I've been writing a lot recently about Standard design philosophy, problems with Standard, and Standard bans. I've got one more in me today, and it will hopefully be the last of this kind I write for a long while.
The November 18th Banned and Restricted announcement saw a ban of three cards in Standard: Once Upon a Time, Veil of Summer and Oko, Thief of Crowns. It also saw a Legacy ban: Wrenn and Six, and a Vintage restriction: Narset, Parter of Veils.
There have been a lot of bans over the past few years across all formats, with an especially high number in the latter half of 2019. Some of this is the result of a change in ban philosophy. Problem cards from the past like Collected Company, Bloodbraid Elf, Delver of Secrets, Bitterblossom and friends could have easily been banned in their time, but there was a higher burden of proof for Standard bans back then. Some of this can also be attributed to factors like the high amount of games played on MTG Arena speeding up the rate in which formats get figured out and solved. Ultimately, though, the bulk of this is simply the result of straight up design mistakes. A lot of recently banned cards were just too good and shouldn't have been printed.
Accompanied with the bans on November 18th was an article by Bryan Hawley, leader of the Play Design team, about lessons they've learned regarding a number of these mistakes. I recommend reading it before continuing.
That particular article is what I intend on talking about today. I disagree with a number of the premises and conclusions drawn in that article and want to discuss those points of contention. I want to make it abundantly clear that my goal in this article is not to badmouth Play Design or any of the people who work in it. I'm friends with a lot of the people in that department, believe them to be incredibly smart, talented, and passionate people who care a lot about their job, and think that they are genuinely trying their best to help put out the best MTG sets they can.
With that said, I think 2019 has really missed the mark for Magic, and I'm worried by what was said in that article that those trends will continue in 2020 and beyond.
Let's start off with the basics. Play Design is an internal team Wizards of the Coast formed with the purpose of testing new sets and making sure that they don't make any huge mistakes that will mess up the game. The team formed in 2017, not long after the interaction between Felidar Guardian and Saheeli Rai was completely missed by R&D, creating the Splinter Twin combo in Standard once again.
My belief is that Play Design was created to be quality control. They are there to test the product and make sure it works fine before it is released to the public.
There was a line in Bryan's article that suggested that perhaps this isn't exactly true:
The story is rooted in the fact that Play Design is (and needs to be) a design team, not simply a playtesting team.
I find this particular line to be a bit bothersome. I think it's pretty important to have a clear separation between people who are designing a product and people who are testing the product. Blurring that line can make it really easy to overlook mistakes due to inherent biases.
Take, for example, Felidar Guardian, the problem card that helped bring about the creation of Play Design in the first place. It would be really easy as a designer to come up with a card like Felidar Guardian and think "this would be a really cool card to pair with cards like Cloudblazer and Panharmonicon." If that designer is also the product tester, they could easily get pigeonholed into testing Felidar Guardian in the way they envisioned it being played—alongside Cloudblazer and Panharmonicon—and come to the conclusion that it's perfectly fine. They aren't looking for ways that Felidar Guardian can be broken or looking at all the different ways that someone might choose to use a card like Felidar Guardian, because they went into testing with a preconceived bias toward the way they designed the card to be played. The combo with Saheeli Rai wouldn't even be on their radar, because that's not why they designed the card in the first place and their purpose behind testing would be to test if the card works the way they want it to.
The idea behind a product tester is to have someone with no personal attachment to ideas or cards with the goal of trying to figure out how cards or mechanics might break with each other or hurt the format's health. Once Play Design starts meddling in card design, then they start to fall into the trap of changing cards around to be more fun in the decks they've already designed which carries a huge risk that they completely miss how those changes might impact other cards outside that scope. They start to develop biases and people with biases have blind spots.
An ideal quality assurance team would test new cards that are sent to them, make suggestions about what is and isn't working, and send it back up the chain for the designers to make adjustments. Once they get the adjusted cards back, they would then test them again, not only in the same shells they had before, but in new shells that might become viable due to the changes in the cards. Their job would simply be to test cards and try their hardest to build decks that don't match the agreed upon vision of what Standard should look like.
Speaking of a vision of what Standard should look like, Bryan's article provided us with the acronym F.I.R.E. that serves as a philosophy for how they want to design sets. F.I.R.E stands for fun, inviting, replayable, and exciting. I honestly don't know what inviting is supposed to mean in this context, but ignoring that, I think the other three are a really solid goal for what a good standard should look like. I hope that they have some more clearly defined frameworks for what makes a format fun, inviting, replayable, and exciting, as those terms are fairly abstract, but I do think it's a fairly encompassing philosophy and one I agree with.
