Developing Predators

Posted in Latest Developments on August 8, 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 Predator Week on DailyMTG.com. I wanted to take a bit of time to talk about predators in the metagame; how and why they are important to your Magic-playing experience; and how they keep Magic, especially Standard, interesting.

Chasm Skulker | Art by Jack Wang

Culling the Weak

Metagames are all about the strong decks emerging from the field of decks that don't quite measure up. Not everything is on an even footing—and that's good. If bad decks didn't exist, then how could you tell what was actually good? We run a lot of Magic tournaments today, including dozens a day on Magic Online, so what is good and bad becomes obvious much faster today than in years past. But, fortunately, Magic is robust enough that our metagames tend to have a lot to teach people.

We add new sets to Magic, and impose a rotation in Standard, to make sure that our formats don't become stale, and so cards and decks that were previously too weak have the opportunity to become dominant. Circle of life and all that. Part of that circle is that, over time, the weakest decks in the metagame begin to disappear from the format.

For our purposes, we look at rogue decks as all the decks that are not one of the top six to eight decks at the top of the heap. Generally, the category of rogue tends to have an average win percentage in the 30–40% range in most formats, and many of the top decks are the top decks because they have 50% or lower win percentages against the established decks, but demolish the rogue decks. As the weak rogue decks begin to attrition out, it shifts many of those decks' win percentages, often allowing for a stronger rogue deck to become one of the top decks, and knocking a rogue predator into the rogue space.

Every Death Star Needs an Exhaust Port

One of our goals for the Future Future League is to create a diverse metagame, and part of that means making sure that our major decks are weak to certain things. If one deck gets to the point where its only bad matchup is a deck designed to beat it, we have a problem. If you look at Affinity year and Caw-Blade year, the best deck in each of those Standards was known. People built decks to defeat those decks, but even with a ton of hate, they struggled to get much above 50% against the deck they were trying to hunt. That meant that the correct choice was just to play Caw-Blade and Affinity.

We want our metagames to be in a spot where each deck has a strategy it is weak against, as well as some specific cards it is weak against. If one deck becomes too dominant, many of those cards will start showing up in sideboards, or even main decks. This could mean decks dead-set on beating the snot out of the top deck, but hopefully it just means that certain strategies can emerge when all of the other decks at the top have warped themselves to beat each other. For instance, a few months ago, red-based burn or aggro decks won every major Standard Magic tournament in one week, because the metagame had shifted to a point where those decks were the predators. But, as the top decks quickly scaled back their cards against each other, the mono-red decks fell out of favor. There was definitely a point where it was correct to play the mono-red deck, to shore up your matchup against it, and to ignore it and hope that people stopped bringing it to events. And each of those happened more than once.

That is the kind of malleability that we tend to like in both the top decks in the metagame and the rogue decks. Being able to take a pretty well-established card pool and have things change week to week means that keen players who study the metagame have the opportunity to make the right call, and players who don't follow it will have different experiences week after week.

Color Pie and Mana Bases

It's easy to understand why color pie matters for design—it gives the different colors different looks and feels, but it is equally important for balancing both Limited and Constructed. Because the different colors do different things, we can use these colors' flaws to generate interesting metagame changes. Blue, for instance, tends to be pretty weak to fast-creature strategies because it neither gets good cheap blockers, nor much in the way of creature removal. Green also doesn't have much in the way of creature removal, but it tends to dominate the creature strategies because its creatures are just much larger. Putting a green-blue deck together can let you get advantages from both colors, but you will also share whatever their weaknesses are.

Flesh to Dust | Art by Julie Dillon

This combining colors is important because it lets you change your Magic deck in a way that makes it less consistent in order to find more power and to shore up some flaws for your deck. Color screw can feel pretty bad when you are losing to it, but it plays an important role for Magic. One-color decks are more consistent than two-color decks, but two-color decks get to do more things. Two-color decks are more consistent than three-color decks, but three-color decks have more things to do—and so on, and so forth. The more colors of mana you have in your deck, the more likely you are to either not draw one or to have too many lands that don't tap for mana when you want them to.

This is the same reason why we don't print super-powerful mana fixing in Standard. You will generally get one cycle more or less the power level of the shock lands, and you will get another cycle that is a little weaker—with the possibility of a third cycle of lands that just ETB tapped. We want players to be able to cast their spells, but not without a cost. Wasteland keeps Legacy from being all about five-color decks, but we don't print land destruction that powerful in Standard. Besides that, we want playing multiple colors to have some cost associated with it. It helps to keep decks feeling separate from each other, and it helps to make sure that the metagame has interesting places to move to when one deck becomes more dominant.

What does this have to do with predators? Well, the metagame tends to cycle through what the correct number of colors is for decks. This year, for instance, Mono-Black Devotion tended to cycle through the monocolor version; splashing white for Blood Baron, which was better against the mirror; or splashing green, which gave the deck Abrupt Decay and some other enchantment removal in the sideboard. Similarly, the Sphinx's Revelation control deck moved between Esper and straight white-blue, with a little red-white-blue showing up occasionally. Each version had its ups and downs, but the more colors you were, the less consistent you were, and the more likely you were to lose to bad draws or to lands that came with a cost that weakened your deck against the aggro decks.

Finding a Balance

The thing we don't want Magic to be about is decks and anti-decks. We don't find that to be a very satisfying play experience, and it is one that I think we tend to avoid pretty well with all of the techniques I listed above. We want the majority of Magic to be about players choosing strategies they like and figuring out how to configure those strategies for the environment they are looking to compete in. Friday Night Magic, for instance, is just a different environment than a Pro Tour or even a Grand Prix. Players are generally much more able to play their preferred strategies at Friday Night Magic and succeed than they are at a more cutthroat tournament with larger attendance and more on the line. I mentioned earlier that rogue decks tended to lose to the top decks in large numbers, but that doesn't mean that someone can't find the right deck for the right week or figure out how to fight the metagame.

The great thing about metagames is that, as they get closer to being solved, the more opportunity there is for decks to figure out how to beat the established decks. Rogue decks often won't do enough to radically shift things, but they can win on a week-to-week level, and keep things interesting enough until the next set comes out and shakes things up on a larger level.

That's all I have for this week. Next week, I'll be back talking about Annihilation—the changing face of Wraths and removal.

Until next week,
Sam (@samstod)

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