Engineering Tolerance

Posted in Latest Developments on July 15, 2011

By Tom LaPille

Tom LaPille makes things. Some of the things he makes are card sets, like Dark Ascension and Born of the Gods. Sometimes he makes stories, too. Sometimes he makes unexpected things, like 16th-century Japanese clothing. He's probably making something right now.

Have you ever seen a skyscraper?

Skyscrapers are constantly exposed to strong horizontal forces from wind. As such, the top of most skyscrapers can move several feet in any direction from its normal position without compromising structural integrity. If you asked the architect of a skyscraper to tell you where in space a skyscraper he or she had designed is right now, down to the centimeter, you'd probably earn a sideways look. However, that architect would be able to tell you exactly how much that building could move in any direction.

A few times recently, I've said in an article that I don't know something about a particular aspect of a Magic set. Any time I do this, I get a rash of complaints. How, people ask, could I be doing a responsible job of making Magic if I don't know exactly what is going on?

First, it would be an act of incredible hubris to claim to know exactly what was going on in a format before we released it to the public. Magic is a complex system. We have to build it with around twenty people for the consumption of (at least) many hundreds of thousands. We can't possibly understand everything about what we're making. There are simply too few of us.

That's okay, though. The big secret of Magic development is that it's not our job to know every last detail about the formats we make. It is our job to make sure that those formats are fun. While this cannot be done without a large degree of knowledge, it can—and must!—be done without knowing everything that can ever be known about how our cards will interact with each other. We do this by using the same principles that the architects of skyscrapers use. If we build into our formats room for things to move around without compromising structural fun, then we don't have to know every last detail. This is a relief, because as I said before, knowing every last detail is impossible.

One way we engineer tolerance into formats is with cards that are not strong enough to play on their own, but can become very strong if things get distorted. One recent example of such a card is Vulshok Refugee, which was engineered to be a sideboard card that mono-red decks could play against other mono-red decks. Cards that are good in Constructed mirror matches but worse in other match-ups have a curious balancing effect. If a deck gets too good, more people start playing it, and then more people start biasing their deck for the mirror. This, however, weakens their decks against all the other decks, reducing the edge on deck they have. Magic 2012 offers some serious juice to mono-red decks, so we wanted to make sure Standard included a card that would let them cannibalize each other in this way.

There are also cards that help other decks catch up when something is off kilter. For example, we prefer when constructed Magic has a reasonable amount of creatures in it. We aren't attached to any particular kind of creature deck, but we've noticed over the years that most people find Magic less fun when most of the best decks have five or fewer creatures in them. Against a deck with a significant number of creatures, Negate is a rather poor card. Against a creature-light deck, however, it's very strong. Meddling Mage plays a similar role against combination decks. If your deck depends on casting one particular card and then winning in one big turn, Meddling Mage can just turn off your ability to do that. This helps decks that want to play fair to catch up. Of course, we don't think that near-creatureless decks or non-interactive combination decks are categorically bad for Magic. We just think that Magic isn't as fun when all of the best strategies are one or the other of them.

My favorite part of cards like these, though, is that they actually work. While I haven't seen Vulshok Refugee in Standard yet, I saw many of them at Pro Tour Nagoya, where mono-red decks were quite popular. Magic 2012 gave mono-red decks a number of new tools; I expect those decks to be more popular and more powerful now, and that may give Vulshok Refugee its time in the light.

Negate and Meddling Mage are more time-tested, and we know they work. Negate is a fairly common go-to solution in Standard control mirror matches, and Meddling Mage has been saving Extended from terrible fates for over a decade. Sometimes they even work together. For example, the Extended portion of the World Championships in 2009 was full of crazy combination decks, from Hypergenesis to Dredge to Vampire Hexmage / Dark Depths to Scapeshift. How did attack decks survive this onslaught? Many of them turned to these two cards. For example, here's the deck that Osamu Fujita and other strong Japanese players played to some success in that tournament.

Saito Zoo

Download Arena Decklist

We also do this in Limited. For example, in Magic 2012, there are more Auras that have the potential to be powerful, and there are also more creatures that invite you to put Auras on them than normal. We discovered during playtesting that Stave Off, while it is a powerful combat trick, also derives much of its strength from its ability to remove Auras. We also discovered that Naturalize was better in Magic 2012 than it is in most core sets for the same reason.

