Common Comparisons

Posted in Latest Developments on April 22, 2011

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.

Although they are not the cards that get the most time in the spotlight, commons are the bread and butter of Magic. The majority of all printed Magic cards are commons, and they form the bulk of both most players' collections and of cards played in Limited.

Mark Rosewater spent the first part of his article this week talking about what commons do from a design perspective. While everything he said is true, there's a lot more nuance to the purposes that commons serve once a set enters development. It should also not surprise you that some commons do those jobs better than others. Today, I'll bring up several pairs of cards and compare their execution on the jobs they do.

Magic needs removal spells to work naturally. Without them, boards become clogged, no one can attack, and everything is boring. Therefore, we keep making new removal cards in every set. Both Immolation and Fatal Attraction are red Auras that remove creatures. Fatal Attraction was an important piece of the Future Sight common removal suite, and while neither Legends nor Fourth Edition were played much in sealed deck, Immolation was key to Masters Edition III Limited.

Immolation reads to me like a card that we could just put in a modern core set. While power and toughness changing is not red's normal cup of tea for removal spells, green doesn't normally get spells that do damage or enchantments that keep a creature tapped either, and that didn't stop us from making Entangling Vines and Hornet Sting. The flavor match of red setting a creature on fire is quite good, and it makes sense that this would make the creature in question more painful to fight against and easier to kill. To my modern eye, Immolation is a well-executed Magic card.

Fatal Attraction, on the other hand, is quite an oddball. Rather than being a classic fire or lightning concept, this spell apparently causes many sharp bits of metal to fly at the enchanted creature. I have seen this trope in Mystery Men and Lost, but I've seen fire and lightning much more often. It also has quite a lot of text on it. It's chock full of "interesting"; do you want to kill your opponent's small guy now, or can you wait a turn to kill a bigger guy?

I see two lessons from these cards. The first lesson is that developers need to pay attention to likely creative concepts. When evaluating potential commons, I often imagine what the final card will look like. If I can imagine art that matches both my text box and my creative expectations for the setting, then that's a good sign. If I can't, or if creative warns me that a card is awkward to concept, that's a bad sign.

The other lesson is that cards whose purposes are simple should read simply. If I just need a red card that can unclog board states and go away with little fuss, I shouldn't spend thirty words to do a job that ten or fewer words could do. It's important that there is enough complication for Magic to be interesting, but there's a limit to how many cards in a game of Magic can be complicated before the game drags down and becomes hard to process. I think that there are better places to spend complication points than common red removal spells.

Blightwidow and Rot Wolf are among green's strongest commons in Mirrodin Besieged, and they both have infect. However, they function very differently during drafting. Blightwidow is a very powerful defensive card that protects against one of many green decks' biggest weaknesses: flying creatures. It is so good at that job that I often play it in decks that otherwise have no infect creatures in order to buy time for more expensive and bigger creatures to win a game. Picking a Blightwidow early in a draft makes me want to be green, and opens me up to the possibility of drafting infect, but doesn't lock me into that strategy. Rot Wolf, on the other hand, is much more powerful in dedicated infect decks, but picking it early in a draft is much riskier because of how much weaker it is if I don't plan to win with poison. Which of these cards is better developed?

That was a trick question. I think that both of these cards are excellent. Infect is a very linear strategy because of how non-infect creatures don't help your infect deck win the game, and vice versa. If we didn't have low-risk ways to dip your toes into the infect waters, risk-averse players might never be willing to draft an infect deck. On the other hand, without strong reward cards like Rot Wolf, players who are willing to take risks might not be excited enough about the potential rewards to do it. We would like both kinds of drafters to be willing to draft infect, so we make both kinds of cards.

There is a rich history of puzzling Magic cards like Mirror of Fate, Hive Mind, and One With Nothing that require hard thinking to figure out how to use. We don't normally make puzzling cards at common, but when we do, they look like these two cards.

