Reading articles from Mark Rosewater has become a favorite pastime of mine. It’s something I recently got into, and as much as the man writes,
I’m left with years of content on design theory and life lessons to catch up on. If you’ve never read his stuff, I recommend it. He withholds almost nothing and gives a unique
insight into the process of creating our favorite game, with quirky glimpses into his life as a head honcho of MTG and his prior life as a television
writer in Los Angeles.
I burned through seven articles today*, all on card balance and mistakes. This one in particular caught my imagination. Mark explains the
difference between development (cost to power level ratios) and design (mechanics in the greater theory of the game) and points out several design
mistakes he’s made in his career.
* The six other articles I read today and recommend: A Roseanne By Any Other Name partsOne –Two – and Three ,To Err is Human, and Life Lessons partsOne and Two
He briefly touched on some axioms of game design and left me wondering if there was a conclusive text on that very theory. I scoured the net but found
nothing of what I was looking for. Design is obviously a huge concept with multiple facets, but the one that interests me the most, strategically, is
cost-to-power ratio. Being part 2 of an article about balance, I want to define my criteria before offering my critiques and criticisms.
The Theory of Cost – Pay More To Do More
It’s the most simple and obvious concept of a strategy game, but one that seems occasionally overlooked in the development and design process.
Every aspect of a card has a quantifiable value. The combination of these values should determine the mana cost.
Most Magic players have a conditioned intuition for this. Most Magic players understand that the base vanilla bear is a 2/2 for one colorless and one
colored mana. This is the starting template for a creature, before other factors are considered. Each other factor considered changes the mana cost of
Probably most importantly is the card color. Making it blue would increase the mana cost or mana strictness to create a 2/2. It may shave one off the
power or toughness. Green, instead, may add an ability. White may add an ability. Black would certainly have a drawback. So would red. Colorless, too.
Most Magic players understand this concept intuitively.
The basic pillars of balance revolve around this very concept. A normal curve would look like this:
Add 1 colorless mana and (depending on color of card) add: One power or toughness, one basic ability.
Add 1 colored mana and (depending on color of cad) add: More than above.
Add 2 colorless mana and (depending on color of card) add: One power and one toughness. Add one power or one toughness and a basic ability. Add one
Add 2 colored mana and (depending on color of card) add: More than above.
I believe it was Patrick Chapin who solidified the idea that to remain competitive, every additional mana added to a card’s cost would need to
increase its power roughly 50% (although sometimes this isn’t exactly quantifiable, it’s a reasonable place to start).
Easy peasy Magic. This same concept applies to all card types, each with its own base power with a general consensus from the community. Harder to
quantify are the more advanced abilities. Most everyone agrees Stoneforge Mystic and Jace, the Mind Sculptor are far underpriced. Tutoring is certainly
an advanced mechanic, by far the one most heavily banned, and versatility is hard to quantify. Tutoring and versatility in SFM, and the sheer amount of
versatility in JMS suggest much higher mana costs.
For the sake of balance, factors that should not affect card power are flavor (or cool factor) and rarity.
The following are what I feel WotC is pushing too hard based on this criteria:
1) Certain Equipment – If you average the cost-to-power ratio on Equipment, most of it is slightly underbalanced. Most Equipment rarely see competitive
play. The exceptions are the ones so underpriced that ignoring them would be a mistake. Basilisk Collar was a great example of this, with the Swords
being up there, and Batterskull taking the cake, as Brian Kibler discussed in length recently.
Let’s look at Batterskull using cost theory. It’s an Equipment that gives +4/+4, vigilance, and lifelink. Compare that to the sometimes,
but rarely used Behemoth Sledge. If I’m in R&D, and I’m looking to make a more competitive Behemoth Sledge, I’m going to first
note that it did see a minimal amount of Constructed play. This tells me there’s interest in the mechanic. I would start by shaving a mana off
the cost (and equip cost) and use that template as the basis for my design. I have a +3/+0 trample and lifelink for two colorless, two to equip. Swap
trample for vigilance. Same cost. Add some power and lots of toughness. Cost increases by around two to three. We want to push this card a bit for
competitive relevance, so let’s round down. +4/+4 lifelink and vigilance for four to play, three or four to equip. I think this would see play.
