Five Trials

Posted in Card Preview on April 4, 2017

By Ethan Fleischer

Ethan Fleischer works for Magic R&D as a designer. He can sing, but not dance, and is an indifferent fencer. He lives near Seattle with his wife, three sons, and mother-in-law.

Much like the initiates of the Gods on Amonkhet, I went through five trials during my stints leading Amonkhet exploratory design and co-leading Amonkhet design. For this article, I got really greedy with the preview cards, and as I am a river to my people, that means you all get nine preview cards, just in this one article!


Bolas Pie

Sometimes it is necessary to create stepping-stone design elements to help you progress toward the ultimate form of the thing you're designing. These elements will provide needed support during the early stages of design, but should be abandoned when they are no longer necessary.

Themes are important to making each Magic set feel different from every other Magic set. When we began exploratory design for Amonkhet block, we knew that we wanted to make a set based on ancient Egypt, just as Innistrad was based on the gothic horror genre and Theros was based on Greek mythology. Due to the needs of the overall Magic storyline, we also wanted the world of Amonkhet to be ruled by the Elder Dragon Planeswalker Nicol Bolas.

When tackling a subject like this, it's important for the game designers to do some research so that we can capture the feel of the subject through gameplay. For Amonkhet, Shawn Main focused on researching Egypt (he lived in Cairo for some time as a child). I dug deep on Nicol Bolas, reading about his backstory in various comic books and novels. For both subjects, it was important for us to emphasize what was accessible and appealing about them and not get too bogged down in minutia. Most players don't need to know the details of Old Kingdom irrigation techniques, nor the genealogical relationships between Nicol Bolas and the other Elder Dragons from Legends. I had great help from Matt Knicl from the creative team; he's an expert on old Magic lore. We discovered Bolas's five main attributes. He is:

  • Cruel,
  • Manipulative,
  • Intelligent,
  • Powerful, and
  • Ancient.

We wanted to capture some aspects of the sprawling concept of "ancient Egypt," but not others.

  • We wanted the sun-drenched, living society known to us from history and archaeology.
  • We wanted pop culture tropes, such as undead mummies and impossible architecture.
  • We didn't want to see tomb-raiding archaeologists. Those people work in the dark, and we wanted Amonkhet to be sunny.
  • We couldn't lean on specific allusions the way that cards like Civilized Scholar or King Macar, the Gold-Cursed did.
  • We wanted to avoid references to the Book of Exodus. Using living religions as fodder for fantasy game pieces trivializes that religion.

From these, we generated a list of ideas that we put into a Venn diagram.

On one side, we had a circle labeled "Egypt." On the other, "Bolas." On the Egypt side we had the following: deserts, gods, artifacts. On the Bolas side we had ruthlessness, plots, exploitation, coercion, and subjugation. In the overlapping portion, we listed death, undeath, curses, and monuments.

This seemed pretty great until, near the end of exploratory design, I broke down the ideas by colors. There were tons of black concepts; a few white, blue, or red concepts; and no green concepts at all. What would green do in this world? Ancient Egypt had a lot of agriculture, and while we've done a few green agricultural-related cards in the past, I didn't think that it was particularly fertile ground for an entire block's worth of concepts in our fantasy game.

We couldn't just have a Magic set with only four colors. I imagined what a five-color society set up by Nicol Bolas for his own purposes would have in each color. A Nicol Bolas color pie, or Bolas pie, as I wrote it on the whiteboard.

A society founded by Nicol Bolas would have a warped and cruel view of nature. A concept that fits into that idea is a tendency to assume that the status quo somehow represents natural law. Couple that with a theocratic society, and you find that philosophical attitude naturally tends to move from "natural law" to "God's law" (or in this case, "God-Pharaoh's law.")

The "Bolas Pie" framework was sufficient to allow design to continue working on the set until the creative team was able to invent a more robust society for Amonkhet. You'll find out about that in the next section.

Exemplar of Strength is fine with the way things are in Amonkhet. She's scarred. She has arrows sticking out of her, but she understands that God-Pharoah Bolas's system is good and natural. That system tests people to the breaking point, but the worthy will survive. She embodies Nietzsche's dictum that, "What does not kill me makes me stronger."


The Structure of Monuments

Even a top-down set, one that is designed based on a creative treatment, needs some structure that transcends and unites the five colors of Magic. Cycles are one of the most common tools used to add some structure to a set.

During the first half of the design of Amonkhet, Magic's head designer, Mark Rosewater, led the team. I was slated to take over after the first six months. During that early part of design, there were foundational design elements that had to be established. The "Bolas Pie" model wasn't robust enough to serve us any longer, so the creative team took the next step in defining what the five colors would do in Amonkhet.

