Theroses Are Red (and White, Blue, Black, and Green), Part 1

Posted in Making Magic on September 23, 2013

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.

Now that the design story of Theros is out of the way, it's time to tell some card-by-card (and a few cycle-by-cycle) stories. As this was a set I led the design for, I have a lot of stories. So let's stop wasting precious word count and get to them.

Akroan Horse

Here's a theme you're going to hear again and again. "We were doing a Greek mythology set so we had to do X ."

So anyway, we were doing a Greek mythology set so we had to do a Trojan Horse. For those unfamiliar with the tale, it comes from a war called the Trojan War. The good guys in the story (i.e., the Greeks) are able to defeat the Trojans by gifting them a giant wooden horse. The Trojans accept this gift and bring it into their walled city. Our heroes are hiding inside the giant horse and at night sneak out of the wooden horse and attack. This, by the way, was what the giant wooden rabbit was making fun of in Monty Python and the Holy Grail .

Ken Nagle turned in this card early in design, called Wooden Horse, and it basically never changed. For a while, the creative team toyed with the idea of making it a different giant wooden animal, but several of us convinced them that we were trying hard to hit the tropes and the trope was a giant wooden horse. Obviously, the scene of the event was moved from Troy to Akros, the Sparta-inspired city of warriors in Theros.

Breaching Hippocamp

I explained in my first preview article (and Ethan in his feature article) that I assigned Ethan to do a research product about Magic and Greek mythology. What has Magic done already that was Greek mythology and what was in Greek mythology that might make a good Magic card? As a result of this product, Ethan made a list of things Magic has never done but should in Theros. One item on the list was a Hippocamp.

A hippocamp is part horse, part fish (and the reason why the card is a Horse Fish). The Greeks loved mixing and matching animal parts. Ethan was determined to find a place for the hippocamp. The tricky part was how exactly do you capture the flavor of a part horse, part fish? A Trojan Horse—it's pretty clear the favor you're trying to capture. A horse fish? Less so.

Ethan was my second on the set, which meant he was in charge of the card file, so whenever there was a creature we made for mechanical reasons that didn't have a creature type defined, Ethan would turn it into one of the Greek mythological creatures from his list of stuff we hadn't done. This meant that a decent amount of blue creatures (it is part fish) in the set were at one time or another a hippocamp.

I'm pretty sure Ethan did a fist pump at the Tuesday Meeting slide show for Theros when Breaching Hippocamp appeared on screen.

Chained to the Rocks

Now, I'm a proud papa and I love all my children, but there are two cards in this set that I have a special love for. (Don't' tell the others.) One of them is Chained to the Rocks. I like to do a lot of group designs in meetings and this card, originally called Chained to a Rock (I'm not quite sure why it got changed to the plural), was as top down as they came.

Greek mythology was full of god-granted tortures and one of the most famous was Prometheus's. Prometheus was a titan probably best known in myth for taking fire from the gods and giving it to the humans. (I'll get to our Prometheus card in Part 2). The gods were upset by this and punished Prometheus by chaining him to a rock (or maybe a bunch of rocks). Then, each day, an eagle would come and eat out his liver. The liver would grow back so the next day it could happen again. Prometheus would later be rescued by Herakles (better known by his Roman name, Hercules).

The exercise started with us brainstorming Greek-mythological-sounding names (I believe Jenna, the creative team representative, brought them to the meeting). One of them was "Chained to a Rock." It pretty clearly had to restrain a creature, so an Oblivion Ring–like effect felt right. Then, to be literal, we decided to make it an "Enchant Mountain."

The design version could enchant any Mountain but development found that the card was so good (I loved this card so I asked Erik Lauer, the lead developer of Theros, to make it something that gets played at least in Limited) that it was starting to discourage people from playing red in Limited, so they changed it to "Enchant Mountain you control."

Chained to the Rocks was originally common. In design playtest, we ended up moving it to uncommon. Erik then later moved it up to rare in development as at uncommon it was warping Limited play.

In the same meeting, we also made Rescue from the Underworld (I'll get to it in Part 2). I was so enamored of those two cards that I told my team they were going to be the inspiration for the rest of the set. Those two cards were representative of what I wanted Theros to be. Many, many cards were made since that meeting but those two will always hold an extra dear place in my heart.

Chronicler of Heroes

There is a ten-card cycle of two-color cards at uncommon. The reason these are in the file are two-fold. First, we wanted each two-color combination to have a role in Theros draft. The uncommon multicolor card of each combination is meant to be a card that really works well with that color combination's strategy. The idea is if you draft it early, you could then draft your deck around it.

Chronicler of Heroes, for example, plays into green-white's heroic deck. Green and white are the two colors that get the most +1/+1 counters from heroic (green just gets multiple counters while white tends to get one counter plus an additional bonus). Also, green (along with red) is one of the colors that gets the most monstrous cards that also use +1/+1 counters. That allows Chronicler of Heroes to get to most often draw the card.

