Lord of the Things

Posted in Feature on March 19, 2012

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

Welcome to Lord Week. This week, we'll be exploring the long-standing tradition of creatures that support and boost members of a specific tribe. Since this is a design column, I thought I'd stroll through Magic history and look at how lords have been designed over the last nineteen years (okay, almost—Magic turns nineteen in July).

Before I do that, let me clarify a few things. When I say "lords," I am defining them as creatures that boost all the creatures (nowadays usually ones you control) of one or more creature types. I am not talking about noncreature cards that do this or about creature cards that themselves are boosted by the number of creatures you have of a particular creature type.

In the Beginning

Because I need to finish this column today, I've decided to narrow down my topic to just cover the lords of three creature types: Goblins, Merfolk, and Zombies. Quick trivia question: Why have I chosen these three creature types?

This is why!


Goblin King, Lord of Atlantis, and Zombie Master.

These three creatures were the very first lords back in Alpha. It seemed only right that if I was going to follow the path of any lords it deserved to be the three that started it all. Let's start by asking the all-important question: Why did Richard (Garfield) put these three lords into the set in the first place? I wanted to know, so I called Richard and asked him.

The first reason is very simple if you understand which Goblins, Merfolk, and Zombies were in the set.

See them here.

Yes, the major reason the lords were put into the set was to create added value for a bunch of vanilla creatures and one with activated flying. (Scavenging Ghoul would many years later be turned into a Zombie retroactively but it wasn't one when Alpha came out.) Richard knew the set needed to have basic creatures and creating lords was one way to make those cards mean something in a different context.

The other reason Richard said he made the lords, at least for the Goblins and Zombies, was that those creature types, flavor-wise, were known for traveling in hordes. Having players be able to create a Goblin deck or a Zombie deck matched the feel of the creatures.

Another thing I want to examine was some key decisions Richard made when designing these three cards:

• The cards affect all creature of the chosen type—even those you don't control.

As these cards were guided by flavor. I'm sure Richard's thought process was that having a Goblin King on the battlefield emboldened all Goblins—not just your Goblins. Over time, we have found that lords tend to feel better if they help only your creatures. Doing this makes them, as we call it in R&D, "all-upside," meaning you never have to question whether or not playing them is good for you. Goblin King can be the wrong play, for example, if you opponent has more Goblins on the battlefield than you.

• The cards are all "Lord" in their creature type and not of the creature type they enhance.

In Alpha, creatures only had one creature type. Richard wanted to convey the feeling of a lord, so he gave all three the Lord creature type. This proved a little strange when you had multiples in play, because at least the Goblin King and Lord of Atlantis are clearly pictured as members of their own races. The cards were later errataed to being their own type, but only affecting "others" of their kind. This does mean that two Alpha Lords now pump one another. With only a few exceptions for flavor reasons, lords are now always the type they boost, although they normally do not boost themselves to make the math easier. Finally, the Lord creature type got retired, so now none of the lords are technically Lords.

• The cards all have two global effects.

In Alpha, if you boosted other creatures you always did so by granting them two abilities. In each case, one of those abilities was the landwalk of that creature type's color. The second ability was +1/+1 for two of them and regeneration for the third. The +1/+1 bonus has become the gold standard for lord boosts and is by far the most common boost ability on lords.

• The creatures all required two mana of the appropriate color.

The three creature types with Alpha lords have one thing in common: they all appeared solely in a single color. Because of this, each lord has double-colored mana in its mana cost, which was pretty irrelevant at the time, as each of three decks they inspired were monocolored. You'll notice that when we do tribal blocks nowadays, we tend to try and get the creature types into at least one more color.

• The creatures are all basically the same size (2/2 or 2/3) and converted mana cost (2 or 3).

Another decision Richard made was to keep the lords rather small and inexpensive. The reason was that if you dedicated a deck to this strategy, the lords could kick in pretty quickly. While we've experimented with different sizes and costs over the years, Richard's original choice has continued to be the default.

Now that we've examined how they started, let's take a look how the lords have evolved over the years. We'll start with the Goblins.

