Pattern Recognition #114 - New Phyrexia Part 2
27 June 2019
27 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, welcome back to my review and dissection of New Phyrexia. Last time, I talked quite a bit about how the entire set was designed with a goal in mind, and who was working on it.
Now I actually want to talk about the set itself, the mechanics involved and how all this coalesced together into the set we see today.
First of all, New Phyrexia was what was called a "Small" set in the parlance of the time. That is to say, it consisted of 175 cards in total, broken down into 10 Basic Lands, 60 Commons, 60 Uncommons, 35 Rares and 10 Mythics. Now, because of this, this set is actually tightly focused around its mechanics, an advantage to the small set that I am not sure will be carried forward now that the three-and-one model of set design has been passed by. But that's for another day.
I mention this because I want to emphasize that what went wrong with this set was concentrated. It wasn't a case of the set being large enough to dilute the issues with other cards, but that those diluting influences were cut as part of the design and development cycle.
And so, with that in mind let me walk about the core mechanic behind New Phyrexia, one that has an interesting history to it.
No, it's not Infect. I'll talk about that next.
For those of you who don't know what that is, Phyrexian mana, also , , , , and , are a unique type of mana introduced in this set, and only appeared once elsewhere - in Unstable. This mana is unique in that you can either pay for the colored cost, or you can pay two life for the mana instead. These symbols appeared both in the casting cost of cards, and in the activation costs of those cards.
Phyrexian Mana was not initially part of the design for the set. Rather, as the set was being developed, there was a different mechanic, known as "Mechanic E" that was originally supposed to be in the original Mirrodin block, but deferred due to rules issues to be in this set. But such was not to be. Mechanic E was finally developed and had its major issues fixed and was published as Energy in the Kaladesh Block.
However, during New Phyrexia, Mechanic E's issues had not yet been ironed out, and it was decided to shelve it for later. This left a gap in the set that needed to be filled, and so in a crunch, Aaron Forsythe and Mark Rosewater sat down to try and come up with a replacement mechanic they could pitch to the rest of the Development team.
The core idea was that of an alternate cost, the idea that New Phyrexia was using resources that no one else was using before, and applying that to their cards. Something that was uniquely New Phyrexia. During this discussion, as highlighted by Mark Rosewater himself here, the mechanic started out being inspired by the Two-brid Mana seen in Shadowmoor. These cards, printed as , would either cost a single relevant coloured mana, or two of any color. Reaper King shows all five colours in this design. From this, the idea floated by Aaron was that artifacts could have a partial cost that was either or 2 life.
While he and Mark admitted that this was a neat idea, it wasn't like what they needed until Rosewater came up with the idea that this didn't have to just apply to colorless mana, rather it could apply to any color of mana, and that it didn't need to be limited to artifacts because of that.
Thus came the mechanical idea for Phyrexian Mana.
Now, the idea of paying life as part of the casting cost of a card isn't a new one. It's actually pretty old in the game, and hasn't been something that has been unconditional in the game for a logn time. I mean, there is a difference between Serpent Warrior and Bellowing Saddlebrute. Or Eviscerator and Fathom Fleet Boarder.
Want to know what all these cards have in common?
Paying life as a cost for bringing out a card is purely in nature, and that is something that is true even now. What Phyrexian Mana did was open this mechanic into all colors, essentially turning all colours into .
Or at least for the chosen cards upon which Phyrexian mana was bestowed.
You see, there were two different cards that got Phyrexian Mana. Those that were otherwise functional reprints of cards if you removed the 2 life payment option, and cards that were designed with Phyrexian mana in mind.
These are cards that are pretty much reprints of older cards, except that with the inclusion of Phyrexian mana, they become better.
No, what makes Gitaxin Probe so powerful that it got banned in Vintage and much later in Modern, is that it's free to cast. For the simple cost of two life, you gain perfect information about your opponent's hand, and the card is replaced in your hand.
I cannot overstate this enough - enough so that I figure that this subject is something worth talking about on its own at a later date - knowledge about what your opponent can do is a massive advantage. Almost insurmountable.
