Evaluating New Sets for Limited

Posted in Latest Developments on January 6, 2017

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.

Hello and welcome to the new year! 2016 is over, and it's time to start off 2017 with the full Aether Revolt card set! Check out the Card Image Gallery to view it all.

Today on Latest Developments, I want to talk a bit about how we approach designing Limited formats and how you can use that information to think about the Limited environment before you ever open up a pack.

Core Concepts

When trying to evaluate a new set for Limited, the first thing to look at is the mechanics. When we are designing sets, we try to set them up in such a way that the set feels as new as possible, and that means making the most out of the mechanics. We use the mechanics to create new angles for gameplay, and we always try to make them very relevant in Limited.

Some mechanics, like energy, show up in every color, which means that they are going to be incredibly pervasive and very much define the format. In older sets, we saw this with delirium, landfall, and morph. These are great for us because they create a nice definitive feeling for the format as a whole, letting us create a focus on one big thing. In Shadows over Innistrad Limited, you need to think a lot about what the card types in your deck are, as well as the card types in your opponent's deck, because of delirium. In Khans of Tarkir Limited, the number of 2/2s on the board was naturally much higher because of morph—which meant that 2-damage spells and 2/3s were stronger than usual. By analyzing these most-pervasive mechanics, you can often figure out what the "big" thing about the format is and get a handle on what every Limited deck will need to think about.

Other times, mechanics often show up in only two or three colors, which means they will define certain color pairs but not the entire Limited format. They will still change how you think about the format, but only for some of your decks. Frequently, this happens in sets that have a two-sided conflict, and it helps us creatively to highlight that conflict and to make that play out in games. The usefulness of this for us is that it creates a more varied Limited format, one where the decks have opportunities to look more different from each other.

Let's take a look at how these concepts impact Aether Revolt. Energy remains as the constant mechanic in each color, much like in Kaladesh, so things are similar there. You still need to be thinking about energy for every color pair, even if some will use it more than others. This is still the energy format, and you will be able to build a large number of decks that highlight the Johnny-inventor nature of energy.

Aether Revolt adds two mechanics, improvise and revolt, to the Kaladesh block in addition to Kaladesh's energy, Vehicles, and fabricate. Kaladesh's energy mechanic was already the big game changer here, and it was very easy to make decks based around energy. While it's more complicated than just this, collecting all the energy cards in two colors and putting them into a deck is a good thing to try out. When looking at Aether Revolt, things get changed quite a bit by the new mechanics. So when you are looking at the set for Limited, it's good to figure out what the new mechanics are asking you to try in the set.

Improvise is the most obvious. Fill your deck with cheap artifacts and use them to power out big spells. Cards like the Puzzleknots, Prophetic Prism, or Inventor's Goggles suddenly move way up in the pick order once you get into the Kaladesh pack. Similarly, Vehicles now gain some additional power since you can cast them early, use them to cast bigger creatures, then power them up with those creatures. You get to build the "all-in" artifact deck in a way that Kaladesh had few rewards for.

Revolt asks something a bit different—for your permanents to leave the battlefield. It means that cards like the Puzzleknots may be better to save for a rainy day rather than breaking them at the soonest opportunity. When looking at creatures, the biggest way to take advantage of it is by using either rescue effects like Aviary Mechanic or blink effects like Acrobatic Maneuver to repeatedly trigger revolt. The mechanic isn't just about combos, though; it also changes how you need to think about aggressive and defensive decks. When attacking your 2/2 into your opponent's 2/2, there is now a more complicated question for your opponent about trading the creatures off. Preventing the damage is (of course) important, but if they take it, it's possible that it means either playing a 2/2 Night Market Aeronaut, or passing the turn without a good play. It also changes the timing when you want to use removal. It's usually good to use it at the last possible second, but you may now want to use instant removal at sorcery speed sometimes to prevent giving your opponent revolt.

Fatal Push
Fatal Push | Art by Eric Deschamps

Once you have figured out what the mechanics in the set are doing to the core concepts of Limited and what the new things you need to think about are, it's time to start thinking about what the individual colors are doing in Limited and how those colors combine to form the ten color pairs.

Defining Color Pairs

There is a lot more to a set than just what the ten color pairs are doing, but it's a great way to get a first crack at figuring out what to do in Limited. While this is somewhat of a "level one" approach to a set, it's also very effective. You certainly can play aggressive or controlling versions of almost any color pair, and you can build around a number of individual cards, but if you try to go with the most natural strategy, you will have the best luck at making your deck work.