It's Good To Be King

Most of the lords I'll be talking about today came out in either core sets or tribal-themed blocks. This is one of the exceptions. Goblin General came out in Portal Second Age. For those too young to remember the Portal sets (Portal, Portal Second Age and Portal Three Kingdoms), they were designed as a simpler, introductory product to help teach players Magic. The reason this card has a triggered boost rather than a static effect is because none of the Portal sets had static effects. The only three card types were land, creatures, and sorceries.

The interesting side effect of making a Goblin lord in Portal Second Age is that it heavily encouraged the Goblins to be aggressive. To get their boost they had to attack, so it pushed the person playing this deck to go on the aggressive. It also had the side effect of being the first lord that only affected your own creatures.

The next big push to do Goblin lords came during Onslaught block, the first block to have a strong tribal theme. This lord is very different in several ways. First, while it provides a positive ability, it also provides a negative one. Second, the card's impact is limited to a single turn, unlike the lords that came before it. Notice that during Onslaught the lords still affect all Goblins rather than just your Goblins.

This card falls into a gray area, as it doesn't exactly boost creatures but it does kind of grant them the ability to cast spells in groups, so I've included it. I ending up making this cycle (there are four other cards like it, one of which I'll talk about in a bit) because I was trying to figure out how else we could make a lord work. The flavor that guided me was the idea that a true leader could help his people work together to do things they couldn't as individuals. I purposely made the creature of the same creature type, so it got to count toward the first group.

I had toyed around with smaller groups of creatures doing lesser effects, but playtesting showed the cards worked better if you had to work harder but got a bigger effect. It both read and played better. I obviously gave it protection from red to allow it to survive its own effect.

Like the Goblin General, this lord also has a temporary effect that affects all Goblins. The one big difference with this card was the idea of using the creature type as a cost. In order for all the Goblins to get big, one has to make a sacrifice (and not one of his own choosing). The one other thing about this card that makes me smile is the Goblin's name in the flavor text—Furt. I always appreciate a silly Goblin name.

This was another cycle. The innovation of this cycle was the idea of a lord helping a creature not on the battlefield. Goblin Warchief, along with all the other warchiefs, made the Goblin cards in your hand better. As a designer, I particularly like the haste-granting on this card because not only does it have wonderful mechanical synergy, it also has the same flavor of the lord helping speed along his people.

The next big push for Goblin lords came, not surprisingly, during the next tribal block, Lorwyn. Lorwyn block is where the switch-over happened where lords started only affecting your creatures. The other big push of Lorwyn block was to take some of the tribes that had always been in one color and start bleeding them, at least in the context of Lorwyn block, into a second color. That is how we end up with the first, and so far only, mono-black Goblin lord. The other new twist is that Mad Auntie crosses a traditional lord (granting a bonus to all Goblins) with an effect that can only target Goblins.

Now we come to one of the quirky cards from Lorwyn—what design called cross-race lords. The idea behind these cards is that they are lords for two different creature types, but rather than grant two abilities to both, they grant an ability to each. Why was this card made? Certainly not for flavor, as the card doesn't make much flavor sense. No, the reason we made it was to try to encourage players to occasionally draft two tribes in Lorwyn block Draft. The idea was that if you take a card like this early, it gets you thinking about not one, but two tribes. In general, these cards didn't quite have the impact we were hoping.

This is another card I wasn't quite sure counted as a lord, but it was close, so I did. The interesting thing about Wort is that she has an effect that works on Goblins in graveyards. With Wort in play, you have to completely reevaluate what it means to have a Goblin die. You are much more willing to be aggressive or trade when you know you have the means to bring your Goblins back. Wort was specifically made black-red to encourage players to build a black-red Goblin deck.

The banneret cycle was clearly a riff on the warchief cycle from Scourge. The one big difference is that we used the cycle to crossover two creature types: the first, race, and the second, class. Because we chose race-class combinations that naturally happened, it was a lot easier to get players to care about both creature types. Because of the race-class crossover, the card lacked the warchief's second boosting ability, opting instead to just give the lord a keyword.

One of the big goals of Magic 2010 was to use our ability to make new cards to allow us to create the exact versions of cards we wanted. Goblin Chieftain was an updated Goblin King. You'll note his mana cost and power/toughness stayed the same. The card also grants +1/+1 to Goblins, except it now only affects your Goblins (the upgrade we made during Lorwyn block). The second change is that instead of granting mountainwalk, the card now grants haste. This was done to make the card relevant in more games and to strengthen it a little. The reason the lord has haste is the same reason behind not having it boost itself. We have found it easier for players to have the lord say what it is and not make the players have to calculate something that always happens. If we want it to grant itself the ability, we'll just put it on the creature.

