Introduction – May the Force Be With You
When I first read Sefro's two articles on Forced Clumps and Forced Synergy, I knew I wanted to chime in on the subject. I would have replied on the thread, but to be honest, I think the subject is far deeper than a simple post warrants. Now I've reread both articles and all replies. (I'll tell you it wasn't easy, especially when the thread basically turned into a "spitting match," which I've noticed most online message board threads tend to do.) One of the first replies, by Spiderman, says, "It might be better if you can make a case for EACH block and see how it stacked up to the previous Magic card pool." I will now attempt to take him up on that.
First, I feel it's necessary to redefine some terminology and give you the basis of where I'm coming from. Synergy, as defined by dictionary.com, means "the interaction of two or more agents or forces so that their combined effect is greater than the sum of their individual effects." I think synergy works on a lot of different levels in Magic, with a lot of different cards. I have no problem with this and I don't think Sefro does either. No, the key word here is "forced." When I think of being forced to play with certain cards and mechanics, I don't think of the basic synergies that take place within the game, but I do think of the exaggerated synergies that take place inside each block. These are the real forced synergies. I will also be referring to this problem as "forced blocks," since the cards in that block force a player to buy more cards within that block to make those cards more useful.
I'm going to be exploring this issue from a casual player's standpoint. I don't care if a new set only creates one ultra-powerful deck archetype that all the tournament players have to follow in order to win. I also don't care about drafting and sealed deck, since to the best of my knowledge, the more synergy a block has, the better it would be for limited play. I care about going out and buying a new pack of cards from the most recent set and being able to use those cards in my decks. In short, I'm trying to find out how much support newer cards would get from cards outside their block versus cards inside their block.
Before I begin, I'd like to state that I don't think forced blocks are strictly bad. They may limit creativity, but I also feel they allow new players a chance to build competitive casual decks with a minimum investment. The synergy inside each block can boost the power of a new deck enough to at least stand a chance against a deck piloted by someone who has access to a larger card pool. However, I also feel that forcing the issue may keep veteran players from buying into the new sets, since these cards won't fit as well with their established decks.
In one of his replies to the second article, Sefro states that he thinks this trend has been solid since Invasion, so that's where I'm going to start my analysis. Perhaps later, I'll review the sets before Invasion, but for now, that's my starting point. It makes sense, too, because before Invasion, sets were just sort of jumbled together with different card ideas, themes, mechanics that basically had little or nothing to do with each other. Every block was a new, less-powerful Alpha. Except, of course, the Urza's block, which happened to be a new, more-powerful Alpha.
Finally, I'd like to apologize in advance for how boring this article may end up. I will try to substantiate every claim with actual proof that forced blocks are occurring. In my mind, the best way to do this is through numbers, examples and solid analysis – not through hearsay, egregious claims, and fanatical ranting. Those might be more fun to read, but ultimately they won't prove anything. I won't go so far as to evaluate every card in every set, but mechanics and central themes are important and numbers are the best way to back up a claim that these themes are going too far.
Invasion Block – Forced Colors
Let's get started. Invasion wants you to play more colors. Now, to the best of my knowledge, all five colors of cards have been represented in every set since Magic debuted. So simply playing with more than one color is nothing new. Multicolor cards and kicker really don't strike me as things that force you to play inside the walls of Invasion block. If anything, the addition of the enemy painlands allowed greater strategies to unfold for older decks trying to mix opposing colors. I looked at every single card in the entire Invasion block and I think the most forced synergy that existed was the addition of a new creature type, Kavu, and cards specifically targeting Kavus (Is that the plural of Kavu? I have no idea.), since none existed prior to Invasion. Alpha Kavu, Coastal Drake, Kavu Howler, Kavu Mauler, Kavu Monarch and Shoreline Raider each specifically reference Kavu, making them more powerful depending on how many Kavus you or your opponent control. These were the only cards that could not increase their power through cards in older blocks.
