Aether Way, Part 1

Posted in Making Magic on January 16, 2017

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.

Aether Revolt previews are over, which means it's time to start telling some card-by-card design stories. There are a lot of stories to tell, so let's dive in.

The Automaton Cycle

This is an artifact creature cycle in Aether Revolt. Each is an artifact creature able to be cast with generic mana that has an activated ability which requires colored mana and does an effect within that color's part of the color pie. This cycle exists for a few reasons. First, Aether Revolt has a slightly stronger "artifacts matter" theme than Kaladesh, and as such there are more reasons for wanting to get more artifacts into your deck. In Limited, where you only get so many noncreature slots, artifact creatures do a good job of helping you increase your artifact count.

This cycle is designed so that each card is more attractive to players in that color, but still useable in a pinch if you need extra artifacts in your deck. Cycles like this are important for helping Limited work while also helping guide players when building a casual artifact deck. Note that the effects chosen for each creature tie into the themes of that color. White, for example, lets you bounce your own creatures to help enable revolt, while green adds +1/+1 counters to help its own +1/+1 counter–boosting theme.

Note that each card in the cycle costs three mana or less to help fill out low-end creature curves. As is often the case with cycles, we use a naming convention (in this case the word "Automaton") to help draw players' attention to the connection.

Aerial Modification and Siege Modification

In Kaladesh, red and white were the two colors most tied to Vehicles. That doesn't change in Aether Revolt. These two cards offer up a new way to turn on your Vehicles: enchanting them. Instead of crewing a Vehicle, you can enchant it with a Modification, which will both turn it into a creature full-time (as long as it stays enchanted) and also give it a boost of some kind. We had actually talked about this in Kaladesh design, but decided it was better left as a tweak for the second set than something to offer up right away.

Note that the cards say "Enchant creature or Vehicle" because we wanted to make the cards as flexible as possible. If you don't happen to have a Vehicle, the Modifications can just be used like a normal Aura on a creature. This matters not just for Limited where you won't always have Vehicles to play, but also in Constructed games where your Vehicles stubbornly won't show up.

Aether Inspector / Swooper / Poisoner / Chaser / Herder

Once the decision was made to not use Fabricate in Aether Revolt, there was a problem. Aether Revolt has a strong "artifacts matter" theme, especially with the mechanic improvise, which requires a threshold of artifacts to be efficient. One of the ways Kaladesh made its "artifacts matter" theme work was creating a lot of artifact creature tokens. That meant that Aether Revolt would have to find a flavorful way to create its own artifact creature tokens. This cycle was one such way to do this.

This design was made in development, but it paralleled a cycle we had originally made in Kaladesh. Wanting to find a flavorful way to make artifact creature tokens, we also tied it to the energy mechanic. The cycle ended up having to be removed when we added fabricate to Kaladesh, as we wanted the mechanic to be the major focus of artifact creature production. Interestingly, I don't think the development team was aware that this cycle previously existed. As often happens in design, two teams trying to solve a similar problem with the same tools come up with solutions that look a lot alike.

Aethergeode Miner

I often talk about how we make designs to make the Vorthoses happy, but I spend a little less time talking about making the Mels happy. Aethergeode Miner is a very elegant Mel design. One of the new mechanics in the set is revolt. Revolt cares about whether or not a permanent you control has left the battlefield. To enable revolt, you need to figure out how different colors can help trigger it. For white, there were a few ways, but the most fruitful was flickering (also known as blinking). "Flickering" is R&D slang for exiling a permanent and then bringing it back to the battlefield, either immediately or at end of turn.

A creature that could activate to flicker would be a great revolt enabler. In fact, possibly a little too good, so we had to find a way to restrict how much it could be activated. Adding "only activate this once per turn" would do the trick, but is a bit inelegant. The next option was to make it an attacking trigger. That restricts it to be using once per turn and only on your turn. The problem with attack triggers though is that you have to put the creature at risk to get the effect.

Add on top of this the fact that Aether Revolt was looking for new ways to play around with energy and you get a very elegant solution to the various problems. Aethergeode Miner gives you energy when it attacks. Normally, this would be troublesome because a 3/1 is very easy to kill in combat, but it has an activation that you can use, taking advantage of the energy you just got to flicker itself if things go badly. This discourages your opponent from blocking the Miner if doing so lets another creature through.

If the Miner can get through, you've now pocketed away some energy to either save for later or to use on another energy cost. And every time you flicker the Miner, you're enabling your revolt. A nice, elegant design.

Ajani Unyielding

As I said when the Gatewatch first formed, it's always been our intention that the team would grow over time and that we'd see other Planeswalkers join the group. Who better to be the first non-monocolor planeswalker to join but Ajani, the ultimate team player?

