Tagged: Magic Design

MTG – Balancing Beatsticks

Magic The Gathering is what we in the dank academia call a ludic game1.. There’s not a lot of room for entirely non-system play, not a lot of room to give things an individually boundless creativity.  There’s some creativity in deck building, but it’s not boundless. You have to put in the cards that already exist, for example, and those cards have to be put in with some limitations and to work, they need to be put in in certain proportions and you wind up being fed into a system.

This isn’t a criticism, by the way. Just a basic analysis. This is just something of how the game works.

During spoiler season we saw Sky Terror printed. There was some concern about how pushed that was, about if that was too much for 2 mana, and there was some talk about its impact in limited. It’s actually super interesting to me, to learn how gold cards shape your early picks – it’s the difference between 3 slots and 11 slots in your mana base, I learned.

Anyway, this prompted something of a conversation about how powerful this card was, while a certain body of people, myself included, responded with… big deal. It’s a flier and it has menace. From that, I wrote – mostly – the following explanation.

In Magic, not all evasion abilities are equal. In fact, some evasion abilities, when they start to interact with one another, are pretty weirdly weak. Sometimes this is obvious, like giving a creature with flying reach, or giving a creature with fear intimidate. On the other hand, sometimes it’s a little subtler. Lemme tell you about Coldsnap.

Back in Coldsnap, there was this card, Phobian Phantasm, which was a FEAR FLIER. It cost 3 for a 3/3 and it had cumulative upkeep and people thought it would be really strong, because it’d be able to fly and not be blocked and it hit for 3. This was the first impression of myself and others2..

The problem is, fear means nothing on a creature that already flies. Most fliers aren’t getting blocked anyway, because the things that can block it are your opponents’ fliers and most of them don’t want to block because they are also turning sideways. When it comes to the way constructed works out, evasive creatures rarely get involved in creature combat, because they don’t tend to have a lot of varieties of bodies, and combat tricks aren’t commonly played (because they’re not so valuable when people rarely get into combat!). You can usually look at evasive creatures and know whether or not they’re going to get blocked at all. Now, this isn’t always true; sometimes a format will feature something that can gum up the air like say, Hornet Queen, but that’s not the norm.

The reason you tend to kill these creatures by combat in limited, of course, is because you don’t have reliable access to removal, and the removal you have is sometimes truly terribad. R&D have almost made a game of designing bad removal spells just to see who still runs them, and boy, turns out they still do.

The thing with this card looking so pushed (and it is pushed, by the way, just not in the scary way it may seem), is that we’re very much conditioned to think of cards as being generally made as a formulation; that every card is about as good as that card can be. This is something that drove me batty until I internalised it whenever Wizards printed a 4/4 for 5, like say, Game-Trail Changeling .

A menace flier may look impressive but it’s not going to get blocked anyway. In constructed, it’ll get abraded or shocked or pulsed or planked or whatever, because that’s what spot removal is for – wiping out individual things that are trying to carry the game, and a 2/2 creature needs to live for four or five turns to make a big difference on its own. It’s why constructed creatures tend to either be capable of swarming out cheaply, rebuilding after a clean-up, or closing the game on their own in a few short hits. You’ll notice rarely do people bother with 7/Xs in constructed if they can get a 6/X that does the same job cheaper, or a 5/X, because the only real virtue the 7/x has is punching through 7-toughness blockers… which are also suitably rare.

This is one of the magic tricks of design; for most intents and purposes, a number of creatures have invisible or meaningless text on them that still makes them feel interesting, still changes the nature of the game while they’re being played, and it’s very interesting seeing the way they influence the game.


1. The alternative term that’s meant to represent games with more individually creative elements is paidic, by the way.

2. I at least kept my reservations about the card because I hated fear and thought it was bad design.3.

3. A thought that was totally vindicated, mind you.