Posted in Latest Developments on April 22, 2016

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.

About once per set, I like to post some of our Future Future League decklists for that set, which often leads to a lot of questions. Why did you have this card? Why didn't you have this card? Et cetera, et cetera. This week on Latest Developments, I wanted to answer those questions in general and hopefully give you a better idea of what the FFL is.

What Is the FFL?

Everyone on the development team (and a few people from Duel Masters) plays in the regular FFL, where we come together twice a week for a few hours to playtest, then meet later to give the set's development lead recommendations on cards to change.

Beyond the full developer pool, we also have a smaller group of developers, along with a designer and people from other teams, who are on the official FFL team for a set. They have extra time each week reserved for focusing on the FFL, along with the usual FFL time. Each team has a developer who is the lead, and they try to do a little deeper diving than the regular FFL. These tend to be the strongest players, and the ones who help the rest of the FFL define what the metagame looks like, decide which cards get pushed, which ones get rebalanced, and make sure that each set has enough new stuff to impact the metagame.

The goal of the FFL is to create a fun, dynamic, and balanced Standard environment. We do this by making a lot of decks, playing them against each other, and making changes to cards based on our results—adjusting things that are unintuitive or unfun and things that are too strong or too weak. The basic goal of our FFL process is to make sure there is a suite of cards that are all fun, and support a variety of play styles, so that people can explore the interactions to create a deck that suits them.

Why the Future Future?

The story goes that when Randy Buehler first showed up at Wizards, sets had some playtesting to make sure nothing was broken, but there wasn't much of that. Urza's Saga is a good example of what came out of that. Beyond that, there was a Future League that people played in that was future Standard—but only made up of sets that were done. It wasn't very useful. Buehler got the additional F added in so that we could playtest Standard with the ability to make changes.

Basic Schedule

Sets tend to be in the FFL for about six months total. Much like how we release four sets a year, we also have similar FFL periods relating to those sets. The idea is that whenever a set is released, we are finalizing the next year's set in the same time frame. For instance, when Khans of Tarkir came out, we were looking at the real-world results of the first few weeks of Standard and the Pro Tour to see if there was anything major that we missed as we were finalizing Battle for Zendikar.

How Many Cards Change During FFL Trials?

The quick answer is we change cards a lot. Part of the process of making a set is iterating a ton, and that means we need to keep changing cards week after week to improve the format's balance and to make the individual cards as fun as they can be.

The longer answer is this: There are three major periods for any set—the first is its "sneak peak" period, where we take a set early in development and stick it in the FFL to validate its mechanics and major cycles, and to ensure that the sets before it have the right cards to seed for that set. At that point, we will sometimes tweak mechanics, or add cards to previous sets to help out the set in the sneak peak. Because the set is not refined, and we are likely to have very broken individual cards, at this point we will often change fifteen to 25 cards per week, for about a month.

Eventually, the set becomes the "main" set in the FFL, we are focusing much more on deck balances, and (hopefully) no individual cards are way over the line. For the first few weeks, we will often change about ten to fifteen cards per week. Over the eight weeks or so that this set is the focus, we end up tapering off to the point where very little is changed in the last few weeks.

Finally, we enter a period where the set is no longer the main set, but it is still in the FFL and able to be changed. Many of the card changes in this period are reactions to cards in the most recent set, or just because we have realized with additional playtesting that a card was either too strong or too weak. At this point, we tend to change between zero and three cards a week.

Now, this may sound like a lot—and it is—but many of the changes are relatively minor on the surface. A 3/3 becomes a 3/2, a 2RR card becomes 3R, or a planeswalker's loyalty goes up by one. The goal with most of these changes isn't to take a card out of Constructed (if we want to do that, we usually just change what the card does), but instead to try and even things out so that we don't know of any specific card that is too strong or too weak. We have a few cards each set, things like the planeswalkers or other pivotal characters, that we have more confidence in—but we find that Magic is way more fun if there are a lot of cards at a pretty even power level, rather than a few that are very strong.

Now, if you imagined the current Standard, and I told you that tomorrow Arlin Kord started with an additional loyalty counter, Thing in the Ice was a 0/3 with hexproof, and Archangel Avacyn no longer gave herself indestructible, it would shake things up quite a bit. Well, changes of this magnitude are happening each week in the FFL, so nailing things down exactly is hard.

How Accurate Is the FFL?

We tend to be pretty good at figuring out what the week one and week two metagame will look like, but not how the format will evolve past the Pro Tour. Any amount of matches we play will be dwarfed by the data in the real world, so while a matchup may feel pretty even in testing, after some deck tuning and a few hundred matches, it goes from 45/55 to 40/60, which is a huge swing.