The second reason the multicolor cycle exists is that we try to have synergy between blocks and we wanted to make sure that each guild got a few new cards to play with. It's true that Chronicler of Heroes isn't as synergistic with the green-white themes of Return to Ravnica but there are cards from the block in those colors that can work with it.

Curse of the Swine

How could we do Greek mythology without doing Circe? She was a sorceress from Odyssey (the follow-up to Iliad) which turned most of the main character's crew into pigs. Originally, this spell was a devotion card where the devotion dictated how many creatures were transformed into pigs rather than the X in the mana cost. I believe when Master of Waves got added to the file, development changed Curse of the Swine away from a devotion card.

So, heroic had a few issues in design. First, it required being targeted by a spell. In Limited, most of your cards are creatures, meaning there aren't that many spells in your deck to target. Second, because you had a limited number of spells, there wasn't a lot of incentive to play numerous creatures with heroic. As a means to help both problems, design added in a cycle of instants that all had two targets.

These cards were tricky because what they were asking for was pretty narrow. First, each had to be a spell effect in that color. Second, it had to be something that could go on an instant. Third, it had to be able to target two creatures. Fourth, it had to be something positive, because you wanted to cast it on your own heroic creatures.

That proved to be quite the puzzle, but the design team (and then later the development team) solved it.

Ephara's Warden

One of the key parts of making an environment work (and here I'm talking more about a Limited environment where you have additional control) is making sure that you allow the players to do what the set wants them to do. In order to do this, you need to make the thing you're encouraging them to do good. You also need to make sure that you aren't creating cards, though, that severely punishes the players for doing what the set is instructing them to do.

As I explained in my preview week articles (Part 1, Part 2, Part 3), the theme of Theros is accomplishment. Players are trying to take their resources and build them up into powerful heroes and monsters. To help foster this environment, we took great care to turn down the dial of the things that were too harsh against this strategy. Case in point is this card.

In a large set, white almost always gets a tapper at either common or uncommon. This is usually a creature that requires mana and a tap to tap a creature. As we didn't want a player building up a mighty hero or a vicious monster and just have the tapper constantly lock it down, we restricted Ephara's Warden to only tapping things with a power of 3 or less. This way, the card encourages spending resources to build up a creature because you can grow it out of the range of Ephara's Warden's effect.

Fleetfeather Sandals

Theros is full of cards that we just had to do. Some of them took many attempts to get right, but others basically designed themselves. In one of our early design meetings, we wrote down every obvious card we had to make. Hermes's winged sandals were on the list. For those unaware, Hermes was the messenger of the gods and tended to run around quickly from place to place. To aid him, he had a pair of winged sandals that allowed him to both be extra fast and to fly.

The flying part was a gimme. We decided that haste was the best mechanic to represent the type of speed the sandals represented. First strike, for example, can also be thought of as speed but that's more about combat, and Hermes was not a fighter. Fleetfeather Sandals, originally just called Winged Sandals, went in early in design and other than maybe a little massaging of the costs wasn't touched.

Fleshmad Steed

It's time to play Name That Greek Mythological Reference. Okay, is everyone ready?

Fleshmad Steed.


If you said the Mares of Diomedes, you were correct.

Now, some of you might be asking, "Who are the Mares of Diomedes?" They were four man-eating horses owned by the giant Diomedes. Herakles's eighth labor, of his famous Twelve Labors, was to steal the mares.

Fleshmad Steed was designed by Ethan Fleischer as Flesheating Horses to be a reference to the Mares of Diomedes.

Gift of Immortality

One of the ongoing themes of Greek mythology is humans (and nonhumans) gaining immortality. Apparently, the Greeks thought that was pretty cool, so it kept creeping its way into the stories. As a recurring theme in Greek mythology, immortality was an item on our list to design.

This was another card created in a design meeting. The original version said something like "No matter how you try to put this in the graveyard, it won't work." It's common in early design to have very loose technical wording to try and get the general gist of the idea across. If early playtesting shows it has merit, the designer(s) can then spend some time trying to figure out how it can work within the rules. Note that some designers will do this before they turn the card in but as many cards never make it past the first cut, it often isn't worth the time figuring out all the details of early designs.

People liked this card, so we spent some time figuring out how to actual make it immortal. In the end, we figured out that it could be a death trigger than just brings itself and the enchantment back to the battlefield so it would circumvent anything that would try to kill it.

Hero's Downfall

So how is Hero's Downfall mono-black if Dreadbore is black-red? Well, the ability was black-red when Dreadbore was created but mono-black by the time Hero's Downfall was. Now I'll tell you a story about why.

Black had been having a bit of a rough time in Standard at the time Theros was in development. Development was looking for a bone we could throw black. This led to Erik Lauer and me having the following conversation (with my normal poetic license):

Erik: Can I ask you a question?

Me: Can I respond with an answer?

Erik: So the development team has been talking about finding some answers to help out black.

Me: All right.

Erik: Right now it cannot destroy artifacts, enchantments, or Planeswalkers. That's three different card types it can't destroy. No other color is unable to destroy three card types.

Me: And I'm going to help you how?

Erik: You're the color pie guy. I need black to be able to kill one of those three.

