Tuesday, September 13, 2011

21 Ways to Design a Card #9: Design for Draft Archetypes (pt.2)

In part 1 of this post, I talked about sets that encourage archetype-based drafting like Rise of the Eldrazi or M11 and what makes them enjoyable. Here, I'd like to continue that topic and discuss some of the ways to make archetypes matter more in a set.

So, how do we make archetypes matter more in a set? That question is tied very deeply to the following questions:

  • What makes decks different from each other? Why are there different approaches to winning?
  • What factors can make a card fit better into one deck more than another?

There are several answers to these questions, and I'll try to cover them one by one in the rest of this series. In this post, I'll deal with the most basic answer to both of these questions: the color pie.

The color pie is a core part of the game system that automatically guarantees that there will be archetypes. At the very least, each 2-color combination will be an archetype. That part is automatic, but what you can do as a set maker is to make sure that the color schemes you want to enable are all viable.

Writing this, I've found that most of the things I have to say on the color pie will only affect the diversity of archetypes in the set, and not necessarily guarantee that drafting will revolve around these archetypes. Drafters will settle into a color combination, but once they do, they could still just pick whatever cards are strongest in their color according to raw power. 

In later posts, I will cover other factors that actually make it correct for people to make their picks based on their deck type rather than raw card power. But the color pie is so fundamental that I believe it is worth talking about first.

Make Each Color Valid
One thing that you can do to take advantage of the color pie is to make sure the colors are balanced. Recently, I've seen so many M12 draft videos where the drafter starts off a draft with a comment along the lines of "Okay, the best card in this pack is clearly card A, but since I don't like Green in this format I'll just pick this random mediocre card instead." In a perfect world, cards should be judged not by the color of their mana symbols, but by the content of their text box! A whole slew of color options are eliminated when a player doesn't feel safe going into a color. (I do think they are overcautious about Green, though.)

It's possible that there are legitimate reasons to make some colors in a set better or worse than other colors in Limited, which I'd like to discuss later. However, if you are mostly concerned with maximizing the number of valid archetypes, I would try to make all the colors equal in power.

Make Each Color Distinct
Make sure that the colors are not only balanced power-wise, but also that they have their own distinct identity and play style. If one color has a strong aggro suite, make sure it's a different style of aggro than aggro in other colors in that set. For example, maybe in your set Blue has a lot of tempo cards akin to Frost Breath while Red has reach (damage to finish the game) like Lava Axe, and White has lots of cheap evasive creatures.

Also, if two colors use a set mechanic, try to put a slightly different spin on each color's version of it. For example, with Rise of the Eldrazi Levelers, White gets an abundance of beatdown Levelers while Blue gets more utility Levelers and enablers. Black gets a small number of Levelers with dangerous damage potential, but lacks early evasion Levelers that White and Blue gets.

Create Multiple Facets to Each Color 
Another thing you can do is to make sure that each color can do at least two different things. As I mentioned in the example of Brad Nelson's M11 drafts in the previous post, M11 Blue cards had aggro cards as well as control cards. Green had weenies and fatties. This may be optional, and not every set has been like this. But I think sets are so much deeper when colors each have multiple facets. 

While I enjoy the fast-paced action of M12, one of my minor gripes with it is its reduced archetype diversity. For example, almost all the White commons seem to work towards the same purpose. If you put the White commons together, they almost build themselves into a mono-Griffin flying aggro deck. You do well by picking more and more White cards. There are choices to be made, such as determining how open the archetype is, or which part of your curve is currently most lacking. But sometimes it feels as if it's not up to me to architect a deck by picking out the right effects from the right colors.

Some of the higher rarity cards like Call to the Grave can lead to weird and fun archetypes, though. 

Make Each Color Pair Valid
Another thing I believe is worth doing is to make sure each color combination works. 

