A Matter of Structure

Posted in Latest Developments on April 11, 2014

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.

One of the goals of Theros block was to do a traditional three-set block that we had done so many times in Magic's past, but had moved away from in recent years. It's been a long time since we've done a typical third set in Magic. Long enough that it's hard to say what typical even means. Dragon's Maze came after two large sets, and Avacyn Restored and Rise of the Eldrazi were large sets themselves.. New Phyrexia before that was a huge tonal change in the block, and Alara Reborn was 100% gold. Typical might just be atypical for most of our audience at this this point.

One of the nice things about the more recent models, with second large sets, is they change how the themes and mechanics can evolve over the course of the block. The first set tends to show off the world and themes, and the second set expands those themes as far as we can take them and gives the new large set the ability to do something different. Not so here—this block's structure meant that we had to leave quite a bit back. While the number of enchantments in Theros and Born of the Gods increased a little between design and development, we knew that constellation was coming in the third set, so we had to be mindful of what our enchantment cards did—and to make sure we left enough room for the Journey cards to do new and interesting things. When we work on blocks we have to think of them in their full-block structure, and by putting a lot of the enchantment-matters cards in Journey into Nyx, we had to take some out of the earlier sets. I think people will look back at Theros as an enchantment-themed block, even if its theme's roots weren't as deep as a block like Mirrodin.

Art by Karl Kopinski

So, anyway, Journey into Nyx is a third set, and that meant we needed to reserve some space for it while we were designing and developing the other sets, but we still needed it to play well with the first two sets for both Limited and Constructed. Adding constellation and a new twist on bestow were important, but we also found that Journey needed some other ways to innovate, and ideally to give the mortals of Theros something to do with their time. So, we gave the heroes something to strive for.

Holding Out for a Hero

Don't cue the Footloose references. Or do. But please don't.

Theros included plenty of ways to help out your heroic creatures—the bestow creatures, the Ordeal cycle, and the cycle of "up to two " like Dauntless Onslaught and Triton Tactics—but we wanted something different for Journey into Nyx, something I am sure Dave Humpherys will talk about in more detail during his feature article on Monday.

Ordeal of Nylea
Dauntless Onslaught

One of the hardest parts of working on small third sets (and one of the reasons we have done fewer of them in recent years) is that it can be hard to keep finding new space to work in without taking a dramatic left turn that tends to make both Limited and Constructed less fun. We wanted something that felt like it could live within the world of Theros and was a natural evolution of what came before it—and not a monkey wrench to shake things up for the sake of shaking things up.

While we tried several mechanics, the one that we finally settled on as doing the things we wanted to do was strive. Strive, as a mechanic, came out of development as a way to supercharge heroic in Limited and give it some tools in Constructed. We had worries in development that if heroic was too strong it wouldn't be very fun to play with, so we had to be somewhat conservative with the individual Constructed heroic cards, although creatures like Hero of Iroas, Fabled Hero, and Agent of the Fates have shown up in a few lists, especially in Block.

Fabled Hero
Agent of the Fates

Making Cards Constructed

When we create a mechanic for a Magic set, one of our goals is to make sure we can turn at least a few of the cards into Constructed cards—ones that are at least strong enough to see play in Standard. We'd like some to be Modern- or even Legacy-playable, but we can't limit ourselves to mechanics that would match up well in those formats and still be fun in Standard. It would take quite a bit to be able to push a bestow creature for Legacy, as an example—probably more than would be fun in Standard, which has a very different counterspell and removal suite.

The advantage of getting our block-mechanics cards into Standard is we create a Standard environment that is unique. The triple-hybrid-mana creatures in Return to Ravnica block play very well with devotion in Theros, which means that the decks they create can only exist in this one Standard. Even if we bring back one mechanic or the other, they will almost certainly not coexist in Standard ever again. It's one of the ways we keep things different from year to year, to keep the game fresh.

Nightveil Specter
Boros Reckoner

Overall, we have a pretty good hit rate of getting cards with block mechanics up to the point where you will see them show up in Standard. There will always be a few mechanics that end up missing, but usually not by very much—we can get pretty close on a lot of things, but we will always miss on a few. I think we're getting better, though, and using new strategies to try and position cards to give them the maximum chance of showing up and making sure they are actually fun when they do so.

For strive, that meant creating enough cards that do different and useful things that people would find applications for them. We knew that getting strive to show up in Constructed required tuning enough knobs that you would be willing to play the cards in decks without simply having heroic creatures—ideally, it would be playable in decks with none, but would be even stronger if you decided to include creatures with the mechanic. While we want some number of synergies to exist when you go "all-in" with a strategy we put into sets, requiring every deck to do that isn't very fun or interesting. Magic is about mixing and matching cards over many years and letting people go off the rails.

In order to solve all of these problems, we created a little card called Launch the Fleet:

The most obvious inclusion for this card, at least for Standard, is in a White Weenie deck with Spear of Heliod and Hall of Triumph to create tokens that are quite a bit larger than 1/1. There are also a few more cards coming up in Journey that fit nicely in that deck, but you will have to wait until next week to see them.

More than just working in White Weenie decks, though, the colorless strive cost of Launch the Fleet lets you play it in Boros decks to take advantage of Purphoros to push through pretty amazing bursts of damage, especially when combined with creatures like Akroan Crusader. In fact, because of Temple of Triumph and the card LSV is talking about in his column, Mana Confluence, you can splash Launch the Fleet into an almost-mono-red deck in Theros Block Constructed like the one below (you might even want to add some Chained to the Rocks while you are at it):


Download Arena Decklist

Add to this green-white decks with Ajani and white-black decks with Agent of the Fates, and you can see where, if you want to go wide, then Launch the Fleet is a pretty reasonable card for you.

That's it for this week. Come back next week when I will be talking about Block Constructed and showing off some of the cards we seeded into Journey to help make the format work.

Until next week,
Sam (@samstod)

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