Aiming core sets is difficult. Technically, trying to aim how any Magic set will impact Constructed is pretty difficult, but core sets have a whole slew of challenges that make them a slightly different animal from expansions. A core set is always released when Standard is at its largest, which means it has the mathematically smallest immediate impact on the format, assuming that the cards in the set are no more powerful than in the other expansions surrounding it. We could power the cards up to make sure that they do more, but that is just a recipe for disaster in the long term, causing each core set to be stronger than the last, and the proceeding large set stronger to accommodate. Certainly, this was one of the problems with the Titans—they were the driving forces of Standard for almost the entire time they were legal—overpowering so many other cards in the format that Standard often felt like it was based around them, instead of around the blocks. It's nice when cards like Squadron Hawk, Master of the Wild Hunt, or even Baneslayer Angel make a noticeable impact on Standard and allow decks that may not have existed without them to flourish, but it has taken us some time to have a better idea on how to let cards have this kind of impact without simply dominating the format.
The core set has many goals, beyond simply providing cards that people want to play with. What we are attempting to do now is to position the core set in a way that its cards will have the most impact, without being so powerful that they primarily define what Standard is about for the entire fifteen months where they are legal. Their cards need to play well with the block that is leaving Standard (and giving a fresh oomph to some cards that will be soon rotating out), support the most recent block without overpowering any block strategies, and also sow some seeds for the upcoming block. We want the core sets to provide exciting and powerful Magic cards, but ultimately the rotation and block structure is what keeps Standard new and interesting, expansion after expansion, and year after year. That doesn't mean we won't put powerful cards in the core sets, but they should work in concert with the expansions around them, rather than being largely agnostic to the surrounding cards.
- Sowing Seeds
If you look back at Magic 2013 today, it is easy to see what was put in the set to support Return to Ravnica block. Many savvy players picked up on how Farseek, the core duals, Arbor Elf, and the Flinthoof Boar cycle were there to support the dual lands in Return to Ravnica block, and to provide exciting cards for people to play in other Constructed formats. Of course, it looks very obvious now, but there were a lot of questions before the set came out about how these cards were being used. It was possible that we would do a different cycle of lands, but it should've been obvious that they would have the basic land types. By putting these support cards in the core set and not Return to Ravnica meant that we could better modulate how the block played out. The focus over this past year has been multicolor spells. While there will be some multicolor spells next year, we want Standard to feel different next year, and one of the ways to do that is only letting some of the seed cards exist for one year.
Similarly, Scars of Mirrodin Standard was seeded in Magic 2011 with cards like Steel Overseer, Ornithopter, and Brittle Effigy, to make sure that artifact decks had the tools to exist in Standard, without worrying that we would end up with another original-Mirrodin-level Affinity Block Monster deck that drew all of its power from just Scars of Mirrodin block alone. By the time we were working on Magic 2012, we had a much better handle of where the artifact deck was, and if it still needed Steel Overseer to exist, we could've included it, or chosen another card to give a similar support role. Instead, we phased out those cards, and the Tempered Steel deck still managed to put four players into the Top 8 of the 2011 Magic World Championships.
What seeds are there for Theros block? Well, I can't tell you, but if you look close, you may be able to find them. For certain, they aren't quite as in-your-face as basic land types on the Ravnica shocklands, but they are there.
- Sowing Salt
Because of the development cycles of Magic, the core set is where we have the best opportunity to provide answers to cards that were more powerful than we may have anticipated in the year preceding it. Often, the cards we are worried about haven't made it into the real world yet, but they are in that awkward middle ground for us, in that the cards have been sent to the printers, but we are now concerned they are a little too strong. In any case, we try to put a few powerful answers to the previous block in the core set that are not so powerful that they prevent strategies from working at all, but enough to try and add some pressure to these strategies, and give the next year's block the best opportunity to have an impact in Standard.
In Magic 2014, this is best represented by the cycle of color-hoser creatures, such as Fiendslayer Paladin and Mindsparker. While these are probably not main-deck cards unless the metagame is really tilted, they do act as good sideboard cards against multicolor strategies. While Fiendslayer is obviously best against black-red decks, it will also shine in an environment full of multicolored cards, where your odds of running into creatures that have either some black or red in them is simply higher. Similarly, Burning Earth is a card that will punish decks that run nothing but nonbasic lands. These cards, and several others, are designed to act as pressure against the three-color all-nonbasic decks you often see in today's Standard—not to prevent those decks from working at all, but to hopefully keep them from dominating next year's Standard.
This overall strategy does have some risks, though, and we are mindful of them due to mistakes we have made in the past. Thragtusk was created as a card to fight against the Delver decks that were running rampant in our Standard, and to a lesser extent (at that time) the real world. While it did do something to accomplish this goal, it did so at the expense of also being too efficient against too many other strategies. In hindsight, it probably should've costed and been a 4/3 trampler to accomplish the goals we really wanted from it and to make it a little harder to splash in so many decks, as well as not pushing out almost all the other five-drops in the format. I believe we are getting better at finding the right places for core set cards to exist, but we still have a lot to learn through experimentation and iteration that will help future sets even further.
- Harvest Time
The last goal of core sets is to play well with the block that is leaving Standard, while not relying so heavily on it that the cards will not work after rotation. Often, this means letting cards play different roles before and after the rotation. We find interactions that might have be too strong for an entire year in Standard, but are fun and interesting for three months. This also lets us take deck archetypes that may not have totally worked out for the past year, and give them the needed oomph to finally break out onto the tournament scene. Rancor, as an example, gave the Infect deck some time to shine in Standard for three months, but then faded out for a while until fairly recently, when the Bant Hexproof deck gained popularity. We had originally planned to use Rancor to support Infect going into Scars of Mirrodin, but found that it was too strong (and therefore too much of a risk), and opted to wait two years instead.
In Magic 2014, Xathrid Necromancer has a friend in Champion of the Parish, or integrating into a Human-heavy Jund deck featuring Mayor of Avabruck. While there will be plenty of Humans on Theros for the Necromancer to work with, his strongest synergy is with the Human tribal of Innistrad block. Similarly, Archangel of Thune is a powerful creature in a vacuum, but gets an extra boost for three months due to Seraph Sanctuary. Combined with Sorin, Lord of Innistrad and his lifelinking Vampires, as well as Lingering Souls, you have a pretty powerful top-end to a White-Black Tokens deck for a few months. In the realm of combo-y type decks, Garruk, Caller of Beasts has a three-month overlap with three one-mana accelerators—Arbor Elf, Avacyn's Pilgrim, and Elvish Mystic, along with the three-drop Elvish Archdruid, for as many ways as possible to speed him out and refill your hand with creatures. Garruk's -3 is ideal at pushing out a Craterhoof Behemoth to add even more power to the deck and allowing for an absurd amount of damage on turn four. Arbor Elf, Avacyn's Pilgrim, and Elvish Archdruid all rotate in three months, and while there are other mana creatures to assist Garruk in September, the way he plays will just be somewhat different.
What will the immediate impact of Magic 2014 be on Standard? Will Scavenging Ooze find its place in Standard, eating reanimation targets from graveyards and recouping life for players against the fast aggro decks? Will Young Pyromancer live up to Chandra's image? And what about Chandra herself? Well, I have an idea about what Standard might look like, but I look forward to finding out over the next few weeks just how it plays out.
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.