Dragons, Dragons, and . . . Cat Dragons

Posted in Feature on August 8, 2017

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

I can't believe it's finally here.

Design on Commander (2017 Edition) started on November 10, 2015.

I handed off the set to Bryan Hawley's development team on March 14, 2016.

Every day since this process began, I have woken up knowing about awesome cards in this set. Every day, I have wanted to tell everybody about how awesome this set is. And I've just had to hold it all in.

Until now.

Finally. Here we are.

August 8, 2017. The first day I can talk about anything in Commander 2017.

And boy, do I have some stories to tell.

Where to even begin?

Well, how about with the three things I knew on the first day of design.

1. I Had an Awesome Team

I knew right away that I had an excellent design team. Who are they? Well, let me tell you!

Gavin Verhey (Lead)

Fresh off leading the design of Archenemy: Nicol Bolas, I was given the opportunity to work on Commander 2017—and I was ecstatic! This was my first design lead for a set that had new Magic cards (Archenemy: Nicol Bolas only featured new schemes), and Commander 2017 was a great set to work on. And to make as great of a set as possible (and to make sure I didn't go too off the deep end of making crazy cards), I had an incredible team working alongside me.

Fun fact: I decided I wanted to work in Wizards R&D when I was eleven. And here I am now, leading sets! Hi, mom!

Mark Gottlieb

One of the many Marks in Magic R&D, Gottlieb has been at the company for many, many years and has incredible design instincts. His strong roots as both a rules manager and as a designer give him a very good sense of what will and won't work. He was invaluable to the team to lend his expertise while I was leading.

You can see his amazing ability to tease out what will and won't work with his deck. On this Commander team, everybody designed one of the decks—meaning they mostly focused on improving the deck they held onto and played that deck in playtests. I still had oversight over all the decks, but people on the team have autonomy to tweak their decks and try out new cards for them. Mark's deck was the Cat deck! (And if you didn't know there's a Cat deck, go and check out Mark Rosewater's article from yesterday.) Many people doubted the Cat deck when Mark pitched it, but his instincts told him there was a compelling deck there—and he was absolutely right!

Fun fact: Mark also, ironically, submitted probably the craziest mechanic of anybody during the process, which we ultimately didn't end up using. (But more on that another time.)

Ben Hayes

Ben is someone who can balance the art and science that game design requires extraordinarily well. I've seen him come up with some pretty awesome top-down designs, while at the same time crunching spreadsheets to figure out how a set is doing. His experience working on previous Commander sets and leading Commander (2016 Edition) helped shape a lot of what we did with Commander 2017.

On this team, Ben was the development representative, making sure that design was making mechanics and cards that the development team could work with—all while lending his design expertise to the set as well! Late in the process, Ben swapped off the team for Bryan Hawley, the lead developer, who you'll be hearing from tomorrow. (I'll let him introduce himself then.)

Ben was the designer of the deck we're going to be talking about today!

Fun fact: Ben and I have been working together for years—long before we came to Wizards. The night before Pro Tour San Juan 2010, I handed him the rogue decklists I had been working on . . . and he ended up going undefeated in the Constructed portion! From the Pro Tour to Magic R&D, we've been kicking cards back and forth for ages.

Jules Robins

Jules is one of the most reliable people in R&D. If I hand him a project, I know he'll always do it—and give ten percent more than I asked for. If I need to bounce a card idea off him, as I often do, he will take a break from whatever he's doing to help even when I can immediately tell he's in crunch mode. His work impressed me immediately, and I'm glad to have him around permanently in R&D.

He also adds puns into every conversation he can find, which in my eyes is definitely a big net positive.

Though Jules was still fresh when we worked together on C17, Jules is now long past being a new face to R&D. Currently, he sits right next to me, which is very useful considering that every design project I've led since Jules joined Wizards (including several that aren't announced yet!) has had Jules on the team. So, considering this one-to-one correlation, if you like my sets, thank me, but if you dislike them, blame Jules. (Just kidding. It probably is my fault.)

Jules designed one of the decks you don't know about yet—but stay tuned this week to learn what it is!

Fun fact: I have a stuffed sloth in my house that I named Jules, after Jules Robins, because of how reliable he is. It's a long story.

