Friday, April 13, 2012

M13 Trajectories: Balefire Phoenix

Welcome to M13 Trajectories, where I pick a card from Goblin Artisans' M13 design files and discuss how it changed over the course of design. In our work on this virtual M13, many cards were completely transformed from their original design through the contributions of multiple people. I think it would be fun to follow the different iterations they went through. Today, I'd like to talk about a card that began its life like so:

(Click on image to enlarge)

This Phoenix was submitted by Pasteur. In the vein of Shivan Phoenix, it's very hard to kill, much like the other phoenixes. This is a card where our opinions differed quite a bit —
11/28 Jay: If it’s not literally broken, I love it. 
12/5 Nich: Since Shivan Phoenix never set the world on fire (haha) I think we’ll be fine. I really like the simplicity of this design and even the size of the creature. Red’s medium sized Flier should be a firebird and its big flier a dragon. 
12/8 Chah: I think the cost range really matters. Some blunt effects aren’t fun at lower costs, even if it’s scaled down in size. 
12/8 Pasteur: To me, the lack of haste is the important thing keeping this fun-but-fair. 
12/19 Jay: Might need 3RR, but we’ll decide in Dev. 
12/31 Jay: Successfully Arrest’d or Judge Soul’d* this, but it’s probably busted against non-white players. 
1/1 Nich: It’s okay if it’s busted in limited. Rares do that. And it’s only a 3/3. 
1/1 Jay: A 3/3 _flyer_ for just 4 that _never_ dies! 
1/2 Pasteur: You bertoncini’d this to your hand, right? Not back into the battlefield?
*Judge Soul is a sorcery with "Exile target nonwhite creature" 

Those who liked it seemed to appreciate how the card reads simply and powerfully. Magic is a collectible game. Cards should be likable and read well. A card that reads as if it never dies would be very appealing to some players.

On the other hand, Magic cards need to play well. It's a game, after all. Some of us were concerned with the card's Limited implications. Most Limited decks are unequipped to deal with this.

Although we didn't go deeply into the topic, one underlying point of contention seems to be, "Are Rares allowed to be 'busted' in Limited?" My answer would be, "Yes, but it has to be the right type of 'busted.'"

It's true that many Constructed-level Rares are in fact blatantly powerful in Limited, and that's not always a bad thing. Those Constructed Rares can often double as Limited bombs, which are important because they give new players hope that they can win. They also make opening a draft pack exciting for new and experienced players alike, and due to their infrequency, they add variety to the Limited experience in many ways.

That said, some types of bombs produce more overall unfun than fun. Cards with infinite recursion ability are a troublesome category for Limited because they stagnate the board and make game play repetitive. In Magic games, the board should fluctuate over the turns. This Phoenix is an endless recursive card that is just big enough in the world of core set Limited that I can't effectively attack into it, and it's a threat that I can neither ignore nor answer. I feel that designs that make Limited miserable should be avoided, even at Rare, unless the card is special or valuable for some other purpose.

It's ok for Rares to win people games, but it's the style of doing so that matters. Creating repetition and grinding people out with something that can't be answered by most decks isn't fun overall. A proactive bomb such as a Dragon or Angel (but not necessarily limited to fatties like that) is more fun overall, even if that card is stronger than the Phoenix. Also, the feeling that it can potentially be killed or outraced with cards in your deck is important. If such a card can't be effectively killed, development should try to ensure that it generally enters play only after both players have had many turns of normal attacking.

If Balefire Phoenix did something important for Constructed (like a Planeswalker or some other format defining card), it might be worth the cost to the Limited environment, but to me it didn't seem to have enough impact for Constructed. When people are playing Titan-strength win cons, you can't grind out the opponent with a recursive 3/3 flyer.  (Later I learned from Pasteur that he envisioned this card to be used for a multicolor control deck that wins with only a few offbeat win conditions, which is interesting to consider.)

We moved it to 4R, and this is Jay's comment from that time:
1/3 Jay: The people who want this most don’t care how expensive it is.
The main appeal of the card seemed to be the simple and powerful-sounding line of text, and casual players who like that often don't care so much about costs.

I didn't think costing it at 4R was enough for core set Limited, though. I thought Magma Phoenix from M10 and M11 was a good point of comparison.

This is much clunkier to recur than Balefire Phoenix, often requiring a player to skip a turn to return it to hand before spending another turn to recast it.

