Pattern Recognition #113 - New Phyrexia, Part 1

Features Opinion Pattern Recognition


20 June 2019


Hello everyone, and welcome back to Pattern Recognition, TappedOut.Net's longest running article series. Written by myself, berryjon, I aim to bring to my reading audience each week a different look into some aspect of Magic: The Gathering - be it an individual card, a mechanic, a theme, or even just general history. I am something of an Old Fogey and Smart Ass, so please take what I say with a grain of salt. I enjoy a good discussion on the relevant subject matter!

So,... this subject. I've made no bones about my loathing and disgust for this particular subject, and the more I talk to people, the more I tend to hear agreement with my stance, though not necessarily to the same degree I hold it.

You see, I try to be a pretty upbeat and positive guy. I have low expectations so that they can be exceeded by a wide margin and that makes me happy. And yes, sometimes I see something reach my expectations in a technical sense, such as with my medicore response to Modern Horizons, but for the most part, I actually do look forward to buying into new sets.

But this set? This set...

I'll make this clear and as straight forward as possible. New Phyrexia is the single worst designed set in Magic the Gathering, and is such a blight on the game that its existence warps everything it touches.

At least Mercadian Masques, Magic's other Worst Set was bad by dint of just being boring and hard to play with. No, New Phyrexia was designed this way, in many ways and on many levels. I'm going to touch on a few of them today, and hope that I can bring about a few undecided or uninformed people as to my way of thought, or at least to agree in principle with my condemnation of the set.

The Debacle of Mirrodin Pure

Let us roll back the clock then, to February, 2011. The set of Mirrodin Besieged has been released, and Phyrexias's invasion had begun in earnest, and the war for the Plane had begun. In an effort to develop hype for that set - and the next one - Wizards announced that the next set was a mystery.

Allow me to elaborate. You see, they announced that the next set would either be New Phyrexia should the Phyrexians win the conflict, or Mirrodin Pure should the Mirrans win out over the invaders.

Now, this announcement was made on 09 December, 2010. For those of you who can check a calender, yes, this was before the release of Besieged. On 15 February, 2011, two cards were given the deep preview of the set. Suture Priest as the preview for New Phyrexia and Pristine Talisman for Mirrodin Pure.

Then, on 14 March, 2011, the set after the Summer Core Set (ore 2012) is announced. That being Innistrad, kicking of the block of the same name.

For those of you who have lost the plot, Wizards was playing New Phyrexia against Mirrodin Pure very tightly. So tightly in fact, that the set six months later was announced before the conclusion to the Scars Block was.

Imagine if you will, that Wizards refused to announce anything about War of the Spark after the release of Ravnica Allegiances, instead talking about how Chandra was going to be the Face'Walker for Core 2020, and that Kaldheim is the Fall Set.

Please note that at this time, there is no actual information about the Fall Set, save that Mark Rosewater is excited for it, and that it being Kaldheim is the result of a lot of people doing a lot of information digging into very esoteric sources. I'm just pulling a name out of the Aether for the purposes of this example.

Then, the next day, on the 15th of March, Wizards teases the two different sets of packaging for the two different blocks. On the left, Mirrodin Pure and on the right, New Phyrexia. Almost immediately, people grab the images and blow them up, looking for any details they can find. The results are not quite what they expect. At the provided resolution, the packaging looks to be the same quality, but when you get closer, the finer details start to become more apparent.

Only on the New Phyrexia packaging. The Mirrodim Pure box art and booster packs lacked the same detail and crispness that New Phyrexia had, and the lovely people on the internet who do such things, concluded that New Phyrexia was real, and that Mirrordin Pure was fake.

And then, on the 29th of March, 2011, they were proven right. New Phyrexia was announced with the headliner card of the set, Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite.

New Phyrexia, as a set, was released on 13 May 2011. 55 days between the official announcement and the release of the set.

