Developing Commons

Posted in Latest Developments on October 3, 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.

This week in Latest Developments, I want to talk about the building blocks of Magic—the commons. They make up about two-thirds of the cards people open in packs, so are pretty important to our game. Today, I want to talk about some of the roles they play and why they play them, as well as what part they play in the larger scheme of things.

The New World Order

New World Order is somewhat misunderstood. While people generally point to this creating weaker and weaker commons, that isn't actually true—New World Order talks about the simplicity of commons, not the strength. While Sparksmith and Pestilence might create more on-board-y-ness than we like at common, there is nothing built into New World Order stopping us from creating a card like Mahamoti Djinn (even priced to move for Constructed) at common. That comes from how development likes to craft sets for Limited. But more on that in just a minute.

Looking at recent Constructed decks, you see a lot of common cards that pop up in them. At Pro Tour Magic 2015, for example, cards like Elvish Mystic, Shock, Divination, Lightning Strike, Read the Bones, Syncopate, Last Breath, and many others saw Top 8 play. Even if these cards aren't the most complex, they make up an important part of the Magic ecosystem. They let us set simple and powerful baseline effects that are good for both Limited and Constructed, and let us focus the complexity of our game on cards that are inherently more interesting—such as the Planeswalkers, or even uncommons like charms.

Limited Concerns

A lot of the work that development puts into a set, especially for commons, is for Limited. Design has a huge part in this too, but ultimately developers are the ones who have to go through and make sure the cards are at the right power level. One of the largest reasons commons look like they do today is because of Limited—commons are (obviously) the most common cards and make up the majority of the cards that see play in Limited games. One of the great things that Limited does is create a huge number of games that play out in very different ways due to the different interactions between cards. The more raw power in Limited that comes from the higher-rarity cards, the more varied the games will be, and this will hopefully keep the format interesting long enough for a new set to come out. Having rares that dramatically change the board state is also more fun than when commons do, because the rares offer a new experience that doesn't come up very often. Hardened Scales is a pretty fun card when it comes up on a rare occasion, but it would be less fun to play with and against if it came up incredibly frequently.

One mistake we made a lot in the long-ago past was making commons too game-changing, and allowing many of them to take over the game on their own; cards like Pestilence, Sparksmith, Spikeshot Goblin, or Timberwatch Elf. These cards were some of the lynchpins of their Limited formats, and forced players to draft their entire decks around them. But, because they were commons, the vast majority of drafts had multiples of these cards show up. It's one thing to lose to powerful rares now and then, but when you are losing to Sparksmith game and game again, it is not only incredibly frustrating, but makes the environment itself have much less replayability. Instead of a Pack Rat being opened up every three or so drafts (or an Elspeth every five or so), there were three or so Sparksmiths opened up per draft. In triple-Onslaught, for instance, it was a pretty risky move to play a deck without black or red, because you just had no way of beating a turn-two Sparksmith.

That isn't to say that commons can't win a game. Everything from the lowly Grizzly Bears or Wind Drake, to removal spells like Lightning Strike, can combine to win a game. But they will rarely be an "answer this or die" card that we are comfortable with at higher rarities. Even decks with almost nothing but commons can and do win. They are just going to rely more heavily on the strength of the synergies between the cards rather than on raw power.

Common Creatures

As I mentioned earlier, we have moved common creatures away from being ones that have huge board presences that can shift games by themselves. We've moved more toward creatures that provide a basic board presence and can easily take over the game with some combination of plays. For instance, looking at Theros, a Wingsteed Rider by itself could win a game...if given ten turns to attack without it being killed or blocked. But when a bestow creature like Hopeful Eidolon is added to the picture.... Well, all of a sudden, that ten-turn clock gets cut in half and the lifelink makes simply racing it almost impossible. Two commons came together to generate a threat that is "deal with me or die" that you would usually only see on an uncommon or rare.

Similarly, Limited games regularly come down to cards as simple as Elvish Mystic powering out fatties a turn before they are expected. Or a series of good ground blockers keep one player from making a good attack, while a few fliers nibble away at the opponent's life total. These kinds of obvious and repeatable game states allow for a kind of baseline for Limited that doesn't change a whole lot. They let us better decide how to make each Limited environment different enough from others to be interesting, but not so different that a player coming into it who has never played it before will have no idea of what to do—a problem that Rise of the Eldrazi Limited ran into.