We would have five monuments lining the banks of our Nile analog. Each monument would be associated with a color and a different stage of the process of inducting, testing, killing, preparing, and reanimating mummies. This told a good story, and the idea of the riving flowing along what was essentially an assembly line for creating undead mummies had a certain macabre appeal, but it was proving problematic for the designers. Half of the people going in and out of these monuments were alive, and half of them were dead. It wasn't an insoluble problem, but it seemed like an unnecessarily difficult constraint to place on the design this early in the process.

Mark was eager to adjust the structure of the monuments to something more symmetrical. He met with Kimberly Kreines, the worldbuilding lead for Amonkhet, and Jenna Helland, who's in charge of the writing team. They hammered out a new scheme where each of the monuments was associated with a color, which in turn was associated with a god. Each god would have a quality that he or she was responsible for, and initiates would be tested for that quality in the god's monument. Only those who were proven worthy in all five qualities would be worthy of God-Pharaoh Bolas's glorious afterlife. They decided that the embalming of the dead would not take place in the monuments at all, but elsewhere.

With our new structure, we could make four cycles: The five Gods, the five Monuments, the five Trials, and the five Cartouches (magical jewelry awarded for completing a Trial). The Gods, Trials, and Cartouches will be previewed elsewhere, but I can present to you all five of the Monuments right now!

As you can see, each Monument reduces the casting cost of creatures of the corresponding color, and each has an ability that plays into the strategy of its God. We designed the Gods, Monuments, Trials, and Cartouches of a given color such that they would all pull in the same strategic direction.


Embalm Tokens

It's important to keep in mind what the final product will look like. Game mechanics don't stand on their own; they are paired with art and creative text to create holistic experiences. Sometimes it's correct to make game design choices that seem odd in a vacuum to enable the desired overall experience for players.

We knew as soon as we kicked off exploratory design for Amonkhet that we would need a mechanic to represent the embalming process whereby a corpse is transformed into a mummy. We tried many different designs, trying to capture the right gameplay. It was important to me to depict the before and after states of the living person and the desiccated mummy. Also, I didn't want to use double-faced cards. We had recently used them in Shadows over Innistrad block, and I was worried about "DFC fatigue" setting in with the players. Shawn Main finally cracked the problem late in design: creatures with an activated ability that functions in the graveyard. The ability exiles the creature card and makes a token copy of the creature, only the token is a Zombie! This mechanic had three cool things in it: tokens, copies, and Zombies. I love tokens, copies, and Zombies!

There was one more thing we would need to do to make this mechanic sing. We needed to print tokens for each creature with the embalm mechanic. Normally we don't print tokens for cards that make copies of themselves. Doing this would mean a lot of individual tokens! It was a big ask of the art department. I knew there would be pushback from various quarters, and I felt like I needed the enthusiastic buy-in of the art department if I was going to go forward with this idea. I talked to Jeremy Jarvis, who is the principle designer of our worlds and intellectual property and the art director for the Amonkhet world guide. He thought that showing the before-and-after was important and worth the extra time and expense to commission a special piece of art for each token.

There were many other problems to solve with embalm, chiefly answering the question of how much information should appear on the printed tokens. Should they have casting costs? Should the embalm keyword appear on the tokens? We managed to keep all the cool things about the mechanic and give players a bonus thing to collect from Amonkhet booster packs in the form of these unique tokens.

My embalm preview card fits into another small category of cards we made, which was legendary creatures that reference historical personages. Ancient Egypt is not a deep well of recognizable references like gothic horror or Greek mythology, so I wanted to use every opportunity I could find to make cards that would cause the average player to think "Egypt!" The most famous mummy in the world is that of Tutankhamun, the eighteen-year-old pharaoh whose tomb caused an international sensation when it was discovered in 1922. We captured the idea of "the boy ruler who becomes a mummy" in Temmet, Vizier of Naktamun.

A deck with a lot of embalm cards will generally have some tokens on the battlefield at certain points in the game, but it is unlikely to have masses of 1/1 tokens like a traditional "token deck," instead having a smaller number of larger tokens. Temmet plays into that idea by making a single token unblockable. Once he has been embalmed, he can buff himself!


Super Panavision

The importance of graphic design as a component of game design cannot be overstated. The physical arrangement of words, pictures, and other graphical elements can help or hinder a player's understanding of how a game works.

I decided that it would be good to have a mechanic that synergized with the delirium mechanic from Shadows over Innistrad block. One strategy for making the cards in a new set shine in Standard is to create synergies with sets that are already in Standard. We realized that we could make split cards that were both instants and sorceries, and each would count as two card types for delirium purposes, much like an artifact creature. The cool twist would be that the left half could be cast from your hand, and the right half could be cast only from your graveyard. They were sort of a cross between split cards and flashback cards, and they were quickly nicknamed "splitback cards." They would use the standard split card naming convention of "[blank] and [blank]" idioms, such as Fire // Ice and Assault // Battery.

