Thursday, February 7, 2019

Of Other Multiverses

By lpaulsen

Hi everyone! I'm Luke. I comment on Goblin Artisans as lpaulsen and occasionally post my own custom Magic design projects at

Here's a little known fact about me, though: I have a fictional alter ego who's a planeswalker.

It isn't actually as useful an ability as it sounds. See, you might think that if I traveled through the Blind Eternities, I could beat the Bay Area rush hour traffic and get to my local game store in time for Friday Night Magic. But planeswalking only works for going to, well, other planes. Every time I try to planeswalk to the game store, I end up (OK, my alter ego ends up) in some alternate reality instead. And the rules and history of Magic are a little bit different every time I visit.

The bad news about visiting fictional alternate-reality Friday Night Magic is that it's kind of pointless to hang onto the cards. They're usually different from their real-world versions. The good news, though, is that I learn a lot from my visits about how Magic works. In this post, I'd like to share one of those lessons.

The most memorable alternate reality was one I first visited early in 2018. It was memorable because I didn't realize right away what was different about it. I sat down to draft and opened my first Rivals of Ixalan booster pack, expecting to see that purple was a color or that instants didn't exist. But there wasn't anything like that. It just seemed like most of the cards in the pack were really bad.

Remember Ancient Brontodon? The common 9/9 for 6GG? A lot of the cards in the pack looked like that, but instead of 9/9s, they were 3/3s or something.. for 8 mana. The curve went all the way up to 12 mana, and that was just a 6/6 with trample-- not Ghalta, Primal Hunger.

A few of the cards in the pack did look pretty similar to their real-world versions. I remember seeing designs that resembled Snubhorn Sentry, Orazca Relic, and Lookout's Dispersal, with no increase in mana cost.

I didn't really understand what was going on yet, though. Then I finally got to the end of the pack and saw this:

OK, now things were starting to make sense. Basic lands in this reality tapped for two mana of a particular color. So I mentally divided the mana costs I'd seen by two. The power levels were actually very similar to what I was familiar with-- you could play similar spells on turn 2, 3, 4, and so on. Using 2 mana instead of 1 just had the effect of increasing the granularity of the mana system.

I thought about the cards that hadn't seemed powered-down, and realized that they were less impactful in the 2-mana-per-turn world for various reasons. Snubhorn Sentry was still essentially a 1-drop. Orazca Relic only added 1 mana, not 2, so it wasn't very useful. And opponents could pay for Lookout's Dispersal off of just 2 untapped lands, not 4.

But that made me wonder: did this system really improve granularity? I thought of cards like Little Girl and City of Ass from Unhinged. In practice the "half-mana" rarely mattered because there was nothing to do with it-- Little Girl effectively cost 1 mana and City of Ass effectively added 1 mana. Would something similar be true here, with odd amounts of mana basically just rounding off to even amounts?

It turned out that the answer was no. Odd-numbered mana costs were definitely relevant. There were several reasons for this. First and foremost, odd converted mana costs were a lot less parasitic. Sets had always been printed with a roughly equal number of odd-cost and even-cost cards. So no matter what deck you built, you were likely to have multiple odd-cost cards in your hand-- and casting both in the same turn would make the "half-mana" relevant. Lots of activated abilities had odd mana costs, too, which made those satisfying two-odd-cost turns even easier to set up.

More recently, though, R&D had realized that this wasn't enough. Overpaying for a spell and having one mana go to waste felt pretty bad. Inexperienced players often weren't willing to do it, leading them to misplay a lot of cards. So R&D worked on adding more flexibility to the mana system by printing cards in every set that would generate odd amounts of mana. Amonkhet block mostly did it with Deserts; a lot of them tapped for 3 mana, one way or another. Ixalan block mostly did this with the 1-mana Treasure tokens.

