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July 8, 2012

6

Lorwyn: Elementals’ Path Review (Part 2 of 2)

by Dredd77

Our trip to Lorwyn has been surprisingly disappointing thus far. Now on our last deck, can the five-colour Elementals’ Path follow in the footsteps of Merrow Riverways and help redeem the set? Or will it just be the final nail in the coffin. I was joined by Sam, who was piloting the selfsame Merfolk. Here are the notes from our match.

Game One

I’m on the play for our opener, and lead with a Wanderer’s Twig off an Island. Over to Sam, she begins with a Springleaf Drum from hers. I’ve kept a one-land hand, but with the Twig and a Smokebraider it seems solid enough. The Twig gives me my second land drop, a Mountain, which plays for my Flamekin Bladewhirl (revealing a Faultgrinder to keep costs down). Sam drops a Judge of Currents off of a Plains.

Now turn 3, I attack in for 2 with the Bladewhirl, then play the Smokebraider. So far, so good! Sam claws back 1 point of life at the end of my turn by activating the Springleaf Drum with the Judge, ending at 19. This henceforth becomes known as the “drum trick.” Over to Sam, she adds the next piece of her engine in the form of a Merrow Commerce. She plays the drum trick for another life, then at the end of turn untaps everything. Back to me, I attack again with the Bladewhirl, then play a second Smokebraider followed by a Flamekin Harbinger. Although I know I could get caught with removal, I decide to go for the Horde of Notions anyway, tutoring it up to the top of my library. Indeed I do- Sam does the drum trick to go back to 19 life, then Oblivion Rings a Smokebraider.

Now turn 5, I attack for 3 with the Bladewhirl and Harbinger to knock Sam back to 16, then add a Ceaseless Searblades. For her part, Sam doubles down with a second Judge of Currents, then does the drum trick to gain 2 life this time. She then follows with Streambed Aquitects and passes. Next turn I summon an Inner-Flame Igniter with the help of the Smokebraider, triggering a pump on the Ceaseblades. I turn the Ceaseblades sideways, dropping Sam to 15. Back to Sam, she goes back up 2 with the drum trick, then plays another Streambed Aquitects. She then taps the older one to give one of her Judges +1/+1 and islandwalk, letting it swim past my blockers for the first damage I’ve taken. It also gives her 2 more life when the Judge taps for the attack. It’s now a 21-18 game.

Although I need to solve the Judges, the Aquitects’ 3 toughness is a real hurdle. So when I topdeck a Consuming Bonfire on turn 7, that’s where it goes. I then attack for 3 with the Ceaseblades, since I’m stuck on three land and reliant upon the Smokebraider for nearly anything. Sam again gains 2 of that back through tappnig shenanigans (this time simply activating the Aquitects), and it will be so for the entire game. Back to Sam, she plays a Merrow Reejerey, then does the drum trick and activates the Aquitects. That lets her 3-power Judge islandwalk in on me again, seeing me go down to 12. By the end of the turn, Sam’s sitting at 26. Next turn I play a Soulbright Flamekin. Sam summons a Silvergill Adept at full price, then swings for 3 more with a pumped-up Judge. By the end of turn, she’s up to 34. I’m at 12.

Now turn 9, I’m slowly losing the will to live. I use a Wanderer’s Twig to grab and play a Forest, then trigger the Inner-Flame Acolytes to try and mount an offense with the Ceaseblades. Unfortunately, I’ve misgauged the combat math, and am frustrated to find that Sam simply trades it out with a Silvergill Adept. Stifling a grumble, I pass the turn. For her part, Sam summons an Avian Changeling then cycles through her tapping tricks. The board complexity isn’t just one-sided; in the midst of it all, Sam nearly forgets to attack- though in the interests of fair play (and getting the game over with) I point this out to her. I’m now at 9, with her at an insurmountable 48.

