A Monster of a Set Design

Posted in Card Preview on April 7, 2020

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.

Ikoria Set Design

Monsters! From huge and ferocious to adorable and whimsical, the gamut of monsters in Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths has spoken to me. I've always been drawn to the diversity and wonders of the animal world and inspired by fantastical takes from the entertainment world in exploring what monsters could theoretically exist. I've been a fulltime game designer and developer for a good 16 years now, but before that, I'd earned a PhD from MIT examining epigenetics in cloned mice. I'm Simic at heart. Not every set I get to lead is in my wheelhouse, but Ikoria certainly is.

Ikoria was my third experience as set design lead. Dominaria was my first, and War of the Spark was my second. I expected it would be awhile before I undertook a set as ambitious as these first two were, but in many ways, Ikoria was the most challenging and novel of the three.

Mutate

Mutate was our primary means to create new outrageous monsters. At the end of vision design, you could only mutate onto creatures that shared either a creature type or an inheritable keyword with it. Inheritable keywords were mostly evergreen keywords, and we explored creating a couple of new ones to support the mechanic. The new creature carried over the keyword as a keyword counter. Beyond defining which keywords counted as inheritable, we'd have to help players learn them. Narrowly restricting a pathway for what could mutate was good in terms of flavor, but it was creating some very big compromises to the design structure of the set. In particular, the constraints meant keeping the counts of creature and keyword overlaps very high to function in this unevolved state of the mechanic.

If you were ever wondering why there were lower-cost creatures in War of the Spark with keywords and a tad unusual creature types, now you know why. Leyline Prowler, Charmed Stray, Dreadmalkin, and even Constructed powerhouse Arboreal Grazer were all concessions from Doug Beyer on the creative end of things in helping the nascent mutate mechanic reach a density of creatures to mutate onto. At this stage, there was to be a primary creature type for each color in Ikoria. To an extent, that remains true even though mutate changed in ways that this was no longer needed for gameplay. You'll find an abundance of Cats in white, Elementals in blue, Nightmares in black, Dinosaurs in red, and Beasts in green.

The first modification to mutate during set design happened just two weeks in. Mutated creatures now gained all the text from the card(s) they were mutating from, not just keywords. This much more readily allowed players to create wild combinations of monsters. A significant ramification of the change was that mutate triggers would keep accumulating, so the mechanic encouraged you to keep going all in on your creature. There were certainly some cons to this, but there was a lot of positive response to the explosive nature of creating the most mutated creature possible.

While this iteration was an improvement, it wasn't enough for the mechanic to survive. A month later, we allowed mutation over any non-Human without other restrictions. Eliminating the need to match creature type allowed for a lot more flexibility and diversity in the set structure. Constructed deck building looked much more appealing as it no longer had such narrow choices. In Limited, players had previously been very taxed tracking the details of all the creature types and keywords in their card pool during the draft. We knew it would be a slight flavor hit, but this opened tons of new windows for creativity. For Ikoria, this update meant that for flavor reasons, the only humanoids on the plane here should be humans.

There was a lot of iteration on numbers and debates over possible changes after that point, but mostly only one more change to the mechanic itself was needed before its final form. Four months later, we decided that you could mutate under a creature, not just over. We made this change mostly to ease sequencing. You would always get to keep the best stats for the task at hand.

Mutate is a big part of the set and well supported in all colors. It is most supported in green-blue. Here's an example of a final product in Parcelbeast.

ParcelbeastParcelbeast Alt

Keyword Counters

While I was leading the final design and development of Amonkhet, I'd helped provide input on how we should create the punchout counters on cards we used there. During that time window, I realized there was potential in this space for using keyword counters. Amonkhet already had too much going on, so I set the idea aside for the future. I pitched it for a mini team that was being run internally for set ideas, and it was picked up for this set.

The Vision Design team explored keyword counters at length. A lot of the cool designs and cycles stem from the vision design process without much modification from my Set Design team. Keyword counters also related to the earliest version of mutate in a crucial way. Even once that wasn't the case, keyword counters were still a great way to further enhance any monster you were creating. Some designers felt keyword counters were unnecessary, but I was all in on creating the most extravagant monsters we could achieve.

The mentor cycle was one of the early cycles from Vision Design. The only significant tweak I made was having these Humans activate to put a +1/+1 counter on all creatures with the appropriate keyword rather than a single creature.