I've written a ton of times that I think that the replayability of a format is the single biggest indicator toward how much people enjoy that format. I'm happy to see it in their acronym, because it means that WotC also values this. Replayability refers to how many times you can play games in the format and get different experiences. A format with low replayability puts the player into the same matchups and play patterns within those matchups over and over again.
While I'm happy to see replayable as one of their buzzwords, it does scare me quite a bit. Once Upon a Time is one of the worst offenders for replayability I've seen in a Magic card in a long time. Combined with cards like Gilded Goose and Edgewall Innkeeper, Once Upon a Time makes such a high percentage of Standard games start out in exactly the same way.
Once Upon a Time is also a free spell, and free spells tend to ruin Magic formats. A card like Once Upon a Time should be an incredibly high priority to test for a team like Play Design because it's one of the highest likelihood cards to hurt the health of Standard. The fact that this card made it through the design process scares me because it doesn't take many games to figure out how powerful the card is and how much it destroys the philosophy of replayability.
Cards like Once Upon a Time and Oko, Thief of Crowns making it through the design process suggests that far too little time is actually spent on testing cards. Both of those cards completely invalidate their stated F.I.R.E. design philosophies and should have been really high testing priorities. Three-mana planeswalkers and free spells are at the top of the list of cards that carry massive risk.
I'm worried that not enough time is spent retesting cards after changes are made to them. It would be easy to test Oko at a different CMC or with slightly different abilities and come to the conclusion that it's fine on power level concerns. Then later on when it gets changed, maybe it doesn't get tested as much the second time around or the second wave of testing is tainted with biases from how the card played the first time around.
I'm also worried that the card designers are relying on Play Design as a safety net and are pushing the boundaries on card power level, assuming that Play Design will catch and fix the problems. It's realistic to consider that Oko, Thief of Crowns was even more powerful originally than what we ended up with, and that Play Design actually did do their jobs in reducing his power level, but that the end result was still a card that was too good.
It's easy to see how not enough time would be spent testing cards when Play Design is also working to "design and redesign cards, change play patterns, and tackle design challenges at the card, deck, mechanic, or format level to try and make our Constructed formats play well." That's a lot of responsibilities, and that doesn't seem to lend much time to actually playtesting the formats.
It seems to me that Play Design is either too understaffed to do their job properly or that they are being given way too many roles that should probably be outside the scope of their job. Perhaps it's both.
A good chunk of Bryan's article was spent talking about what power level they are trying to hit for Standard set design. The end conclusion is that they want Standard to be powerful, around the same power level that Return to Ravnica block was. I'm completely okay with this. I think those sets were a fairly solid power level for Standard and relatively fun.
However, I think they are really misevaluating what makes a Standard format good. I think you can have a low-powered Standard format that is good and I think you can have a high-powered Standard format that are good. I do think higher power formats tend to lend themselves more often to being fun and dynamic, but it isn't the power level of the sets that makes the format good, it's how the power is distributed within the sets.
On top of that, within Standard, the lower power level meant the format was more sensitive to cards that missed on power level; a lot of those Standard formats were badly warped by that fact. Cards like Smuggler's Copter and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar were dominant in ways they wouldn't be if the rest of the format met a higher bar.
There's always going to be some variance on power level for the cards in any sets they design. It's impossible to design set after set and not have some cards fall above or below their expected power level. It's not a failing of the designers, it's just an inevitability. Even with higher power sets, it's still quite easy to miss the line on power level for a card or cards that can still dominate a format, much like Oko, Thief of Crowns. They upped the power level of Throne of Eldraine to the cap of what they deem acceptable, but they still printed cards that dominated the format even though the rest of the format did meet a higher bar. Higher overall power level is not a failsafe insulation against this.
Regardless of the raw power level of a format, individual cards will always be at risk of dominating the format. The best way to prevent individual powerhouse cards from taking over a format isn't to jack up the power level of the format, it's to make sure that the power in the format is properly distributed.
Good mana bases allow players to easily get access to cards from other colors to combat threats that spring up, allowing a natural action and reaction ebb and flow to a format. All three times they've made Ravnica blocks have resulted in good Standard formats for periods during their legality. Similarly, Khans of Tarkir facilitated a number of good Standard formats. I don't think this is coincidence. Multicolor sets with good mana to cast those multicolor cards spreads power level out among the five colors of Magic, helping to reduce the unbalance in one color dominating a format.
