Developing Amonkhet

Posted in Card Preview on April 4, 2017

By Dave Humpherys

Dave Humpherys has been managing the development team for Magic R&D since 2010. He led development for the Avacyn Restored and Gatecrash sets. He was inducted into the Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame in 2006.

Amonkhet had a large final design and development team. A few people rotated off and onto the team at various points, but all the following people played important roles on the team: Bryan Hawley, Ian Duke, Eric Lauer, Jackie Lee, Ari Levitch, Kimberley Kreines, Tim Aten, and Mons Johnson.

Bryan HawleyIan Duke
Bryan Hawley and Ian Duke
Eric LauerJackie Lee
Eric Lauer and Jackie Lee
Ari LevitchKimberley Kreines
Ari Levitch and Kimberley Kreines
Tim AtenMons Johnson
Tim Aten and Mons Johnson

For me, this was my seventh lead of final design and development for a Standard-legal booster, including one co-lead. This set lead was the first time other than Magic: The Gathering—Conspiracy that I was fortunate enough to help show off a new plane to our fans and players.

This set is jam-packed with themes, cycles, and mechanics. Hopefully, we've created them in a cohesive way. Let me run through each with the lens of development.

Gods

The Theros Gods established a baseline for design space to explore. Mark Rosewater's article from yesterday highlights the various aspects of Gods and how each factored into what we wanted to use here.

Erik Lauer, who led Theros development, provided excellent direction to our team in how we might pursue the Gods' designs in Amonkhet. We were again able to deliver on highly impactful cards given that you could go through additional hoops in deck building and gameplay to maximize their ability to enter the fray.

In Theros, the Gods all had the same condition, a devotion count, to reach their full potential. I enjoyed that by contrast in this set each of the Amonkhet Gods had a more specific goal that could highlight the traits of that God. We could then sprinkle cards in the set to help facilitate this goal and hopefully create some new decks revolving around the goal of each God. In many cases, these goals would also align closely with things a player might want to be doing anyway, but for a strategy that might not normally have enough incentives.

Indestructible creatures like these Gods are certainly a risk from a developmental standpoint. In Theros, you could attempt to remove the cards supplying the devotion so you needn't necessarily have to deal with them. In Amonkhet, the Gods can fuel themselves, which gives them an inevitability that could be frustrating to play against. Our goal with the activated abilities on these cards is that they are priced more as a backup plan to using other cards in your deck as the primary means of getting them going.

Aftermath

We'd known for some time Amonkhet planned to be a graveyard-matters set. This put us in a tricky spot since it would be in the same Standard environment as Shadows over Innistrad block, another graveyard-focused block. Typically, in the Kaladesh block we'd have designed cards to "hate" on graveyard strategies in case any of those in the previous block, like delirium, had started to fester for too long as a dominant or problematic strategy. We were cautious—and certainly in retrospect we believe incorrect—in the degree that we tried not to step on the toes of what we might do in Amonkhet. Going forward, we'll do more to put answers to set themes and risky strategies closer in time to when those things debut. In the future, we'll also try harder to find solutions where we don't have big overlapping set themes like these. On a related note, you will find several better answers to artifacts than you've seen recently.

Aftermath is one of the two mechanics playing in a flashback-like space where you get a second use of your card. From a developmental perspective, we often feel the gameplay of the second use of cards like these should be optimized to be used later in the game when you might start running out of other things to do with cards you've drawn. Each of these aftermath cards effectively has two designs, with the design intent of many of them working best when played quickly in succession. This meant that we placed a greater emphasis on mana costs where players could do the combos offered on these cards on the turns needed by the designs. At the same time, we looked for designs that would still be fun when the effects weren't coming as a one-two punch.

These cards were some of the most enjoyable cards I've had the pleasure to design since arriving at Wizards seven years ago. Doug Beyer and others in creative and R&D really started to make these come together with some playful "[blank] to [blank]" names. I'm still amused by the one name I came up with that stuck on the green aftermath card. Thanks to Liz Leo for putting together a frame that met our challenging set of asks for the functionality we wanted, specifically in not looking like it offered a choice like split-cards and in offering the possibility for players to orient the cards in graveyards where they could see what it could do next.

Aftermath is spread equally through the colors.

