After last week’s poll, this column finds itself in a bit of a pickle. You see, a purely democratic voting system never really pleases people because there’s no compromise; a huge portion of the voting population is simply ignored. Worse yet, this particular instance split almost down the middle between those wanting a design skeleton and those favoring further flavor exploration; and on top of that, the number who wanted to explore a different setting entirely was far from insubstantial. I spent a while trying to concoct some sort of compromise, but everything boiled down to two separate articles awkwardly mashed together.
I’m sure that wouldn’t go over terribly, but I’m not looking for universal acceptance. I’m looking to create something valuable for you, and that means I’m going to try to write an article that some of you will love, even if it pisses a few people off. Under the assumption that you know what you want to read, this realization still tells me very little about which approach to choose. Then, I realized that the people looking to see cards designed as examples would have finished the article the poll was in, whereas it’s possible that some people who held opposing viewpoints never made it to the end. A small and arbitrary effect? Yes, but it’ll do.
So, we’re going to start constructing a design skeleton for the first set in this new block. Let’s call it Life, The Universe, and Everything. “What is a design skeleton?” you ask. I’ll pass this one off to the esteemed Mr. Rosewater:
Speaking of which, you should probably read (or reread) MaRo’s Nuts & Bolts series before we go any further.
Are you back? Okay, good. Let’s get to some numbers. Life is a large set, and since Shards of Alara, that has meant that we’re getting 249 cards . . . give or take a few. Twenty of those are basic lands with various artworks, and the remaining 229 generally break down into 15 mythics, 53 rares, 60 uncommons, and 101 commons. But we’re not going to work with all of that at once. For one thing, it’s too many moving pieces to handle, and for another, we don’t know what roles the higher rarities need to assume until we’ve dealt with the ones below them.
So, let’s start with just the commons; 101 doesn’t divide evenly into five, but there’s enough buried treasure lore to make me suspect we’d want a few artifacts anyway. Given that this isn’t Zendikar, we don’t need a whole lot of lands at common, but Dark Ascension managed Evolving Wilds and Haunted Fengraf without feeling strange, so there’s no reason to rule out having a couple if they fill a role. I’m inclined to start off with two land slots at common and four spots for artifacts leaving each color with 19 commons, but this is all very much subject to change. That’s a whole lot of empty slots, and it’s easy to feel intimidated, but just following the same steps that MaRo laid out in his second Nuts & Bolts column can give you a good starting place. We might end up with something like this:
CW01 – creature, small, team pump
CW02 – creature, small, flying, enchantment removal
CW03 – creature, medium, flying
CW04 – creature, small, first strike
CW05 – creature, small, vigilance
CW06 – creature, small, flying
CW07 – creature, medium, lifelink
CW08 – creature, medium
CW09 – creature, small, flash
CW10 – creature, small, flying
CW11 – creature, small
CW12 – sorcery, token making
CW13 – instant, tapping
CW14 – instant, protection granting
CW15 – sorcery, enchantment removal
CW16 – instant, life-gain
CW17 – sorcery, pump, flying granting
CW18 – enchantment, Aura, creature removal
CW19 – enchantment, Aura, boon
CU01 – creature, small, flying
CU02 – creature, small, mills
CU03 – creature, medium, flying
CU04 – creature, large
CU05 – creature, small, hexproof
CU06 – creature, small, flying
CU07 – creature, small, bounces
CU08 – creature, medium
CU09 – creature, small
CU10 – sorcery, card-drawing
CU11 – instant, bounce
CU12 – instant, counterspell (hard)
CU13 – instant, counterspell (soft)
CU14 – sorcery, mill
CU15 – sorcery, card drawing
CU16 – instant, −X/-0
CU17 – sorcery
CU18 – enchantment, Aura, creature removal
CU19 – enchantment, Aura, boon
CB01 – creature, small, intimidate
CB02 – creature, small, deathtouch
CB03 – creature, small, lifelink, haste
CB04 – creature, small, flying
CB05 – creature, small, enters-the-battlefield (ETB) discard
CB06 – creature, small
CB07 – creature, medium, intimidate
