Untold Stories Of Khans Of Tarkir Development, Part Two

When I decided to start this series, I thought I could knock it out in a two-parter. Now, it’s looking more like four or five, and that’s just for Khans of Tarkir! Ideally, I’d cover Fate Reforged at some point as well. If you missed Part One, you can check it out on StarCityGames. I went over some of the most important cards, either for the various lessons I learned from them or because of their impact on constructed. Just because they were the most important doesn’t mean they had the most interesting stories though.

In Part One, I discussed Erik Lauer’s plan for Khans Standard, which started by limiting the number of powerful two-drop creatures available in Standard. One of the major standouts was Seeker of the Way, which honestly I’m not quite sure why existed. It’s very strong in a midrange deck but can slot into slightly more aggressive decks as well. So many questions went unanswered because it didn’t seem fair to suck up other’s bandwidth, especially when it was someone like Erik who had much to do with Magic’s success. I guess we’ll never know. 

If I had to guess, it’s that Seeker of the Way represented a tool for midrange and could bridge the gap between sets in order to fill out mana curves once decks could become leaner. Plus, Seeker could have existed for limited purposes, although there are several knobs to turn there. Each color typically gets an A+ (or “mythic”) uncommon, and Abzan Falconer was white’s. It wasn’t supposed to be the mythic uncommon and maybe it was an A or even A+, but it didn’t feel quite that good. There are curve considerations for each archetype and the mechanics need to show up on playable cards, so maybe it was as simple as filling those roles. 

Seeker of the Way was nerfed fairly on. It used to have static lifelink but became what was eventually called “fake prowess,” which meant it was triggered by the same stuff as prowess, but did something else instead of give +1/+1. 

When you read the card, it’s ugly. A 1W 2/2 with prowess and lifelink is elegant, so typically when a card looks like Seeker of the Way does, you can tell it has likely been “over-developed.” That isn’t to say that the team went too far – it just means the card started as an elegant idea and was proven to be too strong or had undesirable play patterns. They wanted to keep the idea of the card intact, even if it meant a slight nerf that also retains the essence of what it looked like originally.

In this case, you couldn’t add another color pip to the card in a wedge set and removing a power or toughness would be too significant. Therefore, you only get lifelink on turns when you can trigger prowess, which was a solid fix in terms of power level.

Part of the problem with the card originally was that you could attack with Seeker in the early game and they couldn’t block for fear of prowess, which allowed you to pad your life total while still developing with a creature post-combat. You’d pull ahead on damage and life while still being able to add to your board state. 

So, Seeker of the Way was over-developed and ugly to me, much like Rattleclaw Mystic. However, both ended up being very solid in Standard and well-liked by many. Usually, that means we did our jobs, but I can’t help but wonder if there were better solutions to those issues. Not every card has to retain their initial elegant designs, but it felt like both Seeker and Rattleclaw had the potential to do so.

Shrug.

When working for Wizards of the Coast seemed like a possible career path, I needed to adapt my way of thinking. Even though professional Magic players are a valuable asset capable of helping shape healthy Standard formats, their incentives don’t align with those of game developers. 

There’s a big difference between trying to find the best deck or the perfect metagame deck and tuning a deck to perfection versus trying to ensure a Standard format is playable, fun, has a wide variety of viable strategies, and has some natural churn. How much time Wizards devotes to tuning the decks in Future Future League (FFL) is a fine line that can easily lead to wasted hours. However, my instincts tend to autopilot some of the optimization, which could obfuscate how others viewed my mindset.

Murderous Cut is the prime example. At one point, I built a Mono-Black Aggro deck that had eight black fetchlands with no reason other than to fuel delve for a pair of Murderous Cuts. Tom Lapille rightfully called me out on it. He didn’t know if it was worth it for the deck to do that, plus it was an incredibly spikey deckbuilding move

At first, I had to assure him that yes, I knew it wasn’t worth it to include eight fetchlands for deck thinning. Yes, the damage adds up, especially in a deck with four copies of Thoughtseizes, but it didn’t matter because there weren’t many aggro decks. No, this wasn’t an inbred metagame move – it was simply a fact and feature of the format. Yes, the Murderous Cut was that important for getting through Siege Rhinos and I didn’t want to spend three mana on Hero’s Downfall. No, I didn’t spend a ton of time on this and it was something I was able to conclude just by eyeballing it. 

