Shard Tricks

Posted in Feature on September 22, 2008

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 Shards of Alara Previews, Week 3. During the last two weeks, I've spent a lot of time talking about what the other designers were doing during Shards design. Today it's time to talk about what I was up to. Don't worry before I'm through I'll show off a preview card, but today's card is going to wait until I set it up correctly. That said, let's get going. I have a lot to talk about.

Feeling Blue

As I explained two weeks ago, the crux of Shards design happened when Bill broke the design into five three-man mini design teams each assigned to a different shard. Bill informed me that I was going to be the one designer put on three teams (most designers were on two teams—one of the side effects of being Head Designer), one of which I would lead. Did I have any preference to which shard design I would oversee? After looking over the five worlds that had been spelled out by the creative team, I picked Esper (the blue centered world), as it seemed like the shard that was going to be the most difficult to design.

Quick aside on me. Throughout my life I noticed a trend to take on whatever challenge I thought was the most difficult. All a teacher had to do to get me to pick a category for a paper was to say that they advised the class against taking it. In college I started an improvisation troupe because I loved the idea of getting up on stage and just making things up based on audience suggestions. Many people would find such a thing nerve-wracking; I found it exhilarating. So when it came time to pick a shard design team I leaned towards taking what I felt was the hardest task.

Which, of course, leads to the question: what made Esper so hard? Let me begin by quoting A Planeswalker's Guide to Alara by Doug Beyer and Jenna Helland:

The Plane of Esper

Esper is a world where purpose and control have triumphed over savagery and chaos. Bereft of red and green mana, this plane's natural forces pale next to the supernatural power of its human and vedalken mages. Under the foresight of Esper's ruling sphinxes, the plane has transformed from wilderness to a tightly-controlled magocracy, with all forms of life perfected through the æther-infused metal known as etherium. Travelers to Esper should expect a spectacle of sophisticated beauty, where not only the plane but also its denizens have been meticulously designed according to a grand plan.

Each shard was about its central color pushing to the extreme. Esper was the blue shard. Blue is all about control. Thus, in a blue-centered shard, the mages have figured out how to control everything, be it the weather, the terrain, or even the inhabitants. Here's where it gets tricky. The job of the design team was to find themes and/or mechanics that played into the core of the shard. These themes / mechanics had to be simple enough that they could be woven into the commons, because in Magic design, it is the commons that define what a set (and in this case shard) is about. We had to convey "control" in a means simple enough for common cards.

Certain concepts are much easier to fold into card designs. For instance, Grixis (the black-centered shard) is very focused on death. There are a number of ways to show off death: creature destruction, Raise Dead effects, cards that care about the graveyard, creatures with "go to graveyard" triggers, etc. These are all things that can be used in common. Now lets examine "control." There's stealing permanents, but that's not used at common. There's Sleight of Mind / Magical Hack effects, where a spell alters the text of another card, but that's also not common. Maybe you could count counterspells, but it's not something you can do too much of at common, and only in blue. The idea of control is a tricky one.

Plus, as I hint at above, we had the problem that we needed to reflect this not only in blue but also in the other two colors of the shard: black and white. You think it's hard finding "control" themes in blue? Try in white or black—and remember, we're talking about common white and black to get across the message. This is why I knew when I first surveyed the five shards that Esper was the trouble-maker.

On Your Marks

Luckily, I was not alone. When Bill asked if I wanted anyone in particular to work with on my team, I asked for Mark Gottlieb. He and I had worked on numerous design teams (the most recent of which had been Shadowmoor) and I knew he would be valuable in solving this difficult puzzle. While we are bitter adversaries in our roles of Head Designer and Rules Manager, when Mark has his design hat on, we get along wonderfully. Mark is a strong designer, and I am always excited to see what new things he's going to do.

Mark Globus was put on the team by Bill. I knew Mark through his work on The Great Designer Search but I had yet to work with him. I just realized that I'm referring to each of them as Mark and being that I'm talking about an all-Mark design team (a hint of what the future holds in Magic design), I am going to start referring to them as Gottlieb and Globus (yes, R&D has two Mark Gs). Anyway, while we had a staggering task in front of us, I felt comforted that we had a strong team to face it.

When we sat down at the first meeting, I explained the task ahead of us. We had to find the essence of Esper and then find a way to put it on a whole bunch of common blue, white and black cards. I explained that I had racked my brain looking for things that said "control" and had come up pretty blank. So I suggested that we attack the problem from a different vantage point. I talked about what aspect of Esper most interested me. I loved the idea that the people of Esper had embraced the "nurture" (as opposite of "nature") part of blue, the idea that anything can be improved with meddling. The people of Esper had gone so far that they started attacking the biggest problem remaining, the limitations of their own bodies.


