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Format Design and the Circle of Predation – Checks and Balances


My first article on what I call the Circle of Predation (a revision of the metagame wheel) is here, with an expansion here. In this article I intend to expand upon the principles I wrote about and show how they apply to format design. If people are interested, I can follow this up with a look at my Cube, which is designed on these principles. Of course, perfection in this respect is almost impossible to reach, but by striving for it better formats are created.

For reference, here is the circle:

What I want to talk about is utilizing this type of strategic interaction and natural predation to sculpt formats from a design standpoint. In order to do this, we have to define a good format first. So, what makes a good format? I feel like the heart of a good format is a solitary thing—options. Simply put, the best formats are the ones where the players have lots of options as to what they want to play, both from a deck/strategy standpoint and from a card selection standpoint.

Historically, the largest constraint on options inside any format is balance. Certain cards are always more powerful than others, and the most powerful cards in a format rise to the top, creating what we know as a metagame. This is especially easy to see in the history of Standard, which in most years is dominated by a small subset of very powerful cards. Recent examples include Jace, the Mind Sculptor, Bloodbraid Elf, and Bitterblossom while older examples include Umezawa’s Jitte, Skullclamp, Fact or Fiction, and Flametongue Kavu.

So here you immediately see the design tension—the player community demands both powerful cards and balanced formats. This is a very difficult goal to achieve, but there is a way of doing it, and the Circle of Predation provides us with the clues.

Instead of looking at how a card interacts with other cards (synergies), I believe that the primary focus, from a design standpoint, needs to be on how a card (or group of cards) interacts with the game of Magic as a whole. By focusing on strategic-level interactions patterns emerge, and you can begin to use those patterns to help balance formats.

Balancing formats while printing powerful cards is simple, at least from a theoretical standpoint. All you have to do is enable natural predators. This is very similar to the idea of checks and balances initially implemented by America’s founding fathers. The idea that each branch of government would check the power of the other branches has proved to be very effective, and similar principles can be applied to Magic.

In Magic, there are really only a small number of basic strategies, and by enabling both those basic strategies and their natural predators you create dynamic situations for players. If a single strategy becomes too popular its natural predator will simply come and knock it down, resulting in shifting popularities of decks based upon the prevalence of their prey. Of course, certain extremely powerful cards or decks can break the format apart, but introducing a strong system of natural predation builds a high amount of resistance into formats, since as a whole the format can simply shift to accommodate new, powerful additions.

The model for this type of thing is in the Legacy format. Legacy has many of the most powerful cards ever printed, and yet people who play it will tell you it is the most dynamic and fun of all of Magic’s formats. Why is this so? The answer is simple. In addition to enabling extremely powerful strategies Legacy also enables their predators to a large extent. The presence of powerful sideboard hosers like Null Rod, Gaddock Teeg, Ethersworn Canonist, Leyline of the Void, and more help create a natural system of checks and balances across the format, keeping the playing field generally fairly level.

Affinity getting too uppity for you? Would you like to meet Null Rod?

Storm getting too uppity for you? Would you like to meet Trinisphere, Ethersworn Canonist, Rule of Law/Arcane Laboratory, and Hymn to Tourach?

Dredge getting too uppity for you? Would you like to meet Leyline of the Void, Tormod's Crypt, Nihil Spellbomb, and Relic of Progenitus?

These are just some of the examples of predator-prey relationships in Legacy. For every Counterbalance, there is a Krosan Grip, and this system allows for the format to balance itself on many occasions, leaving the players happy because they have control over their own decks and their own success.

So, let’s examine each of these fundamental strategies and look at them in more detail.

The 1-Drop

Primary enabler – Seems fairly self-explanatory

Other criteria – Reach

Primary weakness – Overall power

Current examples – Goblin Guide, Glistener Elf

For decks that aggressively seek on winning through the combat phase, having a good one drop is an absolute must, and having two such one-drops will lend to stability and continued success. Goblin Guide has been an excellent demonstration of how a single one-drop can lift an archetype from completely unplayable to playable, but clearly not the best choice. Glistener Elf will probably have a similar effect on Infect as a strategy.

The reason 1-drops are so crucial for enabling this type of deck is because these decks need to get on the table quickly. They are sacrificing power for speed, and looking to kill you before you get your defenses fully set up. Overall their cards are comparatively underpowered, but are cheaper, and thus faster. There really is only one way to enable this strategy—print good, powerful one drops. It’s boring, but it will lead to better formats.

As far as the “reach” criteria are concerned, that is much broader. Reach is a method of killing the opponent after the board has stabilized. For many aggro decks this is going to be burn, but something like Contagion Clasp or other proliferate spells are an example of “reach” as far as Infect is concerned. I use Infect as a strategy to demonstrate that there is some minor variation you can introduce in this archetype, but, as a whole, it’s very boring.

One-drops as a whole tend to be relatively easy to prey on however, due to this very fact. Because they sacrifice so much on the top end, decks that can deploy powerful threats in a reasonable time frame will have an advantage, especially when these threats also come with beneficial abilities attached. Cards like Obstinate Baloth, not to mention Wall of Omens, have historically been very strong against one-drop decks for this very reason. This means that one-drops are capable of becoming prey of anyone, but are particularly preyed upon by decks filled with mid-range cost cards that come with benefits on the side (two-for-ones).

The Counterspell

Primary enabler – Strong, cheap, defensive instants (creature removal and counterspells)

Requirement – 2 mana, unconditional counter (either hard or soft)

Other criteria – Strong card-advantage engine

Primary weakness – Early tempo

Current examples – Mana Leak, Condemn, Stoic Rebuttal, Jace's Ingenuity, Jace, the Mind Sculptor

This is a category that Wizards seems to have recently come back to, with the realization that it is, in fact, positive for formats when properly done. Defensive “counterspell” are very good at utilizing the principle of one-for-one trades followed by drawing cards to win games. The reason they can afford to do this is because their “answers” are typically cheaper than your threats, thus allowing them to use their mana to draw cards and still answer your threats.

