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Floggin' some Steam - Suit up, son! You're going to Mars! [entries|archive|friends|userinfo]
Suit up, son! You're going to Mars!

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Floggin' some Steam [May. 22nd, 2011|09:54 pm]
Suit up, son! You're going to Mars!

So a few years back, the Magic folks printed a bunch of "cards from the future," including this one:

Steamflogger Boss 3R Creature — Goblin Rigger Other Rigger creatures you control get +1/+0 and have haste. If a Rigger you control would assemble a Contraption, it assembles two Contraptions instead.
Image from magiccards.info

This card is basically a prank. The rules of Magic don't say what a "Contraption" is, or what it means to "assemble" one. Wizards has since said that "Contraption" is a kind of artifact, but have not revealed the meaning of "assemble." They may never.

For armchair card designers, this does make a fun game out of imagining what kinds of riggers might exist, and what kinds of Contraptions they might assemble.

This leads me to an interesting design challenge: is it possible to design a card set that makes Steamflogger Boss a meaningful and relevant card, without changing the rules of Magic.

Here's my attempt:

Lest it need be said, for the purposes of this challenge, the "rules" of Magic means the comprehensive rules document. It's certainly possible to print new cards without amending the document, though Wizards rarely does. Every expansion set adds a new ability keyword or two, which requires modifying the comprehensive rules.

Replacement Effects

So how could we define "assemble" without changing the rules to define the world assemble? Steamflogger Boss offers us a hint:

"If a Rigger you control would assemble a Contraption, it assembles two Contraptions instead."

The use of words like "would" and "instead" are important here. These words are signals that tell us that this ability creates what the rules call a replacement effect, an effect that continuously watches for a certain kind of event and then makes something else happen in its place. Replacement effects don't use the stack; when they happen, they happen right away with no chance for either player to respond.

One thing we can observe about Steamflogger Boss' ability is that it doesn't synergize with itself. The ability only applies to situations where "a Contraption" is being assembled. If "two Contraptions" are already being assembled, you don't get four, even if you have two Steamflogger Bosses in play. Assembling two Contraptions is not equivalient to assembling one Contraption twice, in the same way that dealing 2 damage is not the same as dealing 1 damage twice. If there were a rule that said that assembling two Contraptions was equivalent to assembling one Contraption and then another, then that would be a different story. But there is no such rule. (By contrast, there is a rule that explicitly says that "Draw N cards" means "perform a sequence of N single-card draws, serially.")

Steamflogger Boss could have been worded this way:

"If a Rigger you control would assemble a Contraption, instead it assembles a Contraption, then assembles another Contraption."


"If a Rigger you control would assemble Contraptions, it assembles twice as many Contraptions instead."
These wordings are not equivalent to each other, though either one would have allowed multiple Bosses to increase your assembly output exponentially. Note that there is no danger of an "infinite replacement loop" in either case; the rules say that when replacement effects get "chained together," each replacement effect can only appear in the chain once.

Replacing Assembly

We can use replacement effects as our strategy for implementing "assemble;" the word itself can continue to mean nothing, so long as there are interesting things to replace it.


Each of these cards can assemble Contraptions, and each provides its own definition of what that means. Observe what would happen if you had both of these cards in play. The Magic rules say that when there's more than one replacement effect that could replace a particular event, you get to choose which one does the replacing. So if you both of these cards out, either one can tap to buff itself, or to buff the other one.

Unfortunately, these cards fail my original purpose; they don't actually work well with Steamflogger Boss. As we discussed earlier, they only know how to replace a single Contraption assembly, not a double contraption assembly. In order to fix that, we need to re-word the cards:

Note that we say "one or more," because for all we know there's some way to assemble zero Contraptions, or a negative number of contraptions. Also note that these abilities don't *target* the creatures they affect. That's because targeting is for effects that use the stack, and replacement effects don't. Also I added "you may" to the language, to clarify that the player might have a choice as to what to do with his assemblies. Of course, this means that the player could choose neither, and let the Contraption assembly "fall on the floor."

Contraptions with Bigger Costs

Now that we have a template for assembling Contraptions, we have all kinds of design space for creating all kinds of Riggers and all kinds of Contraptions that they might assemble. Those first two are just the tip of the iceberg.

One simple way to get new Riggers is to take existing cards and Rigger-ize them. This approach effectively turns "Contraption assemblies" into a new kind of resource that can be spent on effects. The problem, though, is that with these first two cards I've already established that you can assemble a Contraption just by tapping a 3-mana creature. That sets the resource value of a single Contraption pretty low, which in turn puts a pretty low upper bound on the potency of any effect that replaces a Contraption assembly. If we want bigger effects, we have to increase their cost, like this:

So this is an activated ability that creates a temporary replacement effect. You can activate it as many times as you want to convert assemblies into cards one-for-one, but it costs you 2 life each time. Note that because consumes one assembly, you can activate it once or twice to consume one or both of the two assemblies generated by Steamflogger Boss. If you had multiple Bosses, you could use this card to "daisy chain" them. Tap the Necrotic Rigger, use the first Boss to double the effect, and then pay 2 life and get a card. Now you have one remaing assembly, which you could double with a second Boss, and so on. If you have N bosses, you can tap the Rigger and pay 2(N + 1) life to get N + 1 cards.

We can also think about making abilities that cost large numbers of assemblies. To do that, we have to convert assemblies into another resource, such as counters:

Now we have a big win-the-game project that all your Riggers can work together on, over multiple turns. Pretty cool, huh? If we wanted a single-turn project, we could just give the Battlestation an ability that forces the counters to vanish at end of turn.

Assembling Other Things

Why should Riggers have all the assembly fun? Once you have a template for assembly, you can assemble other things too. Allow me to introduce some Elven Crafters, and the Totems they assemble:

Observe that Totem assemblies are a completely separate resource channel from Contraption assemblies; Riggers and Crafters can't share abilities with each other. That said, we could also create projects for them to work on together:

Clearly there's a lot of design space here. You be the judge of whether it's interesting design space.

Taking the Gloves Off

Lastly, I think that if one were to try to make a set of cards like this, you would prefer to be able to add to the Magic rules. If I were to relax my "no rules changes" constraint, I'd do it this way:

This approach is much clearer and tighter. The italicized reminder text could go away in later card sets. The reminder text for Steamflogger Boss would make it clear that two assemblies is the same as one assembly twice.

Anyway, when I set out to write this, I did not intend to set the world record for longest discussion of Steamflogger Boss. Oh well. I hope you enjoyed this little trip down the rabbit hole.