Ninth Time’s a Charm: Part 2

Posted in Latest Developments on August 19, 2005

By Aaron Forsythe

Last time (two weeks ago, to be precise), I talked about what we did to make Ninth Edition a better “learning tool” than the Core Sets before it. This week I'll be discussing how we made the set better for existing players. Like last time, I'll guide my own discussion through a series of questions.

What did Ninth Edition learn from Eighth?

Quite simply that players like nostalgia.

When Eighth was being put together, there was a big push to make it feel “special” somehow to help celebrate Magic's tenth anniversary. The solution R&D came up with was to include at least one card from each expansion set (through Scourge) that had never been reprinted before. So instead of the normal rotation of adding new cards from the most recent two blocks only, suddenly the Core Set was brimming with old-school favorites like Rukh Egg, Intruder Alarm, Nekrataal, and Underworld Dreams. And you know what? Players loved it. Eighth Edition was like a rogues' gallery of various cool cards from the past decade, all of which were available to be drafted and incorporated into constructed decks, Standard and casual alike.

When we set out to create Ninth, we wanted to capture all the good feelings that Eighth gave people… and weed out the stinkers. (Few people were thrilled to see Sage of Lat-Nam and Orcish Spy come back in Eighth, but those cards were really the best the team could do given the restraints of the gimmick and of the Reserved List. I'm sure everyone would have been happier to see Candelabra of Tawnos and Hand of Justice in those slots instead, but alas, we continue to pay the price for the sins of Chronicles. More on this later.) Without the rigidity of “one reprint per set,” we were free to remove, add, and keep cards as we saw fit to really help cement the nostalgic feel of the Core Set.

Verdant Force was a no-brainer—it truly is a card that everyone loves (or at least respects). It is a prime example of a card that elicits an “Oh my, I remember that guy! He's awesome!” reaction from most people that experienced it the first time around in the Tempest era. Newer players may never have played with it, but I'm sure they've heard stories about it or seen it in the display case at the local shop. And the newest players—those that haven't begun to comb through the rich history of the game—can appreciate the awesomeness of the card on its own merits, without any “backstory” at all.

Will-o'-the-Wisp, Jade Statue, Blinking Spirit, and Thundermare are other good examples of old cards that most people are happy to have back, and if you look through the set I'm sure you'll find more that excite you personally.

Like Kird Ape and Hypnotic Specter?

Ah, yes. The power brothers.

One thing that I greatly enjoy about the current crop of developers that work on Magic heavily (myself, Matt Place, Mike Turian, and Devin Low, with Brian Schneider running the show) is that we're always willing to reevaluate just about every old idea concerning how powerful or good for the game certain cards, decks, and mechanics are. Often we just end up reaffirming that the status quo is in fact correct, but sometimes we come to the conclusion that we can afford to make a big paradigm shift. The two aforementioned cards being in Ninth is the result of one such shift.

Both of these cards were once banned in Extended for being “too good.” And this was in a format with Lightning Bolt, Swords to Plowshares, and Force of Will! Ever since then, they've carried that “too good” tag around.

Once the DCI banned Dark Ritual in Extended a while back (before I started working here), I began questioning the belief that Hypnotic Specter was one of the best—if not the best—creature ever printed. Wasn't Ritual the power behind the throne? Is the Specter really an issue if it didn't attack until turn four? I held on to my beliefs about the Specter until shortly after Eighth was finished, at which point I asked Randy Buehler—then the game's lead developer—when we were going to reprint Hyppie. He laughed. I then presented my argument that it wasn't actually a broken card, and that the real culprit—Dark Ritual—was long out of the picture.

By the time we started working on Ninth, Schneider had taken on the lead developer role, and he waffled for a while about the viability of reprinting Hyppie. While he generally agreed that its power level was close to fair, there was still this cloud hanging over the “random discard” mechanic—the general belief was that players hated it. My argument was that the deep-seeded hate was tied to the high power level of the combination of Hyppie, Dark Ritual, and Hymn to Tourach years ago, and that a slower, more reasonable iteration of random discard would be much more palatable and perhaps even—gasp!—fun. Obviously I won that argument, as the Specter is back in all his grim glory. Time will tell if I was wrong and everyone will still end up hating its effect on the game, or if I was right and it simply adds back a “new old” twist to how we all play. Odds of him coming back in Tenth are close to 50-50 at this point—we're just waiting to see what you all think.

With Hyppie on board (assuming he passed rigorous playtesting, of course), we started looking for other cards that could come back and be at a “safer” level that they were in past environments. I can't remember which of us suggested Kird Ape, but he was another perfect fit. The other card that leaps to mind in this category is Quicksand, which was once a staple of control decks. In a world where the biggest threats are River Boa and Soltari Priest, the ‘Sand is an awesome card. But what about now, with Leonin Skyhunter and Troll Ascetic and Arc-Slogger? Maybe it will shine again—that's a chance we're willing to take.

