What I Learned on my Wacky Draft Vacation (Part 1)

Posted in NEWS on January 26, 2008

By Devin Low

Now that Morningtide previews are complete and the set is revealed in its entirety, allow me to reveal the Morningtide development team in its entirety:

Mike TurianMike Turian (lead developer) – A Magic developer for several years, Mike has made many Magic sets a lot more fun to play, and when leading Morningtide, he did exactly that. Mike loves weenie creatures, aggressive fast-moving gameplay, and powerful exciting rares, which made him the perfect choice to lead Morningtide, his second lead after Future Sight. Mike also worked on Lorwyn development, so he knew the race tribes like the back of his hand. Working on Lorwyn also gave Mike the opportunity to get the five class tribes ready for their Morningtide debut by seeding them throughout Lorwyn.

Erik LauerErik Lauer – Erik is a hardcore developer who focuses the team on a card or mechanic's specific goals, then works to make sure those goals are met as well as they possibly can be. Long-known as the "Mad Genius of Magic," Erik put together an impressive Pro Tour career and a reputation as one of the Pro Tour's best deckbuilders before he came to work for Wizards of the Coast. Now that he's here, Erik uses those same deckbuilding skills to ensure that we understand the power level of all our best control and combo cards before releasing them. For Morningtide, Erik also served as the representative from the design team.

Henry SternHenry Stern – Along with Mark Rosewater and Bill Rose, Henry is one of the most-accomplished and longest-serving members of Magic R&D. While Mark and Bill moved more and more towards design over the years, Henry stayed on the development path, leading the development for many sets over many years, including Darksteel and Torment. Henry's accumulated wisdom and expertise always provide a good anchor to development teams.

Noah WeilNoah Weil – Noah impressed us with his design work in the Great Designer Search, and we knew from his long-running Pro Tour experience that he was primed to have the skills to be a good developer as well. As soon as the Great Designer Search ended, we hired Noah as a development intern and put him on our newest development team: Morningtide. Noah's valuable contributions on Morningtide earned him the respect of his peers, and you can see Noah's changes all over the set.

At the very beginning of the development cycle, we added additional people to the mix to give Morningtide a final design sparkle before the beginning of development proper:

Alexis JansonAlexis Janson – Alexis won the Great Designer Search with an impressive string of successes across the GDS's many challenges. Alexis' natural design talent and deep knowledge of Magic helped her to win challenge after challenge and helped her to design a variety of cool Morningtide cards.

Bill RoseBill Rose – Bill Rose is the vice president of R&D as well as a frequent set designer and set lead designer. Some vice presidents would just sit behind a desk, but Bill likes to roll up his sleeves and get into the card file with the rest of the department until the set meets his high standards for what a Magic should be.

Jake TheisJake Theis – Jake started out on the Brand team and now works as the Creative Manager for Magic. Jake specializes in bringing Magic's worlds and storylines into harmony with the sets' mechanics, and vice versa. Jake's success filling holes from the sidelines of previous sets made him a good candidate to bring to fill final holes in Morningtide at the start of development.

Welcome to Wacky Draft

If you've never Wacky Drafted, you're missing out. I enjoy a good TSP-PLC-FUT or LRW-LRW-MOR draft as much as the next drafter. But sometimes you want get a little crazy and change it up. I'm talking about drafting insane Magic formats that never get sanctioned. Like Onslaught-Legions-Coldsnap. Or drafting twenty-four different packs from twenty-four different sets from Urza's Saga through Mirrodin through Torment through Unhinged. Or a draft where every single pack is handmade from 15 nigh-unplayable "reject rares." Or drafting a "Cube" containing an actual Black Lotus, Ancestral Recall, and all the Moxes. Yup, I've played each of these Wacky Drafts formats while working at Wizards, as a kind of vacation from the daily grind of drafting sets in development all week long. After all, in Wacky Drafts, we don't have to worry about fine-tuning the level of removal, watching the color balance, or adjusting the number of playables per person. But a funny thing happened while I was playing all these Wacky Drafts where I didn't have to learn anything about Magic development: I learned some things about Magic development.

