Looking at a Random Card: Willow Satyr
(What am I doing here? Read here!)
Willow Satyr: Sometimes, these really old cards are flavorful in a vague, resonating way which modern topdown designs bent on implementing a concept as exact as possible within the game rules just cannot reach. Willow Satyr is such a card, a mythical creature with largely unknown whereabouts and motivation (okay, we have a general idea what a satyr is) which for some reason which neither is nor needs to be explained is able to take control of a legendary creature. Why? You use your imagination to fill in the blanks, or you just don’t care – why do you even expect to understand such a strange, magical being?
Just now, Magic players all over the world are going wild about new designs from Dark Ascension like Zombie Apocalypse, and I believe this is just another example of how low WotC need to shoot to make an impact with their target audience. Yes, the concept of a zombie apocalypse is cool. No, the obvious approach in designing a card using it is not, especially when it is terribly unfun to play against. Flavorwise, Willow Satyr is like a handwritten passage from a dusty old leather-bound journal with most of its pages torn out which you find in an attic as part of an inheritance from your allegedly insane great-uncle. Zombie Apocalypse, however, is like a Wikipedia entry. I love the world of Innistrad (mostly), but some of its card designs are just obvious and dull with no concern for playability. They really fail to capture the magic of early Magic expansions like Antiquities, Legends or The Dark when this game was targeted mainly at members of the roleplaying subculture. While I appreciate a lot of the world-building which the creative department of Magic has done during the last years (several of those worlds would, with minor modifications, make for excellent game worlds in roleplaying games), with those detailed descriptions and extensive storylines the glamor (I’m consciously borrowing a term from the Changeling RPG here) was lost. We no longer get glimpses of a strange, magical world when looking at cards; we see index cards from a lexicon summarizing a plane.
Well, there’s a reason I talk about Willow Satyr’s flavor so much (other than being disappointed by current topdown designs), and that is that, mechanically, it sucks. We don’t need to talk about constructed here – even if this effect would be actually useful in a match, it’s unlikely that any opponent will have problems dealing with a 4 mana toughness-1 creature he doesn’t even need to kill immediately. Even in limited, and even in an environment where you could use the Satyr somehow reliably to steal an opponent’s creature (or at least keep it stranded in his hand) it wouldn’t be great due to its vulnerability. Also, I feel that Kamigawa block taught us that the legendary supertype is just not a good mechanical focus for an environment – you cannot use too many legends at lower rarities (actually, you shouldn’t at all) because that goes against everything which “legendary” stands for; but if you don’t, you need to make practically every rare creature a legend, which, once again, takes away from their legendary status, but also means that cards referring to legendary creatures are essentially referring to rare creatures, and cards referring to rarity, even indirectly, are just awkward. If Willow Satyr effectively gave you control of a rare creature, it would (provided that it was given more durability somehow) feel a lot like Bribery does: It would punish you for playing your best creatures! This doesn’t seem right. Note that there is no general problem with cards which just destroy or otherwise neuter good creatures (like, for example, Smite the Monstrous) – it makes a large difference if your creature gets dealt with or is actually changing sides. Against an opponent using Bribery you feel compelled to sideboard your best creatures out (depending on the exact circumstances, this may or may not be the right play, but that’s not my point here). While I value a little tension making you second-guess seemingly obvious decisions in Magic, this is just too much awkwardness. I already wrote about the nature of punishing cards in my Guerilla Tactics entry: Random hosers punish players for things which shouldn’t be punished at all, and Bribery is a random hoser in limited.
This is why Willow Satyr, even with improved stats, can’t win: It will either serve as a random hoser like Bribery in an environment featuring legends as a major theme, or it will be mostly useless (and even more random) in any normal environment, either being a terribly swingy maindeck card (with good stats), or relegated to the place of a terribly swingy sideboard card.
Note that “swingy”, when I use it in a context talking about card design, does not just mean “able to swing the game strongly in a player’s favor” – this is what strong cards do, and is (up to a certain extent) fine! Sower of Temptation, for example, certainly will swing a game in your favor, but I wouldn’t call this card “swingy”, just “powerful” – since every powerful card swings a game in your favor, there is no need to coin an extra term for this. When I use “swingy”, I refer to the fact that a card makes the outcome of a game dependant on a single, largely random factor. The epitome of a “swingy” mechanic is: “Flip a coin: If you win the flip, you win the game; if you lose the flip, you lose the game.” Typically, swingy cards hide their randomness a bit better, of course. In most cases they are weak in the majority of circumstances, but unfairly strong in some. While this seems to include all punisher cards, this is not the case, since in some cases a player can be reasonably expected to play around it (like Wrath of God) – once again, note what I wrote in my Guerilla Tactics entry.
So, mechanically, Willow Satyr is a design failure. This doesn’t mean that its flavor could not be implemented, though – something like “Gain control of target creature with a mana cost of 4 or more” would work nicely, expressing that (for whatever reason) the Satyr only cares to seduce powerful creatures. Being useless both in constructed and as a tool to build a good cube means a grade of E; playing noticeably, but not catastrophically unpleasant means a downgrade to E-; but having wonderful flavor upgrades it back to a straight E.