Playtesting Planeswalkers

Posted in NEWS on October 19, 2007

By Erik Lauer

Erik Lauer is a senior game designer who works on final game design and development. Recently, he has led the Return to Ravnica, Modern Masters, and Theros development teams.

Hi! While Devin Low is enjoying the sights and scenes in Europe, I have a chance to show you how Lorwyn and its planeswalkers developed from a playtester's perspective. My name is Erik Lauer and I started playing during Limited Edition Beta. Our playgroup loved to play multiplayer games. Some of us played more competitively, and a few of us even played on the Pro Tour. The first time I qualified for the Pro Tour the format was Ice Age + Alliances. It was a two-spot qualifier, and Mike Flores won the other spot with a Withering Wisps–powered deck. We played one game to determine the winner of the tournament, and I showed Mike the power of snow-punishing cards such as Icequake and Legions of Lim-Dûl, as well as the regeneration-stymieing Lim-Dûl's Cohorts. The fact that I played a lot of copies of Necropotence and Demonic Consultation may have had more to do with my first-place finish than a bunch of three-mana 2/3 Zombies. In 1997 Randy Buehler transformed our group into a much stronger set of players, and he won Pro Tour–Chicago that year. Now I get to play Mark Rosewater, and make Magic cards... as a career!

I arrived at Wizards of the Coast in September 2006. There were lots of new cards to see: all of Time Spiral block, plus "Peanut" (now called Lorwyn). I played some Limited and had fun with tribal effects and changelings. I was playing a game with VP of R&D Bill Rose playing decks we drafted. My red-blue Elemental deck (at the time Elementals were mostly those colors) was doing well until Bill played a rare I had not seen before. That wasn't very unusual. However, when I read the card and found out there was a new card type, planeswalker, and saw everything it did, I was pretty surprised. It was Garruk Wildspeaker and these were its stats:

Garruk Wildspeaker 3GG
10 loyalty
+0: Put a 2/2 green Beast creature token into play. -2: For each Beast creature you control, put a 2/2 green Beast creature token into play.
-6: All Beast creatures you control get +3/+3 and gain trample until end of turn.

At the time planeswalkers' abilities could not be used the turn they came into play. Bill got a few Beasts into play, then started doubling to make a huge swarm. Soon I fell to a huge swarm of 2/2 "bears." It was very powerful. More than that, it was exciting to know that I would be testing something so big. What a great time to show up!

The next week I had a very powerful Sealed Deck. I picked the right deck; it had Chandra Nalaar and Liliana Vess. When sets come out of design, black and red tend to have creatures that are as good as the other colors, in addition to getting the best removal spells. So black and red are already the strongest (so strong that Mark Rosewater sometimes gives the "don't put Swamps and Mountains in the same deck" edict). Having both planeswalkers on top of that is a tremendous boost.

I played Mark Rosewater, which seems to count as work around here! We were having a great game until Liliana showed up. At the time she looked like this:

Liliana Vess 3BB
6 loyalty
+2: Each player discards a card.
-1: Each player sacrifices a creature.
-10: Put all creature cards in your graveyard into play.

Five turns later neither of us had any cards in hand nor any creatures in play. Mark asked me how this was going to work, so I asked him how many creatures were in his deck and if he had direct damage or token making. He answered my questions, and I told him that in around nine turns I would have all my creatures in play against his empty board. He decided not to play it out.

At this point it seemed like planeswalkers were a bit too powerful in Limited. They felt like "planeswalkers" in that they showed up, started casting spells, and were generally very powerful. The problem was that their plans were stronger than mine. Instead of feeling like a team, it felt more like I would play Liliana and watched her play (and win) the game.

After Thanksgiving, Lorwyn was added to the FFL (future-future league). We play constructed games, frequently in the Standard format, but sometimes other formats. I had the fewest other obligations, so I got to play the most FFL games. Planeswalkers were very new and important, so I made sure to put them in many of my decks. Playtesting isn't only building decks with the cards and playing with the cards. The testers also say which cards could be more fun, or are too strong, and even suggest changes to the cards.