Odyssey Block – Forced Graveyard
The next block to come out was Odyssey. Odyssey definitely pushed forced blocks to another level. First, I'll examine what I think went well in Odyssey. We know that R&D wanted to theme the set around the graveyard. Flashback, threshold and the cycle of incarnations all dealt directly with the graveyard, but didn't really force the issue. On the surface, flashback basically doubles the effectiveness of each spell. Threshold gives an added bonus to spells late in the game and the incarnations are hard to get rid of because they got better after they die. I believe each of these mechanics illustrates what the set was supposed to be about. However, a number of cards were designed to support these new ideas and ended up pushing the block too far in one direction. Spells and effects that put cards into your graveyard, removed cards from your opponent's graveyard and allowed you to discard were all meant to increase the effectiveness of Odyssey's new mechanics. They certainly accomplished this, but at the detriment of being useful with older sets.
Milling has been an effective strategy for a long time, so everything in Odyssey that hit your opponent's library could still be useful. But a lot of cards, like Mental Note and False Memories, only let you target yourself, an obvious ploy to increase the usage of flashback and threshold. In every set prior to Odyssey, there were a total of seven cards that milled their controller. Most of these were a cost for some special ability (Saprazzan Breaker) or as an intentional detriment (Tolarian Serpent). In the three sets in Odyssey block, there were eight cards that did this, and in each of them, it was seen as making the card better.
Before Odyssey, the only reason to remove cards from an opponent's graveyard was to prevent recursion effects, which were already pretty limited in their usage. Five cards before Odyssey were designed for the specific purpose of getting your opponent's cards out of their graveyard: Carrion Beetles, Cremate, Headstone, Phyrexian Furnace, and Tormod's Crypt. An additional four cards could be used to remove an opponent's cards from the game at some benefit to their controller: Eater of the Dead, Grave Robbers, Night Soil and Rysorian Badger. Odyssey block tripled the number of cards with these effects, coming out with 18 new cards that removed cards in an opponent's graveyard from the game. Much like the nine cards that preceded them, these new ones would have had a very limited usage played against opponents who weren't heavily into the block.
Finally, Odyssey introduced a slew of new ways to discard cards from your hand. At first I thought these spells would have reinforced the themes of the block, but upon closer inspection, it's apparent that many of them are powerful even when played outside the block. Of course, they seem to have a forced synergy with madness and graveyard filling, but examining the history of Magic shows that almost 100 cards before Odyssey also had discard effects and could thus find homes in decks showcasing these abilities. If anything, madness had more synergy with cards like the Masques spellshapers than it did with some of the in-block cards.
Although the graveyard effects were the primary synergy-forcing culprits in Odyssey block, there were also a few minor offenders. Like Invasion, Odyssey introduced a new creature type in cephalids and had one card (Aboshan) that greatly improved by having more cephalids around. Torment presented nightmares as a viable creature type, but only one card, Chainer, actually benefited from having nightmares in the deck. Chainer also had the ability to create his own nightmares, so I'm inclined to say this didn't force anyone to keep buying packs of Torment. It's also worth noting that Odyssey contained one card, Laquatus' Disdain, that was completely useless unless playing heavily against Odyssey.
Onslaught Block – Forced Creatures
Speaking of cards that are completely useless outside their block, say hello to Onslaught. The central theme of Onslaught was supposed to be creatures and creature types. I don't see any problems with that. Prior to the block, there were plenty of cards to accompany some of these new "creature-type matters" cards. The problem with the execution, in my opinion, was found in cards that were designed specifically to support the newest central mechanic: Morph.
It's worth noting that I kind of like the morph mechanic. It added a dimension to the game, providing "hidden" creatures with potentially uncounterable effects. But by putting morph at the center of the block, a number of cards were created that were completely useless outside the block. Someone buying a single pack of Onslaught and opening cards like Backslide, Break Open or Dream Chisel would have absolutely no use for them. Other cards, such as Aphetto Runecaster, Aven Farseer, Aven Soulgazer, Exiled Doomsayer, Ixidor, Master of the Veil, Nosy Goblin, Primal Whisperer and Weaver of Lies, have their power significantly reduced when not playing with morph creatures.