Kelly Digges (Creative Liaison)

Kelly was not a full-time team member, so he didn't come to meetings and playtest. But what he did do, which was incredibly valuable, was come up with most of the flavor for the cards in the set. This means imagining new characters for us to show off; figuring out what some of the crazy cards I wanted to make actually were; and, one of my personal favorites, recommending which old characters we make cards for. (I was thrilled, for example, we were able to make a new Mirri.)

Kelly is a total creative guru, and I appreciate his willingness for me to coast by his desk and ask him odd questions. As you will see later on, this interaction led to the creation of one of my favorite cards in the set.

Fun fact: If you ever have the opportunity, ask Kelly to tell you a story. Just any story. You'll find yourself 20 minutes later, sitting on the floor, hands on your chin, entranced learning some story about Magic's past. It's amazing. I have been late to multiple meetings because I've gone by Kelly's desk to ask about some trivial thing for my set and ended up learning about the Homarid War. Some people have Wikipedia; we have Kelly.

2. We Were Doing Four Decks

You might notice that this year, we're doing four decks instead of the five we normally do with Commander. Why is that?

Well, let me tell you about a team in R&D you may have never heard of.

In Magic R&D, there are a few layers of teams. You guys all know about design and Play Design and even exploratory design. But there's one team that seldom gets talked about but is extremely important: the Product Architecture team.

That team is led by Great Designer Search alumnus Mark Globus. One of Product Architecture's goals is to look at our wide range of sets and releases to give them a cohesive message and goal and, most importantly, to understand what we're doing from a 10,000-foot view.

After a lot of research, one thing that this team had decided was that this year, we would be moving down to four decks. Why four instead of five? Because we believe the best Commander play experience for a new Commander player is a four-player game, and releasing four decks mimicked how we thought it would be best for someone to start. We also wanted to make each deck more exciting by giving them more new cards.

That's right: you get more new cards in each deck this time around! I felt it was very important to not go down in new cards, and indeed, Commander 2017 has the same number of new cards as Commander 2016—you just get more sweet, sweet newness in each deck!

This wasn't without its challenges, though. In the past, we've cycled decks out by color and given them five-card cycles with one in each deck. Now doing either becomes trickier; you can't just cycle decks out by color (like doing a deck of each color in Commander 2014, or decks each missing one color like in Commander 2016), and if you do a five-card cycle inevitably at least one deck is going to end up with two cards in the cycle.

This dovetails nicely into the third thing I knew . . .

3. It Would Be Tribal!

One other thing Product Architecture had figured out is that if we moved away from five decks, we would need a new way to make our decks. In the past, we had done it by color. Five is kind of the golden standard in Magic: everything works well in fives because of monocolors, two-color pairs, three-color combinations, and even four-color combinations. But this change came at a fortuitous time because we had definitely started to exhaust most of the color pairings.

So, the other excellent conclusion they had reached is that, instead of being built around color, the decks would be built around themes.

That's right: starting with Commander 2017 and moving forward, the Commander sets will be built around themes rather than color.

And in this case, looking at what made the most sense given our lineup of other products and looking ahead to future Commander sets, Shawn Main (who has since sadly left the company— though not without releasing an Hour of Devastation on all of you first!) had a plan.

His plan? Tribal!

Now, this decree wasn't inflexible. If my design team and I dug into it and it turned out that Tribal was an absolute non-starter, I could go back to him and let him know we needed to revisit it.

But in this case, the opposite was true.

It quickly became apparent that tribal had plenty of meat on its bones for us to make a set around. People naturally build tribal Commander decks already, and it would be awesome to hand them a bit of extra juice.

So, it's day one. These are the three things we know.

Now what?

Tribal for Everyone

One of the first things we did was start to decide which tribes we wanted to build around. There were a ton of good options—and I'm going to hold off on talking about how we picked each of these until next week, when you'll know them all. (Definitely come back for that!)

But one of the other first things we discussed was how important it was for there to be cards that would be good no matter which tribe was your favorite. While we could support four tribes among these four decks, there are many, many more creature types in Magic, and I wanted to make sure people had some extra tools to build their favorite tribe, whether it be Barbarians or Beasts, Archers or Aven.

