Top three draft pick?
n my six years working on Magic, I've witnessed R&D falling into more than a few traps. While we are far from perfect and make a good number of mistakes, we also learn from those mistakes and are better able to avoid them in the future. Some of these mistakes are glaringly obvious and have been solved for over a decade. A couple of my favorite examples are from Legends. As much as I have fond memories of opening the packs, the set is awful to draft or play Sealed with. But never fear, we in R&D are smart and have solved the mistakes Legends made in Limited! Now we know that having a grand total of one red common creature that can attack for damage is a bad idea (Raging Bull was probably a top three pick in Legends draft).
Another mistake from Legends: printing the Adventurers' Guildhouse cycle. These cards were "broken," but not in the same way Black Lotus is "broken." If this card doesn't look that bad to you, please go read my favorite article of all time by Mark Gottlieb, Absurd or Ridiculous? You Decide (which is, fortunately, out of date—"bands with other" now works how you'd expect it to, not that that makes Adventurers' Guildhouse any better). The solution is easy, we now make Magic cards that actually work. Unfortunately, most of the traps we fall into these days are not as easy to identify or solve (or as hilarious) as the ones from Legends. In this article I will be talking about some of the largest and/or most controversial (at least among R&D) traps we have fallen into and how we will avoid them in the future.
One of the most consequential traps R&D has fallen into happened about a decade ago. In a time often referred to as "Combo Winter," Urza Block created the most insane Standard environment ever seen. Some of the nuttiest cards ever to see print were all packed into the block, cards like Memory Jar, Tolarian Acadamy, and Time Spiral, among others. These created Standard decks that could kill on the first turn. R&D got into big trouble with the "higher ups" that year (glad I wasn't around) and was forced to respond to this obvious disaster by banning the biggest offenders. The other R&D response to combo summer was, in my biased opinion, one of the best things to happen to me—er, I mean Magic. R&D began to hire Pro Tour players to help test the sets before they were printed, and the concept of the FFL, Magic R&D's Future Future League, came into being.
Zak Dolan, world champion, and Mark Rosewater.
Today we still debate a fundamental question: is there an amount of combo that is healthy for the game? The downsides and upsides to combo are often points of argument in R&D. On the plus side, there is something awesome and mind-blowing when you witness a true combo deck for the first time. My first combo experience was at a large tournament at my college. The deck was being run by the then current reigning World Champion, Zak Dolan (which was pretty exciting in and of itself—the best player in the world was at the same tournament as me!). His deck was Verduran Enchantress recursion. When I watched him, all in one turn, draw thirty-plus cards and then cast the same Time Twister three times, my mind was blown. Like many Magic players who had been exposed for the first time to the concepts of "combo" and "recursion," I never looked at the game the same way again. I see my introduction to combo as very positive. For me, it was eye-opening and added a lot of depth to the game. When a new set came out I would always look to see if I could spot some awesome new combo. And as an R&D member, I'm excited to keep Magic in a place where people are always wondering if there is going to be some new awesome combo deck coming out of the next set.
As an R&D member, I also fear the downsides to combo. Given the goal of making Magic the most fun for the most people, I don't believe we can have Standard dominated by combo decks like it was during Combo Winter. While many people enjoy talking about combo and playing with or against it every once in awhile, I believe few people actually enjoy an environment dominated by it. So today we aim to have combo exist in Standard at a low level and every once in awhile be the "deck to beat." Luckily we have FFLers like Eric "The Mad Genius" Lauer, Steve Warner, and Mons Johnson, among others. They help make it possible to fine-tune the options in Standard to match our specific goals. It is a challenge to have combo exist but not dominate, and I'm proud that over the last few years we've been able to achieve that goal.
The Spike Trap!
I will be the first to admit, I'm a huge Spike. All I want to do is compete and win all the time. If someone said to me that they like to compete more than I do, I literally would want to hold a contest right then and there to prove that I desire competition the most! Now, with regards to being a Magic R&D member, is there anything wrong with that? Yes, there definitely is. The problem is perspective.
Before coming to R&D I assumed my Spikey perspective was the only one that really counted. And I am sure there are many Spikes reading this article that still believe the same thing about their own opinions, but they are wrong. I'm happy to say that six years ago when I was first hired, that "Spike only" perspective was soon beaten out of me. And I'm even more happy to say that these days I get to help beat it out of the R&D newbs!
