Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Two Interesting Things I Noticed About Kaladesh Design

The first, most readily apparent thing I noticed about Kaladesh is the greatly increased power level of common creatures. The creatures in Eldritch Moon were notably more powerful too, but I chalked that up to small-set-power-upgrade (in which small sets get a bump to power level to help keep sales from dropping as interest in the block levels off). But here's a brand new, and very shiny block, raising the bar for common creatures.

Ambitious Aetherborn is a 5/4 for {4}{B}. Bastion Mastodon is a 4/5 for {5}. Glint-Sleeve Artisan is a 3/3 for {2}{W}. Kujar Seedsculptor is a 2/3 for {1}{G}. Maulfist Squad is a 4/2 menace for {3}{B}. Peema Outrider outclasses Rumbling Baloth with trample. All with additional upside.

Cowl Prowler is the culmination of a decade of Craw Wurm upgrades. Ninth Bridge Patrol is strictly better than Unruly Mob. Prakhata Club Security is big and doesn't ask for gates, life, or deaths. I remember thinking Plover Knights were so good in Limited, and Skyswirl Harrier eats them for breakfast. Terrain Elemental is a 3/2 for {1}{G}. Wayward Giant puts years of {4}{R} giants to shame.

It wasn't that long ago red and blue were lucky to get a vanilla 2/3 for 2C; Prakhata Pillar-Bug, Vedalken Blademaster, and Salivating Gremlins all laugh heartily about that.

The question is, why do we think this is the case, and is it good for the game?

While it's a sure bet that R&D has Magic's best interest at heart and is the best at what they do, we don't learn much by relaxing in the comfort of that knowledge. Possible explanations:
—The power level of creatures has been increasing gradually for the last decade, in order to right an imbalance that favored non-creatures early in the game's life.
—Each color is seeing an increase in common creature strength inversely proportional to their color's traditional creature strength, in order to reduce the discrepancy between the colors.
—Kaladesh Limited needed two scoops of great creatures, perhaps to keep vehicles from disappointing players, perhaps to please Tammy/Spike while the artifacts cater to Johnny, perhaps for other reasons.
—Every set gets some A commons to help guide Draft archetypes; Perhaps Kaladesh just got more than usual, or they were shifted from non-creature slots to creature slots.
—The format pendulum is swinging, a bit toward faster, but more toward creature-some, or even toward common-relevance.
—I wrote in 2011 that removal needs to be more expensive relative to creatures, and Wizards figured the same thing out for themselves. An alernative to nerfing removal is to boost creatures.
—Increasing the power level of commons will improve Draft, Sealed, and Pauper formats, somehow.

The answer is some combination of the above, perhaps all (though I'm skeptical of the last). If you can think of more potential reasons for increasing the strength of common creatures in Kaladesh, I'd love to hear them in the comments.

So is it for the best? I don't know yet. Again, I have faith R&D is acting with skill and good faith here, and I'm confident that this set will be good for the game in the long-run, either because it is better with stronger common creatures, or because Wizards learns from the set and establishes a more precise line between good and too-good. Probably both. I will say that I've experienced some frustration with how hard it can be to come back from a slow start in this format, but I've not played remotely enough to believe that's a common trend.



I have one more observation about Kaladesh design I'd like to share right now: I'm really enjoying the conditional cards. Bear with one more list of high-strength common creatures:

Foundry Screecher isn't hard to make a 3/1 flier for {2}{B}. Gearseeker Serpent is a 5/6 often cast for {3}{U}{U} or 2{U}{U} (again with further upside).  Hightide Hermit is a 4/4 defender for {4}{U} that can attack twice or power other energy cards significantly. Weldfast Wingsmith is a blue Hill Giant, often a Phantom Monster. The entire thriving cycle can break power levels with a single attack… but they often don't, which is important.

There are a ton of conditional uncommons: Aetherborn Marauder, Armorcraft Judge, Chief of the Foundry, Embraal Bruiser, Fairgrounds Trumpeter, Fretwork Colony, Glint-Nest Crane, Ovalchase Daredevil, Quicksmith Genius, Spark of Creativity, Start Your Engines, Trusty Companion, Underhanded Designs, Unlicensed Disintegration, all the energy cards, all the vehicles, and all the pilots.

By conditional, I just mean you don't know when you put them in your deck how good they'll be, because their value depends on the game state when you play them. Conditional cards are far from new to Magic. They are a huge part of incentivizing deck archetypes. I don't even know that Kaladesh has more of them than recent sets, but the common ones have stood out to me while playing Limited.

Compare these three green spells that all grant three +1/+1 counters. Give guarantees you can put them where you want, while Cached Defenses limits where you can put them, and Hunger of the Howlpack only gives you three if you play it after a creature dies.

