Aether Way, Part 3

Posted in Making Magic on January 30, 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.

For the last two weeks, I've been sharing card-by-card stories from Aether Revolt. Today is my third and final column in this series. That said, let's talk about more cards.

Indomitable Creativity

I talk all the time about how Magic is really not one game, but a collection of different games that all share a rules system and card pool. The game's flexibility normally handles this just fine, but every once in a while we find ourselves in a place where the needs of a format (or a game in this way of thinking about it) don't match up perfectly with how the color philosophies were built. Commander and red is one of the best examples of this issue.

Red was designed to be short-sighted, opting to win quickly with the downside that its long game wasn't quite as strong as the other colors. Red was the "all-in" color that made bold, aggressive moves. In two-player Magic, this has mostly worked out fine, but when you start getting to multiplayer formats, especially ones that play out slower or start with a higher life total, red's base strategy starts getting negated.

As such, we've gotten a lot of pressure from players to help red be more relevant in multiplayer formats, especially Commander. The trick for R&D is that we want to do so in a way that is consistent with red's philosophy. We don't want red to solve the problem by just doing things that don't feel red.

Indomitable Creativity came out of one of these chats. The Council of Colors spends much of its time monitoring sets to make sure that the color pie is followed, but we also spend some of our time talking philosophically about how we could expand mechanical space. What could red do later in the game that could have a big impact?

Our normal answer is to play into red's destructive side. Board sweepers can be very relevant in multiplayer play, and red has access to some of that. What could red do though that could make things happen rather than prevent things from happening? After much discussion, the two areas core to red's identity that seemed to have the greatest potential for this type of thing are red's affinity for chaos and being a trickster.

This vein of thought got us to talking about Polymorph-style effects—that is, things that change something into something else, but randomly. Warp World plays in this space and is a popular red card for multiplayer. The team decided to try something new. What if we took the Polymorph space and split it between blue and red. Blue would get the controlled version. When I know what I'm going to turn the thing into, that's blue. When I'm going to turn a thing into something else, but I don't know what exactly, that's red.

I did have one important caveat. In the original Commander deck product, Ken Nagle, trying to solve this very problem, made the card Chaos Warp.

The idea was to make a more isolated version of Warp World. Unfortunately, its ability to target enchantments along with its tendency to often whiff and not replace the card ended up making an efficient way to get rid of something that's supposed to be a weakness for red: enchantments. I said that when playing in this space, I didn't want the cards destroying enchantments, and whenever something was destroyed, I always wanted it replaced with something equivalent. This type of spell was red changing things chaotically into something else, not outright destroying them. The team agreed, and we started making cards like Indomitable Creativity.

Kari Zev, Skyship Raider

One of my jobs is interacting with the audience and listening to what you all would like to see in future Magic sets. The list is long, and different players have very different desires. One of the things on this long list is Pirates. For those that might not be aware, Pirate is a supported creature type. The creature type first appeared as a small theme years ago in the set Mercadian Masques with all the Pirates being blue. Limited Edition (Alpha) did have the card Pirate Ship, and Legends had the legendary Pirate Ramirez DePietro, but the former was creature type Ship and the latter Legend until years later when we did a Grand Creature Type Update. Portal Second Age also had a creative pirate theme, also in blue, but those weren't listed as Pirates until they were retroactively changed.

I get asked time and again for us to make new Pirates. Well, we were in a world with flying ships, so it seemed like a good time as any to ask the creative team about Pirates. The problem was we were making a shiny, optimistic aetherpunk world, and Pirates didn't quite hit that vibe, so the team chose to pass on Pirates. Flash forward to Aether Revolt, and the creative team had a change of heart. This set was about revolt. It was a little less shiny and a lot less optimistic. The creative couldn't support lots of Pirates, but maybe one cool Pirate.

I'm really happy with what we ended up with. First, it got out of blue. While I don't mind having some Pirates in blue—they are water-based and sneaky—I always felt that both black and red also made a lot of sense philosophically for Pirates. Second, first strike and menace both feel very Pirate-y. Third, a legendary Monkey creature token that hangs around with the Pirate is awesome. I'm not 100% sure where it came from, but I have to assume it was designed top-down from the creative side. Fourth, the Monkey wears goggles, which really doesn't affect anything, but just makes the card a touch more awesome. Fifth, having the Monkey exiled at the end of every turn is a cute revolt enabler. As a designer, I love making cards set-relevant in a way that isn't obvious at first glance.

So Pirate lovers, we haven't forgotten about you. Monkey lovers, you either. So please, have fun saying "My Pirate and Monkey attack."

