Creating Commands

Posted in Latest Developments on April 17, 2015

By Sam Stoddard

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.

Atarka's Command | Art by Chris Rahn

One of the things we try to do with each set is to make sure it has a ton of cards for people of all types. Dragons are, as a whole, not the spikiest cards we have in the game. And that meant we needed something in the set for people who weren't sold on the idea of wanting Dragons in their decks. One of the best examples of this type of card was in the original Lorwyn, which had a problem similar to a tribal set. If you didn't want to do the tribal thing, we needed to make sure there were things that excited you as a player. In that set, one of our solutions was to create the cycle of Commands that could go into any deck of the chosen color, and provide our spikiest players with cards they could point to in the set as being cool.

One of the earliest choices we made for these was to turn them from monocolor cards into two-color gold cards. This actually happened in design, as an attempt to mirror what the cards originally called Empires in Khans (which later turned into the Ascendancies) were doing for the clans. The original mechanics of these were not commands exactly, but something a little different. Something we plan on trying again someday, so I can't go into what they do. It wasn't until development that we decided we could simplify the cards a bit and just go with gold commands.

Trying to live up to the original commands was a difficult task. These are cards that are both powerful and iconic. It's hard to make things that stand up to them head-to-head, especially when we knew we were going to actually use the words 'command' on them. Because of that, they were given a lot of tender love and care as we worked on the set, because we knew we needed to not only make them balanced but make them fun and strong enough to live up to our player's expectations. In today's article, I'd like to delve a bit deeper into what our thought process was, and hopefully give you a better understanding of what goes into cards like this.

Balancing the Colors

It was important for us, when creating these gold commands, to find a reasonable pattern for the cards. When we made the Charms in Khans of Tarkir, we put one mode in each color for the choice. When making the Ravnica two-color gold charms, we instead used the pattern of: ability from the first color, ability either color could do, and ability from the second color. Getting these commands right meant finding the right pattern, and applying that to not only each individual command, but making sure we found the right balance of the colors between the commands.

Ideally, these commands would work best if players tended to choose one ability from each color, rather than using them mostly for the monocolor effects. That meant finding ways for each command to provide strengths that work with the decks we would expect to see them in.

Looking at our two green commands for some examples:

We came to these by trying to split up green effects, based on what kinds of decks we wanted to see these cards in, and how we felt we could best give those decks a wide variety of effects they could use.

We imagined the red-green/Temur as a more aggressive deck than the white-green/Abzan deck, partly due to how the second colors of the commands played. So, for Atarka's Command, the red parts of the command were for finishing off an opposing control or midrange deck, and keeping it from gaining life to come back from behind. We gave it the ability to put a land into play so you could use it early in the game, to accelerate into a creature like Stormbreath Dragon, or to cast Sarkhan; and gave it the ability to give your team +1/+1 and reach, either as protection from an air-based alpha strike, or to create a super-efficient finisher.

When looking at what a white-green deck needed, we wanted to add some way for decks that might want to play less black to get some creature removal win white-green, or let the Abzan decks that already have removal have something versatile that could deal with different kind of threats. For Dromoka's Command, the white parts of the command were good at keeping your creatures (or you) from being killed by a mass-removal spell and dealing with many of the powerful enchantments from Theros block. But we wanted to give the green parts of the command ways to deal with more general threats, so giving your creature a +1/+1 counter and fighting is a great way to go over the top of an opponent's blocker.

Creating Decisions

People like powerful cards. That's a pretty verifiable fact, even if they sometimes make the game less fun. While Cryptic Command is fun to cast, as a card it's also stronger than we would generally print in Standard. When creating cards we expect to live up to the original set of commands, we needed to do so in a way that kept the decision-making process that made the first set fun, but not in a way that would overpower Standard. And that meant carefully designing the commands to be useful for their versatility, not just for one combination of modes.

Imagine, as an example, the following command:


Gain 2 life.

Destroy target creature.

Draw 2 cards.

Tap target land.

There is no denying this card would be very powerful, but it's not actually very interesting. The problem is that the effects are way out of whack in terms of power—destroying a creature and drawing a card are just way stronger than taping a land and gaining 2 life. While there will always be some situations where the two weak abilities will come up, it's not nearly enough to justify that the card will be used in its two primary modes 95% of the time.

Part of designing and developing these new commands meant finding effects that were not only balanced with each other, but provided people enough opportunities to choose the different options. Getting all of the modes to be perfectly balanced won't ever happen, but we can at least find abilities that all get used at pretty similar rates.

Take, for example, Silumgar's Command.

These modes are not of exact equal power, but they lend themselves to be better or worse in different situations. Target creature gets -3/-3 until end of turn, as an example, is just much more frequent a choice than destroy target Planeswalker in the abstract, but both of them will come up more than enough to mean that when a player chooses Silumgar's Command for their deck, they will be making different choices on a regular basis.

Finding the Right Targets

The problem with mixing modes that target and don't target, is that players will either end up choosing suboptimal modes to play around possible removal, or just make a mistake and end up getting punished pretty heavily. Ask anyone who has targeted a Mutavault with Primal Command and chose to search for a creature. Whoops.

To try and avoid that, we had a rule in design that all of the commands had to have either all of their modes target, or none of them. For most of the commands, this stayed true through development—though Ojutai's Command ended up losing the 'counter all creature spells' and gained the ability to return a target creature, instead of something less interesting.

We made this a focus for our rules on commands because we believe they improved game play. It isn't a huge change, but we imagine these as being some of the premier cards of the set; and certainly some of the strongest ones we created that were dragon-agnostic, and it's important that they worked in the ways that people wanted them to work. It's not a huge change to the power level of the cards, but it goes a long way to making them play in a way that's satisfying for everyone involved. And ultimately, our goal is to make sure the cards we add to Standard make the game more fun as a whole, not just for the person casting them.

That's it for this week. Join me next week when I start talking about what our Dragons of Tarkir FFL metagame looked like.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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