Me: Oh, that's easy. Black can kill Planeswalkers.

Erik: Why?

Me: Because black's number-one weapon is death and you can't kill an artifact or enchantment. Well, not unless it's also a creature. But a Planeswalker. That's a person. You can kill a Planeswalker.

Erik: You wouldn't mind if mono-black killed Planeswalkers?

Me: Nope, the flavor fits perfectly. I only ask one thing.

Erik: What?

Me: It can't be something you see often. Killing a Planeswalker should be a rather rare event.

Erik: So make it rare?

Me: Yes.

And that is how Hero's Downfall became mono-black.

Hundred-Handed One

One of the big lessons of Kamigawa block was this: there's a big difference with being accurate to a source material and being resonant. Put another way, the reason most players enjoy top-down design is because they get to recognize things they know. Now yes, they like a little education, but if the core of the set doesn't meet their expectations, the top-down tends to fall flat.

In Kamigawa block, the creative team spent a lot of time understanding Shinto mythology. The problem was that most of the audience wasn't familiar with it, so rather than feel resonant to them, the block felt alien. The takeaway lesson was that we needed to build the base of a set with familiarity and then use the accurate but lesser-known material as seasoning. The former should be used at common and uncommon while the latter should be used at rare and mythic rare.

This brings us to the hundred-handed one. Known as hekatonkheires, these were three giants that helped overthrow the titans and would later serve as guards at the gates of Tartarus. Now, if you really know your Greek mythology, you would be familiar with them, but if you merely have a walking familiarity, you probably have never heard of them.

Ethan, who did much of the research on Greek mythology for the design team, was eager to include a hundred-handed one. My compromise was to put it at rare where it could entertain those who knew about it but wouldn't be opened in tons of packs where it would serve to lessen the immediacy of the Greek mythological flavor. In other words, it was great as seasoning but it wasn't what I wanted the meal to be about.

The original version designed by Ethan was able to block any number of creatures when it became monstrous. We changed to the "block an additional ninety-nine creatures" when someone made a joke in the design meeting and I said, "No, we're keeping that."

I'm very happy with how the design turned out and I feel that, sitting at rare, it is doing its job perfectly.

Hythonia the Cruel
Keepsake Gorgon

Hythonia was designed as Momma Gorgon and Keepsake Gorgon was Baby Gorgon. The idea was always that the baby could kill one creature with monstrosity and the momma could kill all creatures. To be clever, Hythonia's original text dealt 1 damage to all the creatures, and since it had deathtouch, that 1 damage was lethal. Development thought it would confuse people and just changed it to a destruction effect.

The "non-Gorgon" was part of the design because we didn't want momma killing itself. Also, I liked the idea that on Theros, gorgons were immune to each other's gaze effect. I figured, why can't the gorgons know love? Also, it allowed players to build a Gorgon-themed deck, as all Gorgons wouldn't die to Hythonia. Note that in actual Greek mythology, the gorgons were subject to being petrified by the gaze of other gorgons. The transformation was meant to be a punishment that forced them to live in isolation. As one of the people who shaped Theros, I had a little more compassion for our gorgons. Live and love my gorgons, live and love.

Lightning Strike

The number one question I get with this card is "Why isn't it Lightning Bolt?" While the flavor would be a fun fit, Lightning Bolt comes with a lot of environment warping, and R&D didn't want to bring that to the current environment.

The number two question I get is "Why isn't this Searing Spear?" The answer is that while we didn't want to reprint Lightning Bolt, we did want to have a nod to the concept of a Lightning Bolt. So, we took a reprint and reskinned it to match the world. As Searing Spear is an effect we plan to do a lot, we were fine with having two different creative approaches to choose from in the future.


My last card today is the futureshifted card from Future Sight that I mentioned was going to be in Theros. There was a lot of wild speculations, but in the end we knew the right futureshifted card for Theros was Nessian Courser. Why? Let's look at the Future Sight version.


You see, the futureshifted cards weren't just about hinting at potential mechanical futures, but also creative ones. Nessian Courser was the card where we hinted at a possible world inspired by Greek mythology, so as we finally got to that potential world we wanted to show you the card that hinted at it way back when.


Note that we talked about Lucent Liminid, as Theros is also the set where enchantment creatures finally happen. As I've explained before, though, I want all the enchantment creatures to be both enchantments and creatures, and I feel Lucent Liminid fails as it's not in any way mechanically an enchantment. I do feel, though, that this was a second futureshifted card that ended up pointing toward Theros.

Myth Understandings

That's all the time I have for today. Obviously, I'm only halfway done, so in two weeks I'll have Part 2. (Next week is a theme week.) As always, I'm curious about any feedback, be it in my email, the thread to this column or in any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+).

Join me next week when I promise to be enchanting.

Until then, may your work provide as many stories.

"Drive to Work #54: Flavor Text & #55: Land"

My first podcast today is another Matt Cavotta carpool episode. He and I talk about the act of making flavor text, something we both have been in charge of at one point.

My second podcast is another in my mega-series about card types. This podcast talks all about land.



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