Category: CML

Take It, Part 3

They Can Take It, But Not Dish It Out: Toughness and Magic 2014 (Part Three)
an MTG article by: CML

6. Wall of (Bored to) Tears

Last week, I presented these ideas:

-M14 has no aggressive strategy.
-This results in an inbred metagame, where it’s almost always correct to try and “win the control mirror” by first-picking Opportunity and even Divination.
-Blue is therefore too strong, for maybe the first time since the days of Caw-Blade and Magic 2011.

“The best Core set original printing, ever. You’re welcome.”

7. Build a Wooden Wall

This is bad. New players’ Magic experiences are centered around the combat step. Limited games are centered around the combat step. Much of Standard and Modern are based around the combat step. Trivializing it can bring neither critical nor commercial success.

I’m surprised R&D didn’t consider the power and toughness metrics when designing Magic 2014, as it’s simple and intuitive and predictive of the environment’s deficiencies. I imagine the set would be much better with a few easy adjustments — Pillarfield Ox into Silvercoat Lion; Minotaur Abomination into Minotaur Aggressor — and M14 begs that common question: “If R&D is so good at their jobs, which they are, then why do they release sets like this?” Make no mistake — R&D is good at their jobs; but that topic is outside the scope of this article.

Armored Cancrix
“My last draft deck had so many crabs, they called me the Governor of Maryland.”

The same casual-competitive guy later told me, “Last night I played against a guy who Doom Bladed my best two creatures. I remember thinking, ‘This seems so unfair.’ But then I remembered that it’s exactly what should happen in Limited. It just felt unfair because I couldn’t do it to him — I was just staring at his 2/4 with a Shock in my hand, feeling dumb.”
Another friend put it this way: “M14 is a very old format — you’ll gunk up the ground, then draw four cards and win the game.” I’m reminded of the old cliché, “end-of-turn Fact or Fiction, you lose” — only this time, it’s “end-of-turn Opportunity.” It speaks tomes to the quality of Magic 2014 that it can be so easily pigeonholed.

Warden of Evos Isle
“For the birds.”

8. Illusionary Wall

What does this mean for Cube design? The connection is almost too easy. A format with bad threats, no pressure, skewed archetype balance, a high curve, too much card draw, too much removal, and one where Blue is just a little too powerful? It’s almost like we’re drafting the Modo Cube.

Jace, the Mind SculptorEthersworn CanonistBeacon of Destruction
“One of these things is not like the other …”

At the risk of sounding like I have the same solution for everything, I offer this advice:
-Stuff your Cube full of one-drops, and improve the density and power of the fixing.
-Vary the function, if not the quality, of your removal. For example, Red should have Lightning Bolt, but also Firebolt. White should have Swords to Plowshares, but also Condemn and Prison Term. Stock up on cards like Vindicate and Maelstrom Pulse to get rid of problem permanents. In Black, I’ve often thought of a “removal curve” — at one, I have Innocent Blood and Darkblast; at two, Shriekmaw and Chainer’s Edict; at three, Liliana of the Veil and Bone Shredder; and at four, Seize the Soul and Damnation. Even within a single color, the removal excels against certain kinds of threats, while sucking against others.

Liliana of the Veil
Cloudgoat Ranger? That’s awkward.”

9. Capstone

When I was first getting back into the game, I drafted a lot of Magic 2011 with another friend. He told me, “I like M11 — it feels like old-school Magic.” He meant the childhood experience of playing MtG, rich in fantasy and role-play and grisly creature fights and impromptu deck-building. M14 feels more like playing against the fifth unbeatable draw-go Blue dude in a row. And isn’t that the kind of “old-school Magic” you and I and Wizards are trying our best to forget?

Thanks for reading!
@CMLisawesome on Twitter

Take It, Part Two

They Can Take It, But Not Dish It Out: Toughness and Magic 2014 (Part Two)

by: CML


4. From the Window to the Wall

Last week, I presented these ideas:

Magic history is biased towards creatures with greater toughness than power (1,183 with power > toughness, and 1,587 with toughness > power, for a ratio of .745).