In this article, Tom LaPille talks about how 2011 was developed.
One of the early exercises that Erik had us work on as a development team was to decide what we wanted each two-color combination to feel like in Limited. That informed how we tweaked cards through the rest of development, and resulted in some interesting effects during drafting and deck building. In Magic 2010, many of each color's best cards were basically just as good in any deck. There are still plenty of Doom Blades and Lightning Bolts and Pacifisms in Magic 2011, but this time we also made sure to put in some strong cards that weren't equally good in any color combination.
A similar process took place during the design stage of Ravnica, as designers discussed early on what each two-color combination should play like.

I'm of the opinion that every set should try to go through this kind of process at one stage or another. Weaving a strategy by combining the strengths of different colors is a fundamental source of diversity in Magic. It's more than just a gimmick for a particular type of set like Ravnica or Shards of Alara. 

That said, it is arguable that while each color combination should be valid in some cases, the various color combinations don't all have to be available at equal frequency. 

An example of this is Shared Discovery and Nomad Assembly in Rise of the Eldrazi. Rise of the Eldrazi had a token subtheme in Green, Red, and Black, with many token producers and ways to put them to use in those colors. But Shared Discovery is a lone Blue card that can only be powerful if you manage to play it in a deck with enough token production. Nomad Assembly is a White card that can produce a massive number of tokens, but isn't in the best color to utilize tokens.

I've managed to put Shared Discovery to good use, exactly once. I had two copies of it supported by 2 or 3 Prophetic Prisms and a Terramorphic Expanse, and many token generators. In that deck, Shared Discovery was an Ancestral Recall. By appearing at low frequency, these unlikely decks give you something new to discover even after playing many, many drafts in the format.

A similar design can be seen in Boggart Sprite-Chaser and Elvish Handservant in Lowryn. They are meant to throw a bone to color-combinations that don't occur very often when you're following the set's themes and mechanics. I don't know about the Sprite-chaser, but the Handservant did become a successful niche archetype, where you combine it with Red or Green aggro 2-drop changelings and every Tribal changeling effect you can pick up such as Blades of Velis Vel.

One set that seemed restrictive to color combinations was Scars of Mirrodin. It was a special set in that it tried to portray a battle between two factions in its set structure, to an extent where color choices were severely limited. Most of the time, you were strongly incentivised to either draft Black-Green for Infect, or draft some combination of Red-White-Blue for Metalcraft.

I've read that early on, there was a plan to facilitate more color combinations; Red-Black had a clearer sacrifice theme, tying those two colors together. Red had a power-boosting theme making it work well with Infect strategies in either Black or Green. Blue had more repeatable proliferate at common to accompany Infect. I wish they could have followed through with that plan for more archetype diversity.

When Mirrodin Besieged was released, suddenly there seemed to be many more decks I could build. In the first ten or so decks I drafted, I ended up with wildly different builds each time. I had a deck where my Living Weapons enabled my Mirran equipment-matters themes. I had Battle Cry pumping a swarm of Myr tokens in one draft deck, then pumping White Infect creatures in another. I had sacrifice effects fueled by good sacrifice fodder. It was a blast to put these decks together on the fly.

While this is just a personal anecdote, it's an example of how deck variety explodes when each color's specialty can be put to use in different ways. Each color's functions and strengths should combine in varying formulas to produce different deck strategies. 

Work Out the Kinky Color Pairs
When you're defining the identity of color pairs in your set, some combinations will be harder than others.

For example, Blue-White or Green-Red are famous for meshing well together in almost every set, while some color pairs such as White-Green or White-Black are inherently difficult to play. White-Green lacks removal; White-Black are both color-intensive with costs like WW and BB.

Some of these color combinations don't necessarily even have an established identity on how they should play, especially White-Black. I think it's worth thinking about how you want those combinations to play in your set. 

For example, if you think about White and Green's strengths, they both have strong early creatures. In the common slots, both of these colors can have multiple 2-drops that have on-curve power (power 2 or higher), whereas other colors might only have one on-curve 2/1 and one utility creature. You can help White-Green by designing cards that reward you for playing out many on-curve weenies early. An example of this is Leonin Armorguard and Sigil Blessing in Shards of Alara, or Travel Preparations in Innistrad.

