That's Going To Leave Scars, Part 1

Posted in Feature on November 22, 2010

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.

Traditionally the first non-theme week after previews, I write my "cards" article where I go through the latest set and tell a whole bunch of little stories about individual cards. Due to the Great Designer Search 2, I haven't had the chance to write this article yet for Scars of Mirrodin. Today I will right that wrong (or is that write that wrong?).

I am often asked if we design cards for the EDH format (a.k.a. Commander on Magic Online). The answer is yes. Argentum Armor, if my memory serves me, was designed by Ken specifically to put into his Godo, Bandit Warlord deck.

Once it was clear that we were returning to Mirrodin (once again a story I'll have to tell you after this block is over), I asked my team to come up with reprints from Mirrodin block we could put in the set. I had decided early that I was going to restrict the reprints to Mirrodin block and I was eager to see what the team thought were the iconic cards of Mirrodin. I kept this goal all through design and almost made it through development—Rise of the Eldrazi would be this goal's downfall, but I'll explain that when I get to the card that broke the theme.

Anyway, Arrest was one of the three reprints that started in that first set and made it all the way to print. The reason I wanted Arrest over another Pacifism variant is that artifact blocks tend to have more activations than the average block, and I wanted to make sure there were answers to them. This is the same reasoning for why I put Arrest into Mirrodin in the first place.

One of the things we tried to do in design was make sure that there were reasons why you'd play various colors with infect. Red's theme, which got watered down a little in development, was that it did more to boost power than normal. Assault Strobe was put into red common as part of this task.

There was a lot of grumbling when we changed fear to intimidate. The argument was that the two were so close, why bother. The answer was that fear made no sense out of black but intimidate made sense flavor-wise in all five colors. Intimidate is still primary in black, but we have been playing around a bit to figure out who wants to get it secondarily. My current front-runner is red, but this card did make a good argument for why we might want to use it in green from time to time.

If you follow things like Aaron's Card of the Day, you might already know this—but as many of you might be unaware, let me talk a little bit about haste. During Future Sight, I partook in a project that design had been wanting for years. I took all the evergreen creature keywords and figured out where I could stretch them to additional colors. (You can read all about it here.) The idea behind this was that restricting keywords we used every set to one color was crimping necessary design space, so I set out to find ways to expand wherever it made sense.

One of the big issues was what to do with haste. Obviously, it was primary in red but who got in secondarily? The two candidates were black and green. (Both of these colors have historically dabbled with it.) In the end, I chose black because it was where design needed it most. Black was much more starved for keywords than green. Also, to support things like hybrid I had to have overlaps in all the color combinations (especially ally colors) and trample was already overlapping red and green. In addition, giving green haste didn't create as many new combinations of creatures. Green wanted to do the same basic things red wanted at common and thus it didn't create as much new design space.

The problem was that development very much wanted haste in green. The compromise was to let green have haste tertiary, meaning that it could go on whatever rare, or mythic rare, needed haste for Constructed. How does this all get back to Blackcleave Goblin? Because this is exactly the kind of card that black really wanted haste for. (Green could have similar surprise with flash if we felt we wanted another of this kind of card in green.)

This card also came up because of one of the questions of the Great Designer Search 2 multiple-choice test. It is an example of what I call a "double scoop of french vanilla" (that is it has two different keyword abilities and nothing else) at common. As I explained, this is something we do infrequently but is necessary when we introduce a keyword like infect that has to show up on so many common cards. We do some vanilla creatures with infect, but the sheer number forces us to put infect on a few french vanilla cards as well.

One of the things that design and development is conscious of is that there needs to be cards in each color that go into different draft decks. Part of the way to keep draft fresh is to make sure that each color has several different options built into it. Bleak Coven Vampires, for example, needs to go into a metalcraft deck, which requires a lot of artifacts. The infect deck doesn't want this card—not only because it doesn't tend to play enough artifacts, but also because the drain effect is mostly meaningless to the deck.

One of the things design was conscious of when designing infect was that we wanted to make sure there were some infect cards you could play even if your deck wasn't dedicated to an infect strategy. Blight Mamba was one of the cards designed specifically with this goal in mind.

I am often asked about how we know when to use Future Sight "pre-prints" (a.k.a. Future Sight cards timeshifted "from the future"). While I love that people believe we had the foresight to know what cards were going to be in a set five years later, the truth is that the pre-prints were designed in areas that we knew we wanted to explore. We didn't definitively know where they went but we knew it was something we were interested in exploring in the future.

