Pro Tour Aether Revolt has come and gone and vehicles reign supreme. Mardu Vehicles put six decks into the top eight, the same top eight share that the Eldrazi commanded in Pro Tour Oath of the Gatewatch, but with more homogeneity (the Eldrazi decks came in two flavors: blue-red and colorless, while Vehicles decks were solidly Mardu).

Previously on Drawing Live, we examined the precusors to vehicles. This week, let’s consider what vehicles are. What are the rules of designing of a vehicle? How good does a vehicle have to be in order to be Limited or Standard playable? How powerful can a vehicle get before it’s broken?

The Big Picture

Vehicles are a brand new permanent type, just as Equipment and Planeswalkers once were. Equipment and Planeswalkers became evergreen essentially immediately (well, Planeswalkers had to wait three sets before coming back, but since Alara Reborn, they haven’t skipped a set). It’s unclear whether vehicles are as popular, have as rich a design space, or play as well as those either types, and so it’s unclear whether vehicles are something to expect from Magic regularly going forward.


New permanent types are very difficult to cost effectively and run the risk of being overpowered. Skullclamp, Umezawa`s Jitte, Sword of Fire and Ice, and Jace, the Mind Sculptor are first and second generation instances of new permanent types and they are the most broken instances. It’s hard to correctly gauge the power level of something which has no direct precedent. How do vehicles compare?

So far, vehicles have a pretty high success rate for being powerful. While there are only nineteen vehicles so far, almost half of them have proven to be strong in Limited and Standard. In Limited, Renegade Freighter and Untethered Express have achieved mythic common/uncommon status for how powerful they are. Aethersphere Harvester, Cultivator’s Caravan, Fleetwheel Cruiser, and Skysovereign, Consul Flagship have all seen Standard play. Heart of Kiran proved its dominance in the last Pro Tour. Smuggler`s Copter was so good, it was banned (and unlike equipment and planeswalkers, the first banned instance of the new permanent is from the first set it was introduced).

It’s not surprising that vehicles are hard to balance. Not only are they a new card type, they’re also colorless, allowing them to be included in any deck with creatures. This was a major issue for Smuggler’s Copter and Renegade Freighter; not only were they overpowered and resilient to many forms of interaction, but almost every deck could play them.

How to Make a Vehicle

Vehicles promise the same thing: undercosted stats for the cost of crewing (and sometimes, a little extra, like looting, mana production, or pinging). They look like equipment, but they actually play much more like auras—they require a creature in order to do anything. Unlike auras, they don’t incur card disadvantage when they or their crew die. Moreover, they can often create card advantage as they can often trade for multiple blockers. That’s a whole lot of nobs and subtlety for a mechanic that generally just makes big, dumb creatures.

All vehicles are laughably good for their mana costs, assuming that they didn’t require crewing. Heart of Kiran is a two mana Serra Angel. Mobile Garrison and Irontread Crusher are too big for common, even for green, and Renegade Freighter is comically huge. However, when viewed as auras, the power of vehicles comes into focus.

Mobile Garrison has three power, but because you’re crewing two power, it’s only actually adding one power to the battlefield. Irontread Crusher offers a much better deal of three power, but Crew 3 is a much higher cost (in Limited) than Crew 2. Heart of Kiran only provides one additional power, but flying and vigilance produce enormous value (not to mention the ‘free’ crewing when you have a planeswalker providing a whopping four power).

The most powerful vehicles are those which combine a low crew cost, low mana cost, and power gain of more than one: Smuggler’s Copter, Renegade FreighterAethersphere Harvester, and sometimes Heart of Kiran. The other two powerful vehicles are more expensive, but provide an enormous amount of power and value: Skysovereign, Consul Flagship and Untethered Express. However, if these numbers were slightly tweaked (consider if  Renegade Freighter had Crew 3 or Heart of Kiran cost three mana), the cards would be substantially worse. There may be a lot of nobs, but it’s hard to tweak many of these excellent cards and not immediately make them lousy.

Will Vehicles Return?

Vehicles are hard to balance, but I imagine that, with time, Wizards can find a happy balance for them. The question is whether that’s going to happen.

Vehicles are high complexity, like equipment. It’s not a major strike against them returning, but they fight for the same design space and that makes it harder for vehicles and equipment to both be evergreen (though perhaps they could both be deciduous and trade off slots in sets). In terms of flavor, vehicles can conceivably appear on any plane: sure, most planes don’t have Kaladeshi cars, but they can conceivably have chariots, stagecoaches, juggernauts, or boats. The complexity and flavor of vehicles don’t preclude their return. In addition, their large amount of flavor potentially provides ample design space for them to live in (and from a mechanical standpoint, there are a ton of power/toughness/crew/mana cost combinations one can conceive).

If vehicles do become a mainstay of Magic, it’s difficult to envision them once again being tournament playable—equipment is rarely Constructive competitive, because when it is, it risks dominating the format. Magic has already been burned by vehicles once and is unlikely to push them again.

In short, there are plenty of reasons that vehicles could return. But should they?

The Verdict

I hope that vehicles don’t come back for some time (but I do hope they return someday). They are difficult to properly balance. They are less interesting than equipment, since they play very similarly to creatures. They encourage bad deckbuilding habits—vehicles look like creatures and players incorrectly place them in their curves as though they were creatures. They are high complexity (in terms of rules understanding), generally low complexity (in terms of gameplay), and fight for space with equipment. For all these reasons, I’d be happy to not see vehicles again for a while.

In the future, if vehicles return and are pushed, I’d love to see them receive the Gearhulk treatment. Let them require colored mana in order to function at full efficiency or to be cast at all. Magic’s color pie is one of its strongest assets, since it forces decks to not just play the best cards. Powerful artifacts upset that balance. That’s okay, but as we’ve seen, a few powerful vehicles will not only warp Standard, but homogenize it just as fetchlands and fetchable dual lands did last year. And a homogenous Standard is not a healthy Standard. (I’m not saying that that’s what we have, it’s way too soon to tell, but it’s a definite thing we all want to avoid.)

And that’s all I’ve got to say about that. And, as always, thanks for reading.

—Zachary Barash

Zachary Barash is a New York City-based game designer. He’s played Magic since 1994, but went on a long hiatus, like most folks. He’s currently pursuing his MFA in Game Design at NYU and designs for Kingdom Death: Monster, a game that is most definitely not Magic.

Don't Miss Out!

Sign up for the Hipsters Newsletter for weekly updates.