On the Rise, Part II

Posted in Feature on April 5, 2010

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

Previously on Making Magic:

A desire to keep the "lands matters" theme to two sets and a substantial third act shift pushed R&D to make the final expansion of the Zendikar block a large set with a mechanical reboot. The task was given to Brian Tinsman and his design team (Aaron Forsythe, Graeme Hopkins, Devin Low, Greg Marques, and Bill McQuillan). Their task was simple: make a set that imagines a world in which the monstrous Eldrazi have broken free of their prison inside Zendikar. To do this, the team figured out how to make the Eldrazi, imagining them into giant colorless creatures. With that task accomplished, all that remained was to craft an environment where they could be played.

Welcome to the second week (of three) of Rise of the Eldrazi previews. This week I'm going to explain how Brian and team created a design to make the Eldrazi relevant. Along the way I'll tell you more about the set and even show you a preview card showing off what I consider to be the coolest new mechanical thing in Rise.

Quick aside, if you don't want to see any cards from Rise of the Eldrazi (and seriously I applaud you if you want to approach the prelease fresh), run away now. All sorts of spoiler-y stuff is going to happen in today's column. For example, I'm going to use cards from the Visual Spoiler in the product section as examples throughout the column. If you want to stay blissfully uninformed wait to read this until after the Prerelease.

The Path to Eldrazi

To understand the challenge the design team faced, let's begin by looking at the colorless Eldrazi. (I say colorless because there are some colored Eldrazi that do thing like make Eldrazi Spawn, but for the purpose of the Eldrazi I'm talking about let's stick to the colorless giant ones.) Here are all the ones public as of today's column.

Let's begin with the biggest sticking point. In order to have the Eldrazi feel the way the Eldrazi needed to feel, they ended up at a very high power level with appropriately high mana costs. The cheapest of them cost and the most expensive is . In faster Limited environments, such as Zendikar, the game is often over before you're able to play a seven-drop. The solution to this problem was two-fold:

Solution #1: Slow the game down

The first trick to getting out large creatures is making the game last to the point where you can cast them. This is obviously a big shift from Zendikar and Worldwake, one that is important to understand when you sit down to play Rise of the Eldrazi. These games (I'm talking Limited here) are going to go longer. A card like Glory Seeker ( for a 2/2) that would be a reasonable attacker in most Limited formats is significantly weaker in this format.

Let's walk through some of the ways the design team slowed down the format:

"Walls matter" – How do you slow down creatures attacking? By using creatures designed to stop such a thing. One of the themes of Rise of the Eldrazi is creatures with defender, or in the Magic vernacular, "walls." (Note that not all creatures with defender are technically the subtype wall so that's why I put the quotation marks around the word. The theme is really "defender matters." I just like using slang.) While these "walls" tend to be good at stopping attackers, many of them have secondary abilities that are also important, such as:

Not only does the set have a lot of "walls," it has a number of cards that care about how many creatures with defender are in play. Cards like this:

Rise has a lot of defenders and cards that care about defender. It's hard for beatdown creatures to do their thing when two-drop defenders can have 3 power.

Note that the "wall" theme shows up in all five colors but that red has the most in common (a little counterintuitive, I agree—yet another argument we had during development) and that white, green and red have more "defender matters" cards.

"Auras matter" – Just as with "defender matters," there are two ways to do this. First, you can make really good Auras. That definitely makes them matter. Second, you can make cards that care about Auras. The design team did a lot of the first and a smattering of the second. The biggest push towards awesome Auras comes with a new mechanic called totem armor:

The idea behind totem armor was to offset the inherent card disadvantage of Auras. Normally when you play an Aura on a creature you have the vulnerability of being "two-for-oned"—that is, your opponent can spend one card (a kill spell) to make you lose two cards (your creature and your Aura). Totem armor prevents the two-for-one because it saves your creature. The Aura acts as a safety net.

Totem armor also plays into another theme of the set: growth. Another reason that the Glory Seekers of the world have a problem in this format is that the creatures tend to grow over time. Totem armor does this, as most of them make the creature bigger. More on this growth theme in a moment.

There is not yet an "Aura matters" card in the Visual Spoiler, and I've saved my preview slot today for something, cooler so you'll just have to trust me that you will be able to build decks where the fact that you have a lot of Auras will be rewarded.

Totem armor Auras show up in green, white, and blue.

Levelers – I often talk about how you have to learn to expect the unexpected from a Brian Tinsman set. Well, Rise of the Eldrazi delivers on the promise. You thought this was strange?

How about this?

