Elspeth vs. Tezzeret

Posted in Feature on October 4, 2010

By Zac Hill

Zac is a former game designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast and was the lead developer for Dragon's Maze. His articles have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Believer, and on StarCityGames.com. Currently he serves as the chief operating officer of The Future Project, a nonprofit education initiative, and holds a position as a research affiliate in the MIT Game Lab.

It was like the second or third of January, 2009, and gusts of rain billowed like curtains along the road outside my loft. If Kuala Lumpur raindrops have names, KL storms have personalities—and this one was a jogger cut off by a speeding motorbike, a midday napper wakened by a honking horn. The sky was the kind of gray that sucks away the light around it and renders everything the color of an afterthought, and the air felt vacant, like an empty safe.

All of which is to say I probably wasn't going to be spending a ton of time outside.

Which was unfortunate, since the girl I was dating at the time decided to come chill with me for New Years—to have fun, sure, but also to witness how I was living in this unfamiliar world. To see things and meet people. To share experiences for the first time in awhile. And now—what was there to do?

And what was there to say?

Four months in a brand-new universe is an eternity of more familiar seconds. The divide between who you are and who you have been widens as your frames of reference dissolve. Removed from my history (or, depending on your perspective, freed from it), I couldn't help but sculpt a newer me. Through no fault of anyone's, we were drifting apart.

Everyone who has traveled for any substantial length of time will tell you that the absolute worst question to hear upon your return is, "How was your trip?" It's too much to ask at once. For me, the question was, "How was Malaysia?" The implicit supposition that a year of experience could be distilled down into a sound byte made me sad, and yet I knew at the same time that whoever was asking it was genuinely trying to display interest in something that I couldn't articulate and they, in all likelihood, wouldn't understand.

It's a similar experience trying to incorporate someone temporary into the vicissitudes of a parallel world. The niceties of routine feel suddenly forced and artificial, and every single moment hangs.

I was paralyzed by possibility. Things were awkward. She was being cool, but I was lost. We had had the obligatory conversations, said the necessary words, and now it was time to get out and go do things.

Thanks to the rain, though—yeah, that wasn't even about to happen.

"Hey. Do you want to battle? I kind of want to smash your face in."

I've got to tell you, it's kind of hard to forget a line like that one.


What had happened was she had brought along a copy of Duel Decks: Jace vs. Chandra—and was, in fact, smashing my face in. Never in my life had I been so terrified of a Flamekin Brawler, I've got to say. We played for hours. But something more was happening. The barriers I had erected for myself—the paralyzing fears of the uncomfortable and unfamiliar—were breaking down. We were laughing. We were present. The depth of the game play and the intricacy of the cards shifted my focus outside myself and into something that, I quickly realized, was nothing short of beautiful. Things became real again, and suddenly all of this silliness about new universes and competing worlds revealed itself for the internalized construction that it was. I saw through my own defense mechanisms, my own self-preserving distance. And the reason all of that happened was because we had a game we could play, a language that could substitute for the words I was trying too hard to string together.

The philosopher Mark Rowlands frames the concept of memory as a behavioral process—a series of actions as opposed to a series of recollections. What I believe Magic does, in its best moments, is construct a collective memory for its players. Every top-deck becomes an instant in history that is also Craig Jones' Lightning Helix, and Gabriel Nassif's Cruel Ultimatum, and the time in Middle School I ripped a Hand of Death to deal with Aaron Malark's Force of Nature like two seconds before the cafeteria bell rang. Every dive into the think tank to pull a win out of nowhere is also Dave Humpherys battling through four Lobotomy Psychatogs to kill Mark Ziegner with Memory Lapses and Cephalid Coliseums, even as it is also my first Pro Tour Qualifier victory at the age of fifteen courtesy of a singleton Captain's Maneuver and an overzealous opponent's kicked Urza's Rage. The language of the game—the beauties and intricacies of the system—carries it's own inherent meanings, and has it's own inherent values. And every game we play is a ritual that helps us speak these languages and relive these memories. To borrow words from Mircea Eliade—every game is a hierophany of the mind.