I manage to find another Bonfire on turn 10 and kill off the Reejerey, but the game at this point is a foregone conclusion. When I finally scoop, Sam sits at 60 life.

Game Two

Just happy to get the last game over with, I lead with a Mountain and deploy a Flamekin Brawler. Sam simply Ponders. Although my heart wants to pound in with the Brawler until Sam’s Merfolk are dead, I know it can’t carry me there. I pass on attacking, and instead add a Soulblight Flamekin to the field. Over to Sam, she begins with a Silvergill Douser. We trade adds for turn 3, me with an Inner-Flame Igniter, her with a Streambed Acquitects, and we’re off and running.

Now turn 4, I miss my first land drop but look to make up for it with a Smokebraider. Sam plays the Springleaf Drum that served her so well last game. Having been stuck on Islands, she uses it to get the mana she needs for a Judge of Currents. I take a deep breath. Goosfraba… goosfraba… Sufficiently calmed, I play a Flamekin Bladewhirl, revealing a Mournwhelk from hand for the discount. Then I evoke the Mournwhelk, slashing two cards from Sam’s hand of three. She pitches an Avian Changeling and second Judge of Currents, and I’m feeling better already. When her turn is a blank, I start to feel the faint glimmers of hope.

Æthersnipe

Turn 6 sees me bring out my Ceaseless Searblades, while Sam’s turn is again a blank aside from a land. Next turn I bounce the Aquitects with an Æthersnipe. In response, Sam taps it to give her Judge +1/+1 and islandwalk, then taps her Silvergill Douser to give my Searblades -3/-0 until end of turn. Thanks to the Judge, she goes up two life, but this makes way for my attack of 6 with the Igniter, Soulbright Flamekin, and Bladewhirl. Down to 16 life, Sam replays her Streambed Aquitects and passes.

Now turn 8, I have lethal on board with four Mountains and a Smokebraider to fuel the Brawler. This forces Sam to chump to stay alive. She chumps my Searblades with the Douser, tapping to make the Brawler -3/-0. She gets 1 life for the act, but loses 6 overall. Back to her, she then plays a Silvergill Adept (revealing a Merrow Harbinger), then the Harbinger itself (fetching a Harpoon Sniper). She triggers more drum trickery to keep her life up, but in the end she falls the very next turn. I begin by pumping six mana into my Soulbright Flamekin, giving my best three creatures trample and refunding me eight mana. Then I dump it all into the Flamekin Brawler. By the end of it, the Ceaseless Searblades are +11/+0 from all the activations, and with trample my big beatsticks finish Sam off.

Game Three

This time it’s Sam’s turn to kick things off, and she does so with an Island. Over to me, I play a Flamekin Bladewhirl, revealing a Soulbright Flamekin. Sam then opens her account with a Silvergill Adept, revealing a Merrow Reejerey. I swing for 2 with my Flamekin, then add a Springleaf Drum and Wanderer’s Twig.

Now turn 3, Sam trots out the Reejerey, letting her counterattack for 3. Back to me, I play my Soulbright Flamekin and Flamekin Harbinger, tutoring up a Changeling Titan. Back to Sam, she attacks for 3 more, then bolsters her board with an Avian Changeling. My turn is a blankaside from a Shimmering Grotto, so I take the opportunity to snap the Twig for a Forest.

Sam sends her goons in for 6 on turn 5, and I offer my Bladewhirl in trade for her Adept, though that still leaves the 3 from the Changeling. Sam then uses Summon the School to add a pair of Merfolk tokens to her aquatic army. I then tap out to deploy the Changeling Titan, championing the Harbinger. Back to Sam, she drops me to 8 with another attack from the Avian Changeling in the air, then plays a second Silvergill Adept (revealing a Judge of Currents). She then plays the Judge, untapping her Avian thanks to the Reejerey’s untap trigger. For my part, I swing with the Titan. Sam just takes it, going down to 11. I follow with a Ceaseless Searblades and passes.

