It's About Time

Posted in Feature on March 2, 2015

By Mark Gottlieb

Change is good.

Six years ago, Magic R&D initiated a new suite of design and development guidelines crafted to make the game more streamlined and more accessible. It was called New World Order, and it has revitalized the game to an unprecedented degree.

The New World Order I'm introducing today is not that New World Order.

On Tarkir, 1,280 years ago, Sarkhan Vol rescued Ugin from death after his climactic battle against Nicol Bolas. Ugin remained alive, albeit in a dormant, cocooned state. As a direct result of this action, the dragon tempests on Tarkir persisted rather than petering out. The dragons thrived rather than going extinct. In fact, they emerged victorious in their war of supremacy against the nascent clans and their khans.

Welcome back to a Tarkir you've never been to before.

Some Boring Setup Context Blah Blah Blah

My name is Mark Gottlieb. Not only am I the lead designer of Dragons of Tarkir, I am also the manager of the Magic design team. One of my responsibilities is to improve the handoffs from the design team to the development team. When a design team ends, we deliver two items to the development team. The less important item, believe it or not, is the card file. We know that a lot of the cards we hand over are going to change as the development team does its work. The more important item is the handoff document, which describes the design vision for the set. It details the design team's goals, priorities, and choices, so even as the development team changes individual cards, it can make sure the overall vision holds true.

In this article, I'm going to delve into the design vision for the Dragons of Tarkir set, including quoting some excerpts from this document. Because this set has a lot of vision behind it.

New Rule: If a Set Has "Dragon" in the Title, IT HAS DRAGONS IN IT

This set was a blast to design. Super, super fun. Imagine, if you will, having a year to write your doctoral thesis, or submit your architectural blueprint, or whatever it is your job calls for, EXCEPT IT IS FULL OF DRAGONS. No, more Dragons than that. A few more. Keep going. I'm sorry, but you are not comprehending the sheer mind-blowing number of Dragons that are stuffed into this set.


Here's Section 1 of the Dragons of Tarkir handoff document:

Section 1: Dragons


Design vision: This is the Dragon set. It has a higher raw number of Dragons, and a higher as-fan of Dragons, than any other Magic set. It is populated with cards that reference Dragons and care about Dragons. Dragons here are color-agnostic: Every deck gets to play with Dragons.

As far as gameplay goes, design wants Dragons to be awesome, but does not want Limited games to devolve to "First Dragon wins." (In a similar vein, we'd prefer games not to always come down to "Last Dragon wins" either, but we expect that to happen a decent amount.) There should be answers to Dragons, both in terms of removal and other defense. In addition, Dragon-on-Dragon combat is fantastic, and we love seeing that in games.

THAT SUMMARY STATEMENT CONTAINED THE WORD "DRAGON" THIRTEEN TIMES. Let that sink in. This section went on to contain the following eight subsections:

Category 1: The common Dragon (NOTE: This got bumped up to uncommon during Development.)

Category 2: Uncommon gold cycle

Category 3: Uncommon monocolored cycle

Category 4: Rare gold cycle

Category 5: Rare monocolored cycle

Category 6: Mythic rare legendary gold cycle

Category 7: Uncommon mana stones (NOTE: Do these turn into Dragons? Hmmmm....)

Category 8: Cards that care about Dragons

The dominant species on Tarkir is dragons. Back in Fate Reforged, what could've happened was that those three-color khans took over and birthed three-color clans. But what actually happened is that those two-color legendary Dragons took over and birthed two-color clans. Those Dragons are still alive, but they're a thousand years older. Those Dragons are in the set. Those Dragons want to eat your puny human face off.

Bow down before the monarchs. It's a dragon's world now. We just live in it.

That's a Clan Question, Bro

If the design vision started and ended with "Dragon dragon dragon dragon dragon dragon," that'd be plenty. But this set takes place on Tarkir, and Tarkir is a world with clans. We knew from the start that Dragons of Tarkir would not have three-color clans. There were three major reasons for this.

The first reason is that there is only a limited amount of viable three-color design space, and it was clearly better to put all of it into one set (Khans of Tarkir) than to split it up among two sets—especially since Khans of Tarkir and Dragons of Tarkir would not be drafted together. Putting Abzan Guide into one set, and Sandsteppe Citadel into a different set, is just a bad decision.

The second reason is a corollary of the first. This block has three draft formats: KTK-KTK-KTK, FRF-KTK-KTK, and DTK-DTK-FRF. The idea is to have different draft experiences that pivot around Fate Reforged. But if Dragons of Tarkir was another wedge set, it's just the same experience again. We'd have traveled through time for nothing.

The third reason is that wedge Dragons already exist…but until Fate Reforged, a full cycle of ally-colored Dragons did not!

Section 2: Clans


Design vision: DTK presents an alternative present to KTK. The concept is parallelism with contrast. Each of the five KTK clans is modeled after a specific Dragon attribute, contains three colors (one being the focus), and has a clan keyword. Each of the five DTK clans is modeled after those same Dragon attributes, contains two of the three KTK colors (with the same one being the focus), and has a clan keyword that's different than the KTK keyword. For any given KTK clan, the corresponding DTK clan should mesh into it in a Constructed deck: two of the colors overlap, and the keywords play nice.

Now that's a tricky puzzle! Let me ground this in a concrete example.

Abzan is the Khans of Tarkir "Endurance" clan. It is white, black, and green, with a keyword of "outlast" and a +1/+1 counter theme.

