Nuts & Bolts #12, Part 2: Limited (Themes)

Posted in Making Magic on March 16, 2020

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

Last week, I started talking about how your mechanics and their needs in Limited will shape your set. Please read it if you haven't yet before reading today's column. Today, I'm going to be talking about the other half of the puzzle—your themes. How does their role in Limited help define your set structure? Let's talk it out.

Your Themes

Let me begin by clarifying what exactly a theme is and how it impacts your set. A theme is something that ties together a swath of cards in your set in a way that will influence how they get played. Usually a theme encourages certain cards to be played together. Here are the most common types of themes:

Color – Maybe your set has a monocolor theme (such as Theros Beyond Death or Throne of Eldraine). Perhaps it has a two-color theme (such as Guilds of Ravnica or Ravnica Allegiance). Possibly it has a three-color theme (such as Khans of Tarkir or Shards of Alara). We even once made a set with a five-color theme (Conflux). In each case, the set has a theme which revolves around the audience playing a certain color or colors.

Card Type – Another common theme is to revolve around a certain type of card. It could be artifacts (Kaladesh) or enchantments (Theros Beyond Death) or creatures (Legions) or land (Zendikar) or planeswalkers (War of the Spark). (I promise we'll get to instants and sorceries one day.) This theme usually encourages you to play a higher concentration of the card type than you normally play.

Card Subtype – Sometimes, instead of card types, you care about subtypes. The most common of these is creature subtypes, what we refer to as tribal (with things like Ixalan or Lorwyn). Other sets have cared about things like Auras (Theros), Equipment (Mirrodin), Vehicles (Kaladesh), or Sagas (Dominaria). This is often done with cards but can also make use of tokens with things like Food (Throne of Eldraine), Treasure (Ixalan), or Clues (Shadows over Innistrad).

Card Supertype – Other times, sets can care about specific supertypes such as Legendary (Dominaria), Snow (Modern Horizons), or Host (Unstable).

Zone – Sometimes the set can care about the interaction with a particular zone. It could be the graveyard (Innistrad), the hand (Saviors of Kamigawa), the library (Fate Reforged), or even exile (Battle for Zendikar).

Miscellaneous – Some themes don't easily fit into a bucket. Fifth Dawn cared about artifacts that cost 1 or less. Innistrad cared about how many spells you'd played in a turn. Unhinged cared about artists. Anything is fair game when making a theme, although, most of them will fall in the above categories.

The reason I bring up themes is because it's important that you're able to identify them as you're putting together your set. Your themes, along with your mechanics, are going to be the glue that holds your set together structure-wise. Thinking about your themes as they apply to Limited will do the best job of making sure you're executing on them properly. What I suggest doing is taking your set and running through each of the categories I listed above to see what applies to your set. As with last week, I'll be using Theros Beyond Death as my example.

ColorTheros Beyond Death has the devotion mechanic, which is going to push a monocolor theme as devotion works best in a monocolor deck.

Card TypeTheros Beyond Death has an "enchantments matter" theme, including the constellation mechanic, so obviously the enchantment card type is going to be more important than normal.

Card Subtype – While individual cards care about creature types (Kraken, Leviathan, Octopus, Pegasus, Satyr, Serpent, and Zombie all get some love), it's not something that appears on a swath of cards. Most Magic sets, though, tend to have at least a small tribal theme. Theros Beyond Death does care about Auras as part of its larger enchantment theme.

Card Supertype – There's no supertype theme. This is probably the category that least often has a theme in sets.

ZoneTheros Beyond Death has an underworld component along with the escape mechanic which means it has a graveyard theme.

Miscellaneous – There are a few smaller themes like "power 4 matters," unnamed heroic, and caring about playing spells on other player's turns. These weren't themes that would have been there when you first examined the set's themes earlier in design but came out of the archetype-building I'll be talking about below.

This means the main themes of Theros Beyond Death are monocolor, enchantments, and the graveyard. While it can vary from set to set, I think an average of three major themes is about right.

The next step is to look at each of your themes and understand what impact it's going to have on your set's design. I'll walk through each category.

Color – The default for Magic sets is the assumption that your players, on average, will be using two colors in Booster Draft and two colors with an occasional splash in Sealed. I believe the default in an eight-person draft is 1–3 drafters playing monocolor, 2–7 playing two-color, and 1–2 playing three-color. The more advanced the play group, usually the more colors that get played. The amount of color fixing you add to your set will be tied to how many players you anticipate will be playing three-color in Booster Draft. Heavy multicolor sets also push toward color fixing as gold cards make playing monocolor difficult. Monocolor themed sets tend to add in colorless options, usually generic artifacts and lands, to help people get enough playables within a single color. I would use a Magic set that has a similar color push to your set to model after.

