The Future Future is Now

Posted in Latest Developments on May 15, 2009

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.

Magic developers care a lot about Standard Constructed. It is the most popular tournament format, and it's very important to us that the experience it provides be fun. The Future Future League is the name we have given to the format that we use to test Standard internally. At any given time, the Future Future League contains all the sets that will be in real-world Standard at the same time as the set that is currently in development. This means that at any given time the Future Future League is many months ahead of the real world. Today I'll talk about some decks I played while Alara Reborn was the newest set in the Future Future League.

During Alara Reborn development, I was still very new to Magic R&D. I spent much of the set's development cycle as more of a playtester than a developer, and for a few months I was building decks very quickly, often at a rate of a deck or more per day. Because of this, the decks I was playing were not often well tuned. However, the goal of early playtesting is to tell if cards are fun, not to produce tuned lists. Three extra games playing with a new card is more valuable to us than an hour spent worrying about the last two slots in a deck built around it, especially when the card might change at any moment.

The four decks I present today are very untuned. They are exactly the kinds of decks we make when we need to see how a card plays but don't have a ton of time to spend on making them perfect. This is, of course, not the only kind of Future Future League deck we make. We hold tournaments in which the decks we play are much more refined, and my tournament decks are much stronger than these. However, many more of the decks we make are motivated by what needs to be tested, and we need to test efficiently. Let's begin!

Sigil Captain

One reason that decks are built inside Magic R&D is that a playtester or developer identifies a card that they think is going to be fun for them to play with. This is exactly what happened the first time I met Sigil Captain. The card's Multiverse comments field was empty and it was hard to get a Limited deck that used it to its full potential, but I saw that there was some fun to be had. I made the following deck.

Sigil Captain

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This deck was built to test Sigil Captain, so it has tons and tons of 1/1 creatures. Cloudgoat Ranger and Spectral Procession each produce three tokens, and Elspeth creates one every turn. Also, Figure of Destiny and Goldmeadow Harrier are naturally 1/1s on their own. I also included plenty of ways to leverage tokens other than Sigil Captain. Knotvine Paladin gets very large when he attacks while your tokens stay home, and Mirror Entity makes all of the tokens huge.

Knotvine Paladin
Mirror Entity

This deck was tons of fun. It's really fun to curve Sigil Captain into Cloudgoat Ranger, which produces a lot of 3/3s. Spectral Procession produces one fewer 3/3, but three flying 3/3 creatures is quite a clock. There were also some amusing moments that happened thanks to the rules governing power and toughness setting. Power and toughness determining effects like Mirror Entity and Figure of Destiny apply before the bonuses given by +1/+1 counters, so it works with Mirror Entity the way you want it to. I had never controlled a 10/10 Figure of Destiny before, but thanks to two +1/+1 counters I can now say that I have. The interaction between Knotvine Paladin and the tokens was also lots of fun.

In hindsight, I think this deck probably wants a twenty-fifth land. It ramps up to five-mana spells, and Windbrisk Heights helps guard against mana flood. Also, Goldmeadow Harrier likely should have just been Oblivion Ring. However, details like that aren't that important when the goal is just to get a good sense of how fun a new card is. I knew after ten or so games with this deck that Sigil Captain was fun, and I kept playing longer than that because of how much fun it was. At the end of the day I left a Multiverse comment on both Sigil Captain and Knotvine Paladin, and Sigil Captain made it to print unchanged.

Nulltread Gargantuan

Sometimes the lead developer of a set specifically requests that a card be tested with a specific subset of cards from earlier sets. In that case, a playtester must build a deck using the requested cards, whether or not he or she thinks the card in question is fun or powerful. The goal of these decks' construction is to discover how fun or powerful new cards actually are, and to identify changes that make them more fun and more appropriately powered.

In the case of Nulltread Gargantuan, someone remarked in a playtester meeting that no one had built a deck that used Alara Reborn's green-blue cards along with cards from Eventide. Also, Nulltread Gargantuan's drawback was dissuading playtesters from using it in decks at all, so no one really knew how powerful it really was. I volunteered to build a green-blue deck with Nulltread Gargantuan and started brewing. Here's what I made.

