Strictly Better

Posted in Latest Developments on November 4, 2016

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.

This is one of the things I read a lot about when I set comes out—comparing one card to another and using the phrase "strictly better" or "strictly worse" to evaluate cards. Strictly betters started early in Magic. I mean, like, Limited Edition (Alpha) early. And not just the Boon cycle, which we can easily say is not so well balanced. Gray Ogre was strictly worse than Uthden Troll, which is generally weaker than Granite Gargoyle. And we also have had Sedge Troll running around just in case you have some Badlands. Part of the point of a collectable card game is that some cards are stronger than others, and while we don't want all of the strongest cards to appear at the highest rarities, there is a definite limit to how strong we want to make commons. When commons are too strong, it makes for Limited environments that are very "same-y," since the cards that are impacting the game each time are literally the same cards—the commons. Allowing for stronger (as a whole) uncommons, rares, and mythic rares means that the most powerful things tend to change game to game.

One of the downsides to making sets like this is that when people are reading through the set, especially early on in a preview seasons when there isn't much to compare cards to, they are often disappointed when a new card is weaker than one that already exists. Lots of comments like "This is just a strictly worse such-and-such." There are points where this has some relevance, but it's not something we spend a ton of time talking about internally. We just accept that some amount of it will happen. We do try and limit how many times we do this—people are likely going to bounce off of a set where this is the prevailing theme—but we don't try to fix them all. On the other side of the coin, if someone is proposing a stronger version of a card that is already playable in Modern or Legacy, that's usually a big red flag, but that kind of thing would get caught when testing for power level anyway. We need to make a lot of cards each year, and we just can't make everyone unique and not better or worse than every other card in existence. There are only so many card designs that fall within the correct power curve as a whole, let alone for Standard or Limited when there are additional restrictions.

The Right Tool for the Job

For many years we printed Lightning Bolt, but realistically that card was about as strong of an effect as you could get for one red mana. We also printed Chain Lightning (which is very strong) in Legends as a variant, but then there really wasn't a lot of room left for one-mana burn spells, especially in a world where Magic wasn't rotating. When Ice Age came out, we got Incinerate, which lived in Standard with Lightning Bolt for quite a time. Now, it's possible to look at Incinerate and say "Well, this isn't strictly worse than Lightning Bolt," but let's be honest—it is a weaker card. Sure, in a very small number of games the anti-regeneration clause will come up, but it would be hard to ever include your first Incinerate before you had already hit four Lightning Bolts. Magic would be less fun if everyone got to play eight Lightning Bolts. A few years later, we created Shock, which is strictly worse than Lightning Bolt but strong enough for most Standard environments. The nice thing about Shock is that (unlike Lightning Bolt) you would be not well suited to make a deck with 45 Shocks and 15 Mountains. It gives us a lot of room to put extra riders of text on Shock that can help out a Constructed environment.

But, those cards were made a long time ago. This probably isn't much of a revelation. Let's focus instead on a card that is much more recent and easier to talk about with regard to power level.

Now, this is not exactly a strong spell. It's not a Cube all-star, it's not going to go into any Constructed decks. It exists for one reason: to be the right power level in Limited. At no point were we trying to make the best removal spell ever at five mana; we wanted one that was the right strength for the format, given all the other cards surrounding it. We already had Debilitating Injury as the strong black removal spell, and Rite of the Serpent killed anything. So we needed something in the middle that was a bit mediocre, but had some value in being an instant.

Six months later, in Dragons of Tarkir we printed this:

This was 2BB for a long time to try and separate it from Throttle, but we pulled back late in development for Limited balance reasons. We just needed a stronger removal spell with a lot of the powerful Dragons running around.

Some people noticed this and called us out on it, but again, we knew this. Not everyone always likes when this happens, but we need to make the right cards for the right environment, and while we could have made a couple other changes to have a similar effect, it's better to make fewer changes late in development if possible.

That wasn't the end of the story, though. A year later, we reprinted this card in Oath of the Gatewatch:

Boy, that second black mana does a lot of work here. Two basically identical cards, but one costs three less mana, at the cost of having one black. Grasp of Darkness was somewhat there for Limited, but it was also there explicitly for Standard as an answer for Archangel Avacyn, Dragonlord Ojutai, and Kalitas, Traitor of Ghet. There just isn't a way to get Throttle or Flatten to the point where people are casting it in Standard. We needed a card that was competitive in the decks we were playing in Standard, which meant cutting some mana off of what would be enough for Limited and reprinting a card from Scars of Mirrodin.

A Part of the Big Picture

The thing about making Magic sets is that we aren't looking to make every individual card the best it can be; we are looking to make the game as a whole as fun as possible. That means modulating what the powerful things to do in Standard and Limited are. If the same things were strong year after year, it would get boring. We could spend a ton of time and words trying to get each new card to be unique and not strictly better than other cards. But then, when a new player comes in, there may not be the straightforward and simple cards running around new Magic sets that much, because we need to have all the cards have wonky text for the illusion of power balance over 25 years. It's important that we have the ability to make cards that have straightforward or useful text in one set and not worry about what that means for every set for the rest of time.

For Limited, we tend to have several removal spells at common per color, which means we need to do a lot of different designs. We tend to do one as the "big" removal spell (like Sip of Hemlock or Explosive Impact) and one as the "small" removal like Shock or Dead Weight. We don't try to make these equal power each time; sometimes the small one is the more powerful one, and sometimes it's the larger one. A lot of that depends on what we are trying to incentivize in a format, and why we have chosen the particular spell. For example, Sip of Hemlock was pretty weak in Theros because we didn't want a super-powerful common removal spell that could kill anything being the best black common. That would've made it a bad idea to do the Voltron stuff the set was asking you do. We needed something that was strong enough that people could answer that strategy, but the card in total needed to be weak enough that it would get to the player who needed answers. At the same time, we often look to space out our removal spells between black and red so they hit different numbers. Generally, red is better at killing really small things, and black is better at large things, but sometimes the "good" red removal spell does 4 damage, which leaves black open to have the most efficient way of killing a small creature.

So, when you look at a card like Throttle, know that it's not that we don't know just how strong or weak it is or that somehow Flatten is too strong of a card for us to use. It's more that we have chosen the suite of removal spells we felt made for the best Limited environment. We also like using some number of simple cards like this rather than junking them up with a bunch of text. Sure, Throttle plus scry 1 is a fine card, but we don't need that extra text there by default. We can always find, during testing, that black is a little weak and a card like Throttle needs less of a boost than cutting off a whole mana.

That's it for this week. Next week, I'll be back talking about vanilla creatures.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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