Grading Gold

Posted in Latest Developments on March 15, 2013

By Dave Humpherys

Dave Humpherys has been managing the development team for Magic R&D since 2010. He led development for the Avacyn Restored and Gatecrash sets. He was inducted into the Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame in 2006.

In wrapping up storytelling about my own take on my second development lead with Gatecrash, I wanted to delve more into the specifics of developing a set where multicolored cards were to be a focus. As part of telling the story of Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash, we had gold cards in abundance at common and uncommon. As someone crafting a Limited environment, this posed unusual questions. We'd made a lot of progress in making traditional sets, but these sets were nontraditional.

We've been refining our craft at finding the best distribution of power across a given color at common. We've learned lessons for Limited with past sets like Avacyn Restored, where players found too large a gap between the best and worst cards. As you may have noticed, we've also started trying to keep truly exceptional Limited cards out of common unless they are helping tell part of the story of the set. In general, we've set the bar at less powerful than a Dark Banishing. We've intentionally tried to make some close calls, though. For example, while it had at least two cards competing for the best common card in the set, Seraph of Dawn was a nod toward the Angelic themes in Avacyn Restored and was intended to be high-jumping that bar.

Dark Banishing
Seraph of Dawn

While I didn't expect that we would cross that Dark Banishing bar at common for Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash, I expected that gold cards would be more pushed in power level than their monocolored counterparts. This block is, after all, about guilds and exciting gold cards. Let's take a look at what that would mean for drafting Gatecrash... and Dragon's Maze.

Powerful Gold in Limited

If a huge percentage of power is in the gold cards, it makes it hard to experiment. While we wanted the majority of decks with Gatecrash Limited to be two-color single-guild decks, we also wanted people to be able to experiment as needed. In my first Return to Ravnica draft, I drafted Gruul. That was fun and it was a story many people here have enjoyed mentioning to others. At the first Limited Grand Prix with Gatecrash in London, Fabrizio Anteri played a Golgari deck to a 9–0 start (he admittedly did splash two cards requiring red mana, but that was all). We knew such stories of going off-guild would be the exception to the rule, but we very much wanted them to happen. Putting too much power in gold would reduce the chances of these aberrations.

The more power we put in gold cards, the earlier it would put drafters into picks where they would be committing to a guild. We wanted to provide enough monocolored cards as early draft picks so players could try to read a draft and keep their options open as to which of the guilds they wanted to side with. More power at gold would also incentivize players going three colors to be splashing gold cards, instead of monocolored cards, which could lead to greater variance in game play based on how well and how quickly their lands matched their spells each game.

Putting extra power at gold would also be impactful on Dragon's Maze drafting. While there will be many more three-color, tri-guild decks with Dragon's Maze, we also still want players to be able to stick to a single guild. In that situation, regardless of which guild you choose in Dragon's Maze during a draft, one of your next two packs will be a round of drafting from eight packs, none of which have any gold cards for both of your colors. To create incentives for some players to stick to two-color decks, we needed to have a good balance between the power in single-color and gold cards.

Gold Distribution

Each guild had four common gold cards, one of which was hybrid (which only debatably belongs with being lumped in together with the rest for what we'll describe). After experimenting around with configurations in Return to Ravnica, we decided we best like the balance of one good, two average, and one dubious card for Limited. We have more precise definitions for these: the ever so flavorful "As," "Bs," and "Cs," corresponding to well-known cards. I didn't necessarily think that these letters would ever make for entertaining reading but I believe now is a good time to share them with you. They help explain some quirks within some of our recent sets, including Gatecrash, and how we took a new look at gold cards.

Let me introduce you to B. B is Blind Phantasm. B is also Regal Unicorn. And B is Riot Devils. B is also any card you'd rather have in your sealed deck pool than these cards, until you reach the next threshold.

Blind Phantasm
Riot Devils

Wind Drake is not a B. Wind Drake is an A. So is Wild Griffin. And so the process begins anew until you reach the next threshold. An A is any card that is a 2C 2/2 flier or better, until you hit the card I mentioned more casually above, Dark Banishing. At which point you have...

