats, which should be indicative of their power level. in a legitimate threat in Standard, Pioneer, Modern, Legacy, and Vintage. That could be an indicator on its own, but there are many other planeswalkers that have been pushed in the past year. , , and all the War of the Spark planeswalkers with static abilities are pushed. If Oko is any sign, future sets not centered around planeswalkers might still have some real contenders for top 100 cards ever printed. And it isn't just pertinent to planeswalkers. We could see other threats like creatures just start to get way to good at what they do. In a world where people are just slamming threats and answering threats, the illusion of interacting in a game, meaningful choice and thought is going to disappear from Magic.

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