Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Power 5

Snapcaster Mage, Stoneforge Mystic, Tarmogoyf, and Dark Confidant. Four creatures, in four different colors, that are all very, very good. They also all happen to cost one colorless mana and one mana of their respective colors. I'm not the first person to point out that there's no equivalent red card. It's probably a safe assumption that Wizards of the Coast did not do this on purpose. Stoneforge Mystic was not, in my opinion at least, very good at all until Sword of Feast and Famine made it strong and Batterskull made it unthinkably broken. But what they ended up with was an incomplete cycle that red mages everywhere are begging them to complete.

So, the question is often asked (I've counted about four times so far on Reddit, the fourth of which made me decide to write this), what would that creature look like? People run out all sorts of crazy ideas about two-drop goblins that have haste and first strike and firebreathing and tap to deal three damage and make everyone Wheel of Fortune when they die. But what I'd like to look at today is how the process of creating a card that fits in with the rest of the "cycle" would actually work.

The first thing I've noticed is that they all personify (or Lhurg-sonify) one key aspect of their color:

Green likes huge creatures. That's not by any means summarizing the color as a whole, it's just one small central sliver of the color pie. Tarmogoyf is strictly a giant freakin' creature. Sure, there are graveyard synergies to be considered, but the decks that play him (these days at least) just let that happen naturally and play him as two mana beater, straight up.

In the same vein of narrow components of the colors, equipment is very white (since the creation of the Equipment subtype). Steelshaper's Gift, Puresteel Paladin, etc. are all equipment-centric. White is the color of small, human (in the flawed, mortal, relatable sense; not necessarily racially) creatures. Overcoming natural disadvantages with technology is very white. Stoneforge Mystic exemplifies this.

Snapcaster Mage very obviously focuses on the control aspect of blue. When most people see an island, they expect counters. Snapcaster Mage's flash allows you to play a draw-go strategy, instead of worrying about when to mainphase him and worry about keeping countermagic and removal up. Pretty simple.

Sacrifice in the name of power is very, very black. Pacts with Demons, blood rituals, etc. "Greatness, at any cost". No reanimation, no disease, no lifedrain or anything like that, Dark Confidant is just focused on that part.

So, Red, right? What are the possible specific elements of the color that Wizards might focus on? Obviously direct damage is by far the most defining aspect of the color. Unfortunately, it--along with the incessant reappearance of Goblins--has left the color very narrow. So maybe they go the obvious route and make some boring shock goblin, or maybe not. If not, the other possibilities are:

  • Haste: Honestly, the card will probably have haste no matter what. Unless they want to do something that would be far too powerful with haste, it'll probably have two or three power and haste. There could be a larger haste theme that would make it the focus element of the color, but there are already cards that give all of your creatures haste, and they're not really impressive. Haste leads into "aggression" as a whole, but that's probably too wide of a concept to focus on, considering the precedence.
  • Destruction: Artifacts, lands, uh... everything? You have your standard stuff like Shattering Spree and Stone Rain, but ObliterateJokulhaups, and even Worldgorger Dragon are cards too. Maybe our card just blows up lands? Wizards shies away from land destruction being too good, as it isn't fun and causes degeneracy. Artifact destruction is, of course, very narrow. So that doesn't leave us with much.
  • Martial Superiority: This is blatantly ripped off from the MTG Salvation wiki, I don't know how else to word it. First Strike and Double Strike, abilities associated with prowess in combat, are very important to red. The wiki lumps haste in with this, but I feel that they're two very different things. First Strike is about finesse. Haste is just freaking the fuck out. What I don't like about using martial superiority is how closely tied it is to white. Of course Battalion is the quintessential keyword in this category, so it isn't strictly red.
  • Looting: This is a new addition to try to expand the color. Wizards is trying to distinguish "blue looting" and "red looting" by the order in which you discard and draw, but signs point to red ending up with both. Pretty boring, but something to consider. 
  • Gambling effects: Sorry, couldn't come up with anything snappier for the name. Wheel of Fortune, Reforge the Soul, and Desperate Wager are all examples of the most straight-forward versions of this. Final Fortune is a little more extreme. Red is very random. I would love to see a card that did something crazy and high-variance. The issue is trying to create something that has a high enough risk that coming out ahead is exciting, while being on the losing end isn't horribly frustrating.
We can expect the card, should it ever be printed, to cost 1R. Every one is either good or too good in Modern. As far as I know, Dark Confidant doesn't show up in Legacy, but the other three are all over the place. The only other pattern I can see is that the other broken two-drops aren't too closely tied to the set they're in (Snapcaster Mage gives Flashback, but that's a fairly widespread mechanic). It (probably) wasn't a conscious decision to create this cycle (I don't think "broken" is a word Wizards uses as an objective), but it seems like there's a lot of community pressure now to finish it. That said, here's my guess at a possible fifth member of the Two-Drop Hall of Fame:

Generated by

I'll start by mentioning that I decided to focus on the gambling aspect of red, with looting tied in to that. But I'm getting ahead of myself! Let's start at the top.

We knew it was going to cost 1R. Frenetic Ignitiant is a pretty sweet name, if you ask me. So we're doing well so far.

It's an elemental, which has a few neat non-standard applications (Smokebraider and Flamekin Harbinger come to mind).

A hasty bear isn't going to cause too many heart attacks. But the haste is very relevant for his triggered ability.

"Flying-breathing" isn't something see in red a whole lot, but as you can clearly see in the detailed artistry, your red mana is making him shoot fire out of his hands and feet to fly. That's pretty fuckin' red, if I do say so myself.

The flying is also important for his on-attack ability. We want a creature that can safely attack more often than not so you can take advantage of his crazy card-drawing ability. What I'm really proud of with the design here is that there's inherent risk involved with the ability for two reasons, the obvious one being that you're discarding at random.

However, the intention of this design is to create situations where you want to attack but you're hoping to draw the card that will make it worth it after you've declared the attack. You don't have to discard until after combat, so you have access to two cards that can potentially be instants that you need right then and there. I mean, even if you just got a Desperate Ravings at the end of combat, it would still be incredibly good, but the hope is that getting the cards before blockers are declared will make your attack step more interesting.

The full art, in case you wanted to use it for your desktop.

 I like the principles behind the card, and I think it fits in pretty well with the other members of the "Power 5". It's very powerful and probably needs to be tuned down, but I think it's better to aim high when you're trying to make the red Snapcaster Mage. I'll probably proxy this up some time and see how it feels to play with it. That's probably the way to figure it out pretty quickly.

Anyway, I know people will do it whether I ask them to or not, but let's here your ideas! It's a great design space, who knows what totally overpowered (but cool!) bullshit will end up in the next block!

You can follow me on Twitter @abrapw.

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