We try to include enough tools and options for each deck in the format that players can adjust their main deck and sideboard week after week to find edges, and to prey on other decks' own shifts. Once we get a month out into a season, things are going to shift to a point that our own internal metagame looks out of date—because it is. That's okay, we try to make a fun starting point, and provide the tools for people to adjust things, and trust that the format will evolve over time without ever becoming solved.

Some of the decks we think will be good will totally miss, and some we thought were fringe will end up being in the top tier. That's good—if you could read the full list for a set and know exactly how powerful each card was without actually playing the cards, things would be boring.

Do You Ever Find the Best Deck?

Yes and no. We usually have a deck of that archetype, but rarely have the whole deck. The fact is, if we had the whole deck, and knew how powerful it was, then we would've nerfed something—or buffed something in a different deck to combat it.

Our goal is to make sure that we get the format to a point where we don't know what's strongest, so that it isn't too easy to solve. We try to make it so that Standard has a lot of decks that could be the strongest, and only after weeks of playing them against each other does a consensus emerge about what the real strongest decks actually are—and hopefully, there is even some disagreement there between different people.

Why Didn't This Deck Contain Card X?

There are a lot of reasons a posted FFL decklist doesn't contain a card—it could be that the card didn't exist yet, or was too weak. It could also be that a different card was stronger and pushed that card out. It could even be that we were just trying something out to see if it was strong enough or not. While there are cards that we end up totally missing over the course of FFL testing, there are not a ton.

Why Did This Deck Contain Card X?

Similarly, we often try out a lot more cards than end up being in the final decks in the real world. That means we might have tried something out to see if it was good enough, but ended up not thinking it was. Or, we might have changed something in the metagame such that a card filling an important role was suddenly without a home. Take all of the individual cards in decks with some grains of salt, since they are often different than the final versions.

How Do You Keep Your Metagame from Becoming Too Inbred?

Trying out a lot of different cards, and not locking down our decks too much, helps to keep us from getting too focused on one card and totally missing something. Part of the problem with Thragtusk, for example, was that we were too focused on playing Wolfir Silverheart in that same slot. Because we were so focused on it being a very powerful five-drop, we didn't look enough at the other card.

We have a lot more people working in the FFL now than when we made Thragtusk, and we are dedicating a lot more time to it. But if we get too focused on one card being the "go-to card" for a particular deck or slot, then we risk repeating the Thragtusk problem.

Why Did You Think This Deck Was Good?

We sometimes get chided for showing off decklists that were not good enough in the real world, but there are a lot of reasons—it could be that a card changed that made the deck weak, it could be that a similar deck is just stronger and eats up its space in the metagame, or it could be that we weakened something and it ended up taking the deck out of playability.

As a whole, our decks are also just much less tuned than the real world's. Some of that is because we don't have enough time to iterate on one deck, but a lot of it is that cards change a lot. We will frequently spend months working with a deck and believe it is strong enough, only to have some changes elsewhere in the file that make another deck a better version of this one. It could be that our default control deck ends up worse than another, or our ramp deck gets outmoded by something stronger to ramp into. Usually, the decks we are looking at are strong enough within our untuned metagame, which is similar to the week-one metagame of Standard, but would not hold up well against a metagame a few weeks later that has been iterated on.

Do You Playtest Modern?

Historically we have put very little consideration into Modern, though that has changed over time, especially as we saw both delve and the Eldrazi shake up Modern more than we would consider healthy. Now, we are thinking a lot more about Modern as we make up new mechanics and cards, but we still do not do any Modern playtesting with them. The reason is that Modern is a huge format, and it is very difficult for us to try everything out. Ideally, if individual cards are not too strong for Standard, they shouldn't break Modern. Having new sets impact Modern, though, is good and healthy for the format, and will keep it interesting in the future. We don't want to break things, but we are willing to take a few risks for the future health of the format.

For the most recent bannings and unbannings in Modern, we did test these changes, and I would expect us to spend time testing future bannings and unbannings in Modern.

How Long Does It Take for the Real World to Catch Up to the FFL?

By the time the first week of real-world Standard is done, many hundreds, if not thousands, of times as many hours were put into Standard than we had—and unlike in the FFL, the cards don't change, so there aren't moving goalposts. Traditionally, we have been pretty good at predicting what kinds of decks will appear at a Pro Tour for a set in a new rotation, but we do not have a great picture of what Standard will look like a few weeks later, when people have much more data on what is actually good or bad and the metagame adjusts. Similarly, we are less accurate with the second sets than the first, since it's easier to tell what is happening with a new rotation than when the public has had months to crunch on it.

That's it for this week. Next week on Latest Developments, I'll go over the FFL decklists that we had for Shadows over Innistrad.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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