A Changing Landscape

Posted in Latest Developments on August 31, 2012

By Dave Humpherys

Dave Humpherys has been managing the development team for Magic R&D since 2010. He led development for the Avacyn Restored and Gatecrash sets. He was inducted into the Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame in 2006.

As Zac mentioned last week, he is leaving us for other pursuits in life. We wish him luck and we'll miss him here! For those of you loving Magic 2013, you haven't seen the last of his work as a development lead. And for those who have enjoyed his articles, I'm confident you haven't seen the last of his writings on Magic just yet, be it on our site or elsewhere.

But what does this mean for you, the reader of Latest Developments? We'll be trying a new rotation of authors. These writers will come from among our cast of developers in R&D. This should enable you to gain a better appreciation for how we work as a team and see how each person's view interacts with the team, as he or she matures into his or her role here. If you've become accustomed to clicking Thursday night to see a very familiar face and know approximately what you'll get in writing style and tone, this process might take some getting used to. Running the column in this fashion will be an experiment of sorts, but one that has many likely advantages. Please continue to give it a try and let us know what you think.

Final Touches

It is my hope this rotation of authors brings with it some of the same advantages as having the lead developer rotate with each of our sets. Writing an article each week is a challenging task. While many have entered into R&D in part because they have shown a propensity to communicate thoughts about the game in written form, it is hard for each of us to find a new topic each week that we can pour ourselves into. I can only determine that Mark Rosewater is a mutant in this regard. For the rest of us here, a more leisurely pace of thinking about topics, reflecting upon our latest work and your feedback about it, should prepare us better for each subsequent article. Similarly, one reason we rotate set development leads is to make sure our leads feel refreshed and ready to give it their all on their next lead assignment. But the benefits of rotating our lineup go well beyond that.

While there are certain pillars of development that we, as a team, share in common, the rest of the individual components of the ideal structure aren't universally held. And they are debated here every week. And then, debated more. Each lead developer takes things in his or her own direction to an extent. It's crucial that the lead work within the scope of what we liberally deem fun, accessible, and resonant. And to also work toward that particular set's goals as envisioned by design. But beyond that, we encourage boundaries to be pushed. The development lead gathers designs from a great number of people and relies on feedback from a team of developers. In terms of recruiting this team, we are often looking for people who will challenge our notions rather than mimic our own. And so while the lead developer's job is to take in a wide variety of opinions, each lead leaves a very distinctive set of decisions.

For example, Zac's inclusion of Jayemdae Tome at uncommon was met with a lot of skepticism by the other developers. We were worried that too many games might be decided by this card-advantage engine that could be played in a wide variety of decks. Zac iterated and re-iterated on Limited playtests, and in particular Draft playtests, like no other lead I've seen do. And it shows. He argued that Limited was, among other things, fast enough to handle a card like Jayemdae Tome. But things could have gone differently in the hands of another developer. I took a quick poll of some of the developers you are likely to see contributing to this column over the next few months to see what they likely would have chosen as their "contentious" uncommon artifact in this slot and here's what I got:

Dave GuskinMillstone
Tom LaPilleManriki-Gusari
Erik LauerManriki-Gusari
Billy MorenoAdaptive Automaton
Sam Stoddard—Disrupting Scepter


The naturally changing landscape of sets as they come from design also lend themselves to change as well, but ultimately the development lead and his or her team have plenty of jurisdiction to experiment and create cards that our players will then, in turn, also debate the merits of. If any given developer took over the lead of any given set, that final set would look quite different than in the hands of the others. And while, for example, our now most-experienced developer, Erik Lauer, might put out the best set on average, he also agrees that it is best overall to keep changing the shape of the game through a varied cast, each of whom will connect better with certain subsets of players than other recent leads.

Who Is Dave Humpherys?

Dave Humpherys

While you will see much less of me than Zac, I'd like to give you a better sense of who I am. After all, I'm trying to impress upon you the sense of differing opinions each R&D member has and how that plays its collective role in this game we all love.

