Modern Mailbag

Posted in Making Magic on May 18, 2015

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.

It's Modern Week and as I don't have a lot of design for the format, I thought I'd use this column as an opportunity to do a mailbag column. Here's the tweet I posted:

Goblin Kaboomist | Art by Kev Walker

I got a lot of responses but only a single column to respond, so a few caveats before I start answering questions. I received way more questions than I can answer so please be aware that not every question sent to me will be answered. I will also note that I got a lot of developer questions that I felt unqualified to answer. That said, on with the questions:

No, Path to Exile was originally created during Conflux design. Another telltale sign that it didn't originate in Zendikar is I'm personally not a huge fan of these style of white removal cards. I prefer white's answers having answers (à la Pacifism or Oblivion Ring) or white having some built-in rules it follows ("We'll respond, but we don't start fights.") that create some restrictions to build around. White is allowed to "trade" by giving the creature's controller something of value. But these cards, when we're not careful, tend to edge out black as the most versatile creature kill cards—an ability that I firmly believe is supposed to be in Black. These cards are usually made by development because they are important for balancing Standard.

Blue doesn't power pump often (aka "firebreathing"), but it is something that blue is allowed to do within color pie. In fact, power and/or toughness pumping is something so basic that all five colors have some access to it, certain colors more than others.

The key is to not let her both tutor for Equipment and circumvent their mana cost. Pick one or the other and she'd be much more fair.

Stoneforge Mystic | Art by Mike Bierek

I was the lead designer for the Esper mini-team, so I can answer this with a definitive "No." What was going on was that we wanted a lot of different ways to make artifacts matter. To help create variety and increase the different kinds of Esper decks you could draft and build, we mixed up the types of "artifact matters" card designs.

This is space we've messed around in a few times, changing all your creatures to a particular size, sometimes also copying abilities. White gets "make everyone the same" and blue gets the "polymorphing others" flavor so this ability is mostly seen in white and/or blue. Will we do more of this? Probably, but it's something I'd expect to be used infrequently.

The real question is can we ever LANDwalk again? Landwalk has really fallen out of favor with R&D and thus is not getting used very often. More on this in a couple of weeks. Even if we were more actively using landwalk, plainswalk has always been the least used basic landwalk type because it's not a great fit for its color mechanically nor has particularly strong flavor. Also, the fact that "planeswalk" is an important concept in the game makes us even less want to put "plainswalk" in rules text.

When Aaron Forsythe and I first came up with the mechanic, I stressed that I thought it should stick to effects that artifacts can normally do. The goal of Phyrexian mana was to color bend not color break. As such, I was unhappy with a few cards that ended up getting printed. The mechanic was popular so if we see the Phyrexians again (and that's more than likely), there's a chance Phyrexian mana could return. If it did, we would work hard to be more careful with what effects we use it on.

Because time has shown us that having mechanics be as simple as they can tends to lead to better designs.

I had high hopes, when we created suspend back in Time Spiral, but the required templating and the counter manipulation just confused too many players, leading to a very lukewarm response from the majority of players. It's possible a simpler, cleaner version might be found one day but I'm skeptical suspend, as-is, would come back to a Standard-legal set. A non-Standard legal set? There's a slightly better chance.

Design designs cool cards which we think players will enjoy using. Preemptively banning areas of design because larger formats might have issues is not how we do things. If the larger formats have problems, they can ban the card. As long as there are smaller environments (Standard and Limited, especially) where we think the card will shine and be beloved, we'll make it.

Birthing Pod | Art by Daarken

As the designer of the mechanic, I can tell you exactly where it came from. It was created to be negative scry. In fact, in design I think it was called "Evil Scry." It proved to be a very un-fun mechanic, so I would not be expecting the keyword mechanic showing up again any time soon. That doesn't mean though it couldn't show up on a single card as a non-keyword.

Haunt, in its current incarnation, baffled a lot of players…so some change would be welcome. There are some wordiness issues with your suggestion, and it could only go on permanents, but the flavor's pretty cool.

I don't know my boss really likes that deck. And by my boss, I mean my Steamflogger Boss. : )

If you're asking which mechanic thematically makes the most sense in Battle for Zendikar, I'd say "recover." If you're asking which mechanic I would choose if I had to use one and was building a block from scratch, I'd say snow mana (yeah, it's more of a tool than a mechanic but there aren't many to choose from).

It's definitely an idea that gets suggested a lot by the fans, and as such we've talked a bit about it. For now, though, we're sticking with making the entrance to Modern things that first go through Standard.

Vedalken Shackles was created by Aaron Forsythe as a cool artifact for blue to play. We don't often make artifacts that can only function in one color, but we felt Vedalken Shackles was cool enough to make an exception. I believe the design was more a cool one-of design and less something Aaron felt was needed in the Standard environment.

