The Kitchen Table #227 – Abeth Edition, Part One

Read Abe Sargent every Thursday... at StarCityGames.com!
Thursday, April 3rd – Hello all, and welcome to the first of a series of five articles that will explore a hypothetical basic set that I created and balanced with some playtesting. This set is designed to do several things. First of all, it’s a lot of fun to put together, but very labor intensive, so it’s not a project I can do very often. Second, it’s tons of fun to actually read.

Hello all, and welcome to the first of a series of five articles that will explore a hypothetical basic set that I created and balanced with some playtesting. This set is designed to do several things. First of all, it’s a lot of fun to put together, but very labor intensive, so it’s not a project I can do very often. Second, it’s tons of fun to actually read. You can criticize and evaluate my ideas and comments.

Here is the schedule of articles:

Part One — Introduction
Part Two — The Cards
Part Three — Evaluation, Part One
Part Four — Evaluation, Part Two
Part Five — Sample Decks

I did this project years ago for this website, published in May of 2005 but written at least two years before that. I feel ready to tackle it again.

This core set, Abeth Edition, is designed with an eye towards being a generic core set, and not necessarily my recommendations for 11th Edition. I wanted to create the very best set I could.

Putting together a Basic Set the right way requires more than just creating a list of cards and saying, “That’s a basic set, alright!” It requires time, dedication, analysis, and pouring over cards from Magic’s past to find the right cad for your empty spot. You have to review the cards several times in order to find the right cards.

How will this set differ from my previous basic set? Well, I’ll abandon the tribal theme I had in that set (which was written prior to Onslaught’s tribal theme and now Lorwyn’s). Many new cards have been printed, plus the tech of making a basic set has changed with the introduction of eleven legendary permanents at rare spots in 10th.

Before I begin, allow me to state my operating principles in creating this set. Every major task like this needs principles in place to guide the process, and this is where some other efforts fail.

Operating Principles

1). The basic set should have easy to understand cards at common. Grizzly Bears is a good common. It is simple and easy to understand. Book Burning is not a great common for a base set, because it is not as easy to figure out. New players are exposed to the base set first, and that means they’ll get eleven commons in a pack. Those eleven commons should be the easiest cards to understand.

2). Uncommons can be a bit more difficult to figure out than commons. They should not be at a rare level of complexity. An example of too much complexity is the manlands. The manlands in Tenth introduce a difficult to understand mechanic for early players, and do so at uncommon and with five cards, so players are even more likely to encounter it.

3). The rares are the section that you can explore with mechanics like trample, protection, legendary permanents and more. This is an area to have increased complexity, in order to introduce the concepts to players before tackling the expansion sets. It’s better for a new player to have experienced trample as a rare in the base set once before being exposed to a set rife with trample at every commonality, then to be thrown into the wolf’s den without any experience with the mechanic.

4). The base set is a good time to have some of Magic’s greatest hits. This is especially true when those greatest hits are not particularly good cards in modern times. I think Tenth Edition did the best job of this, and frankly, their cards are better than virtually any base set in a long time, possibly ever. I’ll be hard pressed to produce a better list of rares.

5). The reserve list does not exist for this experiment. First of all, the reserve list is a bad idea, because reprinting cards has shown their value to rise, not fall, as they are Standard playable. Second of all, the base set should be able to choose from all cards printed, not just some.

6). To the greatest extent possible, a basic set should strive for continuity of its cards, instead of shaking things up. Sure, you could trade Giant Spider for Giant Mantis and Grizzly Bears for Barbary Apes and Drudge Skeletons for Restless Dead, but why? Why force players to acquire the new(and old) cards? There is no reason to make trades like these and I will stay away from it.

7). The base set should be a universal foil. No matter what sets are in print, the base set should contain the tools to counter various strategies and archetypes. By doing this, the base set contributes to a healthy metagame, and keeps one deck from getting out of hand. In this vein, the printing of Pithing Needle was a perfectly planned idea, but I want more silver bullets.

8). Just because the base set should value continuity does not mean it should continue that continuity when the reasons to dismiss it outweigh it. Wizards has some pets in the base set that need to be let go of. The lucky charms, even in their new incarnation, are the perfect example of them. They call these skill testers. Those are cards that are not good, but new players think are good, and then they play them. Then they realize that the card is not good, and pull them out, and it represents a step in their development. The problem is that the number of players who play these cards is so small, and few players actually want to keep opening them in their packs, that they have become pariahs. It’s better to let them out.

9). I endeavor to keep the breakdown of cards from 10th to my set as close as possible. For example, in 10th Edition, the percentage of Blue uncommons that are creatures is just over 50%, so I should aim to be at that same percentage.

10). Creating a base set is more than just choosing a list of cards, like I said before. It is also more than just numbers and statistics, which I imply above. It’s also a work of art. The pieces flow with each other. A few discordant notes can cause the whole thing to be out of sync, out of rhythm, and become disharmonious. Understanding this point is key to the whole thing.