There were some goals regarding planeswalkers:

  1. They have to be fun. Never lose sight that this is a game, and "fun" is easily the most important measure.
  2. They have to keep their planeswalker feel.
  3. They have to have an appropriate power level. Some planeswalkers should be strong enough that people can use them in competitive events. But the game should not be dominated by planewalkers.
  4. The green one has to be good. (That was just my view. )

Stealing the Spotlight

When we first added planeswalkers to the FFL, they were not seeing much play in our Standard decks. Other cards were far more powerful. Some of those cards had to be replaced. There used to be an Elemental with an evoke cost of 1R which had a comes-into-play effect of adding three mana of any color to your mana pool. That card plus Enduring Renewal was the core of an incredibly powerful combo deck. Others had to be changed:

  • Incendiary Command used to have different effects to choose from such as "Copy target spell. You may choose new targets for the copy." Imagine being burnt to a crisp by 1000 Incendiary Commands, each of which was a copy of the last one. (You needed another copy effect to start off, but at the time it was easy to do.)
  • Colfenor's Plans gives you seven cards for four mana. Since you start with seven cards, and going back to the first set (Alpha) there were cards that gave you seven more cards, it might not occur to you that the Plans ever gave you anything but seven cards. Well, we were testing it at ten cards! That made it a much stronger card advantage machine.
  • We were also testing Lorwyn cards in decks that were powerful in the Standard format of that time. Heat Shimmer used to be a changeling creature with haste that Cloned another creature already in play and then was sacrificed at end of turn. A creature seems more natural to me than a sorcery that puts a token into play. So why did a changeling creature become a sorcery? Last year, Dragonstorm was one of the best decks around. Makihito Mihara won the 2006 World Championship playing such a deck. Our hasty changeling Clone was a very powerful complement to Bogardan Hellkite in a Dragonstorm deck, even after the deck lost Seething Song.

Now it was time to build more decks with planewalkers—or was it? Lorwyn is a tribal set and there are eight tribes, each with their own flavor and strategy, and there are even different ways to build decks within each tribe. Goblins can be built as an aggressive deck, or with more attrition in mind. Faeries can be built as flying assault, or as a very disruptive deck. Any tribal deck can be built as an "every spell is a member of my tribe" deck, or as a "collection of good cards, some of which take advantage of tribal synergy" deck. Even within the realm of tribal decks, there are so many decks to build and play it was easy to forget that there was a whole new card type to playtest.

Cryptic Command

Lorwyn also has plenty of cards to play in non-tribal decks, which means even more decks to build and play! Cryptic Command isn't just for Merfolk and Faeries; it is potent in any blue deck that needs flexible permission spells. All the Commands (which we called "Choose-Twos") are very flexible, and we tested them in a variety of tribal and non-tribal decks. The hideaway lands are nice in that they can either slot into existing decks ("I already have a white weenie deck; I'll put a couple of these and some Militia's Pride in here," and "My Smallpox deck already runs both player out of cards. This is perfect for that!") or they can be cards to build your deck around. I lost a tournament game when my opponent had six lands including a Mosswort Bridge out and played Nova Chaser, which gave him the 10 power to pull a Mulldrifter out from under the Bridge in response to the champion trigger, drawing two cards, keeping the 10/2 trampler, and drawing two more cards when I was forced to kill the champion.

Tuning Planeswalkers

While we playtested lots of tribal and non-tribal decks, I knew I had to make some decks with planeswalkers as the centerpiece. In my initial attempts, the planeswalkers were the weakest cards in my deck. They were so powerful in Limited, but unplayable in competitive Constructed decks. What was wrong? They were too slow for Constructed play. Playing a five-mana spell that does nothing that turn and presumably creates a Grizzly Bears equivalent the next turn is really weak if your opponent is playing a very aggressive deck or a powerful combo deck that wins the game while your card has had no (or very little) impact at all. We tried lowering the casting costs, but that made them look less like planeswalkers. It also would make them more insane in Limited play. They already were very good, but were slow and expensive enough that they were not "if I draw it, I will win." Taking a full mana off would move them more in that direction, and a cycle of five of those would move Sealed Deck from an exciting experience towards "this is dumb."

The solution was to let them activate the turn they came into play. Since Constructed play tends to have more efficient decks that are capable of winning (or taking control) in fewer turns, the one turn was more crucial in Constructed play. In Limited games, it takes longer for the game to be decided, so speed is a little less important, and the potential of the card is more important. Planeswalkers are very "potent in the long run," which is why they were always good in Limited. Even in Limited, a full turn of speedup is quite important, so the planeswalkers needed to lose something. There are lots of things one might change about planeswalkers. You could change mana cost, the abilities, the loyalty cost of each ability, or the initial loyalty of the planeswalker. We had already tried lowering the mana cost, and raising it higher would once again make the planeswalkers too weak for Constructed play. The abilities are what make the planeswalkers feel like individual planeswalkers, and are more of a last resort in terms of balancing the power level. That leaves the initial loyalty and the loyalty costs on abilities. Aggressive decks would not have many answers to planeswalkers other than attacking them. If their loyalty is too high, it just does not make sense to go after the planeswalker. Making it a reasonable option and giving players that choice makes the game more fun. Also the planeswalkers could gain loyalty the first turn, so we also reduced the initial loyalty by the amount they could gain (still a net improvement).

