Into the Pit

Posted in Feature on December 11, 2006

By Jake Theis

Keepin’ the Pit; Keepin’ the Beats

Alright! I officially am writing a second Into the Pit! I received some great feedback on the first article, and I’m excited to have not been fired—yet. :)

Let’s get the first question out of the way. Why the heck is this article entitled Into the Pit? There are three reasons that I can give you. The first reason is that I am an unabashed fan of professional wrestling. Ever since I was a young lad, I’ve been captivated by the wild stories, larger-than-life characters, athleticism, hilarity, and soap opera drama of professional wrestling.

Into the Pit is an homage to Piper’s Pit, the quintessential wrestling interview segment. Piper’s Pit was hosted by “Rowdy” Roddy Piper, a sharp-tongued, quick-witted wrestler who just happened to wear a kilt. Rowdy was a villainous instigator of Woody Woodpecker caliber. He knew how to push buttons, and I hope my article will beg questions at times, too.

Rowdy would later go on to star in the fine film They Live, a surprisingly poignant John Carpenter work, and a less surprisingly poignant movie, Hell Comes to Frogtown. If you haven’t seen both of these films, finish my article then hustle on down to your local mom’n’pop video shop and rent these hidden gems. Note: Rowdy’s names in the movies are Nada and Sam Hell. This is CINEMA!

Anywaaaay, there is a second, Magic: The Gathering-related reason to call this article Into the Pit. Heh—bet you didn’t think I could stay on-topic… Before working in the Ivory Tower (see, a Magic reference) of Magic R&D, I was a suit working on the Magic Brand team. I was responsible for letting new players hear about the game and giving existing players incentives to keep on playin’. I’ll let you in a on a dirty little secret. MPR mailings and this MPR newsletter that you are reading are both Brand tools to keep players excited. They are damn cool tools, you must admit! I love free cards and more Magic news.

The genesis of my invite to Magic R&D begins with the Magic card Pit Keeper. To get to him, we have to start at the beginning. There is a process in Magic R&D known as hole-filling. In hole-filling, the lead Developer of a Magic set will run through the file of cards in a set and identify potential needs and arising issues. Some typical concerns would be that we designed a zombie card and the art didn’t come in “zombie” enough, the set has too many flying creatures, we need to disperse rares more fairly across the colors, or we need some new cards to showcase a newly created mechanic.

Former Head Developer Brian Schneider selected me as a hole-filler for the seemingly long-ago released Time Spiral expansion. Up to that point, I had worked on Magic marketing and supplied names and flavor text for cards. I received a list of potential holes to fill, one of which was a black common that was nostalgic and showcased the then-titled delay mechanic. Delay would later be named suspend. As contestants on the Great Designer Search are finding out, coming up with simple, quality, flavor-filled commons is quite challenging.

I wracked my brain for a while, trying to think of a way to link flavor+nostalgia+suspend. Then, like any lazy puzzle solver I decided to buck the rules. What if, instead of the actual suspend mechanic, the card played like it had suspend? That’s cheating I know, but I think it worked out. The question I posed to myself is how to make “time matters” fill the hole of suspend? A little light bulb began to hover above my head. I remembered a magicthegathering.com article by Head Designer Mark Rosewater that touched on Kavu Titan. I won’t steal all of that article’s thunder, but the gist of the story is that Mark went undefeated in the FFL when he thought Kavu Titan was a Grizzly Bears and was winless when he found out the card could be kicked up to a beefy 5/5. The tempo advantage that the little bear created was far superior to late game impressiveness of the lumbering beater.

As Magic players, we typically are conditioned to believe that cards with kicker or additional effects get better as the game progresses. In this instance, though, the little Grizzly Bears incarnation of the card proved to be much more valuable than the big bruiser. I would use this exact design hook to create Pit Keeper. Pit Keeper in effect is a 2/1 creature for two that should be smashing peoples’ faces on turn 3 of a limited PTQ. The raise dead effect is just an additional perk you get if you draw the little bugger in the late game. Like Kavu Titan or perhaps, more accurately, Coiling Oracle, this card has an early game and a late game value. The built-in tension of the card should excite newer players. Do I hold on to this card until he becomes relevant? The answer is seldom yes. This effect wouldn’t be the card’s only design hook.

If you don’t know already, the nostalgia piece of this card is linked to Oversold Cemetery. A favorite of mine, the Cemetery has good flavor and an evocative mechanic. Building up to the Cemetery effect feels good in Limited, and the Constructed life of the card allows you to do some pretty hilarious things. I prefer it comboing with cards like Chittering Rats, Ravenous Baloth, and Eternal Witness. It was a solid card when Onslaught block was kicking around, and I don’t believe that we saw the true potential of the card fully unlocked. The ole Pit Keeper just gives you a glimpse of what the Cemetery could do.

When Pit Keeper hit Development, the team tried to twist him into a suspend card that suspended for the oversold effect. The new treatment proved too long for the text box, and my cardboard buddy made it through Development untouched and intact. I would later go on to get one hole submission to make it through in Planar Chaos and one in Future Sight, starting a streak! Now, as a member of R&D, submitting holes is still exciting, but it feels a little less special.

Now to go full circle, the third reason that this article is named Into the Pit, and perhaps most accurately, is because I now work in the R&D pit.

Blah...

I guess we could have started there, but then you wouldn’t have been able to hear about Rowdy Roddy Piper or the tale of one young man’s first Magic card design. Hurray for long-winding yarns! Especially ones about the sea…

I feel somewhat guilty that this article has been a vanity piece—well, not that guilty. :) I promise that my next article will be nothing but self-deprecation and bad puns.

Until we chat again, you can contact me at my former correspondence—brand@wizards.com. Please tell me what kind of articles you would like to read. Do you want strategy tips? Interviews? Weird combos? Funny anecdotes? Tell me what you want to explore in Into the Pit.

Take care, and be good to each other.

Formerly a member of the Magic: The Gathering Brand team, Jake Theis is currently a Developer in Magic R&D. A native of Joliet, Illinois, Jake is a fan of too many games to list here and is the proud poppa of a Boston Terrier named Elwood.

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