Curve Your Enthusiasm

Posted in Latest Developments on November 18, 2016

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.

Hello and welcome to another edition of Latest Developments. This week I'm talking about what we do when we are plotting out where on the curve different creatures will exist in our Magic sets.

Curve Identities

Much like how I talked last week about how we use vanillas to reinforce a color's identity, one of the primary goals of curving out creatures within a color is to strengthen its identity. Now, part of this is just practical; we do a different percentage of creatures per color—white gets the most, and blue the least. That naturally means that we need to fit an extra two or three white creatures at common, which necessitates putting more creatures at one, two, and three mana than blue normally gets—since white doesn't tend to get a lot of big creatures.

We also use where the cards exist in the curve to help spell out what our colors are good at. Green tends to get the strongest five or six mana creatures in limited because it is the color of ramp. If we are pushing the green/red archetype as a ramp strategy in this set, then we will likely make sure that if green has the strongest six drop, red gets a strong four or five drop to complement it. We want there to be reasons to go into the second color, and often that comes down to filling out your curve with creatures that complement your strategy.

White, on the other hand, tends to have the lowest curve of all of our colors—it's very good at small efficient creatures, but not so good at big ones. Especially at common, it's very rare for us to make white creatures with four power or greater. At the same time, it's one of the few colors that gets really strong one-drops. White tends to be the backbone of aggressive strategies in limited for that reason—especially the "go-wide" strategies like white-red in Shadows Over Innistrad block or white-green in Kaladesh. White's total as-fan of creatures at common/uncommon is 60%, so that typically means around twelve common creatures.

A typical white creature curve at common in a set might look like this:

Converted Mana Cost 1 2 3 4 5 6
Number of White Creatures 2 3 3 2 1 1

Even if all those creatures are not strong, there is a lot to work with if you are trying to make a solid curve. If you need some two-drops, you don't need to prioritize them because there are so many. You can take the other strong cards floating around and hope to get them in later packs.

Blue, on the other hand, is the least "creature-y" color in Magic. As a result, it often has a bit of a weird curve. It's as-fan of creatures at common/uncommon is 47%, so it has quite a few less than white. Its curve within a set looks more like this:

Converted Mana Cost 1 2 3 4 5 6
Number of Blue Creatures 1 2 2 2 1 1

If you were playing a mono-blue deck, you are really going to have to scramble to get two-drops, especially since it is hard to do nothing for your first two or three turns in a game against an aggressive deck. Even though the blue two-drops tend to be a bit weak, you will often need them anyway, just to stave off other two-drops.

Because each color has either abundances or deficiencies in their curves, we naturally create spaces to combine two colors. A blue-white deck, in this case, can make up for the really weak two-drops in blue by getting them in whit, and gets the advantage of all the additional spells and interaction points that blue has in spades where white is lacking.

Balancing The Curve

As we play games of Limited with the set, we get a feel for what is fun and what is working in Limited. We make sure that people enjoy the set's mechanics, that none of the cards are too strong, and that all of the colors feel balanced. We look for interactions that are unintuitive or broken, and we try and fix those. We see what colors are appealing or unappealing and try to smooth those out.

This only gets us so far, though. During the entire lifetime of a set in development, we may only do fifteen or 20 drafts. All the while, the cards are changing dramatically. It's enough to get a feel for stuff, but not enough to really balance out by intuition alone. When I talk to pros who are playing the set before the Pro Tour, it's not uncommon for them to have done 20 or 30 drafts in the first 2 weeks of the set's lifespan—and all of those are with the finished set. We may be pretty good at balancing things by intuition, but we are never going to fully match up to the raw number of games that are played with the set by even the end of the first week. We seek to create a level of balance that is higher than the number of games we've played, and it would be bad if we let something like one person opening up two strong rares in one draft to heavily influence the commons of that color.

For that reason, we rely a lot on spreadsheets to make sure we are making the correct decisions while building sets. We have developers rate the cards in our sets and say how strong they think each card is, and we use those ratings to ensure that the power of the each color's creatures are distributed well and at points that make sense for the color. Blue getting the strongest two-drop or white the strongest six-drop doesn't make sense, but we also need to make sure that all of the strong black cards don't exist at three mana. We must have strong cards at each mana cost across the entire spectrum if we want the sets to have interesting and fun games.

A good tool for this for us is to create casual Constructed decks. Often, these look a lot like Planeswalker Decks or the old Intro Packs we used to make. The goal here isn't to make them perfectly balanced against each other, but to make sure that we can assemble reasonable-looking decks using a color pair's strategy with a limited number of commons, uncommons, and rares. As we are building them, if we find that the deck is flowing over at four-drops but is lacking in three-drops, we will try to move something to compensate. If we find that it needs a stronger two-drop, we will try and compensate there too. It's all about spreading these out enough that when you are drafting or played Sealed, you will have the opportunity to let cards in your strategy shine and fill out the missing spots in the curve with more generic cards.

Power Curves

While not 100% true, the general pattern is that every three-drop is stronger than every two-drop—other than the whole "costs one more mana" thing. Similarly, every four-drop is stronger than every three-drop. A four-mana 4/3 is a fine enough card, but it would be one of the strongest commons in a set at three mana. A lot of things like abilities, evasion, and the like can change how all these cards are weaker or stronger in a particular deck. Similarly, there can be a pretty big change in power between two cards at one mana cost—the difference between a 1W 2/2 vanilla and Topan Freeblade is pretty huge.

When working on sets, we want to make sure that the strongest card in each color tend to be spread across different mana costs. Let's say that black has two of its most powerful common creatures as three-drops. That may be fine in and of itself, but if green has its most powerful common creatures on that curve, then a black-green deck is going to have a huge glut of its power at three mana. Sure, you are always going to get a powerful three-drop, but that's not actually that strong, since it will take a long time before you can play two on one turn. When two colors line up like this, it tends to make them very unappealing for experienced drafters who will figure out that the curves are wonky and steer towards other color combinations.

At the same time, let's say that two mana is where the powerful cards exist. That may lead to a color combination being too aggressive, as curving from a powerful two-drop into a powerful three-drop into two powerful two-drops tends to end the game incredibly quickly (especially when combined with a removal spell). If you ever played a Simic deck against a Boros deck in Gatecrash, you may have experienced what this looks like when you have too many strong two-drops. It often mattered less what your strategy was or what cards you opened, and more if you had enough speed bumps to put down to survive until the Boros deck ran out of steam. Not the most satisfying play experience.

Having games that play out like this is, in and of itself, fine. Many people really enjoy playing those games, but they shouldn't be the only thing to do. Formats like that tend to invalidate a lot of the sideways strategies and can lead to games being very same-y. Similarly, we have had sets where the low-drops are too weak (or mostly toughness stat'd), which can lead to games going too long, and while that can be fun for people who like those games, it often tends to overemphasize rares and other bombs. Again, it is a great strategy to have a deck that clogs up the board, then wins with some strong rares, but that should be something you move into when you get a few strong expensive rares—not the primary strategy of a Draft format that simply requires you to open up strong cards to have a competent deck.

Ultimately, we like it when Limited formats exist within the middle—you can build the hyper-aggressive decks that have some weaknesses and the hyper-controlling decks that also have some weaknesses, but most decks are going to exist in the middle: decks that trend fast but have some late plays, or the controlling deck that can race if it draws several of its flyers early. That variety of gameplay is important, and making sure that the strength of cards in the format are well distributed rather than clustered in one spot helps to create that kind of gameplay.

That's it for this week. Join me next week when I get into the nitty-gritty with playtest names and some other similar quirks of playtest cards.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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