Gatecrash Diaries

Posted in Feature on December 31, 2012

By Mark Gottlieb

I was born in New York City. To this day, that is one of my proudest accomplishments.

There's just something about being a native New Yorker. It's authentic. It's gritty. It's one of the million little things that lets me know I'm better than everyone else. OK, maybe not that. But I do like being able to make the claim; it's a badge of honor.

My mother, who was born and raised in New York, rightly calls me a country bumpkin: When I was still a baby, she and my dad moved us all out of the city. I mainly grew up in the suburbs of New Jersey. For two years after college, I fulfilled a lifelong dream of actually living in New York. My apartment was in Astoria, Queens, and my job was at the old Random House building on 50th and 3rd in Manhattan. I never quite settled in... I was, sad to say, not very good at being a New Yorker. That experiment ended in 2000 when I moved across the country to begin working at Wizards of the Coast. The last vestiges of New Yorkerism I carry with me are an intense pizza snobbery and the ironclad knowledge that I'm better than everyone else. OK, maybe not that.

The point is, even though the city is 3,000 miles behind me, it's still in my blood. Always will be.

Breeding Pool | Art by Rob Alexander

City State

Ravnica is in my blood as well. Not in a creepy way—I'm not Rakdos! I originally came into Wizards as an editor, not as a designer. It took a few years for my twisted brain to catch the attention of the heavy hitters in R&D, which is when I started getting put on design and development teams. My very first development team was Ravnica: City of Guilds, led by Brian Schneider. My very first design team was Dissension, led by Aaron Forsythe. And I love that block. I loved helping to build it. I love playing it. I love the guilds, particularly Orzhov and Simic. (My favorite Commander deck is led by Ghost Council of Orzhova.) Naturally, I was thrilled to be part of the second Ravnica block.

Ghost Council of Orzhova

The specific way in which I was involved was unprecedented. Ken Nagle was tapped to lead the design of Return to Ravnica (his first large set design lead). Mark Rosewater would then lead the design of Gatecrash, which—in another unprecedented move—was also a large set that would be played independently in Limited formats. But Mark ran into a problem: he was also the lead designer of the fall 2013 large expansion, codenamed "Friends." Rosewater is amazingly prolific. Except for core sets, he is on every expansion design team, and he leads one large set a year. But even he can't lead two large set designs simultaneously, and since Gatecrash is a winter release, its design team was going to crash into "Friends," which is a fall release.

Aaron Forsythe is the one who solved the conundrum: Rosewater would start out leading Gatecrash design, and I'd be a team member. Then, halfway through, we'd switch. I'd become the team lead. Rosewater would stay on as a member of the Gatecrash team, and he'd also launch "Friends" design. This allowed Gatecrash to get off to a very solid footing with the most experienced designer in Magic history (so I couldn't screw it up too badly), while also giving me invaluable design lead experience without the pressure of starting a set from scratch. While I had been on seven design teams to that point, I had led only one: Mirrodin Besieged. I was thrilled for the opportunity, and the responsibility, so I eagerly signed up.

City Desk

So, then. My Gatecrash involvement starts out with just being one of the guys on the design team. I'm making cards, making cards, making cards. Boros cards, Simic cards, Dimir cards, Gruul cards, Orzhov cards. In some cases, I'm making speculative keyword mechanics as well. This is, as you can well imagine, awesome. Hard work, but crazy fun.

One of my very first rare submissions was for a white-black Orzhov Angel. I wanted to create something undead, or undying—a life-after-death, holy religious figure that could be worshipped by the church, but was also vaguely unsavory or sinister. A Zombie Angel, ideally. I drew on the past cards Sengir Nosferatu and Firemane Angel as inspiration, flavored to the Orzhov guild. To my delight, the card design was put into the file. To my surprise, it made it all the way through to print, with pretty much just cosmetic changes made to it along the way. And it's my first preview card.

It didn't wind up being a Zombie, but I can't complain. She is a thing of beauty. Extra bonus: Selesnya can populate the Cleric token!

City Council

As soon as I ascended into design team leadership, my reign of terror began. At this point, we were in good shape: We had a full file of cards and first drafts of all five keyword mechanics. On the other hand, there was still plenty of work to do. Most notably, three of those five keywords were performing poorly and ultimately needed to be replaced.


Evolve was a hit right out of the gate. This was Ethan Fleischer's mechanic from the Great Designer Search 2, and it was perfect for Simic. The only real change it underwent was to look at toughness as well as power.


Battalion, which had the placeholder name "assault," was devised by Shawn Main, also for the Great Designer Search 2. As it was perfect for Boros, it was also in the file from the beginning.


Finding the Gruul ability wasn't as easy, but they are an obstinately contentious lot. We played with a keyword called "rowdy" for weeks, but it wasn't satisfying. We moved on to "kickboxing" for a couple months, until the development team rightly told us we were nuts. At that point, different members of the team came up with replacement keywords, mocked up some cards, stuck them in otherwise straightforward sample decks, and we field-tested them to see what was fun. It turned out that a mechanic called "ambush" was fun. You might think I'm biased, in that I both came up with the mechanic and put it into the set. What's your point?

