Aggro in Limited

Posted in Latest Developments on November 21, 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.

It's Mardu week, and I wanted to talk about the thing the Mardu clan is all about: speed. More specifically, aggressive decks in Limited—why we push that archetype and the challenges that Khans of Tarkir provided for the archetype.

Archetype Balance

It's important for us, while we are working on making Magic sets, to balance out Limited much in the same way that we balance out Standard to make sure that our "buckets" of aggro, midrange, combo/ramp, control, and disruptive aggro all exist. That means making sure that the format has the tools for decks of a variety of different speeds and play styles to exist. We want there to be a healthy mix of slow, mid-speed, and fast decks in Limited—as well as a number of sideways strategies of a variety of different speeds.

Erase | Art by Zack Stella

Looking at a set like Zendikar, one of the issues with its Limited was that a control deck didn't really exist. The format was just too fast and punished blocking too much. This meant that if you liked to durdle around a bit, it was very difficult for you to either succeed or have fun with your strategy. Gatecrash had similar issues—the aggressive decks were some of the strongest decks, and it led to some of the robustness of the format being drowned out because players would often just not get enough time to cast the most fun and interesting cards in the format.

It's also easy for an environment to do this in the opposite direction. If a Limited environment doesn't have a good beatdown deck, you risk the format being all about two-for-ones, and often splashing all of the bombs you can get ahold of. Part of balancing Limited is making sure that people get punished for being greedy with their mana bases. This happens a lot in design and development playtests, when our sets just aren't fine-tuned enough to prevent that from happening. We just trade haymakers back left and right until one person either gets two-for-oned too many times or draws so much more land than the opponent that the opponent can't come back. It can be fun for a playtest or two, but it quickly grows old.

While we try and balance our Limited archetypes as a whole for each set, there will be some variety in the overall speed of the format—one of the tools that lets us keep our formats feel different. It's fine (and even good) if, from time to time, aggressive decks are the best thing to do in a format, just as long as they aren't the only thing to do.

Color Balance

A lot of the early development process in a set's life (after getting the mechanics about right) is getting the color balance on the set to the point that the playtests are varied and interesting. Now, one color always has to be the strongest, and another the weakest, but we strive to get to the point that different people on the development team will disagree on which is which—meaning that we probably have it in about the right place to be interesting to the general public.

Beyond just getting the colors right for the overall balance, we need to make sure that each color has some options for slow, fast, and mid-speed decks. Certain colors tend to trend toward faster decks. Red, for instance, tends to be the fastest colors in most Limited environments, and blue the slowest. But within the colors and the color pairs, there should be some variety of gameplay.

We do this for many reasons, but the most pressing for sets is so that we can create a variety of interesting cards at different converted mana costs. For example, if red is only a hyper-aggressive color, then we are going to have a hard time making many interesting cards in the five- to six-mana range, since those are just not the cards that any red deck is going to want to play. In that same vein, if green ends up only being good at mid-speed decks, then most people are just not going to pick it's aggressive early drops—and those who do will end up being trapped by a deck that looks like it should exist but doesn't. It will also make specific green color pairs—those that aren't mid-speed—just bad combinations to go into, limiting the replayability of the set's Limited.

Getting Aggro to Work in Khans

Very early in Khans of Tarkir's life cycle, we knew getting aggro to work properly would be difficult. One inherent issue with a gold set, especially a three-color set, is that people are going to experience mana problems more than in regular sets. It's a fact of life, but one we can work to make something other than the deciding factor in games. We knew we were going to put in enough mana fixing so that multicolor decks were not a trap. But we also knew that if we went too far, it's not a huge leap from three colors to five. Good stuff. We needed aggressive strategies that could put the appropriate level of pressure on people to be cautiously optimistic on their mana bases.

The crux of the problem is that getting three-color decks to be aggressive was very difficult. Turns out that having too many three-mana, aggressive wedge creatures made playing them on turn three way too swingy to be fun. If there's one thing aggressive decks do not do well is recovering from an early fumble on mana. In fact, that's what those decks do best—punishing people who did stumble on their mana or not draw a good curve.

