Monday, November 23, 2020

Signpost Uncommons: A Critique

Besides New World Order, the largest structural change to Magic sets in the last 10 years is the introduction of "signpost uncommons," two-colored uncommons that mark the particular archetype those two colors are associated with. This comes alongside a larger shift in set design from looser draft archetypes to tighter two-color pair strategies (which I will call "the signpost uncommon system".) This has become so ubiquitous that Limited Resources begins every set evaluation by looking at the signpost uncommon cycle. My issue isn't with this structure on its own, but its use in every set, which unnecessarily constrains Magic sets and limits their potential to be great formats.

Cards Become Too Stuck in a Lane

One of the many difficulties of creating a Magic set is balancing the cards between being too narrow and too broad. If too many cards have narrow uses, the draft goes "on rails" and you don't get to make interesting decisions, in addition to the danger of ending up with a pile of useless cards becoming more likely. If there aren't well-defined archetypes, the set becomes difficult to navigate, especially for new players, and there ends up being a high population of good stuff decks that all work the same. The signpost uncommon structure causes the set design to lean heavily towards "on rails".

Zendikar Rising is a good set to use as an example because tribal themes are very simple and obvious archetypes. Expedition Champion is a vanilla 2/3 if you don't have it in a deck with a lot of other Warriors. In the case of this set, that deck is almost exclusively R/W Warriors. The other three archetypes in red are U/R Wizards, which obviously doesn't want this card, B/R Party, which won't have enough Warriors to make Champion good, and R/G Landfall, which is mostly non-sapient critters with no class. 

This creates two issues. The first is that your picks become too obvious to be fun. If I'm in R/W, and my three options for red are Expedition Champion, Fissure Wizard, and Pyroclastic Hellion, it's not even really a choice. Good game design is all about, to quote Mark Rosewater out of context, "forcing your players to make entertaining choices," and this makes the choices so obvious, it isn't entertaining anymore. The second is that you can end up with a bad deck even if you correctly detect the open colors, simply because the cards in that color that ended up in the draft pool weren't appropriate for your archetype. Returning to our R/W example, if you end up in Warriors pack 1 but your pack 2 is filled with Wizards and Hellions, you'll end up with a lousy deck even though you did everything right.

There are some commons that act as "glue" that can go in every archetype in their color. I call them golden eggs after Golden Egg, a particularly obvious (and fun) example. Some of ZNR's golden eggs are Mind Drain, which activates three of the four archetypes in its color, and Stonework Packbeast, which acts as filler for any of the six tribal archetypes. These are good cards to include in a set, but if your lanes are too heavily defined they become complex for commons, and make the players see behind the curtain into the structure of the set. Games should look as effortless as possible, and having too many inelegant golden eggs is the opposite.

It's Hard to Tell Which Archetypes Are Supported and Which Are "Supported"

One of the advantages of the signpost uncommon system is that it makes extremely obvious what you're supposed to be doing in each color pair. This gives people unfamiliar with the Limited format (including some enfranchised players who only have the time or resources to draft a couple of times per set) a greater ability to put together something cohesive that isn't a trainwreck. The disadvantage of this is that it creates the perception that all ten of the strategies are balanced, when most of the time they aren't. Sets always support some two-color strategies more than others, which are afterthoughts; however, under the signpost uncommon system, you can't tell which are which without looking it up online.

Guilds of Ravnica has both "official" and "unofficial" archetypes, so it serves as an effective illustration of the problem. There's a 5-color Gates deck that's on the weak side, but compared to the guilds, which have set lanes, tons of support, and even their own watermarks, we can understand that correctly assembling a Gates deck might require more work. 

That's not true, however, for Golgari decks, which were significantly worse than the others. If you're going to a GRN prerelease or draft without knowing much about the set, you could easily decide that Golgari is open and go into it without realizing that it's a weak deck even when the pair is open. Unlike the implied risk of being able to go off the rails, knowing that Golgari isn't worth going into if possible is pure metagame.

Similar to the Golgari example, under the signpost uncommon system, you have 10 strategies, all of which are implied to be just as strong as each other. The thing is, this is never true, and some color pairs just end up getting less love without less enfranchised players knowing about it. Having so many supported strategies also edges out weird and fringe strategies, which I will get to in my next point right now.

Players Can't Develop Their Own Strategies

Unconsciously, most people enjoy Magic because it makes them feel smart. Magic has enough strategy in it that you can find ways to wriggle out of tight situations, but enough variance that you can defeat a stronger opponent with some regularity; this combination allows people who maybe don't get the opportunity to feel good about themselves in their day-to-day life to feel better in-game.

A good way for a Magic designer to make their audience feel smart is to make them feel like they came up with a strategy themselves. Many of the most popular draft archetypes of all time are niche strategies centered around single cards – Spider Spawning, Goblinslide, Slither Blade, and so on – that repurpose cards that people wouldn't normally otherwise use. This allows players to outwit their draft pod opponents by turning trash into treasure, but also feel like they outwitted the designers by creating an effective strategy that wasn't "intentionally" designed.