Ambush was ultimately renamed "bloodrush." Any creature with a bloodrush ability can be used in one of two ways: You can play it as a creature, or you can play it as a pump spell on an attacking creature. In an aggressive deck, it's whatever you need it to be.


The remaining two keywords came into existence under my watch, although I wasn't the one to come up with them. No, my role was to inspire others to be brilliant enough to create them. Good job, me! For Orzhov, I designed the original keyword, called "oppress," that we played with for quite some time before it was killed. I can't recall if I was the one who killed my own keyword. If so, I'm sure it was merciful. Hardly any rusty corkscrews involved at all.

At that point, we employed the same strategy that we did for Gruul: People came up with keywords, built exemplar decks, and we tested. Except this time it didn't work. We tried brainstorming in a group. We tried enlisting other designers. We couldn't find it. Finally, during a week in which I was on vacation, Dave Humpherys—a member of the design team who would eventually be the set's lead developer—led a mini-team dedicated to finding the Orzhov mechanic. And Shawn Main nailed it; he came up with extort. (This is why, in an incredibly unusual move, Shawn is listed as a Gatecrash designer in the credits even though he wasn't on the Gatecrash design team. He created two of the set's five keywords!)

Not everyone was sold on extort right away, but the more we played with it, the more we liked it. It felt right. It felt Orzhov. It would bleed opponents away in dribs and drabs, playing the long game, building toward an inevitable conclusion. The set's mechanics are otherwise so aggressive that finding a slow, defensive mechanic that you could sink extra mana into was a beautiful counterpoint. The way it builds off itself in multiples is deliciously cruel.


The Dimir mechanic had its share of drama as well. From the outset, Mark Rosewater wanted Dimir's keyword to involve milling. Milling was a crucial part of the Dimir guild identity in the original Ravnica. Why not bring it front and center?

As a team, we devised a two-tiered plan. Tier one: A number of cards in the set would have a keyword we called "grind," which put cards from an opponent's library into his or her graveyard until a land card was put there. It was an interesting form of variable milling, and it would be a largely incidental bonus effect on cards that otherwise had nothing to do with milling. A spell that destroys a creature and grinds. A flying creature that grinds when it enters the battlefield. And so on. If you accumulate enough of these cards in Limited, you could win by decking. But that was relatively unlikely.

That's where tier two came into play. These were cards that cared that you were incidentally milling your opponent a bit. They'd count cards in graveyards, or fetch something back from a graveyard, or the like. They'd be okay on their own, but they'd be better in combination with grind cards. They'd be your reward for grinding your opponent part way.

This play pattern had some big supporters in R&D, most especially Mark Rosewater. But it also had some big detractors, many of whom were on the development team. The problem was that the grind cards by themselves didn't do anything to advance the game (ooh, I milled you for two!), and the reward cards weren't explosive enough without the grind cards to set them up. It was kind of half-and-half parasitic, and supported playing the game on a completely different axis than the other four guilds. When you built a Boros-Gruul deck, you had a cohesive plan: attack! When you built a Gruul-Simic deck, you had a cohesive plan: burly creatures! When you built a Simic-Dimir deck, um... urk... evolve your creatures while milling some of your opponent's cards?

After taking the reins of the design team, dealing with Dimir was my first major decision. Rosewater had defended grind for as long as he could while he was the lead, but he was no longer in charge. I didn't come to my conclusion capriciously; I looked at the polling numbers and listened to the arguments. We came to the consensus that we had actually been using milling incorrectly from a Dimir standpoint. In Ravnica prime, Dimir didn't go wide, with incidental milling spread across a whole bunch of cards. Rather, it had just a few important repeatable milling cards (Vedalken Entrancer; Szadek, Lord of Secrets; Lurking Informant) that could win the game by themselves if backed up by the right control cards, enhanced by a few explosive one-shot milling cards (Glimpse the Unthinkable, Induce Paranoia, Psychic Drain).

That's where Gatecrash moved to. Grind is still in the file, but it's no longer a keyword; it's just something that some cards do. It's mixed in with normal milling cards, because it's more interesting that way. (If all the milling is grind, the variable nature of it is muted. Since you're milling your opponent until you mill all of his or her lands, it doesn't much matter how many other cards are milled in between. You're simply counting lands. But if some of the milling is "go until you hit a land" and some is "mill three," now you care a lot more whether that grind effect milled one card or five cards.) Now Gatecrash contains a few different low-rarity cards that feature repeatable milling effects capable of winning the game on their own, as well as some more sizable one-shot effects (at least one of which is insanely explosive). It reminds me of home.

Once we demoted grind from keyword status, we needed a new Dimir keyword! We got it pretty quickly, too. Mark Rosewater was the staunchest proponent of grind, and fought tooth and nail to have the Dimir keyword involve milling. But once it was clear that the tide had turned against this opinion, he almost immediately came up with the make-your-own saboteur ability that would come to be known as cipher.