-New World Order has put the focus of MtG on the combat step, and good attacks can’t happen when your guys just bounce off each other, so I expected that ratio to be trending closer to one. This was true in sets like Alara Reborn and Modern Masters.

-But in recent sets, such as Gatecrash and Dragon’s Maze, the ratio has been less than the historical .745. This is taken the furthest in Magic 2014, where there are 16 power > toughness creatures and 27 toughness > power dudes, for a ratio of .593. (This analysis doesn’t take into account the cards’ rarity, or “as-fan”  in R&D lingo.)

Wall of Frost

I’d say it’s a little … underpowered.”

Now I want to explore how having more “tough” creatures affects the Limited format, and consider the implications for set design and cube design.


5. The Walls Are Closing In On Me

As Gatecrash shows, the set’s power to toughness ratio alone cannot predict how a format’s combat step will feel: that set had a low ratio, and yet it was a very fast format. However, my playgroup’s observations about M14 Limited all fall into place when you consider its own ratio of .593:

Pillarfield Ox

How now, purple cow?”

-One of our more casual players said: “In M14 it just feels like every game results in a bunch of Giant Spiders and Pillarfield Oxen staring each other down, until somebody finally draws their 4/4.” This kind of design results in board states that are superficially complicated, but where there are no good attacks — a metaphor for how Magic can be a frustrating game, and a recipe for low player turnout. M14 has not sold well.

-The same casual-competitive player has echoed Ben Stark et al. in praising Regathan Firecat, and its ability to force trades with its 4 power and 1 toughness must be why. (In his excellent piece on SCG, Sam Black identifies the vanilla 4/1 as an archetype unto itself!)


-Though M14 isn’t all that rich in bombs (compared to, say, Scars of Mirrodin), the games end up going long enough that the bombs will always make an appearance. This kind of design invalidates not only the play decisions, of which there are few, but the drafting decisions too. Just take the bomb.


Goblin Bomb

Someone set us up …”

-Another way to break through these board stalls is to play auras. (I hate enchantments — they’re the least-interactive card type — and the rise of Standard Hexproof and the branding of Theros as an enchantment block both vex me). Buffing auras (and “all-upside mechanics” like Soulbond) are especially problematic in that they make WotC reluctant to print removal. Sadly, M14 validates this parsimony, as it has an absurd amount of all-purpose removal — making “bad” auras like Illusionary Armor a necessary gamble, but one that rarely pays off.

-The dearth of removal was quite fatal to Avacyn Restored and Magic 2012. M14 has the opposite problem. The overabundance of removal makes M14 play more like Scars of Mirrodin block, NWO’s other notable failure, and not Innistrad, Magic 2013, or Rise of the Eldrazi, its biggest successes. Stocking a set with both removal and powerful creatures is the New-World-Order way of creating a tense and dynamic game. (For an alternative, imagine Rise with all the Artisan of Kozilek and Ulamog’s Crusher, but no Guard Duty or Narcolepsy — that’s AVR or M12. Now imagine it with Guard Duty and Narcolepsy, but no efficient beaters — that’s M14.)


Flesh Allergy

I can’t wait for Doom Blade to be reprinted.”


-The dude-versus-removal tension lets NWO sets achieve strategic richness without overdoing on-board complexity. In fact, the “success” of recent formats is highly correlated with the amount of high-quality removal they offer. Jason Waddell has applied this idea to his Cube, lowering the concentration of sweepers and increasing that of spot removal. I believe M14’s principal design error was taking this idea too far, and forgetting to balance it with enough cards like Garruk’s Companion or Stormfront Pegasus.


Infantry Veteran

After blockers, before damage …”

-The lack of activated abilities on creatures (like Gideon’s Lawkeeper) makes it hard to fight through stalls without the benefit of a removal spell, a bomb, or an aura.