By contrast, at the time of this writing, we know the release dates for Commander 2019 (in nearly 70 days), and for the Fall Set (huh, it's codenamed Archery. I forgot they went to sports themes this year), which is going to be October 4th.

And yet, if you've read what I've said about set design in the past, the decision to print New Phyrexia was made before Scars of Mirrodin was released, such is the lead time on the printers and the designs involved. You can't commission and design two whole sets of cards, and have one never see the light of day. That's just bad business.

But this wasn't the debacle itself. No, this was the culmination of the whole sordid thing.

I've said before that Mark Rosewater takes a lot of unnecessary flak from us, the loving and caring player base for decisions he had no part in, and little-to-no input in. This is not one of them. During preview season, he lets slip something about the design of New Phyrexia that puts a lot of decisons into context.

The block was originally intended to start with new Phyrexia, showing the victory as being fait accompli, and the rest of the block showing off the crushing of the last pockets of resistance. However, the Design and Development teams believed that they couldn't get a full block out of this, and instead wanted to tell the story of the Fall of Mirrodin, leading into New Phyrexia's victory.

You see, at no point was Mirrodin Pure ever considered, save as a marketing gimmick. The only cards were quickly designed, never tested, and in the end, just throwaways.

It gets worse though. You see, around this time, Wizards polled their player base in order to maintain the deception that Mirrodin Pure was viable. The question being who would they want to win? The Mirrans or the Phyrexians?

The response was overwhelmingly in favour of the Mirran defenders. Enough so that there was no real way to skew the numbers in favor of the already-decided victors. And from the point of view of the players when Wizards announced New Phyrexia, this was nothing more than a rejection of the will of the players in favor of the desires of a limited number of people in Wizards.

New Phyrexia began by killing another set, and it only gets worse from there.

The Victory of Villains

So, last summer, I wrote a couple of rather over-long articles in response to The Professor of the Tolarian Community Collage - you should seriously watch his YouTube channel! - about the villians of Magic, and why they were quite badly handled.

In that, I argued against the idea that the modern Phyrexians were actually villains, and I stand by that statement even now.

But what brings this old article back to the forefront of my mind here is that I listed off the three Villains of Magic at the time - Nicol Bolas, New Phyrexia and the Eldrazi, and pointed out why they were not villains in the first place, or just a bad villain in general.

Nicol Bolas was properly reintroduced into the game with the Shards of Alara block. That was followed by Zendikar and the Rise of the Eldrazi. That was followed by New Phyrexia.

See a pattern here?

New Phyrexia was the capstone of THREE YEARS of the villains winning. And we were already introduced to the next block - Innistrad! A set based on Victorian Horror, where the good guys winning was a long shot at the best of times!

For nine sets, the players had their faces rubbed into the fact that they were losing, that all their efforts were rendered meaningless.

And that... well... that upset some people who where just getting sick and tired of all the doom and gloom. They wanted someone to get a nice ending for once! And we were still a year out from Avacyn Restored, giving us that bright ray of sunshine until Nahiri screwed it all up years down the line.

So New Phyrexia was just another victory for the bad guys, and there was no light on the horizon for players. And that generated a bot of backlash from the player base. "Why bother?" was the question.

Why bother playing, when the Villains are just going to win again and again and again? We want to be the good guys in the story! Not the doomed moral victors against the dictates of Wizards!

Kenneth Nagle, Spike and Griefer

I wasn't sure I wanted to write this section of the article, but one of the people I talk to on another board dredged up a certain article I will link below for my reading dread, and once I did so, I realized that I actually now had a name and a face to go with why New Phyrexia turned out the way it did.

I've mentioned that new sets are built by two internal teams at Wizards. The Design Team does a lot of the groundwork in building the set, including coming up with the new mechanics, deciding on the requirements of the set, how it interacts with the sets around it, and in general pointing the set in the direction it is supposed to go.

On the other hand, the Development Team does the second pass over everything Design has done, fixing errors, doing copious amounts of play testing, refining ideas, and in general putting the polish on the final product.

