Premium Draft Magic

Posted in Latest Developments on March 26, 2010

By Tom LaPille

Tom LaPille makes things. Some of the things he makes are card sets, like Dark Ascension and Born of the Gods. Sometimes he makes stories, too. Sometimes he makes unexpected things, like 16th-century Japanese clothing. He's probably making something right now.

Magic is a game, but it is also an experience. Whether we play in seven-player EDH games, drafts at Friday Night Magic, or Pro Tours, we all play Magic to feel something. It is hard for Magic developers to exert fine control over the experience you have playing casual Magic, and although we do our best to ensure that Standard constructed looks the way we want it to, there are so many cards in that format that we don't have a perfect record of creating fun Standard formats. However, draft is a place where we can sculpt every nuance of a Magic experience. Today, I'll tell you about how we sculpted the draft environments for two very different sets that you've seen in the past year.

Magic 2010

Magic 2010 was a reboot of our line of core sets. One part of this reboot was creative. Magic's roots are in baseline fantasy, and we wanted as many cards in the set as possible to be recognizable to the same kinds of people who latched onto Magic in 1993 and 1994. Another part of the reboot, however, was mechanical. We expected that the appeal of Magic 2010's creative reboot would draw many Magic players who had taken a break back into the game, and what they found needed to be recognizable to them as still the same game they once loved. We wanted to avoid any unpleasant surprises that would threaten that recognition.

Our goals for the Magic 2010 draft format sprang from this second part of the reboot. For many players, Magic 2010 would be the first set they ever drafted. For another category of players, Magic 2010 would be the first set they had drafted in five years. Both categories of players would have some expectation about how Magic games went, and those expectations would extend to their experiences drafting Magic 2010.

The easiest way for us to make drafting Magic 2010 comfortable was to make card evaluation simple. Learning that a card is much better or much worse than you thought it was is interesting, and something that needs to happen over time for a player's Magic journey to be fun for a long time. However, if that happens too often in people's early Magic experiences, they may just give up on it as something that is too hard to learn. Magic 2010 does its best to match expectations with what its cards actually do in play. Does Overrun win you the game if you have lots of creatures? Yes, it does. Is Djinn of Wishes a good creature? It sure is. Most of the time, players' first impressions of Magic 2010 cards won't be too far off, which lets their attention fall on just playing fun Magic rather than worrying about which cards are actually good.

Also, anyone who has played Magic before has expectations about the shape that games of Magic take. To many players, attacking is a scary proposition, as it could mean the loss of creatures in combat. Games played between two players in that mindspace often resemble games of SimCity, as they build huge board positions that lead to big ground stalls, which are eventually broken open by huge evasive creatures like Nightmares or big spells like Sleep. This kind of game often drags on longer than is fun, but the core fun to the process of building up an army is something we wanted to capture.

It was not difficult for us to deliver on the first point. Core sets generally do not include the kind of synergy-producing mechanics that make Limited bombs less impressive than they read, and Magic 2010 was no exception. From the very earliest Magic 2010 playtests, we were killing each other with Overruns and Sleeps and Serra Angels. All we did here was make sure that nothing ever eclipsed them too much.

The second point was trickier to deliver on. Limited games are just less fun when they grind on forever, and yet that's exactly what some players expected to happen. We settled on finding a middle ground, one where aggressive decks were still possible to draft, but where you would have to go out of your way a little to do so. We also put plenty of imposing monsters into the set that could gum up the ground so that there would be time for the awesome cards in each deck to shine. To me, the turning point in this process was the first playtest after Magic 2010 lead developer Erik Lauer added Siege Mastodon to the file. I had an aggressive deck that day, and every time one of my opponents plopped a Siege Mastodon in my way I had to scratch my head and figure out what to do about it. That change put the set in the place where we wanted it to be: if you wanted time to build an army, you could have it, but you didn't have to do that if you didn't want to.

The astute Limited players among you may be scratching your heads at all this, as these things put more emphasis on the best cards in each deck. This ostensibly increases the amount of luck in Magic 2010 Limited games. We experienced this feeling early on, but then something strange happened in our playtest drafts. Cards like Duress, Negate, and Essence Scatter started disappearing from packs earlier and earlier as strong players adjusted to the presence of scary bomb spells and creatures. These cards have not historically been incredibly strong, but in Magic 2010, there are so many powerful big spells that need to be stopped that they increase in value a ton. The playtesters who didn't make this adjustment still died to the same Overruns and Sleeps they were dying to before, but those of us who adjusted were able to defend the skill-testing nature of the format with our win-loss records.

