Count-Me vs. Threshold Zero

Posted in Latest Developments on November 9, 2007

By Devin Low

Compare these two hypothetical Elf tribal decks:

Elf Tribal Deck A - Tons of Tokens

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Deck A is definitely an Elf tribal deck. It wants to start by flooding the board with massive armies of Elf tokens and Elf cards. Then count the number of Elves it controls to pump up the impact of Jagged-Scar Archers, Imperious Perfect, Elvish Champion, Immaculate Magistrate and Elvish Promenade to monstrous proportions.

Elf Tribal Deck B - Tons of Tutor Targets

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Deck B is also definitely an Elf tribal deck. But this one is completely different from Deck A, with a different focus, a different plan, and almost completely different cards. Deck B doesn't try to count the number of elves it controls at all. It's not even trying to make the number of elves in play very large, since it plays Tarmogoyf, Troll Ascetic and Call of the Herd. Instead, it revolves around a different kind of "race matters" interaction. Deck B uses Elvish Harbinger to tutor up seven different singleton Elf cards, ranging from reactive cards (like Riftsweeper, Viridian Shaman, Nameless Inversion or Eyeblight's Ending) to threats (like Wren's Run Packmaster or Nath of the Gilt-Leaf), to backup plans (like Masked Admirers). It also uses its assorted elves to untap Gilt-Leaf Palace, and it needs to champion one with the Wren's Packmaster.

Elvish Champion and RiftsweeperHow can these both be "tribal Elf decks" when they look and play so differently? Why is Elvish Champion awesome in the first deck where it would be mediocre in the second, while 1x Riftsweeper is awesome in the second deck but would be mediocre in the first? How can it be that they have zero spells in common except Llanowar Elves and Boreal Druid?

The answers lie inside the different categories used R&D to make race matter in Lorwyn. Tribal interactions that want tons of Elves in play, like Jagged-Scar Archers, occupy a totally different game play space than tribal interactions that don't even need any Elves in play, like Elvish Harbinger. Since both kinds of tribal interactions are fun to play, the Lorwyn design and development teams carved out different categories of tribal effects at lots of points along the spectrum from "Count the number of Elves in play; the more the merrier" (e.g. Jagged-Scar Archers) to "Zero Elves in play is just fine" (e.g. Elvish Harbinger).

We applied these different categories to each of the tribes in Lorwyn. Each tribe has members in most of the categories, but not all of the categories. Since it's Kithkin Week, I'd like to use Kithkin to show you these different categories along the "Count-Me Spectrum" and how each of the categories has an important role in making the tribes fun. The categories have really clunky names, because they're just phrases developers used to describe what they meant in meeting rooms as the topics came up. If we knew we were adding to an R&D glossary, we probably would have picked more pithy names!

Scaling Count-Me

This is a hard-to-pronounce phrase for tribal effects that are literally twice as awesome if you have twice as many Kithkin in play, and four times as awesome if you have four times as many Kithkin in play. It's this category that for many people springs first to mind when they think about something "tribal." The name for this category is a little clumsy, but it helps distinguish these from the other kind of Count-Me's below.


Cenn's Heir
Cenn's Heir is a classic example of a Scaling Count-Me. If he's the only Kithkin you have in play, he's just a 1/1, but if you have four (attacking) Kithkin in play he's a 4/4. And fifteen (attacking) Kithkin make him 15/15. Pretty clearly a straight scaling from the number of Kithkin you control to the power of his rules text, with no cap on the value.

At first, Wizened Cenn looks like a different category than Cenn's Heir. After all, this card doesn't itself get better from the number of Kithkin you have in play. But think about this Kithkin lord's effect on the board, and it's clear that alongside the card's base 2/2, it adds an additional +3/+3 to the total size of your army if you have three other Kithkin, and +15/+15 if you have fifteen other Kithkin, just like the Cenn's Heir does. Since this card is triply as powerful when you have triple the number of Kithkin out, it's a scaling count-me.

While Quill-Slinger Boggart doesn't say Kithkin on the type line, the quill-slinger is very much a Kithkin tribal card. It's one of about half a dozen cards we nicknamed "lover-haters" that are simultaneously hosers against particular tribes that your opponent is playing and helpers for cards of that tribe that you are playing. Unlike Wizened Cenn, this guy has to be in play before the other Kithkin appear in order to matter. However, since this guy's effect is three times as powerful when you play out three times the number of kithkin, he's a scaling count-me.

