The Cube, According to Gatherer, Part 8 – The Incredibly Boring Clip Show! Now with Charts!
Welcome to the One-Quarter Point!
The Gatherer Cube (see log one) currently features 95 cards and a token. It’s coming along like the thing Timmy fell down, and Lassie is barking her head off about: well. But every time I design a card, I can’t help wonder if I’m showing bias. It’s been months since I started this project in late November. Juggling the needs of the set in one’s head is challenging. Maintaining that balancing act for over four months would qualify me for Cirque du Soleil. And, trust me, I don’t look good in tights.
Thankfully, Magic Set Editor comes with heaps of graphs. I hope you like quality control review boards, because today we’re looking at charts! The first graph breaks the set down by color:
Black is leading the pack with 23 total cards, while Green lags with 13. This imbalance is mine to owe up to, but Gatherer didn’t help. In log five alone, five of the seven cards Gatherer chose were Black. I can’t avoid designing Black cards because Gatherer feeds me too many. I don’t want Black to be a pile of random cards.
This isn’t a big problem, though. There’s plenty of time for this imbalance to correct itself. Meanwhile, I’ll focus on Green, Red, and Blue and see if I can push the needle back in that direction.
Next, let’s look at converted mana cost:
First, ignore the ten cards with a cost of zero. Eight are land, one is an artifact with a mana cost of , and the last card is a Thrull token.
This looks unbalanced. When I draft, I want a mana curve that focuses on the number three. I’m certainly not alone in this thought process. Here’s a graph from ‘Booster Draft – Part 3‘ an introduction to efficient drafting by Reid Duke, published at magicthegathering.com.
Granted, Mr. Duke is focused on the mana curve of creatures… which makes sense now that I think about it. It’s more important to curve out creatures that can attack and block then it is to curve into card draw, or removal for permanents that might not be there. Next time I spread out my curve, I’m doing it differently.
But I also found this interesting snippet about mana curves from the Magic: the Gathering Wiki.
Use of statistical analysis leads to […] curves which vary based on deck size, format, and play/draw. Assuming that there is no mana acceleration or card drawing. No assumption is made as to what the spells themselves are except that their value is proportional to their cost. Another assumption is that one play per turn is desirable […]
40 Cards, play first
6 at one, 5 at two, 4 at three, 4 at four, 4 at five, 17 Land.
40 Cards, draw first
5 at one, 4 at two, 4 at three, 4 at four, 6 at five, 17 Land.
That’s very different than the traditional advice. That said, this advice assumes each card you play will be of an equivalent impact to its casting cost. Inherently, these numbers assumes that the purpose of playing Magic is to curve out. But the greater goal of curving out is to win. Given the selection of cards you’re working with, curving out might not lead to your ultimate goal. Mr. Duke’s method in the previous example assumes that missing a one drop, and occasionally missing a two drop, might be acceptable since those cards tend to be outclassed quickly. Magic: the Gathering Wiki only makes sense if your one, two, three, four, and five drop were Scorching Spear, Guerrilla Tactics, Annihilating Fire, Flame Lash, and Lava Axe, and all we intended to do was huck cardboard at the opponent’s face.
That said, both these mana curve philosophies are concerned with deckbuilding. And while it’s reasonable to assume the number of cards per casting cost in any given set will reflect the final curve players put in their decks, presumptions are not guarantees. Let’s look at the numbers from an actual set. Magic Origins should do well, since it was the last ‘basic’ set, and it didn’t feature a mechanic with hidden additional costs (like Kicker.) We’re only looking at the commons, since it’s arguable that higher rarities are intended for constructed, while common is invested in limited.
Magic Origins, Number of cards for each converted mana cost in common:
Zero casting cost ≐ 1 card (Evolving Wilds)
One casting cost ≐ 14 cards
Two casting cost ≐ 30 cards
Three casting cost ≐ 28 cards
Four casting cost ≐ 22 cards
Five casting cost ≐ 9 cards
Six casting cost ≐ 4 cards
Seven or greater casting cost ≐ No cards
Which… actually looks a lot like my graph. Granted, I got a few sevens and eights. And there are cards with hidden costs in my line-up, including the Level Up and Replicate mechanics. For the record, Magic Origins also includes cards at common with activated mana costs that could effect how we perceive the curve, like Akroan Jailer and Bellows Lizard.
It’s folly to pretend uncommons and rares do not effect a draft. If I mixed them back in, the average converted mana cost in a draft is destined to rise. Wizards is aware of that and might skews their commons down to adjust for that. I’m just taking a stab here, but it’s possible that Wizards is aware that drafters, especially inexperienced drafters, tend to gravitate toward more expensive cards, and their decision to print more low-cost cards is an attempt to keep the games more regular/dynamic/fun. All of this considered, I should lean on the casting cost needle in the upward direction. But it’s nice to know there’s precedent for leaving the mana curve where it is. It’s probably better to have a mana curve that’s a little low, than one that’s too high.
