A Tribute to Punisher

Posted in Latest Developments on February 28, 2014

Magic works best when it encourages players to make choices. The nature of the game's core mechanics provide a ton of choices—Do I mulligan? Which land do I play? How do I attack? When do I cast this spell? Do I play it now or wait one more turn to see what I draw? Keeping Magic interesting, though, means constantly giving players new and different choices to make. Having a block that cares more about the graveyard, and creatures dying, as well as playing two spells a turn, helps to change how we evaluate the basic decisions in the game. The constant churn of the decisions in Magic is one of the things that keeps it interesting, and fun, for both players in the game. This part is important, because as we design and develop sets, we have to think both about how cards feel to play and play against—and playing cards that make your opponent feel like he or she can play around them does make the powerful cards feel more satisfying for everyone.

One of my favorite cards of all time is Menacing Ogre, because it provided a mini-game for the players to play. As the player casting Menacing Ogre, my goal is generally to try and guess the exact number that my opponent is guessing. My opponent's goal is to find a number that is one above what I named—assuming I name something rational. There is a good chance that 20 would win—but I found most games came down to players guessing 0,1,2, or 3. While guessing right or wrong on a card like this was sometimes the only deciding factor in a game, that was rare.

When development is working on a set, we balance how fun a card is to read (and think about), how fun it is to play with and against, and how powerful it is. While these items are not mutually exclusive, it's pretty hard to get every card to be a huge success on each of these metrics. It's really one of the core things that development struggles with. We spend a lot of time noodling with cards and trying to figure out what the balance is for people on both sides of the table. I believe, as a whole, we have gotten better at making the powerful cards both read as powerful and add to the fun of the game.

Because making decisions is fun, we often put cards in sets where both players have some say in how they resolve. Because of how they were implemented in Odyssey block (with one option always being damage to a player), they are generally referred to as punisher cards.

Balancing Punisher

The trick to balancing punisher cards is to make both halves of the card be a better-than-average card at its mana cost, and let your opponent's ability to make the decision the balancing factor. Giving your opponent the option to Shock his or her creature or take 3 damage for four mana just isn't strong enough for a player to put it in a deck. Get up to Lighting Bolting a creature or Lava Axing your opponent and you get a card like Blazing Salvo, which was a staple of the Odyssey Limited environment.

Take Ornitharch, as an example. We would probably not print either a 3 ManaWhite ManaWhite Mana 5/5 flier or 3 ManaWhite ManaWhite Mana 3/3 flier that enters the battlefield with two flying 1/1 tokens at uncommon. Both are just a little too efficient for Limited—but by letting your opponent make the choice, he or she can best choose the one that impacts his or her hand and board the least. You don't get the choice to play the token maker against removal, or the 5/5 if you just need a larger blocker.

This creates cards that are hard to evaluate—which is both good and bad for us. We don't want things to be 100% obvious on a first reading, but we also don't want cards that we play a lot of, but that few players in the real world get much use out of. The worst-case scenario for cards is that they look very weak but play incredibly strong—as they generate little to no buzz, but they make the environments they play in much less fun. Next to that, though, are cards that look very strong but leave players disappointed when they play with them. We need some amount of cards for players to discover over time, but it shouldn't be the entire set.

Punisher mechanics, like tribute, have historically had the problem that the ones that read the most appealingly, and generate early buzz, are often the least powerful. People tend to like to read big splashy effects, but to balance them, we have to keep the other choice very different from the first. When you put two incredibly strong (but disparate) effects on a card, and separate them from each other as much as possible, the card becomes almost impossible to use effectively. In the past, this led people to outright dismiss the mechanic on new cards—which is understandable after being burned in the past.

Imagine seeing the card below in a booster pack:

So Close
When you cast So Close, any player may exile the top thirty cards of his or her library. If no player does, target player gets nine poison counters.

No matter how you slice it, this card gets you very close to winning the game—but it doesn't really finish the job. While you can win through milling, even the top thirty cards is pretty far from winning in Constructed Magic, and nine poison counters matters very little unless there is more infect in the format. If a second copy of this is cast, the opponent can almost certainly make the opposite choice, and live until the third one. You would probably do a lot better just casting Lava Axe ing three times.

Of the original batch of punisher cards in Odyssey, the only one that hit the mark particularly well for Constructed was Browbeat . While the card was powerful, it didn't do a great job of making the decision point particularly interesting. We want to create cards that have fun and interesting decisions, but I will admit that we have not always done a great job in the past. Others, like Book Burning , fell into the trap of the two effects being too distant, while Breaking Point required an incredibly specific board stake to make any decision even close to interesting. Of course, we are not going to get every new mechanic exactly right the first time, and punishers had a lot of room for improvement.

Where No Punisher Has Gone Before

As I mentioned earlier, having very disparate effects on punisher cards doesn't actually make for good game play. The narrower the difference between the choices, the more interesting the decisions become, and the easier it becomes to make the card see competitive play. Of course, this wasn't very easy on the Odyssey punisher cards, because they only deal with damage, and not giving other options. It's possible that if the mechanic had seen play in other colors at that time, that more interesting decisions would've come up, but that just wasn't to be.

The twist that makes tribute work so much better than the traditional punisher mechanic is that it is on creatures—so all of the power isn't only tied up in the hard decision. Beyond just making the decision harder for the opponent, tribute allows for some of the cards to have higher risk/rewards than traditional punisher cards, because they are less likely to be solvable. Fanatic of Xenagos is one of the best examples of the decision being very small in some ways, but large in others. There are times that the decision is easy—if your opponent is going to cast a Wrath of God effect the next turn, he or she will almost always choose for your Centaur to get the counter, while if your opponent has a blocker, he or she will often choose for the momentary haste—but those situations come up less often than on more traditional punisher cards.

Because tribute acted as an evolution of monstrous for Born of the Gods, it only appears on higher-casting-cost creatures, which means their bodies will almost always be impactful, even if their spell ability finds itself in a non-ideal spot. A late-game topdecked Oracle of Bones with no other cards in your hand is still a 3/1 haste creature, so it still has the opportunity to make an impact. One of the biggest risks with the previous versions of punishing creatures, like Vexing Devil, was that they were horrible topdecks if you were behind. Tribute creatures won't be perfect, but they will provide much more solid game play.

So, how do you like tribute, or punisher cards in general? Leave any feedback you have in the comments.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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