How to Sneak Overpowered Cards past Development

Posted in NEWS on May 30, 2008

By Devin Low

Muhuhahahaha! Sometimes doing evil just feels so good! It's time to let you in on a little secret: when all those goody-two-shoes Magic developers go home for the night, they don't realize that a dark duplicate squad of EVIL Magic Developers creeps into the building to type changes into Multiverse and ruin Magic for everyone! As prime evil developer for Magic, I concoct my dark plans with a variety of evil twin Magic developers including evil Aaron Forsythe, evil Erik Lauer, evil Matt Place, evil Mike Turian, and, well, Mark Gottlieb.

There's only one problem standing in our evil way. No matter how many flawed block plans, bad costs, junky keywords, and broken combos we type into the sets every night, those accursed good twin developers keep taking them out!

But I've got a trick up my evil sleeve. In fact, I've got seven of them because there are some categories of overpowered cards that it is extremely difficult for those good twin developers to catch. We evil twin Magic developers have found that if we focus our evil efforts on trying to make dozens of overpowered cards in these categories, we can actually get a few excessively overpowered cards through the good twin developers and into booster packs.

So without further evil ado, here are seven ways to sneak overpowered cards past development.

1) Move Something Proven Safe into a New, Unsafe Context

Dragonstorm Ah, Dragonstorm. There are two huge reasons why the good twin developers could be confident during Time Spiral development that Dragonstorm would never be a major tournament Constructed player. First, it costs nine mana! Second, Dragonstorm had already given two years of incredibly solid proof that it was safe in every tournament format. How? It had been subjected to two years of the most rigorous playtesting possible: millions of Magic players across the world. Because we had already printed it! Dragonstorm came out in Scourge, served its normal sixteen months in Standard, and never appeared in top tournament decks in any format.

You don't get rares any safer than those two conditions combined. Dragonstorm was the perfect evil opportunity to sneak an overpowered card into the Standard tournaments of 2007! Even so, the good twin developers tested Dragonstorm in Future Future League constructed during Time Spiral development, building Dragonstorm with Bogardan Hellkite, Lotus Bloom, Rite of Flame, Seething Song, Molten Slagheap and so on.

There was just one ingredient they didn't have: Gigadrowse. R&D never thought to put a spell with replicate U into their mono-red Dragonstorm decks, and as a result, their FFL Dragonstorm decks just could not stand up to disruption or control decks. That led R&D to deem Dragonstorm safe to print as a fun combo piece for casual without serious tournament applications.

A year later, the Gigadrowse-enabled Dragonstorm combo decks in Standard were using Calciform Pools to fuel end of turn, essentially uncounterable Gigadrowses, tapping down their control deck opponents to "go off" and win on the Dragonstorm player's next turn. Though never reaching broken levels, the Dragonstorm decks were still more powerful in Standard tournaments than R&D wanted. Go evil Dragons!

2) Safe in Standard, Overpowered in Extended

The good twin Magic R&D keeps a close eye on Extended, but focuses most of its playtesting on Standard and Block Constructed. That creates the perfect opening for an evil Trojan horse: cards that prove fair in Standard playtesting but break out as overpowered in Extended!

Tendrils of Agony was playtested in the internal Standard FFL and found to be balanced. The real world tried it in Standard and found it to be balanced. But R&D never tested Tendrils of Agony in Extended, and let's just say that the real world... did. Tendrils of Agony and Mind's Desire led to one of the most powerful decks in real-world Extended for some years. Tendrils of Agony also proved it could hang in the same circle as Mox Sapphire and Time Walk when it became one of the format-defining cards in Legacy and Vintage.

As for my own evil Mind's Desire? To inflict Tendrils of Agony on good twin Magic R&D!

3) Totally Incomparable to Past Cards

Show a card like Wren's Run Vanquisher to good twin Magic developers, and they can each gauge its power-level quickly and accurately. They will draw comparisons to Watchwolf, Mogg Flunkies, Albino Troll, Blade of the Sixth Pride, and Tarmogoyf, tell you how Wren's Run Vanquisher is better and worse than each of those comparatives, and accurately summarize its power level.

Wren's Run Vanquisher
Parallax Tide

Show them a 1R 4/1 with haste and they can tell you instantly it's too powerful. Show them 1R 2/1 with haste and they can tell you it's very powerful, but probably printable. Again, comparisons play a large part in their analyses. Now show them Gifts Ungiven, Counterbalance, Parallax Tide, and Brine Elemental and ask for an accurate ranking of power level. Even for professional developers, good or evil, this question is a lot, lot harder.

The reason is that unlike Wren's Run Vanquisher, none of these four blue cards can be closely compared to any groups of cards anywhere in Magic's history. Tons of playtesters will come up to the good twin developers and say "Hey, that 1G 3/3 deathtouch creature seems really powerful," and they'll be exactly right, but very few playtesters will come up and say "You know, I think Parallax Tide is going to end up a little more powerful than Mogg Flunkies in Extended." That comparison doesn't even exist.

This category of totally incomparable cards opens a larger window of possibility that the good twin Magic developers will let something through that is more powerful than they had planned.

Advantage: evil!

4) Cost Compared to Unfair Benchmarks

This is a particularly evil trick, because it's the opposite of the previous tactic. This time you take cards that are very easily comparable to old cards, and then use those comparisons against them!