Air Servant

How I learned to stop worrying …”

-So, in M14 — how to find your removal spells, bombs and auras? Draw cards — you have all the time in the world. Opportunity is a strong card in a vacuum, but in a set like M12 it wouldn’t have been that great. Yet here, it’s the best draft uncommon in the set by an enormous margin. Blue is often going to be very good in such formats, in the same way that it’s been the best color across Magic history — not because the creatures suck, but because the combat step is not as important as it ought to be. Cube designers, take note: though I’m a proponent of flattening the power curve for individual cards, it’s much more important to flatten the power curve of archetypes.



Not the most self-descriptive card.”

Next week, we’ll look at the broader implications for environments with the same design flaws as M14.


Thanks for reading!


@CMLisawesome on Twitter

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Take It, Part One

They Can Take It, But Not Dish It Out: Toughness and Magic 2014 (Part One)

by: CML

1. The Great Wall of China

It’s a time-honored tradition to be curmudgeonly and say that sets, after spoilage and before release, look “kind of lame” — but word on the street here in Seattle, trickling from The Castle Wizards HQ like so many Messages from the Emperor, was that Magic 2014 limited was actually bad. Given that there have been any number of bad limited formats that Wizards has said were not, I found this candor more ominous than refreshing.

Seraph of Dawn

What’s Liliana’s favorite font family? Sans Seraph!”

Yet they can afford to make M14 somewhat bad, since Magic is still spinning skyward, and my friends will in any case draft compulsively. No format has held my attention for its full tenure since Magic 2013, with sets like Gatecrash and Avacyn Restored compelling me to do only a few FNMs or Modo drafts. A few weeks after M14’s release, it looks like said set is headed in that direction. There are several reasons why — Blue is too strong; the removal is bad; Slivers are not my favorite — but I wanted to focus on one design choice I feel is connected to all the others: the creatures have too much toughness.


2. Stonewalling

In all of Magic history, toughness has always been bigger than power:

Wall of Stone

I like big butts, and I cannot lie.”

Old sets always came with dumb cards like this, and the classic old-Limited board-stall is one important consequence. Blocking can’t happen without attacking, and is therefore a creature’s secondary function; yet it was seen as so essential around the turn of the century that Shadow was costed as a drawback.

Soltari Visionary

No blocks.”

Magic has 1,183 creatures with power exceeding toughness, and 1,587 with toughness exceeding power (there are 4,245 creatures with “squared stats,” power equal to toughness). Here at RiptideLab we’re greatly interested in how subtle, quantitative adjustments can dramatically change the feel of a Limited format, so I wanted to pursue this finding further.


3. Toeing the (Number) Line

We’ll convert that ratio of 1183 / 1587 to a decimal for easier comparisons — it’s roughly equal to .745 (remember that this includes all the very old sets that weren’t made for drafting). With the rise of Limited and the creature, you’d expect the ratio to veer towards 1. Eventide, my favorite set, has 19 / 22 = .863. Magic 2011, my favorite core-set Limited environment, has 20 / 23 = .870. Alara Reborn is the one set I found where there were more creatures who could “dish it out” than “take it,” with 21 / 20 = 1.050.


Esper Stormblade

You say Blue mages are (rules-)lawyers? You’re damn right I’m suing Martell for use of my likeness.”

Modern Masters, a beloved format, has 20 / 20 = 1.000. In Zendikar the ratio 22 / 27 = .815 seems to favor the defender; however, the landfall mechanic made it notoriously difficult to block, and the annihilator triggers in Rise of the Eldrazi (19 / 38 = .500) also favored the aggressor. (Though, to be fair, RoE was designed to be slow, and 0/1 Eldrazi Spawn are better windows than doors.)


Jaddi Lifestrider

I was a 2/8 after creatures with big butts were cool.”

Yet in the last year the trend is dramatically different. Return to Ravnica has a ratio of 29 / 37 = .784, nearly as low as the historical one. Gatecrash, which had very few stalls, actually has more “tough” creatures than all of Magic put together, at 26 / 36 = .722. Dragon’s Maze has 20 / 29 = .690, which seems appallingly low until you crunch the numbers for Magic 2014 and find its ratio is 16 / 27 = .593.


