War Stories

Posted in Feature on January 31, 2011

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.

The set just came out so it's time for my card-by-card story column. I know I just finished up my Scars of Mirrodin version of this column(Parts 1, 2, and 3.) a few weeks back, but I don't want to get as behind with Mirrodin Besieged as I did with Scars of Mirrodin. As I wasn't the lead designer of this set (I was merely on the design team) and it's a smaller set, I have only one column's worth of stories to tell. Enough with the chitter chatter, on with the stories.

We might as well start with the card that seems to be stirring up lots of conversation. I talked a bunch about this card last week but I have a few more things to say about it. First I'll explain its history and then I'll talk a little bit about the attention the card has been getting. When I originally designed this card, it had two changes from the printed version. First, my submitted design didn't have trample on it. I swapped the trample for the infect. Second, I costed it at 11 figuring that it wasn't strictly better and thus could stay at the same cost.

From the moment the card was turned in, the discussion of whether or not the card should have trample began. My take on it was that the card worked (as the embodiment of Phyrexian corruption of Mirrodin) with or without trample and that the decision was best left up to development. Trample would make the card seem more exciting, but it wasn't necessary if development thought having it would create too high of a power level.

So R&D played with the card. Many playtests later, development came to the conclusion that the card was fair to print with trample. In addition, many felt that Phyrexian corruption is all about making things better (at least in the eyes of the Phyrexians) and that removing the trample would muddy the message. Since the version of the card with trample was almost strictly better than Darksteel Colossus the decision was reached to raise the mana cost from 11 to 12.

I also wanted to take a moment to address two issues that have been raised about Blightsteel Colossus. The first is the worry that the card is too good, that it will ruin formats. I cannot speak to what will happen with Blightsteel Colossus, but I want to stress that this wasn't flying under development's radar. They were very aware of its potential power. Trample was added, as I stated a moment ago, because the belief was that it was okay having trample.

I'm not saying the card might not turn out more overpowered than development believed, but for Magic to thrive it's important that R&D take educated gambles. A great part of the excitement of Constructed Magic is players trying to "break cards." To allow this, R&D has to skirt the edge. If we never printed cards that made people nervous, I believe we wouldn't be doing our jobs. So please, let's give the card a chance to be played first before it's declared public enemy #1.

Second, there has been some discussion on the net about whether or not we should have simply taken Mirrodin block creatures and added infect rather than designed brand new creatures with infect. My reply is that I think it was very important to have some iconic Mirrodin cards corrupted with infect because it really helps to drive home what is happening on the world of Mirrodin. It's one thing for me to say in my column that Phyrexia is turning the Mirrans into Phyrexians. It's another to actually see it in cards, through mechanics. Storywise, the Darksteel Colossus was one of the Mirran's greatest weapons. Seeing it get corrupted hits home what the Mirrans are going through.

As I talked about in one of my columns several years back ("Innovate Is Enough? Or Is It?"), I feel that many players overvalue the role of innovation in design. Yes, it's something we strive to do in every set, but it's only one tool in a designer's toolbox. Blightsteel Colossus's role was to communicate an important story point and create a strong visceral feel. It wasn't designed to be the innovative new thing. One of the most important parts of designing Magic cards is making sure you understand what the role is of the card you're designing. If you try to have every card make everyone happy, you will find you make no one happy.

Lastly, some people seemed upset about my Twitter (@maro254) feed when I said that I was happy with the reaction. How can making so many people unhappy, be a success? The problem with 140 characters is that it's hard to make a complete message. What I was saying is this: Blightsteel Colossus was designed to do several things:

  1. Communicate the Phyrexian corruption of Mirrodin.
  2. Excite the type of player that would like the kind of card it is.
  3. Be a conversation starter about the set.
  4. Create a strong visceral feel.

The card has accomplished each of those tasks extremely well. Note that it was never my goal to make everyone like it. That's never my goal because it's almost impossible to make something that everyone likes. My goal is to try and make every set have something exciting for each player. My hope is that you're excited for Mirrodin Besieged because there is something in it that taps into why you love the game. For a significant amount of you that's Blightsteel Colossus and I'm excited that I could make this card for you. For the rest, I take no joy in your unhappiness. I'm simply just more focused on who the card was designed for. This sentiment is best wrapped up with my favorite tweet on the topic:

For those of you with thoughts on this topic, please join us in the thread to this column.

I designed this card during Scars of Mirrodin design. Any guess why it got cut in development? A combination of wordiness and complexity. While sticking two new mechanics together seems pretty straight-forward when you've been playing with the set as much as design had, development took a step back and realized that this made more sense in the second set after the players had gotten a better sense of both infect and proliferate. I feel they made the right call and that Core Prowler makes much better sense in Mirrodin Besieged than Scars of Mirrodin.

Tom talked about this card two weeks ago but I had a few things to add. The three big questions are why green, and why rare, and why this block? I'd like to answer each.

Why green? I've talked numerous times about the Big Color Pie Shift. While the color pie is always in flux, there was one time in R&D where we sat down and asked ourselves, "is there anything majorly out of place in the Color Pie." The answer was yes in a few areas and we fixed it. One of the big changes was the realization that green was supposed to be the major artifact destruction color. Why? Because the green/blue conflict is all about nature versus artifice.

