Gnarls Barkley

Posted in NEWS on September 14, 2007

By Devin Low

Hello! Today I'd like to introduce the Lorwyn development team, then introduce my first Lorwyn preview card. It's the powerful three-color gold legend we nicknamed Gnarls Barkley. I'll talk about the card design that had to die so that Gnarls could live. I'll show you Gnarls himself. Then I'll talk about some of his ups and downs in development before he reached his final form.

A Tribe of Developers

Gnarls Barkley isn't the actual name of the card, but I'm 90% sure these are the actual names of the Lorwyn development team. Whenever I introduce a team, I'll mention the lead first, then go alphabetically by last name.

Devin LowDevin Low (lead developer) – Up until Lorwyn, I had been a balanced multiclass Wizard (Designer) / Cleric (Developer), having done 5 teams of each. When I led Lorwyn development, my developer half pulled ahead to 6 teams.


Doug BeyerDoug BeyerMagic Development teams often include an envoy from the creative team to help the development side and the creative side of the department communicate, especially on big sets. This helps the development team dramatically. When we try to change a creature's subtype from Kithkin to Merfolk in a meeting, the creative liaison knows when to halt the change because the art is already commissioned as a Merfolk. The liaison can explain the flavor of a planeswalker so we know whether a proposed ability change fits. And when we're selecting which hole submission to use for a story character from the novels, the liaison can give that character's detailed back story. Doug Beyer, new author of the Taste the Magic column on this site, was an excellent creative envoy, and he went beyond that by also being a high-quality developer. Doug has been head-over-heels into Magic for many years, as you can tell from his series of articles (available in his archive) about the most fun cards that each set adds to the 5-color 250-card Magic Online "Prismatic" format. Doug also provided a great non-Spike viewpoint to the team.

Matt PlaceMatt Place – Matt is one of the core Magic developers, and he brought the Rakdos, Simic, and Azorius to life by leading the development team for Dissension. Before joining Magic R&D four years ago, Matt played many Pro Tours, made Top 8 multiple times, and won the entire Pro Tour playing Tempest draft at PT–Mainz in 1997. Matt is especially valuable on a development team because he questions assumptions that others take for granted, often convincing the rest of us that we should reconsider what we thought was locked in and do things a better way. He specializes in multicolor control decks. He was a tireless champion for Elves in Lorwyn, making sure that we stayed true to the spirit of Elves from Onslaught and earlier that so many players have enjoyed so much, while also adding new twists.

Bill RoseBill Rose – Before his current job as a vice-president of Wizards and head of R&D, Bill Rose was lead designer of the fan favorite set Invasion, as well as a designer and/or developer on many other Magic sets. Bill has a million demands on his time, and wasn't able to come to very many meetings, so his strategy for Lorwyn development was to keep asking people in the department "Is Lorwyn fun?" If someone said "It's just okay," he'd come and ask a lot of questions. When people said "It's fun!" he'd fade back and let things proceed without him. Fortunately, as Lorwyn development went forward, everyone said "It's fun!" so Bill was content to let us run the show.

Henry SternHenry Stern – Henry is a veteran Magic developer who was leading the development for sets like Torment while the rest of us were still in the outside world playing them. Wizards hired him after his success in Magic's earliest World Championships. Henry has an uncanny knack for identifying early in a development cycle which mechanics will sink and which will swim. He now focuses on New Business games, and he recently won Games Magazine's Game of the Year award for his board game Vegas Showdown. Though his duties are primarily non-Magic these days, Henry has led more Magic development teams than anyone else in the department, and he has a palpable Aura of Wisdom that ensures we always give his opinions a lot of weight. Henry likes to adopt pet cards that he identifies as nuggets of fun and make sure they survive the development process.

Mike TurianMike Turian – Mike is another of Magic's core developers. As the lead developer of Future Sight, Mike successfully wove all the crazy madness of the future into a cohesive, fun tapestry. Before he came to Wizards, Mike crowned an incredible Pro Tour career, including five Top 8s, by winning Pro Tour–New York with team Potato Nation. Mike has excellent intuition for bringing out the excitement of Magic, and he promotes cards that will create really exciting moments in gameplay. He loves the beatdown and encourages making awesome one-drops and two-drops that turn sideways and bash. I've seen Mike build every tribal deck under the sun, though he has a special place in his heart for the fierce, come-out-swinging style of Kithkin and Goblins.