Another example is Kithkin Mourncaller. Yup, when you have three times as many Kithkin out, his rules text does three times as much.

If you look for them, you'll find multiple Scaling Count-Me's in every single tribe.

Single-Scaling Count-Me


Spellstutter Sprite
This is the one category where Lorwyn Kithkin don't appear, so I'll use examples from other tribes. Spellstutter Sprite seems like a scaling count-me at first. After all, it says "counter target spell with converted mana cost X or less, where X is the number of Faeries you control." So it's certainly a "count-me," and it seems like having three times as many faeries in play makes it three times as good. But the key difference between Spellstutter Sprite and Wizened Cenn is that the value of counting all your faeries for Spellstutter Sprite eventually caps out at a maximum. If you have six faeries out instead of two faeries, the Spell Blast for 6 effect isn't really three times as powerful as Spell Blast for 2. At the end of the day, you can only ever counter a single spell. Sure having 6 faeries out makes it better than having 2, but it's not three times better.

A good rule-of-thumb for separating the Scaling Count-Me's from the Single-Scaling Count-Me's is asking "If I have 20 of the tribe in play, is this effect super-powerful, or it about the same as having 5 of the tribe in play?" If having 20 out makes the effect amazing, like Cenn's Heir or Wizened Cenn, then it's a Scaling Count-Me. But if having 20 of the relevant tribe out doesn't make the effect that much better than having 5 out, like with Spellstutter Sprite, then it's a Single-Scaling Count-Me. Another shortcut is that if the effect lets you draw cards, gain life, or deal damage to a player multiplied by the number of that creature type you have in play, then it's got to be a Scaling Count-Me.

Other examples of Single-Scaling Count-Me's include Thieving Sprite, Harpoon Sniper, and Silvergill Douser.

Threshold 1 (In Play)

For this category, you need at least one other permanent of the relevant creature type to make the card's rules text function, and more than one of that type of permanent doesn't make the effect it any better. In other words, the "threshold" of other cards of that creature type that you need is "1."

Kithkin Greatheart, Surge of Thoughtweft, and Thoughtweft Trio are each examples of Kithkin with "Threshold 1" tribal effects. For instance, Kithkin Greatheart needs a Giant in play to power up, but having four Giants in play doesn't help any more than having one.


Kithkin Greatheart
The Lorwyn design team was excited about giving Lorwyn even more "race matters" than Onslaught had. After all, Onslaught draft was about making Cleric decks and Zombie decks, but Onslaught Sealed Deck was mostly about morphs, with just a sprinkling of "race matters." One of the designers' mantras was "Lorwyn should be as tribal in Sealed as Onslaught was in draft." After all, Shepherd of Rot and Wellwisher were common Onslaught Scaling Count-Me cards that were really fun. Why not give Lorwyn a lot more commons like that? That sounded good to the developers too, so early development playtests featured tons of Scaling Count-Me's at common. Sometimes it seemed like every other card you played counted up the number of Elementals or Merfolk you had and unleashed some effect that was decent if you had two of them and ridiculous if you had five.

There were two big problems with that. First, the games were total blowouts. Whichever person got their five Goblins out fast enough to cast "Common Rolling Thunder based on the number of Goblins you have in play" quickly demolished the other person's board, before the other person could hit their "Distribute X +1/+1 counters amongst your creatures, where X is the number of Elves you control," put six +1/+1 counters on their guys, and blow out the opponent just as hard.

Second, it made your creature types so important that nothing else mattered to you. In drafts, you would pick Scaling Count-Me's in a single tribe for the first three or four picks of the draft. Then you would put your blinders on, go on auto-pilot, and completely ignore everything else in the draft that had a different creature type than the one that matched your Scaling Count-Me's. The draft wasn't an interesting balance of "When do I take an Elf to match my Imperious Perfect, and when do I pick Briarhorn instead because he's just awesome?" Instead the draft was "This pack has one Merfolk and nine other cards I don't even need to read because they're not Merfolk. I'll take the Merfolk."

We did several things to take off these turbo-tribal blinders and give people more choice and strategy in the drafts. I'll talk about all the ways we resolved this in a future article, but what's important now is that a handful of exciting Scaling Count-Me's are fun, but tons of Scaling Count-Me's at common are not fun. We kept just a few Scaling Count-Me's at common and did a bunch more at higher rarities. Since we still wanted race to matter at common, and we didn't want too many Scaling Count-Me's at common, we populated common with Single-Scaling Count-Me's, Threshold 1 cards, and our next category, Threshold 0+.

