Crafting a Metal World

Posted in Latest Developments on October 22, 2010

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.

Welcome to Metalcraft Week! I've written before about the story of metalcraft in development, but I'll go over it again here. A year or so ago, Magic producer Mark Globus was assigned the task of designing his own set as a research project. That set contained a mechanic called presence. It was much like threshold, except that instead of counting cards in the graveyard, it counted permanents under a player's control. When Scars of Mirrodin needed an artifact-matters mechanic, Mark Rosewater swooped in, crossed out the word "permanent" and replaced it with "artifact," and flew off into the night with his new mechanic.

The last remaining task was to decide on a number of artifacts that metalcraft would require. (Mark's column earlier this week talks about why it's a constant amount.) After brief forays into testing two or four artifacts, they settled on three.

After the design handoff, Scars of Mirrodin lead developer Mike Turian and his team also spent some time experimenting with different numbers for metalcraft. They, too, decided on three as the number after a short while, and that was that.

Well, that's the story of metalcraft in development. Thanks for reading, and I'll see you next week.

    The Rest of the Story

Okay, I lied. There's plenty more to talk about! Metalcraft is one of the block's key mechanics, which meant that we also needed to include plenty of artifacts. More than a third of both the commons and the uncommons are artifacts, which is a ton of cards. This doesn't change much in Constructed, but it has the potential to make Limited more challenging. At least a third of your card pool in Sealed Deck, for example, is made up of cards that you can play in any deck. That's a lot. When you open a pack in Draft, instead of having around six cards to choose from for your two-color deck, you're choosing from nine cards. This is also a big difference.

Each of us had been active in Magic during the previous Mirrodin block, and after some discussion, we mostly agreed that the Limited formats from Mirrodin's first incarnation had two main problems. The first problem was that less experienced players saw an undifferentiated mass of artifacts and were paralyzed by the sheer number of options. Magic cards have text on them, and if you're not already good at internalizing them, it's much more challenging to choose from among nine cards than it is to choose from among six cards. Although I and many other people love Magic because of how much choice it offers to players, our goal is to provide the right amount of choice for each person. Ideally, an inexperienced player opening a pack sees only as much choice as he or she can handle, while an experienced player opening that same pack is confronted with a huge array of potential paths to walk down.

The second problem Mirrodin had was something that affected players on the opposite end of the experience spectrum. When a strong player opened a Mirrodin pack, they also saw a ton of artifacts, but those artifacts all blurred together into a sea of sameness. There doesn't seem to have been much effort that was put toward making decks that include many artifacts play differently from each other, which limits one's ability to be creative. Instead of building a deck to execute on a particular strategy, the correct move was often just to take the most powerful artifact. The quest to identify that artifact is one that experienced players tend to enjoy, but they enjoy it even more when cards' values fluctuate depending on the deck that they are drafting. Mirrodin had some potential for this, but not nearly as much as we try to build into modern sets.

These are two fairly big problems. Happily, they can be solved with many of the same tools. By building strategies that players can identify and choose to take, we provide both toeholds to people who need them and cause the value of each artifact to fluctuate from deck to deck. Scars of Mirrodin already had a leg up on Mirrodin in this direction when it was handed off, as along with metalcraft, we were given infect. However, there was still plenty of work to do.

Perhaps the bluntest technique we had to work with was to put colored mana activations on artifacts. Designers might tell you that this is important in order to preserve the color pie, but that's not the most important thing to me about doing this. A newer player who is drafting green can feel confident that Sylvok Replica is a card that is supposed to end up in their deck, while a more experienced player who isn't drafting green can make an informed decision about whether or not to try to "splash" it off of one Forest and a Copper Myr. To this end, design handed off four cycles of color-affiliated artifacts.

    The Mana Myr

The Myr aren't the best example of this in the world, but they are perhaps the lowest-level examples. I've seen people choose not to play Myr outside of their color before, as the card seems to be telling them to do that. Most quickly learn, however, that in an artifact set, any Myr is a good Myr. In that sense, the Myr also provide some of the earliest moments of discovery in the set.

    The Spellbombs

This is a better example. A player looking for guidance can use the colored mana symbols here to decide whether or not a Spellbomb is right for the deck he or she is drafting. A player looking to maximize power can decide whether making a 1/1 artifact creature is good enough in a metalcraft deck without drawing a card, or when to sideboard in a Nihil Spellbomb in a deck that isn't black against a deck with four Corpse Curs.