The idea of etherium was interweaved throughout the Esper concepting. This sense of constant improvement and meticulous control felt to me like the crux of what made Esper cool. This confession led to the following discussion:

Gottlieb: So all of the inhabitants have changed themselves over time.
Me: Yes. They've upgraded.
Gottlieb: And each one has the etherium metal ingrained in them?
Me: I believe they do.
Gottlieb: All of them? Every inhabitant?
Me: Yeah.
Gottlieb: Okay, here's a wild idea. What if every creature living on Esper is an artifact creature?
Me: That's awesome!
Globus: I like it.
Gottlieb: Any chance they'd ever let us do it?
Me: It's a little crazy, but what is anyone supposed to expect with this many Marks. Let's do it!

We spent the rest of the meeting talking about the idea. The beauty of it was that it allowed us to both make lots of relevant common cards and have a strong recognizable theme. It also allowed us to make cards that cared specifically about our shard. Finally, it set up a good evolution for later in the block. See, in Shards of Alara we are just meeting the shards in isolation. Suffice to say that the isolation doesn't last the entire block. (Look up the meaning of the word "conflux".) And when red and green come crashing into Esper, there is a little surprise for them. Why did Esper turn their creatures all into artifact creatures? Because artifacts are the most impervious things there are. They can't be destroyed. There aren't spells that destroy artifacts. Well, maybe not in blue, black and white (and yes, I know outside Esper there are a few white cards that can) but definitely in red and green.

I was a little nervous about the meeting with the design leads. (We met frequently to update each other on what we were up to.) Our idea was a bit out there and required a lot more dedication card-number-wise than I felt any one else was committing to. All our creatures and some of our spells would be shard-related. The idea excited me, but I knew it might seem too daunting to everyone else. I was thus very surprised how enthusiastic everyone else was when I pitched it. Bill's comment was, "Okay, do it."

We had the green light. Now came making it work.

Artifact or Fiction

What went unstated in my story above was that Gottlieb's idea included the concept of colored artifacts. It is an area we have already spent some time thinking about, so much so that we included a "timeshifted" colored artifact from the future in Future Sight.

Sarcomite Myr

By the way, Sarcomite Myr was in Shards of Alara during design but was cut during development as its creative didn't connect up with Alara.

The idea behind colored artifacts was to bring artifact status to normal colored cards. These cards function like any colored card with the sole exception that they are affected by things that care about artifacts. The idea behind Esper was that we were going to ingrain artifacts into the set in a way never done before. Here's how:

#1 – All Artifact Creatures – This was our jumping off point. The idea we ran with was that the citizens of Esper have evolved themselves so far that they now qualify as machines. (You know, kind of like Steve Austin of Six Million Dollar Man fame—quick trivia, did you know the original name for the show was Cyborg, as it was based on a novel by Martin Caidin called Cyborg.) The important point for us was that every creature in Esper bar none was an artifact. This both allowed us lots of relevant artifacts to then make other cards care about and, more importantly, gave the shard a strong feel.

Tower Gargoyle

...Which brings me to yet another quick aside. Some people on the boards have commented that Esper has no keyword of its own. My response is that each shard needed definition. One way to do that was to give it a mechanic, but that is only one way. Once we stumbled upon the artifact theme, we didn't feel we needed to have yet another thing to define it. Every creature and numerous other cards from Esper have funky colored-artifact frames. The theme shows up on almost three-fourths of the cards in the shard. Trust me, when you draft or play Constructed, you will feel the flavor and feel of the shard. Adding in a keyword just to have a keyword felt very extraneous and unnecessary. And yes, we did try. My goofy favorite: "Metallic (This creature is an artifact creature.)" We looked at numerous keywords, but most of them felt like we were layering something on top of an environment that already felt defined. Just remember that definition does not exist solely from keywords.

#2 – Traditional Artifacts as Colored Cards – These cards were pretty simple. Esper has artifacts, but nearly all of them are colored. We made some of these artifacts that look and feel like traditional artifacts, with the sole tweak being that they're colored. We did take advantage of being in-color to allow us to do something either more concentrated in the color than we might traditionally do in artifacts or to make the cost lower, as colored mana gets access to things cheaper than generic mana does.

Mindlock Orb

#3 – Artifact "Spells" – The idea behind these cards was that we took what would normally be instants and sorceries and turned them into artifacts. These came about because we were trying to find ways to stick more artifacts in the set, and we had already maxed out the creatures and had turned about as many enchantments as we could into artifacts. That left spells. (Okay, I guess lands were left too, but we got burned pretty bad the last time we let lands and artifacts mix.) The thing I like about these cards is that they have good spell utility, but their interaction with the "artifact matters" cards make you use them in ways you normally would not.