What had to go?

The biggest losses, I believe, were Birds of Paradise, Plow Under, and Bribery.

R&D has been on the “outs” with Birds for years. Both the creative team and many designers dislike the idea of a flying 0/1 Bird being one of the best green cards; after all, green is the color of giant ground-pounders. Developers feel that there is only space for one one-mana accelerator creature in green in the Core Set, and everyone agrees that Llanowar Elves embodies how we want green presented a hundred times better than Birds does. The Birds were given a reprieve by the audience in “Selecting Eighth Edition” and another by their inclusion in Ravnica: City of Guilds, but I'd expect Elves to hold onto their Core Set slot for the foreseeable future.

Plow Under and Bribery both ranked very, very highly in my “What cards do you hate to lose to?” feedback that I asked for last month. As Eighth worked its way through the tournament scene, these were the two cards with the most negative feedback associated with them—they just weren't fun at all. Both cards really punished decks with expensive spells in them, and we feel that the game's nature is punishing to those types of decks enough as it is. In general, we try to remove the “mean unfun power” (like Opposition in Seventh) and replace it with something a little more palatable and fun each time we redo the Core Set. That doesn't imply that we won't be putting “mean” cards into the Core Set any more, it just means that they'll tend to rotate out quickly. As I said before, the verdict on Hyppie may come back that he's “mean power” that everyone hates playing against, and he'll be out the door once again.

The only cards we kind of regret reprinting in Ninth are the “Urzatron”—Urza's Mine, Urza's Power Plant, and Urza's Tower. When we were putting the set together, the “Tron” was not in vogue yet—most Tooth and Nail decks were still using Cloudposts. We think the cards are generally cool and fun and definitely enable all kinds of shenanigans in casual play, but that tournament players have recently been getting frustrated with the swinginess of a Tron assembled early in the game. I don't think they'll be that good once Mirrodin block rotates out, taking Sylvan Scrying, Memnarch, and Mindslaver with it, but it is mildly annoying that Tooth and Nail and Blue Tron decks will still be forces to be reckoned with in post-Ninth Nationals tournaments.

Overall we feel that the changes we made to Ninth from Eighth keep the power level relatively similar (pain lands aside), but what we added was depth and interest. The goal was to include more cards that would be interesting to more different people, and I think the set has one of the best mixes of Timmy, Johnny, and Spike cards of any Core Set to date.

So explain why blue sucks now…

Blue is definitely the worst color in Ninth Edition. The main part of that is that blue's creatures are weak as a whole and that the design space for good ones has recently been squeezed by white. When you think about it, white's creatures and blue's creatures occupy very similar space in the color pie—flying, high defense, tapping, defenders, etc. White's protection mirrors blue's untargetability. White's damage prevention is analogous to blue's -X/-0 ability. Blinking Spirit and Fleeting Image share a mechanic. And so on. When you couple these similarities with the dictum that white's creatures are in general more efficient than blue's, it's easy to see that blue doesn't have much room to breathe.

We've recently been trying to carve out some place for blue creatures to be the best at what they do (aside from the obvious card drawing—no one is complaining that Thieving Magpie and Thought Courier are bad), but at the current time it is simply overshadowed by white. Hopefully over the next few sets we'll be able to recapture some design space for blue creatures.

You may have noticed that blue lacks instant card drawing in the set as well. We've been backing off making those kinds of cards for a few years now as it is generally “too easy” for blue if it never has to tap mana on its own turn. Cards like Whispers of the Muse, Fact or Fiction, and Opportunity make countermagic better, and we believe there needs to be some tension in order for game play to be interesting. In other words, blue mages should be willing to tap mana on their own turn for some benefit.

We're obviously willing to make instants that give the blue player extra cards, like Thirst for Knowledge and Gifts Ungiven. We don't need to make many, though, as the few that we do print see heavy, heavy play and really make blue “tick.” So our general philosophy was to not put any in the Core Set, and instead let the expansion define how good blue control would be by fluctuating the instant card drawing there. That said, I do think we went a bit overboard in Ninth. It probably would have been fine to leave in Inspiration as the one token instant card-drawer.

Countermagic is the same way—it doesn't take many good ones for blue to become dominant, so we didn't want to put many in the Core Set. Mana Leak and Rewind are a great start to any permission strategy, and expansion set cards like Hinder and Annul flesh the strategy out.

