Thanks to having a government holiday off that Wizards of the Coast employees do not, I had the opportunity to travel all the way (three miles) to Wizards headquarters and talk to R&D’s Melissa DeTora about Brawl’s development and gameplay. We talked for over an hour and got on plenty of tangents (entirely my bad), but she had fantastic insights on all aspects of Magic design and what kind of support we’ll be seeing for Brawl soon.
Many thanks to Melissa for her time and energy and to Gavin Verhey for suggesting her as an interviewee. And if you haven’t tried the format, Card Kingdom’s Sparring Decks are a $15 entry point – I love the format, and if Melissa’s descriptions of it suit you, dive in!
What is your favorite thing about Brawl?
It’s like a Limited format with a much lower power level than other Constructed formats – I find that enjoyable. A lot of people just like powerful cards, but I like lower-powered stuff – the deckbuilding is way more interesting because the power level is flat. In Commander, you see everyone playing the same few cards – ten of the cards are just auto-includes based on how powerful they are, and then your deckbuilding choices are way more limited. You don’t have that in Brawl or Block Constructed formats.
What are the fundamentals of building a winning Brawl deck?
I build knowing I will always have my commander on the appropriate turn. The deck I just built is Niv-Mizzet, Parun, who seems like the obvious best commander post-rotation. Playing spells, filling up my graveyard with synergy spells… It’s mostly a combo deck, and if I untap with Niv-Mizzet, I’m probably going to win.
The other deck I built recently was Lazav, the Multifarious, doing surveil/reanimator stuff. With Lazav, I know I’m always going to have a turn two play. That’s what makes the format way more consistent than Arena Singleton, for example – you always have the commander.
What are your favorite Brawl strategies?
I view Brawl as like a Limited format, and I like really cool Limited combos, especially build-around uncommons. In my Niv-Mizzet, Parun deck, I use Crackling Drake and Enigma Drake and then go all-in on them with cards like Maximize Velocity, Arclight Phoenix, and Thousand-Year Storm. There are lots of combos, but because it’s singleton, they’re less consistent, so that’s fun.
If you built an Eternal Brawl deck, what are some historical Standard formats/commanders you would want to build with?
I know we’re in Ravnica, but I really like Ravnica; I like multicolored stuff. My favorite Limited format is full-block original Ravnica: City of Guilds. I would probably pick one of the Planar Chaos wedge Dragons to use my favorite draft cards from Ravnica block.
Does Guilds of Ravnica have any design or development specific to Brawl? If so, what is it? (If not, when is it coming?)
In general, we want to make sure that each card in the set has a reason to exist. It’s much harder to make a Commander card in Standard because of power level. When we have a powerful Commander card, it goes in the Commander set so it doesn’t blow up Standard. Very unique legendary cards can see play in Commander as a novel build-around, but a card like Trostani Discordant was designed as a Standard card, and there are better green-white options in Commander for token strategies.
It’s hard to make generically powerful Commander cards in Standard, so they have to be super-buildaroundy. [Melissa told me, and I independently confirmed from someone else in R&D that day, that “super-buildaroundy” is a favorite word of hers. She approved this spelling and hyphenation.]
We do plan on supporting Brawl, and things are coming, but the Wizards workflow takes some time. When Standard rotation happened, we were worried it would reduce caring about the format, so we tried to put some good commanders for Commander and Brawl in Guilds of Ravnica and in Ravnica Allegiance.
We want stores to run Brawl, so we’ll have some incentives to go that way.
When a Standard expansion set has legendary creatures tilted toward Commander play (like Muldrotha, the Gravetide), do you think there is a risk of creating a power level imbalance in Brawl?
The Commanders that we make for Commander in Standard would have to be insanely powerful and blow up Standard… or be super-buildaroundy. Muldrotha does have the limitation of wanting you to play with permanents, so deckbuilding costs like that are what we look to.
Are we seeing more of certain effects (like graveyard exile) in Standard because of Brawl? Is there anything done in developing them to keep them from affecting older formats?
We don’t have more of a certain type of effect for Brawl; it would be for Standard. Since Brawl is based on Standard, anyway, we want there to be powerful answers for cards in Standard.
When playtesting Brawl, one thing we’ve realized is that the mana is just bad – Core Set 2019 tapped duals and Evolving Wilds – but even a two-color deck can be hard to play. We are actively considering the manabase for Brawl in the future to help multicolored decks play out better. We saw this in 1v1 Brawl on Magic Online, where the most popular decks were mono-colored, so we’re thinking about that going forward. The change to a free first mulligan was in part to aid the weaker manabases.
Dominaria brought an unusually high number of eligible Brawl commanders. Will there be an increased frequency of legendary creatures/planeswalkers and making sure various color combinations exist as a part of design changes, or will set needs drive a shift in options from year to year?
Set needs will always come first, but we are mindful of the color combinations that get lost post-rotation, so we’re looking at that and making more legendary creatures.
Do you play Brawl more in duels or multiplayer? Does that match how it’s generally tested in R&D?
I play both. Sometimes it’s hard to find a multiplayer game of Brawl, but there are plenty of individuals who are willing to play a game of Brawl with you. I build my decks for multiplayer, but then I end up playing duels, and the cards don’t work quite as well there sometimes.
Have you ever broken a card for Standard while playtesting for Brawl?
That usually doesn’t happen, because our Standard playtesting is already extensive. There are some cards that we could miss. We don’t playtest the Planeswalker Deck planeswalkers much, but we theory-craft to make sure they’re at a good power level.
Limited does a lot of the heavy lifting for Brawl testing. We don’t playtest Brawl a lot, but there are some times when we’re playing and realize something is a big Standard interaction.
What would you say to someone who thinks Brawl is just the next fad format?
I wouldn’t try and sell someone on it in that way; I’d just tell them what Brawl is and they can do what they want with that. It’s a singleton format that uses a lower power level than Standard. You get to play cards and interactions that aren’t viable in Commander; you get to try out new things. In Commander, the power level is so high that you don’t get to try those things.
I think Brawl is also amazing for new players who don’t have access to a large card pool. My boyfriend is a new Magic player, and when I told him about Brawl, he was excited. His friends play Commander and he gets crushed and it’s so complex; Brawl is much more for him. It’s a great new player format, and it’s great for people who want to do a different, refreshing thing that you can’t do in Commander.
Brandon Isleib plays a lot of Commander and Brawl and loves finding the intersection of unusual and effective plays. He worked for Wizards of the Coast in 2014, he has put flavor text on a few cards, and he’s partly responsible for “create” being the word for cards making tokens. He is a legislation editor for the city of Seattle, he has written a baseball book, and he is proficient at making his bio sound more impressive than it is.