Nulltread Gargantuan

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My goal here was to maximize Nulltread Gargantuan. The best way I could see to do that was to make sure it was played on turn two. Thankfully, Birds of Paradise and Noble Hierarch do a great job of giving me both the mana I need to cast Nulltread Gargantuan and the creature I need to put on top of my library to keep it from dying. Vedalken Heretic was another Alara Reborn card that fell naturally into the deck. Favor of the Overbeing and Shorecrasher Mimic both asked for lots of green-blue cards, so I went to Snakeform and Wistful Selkie. Cryptic Command and Chameleon Colossus, of course, are just good cards that I thought would make the deck stronger.

Vedalken Heretic
Favor of the Overbeing

I had an absolutely miserable afternoon playing with Nulltread Gargantuan. Over and over, I would play it on turn two and have it send back my first-turn mana creature only to see it die to Shriekmaw or Terror. The card excelled most in play against red decks that could not easily deal with its sizable body, but once they learned that Nulltread Gargantuans were lurking in the mists they simply killed every creature I played so that I couldn't play it. Worse, they sometimes allowed me to keep exactly one creature but left mana open, threatening that if I did play a Nulltread Gargantuan they would simply kill it in response and leave my Gargantuan to its death. Whatever Nulltread Gargantuan was, it wasn't overpowered.

Shorecrasher Mimic

The rest of the deck, however, was fun. Putting Favor of the Overbeing on either Vedalken Heretic or Shorecrasher Mimic felt awesome, as did putting it on Nulltread Gargantuan once it was in play. I also had a ton of fun Snakeforming people out of games. I'm about as much of a Spike as a human being can be, and Snakeform has not proven itself as a tournament card, but I needed green-blue spells for my Mimics and I made all kinds of mischief by turning things into snakes at inopportune times.

Had I not spent an afternoon with Nulltread Gargantuan, it might have seen print as a 4/5 rather than a 5/6. However, I defended its larger size in Multiverse and in a playtester meeting, and that is how we released it into the wild.

Giant Solifuge

There was also a personal upside to playing this deck, and that is that I learned how much fun Snakeform is. There is now a Snakeform in my Cube that has screwed up tons of combat phases in awesome ways, including allowing a Giant Solifuge to survive combat with a Morphling whose controller was tapped out thanks to a Gauntlet of Power naming red. Had I not tried to build a deck under the restrictions that were given to me in that playtester meeting, this might never have happened!

Necromancer's Covenant

This deck was the result of a very specific request: build a deck around Necromancer's Covenant. Cards like this are simply impossible to test without dedicating entire decks to them, so sometimes we collect a list of build-around-me cards and request that decks to be built around them. Here's what I made:

Necromancer's Covenant

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The line "Zombies you control have lifelink" took me in a strange direction here. I knew that I wanted to hit myself with Traumatize for maximum Zombie production with Necromancer's Covenant, but after that I wasn't sure what to do. I ended up building a fairly straightforward Zombie deck rather than a true combination deck, and I can't say it worked well. It's clear from my choice of Grixis Grimblade in a deck with exactly eight multicolored permanents that I was stretching for Zombies, but I hoped that Lord of the Undead and Graveborn Muse would get the deck somewhere reasonable.

Grixis Grimblade
Lord of the Undead

Unfortunately, it didn't really work. People who had vaguely competitive decks smashed me over and over again. However, I did have a memorable game against Mike Turian in which I finally lived the dream of Traumatizing myself and then using Necromancer's Covenant to create tons of Zombies. I also had a few strange games in which I won thanks to Necromancer's Covenant without the help of a Traumatize. I would just trade creatures with my opponent until the enchantment was enough to make four or five tokens, and that would be good enough to win. I also discovered that Graveborn Muse is very dangerous to have in play immediately after making tons of Zombies.