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Also, Green has fatties that are powerful but are bad at racing evasion. White has good defense, and both Green and White have good life gain. If you can make defensive cards or life-gain cards that benefit White-Green decks more than other colors, you could facilitate a White-Green fatty deck.

An example would be defensive removal spells like Exile or Divine Verdict, because offensive decks can't use them to remove blockers. Puncturing Light could also work because it's only good for removing small evasive creatures and can't be used against Green's fatties.

As for lifegain, Sunseed Nurturer is a good example of a fatty-friendly life-gaining ramp spell from Shards of Alara. Unfortunately, it didn't seem to have much impact, possibly because a power-5 Naya deck was more difficult to pull together than aggro Naya. Other possibilities I've mentioned in a previous post are mana ramp spells that gain you life, as well as Soul Warden type creatures that gain you life based on the toughness of a creature entering the battlefield.

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White could have a small instant pump trick that grants lifelink, which would gain huge amounts of life if used on a fatty. 

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Finally, White is the secondary color for land fetching, and White can sometimes have reach as well. Putting them on a few White cards would give White-Green a critical mass of tools that Green has traditionally relied on to survive and cast fatties.

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Perhaps not all of these can be done in the same set, because card effects are competing for space. Ideally, many of the archetype cards will have versatile uses and be useful in multiple archetypes without being good everywhere. For the colors that are difficult to play together, it could be worth devoting a few slots for bridging them and making them mesh better.

Multiple Identities per Color Pair
It seems possible to take this a step further and define two identitites for each 2-color combination. In fact, M11 definitely came very close to achieving this. There was a Weenie Red-Green deck and Fatty Red-Green deck. There was a controlling White-Blue deck and an aggro beatdown White-Blue deck. In a future post in this series, I hope to discuss some of the factors other than color that cause decks to diverge like this.  

In the White-Green card examples above, most of the cards can help both WG Fatty/Defense as well as WG Weenie Swarm. Overlap cards like these can create enough space for multiple archetypes per color pair.

Of course, the cards for the WG Fatty archetype must not completely overlap with the cards for WG Swarm archetype, since that may make them blend into one indistinguishable deck. A few cards need to shine only in fatty versions (say, Enormous Baloth) while a few of them shine only in swarm versions (say, Inspired Charge). 

Give Incentive to Color-Intensive Strategies
An additional way to increase archetypes is to pay attention to the color intensity of cards. In our virtual M13 project lead by Jay Treat, Duncan, one of the contributors, has been pushing for using cards with high color commitment to create more archetypes, as well as to create an incentive not to go multicolor.

Having some color-intense cards like Fiery Hellhound and Tendrils of Corruption can reward players for focusing in one color. These cards sometimes justify a mono-color deck, which increases the number of available color archetypes. These cards will also make a 50/50 Black - Red deck play differently from a 70/30 Black-Red deck, as well as from a 30/70 Black-Red deck.

These cards don't necessarily need to count basic lands of a type or have a Shade-like pump ability to be mana intensive. A Garruk's Companion, Sorin's Thirst, White Knight, or Overrun all make you want to run 11/17 or more lands in that color if possible.

Make Low Color Commitment Spells
On the other hand, some cards should have low color requirement in order to allow for splashing and weird hybrid decks. 

Rise of the Eldrazi has a very large ratio of cards with low color commitment. This was combined with abundant color fixers - namely Terramorphic Expanse and Prophetic Lens at Common in addition to an abundance of Green land fetching spells. 

Rise of Eldrazi has perhaps 7 or so major archetypes based on synergies, but if they were only based on a fixed scenario such as playing levelers with Venerated Teachers, or Eldrazi Spawn producers with Eldrazi, people might feel that they are being forced to draft decks that were pre-designed. But what makes it different from drafting prescribed decks is that the many subthemes overlap, and there are varying levels of commitment to them. You can have a hybrid deck that has high commitment to theme A and only dabbles in theme B. This hybridization makes strategies very fluid and you encounter different variations of the main strategies every time.

