Thursday, 14 November 2013

Oracle Review - Life Matrix and Comprehensive Rule 121

I recognize that Comprehensive Rule 121 is not a card in magic and that there is no Oracle entry for it today. I'm not really going to be reviewing it anyway. Maybe later I will review 704.5k, 608.2b and 703.4m, but we'll leave that for another day.

Life Matrix
I know that costing of things was a little wonky back in the day, but with Life Matrix this week and North Star last week, you really have to wonder what they were thinking. How could these effects cost so much?
4, Tap: Put a matrix counter on target creature and that creature gains "Remove a matrix counter from this creature: Regenerate this creature." Activate this ability only during your upkeep.
This wording mostly does what the card wants it to do, but it has big issues.

First, based on the original wording, shouldn't the removal of the counter be a special action rather than an activated ability that the creature gains? And why does the person who controls the creature get to activate it when the wording clearly says that "you" - as in the person who activated the Life Matrix ability - can remove the counter to regenerate the creature? I'm not sure where these decisions came from. Perhaps they were made at a time when special actions weren't clearly defined in the rules or they were clarifications on the original card at the time of printing.

That aside, let's talk about Fate Transfer.

Read the original card and ask yourself what you think should happen if the counter is moved from the creature you put it on to another creature. There are two ways to read it. One is very literal, and according to the literal wording I would say that you should be able to remove the counter from whatever creature it was moved to, regenerating the creature it was originally put on. The other is that you can remove it, regenerating the creature it was moved to. It doesn't seem very likely that you are supposed to be left without the ability to remove the counter at all, since the ability to remove the counter appears to be a permanent consequence of having activated the ability.

So how could we word Life Matrix to improve it? One wording is easy - just follow the wording of the original card.
4, Tap: Put a matrix counter on target creature.  At any time you may remove that matrix counter to regenerate that creature.
That means that if the counter is moved to another permanent you can still regenerate the original creature by taking it away. But what about this alternative:
4. Tap: Put a Matrix counter on target creature with "Remove a Matrix counter from this permanent: Regenerate this permanent."
Comprehensive Rule 121
Well, we can't do that, because that doesn't mean anything in the current rules. But perhaps it should. What if we add rule 121.1.d:
121.1.d A counter with rules text adds that rules text to the permanent or card that it is on.
That's a pretty simple rule.  It's possible we would also have to add rule 613.2a:
613.2a Within layer 3 text-changing effects from counters are applied before other text changing effects.
This is because counters don't have timestamps - which is, as far as I can tell, why they have their own sub-layer in layer seven as well. The order that counters are applied doesn't matter because they would only be able to add text - not delete or alter is - so they can't have dependencies.

That's a lot of rule for a bad old card. But I've actually already reviewed a card that could be made simpler by using counters with abilities - Cyclopean Tomb. There are several more cards that would also be made simpler with counters with rules text. With a quick search I found Aquitect's Will, Aven Mimeomancer, Dread Wight, Glyph of Delusion, Liege of the Tangle, Mindbender Spores, Obsidian Fireheart, and Quicksilver Fountain. Two of those cards actually make the same kind of counter and that counter has the same effect in both cases which to me bolsters the idea of counters having rules effects. These aren't all archaic cards, Liege of the Tangle is only three years old.

I think that this is a good addition to the rules because it is also very easy for players to understand. A counter that grants text is less confusing than a counter accompanied by a permanent continuous effect that adds an activated ability to a permanent. Right now there are cards that put on special counters and also give the permanent a new ability as long as the counter is present, cards the put on counters and that make those counters do something while they are in play, and cards that put on counters and permanently modify the affected permanent regardless of whether the counter remains. The difference between these types of effects often comes down to where the line breaks are.

Of course the way I propose to do it here also has consequences. If the Flood counter itself carried the "This is an island" text then casting Aquitect's Will would not change the land type of a permanent that already had a Phantasmal Terrain on it. There may or may not be a better way to word it, but then again there may not and that is okay. Layers are complicated for a good reason and to have three or four cards ever printed that do something unintuitive to do with land types - when, let's face it, they already do - is an acceptable level of complexity. All of these cards combined wouldn't add up to the complexity of Volrath's Shapeshifter, Strionic Resonator or any card with Madness.

Even barring the revision of the comprehensive rules, Life Matrix still had a superior wording available, so it can't possibly deserve better than...

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