So what exactly is wrong with being overly Spikey? One example I like to use is the concept of tension, and I'll illustrate it using the card Arc-Slogger. If you are a hardcore Spike you probably react to the card the same way I did. It's a large-ish creature with a powerful ability that you get to use about four times in a game, overall a card well worth playing in both Limited and Constructed. But a huge number of Magic players would disagree. Non-Spikes often despise Arc-Slogger because the tension to pay ten cards, many of which are better than Shock, for 2 damage isn't fun. I believe some of these players would rather run Earth Elemental. But Masashiro Kuroda won a pro tournament with four of them in his deck, so clearly the cost of ten cards from the top of the deck for 2 damage is worth it. Should we in R&D ignore the hate for Arc-Slogger since the haters are wrong and the card is actually very powerful? Absolutely not! Our goal, above all else, is to make the game fun. Just because something is powerful doesn't give it an excuse to be miserable.
A challenge is making the correct number of Spike-only cards, which is generally a few per set. The trap is, as a Spike, believing that you can ignore the non-Spikes and print lots of high-tension, Spike-only cards that are very fun for you. A set full of cards like Bad Idea Elemental would be a blast for a few but, overall, a big mistake.
Bad Idea Elemental
Creature - Elemental
Slog 12 (When cardname comes into play, exile twelve cards from the top of your library.)
There are many other "Spike traps" that need to be avoided. Another is the idea that balance equals fun. This is far from true. As an example, imagine a world where the Prison deck (a deck based on keeping your opponent's lands from untapping with Icy Manipulators and Winter Orbs) goes about 50/50 against a beatdown version of Zoo. When the Zoo deck wins it takes 3-10 minutes, but when the Prison deck wins it takes 20-30. Not only is it unfun to play against Prison for any amount of time, but even when you are at even odds, you still spend most of your time losing to the awful thing!
As a Spike it is hard to always be aware of when I'm falling into the "Spike trap." Luckily there are plenty of non-Spike R&D members who are there to help me out. When I disagree with them, they can just say I'm being a Spike and discredit my position. Problem solved!
The "Fancy Pants" Trap
(Also known as the "That is interesting ..." trap.)
This refers to the mistaken desire to design cards that are wacky and unique to read but not necessarily fun to play. This error was made many times in Future Sight, and one of the best examples is Steamflogger Boss. Yes, we knew at the time that it was created we wouldn't be designing any Contraptions that you could assemble. I hate to admit it, but I still laugh when I read the card (and then immediately feel guilty for laughing). As funny as it is to some R&D members, "jokes" like Steamflogger Boss don't add value to actual games of Magic. And that is exactly the problem. If we believe it is OK to sacrifice game play for cards that upon first read are funny or interesting, we will make worse sets.
R&D now generally believes that many of the obviously over-the-top, fancy-pants cards from Future Sight were mistakes. But we still have many debates on some interesting cards that are less obvious. A good example is a card that Mark Rosewater mentioned in his article, Achieving Zendikar, Part II. It was in the Zendikar file at one point.
Map to the Scary Graveyard
[THE ART WOULD SHOW A MAP WITH THREE THINGS PICTURED ON IT – A SHOVEL, A ZOMBIE, AND A NECROMANCER]
T, Sacrifice CARDNAME: Put a 4/4 Zombie token into play. You may only activate CARDNAME if you have an equipment, a zombie, and a cleric in play.
This card is a good example of something that I'm on the fence about. Is it too fancy-pants, or just maxed out on fancy-pants but still ok to print? I worry that a card like this is fun to read, but if a set had more than four of these it would start to get old. That being said, it is fun to build a deck with challenges like the one this provides. This is a tough one for me to answer.
I believe R&D is in a good spot with regards to these types of cards and has learned from its missteps. We will continue to put "fun to play" as priority number one while also trying to come up with new, innovative cards and mechanics. In addition, we are playtesting our new sets constantly in both Limited and Constructed to help get a better view of which cards are legitimately fun to play with and which are only fun to read.
Going forward, I am optimistic about how we will handle the traps we will face. We spend a lot of time looking for the mistakes we are making and admitting to them so we can solve them. The challenge ahead is not just to fix our errors, but also to identify the traps we are stepping on that we are unaware of. To solve this challenge we will continue to playtest our sets constantly and interact with the players to get your feedback on which traps they see us falling into.