And in addition to that, because the GitProbe only costs two life, and not any mana, you can cast it at any time, in any deck, regardless of what open mana you have, or even if you don't have open mana at all! It was enough that even aggro decks would include four copies of this card because the life loss didn't matter so long as they wanted the advantage of the card itself - and you didn't need mana because the card only cost two life!
This is the real power of Phyrexian Mana - for this limited selection of cards, the color pie no longer matters. And this was intentional. As Mark Rosewater himself put it, the idea was that in the limited draft pool, Phyrexian Mana would allow players to splash for cards that they wouldn't normally play. That you could toss Gut Shot into a deck, and not have to worry about a source of .
On paper, this is a great thing. Amazing even! One of the great restrictions in limited is the Mana Base, which makes multiple colours harder to play, especially when dealing with more than two colours. The latest Ravnica block helped fix this by making the land slot in the booster pack one of the Guild Gates, helping to emphasize the dual-color nature of the set.
So having a mechanic that allows players to play cards out of color for a nominal cost in the limited format is a good one. On Paper.
Standard isn't Limited. Nor is Modern. Sorry, it was still Extended at the time. And any thoughts of mana issues in Vintage or Legacy is hilarious. And the moment cards that ignore mana costs get printed, they get exploited. Force of Will ignores the mana cost, and it's a Vintage/Legacy staple. All Phyexian style mana did was make spells cheaper than they should have been, to the point of being free.
And the life loss? Well, I've said it before and I'll say it again: "The only point of life matters is the last one." This is one of the central concepts of , and this attempt to give this idea to all colours instead had the opposite effect. It made all these cards play like they were and not their actual color.
That's the problem with Phyrexian Mana. It's . It always has been .
Oooohhhh boy. This is the mechanic that everyone thinks about when talking about New Phyrexia, the one thing that really causes the whole set to break everything it touches. It was also first printed in Scars of Mirroden with cards like Carrion Call or Ichor Rats in and . So when we kick New Phyrexia while it's down for its Infect cards, we have to recognize that it was the whole Block that carried this ... infection ... through it.
So let me back up a minute and explain Infect. Infect is the answer to a question that nobody outside of Wizards ever asked, let alone expected an answer too.
Anyone? Anyone at all?
Yeah, thought so too.
Poison is a mechanic that game into the game from Legends, where creatures could deal damage to a player, and in doing so, give them a poison counter. When a player has 10 or more poison counters, they lose the game. This was, probably, the first real alternate loss condition in the game.
Wither, from Shadowmoor and Eventide, was a mechanic wherein whenever a creature with this keyword would deal damage to another creature (but not a Planeswalker or Player), that damage was dealt in the form of -1/-1 counters. This was an experiment at the time to try and reduce creature bloat (that was even a thing?) by making damage on creatures permanent and not go away at the end of the turn.
Now, those of you who read the first article I linked about Ken Nagle last week, when he was on the Eventide team, may have caught the fact that he was trying to get Wither to affect players as well during the process. The groundwork for Infect was being examined four years before the block came out.
Once again, on paper, the idea of merging two underperforming mechanics into one sound good. Instead of wasting space mentioning and dealing with two distinct mechanics that each have a poor history to them, if you can get a couple things that synergize into each other and make them better, why not?
And honestly, Poison was a dead mechanic, only retouched in Future Sight, because, honestly, what mechanics weren't given a go-over in that block?
Don't answer that. Rhetorical question.
And Wither? Well, it was under performing as well. Why bother keeping track of persistent harm to creatures when you could just kill them in the combat? Just kill everything involved to simplify bookkeeping - which, in a way, was the point.
Then they got combined. Infect deals poison counters to players, and -1/-1 counters to creatures. Pleasewalkers aren't affected though, so they're lucky.
With Poison, you can block with creatures, and suffer no lasting effects. With Wither, you can take the damage as a player with no lasting effects - well, aside from the life loss.
