Lend Me a Hand
The goal of the soulbond mechanic was to emphasize pulling together and using teamwork. From the earliest I saw of this mechanic, it did a solid job of doing just that. Gather an ally and bring it! While the mechanic went through a fair amount of evolution, it was always about a bond between two creatures. Limiting things to just a pair made a lot of sense from a simplicity perspective, and while we challenged other parts of the mechanic this aspect of it was one we embraced.
Wolfir Silverheart | Art by Raymond Swanland
I have confidence in this mechanic because I haven't otherwise had the opportunity to work with one that seemed so universally appealing to everyone I gathered initial feedback from during Limited playtests. Our internal players, like our external ones, are justifiably skeptical of many mechanics on a first pass. The first time someone got a pairing going with something like Tandem Lookout with Wingcrafter, though, their excitement was quite apparent. Soulbond might not have quite the splash value of some other mechanics but it was certainly getting a nod as a very fun mechanic throughout the course of playtesting.
In terms of fleshing out each color's identities, design and development began to center soulbond more and more toward green. Like for miracles, soulbond didn't make sense thematically for black creatures, so it isn't present there. This was certainly putting black in a tough spot for development—which is best served by discussion in another context—but in brief, we sought to compensate black with the lion's share of undying, a "loner" play pattern, and a sacrifice theme, among others.
Mix and Match
At its core, soulbond is particularly appealing in that it allows players to create combinations of abilities on creatures. This isn't exactly a new thing within Magic and is something frequently created via Auras and by Equipment. So it's challenging to pinpoint how and why soulbond delivers so well on this.
Part of why soulbond executes well is in its consistency compared to our other offerings. You are less prone to be getting two-for-oned like with Auras. Your soulbond creatures are obviously much more meaningful on an otherwise creaturesless board than Auras or Equipment. If you have a soulbond creature in need of a pairing on the board, it creates a greater sense of what you want to draw and how good it will be for you to draw a creature. In those cases, a top-decked creature will feel as good as a miracle. And once you draw that creature, it often comes with a much more immediate impact than with Auras or Equipment, since there's not a pairing cost like for Equipment and the enhancing effect can already be on the board, unlike an Aura.
Soulbond is, in that sense, a good facilitator for trying out combinations, since it is often less frustrating to play with. Rather than figuring out what pairs well with peanut butter, or with bacon, or with your beverage of choice, you get to ask what creature out there really most wants to be getting +4/+4 or any number of others abilities.
Having these soulbond creatures be a major part of the set did briefly pose the question as to whether there should still be many—or any—beneficial enchant-creature spells or Equipment. In particular, there were a number of thematic Equipment we wanted to do here, so that answer was most clear. In the end, we also found enough fun Auras that wouldn't work quite as elegantly on soulbond creatures or abilities that were too annoying if multiple creatures could easily get them.
Thematically, there are a lot of compelling reasons to have these soulbond benefits residing on creatures themselves. They represent an array of flavorful creatures and, beyond that, they aid in imagining how those creatures could be partnering up with other creatures.
As for today's preview, I've found Wolfir Silverheart makes a relatively good buddy with the first soulbond creature we previewed, Silverblade Paladin. That is, if the Paladin isn't currently engaged in another relationship. I've also found this Wolf Warrior to pair quite well with Vorapede, despite the fact they both cost five mana. Blighted Agent would probably be open to his training as well. Nightfall Predator can take his fighting to a new level with Wolfir Silverheart's help.
I find a great many things enjoyable about building decks with soulbond creatures. I even find it enjoyable to figure out what criteria to narrow my searches to on Gatherer to best hone in on the best options. Who are you looking forward to teaming up with Wolfir Silverheart?
From Bind to Soulbond
As a development team, we quite significantly modified how this mechanic worked. Let's take a look at the original card in this slot as handed off by the design team. In particular, pay attention to the reminder text for bind, and worry less about the details of this specific design.
Creature – Elemental
Bind to a creature (When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, you may bind it to another unbound creature you control.) While bound, during your upkeep put a +1/+1 counter on this and the creature it's bound to.
As you can see, the mechanic started in a place where pairing could only occur when a bind creature was entering the battlefield. The main strength of this version of the mechanic was its simplicity. Ordinarily, that would also be a huge plus to us, but bind wasn't doing so many things it had the potential to do.