There's No Folk Like Merfolk

Now let's examine Merfolk lords.

You'll note that there is a big gap in between Lord of Atlantis and the next Merfolk lords in Lorwyn. The reason for this is that Merfolk almost left the game for good. The creative team always felt that water-based creatures were an odd fit for a game about land warfare, so they asked if they could remove Merfolk. Invasion was the final block to have Merfolk en masse and Odyssey block's sole legendary Merfolk was the last planned for the game.

So what happened? There's a whole bedtime tale about the Merfolk, but the short answer is that the players wanted them back. So in Lorwyn, the second major tribal block, Merfolk made their triumphant return. This absence is probably behind the extra-large number of Merfolk lords in Lorwyn.

The Merrow Reejerey had the normal +1/+1 lord bonus but played around in a different territory. Rather than enhance Merfolk on the battlefield, the second ability rewarded its controller for casting Merfolk. The Twiddle effect (tapping or untapping a permanent) played into the control feel of the Merfolk. Rather than have all the tribes aggressively run you down, we decided to shake things up a bit.

Merfolk being primary in blue and secondary in white ended up having a strong control feel. They didn't win quickly but rather had effects that helped you take control of the game. Then, once you gained control, the Merfolk had a few different ways to win.

This card borrowed from the Onslaught cycle that Skirk Fire marshal was part of. Rather than boost the creatures, Drowner of Secrets turned each one into a little milling machine ("milling" being slang for putting cards from a player's library into his or her graveyard, usually in an attempt to run the player out of cards).

One of the tricks of Merfolk in Lorwyn is that some of the lords allowed you to tap Merfolk for effects while another subset created effects when the Merfolk were tapped. For example, if you could get Drowner of Secrets into play with Judge of Currents, you would mill one card and gain 1 life for each Merfolk tapped.

The thing I enjoyed about the Merfolk in Lorwyn is they demonstrated that lords had much more design space than the narrow granting of +1/+1 would lead you to believe. Note that the five other Lorwyn block "tap to trigger an effect" creatures (Fallowsage, Grimoire Thief, Stonybrook Schoolmaster, Surgespanner, and Veteran of the Depths) only triggered when they themselves were tapped. Judge of Currents was the sole creature to act as a lord and grant that ability to all Merfolk.

This is another creature from Morningtide's banneret cycle. Note that like the other bannerets, it helps both a race and a class primary in that card's color—in this case Merfolk and Wizards.

This was another card that was kind of in the gray area. It doesn't grant all merfolk an ability but it can grant any Merfolk the ability. The quirky thing about this card's design is it made you want to get two in play; the two tap abilities had synergy, yet could never be achieved with just one card (well unless you Twiddled it, which was possible).

Sygg falls into the same gray area as Streambed Aquitects. The one advantage Sygg has, though, is that having the ability to get protection is in many ways like having protection, as the threat itself often prevents action by the opponent.

Part of the goal of Magic 2010 was to create the core cards we wanted, not the ones that had been grandfathered in. Lord of Atlantis had a few problems that Merfolk Sovereign fixed. First, the two-mana cost had always been a bit aggressive, especially for a blue creature. (It's interesting to note how much of Merfolk's tournament viability historically rested on Lord of Atlantis's shoulders.) Second, the second lord ability was something a little less match-up dependent, trading islandwalk for unblockability. Note that to keep unblockability in check, it was an activated tap ability rather than a global boost.

This card didn't start as a Merfolk lord. It began as a simple blue level-up creature—an uncommon, I believe. But at some point in development (I was on the development team for Rise of the Eldrazi but not the design team), we needed to move it up to rare for number purposes. The lord ability was added to give it a bit of punch and make it feel rare.

If I Only Had Some Brains

Most of the lords show up either in a core set or in a tribal-themed block. So what is this card doing in Planeshift? The answer lies in something that went away when Magic 2010 premiered. You see, once upon a time, if you wanted to get a card into the core set, you had to first get it into a normal Magic expansion, because the core sets were only repeats.

