Following today's Magic: The Gathering ban and restricted announcement, Wizards of the Coast's Play Design team has shared some insight into how they designed MTG cards for the Standard format in recent years, explaining their approach to setting the power levels and their mistake of designing "Oko, Thief of Crowns" for the Throne of Eldraine set.
Magic R&D designer Bryan Hawley admitted that "Oko, Thief of Crowns was much stronger than they intended, and explained how they developed the oppressive Planeswalker card. "There's lots of reasons he wound up as strong as he did, and there's not a clean and easy story to tell," Hawley said. "The story is rooted in the fact that Play Design is (and needs to be) a design team, not simply a playtesting team."
Play Design was focused on testing different structures for the Food archetype, and they revealed that earlier versions of Oko had "most of their power tied up in (a much broader) stealing ability". Although the Food-turning effect was considered more fun, they admitted that they made the card overpowered.
"Ultimately, we did not properly respect his ability to invalidate essentially all relevant permanent types, and over the course of a slew of late redesigns, we lost sight of the sheer, raw power of the card, and overshot it by no small margin"
This reiterates what WotC members Melissa DeTora and Paul Cheon addressed last month during a Magic Arena livestream. DeTora said that Play Design had a goal to make Oko a powerful card in Standard but they underestimated how powerful his +1 ability as a defensive ability to remove creatures and artifacts. "Oko is stronger than it thought it would be, and we are monitoring the format to see see how things are going to shape up after the MC (Mythic Championship)," DeTora said. "So we know it is very strong."
Hawley also summed up the lessons they learned recently when it comes to designing cards, and talked about how three-mana planeswalkers like "Teferi, Time Raveler" and "Oko, Thief of Crowns" are oppressive because of how they invalidate other types of cards. "We'll likely continue making three-mana planeswalkers, but sparingly, carefully, and with the question 'if this planeswalker is strong, what could it push out of the environment?' at the forefront of the conversation," Haley said.
Play Design's primary goal is to make play environments as fun as possible, and part of that has been reverting their decision to power down Standard, which they've gradually done over the course of the last year. Although they've made some mistakes like designing "Oko, Thief of Crowns" that way, they've learned from those mistakes, and hopefully, they will stop printing cards that will hurt the Standard format.