One of the complaints I hear the most from seasoned Limited players is a frustration with bomb rares. It can be annoying to lose to a single card, but that is an important part of making Limited balanced and fun. It's important that there are cards strong enough to win the game on their own, because they create a kind of pressure for people to save their removal for a "big" thing. If every creature is of roughly equal power, then it's much more important to just work for two-for-ones rather than having any strategy on when you use your removal or combat tricks.
These kinds of big and splashy cards often also show up in Constructed decks, and it's good if our Constructed cards are good in Limited as well. There is plenty of room for cards like Needle Spires, Declaration in Stone, or Den Protector to exist as top Constructed cards without being bomb rares—but we also need to be able to make cards like Archangel Avacyn, Reality Smasher, and Thundermaw Hellkite, which will by their very nature will be bombs in both formats.
Some sets, like Magic 2014, suffered from just not having enough bomb rares. At the same time, the set also suffered from not having great aggro strategies. As a result, the best strategy in the format was to play a lot of one-for-one removal and some card drawing. While that is a perfectly fine deck to have in any Limited environment, it's not good if every deck uses the same strategy. If every deck is just focused on getting two-for-ones over and over again, then most games between strong players will usually be decided by who drew the most land. The goal is for games at lower skill levels to be more random and those at higher skill levels to be less random, which this would hurt.
The other thing that bomb rares help mitigate, which M14 suffered from, is color imbalance. Blue was by far the strongest color in M14, and there weren't enough bomb rares to reward you for being in a different color. If one color is weaker than the rest—say red—it may not be common for people to start out drafting the color. If you open up a Shivan Dragon, though, you may go into that color even if it would in the abstract have you ending up with a weaker deck on average. The whole "on average" thing gets skewed when you are starting out with a Shivan. Being in red also means you will get passed a card like Shivan more frequently than average, because of the color's relative weakness—which will help to close the gap. Even if there are problems with balance, bomb rares keep the format more varied than it would be without them.
So, now that I have (hopefully) established that bomb rares are good for the Limited Magic ecosystem, you might be asking, "How many of these do you put into a set?" Our typical goal is to have about one-third of the packs contain a bomb rare, and to have them pretty balanced by color. I focus on the packs rather than the number of rares in the set, because an individual mythic rare only shows up at half the frequency of an individual rare—so a bomb mythic rare would contribute half as much of this ratio as a rare. We have also produced sets like Shadows over Innistrad or Planar Chaos that can contain more than one rare per pack, and we try to keep the ratio about the same in those sets.
Now, this one-third number may seem arbitrary, but it isn't. You open up three packs in Draft and six in Sealed Deck, so you will (on average) open up one bomb rare per draft and two per Sealed. We've found time and time again that going too much above that (like in Fate Reforged) has ended up with people complaining about the format being too much about bombs. The sets without enough bomb rares do tend to be more liked by the high-level audience (especially when playing against weaker players), but they also tend to be less played by the more casual audience. The age-old adage has some truth—having an appropriate number of bomb rares tends to make Limited environments see more total play.
Now, the benchmark for a bomb rare isn't something that is unbeatable—far from it. Our baseline level of something we would call a bomb rare is a Mahamoti Djinn. That is certainly a very strong card, but nothing that would make a game feel invalid if an opponent played it. With a lot of power and evasion, the game will come to an end if it's not answered, but it's not going to keep you from attacking into it or otherwise trump whatever cards you have played up until that point. There is a decent amount of headroom above that card for how strong our bomb rares will end up being in Limited, but if our Limited games keep coming down to very frustrating rares, we will usually try and find ways to tone some down—or at least find ways to keep those cards strong in Constructed while making them weaker in Limited.
When Bombs Go Wrong
While I think bomb rares are good for the game, there are definitely ones throughout the past that have actively worsened Limited environments. Bomb rares, in my mind, work best when they are either really interesting medium-drops that will win the game when you are doing a thing (Always Watching or Soul Swallower), or slow enough that your opponent has some ability to win before it comes down or otherwise interact with it (Alhammarret, High Arbiter or Outland Colossus). The problem comes when the card is either a low-drop that dominates the game without any real synergy requirements or something higher on the curve that basically says "Deal with me this turn, or you're dead." The above cards, while certainly Constructed cards, were well above the line for making Limited worse. Some of these were due to late changes—after Limited playtesting was done—and some were just plain underestimates based on our smaller sample size of games played with them (we can't completely simulate the sheer number of games each card will see when it is released). In any case, we try not to make anything as hard to beat as these anymore.
Pack Rat earned the ire of many a player during the Return to Ravnica year because of how few ways there were to deal with it on turn two—and because there were also very few ways to deal with it on turn five if an opponent waited until then. And once it hit the table, there wasn't much counterplay or chance for your opponent to "screw it up." It was pretty much just make a Pack Rat each turn and quickly overwhelm the opponent. I heard some people say it was the most powerful rare ever, but those people clearly never played against Umezawa's Jitte—which was not only basically impossible to beat after the first attack, but also was in a format with almost no ways to remove it. Yeah, Hearth Kami was fine, but if you were playing a Wear Away just for their one Jitte, you were probably going to have a bad time. And that's a big part of balancing out these bomb rares: we also need to have enough ways to deal with them that at least more enfranchised players won't feel hopeless.
The goal of bomb rares isn't to create uninteractive games—at least not all the time. There will be times when your opponent casts a Shivan Dragon and you don't have a way to deal with it, so you die in two turns. Shivan Dragon isn't exactly a hard card to deal with, though. You can't use something like Lightning Strike to kill it, but we produce plenty of expensive and not-super-efficient removal spells like Sip of Hemlock and Explosive Impact in each set just so that every deck will have the opportunity to include cards that can deal with bomb rares. You may have to choose to sideboard them in for Sealed, or at least make sure you pick them up in the middle of packs in Draft, but they are there.
Ultimately, we try to include enough versatile removal in our sets now that—while not always efficient—people have ways to deal with the bomb rares in their opponents' decks. They may have to make decisions, like holding their removal for a long time or using it for tempo to try and get in before the card hits, but the removal is there.
That's it for this week. Next week, I'll be going through some of Magic R&D's past with Skeletons in R&D's Closet, Part 4.
Until next time,