Friday, September 30, 2011

21 Ways to Design a Card #9: Design for Draft Archetypes (pt.3)

In this series, I've been writing about designing cards (and sets) for Limited environments where archetypes matter - environments where you draft decks, not cards.

In the last post, I wrote how I think the following two questions are important when you're thinking about how to make archetypes matter in your set.
  • What makes decks different from each other? Why are there different approaches to the same game?
  • What factors can make a card fit better into one deck more than another?
Last time, I discussed the color pie as one of the answers to this questions. This time, I'd like to discuss how different decks care differently about time.

Decks Care Differently about Time
As we know, cards in Magic can have high or low casting costs. The game gradually proceeds from a stage of casting small but cheap spells to a stage of casting powerful high-cost spells.

Players can choose to build decks that are best in a particular stage of the game, giving birth to different styles even within decks of the same colors.

The fact that decks try to use time differently is a great source of diversity for Magic. Some decks try to convert time into damage right from the beginning, beating down on the opponent before his/her defenses are ready. Some decks want to use time to build up their resources.

While this might sound like a simple contrast of aggro vs. control (and actually it sort of is), there can be many, many variations of how a deck uses time.

For example, Blue-Green decks try to steadily lay down above-average land and air creatures and build up their board. They don't have good removal, so they need to maintain creature superiority. For that purpose, a Rampant Growth can be a time spell that takes you a turn forward, and a well-timed Unsummon can be a time spell that sets your opponent back one turn. While Blue-Green can't ultimately answer every threat, tempo tricks like Frost Breath at key moments shift the pacing of the game and allow the Blue-Green deck to win first.

Even though the Blue-Green deck is an aggro deck of sorts, it acts differently from a suicidal Red deck. In the early stages it's possible for UG to be concerned with building up its board presence faster than the opponent, rather than dealing damage as quickly as possible. A suicidal Red-Green deck can finish the opponent with a Lava Axe or Act of Treason even after its creature force has been outclassed, as long as it dealt enough damage in the early game. In contrast, a Blue-Green deck wins by being stronger on the board than the opponent, if only by stunting the opponent's board with temporary tricks.

Of the decks that want to build up over several turns, some decks may want to prolong the game just enough to hit their full stride, and once they do they want to move in and wrap up the game as quickly as possible. A fatty Red-Green deck that controls the board with Pyroclasm until it gets a big beater out is an example of that.

Other decks like Blue-Black control benefit more the longer the game goes on, because they can gain card advantage over time and slowly wear the opponent out.

Time Advantage vs. Card Advantage
When a player evaluates a card, there are at least two main scales s/he can use - card advantage and time advantage. I made up the word "time advantage" here because it would be convenient to talk about speed and tempo under one word for this discussion.

Cards like Unsummon or Frost Breath throw away card advantage to gain tempo; you affect the flow of the game, allowing you to take more actions on the board than your opponent can, so that you can win first. Cards like Act of Treason or Lava Axe throws away card advantage for speedy damage; you get to deal 20 damage earlier.

Some decks want these effects, other decks don't. When there's multiple scales for evaluating a card, your picks can differ based on your deck's goals, rather than there being one "best" choice for all decks.

Is this card good?
That depends...
Time Advantage Doesn't Matter Unless the Environment Makes it Matter
Card advantage will always be a factor in Magic. After all, it's a card game and cards are a limited resource in Magic. On the other hand, time advantage isn't automatically significant. It only matters if it's an environment where speed and tempo play a role.

Damage Races, Not Board Stalls
Board stalls are one of the best ways to make time advantage not matter. In some ancient sets such as 4th Edition, board stalls in Limited were very common, and card advantage and raw card power was about the only thing that mattered.

Take a look at Lava Spike. It's a card that throws away card advantage for quick damage. If you choose to play this card, the number one concern that you would have is that you might not "get there." That is, you'll start with a burst of early damage but you can't finish the opponent. 18 damage is as good as 0 damage if you don't finish the job. Board stalls hurt cards like Lava Spike because it means your efforts for speedy damage can peter out.

