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By: gwyned, gwyned
Dec 08 2014 1:00pm
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Common Design and What It Means for Standard Pauper 

In this article, I want to discuss the backbone of Magic the Gathering: the Common. As a major proponent of the Standard Pauper format on Magic Online, the bulk of my interest and focus in this great game is centered on Commons. So what makes a good Common? What is the role of the Commons in a set? How has Wizards' design philosophy for Commons shifted to where it is today? And finally, how do these elements of Common design affect Standard Pauper? These are the questions that I want to address.


But first I need to acknowledge my sources. If you regular keep up with Mark Rosewater's design work, much of the information presented in this article will be familiar. For this article, I will primarily be relying on Rosewater's Making Magic column, as well as his more recent Drive to Work podcasts.


I. The Role of Commons

Believe it or not, Commons have a very important role in the success of a set. In fact, Rosewater has stated that Commons are actually the hardest card type to design; so hard, in fact, that most of the cards that designers turn in at Common end up seeing print as Uncommons and Rares!

So what do Commons need to accomplish for a set to be successful?

  1. Commons need to be simple. Commons make up the bulk of a set. In order to provide space and appreciation for what the set is trying to accomplish, the Commons need to be simple. To use a metaphor, Commons are the cake, while the other rarities are the frosting.
  2. Commons need to communicate the theme. Rosewater states that, "if the theme of your set isn't in Common, it isn't your theme." Again, since Commons make up the bulk of a set, it falls to them to communicate the theme of the set. Ideally, one should be able to flip through a booster or two of a given set, and by looking at the Commons, easily identify the big idea the set is trying to communicate.
  3. Commons are where you fit in the most important aspects of the set. Whatever the most important mechanics, cycles, or card types are for a set, they need to exist at Common. Otherwise, you run the risk of not being able to fit them in as the set grows larger and larger. Whenever you are trying to fit a large number of things into a tight space, the most efficient method is to start with the largest thing. And for a Magic set, that is the Commons.
  4. Commons provide the known to highlight the unknown. In any given set, you will tend to find certain kinds of cards - pump effects, iconic creatures for a color, removal, etc. Commons provide most of this material. By doing so, they keep the focus squarely on what is new and different in the set.

As you can see, Commons actually have a major role to play. They may seem simple, but that simplicity masks a very complicated balance.

II. New World Order


Now Wizards didn't always have such a clear design philosophy at Common. It came about as the solution to a growing problem. Back in the mid 2000s, Wizards realized that fewer and fewer new players were learned to play Magic. While the game continued to be popular with existing players, without an influx of new players, this problem could pose a major problem for the future.


The problem, as it turned out, had to do with complexity. Rosewater identifies four kinds of complexity:

  1. Comprehension Complexity - How difficult it is to understand what a single card does.
  2. Intuitive Complexity – How difficult it is to immediately understand a card in relation to its context
  3. Board Complexity - How difficult it is to understand how a card or group of cards affects all of the other cards in play.
  4. Strategic Complexity - How difficult it is to identify the most advantageous line of play given a particular game state.

The solution, then, was to lower the bar of entry for new players by reducing the overall complexity of the game. But Wizards didn't want to simply make the game less complex. Instead, they wanted to control the level of complexity that new players had to grapple with. Since Commons make up the bulk of the cards that new players will interact with, if you limit the amount of complexity at Common (and shift it to higher rarities), you effectively lower the learning curve for new players without reducing the overall complexity of the game. Thus was born the specific Common design philosophy know as New World Order.

At its heart, New World Order is about limiting the complexity that new players are faced with by limiting the complexity at Common. So how is that done? Rosewater uses the term "redflag" to identify a Common that violates the simplicity requirements of New World Order. In episode #144 of Rosewater's popular Drive to Work podcast, he went into further detail about the factors that cause a Common to be redflagged. Let's look at these factors:

  1. Does it continuously affect other permanents? Rosewater uses Samite Healer as the poster-child for this kind of complexity. Since it can prevent 1 damage from any source at any time, it greater increased the mental math one has to do before attacking or blocking. However, not all cards that affect other permanents will be redflagged. A card like Akroan Mastiff, which taps another target creature, actually decreases complexity, as it reduces the decisions your opponent has to make. But in general, these type of cards will be flagged.
  2. Does it have four or more lines of rules text? Rosewater says that this is a sign that the card is either too wordy or too complex. If it's the former, that's fine. But if it's the latter, the card is judged to be too confusion to be at Common, and thus will be flagged.
  3. Does it create on-board card advantage by itself? Rosewater uses examples like killing two creatures, or killing another creature when it enters the battlefield, or creates the potential for repeatable damage. Cards like Flametongue Kavu or Prodigal Pyromancer are perfect examples of these type of effects.
  4. Does it create a loop? Rosewater stresses that having the same thing happen over and over again is not a desirable state, and thus wants to minimize the chances that this occurs. This is the factor that led Gravedigger to be moved to Uncommon, since you could often chain Gravediggers into one another, such that every time one died, you used another to bring it back into your hand.
  5. Does this card get more powerful in multiples? In Odyssey block, there was a cycle of cards at Common that gave you an additional effect if you already had a copy of that card in your graveyard. Accumulated Knowledge is another popular example of this type of effect. Such effects will always get a card redflagged now.
  6. Does this card cause confusing interactions? This is perhaps the most nebulous of the factors. But essentially, Rosewater explains it as any card that new players almost always misunderstand, especially in the context of a complicated rule or interaction. The example Rosewater uses is the combination of Deathtouch and Trample on the same creature. It is counter-intuitive that a creature with both abilities only has to deal a single point of damage to whatever creature blocks it, and the rest is applied to the player. Since the average player probably gets this interaction wrong, it shouldn't come up at Common, and thus is redflagged.

