The Cards of , Part 2

Posted in Latest Developments on July 13, 2012

By Zac Hill

Zac is a former game designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast and was the lead developer for Dragon's Maze. His articles have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Believer, and on Currently he serves as the chief operating officer of The Future Project, a nonprofit education initiative, and holds a position as a research affiliate in the MIT Game Lab.

Hey, y'all. Welcome back to part two of my crawl through Magic 2013, where I very scientifically select cards in the file that stand out to me for whatever reason and start talking about them. You can find part one here.

Before I get started, though: I write these articles about a week ahead of time, meaning that as I sit here at The Coffee Tree sipping my latte, M13 is fixing to be released into the world in like twelve short hours. By the time you get to reading this, of course, you'll have been playing with the set for a week and will have experienced the cards and no doubt will have stories and memories and bad beats and questions and everything else. For me right now, though, it's one-hundred percent sheer anticipation. It's a weird feeling, the eve of your first set release. I feel like someone whose kid is about to set off for college or something. My team and I helped create this thing like a year and a half ago and we poured all this love and effort into it but now it's off, it's done, we control exactly nothing. We hope your experience measures up to the experience we hoped we could design. Yet we can't control what that experience is—we can only watch. It's a strange sort of powerlessness blended with a washing sense of joy, anxiety, and awe.

All of which is to say, I hope y'all are having fun!


I've always been a fan of Earthquake and its ilk as a kind of very-red-feeling scalable mass removal that doesn't just kill everything on the board and that rewards you for playing large creatures. Since the debut of Planeswalkers, though, it always annoyed me that Earthquake reacts counterintuitively with multiple 'walkers. Because you don't "technically" burn Planeswalkers with regular damage spells, you can only redirect damage dealt to a player to a single 'walker. It's a big flavor FAIL in my opinion, given what's supposed to be going on and what the spell represents. So I decided to solve that problem a lot more... directly.

An added benefit of Magmaquake (and Volcanic Geyser in the uncommon slot) is that you have to be playing a dedicated red deck to include them—you can't just splash it into whatever you open in your Sealed pool. I firmly believe that, in Limited, most of a color's most powerful cards should require a commitment to that color; otherwise, your decks blend together into gradients of similarity. When you splash Fireball into your midrange deck and your control deck alike, it's not really a red card anymore. That's a blow to what makes the color pie so useful, and it's a problem in my mind.

Around the time Dark Ascension was in development, we decided to introduce looting into red as a flavorful method of library manipulation. The idea, though, was that red would do it more impulsively, saying "I don't want this" and seeing what happens. This in contrast to the very strategic-feeling blue method of considering all your options and ditching what you feel you need the least. It's a subtle distinction, to be sure, but a lot of Magic's lasting power emerges through its subtleties.

We started out with spells like Faithless Looting and Dangerous Wager, but debated heavily whether we would ever do the creature. After all, a lot of the point was to diversify red's spell slots. In the end, we liked the play pattern of this guy because he enabled a different kind of red deck from the blitzy, Sligh-style aggressive strategy that crops up seemingly every set. He's good in aggressive decks, too, of course, but he gets better the longer the game goes on. That diversity is good for Limited Magic. He's costed at because Merfolk Looter was hands-down the most dominant common in Magic 2010, even though it seemed comparatively innocuous. Given Rummaging Goblin's far more relevant creature type—thanks, Arms Dealer—we decided he ought to both require a discard first (as is red's tradition) and cost a little bit more.

Mark Rosewater's been trying to put this card in sets for something like twelve or thirteen years. The fact of the matter is, Shatter has always been a little overcosted. It has been strictly obsoleted numerous times—first with Shattering Pulse and later with cards like Smash to Smithereens—but it's always been a little uncomfortable to just reduce the cost by one and call it a day. With the dominance of Swords in Standard, along with other peripheral targets like Runechanter's Pike and Birthing Pod, we felt like now was the time to offer a direct, efficient "out" to those kinds of cards.

Originally, a card very similar to this sat in Magic 2012. The idea was that we'd herald Baneslayer Angel's departure with a "mirror," of sorts: a Dragon that could thrive in the same kind of space. Between Titans and three new Planeswalkers, though, we felt like the set had plenty of juice already, and we shelved the Dragon for later.