But with Infect? There are no good options. When you face an opponent playing with Infect, the options are lose or lose more. Block with creature? Out come the -1/-1 counters! Take it to the face? Enjoy your poison counters!
Well, you could be proactive. A well timed Lightning Bolt has cut more than one Infect deck off at the knees when they are looking for a Turn 2 win. But that's an edge case. Taking out a single Infect creature doesn't deal with the rest of the deck. It doesn't address the fact that Infect isn't a 'add-on' mechanic. It's a core mechanic in the block.
I also posted a link to the bullet list that Ken Nagle passed on to Aaron Forsythe when New Phyrexia was passed into Development's hands. On that list was a note that he felt that Infect wasn't pulling its weight in the set, and that it needed a buff to bring it back to where Wizards wanted it to be.
Now once again improving an under-performing mechanic is a good thing! Buff up the poorer keywords or abilities, and you help raise the average of the game. Infect went from Rotwolf to Glistener Elf.
Actually, I don't think I'm getting my point across here. One of the things that held Infect back was the inherent cost of the mechanic. Infect cards started with a converted casting cost of , but really started to pick up with with cards like Viridian Corrupter. Infect was meant to be, ans scaled towards being a mid-game mechanic, a way to force through a victory while at the same time keeping the board state clear as attrition takes its toll on both your forces and the enemy.
However, the Design team looked at Infect, and thought that it wasn't good enough. It wasn't ending games. It wasn't playing well with the flavour of the set that Infect was supposed to be the means by which Phyrexia won, that the Glistening Oil was the path to victory.
Infect didn't match the desires of the Design team, so they wanted to make it more powerful.
But here's the problem.
It actually isn't the Wither effect of the mechanic. That's... well, it's a self-solving problem in its own way, given that Creatures are the easiest card type to deal with from the view of the opponent. No, the problem was the Poison counters.
You see, Poison effectively sets your life total to an unimprovable 10. 10 Poison and you're done. No amount of life matters, you reach 10 and that's it. Standard? 10 Life. Limited? 10 Life. Two Headed Giant? 10...
Actually, no, it's 15 Poison counters in Two Headed Giant. Huh. Don't remember knowing that before researching this article. I learned something! Yay!
Vintage? 10 Life. Commander? TEN. It doesn't matter what you do or how much you gain, that's the hard cap on how much damage you can take before you are out of the game.
Infect - and by extension Poison - are meant to make games shorter. And it worked.
That's where Modern is at. And there is enough redundancy in the Modern Gx deck, that when combined with the London Mulligan, we're looking at a reliable Turn 2 kill in Modern thanks to this mechanic. Because it only needs to deal 10 damage, not 20.
But there's something else I want to point out, something that makes Infect even worse, if you can believe it.
Another Mechanic across the whole of the Scars block, Proliferate is a mechanic that when it goes off, adds one of each counter type on any number of permanents or players. It even has its own Legendary creature - Atraxa, Praetors' Voice!
Now, Proliferate, like many things in the Scars block, is a good idea on paper and taken in isolation. You see, Proliferate is a multiplicative mechanic. It does nothing by itself, but it makes other mechanics, other ways to interact with the board state more effective.
Here's the thing. Proliferate emphasizes what is already there. It doesn't make anything new. Flavoured as the passive encroaching of Phyrexian infection, it was a mechanic that was surrounded by a set handing out -1/-1 counters and Poison counters with aplomb. So it multiplied those.
Passively. With Proliferate, there was no further need to interact with the opponent. You could just sit back, casting Fuel for the Cause and making the situation worse and worse for the opponent as their remaining creatures got smaller, and their poison counters ticked closer and closer to the magic 10 of instant loss.
On the flip side, in War of the Spark, Proliferate is surrounded by +1/+1 counters on creatures and Loyalty counters on Planeswalkers. Heck, I had fun with a Rav Block deck on Arena that did just that.
But that's the point. Proliferate can take an oppressive and negative mechanic and make it more negative with the same degree that it can take a constructive and positive mechanic and make it better. I can't blame Proliferate for what went on in New Phyrexia, but it does contribute to it just as it contributes to the Planeswalker heavy War of the Spark by allowing you to keep your 'Walkers in play for longer.
