Singing the Blues

Posted in Latest Developments on January 8, 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.

The position of Magic developer is a very powerful one. Those who hold it have the final say on the power level of the cards we print, and we also decide how we want each color to feel in tournament environments. Recently, we have been receiving complaints about the perceived weakness of the color blue. Specifically, those complaints talk about blue card drawing, blue counterspells, and the overall power level of blue decks in Standard. This article will address all three of these points.

Blue Card Drawing

I'd like to share with you a little secret. Blue card drawing spells are scary to Magic developers. Many times in Magic's history, a blue card drawing spell that Magic developers didn't quite understand was printed, and it did unexpected and powerful things. This tradition began, of course, in Alpha.

Ancestral Recall

I'm sure that Richard Garfield and his playtest team thought that this card was powerful. I don't think they expected players to later build their decks with the intent of using tutors like Merchant Scroll to find it as soon as possible, or consider it by far the most important card in their deck, but that's what happened. Ancestral Recall's presence warped Vintage for many years, and still does to a lesser degree.

There is also a rich history of more recent blue card drawing being stronger than Magic developers thought. Compulsive Research was intended to be a card that you could play in constructed, but it was not expected to become the premier card drawing spell in Ravnica block. Mystical Teachings was not on the Magic development radar as being the core of one of the most powerful decks in Time Spiral block. Mulldrifter's power was a subject of some debate among developers; there were people who thought it would be as powerful as it turned out to be, but in the end it was much more powerful than the average internal opinion of its power.

We've been taking a different tack with our blue card drawing spells lately. Rather than have the power concentrated in the card advantage, we have attached other modes of use to card drawing spells that give them power along other axes. Esper Charm is played because it is an efficient card drawing spell, but its Mind Rot and Demystify modes make it much stronger than it would be if it only said "Draw two cards." Jace Beleren gives you a way to win the game out of nowhere with his ultimate. Mind Spring is slightly less efficient than other cards early in the game, but has massive upswings in power as the game goes longer. We think that these extra modes add more fun to the game than equally powerful cards that only do one thing, and this way they are less likely to give control players the ability to bury their opponents in card drawing.

Blue Counterspells

We've done a lot of research, both in focus testing and in the field, and we have learned that people really hate it when their spells get countered. They take it as a personal affront: my opponent kept me from doing what I want to do. That's a terrible feeling. Mysteriously, those people do not feel nearly as bad when they cast a creature that immediately dies to a Lightning Bolt or a Doom Blade. They feel like their card actually did something, even though it really did just as little as the creature that got hit with an Essence Scatter. This may not make logical sense, but it is consistent with all of our observations.

This was an important realization, but there was a second realization as well. Magic developers, who by nature are top-level players who have played hundreds of matches at high-level events, are just as susceptible to this illogical, emotional response as our players. We hate it when our spells get countered too, and we are also much happier when our Craw Wurms get Doom Bladed than we are when they get Essence Scattered. This was an uncomfortable realization, because it makes no sense and we recognize it, but we are human too.

Once upon a time, past director of Magic R&D Randy Buehler and current Magic developer Erik Lauer played the following deck in the Standard portion of the 1998 Magic World Championships.

Randy Buehler's Draw-Go

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In his tournament report, Randy said of this deck, "Yep, that's 26 land, 21 counters, 8 card drawers, 4 Nevinyrral's Disk, and a Rainbow Efreet." This is an amazing mass of counterspells. Four of them cost one mana, eight of them cost two mana, five of them cost three mana, and four cost four mana. All of them are powerful cards for their mana cost, and none of them have any restrictions about what sort of spells they can counter.

One of our jobs is to ensure that playing Magic is fun. I've heard complaints from Magic players about the quality of counterspells we print now, but when a single counterspell can inspire so much sadness, it's clear to us that we should not be pushing decks that can play twenty-one of them. We know that counterspells need to be part of Magic, and some of them need to be powerful. Many players enjoy countering their opponent's spells, and counterspells also serve as an important defense against expensive, powerful cards. However, making a beautiful mana curve of versatile and powerful counterspells like the one in Randy's deck is something we try to avoid.

The way we handle this now is to make cards like Spell Pierce, Negate, Essence Scatter, and Flashfreeze. These are all very efficient cards, but they require a little bit of finesse in deckbuilding by requiring you to decide what sorts of spells to counter before the game starts. They also make it more difficult to build a deck with a huge mass of counterspells. If you don't have a way to deal with things other than your counterspells, you may end up having the wrong counterspell at the wrong time and lose to something that slipped through. However, when you know what you need to counter, they are very powerful. For example, Negate has begun to show up in the sideboards of Extended decks that have no other blue cards, and Spell Pierce is a staple in Oath of Druids decks in Magic Online Classic that are only concerned about protecting their namesake card from discard and other counterspells. Our recent counterspells are not lacking in power; they merely require some choice before you start playing. We think that Magic is more fun that way.

Blue in Standard

Colors go up and down in power over time. Historically speaking, there's usually a color in any given format that is just less powerful than other colors. I've come to accept that it's impossible to keep all five colors at an exactly equal power level at all times, although in a perfect world they would be. Magic is fundamentally asymmetrical, and making cards with different kinds of effects exactly as powerful as each other is hard. A realistic goal is to keep the colors close enough in power that choosing what decks and colors to play is interesting.

