August 29, 2015

August 28, 2015

Making Limited Feel Different


Magic is an ever-changing game, especially in Limited formats. Each Draft or Sealed Deck you do is different from the last, but that doesn't mean that you won't run out of content eventually. While many of our most diehard fans will do 20, 50, or even a hundred drafts of a given format, eventually they will tire of it. Fortunately, we add new Limited formats at a pretty fast pace, so we can keep up with our players' voracious appetite for new content—assuming that the new content has not only enough new cards, but also new ideas and strategies to explore. That's a large part of why it is important for Limited environments to feel different from each other.

If the new Limited environment felt just like the old one, but with new card names, that would be bad. People would start to get bored, and they would no longer have fun. That drive to discover new things would be gone, as the things to discover would be the same things you discovered the last time. It's important for us to make sure that our Limited environments feel different from one another, both between what the cards and mechanics do, and also within the structure of the set. Today, I want to talk about a few of the things that we do to help separate Limited environments from each other, and the tools we have to make each one function as its own entity.

Mana Fixing

This is probably the most basic thing, but also one of the easiest to overlook. The necessity behind Magic's mana system, as well as color screw and mana problems, is often seen as a huge flaw, but it is a huge resource for creating fun Limited environments. If players were able to take the best card in every pack, the environment would be very hard to balance. Instead, we dictate how much players can stretch their mana base for removal, bombs, and evasive creatures by deciding how much mana fixing exists in an environment.

The simplest version of this is for multicolor blocks like Khans of Tarkir. That block had tons of mana fixing, a cycle of ten common lands, five uncommon lands, five common artifacts, and even more within the rest of the cards at all rarities. They took up a lot of space, both in packs and in people's decks. If people wanted to play a five-color deck with a slow and inconsistent mana base, they could. You could also play a blisteringly fast deck that ignored the mana problems and went for consistency. This was a huge question for that format, and led to a lot of its depth.

Magic Origins is a Limited environment with almost no mana fixing. This was a deliberate change to make it feel different from Khans. While you certainly can play a five-color deck if you want, you will find very little in the way of support to get you there. Sure, you can play four Evolving Wilds if you open that many, but it's not going to do a lot for you. The format is deliberately trying to push people into one- or two-color decks, and the way to do that is to eliminate easy mana fixing.

Day's Undoing | Art by Jonas De Ro

Removal Numbers

One of Avacyn Restored's largest flaws was there were just not enough ways to kill creatures. There were two enchantments that gave -1 toughness, plus Pillar of Flame, Death Wind, and Bone Splinters. In terms of conditional removal spells, it was very hard to deal with anything that had 3 toughness. This made a soulbonded Trusted Forcemage much harder to get off the field.

Having a different number that is the "safe" toughness for creatures is important. If no number is safe, then the removal is probably so expensive that it won't do much in the format. If the number is too low, then it may be impossible for most decks to deal with a bomb, which is also not a good spot to be in. What we generally want to do is have formats where the important toughness is either 4 or 5, and build our commons around that. It lets us print a wide variety of removal spells, and give players one that will kill almost anything.

For example, Magic Origins has common red spells that deal 1, 2, and 3 damage, as well as a common black spell that kills a creature with power 3 or less. Green's fight card is +2/+2 (meaning it can easily deal with a 4 or 5 toughness creature). Red has Fiery Conclusion at uncommon, which deals 5 damage. Black has Eyeblight's End, which also deals with small creatures. There is a big power bump at 4 toughness (especially if it has 4 power as well) that makes cards like Rhox Maulers so hard to deal with. What's more with the Maulers, once it becomes renowned, it quickly turns off Fiery Conclusion and most uses of Wild Instincts as removal. If the removal at common was in a different space, we might have had to make the Maulers a 4/5 to get the same effect of having a good common creature that could be ramped into for a nice effect. At the same time, part of what lets us create higher casting cost creatures that are impactful is including cheap removal that misses those creatures.

There is still removal in the set that will kill a renowned Rhox Maulers or Sentinel of the Eternal Watch, but it is generally more expensive—so you can't load your deck with it. This gives decks that want to go long a creature that can be resilient against some removal-heavy decks, ideally without ruining every game where the creature hits the board. White and blue have good answers, but those same cards have a few weaknesses with cards like Fleshbag Marauder in the format.

Speed Runs

There is no doubt that Origins is a fast Limited format. That was intentional, as a lot of the flavor of the set was based around renown, and it was important to make sure the mechanic mattered. That meant putting it on creatures that were pretty aggressive, to make sure that there would be enough games that were about the key mechanic of the set. It was also made faster as a change of pace from Khans block, which we identified as being pretty slow due to the prevalence of multicolored cards, Dragons, and morph.

