Wednesday, February 6, 2019

Limited Design: Making Good Rares

Why Make Good Rares? 

Why the hell does Ethereal Absolution exist?

Some good rares have to exist for Constructed purposes, but Ethereal Absolution isn't really one of those. At best it's a sideboard answer and could have been made a little less egregious and a little more efficient to serve the same purpose.

There's some simple answers that aren't quite the full picture. Some cards have to be the best, but you could make them Jacks not Aces. Good rares acting as a skill equalizer allowing less experienced players to win in Limited is relevant, but again not satisfying. Why not just remove all the rares from the World Championship draft then?

The biggest reason for good rares is providing direction.

Imagine a draft of all players "drafting the hard way", waiting for the signal to move in on an open archetype. They are all taking the best cards, maybe slightly biasing in directions.

Until someone makes a choice about what guild they are in, there are no real signals to read. It's just a bunch of people looking at random pack distribution and backing out fake information. You need someone to make a decision and start towards a direction, which then sends real signals down the line, which then pans out into a well formed draft pod.

When someone first picks a great rare, that's the starting pistol. Their picks now have a real bias, and that starts the information cascade.

Another reason to have good rares is to make marginal playables interesting. I'm not quite talking about full build around, but the small 23rd card decisions that means every card has a purpose.

A common one from Guilds of Ravnica was the interaction between Niv-Mizzet, Parun and Izzet Locket. The vast majority of Izzet decks wanted nothing to do with an Izzet Locket, but if I wanted to be able to pay UUURRR to almost surely win the game you bet I would play one or two. 

Or maybe you have Weatherlight in your Dominaria draft, and suddenly you want to play 3/2 creatures as your filler slots. And maybe an extra equipment so the historic Impulse trigger can find something, and also so your 3/2 can fight relevant creatures.

Even when you don't draw the rare, these decisions can create unique game play scenarios compared to the "format optimal" builds. By putting small restrictions or incentives on a good rare, you can create interesting fluctuations in pick orders, deck building, and game play to keep the format fresh.

The final reason to make a good rare is that the decreased frequency allows you to really push the boundaries without too much overall cost to the format.

The Mirari Conjecture is a great example of this. The Mirari Conjecture was a really powerful card, often resulting in Nature's Spiral or Blink of an Eye loops. It's cool to get infinite removal looped out once or twice a format. It gets boring if that happens every other draft. If you made an uncommon version of The Mirari Conjecture, it would have to be really toned down. Consider how Clear the Mind or Devious Cover-up lets you do similar loops, but it's super indirect and has no real card economy pushed into it. By putting it at rare, you can make the more extreme, more flashy version without worrying too much about players continuously running into it. 

By putting The Mirari Conjecture at a higher rarity, you can hide a unique but possibly repetitive play pattern in the format. People can discover it, but they don't have to keep reliving it. 

The Rules of Good Rares

So we know why good rares should exist, but that doesn't mean they are all equal. 

There is such a thing as too good. Or just good, but not fun.

What's the line? How do you make good rares that are fun, or at the least actively not unfun?

As with basically all Limited design, I'm going to bring Eldritch Moon into this discussion a lot. Eldritch Moon had a lot of very good rares, possibly some that bordered on unbeatable, but they weren't actively miserable to lose to.

The other set that had near flawless rare execution was Magic 2013. This was the flip side of the coin. Bar a single mythic rare, nothing was unbeatable. Plenty of rares were powerful, but everything felt surmountable.

I'm not going to claim either of these paradigms is better. It's worth seeing how you can build in either direction.

Rule #1: If It's Unbeatable, Make it Quick

If you are going to make a truly unbeatable rare, try to make sure it ends the game quickly. Players hate sitting around waiting to lose.

Profane Procession may be one of the most indefensible rares in recent Magic. Not only was it unbeatable, but it was unbeatable in a miserable way.

If your opponent played Profane Procession and had five lands, you lost. But you didn't lose right then. Your best play was to just sit there, not play creatures, and hope to draw your one Disenchant before your opponent played enough creatures to kill you through no opposition.

Usually that just means you sit there and slowly die, unable to do anything. That sucks. No one wants to play Magic like that. 

Don't make cards life Profane Procession. If the rare is going to just win the game, make sure it kills your opponent in a timely fashion. 

Let's measure Ethereal Absolution on this metric. If you have no chance to beat Ethereal Absolution, the game basically immediately ends via enlarged creatures and Spirit tokens. If you have a chance, the game still ends fairly quickly because there's only a finite window you can keep up.

What about Tetzimoc, Primal Death, the other scourge of Rivals of Ixalan? Despite being a similar six drop to Ethereal Absolution, it suffers from the extended period of misery from Profane Procession because it starts interacting turns before when you reveal it.


The one exception is if actually making the unbeatable rare work is a bit of a subquest. Not only would that make the situation of losing to the rare less common and therefore more bearable, but there's good story value to the loss. You can afford to make the process take a little longer, because even if the end result is losing the path from virtual victory to a formalized win is unique and awesome.

Rule #2: Define a Scope of Unbeatability

While a true unbeatable rare is fine every so often, most good rares shouldn't be quite that absurd. Rares that are extremely good within a specific scope create interesting focal points of games.

Eldritch Moon hit this on on the head, with probably half of the Top 10 rares being cards that specifically cracked open a game if resolved early. Thalia, Heretic Cathar and Hanweir Garrison weren't bad later, but on turn three I don't know if I saw either of them lose a game where they didn't immediately die.

Here's a secret: If this happens and the game ends immediately, the players can just start another game. They haven't invested ten minutes into other decisions that ended up not mattering, they just mulliganned and played some lands. It would be a problem at lower rarities as most games would end this way, but at rare entire matches won't be regularly decided this way. 

