Developing Embalm and Aftermath

Posted in Latest Developments on April 28, 2017

By Sam Stoddard

Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.

Hello and welcome to another week of Latest Developments! This week, we'll be going over two of the mechanics in Amonkhet that don't exactly have a lot to do with each other, but come from the same basic idea—a twist on flashback. Those mechanics are aftermath and embalm.

From its very early days in design, there was an understanding that Amonkhet would be another graveyard block. Some of the early planning actually put this block before Kaladesh, with some story changes to accommodate that. The idea was that the Shadows block graveyard themes would overlap with the graveyard themes in Amonkhet. The change to the two-block model blew up a lot of plans, and we ended up moving Amonkhet until after Kaladesh to keep it and Shadows block from being right next to each other in Standard.

The decision to move them apart had some advantages, but also left us not knowing what exactly the graveyard synergies would look like in Amonkhet and how that would overlap with Shadows. In hindsight, I wish we had spent more time solidifying that so we could've had stronger graveyard hate in Kaladesh block.

We actively avoided using every graveyard trick in the book for Shadows over Innistrad, so we certainly had things to do—but we knew we should avoid counting cards or card types, since that was the main thing Shadows was doing. The most obvious space left was flashback, which, although not initially loved by the design team as a reprint mechanic, heavily influenced the two main graveyard mechanics of Amonkhet.

Embalm was the first of the two put into the set. In terms of the design space, it did a good job of offering something new while at the same time allowing for a really great mechanical hook with the white Zombie tokens. Aftermath was added later during design, and it did a good job of allowing for a really wide range of different spell effects in the set. Once you add cycling to the set, if there is one thing you can't say about it, it's that it doesn't have enough decision points for players. When we have a set like this, with that many different options, we spend a ton of time making sure that each one offers something interesting and appealing.

Balancing the Front Half vs. Back Half

Front and back here doesn't refer to the actual sides of the cards (though, maybe in an alternate reality it would have). Instead it refers to how much of the power of the card is in the first casting and how much is in the casting from your graveyard. Whenever we do cards that have additional value from the graveyard, this becomes a huge subject within R&D—mostly because different people have different patterns they like more than others. For me personally, I'm not sure there was ever a more perfect card created than Think Twice. I love how it gives control decks an early play that they can flashback much later, which will help then turn the game around. But, we don't want every card to just be that—we want a mix. It is pretty cool that Honored Hydra is a card you may want to try to discard rather than play. We have cards like Reduce // Rubble that you frequently want to play in succession, and ones like Cut // Ribbons that are very much early-game or late-game types of plays.

A mix like this is important because it allows for a lot of varied gameplay. If you want to build a deck that quickly fills up its graveyard and uses it like a resource, you are probably not going to want to include many copies of Cut // Ribbons, since that aftermath mode doesn't benefit much from "cheating" it. Sacred Cat, on the other hand, is a card that you don't want to cast in the first place. It works much better if you can mill it or loot it away. You don't get a ton of value out of its embalmed body, but you are also not paying much of anything for it.

When making any mechanic like flashback, the challenge is ensuring that the two halves of the card are balanced while still being one appealing card. For example, imagine the following common:

GG
3/3
Embalm 5GG

Is this card good? Well, yes—Kalonian Tusker is a strong card, and this is an all-upside version of it. But still, people would likely rate it lower than the Tusker as a whole because the embalm feels very overcosted and out of place on the card. The card is still "balanced," but not appealing. We could keep moving the embalm cost up, and it wouldn't make the card much less playable.

The trick to making these kinds of cards as fun as possible is having the front half being a little below the power level required to actually see Constructed play so that the embalm mechanic is what gets it over the top. For example, would Angel of Sanctions see play without the embalm ability? Probably not—though, it might at 4/4. So, it's close. What pushes it over the top is the ability to cast it again late in the game. These kinds of balancing points for cards tend to be fun because it means that you get ahead by embalming the creature, but you are likely a small amount behind the curve if you never get to embalm it.

Aftermath has similar challenges, but with even more knobs. As a whole, we still really want the first half of the card to be something that is not quite good enough to play on its own. However, we have a much more useful dial to tweak: the effect can be different. It is much harder to have each half put you up a card or more, then throw flashback on it. Instead, we can make one half about raw card advantage and the other more about board presence. So, while we still don't want you playing the card if you never want to cast the aftermath half, we have the ability to make both sides more individually powerful but narrower. Mouth // Feed is a good example where none of the abilities are strong enough by themselves, just on rate, but when you put them together, you open opportunities for the card to actually see play.

Providing Support

Let's be honest: if there is one thing the graveyard is known for in Magic, it's being used unfairly. We didn't want to repeat the mistakes of dredge, or even delve, when going back to a set like this, but we want you to be able to do things that at least feel like they're in the same ballpark as those mechanics when things are going well. I don't think you will be killing anyone on turn three with either of these mechanics, but there are things you can do to try and abuse the system.

There are different levels of abuse. I really enjoyed how delve played out in Khans of Tarkir block Limited. Getting a turn-three Hooting Mandrills or Gurmag Angler was a really awesome reward for going "all-in" on a deck. But things work a bit different here because the graveyard support is all over the set and not in just one clan. If every deck was doing big plays like that all the time, things would get a little boring. Instead, the graveyard rewards here tend to be much more incremental. Embalming or casting an aftermath spell puts you up a card, so using Tormenting Voice to discard Tah-Crop Skirmisher gives you a little push in the card advantage game. A single play like that isn't going to make or break most games, but a lot of them over the course of the game will.

We also needed to be mindful of what was already in Standard. Shadows block has a ton of graveyard-filling cards, so there wasn't a need to add a lot of very strong enablers here, which is actually kind of good. While there are issues with having Shadows and Amonkhet overlap in Standard, it does get us back to a nice space where there are good seeds for Amonkhet that prevent the certain kinds of block monsters from emerging in the set—which we are dealing with a bit in the energy/artifact-matters decks right now. It was especially nice to be able to build around cards that were set in stone when creating the Amonkhet cards for Standard.

That's it for this week. Next week, I'll be back going over the M-Files for Amonkhet.

Until next time,
Sam (@samstod)

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