The Doomed Travelers podcast is a bi-weekly Magic news show recorded while playing Destiny. Make sure to subscribe to the Doomed Travelers on iTunes!

Hey Guardians! Today’s episode, “The Anatomy Of A Siege Rhino,” is a bit of an experiment. Instead of discussing the latest Magic news, we’ll be diving deep into the process Wizard’s R&D might have used to develop Siege Rhino before it was printed in Khans of Tarkir. Below, you’ll find both video and audio-only versions of the show, as well as a written version that includes more detail and the handy card tags. Thanks for listening/watching/reading!

 

 

 

Siege Rhino is by far the most impactful card in today’s Standard environment. It’s flexible enough to be a four-of in every kind of Abzan deck, functioning both as a curve-topper for Abzan Aggro and as a life-gaining roadblock/finisher for Abzan control. The honorable Dr. Siegeman even made a splash at the last Modern Pro Tour as the four-drop of choice for many of Abzan decks that made up 30% of the PT metagame, a feat reminiscent of Deathrite Shaman‘s Modern debut a few years ago.

The rhino’s success in multiple formats begs the question: Is Siege Rhino properly costed? Is it merely efficient? Or is it too efficiently costed for what it does? Well, put on your number scientist hats because the best way to evaluate this question is to develop Siege Rhino ourselves.

Like many gold cards, Siege Rhino is an example of what Mark Rosewater has termed “cut and paste design.” This is a kind of bottom-up, mechanical design, through which a card will be given an ability that is appropriate for each color in its mana cost. Siege Rhino, for example, costs 1WBG, meaning that it will need three abilities, one for each white, black, and green. In this case, white provides Siege Rhino with the ability to gain its controller life; black the ability to cause an opponent to lose life; and green the big, trampling body.

But how do we go about determining the costs of all of these effects? Thankfully, we’re able to draw on 20 years of Magic design to help us answer this question, and the clearest example can be found in the many printed variations of Counterspells. Very efficiently costed at UU and eventually phased out in favor of Cancel at 1UU, the original Counterspell set the default mana requirement for a hard counter. Almost every unconditional counter printed after Counterspell has a mana cost that includes at least UU.

With that in mind, Wizards R&D used the cut and paste technique to create two variations on Counterspell, both of which were printed in Invasion. That’s right, just like creatures, spells can also be designed by pasting color-appropriate abilities onto the same card. The results were Absorb, a hard counter for WUU that gains you three life, and Undermine, another hard counter for UUB that caused your opponent to lose three life. These designs show us that, when costing a cut and paste gold card, you can begin by just totaling up the mana cost for each individual effect. For Absorb (WUU), you begin with Counterspell (UU) and add Healing Salve (W). For Undermine (UUB), you again start with Counterspell (UU) and add Bump in the Night (B). And, to top it all off, Wizards printed Punish Ignorance (WUUB) a few years later as a fusion of all three! Just take Counterspell (UU), add Healing Salve (W), then add Bump in the Night (B), and you’ve got your cut and paste mana cost!

In order to apply this to Siege Rhino, we first have to determine how to cost a 4/5 green creature with trample. Again, we have 20 years worth of Magic design from which to draw examples…but there aren’t a lot of 4/5s with trample in Magic’s history. Of the three cards that aren’t Siege Rhino (Ebony Rhino, Flowstone Mauler, and Void Maw), none cost less than six mana and none are green.

So, let’s approach the problem from a different angle by examining other 4CMC green creatures with trample. Lucky for us, there are plenty of good examples. Alpha gave us the classic War Mammoth, a 3/3 with trample at common for 3G, which is a pretty standard rate. By trading a colorless mana for a green mana, Mirrodin Besieged gave us Tangle Mantis, a 3/4 with trample at common at 2GG. That’s pretty consistent pricing over a nearly two decade span!

Comparing War Mammoth and Tangle Mantis reveals how the concept of mana intensity can help us tweak the numbers and abilities on a card while keeping it at the same CMC. Mana intensity refers to the idea that the more colored mana a card costs, the harder it will be to cast. For example, a card that costs one green mana, like War Mammoth, only requires one green-producing land in play in order to cast it, whereas Tangle Mantis requires two green-producing lands. An increase in mana intensity thus restricts the number of decks that can cast the card, due to the manabase required to produce the necessary colors, and thus allows us to slightly increase its power level.

So 2GG can get us a 3/4 creature with trample at common—but Siege Rhino is a rare. Rarity, like mana intensity, is a tool that allows developers to adjust the cost and stats of a card. Rarity is mostly relevant for limited environments because it directly effects the number of copies of a card will be seen in each draft or sealed event. This means that the higher the rarity, the more powerful/game changing a card can be at the same CMC because it will be played very infrequently at the draft table. Commons, on the other hand, are much less powerful at the same CMC because, more often then not, multiples of many commons will be opened and played.

