If you have been playing Magic for a decade or more, you have probably noticed that the contents of the battlefield have shifted somewhat from mostly lands to containing a lot more creatures—and more than just that, the big ones. Some of this is due to Planeswalkers incentivizing both attacking and blocking more, and some of this is just due to us spreading out the power level of the sets to more cards than we used to. This move was done in part to put more of the flavor that makes Magic the recognizable brand that it is into play more often.
I want to get more into that, but first, I want to rewind a bit. When I opened my first starter deck of Revised, I was faced with two rares—a Shivan Dragon and a Birds of Paradise. One was this super-powerful flier who would win most games I would cast it, and the other was a Dragon. Of course, I didn't know that at the time; I assumed in my naïveté that the awesome-looking dragon was the card that I really wanted to be casting, and the Birds was just another way to get to actually cast him. It took a long time of playing with my friends in middle school to realize just how underpowered the Shivan was. It died to Terror and Swords to Plowshares, it could get counterspelled, or—even worse—Control Magiced.
After seeing decklists in a magazine, it wasn't long before the Spikier players were just casting Savannah Lions, White Knight, Icatian Javelineers, and Armageddon. In response, the group of Magic players I hung out with invented new rules: You could draw two cards per turn and play two lands. Counterspells just returned the cards to their owners hand and didn't actually counter them—and you couldn't play more than one of each removal spell in your deck.
So, why did we go to all the trouble of altering the rules of Magic just to make cards like Shivan Dragon and Force of Nature good? Because those were the cards we wanted to be good. We understood, when we went to the card shops, that cards like the Moxes, Black Lotus, and Ancestral Recall where the hardest to find—but we didn't care. We just needed to fill out our play sets of Craw Wurms. And maybe get lucky and come in when a Craw Giant or even an Elder Dragon was available. If we were playing a game about being a powerful wizard who could summon dragons to fight on your side, then we wanted to summon Dragons!
Back to the present day. We now live in a world where Angels, Dragons, and Hydras see top-level tournament play in Standard. That isn't a coincidence, it was a long-term goal of both design and development to get to this point. Development isn't just about card balance. It's about improving the Magic play experience for as many players as possible, and one thing that meant for us was better integrating our iconic creature types into the pantheon of actually playable creatures. We wanted Dragons to be better than part of a combo deck, and Angels to be more than one creature in the Astral Slide decks. We wanted some of the creatures that looked like they would be cool to actually be strong.
- Bringing Monsters to the Battlefield
Magic 2010 was a renaissance of sorts for Magic. One of the goals of the set was to improve what sets in the future would look like by looking back at Alpha and seeing what lessons we could learn. One surefire thing we had been missing from sets had been the simple resonance of top-down fantasy tropes. We had spent a lot of years making what a "Goblin looks like on Mirrodin," and "what a Merfolk looks like on Rath," but we hadn't gone back to "what is a cool Angel?" or even just "what is a context-independently cool creature?" Cards like Ant Queen, Baneslayer Angel, Captain of the Watch, Protean Hydra, Elvish Archdruid, and Goblin Chieftain were attempts at making the simple-yet-cool Magic cards that had gotten so many of us hooked in the early core set eras.
We didn't just want the cards to exist, though, we wanted to make sure they saw tournament play. Cool things in trade binders is just less important than cool things that see play. At the time, we pushed a few cards like Baneslayer Angel pretty hard because we knew that is what it would require to convince people to cast a five-drop creature in Standard. Spoiler alert: it worked. Of course, we have at times gone too far on certain ends of the spectrum. The Titans were an internally controversial attempt to get six-drop creatures to see play in Standard. A lot of people simply believed that it was impossible, and it didn't matter how strong they were, it would just never happen.
Time has proven that wrong, but that isn't to say the thought wasn't without merit—it had been a long time since people were regularly casting creatures that cost more than four mana in Standard with any regularity. Of course, the Titans were stronger than they needed to be. For the most part, casting a Titan was halfway to winning a game, and attacking with one almost always locked it up. We wanted creatures, specifically big creatures, that could be legitimate threats even through removal, not the pillars of the format we got. There was a point after Magic 2011 was released that the conventional wisdom was "Standard is wide open. Play any Titan you want." That was too far.
In that same vein, Thragtusk similarly did the opposite job of what we wanted—pushing all other creatures trying to compete on any axis even close to it out of Standard. I personally think that Standard would've been more fun if Deadbridge Goliath, Thragtusk, and Wolfir Silverheart were competing for which was best in any given metagame, but when one card is too strong, that just can't happen. Another lesson that we have taken to heart. This is a thing we have to be careful with. While we want to make these monsters powerful, the diversity we are aiming for only works if they at the right level.
- Balancing the Beasts
Making a push toward larger creatures playable is isn't dumbing down the game by making it more about attacking. We are expanding the range of what a top-tier deck can look like. We have put a lot of effort into trying to make all kinds of different play viable—we classify them as the buckets of aggro, midrange, combo/ramp, control, and disruptive-aggro. The goal of trying to get the different styles of play to all be of similar power levels is to allow people to do what they find to be fun, and have that not be a trap.
That isn't to say that the ramp-into-big-creatures decks have also gotten away unscathed in this rebalancing of the environment. In the olden days, we had formats that had Rampant Growth, Cultivate, and Sakura-Tribe Elder (not to mention Signets) all at the same time, without much of a problem. So, what is different today? Well, we just give you better things to do with your mana. The Heartbeat of Spring deck was more than fine with having more than six mana in play, but most quickly topped out with six-drops. And, realistically, many of those six-drops weren't even all that powerful. The power and resilience in six- and seven-drops today is just higher than in years past, and the options for dealing with them are a little more narrow, which means the payoff for playing a deck with ramping, fatties, and little else is naturally high. We want people to be able to cast big creatures as part of a tournament-winning strategy, not as a requirement for tournament-winning strategies.
During the development of Theros, we tried Rampant Growth in the format in addition to Sylvan Caryatid, and found that the regularity of turn-three Polukranoses, as well as Arbor Colossuses and Stormbreath Dragons, was too high—not to mention Bant Control decks being able to power out a turn-four Elspeth regularly. Sure, there were ways to fight these, but it meant that playing aggro was a pretty bad idea, and even control decks on the draw could easily get outraced by a ramp deck without a turn-four Wrath. We could've weakened these creatures or Elspeth to try and solve the situation, but there was always going to be something at six mana to ramp to. Instead, we decided to keep the options for ramp in check.
Nykthos, Shrine to Nyx has seen quite a bit of play recently as, among other things, part of a strategy in ramp decks like Makihito Mihara's Colossal Gruul from Pro Tour Theros. While this does provide a scary amount of ramp for some decks, it does so in a way that is interactive. Players who want to ramp with Nykthos have to commit a lot to the board to do so and leave themselves open to mass removal if they rely too heavily on it to cast their spells. While explosive turn threes are possible, they are at least more rare, and are more often countered by other strategies.
- Monsters of The Future
Overall, development is very happy with how Standard has been progressing recently. Return to Ravnica year was overall very diverse, even if filled a bit too many "good stuff" decks than we were happy with. The best news for us was that there was rarely, if ever, a real consensus on what the best deck was for more than a week or two. That is the kind of movement in the metagame that we worked hard to encourage, and we are glad to see it worked.
Theros Standard, at least so far, appears to be more about deck synergy than individual cards, which is nice. Beyond that, a lot of the key components of the set—heroes, gods, and monsters—are having an impact in Standard. We are still pretty early in the Theros block, but I am excited by what the rest of the sets have in store.
Until next time,
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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.