CB08 – creature, medium, creature revival
CB09 – creature, medium
CB10 – creature, medium
CB11 – sorcery, creature kill
CB12 – instant, −X/−X
CB13 – instant, +X/+0
CB14 – sorcery, discard
CB15 – sorcery, draw cards and lose life
CB16 – sorcery, edict (target player sacrifices a creature)
CB17 – sorcery, drain player
CB18 – sorcery, creature revival
CB19 – enchantment, Aura, boon
CR01 – creature, small, haste
CR02 – creature, small, first strike
CR03 – creature, small, firebreathing
CR04 – creature, small, damage player
CR05 – creature, small
CR06 – creature, medium, haste
CR07 – creature, medium, intimidate
CR08 – creature, medium, trample
CR09 – creature, large
CR10 – instant, +X/+0, trample
CR11 – instant, damage creature or player
CR12 – sorcery, damage player
CR13 – instant, artifact destruction
CR14 – sorcery, panic effect (“can’t block”)
CR15 – sorcery, damage creature or player
CR16 – instant, damage creature
CR17 – sorcery, threaten effect (gain control of creature until end of turn)
CR18 – instant, first strike granting
CR19 – enchantment, Aura, boon
CG01 – creature, small, deathtouch
CG02 – creature, small, reach
CG03 – creature, small, mana producing
CG04 – creature, small
CG05 – creature, medium, flash
CG06 – creature, medium, reach
CG07 – creature, medium, vigilance
CG08 – creature, medium
CG09 – creature, medium
CG10 – creature, large
CG11 – creature, large, trample
CG12 – instant, +X/+X
CG13 – sorcery, life-gain
CG14 – instant, hexproof granting
CG15 – sorcery, land searching
CG16 – instant, artifact/enchantment removal
CG17 – instant, fog effect (prevent all combat damage)
CG18 – sorcery, flyer removal
CG19 – enchantment, Aura, boon
CA01 – equipment, power/toughness boost
CA02 – Equipment, evasion granting
CA03 – mana related
CA04 – sac effect
CL01 – color fixing
CL02 – ETB untap a creature
That’s all well and good, but we have a couple of glaring issues. First of all, real sets have more than one new mechanic, and we haven’t decided on any of ours, so it’s tough to slot that in. Second, as its nomenclature would imply, a large set has more cards than a small one. That means that all of the nice prescriptions MaRo gave for “one of this effect, two of that effect” need to be reconsidered, and while just noting that a small set has about two thirds as many commons per color as a large set will put you on the right track, we really need to look at the as-fan numbers. How many of a given effect are you likely to see when you crack open a booster pack?
Getting a Boost
Here things are going to get a bit mathy, so if you don’t care to check up on all of the approximations I’m making, you’re free to skip down to the next heading. For those of you who are still here, I’ll start by noting that other than foils and misprints (which I’ll henceforth ignore), duplicates of a card never appear together in a pack. Given that the pack has ten commons, three uncommons, one rare or mythic, and a basic land, we can easily calculate the probability of a booster containing at least one card with a given attribute by finding the chance that there will be none and subtracting it from 100%.
As an example, we’ll see how easy it is to figure out that Shards of Alara is multicolored-focused. With 15 of its 101 commons being multicolored, the chance that none of the 10 commons in a given booster is multicolored is . . .
To subsequently miss the 20 out of 60 uncommons that were multicolored across the rarity’s three slots gives us:
Next, there’s a 7/8 chance that the pack contains a rare and a 1/8 chance it contains a mythic. With their 10/53 and 12/15 ratios respectively, this leaves the opener of a Shards of Alara booster pack with more than a 96% chance of pulling one or more multicolored cards.
Ahead of the Pack
This in turn explains Rosewater’s maxim that “If the theme of your set isn't in common, it isn't your theme.” Doing a similar analysis of Champions of Kamigawa’s legendary creature theme shows that a pack of Champions had about an 82.5% chance of containing one or more legends. That may not seem a far cry from the 96% chance of having at least one multicolored card in a Shards pack, but the fact that most of that probability is due to an enormous number of rare Legends means that you would rarely open two or more legendary cards in your Champions pack (less than 31% of the time), whereas that number if far above 80% for multicolored cards in Shards boosters.