There is still some deluded section of the audience that believes blue sucks now in general and keeps shouting from the rooftops that we need to reprint cards like Counterspell, Fact or Fiction, and Brainstorm. They're wrong. All three of those cards would be in the top five power-wise in Ninth if they were included, and blue doesn't need to be that ridiculous compared to the other colors. It should be fair. Even as “fair” as it is now, it is still pretty dominant. Half of the decks in the Top 8 of US Nationals—including all three that eventually made the team—were essentially mono blue. Gifts Ungiven powers the arguably best deck in block constructed, and the most recent block Grand Prix (Taipei) was won by a blue-white creature deck. The color is in fine, fine shape, and Ninth Edition isn't going to do much to affect that.

Was limited taken into account when making Ninth?

Of course! We love drafting, and on Magic Online the Core Set drafts are very, very popular.

One thing we wanted to do when filling out the commons and uncommons in the set was find old cards that were interesting in limited the first time around. Phyrexian Gargantua, Sift, Nantuko Husk, Angelic Blessing, and Rootwalla are a few examples. Simple cards like these help make Ninth limited feel different than Eighth, which was a little side goal of the team's.

Another thing we did to make the two formats feel different was remove a few of the limited-dominating commons and uncommons, like Nantuko Disciple, Spitting Spider, and Fodder Cannon. Of course, we added some new bombs in their place—we'll have to wait and see just how good cards like Flame Wave and Vulshok Morningstar are in this limited environment. I suspect both are game-winners.

Our last goal with regards to limited was to try and eliminate the stalls that plagued Eighth Edition. To that end we removed some of the really defensive cards like Canopy Spider and Staunch Defenders. In the few drafts I've done, the only really bad stall I saw was when one player had a Worship in play, and the other had a foil Worship in play!

What was cut from the set?

Tons of cards went in and out as design and development went on. I don't want to go into it too much, as there's no sense teasing or disappointing people… and besides, we have to save a few tricks for Tenth Edition!

fire imp
worldly tutor

The last two cards I remember being axed were the Portal all-star Fire Imp and the Mirage hit Worldly Tutor—the former because of its similarity to Ghost-Lit Raider in Saviors and its power level, and the latter because of its similarity to a couple cards in upcoming sets. The cards we replaced them with were the less-awesome Whip Sergeant and Summer Bloom. I guess I'll just have to try to get those two in next time!

tithe

Tithe was a card that was almost in but not really. For the life of me I thought it was an uncommon in Visions, and had slated it in as a really nice helper for the upcoming Ravnica dual lands (just like my old pal Wood Elves). Editing was kind enough to point out that Tithe was in fact originally a rare, and was therefore on the Reserved List. Luck would have it that Portal Second Age had a card similar to TitheGift of Estates—that also worked well with the upcoming lands. It was also a rare, but Brian suggested that we move it down to uncommon anyway. A great idea. (Portal sets chipped in a lot of goodies to Ninth. I'm a big fan of Tidings myself.)

I'm generally very attuned to what's on the Reserved List and what isn't, but there were a couple other cards that we erroneously thought were legal to reprint, most notably Zephid and Recycle (it's a little random which cards from the Tempest block and Urza block are allowed and which are not). They were replaced with Daring Apprentice (boo!) and Greater Good (yay!) late in development.

What's the deal with Fishliver Oil?

I'll personally take the credit/blame for that bad boy. One thing I don't want for us to be is predictable. To that end, I always want to include a wide variety of cards of different power levels, nostalgia, and weirdness. Why Fishliver Oil? Because you didn't expect it, and somewhere some kid is putting it on a Sea Monster and going to town. Why bring back Horror of Horrors of all cards? Because almost no one currently playing has any recollection of it. Is it good? Is it useful? Is there some weird thing I can do with it? It's the weird cousin you heard about but never met… until now. Magic has a very long, rich history, and I think we should embrace all of it whenever we can. Even fishlivers.

And for every forgotten oddball we threw in, we also reincorporated some iconics, putting them back in the Core Set where they belong. Welcome back, Sengir Vampire! Hello, Icy Manipulator! Long time, no see, Clone! So, in a nutshell, we hope Ninth Edition feels exactly the way Magic is supposed to feel, while at the same time being a unique experience unto itself. Enjoy!

Last Week's Poll:

Is Mark Gottlieb really the new Magic Rules Manager?
Yes 3296 42.8%
I'm not sure 2912 37.9%
No 1484 19.3%
Total 7692 100.0%

Of course he's the new Magic rules manager. Magic rules are one big logic puzzle, and there's no one better suited in the company for such a puzzle than ol' Doctor Wombat.

I do find it deliciously ironic that one of the cards Mark created as a member of the Ravnica development team is now causing him no end of trouble as rules manager. (Remind me to point the card out a few months from now.) As Mark said the other day, “I am hoisted on my own petard!”

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