Surprise! Aaron is out of the office this week, so I'm jumping in to guest-write this week's column like a literary Ninja of the Deep Hours. Is it because I co-designed and co-developed Time Spiral, just like Aaron? Is it because my Guildpact and Coldsnap articles became runaway bestsellers? Or is it just because I couldn't resist the chance to write about our final Time Spiral preview card? You could scroll down to the card right now, but first let me take you on a little journey.
Pummel the Goldfish
Our journey begins with this brain-bending puzzle:
Say your starting hand is City of Brass and exactly one other card. You have no deck, and nobody loses to having an empty library. Your opponent, Goldie the Goldfish, has no cards in hand, no permanents, no deck, and 22 life. No word tricks there – the Goldfish does nothing but blow bubbles and take damage. Your mystery card can be any (non-Unhinged/Unglued) Magic card of your choice. What card in all of Magic would you pick to deal 22 damage to Goldie as quickly and reliably as possible?
Lion, Pup and friends
Return of the Fungus
Yes, all kinds of crazy new Thallids return in Time Spiral! The puzzle shows the deceptively high power of the multiplying little Fungus monsters. Who would have thought they would beat Savannah Lions! Thallids have been a huge fan favorite since their release in Fallen Empires. These creepy living molds embody Green's philosophy of growth by building up Spore counters every upkeep, then using them to create Saproling tokens or spell effects. Fallen Empires' Thallid Devourer makes Saprolings like his little Thallid buddy, then eats Saprolings to get bigger. Beefy 6/3 Feral Thallid uses Spore counters to regenerate himself. Thorn Thallid can fire off his Spore counters as bursts of direct damage (Green direct damage? Hey, it's Fallen Empires!) Spore Flower spent counters to cast Fog. And Fungus-impersonator Elvish Farmer accumulated Spore counters, made Saprolings, then “farmed” them for 2 life a pop. Every play group back then seemed to have a “Thallid guy” or two, gleefully putting pennies all over his cards every upkeep, then popping them off as 1/1 creatures, steadily growing a Fungal Force of Doom. And yup, in my group a friend and I were each “The Thallid Guy.” Let's take a look at the way the mold rolled back in ye olden tymes:
You can see a lot of hot 1996 Magic technology here. (I build better decks than this now, I swear!) Start with 20 lands, 20 creatures, and 20 spells and go from there. Why is Mox Emerald in there but not Mox Pearl? Because this was a green deck, and my Pearl belonged only in my white deck. Back then the strategy was to play a ton of thallids, then defend with Spore Flower and Spore Cloud until I got enough Saprolings out that I could cast Stampede or Lure and win the game. Fungal Bloom, four Forests and Spore Flower created an eternal Fog lock that bought you tons of time to make all the Saprolings you wanted. And sometimes I waited for the opponent to attack with everything, then cast Spore Cloud to lock them down for two turns, which was long enough for Team Thallid to go the distance. It was a blast to play and won its share of games. I liked the feeling of inevitability, as your growing army of Thallids grew creatures faster than anyone else without having to pay any costs. And in multiplayer Magic, nobody ever wanted to attack the guy with Spore Cloud in his deck!
The Road to Fungification
Flash forward to February 2005. Brian Tinsman, Aaron Forsythe, Mark Rosewater and I were packing Time Spiral ideas onto an endless parade of whiteboards. Yup, we really started designing Time Spiral more than 19 months ago. Two major themes emerged that form the core of the set even today: 1) Nostalgia and 2) Time as a gameplay resource. What was the overlap between these two concepts – the Venn diagram that would pull it all together? What are Magic players nostalgic for that used time as a resource? It hit us like a unexpected Spore Cloud: Thallids.
So today's preview card is a Thallid Lord that my 1995 self would have killed to get a hold of: An enormous, yet inexpensive monster that makes all your other Thallids way better. A crazy cross between Thallid and Ravenous Baloth. And a true Lord of the Thallids that cranks out way more Fungussy Fogs, direct damage, Regenerations and Saprolings than any Thallid deck ever has before.
