Rebutting “What We Know About Wizards R&D”

The Jon Kaus article about what he learned about Wizards R&D was filled with sweeping generalities and impossible recommendations. It is clear to me that he doesn’t understand the phenomenon that is playtesting for a game on the scale of Magic: the Gathering. But rather than try to summarize it all at once, I want to address each of his points, and show the mistakes one at a time.

The Jon Kaus article about what he learned about Wizards R&D was filled with sweeping generalities and impossible recommendations. It is clear to me that he doesn’t understand the phenomenon that is playtesting for a game on the scale of Magic: the Gathering. But rather than try to summarize it all at once, I want to address each of his points, and show the mistakes one at a time.

1. Wizards will not be proactive.

Wizards will not be proactive even in the face of clear and concise data to the contrary, in house. It will not happen. They knew… they simply knew and they chose to do nothing.”

What is this that R&D supposedly knew? They knew that they released a card that was far better than they thought it was. They knew that every time they tried this card in its current form it was a godsend to the deck they were building. They put it in two pre-Constructed decks (Transference and Nuts and Bolts), but the first one wasn’t designed to take advantage of it as much as it could have been.

So what they knew was that this had the potential to be ugly. But remember, we’ve had five years’ worth of sets come out since the last banning in Standard. Some people were calling for Psychatog to get the boot, or Fact or Fiction. They were good, but they didn’t quite rise to the level of banning.

There might be a warning in the fact that we’re talking about a cheap equipment card with colorless requirements, as opposed to ugly Blue and Black things. But then again, this was released in the same block as all of the Green and Red artifact hate, and in the same set as Oxidize. Oxidize gained the”can’t regenerate” ability through playtesting. As it turns out, that added functionality wasn’t enough to keep Skullclamp out of the realm of being”stupid broken”, but sometimes two wrongs do right themselves.

“And now, Aaron (in the first two quotes above) says that they could do nothing. I disagree. They had the opportunity to cut the snake’s head off and chose not to (as described in the third quote). This is completely unfair to players, and a shoddy way to do business.”

Here they are seeing what is quite likely to be a train wreck, yet they aren’t sure. At this point the only action that can be taken is to announce a ban of a card ten days after it has become tournament legal – and that without a major event to demonstrate that it really is a problem. Is that reasonable?

Do we really want the R&D to be so paranoid over a card that they run to the DCI and get it banned immediately? That’s right, the decision about banning a card comes from a different set of people than those who created it.

What has proven to be a problem is hardly ever the same stuff as what was perceived to be a problem. Survival of the Fittest wasn’t that bad – until there were more than enough ways to pull those discarded creatures out for free. Necropotence was a good way to keep your hand full, Dark Ritual and Mana Vault were cheap-but-situational mana accelerants, and Illusions of Grandeur was a casual card with little chance of ever seeing tournament play, but then a”silly” sorcery called Donate drove most of them to the banned list for Extended, and the rest cycled out. Worldgorger Dragon is a stupid combo that forces a win or draw – if you can create a loop with him that involves reanimation enchantments that haven’t been printed since Mirage.

As a policy matter, I am glad that Wizards first tries to let the format sort itself out, so that when the ban comes, it will be seen as necessary, and not as spiteful. People who are too hasty with the bannings are going to find that half the cards they want to play with end up banned. That hurts the environment at least as much as letting one card run the show for a few months.

“My preference: Take responsibility for your mistakes as a company and fix the problem, not the blame. Later in the article, Aaron says,”Part of the excitement of building decks with new cards should be the idea that R&D might have missed something, and you could be the one to rub our faces in it.” I don’t want R&D to miss something. I don’t want a Standard environment to be warped by a card that was missed in playtesting after changes were made to the card template. I want to view Wizards as a company that will not”whisper” about bannings (quote #2), but, loudly sound an alarm bell internally about the mistake and take responsibility for that mistake.

“Does that mean when the alarm sound, ban the offender? No. But discuss it in the open at work, internally. Don’t whisper about it in the hall between yourselves. Furthermore, I’d like to hear about the steps taken to ensure it won’t happen again.”