In the article they mention that they consider color-hate cards to be risky design space. I think that mindset suggests a flaw in evaluating what makes a format good or bad, because the biggest risk in this design space is choosing to not print these cards. Color-hate cards tend to be reactive cards and having powerful reactive cards is healthy. I hope they don't extrapolate the failure of Veil of Summer—which failed because they tacked "draw a card" onto it, not due to any inherent flaw of the style of card—to mean that color hate cards should no longer printed. These cards are not only good for a format, they are essential to curb the dominance of proactive threats that arise. The last seven years of Magic have all been about printing threats that are too good and answers that don't line up properly. If they tone down the power level of threats and increase the power level of answers to achieve more equilibrium, I guarantee they'll have to ban far less cards in subsequent Standard formats. Other than Veil of Summer, when is the last time they banned a reactive card?
I don't think reactive answers should outstrip proactive threats, but having a healthy mixture of the two allows for a wider diversity of gameplay styles and creates a higher chance of a metagame developing around the progression of threats and answers. I think the color-hate cards are a great addition to most formats because they tend to be too narrow to universally play, but are great to have access to in case any particular threat starts to become too strong. A card like Celestial Purge might have helped curb the power level of Hazoret the Fervent enough to where banning Ramunap Ruins was no longer necessary.
Lately, the powerful cards in a format tend to be concentrated at low mana costs. When they mess up on a card like Oko, Thief of Crowns and accidentally dial up the power level a little too much, it not only can completely destroy a Standard format but it can also trickle down and really harm other formats too. Narset, Parter of Veils has been really problematic in older formats. If Narset was pushed to a similar degree that it is now, but cost five mana, that wouldn't really be the case. When the power of a format is all concentrated in cheap cards, it really accelerates the speed to which people have to react to these cards. It puts an extreme amount of pressure on players to have the right answers and have them immediately. Those answers often don't exist in Standard.
When that power is instead in expensive cards, people have a little more time to find answers, and it introduces the chance for players to miss their fifth land drop and not be able to deploy that threat or fall too far behind for it to dominate. If the card costs two or three, it's less likely that players will fail to be able to deploy the card on time and more likely the opponent is unable to interact. Cards like Nissa, Who Shakes the World, Teferi, Hero of Dominaria, and The Scarab God were all arguably pushed just as much as Oko, Thief of Crowns, but by virtue of them just costing more mana, they were far more manageable.
Let's look back at the example of Smuggler's Copter dominating a format because Kaladesh was too underpowered to compete with it. I think the problem with Kaladesh was not that the set was too underpowered, it's that the power of the set was not distributed properly. The powerful cards in Kaladesh block were cheap, proactive, colorless threats like Smuggler's Copter and Scrapheap Scrounger that lacked effective counterplay. The other dominant mechanic was energy, which players could not interact with and which also lacked effective counterplay.
Printing more powerful cards probably wouldn't have stopped Smuggler's Copter from being dominant. The card is incredibly good in Pioneer after all, a format with a much higher power level than Kaladesh Standard could ever hope to be. If anything, more powerful threats would have probably played well with Smuggler's Copter, making the card even better than it was. The best way to prevent these situations from happening is to spread the power level away from colorless cards and away from mechanics that can't be properly interacted with. Furthermore, spread the power level to higher converted mana costs and balance power between proactive and reactive elements.
Also, while we'd opened up design space at higher mana costs, we realized we'd lost design space in the wackier strategies because a lower-powered Standard couldn't absorb them as easily.
I don't think this is correct at all. Lower power formats are way more likely to facilitate wacky strategies because players have time to execute those wacky strategies. Higher power formats are usually way more focused and the best decks are more streamlined to both present powerful threats and back them up with proper disruption like Duress or Negate to tear apart wacky decks.
Wacky decks are also way more likely to thrive if the power of the format is shifted to higher converted mana costs, because games tend to go longer. For example: a deck called OmniDoor ThragFire, an Ali Aintrazi brew, was an actual deck people played at one point in Standard during Return to Ravnica era. That format is the Standard power level bar they are currently trying to emulate. Thragtusk slowed down the format immensely, allowing this wacky Omniscience, Door to Nothingness, Thragtusk, and Worldfire deck (hence OmniDoor ThragFire) to actually get played.
Coming out of an era with green being at times borderline unplayable by virtue of its inability to proactively interact with opposing creatures, we tried in the last few sets to lean into green's ability to fight enemy creatures. As we see the impacts of that, it's leaving green's suite of effects a bit too complete (which is separate but related to its raw strength). Looking at the color pie holistically, it steps into a hybrid creature/removal space usually occupied by white (but does it better). We'll be looking to narrow down green's mechanical expression slightly and investigate other ways to let green navigate boards littered with opposing creatures.
