Mixed Bag, Part 2

Posted in Latest Developments on May 18, 2012

By Zac Hill

Zac is a former game designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast and was the lead developer for Dragon's Maze. His articles have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Believer, and on StarCityGames.com. Currently he serves as the chief operating officer of The Future Project, a nonprofit education initiative, and holds a position as a research affiliate in the MIT Game Lab.

Hi, again!

Today brings us part two in my card-by-card review of Avacyn Restored. You can find part one here. Using the highly sound, carefully tested methodology of "shamelessly ripping off Mark Rosewater," I'm going to run through the AVR file and wax poetic about cards I find cool or that have interesting stories behind them.


Right around when I first started playing serious competitive Magic, John Ormerod brewed up a nice little deck called Red Deck Wins 2000, or "RDW2k," that tore through the European tournament scene. One of that deck's key cards was Viashino Cutthroat, a 5/3 haste for that bounced back to your hand every turn. He, in turn, was based off Viashino Sandstalker, a 4/2 with the same abilities that saw a fair amount of success in its own right.

These creatures were very powerful because, in addition to being aggressively-costed, their "drawback" also served to dodge sorcery-speed removal like Wrath of God. They only needed to hit you a couple of times to get you within burn range.

Several of our best FFL decks relied upon sorcery-speed removal to stabilize the board before either casting or Unburial Rites-ing up a Titan. We hoped this card could pressure those decks a little bit, since he could connect the turn they dropped their fatty and could skirt the triggered abilities of Frost Titan and Grave Titan even after they attacked.

I cannot count the number of times Dave Humpherys or Billy Moreno have blown me out with this card. I laughed at it at first, until it kept beating me. The manacost can be tough to grasp—there haven't been a huge number of tournament staples like it—but your up-front deal (most often for 2 damage's worth of Flame Wave) isn't usually all that bad in the matchups you want it. It's a nice follow up to an opposing Huntmaster of the Fells, for example, on the appropriate turn. But then sometimes you have seven mana open, and you draw it in your draw step, and you set the world on fire, and it burns brighter than the sun.

This was another one that had to keep getting bumped up in cost. It started at , but everyone just kept getting killed on the fourth turn whenever anyone drew it. Notching the cost to didn't really help with that problem. I kept trying to do cool fun things like cast Sorin, Lord of Innistrad or Dungeon Geists and I would just immediately die whenever I tapped out, which led to the extremely fun game-play strategy of sitting around doing nothing while I got plinked to death 3 damage at a time. Lingering Souls, Gather the Townsfolk, and Midnight Haunting all ensured that it was pretty easy to have a ton of critters in play at once, and also mitigated to an extent the spot removal that's traditionally powerful against Overrun-style cards (since I don't want to be Dismembering a quarter of a Lingering Souls, etc).

I've seen a lot of people knocking on this card, but even as-is I think it is plenty playable in the right kind of deck. I could be wrong, of course, but I guess I like to think about it like this: yes, your total damage output is less than that of Overrun, but (a) red offers a lot beyond this spell and (b) there is a giant, giant difference between having to interact via the combat phase and being able to kill your opponent outright. With this card, unless your opponent has countermagic, he or she cannot let you untap with lethal in play, even if your opponent has removal spells. With Overrun, you have to commit to the attack before your opponents have to show their hands.

The more Avacyn Restored Limited I played, the more these cards made my main deck. There are a lot of powerful 1-toughness creatures in the format, and there are a lot of powerful fliers. We've moved in the direction of printing, on average, more conditional removal spells at common, since a lot more people play Limited now than they used to and the twenty-fifty variation of "I should probably take this Doom Blade over this Wind Drake" just ceases to be interesting after a while. This is not to say they're all going to work that way—not at all—but rather that we want to move a little bit away from the "point and click" gameplay of ubiquitous, splashable, universal removal in the common slot.

The point of all that was to say that both of these cards are fairly efficient at what they're designed to do most of the time, and offer corner-case upsides that will come up from time to time. When I first looked at them, they certainly didn't look like auto-includes to me, and there are still times when I leave them on the bench. But I wound up playing them a lot more than I initially expected.

In my mind, these cards always recall the "Mark Rosewater Preconstructed Deck," which was the precious little ball of synergies he seemed to draft every time during Avacyn Restored design. As I'm sure everyone's been able to tell with decks like Burning Vengeance and Gnaw to the Bone in Innistrad draft, we're trying to make certain aspects of Limited a little more "Constructed-like" in terms of archetypes, strategies, and power along a linear axis (which is basically a fancy way of saying "do something very specific very well"). These guys are just one manifestation of that.

