Aiming at Modern

Posted in Latest Developments on January 20, 2017

By Sam Stoddard

Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.

Hello and welcome to another week of Latest Developments! I hope you all had fun playing in the Aether Revolt Prerelease last weekend, and I am really excited to see what comes out of the first week of results of both post-ban Standard and the first week of Aether Revolt. I think it's safe to say that Standard is very much unexplored territory, and there will be a lot of really cool decks that come out of it.

As you may have noticed, Aether Revolt has quite a few cards for Modern. That isn't exactly an accident. Now, we didn't start off Aether Revolt with the idea of intentionally making a set with a lot of powerful Modern cards; instead, it came naturally out of the mechanics we chose for the set. Once we had those, we didn't shy away from it—with as popular as Modern is, it's always good if our sets can have some impact on the format.

As we have said before, we don't test Modern when creating sets for Standard, but that doesn't mean we don't think about it at all. In the past, we have created cards that might show up in Modern—like Harbinger of the Tides and Goblin Piledriver in Magic Origins. We talk about cards, we sanity check them (to make sure we don't accidentally make a hard-to-disrupt two-card combo or otherwise totally power up one of the top decks), but we don't build and test decks.

Revolt

Once we had a version of revolt that we liked, we knew that it would be an opportunity to create some very interesting cards for Modern. The most obviously powerful interaction with Aether Revolt and Modern was revolt plus fetch lands. While cards like Evolving Wilds and Renegade Map can be used to trigger revolt in Standard, they pale in comparison to the ease of triggering it in Modern with actual fetch lands. It was a nice way to power up the cards for non-rotating formats while keeping them at the appropriate power level for Standard.

This was something we didn't have to worry about in Standard, and we could reliably take either an entire turn off of the revolt speed for Standard, or at least force you to play different cards in your deck. Narnam Renegade is not going to be hitting as a turn-one 2/3 in Standard, though it could be an option in Modern. Similarly, Greenwheel Liberator can come out on turn two in Standard with help of something like Renegade Map, but that is a lot different than playing turn-one Wild Nacatl into a turn-two 4/3. Renegade Rallier is similarly less likely to be returning a fetch land or even a Seal of Fire in Standard.

These kinds of power differences are great because we have the opportunity to create some simple and reasonably strong cards for Standard and Limited that had really neat interactions for Modern. At the same time, people who enjoy that gameplay can port it to Standard, though at a lower power level.

Speaking of power level, Fatal Push is a pushed card. But there is a reason for that. One of the complaints internally we get about Modern and the color pie is that white is the strongest color for pinpoint removal with Path to Exile. I mean, some of that is the problem that the other really strong black card in Modern for removal is Dismember, which frequently shows up in the sideboard of decks without Swamps. Once we had revolt in the set, Aether Revolt's lead developer, Ben Hayes, was excited by the ability to make a removal spell that would be balanced for both Standard (by requiring revolt for the full usefulness and ignoring the five-plus mana creatures that are more plentiful in Standard than Modern) and Modern.

Expertise Cycle

This cycle started off from the idea of having a "signature spell" for a number of different characters who appear in the Aether Revolt story. As we toyed around with a lot of different designs, so many variants of these in the last few years have seen print. We didn't want to do Commands since Dragons of Tarkir just used them, and Eldritch Moon's escalate mechanic also played out the modular space really well. We talked a lot about spells that upgrade, but ended up going with the much more Johnny space of "cast this overcosted spell, and get your own rider." You could cast Sram's Expertise into Collective Effort or Baral's Expertise into Fevered Visions (to ensure that your opponent takes damage.) Lots of really cool one-two punches exist with this cycle and cards you might play in your deck anyway, which you get extra use out of now that the Expertise cycle lets you maximize the plays.

When we created this cycle, it was quickly pointed out that there would be some risks in Modern for the same reason that cascade is "broken"—the ability to cast the Time Spiral no-mana-cost cards (Restore Balance, Ancestral Visions, Living End, and Wheel of Fate) from your hand. This was certainly a concern and a thing we needed to think about, but we decided it would likely not be a huge risk in Modern. The thing is, unlike cascade, you actually need to draw the card rather than just have the card in your deck. There are some advantages; the Living End deck doesn't play any other cards below three mana so that it can reliably cascade into it. At the same time, I think that most of those decks are more fun if they actually need to draw the cards before they cast them for "free." It allows for discard to interact with them and for the risk of dead draws.

The nice thing about the Expertise cycle is that it dodges many of the pitfalls of other "free" mechanics (like cascade) since you actually have to draw the card, and we were able to modulate the mana cost and the extra card in a more fair way. Cards like Bloodbraid Elf would have been much more reasonable if the card came from your hand and you didn't end up gaining the mana efficiency while also being naturally up a card. I am hopeful that the Expertise cycle will lead to a lot of big and splashy turns that are more cool than just grinding out card advantage.

Various Other Cards

Beyond big mechanics, Aether Revolt adds a lot of individual cards that may or may not show up in Modern now, but certainly have some possibility in the future. Spire of Industry may replace Glimmervoid in Affinity, but I overall think that is healthier for the format, with the less swingy-nature of Spire at least letting Affinity players interact against a lot of hate. With cards like Inspiring Statuary, Whir of Invention, the one-mana Implements, and maybe even Scrap Trawler, Aether Revolt was definitely playing heavily in the Johnny/combo space. I think it really nails that more successfully than Kaladesh does by itself. Some of that was that so much of Kaladesh's novel space was focused on energy, and some of that was just a better knowledge of Standard and how much risk we could reasonably take in the set. While we had Future Future League decks for Standard involving Whir, Paradox Engine, and even Planar Bridge, I am sure there are going to be a few strong combos that managed to get by us. As I mentioned last week, we have a few safety valves in the format that will hopefully keep anything from getting too out of hand, but if there are some reasonably strong combo decks in Standard, I think things will be very fun.

I'll be honest: there are a lot of cards here that could pose a risk at some point in the future for Modern, but I think Modern is in a pretty good spot to deal with combos based on artifacts or the graveyard if things get too out of control. We don't generally like to put too much pressure on every deck to have eight sideboard slots dedicated to artifacts and graveyard, but ideally any combos that come out of Aether Revolt will either be manageable through normal interaction or exist at a power level where they aren't taking the format by storm. I think there is a lot to be said about the format having a good number of tier 2 somewhat-inconsistent combos that people can enjoy and play, then win when their opponents are just not ready for them. Eggs was a deck that, if it had stayed at that power level, would've been a fine thing to have in the format. It was much less adorable as a deck that was strong enough to win Pro Tours, especially considering the amount of time it added to tournament rounds.

That's it for this week. Next week, I'm going to talk about some of the techniques and strategies we try to use to balance Limited for Pro Tour play.

Until next time,
Sam (@samstod)

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