Remember, here's the original Thallid's ability:
And here's today's preview card:
The Taste of a New Generation
Yup, in the old days, your Thallids were 1/1 for one mana. Now you get 4/4 for friggin' four. Sporesower Thallid's first ability looks a lot like the original Thallid. But look closely, and you see that this moldy monarch gives a Spore counter to each Fungus you control. So when you play him alongside five of his grimy kin, he creates as many additional Spore counters per turn as playing another six Thallids would. All while applying some Loxodon Hierarch-sized beatdown. You would be psyched about this guy for his body alone, and he's got no “balancing drawbacks” to justify his size – his abilities are all upside.
Sporesower Thallid leads a whole new array of Time Spiral Thallids into battle, many of them nostalgic homages to the cards of old. The design team liked Thallids that used Spore counters to make Saprolings. And we liked Thallids that used Spore counters to create spell effects. So we made most of our new Thallids use Spore Counters to make Saprolings….and to create spell effects. The cool thing about Elvish Farmer was that it could use your whole army's Spore Counters and Saprolings to gain you life, not just its own Spore counters. Every single one of Time Spiral's Thallids generates Saprolings, and many of them can sacrifice any Saproling to create a spell effect, so eachThallid you have feeds all your other Thallids' abilities. Whichever ability you need most at the time, just sacrifice some of the Saproling volunteer pool, and you got it.
While Thallids have been resting since Fallen Empires, Saprolings have been working overtime. From Invasion's Aura Mutation to 9th Edition's Verdant Force to Ravnica's whole Selesnya guild, Saprolings have been oozing out all over. It's no accident that the Ravnica block is full of Saproling generators and the Time Spiral Thallids can sacrifice all those Saprolings to tasty abilities. It's part of a strong push towards cross-block synergy over the last few years. Ever since Standard featured Onslaught Goblin decks with no Mirrodin cards fighting Mirrodin affinity decks with no Onslaught cards, we've been seeding synergistic combinations between cards in adjacent blocks to help decks combine elements from both blocks. We hope this reduces the chance of another “Onslaught vs. Mirrodin” environment. So now you can Supply & Demand for X Saprolings, then start feeding them into the Time Spiral Thallid machine.
Bigger, Better, Moldier
This is a development column after all, and this card certainly had a nice, generous development. Here's the design team's take on a Thallid Lord From the September 30th design handoff:
Creature – Fungus
At the beginning of your upkeep, put a Spore Counter on each Fungus you control.
Remove three Spore counters from Thallid Nurturer: Put a 1/1 green Saproling creature token into play.
Fortunately for everyone, Time Spiral lead developer Brian Schneider loves to take cool ideas and forge them into awesome cards. And his Time Spiral development team, including Michael Donais, Aaron Forsythe, Matt Place and myself, heartily agree. So after 3 weeks of development, Schneider bumped the Thallid lord up to a more beefy size. The team liked the way it played, so we just kept going and going, improving the card again and again and again. Here's the tale of our plucky Fungus rising to epic heroism:
05-09-30 1GG 2/2 Design Handoff
05-10-19 2GG 3/3 Bigger!
05-10-24 3G 3/3 Better!
05-11-18 2GG 3/3 Back to double-colored cost.
05-11-30 2GG 3/4 But using double-colored cost as an excuse to go even bigger!
05-12-05 Name becomes Sporesower Thallid
05-01-16 2GG 4/4 Even BIGGER!
Why so big? Because we like you. And we like Fungus. Heck, Aaron was “The Thallid Guy” in his playgroup too. We were nostalgic for it!
The Green (Bay) Defensive Line
Thallids also helped redefine the role of Green in Time Spiral Limited. In 9th Edition gameplay, white and blue are the naturally defensive colors, featuring Horned Turtles and Foot Soldiers holding the ground while Aven Windreaders roar overhead. But Time Spiral white features tons of Flanking, a keyword that only works on offense. And White and Blue both include a lot of Shadow, a keyword that makes you virtually unblockable, but doesn't let you block at all. So the Time Spiral development team decided it didn't make any sense for Time Spiral white and blue to be as defensive as they are in 9th Edition, Onslaught, and Dissension.
