April 17, 2015

Creating Commands


Atarka's Command | Art by Chris Rahn

One of the things we try to do with each set is to make sure it has a ton of cards for people of all types. Dragons are, as a whole, not the spikiest cards we have in the game. And that meant we needed something in the set for people who weren't sold on the idea of wanting Dragons in their decks. One of the best examples of this type of card was in the original Lorwyn, which had a problem similar to a tribal set. If you didn't want to do the tribal thing, we needed to make sure there were things that excited you as a player. In that set, one of our solutions was to create the cycle of Commands that could go into any deck of the chosen color, and provide our spikiest players with cards they could point to in the set as being cool.

One of the earliest choices we made for these was to turn them from monocolor cards into two-color gold cards. This actually happened in design, as an attempt to mirror what the cards originally called Empires in Khans (which later turned into the Ascendancies) were doing for the clans. The original mechanics of these were not commands exactly, but something a little different. Something we plan on trying again someday, so I can't go into what they do. It wasn't until development that we decided we could simplify the cards a bit and just go with gold commands.

Trying to live up to the original commands was a difficult task. These are cards that are both powerful and iconic. It's hard to make things that stand up to them head-to-head, especially when we knew we were going to actually use the words 'command' on them. Because of that, they were given a lot of tender love and care as we worked on the set, because we knew we needed to not only make them balanced but make them fun and strong enough to live up to our player's expectations. In today's article, I'd like to delve a bit deeper into what our thought process was, and hopefully give you a better understanding of what goes into cards like this.

Balancing the Colors

It was important for us, when creating these gold commands, to find a reasonable pattern for the cards. When we made the Charms in Khans of Tarkir, we put one mode in each color for the choice. When making the Ravnica two-color gold charms, we instead used the pattern of: ability from the first color, ability either color could do, and ability from the second color. Getting these commands right meant finding the right pattern, and applying that to not only each individual command, but making sure we found the right balance of the colors between the commands.

Ideally, these commands would work best if players tended to choose one ability from each color, rather than using them mostly for the monocolor effects. That meant finding ways for each command to provide strengths that work with the decks we would expect to see them in.

Looking at our two green commands for some examples:

We came to these by trying to split up green effects, based on what kinds of decks we wanted to see these cards in, and how we felt we could best give those decks a wide variety of effects they could use.

We imagined the red-green/Temur as a more aggressive deck than the white-green/Abzan deck, partly due to how the second colors of the commands played. So, for Atarka's Command , the red parts of the command were for finishing off an opposing control or midrange deck, and keeping it from gaining life to come back from behind. We gave it the ability to put a land into play so you could use it early in the game, to accelerate into a creature like Stormbreath Dragon , or to cast Sarkhan; and gave it the ability to give your team +1/+1 and reach, either as protection from an air-based alpha strike, or to create a super-efficient finisher.

When looking at what a white-green deck needed, we wanted to add some way for decks that might want to play less black to get some creature removal win white-green, or let the Abzan decks that already have removal have something versatile that could deal with different kind of threats. For Dromoka's Command , the white parts of the command were good at keeping your creatures (or you) from being killed by a mass-removal spell and dealing with many of the powerful enchantments from Theros block. But we wanted to give the green parts of the command ways to deal with more general threats, so giving your creature a +1/+1 counter and fighting is a great way to go over the top of an opponent's blocker.

Creating Decisions

People like powerful cards. That's a pretty verifiable fact, even if they sometimes make the game less fun. While Cryptic Command is fun to cast, as a card it's also stronger than we would generally print in Standard. When creating cards we expect to live up to the original set of commands, we needed to do so in a way that kept the decision-making process that made the first set fun, but not in a way that would overpower Standard. And that meant carefully designing the commands to be useful for their versatility, not just for one combination of modes.

Imagine, as an example, the following command:


Gain 2 life.

Destroy target creature.

Draw 2 cards.

Tap target land.

There is no denying this card would be very powerful, but it's not actually very interesting. The problem is that the effects are way out of whack in terms of power—destroying a creature and drawing a card are just way stronger than taping a land and gaining 2 life. While there will always be some situations where the two weak abilities will come up, it's not nearly enough to justify that the card will be used in its two primary modes 95% of the time.

Part of designing and developing these new commands meant finding effects that were not only balanced with each other, but provided people enough opportunities to choose the different options. Getting all of the modes to be perfectly balanced won't ever happen, but we can at least find abilities that all get used at pretty similar rates.

Take, for example, Silumgar's Command .

These modes are not of exact equal power, but they lend themselves to be better or worse in different situations. Target creature gets -3/-3 until end of turn, as an example, is just much more frequent a choice than destroy target Planeswalker in the abstract, but both of them will come up more than enough to mean that when a player chooses Silumgar's Command for their deck, they will be making different choices on a regular basis.

