Five Teams Share One Fate

Posted in Feature on October 13, 2008

By Staff

After a set comes out, we typically give one of its designers a chance to tell the story of being on the design team. And typically, that one designer was present for enough of the design to give a good, all-around look at how that set came to be.

Shards of Alara design, however, was anything but typical. As Mark Rosewater said, once the three-color idea solidified, design lead Bill Rose assembled no fewer than fifteen people on five teams, one for each of the five three-color shards.

That means that each shard's theme was crafted and cultivated separately, then combined into a coherent whole. It also means that no single designer has the perspective needed to write an article about Shards of Alara design (although we've no doubt that most of them could fill a whole article with stories about just their own shard).

We asked various Shards of Alara designers to share their stories about designing the set, and while we didn't get responses from all of the teams, we did get a nice broad look at how this split-in-five set came to be.

Brian Tinsman

Brian Tinsman

My team was put in charge of creating the Bant shard, although it didn't yet have a name. I referred to it as "gWu," pronounced "Gee-woo," because it reminded me of some ass-kicking kung fu school. Also, I was jealous that the uBr shard's name was pronounced "Uber."

I was the team lead, with the legendary Mark Rosewater and white-hot design phenomenon Ken Nagle as the other members. The first thing we did was lay out the specs, or goals for what our faction needed to accomplish. I like to start design projects at a high philosophical level, so we listed the values of the Bant world:

Ritualized combat
White places the benefit of the group above all, valuing selflessness.
Absence of black or red. Black-red places the benefit of the individual above all, valuing selfishness.

We went through about twenty different mechanical ideas centered on these values before we seriously considered the exalted mechanic. We called exalted "heroic" in playtesting. Heroic really wasn't a great playtest name, because it didn't convey that a heroic creature granted a bonus to other attackers, but it stuck so we didn't worry about it.

Exalted met some resistance until it cleared a couple of hurdles. At first glance it kind of seems like an exalted creature might be selfish. Look at the last two lines in my list of Bant values. Is the single attacking creature selfish because it takes all the power for itself, or selfless because it risks its life on behalf of its brethren? The fact that an exalted creature grants a bonus to others convinced us that it fit very well with the idea of ritualized combat, honor, and tradition.

The other sticking point was the fact that it wasn't very splashy upon first read. Sometimes people didn't realize that multiple exalted creatures added up their bonuses or that any attacking creature can get the bonus. After we started playing with it, it became much more popular among the Shards of Alara teams and secured a spot as one of our favorite new mechanics.

One of the things I love about exalted is the surprising way it sometimes lets your weakest creatures rise up to become mighty threats. It's fun to imagine the surprise on a Mosstodon's face when it's forced to trade with a harmless-looking Elvish Visionary. Then your next weakest creature steps up for its turn to be a hero.

Kelly Digges

Kelly Digges

I wasn't on any of the Shards of Alara design teams, but I'm on the list of people who get "hole-filling" emails—a process Alexis Janson talked about in her article Shadowmoor – The Hole Story. Whenever I have the time, I reply to the hole-filling emails that the various development teams send out.

I replied to several hole-filling calls for Shards of Alara, then called "Rock." I’d never successfully filled a hole before, and most of my hole-filling emails didn’t change that. One of them, for some reason, was not only fruitful but bountiful, netting me no fewer than three cards added to the file. Unlike most hole-fills, these were just simple utility commons and uncommons rather than splashy rares.

But I already said in a Serious Fun article that I only have one card in the set. So what happened?

First off, there was...


Oozing Maggots
Creature – Insect
U: CARDNAME is unblockable until end of turn.

The card didn't stay that way for long, though. Maybe it was too annoying? I don't actually know what happened to it. The next time I looked in the file, I saw the card that would eventually become Shore Snapper:

Shore Snapper

The funny thing is that from my vantage point outside the R&D Pit, I wasn't sure at first whether that was "my" creature or not. Had it gotten bigger and swapped one evasion ability for another? Or was it an entirely different card?

I eventually figured out that Oozing Maggots had been scrapped (though I never did figure out why). Shore Snapper actually started life as a mono-blue creature with islandwalk, which was changed to a mono-black creature with activated islandwalk to fill that slot.

There was also...


I can't show you my submission here (because it might, just maybe, be in an upcoming set). But the original was not designed with power level in mind at all, and it was, shall we say, busted. After entering the file, its mana cost rapidly moved from to to , finally ending up at before being removed from the set entirely.

The card that ended up in this slot is Branching Bolt, a great design that I'm more than happy to see in the set.

Next up, there was....


...which you might recognize, because there's only one such card in the final set. But I can't show you my submissions for this slot, because they were never in the file at all (and I might want to submit them again later).

So why am I even showing you this slot? Good question.

That brings me to...

No card drawing. Could be a counterspell. Could be anything.

Rebuff the Naughty
Counter target spell that targets you or a spell or permanent you control.

The name, of course, is a play on Planar Chaos's Rebuff the Wicked, which always struck me as a cool spell that was just slightly too narrow to see any play. I set out to make a less narrow version, and I was pretty happy with the result, even if is probably not a fair cost for it.

But the card never entered the file as a blue uncommon. Rather than use one of the submissions for the white-blue common instant / sorcery hole, the development team chose to take my card, add a white mana and a cantrip, and put it in the file. Even though it's a counterspell, the feeling of protecting yourself and your team is very white, so I can see why it ended up there. And cantrips make everything better.

You know the final card as Hindering Light:

Hindering Light

The icing on the cake, as I mentioned in my Serious Fun article, is that I was on the creative text team for Shards of Alara, and I wrote the flavor text on Hindering Light (along with a number of other cards). Unfortunately, I can't claim credit for the name; I was hoping for the triple crown, but none of my names made it. And no matter how many times I asked, they wouldn't take my art submission, either. Ah, well.

