Developing Dragons

Posted in Latest Developments on April 10, 2015

By Sam Stoddard

Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.

It's Dragons Week on, and for today's article, I'm going to talk about what it took from the development side to make a set all about Dragons that still did all of the other things that we need out of a set—namely, to provide a fun, balanced, and varied Limited format, and to create fun Constructed cards.

Aiming Dragons

It's probably not a surprise that "Dragons" was not the easiest theme for development to balance for Limited and Constructed play. The cards are cool, and we can create ones that work in almost any set. But it's very hard to create a critical mass of the cards that work, which was one of the design goals of the set—to have the dragon-iest set that ever dragoned—something that we did in pretty dramatic fashion, but not without a lot of challenges.

A very early constraint from creative was that this wasn't a world with baby dragons—these dragons came from dragon tempests fully formed as adults, and therefore making baby dragons was off limits. Beyond just the question of baby dragons or not, we had to answer a question for ourselves—what is a Dragon? I could snarkily reply something about the type line and the art, but let's be honest—how would you feel about the following card as a Dragon?

Wind Dragon


Creature – Dragon



Pretty pathetic, right? If I didn't put the Dragon title and type line on there, you would assume it was at most a Drake. Filling a set called Dragons of Tarkir with weak cards that were clearly just another creature types with a thin layer of Dragon paint on them felt not only like cheating from a design perspective, but also terribly unsatisfying. That meant that we were going to have to bite the bullet and make the kind of Dragons we would generally be happy with calling Dragons, and figuring out how to adjust the set so that those cards would matter as more than just late-game finishers.

In design, we created a number of creatures that got bonuses if you controlled Dragons, or creatures that had powerful triggers when you cast or attacked with Dragons. Deal 2 damage to an opponent, opponent discards a card, etc. The goal was to both put the word "Dragon" on more cards in the set and to make "Dragon tribal" feel like a thing for Limited. What we quickly found in development was that this cycle was just not realistic. It read cool, but by the time you were attacking with a Dragon, that was reward enough. It was rare that the creatures ever generated enough value. It led us to try and rethink what a tribal component of a set could look like.

Dragon Tempest | Art by Willian Murai

A Different Way to Tribal

This left a big question to solve—how do we make Dragons matter? In design, we had come up with a cycle of sorceries that had bigger effects if you had a Dragon in play, but they were pretty unsatisfying because, like the problem with the creatures, by the time you had a Dragon in play, getting a marginal upside on a spell felt less important. For instance, four mana to make three 1/1 Soldiers that upgrades into five with a Dragon. It was something, but it made you feel bad waiting on the card when you were getting close to casting a Dragon—and feeling really bad if that Dragon then died.

This led the development team to a space often referred to by design as the "Infernal Spawn of Evil space"—in this case spells that rewarded you for having a Dragon in your hand, as opposed to just having one on the battlefield. This meant that games of Dragons of Tarkir Limited or Constructed could be about more than "Can you kill me before my sweet Dragon hits play?" They both let you get the benefit from the five-, six-, or seven-drop in your hand earlier in the game as well as threaten your opponent with "You better watch out, Atarka is coming for you."

The cycle also did a great job of allowing us to create cards that are very powerful in Constructed but require a pretty unusual deck-building requirement. While cards like Thundermaw Hellkite and Stormbreath Dragon have seen play in Standard, one of the best ways for us to push on getting Dragon Control decks to work in Standard was create cards like Silumgar's Scorn that gave control decks really, really powerful tools—if they were willing to use Dragons as their finishers. Because of this, each of the "Dragon reveal" cycle was really aimed most heavily at control or ramp decks, since those were the ones we were most comfortable pushing our Dragons for.

Stones to Rule the Skies

Early in design, I came up with the idea of uncommon dual lands in the set that entered the battlefield tapped, and for a high mana cost sacrificed for a Dragon token. Something like this:

Dragon Land

Enters the battlefield tapped.

Tap, add W or U to your mana pool.

5WU, tap, sacrifice CARDNAME: put a 4/4 colorless flying Dragon token onto the battlefield.

The goal was to put simple uncommon duals in the set and make them tie into the Dragons, Dragons, Dragons! theme of the set.

While these lands read as exciting for myself and the design team, they posed some big developmental challenges as we got to making the set. First and foremost, they didn't actually help you cast the really awesome Dragons in the set—they just made a few of the Dragon tribal cards work. Secondly, we found that the less power-savvy players complained about how weak they were, while the developers were worried about how strong they are. It's not a great spot to be in, and one that we didn't want to push on.

Lands, by their very nature, have an incredibly low opportunity cost, especially in Limited. It makes it hard for us to balance them, because they often look very unappealing but are incredibly powerful. How often is it, when you are done drafting, that you are really scrambling to get to 22 or 23 playable cards? You usually are looking to cut quite a few, which means that each land you can run is just way better than something you are on the verge of cutting. Powerful lands in Limited just tend to warp things more than we are usually happy with.

If you gave me the option to play any number of ETB dual lands with no upside in my two-color draft deck, I wouldn't choose 23, but I would generally play more than four. Maybe a lot more, depending on how color-dependent and fast my deck is. The Khans of Tarkir land cycle that enters the battlefield tapped and gains a life is more than enough for me to take the lands very highly in draft, and be happy running almost any number I can get my hands on in my colors. These lands provided a similar upside, but instead of 1 life point that mattered in a few matches, it provided you another powerful win condition. It let you focus your slower deck more on attritioning your opponent until you got into a topdeck war, which you would inevitably win because your lands turned into giant evasive creatures.

The solution to getting these cards to work was to not make them lands at all, and instead make them into mirrors for the Banners in Khans of Tarkir—but instead of cashing them in for a card, you could turn them into a Dragon that could either attack or block.

The benefit of this, other than the aesthetic mirror, was that they actually helped you to cast your Dragons in the same way the Banners allowed players who didn't want to cast a morph on turn three to instead move straight to casting their more powerful spells. It meant that games came down more into Dragons coming down to save the day, rather than two decks grinding things out until whoever had more Dragon lands took over. And, because the Dragon stones have a much higher opportunity cost (since you can't just relegate them to a land slot), they were way more satisfying for us to find a spot where we were happy with them in Limited.

That's it for this week. Join me next week when I talk about balancing the Command cycle.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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