Card Type – If you're going to care about a card type, the first issue is dealing with the as-fan. To figure this out, you have to know how many cards of that card type you're going to need each deck to have when playing Limited Magic. This will be based on how many of the card type you need to have on the battlefield (or in your hand) at any one time. Think of card type-theme needs as a scale. On one side, we have what R&D calls a threshold 1 mechanic where all you need to have is one copy of the chosen card type to work. ("If you control an artifact, CARDNAME gains flying.") The other end of the spectrum is what R&D calls a scaling mechanic where it gets stronger the more you have. ("CARDNAME's power and toughness is equal to the number of lands you control.") The more toward the threshold 1 side of the spectrum, the less as-fan you need, and the more toward the scaling side, the higher as-fan you need. Once you understand your as-fan needs, the next thing is to figure out what you can change over to get there. If you have an enchantment theme, like Theros Beyond Death, as an example, it requires you finding ways to add enchantments to existing card types (such as enchantment creatures) and finding ways to turn what would be another card type into an enchantment (such as turning spells that affect creatures into Auras).

Card Subtype – Let's start with the most common theme—tribal. If your set has a large tribal theme, there are two big things you have to figure out. One, you have to choose how many tribes you want and thus what the as-fan of each needs to be to support it. Usually, you're going to want to segregate tribes by color and by deck archetype, that is, what kind of deck is going to be playing each tribe. You want to make sure that you're choosing your creatures for the tribe such that you're enabling one or more decks. If your tribe is all about aggro, for instance, then you're going to want to skew them lower on the mana curve. Two, you have to figure out what the glue is for your set. That is, what allows the various tribes to interact. If only one deck wants all of one theme, it ends up with a repetitive play pattern and a boring Draft environment. There are numerous types of glue you can use, but the most popular ones are the changeling mechanic, overlapping creature types on creatures and having cards mechanically care about multiple tribes. If your subtype relies on a token, you have to make sure you have enough cards that can generate that token.

Card Supertype – The same basic rules exist for supertypes as subtypes. The one thing you have to uniquely worry about with supertypes is line length as you're adding extra text that's not normally there.

Zone – When caring about a zone theme, you have to monitor how many cards you have that do one of five things—(with examples from a graveyard set like Theros Beyond Death)

1. Enable you to get cards into that zone ("Put the top two cards of your library into the graveyard.")

2. Allow you to get cards out of that zone into another zone ("Return a creature card from your graveyard to your hand.")

3. Have a functionality while in that zone (the escape mechanic)

4. Mechanically care about what is in that zone ("This [effect] is equal to the number of creature cards in your graveyard"—Theros Beyond Death doesn't make much use of this one.)

5. Use cards in that zone as a resource (also the escape mechanic)

As with the other themes, you have to make sure you have enough of these cards to hit the necessary as-fan for the theme.

Miscellaneous – This depends greatly on the theme. Obviously, you have to have enough things in your set with the needed quality to care about it. Common miscellaneous themes are things that count elements most Magic cards have, just not things normally focused on mechanically.

No matter what your theme, the key is figuring out how many cards you need to make your as-fan work and then labeling your design skeleton so you understand what the set is asking of you. One of the recurring themes of last week and this week is that you have to take the time to figure out the math and then use your design skeleton to figure out where you can best fit it into your set. If your set needs an as-fan of three enchantments, for example, you need to figure out how many cards you need of each rarity and in what colors, and then you have to do the work to make that happen.

Draft Archetypes

The other big theme issue you have to figure out is what your major Draft archetypes are going to be. Usually, a set has ten major Draft archetypes and they line up with the ten two-color pairings. Most sets will create a cycle of ten uncommon two-color gold cards that loudly announce the deck archetype. Sets obviously can vary from this default, but I'm going to use it as my example.

The first thing you have to do is examine what your mechanics and themes are to see what archetypes they might encourage. For Theros Beyond Death, this means the mechanics constellation, devotion, and escape as well as enchantments, monocolor, and graveyard themes. In this particular case, the set's major mechanics and major themes line up one for one, but that often isn't the case. Devotion and monocolor are outliers as they obviously don't line up with any two-color themes. What that means for Theros Beyond Death is that we'll also design a number of monocolor archetypes built around devotion. The fact that there is a common devotion creature in white, black, and green heavily hints that those are the three colors pushed hardest for monocolor archetypes.