Dragons of Tarkir also has an "Endurance" clan. It is green and white. It has a new keyword that embodies "Endurance" and plays well with outlast and the +1/+1 counter theme.

In case you haven't figured it out, the Dragons of Tarkir keyword I just described is bolster, which debuted not in this set, but in Fate Reforged! (Oddly, the one keyword in this suite that I designed myself showed up in the only set in this block I wasn't on the design team for.)

Similarly, dash is the Dragons of Tarkir "Speed" clan mechanic. It appears in black and red, and it synergizes with "raid" abilities. I'm not going to dive into the white-blue "Cunning" keyword that plays well with prowess, the blue-black "Ruthlessness" keyword that synergizes with delve, or the red-green "Savagery" keyword that syncs up with "ferocious," but you'll know them when you see them.

I want to give mad props to Ken Nagle, the lead designer of Fate Reforged, for rolling with the punches while we were figuring out this cross-set keyword matrix. The Dragons of Tarkir keywords kept changing, which meant the Fate Reforged keywords kept changing too. We knew that the five Fate Reforged clan keywords would include three Khans keywords (which would reign triumphant in that timeline but be killed off in ours) and two Dragons keywords (vice versa), but which were what kept changing and changing and changing.

Did I mention that change is good?

Did I mention that this set was super, super fun to design?

Dragonlord Silumgar | Art by Steven Belledin

This Section Contains the Word "Smorph"

Ah, but let's not forget about the block's through line keyword! Morph is my favorite keyword of all time. The Khans of Tarkir exploratory design team (the team that explores blue-sky mechanical space for a block before the design team proper begins) selected it as a foundational structural element of the block because we could express the time-travel story through it. Back in the time of Fate Reforged, we have a predecessor of morph (which you know as manifest) that was an expression of Ugin's colorless magic. In the Khans timeline, manifest evolves into morph as we know and love it. In the Dragons timeline, manifest evolves into something different.

Section 3: Morph

Design vision: Morph is a featured element of the KTK block because it is intended to be a mechanical through line that, through its changes, demonstrates the time-travel story. In KTK, morph is normal. In FRF, we see a "proto-morph" mechanic (manifest). In DTK, there is ideally a change in the morph cards that shows that we are back in the present, but an alternate-reality present. This morph has evolved a bit differently from manifest.

Here's the rub: The Dragons design team could never quite figure this one out. We tried a mechanic called "Auramorph." We tried a mechanic called "smorph." No, really. Why are you laughing? We spent a lot of time on a kind of morph/kicker hybrid. Each morph card had two morph costs, and maybe you'd get a bonus triggered ability if you paid the more expensive cost to flip it over. It was functional, but it was also a million billion words and was just so much more complex than an already complex set needed to be.

We eventually solved the problem, of course. Shortly after the set was handed off to development, Mark Rosewater and Erik Lauer each independently came up with exactly the same morph variant. That's what got printed. I'm not showing it off today—neither of my preview cards have it—but you'll see it soon. It's somehow both subtle and loud, and it's cool.

Like Sands Through the Hourglass…

I'm going to jump ahead. The next few sections in the design handoff document are of lesser importance; they're not pillars of the set the way the first three are, and are either merely functional (like a list of cycles in the card file) or didn't make it through development. But the last section is a big one. The last section makes the set sing.

Section 7: Crossover cards

Design vision: We're telling a time-travel story involving a base setting, that setting a thousand years in the past, and an alternative version of the original setting if history had evolved differently. In order to drive the story home, we want to pepper these sets with crossover cards: Cards in one set with a direct corollary in another set (or one in each other set) that demonstrate this story. It's important to selling the setting, it's expected by the player base, these are this block's version of resonant tropes, and we think there's lots of opportunity for fun.

If you've ever seen a time-travel movie, you know what I'm talking about. This is a story unique to the genre, visually resonant, fun to tell, and fun to discover. In Back to the Future, (30-year-old spoiler alert!) Marty McFly's dad starts out as a grown-up loser, then we see him as a young dweeb, then history is changed and we see him as a confident, successful adult. Likewise, in this block, time allows us to show a story arc on just a couple of pieces of cardboard.

You'll find more and more of these as time goes on, but we've already seen some of these stories.

  • As noted above, the entire mechanic of morph goes through it.
  • Renowned Weaponsmith probably left his Vial of Dragonfire around here someplace….
  • The Khans of Tarkir card Witness of the Ages is the Fate Reforged card Pilgrim of the Fires. Will the same Golem make an appearance in this altered timeline?
  • The first preview card of this article tells this story. That young whippersnapper Silumgar, the Drifting Death has aged into Dragonlord Silumgar.
  • What about the khans from Khans of Tarkir? I mean, we know they're not khans in this timeline. Some of them are probably worse off. Some of them are probably dead. But being dead is no excuse not to have a card in the set!

Oh, hey, there's that blue-black "Ruthlessness" keyword that plays well with delve by feeding your graveyard! This new, rather more fetid Sidisi can be a 4/6 deathtouch creature, or a five-mana Demonic Tutor (yes, she can exploit herself), or she can be both at the minimal expense of your most expendable creature. That's cold. That's cold-blooded. That's ruthlessness.

Two Cards Down, an Entire Set Minus Two Cards to Go

In just two preview cards, you get a good picture of what has happened to the Sultai clan, and what this New World Order may portend for the rest. This is a cruel world, dominated by five brutal Elder Dragon legends and their Dragon lineages. Watch the skies. Watch the skies and roar!

Sidisi, Undead Vizier | Art by Min Yum

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