Tim Aten, the editor of Amonkhet, wasn't happy with the splitback cards. Split cards, he argued, represented a choice. You could cast one side or the other. Splitback cards were fundamentally different because there was no choice involved; you cast one side, then later in the game cast the other side. Tim believed that using the split card frame and naming convention would confuse players. Tim and I met with Liz Leo (R&D's graphic designer) and others from R&D to find a solution.

We bounced a lot of ideas around, a lot of different orientations and arrangements of art boxes and text boxes. At one point, I jokingly suggested that we try a "Super Panavision" aspect ratio for one of the art boxes. Super Panavision was a brand name for movies filmed with 70mm spherical optics, including some of my favorite films such as 2001: A Space Odyssey and Lawrence of Arabia. These films have a very wide aspect ratio. We laughed it off and tried some more plausible solutions.

The leading contender had the second part of the card, the half you could cast from the graveyard, looking like a regular split card, more or less. The first half would be upright in your hand and had the art on the left and the rules text on the right, each in portrait orientation. After you cast the top half, you could put the card in your graveyard rotated 90 degrees with the bottom half sticking out so you could easily tell which splitback cards were in your graveyard.

Liz shopped the design around R&D, and it was didn't get a very enthusiastic reception. It looked too different from a Magic card. Also, the narrow text box meant that a lot of space was wasted because the high ratio of line breaks to line length. We reconvened to discuss options.

"I know I was just joking about super widescreen last time," I said, "But maybe it's something you should explore." After a lot of graphic design work, some unusual changes to our commissioning process, and a lot of discussion about how to implement the new card digitally, our aftermath (as the "cast only from the graveyard" mechanic came to be called) frame was complete. May I present to you, in glorious widescreen, Onward to Victory!

This is one of my favorite aftermath cards because the artist, Grzegorz Rutkowski, make full use of the unusual format. The pack beast and the chariot take up plenty of space, and the width of the piece, combined with the space behind the chariot, implies motion. The second image uses a format with more head-room, allowing the figure space to leap upward.

Mechanically, the card presents a fun "aha!" moment where you realize that it would be powerful to give your creature more power, then to give it double strike.

Doug Beyer did heroic work naming these cards using a new "[blank] to [blank]" naming scheme very late in the process. Just sayin' thanks for saving the set, Doug!


The Initiate Mechanic

Successful games for adults have depth; they are different each time you play them. Giving players a variety of strategies to try from game to game is one way of adding depth. Giving players interesting choices to make in the heat of the moment is another way to add depth. What should I do, given this unique situation? Or, what will my opponent do, given the situation I have presented him or her with?

Mechanics like embalm, aftermath, cycling, and -1/-1 counters tend to create what we call a "grindy environment," where players generally stall the game out, kill their opponent's creatures, and gain card advantage until they can finish their opponent off. While it's fine for some sets to be grindier than others, it's important that there be a variety of decks for different players to enjoy, whether that's so they can experience their preferred play style or because they draft often and crave a variety of experiences from draft to draft.

We knew we needed a mechanic that encouraged aggression, to contrast and to an extent counteract the grindiness of the format. We wanted the mechanic to go on creatures, particularly the initiates who were performing the Trials. Our first stab was to use the exalted mechanic from Alara block, but we didn't want to use too many reprint mechanics here, and having a bunch of creatures hang back and watch while someone else did the fighting didn't quite fit the story we were trying to tell. We tried a mechanic that granted an ability to one of your attacking creatures, but a beautiful template eluded us. We tried a lot of things that either caused you to sacrifice your creatures or cared if they died in glorious combat, but they just felt bad and didn't solve the problem.

Finally, Jackie Lee came up with the idea of trading the ability to untap a creature for some bonus that would either help it break through a board stall or take advantage of a momentarily defenseless opponent. Creatively, this represents initiates giving their ultimate effort to impress their Gods in the Trials.

By itself, Tah-Crop Elite can't deal damage very efficiently, but when the right moment presents itself, you can exert it to pump your entire army's power and toughness and smash in for a lot of damage. Finding the correct moment to exert a creature is a fun challenge to overcome.


Of course, there were trials ahead for the development team, but that is not my tale to tell. There were lots of little anecdotes I wanted to share, like the tale of how our Yoni Skolnik was nicknamed "DR3," how we suspected that a tough Crocodile named Tough Croc had disguised himself as James Hata, and how Paper Jackie filled-in for Jackie Lee when she was delayed. But this article has gone on too long already, and I'm pretty much out of preview cards. Follow me on Twitter @EthanFleischer if you want to see one more preview card and to give me your thoughts or questions about Amonkhet.

Prove yourself worthy at the Prerelease on April 22!

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