The signpost uncommon format, compared to sets like Innistrad that were more based on single game-changing cards, makes it much more difficult for players to develop their own strategies. Even if a deck is fun to play, if you don't feel like you were the one who came up with the deck, you don't feel like you accomplished something; you feel like WotC accomplished something and you're just riding their coattails. There's some borderline cases here, as well, like the Epitaph Golem deck in Shadows over Innistrad.

This is more of a problem with sets aimed towards the heavily enfranchised. In core sets, where I think the signpost uncommon structure is most effective, having locked-in strategies are actually a benefit, because new drafters need all the help they can get to create a functional deck. But take something like Modern Horizons, which was literally billed as Time Spiral 2 and where almost every card had multiple lines of rules text. We could have had a Limited format that was harder to navigate, but also where it was possible to create decks that flew out of the bounds of what could normally be made; we instead got a somewhat more complex version of regular Standard-legal sets. Commander Legends departs from the formula and is more based on commander abilities, and benefits greatly from it.

Sets Become More Homogenous

I'll just jump right into the example for this one with Throne of Eldraine.

Throne was a largely successful Limited format, but it could have been one of the most interesting Limited formats of all time if it hadn't been constrained by the signpost uncommon system. This is because Throne explored a monocolor theme with the adamant ability, something that had never been explored in depth and had only been touched upon six years ago in Theros block. Suddenly, sticking to one color could be not only possible, but powerful. 

However, the signpost uncommon system made it so that an average Throne of Eldraine draft would have 6 or 7 standard two-color decks and one or two people who could draft deep enough in one color to make a mostly monocolor deck. Many of the cards were only appropriate for certain strategies (for instance, Brimstone Trebuchet was only good with R/W and B/R Knights), so even if a color was open enough to go into it exclusively, it would be better to stick to a 2-color strategy. Many of the good Adamant payoffs, like Clockwork Servant, could be played effectively in a 2-color deck, as well.

When every set has the same skeleton, the things that make them unique diminish. We start to see the same strategies repeated in sets that aren't doing something special for that color combination (UR Spells, RG Ferocious, GW go-wide), and because they're officially promoted via the signpost uncommons, the novelty wears thin more quickly than if these themes were quietly present. In order to achieve greater heights of Magic design, designers must be willing to depart from a set structure that's quickly becoming set in stone.


The signpost uncommon system has its uses. As I mentioned previously, it's a good structure for core sets, which need more obvious Limited deckbuilding guardrails; there's also some sets with more complexity afforded to deck piloting, like Theros Beyond Death, that benefit from having a simpler deck assembly process. But sets need to have a structure that matches their intent and play experience, and the signpost uncommon system won't be appropriate for all of them.


  1. I agree with your analysis, but I have a feeling that the public they aim at with draft has shifted when it comes in the standard sets. As such the draft fans are redirected to cubes, masters sets etc... I agree that a questioning of the practice would be usefull and an easy solution would be to not include an Signcommon card for each color pair, only for the supported mechanics?

    1. Interesting points!

      Even the sets for enfranchised drafters are starting to use this structure too – see Modern Horizons – and the only non-cube that came close to bucking the trend recently is Commander Legends. (The two Ravnica sets had different structures, obvs, but that's because they're Ravnica sets.)

      Ixalan tried having two missing signpost cards in WU and BG because there weren't tribal archetypes in those colors, but afaik they mostly left people frustrated that the cycle was incomplete. Maybe if there's 3 or 4 signpost uncommons, that would help indicate "there's a concrete strategy here!" while not feeling like there's holes in the set structure.

    2. The other way to do it is to hide the signpost uncommons by making them single colored uncommons with off-color activations that signal a theme when there is a theme, and just boost the creature when it is not supported?

  2. Thanks for the write-up! Overall I agree with your argument and would like to see more experimental Limited formats. The problem, as you mentioned, is that having ~10 two-color archetypes makes a pretty good fit for a table of 8 drafters and a changing that up would require coming up with a similar number of archetypes. Some ideas:
    -Monocolor rewards plus some support for 3+ color decks
    -Designs that reward playing one color and splashing another
    -Two separate archetypes (maybe tempo/aggro vs control/value/ramp, or more targeted themes like tribes) centered in each color
    -Archetype support in each 3-color combo, so you can play a linear 3-color deck or a 2-color deck with partial access to 3 different themes

    It does seem like Wizards has tried to experiment some and it hasn't worked out. Might just be that they don't have the resources to get non-traditional environments right reliably. For example, what do you think of the Ixalan environment? (In its non-tribal color pairs, BG and WU, there weren't any signpost uncommons.)

    1. Because Ixalan was only missing two signpost uncommons, it felt more like an incomplete cycle than it did a new set structure.

      Khans of Tarkir did your fourth suggestion fairly effectively, with each enemy two-color combination having its own theme that was a bit separate from the clans that adjoined it. Of course, some pairs were more coherent and strong than others (like G/U Morph), but it was an interesting experiment enabled by the fact that the core theme of the set was wedges.

  3. I've never drafted enough to know, but that sounds very well put. It's hard to define the line between "a collection of cards that go well together" and "a pre-scripted strategy created for people to pick up", but I know, it feels different.