Wall of Swords

Don’t bring salad tongs to a sword-fight …”

Next week, we’ll look at the implications of such a number for M14 limited.


Thanks for reading!


@CMLisawesome on Twitter

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Cantrippin’ Balls: Doubling up on Cantrips

by: CML

The great thing about multiplayer games — games of incomplete information, specifically — is that no two games are completely the same. This doesn’t mean that some decks don’t try to surmount this. I once built a Standard deck and told Travis Woo that I loved it because ‘every game was different.’ ‘Ah,’ he said, ‘that’s the problem. I like decks where every game is the same.’

This concept is familiar to Constructed players. EDH, whose singleton format promotes diversity of games, has a focus on tutors (you repeatedly ‘tutor’ for your general) that emphasize consistency. Legacy has had its share of linear strategies (Survival, Reanimator) banned or at least castrated. In Modern, Wizards has aggressively banned Ponder and Preordain, which enable combo decks to assemble their wins at the trivial cost of U.

In Cube, there are almost no degenerate combos, the format is heavily singletons (if not strictly Highlander), and linear strategies are hard to put together to the point where I was thinking about how to best promote them. The flattened power level of my build made me ask myself: would doubling up on cantrips be fun?


This idea has its precedents. Jason Waddell is one of the first Cube designers to break singleton, and I’ve been happy to ‘double up’ on cards like Deathrite Shaman to combat graveyard strategies, and Scalding Tarn to provide an appropriate density of high-power-level fixing. I like making my Cube games resemble Constructed games, so I’ve also gone heavy on card types like mana-dorks and cheap spells, to mimic the fast and interactive nature of modern Magic. Since cantrips fall into all of these categories, and there’s no realistic way to abuse the consistency they grant in Cube, trying out two apiece seemed like a no-brainer.

On Wednesday, I got together a pod of six and drafted this deck:


The cantrips functioned perfectly in the deck — by which I mean not that they were overpowered, but that they made the games more fun. I had far more decisions per game than usual, and was happy to reintroduce Delver of Secrets, oftentimes a card without a Cube home, to my build. The two cantrips led to more punts and swindles. If a card increases complexity in a format whose entire purpose is to make good players screw up horribly, what’s not to like? The one-mana cost was also non-trivial, especially when facing down a Thalia or needing to dig for a specific answer that would be castable if not for the loss of a blue mana. Also, as Wednesday’s winner showed, you don’t even need cantrips to win with Blue:


I’m happy to include two copies of Ponder, Preordain, and Brainstorm in my Cube for the foreseeable future.

Last thing: lovers of Legacy will find this of interest. In Cube, the best cantrip is Preordain, then Ponder, then Brainstorm.

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Top 8 Most Oppressive Cube Cards

‘Elp! ‘Elp! I’m Being Oppressed!: The Top 8 Most Oppressive Cube Cards of All Time
by: CML

When I was first building my Cube, I presented a raw and massive list to my aesthetic consultant. He eliminated a bunch of cards for power-level concerns, then a bunch of cards that were mechanically dull, but he saved a special epithet for the cards that fell into both categories: ‘Jace, the Mind Sculptor,’ he said, ‘is game-ruining bullshit.’

Badly-designed cards are a ubiquitous part of Magic, as are badly developed cards. As with other rich games, like poker and capitalism, the whole point of Magic is that it’s impossible to do something perfectly, though the extent to which the design team uses this as an excuse for laziness is surely too high.

However! Most badly designed cards are harmless. They are harmless because they are bad. Never will Giant Adephage ruin a Pro Tour. Never will Wood Elemental transcend being the butt of a joke. The worst these cards will do is ruin a small child’s FNM draft.

Real problems arise when a badly designed card is too good. The careful ecosystem of the playables yields to an invasive species. It might be Tolarian Academy in Urza’s Block, Lin Sivvi in Masques Block, Jace and Stoneforge and Batterskull in more recent times, etc. The metagame becomes as flat as baseball or communism. Players leave. Things die out. Magic’s complexity is temporarily ruined.

