Artifacts and Color Identity

Posted in Latest Developments on September 30, 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 edition of Latest Developments! I hope that the Kaladesh Prerelease went as well for you as it did for me, and that you are looking forward to either drafting the set at your local game store or creating a new Constructed deck based on the set. Or maybe you are just looking forward to not playing against Collected Company in Standard—there are many things to be thankful for right now.

Today on Latest Developments, I want to focus more on Limited and what we did to ensure that we could create an artifact block that felt unique and fun but was still balanced. Kaladesh is only the third "artifact block" and the first not set on Mirrodin. Although the shard of Esper did have its own development team for Shards of Alara, it wasn't its own block, so I'm not counting it with this. We made a concerted effort to try to avoid colored artifacts as much as possible (since that's really Esper's "thing") and did so successfully with the exception of the Gearhulks. Still, if you are playing Limited, you will almost entirely encounter only true colorless artifacts. Because we didn't want to have colored artifacts and still have artifacts matter, we knew we needed a lot of artifacts in the set. Not quite as many as Mirrodin, but a lot. Fabricate was a great way to achieve this goal. Magic Origins was trying to make blue-red work as an artifact deck and used token generation as a way to achieve that in a set that was not about artifacts. Those kinds of solutions are great when the set isn't about artifacts, but you still want one color pair to highlight them—however, it's not the right choice for an entire block about artifacts. We didn't want to make the same mistake that happened with Theros, when people walked away from the set without knowing it was intended to be an enchantment block. We were going to make the kind of artifact set people were expecting—one with a lot of cool artifacts, artifact creatures, and artifact synergies. The goal of the set was not to just print really powerful artifacts, but to make you feel like an inventor—which artifacts played a central role in.

Of course, it's not as simple as that. Like most themes, going into it full-steam requires a lot of theorycrafting and the ability to come up with solutions for the problems they introduce. While we couldn't exactly take all of the things we liked and didn't like about the two Mirrodin blocks, throw them up on a whiteboard, and solve for everything, we could figure out what the biggest advantages and pitfalls would be for this environment and design around them intelligently. Number one on the mind of development was the challenges with color identity and artifact blocks. If we have too many artifacts, we start to make the individual color identities matter less, and we risk the Draft format being very "soupy" where the decks don't have any real definition and players just play the strongest cards. We needed to create ways to ensure that the artifacts enhanced the different identities of our colors in Draft instead of stifling them.

Dealing with Colors and Artifacts

One of the challenges of an artifact set for Limited is color balance. One of the things that makes Magic so much fun and so repeatable is the variety of decks that different color pairs bring. A real risk of artifact sets is that they allow a lot of people to stick with only one color and fill the rest of their deck up with artifacts. While that is a fine thing to happen sometimes, if it happens a lot, there will just end up being much less variety in the Limited games you play. Each color in Magic has strengths and weaknesses. One of the reasons you play multicolor decks is to mitigate their weaknesses. Blue is weak at removal? Pair it with black to get a control deck that has a ton of one-for-ones and card draw. Red can't deal with enchantments? A splash of white or green will help to solve that. This is integral to why the game has survived for the past 23 years.

Here is the dirty little secret of artifacts: they tend to break a lot of the rules we set up for the color pie. It's just true. I remember a discussion about a card in Commander (2015 Edition), Sandstone Oracle, that started off as a white card, but was killed for color pie reasons. So it became an artifact instead, which was fine. Now, admittedly, artifacts tend to get a little bit worse rate, but when you have a lot of them in the set, you can't make them all that way. You can create a six-mana artifact that taps and sacrifices to destroy a creature, and while it may not be unbalanced in itself, too many cards like that and all of a sudden a green-blue deck can get around the inherent weakness of its removal. No matter what the cost, if you create an artifact that can blow up other artifacts or enchantments, you risk giving black access to something we have kept from it for this long. We needed to find a way to create a ton of artifacts without damaging the color identity of the Limited environment.

Similarly, when we create artifact creatures, they are things like Bronze Sable that are basically worse than anything a single color would get. If we gave you a 2/2 artifact creature for two mana, that would be pretty messed up; we just last set started giving that to red, and we have never done it for blue. We will, however, give you 1U and 1R 2/1s with upside, so you will generally take them over a Bronze Sable. That all works great when you have just a few creatures in the set, but when you need north of 20 in the set, things are going to be pretty lame if we make them all worse than we would give in the colors. We needed ways to make creatures that were strong enough by themselves to see play in decks that could use them, but not so strong that people were picking artifact creatures for their stats over more interesting cards in the colors.

The first and easiest strategy was to add activated colored abilities onto several of the artifact creatures. Dukhara Peafowl and Narnam Cobra are each cards that are pretty mediocre if you are not playing blue or green respectively. If you were playing a deck that is really heavy on "artifact matters" stuff that is neither color, you can pick up the cards and have something that is a bit on the weak side, but strong enough with synergy to make your deck work. If you are playing blue or green, though, you get cards that can fit into almost any deck and be not great on rate, but acceptable for Sealed or Draft.

The second and much harder strategy was to craft artifacts and artifact creatures in such a way that they were highly directional cards that were very strong, but only in one strategy. What we wanted to have happen was that some artifacts would take on roles similar to gold cards, or at least the off-color activation cards that many sets have. Fabrication Module, for example, isn't a green-blue gold card, but it plays best in a Green-Blue Energy deck since those are the decks most likely to get repeatable energy, and blue's evasion works best with +1/+1 counters. However, you can easily run it in a red-white deck if you have enough energy or in a white-black deck if you have creatures you can recur that will each produce energy. Looking at creatures, Workshop Assistant can technically work in any deck that has artifacts to return, but it's going to work best in a deck that is either sacrificing it for value or recurring it for value. While these cards may not be the strongest directional cards in the set, they are great middle-of-the-pack cards that that help to push strategies in new and fun ways and things that will (ideally) make Kaladesh feel different from Mirrodin or even just a regular set. The push for the set was to make you feel like an inventor, and finding the right tool for the job—a tool that is unique to your deck—is important to creating that inventiveness. You might have a green-blue deck where Workshop Assistant is amazing, but that will not happen every time. These directional artifacts should help to push different strategies within different decks, but require enough of a commitment that when you do get the Green-Blue Recursive Artifact deck, it feels like something special.

Some cards are there, of course, more for rate and creating strong artifacts that can go anywhere (looking at you, Filigree Familiar and Snare Thopter), but they are the exception to the rule. We just can't make all of the artifacts that powerful and generic if we want to maintain a separation between the colors. That, as a whole, means that artifacts at common are there in a supporting role and for mid-pack picks rather than first picks. Uncommon artifacts, on the other hand, get to be stronger early picks because they show up less often in drafts. Part of the thing many experienced drafters like about artifact sets is that you get to spend more time being open by taking early artifacts rather than committing to two colors quickly. We want that kind of experience to exist, but not be the only thing to do. Smart players should get rewarded for knowing when to keep their options open early and when to commit.

I hope you enjoyed this look into Kaladesh Limited. Go out this week and play some more games of the set. Next week, I'll discuss some of thoughts we had about hate cards and artifact destruction while developing Kaladesh.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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