Threshold 0+

This category features cards that can use their "race matters" rules text perfectly well without any other cards of their tribe at all ("Threshold 0"), but which have more options, and are thus more powerful, when you do control more cards of that tribe (The "+").

The iconic example of this category in my mind is Black Poplar Shaman. With no other Treefolk out, you can use his "race matters" ability on himself, and it works just fine. He's a 1/3 that regenerates himself. (That's the "Threshold 0" part.) But when you have more Treefolk out, you gain the option to regenerate them too, so the Black Poplar Shaman gets more powerful. (That's the "+" part.) It's not a Scaling Count-Me card, since having twenty Treefolk out doesn't make Black Poplar Shaman's ability insane. And it's not even a Single-Scaling Count-Me, because when you use the ability, having more of the relevant creature type doesn't make the ability inherently more powerful like it does for the single-scaling count-me Harpoon Sniper. Instead, having more Treefolk out just gives you more options on how to spend your mana through the Black Poplar.


Wellgabber Apothecary
For the Kithkin, one example is the white Merfolk Wellgabber Apothecary, who can attack and shield himself with no other Kithkin or Merfolk out. If you have more Kithkin out, you have more options for shield-giving, which is nice, but having twenty Kithkin out doesn't make him super-awesome, and his ability does about as much with four Kithkin out as it does with eight.

Another Threshold 0+ card for Kithkin is Cloudgoat Ranger. She brings her own Kithkin goatgrooms, so she doesn't need any other Kithkin cards to make her rules text work. But if you happen to have three more Kithkin cards out, you can use them to make her fly a second time, going up to 7/3 flying.

A final Kithkin tribal card that's hard to categorize is Guardian of Cloverdell. To me, he seems closest to Threshold 0+, in that his sacrifice-Kithkin-to-gain-life ability works fine even without any other Kithkin cards in play, but if you happen to have more Kithkin cards, the Guardian will have additional options. I can imagine someone arguing that he's a Scaling Count-Me because he can turn twenty Kithkin cards into 20 life, but in game play I feel like he mostly dances with the Kithkin that brought him, rather than making you think "Now I need to draft twenty-three Kithkin."

Threshold One-Drawn

The next category down the spectrum is a looser requirement than Threshold 1. Threshold 1 tribal cards say "You need to have another of the relevant creature type in play (and alive) to make my rules text work." But Magic is like Frogger: creatures tend to die. "Threshold One-Drawn" cards are more generous: you need to have drawn one of the relevant creature type, but you don't need to have it currently in play.


Goldmeadow Stalwart
For Kithkin the big example of Threshold One-Drawn is Goldmeadow Stalwart. When you play him on turn one, you need to have drawn another Kithkin card to reveal, but that card doesn't need to be in play. It's definitely a looser requirement than Threshold 1 cards like Surge of Thoughtweft and Thoughtweft Trio that need the one Kithkin they require to be in play, alive and paid for.

Another kind of Threshold One-Drawn card is Wort, Boggart Auntie. Wort only needs you to have drawn one other Goblin card to work effectively, especially if that card is Tarfire, Mogg Fanatic, or Nameless Inversion. And while a Threshold 1 card like Boggart Mob demands that your one other Goblin be alive in play, the "Threshold One-Drawn" Wort, Boggart Auntie doesn't care if Mogg Fanatic has already been killed—she's happy to pick him up again.

One advantage of the tribal interactions in the latter half of the spectrum is that they make it easy for Constructed decks to dabble in tribal effects without committing all the way to being a Kithkin deck. To continue the example of Wort, Boggart Auntie, black-red decks can use Wort effectively even when Tarfire, Mogg Fanatic, and Nameless Inversion are their only Goblin cards. And white weenie decks featuring Soltari Priest, Knight of the Holy Nimbus, and Serra Avenger can use Goldmeadow Stalwart effectively by including some Kithkin to go along with the angels, shadow priests, and enigmatic knights.

Threshold One-in-Deck

For Kithkin, the example in this category is Kithkin Harbinger, and the Harbingers do this for all Lorwyn's tribes. Elf Deck B from above shows this kind of tribal interaction in action. This category comes up for mechanics besides tribal as well, usually associated with tutoring. For example, "enchantments matter" in a deck with Academy Rector, but Academy Rector can be playable even with only a very small number of enchantments in your deck. Especially if all those enchantments start with "Yawgmo" and end with "Yawgmoth's Bargain."