Placing an unbeatable once it resolves rare at seven or more mana can play a similar role. That gives you a reasonable time period to get ahead, set up interaction, or whatever you want to try to do before the unbeatable card gets deployed. If you want to get really technical, that much mana may as well be a subquest you have gated your rare behind. 

Special shout out to the two most egregious Limited rares of all time for breaking this rule of scope. Pack Rat and Umezawa's Jitte would kill your opponent on turn two or turn twenty, no extra work involved. 

A recent rare that hit this not great too broad scope was Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice. It killed your opponent on turn four and turn fourteen. It was bigger than everything else in combat. It was bigger than most removal. You cast it, and you won the game. Aurelia falls firmly in the "this existed for Constructed" camp, so it gets a pass on all the numbers, but that doesn't mean it didn't suck to have exist in the draft format.

At least you died fast.

Rule #3: Don't Invisibly Punish Normal Actions

The first game I played with The Scarab God in draft, my opponent died. Probably because I played The Scarab God, but also because they cycled a seven-drop creature on turn one.

What were they supposed to do to avoid that? Certainly nothing reasonable.

Compare this to a Kaya's Wrath. If you are going to get a massive swing out of a sweeper, there's a clear play pattern leading up to it. Your opponent gets punished for playing creatures, but at the same time there's usually a turning point where they should realize you aren't playing out that much and they should consider being too far ahead a liability.

This all comes back to the idea of obsoleting earlier decisions. Being given the opportunity to make a smart play or realize you should have made one turns before is great. If your decisions get extremely punished without any real way for you to expect that, it breaks people's will to play. 

Again, another reason Tetzimoc and Profane Procession suck to play against. Shouldn't have cast your good spells to get ahead of me doing the same.

Even if a rare is egregious and overrides past game decisions, it can make up for it be being close to a normal play pattern. Losing to generic mythic rare flier is not too far off from losing to generic common flier. It still feels like the same game style as you could expect in no-rare Limited, just slightly different numbers.

Rule #4: Winning the Rare Subgame Should Be Rewarding

Since the planeswalker era really hit full swing, we have seen rares that provide tangible value split. There's rares that provide cascading, incremental value, and those that jump provide one shot dumps.

In the former case, a subgame is immediately started. The game within a game is answer their incremental threat, or you die. 

If there's no way to answer that threat without having lost the exchange by a significant amount, that's not that fun. You won the subgame to not immediately lose, but you are still probably going to lose. This ties back to the initial point of winning quick if the end is going to be assured. If you are going to come out of the exchange too far behind no matter what you do, why make the threat cascading in a way that slowly and indirectly ends the game? 


A window where the value gained is non-existent or minimal is a good place to start here so that an action-response play pattern can exist. Make it take a turn for the real edge to kick in.

Wait, isn't Biogenic Ooze losing the exchange by a significant amount when you kill it? Eh, a 3/3 is beatable even if you just have sorcery speed removal. Yea, that can get a little hard to judge without playing against the card a lot.

Don't all planeswalkers break this rule? Not really. The traction subgame means you need to set up to stick all but the best planeswalkers. Your opponent has time to answer them at relatively reasonable parity via the combat step. If you play a planeswalker and it dies in two attack steps, often you are just up a card and a bit of position. Not insurmountable at all.

Planeswalkers also make your other cards still matter. Whether you have a combat trick or another creature or whatever in hand impacts how your planeswalker engine is defended over the future turns. This is why creatures where you can pump in large amount of mana for a large advantage, like Biogenic Ooze or The Scarab God, are kinda boring. You cast them, earlier stuff doesn't really matter, and in the future you are just going to use that card and nothing else to win.

Rule #5: Mythic Rare Saves Sealed

There's almost always a way to beat a stupid rare in draft. Even if someone opens it, they might not be the right color to play it. Or you can pick up a common answer. Or whatever.

Sealed.... not so much. You have no control over the answer, and way more people are just going to follow the direction of their best card. The difference between 5% and 10% of a room having the card is where the math crosses the threshold of probably losing to it once in the Sealed portion of a Grand Prix to being likely to dodge it.

This is my one big qualm with Ravnica Allegiance Limited. Ethereal Absolution is a rare. Seraph of the Scales, the Orzhov mythic, isn't really that mythic. If you just swapped them everything would be better. Same to an extent with Mass Manipulation and Mesmerizing Benthid, though Mass Manipulation has all sorts of constraints. You can hide your flashy pushed Constructed cards like Aurelia, Exemplar of Justice at mythic rare too.

Note that all these multi-colored cards I'm describing are only this way in a format like Ravnica Allegiance where there are only five real two-color pairs and scripted splash fixers for them. In a normal format multi-colored cards are a real cost for these things showing up, so a card like Hostage Taker at rare is much more reasonable.

The Other Side

Have you ever looked at the rares of Fate Reforged? I crunched the math at one point, and it was around 70% of them were obvious first picks and about 30% were firmly in the unbeatable category.

Yet the format wasn't that broken.

There were uncommons as good as all but the best rares. Some of the commons were also insane too. 

If every card is powerful compared to normal Limited, does that really make the draft format bad to play? It's all self-relative, and while some cards ignore context better than others the whole thing is relative.

Final Rundown

-Good rares are important ways to define the flow of draft and to create unique game play over a Limited format's lifespan.
-If a rare is going to be unbeatable, make it quick or make it a good story.
-Rares generally shouldn't be unbeatable at all points of a game.
-If the card punishes players for making decisions, make sure the lead up indicates this or make sure the card isn't uniquely punishing normal actions.
-Cascading value needs to be properly gated behind tangible costs, time, or preemptive setup.
-When in doubt, add a subquest.

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