Wingcrafter | Art by Matt Stewart
First, the original mechanic was creating a dissatisfying tension on small bind creatures and during creature-light draws. For example, my opening hand has a one-mana creature with bind (imagine a bind version of Wingcrafter). If I'm playing a mix of creatures with and without the mechanic, as would often be the case in any number of formats, particularly Sealed Deck, it immediately presented the challenge of whether I should cast it on the first turn—the default play players would expect to be the case for a 1-mana creature—or if I should hold it to bind onto a creature later. This wasn't a particularly appealing way to have to start each game. A player usually wants to make the most of a card's text and so the inclination was not to play the creature unless there was something on the board to bind to. The exception to this would be if you could confidently expect to later play another bind creature to bind to your original bind creature.
Second, and following from this first example, was that bind was actually quite parasitic. This didn't seem readily apparent to some playtesters, but let's take a closer look. If I play my one-drop bind creature, it is effectively vanilla unless I bind it with another bind creature, at which point both are granting their powers to each other. If either of those creatures later died, the other, if it had bind, couldn't be maximizing its own potential unless another bind creature came along, at which point it would gain its own power again.
With bind as it came from design, there would be a strong incentive to play with other bind creatures and a disincentive to play with creatures without the keyword. There are times and places for parasitic mechanics, but the third chapter of Innistrad block seemed a poor place to embark on a mechanic like this that we couldn't support as the block grew. If we had done that anyway, we might have had to relegate the soulbond creatures to just being a weak mechanic, since we probably wouldn't want a top-tier deck arising from all cards with soulbond present in just one set. Furthermore, being parasitic would also take away from a lot of the joy of this mechanic, which would be in justifiably searching for the best pairs among Magic's history of creatures.
Looking for a moment now at the actual design of Bind Beast, it is worth noting that this was one of the few designs that didn't have a relatively significant immediate impact upon binding. In general, we felt this wasn't as compelling a space to go as simply straightforwardly granting a stat bonus.
Pressure on Removal
Bind also created constraints on the removal in the set. Design had handed off very little quality removal, especially not of the instant variety, because once broken, these bind bonds were hard to reestablish in Sealed and design worried it would take away from all this fun it saw in bind. This was another indicator that we should likely explore other implementations of the mechanic. Making a concession to the power level of removal spells for an entire standalone Limited experience seemed dangerous. And if we were working in a removal-weak engineered environment, what would happen once we entered the realm of Constructed, where that would certainly not be the case? I didn't want these creatures to be something that couldn't stand up proudly in Constructed.
Allowing creature pairs to more easily reform took the pressure off of the mechanic to always deliver when you first set up your pair, because there'd be more possibilities to rebind later. It also meant we could somewhat reduce the swingy-ness on the power of pairing up. In this way, we were able to free up the removal to look more like a typical set as of late, although miracles modified that slightly for other reasons.
If anything, the changes to the mechanic put us in a place where we had to make sure there were, in fact, reasonable ways to deal with these creatures, as they can lead to some game states that start feeling more repetitive—not entirely unlike Equipment. Unlike Equipment, we can rely on a wider array of cards that help deal with them, at least as typically represented in an average set of packs, which contains more creature removal than artifact removal. Still, though, we had to be wary that game states didn't too readily get into positions where you'd keep being able to attack or block with a creature that had been enhanced turn after turn.
Until Death (or Zone Change) Do Us Part
Aside from the fun of deck building with soulbond, there are many strategically meaningful decisions to be made with soulbond. As I've mentioned, we've tweaked the keyword to the extent that the question isn't whether to play this creature at all, but rather the more interesting question of whether to pair it up at the first opportunity. Often, the answer is yes if the other creature can make any use of the soulbond power, and sometimes the answer is yes simply to grant the soulbond creature its own power. There are a lot of fish in the sea, as it were, and patience can often be rewarded for better pairings.
Through the course of games, there can be fun interplays of putting your opponents in situations where they feel compelled to make creature trades so you can free up new pairing opportunities—and, conversely, for your opponents to try to avoid letting you make such trades.
We also intentionally chose to highlight more flicker effects in this set so you can creatively rework some surprise new pairings (and to synergize with undying and enters-the-battlefield effects).
Hopefully that gives you some concrete ideas on the sorts of issues we are thinking about and working to resolve as we as developers inherit the design card file.
Leading the development on this set was a blast. When development took over, the set was well-poised to be further crafted along the path of creating very memorable and exciting game-play moments, in which games were less likely to play out the same way each time. I believe we've executed well on refining the set to do more of just that. I hope you've been enjoying the previews and I look forward to hearing everyone's thoughts on the set (and the Prerelease) in the upcoming months.