Be Careful with Stealing

Posted in NEWS on February 29, 2008

By Devin Low

Before I get to this week's topic, allow me to wish you selamat datang! (Or as I say outside of Malaysia: "Welcome!") In an eerie harbinger of Rogue Week, I've been prowling across international borders to observe and analyze Pro Tour–Kuala Lumpur in Malaysia. It was fascinating to watch the pros draft and play Lorwyn / Lorwyn / Morningtide, much as R&D did for so many months in development. We work hard to seed subtle combos, mini-archetypes, and amusing interactions through a block for Limited and Constructed, and it's truly gratifying to see it all come together. I saw a couple of people laughing and telling a friend about an awesome combo they discovered in their draft, and I remember the development team planting the seeds for that combo in the set and wondering aloud if anyone would ever find it. Those moments remind me that all the little tweaks we spent time on really mattered. It's an awesome feeling.

It was also great to be on hand see four Pro Tour winners make the Top 8, and awesome to see to Magic hero Jon Finkel win the whole thing. If I had to predict a Morningtide card ahead of time to be in the winning Pro Tour deck, I would not have guessed the humble Mosquito Guard. But in Finkel's employ, Mosquito Guard did indeed win the Pro Tour.

Like my R&D peers who attend other Pro Tours, I took the opportunity to talk to a ton of pros, Friday Night Magic players, and PTQ players at the event to collect feedback about Lorwyn Block Limited, current Standard, and Extended. I also analyzed the Standard tournaments running onsite, reading and categorizing each of the decklists by hand and watching a lot of the games play out. I wrote a tiny bit of PT–Kuala Lumpur coverage for Finally, I rolled up my sleeves and challenged all comers at the gunslinging table, playing a Kithkin Standard deck for hours each day against a variety of decks played by friendly, skilled Malaysian Magic players.

Parallectric_FeedbackR&D sends a representative or two to each Pro Tour for exactly these purposes, collecting as much information as we possibly can about what players want, what's fun, and what's not fun, then bringing that info back to the rest of the department. Player feedback from all kinds of sources is crucial to help all of us do our jobs better and keep making fun sets. We've been paying a lot of attention to Extended recently, with PT–Berlin and an Extended rotation on the horizon, and Magic developers Matt Place and Mike Turian drove into Canada this weekend to GP–Vancouver to watch the Extended games play out, talk to players, and bring back their analysis.

In R&D we acutely want to know what players like and don't like about Limited, Standard, Extended, and all matters Magic. I encourage you to seek out R&D reps at Pro Tours, Grand Prix, Nationals, Worlds, and wherever else you can find us. Let us know what's been fun or unfun about Magic and help us make great sets. And you don't even have to find us in person. Mike Turian posted his email address last week to collect exactly this kind of feedback, and I encourage you to email Turian, myself, or Mark Rosewater using the links at the bottom of our articles whenever you have feedback. Stay as short and concise as possible to help us focus on your main point. We get a lot of emails, and long ones can be hard to get through. We each read all the email sent to us, though we can't always respond to each one individually because of volume.

Thanks to Mike Turian for filling in for me with two good articles while I was away. Since he was the lead developer of Morningtide, I knew he'd have good stories to tell. To cap off Rogue Week, I'd like to talk about what fantasy Rogues do best: stealing. And I don't mean when your friend's trade binder disappears from a table, though that totally sucks. I mean stealing your opponent's creatures: the category of effects we describe with the name of the Alpha pioneer that started it all: Control Magic.

Control Magic vs. Shivan Dragon

Control Magic effects have been in every Magic block since the beginning of time. But do powerful Control Magic effects add more fun to Magic overall or more unfun? The original "Control Magic" was incredibly powerful, in tournaments and especially against casual Magic decks. One player plays a Serra Angel, and the other plays Control Magic, effectively killing the enemy angel and playing another angel for free. It's a huge card advantage swing, a huge tempo swing, and a huge mana swing. Since casual players (with me during Alpha as a perfect example) play a lot of creatures costing 4 or more, they just get smashed by Control Magic again and again.

