The color pie is one of the most important things to Magic's sustained success. Among other benefits, the color pie makes the decision of what color to play feel meaningful, and it adds variety to the play experience. The average blue-red deck is quite different from the average black-green deck, and those differences are what make Magic so compelling over the long run.
Keeping that feeling of difference up over time is important, but it is also challenging. A few pairs of colors often drift close to one another, and we have to be careful to keep them separate. In Constructed, the two colors that drift toward one another are green and white. Both colors like to play creatures in large quantities, are good at making tokens, and get Overrun-style mass creature pumping effects. That, however, is an article for another day. Today's topic is the most problematic color pair in Limited: black and red.
Why can black and red feel so similar? The biggest reason is that they are two colors that are best at pinpoint creature destruction. Lightning Bolt and Doom Blade are famous instances of these effects. Both were printed in Magic 2010, and both saw plenty of Constructed play, but they were also both commons and key to that Limited environment. Every Constructed and Limited format has its equivalents.
As a game designer, I find myself wondering how the red removal spells are different from the black removal spells. The surface answer is that black removes creatures by straight-up destroying them, but red uses damage. Therefore, red is better against smaller creatures, and black can take out creatures of any size. That answer is satisfying, but a bit misleading and dangerous in practice.
Let me show you two cards from Zendikar.
These two cards existed in the same set. They are both simple, appealing, and strong cards. They are also very, very similar, as both of them kill 2-toughness creatures for only one mana. In Zendikar Limited, one learns very quickly that a suspiciously untapped black- or red-producing land means that 2-toughness creatures may not be dependable in the immediate future. That's a reasonable lesson, but it is a step toward making playing against black and playing against red feel the same. That reduces variety in game play, and it also means that both black and red have cards that are strong against small creatures.
The functional difference between these two cards is that Disfigure can be used as a combat trick, but the card is so efficient at outright killing things that we've found most strong players don't use it that way. If I block your 3/3 with a 2/2 and Disfigure your creature, too many things can go wrong. If you kill my creature with a removal spell before damage, I've lost two cards to your one. If you use an Unsummon to return my creature to my hand, I didn't get to kill anything with my Disfigure. Instead, strong players usually use Disfigure on their turn or in their opponent's end step to kill something while nothing is at risk. In those situations, it acts in exactly the same way as an unkicked Burst Lightning, which is undesirable.
While having a black removal spell that works very similarly to a red removal spell isn't great, there is an even more egregious example of this overlap from Rise of the Eldrazi.
Last Kiss deals with small creatures and gives you some value. Flame Slash deals efficiently with bigger ones, and kills most common creatures in Rise of the Eldrazi. If I told you those facts in a vacuum, you might guess that Last Kiss was red and Flame Slash was black, but here they are the other way around. Flame Slash and Last Kiss both make sense as individual cards; Last Kiss's "draining" effect is very appropriate for a black vampire-themed card, and Flame Slash is a very clean damage-dealing spell, but the overall message here is a bit muddied. If the way that you expect to beat a red deck is to play creatures that are big enough to survive burn spells, you'll be disappointed when you realize that you need to find something with 5 toughness.
Rise of the Eldrazi is a bit of a strange world, as there are more big creatures there than normal, but there still aren't a ton of cards at low rarities that survive a Flame Slash. Another thing to note is that neither of these cards can target a player. We often differentiate red spells by letting them help burn an opponent out, but Flame Slash cannot go after your opponent.
This kind of issue has sometimes even spilled over into Constructed. Consider the card Skred.
In Limited, Skred is an interesting card. It asks you to pay attention to and collect cards with the snow supertype, which changes the way you draft in an interesting way. In Constructed, though, all you have to do is play a big pile of Snow-Covered Mountains, and you get a one-mana removal spell that pretty much kills anything. That's not quite an obvious problem, but we normally force red decks to splash for black if they want a removal spell that feels that unconditional. In a world with Skred, they don't have to do that, and most didn't. Many base-green decks in Standard even splashed red for Skred, as it was the strongest removal spell available to them. In a vacuum, that's a bit jarring; normally black has the best such spells to splash, but a combination of the other red cards, the other incentives to play snow cards, and the raw strength of Skred had them looking elsewhere.
