Where’s the Beef?

Posted in Latest Developments on September 29, 2006

By Devin Low

Hello again! Time Spiral Designer/Developer/Duelist Devin Low here, subbing in for your regularly scheduled Aaron Forsythe. Today I'd like to pull back the curtain on an some important long-term shifts in the philosophy of Magic development: Why Green Fatties have often been worse in tournament constructed than other colors' fatties, why that's bad, and what R&D is doing to fix it. This article was spurred by some people on the boards wondering how Sporesower Thallid got to be such a fat 4/4 at green uncommon with a significant advantage and no drawbacks.

We develop Magic on a lot of different scopes. Sometimes you're fine-tuning the timing of a single triggered ability. Sometimes you tweak a card to maximize its fun potential and minimize its annoyance Sometimes you work on a whole mechanic, discuss a whole set, or plan an entire Block. But the role of the green fatty in tournament play is an issue even bigger than that. It goes across multiple Magic Blocks, multiple people, and multiple years. Let's get right into it.

The Magic Color Pie outlines which colors have which abilities. It's a beautiful framework that we've adjusted over time to make sure every color has many specialties and strengths. Let's take an extremely basic summary of the colors' most prominent specialties. White features Magic's best weenie creatures and defense. Blue gets counterspells, bounce, and card drawing. Black gets terror effects and discard. Red gets burn spells, haste and land destruction. Green gets mana acceleration and Magic's best fatties.

All these specialties are the same in limited and high-level constructed. Just like your blue sealed decks counter spells, bounce things and draw extra cards, your blue constructed decks are too. But what about green fatties? They're certainly a key part of Green's color pie. They match green's philosophies of growth, fighting fairly, and overpowering the opponent. And they're a perfect fit with Green's other key ability, mana acceleration. So does green dominate the category of big, expensive creatures like blue dominates counterspells and black dominates discard?

Limited Fat

First I'll ask that question for limited play. Starting a few years ago, let's line up all Onslaught's common creatures that cost 5 or more:

White Daru Lancer, Daunting Defender, Grassland Crusader
Blue Screaming Seahawk, Slipstream Eel
Black Anurid Murkdiver, Fallen Cleric
Red Charging Slateback, Spurred Wolverine
Green Barkhide Mauler, Krosan Tusker, Spitting Gourna, Treespring Lorian

I'll make a quick limited pointing ranking of the top 10 of these creatures. (Limited pointing boils down to measuring how happy I would be with each having card if I was trying to win a limited tournament.)

Onslaught's top ten creatures that cost 5+ in limited tournaments:

Krosan Tusker
1.) Krosan Tusker
2.) Barkhide Mauler
3.) Spitting Gourna
4.) Daru Lancer
5.) Treespring Lorian
6.) Daunting Defender
7.) Charging Slateback
8.) Fallen Cleric
9.) Slipstream Eel
10.) Anurid Murkdiver

Green has the most common fatties with 4, also has the most fatties in the top 10, and it even takes slots 1,2,3, and 5. In ONS limited, Green clearly dominates the category of fat creatures in limited, with way more than everyone else and way better ones than everyone else. So far, so good.

Building Fat

In Constructed, the color pie is supposed to be the same as it is limited. Black casts awesome terrors and discard spells in constructed just like it does in limited. Red burns things to ash across constructed brackets and draft decks alike. So are Green's Fatties in constructed tournaments as numerous and superior as they are in limited? Since we looked at ONS limited, let's look at ONS constructed for comparison.

Here's a quick ranking of the top 10 “winningest” constructed fatties in ONS Block. For constructed I'll define “fatty” as anything with at least 7 total power and toughness. For limited I said “5 mana and above,” but for constructed I want to make sure to include the Jade Leeches and Yukoras of the world, so I'll use P/T instead. (I'm writing these lists on the spur of the moment, not referring to some secret official R&D chart. That said, I pay very close attention to constructed metagames, and these lists seem pretty accurate to me.)