I believe that, at Wizards of the Coast, we're in the business of connecting people through the experience of gaming. If you asked me for my "mission statement," that would be it. So when Erik Lauer, lead developer of Jace vs. Chandra, asked me to do the heavy lifting for the next Duel Deck, Elspeth vs. Tezzeret, my goal was to create a product that could engender in people the same kind of moments I had that day in Kuala Lumpur a year before. The decks had to be straightforward enough to be appealing, but deep enough that you could keep discovering new interactions even after dozens and dozens of games. There had to be the potential for massive blowouts and nail-biting grinds. And there had to be at least a couple of cards that reached out to you and made you say, "Wow—they did that?"

Like this one:

Swords to Plowshares

Or this one:

Mishra's Factory

—the original artifact land.

Finally, I had the opportunity to preview a couple of cards from Scars of Mirrodin. This would prove to be its own set of challenges, because I wanted to show off something awesome without giving too much away. At the same time, I had to make sure that the new card or cards fit into the overall feel and game play balance of the decks, even though the set itself (and therefore the cards I could choose to preview) was changing from day to day.

That balance was probably the most important part to me. I didn't want it to be obvious which deck you were supposed to choose, and I wanted to make sure that any style of player had something to look forward to when playing this product. If one deck always wins, then there's no reason to explore the depth each deck has to offer, because you've figured the secret out already. All the work on the little things wouldn't matter. So I figured I'd have to play somewhere in the neighborhood of three or four hundred games to know for sure how things were supposed to pan out. I couldn't phone this one in and say, "Well, it's close enough." Ideally, one deck would seem superior on the front end, but the other deck would slowly begin to prove its mettle as a player familiarized himself with its nuances, and there'd be a whole new layer of discovery as the components of the very same deck started to cast themselves in a new light.

Oh, and it needed to be fun. There's that.

Elspeth, Knight-Errant
Tezzeret the Seeker

Fortunately, I wasn't working at this alone. Chris Millar, Elspeth vs. Tezzeret's designer, cooked up an awesome pair of lists that played well together even from the get-go. And Erik Lauer, though he took enough of a step back to allow me to explore, was always at the ready if a question needed answering, a game needed playing, or my impulses needed a little bit of reining in.

So I got to work.



Game designer ProTip #263: When someone with whom you're playing a game unleashes an actual groan of frustration, you're probably doing something wrong.

The victim was former Duels of the Planeswalkers guru Jay Schneider, and I had just returned a Duplicant to my hand with Crystal Shard.


Things were moving along nicely, in general. Elspeth had incorporated a variety of combat tricks that could push through damage while serving as specific answers to specific threats, and we were in the process of putting together a mini return-to-hand theme that could give the deck some punch in the long game (while we knew one deck would tend towards aggro and the other towards control, we didn't want it to work out such that one deck always won if the game progressed past turn seven, and vice versa). But Tezzeret had some issues. One of the problems with any strategy centered around artifacts is that, by their very nature, artifacts tend to be very iterative. That is, because artifacts are confined to either:

A. being bad and/or overcosted versions of effects that have their places elsewhere in the color pie, or:

B. offering up incremental advantage in the style of Jayemdae Tome, Disrupting Scepter, and their ilk, the most obvious way to push an artifact strategy is to make it really good at locking the game down over several turns through a series of repeatable effects.

The problem is, to put it bluntly, that kind of game play is lame.

One of the things that makes Magic fun is the process of discovery and evolution that takes place over the course of a given game. Every draw step yields a new possibility, creates the potential for things to change. If you know that nothing you do matters because a card like Memnarch is just going to steal all of your creatures, there's no real point in playing—but you have to, because maybe your opponent will mess up, or maybe you'll draw the one removal spell that's hiding somewhere in your deck. It's miserable—as Jay's groan made all too clear.

But what was I supposed to do about it?

