Back to the Future Future

Posted in Latest Developments on July 31, 2009

By Tom LaPille

Tom LaPille makes things. Some of the things he makes are card sets, like Dark Ascension and Born of the Gods. Sometimes he makes stories, too. Sometimes he makes unexpected things, like 16th-century Japanese clothing. He's probably making something right now.

Everyone in Magic R&D loves to play Magic, and we have the privilege of playing our game every day as part of our jobs. We often do this as part of the Future Future League, which is the format that we use to test Standard internally. The Future Future League contains all the sets that will be in real-world Standard on the release of the set that is currently in development. This means that at any given time it is many months ahead of the real world.

I was very active in the Future Future League while Magic 2010 was in development. Although I was on the set's development team, I was still an intern at the time. That meant that a great deal of my job was playing Future Future League games. It was a dizzying time. Not only was I on my first development team, but I was also churning through many decks every week to make sure that the Standard environment we were creating was fun. Today's article will talk about some stories from that time.

Uncommon Color Hate Cycle

Right around the time that Aaron Forsythe was handing off the set, Erik noticed that there were no color hosers in the set. He found this alarming for various reasons. One was that color hosers are easy places to go when a player is looking for answers to problems. Are big green creatures causing you problems? Grab some Deathmarks. Are you having trouble with a swarm of little white creatures? Try Ignite Disorder. Erik also had experience playing in Future Future League tournaments early in a set's development and knew how difficult it was to build sideboards for highly unknown environments. Color hate cards like Flashfreeze often make it into our early sideboards because we don't know the texture of the format yet, but every deck has to play colors. Celestial Purge may not be exactly the right card against a random black deck, but there is quite often a card in one's main deck that is worse than Celestial Purge in that situation.

Ignite Disorder
Celestial Purge

Erik asked that a cycle of one-shot color hosers similar to the ones in Coldsnap and Conflux be added to the set. Aaron made space for the cycle and allowed the development team to choose the cards to fill in the slots. For every color other than green, we chose cards from Coldsnap or Conflux. However, we were unhappy with both Karplusan Strider and Filigree Fracture. Karplusan Strider is simply not strong enough to matter in Constructed and Filigree Fracture doesn't make sense as a hate card outside of Shards of Alara block, in which blue and black play many artifacts.

Mold Adder

Rather than settle for one of these two, we chose to make up a new card. However, we recognized later on in development that this card would probably not be the tournament staple that Celestial Purge, Flashfreeze, and Deathmark have become. This was part of the reason we chose to create Great Sable Stag to supplement it. Despite this, you should not discount Mold Adder. I did lots of unsanctioned side drafting at the United States National Championships last weekend, and Mold Adder singlehandedly stole more than one game from my near mono-black decks. I also saw a very large Mold Adder punishing a blue player for playing many Brainstorms and Ponders while I was observing one of the Legacy events.

Lightning Bolt, Earthquake, and Ball Lightning

Magic 2010's suite of red reprints was a source of great excitement during the early days of the set's development. All three of Lightning Bolt, Earthquake, and Ball Lightning are classic cards that many of us remembered and loved. Aaron liked the names and concepts of each of them, so he put them all into the set. However, they are each very powerful cards. Lightning Bolt is one of the most efficient burn spells we've ever made, Earthquake simultaneously damages players and kills dangerous opposing creatures, and Ball Lightning is a 6-damage pop to the face. Aaron's skills in both development and design are very sharp, so we owed it to him to try the package of burn spells he gave us. However, we know that when straight burn as a strategy is too strong, playing against those decks becomes very unfun.

Lightning Bolt

Our early testing showed that in random decks that had access to red mana Lightning Bolt was powerful, but not dangerously so. It was a great nostalgic hit as well, so it didn't take long to decide that we wanted Lightning Bolt to stay if it could. However, it was still an open question whether there was simply too much good burn around.

Ball Lightning

To test this, I built a number of mono-red burn decks that included Earthquakes and Ball Lightnings. The first of these decks was an all-out aggressive build that included all three of the cards. This deck taught me a few things, none of which were real surprises. The first was that Earthquake was just worse than Volcanic Fallout in decks with little mana. The second was that Ball Lightning was very strong in a low-slung attack deck, but playing it left the burn player very open to being punished by decks with instant-speed removal spells. The third was that I didn't enjoy playing little red attack decks with no long-term plan because I would run out of gas and then have nothing to do.

To address these problems, I built an entirely different red burn deck. This one was built to be more similar to the "Big Red" decks of the Mirrodin era. It had more lands and big creatures, and to give myself more staying power, I cut the Ball Lightnings that we had previously feared so much for the more resilient Shambling Remains and Ashenmoor Gouger. Adding more lands also gave me the fearsome Demigod of Revenge. Here's the last list I played with.

Red-Black Burn

Download Arena Decklist

I had a blast playing this deck. I love smart red decks that give me lots of decisions, and this deck did exactly that. Between Lash Out, Shambling Remains, Volcanic Fallout, and Earthquake, many of my cards gave me decisions to make or could take multiple opposing cards with them depending on how I played them, so I found myself much more challenged than I was when I played the lower-slung Ball Lightning versions. I also found myself winning more thanks to the late-game power that Demigod of Revenge gave me.

