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Recalibration

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The letter W!hat do you get for an aggressive one-mana creature in red? For much of Magic's history, the benchmark was Jackal Pup. He burst onto the scene in 1997 in Tempest with no peer for a mono-red deck. This little 2/1 came with a very real drawback, but you had a good degree of control over it. Backed with burn he was ferocious. He was just what an aggressively minded red mage was looking for. Simply put, a source of 2 damage a turn, starting on turn two, was exactly what aggressive red decks needed to thrive. It was the perfect complement to burn, either by swinging in uncontested long enough to go directly after a weakened opponent, or by having its path cleared by burn until that same burn could set up the eventual kill.

Jackal Pup had very few equals for the longest time. By branching to other colors, especially in formats with strong color-fixing, players already had access to Kird Ape, but for anyone wanting to stay true to red, after the auto-inclusion of Jackal Pup they'd find themselves justifying the likes of Mogg Conscripts, Goblin Cadets, or Goblin Patrol. It was hard to come by a genuine 2-power creature that didn't require you to jump through hoops, pay extra mana, or suffer some devastating drawbacks.

The First Decade

To give you a further appreciation of what red has historically been given as a creature for one mana, I'd like to bring you back to an article series by Randy Buehler in 2003 (here and here). It is a very apt comparison for today's preview card. When you see the sample card below, take a minute to see if you can guess the preview card... that is, if you've somehow resisted the urge to look ahead at the preview card already.

Randy's article series took a look at our Vapor Ops test. In short, this is a test that's been given to prospective development interns and employees. It has a number of cards that we could print in the near future. We request that our candidates provide feedback on why we should or shouldn't print these cards and ask for thoughts on how they'd change the cards, if at all. As a side note, I've been the curator of the most recent versions of this test since my arrival here and we can revisit this topic again if there's interest.

But for now, let's focus in on one particular red common card on that sample test in Randy's article series.

Lazy Goblin
R
Creature—Goblin
2/1
Lazy Goblin can't block.

While times have certainly changed since then, what are your thoughts on this card now? Is printing a card like this something that would make you happier to be playing Magic?

While a couple of the highlighted respondents in Randy's article at that time felt that this card would be fine to print, overwhelmingly, most others felt it was clearly too strong:

"Too cheap! It's ability to be unable to block is NOT a drawback..."

"The card doesn't have a big enough drawback."

"No, no, no."

"No. This one should be filed along with Mana Drain under the 'when R&D gets hit by a bus' category."

"How does 'no' sound? 2/1 for 1 should have bigger drawback."

"Good Lord, NO. Too fast to be balanced"

"So this card will never see print (or any other of the like)."

"Obviously too good."

Randy ended his take on the card with, "This card would be unhealthy for Constructed even if we printed it with an irrelevant creature type."

On that note, let's take a look at Rakdos Cackler.

Evolution

Ten years ago, a 2/1 that couldn't block was deemed by conventional wisdom as unacceptably too powerful, yet here we have a creature that can be played as a 2/2 that can't block—or, alternatively, as a 1/1 that can. It can also be played with red or black mana. That second point of toughness isn't irrelevant in providing resistance to some removal and early trades. So what gives?

Magic has changed and is changing! It's a living, breathing creature of sorts, and a complex one at that. There's a good chance the development team in 2003 was on the mark in its evaluation of Lazy Goblin, given the context of Magic at that point in time. For example, the support suite of burn was very different then and the midrange creatures were all the less likely to effectively stop an early onslaught. Expectation for what you received for creatures at various points along the mana curve were much different.

Some of our critics will likely argue that Rakdos Cackler is a matter of us power-creeping. Just look at how much blatantly more powerful this is than some of its predecessors in red. Setting aside for the moment that cards like Goblin Guide and Figure of Destiny already set a new bar since that time, it can be argued that this card needs to be more powerful because of other generous cards we have made over the years. But the situation is a bit more complex than that.

In general, cards and decks from early in Magic's history are those that have tended to become more powerful, and it has usually been noncreature ones at that. Were it not for bannings, many of these older cards and strategies would still be dominating our eternal formats. Formats are generally defined by the powerful outliers and we've made good strides over the years in reducing the extent and quantity of these extremely powerful cards. Of course, this discussion is not to say that we don't still make mistakes. We create a number of mutant cards, which unless selected against with a banhammer, pull the game in sometimes unexpected directions.

Besides changes at the top end of the power curve, we've also reduced the number of outliers on the weaker end of the spectrum. This is all a part of understanding our game engine better over the years. And toward the center of the power curve, we have very lengthy discussions when we make noticeable changes to the system. We've set expectations about the relative strength of creatures in each color.