Embalm

The ability to bring back creatures as mummified Zombies on cards with embalm seemed very appropriate on an Egypt-inspired world. Development didn't need to improve much on what we'd received from design here. There were several little issues regarding how to best implement the presentation of tokens once we'd committed to showing every creature's mummified counterpart. The biggest challenges with these cards were in concert with other graveyard-related strategies.

We didn't want the format to be all about dumping your whole deck and/or hand into your graveyard and caring more about a huge graveyard than the cards you were drawing each turn. As we were working on the set, we'd seen enough of cards like Grapple with the Past doing strong work in this area that we didn't want to add enablers that would highlight these cards only in extreme uses via self-milling. For example, I was excited to find Commune with the Gods as a possible reprint, especially given the space of Trials and Cartouches, but that was deemed too dangerous at that rate, so you'll find a similar card in that space instead.

As I mentioned above as goals of the double-use cards, we are giving you a good rate up front for many embalm creatures, and the embalm cost is meant to be mostly just icing on the cake later in the game. There is at least one notable exception to this where we have a very aggressively costed embalm cost. Unlike on flashback cards, these creatures also must find their way to the graveyard, which means we can be a little more generous on embalm costs. And because there's a mana cost to return them, unlike with undying or persist, we can also provide more generous rates on the first use of the creature.

Embalm is centered in white and blue.

Exert

The above two mechanics created incentives for the game to drag out longer, where you could create card advantage out of your graveyard. We wanted to make sure there was another mechanic that could pull against the only correct strategy being for everyone to stall out for the late game. We also wanted a mechanic that would represent the initiates who were taking on the challenges of the Trials on Amonkhet. The exert mechanic was created late in design, and it felt like a great match to characters making very heroic efforts.

Many games' states in early development had been getting to points where a player would look at the board and ask, "Does it make sense to attack?" Too frequently the answer was "No." By adding in a combat mechanic like exert, we could often change that answer into the more satisfying answer of "Yes." Sure, the creature might not be able to block next two turns or attack the next turn, but at least the player could keep making progress and encourage a trade rather than letting the board fill up to an even more complex state.

This mechanic was also a lot of fun with cards like Spidery Grasp and other one-shot ways to get around the drawback. Granting vigilance, at least in Limited, felt a little more cheaty than fun, so there's not much in set for that even though we know everyone will be trying this with Always Watching in Constructed where there's more reliable counter play.

Exert, and to a lesser extent embalm, sent me down a line of thought that eventually ended with my suggesting that we try making punch-out counter cards and distribute them in packs. It was easy to think you'd remember not to untap, but after watching many games, I'd highly recommend the memory aid.

Exert is focused in white, red, and green.

Cycling

I believe Erik Lauer suggested the cycling mechanic here. One of the reasons was that he was excited to make the cycling dual lands that Sam Stoddard previewed last week. One of the strikes against cycling is that its name isn't particularly flavorful. At least in the minds of some members of R&D, cycling felt a little more appropriate in this harsh world. Beyond that, the timing also felt good here, as its interactions with Shadows over Innistrad block in help enable one last hurrah for delirium. Ultimately, we also landed on rewards for discarding cards that could be used not only for cycling but also via the enablers in Shadows over Innistrad block that were designed to allow you to discard cards for madness.

Cycling is consistently one of the less popular mechanics with newer players compared to more experienced players. The idea of discarding a spell that concretely does something to draw another random card doesn't quite feel good or feel right to many new players. That has been another reason we haven't seen the mechanic in a while. That said, there are many players who we know enjoy this mechanic, so here you go.

The Modern format impacted these cards more than most, especially in taking care not to give Living End decks anything too egregious.

Cycling and its reward cards are focused in blue and black.

Monuments

What would an Egypt-inspired plane be without monuments? We've got some completed monuments and some that need a lot work still. You'll need some bricks. A Camel might help too.

All of these monuments were actually quite fun to work on. The monuments in-progress were a challenge to find the appropriate rate while you working on them and the right payoff when you completed the wonder. The finished monuments (including the Monuments devoted to each God) were also a blast. You might want to look over at Ethan's article for that.

All colors can make good use of monuments.

Zombies (Mummies)

You get some new tools for your Zombies decks from Shadows over Innistrad with the set. This tribe is focused in black and white, so you'll have to figure out which color pairs to focus on now. Or maybe now you'll have enough to just stick to mono-black?

