Alright, it seems I’m not ready – yet – to entirely quit blogging about Magic, having put my hiatus on hiatus. I just cannot not talk about this, and I am deeply bewildered that it hasn’t been made a topic yet in what’s left of the German Magic internet community (meaning MagicBlogs & PlanetMTG). Obviously, people only bother to use their keyboards if asked to post a spam comment in order to participate in some kind of lottery for free…
I cannot imagine how this can not be on the mind of every moderately invested Magic player; and as it has been on MY mind continuously for several days now, I do what I must and write about it. I am, of course, talking about those Oath of the Gatewatch cards which have been spoiled very early, and specifically about the meaning of the new mana symbol they feature. The first two cards were originally tweeted by @Mtgfocus (before that tweet was taken down again), while the third has been posted directly to MTGSalvation, from whose spoiler page I have taken these pictures. There is overwhelming consensus that these cards are real (including a confirmation by some shadowy authority with an excellent track record, which MTGSalvation has access to), and there are actually good reasons to believe that this may be an officially orchestrated „leak“, but I will not go into that. I will instead explain, why – assuming the authenticity of these cards – the new mana symbol shown on them is extremely likely to mean exactly one colorless mana, and nothing else, which is a hotly (and poorly) discussed topic in the Magic internet community where such a thing still exists.
The new cards
Why I am absolutely convinced: There is overwhelming evidence for simply equating „<>“with colorless mana, while at the same time no evidence at all that it is anything else. There are, additionally, good arguments against any theories of it carrying any different meaning, while the arguments against the simple hypothesis do not hold at all. In fact, ca. 95% of all people arguing against it simply do not understand the rules of Magic, another 4% entertain additional misconceptions about the gravity of consequences from this change with regard to card errata, and maybe 1% actually have something like a valid argument, but one which is easily trumped by the arguments supporting this hypothesis.
First, let me clarify the rules: There are exactly six types of mana in Magic – white mana, black mana, green mana, blue mana, red mana and colorless mana. No matter how mana is produced in this game, it will always have exactly one of those types, although it may carry additional restrictions (like being usable only to cast creature spells, for example), or aspects (like being snow).
Mana costs, however, may reference not only these types of mana, but additional categories which are neither necessarily inclusive nor exclusive with those types. The most prominent of those is generic mana, which means „mana of an unspecified type“. Others are hybrid mana (mana of either one or another specified type), snow mana (mana generated from a source with the snow supertype), and phyrexian mana (mana which can instead be paid for with 2 life). These categories of mana have their own symbols.
As of now, one type of mana shares a symbol with a category of mana: (1) etc. is used to denote colorless mana when referencing produced mana, but to denote generic mana when referencing a mana cost. This confusing double use of a mana symbol (or rather, a set of symbols, since it can be used with any natural number, and even with placeholders for numbers like X or Y) has – so far – only been possible because generic mana is never produced, and colorless mana has – so far! – never been part of a mana cost.
These are the basics everyone weighing in on this discussion needs to understand, and if they do not, their opinion is worthless, disturbing noise. Thus, you can safely ignore any reasonings including made-up terms like „true colorless“, „strictly colorless“ or „dedicated colorless“; and most importantly, the whole argument that errata of old cards producing colorless mana to use the new symbol would in any way be a „functional change“! (Caveat: „Dedicated colorless“ makes sense when referring to cards requiring colorless mana to cast or activate abilities. There is no need for any further specification of „colorless mana“, though.)
Arguments not rooted in poor rules knowledge
After getting those 95% out of the way, let me now address the 4% who say that, even if if it is only a templating change, such an errata would not happen. These people actually do not have a real argument, since similar (and even more drastic) changes HAVE happened repeatedly during the last years, and even for worse reasons, clearly showing WotC’s willingness to mass-errata cards for future gain. Just remember things like „cast“, „activate“ and „battlefield“! With „<>“ becoming the symbol for colorless mana, there will be a few hundred cards getting a new template, which isn’t unprecedented or outrageous at all; and even more importantly, this errata will finally remove the unnecessary ambiguity of the set of symbols which right now has two different meanings in different contexts. Even if this change would not open up a ton of new design space by finally introducing colorless mana in costs, it would have been long overdue.
This brings us to the 1% actually having something like a valid point: Why make this change in the middle of a block? Isn’t it unnecessarily confusing to have two different templates for cards producing colorless mana in the same draft evironment? Well, yes, it may be a bit confusing, but it is done for good reasons. When is the best time to introduce something fundamentally new like an additional mana symbol? Obviously, when you introduce cards which make a fundamentally new use of it! While an introduction midblock isn’t especially elegant, these concerns pale compared to the desire to align such fundamental, connected changes. So, the only question left is if, just to avoid some temporary confusion, it would not have been a requirement to introduce both the new symbol and the new kind of mana cost in the first set of this block. Again, it seems pretty obvious to me that the desire to evolve the block mechanics for the second set in a flashy way to give that set a more interesting identity trumps these concerns. So, yes, one aspect of the timing of this change is an argument against it, but another aspect of this very timing is a much better argument for it, leaving this point maybe not completely refuted, but very weak.
Edit: Some people consider it a real argument that the new symbol would somehow be graphically associated with the eldrazi, pointing to its identity as „eldrazi mana“ or something. I thought this was just trolling, but just in case, I will refute it: 1) This is a very simple, graphically abstract symbol, just as befits a symbol for colorless mana. 2) It actually has no real semblance to the hedron symbol of Zendikar, having rounded instead of straight edges, being concave instead of convex, and showing symmetry with regard to four axes instead of just one. 3) The hedrons are not even of eldrazi origin – they are the things built by Nahiri to contain them, which would make them an exceptionally poor choice to base an eldrazi mana symbol upon.