Shambling Remains
Ashenmoor Gouger

Ball Lightning is a very powerful card. However, the last time it tore up tournament Magic was in 1998 when it was accompanied by cards like Cursed Scroll and Fireblast. Without those cards, Ball Lightning is nowhere near as terrifying. After discovering this, I protected Ball Lightning from people who wanted to make it disappear. Earthquake is also powerful, but we found that it was at its strongest in big red decks like this one. This style of red burn deck was the strongest of the ones we found, so we chose to keep the card. Because this deck was not too strong even with Lightning Bolt, our fears about its return were assuaged.

Demigod of Revenge

I played this deck a lot, partially because of how much fun it was. By the time I was done with it, the cards were very nearly destroyed. Here is one of the Lightning Bolts from the deck. As you can see, I wasn't kidding when I said that our playtesting of Lightning Bolt was extensive.


We were very excited about the idea of bringing back the classic Lightning Bolt, and it's very fortunate that our playtesting didn't keep us from doing that. Not every reprint that we considered was so lucky. One of the casualties of our extensive playtesting was Regrowth, another powerful card from Alpha with a simple name and a great concept that Aaron identified as a possible exciting reprint.


Although many of us were interested to see what Regrowth would do, others were skeptical, and a few were outright terrified. One of the latter was former Building on a Budget author and R&D member Nate Heiss, who heard alarm bells in his head when he saw Regrowth in the file next to Time Warp. He set out to build a deck that would take all of the turns with mana acceleration, card drawing, Time Warp, Regrowth, and Twincast. His list has been lost to the sands of time, but it didn't take him very long to find a version that could take a lot of turns very quickly. We don't mind combination decks, but we don't like strong combination decks that keep opponents from taking any game actions. Rather than try to figure out exactly how powerful the Regrowth-Time Warp deck was, we chose to simply remove Regrowth from the set and make a new card instead.

Time Warp

When the development team talked about what had gone wrong with Regrowth in the past, we kept coming up with instants and sorceries that were problematic when cast over and over again. Regrowing permanents, however, seemed relatively innocuous. Adding the word "permanent" gave us Nature's Spiral, a card that we were happy to print.

Nature's Spiral

Elvish Visionary

One of the hidden joys of playing in the Future Future League is discovering something really powerful and having a card changed because of it. This makes one feel very smart, but it also is a bit of a letdown because one knows that his work will never be seen by the rest of the world. Before this article, I felt this way about the events surrounding Elvish Visionary, but thanks to the platform this artcle gives me, now I get to share them!

Aaron handed off the Magic 2010 design file with the card "Elvish Messenger" in it, which was Elvish Visionary with a different name. Aaron thought that a messenger was a more easily understandable concept than a visionary and hoped to make the marginal upgrade. At the time, Alara Reborn was still in development, and Sages of the Anima cost only four mana and revealed four cards rather than three. We had a few Elf combination decks floating around, and both Sages of the Anima and eight copies of Elvish Visionary seemed like a potent addition to the deck.

Elvish Visionary

I and others were surprised to discover how powerful the deck turned out to be. When Sages of the Anima looked at four cards, it wasn't difficult for me to chain several Elvish Visionaries and Messengers together into a massive army with the help of Nettle Sentinel and Heritage Druid. When the power of my deck came to Aaron's attention, he decided that the flavor upgrade on Elvish Visionary simply wasn't worth it, and the slot in Magic 2010 went back to Elvish Visionary. Alara Reborn lead developer Matt Place also reduced the number of cards that Sages of the Anima saw from four to three.

Sages of the Anima

This is the end of the story for Elvish Visionary, but it is not the end of the story for this deck. Playtester Steve Warner thought my deck still had promise and provided me with the clever idea to play Gilt-Leaf Archdruid to replace Elvish Messenger. Many of my Elves were also Druids, so it would give me lots of cards. It also gave me an end state for the combination. The previous version of my deck had to wait a turn to attack, which left it open to Hallowed Burial or other mass removal. This one could steal all the opponent's lands before the end of the turn, which meant that my army of Elves would almost certainly be safe.

I ended up with this list.

Green-Blue Combo Elves

Download Arena Decklist

With Sages of the Anima at four mana, this deck was still powerful. It could pull off turn-four "kills" regularly, and occasionally went off on turn three. It was also very resilient, and could come back, with a little effort, from multiple removal spells. Matt chose to make Sages of the Anima a five-mana creature rather than worry about this deck being too powerful. Once again we don't mind combination decks in the abstract, but much like the Time Warp deck, this deck took all of the game actions for a while. In this case it was during one big turn rather than many small turns, but that one big turn often took multiple minutes to resolve.

Having worked on this deck has since made me feel both very smart and very silly. I felt very smart after Luis Scott-Vargas won the Extended Pro Tour Berlin with a very similar deck that used Glimpse of Nature rather than Sages of the Anima and Distant Melody. I felt very silly after people started winning Standard tournaments with Ranger of Eos, Regal Force and Primal Command in place of my blue draw engine. That list clearly has a better engine than mine, but I am still glad that it does not have eight copies of Elvish Visionary!

I'm out of room for this week. Thanks to @Daiches2, @tgva8889, and @Lee_Sharpe on Twitter for helping me name this article, and I hope you enjoyed this look into our internal Standard testing. I'll see you next week!

Last Week's Poll

If you have played in a Magic 2010 Prerelease, Launch Party, Draft, or other Limited event, what did you think of the set?
It was awesome! 1507 24.0%
It was good. 1910 30.4%
It was OK. 711 11.3%
It was bad. 124 2.0%
It was terrible! 101 1.6%
I have not played Limited with Magic 2010. 1932 30.7%
Total 6285 100.0%

Thanks for the feedback.

Here's a poll that is totally sideways to my article.

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