The solution we came upon was pushing two-color decks that were draftable and, as a whole, more aggressive than the three-color decks. These were the decks people could gravitate toward if they wanted to have more solid mana, but would also (hopefully) be open enough that people could also leave themselves open for a splash if they opened up or were passed a bomb. For that reason, the main two-color strategies are all enemy colors, so players would be more open to splash bombs. Black-White Warriors, as an example, relies on a number of two- and three-drop creatures with Warrior synergy. Red-white relies on the time-tested gameplay of tokens and weenies into Trumpet Blast. If you happen to open a Zurgo Helmsmasher in pack three...well, the framework is there to splash it. You can opt to stick to your guns, but at least the option is there.

Complicating things, in terms of getting the balance right, was the fact that morph was a returning mechanic—and getting three-mana 2/2s to be reasonable plays. Now, I don't know how much Limited most of you have played between Onslaught and Khans of Tarkir, but the overall quality of creatures, especially at common, is much higher now than in the Onslaught era. That meant the gap between a Gray Ogre and your average three-drop was just much higher. We solved some of our issues by making our morphs generally stronger on the front end than Onslaught did, and removing the most annoying "turning face-up" effects like Zombie Cutthroat that would threaten to decide the game on turn three. But it still left us in an awkward place if we wanted to make morphs competitive and still leave enough room for the aggressive decks to be at the right power level.

Truth be told, these issues kind of helped to solve each other. While development was (as a whole) very skeptical about the return of morph, we quickly realized how well it worked in a wedge set. A player who was stumbling on mana could always play a three-mana 2/2 as a blocker against an aggressive deck, meaning the player had some way to reasonably interact with the opponent and not feel like he or she was never in the game. At the same time, the aggressive deck gets to at least trade up in mana for its creatures and leave the opponent open for any number of combat tricks. We also found that we could create morphs that the aggressive decks could cast off-curve (for instance Horde Ambusher, Ruthless Ripper, or Krumar Bond-Kin) that could keep the opponent guessing on which to block, or even how much to hold back.


Keeping Aggro in Check in Khans

Once we had aggro in a spot where we felt it was working, we needed to make sure that it wasn't always the right thing to do. One thing we look out for a lot in our sets are traps—that is, when we put something forward for players to do, only for them to fail and have a bad experience. Khans of Tarkir is, at its heart, a three-color set. That means that the most common decks (at least in draft) really should be the three-color decks. An internal estimate of what we expected to be about the right makeup of different strategies was something around one person in each wedge, around two people in two-color decks, and then one person who is either sharing a wedge with someone else or is in a five-color deck. With the ability to easily splash cards in this set, it's hard to determine at times if the black-red deck splashing three cards is really Mardu, or if the green-blue morph deck with a number of off-color morphs supported by some nonbasics is really five-colors or not, but it's hard for us to split hairs too much. But anyway, because it was a three-color set, we needed that strategy to not be a trap.

This means that, on average, if a three-color deck hits its mana relatively early it will probably beat a two-color deck. I think that's a good thing. Part of making Magic sets year after year is making sure that something is different each year. And supporting three-color decks is what we are doing this year. If two-color decks were on equal footing with three-color decks that hit their mana each time, there would be little to no reason to actually go into three-colors.

One of the things that led us down the path of having the "enters the battlefield tapped" lands gain a life is that it would help the decks that were splashing colors to hopefully be able to come back if they lagged a bit in the early game. And making sure that players didn't find the lands so bad that they wondered how often they should include them and risk the tempo loss, versus how often they should just risk losing to mana screw. We wanted you to play your nonbasics. We made many of the bombiest rares in the set three-color cards for the same reason. Wedges is the new thing this year, and won't be the thing you are doing next year. The more we can enforce that as the thing to do this year, the more different next year will feel; especially when the thing you do next year is so different from what you are doing this year.

That's it for this week. Join me next week for Top 8 Week, when I go over the Top 8 lessons I've learned since becoming a Magic developer.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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