Finding the Right Targets

The problem with mixing modes that target and don't target, is that players will either end up choosing suboptimal modes to play around possible removal, or just make a mistake and end up getting punished pretty heavily. Ask anyone who has targeted a Mutavault with Primal Command and chose to search for a creature. Whoops.

To try and avoid that, we had a rule in design that all of the commands had to have either all of their modes target, or none of them. For most of the commands, this stayed true through development—though Ojutai's Command ended up losing the 'counter all creature spells' and gained the ability to return a target creature, instead of something less interesting.

We made this a focus for our rules on commands because we believe they improved game play. It isn't a huge change, but we imagine these as being some of the premier cards of the set; and certainly some of the strongest ones we created that were dragon-agnostic, and it's important that they worked in the ways that people wanted them to work. It's not a huge change to the power level of the cards, but it goes a long way to making them play in a way that's satisfying for everyone involved. And ultimately, our goal is to make sure the cards we add to Standard make the game more fun as a whole, not just for the person casting them.

That's it for this week. Join me next week when I start talking about what our Dragons of Tarkir FFL metagame looked like.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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Reign of Silumgar


Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir lived up to its name. Almost every deck in the Top 8 had Dragons (or in the case of the winner, followed Atarka's Commands faithfully), and the breakout deck of the Pro Tour is as Dragon-focused as it gets. That deck is what I want to talk about today, because our Dragon overlords have landed, and they are ready to take over.

Dragonlord Silumgar | Art by Steven Belledin

Before we address the Dragonlord's Prerogatives, let's take a look at what all made it to the Top 8.

As promised, that's a lot of Dragons. Most notably, the deck with the largest number of copies is Blue-Black Control, which coincidentally is the deck I think emerged looking best from the Pro Tour. There are two distinct builds of the deck in the Top 8, and I want to start from the least number of Dragons and work my way up.

Adrian Sullivan's Blue-Black Control — Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir

This is the "standard" Blue-Black list, and looks remarkably similar to what Blue-Black lists have looked like ever since Pro Tour Khans. Adrian, in particular, has played this list or something very close to it for months. And his approach to this Pro Tour was to tune his deck with the new cards, but keep it fundamentally the same.

The deck is fairly simple, despite the abundance of 1 and 2-ofs.

27 land

17 removal spells (Bile Blight, Perilous Vault, etc)

5 counterspells (Dissolve and Dissipate)

6 card draw spells (Dig Through Time, Jace's Ingenuity, and Dragonlord's Prerogative)

5 Planeswalkers (Ashiok, Ugin, and Liliana)

That's it. The deck just wants to survive by killing or countering threats, draw cards, and proceed to win the game as slowly as possible. While I can get behind that strategy, I think the way the other Blue-Black lists were configured offers a more powerful alternative, and one with more Dragons.

Here are three different takes on the deck, two from the Top 8 and one that Team ChannelFireball played (with Paulo Vitor damo da Rosa and Josh Utter-Leyton making Top 16 with, going a combined 17-3).

Andrew Ohlschwa's Blue-Black Control — Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir

Shota Yasooka's Blue-Black Control — Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir

Team ChannelFireball's Esper Dragons

These three lists are all based around a similar engine, one that would not have been possible prior to Dragons of Tarkir.

If you look at what these cards do when the Dragon cost is paid, they are absurd. Counterspell is a card that hasn't been legal in Standard for over 10 years, and Diabolic Edict plus gain 4 life is incredibly crushing against aggro, so figuring out how many Dragons you can play and you want to play is the real question. It is important to note that both Silumgar's Scorn and Foul-Tongue Invocation work without a Dragon, and I'd expect Scorn to counter most things up until turn five or so without any incident, which plays a key role in making sure this deck functions even when Dragons are absent.

Here's our own Dragon counter, when looking at different Blue-Black Control lists:

Ohlschwager: 8

Yasooka: 6

Team ChannelFireball: 5

These Dragons all came from the following pool:

There are two main things to consider when deciding how many Dragons to play in this deck. It is clearly important to have some number, as enabling Silumgar's Scorn is critical, but how many is just as important to figure out.

  1. How much of a cost is it to play these cards? These four Dragons are clearly powerful, but if it weren't for the Dragon bonus that Scorn represents, these decks would play way fewer of them (or in the case of Ojutai, avoid playing a third color).

  2. What percentage are you comfortable with when it comes to seeing a Dragon by a specific turn?

The answer to the first question is trickier, because the only way to arrive there is some combination of playtesting and theorycrafting, and there's no clean answer. I can speak to the conclusion that Team ChannelFireball came to, which is that the hexproof Dragons they played did not compromise the deck's immunity to removal spells, and were close enough to what the deck wanted that they were worth playing to power up Scorn and Invocation (and Prerogative, to some extent). They would play zero if not for those cards, but playing the Dragons was not adding unplayable cards to the deck, by any stretch.