Now, it's important to remember that just because a Common is redflagged doesn't mean it can't see print at Common. But it does mean that the card has to have a strong reason to remain at Common in the set, and must accomplish something that the set otherwise could not accomplish. Additionally, each redflagged Common will require approval from both Design and Development. And in general, only about 20% of the Commons in a set can violate these principles.


If you're interested in reading more about New World Order, check out Rosewater's article on it here, and his more recent podcast on the topic here.

III. What This Means for Standard Pauper

Standard Pauper is a great format. It's cheap to play, uses the most popular format, is well-supported by Player Run Events, and enjoys a deep metagame. In fact, I wrote a whole article a couple years back about exactly why it's good for both players and for Wizards of the Coast. However, the specific constraints that go into Common design have a significant impact on the kind of cards we can expect going forward.

So here's the good news:

  • Standard Pauper will always include the themes and mechanics of a new set. Since a central tenet of design is that these needs to be present at Common, the format will always include the key elements of a set. This is good, as it keeps the format from going stale.
  • Standard Pauper will always have access to certain types of effects. To make a balanced Limited environment, a new set will always include removal, pump-effects, mana-ramp, counterspells, card draw, and the like. Because of the inclusion of these elements, playing Standard Pauper will continue to be an experience that is representative of the game as a whole.
  • In Standard Pauper, the power-level will be relatively flat. No one card should warp the format so strongly as to negatively affect the overall metagame, all other things being equal. Additionally, this keeps the format accessible to new players and the prices of individual cards low.

But here's the bad news:


  • Standard Pauper will include a lot of cards that aren't playable. According to the tenets of New World Order, 80% of the Commons will be simple, 1-for-1 effects, that have only a minor effect, if any, on any other cards in play. Thus, only around 20% of the Commons will be considerable playable in the format, and only a handful of those will see widespread play.
  • Even the best of the cards in Standard Pauper will be relatively simple. The 20% that get pushed from any set will only get pushed so far. Compared to even the Uncommons in the set, the complexity of the strongest cards will be low.
  • Standard Pauper will include a lot of the same cards, with only minor variation, from set to set. Since every Limited environment needs certain types of effects, those effects will be present in every set.

Now, that said, I still reject the assertion that Standard Pauper as a format is uninteresting or mostly luck-based as a result of these design constraints. Here's why:

  1. While the distribution of power is more even compared to Uncommons and Rares, there is certainly still a big difference between good and bad cards in Standard Pauper. For every Gray Merchant of Asphodel or Wingsteed Rider there are corresponding Charging Badger and Fleshmad Steed.
  2. Different archetypes rely on distinct strategies to win, some of which go beyond simple removal and creature combat. Heroic, Dimir Mill, and Izzet Control are all examples of strategies that go beyond simple creature-based attacks. Additionally, most Standard Pauper decks can be measured along the axis of Aggro vs Control, much like decks in other formats.
  3. The best players win more consistently than lesser skilled players, even when playing equally strong decks. When the same players make Top 8 or better in event after event, one cannot conclude that winning is simply a means of whomever top-decks first.

Here's what it comes down to: Standard Pauper is a more subtle format. It rarely does anything big or flashy. Nor does it have the tools to have large swings, where one player, then the other, takes over control of the game. Instead, successful players in Standard Pauper build their advantage slowly but surely, making the best use out of their cards to secure their advantage. This advantage can come from a strong combination of cards, from summoning creatures faster than an opponent can remove them, or from overwhelming card advantage. Or, as was already mentioned, players turn to alternative win conditions, playing an entirely different game than their opponent to secure victory. These effects are subtle, true, but no less skill-based and interesting than their equivalents in other formats.

IV. Conclusion

It seems clear that New World Order is here to stay. Overall, I think Rosewater makes a solid case that this is good for Magic as a whole. And while these design constraints will limit the overall complexity of the Standard Pauper format, I still believe that this is an excellent format for new players and veterans alike.

I hope you enjoyed this look at Common Design. In closing, let me remind you that you can check out all of my previous articles here on PureMTGO by clicking here. I also publish over on my blog on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Saturdays, and encourage you to keep up with all my projects there. You can get a sneak peek at any of my videos before they go live here at over on Simply search for "gwyned42," select one of my videocasts, and click the Subscribe button. You can keep up with everything I'm doing on Twitter at the username gwyned42; check out my profile here and click on Follow. Finally, I am the host of Monday Pauper Deck Challenge, which is a weekly PRE featuring a Swiss tournament in the Standard Pauper format, with prizes awarded for the Top 8 finishers thanks to the sponsorship of MTGOTraders. New players are always welcome, so if you haven't done so before,  I encourage you to browse over to check out all the information and then come join us at 2:00pm EST / 7:00pm GMT in the #MPDC channel. Thanks for reading.


It's sad that deep analysis by Mundisv at Fri, 12/12/2014 - 13:59
Mundisv's picture

It's sad that deep analysis above applies to only one small format with a small community, this article deserves much more attention! Plenty of useful explanations backed up by Wizard's statements, very accurate and straight to the point. A must read for every Standard Pauper player.