Let’s move up until we’ve created Batterskull at a fair cost. The inherent disadvantage of Equipment is it requires a creature to equip. A
living weapon bypasses this disadvantage entirely. When bypassing the defining disadvantage of a card type, you are creating a robust, versatile threat
by strategic definition. It no longer has its ball-and-chain. This requires a significant cost increase. For the sake of pushing this to the
competitive realm and keeping Chapin’s 50% rule in mind, let’s keep its cost increase minimal. Five to cast, five to equip. Already you
have a stellar card. This would definitely see play. Now let’s address its other weakness. It’s a permanent, susceptible to removal.
Let’s make it bounce for a minimal investment. Add a single mana to its two costs. Six to play, six to equip, three to bounce. Note that each of
its unique abilities dodging inherent weaknesses exponentially complement each other by being able to create another creature when entering play again.
Obviously the current Batterskull comes out at least a turn earlier and equips for less. The other major consideration is the context of the
environment, and to print such a card when Stoneforge Mystic is prevalent is an imbalance.
Proposed Solution – Cut off the extremes (the insanely powerful and the insanely underpowered) and raise the general power level of Equipment. This
would ensure aggressively costed mistakes like Batterskull (and to a lesser extent, Swords and Basilisk Collar) wouldn’t be made and give other
Equipment appropriate consideration.
2) Titans – There are 101 five-cost creatures (and Cruella de Vil wants them all!) in Standard today. The average power comes to 3.28 (counting three
power on both star-powered creatures and four power for Sensor Splicer), and their toughness averages to 3.68. The average power/toughness for a
six-drop is 4.69 / 4.71. The average power/toughness for a seven-drop is 5.82/6.60.
The Titan’s abilities are arguably the most powerful standalone creature abilities in the format right now (barring SFM). With abilities that are
repeatable and free, if they aren’t dealt with immediately, they usually spell game. If the creature is dealt with, value was still gained by
just resolving it. With an average power/toughness ratio of a seven-drop combined with the gravity of their abilities, the theory of cost doesn’t
need to be examined here. These creatures are too good.
This seems to be a case of WotC pushing mythic rares. As I stated earlier, if balance were the only driving issue of a card, rarity would not affect
its power level. Mythics have been argued up and down since their inception, so I’ll spare the soap boxing.
Proposed Solution – M12 is of course already in the works, but if I had my way they wouldn’t see print. They’re too good for their cost,
are arguably the default win conditions of many decks looking for a late-game threat, and marginalize most other creatures in their cost range, even
some above its cost range. I would stress a much stricter adherence to the Theory of Cost in the future.
Now for balance issue I feel goes much deeper:
Artifact and Enchantment Removal – Creatures are the easiest permanents to destroy. As the most common way of dispatching an opponent, they have
numerous perilous interactions with other permanents. This combined with spells that deal damage or destroy creatures keep them in check in multiple
and organic ways. Artifacts and enchantments have a more binary interaction. They’re either alive (and helping you), or dead (and not).
They’re on or off. Black and white. The very nature of their limited interaction with other cards has created some tight design space:
1) Solutions for most non-interactive problems can only best be handled with equally non-interactive solutions (any spell that says “destroy
target artifact or enchantment”).
2) Indirect solutions require unnecessary/unfavorable risks against opponents who aren’t taking equally unfavorable risks, lessening the
usefulness of cards like Hammer of Ruin and World Queller (compare them to efficient and versatile creatures like Qasali Pridemage and Acidic Slime
which see Constructed play across multiple formats).
3) The majority of the time, the most efficient answer is the best. The most efficient answer is the cheapest and at instant-speed (Krosan Grip is the
holy grail!). The cheapest, instant-speed answers rarely have any utility. If red could play Manic Vandal every time, it would, but strategically,
Shatter is almost always the correct call. This creates an unhealthy parallel interaction with enchantments and artifacts that are almost always a
side-game (much like planeswalkers were when they first debuted). How much are you willing to deviate from your primary strategy to address a
non-interactive, parallel problem?
