Defining "Power"

Posted in Latest Developments on August 2, 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.

One of the words we use to discuss cards both internally and externally, and a word the player base is fond of using, is "powerful." It is one of those words that has lost a lot of its meaning over time. I mean, powerful in comparison to what? There isn't a whole lot that is powerful compared to Black Lotus, but if you are comparing a creature to Gray Ogre, or even Grizzly Bear, then yes, a lot of them do look pretty strong. You could take whatever is considered the average card, but I suspect that it wouldn't be a very useful medium point. There are times where it feels that the word is largely useless in conversations, unless you are willing to take certain givens into the situation, such as the environment the card is being played in, and relative to what. Power is just not the same for Limited and Constructed, so it is important (at least for us) to be on the same ground when discussing what we mean when we talk about cards being powerful.

One thing, over the last few years, that this column has been guilty of is not always making it clear what kind of power we are talking about when discussing cards, and that has led to some confusion over time. For example, one of the basic rules we have for Limited is that no commons can be as powerful as Dark Banishing, and no uncommons can be as powerful as a Mahamoti Djinn. This has sometimes been misinterpreted to mean that we do not print powerful cards at common or uncommon anymore, as the power level of both Dark Banishing and Mahamoti Djinn is very low, but that's because we are talking only about how powerful those cards are in a Limited context, and not how powerful they are in Constructed. Format-defining cards over the last year, such as Burning-Tree Emissary or Delver of Secrets, are far stronger than either Dark Banishing or Mahamoti Djinn in Constructed, but I don't think that I would take either the Emissary or Delver of Secrets over a card like Centaur Courser in a Limited environment. And certainly not over Rumbling Baloth. For today's column, I want to deconstruct this a bit, and talk a little bit about what makes cards "powerful," and how that varies from format to format.

Dark Banishing
Mahamoti Djinn

What We Mean By Powerful in Limited

Power in Limited is generally defined by a card's ability to win the game by itself, or to at least be able to turn the tide. Incremental Blight may not have technically won the game, but killing three creatures is a nice starting point. In Limited games, because synergies tend to be fairly weak, it's hard to rely on any given interaction to really push things over the edge. Also, because the games go much longer, and you have less control of the makeup of your deck, the casting cost just plain matters less. Curving out is certainly powerful, but it's easy for a deck focused on that to just lose out to more powerful cards if the game goes long. A card like Alpha Tyrranax is about as far away from a Constructed card as you can get, but it's a lot more imposing than a Flinthoof Boar on turn 8.

Incremental Blight
Alpha Tyrranax

Limited power cards tend to bias toward cards that either generate a large number of cards or that can attack for the win in just a few turns and are difficult to stop. This is why we rank the top level of cards as Mahamoti Djinns. They are capable of defending if need be, but also on their own can take over a game. They are also fairly hard to remove, as fewer of the total removal spells in the opened packs can deal with them. You get the option of filling your Constructed deck with Doom Blades; you just don't get that option in Limited.

Getting back to the subject of creatures, beginning as early as Odyssey, you can see a real reversal of that trend. All of a sudden, common removal starts looking more like Afflict, Morbid Hunger, and Acceptable Losses. It was a far cry from Invasion block's common removal like Magma Burst, Terminate, and Agonizing Demise. It meant that a card like Aboshan, Cephalid Emperor or Kamahl, Pit Fighter was more likely to win the game than, say, Rith, the Awakener. It also meant that at lower casting costs, you saw creatures like Wild Mongrel, who might not seem very impressive by today's standards, but was quite the powerhouse in his day.

Morbid Hunger
Magma Burst

On that subject, it is, overall, hard to have "bad" removal in Limited. In the early days of Magic, the removal at common was very powerful and the creatures were very bad. This tended to create games that were very slow and often led to games where players would simply kill every good creature their opponent played and fought the remainder of the game over Gray Ogres. Part of the fun of Limited Magic should be opening and taking big flashy creatures like Dragons and not immediately passing them for an efficient removal spell.

That doesn't mean we don't want common removal to be able to kill anything, just that it needs to be a little more costly and clunky. For myself, I am a big fan of the five- or six-mana removal spell that kills just about anything. Think Fiery Fall, Assassin's Strike, or a card like Angelic Edict. It gives you an answer to almost anything your opponent will play, but the cost means you can't run too many of them in your deck, lest you get quickly overrun. It means that the cards will travel around a bit more in the packs (and, in that sense, means that you aren't going to get penalized for not opening any removal, since some of it will get passed), and that you can take a number of cards over them, instead of being directed at taking removal over almost everything.

Fiery Fall
Angelic Edict

One of the mistakes that Avacyn Restored made was to make the common removal efficient, but not powerful. What the format really needed were a few pieces of removal that were clunky but able to kill anything. There was Death Wind and Bone Splinters, but those were just in one color. A little bit more in that range in the other colors would've gone a long way. It was a lesson we took a lot from.