For those of you that haven't read the mechanics overview, here's the quick rundown. When you play a leveler, it starts at level 0. Kargan Dragonlord, for example, begins as a 2/2 with level up. Whenever you could cast a sorcery, you are allowed to pay the level up cost. If you do, the card gets a level counter and goes up a level. (The level equals the number of level counters on the card. That's why creatures start at level 0; this was a huge issue during development, but you'll have to wait for Level Up Week to hear the full story.) Once it reaches a level shown in one of the arrow symbols on the left side of the card, it gets the abilities and power/toughness next to that symbol. Say what?

I'll walk you through it. You spend one red mana to level up Kargan Dragonlord once. It is now level 1. Spend three more red mana to level up three more times. It is now level 4. The first arrow to the left side of the text box says "Level 4-7". As Kargan Dragonlord is now level 4, it becomes that version of the creature and is now a 4/4 with flying, but it still has the level up ability, which doesn't depend on a particular level. Once you level it up four more times it will be level 8 and will have the abilities and power/toughness corresponding to the second arrow, turning into an 8/8 trampling, firebreathing flyer.

How and why did the levers end up in Rise of the Eldrazi? Were the Eldrazi not enough crazy for one set? The answers to both these questions travel back to Brain Tinsman and something he did in a set long before Rise of the Eldrazi. The set in question was Eventide. The card was this:

Figure of Destiny

Figure of Destiny is the product of two of Brian's design loves: doing things that have never been done before and top-down design. One of Brian's most famous designs is this card:

Form of the Dragon

You, the planeswalker, turn into a dragon. You don't get more out-of-the-box and top-down than that. Figure of Destiny was Brian trying to tap into some of the fun that many fantasy games such as Dungeons & Dragons tap into, the idea of characters "leveling up." Figure of Destiny was Brian's way of encapsulating a creature leveling up over time.

One of the issues that came up surrounding Figure of Destiny in Eventide design was that we were wasting an amazing idea on a single card. R&D really liked Figure of Destiny and there were those that felt that we should save it as something to build a whole set around. I argued against holding it off because I was interested to see what the public thought. If it was a popular to the players as it was to us, we could bring it back. Experience has taught me that players are just as happy when things they love return as when we surprise them with new things.

Flash forward to Rise of the Eldrazi design. By this point the adventure world flavor of Zendikar had been established. The team was trying to figure out what happens to a plane where malevolence is released upon the world. The inhabitants would surely fight back. After all, Zendikar was no picnic before the Eldrazi rose out of the ground. The adventurers weren't going to give in without a fight. They would be the ones to fight the Eldrazi.

As the team talked about how to flavor adventures in an adventure world, talk of Figure of Destiny popped up. The card had demonstrated that "leveling up" as a flavor could not only work on a card but also be popularly received. There were a few problems though.

First, Figure of Destiny was very texty. It was the kind of thing you could get away with on a single rare, not multiple cards at common. The major problem with textiness is that it causes confusion issues. Once you get to four or more lines, text just hard to parse. Yes, we do it on cards at higher rarities, because we believe the game can handle some textiness, but we make a strong effort to keep low rarities, especially common, less texty.

The solution to the textiness issue was a new frame treatment. Rather than spelling out what happens at each level in words, we could use elements of the frame to convey it more graphically. This would both make it easier to understand what the card can become and allow us to fit more onto the card than could fit if spelled out solely in words.

Second, Figure of Destiny had a more complex issue. Because we wanted you to spend mana over time, we made the "leveling up" an activated ability. As restricting this to sorcery speed would have added even more text, we allowed it at instant speed. It was clear to the design team, though, that allowing every card to level up at instant speed was going to be a problem. Creating a new frame allowed us to make use of a keyword tucking the sorcery speed of the change into the reminder text.

I've gotten plenty of mail and tweets from players that are quite upset about the sorcery restriction for the upgrades. Why did we do it? There are a number of reasons, but here is the main design one. (This snippet is from an article I wrote called Decisions, Decisions, Part I; since it said it so well I decided to just reprint this explanation rather than paraphrase it.)

As today is a design principle day, I'm going to define a bunch of terms to help clarify what I'm talking about. Let me stress that I'm going to twist the meaning of some of these words to get the connotation I need. While the English language is vast, it still can fail when you start talking in fine detail, so please pardon me as I whip a few words into the shape/definition that explains my point.

For today's lesson I am going to separate decisions into two different categories: options and choices. (One last time, I understand that from a strict dictionary definition, these two words are synonyms, but for my purposes today I am going to define them to represent distinctly different things.)

Options are additive decisions. That is, they are choices that give the player an additional ability that does not come into conflict with previous abilities. An easy way to think of this definition is like options for a car. If you opt to get a radio, you are not lessening any other feature to do so (leaving cost out of the equation). Your air conditioning, as an example, is not compromised in its ability to cool the car because you have a radio.