In my experience, Magma Phoenix has been powerful but often outrace-able, because the 3-point damage affects the caster as well. If the caster of the Phoenix is behind in the race and just wants to repeatedly block and trade with it, it can culminate in a free Lava Axe for the aggro player. Magma Phoenix ensures that the game ends one way or another. In contrast, our Balefire Phoenix might lead to a board stall, in addition to being a threat that can come back every turn rather than every other turn.

Since I'm not averse to unfair, unanswerable things happening much later in the game, I tried proposing a humongous late-game version of Balefire Phoenix. I can't find the original card, but I think it was something like this:

(Click on image to enlarge)

It didn't fare well; someone commented that it didn't feel like a Phoenix at that size. I guess it was a purely mechanical fix with no flavor.

Another way to balance recursive cards is to set a condition or a hoop to jump through, like Vengevine, Chandra's Phoenix, or Gravecrawler.

Hoops are awesome. They allow Magic cards and Magic decks to each be good in their own way without power-creeping the heck out of each other, as it's possible for a card with a hoop to be tournament-caliber yet not be an automatic inclusion for a deck of that color due to the nature of a given hoop.

Another thing that's great about cards with hoops is that they can be powerful in Constructed where you can control the contents of your deck, without being broken in Limited where you don't have that level of control. As a bonus, they can inspire you to draft around them in Limited, and it's fun to have a direction like that in a draft.

One important aspect of these recursive creature designs is that R&D took pains so that the cards don't inspire a slow grindout strategy. These creatures make you want to use their recursion for offense, and your opponent can hit you back in a normal attacking strategy. Even abilities like haste, a pure bonus, help games move in that direction rather than towards stagnation.

I tried to think of a hoop for Balefire Phoenix, but it was difficult to come up with one that didn't outright resemble Chandra's Phoenix or a Skaab Ruinator that exiled spells instead of creatures.

However, I thought the card could be fixed by randomess:

(Click on image to enlarge)

I was inspired by the card Hanabi Blast to make the recursion luck-based. You can keep recurring the Phoenix forever if you're lucky. If you want to get clever, you could manipulate your graveyard somehow to ensure the Phoenix keeps returning. Better yet, you could form a combo to cast a Cruel Ultimatum or another powerful Red spell without mana. The RRR in the cost is to make sure it's not too easy to reduce variance by playing only a few Red cards in your deck.

Jay Treat pointed out two issues with this card, though. First of all, the Phoenix might be "reborn" into something that doesn't make flavor sense (say, a Goblin or a Faithless Looting card). More importantly, Red usually doesn't get permanent cards back from the graveyard. Arguably, this is a case where the randomness makes it ok, but I could see his point. Jay proposed a fix for those issues by changing the card concept as well as making it only work with instants and sorceries:

(Click on image to enlarge)

We ended up with a card that I think most of us are happy with. I think it's very resonant. (We still don't have a recurring Phoenix, although we do have a different Phoenix at uncommon.)

I hope you enjoyed this. I will continue this column every Monday and Friday until our fan M13 is released at the end of May. See you next Monday, when I talk about a card that ate up a lot of our brain space through flavor discussion.


  1. Man did I get here late to the party, because this sure seems like a ton of fun! Didn't happen to see it noted, but this can be balanced some in Limited depending upon how much enchantment-based removal is sloshing about the environment. A Pacifism/Claustrophobia effect offers a fine counterbalance to neuter the eternally-recursive Phoenix. Nice write-up!

  2. You're right. If the set already has a lot of those, it could be enough to make the card ok. However, since removal spells like Pacifisms are really important for how the environment plays, it might be hard to wrap their designs around a few specific Rares.

    Counterspells and Ostracize could also help balance the card a bit. Maybe the inevitable "weak card" slots can double as answers to specific cards (like a 2U "counter target creature or planeswalker" spell or a 1B Instant with "Exile target creature card from a graveyard. Gain life equal to its toughness" spell) rather than be complete throwaway slots.

  3. I'm in love with Explosion Elemental. It's so flavorful, and the gameplay is quite interesting. It could make you fear "setting off" the card. Well, provided, though, that it's worse than 5 damage. Some people might want to kill it anyway, if there is just a Faithless Looting and Lightning Bolt on the battlefield. Making this smaller could encourage the "ah, don't want to mess with it" behavior. This is exactly the case with Black Cat.