Both teams are vital to the process, as each brings different views, desires and ideas to a set, and having a second look over everything helps smooth out a lot of rough patches and faults that those who love a work will ignore out of their love.

On the Development side of thing, the team was led by Aaron Forsythe, who started working for Wizards as a columnist for Latest Developments for the flagship website. He has a long history of both Development and Design, and went into New Phyrexia not being his first time in the hotseat.

The Design team was led by Kenneth Nagle (though he prefers to be called Ken, so I will respect that from here on out), a non-winner in the second Great Designer Search, but was hired on after impressing people at Wizards with some of his design styles.

I would like you all to take a moment and read his blurb from the development of Eventide. And keep what he says here in mind when we get to New Phyrexia.

Now, here is where the first problem arises. Ken is a Spike, Tournament Grinder in the truest sense of the word. Don't get me wrong here, player archetypes come on a spectrum, and having a hardcore Spike on the development team is not wrong in any way. Having one lead the core team isn't a bad choice either as long as you accept that a person has dedicated to a certain playstyle as Ken will slant the whole project in his favor.

The first problem was that Aaron is also a Spike. Not as much as Ken, but from an outsider's perspective, they're both solidly there more than Timmy or Johnny. They formed a team that primed New Phyrexia to be a Spike set from front to back.

And once again, there is nothing wrong with this. A Spike focused set is not in of itself inherently wrong, it is equally as valid as a Johnny set, a Timmy set, or even a Vorthos set! You just have to accept that there needs to be a second second opinion to make sure the other demographics aren't ignored.

This never happened.

Now, with the previous link in mind, I would like you all to read this article from Aaron Forsythe. You see, as part of the handoff from Design to Development, the two leads pass notes about certain guiding principles in order to maintain a unifying cohesiveness to the whole set. This is perfectly reasonable and something I approve of whole heartedly.

If you feel a sense of dread, worry or just get a plain old knot in your stomach as you read through that article, that's only natural. Ken's 19 Demands are a checklist of a Spike given free reign over a project, and the knowledge that he's going to win. Let me break some of these down for you.

3. Mechanical overview summarized as "violating" and "win more." Likely manifests to fun game-play experience playing Phyrexians, unfun game-play experience fighting against Phyrexians.

Can anyone here pick out the word choice that should have send up red flags in everyone who read the demands? Should have been a signal fire that things have gone horribly, horribly wrong and the whole project not only needs to be tossed into the trashbin, but the contents of the trash now need to be set on fire, tossed into a dumpster, set the dumpster on fire, then toss that into a landfill and seriously consider torching the landfill too?

No, it's not "violating". That's a wrongness I'll get back to next week. No, it's not "Win more", though when you get down to it, the two "win more" mechanics in Magic didn't get into Modern Horizons, so there's that to be thankful for.

No, the word choice was unfun.

Here is the cardinal sin of any game. The one word that can, will, and has killed games. A game that is not fun? Well, it ISN'T PLAYED. Players want to have fun, and if they aren't? Well, why bother? Go find something that is fun.

Now, losing is part and parcel of the game, and players know they. They can take a loss knowing they can turn it around next time, the sweet taste of victory all the better for the knowledge that you can overcome what has come before. Or the knowledge that you did your best, and that even in losing, you played an amazing game and that is in of itself a victory worth having.

Ken wanted none of this. In his mind, and in his goals, playing against Phyrexia was supposed to be a losing prospect. Either you were with them, or you were going to lose, and lose horribly. There was no middle ground. He wanted to punish players for not being a Spike with this set, and even if it was for that alone, I would despise this set.

But it gets worse.

6. Push the clean and spectacular "Pwnage" mechanic past all naysayers.

There is not a lot we know about the "Pwnage" mechanic, but what we do know paints a horrible picture. We see in Praetor's Grasp that the idea was what's yours is mine. Literally. You would steal cards from your opponent, and put them in your deck. Or put cards of yours into their deck, and when they drew them, they would be punished for it.

