Triple Mulligan

Posted in Latest Developments on August 20, 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.

There are many large-scale development questions that we ask ourselves from time to time. For example, we might ask how many creatures we want in average Limited decks, what range of strategies we want a color to have in Constructed, or what the right amount of niche draft strategies within a set is. One such question that we often ask is how important opening hands should be.

For an extreme, let's go back in time to the 2007 Magic Invitational. One of the final three matches between Tiago Chan and Rich Hoaen used the Vintage format. At the time, Flash was unrestricted, and Tiago had chosen to play a deck built around it. Rich's deck, on the other hand, was a Mishra's Workshop-based artifact deck. In the first game of their match, Tiago won the die roll, then plopped this hand onto the table.

Mox Sapphire and Lotus Petal. Cast Summoner's Pact for Protean Hulk. Cast Flash. Put Protean Hulk into play, then let it die. Search for three Virulent Slivers and a Heart Sliver, put them onto the battlefield, and attack for twelve poison counters. Bang, you're dead. Rich's deck didn't have Force of Will in it, so that was that.

This seems utterly lame, but even crazier things were possible at the same time. In the last round of Day One of Grand Prix–Columbus in 2007, I died to a Flash deck in my first upkeep. My opponent chose to draw, then used Gemstone Caverns, Elvish Spirit Guide, Flash, and Protean Hulk to plop four Disciple of the Vault, four Shifting Walls, and a Phyrexian Marauder into play. His five 0/0 artifacts died immediately, then I lost 20 life before I played my first land.

One of the most important things to Magic being fun over time is that players feel that skill matters. It's hard to feel that this is the case when games end on turn one with any degree of regularity. One.

There is an opposite extreme as well, although it's a little harder to see. I'll do my best to show it to you. The Draft Extravaganza, a day-long tournament that features drafts of several older formats, is a Seattle tradition. At the most recent one, I drafted this deck in a Ravnica-Guildpact-Dissension Draft:

Ravnica-Guildpact-Dissension Draft Deck

Download Arena Decklist

This deck may look like a pile to you. In fact, it looked like a pile to me while I was building it. However, I entered the draft with some knowledge about how the format plays. Almost every deck is three or more colors, which means plenty of time setting up and deploying cards like Azorius Chancery and Orzhov Signet to get the necessary mana to cast spells. Aggressive decks are rare because of how hard it is to come out quickly. This means that card-drawing cards like Compulsive Research and Consult the Necrosages are very powerful because most games come down to wars of attrition.

Unfortunately, I didn't have any of those. What I had was a single Train of Thought, two Dimir Infiltrators to find it with, and an Izzet Chronarch to use to get it back a for a second use. Those two uses of my one Train of Thought needed to be enough to power me into enough cards to actually put a game away ... with my single Ratcatcher. I had plenty of creature removal, so I guessed that I might have enough time to actually implement this crazy plan.

As it turned out, I did. I went 2-1 in this draft, and I would have won the third round if I had not misplayed. Every game, I looked at my opening hand, saw that it had lands and some kill spells, and trusted that my Train of Thought or one of its two surrogates would show up in time. My opponents usually figured out what was going on about halfway through the second game. Even if they had a good start, the format was so slow that their opening hand just didn't matter. A huge percentage of both my deck and my opponent's deck would be in on the table, and it didn't matter which seven cards started there. Paradoxically, this also reduces the amount of skill present in the play of the game as the importance of other factors rises. When almost all of the cards in a deck matter over the course of a twenty-turn game, deck building becomes a much bigger determinant of the winner than play.

I chose the most extreme examples I could think of for this section, and as you would expect most formats fall somewhere in between Summer 2007 Vintage and Ravnica Block Draft in speed. We try to vary the speed of formats in order to keep the experience of Magic varied, but we occasionally still get outside a comfortable range. Zendikar Limited is much faster than I think we intended it to be, and it can be so fast it's hard to come back from a bad opening hand. Worldwake was intended to slow the format down some to compensate, but one pack of Worldwake could only do so much. None of the other Limited formats we've released in recent memory have been uncomfortably fast or slow to me, so I can't be too unhappy about our record.

Unhappy with this article? If you are, then you can...

    Making Leylines

I was part of both the design and development teams for Magic 2011. If the Titans received the most time and effort during the process, then Leylines probably received the most worry. Why do you think that might be?

Before you clicked the mulligan button, you had an article that discussed how we want the game play of Magic to feel like it matters to the outcome. Imagine this card:

Leyline of Haste
If Leyline of Haste is in your opening hand, you may begin the game with it on the battlefield.