Hornbash Mentor

This change reflected a large shift I was trying to make in Ikoria for having some keywords act more in an almost tribal space. One of the major identities of the allied color pairs in this set is from four cycles of cards that help encourage you to play decks built around a specific keyword: white-blue flying, blue-black flash, black-red menace, red-green trample, and green-white vigilance. The tricky part here is that flash isn't something that makes sense for a keyword counter, so the black mentor is an oddball and cares about lifelink.

I tried to avoid having many cards that would make multiple copies of the same keyword counter exist on a creature, or if multiple did exist, tried to make it rarely matter, and generally tried to minimize moving counters around too much for our first foray into this space. That said, I got an email from Aaron Forsythe in the fifth month of set design that started as follows:

"Having played (and enjoyed) the set, here are a few card ideas I could imagine in the set . . .

  • A Giant Fan type card (rare artifact probably) that can move counters around . . ."

That email ultimately led to the following design on one of our story-centric cards:

The OzolithThe Ozolith Alt

Is this maybe a tool for Hardened Scales decks? I imagine there's some other goofy stuff to be done with this.

Companion

In the fall of 2017, I ran a small team with Peter Lee, Matt Tabak, and JC Tao. We were trying to come up with some mechanics for future sets. Following a large brainstorming session in the building, we had a long list of ideas to explore. In the intersection of two of the ideas, we found a complementary set of needs and asks: pregame cards and deck-building restrictions. How could players have access to a card like a commander that wasn't just a pure advantage? Well, how about if they only had access to it by making concessions in deck building that they normally wouldn't need to make. This was just one of many ideas coming out of that process that we'd hoped would be taken for consideration in future sets.

Ever since I'd started working at Wizards of the Coast, I'd been eager to try something mechanically in the space of deck-building constraints. As we were looking for ways during vision design to play up humans and monsters to bonding, I'd asked that we give this mechanical space a shot. In my mind, this could represent you as the player and the monster teaming up if you were of a similar mindset or ethos. Having a card visible at the start of the game, ready to play, would be a powerful means to show you and your monster as companions in battle.

There were certainly many concerns with implementing this mechanical path in Ikoria. We had so many goals that it became hard to fulfill them all with every card. While, inevitably, some small sacrifices would be needed on some the following, these were the most important goals:

  1. Encourage new and fun decks and ways of looking at cards
  2. Avoid repetitive gameplay
  3. Be verifiable
  4. Be attainable in both Limited and Constructed gameplay
  5. Be a fun card as a four-drop in a "normal" deck

Built into the whole initial idea of this design space was that you had to be paying a deck-building cost. Otherwise, effectively being up an entire card that you could build around would be too strong. We were able to identify ten constraints to fill out a cycle of rares that we made two-color hybrid cast. Hybrid costs would open up more deck-building possibilities than monocolor or multicolor costs. While some established decks can pick these up more easily than others with minor tweaks, we generally tried to reduce the synergies of companion cards closer to pre-existing decks.

Perhaps our biggest concern with the mechanic is that it would get repetitive. If I have the card as an option to play each game, I will mostly be able to play it each game. Won't that get old even if it is pulling novel decks into the metagame? I encouraged Play Design not to rush to any judgement on the mechanic and to put it through its paces. It was something I could pull out of the set later if it got old. It wasn't integral to the set structure. Play Design grew much fonder of the mechanic than I'd hoped. They helped me learn tricks to making the cards less repetitive. While I'd initially envisioned these as mostly higher-cost cards to vary up what turn they landed on the battlefield, Play Design helped me realize that we could also achieve lower-cost cards that were often more correct to play off-curve than the first turn possible.

Several players in house were very concerned about if their opponent might be cheating the deck-building condition. How would they know? Would they be able to call a judge or be able to look through their opponent's deck? Ultimately, this came up enough that we realized we needed to take the concerns more seriously and abandon a bunch of our designs. With the partial exception of Lutri, the Spellchaser, it should be immediately obvious if an opponent plays a card that doesn't match its stated condition. There's not much reason to try to get away with exploiting the deck building other than hoping one's opponent doesn't notice, even in Lutri's case.

It was important to me that these all be attainable in Limited. One or more of them are a big stretch, but I think I've otherwise seen all but one of them done successfully. It is satisfying to accomplish the goals even if your deck might not actually be better for having done so. The process of drafting toward these is very fun in ways that some of you might be familiar with from doing stipulation drafts. There are tricks to drafting toward each of them that felt rewarding to learn. Also, many of the cards are quite good in a deck that doesn't quite get there on the restriction since they tend to synergize with the cards you've drafted toward the restriction. Meanwhile, Constructed has plenty of cards that help work around the conditions that are rewarding to find.