Devin's Top Ten Constructed-Tournament-Winning Fatties in Onslaught Block:

Exalted Angel
1) Exalted Angel
2) Siege-Gang Commander (it's 5/5)
3) Eternal Dragon
4) Ravenous Baloth
5) Akroma, Angel of Wrath
6) Blistering Firecat
7) Krosan Tusker
8) Silvos, Rogue Elemental
9) Bane of the Living
10) Visara the Dreadful

Wow, this is a quite dramatic difference from the limited common fatty ranking. Instead of dominating 4 of the top 5 slots, green squeaks just one into the top 5, at number 4. Green sure doesn't seem like the best fat creature color here.

Devin's Top Ten Constructed-Tournament-Winning Fatties in Mirrodin Block:

I won't include the block's many awesome artifact fatties here, since I'm comparing the colors:

1) Arc-Slogger
2) Furnace Dragon
3) Broodstar
4) Pristine Angel
5) Mephidross Vampire
6) Fangren Firstborn
7) Megatog
8) Molder Slug
9) Hoverguard Sweepers
10) Leonin Abunas (2P+5T=7)

And this is an even worse showing from my buddy green. It can't crack the top 5 fatties at all, coming in at 6 and 8. Also interesting – if Green is the color of “Expensive, Powerful creatures”, why are none of this list's six creatures that cost more than six mana green?

Devin's Top Ten Constructed-Tournament-Winning Fatties in Kamigawa Block:

Meloku the Clouded Mirror
1) Meloku the Clouded Mirror
2) Keiga, the Tide Star
3) Kokusho, the Evening Star
4) Yosei, the Morning Star
5) Maga, Traitor to Mortals
6) Kodama of the North Tree
7) Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni
8) Kagemaro, First to Suffer
9) Yukora, the Prisoner
10) Godo, Bandit Warlord

(To be fair, my 11,12,and 13 are Seshiro the Anointed, Iwamori of the Open Fist, and Arashi, the Sky Asunder)

Ugh, and here in Kamigawa the issue gets even worse. How is Green supposed to claim to be the color of the best huge creatures, when it only has one in the top 10, and none in the top 5? It's pretty clear from these three lists that something has gone wrong for Green Fatties over the last several years in the jump from limited to constructed.

Classic Fatty Decks

Here are some constructed decklists that underline the point. Each uses Llanowar Elves and Rampant Growth variants to ramp up to powerful 5-8 mana fatties. Obviously monoblack decks choose Black Fatties over green ones. That's totally understandable. But all the decks below have tons of green mana in them for green spells to accelerate their mana. The decks already have green - what color fatties are they ramping to? The first is a PTQ-winning deck from Mike Flores:

Mike Flores – Critical Mass

Download Arena Decklist

This deck uses green mana acceleration to ramp up to the most powerful 5 and 6 mana fatties available. So what fatties does it ramp to? Four green guys and eight blue guys! Even when you have tons of green mana, and you're following one of the most beloved, famous green game plan - “ramp up to a fatty”, the best fatties to ramp to aren't even green. The most expensive creatures in the deck aren't the “good expensive creature color” of green – they're blue.

Here's an Onslaught Block decklist that made the Top 8 at Pro Tour Venice that hits the point again:

Darwin Kastle

Download Arena Decklist

This deck features red for creature sweeping instead of blue for counterspells, but the green component in each case is fairly similar. It uses Wirewood Elf, Krosan Tusker (itself a green fatty), and Explosive Vegetation to ramp up to….eight green fatties and eleven red ones. And the most expensive creatures in the deck aren't green.

And here's one more Top 8 deck, from Kamigawa Block constructed:

Andre Mueller

Download Arena Decklist

Here the deck has Sakura-Tribe Elder and Kodama's Reach to ramp up to 6 fat creatures. With all these rampant growth effects and Tendo Ice Bridge, it plays white, blue, black, and green spells. So with all this mana and all this choice, which fat creatures does he choose to play? Three fat white creatures, two fat blue Creatures, and a single fat green creature. And again the most expensive creatures in the deck aren't green.

