Last year, I wrote two articles (Part 1 and Part 2) on the color pairs of Theros, and how we used many different cards of all rarities to try and push those color-type archetypes in Theros. You can read up on those if you want (and I would recommend it), but it isn't really required to understand this article. The tl;dr version is this—we put cards in our sets that are better in specific color pairs to focus Limited strategies, to make drafting more interesting over the long haul. Okay, with that out of the way, on to the new content.
The job of the designer and developer for a small set, in terms of Limited, is to make things feel new, while at the same time making them feel the same. There have been times in the past, with sets like Fifth Dawn, Alara Reborn, or Saviors of Kamigawa, where we have made dramatic changes for Limited, and those have generally been unpopular. We've moved toward making the set's Limited themes line up better and feel like a natural evolution. Looking at the Ravnica blocks—while things change quite a bit, the changes feel like part of the sets rather than artificially imposed. Our hope is that future sets will work more in this vein.
- Allied-Color Pairs
Since the Gods featured in Born of the Gods were allied only, it made sense to include a set of uncommon gold cards for those Gods, and leave enemy-color gold cards for Journey into Nyx. Because we now draft sets from the newest to oldest, it is important that the small set expansions have similar anchoring cards to those we put in the large sets. We also wanted to push things in a similar direction to those in Theros—although not always identically. It is important, though, that they work closely enough to make the decks work and be coherent.
The color pair strategies for Born of the Gods are listed below:
The goal of this card was to give white-blue heroic a way to not only trigger its heroic, but to do so repeatedly. Most of blue's heroic triggers, and some of white's, give you temporary spell effects, but they can quickly fall behind as opposed to green and white getting counters.
Blue-black is a control deck, but it needed some more cards that could have an early-game impact. The Siren acted as a Specter that could put some early pressure on an opponent.
Theros was, unfortunately, a little lower in Minotaur count than we wanted, especially in black, and so we made sure to put a few extra in Born of the Gods to help make the deck more possible.
Red-Green: Ramp into Monsters
While the monstrosity mechanic doesn't appear in Born of the Gods, the deck's plan is the same—play the biggest creatures. Tribute added a lot of good creatures for the deck, but we wanted a powerful three-drop that would help the deck keep up with the faster strategies, while still being powerful in the late game.
Another heroic deck, although this time relying more on just being larger than the others, we wanted another way to trigger multiple creatures' heroic abilities in one turn.
The range we tend to put gold cards like this in Limited is basically strong, but not a bomb. They are riskier to draft in your first few picks than monocolored cards, and so they float around the table a bit longer than most cards of their power level usually would. The goal for these is to not be first picks in most decks, but to give people who might already be in one of the colors something to build toward. You might already be in green, but unsure if you want to stick with the red card you first picked, or white, which looks open. Getting passed a Reap What Is Sown will hopefully help to make that decision more clear.
- The Enemy-Color Pairs
Green-Blue: Ramp into Spells
As I mentioned earlier, the design of Born of the Gods was tilted toward allied-colored gold cards. In fact, there was only one enemy-color gold card at uncommon—Kiora's Follower. We knew we wanted this in order to give Kiora some presence in the set, outside of just her mythic rare. The card itself also worked in letting you ramp in a very similar way to Voyaging Satyr in the first set, but giving you the option of getting combat tricks with it by untapping creatures, especially those with inspired.
- The Numbers Don't Lie
When we playtest Limited, we record the numbers of cards each playtester played of each color, to make sure that the Limited environment is appropriately diverse. Doing this in Sealed is by far the most useful, because it lets us tell if the environment as a whole is off much better than can Draft. After all, Draft is self-correcting. Everyone might want to go white and red (as an example), but there is no way that everyone can. Even the weakest color will have someone playing it, because he or she will get all the good cards of that color. Sealed lets us know when the big picture is in place, and we can use Draft to refine it.
Everything looked fine when we were working on Sealed for Born of the Gods, so we moved into Draft. After a few drafts, we noticed something—there was a tremendous bias toward allied-color decks instead of enemy-color decks. The only exception was green-blue, which was at about the ratio we would expect. The reason was obvious—while we were still hitting the same color-pair strategies in Theros, we didn't have the same level of anchor cards in the first pack of the draft for any of the enemy-color pairs—except green-blue.
- Problem Solving
Tom LaPille, the set's lead developer, had a bit of a decision on his hands. Adding five gold cards to the set would be difficult, considering most of the art had already been commissioned (and some of it was even finished), and it might distract, at a higher level, from the set's focus on the five allied minor Gods. After a lot of discussion, Tom decided to try a cycle of uncommon off-color activations to better support those five-color pairs. They wouldn't guide people quite as strongly as the allied-color cards (since a green-white deck can still get a Giant Spider out of Graverobber Spider), but they would hopefully provide enough direction to bring the number of enemy decks up higher.
Fortunately, there were some uncommons that were already fairly close matches in terms of helping out the different color-pair strategies. With that, the following changes were made:
Fisher of Odunos
Creature – Zombie
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield or dies, return target enchantment creature card from your graveyard to your hand.
While the general strategy in Theros for white-black was to be a more controlling drain deck, black and white were also the primary bestow colors, and each featured an extra common in Theros. With the increase in the number of enchantment creatures in Born of the Gods, we took the opportunity to give the deck some more rewards.
Stormcaller of Keranos
Whenever you scry, you may pay 2. If you do, CARDNAME deals 2 damage to target creature or player.
The primary strategy of blue-red in Theros was spells, but there was extra scrying in those colors, as well as creatures like Prescient Chimera to help see more scry. Adding in the activated ability to scry made this less of a powerful build-around, but better supported the blue-red deck.
4G: CARDNAME gets +1/+1 for each creature in your graveyard until end of turn. Activate this ability only once each turn.
With cards like Commune with the Gods in Theros to fill up its graveyard, black-green would be able to get, by far, the greatest advantage from Scavenging Spider.
Phalanx of Heroes
1W: Each creature you control with a +1/+1 counter on it gains vigilance until end of turn.
This one was the least strong fit, but the card that was intended as a way for a slow heroic deck to whittle down its opponent now went to support the red-white "go-wide" strategy.
- Continuous Quality Improvements
The process of development is an iterative one. As time goes on, we learn new things, and we improve the way we do things, which makes all of our sets better in the future. The enemy-color activation creatures came together in a bit of a roundabout way, but I am overall happy with how they ended up, as are most of the developers. More importantly, though, they definitely taught us a lesson about supporting the color pairs in expansions. While we may not always take a strategy like this to do it, it is something we will be working on to improve in the future.
Until next time,
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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.