Lord of the Undead got made because we were always unhappy with Zombie Master. It was the only original lord that didn't pump its team and the regeneration was always a little clunky, as it required mana to activate, making it less useful to grant it to your entire team. Lord of the Undead fixed all our problems. It granted +1/+1 and had a cool reanimation flavor that fit Zombies well.

The card ended up in Planeshift because that was the next set we could get it in to further our real plan: getting it into the next core set (8th Edition, as it turned out).

This is another of the Skirk Fire Marshal cycle. The most interesting thing about this cycle is it finally allowed a Zombie lord to tie into the mechanic most associated with Zombies—reanimation. This card is also sort of a spiritual precursor to Endless Ranks of the Dead as it slowly (much slower the Endless Ranks) allows you to get more and more Zombies into play over time.

This lord does two interesting things. First, it grants an "enter the battlefield" trigger to all Zombies. And second, instead of boosting Zombies it lowers the power and toughness of everything that isn't a Zombie. Added to that is a pretty cool flavor and this is one of my favorite Zombie lords.

This creature is part of the warchief cycle from Scourge. In this cycle, each creature reduces its respective tribe's costs by one and grants one other ability. Undead Warchief 's extra ability is granting +2/+1, while Daru Warchief, the white card of the cycle, grants +1/+2. Anyone spot the little nostalgia throwback here? Yes, the two cards are riffing off of Unholy Strength and Holy Strength from Alpha.


The other Zombie lord from Scourge is a precursor to a lord that just came out in Dark Ascension, Diregraf Captain. This Zombie lord grants a death trigger to all Zombies. The reason this death trigger works so well for Zombies is that they tend to like to swarm. The death trigger makes sure opponents' life totals go down whether or not they block.

You'll notice that Zombie lords tend to show up more often in non-tribal sets than other lords. The answer for this, I believe, is that Zombies just flavorfully want to have someone guiding them. Zombies tend to exist in packs and most of them are pretty mindless, so the flavor of a lord just works well for Zombies.

Death Baron is interesting in that it was trying to capture a little more of a feel of an undead lord rather than a specific Zombie lord. That's why Skeletons get brought along for the ride. Also, the granting of deathtouch gets to play up the undead as being plague carriers.

Cemetery Reaper is just the Magic 2010 fix for Lord of the Undead. First, it makes the boost only affect your creatures. Second, it depowers the reanimation effect while keeping the overall flavor. My only complaint, and it's a picky one, is that most of the time the Zombies made by Cemetery Reaper are 3/3s, yet it always requires you, the player, to do the math. Yes, this is how it has to work and it makes them stack wonderfully, but it's my job to notice little things like this and think about how I could change them for the better.

It's funny how, now that I'm running down all the Zombie lords, Diregraf Captain is just a mixing and matching of old lords. (Hmm, making up something by piecing together old dead things—just like a Zombie.) When we made the card, we were just trying to pick mechanics that a Zombie deck would really want for its creatures. Obviously, the same thought patterns had been used years earlier, most likely by me, which is probably why they're the same thought patterns (Oh, Maro of yesteryear!).

The card was made in Dark Ascension because we were trying to up the potency of the monsters, and adding a new round of lords at uncommon, so they'd impact Limited play, helped advance this theme. Also, I had wanted a tribal component in Innistrad but I didn't want it to overwhelm the rest of the set, so we kept the numbers on the low side. Dark Ascension was the perfect place to ratchet this up because we knew it would only affect the Limited environment for three months. As a Zombie fan, I'm very happy how Diregraf Captain turned out.

The cool thing about this card is that it treads on mechanical space we've done before with Zombie lords but does it in a way that gives it a very different flavor. One of the questions I keep getting about this card was why it made black Zombies rather than blue Zombies. After all, aren't these supposed to be more of Frankenstein-monster-style Zombies? What gives? The answer is a pretty mundane one. The 2/2 Zombie token in Innistrad block is black. There's only one, meaning any Zombie token maker only has one choice of the token to use. I'm sure few of you think about things such as token resources (we try hard to reuse what we have as to keep from making too many tokens), but R&D does.

Lords of the Dance

As you can see, lords have come a long way since the days of Alpha. I hope you enjoyed this walk down lord memory lane.

Join me next week when I show you the point.

Until then, may all your creatures have the guidance they need.

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