    I like this kind of write-up. I felt like I was reading a kind of Mark Rosewater article. Nice to see how cards evolved and your guys' thoughts and such on the card/set/Magic in general.



    1. For some reason, that makes me long for an Explosion Elemental version with p/t equal to the number of instants and sorceries in the graveyard.

  4. Maybe borrowing a bit of Commander tech could balance it?

    Ashborn Phoenix 2RRR
    Creature - Phoenix
    If Ashborn Phoenix would die, you may exile it with an additional two egg counters on it instead.
    Egg counters remain on Ashborn Phoenix as it moves to the battlefield or exile.
    You may cast Ashborn Phoenix from exile by paying an additional R for each egg counter on it.

    1. This is cool. I'm not sure a Phoenix should get harder to recast (though it's not terrible flavor), but I'd say it's inevitable that they print something along these lines. Why not incorporate a mechanic people love into the base game, if only on one card?

  5. Explosion Elemental 1RRR
    Creature- Elemental
    Haste, trample
    At the end of turn, sacrifice Explosion Elemental. If you do, you may cast a red instant or sorcery at random from your graveyard without paying its mana cost.

    I would echo the other posters here in saying that this card, while fun, would be more interesting with lower toughness. I love the mechanic for this card, but I think its one that wants a better home than just a large creature. As with most "death triggers" the original version won't get triggered that often people just chump it or it sits back on defense.. Putting it onto a Ball Lightening shell means that its always relevant, plus it's MORE top down. An Explosion Elemental should feel like an Explosion! A big oneshot blast that can only be defused by the prepaired or the self sacrificing.

  6. One thing I want to point out is that there's no great reason to cost this with such a dense color-requirements, as the ability itself dictates a specific color-density.

    I can see an argument that you'd like to be a guiding hand, as this is intended for Core Set, but the players who might jam a 3RR or 4R version of this into a deck without the proper consideration for including an appropriate amount of Red Instants and Sorceries are the same players that don't care that their 5-color mana base can't support a 2RRR creature. I'd much rather see this positioned to allow for players to put it in their Izzet, Gruul, Boros, and Rakdos decks.

    1. RRR makes more sense with the "Ball lightning rider" because it makes the nostalgia flavor come through better, but that said this is a great point.

      4R would also push this card in limited, where players would be way more willing to splash it with even one or two red instants in their deck. But that really depends on the level of fixing in the enviroment.

  7. It's true that going with Ball Lightning triggers makes the card a different one, and it may seem like a more realized version of the concept. It's something we discussed, but I for one am happy with the Fire Elemental body more than a Ball Lightning. Giving a die-trigger and an auto-sac may be more of a combo but isn't necessarily as fun gameplay as a body and the threat/delay/opportunity of its death. The card might be *better* but I disagree that it's *more interesting*.

    3RR might indeed be appropriate, though 2RRR does seem to have some aesthetic appeal.

    As for the original Balefire Phoenix, as our M13 currently stands, Blue actually has the easiest common answer, but a run-of-the-mill Pacifism effect would also do nicely. The fact that some common and uncommon answers *do* exist make it not considerably more disruptive than an equivalent regenerator might be, and certainly not a format-disturbing card (in my limited Limited experience.) The good news is, we've a bumper crop of red rares, and so the straightforward-flavorful phoenix can wait with no harm to the set at all.

  8. I think the cost should be heavy in R so that it won't be too easy to cast the spell that you want from your graveyard. Someone might play it with loot spells and sac outlets to cheat out a Cruel Ultimatum with that card, with Cruel Ultimatum being the only Red instant/sorcery in the deck.

    I also think that it's better not to give it an in-built way of dying and leave it up to the player to find a way to kill or sacrifice the creature for abuse. Outside of combos, I like the tension the ability creates for an opponent who considers trading with or killing the Elemental.

    At the same time, I see a point in giving it a smaller size (especially toughness) and haste. But being a big beater with removal deterrence is also nice.

    1. To me, that reasoning is flawed because if I'm depending on Explosion Elemental and Cruel Ultimatum to interact in some meaningful way, the efforts that I have to go to in order to set that interaction up should be encouraged.

      Because this is not some Gifts Ungiven/Unburial Rites situation; I have to get [Big Nasty Red Spell] into my graveyard, I have to cast Explosion Elemental, and I have to get Explosion Elemental to die. This is not an easy process, and a 5cc 5/4 durdle isn't proactively making that process any easier.