There have been complaints about how blue is the worst color in Standard right now. Those complaints are probably correct. Jund is by numbers the best deck, and it contains green, black, and red. White's representation comes from Naya decks, white-red aggressive decks, and decks built around token producers like Emeria Angel and Captain of the Watch. However, blue is still doing well for itself in high-profile tournaments. The most high-profile Standard events that have occurred since the World Championships in November are the StarCityGames series of 5K tournaments, and the results of those tournaments indicate that blue is far from dead.

At the StarCityGames Standard Open in St. Louis on December 13 of last year, Kentucky natives Robert Graves and Brandon Burks made the Top 8 with the following Grixis control deck (Burks's had a slightly different sideboard):

Robert Graves's Grixis Control

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Since then, this type of deck has picked up quite a bit of popularity on Magic Online, and you can see it over and over again in the winning decklists that are listed on the Magic Online site.

Three weeks after the event in St. Louis, another copy of the Grixis deck made the Top 8 of the StarCityGames Standard Open in Los Angeles in the hands of Matt Sperling. That Top 8 also contained two identical copies of a different blue deck. Jeff Huang ended the Swiss in 5th place with one of them, while the other was piloted all the way to first place by none other than Luis Scott-Vargas. Here is the list they played.

Luis Scott-Vargas's Red-White-Blue Control

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I would also like to point out that in the Top 8 of the Los Angeles tournament, the two red-white-blue decks were the only white decks. The single Grixis Control deck means that blue was more represented in that top eight than white.

I regularly use my Wizards of the Coast employee account to play Magic Online in the tournament practice room. (I'm Tom_L—feel free to say hello if you see me online.) I love playing blue decks, so the last three Standard decks I've played have been blue. The first deck was my attempt to continue playing four Baneslayer Angels and three Cruel Ultimatums despite the rotation of Lorwyn block's mana fixing. Rupture Spire, Shards of Alara triple lands, and Magic 2010 blue dual lands were almost enough, but I lost a bit too often to my own mana. That caused me to switch to the Grixis control archetype I showed you above. Then, when I saw the red-white-blue deck from this past weekend, I played some with that.

None of these decks felt weak to me; on the contrary, I was doing quite well with all of them. I'm sure that some of that was my playskill. I've played in four Pro Tours. I also have one Grand Prix Top 8 finish and a Grand Prix Top 16 finish. I'd be surprised if more than a small percentage of my opponents had similar Magic resumes. However, I have played plenty of decks in the tournament practice room since joining Wizards that I couldn't get to win consistently. I had no trouble winning with these decks.

I am not sure what to make of the complaints about the power level of blue in Standard right now. While it is true that blue is probably the weakest of the five colors, it is hardly absent from tournament results. To someone who complains that they like to play blue and can't justify it, I would point out that people like Robert Graves, Brandon Burks, Matt Sperling, Jeff Huang, and Luis Scott-Vargas are out there doing quite well for themselves in high-profile Standard events with blue decks. To people who complain that the best deck isn't blue, I would remind them that the two most recent runaway best decks in Standard before Jund were Faeries and Five-Color Control, both blue-based decks. It would hardly be fair if blue had the best deck again. To those who complain about the quality of counterspells, I would offer you Flashfreeze, Negate, Essence Scatter, and Double Negative, all cards that are seeing play together in Standard control decks. They are not the same counterspells you are used to, but they are more than strong enough.

If you play Standard and you love playing blue, there are plenty of tools for you to work with. People are playing blue and winning on big stages. If you play Standard and don't like playing blue, I hope you're having fun with an environment in which blue isn't dominant. We haven't seen that for a while now, so this should be a breath of fresh air. If you don't play Standard out of anger at the perceived weakness of blue, I would point out that both Magic and Magic tournaments are in the midst of a massive upswing of popularity. Lots of people are having fun, and you probably would too.

While I was writing this article, I polled director of Magic R&D Aaron Forsythe and the three other core Magic developers about what Standard deck we would play in a Standard Pro Tour that started tomorrow. Three of the five of us would choose a deck that had a significant blue element. Although blue may be the least powerful color in Standard at the moment, I am confident that it is far from dead.

Change is a constant in Magic. If each color never changed in relative power over time, it would be a much less interesting puzzle. And, as Aaron Forsythe promised in his feature article this week, there are plenty of powerful blue cards coming this year. We've shown you exactly one card from this coming year so far, and it just so happens to be a powerful blue card drawing card. Perhaps you will play it soon.

Previous Poll

Do you use card sleeves when you play Constructed Magic?   
Never 329 5.2%
Sometimes 992 15.7%
Always 5005 79.1%
Total 6326 100.0%
Do you use card sleeves when you play Limited Magic?   
Never 1178 17.3%
Sometimes 2353 34.5%
Always 3289 48.2%
Total 6820 100.0%

I'm not sure what to make of this. The Constructed poll is about what I expected. Given my experience at real live Magic tournaments, however, the results of the Limited poll indicate that my readership either has a much higher fraction of fastidious tournament players than I thought or responded incorrectly.

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