A "Brief"' Discussion on MTG Development - Understanding Color Density

Fri, 2013-08-30 04:55
Creative Direction Award
Kiku's picture

A "Brief"' Discussion on MTG Development - Understanding the concept of Color Density and its effect on Real CMC

As many readers pointed out in the last article, Converted mana cost is not the only tool available to developers when costing cards. The other important factor is color density. There are two kinds of color density, monocolor density (Primalcrux ), and multicolor density (Cruel Ultimatum ). One of developments most powerful tools in balancing cards in the concept of Real CMC that comes from adding in what is known as the color density modifier. One of the most basic examples of this is the card Woolly Thoctar . At first glance it looks horridly overpowered for a card that costs 3 CMC. Being a 5/4 should be worth at least 3 and 3/4 CMC. This is where Real CMC comes into play. Because Woolly Thoctar require you to have a mana source in each of it’s 3 colors, it is very difficult to consistently play it on the ideal turn (the first possible turn you could cast the card) without adding a lot of cards to your deck to help it out. Oftentimes Woolly Thoctar will not be able to come down until the 4th or 5th turn of a game, just because of the color constraints. We could say that having such a high color density modifies the CMC of the card. If we say that costing one mana symbol in 3 different colors modifies the CMC by ¾, than Woolly Thoctar would actually be balanced ( its CMC is 3, but we modify it by 3/4 for the color density, making it's real CMC be 3 and 3/4's, what we said was acceptable for a 5/4). Thus, just like we did last week for evergreen keywords, we need to derive modifiers for each kind of color density. This way, we can derive the real CMC (RCMC for short) of these kinds of cards by adding the density value to the cards printed CMC. One more note should be added about the idea of playing a card on the ideal turn. If we look at Meglonoth in comparison to Woolly Thoctar , we can see that they both require 1 red, green, and white mana. While their color density value is the same, it is significantly easier to cast Meglonoth on its ideal turn (6), because we get so much more time to fix our mana before casting it, as opposed to Woolly Thoctar who demands a perfect mixture of mana to cast it on its ideal turn (3).Thus Meglonoth has a slightly smaller color density modifier than Woolly Thoctar, perhaps down to ½ from ¾, because it is much easier to meet the stricter requirement in time.

Multicolor Density

1 symbol of 2 different colors (Watchwolf ): This could be tricky to land in a deck with more than 2 colors, but should be no problem in a deck with just those two colors. This can modify the cost by as much as ½ CMC, but may only be worth ¼ CMC on cards that are already have high CMC’s, as it will be really easy to meet them in time (see Cloven Casting ).

1 symbol of 1 color, 2 of another color (Necromancer's Covenant ): This will only rarely cause problems in a 2 color deck, but will be very hard to cast on the optimal turn in a deck with 3 or more colors. The modifier is probably around ½ CMC in almost all cases. Honestly this density is more of a designer’s tool to imply that a multicolor cards leans a little closer to one of its colors than the other.

2 symbols of 1 color, 2 of another color (Szadek, Lord of Secrets ): Even in a 2 color deck, this will be hard to cast fairly often. This Will be near impossible to cast on the optimal turn in a 3 or more color deck, especially if it’s CMC is only 4 like Trostani, Selesnya's Voice . This can modify CMC by ½ on an already high CMC card, but on a card like Trostani, it could be up to as much as ¾ modifier.

1 symbol of three different colors (Sprouting Thrinax ): If the CMC is 5 or higher, this will be no problem in most 3 color decks, but at 4 or 3, it will be pretty tough to cast it on the optimal turn. This will pose problems for a deck that wants to run 4 or more colors. This modifies the CMC by ¾, though it can modify by as little as ½ on a card like Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund .

2 symbols of one color, 1 symbol of two other colors (Godsire ): Like with Necromancer's Covenant , this is mostly done by designers to indicate that one color amongst the three is the most important or central. This can modify by up to ¾ CMC, down to ½ CMC on very expensive cards like Godsire .

2 symbols of three different colors: I don’t believe this cost has ever been done on a magic card before. The closest would be the ultimatum’s. Even in a 3 color deck, this will require significant mana fixing to cast reliably on the optimal turn. Near impossible to cast without major mana fixing in 4 or more color deck. This costing works very well to restrict a decks ability to cast powerful cards, and could probably modify the CMC by 1.

2 of 2 different colors, 3 of another color ( Titanic Ultimatum ): At this point, the lowest CMC you can use is 7, so for the most part, we almost never see this. You can use this kind of costing to emphasize a specific color in a 3 color deck, but it’s going to be really difficult to cast spells with this kind of cost. This can definitely modify CMC by 1.

1 symbol of 4 different colors (Yore-Tiller Nephilim ): Mana fixing required. Cards like this will almost have to be run in 5 color decks with expensive land bases, or else they will be a turn or two behind while they Cultivate for the proper lands. Cards with this cost can be quite strong compared to other CMC 4 cards, potentially modifying by 1 CMC, or even 1 and 1/4 CMC if the card costs exactly 4 mana.

1 symbol of all 5 colors (Maelstrom Nexus ): Due to the difficult nature of acquiring every color, these kinds of cards get to be enormously powerful. Sliver Queen and Sliver Overlord cost just 5 CMC, but because of the color density, most decks will need to spend turns using cultivate to get the colors they need. The only other option is to buy a very expensive land base that will chip away at your life total (shocks and fetches), and so these cards can be as strong as CMC 7 or 8 cards, thus giving them modifiers of up to 2 or 3 CMC.

