Developing Uncommons

Posted in Latest Developments on November 14, 2014

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.

In my article a few weeks ago, I talked about the common—Magic's humblest rarity—and how we crafted those cards, mostly related to Limited. Today, I'm going to move the needle up one notch to talk about the role of uncommons, and how they impact both Limited and Constructed environments.

Of all the rarities, I generally find uncommon to be the one that has the most pressure put on it, and is the one that most often feels crunched for space. Commons tend to be a little formulaic in costs, sizes, and effects in an effort to get Limited to work. Uncommons are where most of the really cool stuff in Limited that differentiate sets from each other. They show up a lot more than rares and let us put a lot of texture in the sets. Basically, uncommons are a huge part of what makes sets feel different from each other when playing Limited.

Finding the Right Power Level

We have a pretty strict limit on just how powerful uncommons are for Limited. As I pointed out in my article about commons, this is separate from just how powerful they are in Constructed. If you look at Khans of Tarkir, for instance, Treasure Cruise is a common that is seeing some play in Legacy. Monastery Swiftspear is an okay uncommon in Limited, but has proven itself to be powerful in Legacy. It's not always easy to make low-rarity cards that are powerful in Constructed, but not overwhelming in Limited, but we still have a few tricks up our sleeves to make sure we can get them there.

Much like we try to keep our commons under the level of Dark Banishing, we try to keep our uncommons below the level of Mahamoti Djinn, usually quite a bit below that. In fact, we try to keep most of our uncommons below the level of Dark Banishing. This may not seem very strong, but keep in mind that we are just talking about Limited here, and Dark Banishing is about as strong of an effect you can find on a spell, but something that would almost never see play in Constructed. We often try to get Constructed-level uncommons by having cards that are cheap and powerful with synergy, or are just hard to cast. The Charm cycle in Khans of Tarkir, for example, are pretty much all Constructed-level cards, but meet our goal for Limited power level because they are difficult to cast in Limited—something that the plethora of powerful dual lands in Constructed helps to solve. Similarly, Murderous Cut is a very simple uncommon, and very powerful in Limited, but maybe even more so in Constructed. It is above our line of "Dark Banishing," but below our line of Mahamoti Djinn, despite just how much more playable Murderous Cut is than a Mahamoti in Constructed.

Looking at Limited, our average uncommon is just stronger than our average common in Limited. The goal here is to push more of players' early picks toward the higher rarity cards that come up less frequently, to allow each draft you play in to feel more different from each other. This may not seem like a huge deal, but if you draft the set ten, twenty, or even thirty times, it's easy for things to get repetitive if all of the top cards are commons. Not just because many of your decks will look very similar, but because most of the decks you play against will also be very similar.

Now that I've set the stage for what defines power for uncommon, let's take a look at what a few of those powerful cards look like.

Of Angels and Elementals

The first class of cards that we make at uncommon are our Serra Angels and Air Elementals—large, evasive creatures that naturally dodge quite a bit of removal in the set, but not all of it. The goal of these creatures is to be something that can push a game over the edge and win it fairly easily, but usually not if you are too far behind.

The important part about these cards is they help provide a ticking clock to Limited games. Perhaps unsurprisingly, several of the categories of cards I'll list here are there to make sure that the game has good ways to come to a natural conclusion. With the way we make commons, it is very easy for games to get locked up. Due to that, we need some number of cards that each person can have in his or her deck that will bring a game to its conclusion.

We don't want each and every creature that goes unkilled to threaten to steal the game away, but we do want a few uncommon creatures that are strong enough that players need to make interesting decisions in the course of the game on whether to use their removal for tempo purposes or to hold removal for an opponent's bomb. In order to make the decision interesting, both choices need to be correct enough of the time that you can't just figure out which the correct line of play is without having more information than is generally possible for most Limited games.

Powerful Weenies

On the other end of the spectrum, we tend to put our most efficient one- and two-drop simple creatures at uncommon to help aggressive decks work in Limited, but to keep them from being too numerous and powerful. A good example of this kind of card is Elite Vanguard in many core sets, or something like Tormented Hero from Theros block.

What is keeping these from being common is not how complicated, or necessarily how powerful they are by themselves, but instead by how powerful they are as a class of creature and just how swingy Limited decks can be with a large number of them. A card like Elite Vanguard is by itself often something that many decks will take less frequently than, say, Wind Drake, in Limited, but something that gets a lot more powerful as you get more and more cards in that similar space. These work great when the very aggressive decks can fill out their curves with them, but we are generally less happy with them if a huge number of games comes down to a player curving out with something like Vanguard, Vanguard, Vanguard. It makes being on the draw a huge disadvantage, and punishes players for some of the nature of how Limited games work.

We tend to try and push a few of these per set for Constructed, where I think it is good that some number of games will be decided by the Vanguard, Vanguard, Vanguard draw I described above. Limited is all about doing the best with what you have been provided, and it's not generally fun if you get run over without being able to interact at all. Constructed is very much about building a deck that can both consistently progress its own game plan but also is prepared for the various strategies that other decks will come up with—one of those being the hyper-aggressive decks.