Thankfully, the Rules Committee crushed this mechanic under their iron heel and it will never see the light of day. I mean, even the idea of manipulating a deck like that, even if it's just 'gifting' a card to your opponent, blows up in the face of card sleeves.

And if you shuffle your opponent's cards into your deck, what's to stop the nightmare scenario of walking away from the table with their cards in your deck?

But beyond that, look at his phrasing. I work in a place where phrasing and tone of voice convey a lot, something I utilize a lot when dealing with people outside the company. Here, I see nothing but arrogance and hypocrisy. Here, Ken claims that "Pwnage" is a 'clean and spectacular' mechanic, yet why does he, in the same breath, call everyone who opposes it 'naysayers'?

What the hell? What is so great about this mechanic that he has to push it past everyone who has some sort of object to it? And if it's so great, why would there be these people in the first place? And did he know that this was a bad mechanic that was going to run into a lot of hate once it was out of his hands?

We may never know. I don't want to know, though I dread the idea that I might find out one day.

11. The color bleeds will face opposition. I feel design found the correct space in white life gain becomes Drain Life, blue card drawing becomes Unhinge, and green pump becomes Steal Strength. The off-putting, vilifying of such happy mechanics gives the set an "evil" black vibe.

Now, color bleeds happen all the time. The definitions of the colours shift as time goes by. And I'm not just talking about the most famous example of this, Planar Chaos, whose colour shifted cards were designed to show how old cards would fit into the modern pie without breaking it. Cards like Wrath of God becoming Damnation or Prodigal Sorcerer becoming Prodigal Pyromancer. Color corrections in a way.

But Ken wanted to break that. He wanted every color to feel and act .

He succeeded, by the way. Phyrexian Mana is such a mechanic, that its inclusion on Spike, Tournament Grinder was only natural. But by giving this to each colour, Ken didn't just bleed the color pie, he wanted to stab it in the heart and make everything play more alike - in a color of his choosing.

17. Don't forget about imprint. A Mirran mechanic to either "be stolen" or deleted as an inferior weapon for Phyrexians. I feel there are still at least a couple cool imprint cards to be made.

Here again we see Ken's fundamental design philosophy for New Phyrexia. To be Phyrexian is to be manifestly superior. To be not Phyrexian is to have what you have taken away from you and made better just by being in the hands of Phyrexia.

But most importantly, I think this shows that Ken just... didn't care about anything that wasn't Phyrexia proving itself bigger and badder than everything else around them.

19. Include a powerful artifact that hoses all graveyards for my Commander decks.

"My" Commander Decks. Not Commander decks in general, but in "My" Commander decks. Now, I would normally file this as a slip of the tongue, and move on, I think that this last item on his list is just a capstone of how Ken was treating New Phyrexia.

I suspect, and I really don't like this conclusion, that Ken wasn't building New Phyrexia for the players of Magic at large.

Rather, I think he was given the keys to a set, and asked himself how he would design a set for him.

You see, Ken presents his play style as being something of a Griefer. Now, Greifers are a very specific type of Spike. While Spikes all tend to want to win, and win handily, the Griefer is less interested in winning and more interesting in making the other player lose. Victory is less important than making sure that everyone who plays the game against the Greifer comes away having lost more than the game, that they have lost the enjoyment of the game as well.

New Phyrexia provides.

And I'm not done with it yet. Join me next week when I get into the engines of the set, and how it all comes together to create one of the most warping set of cards in the game.

Until then, please consider donating to my Pattern Recognition Patreon. Yeah, I have a job, but more income is always better. I still have plans to do a audio Pattern Recognition at some point, or perhaps a Twitch stream. And you can bribe your way to the front of the line to have your questions, comments and observations answered!

