This entry is part 15 of 41 in the series In General

Grandpa (Eric)

By Eric, AKA Grandpa Growth


When designing a game, there are a number of adjustable variables you have to consider. The exact values you choose to assign these variables ultimately influence how the game plays out and which strategies will be deemed “good/strong” or “bad/weak.” The most clear-cut example within Magic happens at the individual card level.


When designing a creature card, you have to assign it several of these variables, such as: mana cost, power, toughness, creature type, etc. What you choose for each of these values plays a part in determining how strong that card is relative to other comparables, which determines how often it gets used in top decks. The strength of those comparable cards determines how strong the strategic play of using creatures is.


Whether or not the threats are strong relative to the answers in a format ultimately determines the shape of the best deck in that environment, thereby influencing what people play. There’s an incredible amount of weight hanging on what seems like such a small decision, but the adjustable variables in card design are the key to shaping Magic’s metagame environments.


Don’t Touch That Dial

When examining a new Limited environment, a typical strategic question about these variables might be, “How strong is the creature base compared to the removal in this format?”


The answer clues us into which archetypes we should favor and what our pick orders should look like. There’s a remarkable amount of complexity that goes into making these choices when designing a new set. Each choice matters, because you don’t get to make the choices all at once. The decision about where to set the power level of creatures is distributed across all the creature cards designed for that set. The aggregate power level of those cards together to determine what our final variable is. (Except if the power level is over 9000; then shit gets real.)


A second level of distribution takes place when you try to compare creatures cards across multiple formats. The designers who work on each set aren’t all the same. Different contributors combine different inputs. Thus, each set has variance even if each of those teams was individually consistent.That variance can be further compounded if there is no unifying vision about what the power level of a certain card type should be.


What if that unifying vision changes, as it has so many times in Magic’s past? This creates radical fluctuations in the card power levels and even bigger waves in player expectations. People don’t always agree about where we stand now, much less where we should go in the future. This creates even more variability in the power level of our cute little critter cards.


The problem of keeping tight control over power levels is relatively mundane in Limited. You can cut cards from the set, you can adjust things in development, or you could introduce a new powerful card to balance things out–push in two different directions, as it were. A problem is easy to tackle when you have multiple effective solutions.


In Constructed, though, things are much more constrained. You can’t suddenly decide that Arcbound Ravager should cost more in order to lower its power level; it’s already been printed. You can try to ban the card from competitive play in formats where it’s problematic, the ex post facto equivalent of removing a card from the design file. This introduces a host of new problems, however, and doesn’t typically go over well with the fans. It’s cleaner to just try and avoid mistakes rather fix them later, but this just makes a tough problem even tougher. How do you control the power level of certain cards for Constructed if you can’t change what has already been constructed?


Your only real choice is to print some other powerful hoser that can favorably interact with the offending card or strategy. In the example of Ravager Affinity, the deck wasn’t great in OnslaughtMirrodin standard because of the existence of the Astral Slide deck. Wrath of God and the eponymous Astral Slide made short work of Affinity’s aggro strategy revolving around +1/+1 counters. The creatures could be killed, the counters weren’t permanent, and so one of the most powerful Standard-legal Aggro strategies was rendered inert until Onslaught rotated out. Without the Slide deck to keep it in check, Affinity’s power level relative to the format grew, and the rest is history.


Constructing Creep

A major consideration to keep in mind when printing good stuff to trump other good stuff is that eternal formats do exist and are quite popular.


Standard rotates. Problems can be severe, but they are temporary. This is no help in Legacy or Commander. Formats that don’t rotate have to live with a problem card forever. Eternal formats, by definition, have much more limited restrictions on which cards can be played. It’s a wide-open field where the best of the best can shine. The thing about eternal formats is that only the superlative cards ever matter.


Think of it like an equalizer on your music player (Mark’s phonograph doesn’t have an equalizer, so he’ll just have to pretend). If my girlfriend wants to hear more bass, she can turn up the bass. But what if the bass starts to overwhelm the sweet guitar solo I like? I try to adjust it, but the dial won’t go back down–it’s stuck. My only choice is to turn up the treble to hear the guitar better. We go back and forth like this until we have everything on eleven and blow out my speaker.This is exactly what trump design is doing to the game in eternal formats.


The following is a  simplified example, but the logic still holds: Bass → Removal. Treble → Creatures. After a while we end up with a situation where all the elements have increased in power level and we can’t actually remove any of those pieces from an eternal format to bring the power level back down. The metaphorical blowing of the speaker happens when new cards are printed with such an increased power level that they’re no longer in balance with the rules of the game.


