Phyrexian Ken's Demands

Posted in Feature on May 16, 2011

By Aaron Forsythe

In the time since I last led a development team soup to nuts—Shadowmoor—not only have I learned a metric ton more about the craft, but I've also led a couple design teams (Magic 2010 and Magic 2011), so I've become more sympathetic to the "plight" of the lead designer.

Truth be told, development has most of the power when it comes to making Magic cards. If they want something to exist, it generally will. If they want something to not exist, it won't. If they want something to be better, it gets better. And so on.

Designers, on the other hand, tend to be much more emotionally attached to the stuff they've made, but have to stand back and watch as developers do their thing. That can be excruciating, even if you know deep down that all the changes being made are for the betterment of the game. It's just that as a designer, watching your set get developed feels like your judgment is constantly being called into question, which can be demoralizing.

Armed with that perspective and a terrific development team—Erik Lauer, Tom LaPille, Zac Hill, and Dave Guskin—I set out to develop New Phyrexia with the design intent front-of-mind, and vowed to keep lead designer Ken Nagle in the conversation for all big decisions.

Of course Ken, being the hyper-passionate person that he is—he even paid to have his own Phyrexian costume created for the Prerelease—took full advantage of my sympathies and fired off a giant nineteen-item missive regarding his priorities for New Phyrexia. I didn't share this list with my team, as I feared it might be resented for being too constrictive, but I did keep it on my desk throughout the process and tried to make decisions with Ken's list in mind.

Below are Ken's nineteen design "demands" as given to me on March 26, 2010, each followed by an explanation on how I think we did meeting them in development.

1. Cement Phyrexians as the third badass villain in the Multiverse on the level of Nicol Bolas and the Eldrazi.

We didn't have to try hard to achieve this. The Phyrexians have been villains longer than either of those other two, and with all the storyline hoopla that has gone into this block, there's hardly a player alive who doesn't currently associate the term "Phyrexia" with "current bad guys in Magic."

That said, now that we got a whole set to dedicate to them, we wanted to deliver on their sinister feel. Read on to see how we accomplished that.

2. Deliver on expectations of Phyrexian flavor, history, and ultimatum, a.k.a. a black-centered bioengineering inexorable hybrid of The Zerg + The Borg.

My boss (VP of R&D Bill Rose) specifically asked me to lead develop this set because he knew it was going to be incredibly challenging. Phyrexia was going to be fully formed in this set for the first time in all five colors, and making that happen was going to involve a bit of rule-breaking that would have been unfair to ask most developers to manage. In Tom LaPille's article the week before last, he described New Phyrexia as "violating and transgressive," which is an apt description of what the teams were trying to accomplish... as well as something you don't want your typical Magic set to feel like.

There were a lot of arguments and hard decisions regarding many of the cards and mechanics in this set, but ultimately I hope they add up to the feel Ken was designing towards.

3. Mechanical overview summarized as "violating" and "win more." Likely manifests to fun game-play experience playing Phyrexians, unfun game-play experience fighting against Phyrexians.

Now this was a goal I could get behind! My style of casual Magic always had me putting the screws to people (and I still do it in Commander). I know that things can get out of hand easily, though, and we certainly didn't want to encourage "you can't do anything" Magic with cards like Stasis or The Abyss. Instead, we were aiming for cards that make opponents "slightly miserable."

The low-end stuff in the set chips away at opponents a life point at a time, whereas the big haymakers like the Praetors really makes them feel like they've been beaten. Cards like Invader Parasite, Isolation Cell, and Chancellor of the Annex all make it a little bit harder for your opponents to cast their spells—annoying without being backbreaking. On top of that, there are a number of cards like Gitaxian Probe, Despise, Life's Finale, and Surgical Extraction that let you look through opponents' hands and libraries—very "violating" things to do—and often remove cards from them.

4. At the cost of many man-hours and potentially over-splashing, implement the [redacted] mechanic.

I can't really tell you much about this mechanic other than it was incredibly ambitious, far-reaching, parasitic, and complicated. That said, it had a lot of very cool elements and I think (and Ken should agree) that I gave it more than its fair shake before killing it—probably more than most other developers would have. If the mechanic ever exists at all it needs to be in a large set. I imagine we'll try something like it again at some point, so I'm not going to spoil it.

