As the result of a popular but strange American expression, we’re often told that we can’t “have our cake and eat it too.” Wizards design and development (which I use interchangeably with “Wizards R&D”) has been trying to have the delicious cake of powerful dual- and multi-color producing lands and eat it too, by making powerful cards that are supposedly hard to cast because they contain multiple colored mana symbols. Don’t understand how printing cards is like eating the cake? I told you the expression was strange, but I’ll explain further below.
The Principles of Wizards
Design and development over at Wizards seem to use two heuristics (among many others) to design/develop cards that are justifiable in isolation, but combine to produce unfavorable results. These “principles” aren’t written in stone or anything, so there are counterexamples, but I think they are generally adhered to when cards are designed or tested. The first principle is that players should have robust access to mana of different colors, mostly from powerful lands (dual, tri, and 5 color lands) (“The Easy Mana Principle”). The second principle is that a card costing CDE or 1CE can do something much more powerful than a card costing 2C (“Tougher Cost=Greater Effect” or “TC=GE” for short”, where “Tougher” is in terms of colored mana requirements). Similarly, a card costing 1CCC can do something much more powerful than a card costing 3C. (I’m using C, D, and E to represent colored mana, with C and D being next to each other on the color pie. An example of a CDE casting cost is that found on Rhox War Monk. A 1CE would be Maelstrom Pulse, and a 1CC would be Vampire Nighthawk. WUBRG are used for the actual colors). Power can be qualitative (doing something different but more powerful at 1GB than you could at 1BB, such as destroying an enchantment, Dystopia notwithstanding) or quantitative (doing something for less mana).
The problem is that in a world which adheres to The Easy Mana Principle, it becomes difficult to justify TC=GE based costing. When The Easy Mana Principle is extremely applied, as was the case during the reign of the Vivid lands + Reflecting Pool, TC=GE costing is almost entirely unjustified, and its application during design/development leaves us with a standard format featuring way too many gold, hybrid, and CCC cards. Would Wizards have printed Cryptic Command at 3U? I hope not. Did it matter in the seasons of “5-Color Standard” that the card cost 1UUU instead of 3U? Not really.
Moving on to a more recent problem, some of you may have played against a deck called “Jund” in standard. Why are this deck’s spells so much more powerful than any mono-colored deck in the format? The answer seems simple enough: because they are harder to cast; i.e. because sometimes the caster won’t have the color of mana she needs. Alternatively, you can justify the principle by saying “one must build a less consistent deck to be able to use this card.” So we can say that the theory underlying TC=GE is that if the cost is tougher, and the spell sometimes can’t be cast, you ought to get more when you do cast it. This is unassailably true. However, the issue is not whether tougher cost should yield greater effect, the issue is how much greater of an effect should you get (or how much tougher should the cost be). For the effect Sprouting Thrinax has on the board, you shouldn’t always be able to cast it turn 3. Unfortunately, given the mana-base Jund is allowed to use, the Jund player can consistently (not always of course) play a turn 3 Thrinax.
You might have noticed that half of the TC=GE equation is greatly affected by Wizards’ decision to apply a lot or a little of The Easy Mana Principle, thus the two principles interact. Imagine if Badlands is a basic land in Magic 2013. Well, Blightning isn’t “tougher” to cast than Mind Rot in a deck where every land produces both black and red, so why the hell is it so much better? One way recalibrate TC=GE is by modifying the use of The Easy Mana Principle. For example, we can make Blightning feel like it should do more than Mind Rot by making it feel like it is substantially more difficult to cast or play with a Blightning than it is a Mind Rot. So why haven’t they done this? I suspect it stems from a modern trend in R&D to “give the players what they want” rather than risk making them jump through one too many hoops at which point the game stops being fun for them. Players like being able to cast their spells. Having robust mana-bases leaves fewer cards stranded in the hand instead of duking it out on the battlefield. I’m not arguing this is irrational or bad. Making players happy is good. Letting people cast their spells is typically good. But there is a cost, and it sometimes is a large cost, to this method of keeping the players happy. MaRo has said (paraphrasing obviously) that if access to all 5 colors of mana gets too easy, a fundamental part of Magic, the differences between the colors, is lost. This is only one example of the impact of too much Easy Mana. Another critical example of the cost of Easy Mana is that cards that are costed based on “players won’t always have what they need to cast this” or “players will need to build less consistent decks in order to get the mana for this” are too strong because these conditions don’t exist.