I also want to emphasize the huge improvements to Lorwyn generated by some of our most dedicated Lorwyn playtesters, who were all in Magic R&D but weren't on this development team: Mons Johnson, Steve Warner, Noah Weil, and Erik Lauer. All four were constantly building and testing all kinds of combo, beatdown, control, midrange, and aggro-control decks in the Lorwyn Future Future League, helping us to see where we needed to make cards more powerful and where we needed to reign them in. I'll focus more specifically on these key playtesters and their personal styles in a future article.

Beyond Baobab

Now I'd like to focus on the personal style of my preview card. Aptly enough for this column, the card was made not in design, but during development. Let's set the stage. The Lorwyn file was handed off with a very different three-color Treefolk legend named Baobab Thornton, who was designed at the end of July 2006. Here he is:

Baobab Thornton
Creature - Treefolk
CARDNAME comes into play with any number of branch counters.
Each Treefolk gets +1/-1 for each branch counter on CARDNAME.
2: Add or remove a branch counter from CARDNAME.

That design is just okay. It plays a lot like the Fourth and Fifth Edition card Shapeshifter, which could have any power and toughness as long as they added up to 7. This guy pays a lot of mana to change his power / toughness instead of doing it during your upkeep, and he takes all other Treefolk along for the P/T-shifting ride. It's a downside that the card is so mathy; if you have three Treefolk out, and you start adding and removing branch counters from Baobab, it doesn't take long before you and your opponent both have to do a lot of adding and subtracting and bead counting and remembering every time you want to attack or block. In terms of power level, Baobab can be a 4/3 or a 3/4 for three mana. Both of those are better than you usually get for three mana, but not by a lot, and the triple-color mana cost is pretty restrictive. And sometimes you would want to pump him to 6/1, but that would kill a bunch of your other Treefolk, which was really annoying. Overall pretty ho hum.

The good parts about this early design are that it's a fairly unique ability, he feels appropriately three colors, he helps all your Treefolk fight better, and in particular he lets all your 1/3, 2/4, 3/4 and 5/7 Treefolk fight a little better because he lets them trade in their toughness (which they have in abundance) for more power. A card as ho-hum as this does not pass muster for a three-color rare gold legend. The card was also too similar to a monoblack Treefolk in the set at the time. We flagged Baobab Thornton for replacement on September 22, 2006, a whopping three hundred fifty-seven days ago today.

By November 16th, Lorwyn development had been moving merrily along, and that monoblack treefolk witch had changed into something more awesome that wasn't very close to Baobab Thornton design anymore. No one wanted to go back to the original Baobab design, and we still hadn't found a good replacement design yet. In a memorable departure from normal hole-filling procedures, Lorwyn lead designer Aaron Forsythe, notorious designer / rules manager Mark Gottlieb, and I went down to the first floor cafe to fill this and a couple of other holes. What new rare gold Treefolk legend could we come up with that captured all the upsides of the old design, in some cleaner, more awesome way? What kind of power level could we put on a card that was rare, three colors and a legend? Once someone said it out loud, we knew we had our winner. Click here to show the three-color Treefolk legend that's actually printed in the set.

What a beautiful line of text. What sick numbers. It deals 5 damage in combat. It takes 5 damage to kill it. It costs three mana. Yup, this is as much of a three-mana 5/5 as you are ever likely to see in your life. What's the closest point of comparison? It's hard to even know where to begin to find something in Magic's history that compares to a three-mana 5/5. Remember Standard and Extended powerhouses Ravenous Baloth and Loxodon Hierarch? On top of the lifegain, a lot of Baloth and Hierarch's value was their being fat 4/4s for four mana. If Doran the Siege Tower were solely fatter than Baloth and Hierarch (like being effectively 5/5 for four mana) or solely cheaper than Baloth and Hierarch (like effectively 4/4 for three mana), then Doran would definitely be a very attractive alternative choice to Baloth and Hierarch in GWB decks. In Constructed, dealing extra damage or having a significantly cheaper mana cost is usually more powerful than lifegain. But the thing is, Doran isn't solely cheaper than Baloth / Hierarch or solely fatter than Baloth / Hierarch. He's both cheaper and fatter than those two linebackers. Burning-Tree Shaman beat a lot of people up as a three-mana gold 3/4 with a symmetrical damage-dealing ability. How much more damage do you think you can deal with a three-mana 5/5? Jade Leech popularized fatty beatdown across Invasion as a four-mana 5/5 with a drawback. Doran the Siege Tower is a whole turn faster and doesn't have that drawback. What can you do with the extra turn you get from the cheaper mana cost? Hey, I've got an idea: How about 5 more damage?

Fortunately, bashing people as a three-mana 5/5 isn't enough to satisfy Doran: he's got two other amazing categories of tricks he can do too.