A conversation on my blog about Ajani made me realize that a lot of people might not know the main conceit of the character. Ajani is all about helping others. He is a healer, someone who can aid those who are injured. He is a teacher, someone capable of helping people learn more about themselves. He is a leader, someone who knows how to inspire those around him and push them to do great things. In short, Ajani is very much defined by what he can do for others.

As such, his magic has always been about enhancing other creatures and/or planeswalkers. Ajani is most powerless when he is alone. His magic is never turned inward, always outward. That is why he is such a great candidate for a team because his power suite is designed for working with others.

Let's walk through Ajani's abilities and talk about where they came from. His +2 ability allows him to seek out others who can aid him on his quest. This ability is a combination of green and white. Green is able to get creatures (and lands, although this ability skips lands) from the top of the library while white is able to get artifacts, enchantments, and planeswalkers.

The -2 ability is a white ability. It removes creatures but gives the controller something in return. This type of ability goes all the way back to Limited Edition (Alpha) and the card Swords to Plowshares. Long-time readers know I have a beef with Swords to Plowshares, not because white shouldn't be making trades like this but because the power level of Swords to Plowshares made it eclipse black in creature removal—and black is supposed to be more efficient at that than white. Of the three abilities, this is the least "Ajani helping others" in flavor, but Ajani is a fighter, so a little creature control is acceptable character-wise.

The -9 ability (aka what we call the "ultimate") is two abilities. Putting five +1/+1 counters on each of your creatures is a green ability. White can put +1/+1 counters on creatures, but is usually limited to no more than two. Once you start getting to boosts of +3/+3 or more, we start getting into green's part of the color pie. Putting five loyalty counters on other planeswalkers is a white ability.

All these abilities come together to make a pretty sweet Ajani card.

Baral, Chief of Compliance

When we returned to Kaladesh, we knew there were three characters we had to see again. One was Pia, Chandra's mom. The second was Mrs. Pashiri, a friend to the Nalaars. We made a card for each of them in Kaladesh. The third was Baral. For those that don't know Chandra's backstory (which you can read right here), Baral was the Consulate official who chased the fugitive Nalaar family out of the city and was ultimately responsible for the death of Chandra's dad (and, as far as Chandra knew, her mom). Baral was in the act of executing Chandra when her spark first ignited and she planeswalked for the first time. Suffice it to say, Baral is not that nice of a guy.

From the story, we knew that he could do some magic, mostly using it for some sort of control. I believe there was talk about whether he was mono-white, mono-blue, or white-blue, but the story team ending up choosing to go with mono-blue. Each of the legendary creatures in the Expertise cycle was designed to be something a deck could build around. For Baral, we liked the idea that he was for a spells deck, a deck that focused on instants and sorceries.

The first ability made them cheaper to clearly communicate what the deck wanted to focus on. The second ability allows you to loot (draw and discard a card) whenever you counter something. This further narrows the deck into being more of a control deck, matching the character.

Cogwork Assembler

I often tell the stories about the mechanics that make it to print, but there are even more stories of the mechanics that never do. Cogwork Assembler (and Saheeli Rai) are the final remnants of a mechanic that once upon a time seemed poised to be a darling of the Kaladesh block. The mechanic was called reverse engineer and was based off of a card called Heat Shimmer from Lorwyn.

Instead of making a token copy of a creature for the turn, reverse engineer made a token copy of an artifact. The mechanic was first created in Kaladesh exploratory design and it was a lot of fun. A lot of elements that ended up in Kaladesh got their start because they played so nicely with reverse engineer.

Kaladesh design ended up making five mechanics we liked. It became apparent, though, that the five mechanics in combination were too high in complexity, so we chose to drop down to three. Energy had to stay as it was the backbone of the design. Vehicles were a splashy thing that players had clamored about for years. That left just one slot. Reverse engineer proved to be not simple enough, as energy and Vehicles were both on the more-complex side. Fabricate would ultimately nab the third spot.

But the Kaladesh design team really liked reverse engineer, so we pushed it off to Aether Revolt. The design team of the large set is supposed to think about what the small set wants to do, and we often will give them mechanics that we think might work. The Aether Revolt team played with reverse engineer, but it was ultimately killed for being a bit too problematic developmentally. The effect just wasn't something we wanted on enough cards to merit keywording the ability.

We ended up putting it on one card in Kaladesh (remember that Saheeli Rai was added during development) and one in Aether Revolt. So when you play Cogwork Assembler, you can have a little glimpse into what early Kaladesh design was like.

Consulate Crackdown

This card's design is a good example of doing a top-down story spotlight card. The spotlight cards are telling the major beats to the story, and we want to make a card that mechanically captures the flavor.

