Designer Fun – The Problem with Green (In Limited)

I’ve noticed that Green seems to be seen as a poor choice in M12 draft. In general, Green seems to frequently be seen as the worst color in draft. Certainly not every time, but it sure seems like a lot more than 1/5th of the time. I’ve been wondering, why is that, and can design do anything about it?

I’ve developed an theory: Green’s power is largely in the large creatures it provides, and those creatures are often too similar and too close in power level. This, combined with Green not having any removal, means there are very few cards that draw players into Green as first picks, and even fewer rewards to reap in later packs if you cut of Green in pack 1.

The more obvious of these issues is the 1st pick problem. Every other color has at least 1 first-pick common:
White: [card]Pacifism[/card] & [card]Gideon’s Lawkeeper[/card]
Blue: [card]Merfolk Looter[/card]
Black: [card]Doom Blade[/card]
Red [card]Chandra’s Outrage[/card] & [card]Incinerate[/card]

But the best Green can offer is:
Green: [card]Giant Spider[/card] & [card]Arachnus Web[/card]

I love me some [card]Giant Spider[/card], but there’s no way you pick it over any of those other cards. [card]Arachnus Web[/card] is “removal” but it’s not really any better than the spider, overall, because it’s conditional removal that can’t be used against the larger threats. Heck, there are creatures in other colors that are better than Green’s best common creature. [card]Gorehorn Minotaurs[/card], for example, is a non-utility creature that most M12 drafters would take over a [card]Giant Spider[/card], or really any Green common in M12. [card]Gravedigger[/card], [card]Merfolk Looter[/card], and [card]Gideon’s Lawkeeper[/card] are all likely to be chosen over [card]Giant Spider[/card]. Honestly, why do we call it the creature color if it doesn’t get the best common creatures?

Well, perhaps it gets more good creatures than any other color. Even if the other colors all have 1 creature that’s better than any of Green’s, surely Green will make up for in volume, right? Not really, only Black seems to come up short when I try to list the reasonable creatures. Green’s certainly are the biggest in terms of P/T, but in overall power level it seems about the same as Red, White, and even Blue.

Looking at the power level of Green’s commons did reveal something else interesting. I found that many of the Green cards were very close in power level. This gave me an interesting thought: what if Green’s problem is compounded by low variance? Green’s creatures are all about the same in power level, and this gives drafters a hard time in deciding between them. Late in the draft they get a pack with [card]Greater Basilisk[/card], [card]Stampeding Rhino[/card], and [card]Sacred Wolf[/card], and they can’t tell which one is the best one to take. Not feeling confident in this choice makes them doubt Green overall. Furthermore, it wreaks havoc with signals. If you see a late pick [card]Greater Basilisk[/card], you can’t tell how open Green is – because you don’t know if there were 3 other Green creatures (Wolf, Spider, Rhino) in this pack that were all taken over the Basilisk not because they were really better than it, but because that drafter needed them slightly more for their deck, or had a slight personal preference for them. The cards, especially the creatures, of the other colors are more evenly spread out in power level – or even have more bad cards – so that when you see one good creature late you KNOW that color must be open. Obviously packs can vary, so it’s not about this working 100% of the time, but it’s going to work 80-90% of the time for White, Blue, Black, and Red, but because of Green’s homogenous card power level, it never works for Green.

To find out if this was really true, I needed a rating for all the M12 commons in limited so that I could compare them. So I want to LSV’s set review articles and fished out his limited rating numbers on all the commons. This isn’t very scientific, of course, but this analysis is just as much about player perception as it is about actual power level. Many players use LSV’s ratings to guide them in draft, and their experiences further shape their perception of Green in that format.

This graph shows LSV’s ratings on the X axis, from 0.5 to 4, and the number of commons that received that rating on the Y axis. This shows exactly what I’m talking about. Green has a whopping 7 cards with a 3 rating. This power curve is very dull and makes it hard to choose among the cards. There are plenty of good ones, but that actually becomes part of the problem. It leads to not knowing if that 8th pick Basilisk is a signal or not. It leads to not being confident picking one of Green’s creatures over another. You don’t have any moments of feeling like you got a good signal, or got a lucky late pick. You just feel like you got some dudes to fill out your curve. The feeling of excitement you get when you take a late [card]Aether Adept[/card] is just as important to the perception of Blue’s power as the actual power level of that pick.

Let’s bring in all the other colors for comparison.