On the other hand, if both sides are in a position to continually deal damage, the game becomes a race of who's going to deal 20 damage first. It's in those games that cards like Lava Spike or Unsummon have a chance to matter for the more aggressive decks.

A Bear-Friendly World
While it's obvious that a player wants to make sure that s/he "gets there" when playing cards like Lava Spike, the same thing can also be said for small creatures like Runeclaw Bears. If your creatures get outclassed easily, it's possible that your Runeclaw Bears only gets to attack on turn 3 and then becomes irrelevant for the rest of the game. In such a scenario, you are virtually losing card advantage by playing a Bear.

On the other hand, if your Runeclaw Bears can attack or trade many turns after it's cast, you can afford to play more copies of them in your deck. Decks can emphasize curving out and casting something every turn, rather than focusing only on raw power and ignoring curve issues.

High Power, Low Toughness
One thing you can do to make sure small creatures don't get outclassed too quickly is to give the majority of cards in the set high power and low toughness.

Just having a few playable 3-drop 2/3s in the set can make 2/2 Bears much worse (especially in core set Limited, where there aren't as many set mechanics and synergies for breaking through.)

A world with high power, low toughness creatures lets you trade upwards with creatures. Your creatures don't get outclassed right away. (In a way, it also incentivises you to attack. It also keeps the board from getting cluttered.)
Trading upwards
Imagine a game where the majority of 2-drops were 1/2, 3-drops were 2/3, and 4-drops were 3/4s. You couldn't attack unless your opponent's creatures were of lower casting cost than yours. Even then, it would suck to attack with a 3/4 into a 2/3 and 1/2. It will be a 1-for-1 and you'll be trading downwards. That gives you much less incentive to attack.

Too Much Trading Is Bad
Too much trading can be bad for the game too. If everything traded with everything, games would just be a matter of who drew the most non-blank cards. It's important that sometimes one mid-sized creature can hold off multiple smaller creatures. It's good that creatures actually do get outclassed eventually. That way, even if the opponent got the jump on you by casting multiple 2/1s in the early game while you didn't draw your small guys, you can make a comeback if the cards you did draw was good for the mid game or late game and your opponent didn't draw many mid or late game cards.

Note that just because it's possible to stabilize like that, it doesn't mean the early damage dealt should become completely irrelevant. For example, in the example above maybe your opponent can keep hitting you with a lone evasive weenie while you hit back with a much bigger midrange guy, and the amount of early damage dealt by the opponent will determine which side deals 20 first.

I also personally feel that cards don't feel different enough when they all trade with each other. I like it when there can be varied small creatures such as a 2/1 first striker, a 1/3 vigilance guy, and a 3/2 vanilla creature. The first strike 2/1 beats the vanilla 3/2, the vanilla 3/2 beats the vigilance 1/3, and the vigilance 1/3 beats the first strike 2/1. Well, it doesn't actually need to form a rock-scissors-paper cycle like that, but I do think it's neat when combat between small creatures can result in many ways other than just cancelling each other out.

However, it may be very difficult to not make small creatures all trade the same way in core sets, since there is a quota to include 2 common vanillas per color. Except for Green vanillas, many of the vanillas are bound to be tradable curve-fillers like 2/1 or 3/2, or high toughness blockers like 1/4 or 3/5 in order to fulfill the quota. There seems to be very few sizes that are appropriate for a particular color and cost that still function for some purpose in Limited.

The Right Time for Walls
Defensive creatures that can hold off multiple small creatures make things bad for aggressive strategies, especially in core sets where many colors rely on vanilla 2/1s and 3/2s to curve out. The number of playable defensive creatures in the set will have a big effect on how much tempo and speed will matter in your environment.

Besides the number of defensive creatures, another important factor is the turn that the defensive creatures enter play.

Here's how the list of defensive common creatures shifted from M10 to M11.