Well, Magic 2013 came around, and with the Titans gone I felt like the set wanted a few beasties to get excited about. We had settled upon a 5/5 hasty creature early on, but we must have pored over something like twenty-five abilities before we arrived at the current version. Magic Brand Manager (and seminal Timmy gamer) Mark Purvis was very passionate about the card being a "lightning dragon" to differentiate it from all your traditional fire-breathing peasant-scorching beasts of traditional fantasy. So we came up with the current ability, which represented (to us) a crackle of lightning followed by a thunderclap. The fact that it took care of Lingering Souls tokens and got everything from Delver of Secrets to Griselbrand out of the way—well, that was a nice side bonus, to be sure!

We felt very strongly that our mythic rares should feel really epic, and we also wanted to balance out (relatively speaking) our creature and noncreature spells. Worldfire's playtest name was "Sudden Death Round"—curse you, split second—and felt it evoked a very "red-feeling" tension. The card didn't change from the design that was written on the board to the card you open in booster packs.

This is definitely one of the weirder cards in the set, and certainly breaks our model of core sets being about top-down resonant fantasy tropes. So why is it here?

Every Magic set demands a balance between strength as revealed through card-by-card elegance, and strength as revealed through the game-play environment. In this case, the FFL (R&D's Constructed playtest team) believed that two of the riskiest, most powerful cards in Innistrad block were Snapcaster Mage and Unburial Rites. We inserted hosers like Grafdigger's Cage throughout the block, but the problem with those answers is that, while effective, they also put you down a card when you cast them. Oftentimes, your Rites-or-Mage-playing opponents will be happy you kept what essentially was a six-card hand in order to try and hose them. Since many of those decks operate along different axes—Delver of Secrets, Geist of Saint Traft, Lingering Souls, etc.—it's not as though your hoser is going to win the game by itself!

Ground Seal allows decks to attack these very powerful cards while still enacting their primary strategy. You're not going to jam four of them into every deck and say, "Yes, I beat Snapcaster Mage now," because that's not the point. It's simply another tool in the toolbox.

You'll probably notice that Magic 2013 breaks some "formulas" held by the previous several core sets. In particular, all of Fireball, Mind Control, and Overrun are gone, replaced by somewhat tamer variants in Volcanic Geyser, Switcheroo, and Predatory Rampage.

The problem with Overrun—as you can see in Magic 2012—is that it's so strong it warps your ability to develop the rest of the color. You only get to deploy so much power in the common slot. It's a totally awesome card and deserves a place in Magic sets, but the play pattern is very much "you're dead," and in my opinion it's not something that should happen year after year after year. By bumping up the "Overrun effect" to rare, we could add substantial diversity to the color. Moreover, what I like about Predatory Rampage is that it's a totally serviceable card even if it doesn't kill your opponent. You aren't sitting there simply counting your creatures' total power against your opponent's creatures' total toughness. Sometimes, you just cast it for value and kill a guy or two.

The idea is that it's similar enough to Overrun to play well and be evocative, but different enough that the play patterns diverge meaningfully.

Also, I dig the art and stuff.

Man oh man.

I started playing in tournaments seriously during Tempest-Urza's Standard, and Rancor was the one card that made me feel anything other than embarrassed to play a creature deck. During the Extended PTQ season, I played a deck called Three-Deuce that relied upon utility creatures like Elvish Lyrist and Dwarven Miner to control the format's most powerful strategies, and Rancor was the card that turned those underwhelming beaters into legitimate threats. Suffice to say, then, that I've been wanting to bring Rancor back into Magic for a long time now.

Originally we had it slated for release in Magic 2011, but that set came out right before Scars of Mirrodin and we were worried about the impact of debuting infect with Rancor in the environment. If the deck turned out to be oppressive, we'd be stuck with it for a year, so we decided to push it off and see what happened.

Given that infect hasn't really been a Standard powerhouse, we felt like it was okay to inject Rancor into infect decks for three months. It certainly has the potential to explode, but cards like Gut Shot offer every deck outs against the very strong Glistener Elf ? Rancor draws. The primary benefits, of course, aren't to infect decks at all, but to your more traditional green-based aggressive and midrange decks that can leverage Rancor against holes in their mana curve.

I'm really excited to see the effect the card has on the environment.

This little weirdo here highlights to me an example of how you tailor Limited archetypes without having to gunk up cards with a bunch of dumb extra words.

We wanted each color pair in Magic 2013 to have two distinct-feeling archetypes to draft whenever possible. One of those archetypes was Green-White Exalted, where you'd use white's walls and green's beef to gum up the ground while battling with one huge guy every turn. Spiked Baloth, your run-of-the-mill 4/2 trampler for four mana, was one of the enablers of this archetype. The idea was that ordinarily this kind of creature is kind of bad, because he winds up trading with a creature who costs less mana than he does. Supported by exalted, though, his evasion proves difficult to get in the way of and he can survive fights with multiple blockers, especially given both white's and green's preponderance of combat tricks.

