June 12, 2015

Tarkir Retrospective

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Modern Masters 2015 Edition has been out for a few weeks now, and Magic Origins is on the horizon. This seems like the perfect time to look back at Tarkir block, and give you all an idea of how I believe development as a whole views the last year's block. This is a little different from Mark's State of Design article in that I really want to look at the decisions that we made for this block, what we used from the past to try to improve them, and what I believe we have learned from them to use in making sets in the future.

Dragonlord Atarka | Art by Karl Kopinski

Limited

I believe that Khans-Khans-Khans is one of the best Draft formats we have ever released. Fate-Khans-Khans and Dragons-Dragons-Fate are both good Draft formats, but I think the goal of creating a swing set to draft with two different formats ended up making each of those formats less polished than we would've liked.

Still, from a development perspective, I look at this as a big success. We were given a very difficult task of making this unique block structure work, and I think we generally pulled it off in a way that I think RTR-GTC-DGM failed. And a lot of the reason we succeeded was because of the problems we realized too late for RTR-GTC-DGM—notably, we didn't really get to play the full block until it was too late to make enough meaningful changes to GTC (and RTR was fully done), which led to a mismatch were it was clear that you always wanted to be in a Gatecrash guild. This led to us doing much more hands-on drafting of both DTK-FRF and FRF-KTK. Even though we didn't have the ability to change KTK, we made sure that both formats played well. In the end, the fact that much more time was spent on the DTK-FRF format led to it being the stronger of the two expressions of Fate Reforged, I feel that it correctly feels at place in either environment.

The two-block structure has (at least for the foreseeable future) made the need to keep trying experiments like this unnecessary, but I feel confident that if we try and make another more-complicated Draft format work, we will have the knowledge needed to make it a success.


Standard

One of the complaints about Tarkir block Standard is that it is very midrange heavy. That is true. It wasn't an accident, it was a strategy of ours to accomplish the goals of what design was creating for Tarkir block.

Dragon Whisperer | Art by Chris Rallis

Development does a lot more than just put the right costs on all of the cards design creates, it has to deliver on the package that design creates. How would you feel about going to a world like Mirrodin, only to have artifacts not matter in Standard, or to visit Lorwyn and find that all the tribal stuff is just malarkey. Standard can't always be about counterspells, generic two-for-ones, and burn spells—each set needs to add something new, and each year should feel different from the last. Sometimes that means making some individual aspects of the format suboptimal to make the game as a whole much better over the long run.

For Tarkir block, that meant the transition of three-color set to mono-color (though also kind of gold and wedge), and finally to a Dragon-based set, all while keeping Standard interesting and fun. This was a challenge for a few reasons, not the least of which were:

  1. The challenge with any wedge set is to get people to actually play three-color decks despite their mana bases being worse than mono- or two-color decks.
  2. Control decks naturally prey on midrange decks, but we need the second set to have an impact and shake up Standard. If we give control a big boost in the second set, we don't have a good place to go with Dragons.

If we were to make Tarkir again in a way that was easier to execute, we would've started with Dragons in the first set, made the second deck about aggressive decks, and have the third set bring up wedge midrange (and enough dual lands to get you to play it) to prey on the aggressive decks that had been beating up the control decks since the release of Fate Reforged. As it was, we needed to lead with the dual lands and convince people over the year that there were reasons to not just play mono- or two-color decks.

That being said, I think it is good for development to often take the route that isn't the easiest. Getting Standard to work was difficult, as was getting Limited. But in the end, we have a final product that I believe everyone in Magic R&D can be proud of.

Looking back on it, I am very happy we ended up with the pain lands in M15. While they got into the set very late, I think they went a long way to allowing the interplay between the two- and three-color midrange decks. The three-color variants are, as a whole, better against the two-color versions, but the pain lands and the damage they have to take to cast their spells keeps them down a bit against the aggressive decks.

As a whole, I think Tarkir block Standard was a roaring success. The format has been very diverse over its entire lifespan, with great examples of all the major deck archetypes showing up on a regular basis, and all of them doing well.


Modern/Legacy/Vintage

The biggest impact we knew Tarkir would have in Modern was the introduction of the allied-color fetch lands. It wasn't a surprise to us that almost all of the decks in Modern were enemy-colored decks, and I think a big part of that was that the mana was just much better in enemy decks than allied-color decks due to one having the ability to easily fetch basics to fight against Blood Moon.