So then which color could take up the slack and actually play defense in Time Spiral? If white and blue don't want to set up awesome blockers and play for the long game, then who does? Let's just say you'll find yourself muttering this phrase over the next few months, when your opponents' attacks stall out and you sit there adding Spore counters: “Time favors the Thallids…Time favors the Thallids…” Our answer was green.
Time Spiral green has more to it than just Thallids of course, and it can certainly beat down with Grizzly Bears, grizzly slivers, Giant Growths, and 5/5's if it wants. But we also created an option there for you to set up a defensive green screen of some awesome walls, a non-Shadow card that can block Shadow (the descendant of green Heartwood Dryad), and the best common Spider of all time. Then you can sit back and grin while the Thallids spread their filthy roots, and you generate a huge mass of 1/1 Saproling tokens that you can sacrifice for all kinds of effects.
I'm also really excited about many “Secret Thallid” cards we seeded throughout Time Spiral, both in green and in other colors. What I mean is cards that don't say Thallid anywhere on them, but are secretly really really good in Thallid decks. Examples of cards in this role (though these specific cards aren't in Time Spiral) are Echoing Courage, Scion of the Wild, or Coat of Arms. Even though they don't say Thallid on them, they sure are sick in those decks.
The Primer Directive
So that's my whirlwind tour of the design and development of Sporesower Thallid. I'd like to hit a couple of topics about tomorrow's Time Spiral prerelease before I go. I'm happy to have gone to 25 of the 28 Magic prereleases since 1997's Tempest. I was one of the guys who avoided reading spoilers so that I could open the packs fresh at the prerelease, enjoy the excitement of seeing all new cards in my hand, and decide on the spur of the moment which ones were good. As a designer and developer starting just before the release of Mirrodin, I've been to every prerelease since then too, and I love seeing that same excitement when the players see new cards for the first time.
Up until now, we would send an FAQ for new sets to our DCI judges on the Wednesday before the prerelease, to help them get ready to judge the events. The FAQ covered all the new set's rules with some full-text card examples to explain how they all worked. Unfortunately, that guaranteed spoiling 6-12 cards per set in the FAQ, taking away some of the mystery of totally new cards.
Our new policy is instead to publish a “Rules Primer” for the new set to magicthegathering.com on the Monday before the prerelease. The Rules Primer has all the details of the new set's rules and mechanics, without giving away any full card texts too early. This lets us maintain more prerelease surprise and fun for everyone who goes. We'll publish an FAQ that's an expanded version of the Rules Primer, including some full card texts, on the Monday after the prerelease weekend. If you're an aspiring judge, you can find the Rules Primer here. If you're a player and really want to study up on Time Spiral rules, I'd stick to Gottlieb's more conversational Time Spiral rules walk-through, posted as this week's feature article. Better yet, don't read any rules at all – just go to the prerelease with your friends and have a blast! All the returning keywords and new abilities have reminder text on the cards that tell you what the abilities do.
Our DCI judges have proved themselves to be an exceptional array of officials in the past couple of years. We're extremely proud of their professionalism and helpfulness, and we're confident that the Rules Primer will give them the rules knowledge they need to help players understand all the new and returning Time Spiral mechanics. It's extremely important to us to give our DCI judges the tools and support they need to do their jobs, and we worked hard to make sure that the Rules Primer does a good job of that.
The Nineteen Month Baby is Born
I played casual Magic without tournaments for many years. One of my earliest tournament experiences was the Tempest prerelease. It opened my eyes to a whole new scale of Magic's community. Just seeing hundreds of Magic players getting together to have fun and sling spells got me really jazzed about just how big Magic really was. It amazed me how many people in my area came together to crack packs, laugh about crazy topdecks, and attack for two. Nine years and twenty-five prereleases later, I still get that same happy feeling. More than any of those other 21, my mind was completely exploded by the prereleases for Tempest, Invasion, Apocalypse, and Ravnica. Time Spiral is going to be the fifth set to do the same thing. I didn't say this for Saviors of Kamigawa. Time Spiral is the real deal. You do not want to miss this one. After nineteen months of work and anticipation, my baby Time Spiral is finally going to be born. And I'm proud as hell. If anyone is going to the Seattle prerelease tomorrow, look for me and the rest of Magic R&D under the Gunslinging signs!