M10Palace Guard
Wall of Faith
Siege Mastadon
Horned TurtleDrudge SkeletonGiant Spider
M11Palace Guard
Siege Mastadon
Azure Drake
Armored Cancrix
Giant Spider
M12Stonehorn Dignitary
Siege Mastadon
Amphin CutthroatGiant Spider

(For the sake of simplicity, I omitted toughness-3 blockers like Maritime Guard and Wall of Vines from M11, Warhorse GriffinGriffin Sentinel, and Pride Guardian from M12. Most of them are marginal, but can be decent based on the matchup. Warhorse Griffin is good but used more often for offense, but Griffin Sentinel is actually a good blocker.)

The difference between M10 and M11 is hard to see in raw numbers, but if you look at the casting costs of these defensive creatures, you'll notice that M10 had 3 common defensive creatures that cost 3 or less. Out of those, only Palace Guard survived in M11.

Aside from the lone Palace Guard at 3 mana, there were only two toughness-4 creatures at 4 mana, two toughness-5 creatures at 5 mana.

It looks like they were trying to make sure high toughness creatures only join the battlefield after a certain turn, so that 2-drop Bears have some time to do work before they get locked out. Before that turn, it's a world of Vampires, Bears, Cats and Pikers with stats like 2/1, 2/2, or 3/2 that run around freely and trade with almost everything else on the battlefield at that stage.

When you get to M12, you can see that they really nerfed big-butted blockers. Azure Drake and Armored Cancrix got consolidated into a single card, Amphin Cutthroat. Palace Guard was moved to the 4 mana slot, in the form of Stonehorn Dignitary.

Besides blockers, M12 also lacks pingers and Pyroclasm effects at uncommon, further making this set friendly to 2/2 and 2/1 bears.

The Right Speed for Archetype Diversity
M10 was the set where speed mattered least among the 3 core sets. It was easy for the board to stall, which could make bombs matter more than usual.

M11 was markedly faster than M10, and there was a balance between fast and slow archetypes. It had the most archetype diversity.

M12 is more focused on proactive strategies and speed. Even though M12 has some important archetypes too, they are mostly based on card synergies such as Sacred Wolf + Troll Hide or Griffin Rider + Griffin Sentinel etc. rather than archetypes based on the differing speeds of decks.

When the format is fast enough that every deck wants to play something on turn 2 (if only to block and trade), it becomes hard for archetypes to be different based on the curves they want to form. (It's quite amazing that despite the blazing speed of M12, the set sometimes makes it possible to play a control deck as well, although your curve will look similar to an aggro deck, and you probably need the right uncommons or rares to do so.)

Not every set can prioritize archetype diversity to the max, since sets have many needs they must satisfy. They must provide a different experience than the previous set, and changing the pacing does that. It could be that R&D needs to rotate the elements that sets emphasize most. Some players might enjoy proactivity and attacking more than other elements such as being able to drafting varied decks.

However, if your main priority for a custom set is archetype diversity, you can maximize the diversity of archetypes by finding a speed for the limited environment where decks that prioritize time advantage and decks that prioritize card advantage can both be valid.

There's More than One Way
I used M11 as an example of a set where there was a balance between fast and slow strategies, but I don't mean to imply that there is a fixed ideal speed for archetype diversity, of course. It depends on what is in the set. Also, some cards like Brink of Disaster or Timely Reinforcements can support slow strategies even in a fast set, while some cards can support fast strategies even in a slow set.

Also, the discussion about the timing that good blockers enter the battlefield applies mostly to core sets. If you tried to sit behind a big wall in Lorwyn, you would just get crushed by a swarm of tribal tokens.

Whatever the set is, the baseline is that you want to avoid a situation where your early actions don't matter and you just cram as many power cards as you can in your deck. You also don't want offense to be both fast and inevitable, because that would make it difficult for strategies focused on slower games or high-cost cards to exist.

I hope you enjoyed this post. I have a few more things I want to write about archetypes that arise from varying speeds. In the next 2 posts, I hope to talk about time-based archetypes in some non-core sets, the eternal struggle between fast and slow decks, as well as some weird cases that I can't put into a box yet.