It's good that the themes intersect and help each other. For example a totem armor Aura like Boar Umbra might fuel your deck's Aura theme, but it also helps protect your level up creatures in your deck's leveler theme. The low color commitment of spells and the abundant mana fixing definitely helps with this kind of hybridization.

Some sets have cards like Coat of Arms or Skull of Orm that can inspire you to draft around it. They serve as an enabler or a reward for a theme that exists in multiple colors; for example, every color has some common creatures cards that share creature types, and every color has Enchantments. By having low color requirements, these artifacts can create their own niche archetypes for every color combination. If there is a card like that that isn't an artifact, it could still be given a splashable cost. 

An example of a card like that in M12 might be Warstorm Surge, which is very hard to use but can be splashed off of some Manaliths and combined with Blue's AEther Adepts for recursive damage, Green's fatties for big damage, Black's creature recursion, etc. 

In Scars of Mirrodin, the colorless infect creatures such as Corpse Cur came in handy because of their low color requirements, when later sets of the block introduced Infect in new colors. Infect decks from the newer Infect colors such as White could use the artifact Infect creatures to shore up their Infect count.

Facilitate Splashing
Making it easy to splash colors could also be good for archetype diversity if done right. This is not necessarily something you need to push in every set. Also, you need to be careful because when splashing is too easy, there's the danger that it will make all color combinations play similarly since they have access to the same effects. 

In the beginning of Shards of Alara block, I felt drafts were monotonous. Many people including me drafted decks that were solidly spread across 3 main colors (often splashing a 4th color.) When people drafted like that, it felt as if there were only 5 combinations of 3 adjacent colors - only 5 possible bases for decks. When people began focusing on 2 main colors and 1 minor color (sometimes with 1 additional splash color) things began to feel somewhat different. I still felt triple Shards draft was monotonous because you needed adjacent colors as well as a few other factors. But at least there could be Black-Red-x decks, Black-Blue-x decks etc, as well as solidly three-color decks.

If you want to facilitate archetype variation through splashing, there should be splashable cards in the set that actually impact your strategy so that a RGw deck plays slightly differently from a RGb deck. I don't think splashing a Doom Blade or Pacifism would significantly affect your strategy; it will merely raise your card quality. Some hypothetical examples I can think of are:
  • A suicidal Black-Red aggro deck that recklessly throws away card advantage for quick damage, then uses card draw spells like Sift to refill.  
  • A spell-heavy deck in Black-Blue or Red-Blue that controls the board with spells, then uses Spined Wurms and Enormous Baloths to win in the late game.
  • A White-Green weenie swarm attack deck that uses a couple of Lava Axe effects to finish the game. 
  • A Black-Red aggro deck that splashes a White or Green team pump spell or a Blue enchantment that grants mass flying as a finisher. (Unfortunately, the ones printed so far are hard to splash.)
I don't know of any real-life sets where an archetype based on splashing a key late-game card was considered a major strategy. But there's no reason that there can't be one.

Sets that facilitate splashing tend to also be friendly to multicolor play, but it doesn't have to be that way. Some kind of mana fixers can designed that help only with splashing without helping multicolor decks that are evenly split across its colors.

Possible Reasons For Color Inequality
I wrote that if we focus only on archetype diversity, the power levels of the colors should be equal. I can't be 100% sure of even that, but assuming for the moment that it is true, what are some reasons to make colors unequal?

First, it could be a way to keep shifting the relative power balance between colors, giving a sense of freshness that is much needed especially in core sets.

Second, it could be a way to create interesting dynamics during draft. 

Some people like knowing what colors and color combinations are strong, and having an advantage over players who don't do the research. Other players like to go against the grain and draft unpopular colors, occasionally ending up with extremely strong decks because all of the other players at the table avoided that color. 

