Saturday, August 27, 2011

Design Review of Magic 2012: Green Commons

This is a continuation of my review of the Green cards in M12. The set may be shifting out of the spotlight soon with the coming of Innistrad, but for us amateur card designers, the lessons to be learned from M12 (and older sets) are still there.

While I call it a Design Review, it discusses Development issues as well.

Arachnus Web 2G (Common)
Enchantment - Aura
Enchant creature
Enchanted creature can't attack or block, and its activated abilities can't be activated.
At the beginning of the end step, if enchanted creature's power is 4 or greater, destroy Arachnus Web.

At first I didn't like this card so much, thinking that it wasn't very Green. Then I saw Arachnus Spinner, and now I love this card..

By the way, it's weird how Green gets less creature removal than Blue does. At the very least, Green should get playable cards that force combat more often, as often as blue gets tapdown effects. Or maybe it could also get something like:

Predator's Glare 1G
Enchant Creature
Enchanted creature can't attack, block, or activate its abilities as long as you control a creature with power greater than enchanted creature's power.

Bountiful Harvest 4G (Common)
You gain 1 life for each land you control.

Life gain cards tend to suck, and based on R&D comments, it seems to be intentional. While life gain effects tend to cost you card advantage, if they wanted to make life gain good, it's not hard. For example, if you put this ability on a creature as an ETB effect, you get a playable card. But if life gain becomes too good, it would make games drag on too long.

Another possible reason for weak life gain is that Magic is a game of learning and discovery, and it seems that they want to seed in many small lessons that players can learn, some easier than others, so that players can feel their own growth step-by-step. I imagine that the lesson that "life gain isn't important because it doesn't affect the board" is a good early stepping stone in that path.

However, if some better life gain effects can be designed without breaking the balance, I think it could make "lifegain & fatty" an interesting archetype in Limited, just like "walls & flyers" or "weenies & tempo tricks" are.

In fact, many fatties such as Pelakka Wurm and Fangren Marauder have featured life gain to combat the inherent disadvantage of fatties - being bad at racing, or arriving too late.

But what if, instead of having the life gain appear on the fatties, the life gain existed on other cards that are playable in fatty decks, so that you could build a strategy out of them yourself? For example, it could be a land ramp spell that gives you life equal to the number of lands you control. Or it could be something like:

Devout Follower 2W
Creature - Elf Druid
When ~ enters the battlefield under your control, gain 3 life.
Whenever a creature with converted mana cost 5 or greater enters the battlefield under your control, you may return ~ from your graveyard to the battlefield.

White-Green as a color combination tends to lack focus or identity in many Limited environments. This could be one direction that White-Green could take.

Naturalize 1G (Common)
Destroy target artifact or enchantment.

An important nut & bolt card. Each color has its own category of things it can deal with.

In a way, this card also speaks of Green's plight. While every color is able to mess with the opponent's game plan and interact in some way, Green can only deal with the permanent types that don't necessarily matter in every game.

Plummet 1G (Common)
Destroy target creature with flying.

This is a clean, simple creature removal spell that could feel Green.

Most sets have a few removal cards like Plummet that are weak but still good enough to combat Limited bombs like Dragons or Angels. Bombs add excitement to the game, but they shouldn't make the player facing them feel completely helpless. Brink of Despair is another such weak removal card that can be used to stop Royal Assassins and such.

These cards are often clunky or narrow, but that weakness (on a few cards) can be good for balancing Limited.

First of all, it will be a late pick in draft, so it can make it around to the player who needs it.

Secondly, running such a weaker card implies a risk or liability to the player running it, so the existence of the answer card doesn't go as far as to make the bomb suck. (Imagine if they were all Doom Blade variants. That would make 7-mana Dragons suck!)

Finally, Constructed decks care about efficiency much more than Limited decks do, so by making these cards inefficient, you can tweak your Limited environment without messing up your Constructed environment.

Rampant Growth 1G (Common)
Search your library for a basic land card and put that card onto the battlefield tapped. Then shuffle your library.

I liked Cultivate in M11 because it felt like Green's own 2-for-1 spell at Common, parallel to Divination or Mind Rot. Also, when a single card can provide 2 mana sources, it can make it so that cards that are too expensive for one type of deck are reliably playable in another. When decks have different degrees of access to various resources like lands, life, or cards, it serves as a diversifying force for deck strategies.

Ramp spells have an inherent disadvantage in that they're much less useful once you hit your intended mana range. I think the Valakut deck has been an exceptional case where players can stuff as many ramp spells as they want into their deck for early acceleration into fatties, knowing that any excess land will be converted to a good effect (burn) in the late game.