But there's more going with Control Magic than power level. It's how it feels. Say you're a casual player, and your favorite creature in Magic is Karplusan Yeti. He kills your opponents' guys, he attacks for 3, he's awesome. You play Karplusan Yeti, and your opponent plays Control Magic and steals it. Then your opponent kills all your little guys with Karplusan Yeti, then kills you with Karplusan Yeti. He makes you lose to your own card, and it feels awful The cool ability you liked about Karplusan Yeti becomes the ability that kills you. Everything good about the Yeti becomes bad. The cool things you designed your deck to do now become things that your opponent does to you. It's really annoying.

Then you hear about Shivan Dragon, you go out and get some packs and you open one and put in your deck. This Dragon is really powerful and exciting and you can't await to bash somebody with it. You happily play Shivan Dragon for the first time, and it gets Control Magiced. And it smashes the hell out of you. It smashes you even harder than your Control Magiced Yeti did. You worked hard to get a more powerful card (Shivan Dragon) than you had before (Karplusan Yeti), and what was the result? Getting a more powerful card just made you get smashed even harder, because of Control Magic. Then you hear about Crimson Hellkite, which is even huger than Shivan Dragon. You go and get that and play it for the first time, and it gets Control Magiced and bashes you even harder than you got bashed when you played Shivan Dragon.

Control Magic, Treachery, and Annex

Savannah Lions and Jackal Pup are pretty good against Control Magic because they're so cheap, while Shivan Dragon and Crimson Hellkite are especially victimized by Control Magic because they are so expensive. The message a powerful Control Magic threatens to send to players, especially casual players, is "Don't play awesome creatures. Don't play expensive creatures. They will just get Control Magiced and kill you." But huge creatures in Magic are fun! Players enjoy them! And in R&D we find huge creatures really fun too, and we want to help people enjoy them, not punish people for playing them. For me, those are strong reasons to reduce the number of very pushed Control Magic effects that we do.

When Control Magics Control Magic

Silvos, Rogue ElementalIn tournaments many of the same issues come up. Control Magic and Treachery were both powerful in tournaments in their day. (I mean Treachery the card, but Treachery the tactic was pretty powerful too.) And for many periods, Control Magic and Treachery helped drive expensive, powerful creatures not named Morphling out of those tournaments. But expensive, huge creatures aren't just fun in casual play—they're a lot of fun in tournaments too! Pro Tour–Venice was Onslaught / Legions Block Constructed (before Scourge came out). I love how the most powerful and successful decks in that Pro Tour, the Top 8 decks, included tons of utterly enormous, expensive fatties: Kilnmouth Dragon, Imperial Hellkite, Silvos, Rogue Elemental, Jareth, Leonine Titan, Exalted Angel, Rorix Bladewing, and hardcast Akroma, Angel of Wraths. That is an incredibly high number and variety of enormous creatures in a Pro Tour Top 8. And Osyp Lebedowicz won that Pro Tour with the Jareth deck. What was powerful in that tournament format was humongous creatures. And those decks are a ton of fun to play. SILVOS SMASH!

Besides being a total blast to play, having enormous fat monsters be powerful in Magic tournaments helps keep tournaments accessible and large. If you play tournaments, and your casual player friend is considering starting tournaments as well, it matters a lot what kind of decks get played in those tournaments. If he or she visits a tournament hall and sees a room full of "Cunning Wish for Cunning Wish for Cunning Wish for Brain Freeze, deck you," there's a high chance he or she will get disgusted and go home. But if the room is full of huge Angels, Dragons, and legendary Elementals smashing each other, there's a much higher chance that your friend will start going to tournaments with you. Having more friends go to tournaments with you also makes those tournaments more fun.

If a super-pushed creature stealing effect like Control Magic or Treachery had been legal in that format, there's a high chance that none of those decks of huge powerful monsters would have been there at PT–Venice. Powerful Control Magic effects would have reduced the fun of that format—for pros, for FNM players, and for kitchen table players who played that format—and that would have been a crime.

So What Do We Do about It?

The answer that I don't like is "Stop making Control Magics."

The answer I do like is: "Make Control Magics, but make them quirky, situational, undoable, or expensive, instead of just raw powerful."