So, while these decks are tribal and do certainly feature some cards that are tribal with their particular creature types, each deck also contains some cards that can go into any tribal deck of that color, regardless of type.

And that gets me to one thing we discussed very early on: the common.

Each Commander set has one common card that shows up in each of its decks. And I wanted it to be on theme. Everyone hammered on some designs, and Mark Gottlieb turned this one in.

We started playing with it, and it was a clear winner. And I predict you're going to see a lot of it in Commander games.

It's finally time. I can finally show off a card from Commander 2017. My hands are trembling as I write this. (And that's not just a turn of speech; they literally are shaking, I'm so excited.)

Here we go. World, meet Path of Ancestry.

Not only does it fix your colors, but it also scries over and over again? Yeah, that card is going to be a staple.

At very baseline, it scries whenever you cast your commander. (Unless your commander is a planeswalker. Sorry Commander 2014!) If you just fill your deck with a few cards that share a creature type—which is generally fairly easy—you can get some scries over the course of the game. I mean, just think of all the Human commanders there are, for example, and the number of Humans that can naturally go into a deck.

But when you build a full-on tribal deck? This thing is crazy! You get to fix your mana, and scry basically every turn. And scry is the perfect bonus for a tribal deck, since what you generally want is to find more cards with that creature type . . . and so the cycle continues!

Oh, and did I mention that it's also really awesome with the partner mechanic from last year? Set up four creature types between your two commanders—bam!

Path of Ancestry is great . . . and it turns out, very necessary.

Why? Because tribal decks naturally have two big glaring holes.

For one, playing a ton of creatures can be very dangerous in Commander. It's a format full of board sweepers, so you can get crushed if you play out your hand and then walk into a single Wrath of God.

Second, because you need to play so many creatures in your deck to make your tribal synergies work, the noncreatures you play really have to matter. You don't have as much room for all the amazing noncreature cards that Commander decks usually play, so you need your tribal bonus cards to make up the extra gap.

And fortunately, Commander 2017 has you covered.

Something else we came up with fairly early on was doing a cycle of five noncreature cards that are extremely powerful in dedicated tribal decks. Regardless of tribe, if you're playing a lot of creatures of one type, this is going to be awesome for you.

Here's one from the deck I'm talking about today (hold on—I'll get to what this deck is in a second).

I hope you like drawing cards because check out Kindred Discovery!

Worried about your board getting swept for playing tribal? The sting isn't quite as bad when every creature you play of that tribe nets you at least one card. If the creature lasts a turn, attacking nets you another card.

And that's not even thinking about what happens when you make a bunch of tokens! Turn Hordeling Outburst in your Goblin deck into "make three 1/1s, draw three cards." Play this in your Eldrazi deck and draw cards off every Eldrazi Spawn and Eldrazi Scion maker. And, well, I hope somebody somewhere in the world plays this with Firecat Blitz in their Elemental deck.

Kindred Discovery is going to be a cornerstone of blue tribal decks, and I expect the other four to see quite a bit of play as well. Keep your eyes open for them!

There's No Place Like Dragon

Yesterday, you got to check out the Cats deck. That deck may have come as a surprise to some of you. After all, Green-White Cats isn't one of the most iconic Magic tribes. (Though it's definitely one of the most awesome, and I'm very glad we got it into the set.)

Let's go to the other end of the spectrum.

One of my goals for Commander 2017 was to do at least one deck that would be awesome, but was unexpected, and that's partially where Cats came from. But, similarly, I wanted to do one deck that was just slam-dunk awesome and popular.

So, let me tell you about another deck. I've got four words for you:





(The exclamation point requires enough additional emphasis that it is truly its own word.)

Art by Jaime Jones
Art by Jaime Jones

We had never been able to do a five-color deck before because of how we had cycled the decks out previously. Doing five five-color decks would be a little crazy, but with the color restriction lifted, five-color was back on the menu!

We looked at several potential five-color decks. Elementals was one we looked at, since there are in all five colors. Slivers was a popular option, but turned out to be nightmarish if two people bought the same deck and ended up in a game against each other. Spirits was a consideration as well. (And ultimately, we made one of our five-color Dragon Commanders also a Spirit to help you build that deck if you wanted.)