The truth is there isn't one speed that is right for all games of Magic. Some people like fast formats, and some people like slow formats. Each one has advantages and disadvantages, and it is up to development to provide a healthy mix of formats, as well as ways for every format to have fast and slow decks. If you look at formats like the aforementioned Khans, Shards of Alara, or Ravnica and Return to Ravnica, they tend to be a little slower because they are all about multicolored cards. We are encouraging players to play multicolored decks, and need to give them time to develop, so we tend to make the formats have fewer strong low-drops. We want enough that it isn't always right to go three or more colors, but not so much that you can't do the thing the format is about. Other sets, such as Shadowmoor, Origins, and Zendikar, led to fast formats, and they tended to be based around mechanics that encouraged aggression.

Goblin Glory Chaser | Art by Greg Staples

One of the major goals for development is to deliver on the experience that design has put together for a set, and a large part of accomplishing that in Limited stems from making the format the right speed to ensure the experience plays out. Design playtests are very useful, but the designers are often going out of their way to try and make sure the right things matter in their games—either building decks that don't reflect what people in the real world would build, or ending up with cards that are stronger (and often more swingy) than is usually fun for Limited environments that are meant to be played over and over again. A big part of translating what the designers want to see into a set that the developers enjoy is getting the format to function at a speed where competitive play works. In the earlier example of Magic Origins, I decided to make the format a little more on the fast side so that forcing through renown creatures using combat tricks and cards like Stratus Walk was fun, but could be done without ending the game over the second one creature hit. I could've made the creatures higher on the curve and easier to get through, or given them a bigger swing, but I found that designers liked being rewarded for getting renowned—and getting one creature renowned didn't just win them the game. Finding the right balance in the format to let the leveling up over time matter was my way of trying to get the thing development found fun to work in the real world.

The Future of Second Sets

I don't mean this as a tease, since I can't go deep into what the plans are for the future, but we have a better idea now than in the past about what to do with second sets, largely because they are now the ends of blocks. In the past, there was a delicate balancing act of trying to add enough new things to make the Draft environment feel new, while leaving enough in the queue for the third set—which often just had a huge mechanical shift anyway.

In the new world where we don't have to hold anything back, we are much more free to explore both new mechanics and the natural limits of what we want mechanics to do in the block environment. I believe that if we were doing Theros now, in the two-block model instead of in the three-block model, we would've had more enchantments in the first set and bigger enchantment rewards in the second set.

As we get closer to the release of "Sweat," the second set in the Battle for Zendikar block, I will be able to talk more about what our plans are and use better examples based off of the mechanics in BFZ.

That's it for this week. Join me next time for Vorthos Week, as I take some time to discuss flavor.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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Standard Archetype Exemplars


One of the big selling points of Standard over the last year (ever since Khans of Tarkir) has been that there's a competitive deck you can play regardless of what your favorite archetype is. The field is quite diverse, and whether you want to beat down, control the game, play midrange, or ramp mana, the options are there. There are even combo decks floating around, and viable decks can be found in all of these categories. That's an impressive feat, and today I want to look at what I consider the frontrunners in each category.


For the aggressive-minded magician, there's nothing better than attacking early and often. As such, Mountains are by far the best option. I also have to note that despite the name, I don't like calling Abzan Aggro a purely aggressive deck. It was midrange to begin with, and has only moved more in that direction recently. The real competition is between White-Blue Heroic and Mono-Red, but I have to give Mono-Red the nod. It's too fast and consistent. If you want to play an attacking deck, it's where you want to be.

samtama's Mono-Red Aggro—Magic Online Standard Championship

I like where the token-making cards such as Dragon Fodder and Hordeling Outburst are positioned right now, so I went with this version of Mono-Red. It is easy enough to play a token-less version, but given how many people are moving away from Drown in Sorrow and on to Pharika's Cure, I like where this list is.

Reasons to Play Mono-Red:

  • Speed
  • Consistency
  • The desire to light things on fire

Things to Watch Out For


Midrange is the most hotly-contested category. So many decks fall into this classification, mainly because it's the broadest. Basically, "midrange" means any deck that isn't too fast or too slow, and doesn't have a very defined game plan. I said Abzan Aggro wasn't really aggro before, and it's a perfect example: It's nominally trying to beat down, but it isn't the fastest, and it has flexible cards like Abzan Charm and Hangarback Walker that can definitely be used to control the game. It's certainly not a control deck, but calling it an aggro deck feels like a stretch. The main contenders for this category are Jeskai, Abzan Aggro, Green-White Megamorph, and Mardu/Black-Red Dragons, but I feel that Abzan Aggro is the current leader. The recent addition of Hangarback Walker has led to a ton of tournament success, and the deck is clearly hitting the right notes.

Fabrizio Anteri's Hangarback Abzan—Grand Prix London 2015

I talked about Grand Prix London results in a previous column, but it's worth noting that Hangarback Abzan is still the gold standard when it comes to, well, Standard. I even had a chance to watch the Top 8 of the first US World Magic Cup Qualifier, and multiple copies of Hangarback Abzan did well there. It even won the Italian WMCQ in the hands of Andrea Mengucci, and he writes about his updates here.

