Developing Annihilation

Posted in Latest Developments on August 15, 2014

By Sam Stoddard

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.

It's Annihilation Week on DailyMTG.com, and that means I get to talk about how we have taken to developing removal big and small, and what kinds of trends we have for it in the future.

The Removal Arms Race

One of the keys to making Magic fun and interesting is making sure there are always different options on how to build decks. One of the problems with a card like Thoughtseize is that, while it can keep the biggest shenanigans from making things go awry, it also punishes decks that just want to play fair—and decks that rely on synergy even harder. Except for only having Loxodon Smiter in your hand, there just isn't much that you can do to interact with the card.

A long time ago, we used to print incredibly powerful removal, most of which has drifted away from Standard, but which has stayed in Modern and Legacy. Swords to Plowshares, as an example, is a one-mana card that could kill just about every creature in Magic—big or small. As long as it is in the environment, the baseline for how strong a removal spell has to be to play it over Swords to Plowshares was pretty absurdly high, but most colors got something comparable. It ended up making most creatures pretty interchangeable, since your opponent's deck would just be full of removal spells that could easily kill them. The only creatures really worth running in these kinds of environments were creatures with shroud or strong enters-the-battlefield (ETB) abilities.

This era of incredibly powerful removal persisted until relatively recently. Even by the time we were releasing Magic 2011 and Magic 2012, Lightning Bolt and Path to Exile forced us to create creature cards on the level of the Titans and Phyrexian Obliterator just to try and let expensive creatures see play, since the mana efficiency of the removal was so high.

Trying to constantly print creatures on the power level of the Titans is a losing battle for us, long term. It means that we can have very strong removal floating around, but it also means that if you don't draw one against one of these, you will be dead just about immediately. In an attempt to not have ETBs like the Titans, we turned to hexproof to punish people for running a lot of removal.

Here, we ran into a different problem: one where players stopped being able to interact in meaningful ways. You could still block (many Geist of Saint Trafts died to Snapcaster Mage's hidden mode—the blue Ambush Viper), but it still wasn't generating the kinds of games we like to see in Standard. I think abilities like hexproof have their uses, but I would just rather have it on creatures that aren't quite Standard-playable without it, and ideally not less than three mana. If a preponderance of removal in Standard leads you to play suboptimal creatures to dodge it, that's great. I think that is good for the game.

Changing Spot Removal

Our current thinking on how to better balance Standard, and keep both creatures and removal working in a way that is fun and interesting, is to make the efficient removal a little less able to kill everything.

The problem with having one super-efficient removal spell in the format is that everyone just gravitates toward that one, where what we are moving toward is printing more removal spells at three mana that will kill anything and giving the removal spells below that some kind of targeting restriction or downside to make up for it. For example, we printed Ultimate Price, Lightning Strike, and Azorius Charm recently, all of which have significant restrictions on what or how they deal with creatures. It doesn't need to be hard to kill the creature, you just need to have enough of a restriction to make it bad in some matchups or situations.

We still have cards like Banishing Light and Hero's Downfall in Standard that can kill any creature for three mana, but at that cost, it does make it hard for a deck's game plan to be "kill all my opponent's creatures and develop my board." We want there to be a real risk to playing the deck with a ton of removal spells and card drawing, with few other ways to interact with the board, as its main strategy. We also want there to be creatures that people can move toward if they want to dodge the most popular removal spells.

Bile Blight is a great example of a powerful removal spell that works, and I think it is currently working very well. It lets the mono-black deck kill many early-game threats, and even deal with token making or regeneration, but makes the deck weaker to cards like Courser of Kruphix, Stormbreath Dragon, and Polukranos. If the mono-black deck moves to Ultimate Price instead, then it gets weaker against Mutavault, Nightveil Specter, and Fleecemane Lion. This kind of back and forth lets players on both sides of various matchups make clear decisions and improve their decks against the expected metagame.

The way we have been changing removal also lets us create creatures that can be strong lynchpins of the environment without being overpowered. We don't need every Constructed-level creature to have an ETB effect or hexproof anymore, since the removal will often care about its power and toughness, color, or the like. We can put on regeneration, or even give it the ability to temporarily blink itself, and that is enough to get it in range. The less we have to push every creature we want to show up in Constructed, the more variety our formats will have.