Turning to the latter half of the Tougher Cost = Greater Effect (TC=GE) equation, Wizards could just make the gold and heavy-colored spells a little, but not a lot, more powerful than the easy to cast spells. This seems sensible to me. Mind Rot and Lava Spike can still be combined to form Blightning, which is cool, but let’s go ahead and make it cost 2RB instead of 1RB. Knight of the Reliquary should be similarly costed. The short hand rule I would suggest is that when you make something at 1CE or 1CE or 1CC that you wouldn’t make at 2C, ask yourself why you wouldn’t print it at 2C. A tempting answer is “because 1B typically can destroy creatures but not enchantments/artifacts, and 1G can typically kill an enchantment or artifact, but not a creature, Maelstrom Pulse at 1GB gets to kill either. This makes a great deal of sense, but is the color pie the only reason we wouldn’t print 2C sorcery – destroy target nonland permanent and all others with the same name? I think it is not. The versatility of that effect should command a higher price or come with a drawback. Perhaps the easiest proof is that we can all likely agree that Oblivion Ring is a good, but not too good, card. Oblivion Ring’s target coming back into play if the opponent finds a way to get of Oblivion Ring is a meaningful aspect of the card, and it prevents O-Ring from being too good in my opinion. Getting back to the larger issue of guiding principles, how much better than O-Ring is Pulse allowed to be? It’s a tough call, but I’d say if they had left off the “echoing” (all others with the same name) clause, we’d have a better card.
The Problem of Gold
In a way, the existence of cool gold cards drives the desire to have Easy Mana. Why print Rhox War Monk if players can’t use it? This fact, along with data suggesting players love gold-themed expansions, presents a trap for R&D. Rhox War Monk might not even seem overpowered to you, but it would be if other gold colored cards weren’t even more aggressively costed. I believe if you want to print a card like Rhox War Monk, you need to make it more difficult to cast than it is now. The manabase of a WG deck from years ago (I’m thinking of a Living Wish and Worship deck I used to be fond of) had a manabase that might have looked something like this:
It was pretty good at casting its Green and White spells, but you couldn’t just throw in another color for the hell of it and expect consistent results. Rhox War Monk in this context makes perfect sense. You can’t cast it as consistently as your Anurid Brushhopper, even when you add the Adarkar Wastes and Flooded Strands to the deck. But when you do cast it, it sure outclasses the opponent’s Basking Rootwalla. Furthermore, you have to play 8 painlands to fit in into the deck, which will make you vulnerable to aggressive decks. These trade-offs feel much more legitimate to me than the ones I encounter when I sit down to build a WG deck in current standard (which I just did recently). Nowadays, the sense you get is “why wouldn’t I add Blue or Red or Black to this deck?”
Standard isn’t broken or pointless or pushing me to quit Magic. But deckbuilding in Standard isn’t challenging (and thus rewarding) in the same ways as the Standards of way-back-when. The name of the game now is “most powerful strategy” rather than “most consistent strategy” (there is of course overlap, but hopefully the above WG example gives you a sense of what I mean). Having your colored mana is a given, and all that’s left to do is figure what you want to be doing. Goblin Ruinblaster and Tectonic Edge feel like “magic bullet” rather than organic fixes to the problem. Sure, they punish extremes like Cruel Ultimatum and they reward mono-colored decks, but the overarching race to power rather than consistency remains.