While I feel that the Valakut deck's method of burning out opponents is a little too effective, uninteractive, and inevitable, it would be great to see other cards that negate the natural disadvantage of ramp spells (or mana sources in general) and give you things to do with mana or lands in the late game.

Ramp-into-fatty strategies is a worthy strategy to support for Green. It's an iconic Green strategy, but it's not always naturally viable the way burning or countering is.

Another cool card is Explore, since it's never a wasted draw. Explore is best for accelerating to around 4 lands, because you'll likely run out of lands in hand after that. For bigger acceleration, maybe there can be a card like:

Major Exploration 2GG
Draw two cards. You may play up to two additional lands this turn.

Recent core sets avoid cantrip spells because the extra card draw is considered unresonant, but the card draw on Explore sort of makes sense - you're exploring and discovering things, after all.

Reclaim G (Common)
Put target card from your graveyard on top of your library.

I think Nature's Spiral from M11 was in a fine spot for Limited; most decks didn't desire it highly because it's bad to have in an opening hand, but it was good for decks with bombs such as Planeswalkers or Mind Control.

Reclaim looks quite weak in comparison; perhaps it's a result of the regrowth effect being moved from Uncommon to Common in this set. It's such a weaker version that I can't think of many decks that would want to run this.

While repetitive plays must be kept in check, I do like cards that make me feel that my deck is a mechanism, not a stack of individually good cards. And while Nature's Sprial and Disentomb lead to repeat plays within a game, they do get a different menu of targets every game. They can occasionally provide redundancy for weird or creative Limited decks that build around particular cards that they can't easily get multiples of - say, using Goblin Chieftans to power Goblin Bangchuckers.

That said, it's no big loss. It might be fun to combine Reclaim with Sorin's Vengeance, Diabolic Tutors, Rampant Growths, and Manaliths in draft! I hope I manage to draft that deck sometime.

Titanic Growth 1G (Common)
Target creature gets +4/+4 until end of turn.

I thought of some reasons why this card might have been printed over Giant Growth:

- The bigger size boost could be important for Infect decks, after Vines of Vastwood and Groundswell rotate out.

- It does help you draw more cards with Garruk, Primal Hunter, although pump spells are hard to justify in costructed decks that aren't hyper-aggro like infect decks.

- In Limited, it makes Green-Red aggro decks better especially if you're trying to combine power-pumping spells with Flings and Hunter's Insight.

Trollhide (Common)
Enchantment - Aura
Enchant creature
Enchanted creature gets +2/+2 and has "1G: Regenerate this creature."

It's interesting how just about every reprint in this set has to be evaluated differently in Limited because of the changed environment. Hexproof has allowed this card to fare much better than Savage Silhouette did in Zendikar.

Speaking of Hexproof, I'm glad the Aura-Hexproof strategy is so far only for Limited, where there's lots of variance in the draws. If a more powerful version was somehow viable in Constructed (whether it used an Aura or an Equipment), it would suck watching a combo forming that you can't easily interact with.

I don't think they need to push Hexproof hard, if the goal is to make Auras better - they just need a Stoneforge Mystic for Auras! (One that doesn't completely bypass the cost of the Aura, of course.) The best thing about Auras is that you could attach it to anything, not just a select class of creatures with Hexproof. If the Aura was balanced on Hexproof creatures, it would be too weak for non-Hexproof creatures.

Fog G (Common)
Prevent all combat damage that would be dealt this turn.

A neat, resonant effect. Even though it's usually bad to run this, it can occasionally turn around situations that other combat tricks can't, and makes your opponent at least think about the possibility that you have it.

The Turbo-Fog deck (the deck that uses Font of Mythos etc. to draw a Fog variant every turn and deck the opponent) is proof that cards with a unique rule-warping effect can find use somewhere.

Gladecover Scout G (Common)
Creature - Elf Scout

In draft, I would consider this card only if I was deep into the Aura archetype. That seems ok as a card; it has marginal uses but at least it fills a role, such as beating down with an enchanted 3/3 hexproof creature on turn 2. If they have to make weak cards somewhere, let them be cards like this.

That said, I wish this was a 1/2 with Hexproof. It would become a decent target for a turn 2 Dark Favor, opening up more color combinations for the archetype while still being bad enough in other decks. It could be unelegant as a 1/2, though.

Llanowar Elves G (Common)
Creature - Elf Druid
T: Add to your mana pool.

A classic core set card. A cornerstone of Elf decks, which players love.