Across the nine sets of Constructed play from Onslaught through Saviors of Kamigawa, where are the Green “Best Fat Creatures in Magic” that the color pie promises? What's wrong with this picture? In short:

Why Didn't Green Get the Best Fat Creatures in Constructed Magic?

There are four main reasons:

Reason 1) All Colors Are Allowed to Have Awesome Fatties, not just Green

Some color pie rules are almost written in stone. Only blue is allowed to have counterspells. Only black is allowed to have discard spells. So which color is allowed to have fat creatures? Every color! And that part is as it should be. Serra Angel, Mahamoti Djinn, Sengir Vampire, Lord of the Pit, Shivan Dragon, and Force of Nature were all in Alpha as big powerful creatures. Big powerful creatures are the among the most fun cards in Magic. And every color has its own take on them that makes sense.

It's fun to be able to play big creatures in all kinds of decks because each color can do them in a different interesting way. There aren't enough interesting different ways to do Terror spells that each color could have its own distinct, interestingly different way to do Terror spells. But there are tons of differently colored ways to do big creatures. Because big creatures are fun, we want people to play with them. To encourage people to play with them, we make them powerful. In all colors. Even though Green tends to monopolize the 4/4 for at common, every color is allowed to have a 5/5 for with awesome abilities at rare. And they should. This is why green isn't the only large creature color, taking all ten slots on each of the top ten fat creature lists.

Reason 2) Iconic Rare Creature Types Get Extra Points. Green doesn't have rare iconic types.

Say your two friends are opening sealed decks on either side of you. One of them says he opened an Angel, a White Dragon, and a Vampire. The other says he opened an Illusion, a Beast, and a Green Elemental. Which friend would you guess probably has the more powerful deck? If you said Angel, White Dragon, and Vampire, you're right.


Akroma Angel of Wrath
Some beloved, awesome creature types in Magic get to be consistently, awesomely powerful. The big five “iconic creature types” are Dragon, Angel, Vampire, Demon, and Legend. We just love ‘em. And we know players love ‘em. Since everyone enjoys them so much, and because it's fun to have them smashing people on game tables, we usually make these creature types extremely powerful and efficient, so they show up on tables more often and everyone gets to smile more. We hardly ever make uncommon versions of these types these days, because we want to preserve the association of these types with the size and splash value that comes at rare. We sometimes talk about a “Dragon Discount” where if a certain creature was a Red Bird like a Roc, it would cost 6, but because it's a DRAGON, let's just make it cost 5, because Dragons should be awesome. The fact that we usually make these Iconic creature types awesome feeds into everyone loving them and thinking they're awesome, which feeds into us making them more awesome, creating a self-fulfilling loop. I love that. And I love casting Dragons, Angels, Vampires, Demons, and Legends.

To a lesser extent, other Iconic concepts associated with high power level and high rarity, though not with fat creatures, include Specter, Mox, Lotus, and Time. Creative has been exploring ways to establish new iconics over the years recently, with experimentations into new Djinns, Lammasus, Sphinxes and so on to see what the public latches onto and likes.

So white black and red all have awesome Iconic creature types. What are blue and green's iconic creature types? Mahamoti Djinn headlined a series of cool 5/5ish flying Djinns, but they never had quite the panache and style of Dragons, Angels, Vampires, Demons, and Legends. Red Hydras and Blue Krakens and Black Horrors are usually pretty cool, but again they are not quite as beloved and thus don't get as many heapings of power as the big five. Rare Blue fat creatures are often powerful Illusions like Amugaba or Ixidron, but since Illusions also often show up at common, they lack the “always awesome” association of an Angel. Likewise, Green's rare fat creatures are often Beasts or Elementals, but since those types frequently show up at Common, they have so far lacked the “always awesome” mental link.