If I have one pet card in the set, this has to be it. I try to jam this dude into everything. From Soulbond.dec (him, Silverblade Paladin, Wolfir Silverheart, assorted goodies) to Red-Green Aggro (fun with Metamorphs!) to Black-Red Zombies (Geralf's Messenger: Not a combo), I want the good ol' Mauler to have a home so bad.

Time will tell if he actually does.

One of the most powerful cards in the entire set is also one of the most straightforward. We knew after releasing undying and pushing the mechanic on cards like the aforementioned Geralf's Messenger and Strangleroot Geist that we wanted to have an answer. Add to the equation problematic "brick walls" like Loyal Cathar and Viridian Emissary (neither of which is necessarily a staple, but could become one if aggro became a linchpin of a format), and straightforward aggro decks just didn't have a lot of tools to push through without coming over the top of the mana curve.

We added Pillar to give those decks some flexibility and reduce the resilience of some of the format's principal threats.

When developing the miracle mechanic, we knew it would pull a lot of its game play weight with powerful, basic effects like those found in the set's uncommon cycle. At the same time, though, we wanted to design at least one or two cards that would make you really stand up and say, "Wow," the very first time you looked at them.

That's how we got around to Time Walk and Wheel of Fortune. You don't have to have played a lot of Magic to realize the massive potential upsides of those cards. They hit you viscerally the very first time you see them—or at least they did to me, when I saw these effects chilling out all innocuously in the file. I particularly appreciate Reforge the Soul because of its synergy with Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded, as I wrote about here. Sometimes opponents can empty their hands by the time you get around to activating Tibalt's middle ability. How do you solve that problem? Gas back up and dome them for seven!

Here, by contrast, is the other end of the miracle spectrum; 5 is unquestionably a lot of damage, but the effect itself is nothing out of the ordinary. You can find it on all kinds of common cards. The payoff is not in the "wow!" of the effect as much as it is in the "wow!" of getting the effect for one mana.

Initially, it was difficult to figure out how to cost the miracles. We got around to the heuristic, "How much could you get away with pricing cards if you could never draw them in your opening hand and had to mulligan every game," then evolved that based on the constraint of (a) actually drawing it in your opener occasionally and (b) having the value-option of paying the "fair" cost when you did so. This worked pretty well, and we're very happy with how it turned out by and large.

Evidently, this is what five damage looks like!

Along with Temporal Mastery, this little guy probably produces the bulk of "How on Earth did you ever print this card!!1111" email I receive about the set. Two different people cast him on turn one against me at the employee Prerelease, then actually apologized to me for how lucky they were to draw it two games out of three.

See! Some of us can be nice! We're not all Spikey min-maxxy cutthroat mean evil tournament sharks here at W to the OTC.

Well, not all of us anyway :)

Dave Humpherys has proudly declared to me more than once that this is the only instance of shuffling in all of Avacyn Restored.

The act of shuffling is a massive hidden cost that a lot of effects in Magic force you to undergo. In aggregate, it can waste hours upon hours of time, yet is incidental to so many of Magic's basic effects that oftentimes you barely even notice. Moreover, a large number of people—especially those who haven't been playing the game for a long time—have trouble physically picking up and shuffling cards over and over again, and a much larger number than that have trouble shuffling a deck adequately. So many times in a tournament I'll pick up a deck, riffle it two or three times, and offer it to my opponent to cut—but that's technically insufficient if what I'm trying to do is genuinely randomize my deck, which is what the rules require.

Shuffling, in many ways, is Magic's "IRL" version of a video game's loading screen. You're not going to be able to get rid of it, and even if you were you'd have to pay so many costs that it wouldn't be worth it. But we've tried to find ways to minimize it, and when we do deploy it, to deploy it judiciously. In this case, Block Constructed wanted a value-added mana-fixer that didn't necessarily accelerate, and Limited wanted a card to enable off-color splashes and take advantage of the "flickering" subtheme. Borderland Ranger fit nicely, and made the cut.

I am a man who likes his giant green decks. It seems like at least half of my Cube Drafts involve Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary and Gaea's Cradle into Woodfall Primus and Sundering Titan. So it probably comes as no surprise to anyone that I've cast several hundred copies of Primal Surge over the course of its FFL lifetime, and that those copies have picked themselves up many an instance of a Craterhoof Behemoth.

Is the deck Tier 1? I'unno, maybe. But it's a lot of fun—if you're into the giant green monsters, that is.

I mentioned last time how Blood Artist was my pick for "Coolest art in Avacyn Restored," but this piece by the perpetually-astounding Terese Nielsen is certainly also near the top. I could clumsily articulate how much it captivated me, how in my mind I twisted my own history through the sinews of that tree's deep-reaching roots, or I could simply link you to Terese's own account of the piece's genesis here.

