Cage Match

Posted in Latest Developments on January 27, 2012

By Zac Hill

Zac is a former game designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast and was the lead developer for Dragon's Maze. His articles have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Believer, and on Currently he serves as the chief operating officer of The Future Project, a nonprofit education initiative, and holds a position as a research affiliate in the MIT Game Lab.

Hey, y'all. Welcome to Dark Ascension Release Week.

As I'm sure you already know—and if not, congratulations on avoiding an artillery-like barrage of banner-ads—the Dark Ascension Prerelease is tomorrow. I hope you can find some time to attend. I mentioned this last week, but DKA was the first set for which I was a member of both the design and development teams. As such, it holds a soft spot in my heart, and in a sort of self-involved and infantile way (Look, ma! No hands!) I'm already chomping at the bit to show it off. I can be confident in saying that it's packed full of the same things that made Innistrad great, while simultaneously managing to move the block forward in a meaningful way. I'm proud of it, and I sincerely hope you're able to take a few hours out of your weekend and check it out.

Now, if you're going to show up to the Prerelease, you might as well be prepared. So make sure to check out the sortable spoiler located here. This'll prepare you for the cards you're going to see, the tricks you need to play around, and the bombs you'll want to cross your fingers for and hope to bust.

The card I want to talk about today, though, is probably not a card you'll encounter at the Prerelease. It accomplishes next to nothing in your average Limited game; it can't attack or block; and if you're scouring the spoiler looking for the newest hot bomb to build a deck around, you might not even notice it. Still, it's generated a lot of buzz around the Magic Internet, and its printing signals a shift in development philosophy that's gradually been taking hold over the last few years. I want to talk about why it was printed, what it's intended to accomplish, and how its role varies across a number of different formats.

That card is Grafdigger's Cage.

Break It Down

You might remember these cards:

Creeping Corrosion
Into the Core

Then again, you might not. They weren't exactly Standard powerhouses, and while each of them saw a little bit of play in Block Constructed, they aren't taking over entire formats. If you don't remember those, though, and if you've been around at least a little while, I'd be willing to bet you remember these guys:

We definitely remember those guys.

A substantial portion of development's job is to prevent a metaphorical apocalypse. I spent a lot of time here talking about how much development's role has shifted from balancing the game to ensuring the game is fun. While that's true, we still spend a lot of time making sure nothing breaks. When formats break, everyone loses; all of the cool promises a set makes to you—promises of possibility, of discovery, of potential—go out the window, because a single strategy dominates them all. Meanwhile, the natural metagame evolution that takes place from week to week grinds to a halt, because instead of a lattice of competing strategies, you're left with one strategy dictating what's going to matter. Now, we realize that at any given point in time there is probably going to be a "best deck." That isn't a problem. The problem comes when the best deck stays the best deck—when there's nothing players can do to beat it.

Into the Core | Art by Whit Brachna

If you look at the trajectory of Magic's growth, you can see that time and time again it's these broken environments that drive players away. We take huge losses when Standard falters.

Now, we've always had tools to deal with that. What has been shifting lately is when we choose to deploy those tools.

Take a look at the following cards:

Tsabo's Web
Kataki, War's Wage
Great Sable Stag
Obstinate Baloth

What do each of these cards have in common?

Each of these cards was created to solve a problem. Tsabo's Web was engineered to beat Rishadan Port. Kataki was targeted at affinity. Stag was intended to hose Faeries. Baloth was intended to punish Jund. It was good for Magic that each of these cards was printed, and it's a credit to those cards' developers that they were put into a set. The problem, however, is that they came too late.

This isn't necessarily anyone's fault. I know that Erik Lauer put Baloth into the first set in which he was able to do so, for example. The problem isn't personal, it's methodological; by the time you can identify a specific problem in the real world, you're going to have to wait almost a year to deploy a solution. That means your hit rate is going to be very high but the impact of your hit is going to be comparably low. In many ways, it means that problematic cards have done their damage already.