Sam simply brushes the Searblades aside with an Oblivion Ring, then alpha strikes me for the win. A quick, merciful defeat? I’m almost giddy.

Thoughts & Analysis

Longtime readers will know that I have a deep and abiding love of complex games states and intricate lines of play, and a terrible affection for decks that allow me these luxuries. While I realise they aren’t for everyone and we’ve always endeavoured to score as bias-neutral as we can, having faith that our various biases counteract one another (Sam, for instance, loves Green stompy; Jimi loves swarm). By all accounts, decks like the one I played today should resonate with my preferred mode of play and deliver an extraordinary gameplay experience.

The reality? I was perfectly miserable, and struggle to remember a time I’ve had less fun playing Magic.

Before I get into that too deeply, I want to add that on a broader note, I have learned quite a bit about Magic in our trek through Lorwyn. With my Vorthos goggles firmly attached, I’d set out to explore the notion of whether or not the set was, as oft-described by Wizards R&D- a “failure.” My initial position, based on a love of lore and flavour, was that it was not. When Rosewater and Forsythe decried the overcomplicated game states, I harrumphed them. Surely, I thought, that must be based on a sensitivity to the novice player, not a veteran like myself. Boy was I wrong.

I caught the first whiff of this with the very first deck selected, Elvish Predationwriting:

One of the “failures” discussed in  was the complexity of the board state, and it’s hard to say that Aaron Forsythe was wrong in this estimation. I’m all for intricacy, but his criticism was spot on. I had a ton of arrows and asterisks, finishing out the contents of the turns at the top of the page, the bottom (always risky in case you need it later when the game goes long), or, in at least two exchanges, a new page altogether. It might not seem that way from the narrative, but there were a number of pregnant pauses throughout the game as we assessed and reassessed the board state for things like token generation and how many Elves were in my graveyard.

It seemed a bit much on the whole, but if that was the worst of it, I thought, we’d be okay. We weren’t. Although Merrow Riverways was a blast to play (that intricacy thing again), it too had a highly complex context-dependant level of interdependence between cards. What X card could do was often a factor of cards Y and Z, and sometimes even A, B, and C. Easy things for a computer and no great stretch for a human, but at a certain point the bookkeeping tends to detract from the fun. That, I now know, was the point Messrs Rosewater and Forsythe were making. It’s not unplayable- it’s simply less fun.

Shriekmaw

At no point was this clearer than in taking the Elementals up against the Merfolk today. It takes a lot to get me to tilt in Magic, but it was pretty rough today. In fairness, this was exacerbated by the fact that I have to take notes on every action during a game so that I can compose an accurate and clear picture for the reader. “Slow down please” became a constant refrain, and it’s not that Sam was playing particularly fast. But even without the writing angle, there were moments of mathematical agony. It almost seemed like a logic puzzle designed as an exercise in efficiency management: You have six Mountains open to you and want to attack. Do you a) use the guy that gives everyone +1/+0, at a cost of three mana? b) Use the guy who gives one guy trample, at the cost of two mana? c) Pump up the Firebreathing guy? Then, being human, you start winding back to the next level of interactions- the ones you overlooked. Waitaminnit, if I pump six mana into that first guy, I can give three of my guys trample AND get eight mana back. And if I pump the Firebreather guy, then the triggered-activations guy is getting pumped too! 

No offense to Mr Weizenbaum, Mr Rosewater, the Duels of the Planeswalkers Challenges designers, or anyone else who has ever written a column about “Magic puzzles,” but I do not enjoy them. Many, many people do, but they’re just not my thing. I certainly didn’t enjoy having to spend fifteen minutes trying to work out the simple fact that Sam was dead, winding it back and walking it through multiple times until I found the “optimal min/max scenario.”

Summarily put: I had the highest hopes for Lorwyn, but now I’m just glad that it’s over.