Onslaught block is a great example of this approach. You might think from all the fatties in the PT–Venice Top 8 that Onslaught / Legions just happened to have zero Control Magics in them. In reality, those two sets combined have a whopping five Control Magic effects, including four different Control Magic rare blue cards in Onslaught alone:

(I won't include Annex.)

Blatant Thievery What the Onslaught teams did successfully was follow the strategy I mentioned above: "Make Control Magics, but make them quirky, situational, undoable, or expensive, instead of just raw powerful." Here's how:

Blatant Thievery has a lot of cool upsides: It can get anything at all, it can't be disenchanted, and in multiplayer it is totally sick. To compensate for these abilities, it costs seven mana, which is high enough to prevent it from stealing Akroma and Silvos in tournaments or casual games very much.

Callous Oppressor is a powerful card that can crush people, but it has a hoop to jump through to steal things, and it's also easy for many decks to kill and thus easily undo. Treachery can be Disenchanted, but a lot more decks have creature kill than have Disenchants. Callous Oppressor saw some fringey play in its day.

Peer Pressure has a big hoop to jump through, so the user has to do some work to steal things, instead of just using Control Magic at will. The results here can be spectacular and fun, but they don't come up that often because the card has to be setup first with a lot of steps.

Riptide Entrancer requires you to bluff it through or clear the way, meaning you can't just steal Akroma at will. Also it is easy to kill. The moment of triumph when you attack into a 4/5 with this face-down, successfully bluff your opponent into not blocking, then reveal it to steal their 4/5 is really awesome and makes this a fun card worth printing.

Chromeshell Crab takes a lot of mana to fire off, can be undone by creature removal spells, and gives the opponent a creature. It's quirky and fun, but not efficient enough to drive Dragons out of decks.

So the Onslaught block teams made several cool Control Magics without making any that stopped Kilnmouth Dragon or Akroma from being Pro Tour Top 8 cards.

Let me be clear: I know lots of people also enjoy casting powerful Control Magics effects. I enjoy casting them too. There's definitely something fun about turning an opponent's weapons against them. And that's a good reason to keep making Control Magics in sets, and we will definitely keep doing that. There are definitely a lot of people who enjoy casting the Treachery and the literal card "Control Magic" and find them fun, and I respect that. But our research shows that super-efficient "steal anything" Control Magics end up creating more unfun than fun overall. When I talk about all the ways that R&D collects feedback from all kinds of Magic players, this is one of the things we consistently hear. And this is one of the ways we use that feedback. As a result, I believe it's generally better to make Onslaught-style Control Magics instead of totally sick, efficient, crushing "steal anything" Control Magics like Treachery.

Control Magics in Extended vs. Standard

Paul Cheon won the Extended Grand Prix–Vancouver last weekend with this deck:

Paul Cheon

Download Arena Decklist

One of the defining qualities of his deck is seven maindeck Control Magics (4 Vedalken Shackles and 3 Threads of Disloyalty), with an additional three Control Magics in the sideboard! (3 Sower of Temptations). Some of the other decks in the Top 8 include Control Magics as well. So if developers are so wary of Control Magics in tournaments, what's with all these Control Magics in Extended?

A fine question. For each of those three cards, we used some of the criteria for Onslaught-style Control Magics mentioned above. Those criteria prevented these Control Magics from being super impactful to Standard, but they point the way to why these 3 cards are good in Extended. Extended is intentionally a super-high-power format where you can do all kinds of super-devastating things to your opponent and he or she can do all kinds of super-devastating things to you, so powerful Control Magics do not bother me there as much as they would in Standard.

One of the big annoyances with Control Magics I mentioned above is that they can really punish people for playing huge fatties, and make people feel bad for playing huge fatties, both in casual play and in tournaments. With Threads of Disloyalty, a designer decided to make a Control Magic that's actually weak against fatties. That's a fine goal, and the card worked out fine in Standard as a playable but fringey tournament card. In Extended, the average mana cost of creatures is way way lower than in Standard, since Extended is so much faster. Threads of Disloyalty almost always has targets in Extended, especially Dark Confidant and Tarmogoyf, and ends up being quite maindeckable.