But really, nothing beat the raw appeal of Dragons. Dragon is arguably the most popular creature type in all of Magic. Everybody loved it—plus it meant we could put a bunch of sweet Dragons in one deck.

Every deck in Commander 2017 has its main tribal theme, but if you're not into tribal, it has a subtheme as well so you'll still get some cool new cards of a theme for your deck. Cats, for example, have an Equipment subtheme.

The Dragons subtheme? Ramp! Dragons and ramp spells—what's not to like?

Speaking of Dragons, let's take a look at some of them!

Eminence Domain

One of the big challenges we had to solve in design was addressing some of the issues with tribal decks. We already discussed one of them earlier, which is that the creature density you need to build a tribal deck conflicts with what tends to be good in Commander.

One other issue we found with building tribal decks is that sometimes you have to fill your deck with cards you wouldn't normally play in Commander. For example, if you build a Cats deck, the first handful of Cats might be great, but by the end you might end up playing a couple Cats you're less than thrilled about. This means you're going to need a bit of extra incentive to want to play with them. And, plus, we want to make sure you have enough creatures.

We investigated several different mechanics and eventually came up with something that made you want to play a tribe because it affected everything about your deck. It wasn't just this one card that was awesome—this commander made your entire deck more awesome simply by being your commander.

It was called "coach" in design. You'll get to know it as eminence.

Let's check out a card with it.

First of all, holy smokes. That is huge! You know how some art has scale birds to highlight how large something is? Well, this guy has scale dragons.

Second of all: I'm so excited we finally got to print an Ur-Dragon card! Ever since reading the Invasion novel and staring at Dromar's Attendant, I've had this character in the back of my mind. So when Kelly pitched the Ur-Dragon—the essence of all Dragonkind in the Multiverse—as an option for this set, I was immediately on board. It's even a flavor win, as it plays great with Scion of the Ur-Dragon.

Okay, now let's talk about eminence.

It puts tribal front and center, making the decks loudly tribal and creating inherent tribal gameplay. Every game you play using a creature with eminence as your commander is going to make you care about your tribe. It's awesome.

Now, I know what past card you're probably comparing eminence to. And it's this guy.

Oloro is not a card I'm particularly fond of. He's another guy in the same space, granting you a bonus from the command zone. So what gives? Why is Oloro a card I cringe at while eminence is something I'm happy to put in the set?

Well, there's a big key difference.

Oloro works in any deck from the Command Zone, providing something incrementally every turn without caring at all about what you're doing. It doesn't have any kind of deck-building restriction.

With eminence, on the other hand, you actually have to do something to make it good. You're paying a cost of building your deck in a certain way. Additionally, unlike Oloro, which simply awards you life every turn, eminence impacts cards you actually play, meaning they're as removable as anything else. Yeah, I can play my Dragons for cheaper, but you can still deal with my Dragons all the same. It just helps make some Dragons playable that are one mana too expensive.

And because I know you may be wondering something given my previous goals, we did experiment with a generic eminence creature that could work for any tribe you chose, but ultimately decided not to go that route. While it would be nice, it's also very hard to make one that is both exciting and doesn't break with some tribe out there. If these are popular, we can totally try more eminence cards in the future, but to make sure their gameplay was reasonable and to make them as fun as possible, we decided to tailor them to specific tribes.

If you've ever made that Reddit thread of, "Which cards would be awesome if they were one mana cheaper?" well, The Ur-Dragon will answer that for you . . . at least for Dragons. Have fun building!

Speaking of tribes, each deck has three new legendary commanders of the deck's colors. One of them is loudly tribal and has eminence. One of them is built around the subtheme (big ramp, in this deck's case). And one of them is just generally cool and could helm a lot of decks.

And that's not even counting the other sweet legends in the decks. And speaking of other legends in the decks . . .

A True Dragon Tail

I'm going to tell you my favorite story from Commander 2017.

As I mentioned earlier, a new challenge in design was figuring out how we wanted to include cycles of cards in our decks. We definitely wanted at least one uncommon cycle that showed up across multiple decks. (In Commander sets, an uncommon shows up in multiple different decks, but not all of them.) But there was a problem: if we wanted to make it a creature, it would have to fit into the creature types of the deck. With almost no exceptions in all the decks, every creature in each deck are of its tribal type.