Also, this demonstrates a classic way to make ramp viable: put it on a creature or other type of permanent.

I wonder why this set has no land-fetching variants such as Borderland Ranger, though.

Runeclaw Bear 1G (Common)
Creature - Bear

2-drops seem to have vastly different playability in various formats, depending on factors such as how many early blockers there are in the set, and how many ways there are to finish an opponent with low life. Since low-drops are important for Bloodthirst, an environment was developed where it's ok to play a lot of 2-drops bears, with less efficient blockers and more ways to keep damaging the opponent.

Garruk's Companion GG (Common)
Creature - Beast

When this card was first revealed in M11, it looked shockingly good for Limited. But being easy to trade with goes a long way towards making it balanced, although it's still very good.

Sacred Wolf 2G (Common)
Creature - Wolf

In M11, it was fun to put a Primal Coccoon on this, but I think the main problem was that unlike Trollhide, Coccoon wasn't good on other targets if you didn't draw the Wolf. (Although perhaps the Coccoon was good enough on a Llanowar Elf or Sylvan Ranger, but I guess not many people liked playing that way.) This wolf has much better common Auras to combo with this time, such as Trollhide and Divine Favor.

Archetypes based off of 2-card synergies, such as the Hexproof/Aura archetype, tend to require a cluster of cards to be reliable, with multiple enablers and multiple rewards at Common. They're often spread across 3 colors so that you can experience different color combinations within the same theme.

Brindle Boar 2G (Common)
Creature - Boar
Sacrifice Brindle Boar: You gain 4 life.

Noooo not this guy again!

I suspect this card is secretly there to teach players to value the board state more than their life total. Imagine: a new player is attacked by a Warpath Ghoul, so he blocks with Brindle Boar. Should he sacrifice the Boar to gain 4 life, or give up the 4 life so the opponent's 3/2 dies? The player thinks hard, makes the right choice, and levels up after combat!

Unfortunately, it may be a mistake to be playing this creature in the first place, but that realization will have to come with the next level of mastery.

Well, to be fair, this guy is actually better than before, because there are so many small creatures running around that this guy can trade with, and games often boil down to tight races so the life gain actually matters. And the flavor is kind of nice. But still, it's an unimpressive card.

Lurking Crocodile 2G (Common)
Creature - Crocodile
Bloodthirst 1

A decent chance of being a Centaur Courser, combined with a roughly 40% chance of being unblockable, results in a high chance overall of meeting at least one those conditions, which is enough to make this guy highly playable.

In terms of design/development, I never understood what landwalk's role is in the game's strategy; in most sets there's almost no way to play around it, or to proactively turn it on.

I mostly think of it as a sideboarding option that can exist at common for Limited, but this one is very main-deckable. It would just randomly hurt some people more than others. Perhaps it's for maintaining the color balance; maybe green had a lot of trouble against blue decks.

Otherwise, the Islandwalk looks like a good way to make a Green 3-drop bloodthirst guy that's worse than Red's 3-drop bloodthirst guy (Bloodshot Ogre) without making it strictly worse .It would be awkward if Green got a strictly worse creature than Red. (Even if it's actually weaker!)

Giant Spider 3G (Common)
Creature - Spider
Reach (This creature can block creatures with flying.)

I like how, in the rules of Magic, creatures aren't just bigger or smaller. A single card can hold off multiple attackers without being a big beater itself.

Unfortunately, the core sets since M11 have been balanced by making most creatures small enough to trade with each other, with sizes like 2/1, 2/2, and 3/2. This keeps the board volatile, and also makes the element of tempo matter more. In that world, 2/4 creatures like Giant Spider and Azure Drake sometimes make too much of a difference on the board when they're not removed.

While I enjoy both M11 and M12 immensely, I do wish there could be more varied creature sizes, the way there are in expansion sets. It would be nice if somehow there could be a lot of beefy mid-range guys that can crash past the 2/4 blockers. It would be nice if the creature categories like blocker, beefy guy, weenie, and evasion guy all formed a kind of rock-paper-scissors relationship against each other so that they're all valid.

Greater Basilisk 3GG (Common)
Creature - Basilisk

I really like this card's design - it can be an effective blocker and an answer to a ground bomb, or it can be a 3-power attacker that's hard to block effectively, similar to the 5-drop 3-power flyers that white or blue sometimes get. It's a 5-drop that feels very different from Spined Wurm or Stampeding Rhino.

In this set, we get to see it combo with Lure, which is awesome.

