Artifact Destruction

Posted in Latest Developments on October 7, 2016

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. We are one week into Standard, and Kaladesh has already made a big impact. Vehicles were crewed, energy was spent, and the Bomat Courier delivered quite a few packages. All in all, it was good to see the set make such as splash—even if the Smuggler's Copter was so ubiquitous. We'll have to see how Standard reacts to that card in the coming weeks. But, I'm not here to talk about Standard, I'm here to talk about artifact removal, and how our philosophy on hate cards for a set has evolved in the past two decades.

Back in Mirrodin, we included two cards from Limited Edition (Alpha) to really highlight the differences between that set and Mirrodin: Terror and Shatter. The gag was that in Alpha, Terror was a lot better than Shatter, and in Mirrodin, Shatter was better than Terror. That was because of just how strong the artifacts were, and how powerful things like Equipment were if your opponent couldn't deal with them. Ever try to win a game of Magic against a Loxodon Warhammer without removing it? It's pretty difficult. Many of the strongest creatures in Mirrodin were artifacts, plus there were artifact lands, which suddenly made it very attractive to use artifact removal as the main way you were interacting with your opponent's cards in Limited. We even saw some of it moving to the main decks in Block Constructed and Standard.

The Problem with Hate

The goal of Kaladesh was not to get people to toss out their Declaration in Stones for Disenchants. Our hope in creating an artifact set with our modern design sensibilities was not to make something where people either run artifact removal or die. I remember (not so fondly) the sideboards of decks during original Mirrodin that would run something like twelve anti-artifact cards just to deal with Affinity. And sometimes, that was in an Affinity deck. Having games all come down to sideboard answers to threats does not create very fun gameplay. It is an easy way of telling a narrative and of showing off the new set, but not one that we wanted to do. The goal was to create a set where artifacts mattered, but we had a more varied way of dealing with them than just cards that say "Destroy target artifact." It meant dealing with the strategies they present, rather than getting rid of the type as a whole. It is a different setup than Mirrodin, for sure, but one that I think is more enjoyable.

When coming to Kaladesh, we were largely replacing the density of Equipment in Mirrodin (which we did not find very fun) with Vehicles (which we found much more fun). Vehicles, when turned on, can be dealt with by instant-speed creature removal. Artifact creatures exist in both sets, but those can be destroyed by the usual means as well. Then we had some number of hard-to-deal-with artifacts like Aetherflux Reservoir that were generally doing something combo-y. Getting those to work in a world where people were packing their decks full of artifact removal was hard. To give a comparison with the original Mirrodin block, it was hard for decks utilizing combo-y artifact that needed to remain in play to exist when people were filling their decks full of ways to deal with all of the creatures and Equipment, both of which happened to be artifacts. Sure, you got the occasional Krark-Clan Ironworks deck, but that was a one-turn-kill kind of thing. You might have gotten away with using Crystal Shard to bounce Eternal Witness in a deck with no other artifacts, but there were not a lot of decks using small artifacts that combined together in small ways. In fact, there weren't a lot of decks running half a dozen artifacts. You were either all-in, or dabbling.

Giving Options

All of this isn't to say we didn't want any artifact hate in Standard when Kaladesh came out—but we didn't want a ton of it. While it may seem like a strange decision to not put something as small as Naturalize or Smelt in the environment before Kaladesh, it was an attempt to make Kaladesh have an impact on Standard without being so strong that everything comes back to the amount of artifact removal decks play. People frequently ask us to do a particular X-matters block—whether that is artifacts, enchantments, lands, tribes, etc. That's great; we like delivering on expectations. Sometimes it's because people just like cards of that type, sometimes it's because they like the interactions that exist with that card type and older cards they already own—but I really doubt that some people want to see more "X-matters" because they like how ubiquitous removal works against it. People tend to think more about how they want to actively play decks, not about how people play against them. I think it is fine that Affinity and Dredge players can have a "live by the sword, die by the sword" mentality, but it's good to force everyone to interact on that axis. The Standard environments that were all about powerful sideboard answers were historically just not very fun.

