Room to Grow

Posted in Latest Developments on April 12, 2013

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.

The first week of previews for Dragon's Maze is coming to an end, but don't fret—we have plenty of new cards that will be revealed today, and plenty more through the next week. Dragon's Maze is a dense expansion, and with cards from all ten guilds, there is a lot for players to do. Magic is very much about bringing new cards and ideas to the players—it's the reason every player I've ever met loves preview season. Magic expansions keep every environment's metagame fresh by constantly supplying established decks something else that players might want to include and putting out powerful cards that encourage new decks to emerge, ensuring that things never get stale.

Art by Winona Nelson

Metagames are like living puzzles that try to solve themselves. The decks in a metagame will never be perfectly balanced, and I'd argue they are more interesting when they aren't. Within the first week of a set's release, the playerbase as a whole will have put far more collective hours into finding the best deck for Standard than our team of developers can during the entire development period. The strategy we have for creating metagames that don't solve themselves within the first few weeks is making cards that are, as a whole, well balanced, but also do enough different powerful things that all of the decks in the metagame have room to shift as time moves on.

Deathrite Shaman
Cavern of Souls

Deathrite Shaman is a prime example of a card that fits this purpose. It can appear in main decks, sideboards, or not at all, depending on just how useful removing cards from a graveyard is in the metagame. Deathrite Shaman doesn't prevent Reanimator decks from existing in Standard, but it does force those decks to have strategies for dealing with the card. If Reanimator has been absent for a few weeks, and Deathrite Shaman moves out of main decks and sideboards, then someone can jump into the fray with a more focused Reanimation deck and really beat up on the competition. That will trigger Deathrite Shaman to appear in more sideboards and, if the deck persists, main decks. The Reanimator decks will shift in contents to either focus more on hard-casting their reanimation targets or by putting in removal for Deathrite Shaman. These changes will give it better or worse matchups with other decks in the metagame. A Reanimator deck that focuses harder on casting it's giant spells will find itself in a worse position against a RWU deck with counterspells. If the Reanimator deck starts packing Cavern of Souls to get a leg up in that matchup, it will suddenly lose a few percentage points against decks that are attacking it on a different angle. And so the circle of life continues.

We realize in development that we are always going to be somewhat wrong on a few cards, and miss a lot of the decks, but we try to position the environment so that the time it takes to "solve" the metagame is longer than the metagame naturally exists, with the new set adding in new hurdles and reinvigorating things. We do this by building room in the metagame so it can grow in different directions when one deck begins to gain dominance. It would be easy to simply put hate cards in a set that demolish the deck we believe will be the best in the format, but then Standard would become a format all about sideboards and deciding which ultra-powerful cards you want to begin with, and which you will only be playing with in Games 2 and 3. Instead, we have moved toward printing more cards that are strong in their own right but are good enough against a specific deck type that they can come in and out of main decks and sideboards based on how the metagame is shifting. These cards naturally put pressure through the metagame on multiple axes and widen the deck-building decisions for every deck in the format.

Some of these cards are made in design and tweaked in development to fit the right role, and some were just made in development outright. The card I am about to show you was one of the latter. This was a card that came into being a little late in the process and was positioned to give Selesnya a powerful tool for moving the metagame forward. And speaking of things that grow, it's time to meet the Voice of Resurgence

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Voice of Resurgence isn't the most elegantly worded card in all of Dragon's Maze, but what it lacks in that department it more than makes up for in functionality. This is a card with a lot of potential to play a significant role in the movement of the metagame.

To give some context for this card, around this time last year, the Future Future League had a number of white-blue-based control decks splashing either black or red, and red-white-blue aggressive decks with Snapcaster Mage, Augur of Bolas, and Restoration Angel. After many hours of testing and realizing just how powerful these decks were, we wanted to make sure to put a card in Dragon's Maze that would give some of the green-white aggro and midrange decks in our metagame a powerful card that had enough utility to run in the main deck, but could especially shine against the red-white-blue decks. Something that would defend against Wrath without preventing board sweepers from being a legitimate strategy. From these goals, and a few other constraints, we came up with the above design.

Restoration Angel
Pillar of Flame

So what all does the Voice do? Well, for one, it makes a flashed in Restoration Angel a lot less attractive of a surprise combat trick for RWU tempo decks, and especially makes attempting to ambush an attacking Voice of Resurgence a really unappealing play. Played precombat, the Voice provides some psuedo-protection for your creatures from Azorius Charm and the Angel without totally locking the RWU deck from making plays. Pillar of Flame gives the red-white-blue decks a card to deal with the Voice of Resurgence, but increasing the number of those they play will naturally make some of their other matchups weaker, and naturally diversify what the decks look like from week to week.

Azorius Charm
Detention Sphere

Against the RWU and Esper control decks, it gives another creature that survives Wrath, and makes its more standard answers put more pressure on the deck to run cards like Detention Sphere rather than just Azorius Charm. It also forces the deck to play more of its cards at sorcery speed, which helps to take away some of the advantages of playing one of these control decks in the first place. Again, there are plenty of cards the control deck can go to if it wants to deal with the Voice of Resurgence, but making those decisions will make it weaker in other matchups and help to keep the metagame constantly evolving.

Voice of Resurgence isn't only good against blue decks, though. Because it dies into another creature, it gives decks that want to run it some protection against rush decks, like Naya Blitz, that have been becoming popular recently. By having a creature that can trade one-for-one early, but produce a token which can later trade for a larger creature, such as a Flinthoof Boar, your deck is more likely to survive the initial onslaught and take control in the mid- to late-game against that deck.

Druid's Deliverance
Rootborn Defenses

Beyond the metagame concerns, it was also exciting for us to make another new token for Selesnya to populate. This is far from the only card in Dragon's Maze that makes a powerful token, and there are a few new cards with populate to add to your deck if that is the kind of thing you are looking to do. We had several green-white-blue populate-based decks internally, with cards like Druid's Deliverance, Rootborn Defenses, and Snapcaster Mage, which were more than happy to populate the Elemental token made by Voice of Resurgence. While the decks we made weren't ever dominating our Future Future League, I have confidence that a competitive deck can be built on that shell, and I'll be interested to see if someone out there will be able to make a more successful version of the deck than we did.


Ultimately, this is one of the most exciting parts of being a Magic developer. We work far in the future, and get an idea of what the cards we are releasing will do, but we never really know. We've had plenty of cards and decks we believed were surefire hits, like Wolfir Silverheart, only make small blips in Standard. We've also had quite a few cards turn out much more powerful than we'd expected, and watched as they fit into decks that took the metagame in different directions than we'd expected. It turns out that when you are working with complex systems, and giving them to a group of smart people, you have to deal with things taking wild turns. If we knew exactly how things were going to turn out, the job would be much easier, but it wouldn't be as fun.


That's it for this week. Tune in next week when I have another preview card, and discuss mirror matches in Magic.

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