  9. There's definitely an argument either way between the Fire Elemental and Ball Lightning frames. The former is better for Johnny and the latter for Spike. (Timmy likes them both.)

    I hadn't even thought about the cost. 2RRR and 4R are defensible for the reasons folks have already stated, but I suspect 3RR is correct. Brings home the Fire Elemental callback, isn't trivial to splash, but doesn't require monored to play.

    1. It definitely depends on who you're designing the card for, but going more spikey with this design just seems more fun. The ball lightning variant still has plenty of things Johnny likes (Random effects, combo potential) while delivering on its promise more often.

      After all, a vanilla 5/4 for 5 isn't an exciting card for anyone, it's the ability that's going to bring people to the table with this one. Making that ability difficult to trigger is only fun for Johnny.

      Compare this guy with Charmbreaker Devils. You're rooting for the Devils to LIVE, not for it to die. That's way more fun in my book. If you want it to die, at least make it easy to kill.

    2. Plus, I mean, what's the dream sequence that this guy is selling? Maybe setting up some sort of Turn 6 Cruel Ultimatum after repeatedly 2 for 1ing yourself? Most of the time he's going to be at best 5/4 Pitchburn Devils. He seems even more lack luster compared with Flayer of the Hatebound. At least that guy has an ability if he stays on the board that's more dangerous than just being large.

      That said, I do like the mechanic, and I can see where you were going in the design. Too many of my designs have so much going on that they're too complex. So maybe I'm seeing boredom where there's really elegance in the simplicity. But for my money I'd rather open one of Innistrad's 6-drop red rares then this guy. Even:

      Apprentice Pyromancer R
      Creature- Goblin Wizard (U)
      When Apprentice Pyromancer dies, you may cast a random red instant or sorcery from your graveyard without paying its mana cost.

      Seems more exciting than throwing this ability on a random large dork.

    3. It's true this guy is not exciting enough to be a rare. Maybe he should be an uncommon?

    4. Duncan is only seeing half of the fun of this card. Yes, he's absolutely right that it would be fun to Ball Lightning and then get a free spell. Bloodbraid Elf was very popular, after all.

      Apprentice Pyromancer is basically a sorcery that lets you cast a spell from your graveyard with a cost reduction mechanism that's like morbid.

      What Explosion Elemental offers that none of these do, is a doomed-if-you-do-doomed-if-don't dilemma for your opponent. It's a 5/4 so it will kill you sooner or later if you don't deal with it, but if you do kill it, you'll get an Axe to the face, or worse. It's a punisher mechanic in disguise. Does this card appeal as much to Spike or to Duncan as it could? No, but we absolutely mustn't confuse that with not appealing to anyone.

    5. I see the attraction, but don't we already have Flayer of the Hatebound and other undying monsters in that space for standard right now?

    6. I've been looking at the high rarity cards in core sets lately, and the number of Core set Rares that have impact on Standard seems pretty low. But I can see a move since M12 to try to have more Standard-relevant Rares, and we should try to continue that with our virtual M13.

      But it's hard to move every rare to the power level of an expansion set rare like Flayer of the Hatebound without messing up core set Limited (even considering Flayer isn't extremely strong Rare in its set). In core sets you are forced to fight bombs with Commons that include a lot of vanillas and French vanillas. It's harder to weave powerful synergies with those. The criticism of "this isn't as strong as Flayer" can't just be applied to Rare designs as long as there are some other strong Rares in the set. (It would be interesting to take my statements about core sets and think "But what if it did work with a high % of strong Rares? What would it look like?" There could be some way that hasn't been thought of.)

    7. As far as I'm concerned, Explosion Elemental is not one of the cards we were(are) pushing as a Standard flagship.

      Limited entirely aside, I don't think it's good (or worthwhile [or possible]) to design every rare to be intended for Constructed(/Standard).

    8. Nor do I. I don't believe that Charmbreaker Devils or Flayer of the Hatebound was ever designed for constructed, for example. Nor is Scrambleverse or Wild Evokation.

      I just see this card as not being that Splashy after a block with undying. Does this even seem more powerful than Nearheath Stalker? If a limited enviroment has problems dealing with that guy, it probably says more about limited than it does about how strong a card is. Even flayer of the hatebound, while bomby, shouldn't just dominate M13 limited any more than most good rares do.

    9. Wait, are we talking about Explosion Elemental or Balefire Phoenix here? If the former, why are we comparing it to undying?