Stampeding Rhino 4G (Common)
Creature - Rhino

This may have been selected over Spined Wurm because they didn't want too many common fatties that could trade with Gorehorn Minotaurs.

By the way, I like how there are plenty of good targets for both Dark Favor and Divine Favor, but you have to pick the right match. How about a Dark Favor on a Stampeding Rhino or Greater Basilisk? Or a Divine Favor on a Garruk's Companion or Gladecover Scout?

Vastwood Gorger 5G (Common)
Creature - Wurm

This card takes over Yavimaya Wurm's spot. Perhaps they wanted exactly one common creature in the set that could trump a bloodthirsted Gorehorn Minotaurs in combat, since everything needs an answer.

Most Common high-power fatties in core sets have had toughness of around 4, allowing it to be double-blocked by two bears. I think it's balanced when the majority of Common cards can be answered without drawing a specific card such as removal. (Even if it's a costly solution such as double-blocking.)

However, in this fast environment Green deserves a bigger reward than a Yavimaya Wurm for running a late game card, which is another reason why Green may have gotten this.

The one thing that is different from M12 and Zendikar is that M12 doesn't nerf blocking as hard as Zendikar did. A late game can exist, and Vastwood Gorger seems much better than it was in Zendikar.


  1. The reason for Titanic Growth: They wanted to have only one "Core Set Survivor" in the set, and Giant Spider played better with Arachnus Spinner. That's it.

  2. On lifegain: I feel it's a factor of the amount of the lifegain compared with the size of the creature that really makes those fatties viable against the more aggressive decks. Pelakka Wurm takes you out of burn range and stops a bunch of guys from attacking; Fangren Marauder can gain you 20+ life over the course of a game with the right setup. Your hypothetical card is unappealing because neither effect - gaining 3 life or getting a 1/3 - is what I want to be spending 3 mana on, and thus isn't an enticing build-around-me.

    Good point on Hexproof. Savage Silhouette was still fine in Zendikar, though it makes for an interesting environment to see cards like Dark Favor and Divine Favor finally getting played. I personally hate it from a player perspective because of how much it reduces your ability to interact, especially on something like Aven FTW which has non-interactivity in the form of evasion. (Thought it is nice to be the player who drafted them!)

    Gladecover Scout is fine to board in against the mono-Goblin Pikers deck. Sometimes you just need a body on the ground.

    Typo in the article - "Borderland Druid" should be "Civic Wayfinder."

    Giant Spider would be fine if it weren't also for Stingerflinger being in the same set. My favorite archetype is W/U, and I'd rather play against a deck with 3 Combusts than one Stingerflinger - it's just that potent at invalidating your entire attack strategy. I do find it interesting that the colors that don't care about reach (black and red) are also the ones more likely to be able to smash through the 2/4 body.

  3. Good stuff, Chah. I really like the depth of your analysis here. Got me thinking possibilities and jotting down a few card ideas.

    For what it's worth, I would gladly play Devout Follower if it were easy enough to trigger it a couple times, though it being white rather than green makes that considerably less likely.

  4. Thanks for the comments, guys.

    @Alex: Missed that. I wonder what they were going to have in the place of Giant Spider. Canopy Spider? Deadly Recluse?

    @Jenesis: With the Devout Follower I'm aiming for an enabler like Cultivate, not a build-around-me like Garruk's Packleader. It isn't intended to entice you into playing fatties, but if you're already trying to play fatties, it allows you to stay alive long enough so that the 2nd or 3rd Wurm or Rhino that you cast can take down the opponent.

    That said, maybe the life gain should be higher, or the stats higher so that it could trade with other creatures. The biggest problem is that it doesn't help enough against flyers.

    Pelakka Wurm and Fangren Marauder gain too much life for ordinary environments, though. They come from environments that don't lack in ways to close a game. Maybe 5 life per fatty cast is a good amount.

    Thanks for pointing out the typo. I fixed it.

    I was unclear about Giant Spider - I agree that it is fine by itself. I was talking about how development has had to cut down on other cards like it and generally limit the number of high-toughness guys. I wonder if hating toughness is the only way to keep the board fluctuating, because I've enjoyed environments like Shards of Alara where there's a variety in sizes.

    Also, it's so weird that Giant Spider is like top pick common for Green, over aggro creatures or fatties.

    @Jay: Thanks. Devout Follower does belong more in green than white, and I guess I'm artificially creating a reason to go into White-Green. If I were to create 2 identities for WG in a set, it would be bears with team pump and fatties with life gain. The card might feel more white if it said "Whenever a creature enters the battlefield under your control, gain life equal to its toughness-1."