Throughout board gaming’s long history, there has been a continual dissonance between the two main aspects: theme and mechanics. For centuries, mechanics have been the primary interest, depicted in plenty of famous classical abstract games like Senet, Chess, Pachisi, Go, Checkers, and so on. In time, people starting designing games with theme in mind as its main focus instead, pushing any mechanical implications to secondary status. Much of the 20th century saw an explosion of this focus, especially on family-based or children’s games. This is highlighted by many now-famous games that just about everyone knows, such as Candy Land, Mouse Trap, and Hungry Hungry Hippos. However, once game design started to be refined as a concept (first in the late 1970s but more far more heavily in the 1990s), a prevailing theory emerged – and still persists – that a board or card game will inevitably be either in the ‘theme-first’ camp or the ‘mechanics-first’ camp.
Yet as someone far more influential than I once said, the times they are a-changin’.
Yes, in modern game design, the idea that you have to pick just one of these two conceptual pillars is slowly being eroded as more and more designers find ways of wonderfully blending their game’s thematic elements with how it works mechanically. Reception to this movement has been, as expected, quite positive. It turns out that by having both aspects of these working in concert, you get the cardboard equivalent of a Reese’s peanut butter cup.
Although it’s far more decentralized from a single board and a static set of cards, Magic has traditionally done a masterful job of melding theme and mechanics, whether on a macro set-by-set basis (such as say, Innistrad), or a micro card-by-card basis (such as the Theros gods). Of course, cards in Magic can also showcase a color, helping illustrate precisely the philosophies of that color. Lightning Bolt and Counterspell are two iconic examples of what Red and Blue do, respectively, pointing out that Red enjoys doing direct damage and Blue likes controlling what gets cast. For marquee abilities, we’d expect nothing less, as those primary abilities are important shortcuts for new players to understand the basics of a color’s identity.
Secondary abilities, on the other hand, are a little trickier. Green, for example, is all about the communal and unrestrained aspects of nature. This explains why it focuses on having lots of creatures to roam free, and including cards like Naturalize illustrate its dislike of things artificial. However, Green also has a potent secondary anti-flying theme, reflecting the idea that it has more of a ground approach to attacking. Thus, cards like Giant Spider, Plummet, and Hurricane have all been created over the years as successful instances of that important thematic and mechanical melding.
White too has its share of secondary traits. One of its lesser focused on ones is offensive combat control. White may have a strong element of being able to affect combat, but the majority of its combat tactics are done defensively as a means to bolster their creatures, giving them small buffs and / or first strike, such as with Seize the Initiative. Yet White also can go on the offensive in combat, gaining combat-specific abilities that aren’t normally seen in the color. These include doing direct damage to a creature, such as with Marrow Shards, or simply destroying it, as in Chastise. Although they may be closer to Red and Black in style, their nature of being limited to the act of protecting one’s own (or punishing the unworthy) fits right in with the color’s philosophy of the greater good.
Of course, Magic’s own success mixing theme and mechanics also opens itself up to all sorts of suggestions and pleading attempts to justify just about anything in any color, leading to the repeated statement by R&D that just because you can come up with a justification for how a color could do something thematically, it doesn’t mean it mechanically should be done. As with any game design, having limits for the sake of balance is ultimately far more important than how much of each creative bucket you’re taking material from.
This talk of limits leads us right into this week’s pick. If White’s combat tricks can include Red and Black components, it’s only fair that it also include another secondary White trait of just flatly refusing to let something attack in the first place.
Today we have: Fight or Flight
Name: Fight or Flight
Focus: Combat Control
Highlights: Fight or Flight is a continuation of White’s desire to dictate how and when creatures should be able to attack, putting its authoritative foot down on how combat should be handled. With this card, White attempts to bring some organization to combat itself. What makes Fight or Flight particularly unique, though, is how widespread its effect is. Most of the color’s Pacifism-like effects tend to either affect a single creature are cards that simply prevent creatures from attacking you specifically.
Fight or Flight offers a very different approach, stating that during every combat, this enchantment’s controller splits their opponent’s creature camp up however they see fit. That player then gets to decide who attacks. In theory, this could be a potentially dangerous card to use, as it’s doubtful your opponents will appreciate you setting the terms to every single one of their turns right out of the gate, and in truth, there is the possibility of this card pulling some hate in the later stages of the game when players are trying to make big decisive moves. However, like most of the Divvy cycle of cards from the Invasion set, you are always free to simply put all of their creatures in one pile and none in the other, thereby temporarily sidestepping the card’s effect on that player for the turn.
That may make the card sound worthless if not for the political implications of doing so.
For instance, Fight or Flight in the early to middle stages of a game has the capability of preventing one player from simply running roughshod over everyone else. If one opponent is acting particularly problematic for the rest, being able to cut their available army in at least half can help your standing with the other players – although the person affected may be none too happy. As the game moves along, Fight or Flight’s usefulness flips, moving from helping other players to the benefit of all to being able to control how all of your opponents will be able to attack. This can be highly advantageous in cases where you may be at a numerical disadvantage to the other players, or you simple want to avoid two or more really potent creatures from being able to attack in unison.
Indeed, Fight or Flight has the capability to either infuriate your opponents, or endear them to you, depending on their deck and how you use the card. But given the card’s this-or-that nature, that sort of reaction is only fitting.
Keep an eye out for us to be regularly featuring other more accessible-but-worth-it Commander cards going forward. In the meantime, we’ll keep the light on for you.
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