Unfortunately, killing that mechanic as late as I did left a gaping hole in the set as far as mechanical identity goes. In an attempt to solve that problem, Mark Rosewater and I came up with Phyrexian mana (you can read his article on it here). When I pitched it to the various developers and creative types, I expected some pushback as it isn't the kind of mechanic we normally do, but there was a surprisingly high amount of buy-in right away. I kicked it back to the design team to make cards using it and folded those right back into the set.

There have been some complaints popping up about this mechanic, ranging from "free spells are annoying to play against" to "the color pie is irrevocably damaged" to "life payment and cost reduction are about as unappealing as mechanics can get to the casual player." I understand all that stuff, but the feeling we were going for was transgressive and violating. We wanted you to be slightly uncomfortable—on edge, even—when playing with and against New Phyrexia cards. Plus, I think the ability to pay life to color bleed satisfies the lower-level players' questions of "Why would I ever do this?" I fully admit that this may play out long-term as a mistake, but I wouldn't have proceeded with the mechanic if I thought it was likely. I'm placing my bet on more enfranchised players actually enjoying the Limited environment with these cards in it and more casual players finding a hundred other things in the set to latch onto if Phyrexian mana isn't their thing.

5. Spend power points on the "opening hand matters" to make tourney-level Timmy/Spike fatties in the 6-7 drop range. I was aiming green at "best card in the set."

I liked the idea of the Chancellor cycle but, man, were they hard to develop. Once we got through all the rules and templating issues with rules manager Matt Tabak and senior editor Del Laugel, there were still plenty of issues surrounding how each one actually worked. Here was Ken's design for the green one:

Infernal Tree of Evil
Creature — Treefolk
CARDNAME has trample as long as you control more lands than an opponent.
If CARDNAME is in your opening hand, you may reveal it as the game begins. If you do, you may put a land card from your hand onto the battlefield.

The "free land drop" ability was a bit more swingy than we were willing to tolerate, but I hope we captured the essence of it with the final "add " Chancellor of the Tangle , even though it is no longer in the running for best card in the set.

The other one that was tough to nail down was the white one. Again, Ken's initial design:

Infernal Loxodon of Evil
Creature — Elephant Soldier
First strike
If CARDNAME is in your opening hand, you may reveal it as the game begins. If you do and you aren't playing first, you play first (and your opponents draw first).

Not only did that card not do anything in multiples or in the games that you were already going first, but it had a next to zero percent chance of working within the rules. It was a classic case of a card that was fun to read but not worth playing. We eventually came to Mana Tithe as the white reveal ability (remember, taxing is white), although our initial on-the-battlefield ability—"When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, opponents can't cast spells until the beginning of your next turn"—was way too good with Venser, the Sojourner to be printable. That's why we playtest!

My hope is that several of the Chancellors—including the green one—will make their mark in Standard by the time this block rotates out.

6. Push the clean and spectacular "Pwnage" mechanic past all naysayers.

Don't you just love the conviction with which Ken tries to sell his ideas?

This was another goal that I tried for far longer than I should have to achieve. Pwnage was another "violation" mechanic that allowed you to shuffle cards from your opponent's library into
your own. Okay, it tried to allow it, but the rules are never, ever going to budge in that regard.

For example:

Destroy target creature, then shuffle that creature card into your library. You own that card for the rest of the game.

That card in practice isn't even necessarily better than Terminate, as you often couldn't cast their creature if you drew it. BUT IT FELT SO MEAN! Ultimately, problems with card sleeves, potential theft, and general game-play mix-ups doomed this mechanic.

The remaining legacy of pwnage is Praetor's Grasp, which is an attempt to turn an opponent's card into one of your own. It isn't quite as visceral, but it gets the feel across to a reasonable degree.

Praetor's Grasp

Wow... Chancellors, pwnage, and a crazy secret mechanic? Ken was certainly operating outside the box with the design of this set. I guess by trying so many weird things he was bound to get one to stick, in this case the Chancellors.

7. Make mythic cycle of Legendary Praetors "weightier" than "just some legends."

I think we did a good job here. Ken's handoff didn't even have five Praetors, but rather left it to development to iron out how to implement them.

Fortunately, the answer was in the file already. Ken's team had made a bunch of creatures at common and uncommon he called "Elites" that had mirrored abilities that helped you and hurt your opponents. Suture Priest is a remnant of this bunch of cards. Others had text like "Creatures you control have first strike. / Creatures your opponents control lose and can't have first strike." There was an awesome green uncommon one called Elite Anthemist that gave all your creatures +1/+1 and your opponents' creatures -1/-1.

