Friday, July 12, 2013

Initial Thoughts on Magic 2014

Magic 2014 is out, and I'll be heading to the prerelease in a few hours. In the meantime I'd like to share some initial thoughts on the designs in the set and what implications it may have on the Limited play environment.

Judging the Speed of the Format
One of the first things to try to gauge when looking at a new set is the speed of the format, because that creates the context to judge the individual cards in.

Looking at the speed of this set, though, there are mixed signs and it's hard to judge.

On the one hand, you see some good early blockers in all colors. In the past, early blockers made environments slower as they make low-drop aggro creatures less relevant, while the lack of those blockers make a faster set. The difference in the speeds of M10, M11, and M12 were a good example of that. As they shaved off more and more defensive cards especially in the low-cost slots, the sets became faster and faster, even though the sets had many cards in common.

M14 has good defensive two-drops such as Angelic Wall, Seacoast Drake, and Deadly Recluse that stop attacks on both the ground and the air. Some other indications of defensiveness are that White has both Pillarfield Ox and Seige Mastadon, and Green has both Deadly Recluse and Giant Spider. Black has Deathgaze Cockatrice as a card that stops both ground and air attackers.

In many sets (not necessarily this one), that might be a recipe for slower games.

But M14 also features some seriously undercosted beaters such as Rumbling Baloth, Charging Griffin, and Marauding Maulhorn that are hard for controlling decks to handle, especially with blocking. There are also plenty of ways to negate blocking, such as Master of Diversion (I think this is a key aggro card in this format), Trained Condor, and Goblin Shortcutter.

In addition to undercosted beaters and blocking negation, some of the cards such as Charging Griffin and Rootwalla are better on your turns than during your opponents turns. (With activated abilities, it's easier to hold up mana for your turn). Cards like that can lead to faster games because creatures on both sides attack past each other rather than creating a stall.

Overall, I see a dichotomy where there are cards that are best in fast decks and cards that are best in slow decks. I love sets where both fast and slow strategies are possible, and each of them want different cards. I'm hoping that that's the case here. However, looking at the cards I can't help but feel that the faster, proactive strategies have the edge. You don't want a slow deck unless you're building around a specific synergy.

One of the key problems I see with a slower deck is how to handle the beefy RG creatures, namely Rumbling BalothKalonian Tusker and Marauding Maulhorn. The 4-drops might enter play on turn 3 with some acceleration (Elvish Mystic or Manaweft Sliver).

It's hard for 4-drop 4/4 like Rumbling Baloth to be balanced in a core set environment. You need very specific cards like removal to handle them.

Marauding Maulhorn may seem easier to trade with, but there actually aren't many 3-drop and 4-drop Commons that can trade with it (actually none in W and U). There aren't many Commons that "punish" the Marauding Maulhorn's must-attack ability. Minotaur Abomination is the only one that can eat it straight up, excluding risky/mana intensive plans such as blocking with Nightwing Shade, Capashen Knight, a first-striking Sliver team, or a Lightning Talons.

Kalonian Tusker is at least an Uncommon, but during drafting it will make it around to the green player since it's not the kind of card you want to splash.

A slower deck has to be able to handle RG beef, a sliver horde, or an aggressive flyers and tempo strategy, which is difficult to do simultaneously. For example, I would play cards such as Sensory Deprivation to try to slow down a beef assault, but they might be bad against Slivers. I would want to pick up defensive creatures such as Angelic Wall to stop aggressive evasive strategies, but they might be bad against beef. In most cases, it might be better to be running one of those proactive strategies myself rather than trying to play a deck with slow but powerful cards.

The amount of good life gain in the set (not one-shot life gain, but incidental life gain attached to a body or another effect), especially Dawnstrike Paladin, offers a glimmer of hope that slower strategies can catch up once they stabilize. However, while Dawnstrike Paladin might be good against something like a RW token maker/Fortify deck or evasive creatures like Accursed Spirit, and while it is probably a key card in this format, I don't think it's good against RG decks with access to a large number of power 4 creatures.

One of the things I do when I'm trying to judge the speed of the format is to look for clues to the intentions of R&D, the guys who know all about this set and worked to balance it. When I see a card like Opportunity at Uncommon in this set, which reads as "4UU: Win the game if the format is slow" I feel that the format is not slow; that it must be a sufficiently difficult challenge to stay alive and cast a spell that doesn't affect the board on turn 6, because otherwise such a card wouldn't be in the set. The inclusion of Opportunity is speaking that you need such a powerful incentive to make it worthwhile to move into a slow deck in this environment.

While a general control deck might be hard to build, I do think it's totally possible to go control if you build around some of the specific synergistic themes to combat faster strategies, such as the Blightcaster - Quag Sickness - Auramancer deck. It could probably control the board indefinitely and dominate the cleared board with something like a Dawnstrike Paladin, Nightwing Shade, or maybe even a lowly Minotaur Abomination.

A RB sacrifice deck could also handle a lot of threats if the necessary cards come together, because it naturally has a lot of removal and you can take care of the bigger creatures by comboing an Act of Treason with a sac outlet.