2 symbols of all 5 colors (Progenitus ): This has only been done on Progenitus, but it’s worth noting just how powerful that card is. The reason is that this is probably the heaviest color density you will ever see on a magic card (the name progenitus gets fairly cramped in the frame, you might be able to fit just one more mana of one of the colors to emphasize it) and so the end result gets to be this strong. Color density is an important part of how you balance cards, and this is the most extreme case for the most extreme cards. The modifier is at least 3 CMC, if not even 3 and ½.

Monocolor Density

Quick reminder: Even in Monocolor, color density still means much more at lower CMC’s because it means you need to aquire that much mana of those specific colors in time to cast it. A card that cost GG is much harder to cast on the optimal turn than a card that costs 3GGG. The other thing to note about Monocolor density is that no matter how intense you make the cost, it will still be very easy to cast the card on the ideal turn using a straight monocolor deck, and so that method doesn’t really work to balance out cards (effectively, there is no difference in the diffiuclty to cast a card that costs Blue mana symbolBlue mana symbolBlue mana symbolBlue mana symbolBlue mana symbolBlue mana symbolBlue mana symbolBlue mana symbol compared to a card that costs 4 mana symbolBlue mana symbolBlue mana symbolBlue mana symbolBlue mana symbol). Developer’s increase the Monocolor Density of a card to make it less splashable, thus making it so the card can’t be run in any deck that wants it, but only in decks that are willing to commit to it as their main color. We change Monocolored density to influence limited so that the best cards can’t be easily splashed into every deck. Instead they require a heavy commitment to that specific color. If we didn't do this, everyone would try to splash black in their zendikar sealed decks if they opened Gatekeeper of Malakir or Vampire Nighthawk .

1 colored mana symbol (Llanowar Elves ): Splashable, any deck with a decent number of basic lands of this color could run it. Essentially no modifier for this kind of cost.

2 colored mana symbols (Garruk's Companion ): Some commitment will be required. Even in just a 2 color deck, you may have trouble landing this on the optimal turn in the average game if the CMC is low enough (2 or 3). On 2 or 3 CMC cards, modifies by about ½ CMC, on anything beyond that, by ¼ CMC.

3 colored mana (Leatherback Baloth ): You better have a very heavy commitment in this color. It will be near impossible to land this on the optimal turn in a deck with 2 colors if the CMC is around 3 or 4. Highly recommended to just go monocolor or monocolor with a small splash if you want to get the most out of these cards. This can modify by as much as ¾ CMC on cards with a CMC of 3 or 4, down to ½ a CMC on cards costing 6 CMC or above.

4 colored mana and above (Dawn Elemental ): Quite frankly, these just don’t happen. 3 mana should be more than sufficient to guarantee a card is only strong is a monocolored deck, and 4 would be the upper limit on color density for non-gimmick monocolor cards. Primalcrux and Khalni Hydra can happen, but their effects are gimmicks so that their abilities can flow more smoothly. 4 colored symbols or more would modify the CMC by 1, and no matter how much higher than 4 symbols of one color you go, that shouldn’t change, because in a monocolored deck, it just won’t matter.


Today's article comes courtesy of the readers who commented last week. I hadn't even planned on covering this topic until they brought it up, and now, the articles live. If you have any feedback, feel free to post below. Whether you Loved it, hated it, or you have article suggestions, let me know!

Join me next week for a more in depth discussion of the relative worth of Power/Toughness combinations!

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Fri, 2013-08-30 22:14
Lordpat's picture

Very nice article. While I am aware this is about casting cost, I believe pointing out Door to Nothingness is noteworthy. It is such a density that pulling it off means a game won (unless you are playing against more than one player). You do need to wait a turn though.

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Fri, 2013-08-30 22:37
Elf-Goblin Guy

2 colors 3 symbols each as in Krond the Dawn Chad requesting

Fri, 2013-08-30 23:18

A good discussion topic.
Here is my approach:
Each colourless mana is worth approximately 2 points of power or toughness
The first coloured mana of a given colour is worth 3, and each is worth 0.25 less, to a minimum of 2; eg: Green mana symbol is 3, Green mana symbolGreen mana symbol is 5.75 (3+2.75) and Green mana symbolGreen mana symbolGreen mana symbol is worth 8.25 (3+2.75+2.5)
The above rule applies for each different coloured mana. eg: Green mana symbolBlue mana symbol is 6 (3+3), Red mana symbolGreen mana symbolWhite mana symbol is 9 (3+3+3; matching the woolly), Green mana symbolGreen mana symbolWhite mana symbolWhite mana symbol is 11.5 (3+2.75+3+2.75)
Keywords are generally worth 1 or 2 points; Evasive abilities tend to be worth 2 while most others are 1.
This system is not perfect, and doesn't cover everything, but I find that it is a good starting point for balancing creatures.


Sat, 2013-08-31 08:55
Maxi's picture

Really good article.
I generally apply the rule that 1 colored mana can be traded for 2 colorless and, on multicolored cards, I add Half Mana mana for each color beyond the first. It doesn't always work, but i'm quite satisfied with the results.

PS: Can you write a mini-article on hybrid mana?

Tue, 2013-10-15 17:47

An article on hybrid mana would be very interesting. They seem easy to get wrong... and of less value when compared to 1 color mana. a Blue/red mana symbol can be paid with 2/5 of basic lands, were Blue mana symbol or Red mana symbol fit only in 1/5 each.

Mon, 2014-02-03 17:57
emlit's picture

Here's an great WotC article on hybrids you may want to check out if you haven't already:



Check out my showcase threads:

War of the Ring: http://magicseteditor.sourceforge.net/node/8510

Duel Decks: Holy vs. Unholy: http://magicseteditor.sourceforge.net/node/11996