Cartouches and Trials

Creatively speaking, when the initiates win a Trial they are awarded a corresponding cartouche. This meant there was a desire to mechanically link these two cards assuming we'd show both in the set. After trying a great many things, we landed on having each Cartouche be an enchant creature Aura that gives +1/+1, a keyword, and an effect when it enters the battlefield. Meanwhile, Trials are enchantments that generate an effect when they enter the battlefield. When a Cartouche enters the battlefield, you get to return all your Trials to your hand.

Mechanically, the story, at least in my mind, is that the Cartouche signifies the completion of the Trial, which then ends until you choose to start it again by playing the next Trial from your hand.

These cards provide a combo element to the set that can provide some big dreams, especially in Limited.

One trial you might consider is seeing if you can draw me out of my general silence on Twitter @Grumpherys if you have questions you think I can answer.

Cartouches and Trials work well for all colors.

-1/-1 Counters

We don't use -1/-1 counters very frequently. This was the first set I've ever worked on for development in which we've used them. We wanted to convey the harsh realities of this plane, and -1/-1 counters are a good match for that. Finding a sweet spot for -1/-1 counters is challenging. Getting to a point of "net fun," in which adding the happiness of each side of the table is positive, took some work for this mechanic. The most powerful use of -1/-1 counters is when you are killing creatures, and yet it is theoretically most satisfying when the counters don't kill the creatures so there are actually -1/-1 counters on the board. That potentially leads to wanting higher toughness values so things survive, and then you end up with board strewn about with effective 0/1s and 1/2s. Is that then genuinely more net fun than a set that is instead using +1/+1 counters to create big creatures? Well the jury's out, but this is certainly different and it has its fans, and we can always do +1/+1 counters in almost all our other sets.

Using -1/-1 counters is also a strong mechanical space to hand any color, given that we still want to make cards that outright kill creatures—which potentially means that the colors that focus on it are just getting a bunch of extra removal we might not otherwise give them.

Wither is a thematic home run for this setting with mummies. It is what design wanted to be doing here, and with very good reason. But wither was another keyword mechanic on top of many in the set, and we on the development side of things were struggling to have it improve the play experience. Games with wither creatures against low-power and high-toughness creatures tended to grind to a halt. With high power or square (rounded) stats, the wither creatures tended to trade in combat with other creatures of similar or lower mana costs, given that we had to under-stat these creatures at least somewhat for having the wither ability. In Constructed, where there tends to be less blocking and opposing decks are more likely to be able to shrug off -1/-1 counters, wither figured to be less relevant.

As I started realizing many of these trends early in development, I began looking for other ways to explore -1/-1 counters that we hadn't done before. I got inspiration from one of the higher polling cards in our internal rare poll. It put -1/-1 counters on itself, and could shed them off each turn for an effect. Design had also explored putting -1/-1 counters on their own creatures. What is more ruthless than putting -1/-1 counters on your opponent's stuff; how about putting it on your own creatures?

That sounds awesome, right?

No.

Okay, how about you are getting impressive creatures for their cost because of this drawback?

Still not there?

What if there are cards that reward you for putting -1/-1 counters on any creatures including your own?

What if we give you creatures that have effects based on the number of -1/-1 counters on them and you can choose any creatures with or without these effects to put the -1/-1 counters on?

What if you can put these counters on creatures you've grown tired of? Maybe that Thraben Inspector? It wasn't really doing much for you anymore, right? Why not give it three -1/-1 counters so you can have something like a two-mana 4/4? Or maybe you put the counters on a creature that does something when it dies? Or target something you were going to sacrifice anyway? That sounded a bit mean; maybe I have been hanging out with Bolas too much.

Are we getting there yet? I guess you can let me know in a month. I can say I enjoyed the options presented in this space, finding things that felt clever in games, and being better able to build around my own creatures rather than heavily relying on the nature of my opponents' creatures.

Don't worry though: there are certainly plenty of cards you'd expect from a set with -1/-1 counters in terms of putting counters on opposing creatures. Exploring this space was meant more to balance out the types of cards in Amonkhet.

For example, if you're a Limited fan, be prepared to see many a Splendid Agony.

If you pine for the olden days, perhaps you'll appreciate a color-shifted Unstable Mutation.

As for the card that inspired a number of the other cards in this set, meet Channeler Initiate—someone you'll probably want to give those counters to more often than not. Sometimes you just don't need any more mana, though.

The -1/-1 counters cards are focused in green and black.

Thanks for reading. I hope you enjoy the set when Amonkhet Prereleases start on April 22!

—Dave Humpherys

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