Friday, April 12, 2013

Uses of Gold Counters Part 2/2 — Color Pie Issues, Gold for Balancing an Effect, "Cash In" Mechanic, Mana Outlets

This is my second part of my discussion on how Devon Rule's Gold counters from the Great Designer Search 2 can be used. The first part mostly established that while it is a mana producing mechanic, they can be used to a different purpose than Eldrazi Spawn tokens. With this part, I would like to expand on some more topics related to Gold counters including color pie issues, the use of gold as a balancing effect, a mechanic for cashing in unwanted cards, and mana outlets for excess mana.

Color Pie Issues
Gold counters are a color pie bleed; it's allowing colors to do more than they usually get to do in a certain area like accelerating mana or fixing the color of mana. In most sets, only Red and Green get mana acceleration. Green is #1 at fetching lands from the library and putting them into play; Red is #1 at mana "rituals" or temporary ways of getting mana.

Magic is a diverse game because every color has a different set of strengths and weaknesses. If a Blue mage were to say, "Who needs Green for mana ramping? I can make Gold counters instead," then Blue-Green decks have one less reason to exist, and deck diversity suffers.

At the same time, it's not impossible to have a set-specific mechanic that bleeds into another color's territory to a minor extent. Examples of such bleeds are cards that cause life loss in every color in New Phyrexia, mono-white extort cards in Gatecrash's Orzhov, and Innistrad block's cost-efficient fatty Zombies in blue. For Frontier, the most relevant example of a bleed for a set theme is probably the Basic Landcycling mechanic in Conflux, which allowed every color to fix colors of mana. These bleeds have allowed their respective sets to convey a particular theme about their world, or served some mechanical role for their sets.

Also, mana acceleration is not a completely unwarranted bleed since other colors actually do get some amount of it.

Black can get effects that make Swamps produce more mana, such as Crypt Ghast, Nirkana Revenant, and Liliana of the Dark Realms. Also, it used to be the color for mana rituals, which is probably why mana acceleration was bled back into Black for Rise of the Eldrazi.

White can get a mana ramp spell once in a blue moon, usually only for fetching Plains. Examples include Safewright Quest, Kor Cartographer, and Knight of the White Orchid. Sometimes there's the aspect of helping the player who's behind catch up.

Blue should be the farthest from mana acceleration, but being the color that it is, it sometimes inexplicably gets it anyways, such as Deranged Assistant and Grand Architect. Perhaps those cards are meant to feel Blue through the connection to milling or artifacts, which Blue loves. Some Blue mana accelerators feed off of opponents' mana, like Mana Drain and Scattering Stroke. Some of them provide acceleration in the form of reducing the costs of spells and abilities, including Arcane Melee, Etherium Sculptor, Grand Arbiter Augustin IV, and Training Grounds.

Considering these cases, Gold Counters is not undoable as a bleed. But we also don't want to go as far as to give every color its own version of Rampant Growth or Seething Song. One measure of whether we've overstepped the line or not is whether the mana ramp/fixing effect is more efficient than an artifact mana accelerator/fixer like Manalith. Since every color already has access to these artifacts, it should be fine to give colors something of a similar level. Because of the conditional hoops attached to each of the Gold producing cards I talked about in part 1, I think the Gold cards can avoid overstepping the artifact line in efficiency while still being meaningful.

Gold Producers for Colors without Goldgrab
If we were to use the Goldgrab mechanic in Frontier, the main colors that we should put them in is probably Green, Red, and Black. I could picture White getting just a few Goldgrab creatures as well, at a lower efficiency, but Blue probably should not. I can't picture Blue ramping up mana by wresting it through combat; that's just not Blue's style. However, it should still be possible to incorporate Gold producers into these colors.

White is allowed to ward off attacks, Blue is allowed to be evasive. These cards should be ok.

Here's some other ways I felt that it would be acceptable for Blue to use the Gold counter mechanic:

Giving and stealing Gold should be ok for Blue.

(This card takes inspiration from the card Goblin Prospector by cfnlc.)

The brainy, patient way of producing Gold feels Blue, and while they're playable in Limited, they're not as efficient as mana accelerating artifacts.

A card like this could be a high-profile Gold card for Blue. It might be busted and require adjustments, though.

Gold for Balancing an Effect
Gold can be used to make an overpowered spell slightly weaker.