Vedalken ShacklesVedalken Shackles is likewise very weak at stealing huge fatties like Spectral Force, but very good at stealing Dark Confidants and Kird Apes. It was decent in Standard, but not great, since with Affinity around there were tons of Oxidizes, Detonates, and Arcbound Ravagers in everyone's decks. To maximize Vedalken Shackles, you need to have a lot of islands. In Fifth Dawn Standard, that meant decks that were monoblue or largely blue, which was a pretty big restriction at the time. But current Extended is built on Onslaught fetchlands getting Ravnica dual lands that count as islands and forests, or islands and swamps, etc. That means that decks like Cheon's can have lots of Ravnica dual Islands and play Shackles very effectively even while being three colors, four colors, or even five colors. And there aren't nearly as many Shatter effects in current Extended as there were in Fifth Dawn Standard. As with Threads of Disloyalty, I am happier having this Control Magic be powerful in Extended than having it be powerful in Standard.

The story of Sower of Temptation has yet to play out in its entirety. Much as Callous Oppressor died easily, Sower of Temptation dies to Shock, Shriekmaw, Cloudthresher, and far more maindeck cards than Treachery or Extended Vedalken Shackles do. And when Sower of Temptation dies, it gives back the guy it stole. During Lorwyn development, we found that this "undoable" nature of the easily killable Sower of Temptation made it a fine idea to print for Standard and Extended. Sower of Temptation has seen fringey to Tier 2 play in Standard and Extended so far, and we'll keep monitoring it to see how it plays out. As the format matures, if Sower of Temptation is winning tournaments left and right, I will regret it. If it stays attractive but fringey, I will be happy with it.

And for me, that goes for basically all Control Magics. I'd like to keep making fun Control Magics, but make them quirky, situational, undoable, or expensive, instead of just raw powerful. If they stay attractive, but fringey in tournament play, I will be happy with them.

Previous Poll

In the preliminary pack draft to a twenty-four-pack Wacky Draft, what pack would you first pick?
Ravnica 1084 13.9%
Unhinged 1049 13.5%
Time Spiral 954 12.3%
Onslaught 708 9.1%
Mirrodin 637 8.2%
Darksteel 533 6.9%
Planar Chaos 420 5.4%
Tenth Edition 363 4.7%
Legions 296 3.8%
Portal Second Age 208 2.7%
Mercadian Masques 202 2.6%
Guildpact 194 2.5%
Champions of Kamigawa 181 2.3%
Dissension 145 1.9%
Scourge 132 1.7%
Betrayers of Kamigawa 117 1.5%
Seventh Edition 111 1.4%
Nemesis 103 1.3%
Fifth Dawn 94 1.2%
Prophecy 91 1.2%
Coldsnap 80 1.0%
Ninth Edition 29 0.4%
Saviors of Kamigawa 27 0.3%
Eighth Edition 21 0.3%
Total 7779 100.0%

Unhinged places hilariously highly here. (How appropriate.) I'd expect one big reason is that most people haven't ever gotten the chance to draft it, and it's as bizarre and amusing as you would expect. As a secondary reason, it's true that a lot of the Unhinged cards are above the curve if you're willing to balance cards on your hands, windmill slam certain bombs, or speak only in rhymes. Darksteel was the highest ranked small set, and I think it's the most powerful all these sets to draft in raw power level, with uncommon Fireball, uncommon Skullclamp, common Vulshok Morningstar (even more common because it's a small set), and common Drooling Ogre, who is insane in this kind of draft. Planar Chaos also ranks highly, with lots of powerful commons plus five sick Dragons, Damnation, and red Akroma as seven of its rares, plus a good chance at two rares in a pack. But the big sets far outweigh even the most powerful small sets here. Perhaps it "just feels right" to a lot of people to start a draft with a big set. With Lorwyn not in this mix of packs, the most often chosen big sets were Ravnica, Time Spiral, Onslaught, and Mirrodin, four of the best-loved draft blocks of all time. On the bottom end of the scale, Saviors of Kamigawa demonstrates its unpopularity, while Eighth Edition is just too anonymous to pull many votes when competing against so many more glamorous choices.