Green likes things the way they are naturally where blue believes that you need to make the things you need (a.k.a. the nature vs. nurture argument), thus green prefers natural things and blue prefers mad-made things. Artifacts, mostly speaking, are the latter and not the former. As such, I felt strongly that the color pie needed to reflect this. Once artifact hate was centered in green, it caused some shifts such as Disenchant becoming Naturalize.

If green hate is supposed to be centered in artifacts then it seems pretty clear that green should have a Shatterstorm. In that meeting, probably ten years ago, we made a list of cards we should make to fit our changes and green Shatterstorm was on that list. For years whenever the opportunity came up, I'd submit the card but somehow it always fell through the cracks. More on this in a moment.

Why rare? While Magic has done a lot right, not every decision made in the past was always the correct one. Yes, Shatterstorm was uncommon but should it have been? The reason it was, I believe, was that it was heavily influenced by Limited Edition Alpha's Tranquility, which was common. While some mass removal can exist at uncommon, R&D has come to believe that most mass removal makes more sense at rare. It has less of an impact on Limited and, in general, feels like it's something that wants to be rare. (Also remember, that post mythic rare being added, rares aren't as rare as they used to be.)

Why this block? When I first brought up the idea of returning to Mirrodin, I went and talked to the developers. Obviously the first trip to the plane led to one of the most degenerate blocks we've ever made (either #1 or #2 depending on who you ask). What could I do this time to try to not repeat the mistakes of the first trip to Mirrodin. One of the things I was told was that the exclusion of any mass artifact removal in Mirrodin block was a big problem. If artifacts get out of hand, there needs to be some safety valve for the environment.

What was the right set to put it in? According to development, either the second or third set. As Mirrodin Besieged was all about the war and green Shatterstorm seemed like a great Phyrexian weapon to fight against Mirrodin, it was decided that the best home would be Mirrodin Besieged. So in design, I turned over, for the umpteenth time, green Shatterstorm.

And that is why green, why rare and why Mirrodin Besieged.

I believe this is Erik Lauer's favorite name in the set. Why? Because it actually uses the word decimate correctly. By correctly, I mean used the original meaning of the word. While the word decimate has come vernacularly to mean "destroy a lot," it's original precise definition was to destroy exactly one tenth of something. This card does exactly that. 2 life is a tenth of the 20 you begin with. One poison is a tenth of the ten it takes to kill you. And six cards is one tenth of the sixty you start with.

Lots of color pie discussions today. Okay, so why is it okay for this card to hit black creatures? For starters, black can kill nonblack creatures. Besides -N/-N effects and drain life effects, black creature destruction often has other restrictions other than nonblack.

Nonblack has an interesting history so let's travel back to Alpha for a moment and talk about the card Terror that started it all. Terror had nonblack and nonartifact restrictions because it enhanced the flavor of that card. How can you scare things that aren't spooked by scary things or don't even have the emotion of fear? Rather than see the restriction as a piece of flavor on that card though designers seem to take it as a given and the continuation of the nonblack restriction wove its way into creature destruction.

I don't mind the restriction and have no problem with some black kill cards having it, but there's nothing in the philosophy of black that keeps it from killing its own. In fact, the opposite is much more true. Black is more than happy to kill whoever it has to to advance its own agenda. Go For The Throat is just us dipping our toe into a world where the nonblack restriction is not such a tight noose around the creature kill of black.

We often talk about designing for Vorthos (one end of the form/function spectrum) but seldom talk about designing for Melvin (the other end). If you have no idea what I'm talking about, here's a quick synopsis. When you examine how cards are presented there is a spectrum. On one side is flavor (a.k.a. form) and other the other side is function. The Vorthos care much more about the flavor of a card. They like it dripping with the essence of what it is. For them the mechanics are all about upholding the flavor. The other end of the spectrum is much more interested in the functions of the cards. If it does something cool in the game, it doesn't matter what it represents. (For a lot more on Vorthos & Melvin, please see my column "Melvin and Vorthos."

I bring this up because Ichor Wellspring is about as Melvin of a card as they come. What does it represent? Um, it's a well where ichor (Phyrexian oil) comes up from. What does this have to do with the mechanics? Look over there, I see a cool dragon. This card was made because it has weird and fun interactions with other cards in the set. This, by the way, is a Johnny Melvin card, where its true purpose is kind of unknown, leaving you the player to figure out what exactly to do with it.

This kind of card always has crosshairs on it when it's in a file because some R&D members just don't like cards that don't "make any sense." Luckily, there are also some fans of these kinds of cards so we make them even if not in the volume that we make flavorful dragons and the such.

Into the Core does something we don't do often in design, it requires multiple targets. Usually when we make a card that can target two things, we let you target only one if you wish. The idea behind this decision is that players assume they can target just one, so most of the time we meet the expectation. The reason we make cards like Into the Core is that sometimes to let you do something like this as cheaply as we'd like we have to restrict you, which is exactly what is going on here.