At the beginning of the season of Magic 2010 Limited Grand Prix, some players did indeed complain that the format was too bomb-driven. As you can see now, that was hardly an accident. We intended that Limited bombs would matter just as much as they looked like they should. However, those same players claimed that this made the format too luck-based. I believe now that this was not the case. The Top 8s of those five Magic 2010 Limited Grand Prix were all full of strong players, and Yuuya Watanabe made a strong argument for the format's skill-testing nature by being in the Top 8 of three of them! Also, the record-smashing levels of attendance at each of these tournaments indicated that lots of players were having enough fun with the set to travel to play with it. I consider Magic 2010 Limited to be a success.

Masters Edition III

As a Magic Online exclusive set, Masters Edition III occupies a very different space from Magic 2010. Magic Online players are the most active drafters in the world. They have a voracious appetite, happily drafting any set over and over. Many Magic Online players are among our most experienced players, so Masters Edition sets, built entirely from pre-Mirage cards, also strike a nostalgic note for those players that we can't hit with most other products we make.

Masters Edition III lead designer Erik Lauer built the set mainly out of cards from Portal: Three Kingdoms and Legends. This created a strange mix of the foreign and the nostalgic. There were huge piles of gold legendary creatures from the game's earliest days running around, but standing next to them were a host of Chinese historical figures and their armies. Erik's design goal was that the two main routes to victory in the set be huge gold legends and creatures with horsemanship, the Portal: Three Kingdoms equivalent of flying. His hope was that these two routes would be as equally balanced as possible. As the lead developer of the set, it was my responsibility to make that happen.

Our first development playtest was a scary one. The design handoff had legendary creatures exclusively at uncommon and rare, which resulted in no one getting enough legends for them to matter much in games, so the horsemanship creatures just rode circles around the gold cards.

My response to this was to move a cycle of allied-color simple legends to common in order to get more big legends into players' hands. This worked great, and lots of people were dying to cards like The Lady of the Mountain. Unfortunately, the "legend rule" caused some very strange occurrences, which is exactly what I should have expected when I made a legend common in a set with only seventy commons. The most jarring of these for me was a game with Ken Nagle in which two copies of The Lady of the Mountain annihilated each other, then another pair of The Lady of the Mountains annihilated each other. I won that game with my third The Lady of the Mountain.

Although the legend rule caused some strangeness, it was clear that putting gold legends at common had moved the power of the gold fatty strategy high enough that it was competitive with horsemanship creatures. In order to solve the legend rule problem, I resurrected the idea of the "common 1" and the "common 2." Rather than five gold legends that are just as common as the rest of the commons, I tried having ten common gold legends that appeared in packs half as often as the other commons. This gave the same frequency of appearance, but reduced the amount of legend rule awkwardness.

It took only one playtest after that change to know that we had found the solution. The legend rule wasn't being obtrusive anymore, but there were still enough gold legends running around for everything to work properly.

Once we had achieved Erik's design vision, we did what we could to include the same satisfying layers of complexity in the set as you find in a normal set. Horsemanship was mostly limited to white, blue, and black, so we protected the inclusion of red and green flyers, such as several Homelands Faeries, Fire Drake, and Tuknir Deathlock. We added as many instant combat tricks as we could with cards like Heal and Lightning Blow. We found cards that were marginally playable but that combined with other cards in the set already, such as Infuse and Blood Lust, which we intended to work well with Wu Longbowman and Reveka, Wizard Savant. Finally, we found single cards that enabled some alternative strategies, like Desperate Charge, which let Ramp;D intern Peter Knudson draft a surprisingly effective Kobold deck in our last playtest draft.

Masters Edition III was quite a challenge. Pre-Mirage cards were not designed and developed for Limited the way we make cards now, and crafting a Limited environment that is as high-quality as one we would make in a new set using those old cards is not easy. It is even more challenging to achieve particular goals about the play experience on top of making a draft environment using those cards fun to play with at all. However, I knew we had succeeded at making legends matter when I watched a video of Luis Scott-Vargas drafting Masters Edition III in which he gushed about how powerful Riven Turnbull is. As he put it, "It may look like a 5/7 for seven mana that taps to add a mana to your mana pool ... and, really, that's what it is, but it's really good, and you should take it."

I'm proud of what my team did for Masters Edition III, and it's a perfect example of how strange a draft environment we can build.

Rise of the Eldrazi

I can't tell you very much about drafting Rise of the Eldrazi yet, as official previews begin next Monday. However, I can tell you that its draft environment is radically different from almost any environment you've played before, and certainly any you've played recently. There are many different viable strategies, some of which aren't normally viable, and some of which have never been viable before. We put lots of work toward ensuring that Rise of the Eldrazi is interesting to draft. It won't be long before you'll get to experience it!

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