All creatures have Haste.

With this card, you are obviously supposed to make a little red creature deck. The problem with it is that the difference in power level between a game that begins with this card in play and a game that does not is enormous; even more so when the opponent doesn't have creatures that they're interested in attacking with early in the game. Some of Standard's fastest red decks can win a game unopposed on turn four, and with this card that could be cut to three easily. On the other hand, when you draw this card on turn two, it's a total blank. Many proactive Leyline designs we tried had this same effect on the game—they made the opening hand feel too important.

At first glance, the line of text that comes with the Leyline territory seems very difficult to use without this opening-hand-magnifying effect. However, we took our inspiration from the superstar of the first Leyline cycle...

... which we also decided to repeat ...

... and made Leylines that were reactive rather than proactive. By this, I mean that rather than helping you do something, they make it harder for your opponent to do certain things. Leyline of the Void plays the hero against degenerate graveyard strategies like Dredge, even in Vintage where Dredge decks have cards like Bazaar of Baghdad. Leyline of Punishment stops many of the white effects that traditionally vex red burn players. Leyline of Sanctity messes, in turn, with those same burn decks, and hurts combination decks that need to target you to win. Leyline of Anticipation messes with opponents who plan to use lots of countermagic against you.

In all cases, you might argue that these still increase the importance of the opening hand. In certain match-ups, they can, but this tends to happen when the deck on the receiving end of a Leyline is particularly non-interactive. Extended dredge decks in the past few Extended Pro Tour Qualifier seasons could easily win on turn three, and with a deck that fast sometimes only a Leyline can bring the two decks back into interaction. Similarly, a mono-red deck playing against a Circle of Protection: Red is hardly a game, but adding Leyline of Punishment into the mix gives a higher chance for an interactive game. Our goal with these Leylines was to increase the total interaction in Magic rather than decrease it.

You might also point out that Leyline of Vitality doesn't quite conform to the "reactive card" model. It does less of an obvious job than the other four Leylines in Magic 2011, but it still does that job at times. Just last Friday, I saw a red-green drafter with lots of one toughness creatures sideboard this in against a black drafter who showed multiple Stabbing Pains in the first game. He indeed got to start the third game with his Leyline in play, and that was the difference that allowed him to win his match. I was pleased to see that interaction.

Still want to try again? You'll get less content, but you can still ...

    How We Mulligan

I am often asked practical questions about life inside Magic Ramp;D. How do we proxy cards? How do we build packs for drafting? How quickly can cards change? Every once in a while, I also get asked how we handle mulligans. Because it's Opening Hand Week, I get to answer that one today! Best of all, I get to correct Mark Rosewater's statements earlier in the week! Well, I get to go into more detail, at least.

As Mark said on Monday, during design we are more interested in finding out whether the thing we are doing is fun in broad strokes. Therefore, we always mulligan back to seven cards, trusting each other not to abuse the rule to mulligan mediocre but keepable hands into better ones in search of victory. During most of development, we mulligan back to seven cards whenever a mulliganed hand contains zero, one, six, or seven lands, and go down a card under any other circumstance. This includes color screw, top-heavy spells, or whatever else. This is because the extreme ends of land quantity distribution don't teach us a lot, but we do need to know how decks are punished when they have the wrong mana colors or somewhat land-light or land-heavy draws. During Future Future League tournaments, we always go down a card for mulligans in order to simulate real world conditions.

You're getting pretty low on paragraphs now, but I guess you still can ...

    Last Week's Polls
Have you ever gone to a game convention—for example, Gen Con, Origins, PAX?
Yes, and I played Magic there.79017.2%
Yes, and I didn't play Magic there.4149.0%

Have you ever attended a Grand Prix?
Yes, and I played in it.104220.3%
Yes, and I didn't play in it.1813.5%

Every time I ask a poll like this, some of you email me with statements like "I really wanted to vote 'no, but X'," where X is any number of things. I think this is because just saying no feels bad. In the future, I release you from any obligation to feel bad about voting no. The point behind these questions is to gather information. I'm not here to judge you. You all care about Magic, that's all I could ever ask, and I'm not going to ask for more. On the other hand, I am statistically confident that if you're reading this, you care enough about Magic that you would have fun if you went to a gaming convention or a Grand Prix. I recommend trying it at least once. My first Origins and my first Grand Prix were both life-changing experiences, and aside from the fact that I work for Wizards and you probably don't, it's unlikely that there are huge differences between me and you that would cause you to enjoy these events less. If one is near you, I think it would be worth your time to go and experience it.

    This Week's Poll

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