Developmental Mistakes

Posted in Latest Developments on June 13, 2014

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.

It's Vintage Masters Week, and I thought I would take some time to talk about something that you will see a lot of in Vintage Masters—developmental mistakes.

Now, there are different kinds of mistakes that development makes, at a lot of different levels. There are cards with wildly out-of-range power levels, like the Power Nine, most of which are from the early days of the game when the idea that rarity alone could act as a balancing tool for Constructed.

Then there are cards like Pack Rat, Restoration Angel, or Thragtusk that are stronger than we expected, but aren't so out of range that they ruin the environments they exist in. They have larger impacts than we expected, which leads the environments to turn out in different ways than we predicted.

I don't think this is a bad thing. Something is always going to be the strongest card. If we could figure out exactly how powerful each card or deck was by eyeballing it quickly, then there is no way the environment would be deep enough to be enjoyable for the multitudes of people playing Magic every week in FNM, PTQs, and higher-level events.

There are also tons of cards that fly under the radar for weeks, months, or even years—possibly their whole lives in Standard—waiting for the right environment, to actually pick up as powerful cards. Pack Rat, which is currently more powerful than we had expected in Standard, didn't show up at all for its first year, and was only a two-of in the Mono-Black Devotion deck that made the Top 8 of Pro Tour Theros .

The goal of Magic design and development isn't to dictate the exact experience we want you to have—it is to generate an environment with some amount of inequity in it and see what comes out of it. We also don't try to make every card the same power level. If we did, we couldn't print both Snapcaster Mage and Coral Merfolk in the same Standard environment.

Snapcaster Mage
Coral Merfolk

If we do our job right, there should be enough different and fun things to do that people can be competitive with whatever strategies they play the best, and their comfort level will be more than enough to keep them from just playing the top deck from the last week. It lets people's originality and deck preferences be more important to their personal success than just what is the most powerful in the abstract, which means the metagame should stay pretty healthy. If we ever have an environment where Guillaume Wafo-Tapa is casting Goblin Guide, then I know there is probably a problem.

We spend a lot of time trying to get the power level of the new cards just right for Standard, but that does mean we can miss on the power level of a card in other formats. Delver of Secrets, as an example, was much stronger in Legacy, with access to Brainstorm, than it was in Standard. A joke we've made around the office is that the top Standard decks often include a card that development made a mistake on, Modern decks are built around development mistakes, and Legacy decks feature development mistakes from across the ages. Of course, Vintage decks are nothing but mistakes. And Slash Panthers.

That isn't quite true, but those formats are mainly made up of cards that ended up stronger than we anticipated, which is fine. If we aim a card at being a Standard role player, and it shoots high and ends up becoming a staple in Modern, that is sweet. It's when we aim cards at being Legacy staples that we run into problems. I hope to produce fewer True-Name Nemesis and more Council's Judgments in our supplemental products in the future.

True-Name Nemesis
Council's Judgment

The Benefits of Mistakes

We have a limited amount of time to playtest each card, and while we have a general idea of just how strong each one is, we are often off by some percentage. Again, I think this is good, overall. The cards where we are wrong and that ended up much more powerful than we had expected are some of the most iconic cards from the last decade—Primeval Titan; Jace, the Mind Sculptor; Stoneforge Mystic; Bitterblossom; Bridge from Below; Tarmogoyf; etc. These cards are not always the most fun to play with or against, and we have subsequently had to ban them from some formats, but the cards still exist in the same form they did when we printed them. At the very least, I am happier with these kinds of mistakes than the Tolarian Academys, Memory Jars, or Yawgmoth's Bargains of the decade before. You can still Dark Ritual into Necropotence in Vintage in the exact same way you could in 1996. We don't let you do that in every format, but we want there to be a place where people can do things like that.

A question I have received a lot over the last year, especially as digital card games have become more popular, is if I wish that we could patch Magic cards in the same way digital games are able to patch their cards. I think that might be a fine decision for other games, but I am happy that we don't get to do that in Magic. I think it has built character for our game, and I know that our mistakes of the past have led us to improve both our design and development processes as a whole. In short, I think we make much better sets because we don't have the option to fix what we messed up on.

While I was not here for the decision, I have to imagine moving Jace, the Mind Sculptor up to five mana, or limiting which Equipment Stoneforge Mystic could get could've read as a less-harsh solution than banning the cards in Standard, but I don't think it is the better long-term solution for Magic.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor
Stoneforge Mystic

I think that it is good that we have this kind of record. We can't just patch these cards and sweep our mistakes under the rug—it creates a challenge for us at Wizards to try and balance the format around the possibility of us being wrong, and also rewards our players for both discovering our mistakes and making different powerful decks than we were expecting. For example, we had the skeleton of a Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle deck but were off by a few cards, and we didn't think it would be the Standard player it was. Would Standard have been better if we could've changed Primeval Titan to only get basics? Perhaps, but where does that kind of logic end? We could use patching to generate content by taking a ton of cards that aren't strong enough and making them stronger to try and change up Standard, but we end up in the world where development gets to dictate the exact environment, which I believe is a worse world as a whole than allowing our players to find out what the environment looks like.