The Type of Synergies
M13 had a lot of natural, open-ended synergies. The cards were designed in such as way that they have lots of ways to hook up with other cards, and there was a lot of emergent game play to be discovered.

The synergies in M14 seem much more geared towards specific, pre-designed archetypes. For example, the number of cards that work specifically for sacrifice decks (sacrifice outlets and cards that provide more than one sacrificial body per card) are huge. These synergies specifically call out for a category of card, such as those that trigger on life gain or those that boost a Beast.

While there is a certain amount of crisscrossing of synergies and cards that can serve different roles in multiple archetypes (such as Young Pyromancer), it seems much less than in M13. I prefer the open-ended M13 style of synergy much more. The M14 style seems somewhat closer to Avacyn Restored, Return to Ravnica or Gatecrash, where you pick a predesigned deck type, and there are cards marked for that deck type, and if you end up with a high concentration of those cards you get a good deck. *EDIT* I guess this is an overstatement; there's probably a lot of room to draft just good-stuff decks and hybridized decks as well. I just wanted to point out that when you do draft for synergy, the synergy cards look more specific rather than open-ended.

The M14 style might be kinder to new players as the synergies are more specific. However, I think M13 also did a pretty good job of providing guiderails for new players through the Legendary signature cards such as Krenko's Command. The Legends' abilities and their signature cards spelled out one decent strategy, but there was the freedom to use those cards in different decks for different purposes if you wanted to.

One weird factor is that despite the seeming emphasis on synergistic strategies in M14, the distribution of archetypes among colors isn't even; for example I'm not sure what a BG deck is supposed to do, while some colors have multiple themes that are clearly pronounced. WB has an Aura theme as well as a lifegain theme, and GR has a Sliver direction and a Beast direction you can go into. (Wrongwaygoback's M14 analysis has helped me see these distributions.)

I hope I'm just missing some of the synergies in those colors. I guess in BG, Green has a small amount of support for Black's sacrifice theme in Sporemound?. Or could it be that some of the color combinations are fine without clear-cut synergies?

While an imbalance in the number of archetypes doesn't necessarily make the set less fun, it might affect its replay value. Also, it might create weird dynamics in draft where you think, "The best card in the pack is Color X, but I don't want to go into that color if possible because there are less good color combinations that use that color."

So those are my thoughts for now. While in a few minutes predictions won't be as useful as prerelease reports, I hope the thought process can be interesting in some capacity.


  1. So, what are your impressions after the pre-release?

  2. My impression is that the 4-drop 5/3 and 4/4 were just as swingy and unbalanced as they looked to me in the spoiler. They demand an answer right away but can only be stopped with specific cards like removal, deathtouch, or higher rarity creatures, and I feel that no Common should do that at an early stage of the game.

    Also, looking at various posts about the prerelease in the forums, I may have misjudged the speed of this environment. All the reports seem to talk about how slow Sealed was. I guess I emphasized the dangerousness of some of the hard-to-block threats, but I didn't place so much emphasis on the low average power of creatures.

    That said, in the store where I played there's a fad to build a deck to be as fast as possible, and people seemed to be able to cobble together dangerous threats on early turns (sometimes relying on Auras to do so). In the small sample size of 3 matches that I got to play, it didn't feel that slow. My opponents were going out of their way to make their decks fast. One guy ran 2 Elvish Mystics... as a splash! He said, "I want to get my cards out as soon as possible." And he managed to get lucky and play a turn one Mytsic into a turn 3 Marauding Maulhorn. Another guy absolutely refused to play any 6-drops or splashes at all, even though he complained about the low number of playables in his pool, opting to run some low-cost artifacts instead (although they seemed more defensive in nature and not a good fit for the deck).

    People were struggling with the low number of playables (especially without the Terramorphic Expanses to facilitate splashes) in Sealed and were doing some wonky things in an attempt to make their deck fast. It makes me wonder if the speed will be faster in Draft where you get to focus on two colors and have more synergistic, streamlined decks. Maybe you can McGyver some dangerous synergies more consistently. The nut Beast deck won't feel slow at all, and the nut Sliver deck probably won't either. Something like a Scroll Thief deck backed up with Trained Condor and Master of Diversion will punish slow decks trying to sit behind blockers and make late game plays. So I will be looking to see how slow or fast this format is in draft.

    By the way, It's funny that I had the situation that I described in this post happen to me in the prerelease. I had a UW deck with 2 Opportunities, Jace, Planar Cleansing and a Colossal Whale, but I got overrun by the 5/3s often, because UW had no blockers to stop the beefy creatures. Even though it's something I predicted, I couldn't resist the allure of these rares. When a 5/3 hit play on turn 4 (or sometimes on turn 3) I couldn't ignore it, and I had to Time Ebb it every turn until I ran out of bounce. I had to side in Siege Mastodons, but I was at a disadvantage doing so because they have a higher cost than the beef they are trading with. The Opportunities could have been much bombier if I had Pacifisms and Sensory Deprivations to draw into, but I had none in this pool.