To me, Ichor Wellspring is the good kind of a puzzler. It replaces itself with another card, so you don't feel bad about playing it. Once you're that far, you start wondering what else you are supposed to do with it. How can you get value out of having a random artifact in play? How can I get value out of sacrificing it? There are satisfying answers to both of these questions elsewhere in the set. However, the important thing to me about this card is that when I see it, I wonder what the best way to use the card is. It's obvious that I'm going to play it and draw a card, though, and anything else is just a bonus. It's hard to feel bad about a random Ichor Wellspring because the baseline is appealing enough.

I think Leaden Fists is the bad kind of puzzler. I normally want to give my own creature +3/+3, but keep my opponent's creature from untapping. Therefore, it's not obvious what I'm supposed to do with this card. Am I supposed to make my own creature a better defender but unappealing to attack with? Am I supposed to keep my opponent's creature tapped but open up the possibility of losing my own big attackers to a trick that untaps it? While Ichor Wellspring's two abilities don't have obvious uses, they do not obviously contradict each other like the two lines on Leaden Fists do. I think Ichor Wellspring is the more satisfying of these two cards by a long shot.

Another common thing we do is try to ensure that mana bases work in Limited. In Ravnica, we needed enough mana fixing to play three-color decks with a straight face. In Lorwyn, the Treefolk tribe stretched across three colors and there were Elementals in all five colors, so we wanted enough mana fixing for players of those tribes to be able to stretch to play all the available creatures.

Selesnya Sanctuary and its nine friends were very powerful, but I think that Shimmering Grotto executed mush better on its intended purpose. Shimmering Grotto is weak enough that I usually didn't play it in two-color decks. One more basic land of either of my two colors usually gave me more consistency than the Shimmering Grotto would have. On the other hand, in three-color Treefolk decks, multicolor Elemental decks, or decks that had a card that was appealing to splash, Shimmering Grotto was much better than a basic land. This meant that most of the Shimmering Grottos in a draft made it to people who could actually use them to the best effect.

Selesnya Sanctuary, on the other hand, is extremely powerful. It acts as two lands in one, so it was more than powerful enough to play even in decks that are playing only one of its two colors. This means that smart drafters were willing to take it extremely early and without knowing that they were playing both of those colors yet. If anyone who is playing either green or white is willing to snipe a Selesnya Sanctuary, there's no guarantee that the person who is legitimately playing both of those colors will be able to fix his or her mana with it. I think Ravnica Draft might have worked better if these lands were weak enough that they actually made it to people who were sure that they were playing both colors before taking them.

Let's end with another Limited comparison. Magic players expect Limited to focus on creatures attacking, and because of that we must be careful about anything at low rarities that threatens this focus. Because Magic is about creatures attacking, many players like high-toughness creatures that can protect them from all those scary attackers. We have to be careful about how we make defensive creatures, though, as making them too efficient can lock up game states and make it so that Magic is no longer about creatures at all.

Wall of Heat is an extreme example of this. For only three mana, you get a 2/6, which is enough to keep most common creatures of comparable mana cost at bay. It even has enough power to kill many of its peers without dying. Wall of Heat, then, causes games to grind in undesirable ways.

I much prefer cards like Kraken Hatchling. While it is a fantastic blocker, its zero power does not actually discourage enemy creatures from the act of attacking. Scratching the defensive itch is important, but it is much better to do so without causing games to grind. Also, note that Kraken Hatchling does not have defender. I have seen more than one Kraken Hatchling pick up a Trusty Machete and go on the warpath, which can help games end in a pinch.

The timing of Common Week was slightly unfortunate for me. New Phyrexia is a set unlike any other so far, with mild color bleeds, strange lines of text, and weird cards aplenty. As you might expect, I have many stories about its commons that will have to wait for another day. We finally get to start talking about New Phyrexia next week, so come back next Monday!

Last Week's Poll

How many times in the past three months did you travel more than thirty minutes to play Magic?
0 1895 42.8%
1 543 12.3%
2 448 10.1%
3-5 636 14.4%
6-9 270 6.1%
10+ 636 14.4%
Total 4428 100.0%

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