Further Musings on Magic: Dark Ascension and Innistrad versus Avacyn Restored

[Last time I talked about the appeal of Magic and drafting in general.]
The Magic format I’ve been watching the most has been Dark Ascension-Innistrad-Innistrad drafts (that is, the first pack of the draft is from the Dark Ascension set, and the other two are from Innistrad, henceforth, DII) and I’ve fallen in love with it. The draft itself feels well-structured in terms of the decks it encourages, and the games the format produces are tense, fast-paced and entertaining to watch. And, sadly, this format is largely going away soon. In its placed will be a triple-Avacyn Restored format, Avacyn Restored being a new set that, while it’s billed as a companion set with Innistrad and Dark Ascension, it features significantly different mechanics, and while the jury is still out, my first impression is that both the drafts and the games it produces will be rather less interesting.

In terms of drafting set-ups, I think I find ABB drafts (like DII) form a happy medium between ABC drafts (where all three packs are from different sets, like most of the older block drafts) and AAA drafts (like the forthcoming Avacyn). ABC drafts have a lot of unpredictability in terms of what cards are going to be available to you. Even if you have a strong first pack, there’s very little guarantee that you’re going to see the specific cards you want to round it out in the later packs, even if they’re of common rarity. But, for example, in a DII draft, if you’re green-white after the first pack, you can feel fairly confident that you’re going to see a Travel Preparations or two in the Innistrad packs. Conversely, ABB drafts are less prone to gimmick decks than AAA drafts. Compare the relatively frequency of the Spider Spawning deck in triple-Innistrad as compared to DII. It’s just easier to assemble a combo, especially one that depends on an uncommon card or two, when you only have one or two packs to get the exact cards.

I particularly like the way the Dark Ascension pack guides the rest of the draft. In addition to the huge rares, there are uncommon cards like the four captains and Lingering Souls that have two colours attached to them. They’re powerful enough to take early, but to properly capitalize on them, it places fairly strong limits the sort of cards you’re going to want to take.

As I said, the actual games in the DII format are tremendously high-tempo and dynamic. The key mechanics are flip cards, spells with flashback, creatures with undying, and morbid. These mechanics encourage early aggression. Any deck that can’t consistently put cards on the board starting in turn two is going to have problems. Later in the game, these mechanics generally work to prevent stalemates by encouraging tradeoffs between creatures. There’s a focus on getting value out of cards at multiple times in multiple ways, which helps limit the chances that both players are going to run out of gas in their hands. There’s a lot going on, and while some of it is a little fiddly, the games are fast, wild and fun.

Avacyn Restored ditches these mechanics and adds in miracle, which lets a powerful spell be cast cheaply right when it’s drawn, and soulbond, which pairs creatures to grant them extra powers. Both of these feel like they create unappealing incentives. While it does provide some interesting strategic options, Soulbond encourages keeping your smaller creatures with soulbond alive so that you can use them later to grant power to your bigger creatures. This in turn slows down the game and discourages aggression. (It’s also nearly as fiddly as a mechanic as the flip cards are.) Miracle discourages drawing extra cards (since it only works on the first card you draw per turn, and you’d hate to draw your miracle later on your turn and end up with a dead or inefficient card as a result), meaning that you’re encouraged to restrict the strategic options available to you and instead rely on luck. There’s already a ton of luck in terms of what cards get drawn within the game, especially in limited formats, and miracle only exacerbates this.

This is probably all premature. I’m by no means an expert in the game, and Avacyn Restored has only been played publicly during the preview weekend. And I’m a natural pessimist, and tend to be resistant to change. So we shall see. Maybe (probably?) I don’t know what I’m talking about, and it’ll be great.

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