I... honestly don't know what to say here. I have in my notes a few points I want to get across, but I find that my own words fail me. Instead, I find that I must turn to the words of others.
By the way, you should click those links. I'll eventually get around to some of the lessons that game failed to learn that Magic has at some point in the future.
But Wizards was wrong. Picard wasn't a Traitor when he was assimilated. Yes, he led the Borg to their near-victory over the Federation much like Glissa was supposed to do for New Phyrexia over the Mirrans. But Picard, like Glissa, wasn't a willing collaborator. Neither of them accepted the Borg or Phyrexia willingly. They were forced into it, and that forcing is what makes the villains the villains, and both Glissa and Picard sympathetic in their own rights. Picard showed colossal remorse over his actions as Locutus, and even years later was shown to be harshly affected by his short time in the Collective.
Phyrexia was supposed to be Magic's "Borg", and failed to live up to the standards in many ways.
You may have noticed that I cribbed some of his notes last time with regards to the timeline of Mirrodin Pure, but that was because his was the only concise listing of events that I could find.
He points out that the art and style of the set was designed to be 'vicious', 'oppressive' and 'violating'. Words I've used to describe New Phyrexia myself because it's true.
New Phyrexia was designed to punish people for playing. To make their experience miserable and ugly and to just plain get it over with one way or the other. I don't play Modern because of this set. I've walked away from Commander tables the moment someone dropped Vorinclex, Voice of Hunger onto the table beacuse there's no point in playing any more.
That's just my gripe. There's no point in the set. It's not there to make the game better, so bother at all?
Join me next week when I try to talk about something more positive. I think I'll start to take a crack at 's slice of the color pie, but it's still up in the air for now.
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!
I am conflicted - on the one hand, I agree with your points, while on the other I do not.
Phyrexian mana - it makes every color feel black. Which is amazing feat of design. On the other hand, some of the cards are bad for the game. I think that having a few bad apples (cards that can be played with little to no mana of the appropriate color) is not such a bad thing - it is good for dradt and it is nothing a simple ban would not fix. It just took too long for some cards (Probe, I am looking at you).
Infect - while cutting your life in half and making blocking hard, infect has a hidden nerf that no-one seems to recognize - deckbuilding. The efficient infect creatures are really just a few. Beyond Glistener Elf and Blighted Agent , everything else is subpar. Having so few efficient creatures means that you can build efficient, but inconsistent deck. So incosistent, that banning of Gitaxian Probe was enough to kill the deck entirely. It is supposed to be revived by Scale Up , but so far nothing.
June 28, 2019 4:14 a.m.
You can't expect a two turn kill but you can sure as heck expect to kill in one hit from one creature. Fun once.
June 28, 2019 12:43 p.m.
Efficient creatures with Infect is a strange thing to discuss because of Infect's inherent massive difference between damaging creatures and damaging players. And I think this is the reason why Infect is such a hated mechanic by many.
You can keep playing new creatures to block Infect-sources, that's a "renewable" resource. Poison counters is not something you can interact with (in a positive way) so once it's there, you cannot really do anything about it.
Infect also has the fundamental flaw that it plays its very own sub genre of a win condition and doesn't interact well with many other mechanics in the Magic universe. It plays extremely well with pump effects, because it basically has a hard cap of 10 damage dealt to a player and we're home safe.
However most Infect creatures are either blockable or are too heavy to play around as a win condition. I guess that's why you say the only efficient Infect creatures are Glistener Elf and Blighted Agent . One can win by turn two with pump spells before the opponent can reasonably have a chance to put down a blocker or deal with it, and the other the opponent cannot block, so it doesn't have to be thrown down before the match really starts.
