Aether Revolt Mailbag

Posted in Latest Developments on February 17, 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 asked on Twitter for question submissions for a mailbag article, and here are the answers:

Commander sets have both a design and development lead—Billy Moreno for Commander (2013 Edition), Ian Duke for C14, and Ben Hayes for C15 and C16. The teams are made up of a mix of designers, developers, and people from throughout the company. A developer tends to be in charge of making sure that all the cards are costed appropriately.

Many of the cards on the banned list in Modern are there because they make the format less diverse instead of more diverse. Adding a card like Glimpse of Nature doesn't add one deck to the format; it likely eliminates a lot of other decks from being competitive. As the format gets larger and larger, I think there will be room to re-add some of the cards on the banned list back into the format. For what I hope are obvious reasons, I don't think it would be good for me to go through the entire banned list and stack rank how likely each card is to come off in the next two years. One hint, though: I wouldn't get my hopes up about Skullclamp anytime soon.

Quite a bit. You can already see a bit on how we do that for Conspiracy sets, which we don't balance for Standard. We don't need to worry nearly as much about the metagame. We don't need to worry about how much individual cards are supported or hurt by the sets around them. The set gets to exist more or less in a vacuum.

The big question for the set would be how much of it would be based around Limited. As of this point, all the supplemental sets we have made have had large Limited components, and I would expect that to always be the case moving forward. This is where the largest differences would likely show up; much like Conspiracy, there would likely be something about the set that you wouldn't see in Standard. Most likely a dedicated multiplayer component.

Evolve. I thought it did a really great job of making for interesting creatures and was just generally very fun. Weird stats are fun on Simic creatures because they get to have really strange morphology. The mechanic did a good job of making the creatures feel as weird and cool as they were supposed to.

Is there a way? Probably. Is it worth it? Probably not. I don't think the effect of Lotus Petal is really something we want running around in Standard, as it mostly exists to power up degenerate decks. That leads to one of two potential outcomes: we spend a lot of time making a card that either does nothing or blows things up in Standard/Modern. I don't think that is a great use of time. It's possible that we can come up with the time to work on a new Mox or Lotus, but I think those designs have a little more flexibility in terms of power since they provide more impressive bonuses.

There are quite a few throughout the years, though we do a better job now of catching them early in the process as opposed to late. Kheru Lich Lord was one that we ended up changing from something that had severe UI problems in digital. Beyond that, we often do passes on sets to try and remove unimportant parts of cards to reduce clicks. For example, a card that targets any player requires you to choose a target, which adds a click. If you just let it only target opponents, then that is one less click in a one-on-one game. A lot of little additions like that add up to making games on Magic Online play out a few minutes faster per round.

Yes, and we ultimately decided not to. We didn't want the gameplay of one person trying to build up energy to use it on one large effect, only to have their opponent take their energy away from them. It took us a long time to get energy correct, and we had big concerns that players would struggle with getting the mechanic to play correctly, so putting in ways to mess with energy reserves felt like too much of a risk.

I'd likely have made the Vehicles less about their stats and more about their abilities. The Vehicle that I think is the most fun for Constructed is Cultivator's Caravan. I think the fact that the mana ability on it is a huge part of its power lets it be at a point where you aren't really far behind in a game wherein you can't keep it crewed at all times.

There will always be time for fun cards and mechanics later. I think this is one that naturally comes to people after they finish their first set. After all, when you are leading your first set, there is no guarantee that you will be leading a second one—so there is often an internal pressure to put every good design you ever had into the set and not hold anything back for future sets.

The fact is, there are plenty of individual cards that are cool, but they don't fit into a given set. Rather than throwing something away as a one-off cool design, it is often better to save it for a later date when it can fill a real role or even be the basis for a cycle or mechanic. This happened to me in Magic Origins when we had a one-off design that came in through hole-filling:

1U
Jace's Sanctum
Enchantment
Planeswalkers you control have {+2}: Draw a card

It was a really neat card, but it wasn't particularly strong. It let you do cool Johnny things with planeswalkers, but they tend not to need a lot of help in that area. It was cool to tick up a planeswalker faster +2 ability. In the end, I was asked to take it out of the set because we needed enchantments in this same design space for the Oaths in Oath of the Gatewatch. While it initially made me sad, the fact that the cycle has continued through more than one block has made it obvious that this was the correct decision.