For example, Walking Corpse spawned many internal discussions. Were we at a place where black received a 1 ManaBlack Mana 2/2 without downside? While cards like Child of Night might be better in most scenarios, there is something about directly comparing cards and having "strictly betters." There's significance to that second point of toughness when comparing to a history of Spineless Thugs, Exiled Boggarts, Filthy Curs, and Krovikan Scoundrels. Mark Rosewater also discussed strictly better comparisons this week with regards to Gates in Return to Ravnica. There were many emails and a group meeting about the status of Walking Corpse. In the end, we agreed upon this as something we could do at times. It still gave us room to clearly differentiate that other colors had more to offer in this slot, with cards like Silverchase Fox, Moorland Inquisitor, Darkthicket Wolf, Dawntreader Elk, and Somberwald Dryad. It also gave us room within the color to create the spectrum of excitement we want to be able to attain. We also acknowledged that Walking Corpse might not always be the baseline, so you can expect more ebb and flow here.

We are continually recalibrating the system. We and our players know vastly more about the engine and strategies in the game than when it was first released and many of its baseline expectations were set. We've made no secret that we're eager to have creatures play a more focal role in the game than they did in the game's infancy. And so, there has been a reevaluation of creatures and their powers and stats. It is among creatures where power has changed most apparently since the inception of the game. And, yes, the creatures themselves have moved up in power while we've at the same time tried to keep the power level of the decks and the environments steadier. I've worked on a number of other trading card game engines, and in all of them we went through a similar process of realizing improvements could be made upon at least some sections of the creature curve. As developers, we cultivate play in various subtle ways with our cards and must be able to continually adapt new cards to fit into that new setting that we've created. This movement is taking place steadily, and often slowly, so we can again react to our own experiments. We appreciate the concern from some players on where this might lead us, but we are largely happy with where the balance between the various card types has fallen recently.

Ultimately, we are much more concerned with making fun and appealing cards than in making powerful cards. It's easy enough to turn knobs to make powerful cards by moving numbers around. It's a trickier process to identify which cards should be improved. We can make a card like Rakdos Cackler because our environments can handle it, and by that I mean our most commonly played formats. Generally, we will tend to push cards that aren't already fitting into the most prevalent existing strategies. We often also try to steer clear of hitting the same note too many times. In my last article, I mentioned wanting to push Primal Surge, but at the same time we were also wary of promoting ramp decks—especially ones that could use Primeval Titan—so soon.

In making a card like Rakdos Cackler, we are not trying to obsolete similar past cards, but instead trying to revive these archetypes, possibly even allowing cards of similar kinds to see more play since they have compatriots. We are adjusting to account for changes we've made elsewhere in the curve to ensure that cards have meaningful roles. Fundamentally, we are also seeking to make cards where lots of people will answer "yes" to the question: "Will the existence of this card make you happier to be playing Magic?"

Rakdos Cackler | Art by Ryan Barger

Parting Words

While there's a good chance you'll want to let loose your Rakdos Cackler with a +1/+1 counter, don't become too mindless about it. There will be games against other aggressive decks where a blocker will be what you need, and yet other games where you might need a chump-blocker to give you a final chance to draw into that last burn card. As far as other unleash creatures go, we've created many where the decision to add the counter will be a challenging one. For example, you'll find a collection of creatures with desirable defensive abilities like regeneration and deathtouch.

Thinking about where Rakdos Cackler stands against more recent comparisons, I'll note it is similar—but compares favorably—to Tattermunge Maniac, which received some love in mono-red decks in his day. I, for one, played four copies of Tattermunge Maniac at Pro Tour Hollywood in 2008 using a deck that, if I recall correctly, I borrowed from Patrick Sullivan and Brian Kibler. I'll certainly be eager to see where Rakdos Cackler ends up in the metagame.

And while I've focused on mono-red in this article, let's not forget the other options at your disposal. Rakdos Cackler adds to the current collection of first-turn 2-power plays for black in Standard, alongside Gravecrawler and Diregraf Ghoul. While it doesn't offer the advantages of being a Zombie, it offers additional speed for those looking for it.

And, of course, we are entering a gold-embracing world. Two-color beatdown decks are often tricky to get working consistently, but a hybrid one-drop will go a long ways toward reliably getting a deck off to the races. There are now a number of angles to take an aggressive approach backed by versatile removal, like Dreadbore, and new anti-combo/control pieces, like Slaughter Games.

Thanks for reading,

Dave Humpherys

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