You could just as easily have said Blight Mamba , Flensermite , Ichorclaw Myr , Lost Leonin , Necropede , Plague Myr or Plague Stinger . All of those are 2 CMC 1 power creatures with Infect (well Lost Leonin has 2 power). They have all the same basic characteristics as Glistener Elf , except they cost 1 mana more. Is the difference between a 1 mana and 2 mana creature with the same basic characteristics with Infect really that big? Apparently so, as those creatures requires a whole turn more to get in position to whack for lethal and they don't have evasion (with exception of Plague Stinger , who is just in the wrong colors for efficient fast lethal smacks). In this time the opponent have had a fair chance to drop a blocker or kill the creature and that's just not good enough for Infect. Because Infect is all about dropping a low cost creature with Infect and win the turn after. If it cannot do that, it doesn't function all too well.
Such a huge margin is present for Infect and that's a contributing factor to why the mechanic is such a blow out for many players.
I'm a huge fan of Shadowmoor and Eventide's Wither mechanic. It was an interesting way to interact with large creatures, but as Berry notes, the mechanic kinda felt too weak to actually matter.
It was interesting as well to have spells with Wither Puncture Blast as it effectively read; deal 3 damage to a player or planeswalker or give a creature 3 -1/-1 counters.
I do hope they consider bringing Wither back, but you wont see me hold my breath for Infect's return. The mechanic is in my eyes fundamentally flawed.
According to MaRo and his Storm Scale article (https://magic.wizards.com/en/articles/archive/making-magic/storm-scale-mirrodin-and-scars-mirrodin-blocks-2018-06-11) , he is more optimistic about Poison counters return than he is Infect.
July 2, 2019 10:56 a.m.
Tzefick - i get what you are saying - infect is one of the most polarizing mechanics out there. All players I have asked about it, the love/hate ratio is about 50/50.
Just to say, I forgot the actual most powerful infect creature, mostly because it is not a creature - Inkmoth Nexus .
Now, regarding all of that any infect player (standard fare, UG Infect deck with pumps) has a difficult decision to make - you have almost zero choice how to build your deck. Infect is simply a combo deck that has to connect with your face to win. This means one very important thing - deckbuilding is not an option and the deckbuilding restrictions placed on the deck are severe.
Now in order to have the best infect deck, you need 8 infect creatures( Glistener Elf and Blighted Agent , 18 pump spells ( Might of Old Krosa ) and 8 or so ways to filter the top of your deck and 4 Noble Hierarch . That leaves a total of 2 flex slots if you play 20 lands.
That is not a lot of flex slots. Sure, you get the possibility of an early kill, but you trade for it most of your flexibility.
Anything you sideboard in ruins the speed of your deck and its consistency. For example, a control deck may side in a Porphyry Nodes to better answer your few threaths, instead of an expensive counterspell. However, in order for Infect to protect itself from a control deck, it has to side in counterspells and play slower so it can play a creature and be able to protect it, meaning the early kill is not an option.
Infect is a very sharp rapier - powerful at the very tip, but weaker and more flimsy the lower down the blade you go.
July 3, 2019 4:56 a.m.
Boza I think this just puts emphasize on a failure point for Infect. It's simply too poor a mechanic because it plays on an entirely different parameter than most other Magic mechanics. Very few mechanics interact with Infect, for better or worse. You really have to commit to draw the most strength out of the mechanic and that makes it basically a turn 2-3 coin flip in many cases.
And as you say, the result is a very strict deck build, just to make it function on competitive level. This is a contributing factor to why I consider Infect a poorly designed mechanic. However because it can pull of turn 2-3 lethals with pump spells, the mechanic is not necessarily weak. It's just very restrictive and for many unfun to play against.
In a vacuum, Infect damage to a player is the equivalent of a Double Strike creature in a 20 Life format. The cheapest Double Strike creatures are Viashino Slaughtermaster , Fencing Ace or Adorned Pouncer . There are 1 CMC Double Strike creatures, but they are all conditional. And none of the 2 CMC Double Strikers have evasion.
For Infect we have a land, a Elf and a 2 CMC Infector with the best evasion.
Those cards are pushed... and still the deck can struggle to overcome some of the counter measures against it.
Dare I say a third time that the mechanic is...