Which brings me back to Into the Core and Creeping Corrosion.

Creeping Corrosion | Art by Ryan Pancoast

What we have started trying to do is place "hate cards" for a strategy as close chronologically to the set that originates the strategy as possible. There are a number of reasons why we have started doing this. Most importantly, the rate at which metagames evolve, mature, and stagnate is higher than it has ever been. With premier independent tournaments running nearly every weekend, and with Grand Prix running almost that often, formats simply iterate much more quickly than at any other point in history. What this means is that something that a decade ago took three months to "get old" now becomes tiring in the span of a couple weeks. The consequence is that responding to a metagame trend a year later just isn't very likely to solve your problem. We no longer have the luxury of that much time. Additionally, we realize that one of the most frustrating feelings in Magic is getting beaten by a strategy only to find that you just can't do anything to fight that strategy. Placing hate in close proximity to powerful linear mechanics gives players solutions to seek out.

Are there downsides to doing things this way? Of course there are. While our internal playtesting is reasonably good at identifying dominant strategies, it isn't perfect. Also, when we're developing (say) Innistrad we don't know what (say) Dark Ascension is going to look like in its final form, so we have to make some predictions that might not hold up. Because of that, sometimes we wind up designing hate cards (like Into the Core and Creeping Corrosion) that in retrospect aren't entirely necessary. Other times, we design cards like Tunnel Ignus, Leonin Arbiter, and Ghost Quarter that aren't quite as effective as they need to be. On balance, however, we believe this plan is for the most part working. It gives players options, and some imperfect options are better than no options at all—especially since, should the seeds we plant prove ineffective, we still have the option of the older, louder, brute-force method if need be.

Many players are worried that we're killing their potential to do awesome things before they even get the chance to start. That's a very legitimate concern. What we have found, however, is that most of the time the drawbacks to including such narrow hate cards in decks are pretty severe in an open environment. It's easy to always think about the worst-case scenario—they draw the hate card and you get wrecked by it—but what happens much more often is that they draw the hate card in the wrong matchup and are looking at a virtual six-card hand. Think about how often you'd win if your opponents were forced to mulligan—often multiple times—in every game. That's exactly what happens when you draw a dead hate card: it's a virtual mulligan. So usually these kinds of cards only tend to punish the very linear decks they are intended to target.

Can You Dig It?

All of this leads us right back to Grafdigger's Cage.

I've mentioned several times that Cage is a hate card, but it might not be clear what exactly it's trying to hate out.

The key offenders were these two guys:

Birthing Pod
Unburial Rites

The dominance of Pod decks hasn't really taken off in the real world, even though my experiences on Magic Online and in real-life gunslinging seem to suggest the deck is perfectly solid. It's safe to say we were probably more worried about this than we ought to have been. But one of the things we've learned is that we have to anticipate the worst-case scenario. It's difficult, as a designer and developer, to have the intellectual humility to realize that you might just be wrong, and to account for that inside the very structure of your game. We'd like to think we're perfect at our jobs, and we'd like to think we're right all the time. But that's just not true, and when we act like it is, we get punished for it.

When we were developing Dark Ascension, New Phyrexia hadn't even been released yet. Internally, our Pod decks hadn't started dominating the FFL until Innistrad, but it's conceivable that we had missed something. Conceivably, Pod could have been oppressive from the moment it was printed. Had that been true, the environment would be terrible. Players would be picking up their library and searching it every turn, tutoring for the optimal answer every time. Clones like Phantasmal Image and Phyrexian Metamorph made it relatively easy to blow up lands with Acidic Slime (and Frost Titan, which is pretty nice with Slime and Pod) every turn of the game, and the presence of numerous Sword-wielding, Pod-saccing, Garruk-searching one-mana accelerants ensured that you could start doing this very quickly. Finally, the undying mechanic obviously synergizes very well with the Pod. Taken together, it became clear that should the environment as it existed internally become the environment that existed in the real world, something would have to be done about it.

