Days of Future Future, Part 2

Posted in Latest Developments on August 16, 2013

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.

Welcome to another edition of Days of Future Future. This time, Part 2—Standards That Never Were. If you want to know more about what the Future Future League is, you can catch up by reading the first "Days of Future Future" article.

While the Future Future League has a reasonable idea of what Standard will look like when the set comes out in the real world, it does so by seeing many possible different futures. We have some ability to choose what Standard is going to be about in the upcoming year by deciding which cards are powerful and doing good work (and generally worth taking a risk on), and which ones are not. If the Future Future League took no risks whatsoever, then Magic would get pretty boring. It's all about calculated ones.

Burning Vengeance | Art by Raymond Swanland

We do this by playing with the cards as they are getting near the end of the development process, and figuring out which are too strong by themselves, or which ones are just giving too much to one deck. What we want is to create a metagame that is diverse and robust, and the only good way to do that is make sure that no one deck gets too many of the strong cards in a set. At times, there are cards that people have commented would've been better if they had some small tweak, and in many of those instances (such as Liliana of the Dark Realm's starting loyalty), they began at the value people were expecting, and we shifted them because we felt that the change overall helped Standard, even though it hurt that one card. All of this, of course, means that we have lived through versions of Standard where very different decks were dominating, often ones that you as the public will never see. During Innistrad, for example, the Burning Vengeance deck was (for a time) the strongest deck in our environment. We made some adjustments to keep the deck from being as dominant as it was, and as a result of that, plus a few decks being stronger than we expected, the deck never really emerged as a top competitor. Which is to be expected. If our small group of playtesters can divine exactly what Standard will look a year in the future, then we just haven't made the environment complex enough to be interesting.

When playing in the FFL, the adjustment of cards can lead to a certain amount of frustration when, unlike in the real world, your reward for breaking something or creating the best deck in the format isn't to win a tournament, but instead it is often to see some card in it tweaked. It's all part of the job, though, and you get used to focusing, not on your favorite individual decks and cards, but on an overall feeling of what Standard plays like, and trying to make sure there are plenty of fun and interesting things going on in that format. One of the goals of the FFL is to play through as many different weird and crazy decks, as well as pretty normal ones, as possible, and make sure that we aren't printing anything that is going to dominate the format. In more common terms, we throw a lot at the wall and see what sticks.

Sometimes, we deem it necessary to change cards around. Cards get mana added or changed, they gain or lose abilities like trample, or get new wordings if there is an interaction we don't like. It's not all weakening, though. It could be that a card is fun, but a little weak, and we can add a toughness to get it over the hump of dying to the most common removal spells in the format. We try to not remove a card from an expert-level expansion by the time it gets to the FFL, but there are times it needs to happen. By the time the cards get to the Future Future League for testing, most of them have been through Limited testing, have art, and, in any case, we don't always have something really good to replace them with. We can redesign cards if it is absolutely necessary, but we try to fix what we can in the smallest ways possible, to keep Limited in check.

That can be a little different when dealing with a core set, because many of the cards we are dealing with are reprints, and we can't exactly tweak the numbers on the old cards if they aren't working out in the current Standard environment. For that reason, the exact reprints in each core set fluctuates a bit more than with new cards. We can feel safe taking a larger risk with a reprint before the set gets to the FFL, because replacing it is much easier.

One example of a card that we tried to reprint was Ranger of Eos. The card was exciting and memorable, but its power is directly tied to the number and power of one-drop creatures that it could get in Standard. Standard has quite a few right now.

BW Zombies

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Planeswalker (3)
3 Liliana of the Veil
Sorcery (4)
4 Lingering Souls
Instant (4)
4 Tragic Slip
Other (5)
2 Blood Bairn (as a 1/1) 3 Dark Prophecy (at )
60 Cards

This was one of just several Black-White decks that existed to take advantage of Ranger of Eos, the other major one using Xathrid Necromancer to get even more value when fetching 2 Doomed Traveler, or just 2 Champion of the Parish to recover from a Wrath in record time. While the interaction was interesting for a few months, this deck was already getting a lot of cards from Magic 2014, and we decided to pull the card from M14. On the plus side, each set gets allocated a certain number of new arts to get commissioned during FFL testing, so if you liked Imposing Sovereign, it is the card that took the spot formerly held by Ranger of Eos. In this specific case, we were seeing just how impactful Thragtusk and Restoration Angel were in the real world, and decided to use one of these slots to create a card that would be good against them.