Morph, while being the greatest perpetrator of forced synergy, was certainly not the only one. Going back to the creature-type trend, I'd like to look at specific numbers to see which creatures received the biggest boost from the Onslaught block. Beasts, birds, elves, goblins, clerics, wizards, zombies and soldiers all were represented on cards that got better when more were played. I reviewed all the sets before Onslaught to see exactly how much each tribe had gained in the set. Zombies were boosted the most, with about 41% of all zombies appearing in Onslaught block at the time. Closely following these were elves, beasts, clerics and birds, which all had slightly under 40% of their creatures in Onslaught. Goblins came in around 34%, wizards around 30% and soldiers around 27%. Compared to the number of sets that were released before Onslaught, the block certainly contains more than its fair share of each creature type. But I also feel that they appeared in large enough numbers before the block to say that this did not force the block on players.
To round out my forced block review of Onslaught, I feel it's necessary to name a few specific incidents that could be classified as minor offenders. Slivers force you to play with other slivers, but they had that same effect in Tempest. Also, you might say their reemergence is a little bit more justified since slivers appeared in a previous set. The same could be said for cycling, which was supported by such only-good-with-cycling cards as Astral Slide and Lightning Rift, as well as the only-good-against-cycling card, Stabilizer. But also like slivers, cycling did exist prior to Onslaught and unlike slivers, cycling cards can certainly be strong without any additional support.
Mirrodin – Forced Artifacts
This brings us to the Mirrodin block. I know what a lot of you are probably thinking. Mirrodin block forced us to play with artifacts! We were forced to play affinity! Wrong. 45% of the cards in Mirrodin were artifacts, so in one regard, if you bought a pack of Mirrodin, you're pretty likely to find an artifact in the pack that you want to play with. But surprisingly few of the cards in Mirrodin needed Mirrodin-block cards to get better. Looking at affinity (specifically, affinity for artifacts), you'd be tempted to say that as a mechanic, it screams that you should be playing with cheap artifacts. There were 41 new artifacts in Mirrodin that had a casting cost of 0 or 1. There were 82 before the block, so options to abuse affinity were certainly viable outside the block, as were cards to support the cog theme of fifth dawn.
No, affinity wasn't the problem with Mirrodin block, but that certainly didn't mean it didn't contain forced synergy. So what was the problem with Mirrodin block? Equipment. Equipment was a great idea. It was flavorful and practical, but it never existed before Mirrodin. So once again, support cards for equipment were created that were significantly worse without the equipment. I counted 20 cards in the block that specifically reference equipment. Some were creatures that could be used without equipment at significantly reduced power, such as Skyhunter Cub, Taj-Nar Swordsmith and Vulshok Battlemaster. But many were removal spells like Unforge, Carry Away and Turn to Dust, which were useless unless playing against equipment-heavy decks.
Another theme that helped force the Mirrodin block was charge counters. Before Mirrodin, 12 cards used charge counters. In Mirrodin, 22 new cards using charge counters were created. Charge counters aren't a problem by themselves, but a support card like Coretapper is severely limited without buying more Mirrodin cards. +1/+1 counters could also be seen as forced synergy, but mostly on modular creatures. There were plenty of artifact creatures before Mirrodin that would benefit from a dying modular creature, but it's quite apparent that having more modular creatures makes the mechanic much more powerful.
Overall, I thought Mirrodin was less of a forced block than Onslaught. The biggest theme forced on players was equipment and once again, I think execution was the problem more than the idea. But I can't review the Mirrodin block without mentioning Relentless Rats. No single card throughout the history of Magic has ever been quite this blunt about forcing a particular set. The limitlessness in decks, coupled with being found in the uncommon slot, makes Relentless Rats a virtual poster child for buying more Fifth Dawn cards. Regardless, Relentless Rats is just one card, and many new open-ended mechanics were introduced in the whole block that worked with a wide variety of older cards. Imprint, indestructibility, sunburst, and even affinity were mechanics that could find partners with a wide variety of older cards. In short, Mirrodin was a forced block, but it's not the greatest example.
Kamigawa – Forced Spirits
If you are looking for a good example of a forced block, you'll find the king of them all in Kamigawa. The whole Kamigawa block was allegedly designed from the top down. The creative team set out to make a new world full of flavor and the design team then filled in mechanics to fit that world. I suppose it sounds like a good idea, but the execution led this set to contain more forced synergy than any other post-Invasion block.
