Alara Reborn – But Is It Art?

Posted in NEWS on May 4, 2009

By Alexis Janson

Alexis Janson is the winner of the original Great Designer Search. After a six-month internship, she moved on to the technology team at Wizards of the Coast but continued to moonlight as a contributing member of Magic R&D. She currently works as a developer on the Magic Online client team.

I had the distinct pleasure of being on both the design team and the development team for Alara Reborn. We took a collection of distinct concepts, and molded them into what I consider to be a polished work of art.

Pieces of Gold

Our first goal when we sat down to design Alara Reborn was to make a bunch of awesome gold cards. With that in mind, I present some random musings on individual cards.

Aven Mimeomancer – I submitted this card relatively early in design, and it surprised and delighted me to watch it successfully fend off all attempts to remove it from the set. It went through minor templating tweaks at various points but otherwise saw print exactly as originally designed. Many people thought this card was too fidgety, or didn't see what purpose it served, or simply didn't find the card interesting—but Aaron always seemed to want to keep it around. Funny how a card tends to stick around if the lead designer wants it to.

I believe the main reason Aven Mimeomancer survived where other cards were cut was its ability to tell a story. It not just lines of text that increment variables; it's not just another variation of mechanics A and B put together. As Mike Turian put it (and I'm paraphrasing), "Bop! I'll make you into a bird! Bop! And you too!"

Demonspine Whip – Ken Nagle would have you believe this has an X ability because of Rosheen Meanderer, but mostly it just reads cooler.

Grixis Sojourners – My favorite play at the Wizards employee Prerelease was Bill Stark casting Vengeful Rebirth targeting a cascade spell. I cycled Grixis Sojourners, removing the target and stopping his two-for-one with my own two-for-one. Plays like that make me glad we take the time to sprinkle sets with specialized cards, instead of making sure every card does the strongest, most optimal thing for that color.

Grizzled Leotau – I believe this card shows that there is still interesting design space even among vanilla creatures. It may not look like much, but you'll be glad it's there when you face down a deck full of Jund Hackblades.

Intimidation Bolt – The team decided it was fine that the targeted creature could attack if it survived the 3 damage—after all, if you just shrugged off a bolt of lightning, what's left to be scared of?

Magefire Wings – The card originally in this slot was called "I Know Kung-Fu." It did something entirely different.

Mayael's Aria – Unlike most cards of this nature, this purposefully does not have an "intervening-if clause" ("At the beginning of your upkeep, if you control ..."). This allows shenanigans such as stacking the trigger during your upkeep, and responding by giving your Mossbridge Troll +20/+20. You can thank Ken Nagle for that one.

Sphinx of the Steel Wind – Yes, to some this card might seem "dull" and "obvious." It's just an Akroma rehash, right? The card was even called Akroma Bot in design. But there's more here than just another keyword soup card.

For starters, it's an artifact, with all the advantages and vulnerabilities that brings. Like Akroma, the Sphinx has protection from red, but here it means so much more, protecting from Vithian Renegades and other artifact removal in addition to common burn. Instead of protection from black, the Sphinx has protection from green, to protect from even more artifact removal, as well as anti-flier cards! Oddly, the missing protection from black is almost unnoticed, as most black removal spells exclude either black or artifact creatures, or are Terminate.

Moving on to the other abilities, we find a trio of keywords where the sum is far greater than the parts. Like Akroma, we have vigilance and first strike, but unlike Akroma, we also have lifelink. So when the Sphinx attacks, not only do you gain 6 life, but you gain another 6 when you block the counterattack, and due to first strike you gain it before any other damage hits you. All of these put together make the Sphinx really good at winning a race, even in multiplayer.

Valley Rannet – The double landcyclers were actually part of Bill Rose's original design for the entire Alara block, so they were part of the file from day one.

Wargate – It's easy to miss that you can cast this with X = 0 and fetch a land—at one point, this spell only cost XGW, making it, in Ken Nagle's words, "The sickest Rampant Growth!" Too sick, actually, which is why it had to be costed at XGWU.

Blending the Shards

With individual cards coming along well, we needed to find ways to add structure and identity to the set. One of the cycles we came up with early in design was the idea of "cross-shard" creatures. If the shards had completely merged, why shouldn't there be a WU creature that's both Bant AND Esper?

We threw around some fancier ideas, such as "Unearth – Sacrifice an artifact" for Esper + Grixis; or "If this devoured a creature with 5 or more power ..." for Jund + Naya. In the end, we decided that we should go with the simplest possible execution—a philosophy which I tend to push for whenever possible. These cards would already be interesting and unique just by existing; they didn't need mechanical complexity. They would do exactly what they needed to do, and no more, a sort of minimalistic Zen.

Four of the five cross-shard designs fell neatly into place with that decision, but Grixis + Jund proved tougher. Devour + unearth has more anti-synergy than synergy—the simplest execution needed to step aside and make room for something people would actually enjoy playing. If you don't know already, maybe you can guess which card filled this slot.

