Let’s play a game. It’s called “which Magic cards have a drawback?”

Ready? Go!

Hoard-Smelter Dragon

Slinking Giant

Elder Pine of Jukai

Chrome Steed

Pyromancer’s Ascension

Scoria Elemental

You have your answer? Good.

Before I talk about the cards, I want to talk about drawbacks in design.

A lot of people think a drawback is a line of text that specifically hurts you. Abyssal Persecutor is a good example of this. Sometimes the card’s drawback is overt, and in those cases it’s often for a good reason. With Persecutor, you see the offer that the card is presenting you with. It’s what makes the card interesting. However, in reality, a lot more cards have drawbacks than you think.

I was talking with Pat Chapin a few weeks ago, and he said something to the effect of, “almost every card has some kind of drawback.” I think that’s pretty spot on. Look at all the cards you like to play with. Fetchlands are a great example. They have a pretty clear drawback – but how often do you really notice as your Plated Geopede kicks in there for an extra two damage, or you shuffle your library to see new cards with Jace? Yet they are beloved cards.

Part of being a designer is knowing how to hide your drawbacks.

Why? Because drawbacks are how you balance cards. The problem is that you naturally feel bad if you have to manage a drawback somehow. Yet, drawbacks are how most cards are balanced. How is this done? Well, if you go down the above list, some of those cards might seem “all-upside.” However, I think you can peg every card on it as having a drawback.

Let me show you what I mean

Look at Slinking Giant. I think it’s pretty obvious he has a drawback. Now how does he look when you word him this way?

Slinking Giant 2RR
Creature – Giant Rogue
Whenever Slinking Giant attacks and isn’t blocked, it gets +3/+0 until end of turn.

Now doesn’t he feel much better to play with? Instead of having something taken away, you’re getting something. It’s a basic psychological principle. Now, there are reasons he was made the way he was (among other things, a 1/4 Giant is a little oddball) but it’s amazing how you can make this one switch and he no longer feels like a creature with a drawback.

Let’s look at Chrome Steed now.

You can do the same kind of trick with Chrome Steed if you think of it as a 4/4 that gets -2/-2 if you don’t have three artifacts. That should be clear. However, Chrome Steed also plays off of another kind of drawback: the linear drawback. The other, less apparent drawback of Chrome Steed is that you have to play with a lot of artifacts to make him good. Yet, it doesn’t feel like a true drawback in that sense. Once again, it feels like a benefit. The drawback is subtly hidden.

You can see this even more on Elder Pine of Jukai.

Once again, it seems like an all-upside card. However, the true drawback is that you have to play him in a deck with Spirit and Arcane spells. Just as Abyssal Persecutor only fits into decks that are built with the ability to remove him, Elder Pine only fits into decks where his ability can be abused.

But what of the other three? Let’s look at Scoria Elemental.

The drawback shouldn’t be too hard to spot here, yet when you’re not looking for it the drawback might fade into the background. The one toughness is a pretty significant drawback in exchange for 6 power for five mana at common. However, it doesn’t leap out at you in the sense that a prohibitive line of text might.

With that simple one out of the way, let’s look at Hoard-Smelter Dragon

You might be thinking, “alright, where’s the drawback?” You can scour the text box over and over and never find anything but pure, liquid, delicious upside. You can look over the power and toughness, but no matter how many times you look it doesn’t change into a 3/3. (Much to a Limited player’s chagrin.) This card has a gigantic drawback though, and it’s located in the upper right hand corner: the cost.

Once a card’s cost hits five mana, it starts getting fairly taxing on your resources at any point during the game. Making a card like this cost six is a balance concern, no doubt, but it’s also a drawback in the same sense. Once again, to make a card this powerful you have to give it a prohibitive cost. It most certainly is an issue of balance, but, simultaneously, it is an issue of applying an appropriate drawback.

Pyromancer’s Ascension is the last card on the list. It’s many things: a wacky Johnny card, a combo enabler, a goal to strive for. (More on goals in another blog post.) But it also has a significant drawback: it does nothing until it turns on.

Now, cognitively you can maybe perceive it as doing something while counters are added, but in reality it actually just sits there and does nothing until it has two counters. Until a condition is met, your card does absolutely nothing: that’s a pretty serious drawback if you ask me. But it doesn’t look like a drawback. No. It looks like a challenge.

Once again, it’s an issue of balance – but also an issue of having a drawback. How much would something have to cost to just naturally copy all of your spells? Well, compare to Cloven Casting for an idea of what you might need to pay. By giving the card a drawback posed as a challenge, you take the focus off the drawback and onto the challenge the card presents.

I understand viewing all cards this way is a bit reductionist and actually very dangerous if used too heavy-handedly. However, it’s an interesting design exercise. More importantly, though, it shows you that you don’t have to explicitly list you drawback in text. That just leads to making people feel bad. There are a lot of ways you can balance cards using “drawbacks” without resorting to awkward lines of text.

Written out drawbacks when they serve an important purpose, but they’re definitely not necessary all of the time. Making your drawbacks too obvious is one of the largest mistakes in design – and one that’s easy to avoid.

I look forward to hearing your thoughts.

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