Oath of Ajani

As I've been saying since the Gatewatch's inception, it has always been our plan to expand the roster of the Gatewatch over time. One of the reasons we made the Oath cards in Oath of the Gatewatch was that we wanted a very clear way, within the game, to point out when a new member joins. Ajani did force us to answer a few questions, though.

The biggest was, of course, what color was the card supposed to be? The first five members of the Gatewatch are primarily monocolor, so their Oaths were obviously single colors. Ajani is currently a green-white Planeswalker, but has shown up in various versions (mono-white and red-white) on older planeswalker cards. Was Ajani's Oath supposed to be a single color? Are Oath cards better mechanically as a single color? If the answer was yes, was it supposed to be white or green? We even explored the idea of a hybrid cost. In the end, we decided the Oath should match the color identity of the planeswalker at the time of joining. Right now Ajani is green-white, so his Oath should be green-white.

We knew that the card was going to follow the basic Oath template. It would be a legendary enchantment with an "enters-the-battlefield" effect and a global ability that cared about planeswalkers mechanically in some way. Ajani's shtick is that his magic is about helping others, so for his first ability we looked for something that green and white could do that was beneficial for creatures. We ended up using +1/+1 counters. This had a secondary goal in that with the absence of fabricate in Aether Revolt, we were looking for ways to generate +1/+1 counters to play with the synergy from Kaladesh.

The second ability took a while longer to settle on. We experimented with making loyalty abilities cost 1 loyalty less, but it only took a few moments of deck building to show how broken that was. In the end, we went with an ability that made it easier to play them rather than enhancing them once they had been played.

Welcome, Ajani. May you be one of many to join the Gatewatch.

Ornithopter

Ornithopter first showed up in the set Antiquities, Magic's second-ever expansion and the first with a mechanical theme (Arabian Nights, the first-ever expansion, had a flavor theme). Alpha had a number of zero-cost artifacts (Black Lotus and the Moxen being the most famous), but Ornithopter was the first zero-cost artifact creature (okay, technically the first zero-cost creature period).

Believe it or not, it was a bit controversial when it first came out. There's a famous story in the office about how Richard Garfield met with another designer as they were talking about possibly adapting the other designer's game into a trading card game. They mentioned to Richard that their big concern was to not make a broken card like the one Magic had made. Magic had its share of broken cards, so Richard inquired as to which broken card he was referring, and he said Ornithopter. This story provided endless hours of jokes in the Pit. The flavor text of the zero-cost Phyrexian Walker from Visions was a nod to this story, making fun of someone being afraid of a (properly costed) zero-cost creature.

Ornithopter ended up being a beloved card. It even managed to show up in a few tournament decks, the most famous of which I remember was called Fruity Pebbles. The quick and dirty description is that you created a combo where you could sacrifice creatures to deal damage to the opponent and the creatures went back to your hand rather than the graveyard. To make this deck work, you needed a zero-cost creature to cast endlessly, and Ornithopter was a common choice (although I believe the most-used creature was Shield Sphere from Alliances).

Flash forward to the original Mirrodin block. It was our first artifact-themed block, and as such we were eager to find fun artifact reprints to bring back, so we put Ornithopter in the file. Everything was great until the card got to the creative team. Here's the original card from Antiquities.

The flavor text very clearly spells out that Urza made the Ornithopters. Mirrodin was an artificial plane made many years after Urza's death. How exactly were there Ornithopters here? The creative team asked if we could take Ornithopter out of the set, but design and development knew the players would love it, so we asked for them to find a solution. That solution ended up being this:

Oh, it's just the kind of thing that inventors invent. Of course it's on Mirrodin. Ornithopters show up on all sorts of planes. That brings us to Kaladesh. We've established that Ornithopters are just a basic thing that inventors invent and that the plane of Kaladesh is a world of inventors. How could they not design an Ornithopter?

Independently, we were also thinking about what Kaladesh Inventions to make, and one suggestion that kept coming up was Ornithopter. As I said above, it's proven to be a good combo piece in certain decks. I've talked before about how we decided to make Kaladesh the set about constructive invention and Aether Revolt the set about destructive invention. Ornithopter has proven to often be a good target for sacrifice, so we decided to put it (and its Inventions card) in Aether Revolt.

Hopefully this means I can stop getting all the "Where's Ornithopter?" questions.

Shock

I know many players were shocked to see this card return. Direct damage (aka spells that directly damage creatures and/or players, mostly seen in red) hasn't been all that strong recently, so what gives? The answer to this question relies on understanding a fundamental developmental issue. We want to make exciting, powerful cards. To do that we often have to push in areas we haven't pushed before. The problem is if we keep the status quo on everything else and push in new areas, we're inflating the overall power level of the game.

