May 29, 2015

Staple Effects

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In design and development, we talk a lot about staple effects. These are the effects we most often put in almost every set—like counterspells, burn, mana creatures, card draw, and creature removal. Over the years, we have spent a lot of time refining our suite of staple effects, and changing what we think of as the correct power level for Standard.

We want each Standard environment to feel different from every other, and for new sets to have the opportunity to make an impact without just power creeping. We want to make cards with each set at around the same power level as the set before it, but try to make specific things you can do either stronger or weaker within the metagame. In that way, we can create cards that can impact older formats, while at the same time having Standard be fun and feel new whenever a set is released.

The most basic tool we have in our toolbox is to take many of these staple effects and add the set mechanic. Let's say, for example, that cycling is the mechanic in a new set. It's pretty easy for us to make a Cancel, Shock, Leaf Gilder, Inspiration, and Murder with "cycling: 2" and have a reasonable suite of cards that will change how Standard plays.

Cancel | Art by Slawomir Maniak

However, we don't just stick keywords on these effects and call it a day. Development spends a lot of time thinking about the mechanics in our sets and how to deploy our keywords in ways that are both novel and easy to understand. The goal when we release a mechanic—like, for example, overload in Return to Ravnica—is to find the most interesting cards to put it on and make those cards because we can't make those in just any set. The more we can make the card feel like it could only exist in this place and time, the more we can create sets that do genuinely feel different from each other, and have their own identity.

When we inevitably bring back cycling, I would much prefer a card in the vein of Starstorm over Slice and Dice. That preference isn't just because of power level concerns, but because Starstorm is just a far more interesting effect. It's a card that would be unique in the metagame, thereby giving us more freedom in the next block to figure out how to use our new mechanics with some of our staple effects.


Staple Shifts

If you have been playing Magic for a while, you may have noticed that the frequency of many of our staple effects have changed over the years. This has been part of a strategy to diversify cards by allowing a wider range of mana costs to exist on cards that see play in Standard. There was a point in time where playing a card for five mana or more meant it won you the game, often on the spot. Today, we've reached a point where cards like Ugin, the Spirit Dragon and Dragonlord Atarka can see play in top-tier Constructed decks, and not because they are being cheated out. They are powerful, for sure, but they're cards that can certainly be defeated, even after they hit the battlefield. At the same time, moving our unconditional Wrath cards from four vanillas to "five-mana with upside" allows us to balance the aggressive decks so that the matchups come down to more than just "I dump my hand and see if you have a turn-four Wrath." It allows for both sides of the matchup to play a more interactive game.

One of the most common requests I see from players is for us to bring back some of their favorite iconic staple cards to Standard—cards like Counterspell, Lightning Bolt, Day of Judgment, and Doom Blade. While it is fun to play with many of these cards, it's mostly because they are the most powerful versions of these staple effects, and playing powerful cards is fun. Developing Standard, and Magic in general, is about knowing when to hold back from these powerful versions for more diversity. While I might really enjoy casting Counterspell in Standard, I also really enjoy the decisions that having a wider variety of choices in which cards to play gives me. I like figuring out which is the right version of a card for this week, or what cards I can play to get around what my opponent is playing.

Part of the problem, you see, is that Counterspell, the actual card, is a little stronger than we want in Standard. If we could charge fractional mana, Counterspell would be in the 2.5–2.75 mana—closer to 3 than 2, but not quite there. One option would be to just take off the fractional mana, and put the more powerful card in a set. In some sense, that would make people happier. I think, in general, people would be excited by the ability to play with Counterspell in Standard, but it comes with a lot of problems. For one, the card really is a little too strong for Standard (as should be proven by just how strong Silumgar's Scorn is). It also would make it a lot harder for us to create different cards, varied metagames, and play experiences. Once we have a card like Counterspell in Standard, then we don't really have a ton of room for other counterspells, unless we want to create Draw-Go types of decks, which we don't.

Instead, we choose to make the baseline for our counterspells in Standard to be Cancel + something, or we find designs for two-mana counterspells that are narrower—they miss some threats, but are still very useful. By doing that, we increase the total range of different cards you can expect to see in any given match of Standard against an opponent.


So, let's compare the two options:

Counterspell

Silumgar's Scorn

Dissolve

Negate

Nullify

Disdainful Stroke

Dissipate


There is no clear answer on which is the right counterspell in the abstract, and I think that's great. Silumgar's Scorn is powerful, but it requires you to run a deck with a lot of creatures, and those need to be Dragons. You can play Dissolve instead, but it's much worse on the draw. Disdainful Stroke is almost useless on turn two, but allows a control deck to play some mid-game cards and still have mana available for a counterspell. Other decks can do things like attempt to play only low drops to avoid Disdainful Stroke, if it's a four-of in many decks, or go to creatures that otherwise dodge many of the counterspells we have.

Providing this wide variety of cards offers real rewards for deck building, and keeps it from just being a box-checking exercise.


Keeping the Fire in Check

Counterspells aren't the only cards that fall into this kind of pattern. Removal, especially burn, quickly runs into a critical mass problem. The first powerful burn spell in Standard is pretty good, but the third makes the total way stronger than the sum of the parts.

If we make a similar comparison to the previous example,

Lightning Bolt

Lightning Strike

Magma Jet

Wild Slash

Draconic Roar

Magma Spray

Searing Blood

Stoke the Flames

Atarka's Command


The problem with Lightning Bolt is not as much that none of the cards on the right would see Standard play, but that we would have a hard time printing many of them. While some decks may only run 4 Lightning Bolt for removal (it is one of the most ubiquitous cards in Modern after all), there would be a lot of fast decks that would run it and Lightning Strike, as well as Stoke the Flames, to have an incredible amount of reach very early. Probably not to the "What are you at? 13? Oh good, burn range!" of the Fireblast era of Standard, but it would be faster than today's environment.

At some point, the mass off all the burn in Standard would get to be too much, and we would have to make all of the burn we print worse to compensate. Players would get to play with Lightning Bolt, but at the expense of having more nuanced, and I believe fun, decisions in deck building. Do you play Lightning Strike, the plain and efficient version, or go with Wild Slash to fight small creatures? What about playing enough Dragons to make Draconic Roar work or getting to play Magma Spray if a recursive card exists?

Similar to the counterspell example, having a wide variety of spells to go to, none of which is unambiguously better than the others, allows for decision making in deck building, and for players to stand out from the crowd by making the right decisions for a specific environment.


A Wider Spread

As a whole we have attempted, over the last few years, to work on spreading out the casting costs that we put our staple effect spells at. We spread them out, hoping to better diversify Standard, something that I believe as a whole has occurred. Decks have real choices in the staple effects they include. You and a friend could each play a different burn spell in your respective decks, and both be correct.

There can be some growing pains as we more carefully mine design space and figure out what works and what doesn't work. As we continue to develop with this wider range of spells, and figure out how to get more and more designs to impact Standard, I think we will continue to see environments defined more by which versions of effects you play than ones in which the most powerful versions are available.

That's it for this week. Next week, I'll be back with my Origin story.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)



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