Gold can also be used to make a necessarily underpowered spell slightly stronger.

(This card is based on Blast Mining by Antny, which cost {1}{R}{R} but gave the opponent a Gold counter as compensation.)

"Cash In" Mechanic
This isn't something I'm particularly looking to do in this set, but there could be a mechanic like this:

This would help fight mana screw and also work like a mana ritual. It probably only fits in Red and Green, though.

Outlets for Gold Mana
The Gold mechanic will occasionally allow you to gain access to a great deal of mana. To make Gold counters feel special, there need to be many outlets for using Gold even in the late game when you have a lot of lands. One type of outlet is off-color activated abilities.

(This was inspired by a card that Jules designed for Goblin Artisan's fan M13 project.)

There could be a cycle of cards like the Eagle Tamer above in the set — cards which are completely playable without their ability, but gain additional value when you have access to a second color.

This is good for two reasons. First, it gives you something to do with your Gold, if you don't have lands of the second color. Most draft decks could have a few stray creatures with off-color activated abilities in their decks just for the P/T stats.

Secondly, it gives certain color combinations their own style in draft. For example, the Blue-Green deck can be a tempo-oriented fast deck that makes use of cards like Eagle Tamer. This would lead to a fun draft environment. In my experience, I've enjoyed draft formats where each color combination has its own specialty.

Another type of mana outlet is cards that you permanently reveal from hand to gain an effect.

This mechanic would do several things for the set. For Gold counters, it means that if you hit the jackpot and manage to amass Gold, you are likely to have something to spend it on. The card above allows you to play multiple 7-drops in your deck without the risk of cluttering your hand with unusable cards. Also, it gives you an outlet to spend 3+7 mana over the course of the game, which is a lot of uses for mana.

This mechanic will also allow decks to pack more combat tricks than usual.

The Revelation ability may cost the same color of mana as the casting cost, or it may be an off-color cost.

There can also be Legendary heroes of the West represented by multicolor cards.

(This card's flavor of a cowboy drifter with a halo who's really an Angel is based on an idea that was floating around in Daniel William's team during the GDS2.)

Because of the Revelation ability, this card would be completely playable even if your deck only has access to White mana. But if you gain Gold through a lucky attack with a Gold-grabbing creature, you get to actually cast this onto the battlefield as well. You might only get to cast it in some games, but it will make the act of attaining Gold very special.

These cards also serve a role similar to the off-color activated abilities. They encourage you to gain access to multicolor mana, but they can be used in straight-up 2-color decks as well. One type of enjoyment I got from M13 draft that I didn't get from Gatecrash is the ability to pick a card like Archaeomancer and think, do I use this for a heavy Instants & Sorceries deck? Or an enter-the-battlefield trigger deck with Roaring Primadox? You get to decide what to use the card for over the course of the draft, which is different from picking a Kingpin's Pet and knowing you must either put it in an Orzhov deck or put it in your sideboard.

A beginner can first-pick a card like Lone Ranger and use it as a guide for the draft, going into Naya. But more advanced players can use it as either a White Instant, a White Instant that can also be cast as a Creature after attaining Gold, or a Naya card.

A third outlet is repeatable activated abilities on creatures such as Firebreathers and Shades.

A fourth outlet is Hire, an action word about spending Gold.

This was inspired by Devon Rule's Hireling mechanic, which you can check out here.

This version, Hire, is much less awesome than Devon Rule's Hireling mechanic, and may or may not be integral to this set, but it's something we could do.

A fifth outlet is the Duel mechanic. This is based on the Showdown mechanic that Daniel Williams created for the Great Designer Search 2. Well, it isn't directly a mana outlet, but it lets you draw more cards, and more cards means more spells to spend mana on.

(The reminder text manages to use a more compact phrasing than the GDS2 version, thanks to jack, who was designing a Western set of his own.

Wobbles came up with a mechanic called Quick-Draw (search here) about permanently revealing a card in hand to give creatures a fixed bonus such as +2/+0 or -2/-0 to create a Western style standoff. I hybridized the permanently reveal aspect into Daniel William's Showdown mechanic.)

The card draw involved in Duels help ensure that both players have things to do with their mana over many turns. Let's say each player casts an average of 2 Duel cards during a Limited game. That would mean each player draws 4 extra cards per game, which is a lot.