The goal of any top-down spotlight card is threefold:

  1. We want to accurately capture the flavor we're trying represent. In this case, it's the first story beat of Aether Revolt. The Consulate has taken away all the inventions at the Fair from their inventors.
  2. We want the card we're making to be fun to play. Perfectly capturing the flavor with an unusable card isn't really solving the problem.
  3. It's ideal to let the card have some novel element to it. Yes, we can put a story spotlight on a staple effect, but it doesn't do as good a job of drawing attention to the card.

So, we needed to represent a crackdown of inventions. Okay, if it's the Consulate, that probably means the card is white and/or blue, as those are the colors of the Consulate. If it's blue, we could literally take control of the opponent's artifacts. But the Consulate isn't really using the artifacts, so the flavor's a little off. They're taking them away so the owners can't use them.

At some point, we thought of it as the Consulate putting the artifacts in jail. And that we have an effect for. White often exiles things for as long as the permanent that produces the effect stays on the battlefield. What if we did that effect, but instead of a single creature, we take all of the opponents' artifacts. Let's check it against our three goals.

  1. The flavor is spot on.
  2. The card feels like it has a role, especially since Kaladesh block has a strong artifact component.
  3. It's an effect we've never done before and it's big and splashy.

Mission accomplished.

And that is how Consulate Crackdown came to be.

Consulate Dreadnought

R&D is kind of obsessed with unique power/toughness combinations. I know, for example, that Erik Lauer keeps a list of all the power/toughness combinations we haven't yet done on a vanilla creature (a creature with no rules text) and purposely will add ones from the list to his sets.

My first thought on seeing this card was how I would have stuck "Convenient" in either its name or flavor text if I'd been doing flavor text. (Perhaps a strong sign that I shouldn't be doing name and flavor text. For those unaware, 7-Eleven is an American chain of convenience stores.) My second thought though was that this must be a new power toughness combination. Nope. Turns out we've done it twice before.

There is a new number on this card, though. Kaladesh did Vehicles with crew 1 through crew 5, but Consulate Dreadnought turns up the dial to crew 6. I wasn't around when this card was designed, but my best guess was they were trying to see how big they could get a vanilla Vehicle with a converted mana cost of 1. For those who don't get the reference, here's the card that I believe inspired them.

I designed Phyrexian Dreadnought during the development of Mirage. I wanted to get a 12/12 into the set (Magic had been playing this game where we kept one-upping the largest creature in the game, and it was 12/12's turn) and the lead developer, Bill Rose, told me he'd consider it if I designed something cool enough. I came back with "How about a 12/12 trampler for one mana?"

Consulate Dreadnought is a nod to Phyrexian Dreadnought, which is why it has the word "Dreadnought" in its name. I guess 12/12 was too good.

Dark Intimations

Most of the time when a card references another card, that card is in the same set. That was true for many years until Darksteel, where we printed a card called Shield of Kaldra. Mirrodin, the set right before it, had introduced Sword of Kaldra. But Sword of Kaldra was just a cool piece of Equipment. What made Shield of Kaldra stand out is that it mentioned Sword of Kaldra, itself, and a card called Helm of Kaldra by name. It was that last one that drew all the attention because at the time, there was no card called Helm of Kaldra. Obviously, we were setting something up, and simple pattern recognition told you where you could find Helm of Kaldra—in the very next set, Fifth Dawn. Players were a bit thrown at first, but in the end, there was a lot of buzz about the Helm.

Next in the set Future Sight, we made a cycle of Spellshapers (creatures that discarded a card as part of their activation cost), which made creature tokens that were copies of famous Magic cards. For fun, one of them, the white one named Goldmeadow Lookout, made a creature token called a Goldmeadow Harrier that didn't yet exist in Magic. It would come out in Lorwyn later that year. Finally, in the set Worldwake, we had a card called Eye of Ugin that made Eldrazi spells cost less to cast—except no Eldrazi spells existed yet. The next set, Rise of the Eldrazi, would introduce the world to Eldrazi spells.

I bring this up because we decided to once again to have a little fun and reference something that wasn't in this set. What sets this card apart from the three I just mentioned is that what the card is referencing might not exist in Aether Revolt but does exist previously in Magic. Nicol Bolas had a planeswalker card in the set Conflux many years ago. That said, the card does seem to be as forward looking as it is backward looking. Does this mean anything for our trip to the plane Amonkhet? Maybe.

More to Come

That's all the time we have for today, but fear not. As the name gave away, there's more than one part to this topic. As always, I'm eager to hear your feedback on today's stories and cards. You can email me or talk to me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week for Part 2.

Until then, may you make some stories of your own with Aether Revolt.


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