11). I will not be using any themes, like the “One New Card for Every Set” theme a few years ago, or the tribal theme I had.

12). Encourage the use of other non-creature themes of Green. In 10th, the creature count is so high that other themes of the color get lost in the shuffle.

13). Remove the idea that Blue is the only color with card advantage. I want at least every color to have a card that draws it more cards somehow. Note that the modern color pie supposedly enforces his idea.

14). This is not an opportunity for me to argue for the reprinting of some of my personal favorite cards. I have no agenda here. You’ll note the lack of cards like Scarwood Bandits and Living Airship in my lists.

15). Use flavor when possible. Magic has a rich past full of highly detailed worlds, and the base set should not ignore that. Using Counsel of the Soratami in 10th was fine by me. I’d rather have Counsel of the Soratami than a hypothetical card called Oracle in the base set any day. Go for the exotic when possible.

16) Use this as an opportunity to bring back cards that may benefit from reprinting if a chance opens up.

(As an FYI, many cards that I suggested reprinting in my article made it into a basic set shortly thereafter, such as Brass Herald. I thought it would be a good base set card in my tribal set, and low and behold, it got reprinted. I also did things like yank the CoPs, and behold, they were subsequently taken out of the base set. I doubt anybody at Wizards read my column, let alone actually heeded it, but it’s neat to note the areas where similar thinking led to similar actions.)

With that said, let’s look at Tenth to see what worked.

I’m looking at the Tenth rares again. These are so good!

Tenth Edition Quality Rares

10 Painlands
Arcanis the Omnipotent
Birds of Paradise
Cho-Manno, Revolutionary
Coat of Arms
Crucible of Worlds
Elvish Champion
Elvish Piper
Field Marshal
Glorious Anthem
Goblin King
Howling Mine
Hypnotic Specter
Joiner Adept
Lord of the Undead
Mahamoti Djinn
Might of Oaks
Paladin en-Vec
Phage the Untouchable
Pithing Needle
Platinum Angel
Quirion Dryad
Razormane Masticore
Reya Dawnbringer
Royal Assassin
Seedborn Muse
Serra Angel
Shivan Dragon
Siege-Gang Commander
Squee, Goblin Nabob
Time Stop
Troll Ascetic
Verdant Force
Underworld Dreams
Wrath of God

These are all cards that are banner cards or were good in casual decks (like Might of Oaks and Elvish Piper). Like I said, this is a tough list to fight. Frankly, many of these cards will be in my set too, but they’ll be ones you expect to see.

Okay, and here is more info on Tenth:

A Statistical Breakdown of 10th Edition

Number of commons of each color: 24

Number of uncommons of each color: 19

Number of uncommon artifacts: 20

Number of rares of each color: 19

Number of common lands: 1

Number of uncommon lands: 6

Number of rare lands: 10

Number of rare artifacts: 16

Percentage of commons that are creatures:

White 15/24 — 62.5%
Black 14/24 — 58.3%
Blue 13/24 — 54.1%
Red 14/24 — 58.3%
Green 16/24 — 66.7%

Percentage of uncommons that are creatures:

White 10/19 — 52.6%
Black 9/19 — 47.3%
Blue 10/19 — 52.6%
Red 9/19 — 47.3%
Green 11/19 — 57.9%
Artifact 7/20 — 35%

Percentage of rares that are creatures:

White 11/19 — 57.9%
Black 12/19 — 63.2%
Blue 9/19 — 47.3%
Red 9/19 — 47.3%
Green 14/19 — 73.7%
Artifact 3/16 — 18.8%

Number of commons in 10th — 121
Number of uncommons — 121
Number of rares — 121

As you can see, I am aiming for 121 cards at each commonality.

The Beginning

I begin by opening a giant excel worksheet. I divide up sheets by rarity and then create a spreadsheet that breaks up the commonality into color and then into creature vs. non —creature.

Step One — The Basics

My first step is to create a list of cards that I feel should be in every single base set, no matter what. These are the Stream of Lifes, the Giant Growths, and so forth. For example, in Green, I came up with eight commons that I feel should be in every base set. Then I wrote them into slots in the excel sheet, divided into color, commonality, and then creature or non-creature. In Blue, I came up with just four. I worked my way through each color and then through the other commonalities.

Cards added from this section, that have not appeared in 10th, are:

Fertile Ground
Healing Salve
Raise Dead
Stone Rain
Fire Elemental
Disrupting Scepter
Reverse Damage

Throughout this document, I will include various lists of cards, to demonstrate one or more facets of the set. Although this the process article, and does not discuss the set in its entirety, it is also a good place to talk about some of these processes by showing examples and lists.

