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Limited Power Levels

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The letter I!t was an awesome feeling last weekend watching Grand Prix Las Vegas occur—and Modern Masters Limited. Modern Masters is a Limited format unlike any we have produced in the last few years. Of course, we did it basically by taking the most powerful cards of those years and wrapping them all into one environment, all the while allowing for intricate interactions that never would've occurred in those individual Limited environments.

One of my favorite plays over the course of the tournament was watching Melissa DeTora cast Otherworldly Journey on her opponent's creature, then cast Riftsweeper to shuffle the creature back into its owner's library. It's an interaction that would almost never come in any other context, and it was a joy to watch.


Modern Masters is, by far, the most complex and powerful Limited environment we have produced in the last decade, and I feel there are a lot of lessons we are learning from how it has been received by both longtime players and newer players alike. That is for the Magic developers to talk about over the next few months, though, so today I want to talk about what power level means for Limited.

Power Differentials in Limited

Different Limited formats are generally defined by the power level of their commons. There will always be powerful uncommons and rares, but they just show up less often. The thing that most defines how the set plays is how the power is spent at the common rarity. What we tend to do currently is keep the power level of commons below that of Dark Banishing—meaning, you can see cards like Grisly Spectacle now and then, but you will rarely see something like Glacial Ray again—well, outside of Modern Masters.


In the far past, we made giant mistakes with the power level of commons in a set, and the entire Draft format warped around those. If you ever had the joy of playing against Pestilence in Saga block Limited, or Sparksmith in Onslaught Limited, you know what I am talking about. When commons are some of the strongest cards in Limited, every draft is centered around what your plan is on dealing with them, which greatly reduces the replayability of the draft format. In one of the above examples, it was basically impossible to draft white-blue, green-blue, or green-white in triple-Onslaught Draft because you simply had no way of dealing with a Sparksmith, and because it was a common you were virtually guaranteed to play against one or more every draft. One of the fun parts of Limited is playing with powerful uncommons and rares that you don't see every draft. If those just pale in comparison to a common, then each draft begins to look exactly like each other draft.


If we are doing our jobs correctly, then the individual colors in Limited are pretty well balanced between all the sets in the Limited format, although what that balance is can vary from Draft format to Draft format. This is one of the ways we have to make Limited environments feel different from each other—by subtly adjusting the power level of the cards and influencing the type of play that fits the set the best.

For example, let's stack rank the top five red commons in Innistrad:

Innistrad

  1. Brimstone Volley
  2. Harvest Pyre
  3. Pitchburn Devils
  4. Geistflame
  5. Kessig Wolf

Now, let's stack rank the top five commons in Rise of the Eldrazi (probably the set with the strongest commons since we began New World Order).

Rise of the Eldrazi

  1. Staggershock
  2. Flame Slash
  3. Heat Ray
  4. Emrakul's Hatcher
  5. Spawning Breath

Of course, if you were to stack rank the two lists, it looks more like this:

Innistrad & Rise of the Eldrazi

  1. Staggershock
  2. Flame Slash
  3. Brimstone Volley
  4. Heat Ray
  5. Emrakul's Hatcher
  6. Harvest Pyre
  7. Spawning Breath
  8. Pitchburn Devils
  9. Geistflame
  10. Kessig Wolf

We may be able to disagree on a few exact positions in this list, but the point is this—the two Limited formats had very different power levels. Both are generally well-regarded among the community. Rise of the Eldrazi was all about mana ramping, humongous creatures, and sideways strategies. This was a huge departure from the aggressive "no-blocking" format that was Zendikar. One of the ways it accomplished this feel was literally filling the set with powerful commons that were very good at fighting small creatures but that had a much harder time against the huge Eldrazi. Innistrad's feel was much different, and the way its commons play highlights that. Brimstone Volley can kill larger creatures than either Flame Slash or Staggershock, but it required something to die for the full effect. Likewise, comparing the game play differences between Emrakul's Hatcher mucking up the ground and summoning a huge Eldrazi versus Pitchburn Devils mucking up the ground and daring your opponent to kill it, you have an interesting microcosm of just how these two sets operated on different axis.