What this means is that whenever we work on a design, we look back at Future Sight and see if any of the areas we hinted at are something we might want for the current design. Red had a bit of a power matters theme (it was bigger in design than it ended up in print) and Bloodshot Trainee felt like a perfect fit.

The interesting thing is that when we did Future Sight, there were two different things that we felt we might do if we ever returned to Mirrodin. One was the poisonous mechanic.

Snake Cult Initiation
Virulent Sliver

As I talked about during the first week of previews, we started Scars design assuming that poisonous was going to be our poison mechanic. Second was the card Sarcomite Myr. We knew that one day we were going to do colored artifacts and the return to Mirrodin was one place we might explore that. In the end, Esper beat us to the punch and the mechanic was explored in Shards of Alara block.

The 1/1 green tokens in the set were snakes all through design. I really liked the idea of a creature associated with poison having infect but snakes were just not meant to be. Well at least snake tokens, as Blight Mamba will attest.

One of the running jokes in the Pit is that I never know the names of cards because all the time I play with them they have a different name. Usually when someone talks about a card, I'll say, "What card is that?" To which the R&D member will just tell me the playtest name. So when I ask what Clone Shell is, they always remind me it's the card I know as Meat Puppet.

Meat Puppet was one of the first imprint cards I designed for Scars. It was heavily influenced by a card Aaron Forsythe designed for Fifth DawnSummoner's Egg. With that card Aaron played around with the idea of imprinted cards being face down so your opponents didn't know what it was. I liked this idea and made a tweak of it to create Meat Puppet.

Maybe one day I'll refer to the card as Clone Shell, but it's also quite possible that the card will be Meat Puppet to me for the rest of time. Regardless of what you call it, it's one of my favorite imprint cards in the set.

The belief is that design makes crazy broken cards and that development depowers them and makes them printable. While that does happen, something that also happens that isn't talked much about is the mild design card that gets pumped up by development and turned into a Constructed juggernaut. (Okay, I'm not sure if this counts as a Constructed juggernaut but it's way better than what I turned in.)

The original Contagion Clasp had the same "enter the battlefield" trigger but instead of a repeatable tap effect to proliferate, it required you to sacrifice the card. Yes, the first proliferate was much cheaper but there was no second or third ones. It is important to remember that the design file had a lot more cards with proliferate in it. Development decided that they liked the mechanic but dropped the number of cards it appeared on to make sure craziness didn't happen in Constructed.

A side effect of this was that they pumped up the power of the six that stayed as well as made all but one of them create repeatable proliferate effects.

Contagion Clasp's transformation also had a big effect on Contagion Engine. Why? Because originally Contagion Engine was the one with the ", :" activation. Once Contagion Clasp was improved there was talk of getting rid of Contagion Engine. That is when I suggested, "What if we just let it proliferate twice?" Contagion Engine was supposed to be a bigger Contagion Clasp and doubling the amount of proliferate kept that relationship between them. The change was made and we never looked back.

Some cards stay the same from creation to print and some cards go through some changes. Corpse Cur is an example of the latter. The card started as this:

Creature – Zombie
When CARDNAME goes to the graveyard from the battlefield, you may return target creature card in your graveyard to your hand.

I wanted to have a tweak on Gravedigger so I tried moving the effect from an "enters the battlefield" trigger to what R&D refers to as a "death trigger." This was one of the things that identified a card as Phyrexian so it allowed me to get the effect I wanted and also get another black Phyrexian card. I loved the card, it played great.

During development, the card got what we call "cut by numbers" which means that a number of different decisions about other cards in the set inched the card out of the file. No one was gunning for the card, it just seemed less important than other cards that black needed.

When I noticed it was gone, I went to Mike Turian, the lead developer of Scars of Mirrodin, and said that I thought the set really wanted a Raise Dead effect. Mike said that black was all full but there was space in artifact. So Gravefiller turned into an artifact creature. Because there were no Phyrexian slots left (remember that the Phyrexians only got to be 20% of the set), Mike changed the trigger from a death trigger back to an ETB (enter the battlefield) trigger.

Playtesting showed that the card was stronger than they wanted for an artifact so the card was tweaked again, this time restricting the regrowth to only creatures with infect. This way the card was very good for one particular deck but not so powerful for all the others. This would allow the infect player to get it in draft without causing other problems.

While I understand why Corpse Cur had to go through the changes it did, I'll always have a soft spot in my heart for Gravefiller. (One of the designers for the Great Designer Search 2 actually designed this card for the first design challenge.)