City Planning

An expansion that takes place on Ravnica has two crucial "feel" aspects to it.

  1. The cards have to feel like they're from the guilds.
  2. The cards have to feel like they're in a city.

While I wouldn't call achieving task #1 easy, per se, it's something we in R&D have more aptitude for. It's more in keeping with standard operating procedure; we can design cards that fit a certain ethos, a certain play style, a certain set of goals. It comes pretty naturally, and neither Return to Ravnica nor Gatecrash (nor Dragon's Maze) ever had any doubts about whether it felt guilded enough.

Achieving task #2 is a different matter. Having a Magic set take place in a city setting is incredibly unusual. In fact, having any fantasy property take place in an urban environment is relatively abnormal (although by no means unprecedented). This is something we don't have practice at, and thus it's something that requires a more direct and concerted effort.

Back before I took the design lead of Gatecrash, I was tasked with leading a mini-team to create resonant, flavorful, top-down city-themed designs for Return to Ravnica, which was light on such cards. Besides me, the team included Ethan Fleischer, Shawn Main, and Billy Moreno. We were at it for only a couple of weeks, but we were incredibly productive (and had a lot of fun along the way). Most of our work was done based off of a list of potential city-themed card names crafted by creative team member Doug Beyer. By my count, eleven of the card designs this team created made it to print in Return to Ravnica in one form or another.

Printed Card Design Name/City Trope
Bazaar Krovod Transport Beast
Chronic Flooding Filth-Choked Streets
Codex Shredder Sewer Grate
Oak Street Innkeeper Innkeeper
Rogue's Passage Secret Door
Search the City Scavenger Hunt
Security Blockade Security Gate
Street Sweeper Street Sweeper
Tavern Swindler Bookie
Underworld Connections Underground Market
Urban Burgeoning Urban Renewal

Search the City and Urban Burgeoning hold a special place in my heart, since the four of us on this team designed them in a group brainstorm in our first meeting.

Now that city-themed cards had become a priority for the sets in this block, I was put into a position to make sure those cards were layered into Gatecrash from the beginning—er, okay, from the middle—of design. This happened in three different ways, and I happen to have a bonus preview card for each one.

First Street

That Return to Ravnica mini-team came up with more than eleven cards! Some of the designs that didn't make it into that set made it into Gatecrash instead. They included cards with the design names Lamppost, Scheming Shopkeeper, Umbrella, and Trade Bazaar. That last one turned into Tin Street Market.

Second Street

Once I took ownership of the Gatecrash file, I was free to change playtest names to whatever I wanted. If I could find an opportunity to label a card with a city trope, I would! Some of them were rather facetious, as when I changed a pinging artifact called Telim'Tor's New Darts to Downed Power Line (an anachronistic city trope that'd never see print as a real name), and an artifact creature called Automatic Mugger to Armored Car (ditto, although the final card hews closer to that concept than expected). A card called Anger Management became Fireworks Display (another name that didn't stick), and Shocking Shock turned into Mugging. Holy Sword was transmuted into Riot Gear. I relabeled The Roof is on Fire (which was my own silly name for a card I created) with the name Five-Alarm Fire (which was very close to a name on Doug Beyer's list).

When I changed Meat Grinder to Sadistic Barber, I also gave it the flavor text "Just a little off the top." (Trust me, it'll make sense when the spoiler is released and you can see which card this is!) Since there was a different Sadistic Something-or-Other in the set, I went the full Sweeney Todd and changed it again to Demonic Barber. Hey, that guy worked in a city! The creative team saw fit to give this fellow a different occupation, but he'll always be a barber to me.

There was a blue card in the file called Toggle. For a cost of , it said "Choose X target permanents. Simultaneously tap each one that's untapped and untap each one that's tapped." With New York City firmly in mind, I changed its name to Hustle and Bustle. Somewhere along the way, the effect was modified so that it only tapped permanents. Creative changed the name accordingly, but the city-themed concept remains intact in this card: Gridlock.

Third Street

The third way to include city-themed cards in Gatecrash was the most clever of all: Design city-themed cards, then put them in the set. Mwa-ha-ha-ha! I added cards to the file with design names of Farmer's Market, Park Ranger, Smog Elemental, Street Festival, Structure Collapse, and Turf War, all of which are in the final set. Not all of them kept their names. Not all of them even kept their concepts. But enough did. One additional city-themed card I designed, again based on my background as a New Yorker (via a prism of Law & Order), I called Murder Investigation—a name that stayed put through the entire life cycle of the card.

As a designer, it's a happy bonus to wind up naming a card, especially since you take your hands off the file so many months before those names are finalized. I took the city flavor of Gatecrash to heart, and wound up having a strong influence on the creative identity of the set—not just the mechanical identity. I'm incredibly proud of that, and I hope the city resonates for you the way it does for me. As I said at the top, the city is in my blood.

For a few months, I was the lead designer of Gatecrash. To this day, that is one of my proudest accomplishments.

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