Instants and Sorceries

Posted in Latest Developments on June 27, 2003

By Randy Buehler

The fine balance of game play

I learned a lot about what really makes Magic work when I came to work for Wizards of the Coast. Before I got my job, I thought instants were just better than sorceries. Some spells, like Wrath of God, were already so powerful that they shouldn’t be instants, but I thought you could take pretty much any sorcery and make it better by turning it into an instant.

It is certainly true that turning a sorcery into an instant makes the card more strategically useful (and definitely more powerful), but the #1 thing I learned once I started working here and talking with all the talented people that make Magic work is that there’s a big difference between “more strategically useful” and “better for the game.”

Here’s the thing: Instants are good because sorceries exist. Without all the cards that can be played only during your turn, instants wouldn’t be special or neat or cool or more powerful than their slower cousins.

Another way of thinking about this issue is to try to imagine how the game would work if everything could be played at “instant speed.” Strategically, the right thing to do would be to wait until the end of your opponent’s turn before you played anything. Occasionally you might play creatures during your opponent’s attack step, after he or she attacked you but before you had to declare blockers. Meanwhile your opponent would be waiting for the end of your turn before doing much of anything either. In other words, the game would play totally and completely differently. Furthermore, that all-instant game would be a lot less interesting.

Odyssey's Deliberate Nature

I had never thought about this issue until I got to R&D, but once I got here it made a lot of sense to me. Unfortunately, I think I took this lesson a bit too much to heart. During the development of the Odyssey block, we took several solid removal spells and then added flashback but turned them into sorceries. Both Chainer's Edict and Firebolt were costed in this manner because we thought it would be more interesting to make them sorceries than to make the initial spells more expensive than Diabolic Edict and Shock. In retrospect, however, I think we went a little bit too far.

One complaint I heard several times about the Odyssey Block Constructed format is that it wasn’t interactive enough. Magic is at its most fun when both players are worried about what tricks the other guy has up his sleeve. The threat of a Giant Growth makes combat much more exciting, the threat of a Shock adds drama to the Giant Growth, and so on. The game needs most things to happen at specific points during the turn in order to establish a basic structure for things, but once there are enough things that are pinned down to certain moments in time by the rules, then there can be other spells that break those rules. In Odyssey, we wound up with not enough of these “rule breaking” instants at a constructed-worthy power level. Too many of the good removal spells were sorceries and that led to games where there was very little threat of your opponent doing something relevant during your turn.

Instant Army

There was one respect, however, in which Odyssey had more instants than almost any other set. We only rarely make creatures that can be played whenever you can play an instant because 1) the fact that you can play creatures only during your own turn does a lot of the work of defining the natural ebb and flow of the game’s turns, and 2) when we do make creatures that can be played as instants, it takes a full sentence of awkward-sounding text to do it (“You may play CARDNAME any time you could play an instant”). In Odyssey, however, we wanted to do creatures with flashback. Since you have to remove a flashback spell from the game the second time you play it, the spell card itself can’t represent the creature. So the best way to do flashback creatures was as spells that put tokens into play. Anyway, once you have a bunch of “creatures” that are actually spells which put tokens into play, it’s really easy to turn them into creatures that can be played at instant speed. All you have to do is change one word: “Sorcery” becomes “Instant” on the card type line. That’s why green got both Elephant Ambush and Beast Attack – more instant speed creatures than a color has ever gotten in one set before. However, two instant-speed creatures wasn’t enough to overcome the fact that so much of the creature removal happened at sorcery speed, and we wound up with the least interaction since the Urza-block era “Combo Winter.”

Moving Ahead

Having noticed this small flaw in the Odyssey block, we paid a lot of attention to the instants in the Onslaught block. Since we knew going in that Legions would be an all-creature set, we also knew we had to go out of our way to make sure Onslaught and Scourge had extra heaping helpings of interesting instants, including cards with cycling triggers. I’m not sure how much this extra attention and insight had to do with it, but the Onslaught block does indeed seem to be more fun than the Odyssey block was.

In summary, instants may be cool and fun and powerful, but that’s only because the game has so many things that you can only do during your own turn. The existence of creatures, artifacts, enchantments, and sorceries sets the stage for instants to shine. From a development point of view, it’s important for us to keep all these issues in mind and try to make sure the game has enough things going on at instant speed to be interactive, but not so many that the game loses its basic structure. As usual, our goal is to keep things properly balanced.

Last Week's Poll:

What do you think of the upcoming set size changes?
Thumbs up 6795 62.5%
Makes no difference to me 2972 27.4%
Thumbs down 1098 10.1%
Total 10865 100.0%

Glad so many of you like the idea!

Randy may be reached at

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