Strong Removal

We try to keep most of the strong removal at uncommon, so that there is just less of it in the draft. There should be enough of it that players can deal with the opposing bombs their opponents play, but not so much that quality of individual creatures isn't important—which has been the case in a few older Limited formats where the amount of removal was incredibly high.

The goal is to have enough of the removal be varied enough of in form and power level that people get to make interesting decisions in both the draft and play when using it. People often talk about the BREAD drafting strategy of Bombs, Removal, Evasion, Average, Dregs—but if it was as simple as following that order to a T, drafting would be far too formulaic. We want to have evasion creatures that aren't bombs, but are better than some of our removal spells. We want to have removal spells that are bad enough that they can go pretty late, so a player has something not-ideal to sideboard in when an opponent has a very powerful creature.

The difference between the removal at common and uncommon usually comes down to efficiency. The text "Destroy target creature" isn't especially worthy of a high rarity, but at CMC 3 or less, it all of a sudden is. Common removal is often efficient at killing small creatures, and bad at killing large creatures for cheap. The difference between five mana to kill a creature and three is important for dealing with the majority of creatures your opponents play, but less important when dealing with a Shivan Dragon. We want to add enough downside of taking a turn off to kill an opponent's strong-but-not-bomby creature that there isn't zero choice in the matter. We want players to consider holding the removal for something else, and trying to block the creature, and limiting the total amount of removal and that removal's quality help accomplish those kinds of decisions.

Punching Things Up and Through

The next kind of card you will often see at uncommon is the stall breaker. The most classic version of this card is Overrun, but we have pretty much decided that while that effect can be uncommon, it should probably be a little weaker than Overrun itself. Another version of this type of card that has been printed a few times before is Sleep, or even just Blaze. The goal here is to provide a huge game-winning spell that is somewhat situational in the early game, but when the game actually does come down to a stall, there is a way for it to end.

These cards exist because, like the Air Elementals above, we need a way for Limited games to end. When playing games with just commons, a large number of games will either come down to who drew more land or to one small evasion creature winning over a large number of turns against a board stall. The power level of commons is relatively flat compared to that of our other rarities, and when you have a lot of cards of around the same power level, and since we print fewer two-for-ones at common, often the order they are played in is less important than their sheer number drawn vs. the number of lands. By putting in cards that are situationally very strong, but not good when you are behind, we create some amount of interplay between decks, and allow for both exciting draws and disappointment when a player draws a situational card when it is not good. It also lets a player who has already drawn a stall-breaker to attempt to force the game into a stall, so that player can get the most use out of the card.

That Build-Around-Me Feeling

Perhaps the most iconic kind of uncommon in Limited is the build-around-me uncommon. Some of the most famous versions of these kinds of cards include Spider Spawning, Lightning Rift, and Dampen Thoughts. Build-arounds give us the opportunity to make a lot of interesting cards that play into the set's themes, and allow for people to do sideways things that quite simply feel much different than most usual draft archetypes. It could be attacking a person's library instead of life total, or just a series of cards that encourages a person to make different picks during the draft to have a deck with a higher level of synergy than your average deck.

Build-arounds provide a lot of texture to the Limited environment, giving experienced players something new to do, but they also clearly spell out things that should matter for new players. Burning Vengeance, for instance, is the typical "do the set's theme, get a free Shock" enchantment. The awesome thing about a new player opening a card like this, is that the player quickly understands now that casting spells from your graveyard is a thing that you should worry about in Innistrad. It gives those players a reason to try a new thing out with their deck building in either Limited or Constructed.

Much like the example of the hyper-aggressive creatures I mentioned earlier, the gameplay of having too many of these cards at low rarity can be very frustrating, but at too high of a rarity, they just wouldn't come up enough. It's fun when someone manages to build the Spider Spawning deck once every few drafts, and you play against it at about that frequency. If you have to play against it every single draft, maybe multiple times, then all of a sudden it isn't quite so cute.

Sideboard Strategies

The last type of uncommon you will see in many of our sets are cards specifically made for sideboards. This can vary in obviousness from something in the Deathmark territory, to cards that are less obvious like Despise or Back to Nature. These are cards that are incredibly powerful, but in a very narrow range of situations—which makes them not ideal for commons. Looking back at the era when we put Circle of Protections at common, it was incredibly frustrating to play against the white player who happened to have enough sideboard CoPs to shut down your entire deck game after game.

When we make these sideboard cards, we tend to really focus our thoughts on Constructed, so the cycles are rarely balanced in Limited. A card like Flashfreeze may be fine in Constructed, but is just weaker than Combust in Limited. We put these cards at uncommon both because they encourage people to make interesting picks in Limited for their sideboards, but also so there aren't enough in the draft that a lot of the games you play really come down to how often you drew your powerful sideboard hate cards.

That's it for this week. Join me next week for Mardu Week, when I'll discuss the role of beatdown in Limited.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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