One last chart. Let’s look at permanent types:
That’s… a lot of creatures. Concerned, I broke down the Magic Origins numbers again. That set contains 268 unique cards that are not basic lands. 148 of those cards are creatures. 148 divided by 273 yields ~55% creatures. In comparison, The Gatherer Cube features 51 creatures out of 95 cards yielding ~53.7% creatures. Right on target.
I am bothered by the lack of artifacts, though. Cubes, in general, don’t need artifacts. But this Cube includes a Xenic Poltergeist. It would seem silly to include the Poltergeist, but few non-creature artifacts to animate. This sounds less like a ‘percentage of the set’ problem, though, and more of an as-fan problem, so let’s talk about our as-fans.
What the heck is an ‘as-fan’?
The as-fan count is the number of cards with a specific feature that one finds while ‘fanning’ a booster pack of cards. For example, if every rare and mythic rare in the set ‘Coming Out of Our Shells’ was a Ninja Turtle, no other cards in the set were Ninja Turtles, and the set included no premium cards to muck up the numbers, than the as-fan of Ninja Turles in Coming Out of Our Shells would be 1.00. As you fan a pack, you would see one totally turtastic dude.
The as-fan count is important for two reasons. The first is if something is not seen with enough as-fan regularity, then some portion of players won’t associate that mechanic with the set. Most people know that Champions of Kamigawa was about Spirit and Arcane spells, because the as-fan of Spirits and Arcane was very high. Not as many people recognize that Champions of Kamigawa was about Legendary permanents, though. All rare creatures (and a few uncommon ones) as well as four artifacts were Legendary, and a couple commons were enhanced if you controlled a Legend with a specific name. But even though Champions included the highest density of Legendary cards for any set, the as-fan of its Legends theme was still less than 1.00. If you opened a pack, you might get a Legendary Creature, but you might happen upon one of the 23 cards that were not Legendary. And even if you opened two packs and got two Legendary Creatures, it might not occur to you that Champion’s them was Legendary. Without any other information to work with, you probably thought you got lucky.
The other important duty of as-fan is that it informs us of the numerical saturation of mechanic X, and the likelihood that a player could run a particular archetype given a certain number of packs. If the purpose of a deck is to win an ostrich race, but in order to host the ostrich race a player needs to summon two ostriches and two ostrich jockeys, then the necessary as-fan of the ostrich race archetype will be high. Players need to draft a lot of ostriches and jockeys to guarantee consistently sponsoring a race. The ostrich race may require an as-fan of 4.00 (average of four cards in every pack) or higher to be a reasonable choice.
Okay, I admit, this isn’t the same type of ostrich race. But, let’s face it. This is what you would have posted too.
Alternatively, the Tome Scour archetype from Magic 2010 required few cards to work. Since most drafters passed Tome Scour as meaningless chaff, a single player in an eight person draft could collect a small pile and use them as a form of ‘direct damage’ to opponent’s libraries. The as-fan for Tome Scour in Magic 2010 is .099 (One Tome Scour per 101 Commons, multiplied by ten available slots.) Or, in other words, there’s an 8.7% chance that any one particular pack of Magic 2010 will include a Tome Scour. But even with that low a number, the Tome Scour strategy works with a little luck, assuming you want five or more Tome Scours at an eight person table, and everyone else passes the Tome Scours as a second basic land.
Determining our as-fan for any one mechanic is a simple matter of math. The tricky part is determining what our as-fan goals should be. We need a currently existing as-fan to operate as a guide. But you can’t blindly choose mechanics. Some, like Battalion from Gatecrash, make for poor guides.
Since all Battalion wants is a lot of attacking creatures, what would count as part of our as-fan? Does any random creature like Syndic of Tithes count? Or maybe only cards intended to play particularly well with Rally, like Armored Transport? How about a card like Spire Tracer that works well with Battalion, but isn’t on color? Clearly, we won’t get anywhere with mechanics like Battalion, Morbid, or Landfall.
The opposite end of the spectrum are mechanics that are easy to delineate, but make poor guides because the sets designers decided to go above and beyond what was necessary to support the mechanic. In Kamigawa, Spiritcraft is morbidly supported, with a whopping as-fan of 6.70 (112 common cards with the type Spirit or Arcane divided by 220 commons in the Kamigawa block, multiplied by 10, added to 84 Spirit & Arcane uncommons out of 198 in the block, multiplied by three, added to 67 rare Spirit & Arcane out of 198 rares. It should be noted that this doesn’t count cards that make Spirits, or become Spirits, nor cards that answer Spirits. It only counts the cards that trigger Spiritcraft when they are cast. A number of which can be cast multiple times…)
Obviously, none of our cube’s mechanics feature a level of depth so vast they become the set’s identity. In fact, many of the mechanics don’t broach a single color’s identity. Originally, when I pulled together week one, I looked for potential two-color mechanical identities, since many good draft environments are based on this formula. Now that option is less an less practical. I can’t convince Gatherer to line ducks in a row for me to shoot, so I’m not going to be frustrated when it doesn’t happen. Some of the mechanics are single color strategies, some are two or three color strategies, and some, like auras and counters, can appear in any color. Trying to force these strategies into ten two-color straight suits will only cause the cube to feel restrictive. It’s much better for me to identify the existing mechanics, no matter how strange and overlapping they may be, and make certain those mechanics are well-represented, while keeping a sense of color balance.