An unearth creature that provides tons of fodder for your devour creatures fit perfectly—not only was it mechanically fitting, but it also created an awesome mini-story every time it was played. You get to throw your kamikaze bomber at your opponent and have it explode into a pair of goblins, and then do it again next turn!

Sculpting Cascade

Another piece of a set's identity is its mechanics and keywords. We spent some time brainstorming and testing a handful of awesome mechanics before settling on cascade. Tom LaPille covered the story of cascade pretty well, so I'll instead touch upon some individual cards and observations.

Ardent Plea – Lots of cards in Magic have rules text consisting of exactly two (key)words, but this is the first noncreature to do so.

Captured Sunlight – We purposely made sure none of the common cascade cards were two-for-one effects under normal game play, for Limited balance. In fact, several of the common cascade cards are effects that are rarely played in Limited—but when they are riders on top of "unknown spell," they become surprisingly playable.

Demonic Dread – Can you believe this was Stone Rain with cascade at one point? Trust me, it was as demoralizing as it sounds.

Deny Reality – Why should a card do many things poorly when it can do one thing well? This is why most cascade cards have simple effects—the interesting part of the card is that it has cascade! Why clog that up with extraneous rules text?

Double Negative – We had an X spell in this slot until we realized how awful it feels to cascade up an X spell and not be able to do anything with it. I'm not sure what's more ironic—that we replaced it with another card that you rarely want to cascade into, or that we replaced it with a card especially suited to stop cascade. Either way, it has an awesome name.

Kathari Remnant – When is four mana a good price for Will-o'-the-Wisp? When it comes with a free three-mana spell! Cascade was interesting to develop because if you increase the cost of the card, you just increase the potential effect. As Ken Nagle puts it:

KEN 5/2: When you make a Cascade card worse by adding an extra mana, I just like it more! That's some awesome 'Development'!

Stormcaller's Boon – If your playtesters are continually trying to use a card incorrectly, you'd better change the card, or risk both confusion and disappointment. This was originally an Aura that granted flying, but everyone wanted to be able to cast it, cascade into a creature, and then attach the Aura to that creature. Instead of fighting the trend, we just fixed the card.

Violent Outburst – We wanted a couple instant-speed cascade cards, to create exciting mid-combat tricks, but we were also wary of them due to their potential to create complete blowouts. This and Bituminous Blast are the only instants that survived. I recommend you try Violent Outburst a couple of times before dismissing it, as the instant speed really does add a whole new dimension. Also, it's got a trio of ferocious homunculi on it—what could go wrong?

Mixing in Hybrid

We were still looking for ways to give the set a unique feel; at the same time, we were worried about making sure the set played well in Draft. Our solution was to sprinkle the set with hybrid mana symbols.

Is the idea of mixing hybrid symbols with regular mana "clever"? Not particularly. What it is, however, is part of the overall solution to making this set smoother for Limited play, while spicing it up a bit with something you haven't actually seen on a card before. Hybrid-gold cards were not created just to see what they would look like, or to add random variety to the set. They were added to fulfill a specific need, after much deliberation.

Hybrid-gold interestingly gives you cards that are the overlap of two ally color pairs, as opposed to normal hybrid which are the overlap of two single colors. For example, R/Gcan be paid with R or G, an overlap of two single colors. A cost of B/G R can be paid with BR or RG, an overlap of two color pairs.

This gave us some interesting opportunities for color pie justification. Take Sewn-Eye Drake. This card's abilities line up with different colors depending on what mana you've paid- if you pay 2UB, then U covers flying and B covers haste. However, if you pay 2BR, then B covers flying and R covers haste. This card could technically exist in mono black, but neither flying nor haste are strongest in black; the second color helps solidify the pairing of abilities on a single card.

Don't try to fit all the hybrid-gold cards into this particular box, though. Some have one ability always tied to the main color and one tied to the hybrid symbol. Take a card several forum posters are just aching for me to explain: Crystallization. The card is a classic top-down design—you turn a creature to fragile crystal, and a single touch shatters it to pieces. The mechanics do fit into the fringe of the color pie, however. The card clearly ties to white via Pacifism. The remove-from-game ability is justified by either blue or green—green's contribution is a variant on deathtouch, whereas blue gets the "skulking" mechanic. (Gossamer Phantasm, while a Planar Chaos card, does represent an actual shift in the color pie.)

Finally, some hybrid-gold cards are just shard cards that have a special tie to multicolor. What's green or blue about Bant Sureblade? It's just a Bant card that needs to be multicolor. Since the card has no reason to favor a WU mana cost or a GW mana cost, it sits right in the middle and can be cast for either!

Shine and Polish

The major pieces of the set were coming together nicely, but we needed a few more interesting things to tie the set together.

