That Big, Toothy Grin

Posted in Latest Developments on July 5, 2002

By Randy Buehler

Sacred Nectar

Here is last week's poll:

Do you like to play with life gain cards?
Yes 3204 45.7%
No 2075 29.6%
Don't Care 1735 24.7%
Total 7014 100.0%

In addition, much of my mail from last week consisted of passionate defenses of the utility of life gain spells. I apologize if I sounded like I was arguing that life gaining is a bad mechanic - I like it just fine as a mechanic and yes, there are indeed scenarios where it's useful in tournaments too. You can look forward to a steady stream of life gaining cards for years to come.

Psychatog seems to be everywhere these days so I thought it'd be interesting to look back to see where he was in the FFL (R&D's internal "Future Future League"). The short answer is ... in our Battle of Wits decks!


You see, when we were developing the new cycle of atogs, we started out by figuring out what they should eat. Land, graveyards, enchantments, and artifacts seem like easy, obvious choices since that's what the last round of atogs enjoyed munching on; but what should be the "blue" thing to eat? The last blue atog ate turns, but we didn't really want to have two more of those, especially at uncommon. We thought about what else an atog could eat ... your hand? ... your life total? ... your library?

Your library! That sounded cool: Remove the top 7 cards of your library from the game: CARDNAME gets +1/+1. This would give the atog a couple of free and easy activations built in, but we figured you'd only actually be able to activate it like 5-6 times over the course of a game and that tension seemed interesting. Plus, imagining the toothy monster ripping into all the books in a library had great flavor.

Then William Jockusch got hold of the card. William's brain doesn't always work like the rest of ours and that makes him spectacularly useful to have around. He saw zero mana for +1/+1 and thought to himself, "I can break this!" The other four atogs all required you to build up resources before you could use them, but not this one. 7 cards times 19 activations is just 133 cards. Suddenly, third turn kills just required a touch of mana acceleration and a large enough deck. All it took to threaten a fourth turn kill was drawing the sucker.

About an hour later the card was changed to remove 10 cards. Now you'd have to be willing to lose 190 cards ... no deck that big could be good, right? Well, you've all heard the tales of Battle of Wits decks terrorizing random tournaments. We wanted that card to be good enough to win something every once in a while, because we thought people would have a lot of fun telling stories about it and thinking about building one. However, we did not want the Battle of Wits deck to become a staple of tournament play because we knew it would be hard to build, even harder to shuffle, and a nightmare for judges doing deck checks.

Billy "Baby Huey" Jensen played Battle of Wits at GP-Milwaukee.
(Mission accomplished so far, I'd say -- the stories about the deck greatly outnumber the instances of people playing it. One guy in 650 ran it at Grand Prix - Milwaukee, drew a crowd of gawkers, and he did made Top 8. But Huey is a good enough player that he could have Top 8'ed with any number of decks and the rest of the country seemed to understand that; no one ran it at Nationals. Toby Wachter's exploits with the deck are also pretty much what we hoped would happen.)

Anyway, take a Battle deck and throw in four copies of a 3-mana, 20-power creature … the deck gets a lot better. Instead of having just four "I win" cards, suddenly the deck had 8. Add in white mana (for Phantatog) and you've got 12 even before you start counting all your tutors. It didn't help that Battle of Wits only cost at the time. At first none of us believed that this deck was actually good, but after a week or two in the league we realized we were wrong. Something had to change and we decided we like having Battle of Wits around more than we wanted to have atogs that could eat your library.

So we started fooling around with having atogs that could eat your hand. It seemed a touch inelegant that the atogs had pretty much the same ability that already existed on Wild Mongrel, but we did really like the way that ability (discard a card for +1/+1) fit into the block. We knew we wanted to have "threshold enablers" and we knew that mechanic would also be interesting with flashback. We also knew that Psychatog would be the best of the atogs (since it combined the two best atog abilities) and we were fine with that.

What we didn't know, unfortunately, was that madness was coming in the next set. Psychatog and Wild Mongrel were already pretty good even before Torment came out, but they're spectacular in combination with all the madness cards in Torment.

Psychatog + madness: better than expected.

I'm being a little bit unfair when I say "we didn't know." The truth is that, when we were developing Odyssey, we knew that the Torment designers were messing around with madness. Then when Torment development started we still had time to go back and change Odyssey cards if we really needed to. However, our first reaction was "oh, cool - those threshold enablers are also going to be madness-enablers." Even by the end of Torment development I don't think we realized quite how good madness actually was and even if we had realized it, it would (by then) have been too late to change the Mongrel or the 'Tog.

In retrospect, having the ability to discard your cards whenever you want to turned out to be a lot better than we first thought. If I could go back and change things I would probably take away the +1/+1 part of Wild Mongrel (leaving it with just the color changing ability) and I would make Psychatog discard two cards for +1/+1. It's weird - I'm really happy that the graveyard matters and our new mechanics are indeed the thing that everyone wants to play with (in particular I love the way Aquamoeba turned out to be constructed playable because "getting" to discard is so good), but I think we probably pushed those initial enablers just a bit too much.

I don't have a time machine, though, so the big toothy grin of Psychatog will probably be a fixture on the constructed scene for quite some time. How bad do you think he is, anyway?

Randy may be reached at

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