This is particularly good at preventing some kinds of powerful, expensive spells from taking over a format because the mana investment is too large when it can simply be stopped for two mana. In general, counterspells are a significant weakness for cards like Avenger of Zendikar and Violent Ultimatum.

One-drops are the natural predators because one-drop decks can deploy a stream of threats before the counterspell deck can set up its defensive barrier. This early threat generation can often then be ridden directly into a game win as the counterspell deck struggles to “catch up.” This preys on the fundamental weakness of counterspells as a card type—they do nothing to help you catch up, only preventing you from falling further behind.

The Big Spell

Primary enabler – Spells that have a large impact on the game

Other criteria – Basically none, although mana acceleration is nice

Primary weakness – Generally doesn’t do much if their “big spell” doesn’t resolve

Current examples – The Titans, Karn, Liberated, Avenger of Zendikar, the Eldrazi

Shocking that when you print big, splashy, powerful cards people want to play them. I know. In general, if you make an expensive spell powerful enough, people will find a way to cast it (Emrakul, I’m looking at you). Wizards really doesn’t need to do anything “special” to push this archetype other than continue to design big, powerful spells that can be cast. The only “criteria” necessary is some mana acceleration, which is not really a criteria, since it will probably always be around.

The power of this strategy is in the actual spell itself. The vast majority of the time the spells themselves will be so powerful that they will win the game on their own. This mere fact alone makes this type of strategy dangerous, since all it needs to win is a single card to resolve and do its thing. The more powerful the card, the more likely it is to win the game by itself. Emrakul is a great example of this. Sure, it’s ridiculously expensive, but losing once you hard-cast it is very unlikely.

Of course, counterspells are the natural predator of this type of strategy because many big spell decks invest so many resources into their spell that it sucks when it simply does nothing. The counterspell accomplishes this goal so completely and for so little a cost that Big Spell decks typically don’t like seeing a few untapped Islands on the other side of the table. There are obviously exceptions, but, for the most part, counterspells are bad for these decks.

One-drops can also be a semi-predator here, because many big spell decks have to invest time and resources in finding and playing their big spell. A good number of these cards typically don’t impact the board much, and thus the one-drop deck will have some free reign in terms of board development and attacking potential, a dangerous thing to give a deck designed to kill you quickly.

The Two-for-One

Primary enabler – Strong value cards (cards that do multiple things well, but are not particularly good at one thing) or cheap card advantage cards

Other criteria – None

Primary weakness – Extremely powerful plays that can erode multiple card’s worth of advantages.

Current examples – Wall of Omens, Skinrender, Obstinate Baloth, Arc Trail, Baneslayer Angel, Fauna Shaman, Vengevine

The plan of two-for-one decks is to build up incremental advantages over the course of the game. They will play good, solid cards that provide them with a bunch of side benefits, and these side benefits will be how they get ahead. Because most of these value cards tend to be costed in the 3-5 mana range, these decks are usually “mid-rangey.” The idea that you have to spend a card to kill a Wall of Omens or Skinrender while that card has already “paid” for itself is a great demonstration of this principle. Planeswalkers are a huge boon to this type of strategy, since they are in many ways the ultimate “value” cards.

The reason big spell decks are the natural predators of these types of deck because of their ability to win the game with a single spell. The ability to erode away an entire game’s worth of advantages with a single play is extremely powerful. After all, you may have a Bloodbraid Elf and some guys, but I have Emrakul, the Aeons Torn.


As a whole, it is easy to see from a format standpoint that Big Spell strategies and Two-for-One strategies are the easiest to enable. This is because their requirements for effective tools are so loose. However, to have a truly great format, all four must be equally viable, and thus attention must be paid (in the form of enablers) to the other two strategies as well. By enabling all four of these strategies you do two things:

1. You create options for your players by enabling different strategies.

2. You place natural constraints on the format by utilizing inherent strategic strengths and weaknesses to place checks and balances on the format.

This basic principle of checks and balances can be applied to any type of design related to Magic. Want to push mana fixing via nonbasic lands (e.g., Vivid lands, Reflecting Pool, Filter lands)? Print something that checks it also (for example, Ruination). Want to push big, expensive spells (Titans)? Print something that checks it (Mana Leak). This type of philosophy also applies great towards individual powerful cards. By understanding what strategies these powerful cards enable, you can print a check to their power in the same set.

Example – Bitterblossom

The power inherent in this card is its ability to generate a stream of creatures for only 2 mana and 1 life per turn. Phyrexian Arena has historically proven to be quite playable, and the cheapness and predictability of Bitterblossom will only be to its benefit when compared to Arena. Combined with the fact that it was in one of the major Lorwyn tribes, and you could easily have a card that could get out of hand.

The fundamental weakness of Bitterblossom is that it is a continuous life-loss engine. One of the best ways to attack Arena has always been via attacking the player aggressively. This leads us to the following solution:

Proposed check – Goblin Guide

This is just an example of the type of view that is possible when looking at formats from a different perspective. I understand that we have the benefit of hindsight, but hindsight allows us to create better processes for the future. The fact that there was no Zendikar-block check for Jace, the Mind Sculptor (and a few very good enablers like Wall of Omens) sort of disappoints me. We’ll see if Tezzeret generates a similar situation in Shards block, as there really is no check on him either. He is less powerful than Jace, but still easily powerful enough to dominate a format.

Chingsung Chang

Conelead most everywhere and on MTGO

Khan32k5 at gmail dot com

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