Roasting the Competition

Posted in Latest Developments on March 6, 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.

I hope you have enjoyed the previews so far. As you have probably seen, this is the Dragoniest set that ever Dragoned—even after the last set, which was the previous record holder for Dragons.

This week's preview isn't a Dragon, though, it's something else. It's also not a rare or a mythic rare—or anything really very splashy. Instead, it is a bread-and-butter card that will (I think) go a long way to making interesting things happen in Standard, and perhaps even in older formats.

Challenges of Red Removal

We'll get to the card in a second, but first I want to set the stage. One of the challenges for R&D is making sure that certain parts of the color pie remain separate. Red and black, for instance, overlap a ton with what they do, and how they do it, and we need to be careful to keep them from becoming indistinguishable from each other. It's one of the reasons we have been moving toward red having more creatures with high power, and black having more creatures with high toughness. The colors feeling different is one of the most important things to Magic.

Traditionally, black has been better at killing creatures, and red has been better at killing players. In the past, we have been pretty happy with that separation, but with the introduction of Planeswalkers, things got more complicated. You see, it turned out that red was a lot better color for a few years, because it actually got to kill Planeswalkers. Black, meanwhile, ran into too many matchups where its removal sat in its hand useless.

Never ones to let things play poorly for the sake of dogma, we decided to put Hero's Downfall in Theros to give black the ability to deal with Planeswalkers, and it went a long way to make the color a lot stronger in Standard. Well, maybe too strong. But that might have had more to do with Pack Rat and Lifebane Zombie.

In any case, black's newfound efficiency with killing Planeswalkers, and red's difficulty with higher-toughness creatures, led to players going to black for removal first. At the same time, we have been moving more toward Planeswalkers with more loyalty, but slightly less-impactful abilities. The idea being that sticking a Planeswalker and having it not die in one turn shouldn't be the end of the game. It's also more interesting if players have some options about not attacking their opponents' Planeswalkers, and just trying to kill them instead.

The unfortunate thing was that this made Planeswalkers even stronger against red than they were against black. At the same time, we found ourselves also making more and more creatures with very high toughnesses that were similarly making life a little too hard for red.

An early attempt to try something to make a red removal spell that felt different than a black removal spell was Fated Conflagration in Born of the Gods.

In many ways, it looks like Hero's Downfall, but it's less efficient. Also, even though five is a lot, it's not as good at killing really big things—something we have been printing more and more of. Fated Conflagration has seen some amount of play, but is clearly not nearly as ubiquitous of a card as Hero's Downfall in Standard. Some of this was the triple red in Conflagration cost, and some if it was the general preference for black to red in Standard. The initial playtest version of Fated Conflagration did hit players, but we quickly found that was just too much damage, especially since the turn-four Conflagration with a scry 2 was often able to dig for even more burn. We didn't want the card to just hit creatures and found that hitting Planeswalkers was an interesting balancing point. In some cases, it made the card not feel red enough, but at the same time we knew we needed to carve out a way to make Constructed-level red removal that didn't hit players.

The card I'm previewing doesn't hit Planeswalkers, though. It only hits creatures—but it does so in what I believe to be a pretty flavor-win way, and one that makes the card interesting in Standard.

Roasting the Competition

When working on the Dragons of Tarkir FFL, we noticed that red decks were having big problems—namely that many of the popular creatures were just too big for the red decks to deal with. That's fine and expected for red to have problems with creatures that black can deal with. Again, that is important, but we felt like it might be too extreme and wanted to give red a place to go to.

Stoke the Flames could deal with Brimaz, Courser, and Whisperwood Elemental, but nothing could get by a Siege Rhino. At the same time, we also found that Abzan was one of the strongest decks in our FFL. We wanted to make sure there was a good counter for the card if the Abzan deck looked like it was too dominant but at the same time wouldn't just lead to games ending on turn four with a flurry of burn spells. As a result, we looked through Dragons, took one of the uncommon removal spells, and tweaked it a bit to fit the role we needed. After all, if there is one thing that Dragons like to eat, it's Rhinos.

The question for us, when working on Roast, was what the red decks needed to kill, and what was a reasonable amount of damage to put on the card. Its 5 damage let us hit cards like Nyx-Fleece Ram; Polukranos, World Eater; and Tasigur, the Golden Fang, while leaving room for us to print creatures with 6 toughness in the future if we needed to have a reasonable counter to Roast being too strong in the metagame. These kinds of creatures are still very good against the red decks, but hopefully the game doesn't come down to "Did my opponent play a Rhino this game or not?"

It was important for us that Roast work differently than a reverse-Plummet for red. The damage, although high, had to matter. Luckily for Roast, it has some fun interactions that a normal straight-up kill spell doesn't. Hitting a Firedrinker Satyr, for example. That'll leave a mark. Also, for one second, just one second, imagine surfing off the coast of O'ahu. Or imagine skiing in the Swiss alps. Now, imagine casting a Roast with a Soulfire Grand Master in play. Oh yeah, it's something like that. I imagine this play is going to be coming up for quite a while in sideboarded games. It goes a long way to proving just how strong the Grand Master is.

Roast is one of the strongest removal spells in Standard. We've been moving away from doing too much powerful removal at lower costs, to keep the game interactive, but we will continue to print them at a pretty steady pace to make sure there is enough in Standard that games don't quickly steamroll if one player stumbles on mana.

Roast | Art by Zoltan Boros

Of course, Roast does have its weaknesses. Because it can't hit fliers, there are plenty of matchups where the card is either dead or virtually unplayable. Many of our blue-black control decks, as an example, played Dragons as their only creatures, leading the red players trying to load up on Roasts to being pretty sad—though making it easier for them to figure out how to sideboard. I think it's important when we print strong removal like Roast to make it have just enough vulnerabilities that it becomes an interesting decision on whether to main deck or sideboard it.

The fact that Roast, as a card, is bad against Dragons wasn't a mistake. Each set attempts to accomplish something in Standard, and one of the biggest swings for Dragons of Tarkir was to…well, to make Dragons work in Standard. By this time, you've probably seen a few Dragons that look like they might be good enough to fit into existing decks, and a few Dragon rewards that will hopefully spur people into making actual Dragon decks. Making a removal spell that is good against the non-Dragon cards helps to make this option more interesting in the metagame. For example, if Roast is a main-deck four-of because Abzan decks are ruling the roost, then it makes an opening for a properly sculpted Dragon deck to come in and not only beat the Abzan deck, but the other decks trying to prey on it.

Next week on Latest Developments, the full Dragons of Tarkir Card Image Gallery will be live, but I will have some insights about what it's like to be a development team member on a design team.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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