We wanted to have three-color cards at common, but we didn't want to make it even harder to cast your common cards either. So we settled on a cycle of cards that could be cycled with only a single color of mana and provided an effect when you did so. The Sojourners cycle originally triggered when it went to the graveyard from anywhere—it was a concise and clever way to make a cycling trigger that was also relevant. It was quickly pointed out that Bant Sojourners was Narcomoeba 2.0, and so the safer, spelled-out version was adopted.

Originally, there was only a single colored equipment card in the file ... and it was called Tog Helmet.

Tog Helmet
Artifact – Equipment
Equip 2
Equipped creature has "Discard a card: This creature gets +1/+1 until end of turn" and "Remove two cards in your graveyard from the game: This creature gets +1/+1 until end of turn".

The idea of colored equipment excited the team, so we decided to cycle it out. We really wanted to reprint Armadillo Cloak, but creative and templating issues were making that difficult, so it quickly became the green-white equipment, Behemoth Sledge. One hole-filling pass later, we had three other equipments, and the cycle was complete.

You might have noticed that we didn't actually print Tog Helmet. It turns out that when you base a card on one of the most powerful three-mana creatures in Magic (Psychatog), the new card might also turn out to be too powerful. In a small bit of irony, we replaced it with an equipment that modeled another 1UB creature from Odyssey (Shadowmage Infiltrator), and we were good to go.

It may surprise you to hear that we actually reviewed the design file specifically looking for places we could do interesting CCD and CCDD mana costs—and in the case of Dragon Broodmother, an unprecedented CCCD mana cost. Why? Because every part of a card should have a chance to tell a story, and there's something viscerally pleasing about a mana cost that says "RED RED RED! ... and a bit of green too."

The last major theme of the set to get added were the "multicolor matters" cards. Originally, there was a single card in the file: Reborn Hope. We realized that this card screamed out to players, "Hey—this is what Alara Reborn is all about!" We set out to design an entire cycle of "multicolor matters" cards for common (the "blades") to make sure it came up with regular frequency in a Limited environment, then sprinkled the set with other interesting one-ofs. What better set to have multicolor matters cards, than a set that was 100% multicolor?

The Final Piece

When Alara Reborn was officially announced as the all-gold set, I eagerly watched forum posters speculate about the set. "Wizards would never print a set without mana fixing, not in a multicolor block!" Lots of players couldn't believe there'd be no lands in Alara Reborn.

It might be hard to believe, but sometimes we actually know what we're doing, and sometimes we think of things like this ahead of time. Mana fixing was on our minds from day one, and we went to a lot of effort to fill the set with ways to smooth your mana and make all these awesome gold cards easier to play. But lands? Lands weren't gold! We had double landcyclers and hybrid mana. That should be enough mana fixing for anyone, right?

Something felt off, but it wasn't until development that we realized why. Cycling is something you do because you have to; it's not something you really "want" to do. Why would I want a boring Forest when I could have a fat 4/5 creature Pale Recluse? Alara Reborn wanted cards that did nothing but fix your mana—cards that you felt good about when they did their job. Most sets would solve this problem with lands, or perhaps some form of mana stones. But Alara Reborn couldn't have lands, and a mana stone that costs 1WU isn't exactly fixing your mana.

Aaron actually suggested the following card late in development:

Skull Castle
Skull Castle is white and black.
Skull Castle comes into play tapped.
T: Add W or B to your mana pool.

But everyone agreed this was cheating. Is it really a gold card if it's only gold because of a line of text written in the textbox? I countered with this:

Gruul Stone
You may put Gruul Stone into play tapped instead of playing a land during your main phase.
T: Add R or G to your mana pool.

These cards were actually gold for the same reason any other card was gold, so it felt legit. Lead developer Matt Place quickly had us knock five commons out of the set to fit these in, and everyone loved how they played and felt they made the set more cohesive and interesting.

It may surprise you to learn that such an integral cycle as the Borderposts was actually added late in development, but sometimes you have to wait until all the other puzzle pieces are in place before you can see the gaping hole in the middle.

I find it amusing that the all-gold set somehow manages to have the most mana fixing out of the three sets in the block. Just at common, there's five double-land cyclers (such as Igneous Pouncer), five "dual lands" (the Borderposts), five cards that cycle for a single hybrid mana (like Glassdust Hulk), and a bunch of cards with hybrid-gold mana costs, including a Fertile Ground variant (Trace of Abundance). Many in R&D speculated that triple Alara Reborn draft would be painful, but I've tried it, and it's actually remarkably smooth and fun!


Working on a set all the way through is like watching a work of art slowly take form—line by line, splotch by splotch. For Alara Reborn, I focused my energy making sure all the right pieces were in place and all the ideas were in balance. We started with a collection of gold cards, and ended with a carefully sculpted set with its own unique flavor. I hope you enjoy playing it as much as we enjoyed crafting it.