Eventually, he came to view that decision (and those like it) as a boon. To Tom at least, I had shown them something they were clearly lacking and he saw the value in it. 

Overall, it created some healthy thoughts and discussion on how far we should take FFL. Our goals involved finding out what the most powerful things were, whether those things were fun to play with or against, whether there were healthy counter-measures, and to ensure that many different strategies were viable and relatively balanced. Approaching building decks for the FFL or for a tournament should look very different. 

However, real life moves quickly. Magic players are very good at picking up and disseminating data, finding what the best decks are, and tuning them. The case in point came at Pro Tour Khans of Tarkir, where the entire field had stronger decks than our FFL did, despite them having two weeks of time to playtest versus our three or so months. In order to do our job in the best way possible, it seemed like we needed to get our decks closer to optimization. At the moment, our FFL didn’t mimic the real world particularly closely.

We could spend time on optimization, which could be a waste considering our goals, or we could waste time playing with decks that would never be relevant to tabletop. In my opinion, the time would be better spent by tuning some decks, at least a little bit, in order to have a better idea of how things will play out in real life. Otherwise, most of it is just guessing and hoping.

Granted, things are difficult. We could spend a week testing a deck, eventually come to the conclusion that something is wrong, and a change to a single card can render that time spent obsolete. That typically means that the format would be better for the change and we needed to spend the time to get there, but it also means our format is always evolving. When tabletop gets the full spoiler, they know what they’re working with and can spend that time effectively. Given the volatile nature of FFL, it’s possible that we should only spend that time toward the end of the development cycle, which I would be happy with. 

Anyway, Murderous Cut is cool. 

At some point, Ian Duke looked up from his computer and asked, “Would you play Monastery Swiftspear if it had a second toughness?”

Back then, it was a Raging Goblin with prowess and we didn’t have a decent looking red aggro deck, so Ian was wondering why. Did the second toughness move the needle? After playing a few games against it and seeing how the second toughness made it more difficult to block made me pretty happy. I was impressed.

There were considerations with prowess in non-rotating formats, which we didn’t take into account. I’m still fine with that decision. Attempting to balance around Phyrexian mana spells and free spells in general is a losing proposition, so don’t bother. In any situation where Monastery Swiftspear looked scary, I’d argue that the free spells were the problem and never the Swiftspear. 

The point here is that Ian Duke liked prowess and wanted his lil’ buddy Monastery Swiftspear to be playable. It’s funny how such a small change can have a tremendous impact. 

Even though Siege Rhino dominated Standard and Treasure Cruise plus Dig Through Time ruined Modern and Legacy, Jeskai Ascendancy is the single card where I think we dropped the ball. 

I didn’t see the initial Ascendancy designs, but at some point they became cards that were meant to be fun, sideways filler rather than marquee cards. We wanted to get them into a spot where if a couple of them saw fringe constructed playability, we’d be happy. My contemporaries tried Sultai Ascendancy in some of their decks to middling success, whereas I never touched any of them except for Temur Ascendancy. At one point, Mardu Ascendancy was a fairly busted source of aggression, but it got toned down. Abzan Ascendancy had potential, but we didn’t have any solid sacrifice outlets to build around. 

Fairly late in the game, Jeskai Ascendancy got reworked, which is certainly a trend with the “Oops, we might have made a mistake” cards. Erik liked the idea of prowess being tricky in combat and the untap clause added to that. In practice, it mostly played out as a card that made it so your opponent could never attack or block and you rarely ran out of gas. Even for limited, Jeskai Ascendancy could have been toned down.