Choices are interactive decisions. That is, they are decisions that impact the use of other abilities in the game. Yes, you gain new functions, but at the cost of old functions. An easy way to think of this definition is like choices for a hair style. You could cut your hair short, but then that might prevent your ability to get a perm. Or if you dye it all one color, then you can't also have it be a different color.

Options and choices each present decisions, but they do so in very different ways. Options make you choose what you want to do while choices make you choose how you want to do it. Each has a role and purpose in games and as such a game designer will make use of both. That said, I don't believe these two types of decisions are of equal value to game design. It is my opinion that choices make for much better game play than options.

At first blush, a lot of people seem surprised when I say that. How are options not simply better than choices? They are, in life, when maximizing opportunities is a valuable thing. Would you rather have "a radio and air conditioning" or "a radio or air conditioning"? Obviously, you'd rather the former as it gives you, the person, more say in how you get to function. But games are not life; not even close.

Games are about making interesting decisions. Games are about mentally challenging yourself and finding solutions in the midst of obstacles. What makes games fun is the restrictions. I often talk in Making Magic about how "restrictions breed creativity." Well, it turns out that restrictions also breed good game play. (For those of you that want to ponder what that means about the correlation between creativity and good game play, go ahead, but I'll save that topic for another day.)

Too often, I think people forget why they play games when evaluating a game. I think this problem stems from the fact that games ask something of a person that they tend avoid everywhere else. As such, this causes players' natural instincts to be a little bit off. Why would you want to do something that seems completely impractical in other parts of your life?

Another way to think of it is this. Let's assume that all level up was done at instant speed. What would happen? With rare exceptions, you would only use it in one of two cases: 1) at the end of your opponent's turn when you have untapped mana that would go to waste, or 2) when responding to a spell or effect that would destroy your creature if the new level would save the creature. The problem with these two uses is that they don't create any choices. The player isn't ever forced to evaluate and make decisions based on incomplete information.

I have a lot more to say about levelers and their design, and development but this column is about much more than them and we have a theme week dedicate to the level up mechanic coming in a few weeks, so I promise to talk about the many issues during the theme week. (I'm sure the thread to this article will kindly bring up some issues for me to discuss.)

The one last point to make before I move on is that the levelers are great in Limited. With the exception of a few narrow levelers at rare, if you have levelers available in your colors at the Prerelease, play them.

Speaking of narrow rare levelers, I have a cool leveler to show you.

This card was created as a top-down wizard. The idea was that as the wizard mastered his spells, he becomes stronger and stronger at wielding his magic. As a huge fan of both copying things and doing things twice, I asked to be the one to show this card off.

Levelers are in all five colors but are weighted towards white and blue. Also, the leveler helper cards are in white and blue. (Yes, there are leveler helper cards.) In Limited, a leveler-heavy deck will play either white or blue, usually both.

Solution #2) Create tools to get them out more quickly

Another way to solve the problem of casting expensive spells besides slowing things down is speeding things up—just for you that is. The Rise design team worked very hard to try and come up with a cool mechanic that could help you get out giant Eldrazi. The solution was this:

The Eldrazi Spawn token. Yes, this little 0/1 creature token is very important to Rise of the Eldrazi. Another quick Limited tip: Do not underestimate the importance of the Eldrazi Spawn tokens. Most of the cards that create them are pretty good, and a few are very good. They were created to make sure that players could get mana boosts to play their expensive spells and they do this job excellently. For example, if you open this guy:

... and you have an inkling to play anything on the expensive side, it should be in your deck. Remember that the Eldrazi (and other expensive cards in the set) are viable, but only if you use the available resources to cast them.

How did the Eldrazi Spawn tokens come about? The first incarnation actually wasn't a creature. At first, the mechanic gave players counters that they could sacrifice whenever they wanted to get one colorless mana. There were a few problems with the counters, but the relevant one for this discussion was that they were not very interactive. As you will see next week when I explore how the design and development teams made use of all these tools created to make the Eldrazi work, having the mana producers be creatures opened up lots of interesting design space.

The set also has some other mana ramps and like the Eldrazi Spawn tokens they are not to be underestimated. I cannot stress enough that the conventional wisdom that giant monsters are too expensive to play in Limited is wrong in this environment, but only if your deck is built to get them out. Also, don't be afraid to play extra land if your deck requires it.

Eldrazi Spawn token makers show up in black, red, and green. This means that decks with numerous Eldrazi are more likely to involve these colors.

Give a Rebel Eldrazi

So the design team spent a lot of time making the environment hospitable to the Eldrazi. This caused them to put a lot of different elements in the set. But all these pieces didn't necessarily play nice with one another. In addition, their existence required design to figure out what else the set was going to do with them. I'll talk about this challenge next week for Part III.

Until then, may you play levelers and Eldrazi Spawn tokens at the Prerelease.

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