With the Exarchs also in the file, the development team felt there was too much mirrored stuff going on, so we looked for ways to minimize the number of Elites in the set. Luckily, the Praetors were the perfect place to use that material, as it made sense for them to be the über-powerful "you get both effects" versions of Exarchs. The green Anthemist's ability went to white, doubled up, and became Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite. We worked with the designers to come up with the rest of the abilities.

I like that they still feel like a cycle even though they all have different costs and stats and their abilities vary wildly in what they do. A big part of why they hang together is the fact that they'd been quoted in flavor text heavily in the block, so players knew to look for them in New Phyrexia.

8. Karn is a high-profile card. Weird that he will likely be "the face of the set" even though he's got the most Mirran face ever.

Okay, that's not actually a demand, but there is a lot of truth in that statement. We knew Karn Liberated was going to be a Big Deal for this set (has there ever been a more anticipated Planeswalker card ever?), so we spent a ton of time on him. Design handed off the following design...

Karn, Creator of Mirrodin
Planeswalker — Karn
+2: Target artifact becomes a 3/3 Golem artifact creature in addition to its other types and subtypes.
-X: Choose X target permanents. They become artifacts in addition to their other types. You may tap or untap each one of them.
-10: Destroy up to 10 target permanents.

...which we promptly scrapped. With Tezzeret, Agent of Bolas in the previous set, the last thing we wanted was another artifacts-matter planeswalker design. The development team sat around brainstorming what else Karn was known for besides animating artifacts. We came up with:

  • Hard to kill
  • Creating worlds
  • Hiding things in his chest
  • Time travel
  • Being the Legacy Weapon

Riffing off the world-creation and time-travel ideas, I put forth the phrase "Restart the game," and the team took it from there. The final card is evocative of just about everything about Karn, and he has awesomely-large numbers—just like Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker does—as a nod to his pre-mending Planeswalker status.

You can read Doug Beyer's article about Karn Liberatedhere for more on this iconic character and card.

Karn Liberated

It was a bit of a drawback that we couldn't use Karn effectively on the New Phyrexia packaging, as we often like to showcase the planeswalkers there. To make up for it, we use him extensively on the fake Mirrodin Pure packaging which you can see here.

9. Protect the "SimCity" cards like Flame Scroll that kids could build a deck around.

"Flame Scroll" was the playtest name for Shrine of Burning Rage and, as you can see, I protected them (not that they faced much opposition). Ken's right that a set as evil and destructive-feeling as New Phyrexia, you want to provide players something constructive to strive for, and nothing beats a 20-point blast from a single Shrine.

Shrine of Burning Rage

The other "SimCity" cards we added to the set were the Golem-creating "Splicers." These six cards have a bit of a "Sliver" feel in that each additional one adds abilities to all the others, but they have two additional upsides: (1) they are backwards compatible with all the other Golems and Golem-making cards in the block and throughout Magic, and (2) each one combos well with ways to reuse them, from Glimmerpoint Stag to Morbid Plunder to Disperse.

10. Give infect to all colors at common. Try gassing infect in white, red, and/or blue so "different/many infect decks are better" instead of "the green-black infect deck is now Tier 1."

The design handoff included a bunch of common infect creatures in every color, and we were sure to maintain that. There was even a one-drop 1/1 (although it was black in the handoff), as R&D had been discussing for the length of the block's development that the third set was the correct spot for a one-mana 1/1 infect creature.

Chained Throatseeker
Razor Swine

Limited really feels different with this set thanks to the spreading out of infect (something we could only do well with the reversed draft order), and I even think there are now the tools for a third color to try infect in Standard.

11. The color bleeds will face opposition. I feel design found the correct space in white life gain becomes Drain Life, blue card drawing becomes Unhinge, and green pump becomes Steal Strength. The off-putting, vilifying of such happy mechanics gives the set an "evil" black vibe.

We kept all of what Ken was describing and, yes, a lot of it breaks the color pie in small ways. That's intentional. We needed the set to feel evil and corrupted, and we didn't want to be subtle about it. We talked for a while about making the set feel evil by just amping up the "normal" bad things that colors do, but that was hard to do in colors like green. Would anyone notice if we had two Naturalizes and a Creeping Mold? Would that make the set feel particularly evil? We didn't think so, so we went the more transgressive route: making cards that make you sit up and take notice. Even a simple vanilla like Loxodon Convert can feel off in a corrupt way; we typically avoid giving white 4-power common creatures, but here it contributed to the feel without breaking the game in any way.