The second question can be approximated a little easier, at least in terms of knowing what the percentages are for each number of Dragons. Deciding which you are comfortable with is, again, more guesswork/intuition/theory than any hard-and-fast rule, but you can at least get a rough idea of what your odds are of having a Dragon at a certain point.

The Odds of Having One or More Dragons by Turn 5 (12 cards into library)

With 5 Dragons: 68.64%

With 6 Dragons: 75.48%

With 7 Dragons: 80.93%

With 8 Dragons: 85.25%

(While not quite as exact as Frank Karsten's calculations, I used a hypergeometric calculation with the parameters of a population of 60, successes in population from 5-8, and sample size 12)

There's a pretty big range here, with the adventurous members of Team ChannelFireball being the most willing to risk having no Dragons in-hand at a much higher rate than Andrew Ohlschwager, and to a lesser extent, Shota. Anticipate does help increase the odds, though Ohlschwager again leads the pack there, with the full four in his deck. He was not willing to ever be caught without a Dragon, and his decklist reflects that.

As for which number is correct, that I cannot say with certainty. Playing the minimum of 5 Dragons worked out well for those who played it, and 68% plus Anticipate and scry lands does not seem excessively risky. It is also true that Invocation works without backup, and sometimes Silumgar's Scorn is live even much later than turn five as a Force Spike. I'd lean toward the 5-6 range, and don't think you need to go all the way up to 8 like Ohlschwager did. The biggest incentive to no go above 5 is that you get to play all hexproof Dragons and blank opposing removal. Both Shota and Ohlschwager had numerous targets for removal, and I don't like that it makes opposing Hero's Downfalls and the like into live cards instead of dead ones.

The Rest of the Deck

Besides the Dragons and their attendant spells, the deck is split up much like Adrian Sullivan's. It's full of removal and card draw, with the counterspells and finishers taken care of via the Dragon package.

Another big incentive to play the Dragon version of the deck is how much better Crux of Fate is. It is true that Crux can backfire against opposing Dragons, but it's awesome how powerful it is to cast Crux to wipe everything but the Dragon you have in play. Plague Wind is a nice card, and getting to cast it for five mana is even nicer.

All of these cards play specific roles, and splitting them up helps give you a range of answers to every potential threat. It is nice that Ojutai and Silumgar can hunt down Planeswalkers, but even so it's important to have Hero's Downfall as an unconditional removal spell. The mana cost on Bile Blight is tough, but the card has so much value against tokens and early plays that it demands inclusion. Lastly, Ultimate Price kills all sorts of large green monsters, but is the most narrow, and you can't jam tons into your deck without running into problems.

Four Dig is mandatory, and is even better in this deck than other versions of Blue-Black. Anticipate and Silumgar's Scorn are both cheap spells that fuel Dig, and Anticipate can even find it. I include Prerogative because some members of the team played one main, and the sideboarded copies were incredibly important. Because of the Dragons, this is an un-counterable Opportunity in control matchups, which is as insane as it sounds.

How to Fight This Deck

This deck is great against much of the field, but is by no means unbeatable, and Martin Dang has a Pro Tour trophy that shows just that. He had the best deck in the Top 8 against Blue-Black, and defeated two different copies of it on the way to his win.

Martin Dang's Red Aggro — Pro Tour Dragons of Tarkir

If Blue-Black control is a finely-tuned machine, one where the percentages of drawing Dragons is carefully calculated and the mix of removal is critical, Red Aggro is the hammer that smashes that machine, as the Top 8 amply demonstrated. As it turns out, playing one-drop into two-drop into burn spells is very good against a deck full of five-plus-drops with a bunch of lands that enter the battlefield tapped.

Martin burned down the competition, and it wasn't particularly close. The matchup isn't unwinnable for Blue-Black, but it is tough, even with an extensive sideboard plan. The fact of the matter is, blue and black just don't have enough cards that change the matchup drastically, even if they wanted to board in 8 or so. Some combination of Drown in Sorrow and Pharika's Cure seems like the best bet, but in game two against Dang, Adrian Sullivan played a removal spell on turns two through five and still lost a long game.

If I had to choose a deck to play in a tournament tomorrow, I'd play Blue-Black Dragons close to the CFB list. Even if Red Aggro is tough, matchups against the rest of the field are solid, and Red Aggro isn't likely to be more than 20-25% of the field. If you want to beat Blue-Black, Red Aggro is clearly the best choice, and if you want to beat Red Aggro, I'd look at playing something like the Green-Red Devotion decks that made Top 8. There are tons of other viable decks too, decks like Abzan Aggro/Control, Jeskai Tokens, Red-Green Dragons, and more. Standard is your oyster, and just because I favor cracking that oyster with powerful Dragons doesn't mean that's the only way.


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