Animate Dead For example, Alpha had Animate Dead at 1B, then Ice Age had Dance of the Dead at 1B, and then Mirage had Necromancy at 2B after that, all of them Animate Dead variants. The Tempest spell Reanimate makes you pay life in order to get Animate Dead for one less mana. And if the Tempest developers are in the mindset that Animate Dead is a fair card at 1B, then Reanimate might not seem too much more dangerous at B.

Except that in the context of all of Magic, Animate Dead isn't really a fair card at 1B at all! By the time you get to Tempest and later in Magic's history, there were much powerful things you could reanimate than the Shivan Dragon or Nightmare on which you could cast Animate Dead in the days of Alpha. The set right before Tempest had included Buried Alive, which along with Tempest's Dark Ritual and Reanimate created some incredibly fast, lethal combos. Cards like Hermit Druid, Entomb, Sutured Ghoul, and Dragon Breath only made Reanimate more and more insanely powerful over time, all for just one mana and a handful of life.

Then the developers of Apocalypse got caught in the same trap. They made the black half of Life // Death cost 1B and only target your own graveyard. Since the black half is strictly worse than Reanimate, that's gotta be fair, right? Nope, Life // Death was also way too powerful, because it was costed compared to an unfair benchmark: the card Reanimate at the absurdly low cost of B.

5) Cheap Universal Artifacts

Sensei's Divining Top Say Sensei's Divining Top had been a white enchantment costing W instead of an artifact costing 1. It still would have been powerful in some decks in Standard and Block and Extended, namely the ones combining white mana with abundant shuffle effects. But it wouldn't have been nearly as prevalent and annoying as the cheap universal artifact version costing 1 ended up being. The reason is that cheap artifacts can go into so many decks that an effect that might have been fun and fair if it occurred a certain amount of the time (like Top being a white enchantment) instead becomes deliciously, evilly repetitive and annoying when they show up in too many decks.

Likewise, Umezawa's Jitte would have shown up at a much lower frequency in tournaments if it had been some kind of black Aura that went back to your hand when its enchanted creature died, rather than a cheap universal artifact. And that lower frequency would have caused Jitte to be less format-defining than it was, less overpowered than it was, and thus less annoying.

Fortunately those artifacts, as well as several other artifacts over the years, are sufficiently cheap and sufficiently universal to make them appear in a sufficient number of decks so as to make them maximally evil and annoying!

6) Last-Minute Changes

Umezawa's Jitte Throughout Betrayers of Kamigawa development, Umezawa's Jitte had had this text, originally designed by the allegedly good twin Devin Low to match the legendary artifact in the Betrayers novel... although many have since suspected that it was actually I, evil Devin Low, who designed the card!

Umezawa's Jitte
Artifact - Equipment
Whenever equipped creature deals combat damage, put two charge counters on Umezawa's Jitte.
Remove a charge counter from Umezawa's Jitte: Choose one - Equipped creature gets +2/+2 until end of turn; or add BB to your mana pool; or you gain 2 life.
Equip 2

But during Betrayers templating, at the very end of the development cycle, the set's editors and rules manager realized that nesting a mana ability within a modal activated ability was going to be difficult or impossible to implement within the Magic timing rules. The Betrayers development team, including good twin Devin (or was it really evil Devin?), decided to change the middle ability away from black mana generation towards something else a magical short sword focusing dark kanji magic might do... like give creatures -1/-1 until end of turn.

The evil twist to the story is this: Since the change occurred during templating, when the set's development cycle was already complete, there was no time to test the revised card! While we had tested the previous form of the Jitte, we had never tested the final, updated abilities of the Jitte and so the revised Jitte was released as is...and proved to be incredibly overpowered and format-warping.

Evil wins again!

7) Make a Totally New, Totally Incomparable Card Type

Chandra Nalaar For our final evil act, the other evil Magic designers, evil Magic developers, and I decided to ruin Magic once and for all by seeding the Future Sight and Lorwyn files with something totally undevelopable: a completely new card type, with its own rules for being attacked by creatures, three different abilities per card, five different numbers per card, a high power level, and some mind-blowingly powerful "ultimate" abilities.

To maximize confusion with famous evasion creatures like Righteous Avengers, we even decided to name them planeswalkers! And to put the final evil nail into the good twin coffin, and make developing the planeswalkers especially impossible, we even saddled the department with a whopping nineteen constraints on how the planeswalkers had to be developed!

The result of all this evil meddling? The Ultimate Evil Catastrophe and the Destruction of All Magic: the Gathering Forever and Ever! MUHUHAHAHAHAHA!

Wait, what?


The planeswalkers somehow didn't ruin Magic?

Curse you, good twin developers! Curse yoooooooou!

Last Week's Poll

Should Augury Adept have been printed as is?
Yes. 2239 51.8%
No. 1494 34.6%
It's complicated. 591 13.7%
Total 4324 100.0%

On the good twin side of Magic R&D (or is it?), Mark Rosewater and Devin Low made many arguments for and against printing Augury Adept. At long last, the audience got to weigh in on the final color pie trial. I'm certainly glad to see that "Print it as is" came out ahead. That said, it's important to me that every Magic player gets to make his or her own decision on what he or she thinks is right, on Augury Adept and every other card, and I respect that everyone has his or her own opinion. I hope that these articles spawned some local discussions in card shops across the world, with people debating whether or not Augury Adept is a good idea. And I do want to emphasize that we do this kind of hybrid card very sparingly and very specifically.