In terms of Standard, I believe we had a Mons version of Jeskai Ascendancy alongside Sylvan Caryatid, but it might not have been as focused as some of the combo versions that showed up in real life. We should have worked on those more, which helps expose another flaw – I don’t think I worked on four-color decks enough.

We had trilands, fetchlands, and enemy painlands, so it was obviously doable. I vaguely remember looking at what combinations of cards I could play together and didn’t see a particularly compelling reason to try Stubborn Denial in Abzan or whatever. Siege Rhino and Butcher of the Horde in the same deck should have been something we tried at some point though and I’m sure there were others. 

I’ll freely admit that we never had Hordeling Outburst, Stoke the Flames, and Jeskai Ascendancy in the same deck. Both Ascendancy and Treasure Cruise changed late and although Stoke the Flames showed up in FFL decks, it was never alongside Hordeling Outburst. That was certainly an oversight, especially once you take those late changes into consideration. Once Fate Reforged entered FFL, the focus shifted toward those cards, so a deck full of Khans cards usually wasn’t on our mind. 

One of the best things you can do as a TCG developer is create things that look exciting and evoke strong emotional reactions that end up not being as strong as they appear. Not only will those cards likely find a place in Commander eventually, but they’ll generate buzz and excitement for formats like Standard. Plus, experimenting with new ideas and deck designs is fun and creates learning moments. Exploration is one of the best parts of a game like Magic, which is why we love preview season. Foster that and give players sideways things they can be excited about or have combinations to dream of.

Thankfully, that’s mostly what Jeskai Ascendancy accomplished, both in Standard and Modern. It’s doing work in Pioneer at the moment, but I’d also like to point out that the majority of those Ascendancy decks were packing an actual villain in Treasure Cruise. 

If there are ample answers in place, things like Jeskai Ascendancy can be part of the metagame and even be the best thing to be doing on certain weeks, but be contained if necessary. Things like Diabolic Edict effects for Sylvan Caryatid or graveyard hate for Treasure Cruise would go a long way. 

There’s a reason why WotC was considering making Pithing Needle and Duress emergency legal in Standard during Aetherworks Marvel’s heyday. It’s far more likely cards like that will be evergreen in Standard, even if there isn’t a particular reason for them. You never know if you missed something and it’s arrogant to think you haven’t. What’s the downside?

Maybe there’s something to be said for avoiding sideboard building being too easy. Four Duress, four Doom Blade, four Disenchant, and three card advantage planeswalkers will honestly get you pretty far, but that can be a feature and not a bug. Not everyone has infinite time to dedicate to working on their FNM deck and most just want to show up, have some fun, and feel competitive. 

There’s a reason Duress has been legal in Standard for quite some time and I’d heavily argue that the format is better because of it. Give people their Duresses and Go Blanks. If anything, Jeskai Ascendancy really hammered that home. 

If you want to get a few different looks at Khans of Tarkir, there are numerous articles on the design and development process on DailyMTG.com. There are the typical development articles, part 1 and part 2 of a series called M-Files, and a look at some of our FFL decklists

Showing these decks off with no context isn’t something I would advise, because the cards in those decks often did different things than the final versions. I wouldn’t want to lie or bend the truth in order to make R&D appear better at their jobs than they are, but these decklists don’t exactly inspire confidence. For example, I find it hard to believe we have Winterflame in any of our FFL decks given the version that saw print. Adam and I were both new, but I swear we weren’t that bad!

3 Replies to “Untold Stories Of Khans Of Tarkir Development, Part Two”

  1. There’s a lot of interesting (/troubling) stuff in here especially concerning stuff like Stoke+Outburst that make Kaladesh feel inevitable. People love to point out how artifact sets are often pretty pushed but if this was the FFL during Khans then it feels like Amonkhet or Ixalan or Shadows could have easily been the block with the huge power misses.

  2. Thanks for writing this Gerry. Your insight into the process is really enjoyable to read.

Leave a Reply