The sixth outlet is Sandwurms.

The keyword Landnom (which is a placeholder name) emulates the Commander rules for recasting a dead Commander, much like the card Jarad, Golgari Lich Lord.

These cards aren't necessarily meant to be reliably castable like the Eldrazi were, since Gold is very fickle. Although I loved Rise of the Eldrazi, for a Western set I don't think games should regularly start with a board stall and regularly end with players casting a huge fatty; games should be more volatile. Rather, the Sandwurms are meant to make sure that if you hit the jackpot and gain a lot of Gold, there is a very high ceiling to what crazy thing you can achieve with it.

A Western set shouldn't have the early board stall of Rise of the Eldrazi. If we can pull it off, some games will end with damage from furious early creature assaults without seeing any Sandwurms, while in other games a player scores it big time with Gold and casts a Wurm. In yet other games, players play more conservatively and maximize trading creatures off to stop each other's Goldgrab. After many turns of attrition, it's time for the Wurms to come out and mop up the stage. It would be fitting for a Wild West set if games can be volatile, crazy, and unpredictable like that, with each game following a different course.

It sounds swingy, but at least it would be possible to counterbalance it to an extent by having powerful removal spells such as Murder or bounce spells such as Aether Adept to answer early Sandwurms that are ramped into play. Because they have recursion, the Wurms don't need to be pampered by toning down the removal in the environment the way Rise of the Eldrazi did with cards such as Heat Ray and Vendetta that are bad against big creatures.

The problem is, would players even put these Sandwurms into their decks if they don't always get to cast it every game? I actually think it's possible to balance the environment so that it makes sense to put Sandwurms into decks. The Duel mechanic is a big part of it. Duel lets both players draw more cards over the game, and there would be slightly more room for situational cards like the Wurms. Moreover, these high-cost Sandwurms serve as trump cards in a Duel. In many cases, winning the Duel will be worth a whole card's worth of an effect. It could make sense to put a Wurm or two in your deck just for winning Duels.

A seventh outlet is Shops.

There could be cards that exchange a resource like Gold for something else. Such an exchange effect might not always be worth a card slot, since you don't know if you'll get Gold. But if it's in a free card slot like a land, then it should be playable. Being a land also makes it flavorful as a shop.

An eighth type of outlet is linear Gold-counting cards that encourage hoarding Gold. This could be an archetype in certain colors such as Red, Black, and Blue.

With the above cards, you really want to hoard up the Gold rather than spend them to cast something extremely expensive.

A card like this would enable such a Gold-hoarding archetype. It doesn't help you ramp into a Wurm so much, because you would be better off playing any lands you drew instead of discarding them for one-shot Gold. Also, you would be better off playing any spells you drew to stay alive longer rather than pitch them for mana ramp. But if you have no interest in Wurms and you're fine with stopping your land development at around 5 mana, you can start discarding any excess lands you have and hoarding Gold for the effects that scale with Gold counters on cards like the Bandit Leader and Ambitious Mayor above.

This would be another card to augment such a Gold-centric archetype.

To sum it up,

  • Gold counters are an acceptable color pie bleed if they're less efficient than artifact mana, for example by being conditional. Also, each color has ways to produce Gold counters that make sense for that color.
  • Not only can Gold counters be used as mini-quests with rewards, they can also be used to counterbalance certain effects that are too powerful or too weak.
  • One mechanic idea allows you to cash in a card for Gold, although I'm not sure if it should be used for this set.
  • There are several ways to make outlets for Gold over the game, including existing mechanics such as off-color activated abilities and Firebreathers/Shades, as well as new mechanics such as Permanently Reveal, Hire, Duel, Sandwurms, Shops, and cards with bonuses that scale with Gold. 
  • Some ways that draft environments can be fun is 1)when each color combination has its own specialty and 2)when there are some cards that can be applied to multiple deck-building directions, and you get to choose which one. The multicolor scheme supported by Gold, off-color activated abilities, and off-color Permanently Reveal abilities can support that style of fun.
  • We could aim for an environment that's crazy, wild, and unpredictable, with Wurms entering play after a big gold grab in some games while merely being used to win Duels in other games. The huge size of the Wurms can be counterbalanced to an extent with good removal, which in turn is counterbalanced by the recursion on the Wurms.
I would love to hear your feedback in the comments.