Ranger of Eos
Xathrid Necromancer

While Ranger of Eos had plenty of eyes on it throughout the development, since it was considered a high-powered card, the most interesting cards that need to be replaced are often the ones you aren't expecting. The ones that were innocuous their first time through Standard, but are all of a sudden crazy powerful in a different environment. One example is below:

UW Miracles

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Oh, Telling Time. You always seemed kind of mediocre in Champions-era Standard, and seemed so safe, especially when compared to Ponder (which was in the real-world Standard at the time we were developing M14). As it turns out, we were wrong. Telling Time was pretty crazy with the miracle mechanic. Between it and Think Twice, we found that casting a miracle of some sort every other turn was pretty common, leading to incredibly frustrating games.

Telling Time
Think Twice

Now, this doesn't mean that Telling Time is too strong for Standard as a whole. Cards' power are directly related to the cards around them, and if there was no miracle interactions we probably could've printed Telling Time. Maybe in a future set.

Of course, there is a lot more to do than just figure out which reprints are too strong. We also need to put the new cards through their paces and make sure that they aren't doing anything over the top.

Black-Red Witch

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Instant (6)
3 Electrickery 3 Tragic Slip
Artifact (2)
2 Bubbling Cauldron
Other (3)
3 Bogbrew Witch (as 1/1 with tap: get a Newt or Cauldron.)
60 Cards

Bogbrew Witch was another unassuming card that didn't get a lot of the testers' early focus, until one day Mons, putting together a black-red sacrifice deck, included it. The problem with Bogbrew Witch at that time was that it was basically impossible for creature decks to have any shot against it unless they had removal in their hand right then. Because the Newt and Cauldron at that time were searched out untapped, it made racing the card even harder.

Somberwald Sage can have a similar effect, where a turn-two or three Sage can push about anything out the next turn, but it requires drawing both the Sage, it living until the next turn, and having the card you are ramping out in your hand. There is a lot to go wrong there, where the Witch just requires that you have the other cards in your deck. While, yes, the Witch was very vulnerable to removal, the opportunity cost of playing her was so low compared to how impactful she was on the game when you managed to untap with here. It just wasn't worth taking this large of a risk on a card that could easily be accelerated out on turn two with an Elf. The tweaks to the card put it closer to what we were hoping, where it might see some fringe Constructed play, but it isn't going to dominate Standard.

Bogbrew Witch
Somberwald Sage

That wasn't the only deck that showcased a hard-to-deal-with combo. The set had Sanguine Bond, which allowed for the infinite combo with Exquisite Blood from Avacyn Restored. Once you have both out, any change in life totals would drop your opponent to 0. It is doubtful that two five-mana enchantments together forming a loop would break Standard, but it's always better to at least play with the deck a bit rather than simply theorycraft everything.

To test it, I put together the following deck, and threw in Angelic Accord and the other lifegain rewards floating around in Standard to give it a run.

Junk Lifegain

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Sometimes, it is best to make a very tuned deck and get an idea of exactly how the cards you are concerned about will perform. Other times, especially early in FFLing, it is good to throw something together with a lot of untested cards and see what actually performs better than expectations. This is more of the latter.

The deck is far from tuned, but what I quickly found out was that the Sanguine Bond/Exquisite Blood combo was performing about where I would've expected it to—not a top-tier strategy, but a fun combo deck that someone could build and do well with at an FNM or similar level—but Angelic Accord was an all-star. The Green-White archetype in Magic 2014 draft is Lifegain, with both Voracious Wurm and Angelic Accord as build-around uncommons for the deck, both at two mana. The reward on Angelic Accord seemed pretty high, especially considering all the powerful lifegain in the format. Because the Accord was only two mana, it was easy to stick one or more before you actually started casting your lifegain spells, ensuring that you could curve into it at maximum efficiency. In addition, quite a bit of it happened to gain 4 life or more, such as Blood Baron, Trading Post, Bubbling Cauldron, Warleader's Helix, and Archangel of Thune (which was a 4/4 at that point). What we quickly found out was that the card was just a larger risk than we were comfortable taking, and we knocked Angelic Accord up to four mana so it would still fulfill what it needed to do in Limited.

Exquisite Blood
Angelic Accord

Of course, some decks we make in the Future Future League never see play in the real world. Sometimes, they just aren't strong enough; other times, the real-world metagame just isn't in a place where the deck we were trying out would fit into it well. Today, I'm going to leave you with one such deck. I don't know that it is the right deck to play in the current metagame, and it might just be overall worse than Zvi Mowshowitz's GW Elves brew, which accelerates into cards like Kalonian Hydra and Wolfir Silverheart instead of comboing out. Still, the deck is a lot of fun, and worth giving a shot.

GW Elves!

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Until next time,


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