Some Number of Questions about Knights vs. Dragons

Posted in Feature on March 28, 2011

By Chris Millar

If you want a wise answer, ask a reasonable question.
—Johann Wolfgang Von Goethe (1749-1832), German poet, novelist and dramatist

Duel Decks: Knights vs. Dragons comes out on Friday and, as the designer of the product, I get to talk a bit about it today as I take you on a tour of the sausage factory. With these articles, my methodology is as follows:

  1. Sit down to start writing. Bookend piece with profane (but tentative) title and "Until next time..." sign off.
  2. Take a break to read everything ever published on the Internet.
  3. Finish writing in a desperate panic like I'm defusing a time bomb.

Luckily for me, with his usual unerring foresight, editating superhero Kelly Digges gave me this assignment six months ago so I would have time, for once, to mentally absorb the contents of the Internet before I actually have to write a single word. I hit my deadlines with the grace and precision of a Chuck Hayes free throw. I'll overshoot 'em by three weeks like I'm Spaceball-1 gone to plaid.

I'm like, "Sure, I guess I can write one article a year."

Famous last words. Or, I guess, famous first words in this case. Or just words.

To change things up from the usual routine, I thought I'd spend the column answering some reader questions about Duel Decks: Knights vs. Dragons.

Q: On a scale from 100% totally amazing to over-the-top, state-of-pure-euphoria incredimazing, can you tell us just how amazing is it to get to work on Magic?

A: Good question to start things off, Joe. That's a toughie. Hmm. I might have to get back to you.

Q: The lack of Hunted Dragon is nothing short of a crime. This is an outrage. You really dropped the ball on this one. Did any thought at all go into this?
-Joe (might be a different Joe)

A: Hi, Joe, and thanks for your question. Believe it or not, some thought did go into this product. For example, when asked a similar question on Twitter...

misterorange Still can't believe Knights vs Dragons doesn't have Hunted Dragon in it. What the hell, Wizards? Seriously?

...Knights vs. Dragons developer Zac Hill had this thought:

zdch @misterorange Playtested the hell out of it. It's 'thematic' in a bad way. You read the card, say 'cool', actually play it, want to cry.

I get why you want to see Hunted Dragons in there. As Magic creative director Brady Dommermuth explained early on, "the product is supposed to capitalize on a familiar trope: fire-breathing dragon swoops down from the sky on leathery wings, attacks castle/village, noble knight goes on quest to kill dragon, etc." Hunted Dragon encapsulates that archetypal narrative in a single card. Kind of. In practice, the Knights are more about racing the Dragon than hunting it, but whatevs. It has both words on it, for Krark's sake! Obviously, it would have to be included. And it was.

Until I played with it.

It was completely miserable! If it makes a battle-hardened developer like Zac want to cry, you can just imagine what it did to me. The fact that the card was only ever played competitively as a back-up insta-kill in a noninteractive combo deck should have been my first clue that things would not work out. Much of the time it was a complete and utter blowout—for my opponent.

At best, it was like a watered-down "I win" card—a sort of Hidetsugu's Second Rate. If your opponent was at 6 life or less, and had no flying creatures, and was tapped out so you didn't have to worry about any instant removal spells, Hunted Dragon would win the game on the spot. At worst, which was every other instance, it was like a bad Lava Axe that came with a Final Fortune-esque "At end of turn, you lose the game" rider tacked on. That trio of 2/2 first strikers that you so generously donated could quickly become indestructible 3/3 first strikers or worse. In short, you were taking your life in your hands every time you played it. It was a Dragon in a Dragon deck that you almost never wanted to draw. It's basically a Leathery-Winged Victory Cigar patrolling the skies around Winmore Castle.