Obviously, the culprit of Kamigawa is the spirit/arcane theme. 49 individual cards contain the spiritcraft trigger "whenever you play a spirit or arcane spell" with another 27 cards containing the soulshift keyword. 174 spirits were printed in the Kamigawa block. Before the Kamigawa block, a total of 52 spirits existed. And I'd even contend that number. Cards like Horrible Hordes, Dancing Scimitar, Nether Shadow, Spectral Guardian and Skulking Ghost weren't printed as spirits and shouldn't have been changed. Others weren't printed as spirits, but probably should have changed, like Melesse Spirit (originally an Angel), Spirit of the Night (originally a Legend), Subterranean Spirit (originally an Elemental), Blinking Spirit (originally a Blinking Spirit – yes, there is a difference) and Will-o'-the-Wisp (originally a Will-o'-the-Wisp). Lastly, Dungeon Shade and Entropic Specter are both spirits, despite the fact that they should be a shade and a specter, respectively. But even using the current Oracle-friendly number of 52, the Kamigawa block presented a 330% increase in the total number of spirits in Magic, meaning 77% of the total number of creatures capable of utilizing those 76 new spiritcraft and soulshift cards were all found in the Kamigawa block.
Of course, there are also non-creatures capable of triggering spiritcraft cards. These are, of course, the arcane spells. Total number of arcane spells prior to Kamigawa block: 0. Total number of arcane spells in Kamigawa block: 93. This marks an infinity% increase in the total number of arcane spells in Magic. It also brings up the total percentage of spiritcraft-triggering cards in the block to almost 84% Arcane also presented us with the splice mechanic. You can splice one spell onto another, but only if the other spell is an arcane spell. Spliceable spells aren't useless by themselves, but it's not hard to see how much better they are with other arcane spells. There were 28 spliceable cards in the set, each one begging you to buy more Kamigawa cards.
As far as forced synergy goes, Kamigawa did not stop at the spirit/arcane theme. It also introduced some brand new creature types in samurai and ninjas. Samurai were meant to showcase the new Bushido mechanic, which was simple, if not very interesting. However, to support the new creature type, 10 cards were created that specifically got better with more samurai. Ninjas had a much more interesting mechanic and have good interaction with older cards, such as any number of evasion creatures or creatures with comes-into-play abilities. But once again, there were cards to support the ninja theme that become much less useful when you don't play with or against a lot of ninjas. (Side note: Does anyone else think Nezumi Shadow-Watcher's ability should read, "Sacrifice Nezumi Shadow-Watcher: Destroy target Ninja or creature with Shadow"? How obscure would that be?)
The Kamigawa block forced a host of other synergies that are more comparable to the blocks before it. Demon-ogre groupings, shrines, zuberas, legendary permanents, and the snake tribe were all themes that pushed the block further on players, but to a much lesser extent than the ideas listed above. I'm not sure that I'd completely blame the flavor-first philosophy on the forced nature of the Kamigawa block, but I did notice the overall design of the block seems pretty lazy. There were more cards than usual that were basic reprints of older cards, with arcane added to the spell type or with the creature type changed to spirit. Although I think there are many options for creativity within the block, I also think that it seems to be the only place for any creativity.
Conclusion – A Tremor in the Force
If I had to rate the level of forced synergy within each block, I would easily put Kamigawa at the top. Onslaught would probably follow, with Mirrodin and Odyssey close behind. Invasion, despite having a definitive theme, barely forced anything at all.
In summation, I'd like to remind you that I'm speaking strictly from a casual player's viewpoint. I wanted to find out if cards would only work inside a particular block or if they were versatile enough to find homes in decks that span a number of blocks. I know a lot of people might think I avoided some issues here, such as being forced to play black in Torment or all five colors in Fifth Dawn. I certainly considered these facts, but I think these sets actually opened the doors to new deck ideas that could easily be supported by older cards.
So where does that leave us now? Taking a quick glance at Ravnica, it looks like Forced blocks are subsiding. Of the major mechanics (transmute, dredge, convoke, and radiance) in the block, only dredge feels like it has the greatest synergy with other cards in the block. Other themes, such as token generation and milling, seem to be featured more, but not so much as to be unbalanced with older sets. Much like Invasion block, it does force the color issue, but certainly doesn't limit the usage of older cards with the new set. I'm looking forward to a period of unforced synergy that has hopefully begun with Ravnica so when I open a new pack or two, I can come up with the ideas instead of having them come up to me.