Entry 16C: The Importance of Balance (Mirrodin was… less awesome).

Anyway, when last I left off I talked about how totally sweet Onslaught Block was. Now I’m going to talk about the first Mirrodin block in a post that I expect to garner a little bit of hate. Why? Well because so many people that I talk to love both of the Mirrodin Blocks. I found them at best unimpressive, though I will admit that Mirrodin did some cool stuff I found a lot of the cards flavorless and a lot of the decks that came out of it boring. I’m sorry, did I say decks? I meant deck, singular.

Mirrodin (the original block) is best compared, I believe, to Eddie Gordo from the Tekken series of fighting games. For those who don’t Tekken, Eddie Gordo is a capeoeira fighter who was hated in every arcade I went to because he took absolutely no skill. You could pick Eddie, place a freshly caught fish next to the kick buttons, and watch him flop around until you heard the announcer declare your victory. I should clarify this by saying that I’ve seen an actual fighting tournament and I didn’t see a lot of Eddie, so I guess that strategy doesn’t quite hold up in the higher levels… but I digress.

Mirrodin was much the same way. Any scrub could pick up a bunch of Mirrodin cards, slap a bunch of them that had the phrase “affinity for artifacts” together and make a deck that would beat most decks that weren’t affinity based. What did “affinity for artifacts” do you ask? It made it so that your cards cost one less colorless mana for every artifact you already had in pay. Also the set was mostly artifacts, including special artifact land and since artifacts are inherently colorless, you could have all of your land be artifact land for the sake of fueling your affinity engine since, at most, you were splashing some colored cards in. But hey, just because that was the easy way to build a deck doesn’t mean it was the best way. Surely you saw some variation at tournament play right? To be honest I don’t know, but I know the only decks from the first Mirrodin set that I ever saw come to a tournament were affinity based, and they were rather powerful. I also know that the banned list for Mirrodin cards when it was in standard was large and included all of the artifact lands just to reign in affinity and give other deck formats a chance. In fact, just about all of the banning done in the set had the primary effect of cooling off the affinity deck format.

Now, I’m not saying that there were no good cards without affinity in Mirrodin. However, if affinity wasn’t the core of your deck you were going to have a hard time finding enough synergy to build something competitive. Green had some solid beasts that you might could bring in on the back of elves who couldn’t use equipment by virtue of being untargetable by artifacts. White had some cool soldiers that worked well with the equipment cards in the deck, but those decks took forever to get rolling. Black had the Nim, zombies who interacted very well with… affinity decks. Red and blue had some good enhancement and counters, most of which interacted best with… yep, affinity decks.

So how did this happen? I attribute it to the novelty of Mirrodin. See, for as much as I thought a primarily artifact set was bland and uninteresting (A view that I realize puts me in a severe minority), Mirrodin was he first set to do it. Even in the Urza’s saga, which gave artifact’s a lot of love, you would never see an artifact in the common slots in your pack. Such a huge and unprecedented change in the format meant that the deck probably needed a lot more play-testing than a normal set, which it probably didn’t get. This isn’t meant as a harsh critique on the WotC staff, further artifact heavy sets (Including Scars of Mirrodin) have been much better put together and balanced. Also, a lot of the stuff that should have been good probably looked a lot better on paper. Green, with its protection from artifacts all over the place probably looked a lot more strong because, hey, it can block nearly anything in the set with impunity. Then you realize you can’t use equipment on your elves, which means you can’t use a lot of the stronger cards in the set. White’s soldiers get ridiculously powerful when they’re equipped, but that means you have to play the creature, play the equipment, and then equip the creature, and depending on the equipment you’re using that can be a lot of mana dumped into getting a single creature up to full strength in a color that had zero in the way of mana acceleration. Artifact lands were a really cool idea (one of the few things out of the set that I thought was really interesting), but as part of an affinity engine they made it entirely too easy to do ridiculous stuff early. Blue was powerful, but then blue has historically been a very powerful color and this time it got the cards with (you guessed it) affinity for artifacts.

So what was GOOD about Mirrodin? Well, even in my biased, hateful mind there were a few things. One was that it started making artifacts good. I’m sure there were good artifacts before, but Mirrodin set a standard for well designed artifacts that interacted with the rest of the game. Second, it showed what can be done by letting artifacts interact with specific colors, which has led to some really awesome stuff (Lookin’ at you Godsend). It also showed that the players would be interested in artifact heavy sets, because I’m sure that was considered a risky maneuver when it first got pitched.

What’s the point of all of this? Well for one I’ve always wanted to rant about Mirrodin and how horribly unbalanced it was. Also, I’m pretty sure there was a point to be made about the importance of a set being balanced. The thing is, the lesson actually feels kind of lost when I think about it. Mirrodin was horribly imbalanced and a lot of people I knew loved it for just that reason. My friends loved Mirrodin because affinity was so powerful, and outside of affinity there were a lot of really strong cards to throw into extended or vintage decks like Skullclamp or Darksteel Colossus. Anyway, I’ve lost track of my original point.

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