While I've chosen very clear examples so far, this kind of consideration often has a lot of subtlety to it. Consider these two premium removal spells from Tempest Limited.
Both of these were extremely strong cards, and both are good at killing most creatures. Dark Banishing is a little more efficient at killing creatures, though, and gets past regeneration, but doesn't kill black creatures. Lightning Blast gets black creatures, but not 5-toughness creatures, and 4 damage to the face is quite a significant amount in a race.
While the effects of these two cards are often not so different and their costs are only one mana off from each other, they still feel quite different in play and encourage you to build different decks to use them best. That's more than enough to help differentiate the two colors.
Erik Lauer thinks a lot about the Magic color pie, and was very conscious of this issue while he was leading Innistrad development. Let's take a look at the common black and red removal spells in Innistrad with that in mind.
- Corpse Lunge
Alphabetically speaking, my first black card is a bit of a goofy one in the context of the article. This is a damage spell, and while the top-down flavor is clear, it's still a damage spell. For me, this works because it's the weakest of the three black common removal spells and it's pretty expensive, so it's not a card that constantly affects my experience while I think about playing around different removal effects.
As a side note, you might be wondering why we would knowingly make a weaker removal spell. If every removal spell were super-strong, players would take them very highly, and there would never be a chance for someone who didn't get one early in the draft to pick one up later. Corpse Lunge is a serviceable card, but it's not so strong that it will be snapped up early on. If you're missing the other removal spells, this card is somewhat likely to make it to you. We want everyone to have access to some amount of removal, and making a few weaker removal spells in each set is one way we do that.
Let's move on to the less ambiguous cards.
- Dead Weight
Dead Weight is similar in text to the previously-mentioned Disfigure, but in practice it plays out quite differently. Because it's an Aura, it does not allow a creature to be saved by Giant Growths that might have protected it from a Disfigure. The Giant Growth wears off at end of turn, but the Dead Weight is still there doing its thing. Dead Weight also can be dumped proactively on a larger creature in order to make it less of a threat. I have been quite happy with Dead Weights that I used to shrink 3/3 flyers into mere 1/1s, and that's something that no red spell can claim to do.
- Victim of Night
Victim of Night is even more obviously not a red card, as it outright destroys things. I don't have much else to say here.
- Brimstone Volley
And now we're into the red spells. Brimstone Volley reminds me of Lightning Blast in that it is pretty good at killing creatures, but also very good at going to the face. Five damage is quite a lot, and I often find myself wondering if I can outright kill my opponent soon when I am holding one of these. You might also say that 5 damage is enough that you can kill too many creatures with it, but the requirement that you produce a dead creature first makes it conditional enough that this works just fine for me even as a creature removal spell. In pure creature removal terms, this card is still much worse than a simple Dark Banishing.
Geistflame is an even more extreme example than Disfigure or Shock of a card that kills only small creatures, which is something that we said earlier felt very red. It makes up for that, though, by giving you the potential to split the damage over multiple creatures and turns. None of the three black common removal spells is similar to this, so we're good there.
- Harvest Pyre
When I talked about Skred and Flame Slash earlier, I talked about how they let red kill big creatures that we want black to be better at killing. While Harvest Pyre can expand to kill one big creature handily, the second or third Harvest Pyre you draw will not be so fortunate, as the first Harvest Pyre on a large target creature will cost you much of your graveyard. Most cards have diminishing marginal value as you add them to your deck, but Harvest Pyre's downward curve is steeper than most, which makes it feel appropriate to me.
The differences that I talked about today are quite subtle. Many players will never consciously notice them, but the differences we build into the colors still change those players' experiences for the better thanks to the greater variety in game play. Many other similar considerations went into the creation of Innistrad, and it's very possible that the majority are invisible to you, especially if you aren't looking for them. Thankfully, that doesn't mean you won't enjoy their results!
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