An example was Red in M11. The Red Commons in M11 were extremely weak, but Red also had a lot of strong Uncommons, Rares, and Mythics like Ember Hauler, Shivan Embrace, Cyclops Gladiator, and Ancient Hellkite that heavy Red decks can take advantage of. Powerful red decks were less frequent, but could certainly happen if only one player at the table was drafting heavy-Red cards. The existence of high risk, high reward strategies may be exciting.

Arguably, a skillfull player could deduce that Red is being underdrafted and move into that color, increasing the factor of skill in drafts.

Third, if certain color decks materialize less frequently, theoretically that might add to the repeat-draftability of the set. 

Personally, I'm not a fan of making it risky to go into a color. Even if you want to take advantage of everyone avoiding a color, inexperienced drafters might pick that color anyways not knowing it's weak. Someone might open a bomb in that color in the second pack. That's too finicky. If only one extra player joins that color, it may ruin your plans. I can understand if a gimmicky combo deck is a low-frequency but powerful archetype, but a whole color shouldn't be made risky if possible.

Benefits of Color-Based Archetypes
In the remaining posts in this series, I hope to talk about other factors that give birth to archetypes, such as synergies or differences in pacing. Each way of distinguishing archetypes all have different advantages and disadvantages.

I think the advantage of archetypes based on the natural abilities of colors (such as in M11) is that they are the most open-ended. There isn't the feeling that you have to play a certain combination of cards like Goblin Arsonist with Bloodshot Ogre or Griffins with Guardian's Pledge to beat other decks that do. There's a natural overlap between cards for various strategies, leading to some fun branching choices as you go along.

The disadvantage is that it can be very subtle. Unlike combo-based archetypes or tribal archetypes, many inexperienced players might not even notice that they're there, even if it's important in that environment to understand each color's potential strategies.

This turned out to be quite a long article, but I hope you enjoyed it. See you next post!


  1. This was a great post. I mean, everything I've learned on this topic came from one of Tom Lapille's articles on designing his cube: http://www.starcitygames.com/magic/misc/15205_Arcane_Teachings_Six_Sides_on_the_Cube.html

    I'd also urge you to look back at Scars block again. That format was a lot more nuanced in terms of draft archtypes then you might think. Obviously BG infect was a big on there, but RG dinosaurs, RW equipment, UB fliers, BR furnace celebration, and Metalcraft made for several viable archtypes in just 3x Scars. The nature of Mirroden's artifacts also made it so that there was a lot of diversity between these decks just because there were so many weaker playables you could fill out any deck.

  2. Great stuff, Chah.

    PS, I want Redeeming Power (or something very like it) for M13. Can't believe Vampire's Bite is the only lifelink-granting Instant so far.

  3. Not to diverge from the primary content of this excellent post, but I think the greatest flaw in Scars limited was the abundance of board wipes in almost every flavor. If you make an effect rare, but then make three of them in every set during a block, you're bound to set up an unpleasant environment in which players rarely feel safe to pursue lesser archetypes. I mean, this list is ridiculous: Contagion Engine, Carnifex Demon, Black Sun's Zenith, Phyrexian Rebirth, Creeping Corrosion, Life's Finale, Cerebral Eruption, Slagstorm, Sunblast Angel

    I might have even missed some, and that's just silly.

  4. Just depends on the format. M12 didn't reprint Pyroclasm to encourage players to play fast aggressive creatures without fear of punishment. Scars, on the other hand, was a format where it could be really hard to come back from a fast start. Infect and Metalcraft both encourage players to drop their hands quickly, and it can be hard to recover without the control decks having access to late game 2 for 1s.

    I think one of the problems with Terrain is that, unlike metalcraft, there are very few ways to ever turn it off. One solution to that is to make it harder to turn on in the first place by discouraging easy splashes. With Metalcraft, they had to create an environment where you could reset that metalcraft count back to 0. Sweepers do that in spades.

    What is interesting (And this point is stolen from the Lapille/Foresythe article) is that including just 1 or 2 cards can really change the feel of a set. Something as little as removing Pyroclasm results in a very different format.

  5. Very thought-provoking article. I love it when sets enable a diverse range of limited decks, but it does take a lot of work, as you point out.