Most of the time we playtest cards in development, we play them with cards in nearby sets. The Standard environment we're currently building and playtesting in the "Future Future League" is the same Standard environment that the public will be playing in nine to twelve months. In Limited we usually play full block formats in Sealed Deck or Draft. When we get concerned about Extended decks, we playtest those to see how they feel. But we know a ton of casual Magic players play cards from all across Magic's history all together, without worrying about "legal formats." And none of our internal playtesting processes show us how Lorwyn cards interact with Nemesis cards published seven years earlier. Fortunately, the Wacky Drafts end up showing exactly that. We spend a lot of design and development time talking about "parasitism" and "cross-block-synergy" in Magic sets, and I think we understand these ideas reasonably well. But actually experiencing faraway blocks colliding in Wacky Drafts provides real-world examples of what parasitism and cross-block synergy are all about.

In this two-part article, I'll show you four Wacky Drafts I played and what each draft teaches about how cards interact with cards from several blocks away. The Reject Rare Draft shows the problems with parasitism. The Onslaught-Legions-Coldsnap draft shows how sets can use linear mechanics that avoid those parasitic problems. Nate Heiss's twenty-four-set Wacky Draft shows the value of universal interface. And the Sottosanti / Forsythe Magic Invitational Cube Draft shows how repeating keywords in different blocks can make those mechanics more layered and subtle.

Mark Gottlieb's Reject Rare Draft

Mark Gottlieb is famous for running crowd-pleasing Reject Rare Drafts here at Wizards, and he's written about it several times. The gist of it is that every participant donates forty-five "reject rares," self-defined as whatever rares each person decides to give away from his or her personal collection. Then Gottlieb scrambles them all into fifteen-rare packs, and he invites everyone who donated cards to draft them in 8-person pods. This usually means that the drafts are packed with crazy build-around-me Johnny rares that don't do anything by themselves...like Temporal Distortion, Night Dealings, Giant Fan, and Telekinetic Bonds...and then you have to draft some insane concoction that makes them work together! The drafts also include terrible rare creatures like the 2GG 1/2 Thelonite Monk. And some people put in beefy but expensive guys like Amugaba and Thriss, Nantuko Primus. There's hardly a Giant Growth effect, a Terror effect, or a Disenchant effect to be found in the entire draft, since we rarely make those at rare. Finding a Grey Ogre to just attack with is nearly impossible—the best Grey Ogre substitute you're likely to see is some rare crazy morph like Dermoplasm or Primal Whisperer, and when you see a creature that attacks and costs less than seven mana, you better snap it up! Suffice it to say all the normal principles of drafting are out the window, and the decks are always terrible...and yet awesomely terrible. It's a total riot. Here's what I drafted this year:

Devin Low's Reject Rare Draft

Download Arena Decklist

And here are some of the cards I didn't draft and play:

Out of many terrible reject rares, why did I call out these six? Because each of them is "parasitic." We use that term to describe cards that have no value outside their block or outside their mechanic. When players try to combine parasitic cards with other cards they own from outside the block or outside the mechanic, they just don't combine whatsoever. This is usually a frustrating experience that makes people unhappy, so we try to avoid doing it very often. Although the Reject Rare Draft is a bizarre experiment in unreality, it does show this truth: that too many excessively parasitic cards can feel miserable when you are trying to play them alongside with cards across all of time, as many Magic players do. On this list, Glacial Crevasses from Ice Age and Cover of Winter from Coldsnap both require snow mana to function. Glacial Crevasses is even more parasitic, doing nothing at all unless you have a specific, named card: Snow-Covered Mountain. With no snow mana in the draft, these cards were essentially useless. And with no "Snow-Covered Mountain" in many casual players' collections, Glacial Crevasses threatens to be useless there too.

The reason they require snow mana is because that was a big theme of both the original Ice Age and Coldsnap. In the context of Coldsnap, snow mana is an interesting resource to hoard and deploy. And in Standard, cards like Scrying Sheets and Phyrexian Ironfoot make snow mana an interesting resource there too. Is snow mana a positive force in Standard and Coldsnap Limited? I believe the answer is yes. Is the snow mana mechanic a negative force in "five years of sets casual" gameplay because it's extremely parasitic? I believe that answer is also yes. So is snow mana worth doing? The design and development teams have to weigh the merits against the drawbacks and make a case-by-case decision. For this case, I believe snow mana is worth doing, but I would say that the heavy helping of "legendary creatures matter" in Kamigawa was too heavy of a helping. Many times when a mechanic or a card is proposed, someone else in R&D will note "but that's really parasitic," giving the mechanic or card an even higher quality bar to have to leap over.

