Fight the Future

Posted in Latest Developments on December 12, 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.

As we continue to review the results of Magic's World Championship, I want to look at how we, in development, take a crack at figuring out what may or may not be good in Magic's future, and how we make sure that it's fun for all of you to play.

The Inside World vs. the Outside World

There is a picture that some people have of development where we spend months tweaking the power and toughness on a few cards, and adjust a casting cost here or there—but it's much more fast paced than that. One of the first days in Magic R&D, I had the amazing experience of building a few decks to test in the FFL only to have them get downgraded out of existence within a day. Now, this was during the first few days of a set entering the FFL, so we expect there to be some things that are pretty far off, but big changes continue until we have to put our pencils down on the set.

Imagine you are on the Pro Tour and testing for Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir. You and your testing group put together a gauntlet of what you believe are the top decks, identifying Abzan, Jeskai, and RG Monsters as the top decks. You are pretty close to choosing your final deck, when you get a message from Wizards of the Coast:

Khans of Tarkir Update:

1. Siege Rhino is now a WBG 3/4

2. Savage Knuckleblade now costs 1G to pump

3. Queen Sidisi now makes one Zombie per creature milled

4. Heir of the Wild now gets +2/+2 for ferocious

5. Mantis Rider is now a 3/2

Well, that might change your testing just a bit. All of a sudden, the decks you had identified as the strongest have had big downgrades given to them; a few you had assumed were not very good have had some pretty substantial buffs; and, even more importantly, all of your decks need to be updated. With only a little time before the Pro Tour, you need to figure out how much of your gauntlet you can save, how much you need to throw out, and if there are any totally new decks this brings into the equation.

This is basically what happens every single week in the Future Future League. Things change rapidly—usually not that many top-tier Constructed cards, but other ones. We find cards that are fun and try to adjust them in ways that both make them more fun and keep Constructed balanced. We have to remake our decks a lot, as well as build new decks to test our cards that weren't powerful enough before and got some extra juice. In fact, we never actually test the final version of any given Standard because, for example, we were changing cards in Khans of Tarkir when Fate Reforged was the most recent set in the Future Future League.

Reacting to Real-World Results

This part is hard for us, and will be getting even harder as we move to a two-rotations-a-year world. Due to the many needs of packaging, printing, translating, coding for Magic Online, etc., we start developing our sets about two years ahead of time, and finish developing them months ahead of time. I've seen a lot of people assuming that we would have an answer for Jeskai Ascendancy in Fate Reforged, but we could only do that if we figured out that the card was too powerful between the time that Khans was finished and Fate Reforged was finished. We didn't. It was a card that changed pretty late, and we had some concerns with it, but we didn't play a ton of it in Standard.

Now, it looks like Jeskai Ascendancy isn't going to break Standard, although there is plenty of time for that to happen. Part of the reason for that is that we build our Standard environments to be robust enough that they can handle a card or twenty that are much stronger than we expected, and plenty that are weaker than we expected. Our goal is to make sure that we can't solve Standard in the very limited amount of time we play with the cards, and that means that we will inevitably miss some things here or there. We need to make sure that we don't end up in a scenario where something we missed is so powerful that it keeps other decks from being played.

Internally, we believed that all five of our wedges would show up in Standard, but were not sure which decks would be the best ones. As we complete sets further and further down the pipeline, we use the information from which cards and decks are dominating, pull back a little bit on cards that would make the top wedges much stronger, and give a little extra oomph to the decks that will help the wedges that aren't seeing much play. We can't exactly turn on a dime, but we can try to put things in the environment to keep it interesting in the months ahead.

Seeding Answers

There is a fine line that we straddle between "making sure the new thing isn't too powerful" and "making sure the new thing isn't good enough." If you look at the time before Theros block came out, we didn't put in any really powerful enchantment hate during Return to Ravnica block and waited until Journey into Nyx to print Deicide, in order to let the Gods be strong enough to see Standard play. We play a lot of Standard, but not so much that we are going to know everything, and as a result, we do try to make sure that there are sideboard cards capable of dealing with just about everything we could imagine coming up. I don't think a lot of people would've been happy putting Fade into Antiquity into their Green Devotion decks when Theros came out if the Gods were way too strong, but they would've been glad that something existed. What we want to keep out of Standard are things that are not only very powerful against the new cards we are printing, but very powerful main-deck strategies that will keep those decks from ever emerging. Having new things be good is important for churn, and giving those strategies the room to breathe lets us do that without having to constantly power creep to keep things interesting.

The biggest risk we run into is that we have a card that totally invalidates what design has planned for the next year, and it is one of the top cards in Standard. As an example, if we had a plan to make a block with a ton of Illusion creatures, we would need to make sure that there weren't any creatures running around Standard that could target other creatures for free, especially over and over again, even if those creatures looked pretty weak. We are going to be wrong about things, and if we have to announce this block full of mechanics that aren't going to have a lick of impact on Standard because they are so easily beaten by existing decks, then nobody is going to have very much fun.

Looking back for some examples, there was discussion about moving Merciless Eviction to five mana, but we decided against it because it would not only be incredibly powerful against the Gods, but enchantments in general. While we definitely felt the card was weaker as a whole than Supreme Verdict, even at five, we didn't want to run the risk that it wasn't so much weaker that people wouldn't be running it main deck—and all of a sudden the block that in development we know is "about enchantments" comes into an environment that is way too hostile for it, and we have to go away from design's intent for the block to make something that will be fun in Standard. The lesson is that no one card is worth risking the entire next year of Standard on.

Looking Forward

That's it for 2014. We've seen a lot—from Gods to fetch lands, even a massive Conspiracy and a new draft format. Despite all of that, I can say that I am even more excited for all of the things you have yet to see, and I believe that 2015 will be another banner year for Magic. We've got some amazing things planned, and a few preview articles that I can't wait for you to see.

For the next two weeks, we will have some "best of" articles going up, to tide you over until the new content comes back. I'll be back in the wee-hours of the New Year with Fate Reforged preview content! It's all very exciting, ringing in the New Year with some sweet, sweet time-travel goodies.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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