What we need to identify are some ideal historic as-fans that represented the same needs of the mechanics in our set. For the aura and counter themes, I think Slivers in Time Spiral makes a good guide. Slivers wasn’t the focus of Time Spiral, though drafting Slivers was always a possibility. Many Slivers made for acceptable, if underwhelming, creatures on their own. Add a second sliver to the mix, and you’re cooking with gas. Three slivers, and you’re disaster girl. And like auras and counters, if you wanted to ‘play slivers’, you were encouraged to stretch into multiple colors, depending on what came up.
The sliver as-fan across the Time Spiral block rounds up to 1.20 (which includes Essence Sliver and Spined Sliver from the Timeshifted sheet. It also includes Hivestone as an honorary sliver for our purposes, though that infers there are other non-Sliver creatures in your deck. It also counts Plague Sliver. Despite the fact that Plague Sliver is a pariah, it still works well in a slim sliver build in concert with cards like Shadow Sliver and the aforementioned Essence Sliver.) That’s a little more than one sliver per pack, or 7.2 slivers in a sealed event with six packs. It doesn’t seem like much, but it’s plenty to get the mechanic to work some of the time.
And that’s what I want, really. With mechanics like Auras and Tokens that stretch across all five colors, I’m not interested in a mechanical identity that’s always a strong choice. I want to see builds where the mechanic is strong, and builds where the mechanic is weak, and builds where deciding on if it’s the right path is heartbreaking. If there are 360 cards in the final set, and we assume that each pack includes 15 cards and we want an as-fan of 1.2 for auras or counters, then that means we need 29 auras, and 29 cards with counters. I should point out that this doesn’t count cards like Deepglow Skate. That’s a card that interacts with counters. It does nothing to guarantee our saturation of permanents with counters is high enough to be a viable strategy. That said, I also need to make sure I achieve a threshold with mechanic enablers. Otherwise, all these cards with counters on them would only turn on under unique circumstances.
So, How Am I Doing With Auras and Counters?
Currently, there are 10 auras in the set, with 3 cards that interact with auras (some cards double up as both an aura, and a card that enables auras. Think of Guardian’s Magemark.) There are technically 15 cards that come with counters in the set, with 3 cards that interact with counters. I say ‘technically’, because the ability to fiddle with counters feels irrelevant when Hythonia the Cruel or Shauku, Endbringer are murdering your army. But the ability to double or move counters off them could mean the game. So sure, they count.
If we keep the current pace going, and assume there will be four times as many auras and cards with counters in the finished cube, then we’re looking at an as-fan of ~1.667 for auras, and 2.50 for cards with counters. I’m more concerned with the enablers. If I only increase the number of enablers by 3 for every 90 cards, then I finish with an as-fan of 0.50, or one enabler for every two packs.
Is 0.50 good enough? Like I mentioned before, Tome Scour was a viable strategy with an as-fan of .099. But Tome Scour was viable because everyone else saw Tome Scour as trash. That won’t happen to a card that turns on one-eighth of the set. Further, I don’t want these strategies to be ‘viable’. I want them to be available.
What I need is another mechanic to compare the enablers against. A mechanic that isn’t the main focus of the set, but uses enablers to turn on a fair number of cards in all five colors. It’s not a perfect analogy, but I think the Elemental ‘lords’ in Lorwyn/Morningtide provide a base minimum.
The Elemental enablers in Lorwyn have an as-fan of 0.415. But while Elementals appeared in all five colors, approximately 80% of the lords were in mono-red. And when you got the Elemental tribe, it often felt like an accident, and not something you were expected to work toward. Considering these factors, I think it’s safe to say 0.415, or 10 cards out of 360, is the bare minimum I need to make the enablers work. I don’t want to be at the bare minimum, so somewhere north of 12 sounds acceptable. Otherwise, I’m on track to make those numbers work.
Stop It With the Numbers Already!
All that work to determine I’m on target. That’s both satisfying and frustrating. It’s best if we appreciate the results, and accept the fact that the time needed to get those results were entertaining in their own right.
Originally, I wanted to look at the as-fan of all the mechanics in the set, but I’m approaching 3,000 words, and that’s my hard limit. That’s okay. There’s approximately 24 more logs to complete before we finish the cube. I’m sure I can tackle as-fans of other mechanics on a case by case basis, and adjust accordingly.
One last thing. In Log Seven, Gatherer randomly spat out a Thrull token, and I added it to the cube. It would be silly, however, if only the Thrull token was in the cube. So I’m adding a new token to the bottom of each article, starting with the first token to appear in these logs: Kessig Cagebreakers‘ wolf token.
That’s a wrap, ladies and gentlemen. I’ll see you all in part nine. Or, as always, you can check out the According to Gatherer archive. I swear, they don’t get as crunchy as this installment. The rest of the articles get soggy in milk.