As far as we’ve been able to tell, they are being quite open about the mistake. How much more open can they be? Mark Gottlieb let the cat out of the bag with his preview article. He may not have realized it completely at the time, but he did find the main use in the section entitled,”What is Skullclamp good with? Birds of Paradise.” That’s where he makes the suggestion of using it to cycle through your deck. And remember, the early indications from Pro Tour: Kobe were that they had dodged the bullet. So once the March 1 announcement was done, their next chance is the one that they actually took. How’s that considered slow? You miss one bus; you take the next.

There is a surefire way to avoid having to ban cards – make all of them suck. This is why we have perennial stinkers such as the Homelands set. There was even a format that was used in the first Pro Tour where you had to find five cards out of such abysmal sets to play in each deck. A few weeks of chaos is nothing compared to having to deal with cards that cause Pro Tour players to receive draft warnings for falling asleep.

“But, most of all, you could have posted the ban before the set hit the streets. Yes, before it hit the streets. Post the card on magicthegathering.com, tell us of the ban (proactively, by the way), roger up to the mistake and have some sack about it. Make all of this pre-street. We’d have a chance to proxy the card and find out for ourselves. But you didn’t do that. You hoped we wouldn’t figure it out, even though you say, ‘You outnumber us several million to under 20.'”

You’re missing the point.”Before the set hit the streets” means December 1st, as that was the last B&R announcement before the February release date. It’s also a month before the previews started about Darksteel. That’s a bit much to ask. Remember, it’s not R&D’s job to ban.

“2. Wizards releases sets before testing all cards in their current iterations.

What problem do I have here? Twofold. First, the card wasn’t evaluated singly and in concert with other cards before the set was released to print. It simply wasn’t. It sucked in the beginning and got better and better. Finally,”a decision was made to push some of the equipment cards.” And a final tweak was made to the card and voila… Skullclamp. Infamous Skullclamp. Apparently, everyone said it was fine without actually looking and/or thinking about the ramifications of a phrase like”draw 2 cards” that might just fit into every deck that includes creatures. It is an Artifact. It’s not a Blue Sorcery or a Green enchantment from many years ago. It’s an Artifact.”

Step back. It’s so hard to remember how we treated Equipment in the pre-Skullclamp era. Let me remind you of some things:

First, Skullclamp is the only Equipment that lowers its wearer’s toughness. Second, as an Equipment, you can’t put it on an opponent’s creature. So the +1/-1 appears, at first glance, to be a balancing factor to the fact that it nets you two cards when the creature dies. But, like so many other great ideas, it backfired when someone realized that it turned one-toughness creatures into double-strength Spellbombs.

“My preference: Test all the cards. Not just the power cards, not just the cards that are flashy or cool. Test them all in their final form before releasing them to print. Without that step being performed, you are guessing about cards’ power levels and their ramification to the environment. [Not possible due to manpower, workload and time constraints. – Knut, pointing out the obvious]”

Aside from the editor’s obvious comment, I need to point out that most of the time it’s going to prove nothing. Does it matter if the 3GG regenerating Beast is 3/3 or 3/4 in a Constructed environment? Most of the time, no. If Bonesplitter had given +3/-1 it would have been severely limited in its uses, and dropped from a good common in Limited to a 23rd card. But in the end, devoting more manpower than a human company is allowed to have isn’t worth finding these things out.

3. Wizards knows which cards are good and which are chaff. Rarely are they wrong, but, in some cases, changes are untested. See point 2.

“Often when cards are changed that will impact our constructed playtesting, a memo is sent out notifying everyone about the changes and urging people to try the new incarnations of the cards.”

It is a simple matter for me to see the problem with the above statement. I’m spoon-fed cards that have power and cards that aren’t. And, in this case, the change wasn’t enough in one person’s opinion to justify a memo to trigger testing of the change. One person not sending a memo warps Regionals results.