The solution came when I realized that Tezzeret could beat down, too. While there aren't a whole lot of artifact creatures who could Red Zone it up with the rank and file of white's Soldier-fueled army, there are in fact a few—and a few was all I needed. Unfortunately, my beloved Cathodions didn't make it into the final cut—owing, at least in part, to their looking like extras in some gonzo episode of Futurama—but cards like Esperzoa, Master of Etherium, Steel Overseer, Runed Servitor, Juggernaut, Synod Centurion, Qumulox, and the good ol' Assembly-Worker ensured that everyone's favorite Michael Bolton-haircutted Seeker of Carmot could get his aggro on. Gradually, the games became more give-and-take. No longer did the Tezzeret deck have to spend most of its time stabilizing, only to get blown out by the last combat trick in the Elspeth deck's hand. Instead, occasionally, Elspeth would find herself on the ropes courtesy of a turn-three Juggernaut, and would have to top-deck a timely Swords to Ploweshares to get back into the swing of things. The games became more dynamic; the experience itself was swingier. And crucially, moments started sticking out in my mind—overwhelming a Pentavus with the Kor Skyfisher / Stormfront Riders combo into a massive Swell of Courage, for example, or racing an entire army with nothing but Energy Chamber into Esperzoa on the play. Finally, we were getting it together.

And then came Scars of Mirrodin.


If all you want to do is show something off and hope people "ooh and aah" over it, then previewing cards is easy. You just pick something that looks cool on paper and watch as people talk about it. But I wasn't content to just put something new into the set for spoiler's sake and call it a day. I wanted something that you could really play with, something that would add depth and variety to the decks. More than that, I wanted players to taste some of the awesome things that Scars of Mirrodin would make possible once it was released.

The card I settled on for Tezzeret was Contagion Clasp. That card had been a pet of mine all throughout Scars development; Matt Place and I had been pushing hard for an uncommon effect that would allow players to proliferate every turn, and Clasp kept surprising us with how powerful it could be across a whole variety of archetypes.

Contagion Clasp

Immediately after I decided to try the card out, I found myself with a Clasp, a Steel Overseer, and an Everflowing Chalice on the battlefield by turn four. That game wasn't particularly close. It also solved another problem I was having, which was that I wanted both two copies of Moonglove Extract and two copies of Energy Chamber, but I didn't want to cut anything (spoiled, I know). In other words, the card "did a lot of work." I knew I had found what I was looking for.

Elspeth was a little trickier. One of the dangers of an artifact-based set is that a lot of the cards and mechanics can become very self-referential. Proliferate does an awesome job of tying together Infect from the Phyrexian side and charge counters from the Mirran, but it does mean that you start to care a lot about the manipulation of dice or coins or whatever. Meanwhile, Elspeth wanted to boost her creatures with Reinforce and Crusade, not with Equipment and metalcraft, so it was hard to pull from that pool without looking like I was trying too hard to squeeze in a preview card for its own sake.

In the end, I realized I was looking too deep inside the set for clever interactions. In my quest to find the perfect overly-adorable spell, I was ignoring what was right there in front of me. Elspeth, as mentioned earlier, had already been developing a minor "enter the battlefield" effect / pick up your creatures theme, and was making good use of a few flyers to push through damage past Tezzeret's more sizable blockers. Kemba's Skyguard was on-curve, on-theme, and powerful—the more I thought about it the happier I was to demonstrate that Scars wasn't all about its artifacts. Sometimes, all you want is a card that does its job.

Kemba's Skyguard

Everything else was a matter of playing and perfecting. The moment of truth came when, after a week apart from the decks, Erik gave me the "A-OK" after playing just five games with the final versions. Some minor tweaks due to art came and went, and just like that, Elspeth vs. Tezzeret was out the door.

The most common question people have asked me since I got back to the States was, "What's it like to work at Wizards?" In many ways, that question is similar to "How was Malaysia?" or to trying, as an outsider, to introduce someone else to a world of which you yourself are not yet truly a part. Every mode of expression in my inventory fails, and editor Kelly Digges probably won't let me print an entire page of "It's totally, totally, totally, totally, totally ... awesome." Suffice to say I love it, and—in lieu of words that lie with their inadequacy—I try to make sure that love comes through in every card or product I create.

I hope you enjoy Elspeth vs. Tezzeret. I hope that with it you create some memories. I hope that through it you experience something beautiful. Most of all, I hope it helps you appreciate the connection you have with someone dear to you—especially if, in a moment of clarity, aptitude, or just plain savage top-deckery, that person is yourself.

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