  1. Overall I really live depth of this thought experiment and the sheer volume of examples included, particularly in part 2.

    One thing I noticed while reading the article was a lack of mechanical identity for Blue and White. Everything they're doing in this pitch is a stretch of Black, Red, and Green effects. There really should be a mechanic that feeds gold counters that fits mostly in White and Blue. Something that isn't combat tricks, reanimating giant Wurms, off color activations. Maybe Revelation can be that, but not used as combat tricks. If we include a tribal native culture like Native Americans, we can include revelation effects that have consulting the ancestors feel.

    And once again, I want to stress how satisfied I am with the Western feel of the cards. Even the use of taboo concepts like booze and guns. It's like guns are present on Frontier, but they don't hog the spotlight because there's real magic there too. You struck a good balance.

  2. I'm also grateful to Chah for putting so much thought into this. There are a ton of good ideas here and while I'm sure we wouldn't use all of them in the same set, I would want to try each of them before deciding which go and which stay.

    I will offer up that in the same way not every color in ROE could produce Spawn tokens, not every color in Frontier has to be able to make gold tokens. In the same vein, while I prefer any-color gold over colorless gold, I will point out that colorless mana is easier to justify across colors and comes with its own set of uses, mechanics and limitations.

    Some more card possibilities:

    Bean Counter 2U
    Creature-Human Wizard (unc)
    Whenever you gain one or more gold counters, draw a card.

    Platinum Hydra GG
    Creature-Hydra (rare)
    ~ ETB with a +1/+1 counter on it for each gold counter you have.
    At the beginning of your upkeep step, put a +1/+1 counter on ~ for each gold counter you have.

    Dragon Tycoon 9RR
    Creature-Dragon (rare)
    Affinity for gold

    Hit Contract B
    Sorcery (cmn)
    Target creature gets -1/-1 until EOT for each gold you have.

    Comeuppance 1R
    Sorcery (unc)
    ~ deals X damage to each player, where X is the amount of gold that player has.

    Ivory-Handled Wand 5
    Artifact-Equipment (rare)
    Equipped creature gets +1/+1 for each charge counter on ~.
    Equip 2.

    1. Yes, there are reasons for making Gold produce colorless mana as well.
      Especially if we want to borrow Devon's Hireling mechanic, which produced some awesome designs.

      The reason for Gold producing multicolor mana that I like most is that any creature with off-color activated abilities turn into incidental Gold outlets, without relying only on things that specifically mention Gold like Shops. And that having these off-color activated abilities is so fun for archetype drafting.

  3. The "modern ManaDrain" is Scattering Stroke, not Broken Ambitions.

  4. I don't think the Manalith test is quite the right metric, because it ignores as-fan frequency. Suppose, for example, that every color has two common gold producers. Then a U/B drafter has four commons to choose from, and it doesn't have to share them with the W/R drafter (unlike Manalith). That's a huge boost in splashing ability for non-green decks. Large sets generally only have a single card like Terramorphic Expanse or Manalith; if they had more, green would lose some of its slice of the color pie.

    1. I think color bleed is less serious for Limited. If Blue pretends it's Green and ramps out a Skaab Mauler using a Deranged Assistant, it's not a big problem as long as Green has its own unique things like Werewolves or Travel Preparations going on in that Limited environment. If a set has Basic Landcycling to encourage every color to go multicolor as part of the set theme, that's fine as long as Green has cheap 5+power creatures etc.

      But in Constructed where players have unlimited access to cards, deck diversity would suffer if colors aren't kept separate. So I meant the Manalith test to be applied to Constructed. (Manalith was just an example off the top of my head; Maybe it wasn't the best example. I'm sure it's not exactly where the line is at because it never sees play in Constructed.)

    2. I see what you mean. If Frontier were a multicolor-themed set, I could get behind gold counters making colored mana.

    3. The way I picture it is Frontier is a Gold-themed set, and Gold has to feel special somehow.

    4. Hello Chah,

      I'm not sure how else to get a hold of you, but I figured if you don't want this post around here that you would be able to delete it anyways. I'm trying to develop a Japanese English translation spreadsheet. I know that you were interested in helping people get on their feet while playing Magic in Japan, so I figured you're kind of the perfect guy to share this with. If you are able to help out at all, please do, and please share with any of your friends who might be able to help.

      Thank you,

      Andrew Garlock