Ultimately, one of the things we are trying to accomplish with Magic is to create fun experiences, and one of the ways we do it is by trying to make the individual games of Limited Magic have more variety. That means keeping the number of Dragon-esque six-mana fliers that take over the game by themselves to a minimum and not at lower rarities, so that every game of Limited isn't defined by those creatures and those creatures alone.

What We Mean By Powerful in Constructed

Power in Constructed is most found in synergies and efficiency, almost the exact opposite of how Limited works, because you have so much control over your deck. What you want to happen in Constructed is to play as many cards as possible that, when added up, lead to a deck that can do really amazing things—be that winning on turn four, stalling out the game and eking out card advantage, or playing some kind of combo that can immediately win the game if uninterrupted.

In Constructed formats, context is king. For that reason, most of the time we talk about Constructed power, we are talking about it in the context of Standard, because it is the format that we have the most control over and put the most time into—because of how much tournament play it sees. Furthermore, when we talk about a card being powerful in Constructed (or often too powerful), we are generally talking about what it does to support existing strategies, or using other existing cards to support its own strategy. I mean, it could be that the card does too much on its own and would warp the metagame with little to no help (Necropotence, Skullclamp, or Umezawa's Jitte come to mind as past examples), but those are generally knocked out very early in development, or even design. For most cards beyond that, the question comes down to not just "what will this do when we print it?" but "what else is there in the environment that would interact with this card and make it too powerful?"

Umezawa's Jitte

Snapcaster Mage is easily one of the most powerful cards we have printed in the last few years, but it is not seeing a dramatic amount of Standard play right now because it is best used with a bevy of one- and two-mana instants, which Standard just doesn't currently have a lot of (at least not compared to Ponder, Mana Leak, Gut Shot, and Dismember). These two things may be somewhat related. On a similar note, while Deathrite Shaman has seen a little play in Standard, it's true calling has been in non-rotating formats, where its interaction with the fetch lands makes it one of the best one-drops available.

Because you have such control over your deck in Constructed, all the small things really matter. As I've mentioned in a previous article, I do not believe there are many cards in Standard that would see significant main-deck play at one additional mana, and there may in fact not be any that would. That is just how important the efficiency is, and how many cards there are to choose from. Having the right number of two-drops is just more important than playing all of the powerful three-drops.

A card in Limited can get better the more Humans you have, but it is rare that you will have the opportunity to have enough other powerful Humans in your deck to overcome a card like Shivan Dragon. That is just the reality of Constructed. A lot of the skill and fun in deck construction is finding ways to make your cards work together as well as possible and finding cards that are unexpectedly able to win the game in concert with other cards. Because removal is so plentiful, simply having a large body and evasion isn't enough to show up in Constructed lists, you also need to do something that pushes the overall strategy of the deck you are in.

Our goal for creating cards that are the right power level for Standard is to space out what they do enough that no single deck is able to play all of them. It would be hard in the current Standard, as an example, for a deck to play Sphinx's Revelation, Thragtusk, Thundermaw Hellkite, Mutavault, Domri Rade, and Burning-Tree Emissary. But the details of how we do that are the makings of another article. We also try to make sure that there are foils for every strategy, so that even if we have gauged a few things wrong, the other decks in the metagame can expand to exploit the weakness of the most popular deck.

Sphinx's Revelation

Changing Power

The rotation of Standard is one of the keys to the format's success. It means that we can pretty carefully control the power level and have sets constantly giving players new things to do without simply printing cards that make existing decks stronger and stronger. Of course, some cards turn out stronger than we expected, or the decks just have more synergy than we intended, but the rotation helps limit the amount of time that can impact the format. While we are very happy to see that the cards we have printed have had a real impact on Legacy in the last year, it is hard to print cards that are able to stand up to a card pool that size.

Limited, of course, is constantly shifting, and the relative power of many individual cards would just change dramatically from one Limited environment to another. The sizes of creatures that are most important in the format help to define which removal spells are the best, and how big a creature has to be to dodge the vast majority of it. Shock, as an example, was much stronger in Onslaught Limited than in Magic 2014, because there are more X/2 creatures.

Making Magic cards is often about making things new again, year after year, and at the same time changing something about the things from last year. As you may have heard, Theros is an enchantment block, so the relative power of enchantments and enchantment removal will go up. As I mentioned before, context is king, and one of the best ways for us to modulate the relative power levels of cards in Standard (or, really, any format), is to change what the base context is. As there are new things for people to care about in both Limited and Constructed next year, there will be cards from Return to Ravnica block and Standard that just plain interact differently in Return to Ravnica-Theros Standard than they did in Innistrad-Return to Ravnica Standard. Some cards will become more powerful in comparison to other cards, and some less powerful. It is not an impossibility that you will see decks casting Advent of the Wurm and populating the token with Sundering Growth, a play that I don't think would be very likely to happen under the current Standard at all.

Advent of the Wurm
Sundering Growth

Now that I have better defined what development means when we talk about power, I hope that it will help with my article next week—discussing power creep—and what we are doing to combat it in Magic.

Until next time,


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