Double Small-Set Drafting

Posted in Latest Developments on December 4, 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.

As we moved toward doing a two-block world, we had time to re-evaluate some of the things we were doing and decided to make a few changes. The one I'm going to talk about today is drafting two packs of the small set in a block with one of the large.

Traditionally, I would say that one of the challenges of second-set Draft environments was that they didn't actually move the needle enough. Moving the pack to the front of the queue helped out a lot, but the packs were still mostly defined by the first set, and when the third set came out, it tended to be a larger influence. We wanted to change that going forward, and adding a second pack would go a long way toward helping that goal. And besides, this was something that players had been asking about for a few years. When we thought about it, the best reason we really had for not at least trying it out was inertia. Inertia is a very powerful force, but one that has to be fought against if you want to actually improve things.

We talked about making the switch earlier than Oath of the Gatewatch. We were pretty far into Fate Reforged development when the two-block model was decided on, and we knew one thing we wanted to try out was drafting BBA instead of BAA. There will always be an uneven distribution of the total number of packs opened in Limited, but since we were moving to a world without any more large third sets (or perhaps you could view it as only large third sets), we thought it would be good to try and even that distribution out—both so people could have a better chance at opening the new cards at their local Friday Night Magic, and so that the Draft environment itself would change more between the first and second set.

When we actually drafted Fate-Fate-Khans of Tarkir, we found that it was generally just not as fun as Fate-Khans-Khans. That wasn't very surprising, though, since we had put no work into trying to make the environment feel better than FFK. It did give us useful information for coming up with a strategy for how to change the design of Oath of the Gatewatch to maximize how much fun the set would be when we were opening up two packs of it. Below are a few of the high-level strategies we employed:

  1. Ten extra commons

It may not seem like much, but one of the things we found when drafting Fate Reforged was that we were seeing the same commons too frequently. It makes sense, when you think about it. Small sets were designed to be drafted as only one out of the three packs, so they included dramatically fewer commons than the large sets. They had enough to provide variety, but with the extra pack, we found that we needed more. The ten extra commons take the sets to just a little below two-thirds of the size of a large set's common sheet. There is less diversity in this pack than a single of the large set, but you also are only drafting two packs of it instead of three.

This goes a long way toward adding enough variety to the draft, but still lets us create commons that point strongly toward individual Draft strategies and only show up enough in the draft to make sure those strategies worked. While we could've gone all the way up to 101 commons in the small set so that it was the same size as the large set, that would've meant you wouldn't see the desired number of an individual card, and it would hamper our build-around strategies.

  1. Fewer "weak card" cycles

Probably the biggest takeaway from drafting double Fate Reforged was just how obvious the repeating of the commons was with the Runemark cycle. While the rest of the commons also showed up more frequently than in a large set, it wasn't that noticeable. Or it wouldn't have been, if almost all of the packs hadn't ended up with one or more Runemarks near the end.

This was a lesson that we took back from Dragon's Maze, where having ten common Cluestones was just too much for a draft. The experience of seeing them over and over again lapping the table wasn't very fun. For sure, they saw some play, but it wasn't much. Similarly, here, it was very noticeable that in both of your Fate Reforged packs, you were getting a lot of late Runemarks. To be clear, I think it is good that we have weak cards in Limited that fill a role, but their uniformity was what was really catching people up. If the options frequently came down to a shatter, an enchant creature, and a fog, at least the effects were varied enough that you could find one you could use. The Runemarks were just too far.

As a whole, this also led to us being more careful with the total number of cycles at common for the small sets. In a large set, with 101 commons, a five-card cycle will show up with about one card every other pack. Assuming that they are in a wide band of power (not all the best commons, not all the worst), it isn't distracting. With only 70 commons in a set, all of a sudden these are appearing in more than two-thirds of the packs. Too many cards that look alike will lead to drafts looking homogenous, which is definitely something we want to try hard not to have happen. If you look at Eventide, which is admittedly a very old set, it was just full of cycles at common. By my count, there are seven five-card cycles at common (artifact Scarecrow cycle, hybrid Mimic cycle, hybrid Aura cycle, one-mana hybrid cycle, "colored spell untaps me" cycle, Retrace cycle, "another spell of the same color" cycle) in a 60-common set. When you opened up packs of the set, things all felt the same because of how many of the cards were variants of each other. In the future, I think small sets will end up with a little more variety to keep Limited interesting.

Raven's Crime | Art by Warren Mahy

  1. More focus on inter-set synergy

A huge improvement for making Draft formats feel new when the small sets came out was starting out drafting them first. It let the new set create a different feel in the format, without doing what many older sets did by just being much more powerful. I feel like a major problem that most older formats had as we added more sets was that the new sets struggled to be meaningful and coherent. Frequently they were one or the other, but rarely both. Morningtide, for example, definitely had a meaningful impact on the drafting of Lorwyn, but in a way that wasn't super coherent. Born of the Gods, on the other hand, was a pretty coherent extension of Theros, but it didn't move the needle enough to make the set feel meaningful.

Traditionally, one of the problems with small sets was that they often removed the ability for players to make build-around decks, unless the rewards for those were over the top. Because you were only getting one pack, you were removing the chances of ever seeing two of an uncommon in the first pack, but you also had a smaller chance of seeing the Spider Spawnings of the world in the second or third sets. Plus, you would have to draft in a way that rewarded you for getting Spider Spawning without ever being able to spike it early in the draft. I believe it mostly led to fun subtle synergies dying out as you added more sets, and the advantage going to super powerful wombo combos and individually strong cards.

The change to small-small-large doesn't help the Spider Spawning issue (and realistically makes it worse), but it does let us put much more legitimate build-around strategies in the second set, as well as do some second-set turns in mechanics where we can meaningfully impact how the draft feels. Even if we put something with the same level of build-around-ness in Dark Ascension as Spider Spawning had in Innistrad, it really wouldn't have been opened enough times to make it work. By opening two packs of Oath of the Gatewatch (and having a lower total number of uncommons than Battle for Zendikar), we are really opening up the ability for the Draft format to change in a way that is both meaningful and coherent.

That's it for this week. Join me next week when I answer mailbag questions!

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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