I finally cut Hunted Dragon from my design prototype after a game where I was in topdeck mode, slightly (slightly!) behind on the board, and I drew it. Cue the *groan* sound effect. It was like the flop was all face cards and I was stuck holding a deuce. Have you ever tried playing defense with a Hunted Dragon? Every Dragon that made it into the final deck will in one way or another help you get back into the game if you're behind, or put victory out of reach for your opponent if you are ahead. You will like drawing them!

So, yes, Hunted Dragon absolutely does tell a good story. It's just one that doesn't have a happy ending for the Dragon deck.

Q: Before the deck lists were revealed, I made a post in a forum saying that I would quit Magic if Hunted Dragon wasn't in this product. Am I still allowed to play?

A: No, Joe, unfortunately you are not. Are you familiar with the phrase forum dictum meum pactum? It's from the Latin and means, "My post is my bond." I fear that if the integrity of anonymous internet commentary were ever lost, it would be lost forever. And you wouldn't want to be responsible for that, would you?

Q: How is making a Duel Deck different than making a regular Magic deck?
-Joe (no relation)

A: Another good question, Joe. The Duel Decks are essentially two heavily themed, buffed-up Intro Decks. It's the only Magic product that is playable out of the box. For everything else, you need at least one more deck. As a self-contained product, we try to make it as deep and as fun as we can for its price point. We try to build decks that have VERBs (as the handy mnemonic goes).

Variety! Unlike most Constructed decks, the decks are intentionally built to contain only one or two copies of a card. On a rare occasion, we'll use three copies (See: Terramorphic Expanse in Phyrexia vs. The Coalition). Four is right out. I have heard decks built this way described as "watered down" and "inconsistent," but as Oscar Wilde said, "Consistency is a crutch for the uninspired." One of the reasons the Commander format has really taken off is because there is a hunger for uncertainty in games. You don't know from game to game who will win or which cards will matter most.

Excitement! Obviously we want you to be able to make cool plays with cool cards. This is one way to generate excitement. Another is to ensure that there is so-called back-and-forth game play, that either deck has a chance to win any game. If one deck will always win the long game, then the games will be decided before they're actually over, which will quickly become dull. As well, there is a conscious inclusion of "swingy" cards, or cards with fluctuating value depending on the circumstances or the other cards you are able to pair it with. Stormfront Riders from Elspeth vs. Tezzeret is a good example. Claws of Valakut is an example from the Dragon deck.

Replayability! As an example of a way that we can enhance the replayability of the decks, look at the inclusion of something as simple as Mighty Leap in the Knight deck. In one game, it might allow you to ambush a Dragon. In another, it might allow you to steal victory by sneaking in an extra 2 points of damage. In a third game, it might save your Silver Knight from Ghostfire. In a regular Constructed deck, you'd probably just choose which of these functions is the most important (probably the first) and play the numbers. Mighty Leap could easily be another Reprisal, but we don't want to fill the deck with too many cards that perform a single function. Temporary Insanity is another example of a multi-purpose card whose value will fluctuate from game to game. (Pro Tip: You can use it to steal a guy to block Silver Knight.)

Balance! This is Development's area of expertise and involves more than simply playing a bunch of test games and making sure the match-up is 50-50. There need to be moves and countermoves and counter-countermoves. In early testing of Phyrexia vs. The Coalition, for example, the decks just exchanged blowouts, which was "balanced" but not very fun.

For more about this, I suggest you read Developer Zac Hill's article about the making of Duel Decks: Elspeth vs. Tezzeret.

Q: Can you describe the process a bit?

A: Yes.

Q: Would you?
-Same Joe as above

A: Sure thing, Joe. Magic Developer Mike Turian contacts me via pigeon courier at my mountain hideaway, asks me if I would like to work on another set of Duel Decks, and passes. I read his message, grin delightedly, dig out my bellows and wool blanket to send smoke signals for Y, E, and S, and pass it back. He says it's going to be Knights vs. Dragons and can I prep some demos, and passes. I sleep on it, then brainstorm and propose a handful of ideas, and pass. We make a bunch of decisions and he passes it to Zac Hill. I put a deck together, write up some notes, and pass. Zac takes the decks, playtests the heck out of them, makes changes as necessary, and passes back to me. I give my input, and pass. This happens a few times before we get to the final iteration, which we pass to the people who make the card list into a physical object you can buy in stores.