The first thing you should be looking at in any set when determining what the color pairs are doing is the gold uncommons. While not every set has ten, including all ten in a set is certainly something we now do more often than not. While they won't all be as obvious as Weldfast Engineer, it's hard to go wrong with any of them in your two-color deck. If you set up a deck to maximize the power of your gold uncommon, then you will likely have a successful deck whether or not you ever draw the card. You are doing what your deck was meant to do.

There are different cards in monocolor decks that are stronger in one or more color pairs, as opposed to all of them. Let's say you start off with a Ridgescale Tusker and then take a Narnam Renegade. You have two reasonably strong cards in your deck so far. You may want to take a mono-green card in your next pack to stay open, but you have two options: Aetherstream Leopard and Druid of the Cowl. They are both strong cards, but they go into somewhat different decks. The Leopard is a beatdown card best suited for red-green or maybe a more beatdown-y version of green-white or black-green, and the Druid of the Cowl is going to be better in a slower deck like the green-blue deck, or in a more mid-range version of the red-green deck. You may not be exactly choosing one color here, but you are taking a card that is leading you toward one deck or another.

Rarity Matters

Rare. Rares happen. The most individually powerful cards in the set are almost always rares and mythic rares. While it can be frustrating to lose to them, it would be much more frustrating if they were commons or uncommons. Sparksmith, I'm looking at you. It's easy to get frustrated, but it's important to learn that these kinds of cards are always going to exist—sometimes we just do a better job of making them different and easier to interact with—so why not just learn to accept them? It's easy to think that your Shivan Dragon is skillful and your opponent's is a lucky break, but having these high-powered game enders does good things for the game as a whole.

I see a lot of people when they are looking at a set put a lot of focus on all the bomb rares. I don't think that is the most important thing, and I think it generally distracts from learning what's really going on in the set. Again, these kinds of cards are always going to exist, and your odds of seeing any individual one in a game are pretty low. You should be aware of how many board wipes there are and whether you should try and keep a strong removal spell for a big powerful flier, but don't spend too much time on the individual rares or trying to figure out how powerful they are compared to each other—they just aren't going to come up enough.

The most important thing to analyze for a new Limited environment is the commons and uncommons—which is what we spend most of our time balancing for with regard to Limited. We try to make sure that each color has about the same number of bomb rares to keep people from trending toward the color with the most, but your first pick is only going to be a rare a little under half of the time, and often that card isn't much stronger than any of the uncommons. But after that, the odds of having a really hard choice involving a rare go down a lot. They have big impacts on games, but you rarely need to make difficult decisions in terms of picking them, because of how much less frequently they come up. Similarly, for Sealed, you can pull out all of your rares and decide easily if you want to play as many of your bombs as possible. Rares are frequently the most exciting part of your deck, but they are not what defines the format.

Inspiring Statuary
Inspiring Statuary | Art by Kirsten Zirngibl

Instead, try to focus on the commons and the uncommons since you will be seeing them much more frequently. We do our best to balance out the number of top commons and uncommons per color, but we are never going to get it right all the time. A big part of figuring out what the strongest color will be for Limited is figuring out if one color has an extra-powerful common. Look over the numbers on the removal spells to figure out the "crucial toughness" in a set. For example, if four common removal spells will kill a creature with toughness 4, but only one hits at 5 toughness, then you should value 5 toughness on your commons and uncommons much higher than in most sets. Try to figure out what the strongest two-card combos will be involving commons and uncommons, since these are the ones you will be seeing coming up the most. Common and uncommon tricks work in the same way: worry about the common pump spells more than the uncommons.

Once you have a good grasp on what the important commons and uncommons are in a set, you should have a pretty good idea of what Limited decks will look like. At that point, you should be able to go into the Limited environment with a plan for what colors you want to draft and what you want those decks to look like. Try executing that plan your first few times playing with a set and see how accurate you are. The more you do this, the better you will get at it—and the larger advantage you will have in the first few weeks of a Limited environment when people are still trying to figure out the set.

That's it for this week. Take the next week to look over Aether Revolt for Limited, and have fun at your local Prerelease on January 14–15! Next week, I'll be talking more about Standard with Aether Revolt.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)




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