Magical Mailbag

Posted in Latest Developments on December 11, 2015

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.

Hello, and welcome to a mailbag edition of Latest Developments. I took a series of questions from readers just like you on Twitter, and now I'll answer them to the best of my ability. If you would like to see your question answered in a future mailbag, just follow me on Twitter and wait for me to ask again!

The deck as it exists wasn't planned, but Rally the Ancestors itself was a card that we thought had some promise. We knew the kinds of cards the deck would need to be successful—creatures with enters-the-battlefield effects, sacrifice outlets, or ways to give your creatures haste—it was just a question of whether or not those things would come together before the card rotated out of Standard. We do this with a lot of cards, and I'd say the majority of them do not make nearly the impact Rally the Ancestors did. Having that wide base of cards with the potential to do something is what makes us most excited about watching what decks the Magic-playing community comes up with, and which ones are actually strong enough to become archetypes.

Battle for Zendikar itself was in a weird spot for reprints, in that it could get some cards from the original Zendikar block, but the set's many constraints, like devoid, led us to create a lot more new cards than reprints. If we do sets like this again, where there is something really different going on and we are showing that on mechanics that have a large footprint, you are less likely to see a high number of reprints. When we have sets where more of the themes are creative rather than mechanical, there is a higher chance that we will be able to use reprints effectively.

While we definitely want to put more reprints into our sets, the number will likely not end up being quite as high over the year as the core sets got it up to, as a total percentage. Keep in mind, though, that core set reprints made up about half of the core set, but only about fourteen percent of the total cards released in a year.

Balancing Constructed is about a lot more than making sure we have a ton of cards that are the same power level. It's possible, if we got to make an entire format that would never change, that we would be able to do that—but that's just not how sets get made. We want decks and strategies to evolve as new sets come out, but we often get into a spot where one deck has gotten too tough over the course of a year, or one strategy/mechanic is just not supported well enough to be competitive without some help. We push cards in Constructed to try and get those decks on closer-to-even footing.

As a general rule, we want all of our cards to be in a power band where you wouldn't play it in Constructed if it cost one more mana. When we are pushing a card, we usually try to do it in ways that are less impactful than that. It could be that a creature gets an extra power or toughness, a planeswalker's starting loyalty and ultimate cost are upped by one, or a spell that costs 1RR becomes 2R. Making these small adjustments in cards that we already believe to be fun and pretty balanced helps to make sure there is enough to do in the metagame.

Well, we haven't actually developed a ton of sets under the new model yet, but I believe we will end up pushing those mechanics a bit harder on a set-by-set basis, and similarly from a block perspective. The nicest thing, for me, is that there were plenty of mechanics in the past that I felt were really good two-set mechanics that got spread into three sets—the filler that you mention.

We do vacillate a bit on whether cards hit opponents' things without a "may," or any player's cards with a "may." The big question is usually "Just how frequently would this come up on purpose?" On a card like Banishing Light, I think the answer is not that often. By forcing the targeting of an opponent's permanent and removing the choice, we eliminate at least one click in both Magic Online and Magic Duels. It may not seem like much, but if we can make a series of small changes like this in a set, it is possible to remove a significant number of total clicks in a match, and I think it makes all of those digital offerings noticeably better without any large sacrifices to the paper version.

When the opposite is true, and we could make something easier in digital but with what we consider to be a noticeable negative impact on paper, we tend to err on the side of paper.

I do not believe it will ever be finished. We do intend to continue releasing cards into the format that may lead to others being added to the list for balance, and I think as the format gets larger and larger, there arise opportunities for cards to come off of the banned list. I wouldn't expect Skullclamp or Hypergenesis to be legal anytime soon, but I can see plenty of other cards getting to a point where their unbanning is both pretty safe and helps keep the format diverse.

Short answer is no.

