Tuesday, April 19, 2011

CCDD 041911—Common Man Lands

Cool Card Design of the Day
4/19/2011 - I was thinking about designs that could make Magic better, and whenever I do that I always come back to fixing land-screw. Every single game of Magic will have a loser, but as long as that loss feels earned (that is, both players felt like they had a chance to win that game and there was some engaging back and forth) good players won't mind. It's the games where you have to mulligan to four or where you never draw a third or fourth land or where you draw six land cards in a row that are frustrating because you lost to forces primarily out of your control. I haven't been keeping stats, but it feels like this happens about every 1 in 5 games, which is a lot. In fact, this is Magic's biggest failing as a game and one of the top reasons we lose players.

Wizards employees will try to tell you that this is a feature and not a bug: This is what allows bad players to win a few of many games against good players. That's a fine silver-lining, but that doesn't actually make it a good thing. No one feels good playing a game they literally cannot win (whether they know that yet or not) and very few bad players will mistake defeating a good player this way for fun. It can be very gratifying to come back and win a game that started out badly for you, but trying to sell that as a feature is like saying "hey, at least dying young means you don't have to pay taxes." Variance is crucial to all games, but Magic has too much. (Not too much to downgrade it from great, but enough to keep it off the all-time best title it might otherwise take with ease,)

The best solution I've seen (printed or otherwise) is cycling. Excess lands that can cycle into spells in the late game and expensive spells that can cycle into land in the early game allow a player to give up some raw power in exchange for an escape valve for otherwise automatic-loss-inducing card draw. That said, those solutions have already been pretty well sussed out. Apart from trying other costs or other minor tweaks, that solution is known. Sadly underused—I believe cycling is so healthy for the game that it should be evergreen—but there's not much value to me as a designer in re-exploring it. So... what else? If we can't trade lands for cards, how about trading them for spells or turning them into creatures? This has happened at the uncommon and rare level, but those don't do much for limited play. So I posed the question, what would a common man-land cycle look like?

The power level would have to be relatively low to avoid warping the game, and the cards would have to be as simple as possible since type-changing effects are already pushing things at common, so none of the creatures will have any abilities, keyword or otherwise. Here's our template:

This is going to be a cycle, so we'll want each of the costs to either be the same or to form a ladder. My initial pass was... bad:


While these are not efficient costs for these bodies, that wasn't my mistake. I wanted them to be over-priced because they're not meant to be primary strategies. These cards are for the scenarios in which you literally have nothing better to do. The problem is that the particularly cheap members of this cycle have no sweet spot. When I've played out the sixth land of my green deck and my hand is empty, I won't mind paying 5 to get 3/4 body to help apply pressure to my opponent. In contrast, paying 1 on turn 6 to get an extra 1/1 in my white deck is much less helpful. Sure, I could be activating that land on turn 2, but I'll be doing so in lieu of advancing my board or doing anything else relevant. If I'm stuck on two land and all my spells cost 3+ then this guy isn't going to save me when my opponent keeps laying land and casting spells.


This is a bit better. We won't be activating any of these before turn 6 at which point, they provide a fairly relevant body. Unfortunately, I just couldn't get the numbers to jive quite right. Naturally green gets more efficient creatures than black, but I hated having a strictly worse body on equally costed cards. It was also at this point I started wondering if blue shouldn't be the most expensive with a serpent-type body.


I was modelling these after real creatures now. This came so close to the ladder method of cycle costs that I tweaked it again.


And finally, I realized another way to make these even simpler. I could square their numbers. Not only would I make the power and the toughness the same on each, I wanted it to match the casting cost. Tried matching the total cost and that was too strong. Tried matching the colorless part of the activation, but that was too weak with CC in there. This is where I ended:


This has a hint of the problem with the original go around, but much less so. Red decks tend to run out their hand faster than anyone else, so giving them a 2/2 on turn 4 isn't a terrible sin, though it does officially give them the short end of the stick. On contrast, blue doesn't get its behemoth until it has eight land on the table. I think black is the most well-positioned of the cycle, but they all will add utility to a player's deck and I'm very fond of the clean design.

One could still argue for a more generic cycle in which all five man-lands cost 4C to activate a vanilla 3/3 or 4/4—that's totally reasonable and I would get behind that. I think either that or the last cycle I outlined are pretty much the only possible cycle of common man-lands. What do you think?


  1. What's your opinion on how Duel Masters and Hecatomb handle mana? (To those not familiar, those games have no "land" analog and allow you to play any card upside-down to a "mana zone" and tap for one mana of their color.)

  2. Luminum Can - I've played Pack Wars with Magic booster packs that way (that way you don't need any cards that don't come in the pack). It has an interesting tension, but I think the game of Magic would need to be redesigned if it were a normal mechanic. Momir Magic on Magic Online is a good point of comparison - at some point you have a choice between curving out, and running out of cards. If every card in your hand can be a spell or a land, then somewhere around CMC 6 you run into a problem where playing more lands means not having spells.

    Contrast this with regular Magic, where even if you're designing your deck to only go up to four-drops, you'll still eventually draw lands number five, six, and seven, and would like to have a use for that mana.

  3. I like the manlands quite a bit, and the whole "5G = 5/5" is really nice, but I think you might want to playtest this because I have a feeling that people would go "I pay five for a 5/5" and keep forgetting it's actually 6 for a 5/5, 4 for a 3/3 and so on.

    But they're a great idea, to be honest. Really smart cycle.

    As for mana screw - I think lessening it is a good thing, but it needs to be there. Having played Duel Masters and VS and other ccgs where your 'mana' is guaranteed makes the games much, much more boring not only to play, but to design decks in. There is a lot of fun in having to design your deck in a way to lessen mana screw, and the games have a lot of jeopardy when people aren't guaranteed their next land. So much strategy and excitement is lost. It's weird - if you get manascrewed or manaflooded it's really annoying and not fun at all, but if there's no CHANCE of being manascrewed or manaflooded, it's so much more robotic and boring.

    What you want is cards like these that help to lessen it without removing it. Good job.