Putting power into Iconic creature types and green's lack of iconic creature types is one of the key reasons for the lack of green in the top ten lists above. From the Onslaught top ten, why are Exalted Angel and Eternal Dragon super-pushed? Largely because they're an Angel and a Dragon! Why did we make Akroma so awesome? Partially because it's a Legend and an Angel. The Mirrodin top 5 features a Dragon, an Angel, and a Vampire. The Kamigawa storyline doesn't include Angels or Vampires, but its top five fat creatures feature Dragon, Dragon, Dragon. Since Green doesn't historically have a top-tier rare iconic creature type this awesome, it has missed out on a lot of that bonus power we give to them.

Reason 3) The best Rare Fatties usually have Evasion, kill other creatures, or have “Unsolvability.” Green fat creatures don't do those things well.


Penumbra Spider
I use the term “Unsolvability” to describe a creature threat that isn't “totally solved” by Terminate and similar spells. In many cases the “Unsolvable” creature dies to the Terminate, but the Terminate wasn't a complete solution to the threat of that creature card, because the controller of the threat card still ended up with some benefit. So Penumbra Spider has some “Unsolvability” in that he gives you a Spider when he gets terminated. Keiga has some serious “Unsolvability” in that he control magics when he gets terminated. Even Loxodon Hierarch has some “Unsolvability” in that he gives you 4 life and maybe maybe regenerates a creature when he dies. And Kodama of the North Tree has “Unsolvability” in that he can't be Terminated in the first place.

Across all the top 10 lists, you see these three traits over and over again. Evasion often in the form of flying. A fat creature that kills other creatures often makes for a hot constructed rare, in the form of Kagemaro, Keiga, or Siege-Gang Commander. Yosei, Keiga, and Kokusho are all very “Unsolvable” in that they wreck the opponent who terminates them. Meloku and Godo, Arc-Slogger and Siege-Gang Commander leave behind presents for their controller when they die. And Eternal Dragon and Pristine Angel can't be stopped by Terminate at all.

Green is partially defined by not having flying or other evasion. Green has trample, and its rares often have that, but trample just isn't close to being as good as flying. It's a little unfair that Jugan and Bounteous Kirin got charged hugely in their mana cost for being “big green fliers” which green isn't supposed to get. But Bringer of the White Dawn, Jokulmorder, and Gutwrencher Oni don't seem to have been charged at all for borrowing green's trample! Where's the justice?? Green is also defined by being totally unable to kill other creatures, so that's right out.

Some of the Unsolvability traits I mentioned above have to do killing other creatures in response to Terminate (Kagemaro, Arc-Slogger) which green can't do, or casting awesome spell effects (Keiga, Yosei) that green doesn't have. Green rare creatures have often tried to be Unsolvable by having Regeneration, but effects from Terror to Unsummon to Pacifism to Wrath of God to Carbonize have all made Regeneration extremely solvable. Many ways that Green could have Unsolvability have also just been underused in our sets in the years from Onslaught to Kamigawa.

Reason 4) Adding drawbacks lets you break through the size for cost curves. It's tough to put drawbacks on green guys.

Yukora. Phyrexian Negator. Goblin Goon. Orgg. Waterspout Djinn. All are powerful fat creatures with drawbacks. In each case the guy's benefits are basically just straight size – he has no really positive special abilities except trample or flying. And each is way bigger than he has any right to be for his cost.


Erhnam Djinn
Green is supposed to be the color that gets the best 5-mana fat tramplers without a doubt, in limited and constructed. And in limited Green does. In constructed, Green's 5-mana no-extra-benefits tramplers should be significantly better than red's 5 mana no-extra-benefit tramplers. We're willing to reprint 6/6 no-extra-benefit trampler Orgg in Time Spiral, who is large because he has drawbacks. So that would make you think we could make 6/6 Trampler in green with no drawbacks, or with a similar or lesser drawback to Orgg. But if we made vanilla 6/6 trampler, we'd make Fangren Hunter look like a chump, which we don't want to do. And it's surprisingly difficult to find appropriate drawbacks for green creatures. It's way easier to design in-flavor drawbacks on red and black creatures, which are full of carelessness and negativity and backstabbing and harm than on green ones, which are supposed to be cooperative and giving to their casters. So R&D has been in kind of a bind.

