Connive: The redesign of Explore

As Streets of New Capenna’s short spoiler season got underway, one mechanic stood out to me from the rest: Connive.

While critically different, Connive taps into one of my least favorite mechanics since I started writing Magic design: explore. To be clear, I’m not saying Explore is bad; it’s not, but it’s absolutely not my thing. In order to talk about what I like about Connive, we first have to talk about what I didn’t like about Explore.

Merfolk Branchwalker is the apparent ancestor of Raffine’s Informant. They have the same stats, the same cost (with a creature type color change), and the same ability: when they come into play, they do that thing. Remarkably, Merfolk Branchwalker was (and probably still would be) an uncommon one, while Raffine’s informant is a common one. This makes sense as Explore has more powerful results than Connive. But I’m anticipating something.

Explore is a mechanic that balances power with randomness. Its two outcomes are powerful bonuses: either drawing a card (which adds about two mana to the cost of a card, maybe a little less), or getting a +1/+1 counter and Surveil 1 (which adds about the same). However, exploring tends to only come at a cost a Mana because you have minimal control over what result you get. The input is mostly random (you often can’t control the top of your deck that easily, especially considering that Explore only locks your deck for one turn). and The output is also mostly random (the only choice you have to make is may be Monitoring 1). I accept that variance is both a necessary aspect of Magic and often a source of fun, even for people who might think they don’t like it, but also believe that variance isn’t ideal for balancing power levels.

Ultimately, my biggest problem with Explore was with creatures like Siren’s Lookout and Queen’s Agent. Sure, there was a big difference between Seekers’ Squire as 1/2 and 2/3, but you ended up getting a solid deal on both halves. However, if a creature has a keyword like flying, lifelink, or first strike, the +1/+1 power is greatly amplified.

A Siren’s Lookout that was a 2/3 fly in turn 3 could dominate a game on its own, while a 1/2 fly barely affected the battlefield (even though you drew a card). Similarly, a Queen’s Agent as a 4/4 could potentially catch you in notoriously uninteractive Ixalan, while a 3/3 was often insufficient to deflect an attack (and was prone to too much range). I found these cards frustrating to play with and against – they added heavily exposed randomness to justify the large delta in each overpowered (for its price) mode. This feeling clearly seems to have influenced Connive’s design.

Connive is in close dialogue with Explore. There’s still a high degree of randomness on entry (you have limited control over the top of your deck), but tremendous amount of control over output (you can create a hand to guarantee the +1/+1 count , if that’s what you want) and greater consistency in output (you always Prey). This reduction in randomness is complemented by a reduction in power level – you will never advance a card and must sacrifice a spell to get a +1/+1 counter.

Conceptually, I am in favor of these changes. It’s an interesting but relatively easy choice. It relies on agency to choose between moderately strong options, rather than randomness to balance overpowered options. I also appreciate the use of “if so tolerated” to provide enters-the-battlefield effects that can be (partially) stopped by removal spells. I love how it’s backwards compatible with mechanics like Madness and Delirium. It’s a set of choices that I’m looking forward to playing with the mechanic.

Still, it’s too early to judge Connive. Not only have we not seen the full extent of cards with this mechanic, we haven’t had a chance to play with it yet. While I’m excited about Connive and the (for me) felt improvements over Explore, for all I know it might lead me to appreciate elements of Explore that I’ve overlooked or underestimated.

As a final note, Connive intrigues me about the color palette. Connive grants loot (an ability traditionally only seen in blue) to white and black. This follows Learning from 2021, which bled Rummaging (a red ability) into all four other colors. I don’t think either mechanic hurts the color palette – each color already has access to map smoothing mechanics like scrying and cycling – but I do wonder what other abilities that were limited to single colors will soon become fair game for other colors in the right environment. Magic is a hungry game that requires constant innovation, and perhaps this is a vein we’ll explore even more in the upcoming sets. We will see.

And as always, thanks for reading.

Zachary Barash is a New Yorker City-based game designer and the final commissioner of the Team Draft League. He designs for Kingdom Death: Monster, has a Game Design MFA from NYU Game Center, and is a freelance game designer. When the stars align, he’ll stream Magic (but the stars align a lot less often than he’d like).

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