One of the big advantages of midrange is that it can mold its game plan based on whatever it's facing. A Mono-Red deck or an Esper Control deck pretty much has to play one way—they are looking to beat down or control the game, respectively. A deck like Hangarback Abzan gets to see what it's playing against, and take either the control role or the aggressive role, depending on the matchup. Where that goes right is when you have access to cards that are flexible and powerful, cards such as Abzan Charm, Siege Rhino, and Fleecemane Lion. Failed midrange decks in the past have tried this strategy with less powerful cards, and they invariably ended up being jacks of all trades, masters of none. This Abzan deck does have the tools it needs, and especially given sideboarding, it can transform into exactly what it needs to look like.

Reasons to Play Hangarback Abzan

  • Every card is individually powerful
  • No truly bad matchups
  • With the right sideboard, it can be tuned to beat anything

Things to Watch Out For

  • Linear decks that attack from an unexpected angle (like Blue-Red Mill or Rally the Ancestors)
  • Midrange decks that go just slightly bigger


Over the course of this Standard, control has not been as blue as you'd expect. Abzan Control has been one of the most popular control decks, and it really wasn't until Dragons of Tarkir that blue-based control really started to make a resurgence. Still, despite the success of the Esper Dragons deck in that Pro Tour (and at subsequent Grand Prix), the control deck I like the most is decidedly light on Dragons. Magic Origins has brought with it another engine, one that you can say has flipped things around again: Jace, Vryn's Prodigy.

VonUber's Blue-Black Control—Magic Online Standard PTQ

This list from a recent Magic Online PTQ is the deck I'd choose if I wanted to control the game. I like where Blue-Black Control is, and vastly prefer it to either Esper Dragons or Abzan Control. In a world of midrange, especially when that midrange pushes out decks like Mono-Red, Ashiok and Jace go a long way. I'd rather lean on those engines than Ojutai, and the printing of Languish has only made that preference stronger.

Despite the focused game plan (control the game at all costs), Blue-Black Control is more customizable than you might think. You have a ton of options when it comes to removal spells and interaction, and choosing the right ones is what really matters. Ultimate Price, Bile Blight, Clash of Wills, Silence the Believers—these are all viable options, and picking the cards that line up well against what you face is the real challenge. I like the choices made in this particular list, though note the four Pharika's Cures in the sideboard. Even though I think it's right for Blue-Black to play those, given the current mono-red lists, I'm also recommending that if you play mono-red, you adjust accordingly.

Reasons to Play Blue-Black

  • Takes advantage of a metagame with fewer aggro decks
  • Punishes decks with expensive cards or that are trying to assembly synergies
  • You've got a lot of time to kill
  • It's very consistent—its good matchups tend to be quite good

Things to Watch Out For

  • Blue-Red Thopters and Mono-Red, if they become popular again
  • Having the right removal suite—you need to keep a close eye on the metagame
  • What sideboard strategies are popular—having answers to cards that target control (like Outpost Siege) is critical


Finally, we are at the least represented of the major archetypes. The fact that there are multiple viable combo decks is what's really impressive, even if they are more metagame calls than decks you can always be sure are great.

The most focused combo deck has to be the Blue-Red Mill deck that Michael Majors won Grand Prix San Diego with. It hasn't exactly stood the test of time since, so even though it's incredibly sweet, I can't in good conscience recommend it. The Rally the Ancestors deck is another interesting one, but it too is getting knocked down—mainly because of how poorly all of its Fleshbag Marauders line up against the infestation of Hangarback Walkers. Instead, I chose an archetype I mentioned (and dismissed) earlier, in the conversation about aggro. That archetype is White-Blue Heroic, which I maintain can be considered a combo deck as well. It's got a lot of cards that do nothing by themselves, but when combined they do incredible amounts of work.

Here's the list Todd Anderson used to make Top 16 of Grand Prix London.

Todd Anderson's White-Blue Heroic—Top 16 Grand Prix London

The game plan here is simple: Play creatures with heroic, and target them. Protect them as needed with your protection spells. It even has Hangarback Walker as a backup plan, which is especially funny given its synergy with Ordeals.

Reasons to Play White-Blue Heroic

  • Does well against midrange green decks
  • Punishes people for having slow removal spells
  • Takes advantage of the main sweeper being Languish instead of Crux of Fate or End Hostilities
  • You like playing Yahtzee

Things to Watch Out For

If you get anything out of this article, it should be that Standard has a ton of options. I presented the decks I liked best in each category, but by no means am I saying that these are the only decks that are good. They may be well-positioned right now, but that could easily change in a week, and there are a ton of other great options available. Of note is Green Devotion, which I didn't touch on, mainly because I think it needs to adjust to Tragic Arrogance (which is showing up everywhere). There are tons of other great decks too, and I'm being completely serious when I say that no matter what your play style is, there is a deck out there for you.


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