Acidic Slime
Frost Titan

Another major problem internally was the power of Solar Flare. These decks have surfaced in the real world, although they have been largely pushed out of the environment due to tempo-oriented aggro decks at the present moment. Still, the more prescient point has to do again with the worst-case scenario. We know that most competitive players are already sick of Titans, and the combination of Liliana and Forbidden Alchemy makes it fairly easy to plop a Titan on the table very quickly. Moreover, cards like Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur from the previous block meant that if reanimation was even slightly better than it was internally, games would frequently be over before they even really began—especially with the printing of Faithless Looting in Dark Ascension. Cage would hose the reanimation core of the deck, while also attacking the Liliana plus flashback/Snapcaster Mage engine that formed those decks' solid secondary plan.

Grafdigger's Cage was designed explicitly to hate out those two strategies. It was designed to do it loudly, clearly, and effectively. As it turns out, it's possible that hate for those strategies (at least at this point in the environment's development) was unnecessary. But I'm glad we made the decision for it to exist, and I would gladly do it again.

Eternal Love

Of course, we recognized immediately that the implications for this card would extend far beyond Standard. A lot of the comments about Cage I've been receiving are: Did we anticipate this? Did we realize exactly how massive of an impact this card would have?

The answer is: Of course we did!

Now, let me be clear about one thing. The card was not created to prevent Blightsteel Colossi from entering the battlefields out of libraries courtesy of Jhoira's incessant Tinkering. The card was not created to prevent you from getting caught up in the storm of Yawgmoth's nefarious Will. The card was not created to keep Iona and Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur decidedly non-animated or the dreadful Golgari Grave-Trolls from ever returning or any of that. But it does have those effects. And, for the most part, I am glad it does.

Jin-Gitaxias, Core Augur
Golgari Grave-Troll

One of the dangers of any non-rotating format is that it necessarily stagnates unless cards are introduced into the environment that shake it up. This is different from saying that format is stagnant right now. It's more of a math problem: the larger a pool of cards that you can play becomes, the less likely it is that any single new card is going to be considered playable in that world—that is, unless you try.

Grafdigger's Cage definitely represents a try.

The implications on Vintage and Legacy are enormous. There exist entire strategies that, at least as they are configured currently, cannot beat a Cage (just as there exist entire strategies that cannot defeat, for example, a Leyline of the Void). Of course, that means that you have to cast Cage in the first place, but there's definitely a reward for doing so. When the reward is worth it, those players who cast Cage will win matches. When the reward isn't worth it, those same players will lose matches. This creates a natural rotation, an ebb and flow of play-style that we feel is good for Magic overall. Pendulum effects are good for non-rotating formats because they keep game play interesting even when new cards aren't introduced into the mix—the format evolves based on the density of played hate.

Grafdigger's Cage | Art by Daniel Ljunggren

What exactly will happen in the wake of this card's introduction? Well, we'll have to wait and see.

It's important to give eternal players reasons to get excited about new sets. It's important to create fresh, new, diverse Eternal formats. But because those formats get to draw from much larger card pools than Standard does, you can't get cards into Eternal on raw power-level alone without power-creeping Standard at an unhealthy rate. As such, we print cards like Qasali Pridemage, Thorn of Amethyst, and now Grafdigger's Cage to impact those environments without pushing Standard over the brink. The alternatives are either for the Vintage, Legacy, and Modern of today to look exactly like the Vintage, Legacy, and Modern of five years from now, or to continually have to ban cards more and more frequently to brute-force an environment's evolution from the top down. We feel that printing cards like Cage is a better solution than either of those two other outcomes.


Anyway, that's an awful lot of words to write about a one-mana artifact that doesn't affect 95+% of games. If you have any more questions about the Cage, or about how we're designing hate cards in general nowadays, feel free to hit me up on Twitter, or send me an email via the link below. Like Rosewater, I read every email that y'all send me, and there's no way I can learn how y'all feel about something if you don't ever tell me in the first place!

Have a good Prerelease weekend!

Until next time,

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