I joined the company and jumped midway into the Magic 2012 development team meetings, and with the exception of Magic 2013 I have since been on every development team we've publicly announced—that is, through Gatecrash. I manage the development team members. I'll miss bossing Zac around.

I'm in the Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame. I have a PhD in Biology. This means that I have strong Simic tendencies; my thesis was on reproductive cloning, of all things. Until Gatecrash releases, I'll most enjoy playing with Azorius cards.

My first lead here was for Avacyn Restored, which was admittedly met with polarizing opinions. While being overall quite proud of the set, I've learned much about what I could have done differently to make many of you happier with regards to the set's Limited play. For example, we've discussed as a group metrics for accessing the quality of removal cards in a set, and the range that value should average at and fall within. We've had lengthy discussions about the nature of the Limited build-arounds, and what qualities are shared by the ones that make players feel like they are doing something special. In addition, while we always work hard to balance colors every set, we've created a new metric for evaluating each color's strength and will prioritize that in development as we move forward.

While several of the goals of Avacyn Restored were at least partially at odds with what many enfranchised Limited players would like, we could have done more to strike a common ground with them. I hope many others of you enjoyed Avacyn Restored and, for those who didn't, that you were able to still explore it deeply enough to learn more about Magic as a whole. For further thoughts from us on the set as well as the rest of Innistrad block, I'd recommend taking a look at Mark Rosewater's State of Design article that went up on our site earlier this week.

Who Am I As a Player?

To give you a better sense of me in terms of what styles of decks I've liked to play, I put together a list of some of my best finishes over the years, noting key cards and deck types focusing on finishes where I can consistently remember what I played: Constructed Pro Tour Top 32s, Worlds Top 8s, Masters Final, US National Top 8s, and a Grand Prix win:

Pro Tour—New York (February 17–18, 1996): UGr with Sindbad, Control Magic, Lightning Bolt, Erhnam Djinn (Midrange)
Pro Tour—Columbus (July 6–7, 1996): UWr with Ivory Gargoyle, Jokulhaups (Control)
Pro Tour—Paris (April 11–13, 1997): Uw Draw-Go Rainbow Efreet (Control)
Pro Tour—Rome (November 13–15, 1998): UB Recurring Nightmare, Great Whale (Combo)
Pro Tour—New York (June 30–May 2, 1999): UR Tinker, Goblin Welder (Combo)
1999 US Nationals (July 2–4, 1999): UW Replenish (Combo)
Pro Tour- New Orleans (November 2–4, 2001): B Reanimator (Combo)
Grand Prix- Minneapolis, Minnesota (September 29–30, 2001)—UWB Desolation Angel (Control)
Masters- San Diego (January 9–13, 2002): UB Psychatog (Control)
World Championships (Sydney, Australia—August, 2002) : UB Psychatog (Control) and UG Threshold (Aggro)
World Championships (Berlin, Germany—August 6–10, 2003) : UG Madness (Aggro Control) and B Reanimator (Combo)
2004 US Nationals (June 18–20, 2004) : Rg Goblins (Aggro)
Pro Tour—Columbus (October 29–31, 2004) : B Reanimator (Combo)

As you can see from this list, I personally quite enjoy playing with control and combo and began to experiment more with aggro in my later years as a competitive player. You'll also note that with rare exceptions, I was quite fond of playing with blue cards. Beyond what I enjoyed playing, admittedly many of these choices were certainly also based on what I thought were the best decks. Yet, by and large, I've been more of Johnny than the average pro, although less so as the years moved along.

As far as Limited goes these days, I'm the member of R&D least likely to play two colors in a draft. I have a reputation for drafting mono-colored decks or many-colored decks.

What Do I Like As a Developer?