Long answer is this: Coiling Oracle is not a weak Magic card, but it is also not game-breaking by any stretch of the imagination. I think it is at a pretty good power level, and I can see us putting it into a set at some point, but the question is when, where, and whether that makes that environment better or worse. There are a ton of cards that are not too powerful for Standard in the abstract, but that we don't add for a multitude of reasons. Sometimes it's because we have a variant we like more in that environment, sometimes it's because the card doesn't fit in a setting, and sometimes it's just because we want to push a color's strengths in different ways.

To be clear, we never set out to design a cycle of broken two-drops, it just happened. For those who don't know, the cycle is generally considered to be Stoneforge Mystic, Snapcaster Mage, Dark Confidant, and Tarmogoyf. I think these cards happened because two mana is the spot where we are most likely to make mistakes, at least where Eternal formats are concerned. The thing is that we can usually tell if a card is too strong at one mana. Sure, we do end up with cards like Deathrite Shaman and Delver of Secrets that are stronger than expected, but two mana is where we are most likely to be off. It's kind of the spot where creatures start getting text boxes that can be really interesting and have the opportunity to get too strong, but before the amount of mana makes them mostly uncastable in Eternal formats.

I don't think that any creatures in that cycle would still see play in Legacy or Vintage at three mana, though they would probably be good enough for Standard. So they aren't off by that much.

All that being said, I'm going to give the nod on this one to Young Pyromancer. As the person who designed the Abbot of Keral Keep, I am partial to the card—but the amount of play Pyromancer sees in Legacy and Vintage just pushes it over the top for me.

One of the things we are trying with red is to give it more power in a wider variety of things, as opposed to just in its burn spells. In the past year, we have printed a pretty good number of very strong red creatures, and power had to come out of the color somewhere. That somewhere was taking away some of red's face-facing burn. Besides, Atarka's Command is doing a ton of work taking life totals from 20 to 0 very quickly right now, and adding much more at this exact moment would probably be more than the color needs to be competitive.

Don't worry, though—Lightning Strike levels of efficiency on spells are not gone forever. Spreading the color's strengths out a bit means that we have the ability to place more of its power in one element or the other over time, and that they get to wax and wane. Kind of like how blue's power often varies between it drawing cards or countering spells.

Green's strength of having the largest creatures is more impactful in Limited, where creature combat and blocking is more important, than in Standard, where the game is more about resilience. Green is rarely going to compete with the Constructed-level Zombies and Skeletons for recursiveness, and it doesn't have the ability to finish the opponent off with burn like red, so it needs something to do when the opponent has cast a board wipe. Giving green the occasional creature with haste lets the color have a few more surprises in Constructed, and gives much-needed counterplay to control and midrange decks.

This is honestly not a metric we talk a lot about—at least not in that kind of detail. It's much more useful for us when designing and balancing cards to think of things a few steps removed. An individual match tells us a lot, but the results are more meaningful when we look at how two decks match up over a few thousand matches. What we want to do is make sure that each individual strategy has play and counterplay, and that the format as a whole is balanced—the top players are then able to outplay their opponents, and succeed at a higher rate.

The problem is, looking at what win percentage a top player has doesn't take into account what kind of event they are playing in, or the other important parts of the event, like deck choice. It would be easy to say we expect our top players to win 75% of the time, but that is going to make for a pretty disappointing World Championship, when even our best players only manage to win half of the time on average. We could also say, "We expect the stronger player in a match to win 66% of the time," but that doesn't take into account how much of a skill gap there is, or how that gap manifests itself. The skill levels of a Platinum pro, a Gold pro, and a Silver pro are much closer to each other than any of those three compared to someone who regularly goes 2-2 at Friday Night Magic.

Our goal, as a whole, is to make sure the game is skill-intensive enough that our best players have a ton of meaningful matches where their decisions matter, but there is still enough variance that no game is hopeless. That's a fine line to tread, but one I think we navigate pretty well.

That's it for this week. I am off for the next two weeks with reruns, but I will be back the week after that with Oath of the Gatewatch previews!

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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