agic is now twenty years old, and we have printed more than 13,000 cards. Obviously, some of these are better than others, due to the nature of balancing within the game. Last week, I talked about how we define power, and what that has to do with positioning cards in sets. This week, I want to discuss power creep, or the fact that over time the cards become more powerful.
Creepy Doll | Art by Matt Stewart
I often get emails or read comments in the forums about the rampant power creep in Magic. Sometimes, it is because we printed a card that is strictly better than a previous card that existed. For others, there is a tendency to identify every powerful card that we print as power creep. Well, in some sense yes, it is. But it's not like we go out of our way to outmode old cards in every set, and in fact we have gone out of our way to try and reduce the number of times we do that as much as possible. We choose not avoid the issue entirely, though, because it really isn't reasonable. We need to create four sets a year of cards, and trying to line up every card ever printed and make sure that we aren't printing a better version is energy that would just be better spent on other tasks, like balancing Constructed and Limited. It also means that we are free to solve problems in those formats by moving the stats of cards around within reason for the format, and not worrying about how it will impact the other 13,000 or so cards.
Some power creep in Magic is inevitable because we release expansions that are meant to be played with the previous cards. In many games, especially video game RPGs, the content of expansions generally raises the level cap and introduces more powerful items to the game. The majority of the expansion is "tall," where your character and items become more powerful. There are also some new things, like extra abilities, new trees, or new areas to explore, but they is there to house the new more powerful items. The upside is that it is easy to direct your players on why they should experience the new content (MORE POWER!), the downside is that many of the items they may have spent days or weeks attempting to get are quickly outmoded by the more powerful equipment.
Crypt Creeper | Art by Scott Chou
Magic, on the other hand, tends to expand its content "wide." That is, the focus is on giving you new and different things to do that are of around the same power level of the previous cards. Looking at a format like Legacy, you can see cards from just about every expansion seeing play at tournaments. That deck you liked ten years ago? There is a reasonable chance that some of it is still playable in Legacy, even if it isn't top tier. Some cards have, of course, held up against the test of time much better than others, but I believe we have done an overall good job in the past twenty years of keeping cards from all of the ages of Magic relevant.
The Sources of Power Creep
Because of the rule that you can only run four of a card in a deck, simply printing another version of the same card with a different name is clear power creep. If we printed Lightning Bolt with another name, then all of a sudden decks could run eight copies, and they would gain a tremendous amount, while printing a second Willow Elf wouldn't have nearly as much of an impact. By the same token, certain decks can get huge jumps in power by printing even slightly weaker versions of the same card; again, look at the Modern or Legacy burn decks, where another sorcery burn spell that does 3 damage could be considered power creep. The only way to actually prevent power creep would be to stop printing new cards altogether.
We frequently print creatures with the same mana cost, power, and toughness as an existing card. Because of the abilities on each card, in some contexts the older card will be stronger, and in some contexts the newer card will be stronger. The way many people use "power creep," that would be power creep, regardless of which one was printed first. Another source is when we take a card that was not previously strong enough to see recent Constructed play but decide to try and fix its shortcomings and get it there this time. Finally, sometimes we think we are printing a card at the appropriate power level, but miss some of the possibilities, and the card ends up being much stronger than we expected. Those possibilities, as well as the open-ended nature of Magic, are one of the things that makes the game so deep. The complexity of the interaction between Magic cards needs to be hard enough that we, working on the game, shouldn't be able to know everything about the cards by the time we release them. If we did, the game wouldn't be nearly as deep as it is today.
Power creep is relative, because Magic has so many formats and Magic relies so heavily on interaction. Necropotence might not need a lot of work to be one of the strongest cards in a given format, but Deathrite Shaman does. It needs fetch lands, Grisly Salvage, or something similar. Because of this, we can create cards with different power levels in different formats, based on what interactions they need to reach their full potential. If we didn't, then each set we released would be woefully inadequate to constantly supply new cards to Vintage (now just called Magic) without either radically increasing the power of new cards or constantly banning old cards.
The Origins of Power Creep
The strongest set of all time is Alpha (well, okay, technically Beta, since you also get Volcanic Island and Circle of Protection: Black... but I digress). It has, by far, the most banned and restricted cards out of any single set, and one of the largest lists of cards that we would define as "mistakes" by current standards. In that sense, you could question just how much power creep could exist in the game. It wouldn't be fair to hold the first set ever up to today's rigorous standards in terms of balancing. Considering that before Alpha there was nothing, I'd say the overall power level of the set was pretty good.
So much went right when Magic was originally created, but the relative power of creatures and spells just wasn't one of them. It's easy to look at Alpha and get that many of the spells are overpowered, but it would be a bit strange to process that and think that relative power of creatures was correct. Looking at Alpha, there are a grand total of zero creatures that we wouldn't reprint today due to power level. There are weirdoes like Benalish Hero with banding, or out-of-color-pie creatures that wouldn't be printed, but none because of their power level. To the side is a list of cards that we would currently consider too powerful to print in a Standard-legal set:
And that's not including the ante cards, or cards like Illusionary Mask, Cyclopean Tomb, or Camouflage that are just way too weird to print. Some, like Sol Ring, Ancestral, Lotus, etc., are more egregious than Word of Command, or the Elemental Blasts, but the cards are still not things we would do today. Some of these cards are still available for formats like Legacy or Commander, but what "Magic is about" has just changed in the previous twenty years. Instead of spells being very powerful, and creatures weak, we have been steadily moving them closer and closer to being about even. While there are creatures like Voice of Resurgence, Angel of Serenity, and Boros Reckoner in Standard, there are also spells like Sphinx's Revelation, Farseek, and Bonfire of the Damned.