There are a lot of cards that development doesn't like that certain segments of our player base do. We have gone out of our way to not print strong land destruction in Standard, and we have changed how we price counterspells in the same way, because we believe that using these cards as the primary strategy rather than a support strategy are worse for the game as a whole. For example, 23 counterspell.dec is just not what we want Standard to be—we are much happier with 7 counterspell.dec. I am glad, though, that the players who like these strategies can still play them in some formats by using older cards—something that wouldn't be possible if we decided to errata all of our old cards to line up with our current sensibilities. Magic is approaching its 21st year, and there is something very powerful to be said for the nostalgia factor of playing old and broken cards and being as degenerate as you want at times, even if it isn't something that everyone would find fun if it was the only way to play.


An analogy I like to make is this—I greatly prefer the original versions of the Star Wars Trilogy to the remastered versions. If you look back at the original trilogy, there were a ton of problems: poor special effects, continuity errors, and even Luke accidentally calling Leia "Carrie." These are problems that, I feel, ultimately gave the movies character. In the remastered editions, they fixed many of these problems, and also applied the current thought on how these movies should be made. Yub Nub may not have been the height of the Star Wars franchise, and hardly the best exit point for the series, but it gave the movies some charm.

Bazaar of Baghdad | Art by Christopher Moeller

In a similar vein, environments like Vintage Masters are able exist because we haven't changed our horribly broken, yet often charming, cards of yesteryear. I don't think the set would be nearly as fun to play if all of the cards were costed at the same rate that we would charge for them today. I mean, there is something that is very exciting about getting to cast a one-mana Sol Ring, which is a card we would cost at four mana today. Similarly, the meaning of what the Moxes are would just be lessened today if they cost two mana, or Bazaar of Baghdad had you exile the cards instead of discarding them. We don't make cards like this today, which I believe has led us to keep Standard as a much more fun format today than it was in the past. It also has kept Modern a very different format from Legacy. I don't feel that detracts from the fun of playing these cards in the right environment.

Sol Ring
Bazaar of Baghdad

Changing Identities

So, when I said earlier that I wouldn't patch cards, I failed to mention one thing—we actually did patch some of our cards in the past. We took the opportunity with new printings to not only clear up wording, but sometimes clean up how the cards actually worked, or even make the cards better or worse. Look at how Flying Carpet changed from Fifth to Sixth Edition:


The fact that Flying Carpet is destroyed when your creature dies was kind of stupid, and while flavorful, made the card pretty bad. So, we ended up taking that clause off, and the card is now a simple and clean top-down Flying Carpet.

That was far from the only card in the early days of the game to get huge gameplay-changing errata. Some were minor, like Fungusaur (which once upon a time didn't get a counter until the end of turn), others major, like Rukh Egg (which once made a 4/4 any time it went to the graveyard—including from your hand), because the words on the card just didn't follow what the intent was. In Urza's Saga, an era when the power level of the game was quickly reaching a dangerous point, we ended up errataing a number of cards, such as Great Whale, for power level reasons, instead of adding even more cards to the ever-growing Standard banned list.

Rukh Egg
Great Whale

We've moved away from this kind of errata since then, both because our development and editing departments aren't letting power level mistakes of that caliber through the gates, but also because we felt it was bad for the game. As a whole, cards should do what they say, and say what they do. It's amazing to believe that this wasn't true in an era when people didn't have smart phones to look up Oracle wordings, or even have a reasonable way to resolve disputes other than asking the most senior player at the store, or calling Wizards of the Coast customer support. It would be easy to assume that smartphones could handle this kind of change today, but that is just not the game we want to present to players.

If you look back in the "current" era of Magic rules (basically everything post—Sixth Edition) you will see that surprisingly few cards don't work exactly as they were printed. Some keywords and wordings have changed, but the base rules are very similar. The reason is that the Sixth Edition rules suite got the game to the point where we could stop revising the rules once a year and having to translate all of the old cards to the new rules set. As an example, Bounty of the Hunt went through several versions where it simply didn't save your creatures from dying. Why? The rules kept changing, and the card would either work or not work depending on how the rules handled both damage and the end-of-turn step. It was kind of a mess.

These rule changes have led to some older cards being in the limbo of their printed wording and the rules at the time creating cards that wouldn't work under our current rules set. The most prominent examples of this are Scorched Ruins and Lotus Vale. When these cards were printed, we didn't need to say "you have to pay this cost before the card can be used" because that was just how cards worked. If you didn't sac the lands, then you couldn't use the cards. Without the rule, the cards become horribly broken, more so than almost any other cards in Magic, making Lotus Vale an uncounterable Black Lotus, albeit one that eats up your land play for a turn. When given the option of either (A) making these cards work as printed and banning them in every format, or (B) making them work as they were intended but not lining up with the printed wording, we went with the second option. It isn't everyone's favorite, but we feel that it is the choice that is better for the game as a whole.

Scorched Ruins
Lotus Vale

Well, that's it for this week. I hope you get a chance to play with some Vintage Masters and do something particularly broken. I know I will be trying to.

Until next time,
Sam (@samstod)

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