Green Fatties that have had drawbacks in the past have been among its best fat creatures: Erhnam Djinn, Jade Leech, Karstoderm, and so on. But a green creature like Jade Leech wouldn't make a lot of sense in Green outside of the Leech cycle. Green creatures philosophically would tend to be more likely to make your other green spells cost less, not more. But if he made them cost less, you sure wouldn't get 5/5 for 4. You see the bind.

Taking Back the Spotlight: Solutions to the Problem

For a couple of years now, R&D has wanted to put green creatures back in the top five of constructed fat creature lists, where they belong. Here are our solutions, adopted a couple of years ago and just now coming out in print. First I'll address the reasons above that have held Green creatures back, some of which we think must be maintained and some of which we've decided to shift. Then I'll throw in a couple more initiatives we've been following to put Green fat back on stage.

Response to Reason 1) All Colors Are Allowed to Have Awesome Fatties, not just Green

This is not going to change. It's very important to R&D that all colors get awesome large creatures. We just want Green fat creatures to be in the running for the top slots. And when green accelerates to five six and seven mana fatties, it would be really great if it accelerated to its own five six and seven mana fatties.

Reason 2) Iconic Rare Creature Types Get Extra Points. Green doesn't have rare iconic types.

Our Creative team features several experts at making enormously cool concepts for individual fat green creatures. We have been exploring new rare iconic creature types into which Green might be able to move. But It's hard to see what iconic creature types could be used in green. I don't believe that Beasts and Elementals can become those rare iconic types with the number of common Beasts and Elementals Magic already has. I definitely don't regret pouring the sauce on Dragons, Angels, Demons, and Legends, and we're going to keep doing that. There's not a lot of new hope on helping Green in these first two reasons.

Reason 3) The best Rare Fatties usually have Evasion, Unsolvability, and/or kill other creatures. Green Rares don't do those things well.


Kodama of the North Tree
Now here is there is some true success. You can see from Ravnica, Guildpact, Dissension, Time Spiral and Tenth Edition, a variety of powerful fat green creatures with superior Unsolvability. Untargetability has become a very powerful weapon in the quest to live through Terminates and Putrefies. Simic Sky Swallower dominated the Ravnica team block constructed tournaments. Kodama of the North Tree was an early forger in this path. We put Troll Ascetic (a little less fat) into the voting. We put Mystic Enforcer into Time Spiral. We've emphasized fat green rare creatures making tokens or other benefits as they come into play or leave play more than ever in the past couple of years, to improve their matchup against Terminates. Loxodon Hierarch in Ravnica, and Call of the Herd, Penumbra Spider, and Verdeloth the Ancient in Time Spiral both give huge benefits to you even if they are killed by Putrefy and the like. If Verdant Embrace or Sporesower Thallid in Time Spiral stick for even a turn, you get benefits even if they are destroyed. Ravnica's Grave-Shell Scarab dodges kill spells and was a player in our internal testing. I still think he's a pretty decent fatty, there's just not a deck that can play him right now.

As a second part of making green fatties more Unsolvable, we've also worked in the last couple of years to make size a more important factor in how hard a creature is to kill. Normal Terrors, Control Magics, Wraths, etc. don't care at all how big a creature is and they don't care if it can regenerate – they just kill it. We've leaned closer to making removal more size-based or CMC-based recently in many cases. Straight Control Magic and Terror say “Don't play big creatures. They'll just die and some cases smash you over the head from your opponent's side.” Threads of Disloyalty and Strangling Soot say “Do play giant creatures. They'll be immune.” Dark Withering in Time Spiral is a terror that in the old days would definitely have said “It can't be regenerated.” But it doesn't, because we're trying to make regeneration matter more. Many people assume Hour of Reckoning must have an anti-regeneration clause, because it's a wrath variant. But it purposely doesn't. Certainly many removal effects are still heavily anti-fatty, some like Phthisis even specifically so. But where possible we have taken the edge off a bit, to try to help even conventional vanilla-ish fatties be a little more survivable.