    The Replicas

Here is another good example. Someone looking to eliminate cards from consideration can ignore any Replicas that aren't in their colors. Someone looking to be clever can decide to splash one.

    The Trigons

These are in a slightly different space than the previous cards, as many of them are good whether or not you're playing the right color for them. However, if you are playing the right color, they can go from good to spectacular. That presents a different problem to power-maximizing players than the common cycles, which is why we chose to make them this way.

    Saberclaw Golem and Friends

These cards don't have a name in common because they were not part of a cycle when they left design. I talked a few weeks ago about the change, but here I'll briefly discuss it again. Near the end of development, we were worried that there weren't enough toeholds for Sealed Deck pools to be navigable by newer players, and we added mana activations to each of these cards to try to address that somewhat. However, that also added some unintended texture to the set, as Wall of Tanglecord suddenly got much better in green decks, and Soliton became a monster with Heavy Arbalest. Although these were unintended consequences, they were quite welcome.

Of course, color isn't the only vehicle we used. There are a number of cards in the set that give direction along other angles. Some of them are obvious, and are intended more as a guide. Others are subtle, and are intended to add depth for the tenth draft a player does. I'll list some of them here.

    Corpse Cur

Corpse Cur is one of the best possible cards for an infect deck. It's also quite bad in a metalcraft deck, as you can almost certainly do better than a four-mana 2/2. The version of this card that was handed over from design returned any creature and was slightly less efficient, but Mike Turian chose to change it from a general-use artifact that contributed to the overwhelming-ness of strong artifacts into a more niche card. To me, this card is the flagbearer for our initiative to make artifacts have different values in different decks, and I am proud of it.

    Chrome Steed, Snapsail Glider, and Golem Artisan

These three cards all tell you to play artifacts, but each of them does so in subtly different ways. Chrome Steed, much like Corpse Cur, is a four-mana 2/2 that varies in value wildly depending on your deck. If it's consistently a 4/4 for you, it's among the best deals you can find, but otherwise it is basically unplayable. Snapsail Glider is better without help than Chrome Steed, but has less of a power boost when it gets metalcraft. Finally, Golem Artisan is a strong card in an artifact deck, but shines most in slower ones. Not every artifact deck will have enough mana and plan for enough time for the Artisan to do the work it wants to do. You won't go too wrong if you just play it in whatever artifact deck you have, but there are also plenty of things you can do to maximize its power.

    Myr Galvanizer

One of the best ways that we can help lower-level players with deck building is to provide cards that scream to be built around. Lords are one such kind of card, and Myr Galvanizer at uncommon gives the possibility for that impulse to help guide deck building in Limited. It also leads to interesting moments in deck building for strong players. I recently watched a video where a strong player stated that he doesn't normally play Myr Galvanizer, but he was going to be playing it in this Sealed deck because he had four mana Myr and a Palladium Myr. That made me happy, as it is one more bit of texture for strong players to find.

As always, several members of Magic Ramp;D traveled to the Scars of Mirrodin Prereleases in many places across the country. Our experience is that newer players had a tougher time with Scars of Mirrodin Sealed Deck than they did with Magic 2011 Sealed Deck. That's unfortunate, but it comes with the territory of making an artifact set, and it was still encouraging to see that many of the toeholds we built into the set were helping. And where established players are concerned, we couldn't be happier with the feedback we've gotten about how much fun Scars of Mirrodin is to draft. We did our best to build in tons of depth, and it seems like that work has paid off.

To everyone who has tried Scars of Mirrodin Limited and given us feedback, thank you. If you haven't—it's Friday, and your local store just might be Drafting at Friday Night Magic tonight. If they aren't, Scars of Mirrodin drafts are now live on Magic Online, so there's nothing stopping you from getting your first or your next draft in today.

    Last Week's Poll
What do you think of Standard with Scars of Mirrodin?
It's awesome!144624.7%
It's good.218737.3%
It's okay.163227.8%
It's bad.3345.7%
It's terrible!2654.5%

    This Week's Poll
Which faction do you side with?Mirrodin!Phyrexia!Neither.

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