Day of Destiny and Vassal's Duty are parasitic on the Kamigawa block's Legend theme. In Kamigawa Block Limited, you're almost certain to have some legendary creatures because every rare creature in the block was legendary, plus some uncommons. But once you get outside that block fewer and fewer creatures are legendary and these cards get less and less useful.

Suleiman's Legacy and Tourach's Gate are likewise parasitic on block-specific creature types. There were tons of Djinns and Efreets in Mirage block and in Arabian Nights before that, but fewer and fewer Djinns and Efreets as you get away from that time period, until that card is essentially useless in "five years of sets casual." (Though watch out, Chameleon Colossus!) There were tons of Thrulls in Fallen Empires, but less than one a year for a decade after that, until finally a handful popped up in Guildpact.

The Reject Rare Draft also shows a couple examples of moderate parasitism. Ixidron is a really cool design (in fact my favorite card in Time Spiral), and it plays as a "Pseudo-Wrath" that works well in any crazy combination of sets, especially amongst the skimpy removal alternatives in Reject Rare Draft. Ixidron was made by Matt Place to play particularly well with resetting Fathom Seer, Willbender, and other flip-trigger morphs, and it does. But if you read it and don't own any flip-trigger guys, you don't feel like you're missing out or have a useless card in the way that you feel with Tourach's Gate or Vassal's Duty. The combo with other morph flip-triggers is subtle enough that you don't even have to notice it.

Patron of the Moon is moderately parasitic on the Moonfolk tribe, arguably an even more obscure, harder-to-find tribe across Magic's history than the thrulls are. But it helps the parasitism issue a lot that Patron of the Moon is a huge (albeit expensive) 5/4 flier that can demolish people with its giant talons as well as doing bizarre combos with cards like Stone-Seeder Hierophant that are sprinkled across years of Magic sets. The Patron is still a bit parasitic, but the fact that he does so much without any Moonfolk in your deck at all makes it a much less problematic kind of parasitic than Tourach's Gate.

Onslaught-Legions-Coldsnap Draft

To test Coldsnap interactions while the set was being coded on Magic Online a year and a half ago, I once played an ONS-LGN-CSP draft. In the first two packs I drafted white-black with some exciting Soldier-matters, Cleric-matters, and Zombie-matters synergies. But I knew it would all dry up after the second pack. After all, the third pack was from a totally different block three and a half years later, and it wouldn't have the same creature types. But to my pleasant surprise, Coldsnap contained a bunch of different soldiers I could take, including Kjeldoran Outrider, Kjeldoran Javelineer, and eventually even the Soldier-matters lord Field Marshal. And it had some clerics: Disciple of Tevesh Szat, and potentially Martyr of Sands. And Coldsnap has seven zombies, including Zombie Musher and Balduvian Fallen. All three of my tribes were supported with more creatures in a random set three and a half years later. What could have potentially been a problem of parasitism instead became a surprisingly good example of the opposite effect: "cross-block synergy."

Remember that a "linear mechanic" is one where each card you have in the mechanic makes you want more cards in your deck with that mechanic. For example: Elf-matters and Æther Burst are both linear mechanics, while replicate and reach are not, because having some cards in your deck with replicate or reach does not reward you for adding additional cards with replicate or reach. The lesson this Wacky Draft teaches is that linear mechanics are not always parasitic. Even though the Soldier-matters, Cleric-matters, and Zombie-matters themes of Onslaught Block are very linear, they turn out to be very non-parasitic because more than 75% of Magic sets have Zombies, and over 95% have Soldiers and Clerics. No matter what sets your collection is from, you will have tons of Soldiers, Clerics, and Zombies in it. Good job, Onslaught block.