This guy right here probably possesses the highest Limited look-to-power ratios in the entire set. As what is essentially a 4/4 for four with 2 additional power's worth of haste—all at a splashable mana cost—the Little Bear That Could is capable of carrying entire games as long as you have any other creature in your deck to pair with him. Yet he seems so innocuous, if you just look at his stats and numbers.

Soulbond, in general, is difficult to assess in terms of power level. The first time I saw the cards they all seemed kind of mediocre and overcosted to me. But the very first game I played with them I realized how powerful the mechanic truly was. The whole is very much more than the sum of its parts, and the dynamic interactions that emerge with all your available pairs can lead to some truly crazy game-states. The biggest hurdle, really, is figuring out what the mechanic even does in the first place!

Avacyn Restored Limited features several powerful Equipment, and this card was originally envisioned to offer a narrow but potent solution to those. With Standard being defined, to a degree, by certain other fliers wielding certain other Pikes and Swords, I expect this card to make at least a few sideboard appearances.

Affectionately titled "Lotus Druid" in playtesting, Somberwald Sage was always one of those cards that we felt would do something but were never sure exactly what. Titans are clearly the first idea to come to mind, but there are a lot of ways to power those out without exposing yourself to creature removal. Another option was simply to tap it and dump your hand, with a couple Huntmasters or Wolfir Silverhearts or Hellriders or whatever you happened to have on you. Still another path involved going over the top of Titans, with something like Craterhoof Behemoth or a hard-cast Griselbrand.

I'm not totally sure if the Sage is good enough to cut the mustard, but it certainly inspires me to try and get it there.

Continuing with the truly inspiring playtest names, "Arena Master" offers green the potential to totally dominate the board. We've been stepping up the "fight" ability quite a bit, as I'm sure you've noticed. For a long time, green just kind of had to drop its hand onto the battlefield and hope that nothing bad happened. Clearly, that put it at quite a disadvantage to other colors that were better able to interact.

The way we are envisioning it right now, green falls quite a bit behind colors like black and red in terms of its ability to just kill a creature. But we're trying to give it the tools to leverage its creatures to fight those on the other side—and to leverage its size advantage into something meaningful.

This is one of those Johnny-ish weirdo cards whose purpose isn't readily apparent. Billy Moreno and I had some luck pushing it into a Mono-Green Infect shell, however. Some of the more powerful weapons against that deck are Tragic Slip, Gut Shot, and Galvanic Blast—all of which are rendered ineffectual with Wild Defiance on the board. Once you get to that point, each of your Giant Growth-esque effects packs a huge punch.

I get asked a lot what's likely to be the "sleeper" hit of a given set, and Silverheart would definitely be my pick for Avacyn Restored. He's just... so... huge! Spectral Force was quite a powerhouse back in the day—especially once people realized he didn't necessarily even need his good buddy the Scryb Ranger—and Wolfir Silverheart offers the potential for even more upside. Obviously the lack of trample hurts, but Kessig Wolf Run is one of the most vicious cards in Standard and 12 points of power is a whole lot more than 8, especially when 4 of those points have haste.

Silverheart is particularly good with cards like Garruk Relentless or Lingering Souls, that can ensure a steady stream of threats to activate soulbond. Fortunately, those are some of the better cards in the format already, so it's not as though you have to make a ton of sacrifices to get this guy in a deck. Perhaps his best combo, though, is with the Avacyn's Pilgrim, Llanowar Elves, and Birds of Paradise that you're already using to power this guy out quickly. So the cost of including him is relatively low, whereas the payoff is tremendously high.

Of particular note is that he dodges Phantasmal Image and Phyrexian Metamorph relatively well—since he needs some "help" to get bigger—and is also capable of blocking at least a couple different Titans.

This is the piece of Equipment that most precipitated Eaten By Spiders, but my favorite aspect of this card is just the visual that springs to mind of all the cards it attaches itself to. A little shield! Adorable, itty-bitty wings! Some good ones off the top of my head in Avacyn Restored Limited:

MaRo talked at length about the Gallows, but I just want to re-iterate that I think this card is a triumph of top-down design. Magic has room for a lot of these, and I think the "Aha! I get it!" moments these cards produce are some of the best "payoffs" Magic can ever offer.

Red-White Aggro was already one of the better decks in Innistrad Block Constructed. A card like this is interesting, because aggro decks can't afford to hiccup on mana very much (meaning the cost of including this card over a basic is high, relatively speaking) but the payoff is also through the roof. We built Red-White Aggro decks featuring one, two, three, and four copies of this card and I can buy the arguments behind every one.


Well, there you have it—a development-themed overview of Avacyn Restored. I hope you liked the glimpse this offered into our process, and I'm thinking this might become a regular "thing." Let me know if there were any other stories you wished you had heard, and I'll see you guys next week!

Zac (@zdch)

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