So, how could we have cycled out creatures then?

Our first thought was doing new changelings, like on Lorwyn. We tried that for a little while, and it worked okay, but played a little strange and didn't feel that unique. It also wasn't significantly adding to the goal of helping out other tribes since they were pretty generic cards that just happened to also have changeling. What we really wanted to do was put two creature types on one card and then put that into both decks.

We looked at all the different combinations, and they actually all fell into place. They could all be plausible. Except for one. There was one that was surely too crazy to work.

A green Cat Dragon.

Most of the team felt like that was a dead end. But, just to chase this as far as possible, I wanted to at least talk with Kelly about this. Maybe, just maybe, if I pushed hard enough, he'd find an agreeable solution.

So I walked over there. The conversation went like this.

Me: "Okay Kelly, so instead of changelings we are interested in doing these overlapping tribe cards."

Kelly: "I like doing something else than changelings from a creative perspective, definitely. What did you have in mind?"

Me: "So, these would combine two creature types on one card. We mapped it out, and it works pretty well for most of them. Natural even. But there is one combination that is . . . a little odd."

Kelly: ". . . Go on."

Me: "So I know this is kind of ridiculous. And there's probably no chance. But maybe, just maybe, if we could make it work somehow, on the absolute off chance you think it is possible, is there any way we could do a . . . (dramatic pause) Cat Dragon?"

Kelly, without missing a beat: "Oh, that's easy. Those already exist on Dominaria."

Me: ". . . What."

Kelly: "You mean you haven't heard the great tale of Wasitora and Umezawa? Oh, let me tell you a story . . ."

20 minutes elapsed, and I definitely missed my next meeting.

Kellypedia, to the rescue!

It turns out that ages ago, in the Legends novel, Tetsuo Umezawa was called in to take care of Wasitora, who was harassing a village. They fought, and the conclusion was . . . Wasitora would defend the city, and be paid in fish to do so.

Yes, paid in fish. Look, old Magic story is a wild place.

I will never forget the look on my team's face when I came back and told them Cat Dragon was a legit thing. I think they thought I was making it up, until I started going into the story.

The deal I made with Kelly was that we could do a Cat Dragon that was a member of Wasitora's brood and put it into both the cat and dragon decks, as long as we also put Wasitora into the Dragon deck.

Time and time again, through the whole design process, all the way to showing it off to development the Cat Dragon was questioned. And rightfully so: it sounds ridiculous. But my team was on board with the idea, and slowly but surely, we ended up getting most other people into the idea too.

Eventually, in development, the uncommon Cat Dragon was cut. (Though there is still one of the dual-type cards remaining among the decks. Keep your eyes out!) But, by this point, everybody was too in love with Wasitora (who had to be Jund) to take it out of the Dragon deck. We had sold the idea of a Cat Dragon so well that its legacy lingered on, even long after the reason it was put into the set at all was removed. And it made it all the way to print with gorgeous art by Cynthia Sheppard.

I give you: Wasitora, Nekoru Queen!

If she hits you, she demands fish as tribute or she'll send one of her brood after you.

Speaking of her brood, check out one of the cutest tokens in existence:

And that's the story of how we ended up with a Cat Dragon in the Dragon deck in a product that contains both Cats and Dragons long after the reason for it to be there was gone.

Hopefully, you all find it as adorable and endearing as I do.

I Don't Want to Drag On

There's so much more to talk about! But I'll leave that to next week once you know the whole set and I can talk about everything in more detail.

This set is an absolute thrill for me. From the new way and philosophy of releasing Commander decks, to the tribes themselves and eminence, to crazy legends from Magic lore we get to show off here, the set is packed with incredible stuff. I really, truly hope you enjoy the set as much as I enjoyed making it.

Have any questions, thoughts, or comments? Whether you want to know more about Commander design philosophy, Product Architecture, or just Cat Dragons, please let me know! You can always reach me on Twitter, sending me a message on my Tumblr, or firing off an email (in English, please) at BeyondBasicsMagic@Gmail.com.

I'll be back next week, telling you a bit more about design once you know about all four decks. Have fun, and I hope you enjoy the previews!


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