Dig Through Time | Art by Ryan Yee

We were not expecting Siege Rhino to become such a huge staple of Modern. We knew that Siege Rhino was the best reason in Standard to play Abzan, but not that it would ensure that it would become a Modern staple as well. It is one of the perfect examples of how we have tried to sculpt the format. We attempt to keep the most degenerate cards and decks in check, so that the range of decks in the top tiers is pretty broad, which provides more opportunities for the new cards we print to show up, and keep the format evolving.

Delve is kind of a different matter. When development suggested to design to put delve in the set, we did so because we thought it was an exciting mechanic and one that fit well into Sultai's flavor. We weren't considering much about older formats because that is just not how we try to think of things in Standard. Sure, Tombstalker had seen some play in Legacy and Extended, but it seemed like a good type of card to have around. Balancing the cards for Standard included some challenges, but I think we did a pretty good job of getting them to hit about the right spot. They were just too strong for our older formats.

To be clear, we didn't miss that Dig Through Time or Treasure Cruise would be powerful in older formats, we just underestimated how much it would warp the formats. I believe it is good, now and then, to release cards in Standard-legal sets that have an impact on older formats to keep them fresh. The chief complaint that resonated with me, at least, about Treasure Cruise in Modern and Legacy was that it took away a lot of the elegance of those formats. While players enjoyed the ability to make meaningful decisions with their cards that slowly built up card advantage, one fractional card at a time, and waiting as long as possible to use their Brainstorm or similar card to get the most out of it; Treasure Cruise generally meant that decks were racing to empty their hand, fill up their graveyard, and get to the next delve spell.

This is far from the first card we have made for these formats that has been more impactful than we expected, and far from the last. Overall, I am personally pretty happy with Modern's health and growth, and hope that the format will continue to evolve over the next year.


Story and Legends

I want to end on what I personally consider to be the true largest success of the Tarkir block.

Every khan and Dragonlord has seen some top level constructed play, with Anafenza, Atarka, Ojutai, Silumgar, and Sidisi being a few of the most important cards in Standard. The surveys we do on our website after our sets come out have shown that an ever increasing number of respondents both know the Magic storyline, and are engaged by it.

Sarkhan Unbroken | Art by Aleksi Briclot

There are a lot of reasons for that. The first is clearly that the creative team has made some really great strides with Uncharted Realms in the past year, and has done an amazing job of making the storyline visible and readily available for people who want to see it. The second is that development placed a heavy effort to make sure that these characters were all awesome and exciting cards, and that people would love them. We made sure that every one of our ten dragonlords and khans had at least one card that was aimed at doing something powerful in Standard.

Outside of our Planeswalkers, we haven't had a great track record of making really great story characters on cards in the past. Some of that was the older legend rules were really not great for Constructed, but a lot of that was the cards often went too far in fulfilling the creative goals as opposed to what would make a fun and interesting card for constructed play. Design, development, and creative spend a lot more time now trying to nail down these characters and cards, because they are just more important than the average card. I think that decision has paid off well this last year.

Some of the largest characters in Magic's storyline's history—like Gerrard, Khamal, Glissa, and Radha—just never had cards that did anything. And I think we missed the opportunities in those sets to get people excited about those characters. At the same time, I think one of the reasons people historically have liked characters like Teferi, Squee, Karn, and Venser isn't because they were more inherently more interesting, but because we did a much better job on their cards to get people excited by them, and to get them to want to dig deeper into the lore.

To be clear, that isn't to say that every legend in the next five years will be a top-tier Constructed card. We just want to make sure that the card's design is doing enough work to make people excited about the character, and to allow for their cards to really show off who they are. Avacyn was not exactly the strongest tournament card in Avacyn Restored, but we managed to find a place for her to exist where she is powerful, and she ended up being a very popular character. Okay, she did get a small leg up over most characters by getting a set named after her, but I think it was more than just that.

Looking forwards to Origins, Battle for Zendikar, and beyond, I can say that Tarkir Block was just the beginning for both the integration of cards and story, and the Magic storyline as a whole. We are being far more ambitious than we have been in recent years, but we've taken the things that we have learned from the last few years and really gotten good at making what we want to have happen a reality. I look forward to you all seeing Origins the cards and story in the next few weeks.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)



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