This article is a follow-up to Pattern Recognition #112 - Bicycle! Bicycle! The next article in this series is Pattern Recognition #114 - New Phyrexia Part 2

I've said it before, and I'll say it again - making a new keyword mechanic for what is functionally the same thing is, all at once, silly, confusing, and, in many cases, much less about the flavor of the mechanic as it is trying to claim a section or ability without crediting its precursers.

Prior to New Phyrexia, we had 2 mechanics going in that would have... well, I hesitate to say "solved", so lets go with "staunched the bleeding of" many of the mechanical issues of this set;

Wither (ala lorwyn) and poisonous (ala timespiral)

what we got was a nightmare - infect.

don't get me wrong - poison counters have a solid place in magic - from Marsh Viper to Swamp Mosquito , all the way up to Virulent Sliver , there is a long list of toxic win conditions that rarely saw play, but had their own niche to mess around with (and ultimately inspiring deathtouch, when paired with basilisks, but I digress).

The problem was that the cards:

1) were disproportionatly high in the poison output vs mana cost (see Glistener Elf vs Pit Scorpion )

2) existed alongside a mechanic that augmented the toxic strategy with zero interaction

and worst of all, 3) allowed pump spells and effects to directly impact the toxic stratigem.

From a compeditive standpoint, all of this added together into what is, without a doubt in my mind, the least interesting deck I have ever seen. Tree Fiddy - named after the south park meme, when the initial cards that made the deck in modern totalled to be approx $3.48 - is an aggro - pump infect deck. the goal was to hit your opponent turn 2 for leathal poison. yes, you read that correctly. Turn 2. Turn 1 is Forest + Glistener elf, turn 2 is Forest, swing, and some combination of giant growth effects, usually Might of Old Krosa , Groundswell and Mutagenic Growth . Scale Up is a recent addition, and likely will make modern even more unfun to play.

I have played magic, abet off and on, since 1995. New phyrexia was one of the sets that broke my will to play the game, something that has happened only 2 other times - once from being unemployed for 6 months, requiring me to sell my cards to make rent, and once after Urza's block when I was too poor to play anything other than the discarded commons after a draft.

Now, I say this as a proud Johnny / Vorthos: if the game lasts for less than 4 turns, it isn't worth the time spent to unpack my deck. I played through Zoo 1.0 in Ravnica / Kamagawa block, and that wasn't enough to break my resolve. But New Phyrexia's Infect mechanic? that was a final straw.

June 20, 2019 3:18 p.m.

berryjon says... #2

I was going to save my breaking of Infect for next week, but that's a good start to the idea of what was going on.

June 20, 2019 11:01 p.m.

theemptyquiver says... #3

I loved that block.

I also enjoy all things phyrexian, if my deck has black in it, it is getting some phyrexian flavor.

But to each their own. All the drama was superficial to me. I just like playing cards I like with the artwork I like, and New Phyrexia has some DAMN GOOD artwork.

June 22, 2019 3:14 a.m.

Sarkhan420X says... #4

why the hatred of jace? is it the cards? or is it how he acts in the storyline?

June 23, 2019 11:38 p.m.

berryjon says... #5

Sarkhan420X: I hate Jace, written two years ago.

June 24, 2019 12:56 a.m.

Zaromin says... #6

Urza's blocked seemed to warp MTG way more.

June 25, 2019 1:32 p.m.

ysengrim says... #7

I feel it. Phyrexian Mana and Infect are just so busted. Thanks for writing all this out Jon.

June 26, 2019 2:21 p.m.

EleshNornsFs says... #8

Personally, I love New Phyrexia. If it had something I could suck, I would. But gotDANG if this article didn't make me despise the design philosophy behind it and open my eyes to the fact that Ken Nagle is exactly the kind of person I would hate to have design an MTG set. Not to get personal or anything but he sounds like that super annoying man child at the LGS that just raves about how awesome his garbage fanfic is. Hoo boi. Reading his 19 demands was and eye opening cringefest.

June 10, 2021 1:18 p.m.

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