Now, WotC knows this. The correct solution given the above criteria is to keep a healthy mix of narrow, instant-speed solutions. The alternative is to
risk less interactive games using less interactive permanents. As it stands now, you may certainly choose to devote a primary strategy to artifacts and
enchantments, but you risk getting blown out by cheap and efficient hatred.
As I see it, this is a problem.
Enter my least favorite card over the last several years:
This is the ultimate catchall. Not only is it a guaranteed 1:1, but sometimes you can live the dream and catch multiple copies. I watched former state
champ Nick Bolanos destroy a kid in a sanctioned match:
Kid: Land, go.
Nick: Land, go.
Kid: Land, Everflowing Chalice for one.
Nick: Land, Putrid Leech.
Kid: Land, Everflowing Chalice for two.
Nick: Land, swing for four, double-time-walk-make-you-retire-from-Magic… Go.
It kept Everflowing Chalice from seeing its true potential until it rotated. It kept entire fringe strategies like Sigil of the Empty Throne, Mesa
Enchantress, and enchantment-based LD from ever seeing play. Worst of all, it underlined WotC’s philosophy for dealing with non-interactive
permanents: Be broad, and be relentless.
Proposed Solution – I see three. A mix of each would be best:
1) Create another dynamic of interaction with artifacts and enchantments. This would be a rather monumental step if executed correctly and would
collaterally alleviate the need for parallel solutions to the cards. This could be as simple as limiting the amount of direct, instant-based hatred in
favor of cards like Trygon Predator and Devout Witness, or could be as groundbreaking as a new mechanic aimed at creating more intersections with the
remoteness of the permanents. I think Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas was a step in the right direction but suffers from the catch of allowing the player to
keep his artifacts non-creatures if he chooses to.
2) Take artifact destruction out of white completely. Back when Onslaught debuted, the idea was to shift the destruction
of all things unnatural to green, with minor bleed into white and red. What this ended up translating to is green gets to destroy artifacts and
enchantments multiple ways; white gets to destroy artifacts and enchantments in only a few less ways; and red gets to destroy artifacts. Here are the
current catchall solutions in Standard:
Green – Acidic Slime, Naturalize, Nature’s Claim, Relic Crush, Slice in Twain, Sylvok Replica
White – Solemn Offering, Kor Sanctifiers
While in flavor, this achieves WotC’s goal of bleeding only a little into lesser colors, keeping the lion’s share for green. In practice
however, while green enjoys the versatility of different casting costs and strategies for the same effect, the mere possibility white has to use one
card for both enchantments and artifacts has a profound competitive impact.
Gerry Thompson recently put three maindeck Divine Offerings in Caw-Blade,
which is certainly the correct metagame call.
Consider if this card were real:
2RR – Not So Efficient – Instant – Destroy target artifact or enchantment
How unbalancing would this be, even despite being double the cost of a Naturalize? The same reason red should not have enchantment removal is the same
reason I believe white should not have artifact removal. There’s a harmony in the balance, which is strategically important—keep green as
the catchall, white as enchantment removal, and red as artifact removal. If this is an impossibility for flavor reasons, delegate white to not having
any single card that could destroy both; make them choose to destroy one or the other. The idea is to limit the broadness of answers by either color
availability or card choice.
3) Further differentiate artifacts from enchantments mechanically. As it stands now, they’re both mechanically similar—little interaction
with other permanents, similar limitations, and most importantly, similar solutions. My suggestion for limiting catchalls to green would be an indirect
way of accomplishing this. New functionalities for enchantments (to compete against the ever-popular artifact Equipment) would also create new
solutions singling them out. The larger wedge we can drive between the two, the more unique each would become, creating a need for different angles of
approach. This would in context alleviate the need for broad solutions like Naturalize by providing new design space to work with and presenting new
and unique solutions for each.
Despite the nature of this and last week’s article, I feel WotC is doing almost everything else right in the game. Planeswalkers in general used
to be at the top of my broken list but have had a special effort given to make them more interactive and less dominant, and barring very obvious
single-card mistakes like Jace, SFM, and Batterskull (while unfortunately format-dominating), most of Magic is a healthy mix of balanced cards.
Let’s hope they keep the trend up and trim the hedges a bit.
Thanks for reading,