Sullivan’s Satchel: Resource Battles, Pauper, And Evergreen Mechanics

Patrick Sullivan answers mailbag questions on resources in game design, mechanics, and the perplexing Pauper format.

Squadron Hawk, illustrated by Rob Alexander

Hello, and welcome to this week’s installment of Sullivan’s Satchel. First of all, congratulations to SCG’s own Autumn Burchett and Emma Handy for their Top 8 performances in the Grand Finals. Not a surprise to people who pay attention to these things, and Autumn has been crushing events for a while now, but I was especially happy for Emma. I remember talking to her a while back about her string of “near misses” (PTQ Top 8 losses, good but not great SCG finishes, stuff like that) and she did not want to hear it. All she expressed was frustration for not having spiked something yet.

For me and a lot of people I know, part of playing Magic competitively is being able to take the peaks and valleys in stride. The game is really random and the big events give you very little margin for error, so being able to appreciate a string of Top 16s and Top 32s is a big part of keeping your sanity in check. Emma was clearly not in that sort of head space — she had done the work and wanted a high-profile finish commiserate with that work. I’m glad she got it.

With that, from Ernie McCracken:

Is it possible for MTG to support different competitive ecosystems to allow for digital erratas but paper bans?

As an abstraction, absolutely. Errata is trivial in digital and the companion errata shows more appetite for exploring the option in paper than was the case since maybe the 1990s. I just question the value. As more digital Magic moves onto Arena, bans are somewhat less punishing because the client allows for rebates of banned cards (I know this simplifies things, as someone often purchases many cards which may or may not have utility to them once a key card from the deck is banned), whereas no analog exists for dampening the impact of paper bans.

On top of that, Magic has shown a serious commitment to fidelity to paper Magic in its digital offerings. Magic’s rules set is so complicated that there’s no way you’d start with it (or anything close to it) as a baseline for a digital game, and so having separate Banned Lists, or making the digital experience feel materially different (not just cosmetically different) from the paper experience is dissonant with that goal. Paper tournament results would also no longer port over to the digital experience and vice versa, and I think competitive Magic thrives when the physical experience gets directly translated to digital and vice versa. In short, I think separate lists is strictly speaking feasible but strikes me as a high-risk, low-upside path.

From Peter Leja,

Hi Patrick

Patrick Chapin tweeted out that Zendikar had 13 cards that said ‘draw x cards’ in the set, while Zendikar Rising has 47. A discussion followed raising the point about how Constructed has recently felt like less of a resource battle, partially because of so many cards that see Constructed play, especially in Standard, now draw a card in some fashion, making it especially difficult to run an opponent out of resources/cards in hand.

Do you find any correlation between the extra ‘card draw’ cards in Standard and current problems that exist in Standard that have led to bans? And is there any way to change that without rewinding time to game design back to original Zendikar?

The cards you have are a resource. The amount of them you draw, at what rate and what stage of the game, impacts other resources. If card flow is high, it will put a premium on other resources, typically mana efficiency or presence on the battlefield. When the flow is low, the impact of each individual card is amplified. For the latter, think about Draft or Sealed — it is rarely important to be spending all your mana each turn starting on Turn 1 and sweepers and two-for-ones punch well above their weight compared to Constructed.

In high-powered formats, there’s a greater premium on getting stuff out of your hand since it is so likely you get overwhelmed before deploying your resources. Even though the rate is fairly modest, Collective Brutality punches above its weight because it is so powerful to trade a card for an opposing card, even unreliably, for zero mana.

So I don’t know what to do with the notion that things aren’t a “resource battle” anymore. They have to be; the game is just a collection of competing resources. If card flow is higher, that just changes the terms of engagement. Now, “it is no longer a resource battle” may speak to each individual card having less impact because it exists inside this ambient flow of ramp and card draw, but I don’t think that’s really true either.

It is funny to bring up original Zendikar and the change in the number of times “draw a card” appears. The best deck for an extended period of time played Squadron Hawk, Stoneforge Mystic, various Swords — maybe they didn’t say “draw a card,” but it’s sketchy to argue that card flow was considerably lower then compared to now.

I think card flow with no context is too high, but card flow in absolute terms is about right. Stoneforge Mystic is too powerful and deterministic but that’s the right idea — you are “up a card” but your opponent has a lot of ways to put you back to neutral (kill all your creatures or be able to block such that the equipment isn’t a card anymore) and incentivizes a bunch of good stuff besides. I think Standard has been long on Uro and Omnath type of stuff where you get your money back no questions asked, but there are ways of executing it such that people have enough stuff to do without playing the entire game with a full hand.

From sum1unopk:

What are your thoughts on the Pauper format and what it would take for it to become a mainstay in paper?

Rarity isn’t the most elegant thing to reference and paper formats tied to MTGO rarities are even less elegant. No chance someone could intuit the legal cards; you just have to remember a list. Gotta pull that apart. I also think the “low cost, low barrier to entry” thing is a noble goal, but doesn’t necessarily produce the most robust ecosystem.

I think a rule like “You can play four mythics and eight rares” (either playsets or one copy of a bunch of stuff, whatever) would add significantly more agency and customization without making the decks super expensive to build. Combine that with only a reference to physical rarity (with a tiebreaker of “highest rarity applies” if a card has been printed at multiple rarities) and that sounds like a reasonable starting point.

Lastly, and the Question of the Week and winner of $25 in SCG credit, from Nietophy:

Are there any mechanics that are evergreen that you would prefer not to be (or vice versa)?

Landfall is so iconic to Zendikar that it would be a tough sell, but I think it might be Magic’s best mechanic that isn’t a baseline creature keyword —you can build around it or not, it reduces variance in a way that has context and cares about the battlefield, and since it typically triggers at sorcery speed it lends itself to (but doesn’t exclusively promote) combat and aggression. I’ve spoken about landfall numerous times, but if it wasn’t for the creative issues I think I’d want it in most, if not all sets.

I could stomach a few cycling cards per set in exchange for not doing “cycling matters” as a mechanic. A cycling card here or there helps grease the wheels and allows people to play some situational cards in their maindeck; a “cycling deck” is typically pretty boring and repetitive, and the number of game actions it takes makes it obnoxious in digital. I think I’d vote for “ten to fifteen cycling cards per set” in exchange for “no more than fifteen cycling cards in any set.”

I don’t like low-rarity creatures with first strike. I don’t mind tricks that grant it, or creatures with “first strike while attacking,” but so much of the rate is how powerful they are as blockers and they are on-battlefield tricky in a way that’s inappropriate. I think if I had the choice there would be no first strike creatures at common and they would be very infrequent at uncommon.