Converging on Zendikar

Posted in Feature on September 7, 2015

By Ian Duke

Ian Duke is a developer in Magic R&D and has been with Wizards of the Coast since 2012. A gift of an Ice Age starter deck in 1995 sparked Ian's lifelong passion for Magic. He also enjoys math, physics, board games, and puzzles. To the surprise of few, his favorite guild is Azorius.

While a set's design team is responsible for most aspects of the set's structure, themes, and mechanics, occasionally new elements get added later on in the development process. I was on both the design and development teams for Battle for Zendikar, so I have a unique perspective on how the set's structure evolved over time. Today, I bring you the story of how the converge mechanic was added to Battle for Zendikar, along with an exciting new preview card.

Convergent Histories

Though it wasn't added until much later, the converge mechanic dates back to early in Battle for Zendikar's design. The design team, led by Mark Rosewater, felt strongly that one of the key attributes of the Eldrazi that players would remember from Rise of the Eldrazi was their colorlessness. Pursuing that line led to the creation of the devoid mechanic and a theme of colorlessness mattering. Next we thought, if the Eldrazi were all about lacking color, and the set was telling the story of a two-sided conflict between the Eldrazi and the denizens of Zendikar, wouldn't it make sense for the Zendikari to be very colorful?

The team explored a number of "color matters" themes to represent the fight against the Eldrazi. We tried various mechanics that played around in the space of counting your basic land types or colors among permanents you control, and even hybrid mana. The problem with hybrid mana was that, while it looks very colorful, a hybrid cost is actually closer to colorless than a single-colored cost. A white-red hybrid-mana card can be cast for either white mana or red mana, similar to how a colorless artifact can be cast for white or blue or black or red or green mana. We figured out that hybrid was taking us in the wrong direction! We were worried that with both hybrid and colorless, decks would just be a soup of cards with little color identity or distinguishing elements.

Sunhome Guildmage must be cast with white and red mana, White Knight must be cast with white mana, Boros Guildmage can be cast with either white or red mana, Bronze Sable can be cast with any color of mana.

Now, let's flash forward several months to the development period. The team had a different problem. What we found was that design had done so well at mechanically representing the battle between the Eldrazi and the Zendikari that the two-sided conflict was showing through too strongly in Limited play. Players were choosing to make either an Eldrazi deck or a Zendikari deck. There wasn't much blending of the two. Nor was there much going "off rails" and doing interesting, unique things that didn't play into the one side or the other. We knew we needed to reduce the mechanical emphasis on the conflict and add some new things to do.

We tackled this problem in a number of different ways, and by the end we arrived at, in my opinion, one of the deepest and richest Limited formats to date. (I'd explain why I feel that way, but it'd take an article all to itself!) Converge was one element we added to deepen and diversify the format. It was the development team's answer to design's original question of how to make color matter (to contrast with the Eldrazi's colorlessness), but in a way that let players explore the format on their own and go totally off rails. By counting the number of different colors of mana used to cast the spell, it encourages players to build very unusual decks. Crazy many-color decks have always been popular in their respective Limited environments, and I can tell you they're a blast to play with in Battle for Zendikar as well.

Constructing Converge

While the addition of converge was originally motivated by Limited play, the development team was immediately excited by its applications in Constructed. We're just coming off of the three-color Khans of Tarkir block, so there is ample mana fixing available to build three-, four-, and five-color decks. In fact, when you combine the Khans fetch lands with the new dual lands from Battle for Zendikar, you might just have the most powerful mana base Standard has ever seen. Throughout the set, you'll find a number of converge cards that reward you for building Constructed decks with these ambitious mana bases. Here's one of my favorites:

Talk about rewarding! Bring to Light combines the power of tutoring up just the right card for the situation with the bonus of skipping right past that pesky mana cost. Let's remember a few examples of similar effects from Magic's past:

While Bring to Light isn't exactly the same as any of these cards, it shares a lot of the same characteristics that make them powerful.

But wait! Didn't I say Bring to Light lets you cheat past a card's mana cost? Is that really fair to say, when it asks you to be able to produce WUBRG? Well, if you're building a five-color deck to take advantage of other converge cards as well, WUBRG may be easier to produce than say, 1WWW for Archangel of Tithes, or even 3WW for End Hostilities. Plus, unlike Green Sun's Zenith, which always costs you one more mana than the creature itself, Bring to Light offers to find you a five-cost creature and cast it for that same five mana. It can even find instants and sorceries! Oh, and did I mention that Green Sun's Zenith is powerful enough to be banned in Modern?

So when Battle for Zendikar launches on October 2, what will you Bring to Light? What tutor targets and other cards will you include in a deck that can literally cast any card in Standard? What does the best converge deck even look like? I can tell you I don't know the answer, but I sure had a blast trying to figure it out. I hope you do too!

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