Elementals’ Path is a fine enough deck in concept, though it does make me curious to go back and have another peek at the Elemental Thunder deck from the first Planechase release to see how they avoided complexity creep. For now, though, I’m fighting the urge to grab a couple dozen Forests and jam a deck filled with the biggest, fattest Green things I can find.

Hits: Evoke creatures offer useful flexibility, even if they tend to be a bit overcosted on one or both ends of the utility spectrum; good synergy between cards

Misses: Board states of extreme and unpleasant complexity are easily possible here; a dreadful removal suite is always less forgiveable in Red or Black decks

OVERALL SCORE: 3.75/5.00

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Read more from Lorwyn, Lorwyn Block
6 Comments Post a comment
  1. Jay Chong
    Jul 8 2012

    Are you sure it was complexity creep and not excessive bookkeeping and busywork? Complex = multilayer. Busywork = Excessive number of things to do which are boring and/or meaningless. While “busywork” can be complex, complexity is not always busywork.

    Vintage storm decks are amazingly complex but the bookkeeping is surprisingly light sometimes, just keeping track of how much mana generated, what kind, and how many spells played. The end goal, however, was obvious: generate a huge storm count for the win. In contrast, these games had large amounts of busywork without a seemingly clear direction. Oh sure winning is always on the agenda, but the how and the why isn’t clear. Was all that tapping needed for a victory? Did Sam have to end the game with that much life? These decisions don’t carry the game forward, they just conflict and distract from it. Those are my 2 cents anyway.

    Richard Garfield wrote a piece on busywork and its effects on games: http://www.wizards.com/Magic/Magazine/Article.aspx?x=mtgcom/daily/rg1

    Reply
  2. nightwyrm
    Jul 8 2012

    On the subject of Magic Puzzles, there’s a big difference between trying to solve a puzzle on your computer on your own time and doing it during a game while the other players are waiting for you. Also, the biggest difference for puzzles is that you know there is a solution, no matter how obscure. In an actual game, there may be no “solution” no matter how much time you spent on it. It’s quite possible for someone to enjoy solving puzzles but not enjoy an overly complex game state during actual play.

    Reply
  3. Diennea
    Jul 9 2012

    I like very much complex board state. Time Spiral/Lorwyn is my favourite enviroment so I can’t complain but I feel sorry for you 😦
    On the other side many of my friends don’t and they hate my merrow deck with all their spirit.

    Reply
    • Varo
      Jul 9 2012

      Same here, i love Lorwyn/Time Spiral, but the merrows are feared and hated.

      Reply
  4. Laurent
    Jul 9 2012

    I like complex boards (and am known to go toward that every time I can, even in previews : last Saturday, I won the m13 preview at my local store by going 5-0 with…a defensive milling deck), but as far as I remember Lorwyn was all about comlex boards ONLY. Which was pretty much a problem, since the set was all about Tribal, a theme that is theorically far from creating the most complex boards you can find. This is, in some ways, a bit like Kamigawa : lots of flavor and rather complex games/cards that will appeal to some players (usually the more tournament-inclined ones) and make the casual ones shy away from the game after a while.

    I’ve recently found in a flea market a dozen or so preconstructed, with 2 being from Eventide (Warrior’s Code and Shamanism) and one from Shadowmoor (Overkill). By playing the Eventide one against the other, we saw that even the theorically most simple deck (how can you do more simple than G/R aggro, apart maybe B/R aggro?) still creates some complicated turns…

    And I ended playing the Future Shock from Future Sight, which isn’t the most fun deck to play (G/R aggro/stompy) but is sure one hell easier :ramp/fatty/burn/ATTACK!! (on a sidenote, the Shadowmoor deck is fun and well designed with a tricky approach to R/G : I like it a lot for that)

    Reply
  5. Jon Dean
    Jul 9 2012

    I really want to see you guys tackle Morningtide and Shadowmoor block and see if things got better.

    Reply

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