We corrupted black by letting it "steal" a bit from blue with the card Enslave, a reprint from Planar Chaos. Like most of Planar Chaos design, we won't be taking much of what happened in New Phyrexia as precedent for what colors are capable of (although I expect several designers—perhaps myself included—to try).


12. Lose 1 life in all colors is again an evil black vibe. Giving out 1 poison counter was deemed more flavorful but too parasitic. Poison has been absent from 99.99% of Magic games I've ever played.

As I said before, this set is trying to show all five colors corrupted by Phyrexia, and since Phyrexia has typically been depicted as black, that meant we had to bleed black into all the colors. The various "lose 1 life" riders on cards across all the colors does a good job of being evil and irritating without doing anything particularly egregious.

Ken mentioned that poison counters would have been better flavor, which I agree with, but they made the right choice to go with damage so that players of all types would consider cards like Vapor Snag for their decks across all of time, whereas a poison counter would have relegated them to block-specific builds.

Vapor Snag

13. Design is on board with a handful (3-5) metalcraft cards to have Mirran watermarks.

We talked a lot about how the complete elimination of Mirran-flavored mechanics from New Phyrexia would be a great way to reinforce that the Mirrans lost, but ultimately we decided that there'd be players who liked those mechanics that would be disappointed if we didn't give them something. But the Mirran mechanics did take a beating here. There are no common Equipment. There are no artifacts with imprint. There are no cards with battle cry. There is only one indestructible card, and it's really bad. And there are only three cards with metalcraft—two rares and an uncommon. Granted, they're pretty good cards—you have to be hearty to survive as part of the resistance—so that fans of metalcraft can at least appreciate the quality of cards with the mechanic even if they're sad about the quantity.

Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer

War is hell, folks.

14. File is full of "creature or artifact" cards that would otherwise be normal cards. "Creature or artifact" has a mild "flesh-and-metal" flavor.

There were eight cards in the design handoff that said "artifact or creature" and the final set ended up with five (Apostle's Blessing, Numbing Dose, Phyrexian Metamorph, Artillerize, and Geosurge).

Phyrexian Metamorph

Ken's goal for this phrase was that he wanted ways to interact with artifacts so that this set played well with the first two in the block, but since the Mirrans lost there'd be a decrease in focus on artifacts and he didn't want a bunch of narrow dead cards. I think Ken was underestimating how prevalent artifacts could/would be in New Phyrexia, so we didn't need that phrase quite so many times, although I will say that the increased diversity it gives the cards it's on plays very well.

15. Find the appropriate level of Phyrexian throwbacks. New Phyrexia should get a Negator, a Processor, a Yawgmoth's something, maybe more.

Scars of Mirrodin and Mirrodin Besieged both contained lots of throwbacks to the first Mirrodin block, in the forms of both reprint (Iron Myr) and homages (Inkmoth Nexus). With Phyrexia fully realized in this set, Ken wanted some throwbacks to the Phyrexians of old from Antiquities and the Urza's and Invasion blocks.

He got his Phyrexian Negator (Phyrexian Obliterator), but we didn't try very hard to replicate Phyrexian Processor, and the creative nixed our attempts to reference Yawgmoth (who died on Dominaria).

Phyrexian Obliterator

We did get a few other old-school Phyrexian throwbacks in with the reprint of Phyrexian Hulk as well as callbacks to Hollow Dogs (Mortis Dogs), Phyrexian Walker (Kiln Walker), and the various Urza's block Skirges such as Ravenous Skirge (Vault Skirge).

Phyrexian Hulk
Mortis Dogs

16. Don't forget about proliferate, or have a good reason it's reduced/gone. I found it too hard to design appealing proliferate cards when the only thing keeping them alive in the file is the hope that Johnny deckbuilders will like them.

Ken's handoff only had three proliferate cards, and they were pretty lame—a blue Twiddle, a 2-damage red spell, and a slow reusable artifact. I think we upgraded them with Tezzeret's Gambit, Grim Affliction, and the one-card combo Viral Drake, as well as turning the burn spell into Volt Charge.