The evidence of Kozilek
Now that I have explained why there are no good reasons to rule the hypothesis “ „<>“ is the symbol for one colorless mana“ out, let me elaborate how everything we know points towards it: First of all, the new Kozilek is unambiguously colorless because of flavor, but also because this is shown by the color of its frame (since it does not have devoid). So, whatever „<>“ stands for can not be colored mana at all (I think noone believes this anyway). The only question left is if this symbol possibly denotes colorless mana with an additional aspect. The most popular theory here is that „<>“ is a specific type of colorless mana which can either be paid for with „<>“ (obviously), or with two colorless mana. This is by far the least unlikely competing theory and shares fundamental aspects with all other dissenting ideas, so I will let it stand in for those here.
Edit: The theory that „<>“ means „can only be payed with „<>“ (but can be used as generic mana)“, while still being different from already existing colorless mana, is again considerably less likely, because this would effectively create a new color, making Kozilek not colorless. (Or it would create two different kinds of colorless mana, one of which shares a symbol with generic mana, which would be incredibly confusing and poor design.) It would also mean that this new mechanic is even more parasitic. This idea just shows how far out you need to go to deny the obvious, simple explanation.
However, this theory is exceptionally weak from the very start! Before Oath of the Gatewatch, we have not had colorless mana in costs at all – and now, instead of introducing those as the first step, we get an additional tweak on the thing that we did not even have before? (And yes, it would be „instead“, not additionally, because otherwise we would need yet another new symbol for „simple“ colorless mana introduced in the same set – I shouldn’t need to explain why this idea is completely absurd…) This is already immensely unlikely.
The evidence of the Wastes
But then, we also have that new basic land to look at. A BASIC land! We know that WotC have been extremely cautious with this fundamental kind of card after being burned by snow-covered lands. Now, assuming that they would use that concept on a card producing a both very specific and complicated type of mana (instead of a simple, fundamental colorless mana), which then would very likely be tied to the flavor of the eldrazi (or even just Kozilek), and thus to not only one block, but one set, is downright absurd. There is parasitic, and there is extremely parasitic, and WotC have been very conscious about implementing parasitic mechanics during the last years. Using up the uniqueness of introducing a new basic land for such a narrow concept is downright inconceivable. 1995 was a different era, but when WotC nowadays prints a new basic land, it is meant to be relevant forever!
Even more importantly, cards costing „<>“ would be downright unplayable in draft, since this format uses only one booster from the new set. (In sealed it would probably not be much better, either.) Everyone who doesn’t realize this just lacks enough experience as a limited player (or, better, as a cube builder). It will never be worth it to go for both the cards costing and those producing it. (And no, you will not be provided the new basic lands by your tournament organizer any more than you would in a Coldsnap draft. This is not only logistically impossible, it also defeats the very purpose of such a mechanic.) Of course, you could just default to paying double on this mana, but that would mean that this completely new type of mana, spectacularily introduced just for this one set, would not even matter! I really do not agree with all of WotC’s designs, but such an epic design fail is definitely beyond them.
Edit: It has been brought to my attention that this block will be drafted new set/new set/old set, other than former formats. This means that „unplayable“ becomes merely „playing badly“, which is still not something we should expect.
On the other hand, „<>“ just meaning one colorless mana plays great in draft. Notice all those eldrazi scion tokens? The Blighted lands? And especially (since we are looking at the new Kozilek) Kozilek’s Channeler? Oh, and you should also take note that Evolving Wilds can fetch this new basic land. The latter doesn’t make a difference to both theories directly, but it addresses another concern which has been voiced:
Why print a land which is clearly inferior to a gazillion existing lands? Well, DUH, it is not! Being basic is an extremely relevant advantage, both in limited and in constructed. Evolving Wilds, Fertile Thicket, Blighted Woodland and Natural Connection prove the former. In constructed, there are also many cards specifically looking for basic lands. Oh, and let us not forget the new dual land cycle which just happens to care for basic lands as well! Saying that such a land is useless is stupid even before considering its value for commander players running a colorless general (which might actually have been a major impetus to creating this land).
Okay, it breaks the rule „non-basic lands should not be clearly superior to basic lands if you disregard the quality basic“. Note, though, that this rule was driven by the desire not to make basic lands obsolete, and applied to the design of new non-basic lands to make sure those did not get too powerful! Applying it inversely to not print a new basic land which is needed for other reasons makes no sense. That rule was never meant to be an end unto itself. And this basic land was long overdue: There are six types of mana in Magic, five of which have been associated with a basic land producing it since the beginning of the game. With the introduction of colorless mana as a specific cost requirement, finally filling this gap became inevitable.
1) “ „<>“ equals 1 colorless mana“ is by far the simplest explanation.
2) Errata to old cards producing colorless mana is not just possible, it is needed, even without considering a new type of cost; because of the old template’s ambiguity, and the confusion it evidently causes all over the player base.
3) This is a fundamental, yet simple change to the game which opens up enormous future design space, while the alternative theory would imply a complicated, extremely parasitic and short-lived gimmick actually obstructing future design space.
4) A new basic land simply producing one colorless mana has been a gap to be filled anyway, but has also specific uses in both limited and constructed.
5) „<>“ as just colorless mana plays great in both limited and constructed, while the alternative sucks in limited, and only a bit less in constructed.
6) The timing of this change is easily explained by marketing concerns trumping temporary confusion concerns. (And I’m sure WotC will go out of their way to explain how things work prior to the Oath of the Gatewatch prerelease.)
If these cards are the real deal (which I am convinced of), „<>“ is now the symbol for one colorless mana. End of story.