The imbalance in power between creatures and spells that Alpha introduced caused problems early on when some designers and developers spent years trying to play within the power level set in Alpha. Again, the game was new, and it was pretty much uncharted territory, so I'm glad they went in the direction they did as opposed to printing "R Instant Deal 4 damage," or "2UU Sorcery Take two additional turns." Still, when you are trying to not print any removal stronger than Swords to Plowshares, but also trying to not make creatures any more powerful than Serra Angel, you have a problem. Many of the cards on this list had "fixed" versions printed, which, even when heavily powered down, were still much stronger than any creature in the format. Brainstorm is dramatically less powerful than Ancestral Recall, but still stronger than every single creature in Alpha, and probably most creatures printed to this day.
Handling Power Creep
If power creep to some extent is inevitable within Magic as a whole, the question is not how to stop it totally, but how to best manage it to keep the game going strong, ad infinitum. By far, the most important thing that was done in the early years was the creation of the Standard format. Before that, tournaments had no legality date, and within the first year of the game, Library of Alexandria, Strip Mine, Mishra's Workshop, Moat, The Abyss, and Mana Drain had all been printed. Any further attempt to keep up with the Joneses in regards to those cards would have led us to a game totally unlike what we have today, if it still even existed. Trying to constantly push cards in different directions only works if you are printing cards of similar power levels to cards you printed the year before. It doesn't matter how interesting the newest card in this set is if it just can't compete with turn-one Library of Alexandria or it has to work with Black Lotus. Something had to be done for the overall health of the game.
Creeping Corrosion | Art by Ryan Pancoast
The concept of a rotating format was introduced that only used the most recent cards. It let us printed "fixed" versions of many original cards that had more appropriate power levels and try to correct past mistakes. Of course, many of those fixed version are still at a much higher power level than we actually print cards today, but it was a step in the right direction. Creating balanced Magic cards that are still fun is actually a pretty difficult job, and it took a few years for design and development to really hit their stride. Standard let the game continuously improve and make sure we were not beholden to constantly chasing previous monoliths of power.
While we can aim a few cards for Vintage or Legacy in each set, aiming every card in the game at those formats really isn't realistic. The fact that players have outlets to play cards that aren't required to compete in those formats means there is just more room for fun and interesting cards. In Standard, we can have a deck based around Grisly Salvage and Unburial Rites without having to compete against Animate Dead or Reanimate. Said deck can even be one of the most powerful decks in Standard because the cards within it are able to compete within the environment they are asked to compete in, not against every card ever printed. When they leave Standard, they can still find usefulness in Modern, which has cards that are (as a whole) closer to the power level of Standard cards than the pillars of Legacy.
Finding the Right Balance
What we have attempted to do over the past few years is to keep Magic at a pretty even power level, on a whole, at least in regards to Standard. Doing so has created an environment that is far more diverse than in previous eras, because one set or one block isn't clearly standing heads-and-shoulders above the other sets in Standard (such as Mirrodin in Mirrodin-Champions Standard, or Lorwyn in Lorwyn-Alara Standard), and more decks are just plain possible. Of course, we are going to be off on a number of cards, in either the "too good" or "not good enough" direction, but by keeping the power level of things on a pretty even keel, the format as a whole doesn't suffer much for it.
Creeping Tar Pit | Art by Jason Felix
When we do make mistakes that are stronger than we expected in Standard, it often looks as if the cards are the result of power creep, but some of that is just because they are more powerful in comparison to the cards in Standard, not the most powerful cards in the game. Thragtusk, as an example, was stronger in Standard than we had intended, but I don't think that makes it one of the strongest cards in Magic's history. If I was building a Standard deck and was given the options of playing him or Kitchen Finks, I think I would choose the Finks in almost every situation. Kitchen Finks may not have been nearly as well positioned in its day as Thragtusk is today, but it isn't proof positive of increasing power, just of the relative strengths of the cards in the metagame. Creatures occupy a much larger portion of the overall importance in the Standard metagame than they used to, and by extension the Modern metagame, but I don't think that is at all a bad thing. In our minds, the balance is pretty close to correct right now. That isn't to say that we won't change it over time, it is this churn with what is strong over time that keeps Magic interesting.
Fight the Future
While I think we have done a good job overall of keeping Magic from experiencing inflationary power creep over the past twenty years, our goal is to keep Magic alive for longer than any of us will live. Unless we get swell robot bodies. Then our goal is to keep Magic alive long enough to usher in the Hypersonic Age of Transgalactic Dueling. In any case, we are working on keeping Magic fun, interesting, and new, without having to radically increase the power level of the game, requires us leaving things open for the future. Much like how complexity creep risks the future of Magic, power creep has the chance to harm the game. If we need to increase the power of the new cards we are putting in packs to keep the game exciting, then we will quickly outmode cards in the past and create a further requirement to push things in the future. One of development's tasks is to keep that from happening by spreading out the power in sets, and constantly changing what is powerful to keep the power from getting out of control, while constantly trying to leave places to go in the future.
We strive to create a different feel in Standard year after year and constantly shift the focus of the format in new directions. Because of how we have set up inner-block synergies, we can ensure that the new cards are well positioned to see play without requiring that they simply be stronger than the cards they are replacing from two years ago. Looking at Innistrad, some of the strongest cards interact with the graveyard, while most of the strongest cards in Return to Ravnica block are gold cards. Next year, many of the strongest cards will be enchantments or interact with them, because that is what the block is about. But that is a discussion for another week, very soon, when I can begin talking more about Theros and how it was put together.
Until next week,
Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May, 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.