Yeah, nonbasics could tap for 3 mana. I was surprised too, since tapping for anything more than 1 is pretty broken in our world. But apparently 1.5 is okay if you're careful. It seems R&D had a couple of tools for managing the power level. First, there were the color requirements: when a Mountain taps for RR, printing a land that taps for CCC or even CCR isn't strictly better. Second, there was "enters-the-battlefield-tapped". In this world R&D didn't have to lean on it so much for dual lands, but they did use it on most 3-mana lands, meaning that players couldn't easily generate, say, 6 mana on turn 2.
My favorite way of generating odd amounts of mana, though, was the "mana rocks" and "mana elves".

Llanowar Elves-- with the same text box as in our world-- was still a Standard staple in this one, though it wasn't quite so powerful. Even mostly-better options like Birds of Paradise and Noble Hierarch would be reasonable. And mana rocks-- costed at 2 or, less frequently, 3 mana-- saw plenty of print. Rampant Growth effects were another matter, of course. R&D had recently decided to make them cost a minimum of 5 mana or have a drawback.

Colored mana requirements were also a little different. Most cards contain at least two colored mana symbols. Many contain more. Again, this gives R&D more control over how intense the color requirements are. On the other hand, it leads to some... awkward trade-offs with card titles. Not everything that's done in the real world can be perfectly imitated here.

Fortunately, the color requirements in this world aren't strictly double what they were in ours. Dual lands often sacrifice some color-intensity in favor of flexibility or even number of mana, so color requirements tend to stop at three or four mana of a color-- even earlier for multicolored cards. In general I got the impression that in this world, there were more nonbasic land designs per set, and at lower rarities. That made sense to me, because R&D had a lot more design space to work with. Also, it seemed fairly common for Standard mana bases to contain a more interesting mix of nonbasic lands. There were fewer automatic 4-ofs, and basic lands were mostly included to be fetchable, not because there weren't any other options that entered untapped.

But enough with the speculation. Let's see some of the land designs!

Don't believe me? Think these wouldn't be balanced in my alternate universe? Have your own ideas for two-mana land designs? Please let me know-- I'm eager to see the comments!

(This Community Spotlight article comes courtesy of lpaulsen. If you would like to contribute a Community Spotlight article, check out Write for Goblin Artisans, then send a brief pitch of your idea to zefferal on gmail.)


  1. It's a really fun look at what we could do with more granularity to the mana system. From what I understand, being able to do halves like this is why pokemon opted to have increments of 10 for its creatures stats. That said, I think the larger numbers that this system implicates really tends to add a significant layer of complexity to the game. Some people enjoy fiddling with mana bases ad nauseum, but I think most, like myself, are happy with the standard land distribution and assumptions. When adding that half step of mana calculations, it can really complicate mana curves, bases, etc.

    1. Yeah, I was thinking about that when I wrote this. It's a trade-off of complexity for easier balance and design space. I agree that real-world Magic landed in the right place, though I don't know whether they ever thought about having basic lands make multiple mana.

    2. I think the default was to just stick to one mana per land, so that's probably where they started and they just built up around that. But this is a fascinating way to start another game.

      The note about complexity is a good point. I think that this would be an interesting foundation to something other than Magic, because it'd be baked into the initial assumptions you accept, and lessons you learn, as you're beginning the game. It's the same reason that a lot of 'bad Magic design' is perfectly acceptable in other board games; because they're just a part of the central conceit of those games, not a 'surprise aspect' that people dislike.

      I also think if Magic had been designed around manabases like this, the rest of the game would compensate for manabase complexity by reducing complexity elsewhere, both in deckbuilding and in play.

  2. Fascinating article! I would love to see some Duel Decks designed for a resource system like this. Your designs were certainly very intriguing throughout the article.

    I think this would be a really cool starting point for an entirely separate game from Magic, too. There is definitely a bit of fun in fiddling with 'odd and even' balances and making those dream exactsies turns happen.

    1. Seconded for duel deck designs highlighting this world.

  3. Fun.
    I expected most dual lands to just add CD like the karoos.

    1. Original flavor duals are far less potent as is in this world. They fix great, bust set you back some tempo (moreso than Shivan Oasis etc. do in real world).

    2. Oh, good point-- I forgot to make one that would just add CD. It's strictly better than the Guildgate, but not by much, which seems like about the right place to be.