Thus, if we were to take our 2GG 3/4 trampler and change it to a rare, we could either make it cheaper or bump up its stats. Since we’re building our own Siege Rhino, which has a CMC of four, we’re going to go with the latter option and slightly push our rare to a 2GG trampler a 4/5, just like Dr. Siegman.

Now, it’s time to cut and paste some lifegain onto our proto-rhino. You might be tempted to take our 2GG mana cost and just add a white mana to it, but not so fast! Conveniently, we have an excellent example of a big green creature that gains life when it enters the battlefield: Loxodon Hierarch. Hierarch is only a 4/4, but it gains us four life and has a reasonable activated ability. By trading a colorless mana for a green mana, we can justify giving the creature trample, and we since our creature is now more green intensive, we can trade one life and the activated ability for an additional point of toughness. This kind of horse trading is obviously more of an art than a science, but whatever formula you use, our current version of Siege Rhino as a 1WGG for a 4/5 creature with trample and ETB gain 3 life seems like a very plausible rare.

The final piece of our rhino-shaped puzzle is, of course, its lose three life ability. We’ve already costed this at a single black mana, but do we just paste the black mana onto our previous iteration, a la Punish Ignorance? Or do we take the same approach as we did with Loxodon Hierarch by cutting a colorless mana and pasting a black mana?

This, my friends, is the real crux of the Siege Rhino question. I am of the opinion that a 4/5 trampler for either four or five mana must have two green mana symbols in its mana cost—and I don’t think that is a very controversial sentiment. The vast majority of four and five mana tramplers have double green in their costs (Creeperhulk, Fangren Hunter, etc), include another trample-capable color (Blitz Hellion), or have a reduced power and toughness for their CMC and rarity (Elderwood Scion). Siege Rhino falls into the first camp: it is an efficiently costed green trampler, and thus needs two green mana symbols.

But what to do about the final addition of Siege Rhino‘s black ability? I honestly think either WBGG or 1WBGG are both defensible costs for Dr. Siegeman. Mor than that, the difference between those two costs is much smaller than the difference between its current cost of 1WBG and WBGG because the mana intensity of the second green mana symbol is a much greater restriction than the additional colorless mana. There is probably a stronger argument to be made for 1WBGG because causing an opponent to lose life is always seen as an additional ability, and thus should be added to the total mana cost, whereas gaining life is closer to half an ability and doesn’t always add to the total mana cost. Lifegain can replace a colorless mana with a colored mana instead, like with Loxodon Hierarch. But, in the end, both WBGG and 1WBGG are restrictive enough mana costs to be reasonable endpoints.

So why did Siege Rhino end up with only one green mana symbol in its cost? I would guess that this mostly has to do with the environment that Siege Rhino finds itself in. Environment is another tool developers can use to determine costs, as a card’s power level is entirely dependent on the context in which it is placed. For example, the key toughness in the Khans of Tarkir Standard environment is five because five toughness allows a creature to survive every legal damage-based removal spell, including Stoke the Flames. Dies to removal? Well, not much can kill a five toughness creature outright.

For Siege Rhino, none of the other KTK wedge cards in its environment have duplicate mana symbols in their costs. (This includes Mantis Rider, Savage Knuckleblade, Rakshasa Vizier, and Butcher of the Horde, not to mention the other cycles.) Again, every tri-color card in KTK has a single mana symbol of each of its appropriate colors. Mark Rosewater has repeatedly stressed the importance of aesthetics in card design, as well as symmetry within cycles, and I believe this is why Siege Rhino lost the second green mana symbol that is appropriate for the size of its body. But a properly costed Siege Rhino wouldn’t have fit into its cycle, so it’s likely that in order to push the card and fit it in a cycle, the second green mana was either replaced with a colorless mana or removed entirely.

Should this decision to not include a second green mana on Siege Rhino be considered a mistake? I don’t actually know if I would call it a mistake per se, but it should be seen as evidence of a card that is boht being pushe very hard and is obviously undercosted for that reason. Wizards has made plenty of mistakes with overpowered cards in the past, but in the intervening years they’ve learned to provide plenty of answers to the cards they decide to push. Disdainful Stroke, Hero’s Downfall, Murderous Cut, Valorous Stance, Chained to the RocksSuspension Field, and even Hushwing Gryff, all play a role in making sure that Siege Rhino doesn’t overpower every other strategy in Standard. But none of those cards can prevent Dr. Siegeman from being the best card in the format, let alone the best card to play on turn four.

The Doomed Travelers are a Destiny-based clan. You can find them at either doomedtravelers.com or @doomedtravelers.

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