As you can see, there are a small but sizeable number of cards that I feel should just be in every set but were not in the most recent. Thirteen cards were added in, and this was in addition to cards like Llanowar Elves, Cancel, and Air Elemental. A few of these cards have not seen print in several sets, while most of the others were just taken out recently.

Step Two — The Banners

After that, I then moved to banner cards. These are the “Greatest Hits” cards. From Erhnam Djinn to Snake Basket, if it could make the cut, it did. I kept most of the high value stuff from 10th. Cards like Paladin en-Vec and Quirion Dryad have proven themselves over the long haul and deserve a spot in the main set. I added twelve rares from the good 10th list to my own that were not previously on my list.

Then I went back in time to find old sets. What were the banner cards from those sets, the ones with the most buzz? Cards like Jester’s Cap, Balduvian Horde, and Grinning Totem (which have been reprinted in the base set before) joined the set.

Other banner cards were deemed too powerful to reprint. Thus fell cards like Maze of Ith. Reprint that, and you have a homerun, but it will dominate modern tournaments. I also choose not to reprint out of flavor cards. Preacher might be an old school favorite, but it is out of flavor these days being in White.

It’s sad, because these cards are representative of the “Greatest Hits” philosophy that I want to embrace. Another example that got cut was Abeyance. The card is confusing because new players always try to use it as a counterspell. Sure, it is a Greatest Hit, and the ability it represents is a core White one which feasibly could be in a base set, but it is too confusing at times. As a result, Abeyance got cut.

Abeyance, Maze of Ith, Preacher, and more were all gone. What about other cards? Will Ball Lightning make the cut? What about Moat? How about Thoughtseize or Sower of Temptation?

I’ll leave some questions for later articles…

Step Three — Old Reprints

You should also print a few cards that have not seen print in years. This will drive interest in the set. Some of these cards are better than others. For example, I brought back Phantom Monster. As a solid flying Hill Giant, it has not seen print in a very long time. Why not give it another day in the sun? If they can print Mind Spring, then I can print Braingeyser in the base set.

Again, more questions follow. Will Armageddon make the cut? Or will Mana Short stake a claim?

Step Four — The Abilities

After that, my task grew much more complex. I scoured several basic sets with a great degree of analysis. How many cards in Green are dedicated to Giant Growth type effects? How many damage prevention effects are in White? I looked at all major mechanics for all colors.

Then I grabbed some cards in each mechanic. Often, this was about finding the best card for a given mechanic among previous base sets. There is no need to reinvent the wheel. If a great card to represent a mechanic was in 8th, then I don’t need to scour to find one that has never been in a core set before, I can just go with the 8th card.

This goes back to one of my previous principles. Don’t pull Grizzly Bears for Barbary Apes. This is not a challenge to see how many new cards I can put in a set, instead it is a project to create the best set I can.

Step Five — Fill Holes

Once I added cards to the set in various mechanics, I began to analyze the cards. I filled in remaining holes by determining what was missing. For example, I might look at the Black commons and realize we only have one three casting cost creature, so I need to find a second. I also listed out all of the mechanics and how many cards were in each. This way, I could find card that suited several requirements. For example, in Black uncommons, I came to a place where I wanted a medium size four drop and I also needed another example of the Wither mechanic, because at the time I just had Enfeeblement and Festering Goblin. After searching through every four casting cost uncommon Black creature, I grabbed Phyrexian Defiler. It met all three of my qualifications, and thus I included it, despite never having considered it for my core set before.

I used this method to fill in various holes, until I had a streamlined set. This required me to look at a lot of cards, as you can probably tell. Is the set perfect? No. No set is perfect. There may still be some issues here, but this is a much better set than my previous attempts.

Step Six — Review

I set the base set aside for a couple of days. You might be surprised to see how things appear in a different light when you have some time off from a project. I then came back and discovered some cards that were inappropriate for the base set. For example, I had Wall of Roots in the set, but the -0/-1 counter mechanic was deemed too confusing for the base set. Another example was Spell Blast, which I had at common. Having both an X spell and a spell that references converted mana cost was a bit too much, so I had to make a change.

Step Seven — Playtest

The next step in the process was to challenge my friends to break the environment. I posted my base set on our playing group’s message board, and got a bunch of players to build one or two or three decks with just the core set. If it were broken, it would be revealed here. Then we shuffled our decks and played the Core Set for several weeks.

It was only after I made a few changes as the result of our play that I felt the set was ready for publication.

Now, this set of articles, without even publishing the full set all at once, (which I am sure I will add at some point) it already sitting at 80 pages of Word. This is a significant project, and it will take a lot of space in my column for five weeks. I hope you enjoy!

For today, however, we will call it a day. I outlined the process, and my establishing principles. I also gave you a sample list and hopefully tantalized you with a few cards here and there.

As such, I will bid you all a fond farewell, until next week, when the second chapter arrives.

Until later…

Abe Sargent