Sultai Graveyard Strategies

Posted in Latest Developments on February 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.

It's Sultai week on DailyMTG.com, and that means talking about the most ubiquitous part of the Sultai clan. That's right, their strange obsession with fruit.

Weird, right?

Well, that's about everything I have to say on that, so with more than a little white space to fill, I guess I can talk about the other thing Sultai is known for—their use of the graveyard—and a little about both the history of how we use the graveyard and why we use it the way we do.

Graveyard Strategies

The graveyard has been doing a lot of hard work for us from the earliest days of Magic. Looking at Alpha, that oh-so-final resting place hasn't ever been that final. Magic's first set included Animate Dead, Regrowth, Nether Shadow, and even Timetwister, and almost every set after that included something to do with the graveyard. While Weatherlight was our first "graveyard set," it was far from the last. Blocks like Odyssey and Innistrad made the graveyard the center stage, and it played a huge part for the Golgari, Grixis, and Sultai in otherwise not-graveyard-focused sets.

Why? Well, because it just works. The name works great with the fantasy tropes, and the ability to recur cards that have been destroyed adds a lot of depth to the gameplay. It means that your opponent can't be sure that just because he or she has dealt with something once that it is gone forever. It means that, if you really want to focus your deck on one card, you can come back from it being discarded, countered, killed, or milled.

Six Feet Under

One of the things we look for in our mechanics is deep design space. While the graveyard can't really be called a mechanic upon itself, it gives us a canvas from which to design different mechanics. We want to make sure that we not only have enough room to do what the current set wants to do, but also enough room to do future sets. We try not to use up all the space in every set, because we want to make cards that feel new, without being derivative in the future. There is some room for "future sight mechanics" that return from time to time, but that shouldn't be everything. Leaving space for new strategies lets us surprise our players in the future with new space.

Here are just a few of the ways we use the graveyard in our sets to make them feel different from each other, and add different strategies to the game.

Graveyard as a Holding Pen

The classic. Sometimes, the cool thing about the graveyard is it's where you get to keep all of your neat stuff. Flashback and unearth are probably the most iconic versions of this. Dredge attempted this same idea, although it turned out that the number after the dredge cost was actually the most powerful part of the cards, rather than…you know, the ability of the cards themselves. While some cards like Darkblast and Life from the Loam found areas that were reasonably interesting, the really high numbers basically ruined it for everyone. But I digress.

The advantage of using the graveyard as a holding bin is that you get to make really great individual card designs, and you get to allow for self-milling strategies that still cast the cool cards. Spider Spawning is the most iconic version of this working in Limited. The best part about the deck was that you didn't have to naturally draw the card, the self-mill cards you played leveled up the spell and actually made it more likely for you to draw it.

The downside of this quality of graveyard sets is that you don't have to draw the cards, which ends up reducing the variance quite a bit. We believe that Magic needs a healthy amount of variance, and (for the most part) drawing a card each turn gets us most of the way there—so we try to avoid competitive cards with very powerful random elements like coin flipping or other random effects.

This is actually the second reason that dredge failed as a mechanic. While we could've had each spell be a "dredge 1" spell and avoid the whole "my GOD this deck is broken" thing, it still would've led to very repetitive game play. Once you have a few dredge cards in your graveyard, you run into too many situations where it's just better to draw the dredge card than a random card, reducing the variance even further. We want to include ways for our players to mitigate variance, but going too far is bad for the game.

This is an area of graveyard mechanics I believe we will end up revisiting again (after all, flashback is one of our best mechanics of all time), but one that I think we will do with eyes wide open, and with a lot more experience. I think flashback worked great in Innistrad and expect the next set with a similar mechanic will end up at around the same power level—and probably keep the "exile" clause on there to allow for some of the fun, without all of the risks.

Graveyard as Barometer

Of course, the most famous card in this category is probably Tarmogoyf, but there are others that use mechanics like threshold to a similar effect. The idea is that you have cards that, as the game moves on, get more powerful, It could be in a linear fashion (ask any Lhurgoyf), or it could be in an on-off state (like Krosan Beast), but the idea is that at some point naturally brought on by the game's constant movement, these cards get better.

The great thing about using the graveyard as barometer is that it brings many of the best things we like about mechanics like kicker without the extra cost. We get to print cards that get better as the game goes on, which we tend to find to be pretty fun. It lets us have a lot more cards that have early/mid/late-game usefulness, or at least generate interesting Kavu Titan-esque decisions of "play this now to stay on curve or wait for the full benefit later."

The difficulty in making this work is finding the right balance of what cards look like when they are on and off. Tarmogoyf, for instance, is a little too good when you put enablers in the format, but it's not more than a power/toughness away. Meanwhile, cards that were powerhouses in the past like Werebear would actually probably be about right today. The question is whether we could find enough of them to make an entire set and have it be as fun as we want it to be.

The other difficulty in getting the barometer to work is balancing things for Limited and Constructed. Let's take a version of Tribal Flames that instead of counting land types, counts card types in graveyards for 2 mana. In Limited, it's going to be pretty anemic, usually not killing anything until turn four or five, and rarely hitting for more than 3 until pretty late in the game—and even that is dependent on what kinds of discard, sac lands, or Auras the set has. But, even in Standard it would be able to hit for 4 or 5 with ease.

Graveyard as a Resource

The Sultai's mechanic, delve, is an example of a mechanic that uses the graveyard as a resource—in this case, to reduce the cost of your spells. Looking at Khans of Tarkir, we used cards like Taigam's Scheming to allow players to willfully burn through a ton of their decks on turn two, then cast a turn-three creature like Sultai Scavenger, or even a Necropolis Fiend.

It's not the only way you can use these cards—Psychatog can eat them, for example, but I feel this is the area we have explored the least on mechanics, although we have had plenty of individual cards in the past that did this. Look at Grave Robbers all the way back in The Dark—here was a card that exiled cards from a graveyard to get another resource. Kind of like Deathrite Shaman's much older and much more obsolete cousin. But here, you start seeing cards that use the graveyard to fuel something. By Fallen Empires it was Night Soil, and pretty soon we were alternative-casting Spinning Darkness for the low, low cost of three cards in the graveyard.

The inherent risk of using the graveyard as a resource is that you can pour a ton more cards into your graveyard than any other zone, and very quickly. The dredge deck is such a dangerous animal in every format it is legal because of the dredge 5 and dredge 6 cards, which make spells with even very high delve costs turn-two or three plays. If you printed a card that said "20B win the game," it would be possible (although difficult) to cast it on turn two in Modern. It makes balancing the cards pretty difficult—as the recent bannings of Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time in various formats can attest—but it also can lead us to making cards that are too safe and not fun or exciting for anyone.

Other Ways to Slice It

Those are the main ways we use the graveyard, but there are other ways that different cards use it, and I believe there are ways to use the graveyard in the future that we haven't even hit upon yet. As I mentioned at the start, we look for ways to push our designs that are not only new, but leaves room for future sets. I am confident that we will be able to touch on the graveyard every few years, while still making those sets feel different, and not use up all the design space.

That's it for this week. Join me next week when I talk about the development of manifest.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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