Posted in Latest Developments on May 15, 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.

Welcome again to another week of Latest Developments. I wanted to take some time this week to answer questions that I asked from people who followed me on Twitter (@samstod). I don't have room, or the ability, to answer everything that was asked, but I hope that these responses give you a better idea of what our thoughts are in the development department.

The decision to make DTK the sort-of swing set in the set rotation format actually came pretty late in the process—a good deal into development. There were a lot of changes that happened all at once that made things hard for development. Those changes required a bit of shuffling of some themes in upcoming sets, because planned overlaps moved to not overlapping at all. In terms of what Dragons itself had to absorb, the answer is—not much. While I know I was very skeptical, at first, it was pretty obvious that Dragons didn't actually need a ton of support from Khans or Fate Reforged to stand on its own for the duration of its time in Standard.

The two that we ended up moving to different effects were Emerge Unscathed and Distortion Strike. While both cards were fine in a vacuum, their combined effect of really pumping up the WU Heroic deck and Monastery Mentor/Shu Yun decks got us a bit nervous. It was just too easy to kill people out of nowhere, or have a sufficient number of cards to protect your explosive prowess creature, that we felt the cards weren’t appropriate.

As a whole, whenever we reprint a mechanic we try to take some of the more popular cards of that mechanic and reprint at least a few of them. But we often find that different Standard environments mean that a card that was okay the last time is a bit too much this time; either because a card that was good against it doesn't also exist here, or because of a powerful interaction that didn't exist the first time.

I'm not sure about ever, but it's a card that we would need to be very careful about reprinting. It reads a lot of fun, and actually the guessing game is pretty fun, but it comes with a lot of risks. Scouting at tournaments to know your opponent's exact list is a huge advantage. There is some skill in naming the card, but the huge swings with getting multiple copies is a bit much. The package as a whole might be worth it, if not for flashback making sure that someone who happens to have drawn two of a card will lose both of them.

As a whole, if there is one thing that Thoughtseize's return to Standard shows it's that powerful one-mana discard spells are something that we need to be very careful with. They keep some of the most degenerate stuff in control, but at the risk of invalidating a lot of decks. I'd expect a variant of the card well before an exact reprint. But, you know, I'd never say never.

I mentioned a while ago that we were moving more toward printing cycles of lands in blocks to make sure people will be able to cast their spells. Khans didn't need any extra help, due to having the enemy pain lands in M15, the allied fetches, the tri-lands, and the ten "gain life" lands.

One of the many challenges of making Khans-Fate Reforged-Dragons work as a progression was trying to make three-color decks to be the best thing to do in Khans Standard, and opening up options to play more two-color decks as the block went on by providing more powerful one-color and allied-color cards as the block went on. Three-color decks have the major weakness of their mana bases and, as a result, we didn't want to add new lands to Standard just yet. If there was going to be some chance of people's decks changing over the course of the year, we needed to make the decision to play two or three colors a real decision, and adding even more lands to Standard would work against that goal.

There will, of course, be opportunities when Theros/M15 rotate out to make some adjustments to the suite of lands in standard. We still have plans as we make future blocks to allow people to cast their spells, but we are much less likely to do full cycles in a block; just due to how that will impact Standard. As I mentioned earlier, that's not a 'never' thing, but something you won't see every time.

Many seed cards are actually planted in by design, believe it or not. We have a map of what the general outline of each block's theme a good deal of time in advance. We try to include cards that will generically enable a strategy we want to highlight a year or so later on. Often, those cards will change dramatically, but we know that if we have a set where (for example) colored mana symbols will matter, then we can put a lot of hybrid CCC cards in the year before to provide some support.

More specific cards have, traditionally, been planted later. If you look at a set like M13, there are a lot of seeds for Ravnica, like Flinthoof Boar and Farseek. RTR had Ethereal Armor because we knew that Theros would be an enchantment block. Generally, if it looks like a card was placed over a year ago for a future card, it's actually that we made a lot of generic plants and designed a card later to interact with one of those plants.

With the change to how the Standard rotation works, these kinds of plants are harder to do, but I expect us to find ways to support future sets as we learn more about just how the twice-a-year rotation model will impact how we need to design sets in the future.

This really wasn't trolling. This wasn't a cute thing like in Mirrodin when Shatter and Terror were put in the same set, and the reversal was that Shatter was supposed to be the better card. I'm sure there is a place for that, but we try to avoid tricking people like that today. Instead, it came down to Limited balancing, and we found that we could put Pacifism at common because of the things like exploit and dash that made for cards that would be good against it.

We have general guidelines for how strong we want removal to be at common in Limited, and Pacifism is pretty near the top of the line—but as we got late in Dragons development, we found that we needed to give the removal a bit of a bump if we also wanted to make the Dragons as powerful as they need to be to be—you know, worthy of being called dragons—while also not having Limited games devolve into who gets the first Dragon. Pacifism is great for this because it is great versus a lot of the Dragons, while also leaving people vulnerable to other strategies…as opposed to just being a white Doom Blade.

Honestly, the major thing we do to develop for Sealed Deck is just to play Sealed Deck. We have everyone record the cards they played in their decks, and then try to have things average out so people are making a pretty wide variety of color choices. It'll never be perfect, but we want to avoid something like triple Zendikar, where black and red where by far the best colors in Sealed.

While Draft is (as a whole) more useful for Limited balance, its self-correcting nature can hide problems that only Sealed truly brings out. When we look at the numbers at the end of a draft, things have to be pretty bad if only one person is playing a color, because that person will just get all the good cards of that color in the entire draft if they want them. In Sealed Deck, that just isn't the case. If the red cards are stronger, people will all just end up in red…and we know that we have some work to do with balancing.

It would be pretty difficult. By our estimates, Liliana is the second-most powerful Planeswalker ever. Some of that is due to interactions in older formats, but a lot of it is just that she's just really, really powerful. We tried her in Standard in M15, because we wanted Liliana of the Veil to go with the Garruk's curse storyline, but the more we tested her, the more obvious it was that she just wasn't okay. Some of it was how strong mono-black was in RTR-M15 Standard, but it was also that she was incredibly strong in Khans Standard.

If we were to make this format where she was bad, the trick would be to have a lot of spells that really punishing people for you discarding them. The Loxodon Smiters of the world, and also having enough cheap haste creatures that she could easily be killed off when she does hit play. Or even just counterspells that happen to be free on 3-casting cost black cards. But that's not something we want to do for two reasons: 1) it will make a lot of other strategies that intersect with Liliana worse, and 2) we would get people excited by reprinting a powerful and popular card, only to pull the rug out from underneath them by also making it bad in Standard. I'll admit, we've done it before in Standard (not always on purpose), and I don't think it actually ends up making anybody happy—other than the people that just want to open the card in question.

That's all the time I have for this week, but join me next week on Latest Developments when I talk about Modern. Until next time, Sam (@samstod)

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