As today is color pie Monday, let's talk white removal. This is a big ongoing discussion in R&D. We want white to have decent removal but we also want it to have its own identity and not stomp on black, which philosophically is the creature killing color. The answer that I'm very partial to led to the creation of this card. I really like that white's best removal doesn't actually destroy things. White has the broadest answers in the sense that there is no subset that it's unable to deal with but that its answers have answers. White's preference to lock away problems rather than kill them opens up a weakness that the other colors can exploit. This way white in some ways is the best but in other ways is not. It's flavorful and leads to interesting game play. I'm very curious to see how this card fares in tournaments.

I said many months ago that the block wouldn't have ways to remove poison but there would be cards specifically designed to fight against infect. This is one such card. Note that because it cannot have counters placed on it and all infect damage is dealt in the form of -1/-1 counters that Melira's Keepers effectively cannot be harmed by infect creatures. It's not damaged by them, so it's a bit of a pain in the side for infect to fight against.

All designers have certain pet mechanics that they like which tend to creep into their work. Two of mine are copy effects and token-making, so seeing cards like this make it to print makes me very happy.

While I didn't know what exactly a poison focused environment was going to consist of all these years, I did know one thing. There was going to be an Aura that granted the poison giving ability to a creature. You know this to be true because in Future Sight when I glimpsed ahead at the poison block, I made that card. True, poisonous didn't end up working out but Phyresis (pronounced as "FI-rees-is" for those of you that are interested) is the spiritual brother of Snake Cult Initiation.

Snake Cult Initiation

As I explained when I wrote about Scars of Mirrodin design, when I handed the design over to development, I had a restriction that only Mirrodin block cards were repeated. When development chose to break that it opened up another interesting source for repeats, Phyrexian cards. Phyrexian Rager (which first appeared in Apocalypse) was a perfect choice because it played into a life-paying mini theme we wanted for Phyrexia (like some other subthemes, it has shrunk quite a bit since design).

One of the areas of poison design that I was very interested in was poison as a cost. Development was much less excited. As such, almost all of it is gone from the file, but this card was the one that managed to stick around. Development's biggest gripe was having to track poison when it wasn't ever going to matter, making unnecessary bookkeeping. Phyrexian Vatmother didn't have this problem.

Everyone always assumes I design every "Maro" card (a.k.a. creatures whose power and toughness equal cards in hand) that gets printed. I do not. While I do enjoy the mechanic, it is popular with other designers as well. My best guess on who designed this card is the set's lead developer Erik Lauer.

Most players assume that a card like this was designed to fit a particular need for one or more formats. The funny thing is that it got designed in a far more mundane way. One of the themes of the Mirran side was artifacts with charge counters that had a limited number of uses. (This predated proliferate by the way, proliferate was created to help them not the other way around.) Sphere of the Sun got made because I was just walking through every possible effect that made sense with a charge-counter artifact. Artifacts make mana so it just went on the list. It was only after the card was all designed that I said to myself, "hmm, I just made an artifact version of Gemstone Mine" (a card I had designed back at the beginning of my design career for Tempest – yes, it appeared in Weatherlight, they invoked the "early set gets to steal stuff" power).

Every time design would design a troll, the creative team would tell us that it couldn't be a troll. All the trolls of Mirrodin were gone (it happened in one of the novels, I believe). Only one troll remained. Once we heard that it was only a matter of time before we made the last troll.

Why are the Golems this makes 9/9? Why did I choose that number? Well, the artifact costs 3, cost 3 to activate and requires three counters to make the Golem. Three 3's make 9. I always talk about the importance of aesthetics and this is a prime example. While players don't really sit back to question 9/9 it does feel very natural because it matches the pattern that the rest of the card sets. While on the surface this may seem trivial, I feel strongly that it is critical in design to play into human nature and make things that just "feel right."

This is another card that I designed for Scars of Mirrodin only to see it end up printed in Mirrodin Besieged. The reason is similar to Core Prowler's move. Development thought that this card made more sense in a set where the environment is better understood. This card in a vacuum is confusing because it references something that needs to be found on another card. The idea of putting it in the second set was that when the players see this card for the first time, they'd have a better idea of why it's in the set and what to do with it. While some more advanced players are going to disagree with this sentiment, I'll say what I've said numerous time to the GDS2 candidates. It's very easy to see something complex as not complex when you understand it. The goal of design is not to impress the audience with your design skills but to make a set that's fun for them to play.

One of the rules I set up for infect was that I wanted the majority of it to occur through creatures. A poison environment where you could just sit back and cast spells without any interaction, I felt, would be very bad game play. (The one place that I gave in on this was the card Decimator Web but the high activation makes it much harder to abuse.) I did want to find some ways of dealing poison outside of creature combat though, so I went searching for cards like this. What I really enjoy about this card is that it's a poison granting card that the opponent can interact with whether to Giant Growth their creature or even to kill it first.

And They Lived Happily Ever After

That's all my stories for today. I hope you enjoyed hearing some of the nitty-gritty that went into the design of Mirrodin Besieged.

Join me next week when it's my battle and I'll cry if I want to.

Until then, may you enjoy a slice of the color pie.

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