Tezzeret's Gambit
Grim Affliction

I was happy to keep proliferate as part of this set as it is a very Phyrexian mechanic that enjoys lots of play in casual decks as well as having many applications in Limited.

Viral Drake

17. Don't forget about imprint. A Mirran mechanic to either "be stolen" or deleted as an inferior weapon for Phyrexians. I feel there are still at least a couple cool imprint cards to be made.

We kept imprint in this set but gave it a couple very specific parameters. One, all the imprint cards are colored and none of them are artifacts. These are the first nonartifacts with the mechanic, and I felt that was a great fit with the "metal-to-flesh" feel of Phyrexia. Two, all the imprint cards in this set imprint your opponents' cards, as Phyrexians are all about assimilation (plus they're just super-nasty that way).

Exclusion Ritual
Invader Parasite

Ken's handoff had some colored imprint cards as well as some that went after your opponents' stuff mixed in with more traditional imprint artifacts and cards that imprinted your own things. We just culled it down to the most radical execution.

Phyrexian Digester

18. Since MBS stole our cycle of X-beacons [the Mirrodin Besieged Zeniths], I feel we are short a rare spell cycle.

I supposed we failed on this goal, although I did put some thought into it. Trust me, I love rare spell cycles more than most people in R&D.

With a cycle of Praetors at mythic, Chancellors already at rare, and many, many others at lower rarities, I didn't see the need to push for a spell cycle in this set, instead relying on filling up the rares with individually cool cards.

The closest thing to a rare spell cycle is the very loose cycle of Phyrexian mana rares, although they have very little else in common. In fact, two of them are creatures!

19. Include a powerful artifact that hoses all graveyards for my Commander decks.

We failed there, no doubt about it. Conversion Chamber isn't getting it done.

Out of nineteen demands, development was able to follow through on fifteen of them, and put significant effort towards two more. That, to me, is a great batting average.

When design and development can work together and are on the same page about the goals for the product, awesome things result. New Phyrexia was incredibly challenging, but thanks to the passion of Ken Nagle and the hard work of everyone on my team, we made something we can all be proud of.

Bonus Section

Here are the design team's ten favorite cards handed off to development and what happened to them.

While many of these cards changed in various ways, we kept all ten in the set in some capacity. We worked with the designers to preserve the coolest part of each card—flavor, mechanics, feel—and developed them accordingly. But the fact that all ten remained in the set in one capacity or another reinforces to me that we held design's vision true throughout the development process.


Swords to POWshares
Tap target creature.
Metalcraft — If you control three or more artifacts, exile that creature.

Parasitic Implant

Parasite Implantation
Enchantment — Aura
Enchant creature
At the beginning of your upkeep, destroy enchanted creature and put a 1/1 colorless Myr artifact creature token onto the battlefield under your control.

Whispering Specter

Infecter Specter
Creature — Specter
Infect (This creature deals damage to creatures in the form of -1/-1 counters and to players in the form of poison counters.)
Whenever CARDNAME deals combat damage to a player, he or she discards a card for each poison counter he or she has.

Glistening Oil

Glistening Oil
Creature — Ooze
As CARDNAME enters the battlefield, name a creature card.
B, T: Put a -1/-1 counter on target creature with a chosen name.
3BB: Name an additional creature card.

Chancellor of the Dross

Infernal Vampire of Evil
Creature — Vampire Warrior
CARDNAME has lifelink as long as you have more life than an opponent.
If CARDNAME is in your opening hand, you may reveal it as the game begins. If you do, target opponent loses 3 life and you gain 3 life.

Life's Finale

Search target opponent's library for up to three creature cards and put them onto the battlefield under that player's control. That player shuffles his or her library.
Then destroy all creatures.

Slag Fiend

Creature — Lhurgoyf
CARDNAME's power and toughness are each equal to the number of artifact cards in all graveyards.

Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite

Elite Anthemist
Creature — Beast
Creatures you control get +1/+1.
Creatures your opponents control get -1/-1.

Birthing Pod

Genetic Engineering
At the beginning of your end step, you may sacrifice a creature. If you do, search your library for a creature card with converted mana cost one greater than the sacrificed creature's converted mana cost. Put it onto the battlefield then shuffle your library.

Myr Superion

Dreadnought Myr
Artifact Creature — Myr
Spend only mana produced by creatures to cast CARDNAME.

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