This isn't to say we couldn't ever print a card like Lightning Bolt or even Path to Exile again in Standard, but we are going to be careful about when we do it. This change in removal is an experiment, much like strong and cheap hexproof creatures. It may have the intended effect or it may not—although, I have personally enjoyed how it has shaped our FFL. I could see us printing Terminate in a gold set, for example, to give one color pair a strong and efficient removal spell and to shake Standard up a bit. It's just more of something we will do from time to time, as a way of pushing one strategy or color pair, rather than a ubiquitous part of all Standard environments.

The Changing Face of Wraths

Targeted removal hasn't been the only thing changing over the last year. The other one has been a bit more subtle, but harder to notice because of the setup of Standard. We've dipped our toes in having a Standard without a four-mana sweeper, à la Day of Judgment or Supreme Verdict. The tail end of Lorwyn-era Standard, when Magic 2010 was released, had no four-mana sweeper, for example. The world didn't end—Hallowed Burial still existed—and aggro decks didn't dominate. Day of Judgment printed in Zendikar (the next set) quickly put us back in the status quo.

It was, however, a good data point.

In Return to Ravnica Standard, we once again changed things a bit. The mono-white sweeper was replaced with a white-blue gold sweeper with a pretty sizable upside. If you look at Return to Ravnica Standard year, it was almost impossible to play a control deck that wasn't based in white-blue because of Supreme Verdict (although I will admit Sphinx's Revelation had a lot to do with that, too). It's possible that if black had a more competitive Wrath, that we could've seen blue-black and white-blue as distinct archetypes alongside Esper.

One of the problems with having a constant and unconditional four-mana Wrath of God variant in Standard is that it can generate a lot of control-vs.-aggro matchups that boil down to that one play on the fourth turn. The aggressive deck needs enough juice that it can win on turn five if the opponent doesn't have the sweeper, but not so much that the sweeper doesn't matter. It means that it is usually best to take the hits from aggro until you can destroy all creatures on turn four, then either use spot removal to clean up the rest or play a second sweeper when the aggro deck tries to recover. Historically, it has been very hard for most creature-based strategies to survive two early-game sweepers, and much of those decks' matchups against control really just came down to "Do they have it or don't they?" which isn't a very satisfying way to win or lose a game.

That has been the way many people think of control-on-aggressive matchups, because it's the play pattern we have encouraged for years. But it's one we are willing to take some chances with, because we believe it will lead to a more fun game in the long run. In the future, it is possible that you will see more three- and four-mana board wipes that are conditional (like Anger of the Gods), and more five-mana mass-removal spells with upside. Without the "gold Standard" four-mana white sweeper, more of these cards become playable in Standard, and it should allow for the metagame to shift in terms of which sweepers and which threats players will choose to combat each other.

Another opportunity that Standard without a four-mana unconditional sweeper gave us was to create more fun and interesting sweepers that will actually see Standard play. There was a brief window when Hallowed Burial was seeing play alongside Wrath of God in Lorwyn-era Standard due to persist, but generally the format ends up really only letting the cheapest-possible sweepers see play. In a world without Supreme Verdict or other four-mana mass-removal spells, we could make more interesting cards for Standard, and hopefully allow for more meaningful decisions in deck building.

Much like the way we have been changing targeted removal, as I mentioned above, this allows for more metagame shifting due to the ability to play a different creature suite in Standard to better avoid the Wraths that are getting played. For example, an aggressive deck that wants to play around Anger of the Gods can focus more on 4-toughness creatures or creatures that are otherwise able to survive that spell, but the deck will be less efficient if people are playing a different board sweeper.

This ability to be less ridged on what our Wrath of God variants look like in or out of Standard lets us balance our control decks in different ways and provides a more-varied level of play patterns in those decks. I think will make Standard much more interesting as a whole.

That's it until next week, when I go deep into R&D's vaults and show the Multiverse records from broken cards from the past with "Skeletons in R&D's Closet, Part 3."

Until next time,
Sam (@samstod)

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