Vedalken Shackles | Art by Svetlin Velinov

It was important that morph in the third set had some change to reflect the change of the overall world. I think megamorph plays well, but if I had to do it again I would do it a little differently. More on this in this year's State of Design column coming this August. Also, knowing what I know now, I would have changed the name. I would not have, however, just used "morph."

The card was designed as-is. There's a design aesthetic at work here—both sides interact with creatures, one negatively and the other positively.

I was not on that design team, but to the best of my knowledge, no.

If it's called Phyrexian mana, it will. Could we remake the mechanic with a new name and graphic treatment? Possibly.

I'll stick all the futureshifted mechanics/card-types into one of four categories:

Did It:

Chroma/Devotion (unnamed in Future Sight)







Tribal (the card type)

There's a Chance We'll Do It:



There's a Tiny Chance We'll Do It:




[Card type] Swap


I'm Very Skeptical We'll Ever Do It:




Poison was crafted in Scars of Mirrodin block, so there was both a quick and slow way to play with it. The first tends to be a one-color agro deck with some form of power pumping. The other is more controlling, usually making use of proliferate.

I believe the card was designed partly as a deck-thinner and partly as a way to adjust your colors of mana. It was clearly made open-ended to allow combo potential. But that wasn't, to the best of my knowledge, the driving force behind its design.

Scapeshift | Art by Fred Fields

We think of mechanics as resources to be used again and again throughout what we plan to be Magic's lengthy history. If we believe a mechanic was built incorrectly the first time, we will fix it so we get the mechanic we want, which can then be used in the future. Fading's mistake was too many players thought the card went away when you removed the last counter, not when you couldn't remove a counter. Vanishing was just the fixed version that functioned the way the majority of players believed it was supposed to work.

The change is a subtle but important one. Chroma counts the appropriate mana in the mana cost on any card in whatever zone the card tells you to look. Devotion only looks at permanents on the battlefield. Almost all chroma cards worked that way anyway, and it allowed us to put the text in the reminder text (making the mechanic feel less word-heavy). While fixing this mechanical issue, we also fixed the name to help reinforce the flavor of the mechanic.

Amulet of Vigor was made to undo the handicap of cards that enter the battlefield tapped. Azusa, Lost but Seeking was made to help you get land onto the battlefield faster to cast giant spells.

Amulet of Vigor | Art by Warren Mahy

No, the problem was making a card that circumvented both the drawing and mana cost of one of the major themes of the following year's block.

This is an ability ("can't be blocked except by two or more creatures") R&D refers to as the "Goblin War Drums" ability. We've used it in red for years and experimented in Dragons of Tarkir with also using it in black.

No, devotion can only count mana symbols.

It makes it both slightly harder to parse and prevents part of the cool aspect of Phyrexian mana, the ability to splash it in a deck of a different color.

To the best of my knowledge, it was a top-down design trying to make a mechanic that felt very treefolk-y.

Doran, the Siege Tower | Art by Mark Zug

This is another example of design aesthetic at play. One ability triggers on land cards, so the other is the opposite, it triggers on nonland cards. This way every card triggers something.

Persist was created by a designer named Nate Heiss (in Lorwyn design, interestingly, when we were toying with -1/-1 counters as a way to be less lethal than out and out killing) because he was trying to find cool ways to use -1/-1 counters. Undying, however, was very much influenced by persist. I had been tasked with coming up with a cool monster mechanic for Dark Ascension. I was bouncing ideas off my wife when she asked if there was an existing mechanic that did what I wanted. I said yes. It was called persist. She asked me why I didn't just use that. I said I couldn't because the set had +1/+1 counters and not -1/-1 counters and—boom—I realized what I had to do.

The fact that we were willing to bring it back to a core set means it's something we feel is fun and accessible. That means the chance of its return is high.

Design doesn't tend to design cards specifically for a format, as we don't even set the power level. Development's focus is mainly on Standard and Draft, but they do occasionally make cards with Modern in mind.

In design, the card was thought of less as removal and more as changing the creature from one big creature into a bunch of little creatures. This ability was put in green-white because there are times you'll want to turn your big creature into lots of little creatures due to the natural ability of green-white to boost your entire team.

Mercy Killing | Art by Dave Kendall

I'm a fan as long as they are narrow enough. I think Magic works best when there are niche sideboard answers.

There are a limited number of keyword abilities (and keyword actions) that get to be evergreen. If we wanted to make one or more of those abilities evergreen, we'd have to remove one or more existing evergreen keywords to make space. Note that "tribal" is a card type, not a mechanic, that we have since abandoned making new cards with (but is still supported on old cards).

When we were designing Equipment in Mirrodin, we were aware we were playing around with something pretty universal. Equipment, essentially, got printed and became evergreen almost immediately, never going away.

I believe even in their earliest version, the Titans were always Giants.

Grave Titan | Art by Nils Hamm


Whew. That was a lot of questions. I want to thank everyone who took time to send them in. As always, I'm eager for any feedback you have on today's column. You can email me or send me feedback through any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week, when I take you around the world.

Until then, may you play much Modern and come up with even more questions.

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