When it comes to making common creatures with keywords, they tend to use some of the more simple and obvious design space for those keywords. Because commons are the first place most players will encounter a new keyword, we want them to provide a nice and simple knowledge base for people to learn from, before seeing how wild and crazy we can get on the uncommons and rares. Outlast at common, for example, is on creatures that are otherwise pretty plain. When we move up to higher rarities, you start seeing creatures that are basically outlast "Lords" that give keywords to creatures with counters, and at rare we even expand that to creatures that have other triggers based off of outlast. All of those are cool effects, but letting people get their head around the mechanic at common makes them all the more special.

Common Removal

One thing many people have noticed over the last few years is that we have been really scaling back on the power of common-rarity removal. To an extent that is true, but we tend to mostly make it either more conditional or more expensive.

Looking at a set like Invasion, one of the less-fun things about the Limited format was that removal was very powerful and creatures were pretty weak. It often led to players quickly killing off all the interesting creatures their opponents would play, and just attacking each other with Grizzly Bears and Gray Ogres that were beneath the bar for wasting removal on. Eventually, one person would end up with enough cards to eke out a win, but a lot of the coolest cards in the environment were overshadowed by cards that simply offered a little card advantage. There is something to say about having an environment like that now and then, but not all the time.

Our basic rule for common removal is that nothing can be stronger than Dark Banishing. Even a card like Murder, in Magic 2013, was really straddling the line, and you probably won't see it printed again at common in the future. That doesn't mean the common creature removal isn't playable—far from it. It just means that most of the common creature removal will not deal with any threat your opponent might play. It's up to you, as the player, to decide how and when to use the removal to best deal with your opponent's threats. Using a Plummet on an Azure Drake might be the best way to get some damage in early, but it will leave you open to a Mahamoti Djinn later in the game. On the other hand, you might let that Drake live and use a different removal spell on it (like Lash of the Whip), only to find that you lose to a ground creature that your Plummet just can't deal with.

Common Removal Patterns

Red tends to get three or four removal spells, which tend to be very good at killing small creatures but have a hard time killing something with 5 toughness. On the other hand, black's removal tends to be split between efficient ways of killing small creatures (that can't hit players) and a few that are able to kill anything. These "kill anything" spells usually require an additional cost (like Bone Splinters), or are more expensive (like Sip of Hemlock). Sip is an example of a card that is great at killing a bomb Dragon, but isn't great to fill your deck full of, because you will inevitably lose to weenies.

The other colors get fewer removal spells than black and red. White usually ends up with removal spells that can kill almost anything, but that have some restriction placed on them or don't stop abilities—like Pacifism or Divine Verdict. Blue occasionally gets Claustrophobia-type effects, but most of its common removal tends to be in counterspell or bounce form. It is some of the best common removal for tempo purposes, but it can get overloaded with weenies and often puts the player down a card.

Finally, we have green. Until pretty recently, green just didn't get removal at common—or any rarity, really. You might get a Hurricane-type of effect at uncommon, and some enchantment or artifact removal, but that was it. Moving the fight ability into green has been good for the color, though, and let us diversify what green decks look like in Limited. Nowadays, green tends to get one or two removal spells, usually one that fights and sometimes another one that can kill a creature with flying.

While we do sometimes stray from these patterns, they make up the vast majority of what we do with common removal. It means that when you are playing a Limited game, you have a better idea of exactly what you should be playing around. That allows the higher-rarity removal spells, which play by different rules, to have a more dramatic impact on the game.

Commons in Constructed

As I mentioned earlier, commons have roles to play in Constructed, even if they are different than what those roles might have been in the past. The way we balance commons is generally for Limited, so the power ratios are simply not the same as they are for Constructed. For instance, Mahamoti Djinn is one of our baselines for "Huge unstoppable creature that can win the game on its own," but it hasn't seen Constructed days since Adrian Sullivan's Baron Harkonnen deck, circa 1997. Elvish Mystic is way stronger in Constructed than Mahamoti Djinn or Shivan Dragon, even if he is not as strong in Limited. Similarly, Dark Banishing isn't actually all that strong in Constructed, so "worse" removal spells like Devour Flesh, Lightning Strike, and Unsummon will see play.

When we're making sets, we do go out of our way to make sure that some of the commons will have Constructed implications, even if they are unlikely to move the bar for Constructed in the same way as a card of a higher rarity might. While you won't see any Master of Waves creating a new deck, you might see the commons providing enough support to push decks that were close into the top tiers of Constructed, or give a deck an answer for a difficult matchup.

That's it for this week. Join me next week when I share with you all some of the decks from our Future Future League and give you an idea of what we were thinking Standard might look like in preparation for Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir.

Until next time,
Sam (@samstod)

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