Mechanical Link


Glen Elendra Pranksters
Now we are definitely getting to the bottom of the count-me spectrum. Glen Elendra Pranksters and Pestermite don't say "Faerie" anywhere in their rules texts. But they still have the ghost of a tribal mechanic between them. Glen Elendra Pranksters rewards you for playing spells during an opponent's turn by returning creatures to your hand. Pestermite can trigger the Pranksters ability by popping out with flash. Then you can benefit from the Pranksters' ability by re-using the Pestermite's comes-into-play effect. Even though the subtypes never got referenced there, the interaction sure feels awfully tribal.

For Kithkin the mechanical link is "We love attacking!" The strength of the Kithkin weenies and their speed can make them powerful as long as they stay on the offense. That's when many of their "When CARDNAME attacks..." abilities keep working. But if the Kithkin get forced back onto defense, many of their abilities just turn off. It's a nice reward for doing what you already want to do in a white weenie deck: always attack! The rewards for attacking work together in that they all encourage you to build a fast, aggressive deck that can neutralize enemy blockers and keep smashing through.

As with many of the tribes, there are tons of Kithkin cards that don't mention require any tribe in their text boxes, but share this mechanical link: Kithkin Daggerdare, Kinsbaile Balloonist, Springjack Knight, Militia's Pride, and Galepowder Mage all explicitly say "Reward attacking creatures." Kinsbaile Skirmisher and Goldmeadow Dodger don't say the word "attacking" on them, but their abilities intentionally only work on offense. And while Kithkin Mourncaller and Cenn's Heir are in other categories above, they each explicitly reward attacking too.

On multiple occasions, we discussed making Kithkin Daggerdare, Kinsbaile Balloonist and/or Kinsbaile Skirmisher say "target Kithkin creature" instead of "target creature" to make Kithkin commons more tribal. Some even said that for a while. But we eventually decided to keep these three cards open-ended and able to help anyone.


The final category in the spectrum are Kithkin cards that have no tribal effects whatsoever—not even the "love attacking" mechanical link. Every set needs cards with simple text boxes that are just cards and don't hook into a greater machine. Here's where you'll find some simple commons (Goldmeadow Harrier, Kithkin Healer, Plover Knights, Knight of Meadowgrain), a silver bullet (Burrenton Forge-Tender), and some cool rares (Brigid, Hero of Kinsbaile, Gaddock Teeg).

Spectrum Perspective

I hope that helps show how we put Kithkin tribal effects at almost every point along the count-me spectrum, from true Scaling Count-Me's all the way down to non-tribal beaters. If you apply the same categories to the other Lorwyn tribes, you'll see that each tribe hits almost all the points on this spectrum, providing both the excitement of "I had six treefolk out, so Dauntless Dourbark was insane!!" and the excitement of "I only had three Faeries in my deck, but I played one on turn one, so my Boggart Sprite-Chaser was totally maxed out!"

A propos of Kithkin week, a hearty congratulations to the twenty Kithkin decks that made Top 8s in the recent States and Champs in the U.S., Canada, and Japan, including a State Championship victory. You can see the Kithkin Top 8 decklists here, along with eleven Top 8 Merfolk decks, twenty-one Top 8 Faerie decks, twenty-four Top 8 Goblin decks, and forty-three Top 8 Elf decks. And to think that all the Kithkin, Merfolk, Faerie, Goblin, and Elf cards in Morningtide aren't even here yet.

Last Week's Poll

What’s your favorite part of Lorwyn to build Standard decks around so far?
Tribal decks (e.g. Elves) 4069 43.5%
The planeswalkers (e.g. Chandra Nalaar) 1897 20.3%
The evoke creatures (e.g. Shriekmaw) 1063 11.4%
The gold legends (e.g. Doran, the Siege Tower) 652 7.0%
A card outside these categories 627 6.7%
The Command cycle (e.g. Cryptic Command) 558 6.0%
The Incarnation cycle (e.g. Purity) 486 5.2%
Total 9352 100.0%

It's cool to see that each category had several hundred people select it. But the clear winners were tribal decks and planeswalkers. Both saw a lot of play over the course of States and Champs, and I'm looking forward to seeing how clever deckbuilders will continue to innovate tribal decks and planeswalker usage over the course of the season.

[The survey originally included in this article has been removed.]

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