As the lead developer, this made me check to make sure I had more ways to remove Auras that could help in case they were even better than we thought they were. I found that blue had Unsummon and Æther Adept, both of which are naturally strong as well as good against Auras. I also found Demystify in white. I'm not usually willing to main-deck Demystify, but that's okay; as long as it was there if someone needed to use it, I was happy. I do not know exactly how good Auras are in Magic 2012 Limited, but I am satisfied that no matter how good they are, there are enough ways to remove them.

The three new planeswalkers in Magic 2012Chandra, the Firebrand; Garruk, Primal Hunter; and Jace, Memory Adept—have attracted a lot of attention. When writing articles, it's natural to want to rank them in order of power. Magic 2012 lead designer Mark Globus pointed out to me the other day that he had read articles advocating all six possible orderings. However, no matter what the claimed order of power is, most people are excited to talk about all three of them. I couldn't be happier with this state of affairs. I know what I think the correct order is, but I also think that I know a lower bound and an upper bound to the possible power level of each of them. As long as the cards are within those tolerance bounds, I'm willing to be wrong about the order of their power.

The analogy between Magic and tall buildings starts to fall down, however, when we think about the desirability of the movements in question. Both buildings and Magic sets are built with tolerances in mind. Although buildings have to be able to move, lest the force of wind eventually knock them over, the occupants of a tall building may not appreciate the floor moving under their feet during a strong gale. On the other hand, Magic is fun precisely because it changes over time. Our bluntest instrument for changing Magic is releasing new cards, but having new revelations about existing cards does just as good a job of changing Magic.

The story of the Titans so far in Standard has been a perfect example of this kind of change. While Primeval Titan has been fetching Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle since its release, the other Titans have moved in and out of Standard playability over time with some amount of unpredictability. Frost Titan was universally panned at first, but later was universally adopted in blue-red-green decks. Just as soon as I was happy that Frost Titan had its day, other players were advocating Inferno Titan there instead. Sun Titan went without a home for a few months, but when Jace, the Mind Sculptor began to show its power, players went to Jace Beleren to have an additional way to stop it, then to Sun Titan once they had some Belerens to bring back. Grave Titan has been a finisher of choice in Blue-Black Control for a while, but such blue-black decks have also cycled in and out of power. This unpredictability helps keep Magic fresh. If we didn't build room for Magic to move around, it would be impossible.

We could make Magic formats more immediately legible, but I think that would be a terrible idea. If twenty people on the third floor of a building in Renton, Washington could solve a format in three months, then the many hundreds of thousands of you out in the real world would solve it in a few weeks. That would be hopelessly dull.

With that in mind, here are a bunch of things I don't know for sure about Magic 2012 Limited. I don't know how often it is correct to sideboard in Wall of Torches. I don't know how high it is correct to pick Wring Flesh. I don't know what the best common card in the set is. In all three cases, though, I have a good idea. I haven't actually sideboarded in a Wall of Torches myself, and I don't think doing so is normally correct, but I wouldn't be surprised if I saw red-blue drafters doing so at US Nationals in a few weeks.

I know Wring Flesh is good, but I don't know how it compares to a reasonable creature like Barony Vampire. Historically, I prefer creatures to marginal combat tricks, but cards that kill 1-toughness creatures seem better in Magic 2012 than elsewhere and blocking happens more often against my black decks now.

Until yesterday, I had three candidates for best Limited common in my set. After talking to Erik Lauer about them, I still wasn't sure which it was, though we were able to eliminate one of them from consideration.

Our job as Magic developers is to make sure the game is fun to play. While this requires strong technical knowledge about Magic, it does not mean we need to know everything down to the smallest detail. Rather than nail everything down exactly, we try to discover bounds on where things could be. As long as we're happy with everything that is within the bounds we discover, that's good enough.

    Last Week's Poll
What do you think of Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012?
It's awesome!11111.1%
It's good.20420.5%
It's okay.13213.3%
It's bad.212.1%
It's terrible!262.6%
I haven't played Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012.50250.4%

    This Week's Poll
What do you think of Magic 2012 Limited?It's awesome!It's good.It's okay.It's bad.It's terrible!I haven't played Magic 2012 Limited yet.

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