Welcome to a very special Monday edition of Drawing Live. This week, we’re previewing a brand new card in March of the Machine: Invasion of Gobakhan, one of the dozens of Battles featuring Phyrexian invasions of familiar planes. This free preview was provided to us directly by Wizards of the Coast and we’re incredibly excited to talk about this new card and the new mechanic! Thanks Wizards!

Also, make sure to check out Donny’s awesome paired preview piece on this very same card, looking at the artwork and talking to artist Andreas Zafiratos! With that said, we’re unburying the lede—here is Invasion of Gobakkhan and its transformed side, Lightshield Array.

If this is somehow your first time seeing a Battle, awesome! Battles are a brand new card type, the most recent since 2021 added Dungeons and the first new permanent type since Planeswalkers were added in 2007 (most new card types either don’t exist on the battlefield, like Schemes and Planes, or are actually sub-types like Lesson and Food).

Battles function kind of like reverse Planeswalkers. They give you an immediate bonus  when played (like using your Planeswalker’s ability immediately), but instead of needing to protect them, you give them to your opponent (it’s useless for them). Then, you can attack and damage them until they lose all their Defense Counters (the number at the bottom right corner, where you’d find loyalty on Planeswalkers). Once their defense is depleted, they pop, go back to you, and get recast as their transformed backside for a second big bonus!

Invasion of Gobakhan

The strength of many Battles are likely on their front faces. You play them, get an immediate effect worth a card (that’s possibly a bit overcosted, since there’s a potential second benefit coming later), and then have the option to defeat them. Invasion of Gobakhan is not like that. Sure, the initial effect is nice—it’s exploring new space in white’s color pie following 2021’s Elite Spellbinder—but spending an entire card for some information and to merely delay an opponent’s play is hard to justify when you aren’t affecting the board and are losing card advantage. Most of the card’s lies in its defeated side, Lightshield Array. It generates value immediately, since you almost certainly attacked Invasion of Gobakhan to defeat it, and that’s not too hard to do, since the Invasion only has 3 defense counters.

Lightshield Array is a focused card. It rewards constant aggression and encourages it by providing a one-shot, mana-free Heroic Intervention. It differs from many prior anthem-effects like Wedding Festivity, Basri Ket, and Sparring Regimen by delaying the stat gain until after combat, but compensates by the promise of increasing all of your creatures’ stats every turn. It’s clearly a very powerful effect by virtue of being able to run away with the game, but it won’t work in every deck and Invasion of Gobakhan is rightly not strong enough on its own. I love powerful cards like this that are relatively simple, quite powerful, but are only rewards for decks built around it rather than decks which are generically powerful.

With this one card now thoroughly previewed, let’s zoom out to look at the designs of Battles as a whole.

Battles in Action

Battles are a design apple that Wizards of the Coast has taken several bites at. Way back in 2005’s Ravnica: City of Guilds, the team developed and ultimately scrapped Structures, buildings that provided a bonus but could be attacked and taken down. These laid the foundation for the design of Planeswalkers two years later in 2007.

Since then, there have been several attempts at a push-and-pull sub-game mechanic where players could compete with each other for resources alongside the normal competition inherent to games of Magic. There was the Monarch, first developed for 2018’s Ixalan but used in 2016’s Conspiracy: Take the Crown. There was the cut Skirmish mechanic in 2019’s War of the Spark. There were the literal sub-game cards like Tug of War and Enter the Dungeon going all the way back to Arabian NightsShahrazad back in 1993. All of these laid bricks in the foundation of Battles.

All that said, it’s hard to pass any sort of judgment on Battles without first playing with them. Still, there’s already lots to appreciate from their implementation.

Incentivizing Risk

It’s harder than most players and aspiring game designers realize to create compelling tug-of-war mechanics that one player has to opt into. It’s easy when the system itself mandates them, like how opening random booster packs creates competition for cards in draft; or how Seven Wonders Duel has a literal tug-of-war track for combat in every game; or how playing with a sealed Planechase deck leaves you at the whims of what the designer included.

To see some early Magic attempts at tug-of-war, look at cards like Flailing Soldier, Chaos Lord, Wild Dogs, Wild Mammoth, and Drooling Ogre. In all cases, you get an under-costed creature with a tug-of-war attached. If you lose the contest, you 2-for-1 yourself by losing a resource without costing your opponent anything (and sometimes you 3-for-1 yourself by giving your opponent a free resource). In all cases, it’s possible to build your deck to have an advantage in the tug of war (combine Flailing Soldier with Strip Mine, or play Drooling Ogre as a sideboard card against artifact-free decks), but in general, the winning move is to never play the game in the first place. Having one player create a (mostly) balanced tug-of-war is a losing move likely to cause frustration and discourage usage of your mechanic. The alternative is to provide an unfair tug-of-war, where one player is massively advantaged. Magic has those, too. That’s cards like Sulfuric Vortex, Balance, and Show and Tell. They’re super powerful because they’re imbalanced in the right. There’s also the Monarch and the Initiative in 1v1, both of which have a tug-of-war and both of which provide such a massive initial advantage that you’re automatically favored to win the contest over time.

The brilliance of Battles is that the design sidesteps the common pitfalls of opt-in tug-of-wars: your opponent cannot derive any benefit from them, they can only deny you from getting an additional benefit. There’s no punishment for failing the tug-of-war like 3-for-1ing yourself, you just don’t get a second present. Unlike the infamous Amulet of Quoz, Battles don’t reduce the game to an unrelated sub-game—they’re enmeshed in the creature combat and damage-based removal that’s as old as Magic is and have long been central to its gameplay. By playing like Planeswalkers, which players have an incentive to protect, they piggyback on existing Magic heuristics. That’s a lot of smart game design at work to ensure that games are fun, choices are meaningful, and players won’t be punished for trying to do the cool new thing.

I’m very much looking forward to drafting March of the Machine. Not only do Battles seem fascinating, but the whole set reminds me a lot of War of the Spark. Not just because it’s an event set, but because it seems like there are so many powerful things to do. In War of the Spark, it was basically a given that you’d be playing against powerful Planeswalkers are match. In MOM, you should expect to be protecting Battles from your opponents, to regularly face giant rare creatures that’d be mythics in other formats, and to be wielding the very same against said opponents. I love a good powerful format, and MOM looks right up my alley.

Thanks again to Wizards of the Coast and the team at Hipsters for graciously giving Donny and me this awesome preview card. Hope you enjoyed read about it and get to enjoy playing with it next week!

Zachary Barash (he/him) is a New York City-based game designer and the last commissioner of Team Draft League. He designs for Kingdom Death: Monster, has a Game Design MFA from the NYU Game Center, and does freelance game design. When the stars align, he streams Magic (but the stars align way less often than he’d like).

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