We started playing some FFL Standard tournaments. Planeswalkers were showing up, sometimes as main deck cards and sometimes as sideboard cards. Jace Beleren might not stay around very long against an aggressive deck. However, Jace was very good against decks such as discard, land destruction, and permission. That is a fine spot in my book!

LorwynMorningtide Block Constructed Report

Garruk Wildspeaker

We also played Block Constructed tournaments. You won't find Lorwyn / Morningtide on a Pro Tour calendar (Block Constructed next year will include Shadowmoor and "Doughnut"), but it is a fine format. I played Doran Control. My three-color deck used Doran, the Siege Tower (of course) and Shriekmaw as its creature base. I also had Garruk Wildspeaker and Liliana Vess—both of which had taken on the forms you're familiar with—to help in many ways, including giving the deck more ways to win. I rounded out the deck with Fertile Ground for mana acceleration and Austere Command for extra board control, plus of course some Morningtide cards I can't tell you about.

My first round opponent was playing Elementals. I won the first game, he won the second, and we were off to the third and decisive game. By the start of my third turn he had three Flamekin Bladewhirls in play. I was at 18 life and had two lands, one of which was enchanted by fertile ground. Since Austere Command costs six mana, it looked like his "triple Jackal Pup" draw would carry the day; he already had me on a three-turn clock. I played a land and played Garruk Wildspeaker. Garruk would be vulnerable to the swarm of 2/1s. However, I untapped two lands, one of which was enchanted with Fertile Ground, and played Doran, the Seige Tower. Suddenly the 6 power of creatures was reduced to an effective total of 3, and I had a 5/5 blocker and plenty of mana to play Austere Command if I needed to. The next turn, while the 5/5 held the ground, I had yet to play the Austere Command. I put out Liliana Vess, who told my opponent to discard a card, and had Garruk create a 3/3 Beast for my side. My opponent was forced to attack Liliana or lose to his own discarded Elementals. Since Liliana was at 2 loyalty, she left after finding me an Austere Command, but I played another Liliana. My opponent gave up before Liliana gained enough loyalty for me to put all his Elementals back into play.

My second-round opponent was playing Treefolk, including Dauntless Dourbark. I had two Shriekmaws in my opening hand, so I evoked my first one to take out an early Treefolk. Doran is excellent against most decks, but this deck had creatures with higher toughness than power. So Doran blocked and traded with a 5-toughness treefolk. Garruk created a Beast, and was promptly attacked by a treefolk. The other Shriekmaw came out and killed a Dauntless Doubark. More Treefolk came out. I played Liliana Vess, and tutored for a card. My opponent emptied his hand and attacked me, thinking that now that he had no cards in hand, Liliana could not make him discard any more, so he should speed up the game. However, the card I got was Austere Command! I started activating Liliana's first ability to increase her loyalty even though my opponent had no cards in hand. A few turns later, Liliana was going to bring back all his Treefolk and my Shriekmaw and Doran, but all under my control. Rather than let me get them all back and kill one of them with Shriekmaw, my opponent announced "scoop," and picked up his cards.

His sideboard card for this matchup was Colfenor's Urn. I knew I had to take out Doran, and since his deck had slow powerful cards I brought in Thoughtseize. I did not have enough black mana to consistently play the spell on turn one, but most of my sideboard cards were for blue decks or faster decks, so the efficient discard spell was the best available option. Thoughtseize took a Timber Protector out of his hand, but his draw still came out fast. When I got to six mana, the flexibility of Austere Command was decisive. I chose to destroy all artifacts and all creatures with converted mana cost of four or more. If we were playing Standard I might have been using Wrath of God instead, in which case his Urn would have saved three Treefolk. If he had his Timber Protector, all his other Treefolk would have been safe. However it was not his day, and I was able to destroy his Treefolk and his Urn in one devastating blow.

In the third and final round I got to play Hall of Famer Alan Comer. While Alan is often busy with digital games, he still plays Magic and is a very strong player. He was not as familiar with the block as the other people in the tournament, but he was the only other undefeated player. At one point Alan was wondering aloud about what I could have, decided there wasn't any efficient board sweeper available, and put all his creatures on the board. When I played Austere Command he was a little annoyed that I did not take his thinking out loud as a question as to what cards would be in my deck. His deck used Sower of Temptation, so I sideboarded out Doran for Cloudthresher. Despite forgetting some of the key cards in my deck, Alan crushed me in the second game. But in the third game my turn-three Garruk was too much for his blue deck. Alan was always behind on board position and mana. After the tournament I thought about the fact that I sideboarded out my Dorans in two of the three matches and decided that really this was closer to planeswalker control.

Planeswalkers were a very exciting card type to test. Participating in their playtesting and development made this a great time to work as a Magic developer. I hope you enjoy them as much as I do. Thanks for listening to my story. Next time Devin will be back with another great column!