Courier's Capsule

In short, we found a way to take every card type (except land) and turn it into an artifact.

Leveling Up

While we studied our shard, I started thinking about how the shards were going to interact. If each shard were too insular, it would have a negative impact on drafting. But if each shard were too broad, the shards wouldn't have enough flavor. The key seemed to be finding a balance between the two extremes. This led me to create the following scale. And yes, I have a tendency to break down design structure for each set I'm working on. This is how I end up with things like Core / Mantle / Crust or Linear / Modular or Timmy / Johnny / Spike.

This scale talks about how interconnected each card was with its own shard and with other shards:

Ad Nauseum

Level 0 – These are cards that appear in a shard (and remember unlike the unaligned cards of Ravnica block, every card must fit into one of the five worlds) but have no direct connection to the shard. In Esper, for example, there are cards that are spells just doing run-of-the-mill blue things that are part of Esper because of their creative. These cards do nothing (other than adding some flavor) to the mechanical feel of the shard. These cards are by definition unconnected to the set's theme, so we don't preview a lot of them, but you can see an example from another shard in Ad Nauseam, which is a Grixis card by its creative but doesn't connect with that shard at all.

Executioner's Capsule

Level 1 – These are cards that are relevant to the shard but are in no way about the shard. The best example in Esper are creatures that have no relevance to artifacts but just happen to be artifacts. Level 1 cards can be played by anyone but have extra relevance to the player in the shard. For example, Esper is filled with cards that care about artifacts. To an Esper mage, a creature having the quality of being an artifact creature is relevant and thus makes them value these cards higher. The most important thing, though, is that while these cards have some value to the shard they are completely usable by players in other shards. In addition, a few early level 1 picks can start leading a drafter to care about that shard. For example, once you draft three artifact creatures, the cards that care about artifacts become more attractive. Executioner's Capsule is a noncreature example. This card is completely usable in any deck with access to black mana, but has added value in an Esper deck.

Windwright Mage

Level 2 – These are cards that require relevant cards in your shard's theme but don't require a heavy commitment. Usually these cards only interact with one other relevant card. For example, Windright Mage needs an artifact in your graveyard to be optimized. It doesn't need a lot of artifacts, just one, so it allows a deck with just a handful of artifacts to still run it. Yes, the player has to somewhat care abut the shard, but the level is low enough that the shard could just be a minor theme.

Master of Etherium

Level 3 – These cards heavily commit to the theme, so much so that they aren't of interest to anyone but someone in the shard. These cards are designed such that they are able to get into the right hands. For instance, Master of Etherium is very valuable to an Esper Mage and practically worthless to anyone else. This means that an Esper drafter has a chance of picking up this very valuable card (to them) much later than they could a less specific card of this caliber.

With the idea of these levels in mind, the next question was in what number and in what rarity should they appear. We decided that in common, every color of the shard would have level 0, 1, and 2 cards. Remember, because each color has ties to three different shards, we knew we needed a way to divvy them up. In the end we leaned towards a 50/25/25 system. That is, half of each color was allocated to the shard centered in its color, and a fourth of each color was allocated for each of the two shards it existed in as an ally color to the central color. Because space was tight in the ally shards, we kept the level 1s to a few cards and the level 2s to one card. Level 3, it was decided, would exist only once per color at common centered in the shard's base color.

What this meant for Esper was that we got one level 3 blue common. And wouldn't you know it, that's today's preview card. The thought behind the design of this card was to create something that no other shard would want but that the Esper player would be excited to get. We didn't want a lot of level 3s at common as they are very inflexible and belong in only one deck, but we thought having one was important.

So without further ado, see Esper's common level 3.

Etherium Sculptor

For those of you having post traumatic stress affinity flashbacks, let me assure you that this is the one and only card in Shards of Alara that lowers the mana cost of artifacts. I picked Etherium Sculptor to preview because I've played my share of Esper decks, and it always makes me smile when I get it in my opening draw.

That's all I have for today. Hopefully you enjoyed this romp through Esper's design. Join me next week for a number of stories about various Shards of Alara cards.

Until then, may you know the joy of drafting Esper.

Don't miss your first chance to play with Shards of Alara cards at the worldwide Prereleases this weekend (September 27 and 28)! And get your first opportunity to buy Shards of Alara at worldwide Launch Parties October 3, 4, and 5!

Latest Feature Articles


May 18, 2022

Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate Mechanics by, Jess Dunks

The beloved adventure of Dungeons & Dragons returns to Magic once more in Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate. This set visits one of D&D's most iconic settings, introduce...

Learn More


May 17, 2022

Collecting Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate by, Max McCall

Editor's Note: We wanted to provide a clarification that the card Faceless One does not come in the foil-etched or traditional foil treatments. Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gat...

Learn More



Feature Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All