Friday, July 1, 2011

The Rise and Fall of a Card Type

The release of a new Jace, Chandra and Garruk in Magic 2012 has crystallized a trend in my mind relating to the introduction of new card types to the game.


When the first five planeswalkers are released in Lorwyn, they're all very strong cards. To use the limited pointing scale in a constructed context, they are all 4.0s. That is, if you build a deck of that color, you pretty much always stick all the planeswalkers you can into it. Liliana and Chandra don't get quite as much love, but that's more a matter of cost/archetypes not quite fitting.

Five more are released during Shards of Alara block, and those are of a similar power level. Except where they do something completely tangential to your game plan, you automatically play every walker in your deck's colors. To be clear, all ten of the first walkers are good enough to build your deck around. I took an Ajani, Elspeth, Garruk deck to a PTQ against some well-established net-decks and did quite well with it, and I'm not even good at Magic.

Six more walkers roll out of Zendikar and it's at this point that we start to see a change in their power level. Chandra Ablaze and Nissa Revane are both strong within their specific niche, but aren't really playable outside of it; Sarkhan the Mad and Sorin Markhov are both very good, but hard to cast; Gideon Jura is a bit less universal than Ajani Goldmane, but strong enough to see a lot of play; and Jace, the Mind Sculptor breaks left as a 5.0 (Once the aggression of Jund stops, it becomes a literal must-play in Standard, regardless of what colors you wanted to be).

Scars block drops five more planeswalkers all of which are very strong in their niche, but neither ubiquitous nor terribly easy to cast. And finally, Magic 2012 offers only planeswalkers that are expensive or niche, going as far as creating three new ones to meet that mold.

What Happened

In summary, Wizards' initial wave of this new card type was too good, but not brokenly so. After a year or two, they start to see that the power level is too high, but they haven't quite gotten just how close to crossing the line they are and push one card over it. This card dominates constructed for a year or so and Wizards finally understands the correct power level for the card type moving forward. You can't know your boundaries without testing them.

Before I get into how this is a trend, I want to clarify what I'm suggesting about the power level of Planeswalkers. The initial batch was very strong—not broken strong—but enough to eclipse pretty much every other card type. JTMS was the card that broke the camel's back and we should never see another walker of that power level. All the walkers in 2012 are fairly balanced. That is, none of them are so powerful that a deck of the same color is not always improved by the inclusion of that card, kind of like, Day of Judgment or Vengevine. When they're good, they're good, but you can make a deck with no walkers and not feel like a dummy.


The last time we went through this cycle was equipment. Equipment in Mirrodin was a bit too good. Apart from Skull Clamp, none of it was broken good, so the power level stayed about the same or moved down only slightly in Darksteel and Fifth Dawn. In Kamigawa, most of the equipment was neutered to the point that a card like Umezawa's Jitte could slip through the cracks. Like JTMS, Jitte was the last broken card of its kind. R&D now has a serious bead on what's fair and what's not on equipment. (Neither Sword of Feast and Famine nor Batterskull are broken in a world without Stoneforge Mystic.)

The Rest

This cycle goes all the way back to Alpha (and then Urza's block) with mana acceleration (Black Lotus, Mox Opal, Sol Ring, the counting lands), card draw (Ancestral Recall), countermagic (Power Sink, Force of Will), and sundry (Time Walk, etc), including lands. Not all new things follow this pattern. Some start underpowered (life gain, Tribal, auras, creatures) and some have been pretty much dead on since inception (Terror, Giant Growth, etc).

None of this is to say that R&D isn't doing their job well; it's a credit to them how close to perfectly baked these pies do come. They've been very good at avoiding releasing a new class of cards that is overwhelmingly too good (like the Eldrazi easily could have been) or too bad (which, despite popular opinion, Arcane and Tribal were not, at least not power-wise). This level of imbalance is the most pernicious for game designers because it slightly degrades the overall quality of the game in a way that is much harder to detect than the more obviously over-powered cards do. The fact that the game, by its nature, adapts around deviations in power level the way it does makes it even harder to see such imbalances.

Fortunately, Wizards is a smart bunch that never settles for good enough and they've got a playtest group of tens of thousands of similarly intelligent and passionate people, meaning that no problem will last forever and the game will eventually be perfect. Well, it would be if they didn't keep making new stuff. But perfect = dead, so let's keep pushing that envelope.

07/07/2011—For anyone bemoaning the loss of a Cool Card Design of the Day, I present to you the greatest achievement any designer can ever hope for: A joke card blindly executed off of a bad pun:


  1. I would legitimately love to see a creature version of Jitte if we were ever to return to Kamigawa.

  2. Yeah and adding living weapon to the Jitte is the best execution of this idea.

  3. I often wondered why Zendikar and Scars block planeswalkers except Jace and Elspeth had narrower applications. There really have been trends in Planeswalkers that came in stages, and I don' think any R&D articles have talked about it so far.

    Your ideas got me thinking. Planeswalkers get stronger in multiples, because an opponent can't have enough attackers for all of them. Some "Superfriends" decks had some tournament success.

    Maybe R&D testing showed that if they kept printing more planeswalkers with generally useful abilities, even at the Lorwyn power level, they would dominate Standard, make all decks run similar cards, and make decks expensive.

    Even without a critical mass, planeswalkers can be a force that makes all decks of that color look the same, as well as be a financial barrier to tournament entry, as Jace has proved.

    It would be scary to think what would happen if planeswalkers.dec became the dominant deck in Standard.

    On another note, it would be fun to have a casual format where each deck must contain at least 20 Planeswalkers (with proxies). It might play more like a war simulation game than a game of Magic.