April 03, 2015

The Pillar That Never Was

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It's very hard for Magic R&D to predict everything in the metagame. We play hundreds, if not thousands, of games of Future Future League Standard when working on a set, but unlike the real world, our cards keep changing. We get the set to a point where we are generally happy with things, and we send it off into the world.


In general, we get a lot right. Not everything, but a lot. We miss a few cards that were hits, and we have a few cards we expect to show up that miss in the real world. Usually, they are kind of minor, but sometimes they are pillars of our own format that spawn multiple tier-1 decks. This article is about one card we were expecting to show up, but didn't—although it's one we were pretty happy didn't. That card?



It might seem strange to you that we had pegged this as a top Constructed card, so let me go through why we thought the card was so powerful, and what kind of things we did to try and keep it from dominating the metagame.


First Response's History


Let me start off by giving you the version that design handed over to us:


Supply Chain


1W


Enchantment


At the beginning of each end step, if you lost life this turn, put a 1/1 white Soldier creature token onto the battlefield.


We played it with Mana Confluence and found that making tokens on turn two and beyond was too Bitterblossomy, so we moved it to three mana. That might have been it, if not for one very big thing—early on in Khans of Tarkir FFL, we found that we just couldn't cast our spells. Wedge decks weren't working because the mana wasn't strong enough. The problem was that the Innistrad check lands that were in Magic 2015 at the time worked with the allied-color fetch lands to make two-color and shard decks work, but not to make wedge decks work. Casting a Mantis Rider on turn three was difficult, which led to people mostly playing two-color decks. We could've kept bumping up the power level of the cards in Khans until people played the wedge cards, but instead we went back to M15 (which had not yet gone to typesetting), and tried to see what we could do. This led to a late change of swapping the check lands for the pain lands. A few days later, someone pointed out "Boy, this First Response card is a lot better with the pain lands." A little testing later and that was confirmed, it was quite good. More than just that, we found the gameplay of the card very frustrating when it was good. Each turn, a player would get two tokens per First Response . It was almost impossible to fight through unless you had a ton of creatures with evasion, and control decks had a hard time dealing with the onslaught.


We were just about out of time for testing Magic 2015, so we moved it up to four mana, assuming that would keep it out of being a top-tier Constructed card. We didn't think about it a ton for a little while, until Khans became more settled as a set, but then we started putting together decks that included the card, just to see how it was doing. Here are some of the resulting decklists from both the Khans of Tarkir and Fate Reforged Standard environments:





WB Tokens by Gerry Thompson




































Mardu Control by Adam Prosak




































Jeskai First Response—Adam Prosak






















Now, these decks were naturally less tuned than the ones in the real world. We also made them because of a quirk of FFL testing—it's a lot easier to get onto playing a four-mana card that used to be three mana when that version was very strong. The card just looks a lot stronger to us because we've seen what it can do. In the outside world, nobody knows the card used to cost three, or even two mana, and it's much harder to think that the card could even be Constructed playable. This was a card we were hoping people wouldn't put a lot of effort into testing for Pro Tour Magic 2015 , and from what we gather, they didn't.


The Anatomy of a Miss


This leads to a big question—if we were so afraid of First Response being a major player in our FFL Standard, why didn't it hit in the real world? Well, there are a few reasons.


The first reason is that our decks are just way less tuned than in the real world. We change cards very rapidly—often making five or more substantial buffs or debuffs a week, which means that it's very hard to fine tune a decklist. The advantages you get from that fine tuning are often just overshadowed by one card being a mana undercosted, or having a little too much toughness. We also have a duty to test a lot of cards and not just focus on the few that we view as being the best of the best.


The second reason is that our own metagame was more about control and midrange than the real world metagame. The average deck was just not fast enough to get in before First Response started taking hold. In addition, we didn't have a ton of great tools to fight the card. It matched up really well against most of our most-played creatures like Polukranos, Savage Knuckleblade , and even Goblin Rabblemaster .


Finally, the third reason is that development is all about changing cards. Because of the timing, changing First Response wasn't possible, so it meant changing the cards in Khans to be better against First Response . It wouldn't help us for Pro Tour Magic 2015, but even if things went wrong there, we could make it so it wasn't also dominating Khans Standard.


As an example, this was the original version of Siege Rhino :


Siege Rhino


WBG


Creature – Beast


When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, each opponent loses 2 life and you gain 2 life.


If a spell or ability an opponent controls causes you to discard CARDNAME, put it onto the battlefield instead of putting it into your graveyard.


3/4


This card was here to fight a different card that was in and out of FFL—Liliana of the Veil . When she was removed from M15, Siege Rhino instead got "can't be countered" text. As the First Response threat in our FFL grew, the deck that was most heavily impacted by it was Abzan, since they were supposed to be the clan that outlasted their opponents, but getting two 1/1s a turn wasn't something they could easily overcome. As a result, we moved Siege Rhino up from 3 to 4 mana, and gave it trample to go over the top of the First Response tokens. At the same time, we had to move a 4-mana Abzan card down, which meant changing:


Anafenza, the Foremost


1WBG


Creature – Human Soldier


Whenever CARDNAME attacks, put two +1/+1 counters on another target tapped creature you control. If a creature an opponent controls would die, exile it instead.


4/6


This swap let us make sure that the Abzan had a creature that could go over the top of First Response .



Promise of Power | Art by Kev Walker


The Power of Hindsight


It's easy to look back on this as a failure of R&D to identify which cards were weak and strong, but I think it is instead a view of the system working. Standard isn't perfect right now—not that I even know what a perfect Standard environment is—but it is very good. It has only gotten to be that way because we work on making our environment as diverse as possible, putting in a number of safeguards in the format to keep any one deck from becoming too dominant.


Ultimately, our goal in testing is to create a lot of decks that are fun, and to make a format that is diverse enough that we can't solve it ourselves. After all, if a handful of developers could figure it out in the time we have to work on it, there is no way it would not be solved very quickly in the real world. I think it is good that we have times like this where cards we think are major pillars miss, because it reminds us how robust our game is, and how well our system for developing cards work.


That's it for this week. Next week, I'll be back with Dragon Week, and I'll talk about how we made Dragons-matter cards work in Dragons of Tarkir.


Until next time,


Sam (@samstod)






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