I don't think reducing green's ability to fight creatures is the change they should be making to green. I like that green can fight opposing creatures with cards like Voracious Hydra and interact with spells with cards like Veil of Summer. If you take away green's abilities to interact at all in a game of Magic then yeah, it's gonna suck. The problem with a card like Wicked Wolf isn't that it fights opposing creatures, it's that it does that, and it grows bigger, and it becomes indestructible, and it completely dominates combat. The problem with Veil of Summer isn't that it shuts down a blue or black card, it's that it also draws a card and shuts down future cards on the same turn.
Lately, they just tack on so many random abilities onto all of green's cards. Gilded Goose isn't just a Birds of Paradise, it's also an engine. Hydroid Krasis doesn't just draw cards, it's also a big body, has two relevant combat abilities, and you get to draw the cards even if it gets countered. It could have probably had one or two less abilities. Questing Beast has six abilities/keywords total.
I don't mind Edgewall Innkeeper, Beast Whisperer, or The Great Henge drawing cards because you have to work for them. Hydroid Krasis is a bit too easy. And yeah, I realize that drawing cards is the blue part of the ability, but it's still way easier to draw cards with Hydroid Krasis in your green deck than with a pure blue card like Gadwick, the Wizened. That level of card draw has been a bit too good for green in the past. Recent examples include Rogue Refiner and Tireless Tracker.
Green should definitely be able to fight opposing creatures, but it should come at a risk. Wicked Wolf's flaw wasn't that it fought creatures, it was that there was no risk because it could gain indestructible and invalidate opposing interaction. Domri, Anarch of Bolas or Voracious Hydra 's fighting abilities are fine because they can get blown out by removal.
I don't think they are doing the wrong things with green cards at all, I just think they're making the cards too good and tacking on too many extraneous abilities. I don't like that the conclusion is that they need to change what they're doing with green cards. Just change the dials a bit. Keep making the same kinds of green cards. Fight is a good mechanic.
White on the other hand... white needs some serious help.
We'll likely continue making three-mana planeswalkers, but sparingly, carefully, and with the question "if this planeswalker is strong, what could it push out of the environment?" at the forefront of the conversation.
I'm totally okay with this entire section on planeswalkers. I think they correctly identify a lot of the risks planeswalker designs carry, especially three-mana 'walkers. I wish they would just chill on planeswalkers for a while, but I don't think that will happen for reasons outside the scope of Play Design. Planeswalkers sell packs of Magic cards and serve as chase mythics for the sets. I can't imagine they will shut down that cash cow even if it is adversely affecting the health of the game.
My one suggestion with planeswalkers is to just stop making universally applicable planeswalkers. Jace, Wielder of Mysteries is a great example of what a planeswalker's power level should be. It's a niche planeswalker that has seen play because of its unique abilities, but it's not generically powerful enough to be thrown into every single deck. It's mediocre most of the time, but does have matchups or decks where it's legitimately powerful.
Planeswalkers that synergize with particular decks or strategies but lack appeal outside of those strategies are the perfect design. I think it is okay to print these cards at three mana as well. There's no inherent flaw in three mana planeswalkers, except they carry way more risk, and should basically never be the kind of always-good walkers like Oko, Thief of Crowns because of that risk. Random niche walkers can totally be three mana though. Ashiok, Dream Render or Davriel, Rogue Shadowmage are totally fine cards.
Play Design is given a tough job. They have to balance sets of Magic cards, and they have to do it for sets that come out way in the future. They have to test for future sets without the knowledge that we have access to. So if a card like Field of the Dead ends up dominating Standard and they missed it internally when they tested M20, then they are also going to miss all the cards from Throne of Eldraine that power up the Field of the Dead deck. They are done testing Throne of Eldraine long before M20 is released to us, and thus their testing is always missing a lot of the context we have. It also can take years for them to react to flaws in their design because they are working so far ahead.
I have a lot of faith in the people who work in that department and also the people at WotC who design Magic cards as a whole. The game has thrived for over 25 years when so many other games have failed because they are great at designing sets. However, 2019 has been the worst year I can ever remember for set design failures and mistakes. I believe they will eventually fix these mistakes over time, as they always do, but I'm worried about how long it will take and what the cost will be in the meantime. I don't agree with a lot of the conclusions drawn for why 2019 has failed, leaving me to hope that either I am wrong or that more adjustments are in store. Fingers crossed.