Image from StarCityGames.com
Magic design is often touted as more of an art than a science, and it is . . . if you don’t explore territory that requires new science. We have just such a case with the suggestion of making blue dominant in the setting. Torment showed us just what a heavily skewed color ratio can do to a Draft format, and I take Development’s refusal to let Innistrad go down the same path as support for a belief that letting people draft their preferred colors shouldn’t require them to force a fringe archetype. Wobbles’s suggestion a few weeks ago to use hybrid mana certainly makes matters better, and it’s something I’d be willing to experiment with in a different setting with a different color. But not blue. Blue has a reputation of being a favorite, and casual players who envision themselves as a red mage or a green mage would be less than thrilled to see direct evidence of that favoritism.
I’ve said that avoiding angering people isn’t reason enough to discard a mechanic, but here, there’s very little upside. Infect may have pissed off a portion of the player base, but a much bigger portion loved it. The group opposed to a ton of blue hybrids is all but guaranteed to be four times the size of the decision’s supporters!
Getting back to the matter at hand, it takes a lot of iterations to pin down new mechanics—just look at how long it took us to iron out duel. Returning mechanics are a lot easier to work with since they’re set in stone. Which mechanic ends up being the best fit will depend on the rest of the set’s structure, but figuring out what our viable options are will allow us to be conscious of our restrictions from the start—instead of just hoping everything will fit together by happenstance.
In last week’s comments, Alex Spalding proposed scry as a returning mechanic. Assuming this block exists reasonably far from Magic 2011, the four new cards that set gave the keyword shouldn’t stop us from using it again, and scry has a lot of promising features. Perhaps the most exciting thing it offers is the opportunity to easily bleed a little bit of blue into each of the other colors, much like Zendikar (and every multicolored block) did for green and New Phyrexia for did for black. This lets us make the set play bluer without having to screw up the Draft environment or deal with the bad feelings inherent in an imbalanced color distribution.
Another strong contender for the slot is cascade. Besides having an evocative name for a water world, the mechanic offers a great execution of digging for buried treasure, and it’s a fan favorite. I suspect that’s why it’s making an appearance in this summer’s new Planechase decks. Cascade does a fantastic job of introducing additional variance to the game without the same bad connotations that coin flips entail for Spikes—that is assuming it’s used fairly. One of cascade’s major shortcomings is how easy it is to break at low mana costs. It’s hard to build a deck with only one spell below the 5 slot, but it’s very easy to build a deck with only a single 1-drop, so in Alara Reborn, Wizards decided to set 3 as the lower limit for cascade spells’ converted mana costs.
That choice led to a Hypergenesis deck in Extended—which left the card banned in Modern—and a mana-denial deck in Standard with Spreading Seas and Convincing Mirage. These effects aren’t unbearable, but the fact that both Living End and Restore Balance decks are borderline playable in Modern makes me wary of printing many more 3-mana versions, and being confined to converted mana costs 4 and up certainly hurts the design.
The other issue with cascade is that it’s so powerful that any reasonably balanced card with the keyword looks weak—a fact that’s only exacerbated by cascade’s tendency to become stronger on more expensive cards. Just look at Bituminous Blast. Nevertheless, I think cascade has enough raw potential to warrant some effort on its behalf.
In the last corner, morph evokes mysteries of the deep, and it shares cascade’s popularity. This setting could represent the keyword as a shadow lurking below the surface, the confusion as something jumps out of the water, or even some sort of creature that turn into schools of innocuous-seeming fish. As far as I can tell, the only reason that morph hasn’t returned already is that it’s too complex to fit nicely at common, and it needs too many copies to show up to exist only at higher rarities. Morph could probably return at common in a set without any other complexity for beginners below uncommon, but without knowing how the rest of this first set will shape up, that requirement makes it by far the weakest contender of the three.
Writing Flavor Text
We’re still a ways from being able to fill the initial design skeleton, but I’m interested in hearing your thoughts about this change of pace. Did you enjoy delving into the structure underlying a Magic set? Would you like to spend more time talking about the choices of which mechanics fit on which creature sizes, or would you prefer to move on?