So how can we make powerful cards without creating power creep? By using a method we refer to as the Escher Stairwell (aka the stairwell with an optical illusion that makes it seem like it's always ascending). We want to create the illusion that power level is going up without actually having the power level go up. To do this, we must take some effects and lower their power level. That way when we combine everything together, the average of the new powerful effects along with the lower-powered effects we aren't focusing on creates a consistent, manageable power level. As the focus is on the new exciting thing, players tend to see the "stairwell" climbing.

The problem we run into is that some players have enough fondness for one particular aspect of the game that even when we move the spotlight, those players still focus on that one aspect. This is what happened with direct damage. We made a conscious choice to lower the power level for a while so we could spend that equity elsewhere, but the fans of direct damage were sad. Players wrote to me asking why we were being so mean to direct damage.

I'm happy to say direct damage is back on the upswing and that Shock's return was meant as a sign that the pendulum is swinging in its direction.

Skyship Plunderer / Lifecrafter's Gift / Maulfist Revolutionary / Winding Constrictor

Kaladesh tried to use proliferate (the mechanic from Scars of Mirrodin block). It didn't work out. Aether Revolt tried to use proliferate. It still didn't work out, but the rationale for us wanting to use it, its synergy with what the block was up to, was still there. So we decided that we'd make use of it in small doses. Not enough to name it, but enough to get some of the functionality.

I promise all the fans of proliferate that I will find a home one day to bring it back, but in the meantime, enjoy this tiny sampling.

Sram, Senior Edificer

One of the things that makes Magic tick is the color wheel. A key part of the color wheel's success is that it focuses on playing up both a color's strengths and its weaknesses. One of white's strengths is its ability to have a lot of different answers to problems. White, for example, is the only color that can unilaterally destroy artifacts, creatures, and enchantments. To offset the upside of having most of the answers, we have done two things.

One, we put a lot of limitations on white's destruction. (For instance, white is most efficient at killing creatures if they've shown themselves to be a threat—much of white's creature kill happens in combat, for example.) We also make much of white's removal something that can be undone. You can cast Pacifism on a creature to keep it from attacking, but if the opponent can ever get rid of the enchantment, their creature is back to being a threat. In other words, we like to give white answers that themselves have answers.

Two, we have chosen to make white one of the worst colors at card advantage. If white is more likely to have all the answers, we make it harder for white to have all the answers in its hand. For many years, that meant we were very stingy about giving card draw to white.

This has been causing an issue for white in longer multiplayer games, because it causes white to run out of steam. So we've been trying to figure out how to give white a little more gas without enabling it to draw all of its answers. Sram is an attempt to address this problem. The idea we're trying is giving card drawing to white, but only in very narrow, defined areas. White can't pack its deck full of answer cards because to make Sram work, you must have a lot of Auras, Equipment, and/or Vehicles. I'm curious to see how our experiment turns out.

Trophy Mage

Fifth Dawn was the third and final set in the original Mirrodin block. It was also the first design team Aaron Forsythe was ever on. Fifth Dawn had the problem of being part of Mirrodin block with explicit instruction to avoid giant swaths of design that had gone wrong in Mirrodin and Darksteel. As such, we were looking for places to explore in artifacts that stayed away from the verboten areas.

One idea I liked was exploring what I called "cogs," artifacts that cost one mana or less. I wanted to build a bunch of different cards that enabled using cogs. This led Aaron to design this card.

When Trinket Mage entered the battlefield, you got to tutor for a cog. The card ended up being quite popular. So much so that when we returned to Mirrodin during Scars of Mirrodin block, we designed a new card:

Trinket Mage went small. Treasure Mage went big. Treasure Mage was also very popular. We now come to Aether Revolt. Looking back at what artifact-themed cards players liked, we stumbled upon Trinket Mage and Treasure Mage. We've covered tutoring for artifacts costing less than two and more than five. What if we tried something somewhere in the middle. And thus, Trophy Mage was born.

This will, of course, now raise the question of when we're hitting artifacts costing two, four, and/or five mana. We'll get there, provided the creative team doesn't run out of good words starting with "T."

Third and Goal

That's all the time I have for today. I hope you've enjoyed these last three weeks of card-by-card stories. As always, I'm interested to hear your feedback on both columns as well as Aether Revolt (I'm interested to hear about the whole set or any subset of cards). You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week when I start answering your questions about Aether Revolt.

Until then, may you do some fun things with an Ornithopter.


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