What you want to do is look at each mechanic and theme and figure out how many archetypes it can support. Usually, a theme can fill one to three archetypes depending on how large of a footprint it has in the set. If you have two or more archetypes, you want to start figuring out how to give them different identities. The most common way to do this is with speed. If there are two archetypes, make one faster and one slower. If there are three, you want to spread them out a bit more, and you tend to make one aggro, on midrange, and one control.

Let's start by examining constellation and enchantments. Enchantments have a huge footprint in the set, so it seems like it can handle three archetypes. Constellation is in three colors, white, blue, and green, so we start by examining the three-color combinations: white-blue, green-white, and green-blue. Let's assume one is aggro-ish, one is midrange-ish, and one is control-ish. Which makes the most sense for each? In a vacuum, white-blue is the most control-oriented combination, but you have to think through what kind of deck you want to be making. The play pattern that seemed the most fun was to play up fliers which you could then put auras on. This was a little fast to be a control deck. Meanwhile, green-blue seemed like it might be fun to play as a ramping deck that could get out a lot of larger enchantments. That seemed a little slower. That meant that green-white could be the fastest of the enchantment-themed archetypes. It would be more likely to play the smaller enchantments trying to trigger things faster and win quickly. Thus, when the dust settled, green-white was the fastest enchantment deck, white-blue the mid-speed enchantment deck, and green-blue the slow enchantment deck.

Next up was escape and graveyard. Escape shows up in all five colors, but less so in white (at least at lower rarities). That means the possible two-color combinations are blue-black, black-red, red-green, and blue-red. Escape is a bit slower, meaning it could work with midrange or control but would be problematic in an aggro deck. Black-green was chosen for the midrange deck and blue-black was chosen for the control deck.

This leaves five archetypes unaccounted for—black-red, red-green, white-black, blue-red, and red-white. The next step is to see if any of your themes interconnect in a way that can produce another archetype. Part of having a graveyard set was having a higher than normal amount of ways to get cards back from the graveyard. Black is good at getting back creatures, and white is good at getting back small creatures and enchantments (and artifacts and planeswalkers, but that plays less of a role in this set). Perhaps there was an archetype to be made around a color pair that's good at recycling cards from the graveyard. It could cast enchantments and enchantment creatures multiple times and tie it into the enchantment theme. To play up the graveyard theme, black and red were given more sacrifice outlets than normal (including a new theme of letting red sacrifice enchantments). Sacrifice is a common black-red archetype, so it seemed like a clean fit.

The last three archetypes needed a little extra support from the set. That is, in order to make them work, the design team was going to have to create themes that would then have to be supported by extra card designs. Red-white normally has an aggro strategy. Was there a way to tie it more specifically to Theros? What if they brought back the heroic mechanic in a very focused way, creating five cards (one common white, one common red, one uncommon white, one uncommon red, and one uncommon red-white) that all had the same output equal to buffing your team with +1/+0. This would give it a strong theme that would push a specific play pattern.

For red-green, they liked the idea of it filling the gap between aggro and midrange using an archetype with a smooth mana ramp that played out big creatures. The Set Design team created cards with a "4 power" theme that would reinforce the archetype. For blue-red, they played into the archetype's spell and tempo themes and created cards that rewarded you for playing cards on the opponent's turn.

Let's walk through the process of what just happened. You start by using your mechanics and themes to find the archetypes that play into what your set is specifically about. This allows you to have Limited games that play directly into your themes and give your set its own identity. Next, you find what archetypes can be created by extending out the enablers that you put into your set to make your major mechanics and themes work. Finally, you figure out what archetypes are left and you can create cards to help fill out those themes. Usually, they'll play into the more default roles of those color combinations, but you can design specific themes to make them feel a bit different. Do all that, and you have your deck archetypes.

Themes Like Old Times

And that is how you use your themes to build out your set and help it play well in Limited. The key is understanding what you care about as well as doing the math to figure out what as-fan is needed to make each theme work. As I said last week, the model to success is using other Magic sets as rough guidelines, making use of your design skeleton to mark what you need, and then doing a lot of playtesting to properly adjust the numbers. Having a set play well in Limited is a great sign that it's going to do well in casual Constructed formats and is a great leg up to start adjusting your set for tournament Constructed play.

Joine me next week for a little human history.

As always, I'm eager to hear your thoughts on today's (and last week's) column. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram).

Until then, may your set have interesting and fun themes.

 
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