This is getting a bit much. A piece of junk equipment went from giving +1/+2 to +1/-1. Is that memo-worthy? Only when it’s on the first set that going to be released in the first leap year of the millennium, I guess…

“Often when cards are changed that will impact our constructed playtesting…”

A single change to a single card should affect your Constructed playtesting. This is now a lesson learned about TCG’s. Programmers have known it for decades. Change this and test it, test it… test it. Ask the programming team for Magic: Online about this… wait, that’s a whole other rant with its own points of contention.

Memo: The value of pi has been changed to 3. Please calibrate your instruments accordingly.

In short, Wizards knows which cards will affect the metagame and a change to it. But, they seem to be somewhat removed from the environment and what players want to do to win the game or, at least, to not lose the game.

The playtest team seems to be out of touch with the current players and how the want to go about winning the game.”We didn’t put Wonder in our madness decks, Astral Slide in our cycling decks…” Huh? Buh…b-b-buh? What? I’ll admit that I thought that Patriarch’s Bidding was a bit of genius (at least when I heard it), but, the other two? They seem like socks and shoes, to me.

Make up your mind. Either they knew about Skullclamp and did nothing, or they didn’t know about it and let it slide in ignorance. You want it both ways, and you can’t have it.

Most tournament players are Spikes. That means they want to win – period. If there were no Skullclamp, they would just have to win some other way. Guess what? That’s what they’ll have to do come June 20.

“4. Serious problems exist in Wizards playtesting strategy for new sets.

“We didn’t engineer this environment-heck, we didn’t imagine Darksteel Standard to look anything like this.”

Aaron… you did. I don’t make the cards, you do. Your company releases the sets to print. You did engineer this environment and when you knew that a serious problem existed in that environment, your company decided it was in its best interest to hope that the players wouldn’t figure it out. Or that someone would use the available tools to solve your problems for you.”

Actually, sometimes it is in people’s best interest to hope that no one figures something out. It’s the essence of stage magic. And if one card becomes the be all and end all of Standard for two years, is that really the problem of Wizards of the Coast Research and Development? Ultimately, it’s a problem for the DCI. True, they work together to try to limit the number of times this becomes a problem, but asking for perfection is a bit much.

“This is hoping that the problem will go away instead taking steps to fix it. And you leaned on us, the same player community that you are now apologizing to, to fix your lack of attention to detail. As you so eloquently put it,”…it just didn’t happen that way.” Wizards seems to have the same attitude towards major problems that existed before the Challenger was launched. And your company knew about the problem long before the set hit the shelves.”

Actually, it’s hoping that what they think is a problem really isn’t. And having a card dominate Regionals doesn’t result in anyone exploding – just a format and just until the next B&R list update, which is when the problem was addressed.

“5. Wizards does not have a list of effects that are carefully scrutinized.

To me, it’s impossible to argue against this phrase given what we’ve read. If they had a list something to the effect of: (off the top of my head)


Add …… to your mana pool

Zero-Mana spells


And checked every card that did those things, this whole mess might have been avoided. But, they can’t have such a list or the list exists and someone didn’t do their job. It’s A or B. If you paid the kicker cost, do both.”

Actually the list is there, and a few things like the above are clearly on it. Anything that draws more than two is now a sorcery, and if it draws seven, it gets more scrutiny. Krark-Clan Ironworks may join the ranks of the banned, but then again, no one has broken it yet. And what would the world be like if there weren’t any”break me” cards in the environment?

What we had here was the perfect storm. Start with a neat effect – a compensation for having your creature die. Then make it cheap enough to use in any deck, and miss the fact that the -1 toughness actually encouraged people to kill their own creatures, and you have a sick deck. Would Skullclamp have been banned if it gave +1/+0? Probably not. Had they seen what was happening in time to change the printing, they may very well have changed it to that – or back to what it was. Either way, it’s not like they went out of their way to ruin a few months’ worth of tournaments.

This is the first banning in Standard in five years. Don’t hate our friends and benefactors who bring us new cards every few months just because one card got out of control.