Wind Drake
Wild Griffin

...well, an A+, of course. My understanding is that we started with just As, Bs, and Cs using a system Erik Lauer devised to facilitate doing quick passes of files and giving us a vocabulary to discuss these cards. Why wasn't Dark Banishing an A with a scale going down from there? I'm guessing because it was added to the system when we wanted more differentiation and folks here had already become used to the already-established definitions of As, Bs, and Cs. I'll note that we already have one more threshold than A+; maybe you have a suggested name for it? We generally refer to this group of cards as Motis. It is debated at times, especially with faster formats, if it is actually better than a Dark Banishing, but, again we are mainly speaking of Sealed as opposed to Draft, and it provides a framework for discussion. In case you hadn't pieced it together, these cards get their nickname from Mahamoti Djinn.

Let's not forgot about C, though. I find C easiest to explain after going up the ladder. C is simply what falls under B. So it is a card worse than a vanilla 2/3 for three mana, a colored mana and two colorless mana—or as we say here, 2C.

This system sounds straightforward enough, right? Well, when we go through a file and assign grades to the cards, what we find is that even among experienced players and developers there is quite the broad range of values. Looking through spreadsheets of values for these cards, it isn't at all unusual to see a given card receive an A, a B, and a C.

To confirm this recollection, I looked back at late-stage grading for Gatecrash. Here is a list of non-rare cards that received at least three different letters among five graders: Guardian of the Gateless, Ætherize, Midnight Recovery, Shadow Slice, Killing Glare, Madcap Skills, Adaptive Snapjaw, Mortus Strider, and Armored Transport. It is fascinating to me how a number of these cards have gone through big changes and levels of hype among our community as well.

Shadow Slice

There are a great many cards evaluated by multiple people as a B and multiple people as an A. Or by multiples as a B and multiples as a C. If you think this is just a reflection of our development team, I encourage you to read through archives of how our fan sites have tackled our sets with color reviews, where you can find top players actually disagree on a good percentage of cards. Even when they are using the same scales as each other, there can be significant disparities. For example, if you compare Conley Woods's and Luis Scott-Vargas's reviews of Gatecrash side-by-side, using the same five-point scale, you find many cards differing by a point, and situational cards—like Death's Approach, which are generally harder to evaluate—often differing by more.


As I spelled out, a while back we felt like each guild needed a common C, so there was a relative balance with monocolored cards. And also to have the guilds strike a balance with each other, given we wanted cards like Shattering Blow. In order to arrive at this balance, we have some of the cards that have made you scratch your collective heads. These are cards like Primal Visitation. At four mana, this was doing good work for us and it was giving more creatures meaningful haste than you might be willing to give us credit for. However, it was a B. We do make exceptions to our own rules, but it didn't seem like this was the correct place to do so given several of our goals, many of which I outlined above.

Shattering Blow
Primal Visitation

We were happy with what each of the other three gold Gruul commons were doing, those being Pit Fight, Ruination Wurm, and Zhur-Taa Swine. Primal Visitation gained a mana late in development. Should we have removed haste and put something else there? Possibly. We would have needed to put something less functional there, though, and it would still need to look like a red and green card, which is why something like +2/+2 and haste at four mana is less convincing. Overall, though, I was happy with the rare cases where it mattered—games where you'd been holding Ambush Viper and topdecked Primal Visitation, or the occasional game reaching an empty board where you were holding Primal Visitation and drew a small creature late game. And we've still seen Primal Visitation in feature matches at Pro Tours and Grand Prix. Being a C doesn't relegate you to the sidelines, it just means you are a C. Winning games with Cs is part of the fun of Limited Magic.

Pit Fight
Zhur-Taa Swine

We were more generous with our gold cards at uncommon, doing our best to give each guild an A+. The math still worked out that there were Cs in gold as well, these being the Merfolk of the Depths and Coerced Confessions of the world.

Sleepless in Seattle

I'd rather not leave on the note of these oddballs that create ire, though. I prefer more to think of Gatecrash Limited Grand Prix breaking attendance records left and right. It's not without flaws in terms of guild balance, but I believe it is a lot of fun and met our goals well in creating contrasts and synergies to both Return to Ravnica and for Dragon's Maze Limited to follow.

After this article, I'm expecting that my contributions here will dwindle in frequency significantly. I'm dropping out of the Latest Developments rotation for the indefinite future. Beginning with the rollout of Dragon's Maze previews, Sam Stoddard will be doing the heavy-lifting for this column, with some regular guest-star assistance from R&D both present and past. Perhaps you might still find me among these articles with time. Thanks for all of the feedback you've either emailed to me or posted regarding my articles. As for the near future, I'm busy with more upcoming sets, as well as readying for an exciting due date in a mere two weeks. I'm excited for the arrival of my first child!

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