Building Block: Theros Edition

Posted in Latest Developments on April 18, 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.

I don't have a preview card for today. Instead, there is a full preview of the full set at the Card Image Gallery. Take some time to soak that in; this article will still be right here. Seriously, check it out, the set is pretty sweet.

Back? Got it? Good, now let's talk about Block Constructed. Magic R&D playtests Block Constructed both because it is a Pro Tour format (as well as having a Grand Prix and numerous Magic Online events) and because it gives us a good window into the world of what we should be expecting the next year.

Mana Confluence | Art by Richard Wright

Often, Block Constructed teaches us a lot about what the other previous sets were missing—anything from black two-drops to efficient enchantment removal—and it gives us enough time to fit those effects into the third set of a block to improve that Constructed format and to help ease the transition to the next year's Standard. Today, I want to talk about a few cards that were added into Journey into Nyx somewhat late into development to solve problems that we were having in Block.

Mana Confluence

Mana in Block Constructed is something that R&D has been hyper-aware of ever since Innistrad block, where we found that the format was incredibly stale after only one tournament due to the poor mana situation not allowing for enough viable decks in the block format. Outside of just Block, though, we noticed that we were having problems getting non-monocolor aggro decks to perform as well as we would've hoped. Part of this was Sylvan Caryatid, but part was also the lack of nongreen mana fixing for these decks.

The answer to these questions was to put in a land that would be most at home in two-color aggro decks for Block, and help out these same decks in Standard, while not giving the three-color midrange or control decks a huge boost. Mana Confluence, like City of Brass before it, is interesting in that it is one of the few dual land designs that is better in aggressive decks than controlling decks. We found that the three-color decks were some of the strongest decks in Block (partly because the aggro decks weren't showing up), so we wanted to make sure to limit how much they could make use of the extra mana fixing.

We made this card despite R&D's general dislike for paying life as a cost for using your mana. Upfront costs like on the Ravnica shocklands are easier to track, but just didn't feel right for this card. Overall, the card ended up in a place that we are happy with; I think it goes a long way to helping fill out a lot of the more-interesting Block decks and will hopefully improve the mana for many of the same decks as they transition to Standard next year.

Banishing Light

Ever since we created the new temporary exile template for Banisher Priest in Magic 2014, we knew that we wanted to get it on to a new version of Oblivion Ring. We just didn't know when, exactly, that would be. By the time we finalized the plan to revise the exile-template of Banisher Priest, it was a little late to add a new Oblivion Ring to the set. We also had a goal for the early sets in the Theros block to have the Gods be hard to deal with. We wanted to give the cards their time to shine, and having too many easy answers for them would have undercut the awesomeness of the cards themselves.

By the time we started putting Block through its paces, it was becoming more obvious that the format needed a versatile removal spell that could deal with Whip of Erebos, Elspeth, King Brimaz, and Polukranos. There were plenty of cards that dealt with several of these, but not one that dealt with all of them. We didn't want Block Constructed to be dictated by just the number of main-deck hate cards for enchantments in the way that Mirrodin Block revolved around artifact hate. Luckily, we knew the exact card to go to.

Another interesting thing about this card was that development worked with creative to come up with a name that was not specific to Theros in much the same way Oblivion Ring wasn't Lorwyn-specific. We don't necessarily want Banishing Light to be in Standard at all times, but we want to be able to add the card to environments that need it, and having a more-universal name lets us do that without having to wait for a core set or creating a functional reprint.

Agent of Erebos

One of the things about balancing cards is that we start off by using Standard to measure how cards will work, which means we get to rely heavily on the cards that existed in the previous year to give us some safety valves for the current set. Return to Ravnica block sat on top of Innistrad block, which was based on the graveyard, so there was a lot running around to hate on the graveyard—with Scavenging Ooze, Rest in Peace, Deathrite Shaman, and Cremate, Standard graveyard removal was in no short supply. We knew when we were creating the Whip of Erebos that we were creating a very powerful card that would be held in check in no small part thanks to these sorts of cards. Then, when Block testing came around, we realized we just didn't have anything in the format to deal with the power of the Whip. This led to some searching and figuring out where to find a card where we could put the effect—which finally showed up on Agent of Erebos.

The goal of this card was not to create a super-powerful graveyard hate card that decks could run main deck that would keep graveyard decks from emerging, but to give the format something that decks could bring in if the Whip decks did turn out too powerful. Judging by how they have been doing in in the current Magic Online Block events, I'm happy that we have the cards floating around. It should help keep the format diverse.

Pharika, God of Affliction also fit into this picture when we added the ability to target either player's graveyard to the card—thus letting the black-green-based graveyard decks have a mirror breaker to deal with an opposing Whip. We needed your opponent to actually get the token, since deathtouchers that spawn more deathtouchers would be pretty hard to beat for actual creature decks, but a 1/1 deathtouch Snake is generally preferable to an Abhorrent Overlord or Ashen Rider.

We find mirror breakers to be important cards to exist in Magic, especially when they are less powerful than the normal cards the deck could run as a whole. Part of getting metagames to be self-regulating is to give decks enough options for movement that they can end up hurting one matchup to help another. By having cards that a strong deck can include to help against the mirror, we let those decks have the options to change their percentages against the field for an advantage in the mirror. If one deck gets very popular, then it starts to spend more and more of its time trying to fight the mirror, and therefore it starts to lose some amount of win percentage against the field until things can find a better balance. This won't solve all of the problems that a metagame can develop, but it keeps away the most egregious ones and allows for interesting deck building even when the format isn't as diverse as we want it to be.

Giving Block a Try

If you didn't know it, today R&D will be playing in the R&D Challenge, where we play in a Magic Online event against all of you. As you might have guessed from this article, we are playing Block Constructed to get a better feel for the format before Pro Tour Journey into Nyx. If you have the time, you should put a deck together and play in it. More information on the event can be found on this page.

That's it for this week. I look forward to Pro Tour Journey into Nyx, seeing what the pros come up with for their Block decks, and seeing just how far off we were from predicting the format.

Until next time,
Sam (@samstod)

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