It's time to play Name That Influence. Culling Dais was me taking two cards I liked from the past and smooshing them together to make it fit in Scars of Mirrodin. The first card is a land from The Dark and the second is an artifact from Mirage. Can you name the two cards?

Once you have a guess, click here.

City of Shadows
Phyrexian Vault

How did this mash-up of cards happen? Well, it all started when I put Phyrexian Vault in the file. (This was before my dictum to only use repeats from Mirrodin block.) I was trying to find Phyrexian repeats and I stumbled across one of my all-time favorite cards, Phyrexian Vault. The set was all about artifact and the Phyrexians. It even had a sacrificing creature theme (which mostly got weeded out; I'll get to it). In it went.

A few weeks later it was brought to my attention that Zendikar had a card very similar to Phyrexian Vault called Carnage Altar.

Carnage Altar

It was too close, so I knew I had to tweak the card. I still wanted to sacrifice creatures, so I wracked my brain for cards from the past that sacrificed creatures as a cost. The card that came to mind was City of Shadows, a pet favorite of mine from The Dark because it was a great puzzle card. For those that might not know this, I got my foot in the door at Wizards by creating a puzzle column called "Magic: the Puzzling" Certain cards (usually Johnny cards, interestingly) were very good for puzzles because they gave the puzzler so many interesting choices. Also, my puzzle solutions always needed a lot of mana so a card like City of Shadows was handy.

Anyway, I always liked the idea of sacrificing creatures to build up some effect. I combined that idea with charge counters which was a big part of Scars design and voila I got a very interesting card.

This card started as Bonesplitter. We were looking for repeats from Mirrodin block and what better equipment to be an iconic repeat than Bonesplitter? There was only one problem. It turns out in the first set that we made equipment, we didn't quite get the power level right. Bonesplitter was a little too good to reprint.

I liked the homage so I wanted to find a way to tweak and keep the card. The answer was an awesome one. We just gave the card indestructible. On the surface it seems more powerful. Now this mighty axe couldn't be destroyed. Behind the scenes though, it let us mess with the numbers to pull down the power level enough that we could print it. (Note: the card is still pretty damn good, it's just not broken any more.)

The earliest version of this card was common and cost . And then the card went to development.

One of the things that happens multiple times in development is that the design lead looks at the set and makes comments about all the changes. I was happy with most of Mike's changes, but there were a few things that got cut that I felt were important. In the design file, I had included an artifact creature with flash because I wanted the ability for metalcraft decks to occasionally surprise the opponent. Mike had cut the one we had submitted for numbers.

When I complained Mike looked through the file and he chose this card as the best recipient to get flash added. I wasn't picky about which artifact creature got it and thus Darksteel Sentinel got a little better.

Earlier I talked about my quest to keep all the repeats from Mirrodin block. Development tried to keep my wish but things didn't quite go as planned. The card in the design file was Regress from Mirrodin.

It was a nice simple bounce spell. Unfortunately, it was a little too nice. The Rise of the Eldrazi development team was looking for a simple blue bounce spell and Regress worked perfectly for what they needed. One of the rules in R&D is that the earlier set can steal what it needs from later sets. The idea behind this is that later sets will have more time to find a replacement.


The problem was that the Scars needed a nice simple blue bounce spell and the only one that Mirrodin block had to offer just got taken. So they ended up taking a card from Morningtide. Mike apologized to me and said that while they tried to keep my wishes, logistics just got in the way.

Before I get letters that Bloodshot Trainee was not from Mirrodin block, I'll counter that as far as I'm concerned it was from Scars of Mirrodin block. Preprints get some latitude because the very concept of them is a little off the beaten path.

The playtest name for this card was A Little Mercy. For those that don't get the joke, this card is a tweak of the card No Mercy from Urza's Legacy. Because bouncing a creature is a little nicer than killing it, I gave it the playtest name above.

In the next installment, I'm going to talk a little more about some of the themes that design wove into the set that got lessened during development. One of these themes was a sacrifice theme. Black sacrificed creatures while red sacrificed artifacts. Both themes are still in the set but at a much lower level than they existed in design. This matters as it keeps the themes from being something one can consistently draft around.

In design, this card was very valuable because there were a series of artifact creatures that had a bonus death trigger if they were sacrificed. This card made sure that those sacrifices happened. More on this in two weeks.

"That's All Folks"

I'm only up to D but I've hit my word count for today. Join me in two weeks when I get to Part 2 (and at this rate, I'm guessing a Part 3 is going to show up two weeks after that).

Join me next week when I talk about all the news that's fit to imprint.

Until then, may your cards have equally interesting stories.

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