Reason 4) Adding Drawbacks lets you break through the size for cost curves. It's tough to put drawbacks on green guys.

This one we are also tackling head-on. Cards like Hunted Wumpus and Iwamori and Erhnam Djinn feel green in their drawbacks but still get to bust the size to cost curves. We're working set by set to look for drawbacks that feel naturally green, but allow us to make Orgg style fatties with drawbacks that you can build around to render them negligible. Time Spiral block has several powerful green fatties with green-feeling drawbacks.

Bonus Technique 5) Development teams need to push specific green fatties to make them viable in constructed.

All the reasons above are why green fat creatures weren't usually as good as the other colors'. But we can counteract these factors by paying attention to this issue and singling out a couple of fat green creatures per set to get some extra sauce and be pushed a little harder.

Bonus Technique 6) Re-evaluate “official” size curves to actual power level.

In R&D we often tease ourselves about how we long ago took Serra Angel and Sengir Vampire out of the core set for being “too powerful.” They did in fact break the official power curves. They cost the same as Air Elemental in Blue, the best flying creature color of the age, yet Serra and Sengir were randomly better. But even though Serra and Sengir were too good for the creature curves on paper in that era, they certainly weren't actually “too good” in tournaments, dominating top 8's and killing people. Neither was Air Elemental. It turns out that our curves back then just weren't very accurate for some sizes, colors, and abilities. Serra and Sengir don't cause any problems at all in tournaments for being “too good.” Why did Richard Garfield make them better than Air Elemental in the first place, and why do we allow them to be better than Air Elemental in the core set these days? You guessed it – because they're a beloved Angel and a beloved Vampire.

These days, we are slowly updating our curves to match more correctly what we judge to be actually good in tournaments. We make the curves slightly more aggressive in some places, like being willing to make 4 mana green creatures a little better than before a little more often (Brooding Saurian, Sporesower Thallid vs. Erithizon from the past.). We make the curves slightly less aggressive in other places (Savannah Lions and Isamaru are ok together for a while, but we won't have two two-power creatures for W forever. I don't see us having Jackal Pup, Goblin Cadets, Goblin Patrol, and Mogg Fanatic together again for a loooooooooong time.). We avoid overall power creep by making some things better over time (Hand of Cruelty) and some things worse (Cancel).


Nantuko Shaman
I hope you enjoyed this walk through how R&D is trying to love the Fat in return, saucing up Green Fat creatures in important ways without outright power creep across the game. The new crop of green fat creatures in RAV Block already demonstrate our new green fat philosophy, and TSP even more so. Remember that Unsolvability means a creature that is not “totally solved” by Terminate, meaning that the green player ends up a little bit ahead on the deal when he plays the creature (often with extra mana up) and then the creature gets terminated. Even though Terminate kills Yavimaya Dryad, Terminate does not perfectly “solve” the Dryad because the Dryad player still ends up ahead one forest. There is really a huge amount of Unsolvability in TSP's green creatures of all sizes and rarities. The list is just incredibly long: Nantuko Shaman, Penumbra Spider, Spike Tiller, Thelon of Havenwood, Thelonite Hermit, Wurmcalling, Yavimaya Dryad, Harmonic Sliver, Weatherseed Totem, Call of the Herd, Hunting Moa, Spike Feeder, Thornscape Battlemage, Verdeloth the Ancient, and Mystic Snake. 15 unsolvable green creatures all in one set. And on the reasoning that you probably won't have mana up to sacrifice it after hitting them, I even left off Unyaro Bees.

I just wanted to give a final nod to one powerful green creature in TSP who isn't “Unsolvable” like those on the previous list, but does combine a classic green drawback with sheer vanilla-ish size to create a very compelling monster with some interesting ways to build around it: Spectral Force.

Tune in next week, when you finally get Aaron back.

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