Anyway, it's a humble utility common, but Hindering Light will always hold a special place in my heart.

Mark Globus

Mark Globus

My first Magic design teams were for two of the shards of Alara: Esper and Jund. Until then, I had been involved with hole-filling, but getting on a couple of the shard teams was very exciting for me.

The Esper design team was led by Mark Rosewater (with Mark Gottlieb also on the team), and we hit the ground running. Before the first meeting was over, we had already come up with the idea of make all of the creatures artifacts, and from there we started to figure out how much of a "machine" feel we wanted the shard to have. We experimented with everything from making the artifacts feel all part of one massive engine to being fairly autonomous, and ended up in a place very similar to what you see in the set now: good synergies between the cards, but not overwhelming.

On the Jund team, Bill Rose (lead), Mike Turian, and I played around with various ideas during our first few meetings, but we knew we had something good when Ken Nagle sent us his idea for "prey"—the mechanic that eventually became devour. We really liked how devour not only felt red in being high risk, high reward, but also fit nicely in green (survival of the fittest) and black (sacrifice). From there we refined the mechanic to where devour is now and worked on how best to properly support the prey mechanic. We found that for devour to feel right, we couldn't have too many cards with devour and that we needed good "food," and from this realization cards such as Dragon Fodder, Blister Beetle, Elvish Visionary, and even Goblin Assault were born.

Ken Nagle

Ken Nagle

Smokin' Hot Angel

We, the Bant team (Brian Tinsman (lead), Mark Rosewater, and myself), needed some oblique support cards that better capitalize on the game play of Exalted. I am pretty good at weaving a card to be subtly good in one mechanical deck (though subtle is sometimes a bad trait for a card, especially splashy rares). I noticed that exalted decks usually untap only one creature each turn. The team had a few designs that capitalized on this, and the two notables that made it to print are Topan Ascetic (a smaller Llanowar Behemoth) and another card that began as "White Smoke."


This enchantment later became a 3/3 Angel, who later gained clever vigilance, who later became a Bant triple color 3/4 to fill a gold rare slot and distance it from Battlegrace Angel, also at white rare.

Battlegrace Angel

Second Chance Ampule

Lich's Mirror began as a rare hole submission of mine called Second Chance Ampule:

Second Chance Ampule
2, T, Sacrifice Second Chance Ampule: Search your library for three land cards and put them into play, then shuffle your hand, graveyard, and all other permanents you control into their owners' libraries. Draw 3 cards. Your life total becomes 10.

This card was charmingly "weird" enough to the hole-filling team to make it into the file. The card created many stories and many more arguments. This card became melded with another card named "Not Dead Yet," creating the current Lich's Mirror and was elected to become the first colorless artifact mythic rare.

Lich's Mirror

Note that the printed template "shortcuts" a few corner cases for rebooting a dead player. A more "algorithmically correct" template would be closer to:

Lich's Mirror
If you would lose the game or an opponent would win the game, instead shuffle your hand, your graveyard, and all permanents you control into their owner's libraries, then draw cards equal to your starting hand size and your life total becomes your starting life total.

However, the printed template scored so fantastically in our polling (second to only Flameblast Dragon), we feared that adding some avoidable text might somehow destroy its poetry and appeal. So the printed wording stayed the same, encouraging Puca's Mischief shenanigans (you don't lose permanents you've stolen when the Mirror breaks, or alternatively you can donate your Lich's Mirror to an opponent and kill them over and over and over and over without breaking your Mirror).


David Sirlin is a world-class Street Fighter player and game designer. Whenever he talks about "the most balanced" games with "the best design," he inevitably sticks Magic: The Gathering at the top of his list. He obviously has great respect for the game design work we at Wizards of the Coast do on Magic.

A simple question arose in my mind: if David Sirlin were to design a Magic card, what would it be? I reached for the lowest-hanging fruit...


In Naya design, this card was upgraded to hit players, ending many a stalemate between Spearbreaker Behemoths and Feral Hydras. This card was cycled across Naya into Soul's Might, Soul's Fire, Soul's Grace, and embraced by the creative team as a chance to show Ajani on cards other than Ajani Vengeant. Development and templating dropped the "tap your guy as an additional cost" to remove text and combo better with attacking (via exalted and unearth).

Soul's Grace
Soul's Might
Soul's Fire

What a Blowout

Cruel Ultimatum began life as something close to...

Target player sacrifices a creature, discards two cards, and loses 3 life. You return a creature card from your graveyard to your hand, draw two cards, and gain 3 life.

It wasn't actually called "0WN3D!1," but it sure felt that way. This caused Aaron Forsythe to try the card at CCDDEE ( for this card) and cycle it out as "Winds" (as in Plague Wind) called Blowouts, later named with simple verbs. The most notable of these was Flatten, a.k.a. "Destroy three target permanents" for , conspired in the R&D Future Future League exactly once with Wort, the Raidmother (I did the whole "meteor bouncing around destroying everything" sound effects too).

Flatten and its friends became to be Shardically closer to Hellkite Overlord's manacost. That caused some rejiggering of the Ultimatums' power level, in which Cruel Ultimatum got a huge upgrade from 1-2-3-1-2-3 to 1-3-5-1-3-5.

Cruel Ultimatum

I find it rather fitting since I like to think of blue and red as the "spell colors" to make up for getting their creatures beat up.

These are just a few stories from a few of the people who made Shards of Alara what it is. Eager for more? Stay tuned to Making Magic, Savor the Flavor, and Latest Developments for all the inside info you could want on Shards of Alara.

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