Finally, we wanted you to be able to play the companions in just an "ordinary" deck in up to 4 copies. It's not that you can only play these as companions.

Keruga, the Macrosage

Three-Color Wedge

We knew at this stage in Standard progression that we'd have the good mana bases provided by the Ravnica shock lands and an abundance of good two-color gold cards. Lots of players love three-color environments. This was a good window to further play up three-color decks and make them shine for the half a year until the rotation. It could tug away from and contrast any Throne of Eldraine monocolor themes that are still abundant. There'd be less worry about any three-color cards dominating for too long of a period as compared with a fall set like Khans of Tarkir since we'd be closer to the rotation of the strongest support cards. The problem? Ikoria's primary goal here wasn't a three-color set. This was our monster set! This wasn't a factional set like Khans of Tarkir with each wedge having its own mechanic and tightly defined identity. A lot of work that goes into a three-color Limited environment would be too challenging given our other goals. And so, Ikoria is a monster set with three-color wedge cards, not the other way around.

What does that mean in practice? As in Khans, you are best advised to lean toward enemy colors in Draft to make it easier to play wedge cards you might open or be passed later. All the gold cards at uncommon are enemy color pairs other than an allied color hybrid-cost cycle. Unlike Khans, there are no commons or uncommons that are three-color and there is a cycle of rare allied gold cards and the allied hybrid companions. Playing only two colors and playing allied colors is something you'll be doing much more frequently in Limited than in Khans.

Vision Design's handoff included a rare wedge enchantment cycle and the wedge mutate mythic rares. During set design, we finished off a rare three-color cycle that I think will delight, but I don't get to talk about it yet. We also created the Mythos cycle that was made all the cooler by Seb McKinnon's artwork. There's probably some other notable wedge-related stuff I can't talk about yet.

Humans and Bonding

We'd worked so hard to make monsters cool, it became tricky to find ways to make the humans on Ikoria likeable too. Mechanically, Humans are centered in the white-black color pair. Here, you'll find the humans dedicated to protecting civilization in their sanctuaries and some less nobly intentioned humans, too. In these colors, you'll also find the bulk of the rewards for taking to the human side of the struggle and going all in on Humans instead of monsters.

Meanwhile there are many humans, the bonders, seeking to ally themselves and interact with the monsters as equals. There are quite a few monsters that reward you for having Humans. There are also spells that reward you for having both Humans and monsters together. We kept adding in more cards to make sure each side wasn't too siloed and that even dedicated mutate decks would be tempted to include some Humans. Here's just one such example.

Fight as One

It's hard not to love the bonders' wardrobes. Props to our Art and Creative teams for that.

Cycling

We liked the idea of cycling here because we wanted to encourage players to play with some big creatures and big spells. Cycling facilitates that gameplay. Higher-cost spells with cycling can helping players dig for more land and not be punished for playing more cards higher in the curve. Cycling is a major theme for white-red decks. It also helps facilitate reanimation and recursion in green-black and white-black-green decks. Cycling spells can also help add to the number of instants and sorceries in the graveyard for blue-red and blue-red-white decks.

We'd learned some lessons on the cycling mechanic from Amonkhet. We were more aggressive with lower cycling costs. Unless there was an additional effect besides drawing the card from cycling, we tried to keep all the cycling costs entirely colorless to help smooth out draws for players choosing to run three colors. The result is quite a few cards that cycle merely for a single colorless mana. You'll also find some new build-around cards for cycling decks.

Monsters

The other big focus during set design was simply creating resonant top-down cards showing off monster tropes. That was fun, too! Hopefully they speak for themselves if we've done our job correctly.

Thanks to the rotating cast of set designers on Ikoria: Corey Bowen, Andrew Brown, Melissa DeTora, George Fan, Bryan Hawley, Adam Prosak, Donald Smith Jr., JC Tao, and Gavin Verhey. Thanks also to so many other individuals and teams in R&D who helped make this a memorable set. And to the Magic Online and MTG Arena teams, thanks for putting up with the ambitious nature of this monster of a set: I promise I'll go easier on you next time!

Thanks for reading, and I hope you love Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths.

—Dave Humpherys

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