The goal of Kaladesh Standard is to give people fun artifacts to play with that fit into their decks' strategies, and to create synergies through them. We didn't want there to be a one-stop answer for everything. Smuggler's Copter has obviously shown itself to be the breakout card of Kaladesh Standard in the first week, and if people started packing a lot of artifact removal for the red-white artifact aggro decks, it would be too bad if that also hated out the slower, more combo-y decks. We'd much rather have people playing creature removal to deal with Copter and allowing the other decks to exist.

That isn't to say we don't leave safety valves in the format. Kaladesh does have some artifact removal, but it is a bit on the weak side, and exists more to provide answers if things are too strong rather than to be something everyone has to play. Three mana to destroy an artifact or enchantment and gain 2 life with Appetite for the Unnatural isn't an impressive rate by any means, but if there is a Module deck, or an Aetherflux Reservoir deck, or a Aetherworks Marvel deck, it may be an appropriate card to play in Standard. But you still may not bring it in against a deck that just plays a few Vehicles. Different answers for different decks—that should keep the metagame from coming down to sideboards in every match. They become part of the landscape, rather than public enemy number one for sideboards. One of the reasons we needed a card like Creeping Corrosion in Mirrodin Besieged was because of cards like Tempered Steel were such an all-in payoff for playing nothing but artifact creatures. By leaving out that kind of interaction, we hopefully have left ourselves open for a more diverse metagame, and one where it's not "artifacts versus hate." As we move on through the next year, we will offer some hate to apply pressure to these decks just in case we were wrong, much like we did for enchantments in Theros.

Limited Answers

To sort of bring things back full circle, this also applies to Limited. While it was less true of Scars of Mirrodin than the original, artifact removal was frequently a top pick because of just how strong the artifacts were, and because every deck had so many of them. It was pretty hard to play a deck in either Mirrodin or Scars of Mirrodin Limited unless you had access to some kind of artifact removal. One of the biggest issues with that is that not every color can deal with artifacts. Black gets left out in the cold on this one, and therefore has a real problem dealing with artifact-heavy decks. Sure, you can pair it with a color that is better at artifact removal, but this could still lead to things like blue-black being very weak unless we make some kind of funky blue cards. We spent years without green having ways to deal with creatures, and found that giving it something in that space made the game more fun. Still, we didn't want to resort to something similar with black and artifacts, even if it was only for one block.

When we made the artifacts care generally more about strategies rather than just getting all of the artifacts, it meant that black decks could still interact with all of the creatures that were a part of that strategy. They can try to attack what the deck is doing rather than having to rely on a blanket way to destroy anything in the deck. One of the hidden benefits of infect in Scars block was that it forced us to make pretty bad Equipment—which was part of the reason black was much stronger in Scars than original Mirrodin. Vehicles have a similar benefit, in that black can hold back an instant-speed removal spell to deal with a powerful Vehicle, rather than having to kill every single creature the opposing deck plays. It helps to solidify the color as the best at killing creatures, and not make it one of the weaker removal colors in the format. Looking at the Mirrodin sets, green and red were generally the strongest removal colors, which was pretty weird and off-putting (for some).

Of course, Vehicles don't just die to every creature removal spell. One of the strengths of Vehicles in Limited is that they dodge sorcery-speed creature removal. That is, I believe, one of the things that makes them feel different from other card types, and helps to create interesting decisions in how you play with them or against them. If the best answers for them were the same as everything else, they wouldn't have felt as novel in Limited. Moreover, they would've been much weaker, and to get them to be at the same level in Limited we would've had to push them as hard as Equipment in the original Mirrodin—to a level I don't find fun, where you need to either deal with every Equipment or every creature.

By limiting the strength of straight-up artifact removal in Kaladesh Limited, we've set up an environment where artifacts get to shine in doing their own things, rather than just as a label with a target on them. It's not a puzzle about what kind of removal is the strongest, but instead a real Limited environment that works like other ones you have played before, that happens to have a new thing you care about.

That's it for this week. Next week, I'll be back with the M-Files for Kaladesh.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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