There are several interesting things to note here. Let’s look at Black. Right away that big pile of 1s jumps out at you. Black has some garbage commons. Yet Black is one of the favorite colors in M12 draft because it has [card]Doom Blade[/card] (it’s only 4) and creatures like [card]Gravedigger[/card] that you’re happy to play 5 of and you’re ecstatic to get 6th pick and later. This curve makes Black easier to draft than Green. There are a few great cards that stand out, a couple of middling creatures to fill out the curve, and a big pile of bad spells you know you can ignore. It’s even easier with Blue, because the good creatures are just as good but there are fewer of them, and the bad ones are very bad so it’s easy to steer clear of them. They have more diversity in their cards so when there is a late pick [card]Child of Night[/card] you know Black is open enough to support you.

So we’ve found that while Green’s creatures are good there’s not enough variance in them. Also the creatures that are good aren’t exciting compared to the good creatures in other colors. [card]Giant Spider[/card] is very good, but compared to [card]Gravedigger[/card], who is both better (a 2-for-1) and also more exciting (“I can get back my Dragon!”) you just don’t get the feeling of a powerful pick.

I twitter-asked about Green’s problem and got a two interesting comments I’d like to share. I’d tell you who said them but I totally forgot to ask them if I could quote them. Let’s just say they write strategy articles for Magic websites.

“I think green is fine when underdrafted. People also draft it badly”

“Fine when underdrafted:” is the hallmark of a bad color, right? Magic draft is self-balancing in this way, but design and development don’t want to rely on that, they want every color to be appealing and considered good in limited. This comment also supports my claim that most of the cards are close in power level “people draft it badly” because in the middle picks it’s too difficult to tell which card you should take (which leads to more people drafting badly, and losing more, which leads you to think Green is bad). It’s too easy to make mistakes when drafting Green because all the cards look the same.

“Green’s best cards also don’t combine to make a good deck”

Now that’s interesting. I’m not sure I’ve ever thought about this before as a metric when designing a set of commons (and uncommons). It’s more of a development concern, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean design shouldn’t try to set things on the right track. I’m not advocating that design worry about the power-level “best” cards in their set, but rather that they should look at their favorite commons (the most appealing ones) and make sure those work together in a deck. If you’re showing off a group of cards in that color, a group that players are sure to take notice of and try to draft highly, will they work together in the same deck?

Green’s big guys need removal support to clear the way, but green doesn’t have any. You have to go into another color. There aren’t any rewards for playing mono-green (outside of rare and mythic slots). This is yet another thing that could be making the color look weaker than it is. Especially when there are nice rewards for being mono of another color. ([card]Drifting Shade[/card] and the ease of casting [card]Sorin’s Thirst[/card], for example.) So I thought about the way the other colors’ commons and uncommons work well together in the same deck.

Mono white has the WW [card]Armored Warhorse[/card], the W-using [card]Gideon’s Lawkeeper[/card] (which means you need even more Plains to continue to cast your white guys while tapping things), and pump spells like [card]Guardians’ Pledge[/card].

Being mono Red mainly gains you consistency, but it also has the cleanest natural curve and perhaps the most powerful result from that curve:
[card]Goblin Fireslinger[/card] > [card]Stormblood Berserker[/card] > [card]Blood Ogre[/card] > [card]Gorehorn Minotaurs[/card] > [card]Lava Axe[/card] > What are you at? Not to mention first-pick removal with RR in the cost: [card]Chandra’s Outrage[/card].

Mono Black also has a powerful bloodthirst curve.
[card]Tormented Soul[/card] > [card]Duskhunter Bat[/card] > [card]Bloodrage Vampire[/card] > [card]Vampire Outcasts[/card]

Mono Blue is almost never thought of as strong in limited, but there is the reward of always casting [card]Aether Adept[/card] on turn 3. Blue might fail on this count, but it has enough going for it in the other areas, especially in the 1-st pick uncommon department, yowza! It’s not any one of these issues that’s brought M12 Green down, it’s all of them combined at once.

So what can design do about it?

1) Include common creatures for green that are exciting. 2-for-1s or long-term advantage cards that players will feel excited to pick up later than 5th pick. Cards like [card]Ondu Giant[/card] and [card]Viridian Emissary[/card]
2) Design better Green spells. [card]Prey Upon[/card] is the best thing I’ve seen in this department since [card]Berserk[/card]. It’s interesting, it’s removal, and it makes the late-pick stats monsters Green is famous for a lot more exciting. I hope to see it in M13.
3) Be sure to include at least one card that really makes the player feel rewarded for playing mono-Green. [card]Timbermaw Larva[/card] is a great example of this.
4) Make Green’s commons more diverse in power level so that players can more easily tell if Green is open, and can be excited about late-pick rewards when they read the signals well.

Join me next time when I start reviewing Innistrad card designs.


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