I love building decks, in many cases as much as playing them. That means I'm particularly fond of cards that encourage me to explore cards that aren't typically explored or to fit together the pieces of a puzzle. I assume there are many others out there like me, and I'm always happy when we can make cards that provide challenges like these. Battle of Wits is a great puzzle in and of itself. Primal Surge is another recent card offering you a general direction but that is also very open-ended. I spent a great deal of time unsuccessfully arguing that we should shave a mana off of the cost of Primal Surge. Power-level aside, I also think that Delver of Secrets and Snapcaster Mage are awesome cards, being blue creatures that tell you to play into some of the strengths of their color and dramatically changing what cards you might otherwise play in decks with them. Birthing Pod is also a great example of a card like this, as it offers you the challenge of delicately balancing casting costs and creature counts and encourages you to dig through creatures with "enters the battlefield" and "dies" or "leaves play" effects.

Battle of Wits
Primal Surge

By contrast, Birthing Pod also provides a good example of some things I dislike as a developer. That in turn informs you of other things I might like, based on what falls at the other end of the spectrum. Birthing Pod creates a lot of downtime for my opponent and the audience. (Yes, we have a greater audience every weekend watching events from their home.) I dislike that cards like it pulls us out of some of the most engaging flow of game. Even if the decision of what to get with the card is largely a foregone conclusion by an experienced player, it can eat up a lot of time with shuffling. How many cards in Avacyn Restored shuffled? One. I assure you this wasn't just coincidence. I am probably more aligned with powerful straightforward card-draw than other developers simply because it avoids the time involved in cards like Ponder. If anything, I'd fall more in the Fact or Fiction camp, where at least both plays are engaged during the resolution of the spell.

Birthing Pod
Borderland Ranger

Birthing Pod also creates scripted games. Once the deck it is built around gets going, its games are largely going to play the same from there, game after game, against any given deck type. Instead, I'd like to maximize environments where each card you draw matters as opposed to them potentially mattering very little at all. That said, there can be a lot of drama in getting the engine of a Birthing Pod going in the first place, or re-establishing it if it is broken up.

Birthing Pod also encourages the use of "spell-tures"—that is, creatures that cast spells upon entering the battlefield. As a general rule, I'd much rather see our creatures do cool and interesting things along a combat axis or in using activated powers than trying to imitate instants and sorceries with a different card's type and stats attached to them. I love a card like Sublime Archangel that can either work on its own or be the MVP, based around other creatures on the board. It is important to note, however, that developers will need to embrace set themes that pull them against their individual preferences. We need to be adaptive in this way. For example, Avacyn Restored benefitted from a great number of spell-tures to allow the flickering theme in the set to shine. So my team set about to embrace working with that design objective, making flavorful and fun cards in this vein—even those encouraging yet more spell-tures, like Restoration Angel.

Sublime Archangel
Restoration Angel

Moving aside from my love-hate relationship with Birthing Pod, let's take a quick look at other things I like to encourage in Magic.

I like formats where tempo-based strategies are a real thing. I love good midrange creatures. I enjoy offering tools to people to punish frustrating strategies, so long as we are in turn giving easy ways for those strategies themselves to adapt. For example, I'm a big Thalia fan. By contrast, I'm less of a fan of color-hosers. The latter typically is more frustrating and requires narrower answers. I like confronting players with challenges that they can be reasonably expected to find answers to.

Finally, I'm a big fan of gold cards and cards that are otherwise challenging to cast, yet I'm not particularly a fan of artifacts. I like cards that aren't easy to pull off but reward you when you do. Consequently, as you might guess, I'm super excited about Return to Ravnica.

Choose Your Guild

In parting, we are anticipating the release of Return to Ravnica here and I asked our crew which guild in the Return to Ravnica set they most identified with. You'll have to wait on their answers with regard to Gatecrash. Here's what I got back:

Dave Guskin—Azorius
Tom LaPille—Selesnya
Erik Lauer—Izzet
Billy Moreno—Rakdos as a player, Golgari as a person
Sam Stoddard—Izzet

You'll no doubt learn more from and about these fine fellows in the upcoming weeks and months.

As for me, I'll see you all back here in three weeks with a Return to Ravnica preview. I also encourage you to follow the Magic Players Championship coverage if you haven't been watching it already. In the meantime, I hope you enjoy the gradual unveiling of Return to Ravnica and are having fun with Magic!

Thanks for reading,

Dave Humpherys

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