Designing Deserts for Draft and Standard

Posted in Play Design on June 30, 2017

By Melissa DeTora

Melissa is a former Magic pro player and strategy writer who is now working in R&D on the Play Design team.

Welcome to another edition of Play Design. Today the full Hour of Devastation Card Image Gallery goes live, and over the next few weeks I'll be sharing some insight into how we designed cards for Standard and Draft. Today we'll be talking about Deserts.

We knew we wanted to put Deserts in Amonkhet because it was such a flavor hit. We actually had Desert in the file for a short time, but it got cut due to frustrating and confusing gameplay. Repeatable creature kill isn't very fun in Limited, and many players don't even know that an end of combat step exists. The Amonkhet team made a few new lands with the subtype "Desert," but that subtype didn't mean anything for gameplay.

For Hour of Devastation, we wanted the Desert subtype to actually matter. We wanted to include cards that gave you a reason to put Deserts in your deck. We started with two types of Desert rewards: scaling (the more Deserts you have in play, the greater the effect) and threshold 1, a term we use in R&D that means you need one other permanent of this type in play for the card to function. In this case, it means that your card gets better if you control at least one Desert.

Here's a card that's an example of scaling:

Desert Scorcher
Creature – Beast
When Desert Scorcher enters the battlefield, it deals damage equal to the number of Deserts you control to target creature.

If you've ever played with the card Flametongue Kavu in a Limited environment, you probably know this is not only a first pick, but potentially a game-winner. Card advantage is important in Limited, and Flametongue Kavu is usually trading with two creatures for only four mana. I have fond memories of playing with Flametongue Kavu in Standard. Well, I guess they weren't really fond memories. Flametongue Kavu mirrors weren't very fun and usually came down to who drew the last Flametongue Kavu. The effect is so strong and you don't have to put in any effort for it to be strong. Just tap for mana and you have a 4/2 and your opponent's strongest creature is dead.

Desert Scorcher is a much weaker version of Flametongue Kavu, but it's still strong enough to be a first pick in Draft. The major downside is you can't draft this card and just have a two-for-one. You have to work for it. Your deck needs a lot of Deserts in it to get the most value out of this card.

This card didn't work for several reasons. The main reason was that it was hard to turn this on. You needed two or more Deserts on the battlefield for this to kill anything meaningful, and it created tension when you controlled zero Deserts. You usually didn't want to cast this for no value and it would just sit in your hand until you drew your Deserts. If you never drew them, you felt bad for having this waste away in your hand and not casting it on turn four.

Another problem that this card caused was it made you draft Deserts really highly. If you first-pick a Desert Scorcher, you're going to want to take Deserts whenever you see them. If other players had any cards that cared about Deserts, they would be picking them as well. There are only so many Deserts to go around. Drafting lands also means that you aren't taking creatures or spells, and you're likely to not have enough playables when the draft is over. Additionally, many of the Deserts tap for colorless mana, so including too many of them in your deck will make your mana base suffer. Overall, playing a Desert Scorcher with proper support sometimes made your deck worse than if you didn't play it.

Coldsnap Draft suffered from this problem as well. It had a snow mana–matters theme, and you had to draft your snow basics from the packs. Snow mana was so prominent and strong that you'd be happy first-picking snow lands. This is not a healthy way to draft. Oath of the Gatewatch suffered a similar problem, but it wasn't as bad as Coldsnap because there were plenty of ways to make colorless mana, including Eldrazi Scions, which were everywhere. We didn't want Hour of Devastation Draft to have the same problems.

If you haven't guessed already, Desert Scorcher became Sand Strangler. We decided to cut scaling Desert rewards and replace them with threshold 1. This solved the problem of players fighting over Deserts and also gave players more choices in Draft. It's much more fun to figure out if it's correct to draft your Desert over a strong spell instead of blindly first-picking a Desert pick one of pack three.

Here's another example of threshold 1:

Naga of the Dunes
Creature – Naga Warrior
As long as you control a Desert, Sidewinder Naga gets +1/+0 and has trample.

There were many cards in the file like this—averagely statted creatures that got stronger if you controlled a Desert. These cards were simple and clean, but still suffered from a gameplay problem.

During our playtests, we weren't ever sacrificing or cycling our Deserts. We didn't want to "turn off" our Deserts-matter cards. We'd use them if we didn't have a Deserts-matter card in play, of course, but then we'd feel pretty bad if we drew a Desert-matters card later in the game. We solved this problem by adding the "and in your graveyard" text. Here's the updated version of Naga of the Dunes.

We wanted to give players a variety of options for Deserts in Constructed. In addition to the Deserts-matter spells that tell you to build around Deserts, another shot at this is the uncommon pain Desert cycle. These lands have a very low cost to include in your deck. They produce colored mana, so replacing a couple of Forests for Hashep Oasis won't hurt your mana base, and the life loss is negligible when you are using your extra lands to get ahead in the late game.

As these lands also tap for colorless, that means they also act as dual lands for casting spells that require colorless mana. We haven't had dual lands like this in Standard since the enemy painlands in Magic Origins, and the colorless-mana Eldrazi haven't really showed up in competitive Standard since those lands rotated out. With these new Deserts, we may see Thought-Knot Seer and Reality Smasher return to competitive Standard.

Play Design Story of the Week

This week we welcomed Michael Majors as our new Play Design contractor. Michael is a talented deck builder and will be a great asset to us. He moved to Renton from Roanoke, Virginia, and since he drove all the way across the country to work with us, we decided to have a welcome party for him. After a long week of building decks and playing Future Future League, we gathered at Andrew Veen's house for a barbeque. Andrew Brown cooked (thanks, Andrew!) and we played lots of board games and Magic.

Our new favorite game is a Magic variant we call "Three-Card Magic." Open a booster pack, remove the basic land and two cards of your choice, and make four three-card "decks." You then play a game of Magic with those decks. You start at 5 life, have infinite mana, and don't lose to decking. Here we are playing a four-player multiplayer free-for-all game.

From left: Michael Majors, Jules Robins, Andrew Brown, and Adam Prosak
From left: Michael Majors, Jules Robins, Andrew Brown, and Adam Prosak

That's it for this week! Next week we'll be talking about Hour of Devastation in Standard! Until then, have fun combing through the full Card Image Gallery.

Melissa DeTora

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