Delver of Secrets, for example, took over control of every format. It was a cheap and reliable way to quickly deal more damage than was reasonable at the time. If a one-drop produces your desired effect, there really is no incentive to play two-drops. It’s trivial to generalize that doing this several more times would drastically hurt the game.


The good designer giveth, but he seems to have forgotten that he cannot taketh away. This brings up the question of power creep within the design of Magic cards. Some argue that this doesn’t exist. It’s the official position of Wizards employees that what people perceive as “power creep” is actually just the torch passing from one strategy to another. This…is false.



Even bad cards have power creep


  1. Wizards wants new sets to contain cards that are broadly appealing, to help sell the set. This means, among other things, each set needs to contain competitive quality cards for eternal formats.

  2. In eternal formats, only the best cards matter. Over time, the power level of cards that show up in Legacy decks is increasing (on average) as new, more powerful cards show up. Old cards cease to be played when a better alternative is introduced.

  3. Legacy, Modern, Commander, Vintage, freeform–these formats don’t rotate. No cards ever leave the card pool unless an applicable ban occurs, which can’t even happen for kitchen table Magic. Bans are rare, unpopular, and have negative effects for the value of Magic as a whole.


Designing Dominance

This is all circling around a game design topic known as the “dominant strategy.” A strategy is dominant when it consistently prevails because the underlying design of the game favors it. A simple example would be Tic-Tac-Toe. If you go first, go in the middle. Period. If you play optimally and go first, you can’t lose. Tic-Tac-Toe has a dominant strategy. It’s pretty simple really, but you can read an explanation over on Quora if you’d like. Now you may not lose, but you can’t necessarily win unless your opponent plays sub-optimally, which limits the appeal of the game past a certain point of understanding, but it’s fun while it lasts. Luckily, as I discussed in my article on Bushnell’s Law, Magic has no problem with rich strategic depth.


Magic’s design team wants to keep the game strategically interesting. To engage the player base, they need to shake the game up every once in a while, varying the dominant strategy dominant from time to time. They also change the game in ways that make it so the dominant strategy isn’t always apparent. This forces players to experiment and actually play to discover the new best strategy.


As a designer, you want to have a dominant strategy because it gives your players something to build towards or search for, but you also don’t want that strategy to become too dominant, too apparent, or too common. These things will make your game lose its appeal and become less fun for players over time, just like Tic-Tac-Toe.  


R&D has many tools to adjust things for their premier play formats, even Modern (a format for which they’ve shown the intent to be active and aggressive with the banned list in order to change decks appear in tournament top 8’s). As noted, bans aren’t always popular and there have been some surprising or controversial choices made with regards to Modern that have generated significant backlash from the players. Commander just doesn’t get that kind of attention, though, so the only way that the balance of power among different strategies can change is by the introduction of newer and more powerful cards.


This all comes back to the ongoing challenge of manipulating the power level variables on individual cards during the design process. How do you keep track of all the tiny variables from one set to the next if the design teams and their goals shift every few months?


Several years ago, R&D expressed the intention to move the action in Magic from the stack to the battlefield. This translated to fewer and less powerful counterspells, as well as permanents with more power and durability. Standard games are now decided by who casts the most Siege Rhinos not who assembles a soft lock with Forbid. This is one example of a clear, top-level initiative to redesign the game and change the dominant strategy, but the execution wasn’t seamless. Now we have Titans, Delvers, Planeswalkers, and Eldrazi; these cards have inexorably pushed the power levels higher and higher.


So what? Who cares if there is power creep or if one types of card gets special treatment?


I’m not going all Chicken Little on this issue. Wizards has shown that they can responsibly manage Magic’s power creep. They’ve built up a resume of creating Trading Card Games, and although many of those have explosive and violent power creep–like Pokemon–these can be viewed as lessons learned.


The real cost comes for casual players that want the play value of their collections to endure into the future. If I like a card, but it’s outclassed by something new, I have no incentive to play those old cards anymore. They become obsolete. On some level, I think we all want a gameplay experience where our old toys and our new toys play well together, but massive disparities in power level standards make these experiences hard to come by. For the sentimental among us, this is a somber thought. For the pragmatist, it’s just clever marketing to keep you buying new sets. For me, though, I just want an eternal environment where the old and the new can meet on equal footing.


What do you think the dominant strategy in Magic should be? Should removal cost more than threats, or the other way around? What are the long term implications of implementing such a change and how do you execute it if you can only print new cards?


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“In General” is the place where I share my ideas on unconventional topics that are often only tangentially related to Magic. This column is a mixed bag where I collect and present ideas that don’t have a home anywhere else. If you want a column about strategy, psychology, design, economics, philosophy, internet culture, and referential humor, you have come to the right place.

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