Graveborn Muse

It was clear to me after ten or so games with this deck both that Necromancer's Covenant was not dangerously powerful and that I had not unlocked its full potential. However, I was satisfied that there were plenty of fun things to do with it. That was enough, and I moved on to build other decks.

Sovereigns of Lost Alara

Sometimes a playtester is excited about a card, but someone else gets to it before they do and the card is changed. This happened to me with Sovereigns of Lost Alara. I was looking for goofy cards to build around and made the following deck, then discovered that the card had changed already due to playtester Steve Warner's efforts. I still wanted to play my deck, so I just cut one of the four Sovereigns, adjusted the other three playtest cards to the new numbers, and off I went. Amazingly, I was able to find this deck in my drawer of old Future Future League decks, complete with the fourth unaltered Sovereigns:

This is the deck I made.

Sovereigns of Lost Alara

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This is a little bit of a goofball deck. Sovereigns of Lost Alara demanded a toolbox of auras. Elder Mastery was the best Aura I could find, but Epic Proportions served as a backup Aura that I could both search for if I drew the Elder Mastery and actually cast and Lure was there for goofy situations and because it looked fun. The rest of the deck was basically random cheap and efficient cards with the exception of a single Finest Hour that I threw in for kicks.

Elder Mastery
Epic Proportions

I had a lot of fun with Sovereigns in this deck. I did not play it for very long because we already had the card somewhere we liked, so I never got the chance to tutor for anything other than the Elder Mastery. However, I did play two memorable games against playtester Mons Johnson in which I first defeated him with a surprise Epic Proportions on a double-striking lone attacker, then by casting Lure on Knotvine Paladin to eat all of his creatures. I also almost managed to put together Finest Hour, Rafiq, and Elspeth in one perfect attack, but my Rafiq died before I could declare attackers. That was a sad moment.

The Future Future League is a strange place for a Magic player to live. On the one hand, the cards in it are all well on their way to print. On the other hand, the cards that are the most important for us to test can change under a playtester's feet at any moment. Every day we use those cards to make decks much like these and play them against each other, and it is these decks that help us make our sets as fun as they can be.

Last Week's Poll

What is your favorite (non-mythic) rare in Alara Reborn?
Maelstrom Pulse 1212 16.5%
Meddling Mage 607 8.2%
Nemesis of Reason 538 7.3%
Dauntless Escort 418 5.7%
Thought Hemorrhage 402 5.5%
Knight of New Alara 303 4.1%
Mayael's Aria 301 4.1%
Lavalanche 297 4.0%
Spellbreaker Behemoth 291 4.0%
Finest Hour 291 4.0%
Enigma Sphinx 246 3.3%
Wargate 201 2.7%
Time Sieve 191 2.6%
Spellbound Dragon 186 2.5%
Blitz Hellion 169 2.3%
Deathbringer Thoctar 149 2.0%
Lich Lord of Unx 142 1.9%
Necromancer's Covenant 129 1.8%
Knotvine Paladin 110 1.5%
Lightning Reaver 109 1.5%
Unscythe, Killer of Kings 106 1.4%
Identity Crisis 102 1.4%
Retaliator Griffin 98 1.3%
Vedalken Heretic 97 1.3%
Glory of Warfare 95 1.3%
Fight to the Death 93 1.3%
Mycoid Shepherd 92 1.2%
Filigree Angel 86 1.2%
Madrush Cyclops 70 1.0%
Aven Mimeomancer 64 0.9%
Sovereigns of Lost Alara 50 0.7%
Predatory Advantage 38 0.5%
Cloven Casting 34 0.5%
Sages of the Anima 33 0.4%
Soulquake 13 0.2%
Total 7363 100.0%

I'm not surprised to see Maelstrom Pulse and Meddling Mage at the top of this list. I'm also happy to see Nemesis of Reason near the top. That was one of the very first cards that I had a hand in changing. I enjoy its goofy numbers, and I hope players in the real world do too. There are, however, plenty of cards at the bottom of the list that I know are not receiving due respect yet. I look forward to when a few of those cards break out and surprise everyone!

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