Setting the Bar

How the best commons in the set play will simply define how the entire environment plays out. If we were to make the best common of each color an aggressive creature, then naturally the format would be incredibly aggressive. If, on the other hand, we put the top common of each color as a powerful controlling card, then the environment would just naturally trend toward being slower.

One of the many passes that happen as a development team is working on a Limited set is to figure out what the best commons of each color are, and make sure that a few things are happening: (1) that those cards are at different spots on the curve, (2) that the cards of each color are generally doing different things, and (3) that those cards are highlighting the themes or mechanics of the set.

If the best few cards of each color were all removal spells, then the most important question for a player when he or she opened up the pack would be, "Which color of removal do you want to take first?" rather than "What do you want your deck to look like?"

The superpower that the development teams have, of course, is the ability to decide what is going to be good. If we want to break the normal trends and make black's best common a card-drawing spell, and green's a removal spell, we can do that. It's all about crafting a Limited environment that feels different than other Limited environments that have come before it.

Let's take a look at Modern Masters, as an example, and try to pick the best common for each color.

White: Bound in Silence (although I've seen good arguments for Sanctum Gargoyle)
Blue: Errant Ephemeron
Black: Rathi Trapper
Red: Glacial Ray
Green: Imperiosaur

Defining what the top common of each color is doing helps us to define the overall experience of drafting the color. For instance, when picking a first-pick Bound in Silence, you are incentivized to start looking at Rebels as a strategy, because it just adds a lot of value. On the other hand, getting a Glacial Ray sends your deck in a different direction—looking for arcane spells to splice on. Taking Rathi Trapper also keeps you open for Rebels, but his Rogue status may also lead you to taking a Latchkey Faerie in a later pack.


Of course, making these synergies happen for Modern Masters Limited meant having less powerful removal at common, which resulted in us bumping up cards like Horobi's Whisper and Executioner's Capsule to uncommon to compensate. While we were willing to have more powerful removal in general at common, we wanted to make sure there wasn't too much of it.

Higher Rarities

Limited is very much built around the rarity structure of Magic packs. In Limited, it is just true that rares tend to be more powerful than uncommons, which tend to be more powerful than commons. Shivan Dragon may not be a very exciting card in Constructed, but it's one of the more exciting cards you can open up in most Limited environments. That's because, while Limited is generally enhanced by synergy and card efficiency in deck building, you rarely have the ability to push your deck as far as you would like. You are just at the mercy of the what the packs have for you.

In my mind, one of the flaws of Scars of Mirrodin Limited was that there were a number of bomby rares that just felt too similar to each other. Look at Steel Hellkite, Sunblast Angel, Hoard-Smelter Dragon, and Carnifex Demon. Each one is a giant, evasive creature that has the side effect of wiping the opponent's board. It was possible to play in a tournament, lose to each one of those in different games, but not really process the difference. Instead, it just felt like you lost to a Dragon that killed your board. I don't think that makes for a great experience. This is one place where we, as developers, have a great deal of power to create an experience that feels different and new, even when you are losing.


I think one of the greatest successes of Innistrad block was that the powerful rares felt differently from each other, so even when you lost to them, it didn't feel like you were playing the same game over and over again. Olivia Voldaren and Bloodline Keeper were both incredibly hard-to-beat flying Vampires, but their play patterns were very different. Similarly, I saw Instigator Gang and Mindshrieker win a great number of games, but they felt very differently when they did. Also, decks that were well suited to deal with one often had a hard time with the other. I think this diversity of threats is incredibly important to making repeatedly playing Limited an enjoyable experience, and it's something we hope to improve moving forward.


It may seem like a strange goal to make sure people are having fun losing, but it is definitely a goal of Development. We can't expect any given player will win more than 50% of his or her games, so making sure the experience is as different and varied as possible is important.

That's it for this week. Join me next week as I talk Magic 2014 and the role of mana fixing in Standard.




 
Sam Stoddard
Sam Stoddard
@SamStod
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Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May, 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.

 
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