In my opinion too many of Coldsnap's mechanics went beyond being linear to being parasitic. In addition to snow mana, the ripple cards and the "collect me" cards like Aurochs Herd were parasitic. And it's okay for a set to have a sprinkling of parasitism—avoiding any parasitism at all would stifle design and cause more problems than it solved—but you don't want to have a lot of it. One of Kamigawa block's flaws was also excessive parasitism. The splice cards only work with Kamigawa Arcane cards. Soulshift only works with Spirits. Dozens of "Whenever you play a Spirit or Arcane spell, get a bonus" cards only work with Spirits and Arcane cards. The legend-matters cards only worked with legends. The Samurai-matters cards only worked with Samurai. The list is too long.

So how do Lorwyn and Morningtide fit into this? Like Onslaught, the Lorwyn designers carefully selected tribes that appear across all of Magic to ensure that these linear mechanics would not be very parasitic. They repeated some of the most loved Onslaught tribes, but they didn't want to repeat too many. And again, it's important to note that it's okay to have a couple of block-parasitic tribes, you just don't want too many of them. So how well are the thirteen major Lorwyn-Morningtide tribes represented in a random set that Lorwyn never meets in Standard? Let's write up a list for Ravnica:

Elves (10) Wizards (14) Soldiers (13)
Civic Wayfinder Auratouched Mage Agrus Kos, Wojek Veteran
Elves of Deep Shadow Boros Guildmage Boros Recruit
Elvish Skysweeper Circu, Dimir Lobotomist Boros Swiftblade
Golgari Guildmage Dark Confidant Conclave Equenaut
Nullmage Shepherd Dimir Guildmage Conclave Phalanx
Savra, Queen of the Golgari Sadistic Augermage Loxodon Gatekeeper
Selesnya Evangel Selesnya Guildmage Nightguard Patrol
Selesnya Guildmage Sparkmage Apprentice Oathsworn Giant
Selesnya Sagittars Spawnbroker Ordruun Commando
Tolsimir Wolfblood Terraformer Sunhome Enforcer
Thoughtpicker Witch Thundersong Trumpeter
Giants (4) Vedalken Dismisser Veteran Armorer
Hammerfist Giant Vedalken Entrancer Votary of the Conclave
Helldozer Wojek Embermage
Oathsworn Giant Elementals (8)
Sunhome Enforcer Warriors (13) Bramble Elemental
Centaur Safeguard Flame-Kin Zealot
Shamans (7) Civic Wayfinder Greater Forgeling
Dowsing Shaman Elvish Skysweeper Guardian of Vitu-Ghazi
Golgari Guildmage Goblin Spelunkers Molten Sentry
Ivy Dancer Golgari Thug Root-Kin Ally
Nullmage Shepherd Hammerfist Giant Tidewater Minion
Savra, Queen of the Golgari Hunted Troll Woodwraith Corrupter
Selesnya Evangel Indentured Oaf
Transluminant Root-Kin Ally Rogues (5)
Tolsimir Wolfblood Lore Broker
Goblins (6) Viashino Fangtail Lurking Informant
Boros Recruit Viashino Slasher Mausoleum Turnkey
Frenzied Goblin War-Torch Goblin Surveilling Sprite
Goblin Fire Fiend Wizened Snitches
Goblin Spelunkers Faeries (2)
Hunted Phantasm Surveilling Sprite Merfolk, Treefolk, Kithkin
War-Torch Goblin Wizened Snitches None

Next week is a theme week, so watch for part 2 of this article in two weeks, where I'll show you Nate Heiss's twenty-four-set Wacky Draft and my Magic Invitational Cube Draft and talk about what Magic Development lessons they teach.

Last Week's Poll

Are you going to the Morningtide Prerelease this weekend?
Yes 4858 50.6%
No 4741 49.4%
Total 9599 100.0%

And in a photo finish, "Yes" wins by a nose! Many people wrote to say they wanted to go, but couldn't get out of work or another event. There's one more chance to play the Morningtide cards early: the Morningtide Launch Parties (formerly Release Events), held February 1-3 in local game stores to coincide with Morningtide's release on February 1. Remember that with the new set legality policy, Morningtide is legal in sanctioned Constructed tournaments starting immediately on that day as well.