Yes, I believe that we have moved too far toward threats being not only strong, but also resilient. I think having some number of resilient threats is important, but they need to have some cost that you pay, and we have made that cost too low recently. It could be a point of power or toughness, it could be a more narrow design, but it needs to be something. At the same time, we have made answers a bit too weak. As Fatal Push might hint, we are trying to swing the pendulum a little more into the center. It'll take a little time to get there, but we are headed in that direction.

Depends on which format you mean by "testing." Limited tends to "lock in" sooner than Constructed. If the development team spends a year with a set, then probably 80% of the set is very near the final design in the last four months or so. We might keep changing the last ten or fifteen cards in the last month to try to get them right.

For Limited, there is a good chance we never draft the set in its final form. There may only be a few minor changes in the last few Limited playtests, but if we did keep drafting it, we would likely change something. There needs to be a pencils-down moment at some point.

Even after we have finished making changes to the set, we are still playtesting with the set for months before the public actually sees it. For example, right now we are pretty close to locking down the fall large set—we need a lot of time to typeset the cards; finalize the flavor text, names, and arts; and have it go through localization. We have some ability to make emergency changes after that process has started, but we will continue to learn a lot about the set as we play more with it in the coming months and have opportunities to put in answers for any cards that we are concerned might be too strong.

Mostly because of the amount of time and effort it takes to actually make a set. As is, the development lead of a large set is in charge of what goes on with it for about a year, between leading meetings, dealing with other departments around the company, and ensuring that everything goes without a hitch. Having them lead multiple sets at the same time would likely end up making them split their focus between the two. The design and development of the two sets also overlaps quite a bit in time—so while the small set might "only" take nine months as opposed to a full year, the actual difference in release time is closer to four months. Having one team do both would likely just require a huge change in the timeline.

Beyond that, it's also just good to get new people thinking about cards on both the design and development sides. As we have found, simply adding more people to one team has some pretty significant diminishing returns to the point where it is net negative. It's better to have two small-ish teams that can each focus on making their own set the best it can be.

I was a huge fan of Innistrad-Return to Ravnica Standard, in terms of recent Standards. There were a few threats that were a bit too strong, such as Thragtusk, but we also had very strong removal that did a pretty good job of allowing aggro, midrange, and control decks to exist.

I really enjoyed many older Standard environments, like Champions of Kamigawa-Ravnica, but it's hard for me to judge how good that actually was, considering it got so much less pressure put on it from a relative lack of high-level pro events. I don't think that set actually was very balanced, but that the most widely played events were Team Unified Standard PTQs did a lot to make the format look healthier than it was.

I can list a few:

  • Khans of Tarkir: Savage Knuckleblade. Late changes to Temur Charm and some buffs to Abzan just made it weaker than the other clans.
  • Journey into Nyx: Prophetic Flamespeaker. This card was just very poorly set up for the format. The decks that were strong when it came out were very removal-heavy, and a three-mana creature that does nothing the turn it enters the battlefield was not where you wanted to be. It was also just not well-matched against Sylvan Caryatid; Polukranos, World Eater; or Master of Waves.
  • Battle for Zendikar: Drana, Liberator of Malakir. She had a good rate, but she never really found the right home in Standard. She was a possible call-forward to a Vampire deck in Standard, but the powerful versions of those tended to be more focused on madness than going wide. She was a lot stronger when Call the Bloodline let you dump your hand on turn four if you wanted to.

This has been a challenge in recent years. When we started, there was more of a focus on making the story points into strong tournament cards, but we have started backing up on that. They should be cool cards, but it's better to try and push the fun cards toward tournaments rather than make the cards you are pushing toward tournament play fun. Sometimes a fun design just won't come out of a story moment—at least not at a rate where we want people casting it a lot in Standard.

That's it for this week. If you have ideas you'd like to read a column on, feel free to send them to me. Next week, I'll be back with more behind-the-scenes looks at development.

Until next time,
Sam (@samstod)

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