First, his ability reaches across your entire army. What's a fantastic way to accelerate out Doran the Siege Tower and get the three colors you need? I'm sure Bird of Paradise sprang to a lot of your minds as soon as you saw the card. You know, to get out your turn-two 5/5 creature. But Birds of Paradise isn't just Doran's perfect buddy because of the Birds' color-fixing and mana-acceleration abilities. When Doran is on the board, Birds of Paradise deal combat damage equal to their toughness too. So when the Birds are done speeding out Doran, they can fly in for a point a turn themselves. You know your Ohran Vipers? Well you just upgraded the old 1/3 Ophidian body to a 1GG 3/3 that still draws cards. Forbidding Watchtower can deal an enormous 5 damage. And your little old Tarmogoyfs that were only 5/6 all start dealing 1 extra damage. If you start brainstorming high-toughness creatures that you can—for free—turn into high-power high-toughness creatures, you'll probably find a lot of seemingly normally costed creatures that go totally insane when Doran is on the scene. And let Doran be the first to mention that Lorwyn has some serious-business Treefolk creatures—about a dozen in all—and almost all of them have toughness higher than power. So all your 1/3s, 2/4s, and 5/7s suddenly act a lot like 3/3s, 4/4s and 7/7s.

The second category is that Doran's ability reaches across your opponents' entire armies. Except that they probably didn't plan ahead for the Siege Tower being on the board like you did. So your opponents' 2/1 Mire Boas and Soltari Priests? More like 1/1s. In older formats, watch opponents cry when their prized Giant Solifuge starts acting like a four-mana 1/1. And Doran's ability extends across power-pumping effects too. Just watch your opponent play Fatal Frenzy and have it do nothing at all. Well ok, their Fatal Frenzy still does one thing: make them cut their own guy for no benefit.

If you play Timber Protector (previewed by Mark Rosewater) a couple of turns after Doran the Siege Tower, the Timberwatch Protector plays as a five-mana 6/6, while Doran plays as a three-mana 6/6... who's indestructible. Lorwyn also gives each one of them a lot of other high-toughness Treefolk friends. And while Doran is already immune to Terror and most burn spells, Gaddock Teeg (previewed by Rei Nakazawa) can make him immune to basically everything else.

From Acorn to Oak

Fortunately, developing Doran wasn't quite as high-toughness as Doran himself. That November 16th, I typed him in like this:

Gnarls Barkley
Creature - Treefolk
If a creature would deal combat damage, it deals combat damage equal to its toughness instead
o2: CARDNAME gets +0/+1 until end of turn.

I was trying to find a ancient Treefolky legendy sounding placeholder name, something gnarled, and I realized that name of the band Gnarls Barkley randomly evokes Treefolkiness two different ways. How lucky. I mean what are the chances? Our templating team knew templating the ability would be a challenge, but found a way to work it out. People had fun both putting Gnarls in random decks and building decks around him. But he was obviously way over the line in power level. On December 6th, we brought his power/toughness down to 0/4 and kept the toughness-pumping.

We played more and he was still way too powerful. Furthermore, another problem was that his toughness-pumping was so awesome by itself that it encouraged you to play him alone and pump all your mana through him, instead of playing other creatures that his ability would pump up. And we really liked the fun of him pumping other guys up. On December 12th, we cut the toughness-pumping, and kept his stats at a powerful three-mana 0/4.

Some people say card flavor doesn't affect power level. Those people couldn't be more wrong. Over Christmas break, maybe the Christmas Treefolk warmed our hearts, and several people independently thought that Doran had so much mechanical flavor for what an ancient Treefolk legend would do (ensuring that all battles would be determined on toughness alone) and he was so well-liked by playtesters, that 4 toughness wasn't good enough. On January 2 the Lorwyn team wished each other a happy New Year and moved Doran back up to 0/5.

And that's the story behind the biggest zero-power beater ever. Long after his name in the file was changed to "Doran, the Siege Tower," we still call him Gnarls Barkley.

Next Week: A new Lorwyn preview card: A tribal take on a big set cycle staple.

Last Week's Poll

How many years have you been playing Magic?
0-1 634 4.2%
1-2 1360 9.1%
3-4 2554 17.1%
5-6 2310 15.4%
7+ 8112 54.2%
Total 14970 100.0%

The biggest reaction here was a lot of people saying "Hey, why do the bubbles stop at 7+? I've played for 11 years, and I want to click an 11-12 bubble!" I also enjoy the street cred of having played for a long time, and I should have included more bubbles.