Welcome back to Talen Lee telling amateur card designers they suck. Amusingly, I know there’s at least one professional in this field who will almost assuredly be telling me I’m full of crap. But that’s just because he’s an old grouch. Anyway. So far we’ve discussed both what you want to do – make a set – and then, what you’re going to use to do that – the themes and mechanics of a set.
Now, today, we’re going to talk about how everything sits together. For those of you designers out there who are crap at playing the game and therefore don’t read anything strategic, you’re going to want to read Will Rieffer and Mike Mason articles on The Metagame Clock. Everyone else, you do that too, because they’re neat articles, even if they’re for old formats now.
Part 3. Environments and Pressure
No card is an island. Every card that exists is defined by the cards with which it interacts. On a simplest level, in a world full of vanilla 2/2s for four, Grey Ogre is suddenly a tempo-stealing monster. In order to understand the environment at its best, you want to examine it as a block. That way you can compare it to other historically observed block environments.
There are four major components of defining the speed of an environment. Think of it as four faucets you can open or close. A good environment to show an “abnormal” mix would be Onslaught Block.
In Onslaught, there was a conscious effort to ratchet up aggro, ratchet down control, and completely turn off combo. Control was still good, but only because of the raw efficiency of its win conditions – most of the time, control decks didn’t care too much about answering everything or even controlling the game too much. Mainly because half the time, they’d spit an Angel into play early on, and win in five quick hits where you simply couldn’t overwhelm them unless you had a way of removing said Angel.
Then you add in an accidental deck – the Astral Slide/Lightning Rift Synergy – that affects things, and instead of aggro decks smashing into one another, you have a control deck mauling the aggro decks, with no combo deck in the format.
Some vague attempts were made at combo, but they generally sucked.
Limited needs these trends too. Onslaught had a number of “Limited easers” in it, designed to make the game easier to play and to avoid normal failings. Manascrew, manaflood, and being shy on creatures are three big problems in Limited environments; Onslaught had cycling, cycling lands, and morphs in order to overcome that.
Another example! Watchwolf. A 3/3 for two. An amazing little dude. But not actually all that unique, is he? Drekavac is a 3/3 for two, with less in the way of color restraints. And of course, there is always Scab-Clan Mauler. Now all these cards come with drawbacks, it’s true – but then let’s have a quick look at the removal that costs two or three in Black and Red.
Lightning Helix deals three. Last Gasp gives –3/-3. Skred, on turn 3, is going to deal three and sometimes change. Clinging Darkness can render either totally irrelevant. Cruel Edict can hit a Watchwolf who wasn’t assisted out. And Kiku’s Shadow also wipes it out.
So we had plenty of removal at the lower levels of commonality that, as tempo stealers go, could kill a Watchwolf for as little, if not less than the little attacker cost you. So while the format has quite a few testosterone-driven two-drops, it has just as many ways to get rid of them.
But still, the rewards if your opponent didn’t kill your generic two-drop with three power, you got to close the day quickly.
During Onslaught block, most good three-drops had a toughness of two. Shock was quintessential there, just because it could kill so much stuff.
Mirrodin? Well, half the permanents that were scary were artifacts, and half the cards that deal with them were really dirt cheap. Of course, there wasn’t any good artifact sweeper that let you capitalize on an opponent’s over-reliance on these effects, and well, yes, let’s just not talk about that block overall. Not a good place from whence to take examples of good design.
So what if you made an environment without much cheap pinpoint removal, but with good, proactive board sweepers?
What about an environment with three good, splashable counterspells?
What about a format with, say, an instant-speed card advantage engine and a “free” win condition that you only needed to make your land drops for?
Few cards define an environment on their own. Only in a situation with a very large variance in card power will you have a format defined by a small pool of power cards.
Go as five pros to give you a list of the best five cards in Standard and I doubt you’ll get five lists that are the same. Hell, you probably won’t get more than two or three cards appearing on three lists, and they invariably won’t be the same ranking.
Ravnica-Kamigawa-Coldsnap-Ninth Edition Standard is actually a remarkably format. There’s almost no clear “top section” of power. There’s certainly no clear “top deck” (and honestly, anyone who tells you otherwise is full of crap). For consideration, Mike Flores called Aggro Ideal the Best Deck Ever in the format… except it lost to two major, good archetypes.
I love it, myself.
Ravnica, Coldsnap, and Kamigawa all brought a lot of power to the table, across all colors and in all card types. Combo isn’t very deep right now… except for Heartbeat, which is not only powerful, but resilient and very, very good. Control has so many tools it can’t even make up its mind what colors it wants to play, and is these days almost one color shy of saying “All of them!” And aggro? It’s ranging from mono-colored to four-color, with varying degrees of success.
This is, in my mind, a good environment to strive for… but it’s very, very hard to design. It’s easier, as a designer, to make baby steps. Because we’re not that gauged on stupid huge effects yet. We don’t have teams of dozens of people, with an advanced testing team. Most of the time, we’re eyeballing cards and just going “Well, about that.”
Ultimately, don’t plan an elaborate huge environment. Just as with identity, don’t over-plan. Doing so makes the environment stifling, leaving the players who do wind up testing your format feeling like you’re building the environment for them.
I suppose my essential advice from this stage of the game, to my fellow amateur designers, is to know your limitations. If you have ten guys working on a format, great, and if you have people who can actively playtest – and well – with a number of good decks, then you have a leg up on me, for example.
A shorter one this time. Hope you all are following along. Gerald, stop touching Sandra’s hair, she’s not going to lend you a pencil.
Hugs and Kisses
Talen at dodo dot com dot au.