Everyone who’s Cubed has had the experience of playing a haymaker and apologizing as a game, which once held the promise of decisions, depth, and interaction, degenerates into a one-sided slugfest. I usually take these cards out at the end of the evening. The following list is for the cards I take out immediately. Here are the top 8 instances of ‘game-ruining bullshit’ that every curator should consider cutting from their Cubes:


Now then, Dmitri, you know how we’ve always talked about the possibility of something going wrong with the bomb.

8. Black Vise
Black Vise
It’s a common myth that ‘RDW is good in Cube.’ What people really mean when they say this is: ‘Control decks can be counted on to do nothing half the time, because their curves are too high and their mana sucks, so RDW will get all those free wins, and even if the control decks do have decent draws, sometimes RDW has Sulfuric Vortex or Black Vise.’ This brilliant card is so fun to play with and against that it’s banned in Legacy. It often does ten damage by turn three, which is the laziest imaginable way to bridge the power gap between Jace, the Mind Sculptor and Jackal Pup.

7. Wurmcoil Engine
Wurmcoil Engine

The colorless Titan is good in most every deck, leading to easy draft decisions and easier games, once the lottery winner can tap six mana. Flexible to a fault and difficult to interact with, Wurmcoil Engine is what I have in mind when I rail against certain failures of NWO.

6. Balance

Don’t you love it when you start off with a t1 dork into t2 Cultivate into a t3 five-drop, then your opponent untaps and plays Balance? It’s just so exciting. Certain commentators have said Balance is ‘hard to set up,’ which is true in the sense that JtMS is ‘hard to play’ — sure, extracting every ounce of value is hard, but does it really matter when they’re fighting with Zeroes and you just dropped a bomb on Hiroshima?

5. Maze of Ith
Maze of Ith

One of NWO’s successes (though one that’s been pushed a little too far) has been the emphasis on creatures. The game is richer with a meaningful combat step. Dropping a Maze is a terrific way to make sure this never happens. I tell novice designers: ‘Maze is a Legacy-legal card. It does nothing against half the decks. The other half have some number of Wastelands to deal with it. It’s still insane against them. It’s still main-decked in that format. Why are you running it?’

4. Umezawa’s Jitte
Umezawa's Jitte

As a Merfolk player, I know the best answer to Jitte is (editor’s note: was) another Jitte . There are no other Jittes in Cube. (See also: creatures, meaningful combat, hard to play optimally but impossible not to play well)

3. Recurring Nightmare
Recurring Nightmare

Once I was playing a friend here. He’d drafted the carefully supported red deck, and I’d just gotten one of his dudes with a Bone Shredder. I untapped, failed to pay the Echo, bashed for three with Kitchen Finks, played Recurring Nightmare, gained two life, got a 2/1, and killed his other dude. ‘Scoop,’ he said. Recurring Nightmare is no longer in my Cube. (Honorable mention goes to No Mercy and Parallax Wave in the ‘stupid enchantment’ category.)

2. Skullclamp
Letting a friend draft this is like leaking nuclear secrets to Israel — you’re still friends, but you have certain reservations about what they’re going to do with it.

1. Moat

As impregnable as the Eyrie. The bad designs of the last seven cards all come together in Moat: it hoses creatures, it hoses aggro, it demands a specific answer that Cube decks typically have a hard time finding, and it can end the game on the spot. There is a place for cards like Moat — four-mana permanents that may do nothing or may end the game. That place is called Legacy. That place is not Cube. Plus, it has ugly art. I hate Moat.


The whole point of the doomsday machine…is lost if you keep it a secret!

There’s nothing that makes a format intrinsically playable. Vintage would suck without a Restricted list. Legacy would suck without a Banned list. Over the last couple of years, Wizards has been pushing Modern. To ensure a healthy diversity of decks, Wizards has not been afraid to use the banhammer. Why should Cube be any different?

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