It's subtle, of course, and hardly earth-shaking, but it's an example of how you can produce a lot of game play value out of very few actual words.

For a long time, we've wanted to let the lucky charms (Dragon's Claw and its ilk) sit out for a little while. The challenge was figuring out what to replace them with—how to design artifacts that hit the same notes without being so universally derided as weak.

We wanted the cards to encourage monocolored decks, because that's one of the most intuitive strategies to pursue for the newer player. We wanted the overall play pattern to be satisfyingly "tick-up"—that is, we wanted the value and enjoyment you derived from playing the cards to be rooted in the fact that they kept making something bigger. We wanted them to be cool not because they gave you knobs to fiddle with, but because you could see tangibly how they were getting you ahead.

Like Thundermaw Hellkite, these rings went through a ton of designs and costs before we got them (we think) "right." The idea was to grant an in-color effect to any creature you'd want to play with, but to truly start smashing face when equipped to a creature of the "correct" color. This in turn encourages you to play with as many creatures of that color as you can, because you really want to add a counter to a creature as much as possible.

Incidentally, Turn to Slag was added to the set comparatively late as a stop-gap measure to the power of this cycle of cards in Sealed.

I have to say, I am a sucker for alternative win conditions. I also distinctly remember—although Derrick Sheets swears up and down that this didn't happen—playing some kind of Extended deck based around Composite Golem and Corpse Dance whose sideboard plan against Life decks was to Goblin Welder a Door to Nothingness into play and then activate Composite Golem twice for the win.

Look, I was desperate for a plan, all right?

Anyway, I will just put it out there that Mike Mikaelian went 2–1 in a Sealed playtest with this card, a Gilded Lotus, a Gem of Becoming, and a pair of Farseeks in his deck. IT CAN HAPPEN IF YOU LIVE THE DREAM etc. etc.

One of the most contentious cards in the file, the inclusion of Jayemdae at uncommon was derided initially by both by Tom LaPille and Max McCall. It was important to me, though, that every color have access to a method of mitigating mana flood and gaining card advantage at lower rarities. I also thought there was some powerful resonance and nostalgia behind the Tome, as well as a completely amazing piece of art. The counter-argument was that it heavily enabled raw card advantage as a strategy.

In the end, we decided that M13 Limited supported enough fast decks that spending an up-front investment cost of —and then spending another mana just to "cycle" a card—involved a pretty substantial risk. We felt like we could afford to pay off those decks with a continuous stream of advantage.

Aah, yes. I've probably gotten more feedback about these cards than anything else. It's completely true that we've seen these guys four times now, and we know how they play, and it's about time for the world to get shaken up a little.

In my opinion, this is another one of those times where as lead developer you have to manage the tension between how elegant a card is when you sit and look at it versus how enjoyable it is to actually play. In this case, I can say confidently that playing these lands in concert with Return to Ravnica is very cool and is worth the cost of having the same old cards legal in Standard for another year.

That said, you're absolutely right that we shouldn't just sort of automatically default to these lands just because they work "well enough." We consider very carefully which lands we want legal in Standard for which amount of time, and we're looking for opportunities to evolve the metagame in the coolest ways we can.

A flavor design from Magic 2013 Lead Designer Doug Beyer, I've become more and more fond of the Crucible the more I've played with it. It's a pretty big challenge to get added-value lands right, because the marginal advantage over the basic land you would be playing in that slot is so good relative to how powerful the cards actually look. We experimented for a long time with variables like: How much should the charge ability cost? How many times should you have to use it? What should happen when the crater finally bursts? In the end, we decided upon these abilities and these numbers, and in my opinion this card is far more powerful than it seems at first glance. Yes, Vapor Snag constrains the value of token cards a little bit, but they only have so many Snags and you're going to be presenting them with plenty of targets.

I'm happy with how both Cathedral of War and Hellion Crucible panned out, and I personally look for opportunities to include these kinds of "upside-lands" in small doses whenever I can. You don't want Magic to be all about the marginal advantages your lands can generate—it's a game about casting spells, after all—but it is nice to be able to get some use out of them when you're mana-flooded.


All right. Out of time and words, but thanks, y'all, for sticking with me! It feels like we've been in perpetual preview-mode for something like two months now, so I'm excited to take a step back and talk about development more generally speaking for a bit. That said, I'm eager to answer any questions you have about the set, so as always don't be shy about hitting me up in the forums, via email, or on Twitter to speak your mind.

Zac (@zdch)

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