Q: How did you pick the packaging mythic rares?
-Name Withheld (probably Joe)

A: With the Planeswalker vs. Planeswalker Duel Decks, this decision happens simultaneously with the selection of the theme. Garruk vs. Liliana was always going to feature Garruk Wildspeaker and Liliana Vess. Since all of the planeswalkers are mythic rares, you'll never have to "promote" one to that status. Obviously that is somewhat awkward.

Oh, and due to the production timeline, with art to be commissioned and packaging to be designed and so forth, this is basically the second decision you have to make (after choosing the theme).

We toyed with other options, certainly. At one point I proposed Rafiq of the Many and Bladewing the Risen as the packaging foils because they both feel like "lords" of their particular tribe, they are both legendary, and it's aesthetically pleasing to have all five colors represented. Ultimately, we were never comfortable committing to Bant vs. Rakdos or Bant vs. Jund when, thematically, the product was leaning towards mono-red vs. mono-white.

In the end, we promoted Knight of the Reliquary because it's a cool card, it provides interesting game play and deck building options, and it's also very powerful and sees play in a number of competitive Constructed formats. Adding green opens up the door to some other cool Knight cards (if my days writing House of Cards are any indication, Juniper Order Ranger is popular with certain casuals) and gave us access to more flyer-hate options like Spidersilk Armor. So while Knight of the Reliquary is not a "true" mythic rare, it's not Ethersworn Adjudicator either.

Q: What does a Dragon deck feel like, and how do you make it feel that way with only six rares?

A: My first build of the Dragon deck was actually black-red and had a sacrifice and reanimation theme, with a creature base made up of Goblins, Changelings, and Dragons. I wanted to differentiate this deck from the Archenemy Dragon deck, but I ended up making something fairly similar to the Archenemy reanimator deck. Did it feel like a deck? Absolutely. Did it feel like a Dragon deck? Not particularly.

At this point, Brady said, "it's very important to me that dragons are seen first and foremost as an embodiment of red mana." One cost of making a multicolor Dragon deck, as cool as that can be, is that you weaken the very thing that Dragons are best known for: breathing fire. I quickly built a mono-red version and modeled it after the Divine vs. Demonic decks, right down to the Diamonds and the 6CCC nine-drop (in this case, Fire Dragon). In the end, Fire Dragon was cut for its general uncastability when facing the Knight deck's pressure, but the Mountains-matter subtheme that it inspired remains present.

Now the Dragons in the deck breathe fire in one way or another, either by belching up Goblins (Voracious Dragon), spitting little fireballs (Shivan Hellkite), or in the usual way like Mordant Dragon. Kilnmouth Dragon, meanwhile, breathes fire in a way that is, um, I don't know, maybe not from this particular terrestrial realm.

Q: How do you design these things?

A: Cutting right to the chase, eh? Designing Duel Decks is almost by definition what Mark Rosewater has called "top-down" design in his articles for both of the site's "Top-Down" Weeks (here and here). By his definition:

[S]ometimes in design, flavor comes first. We call this top-down design as you start with what you want the card to represent and use that as the inspiration for the design.

Replace "card" with "deck," and it's not much of a stretch to apply the nine-stage methodology he outlines to the creation of Duel Decks.

You start with what you want the deck to represent (Dragons, Elspeth, Phyrexia, etc.), and then through research (essentially infinite Gatherer searches) you get a sense of the kinds of approaches you can take. From there, you can build some early prototypes to see how they look and imagine how they might play. You might have some specific themes in mind, or some specific cards. Over time, you'll weed some ideas out, consolidate them, or refine them until you are down to one.

Until next time, good hunting (Dragons)!


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