Ignoring cost and timing, Give is a better card than the others because it gives the player the most freedom, but it's not a better design, because it's not as fun: It offers the least challenge to the player. Cached Defenses is at its best when you can sculpt the board so that targeting your smallest creature is what you would have done with Give anyhow. Hunger is best when you wait patiently for a death, better when you sacrifice a creature for value, and even better still when you trick your opponent into enabling morbid for you.

Eeking the best value out of a card is fun. Hunger and Defenses are just more fun than Give. (To Give's credit, it's literally half a card. Thought exercises strike again.)

Conditional cards are fun. Kaladesh is more fun because of its conditional cards.

25 comments:

  1. I suspect one reason the Fabricate cards are so generous is that they look much worse than they are thanks to the -1/-1 stats. You don't want your marquee mechanic commons to look bad.

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    1. Yeah. And the mechanic doesn't look fun, so they had to make the cards strong enough that people would play them, enjoy them, and come to appreciate the mechanic.

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  2. The commons in general are at a much higher power level, not just the creatures. Look at the common removal and combat tricks! Partially this is because it creates incentives for creating servos and hedging on where you invest your energy. Normally this isn't much of a trade off, but here it is.

    It's also possible that AEther revolt will introduce mechanics that will make these cards weaker. Probably by removing +1/+1 or energy counters. That will bring these cards more back in line with prior power levels.

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    1. You think? Apart from Subtle Strike, everything seems about normal to me. Examples?

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    2. I had felt the combat tricks were pretty strong as well. There are two instants for one mana giving +2/+2 with upside, and one giving +3/+3 to an attacker with upside. Select for Inspection is usually better than Unsummon, Rush of Vitality is cheaper than black usually gets instant combat tricks and can swing both halves of a "you die, I don't" attack into "I die, you don't".

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  3. I really appreciate this sort of article.

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    1. Ditto. This topic has eaten up a lot of Inaminate and I's Magic discussion time lately!

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  4. I think the increase in power level of vanilla creatures is well overdue, but I'm less scared of creature power creep than most (mainly because there are so few creatures historically that are good because of their stats rather than their actual abilities).

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    1. Making vanilla creatures beefy is a strong way to help players like them.

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    2. Bumping up common power level (particularly on things like Vanilla creatures) does much to increase the consistency of sealed pools. From that point of view, it makes sealed much better. Of course, for other reasons, Kaledesh is widely panned as a sealed format, but imagine how bad it would have been if they had not included more powerful vanilla commons!

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  5. I forgot Dhund Operative, a really strong {1}{B} conditional common.

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    1. I really hate the +1/+0 and Deathtouch combination, it does not make sense. Certainly +0/+1 would make much more sense. But either way it is certainly a powerful card!

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    2. Flexibility is king here, it allows it to fit in both aggressive AND defensive decks. This is especially relevant for W/B and U/B that can have a lot of variation in their deck speed and thus knowing this semi-premium card will work in either makes everything run more smoothly.

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  6. Important Note: Terrain Element is not in Kaladesh.

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    1. That explains why I've never seen it in action.
      Stupid alternate reality cards from PW decks.

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    2. Yeah, I definitely don't blame you for thinking this! I just knew because I had thought "Wow they printed a 1G 3/2 in limited" and then realized "oh, they didn't."

      Of course they printed an upside 1G 2/3, so, who knows, it may be coming!

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  7. As you say, I think there are many factors going on with this decision. I do think more consistent power level across the spectrum makes limited play much better, at the cost of making it less replayable. As Magic sales are declining, I think the decision to focus more on making draft better for those who do it occasionally, rather than better for those who binge on 20 drafts per week on MTGO, is a very sensible one, particularly given that MTGO's long run viability is particularly questionable in the current digital landscape (though I am really rooting for them to get it competitive again).

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    1. "As Magic sales are declining"
      Source?
      A quick look at the latest Hasbro Quarterly Report has mtg with a 2% growth, with the earlier reports this year each saying "revenue grew"
      Link: goo.gl/2nvndQ

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  8. I'm currently thinking that this common power level is a bit too high:
    + Average deck quality increases as commons can stand better against uncommons and rares.
    + Games end faster.
    - Stumbling on mana gets punished harder.
    - Not curving out gets punished harder.
    - Drawing too many lands gets punished harder.

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    1. + Pauper gets a boost.
      + New players can build more competitive decks sooner/cheaper.

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    2. - The three minuses above reduce the number of comebacks and increase the number of one-sided, un-fun games.

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    3. Generally the medium->slow speed of the format and the way fabricate helps gum up boards has made stumbling on mana and curving out be less punishing than I would of initially expected.

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