Developing a New Domain

Posted in Latest Developments on January 23, 2009

By Tom LaPille

Tom LaPille makes things. Some of the things he makes are card sets, like Dark Ascension and Born of the Gods. Sometimes he makes stories, too. Sometimes he makes unexpected things, like 16th-century Japanese clothing. He's probably making something right now.

Welcome to the first of two Conflux preview articles here at Latest Developments. I have a preview card that I will get to, but first I want to talk about the poll results from last week since they lead right into today's topic.

How many Obelisks did you play in your last Shards of Alara draft deck?
0 1527 23.7%
1 1513 23.5%
2 1550 24.1%
3 449 7.0%
4 or more 134 2.1%
I haven't drafted Shards of Alara. 1262 19.6%
Total 6435 100.0%

The poll results show that most people play Obelisks. This makes me very happy for two reasons. One reason is that we print mana-fixers so that they will, you know, actually fix people's mana, and I'm glad that overall you are using those tools as we intended you to. I believe that one of the least fun parts of being a spike is the horrifying realizations that it is "correct" to do something that isn't fun, like trade the consistent ability to play your spells for an increased match win percentage. I was depressed when I decided, correctly or not, that I should do my very best to stop playing Obelisks and instead roll the dice on sketchy Obelisk-less mana bases. It's no fun to be mana-screwed, and yet I was deliberately mana-screwing myself more often in a desperate quest for match wins. The data make me think that people in that space with the obelisks are the minority, which is awesome. I'll never be anything other than a very spikey Spike, but I often wonder if I would have more fun with games if I weren't. The power of the dark side has a heavy cost.

The other reason that I'm glad the Obelisks are seeing play is that they actually don't make you win less, despite the impression I gave last week! An enterprising player named Justin Horowitz analyzed the results from the Top 8s of all the Pro Tour–Kyoto Qualifiers for which deck lists are available. The Top 8 playoffs of those tournaments were all Shards of Alara drafts, so he compiled a data set containing the number of obelisks in each deck and the number of matches in the Top 8 the corresponding deck won. Surprisingly, he found that there was no correlation whatsoever between obelisks played and matches won! Statistically speaking, how many matches in a Top 8 draft you win has nothing to do with how many obelisks you play. However, he did note that no one was able to win a ticket to Kyoto while playing more than two Obelisks. The sample size for three-Obelisk and four-Obelisk decks was so small that nothing could be concluded from them, but in my experience a four-Obelisk deck strong enough to win a draft is extremely rare. In the end, as long as you play zero to two Obelisks, you'll be on statistically even footing. It does make me a little bit sad that the Obelisks aren't strong enough to correlate positively with winning, but I'm glad they are hardly the cruel trick that I thought they were.

Happily, my co-workers decided to really get serious about making your multicolor mana work in Conflux. Just one example of the things that we are doing at common is this example from the Visual Spoiler:

Fiery Fall

This is a totally awesome card for Limited. Early in the game, it fixes your colors without being picky about what they are. Late in the game when you have the mana you need, it kills all but the largest Limited creatures. It is also obviously an enormous departure from Shards of Alara, where a red spell that even knew about the existence of both Plains and Islands was impossible. Now that the five shards are coming together, you'll have more tools like this to get the mana you need. Of course, we also had not yet given you any reasons to think about putting both Plains and Islands in a base-red Shards of Alara block deck. You met Progenitus on Wednesday, but he's just the headliner for a full suite of five-color goodies. When the third pack has things like the next card in it, you might find yourself doing some stretching to accommodate all five colors:

Fusion Elemental

Of course, there are other ways to ask players to care about using lots of colors. One avenue that Invasion block explored was to key off of basic land types, which was casually referred to as the domain mechanic. The Conflux designers explored this mechanic, since it was another way to encourage five-color play and reinforce the theme of the shards coming together. They decided that there were plenty of domain cards left to make even after Invasion block, so into the set it went. It also played beautifully with the basic landcycling cards that were already in the file.

Now I'm finally ready to show you my preview card. Meet Matca Rioters.

Fusion Elemental

The big change to domain is that it is now an ability word to make the cards that use it easier to parse. Here's the Conflux rules FAQ entry for Matca Rioters courtesy of rules manager Mark Gottlieb!

Conflux FAQ – Ability Word: DomainDomain is an ability word. It appears in italics at the beginning of an ability that counts the number of basic land types among lands you control. (An ability word has no rules meaning.) Domain abilities first appeared in the Invasion block, although the word "domain" didn't appear on those older cards.

  • Each domain ability has a different effect. Read each card carefully.
  • To determine the number of basic land types among lands you control, look at the lands you have in play and ask yourself whether the subtypes Plains, Island, Swamp, Mountain, and Forest appear within that group. The number of times you say yes (topping out at five) tells you how powerful your domain abilities will be.
  • How many lands you control of a particular basic land type is irrelevant to a domain ability, as long as that number is greater than zero. As far as domain is concerned, ten Forests is the same as one Forest.
  • A number of nonbasic lands have basic land types. These include five Shadowmoor nonbasic lands, the Revised Edition "dual lands," and the Ravnica block "dual lands", among others. Domain abilities don't count the number of lands you control -- they count the number of basic land types among lands you control, even if that means checking the same land twice.
  • A domain ability that appears on an instant, sorcery, or activated ability checks the number of basic land types among lands you control just once, as that part of its effect is applied. This value won't change even if which lands you control changes later in the turn.
  • A domain ability that appears on a static ability continually checks the number of basic land types among lands you control. If that number changes, the effect of the static ability will change accordingly. For example, if you control a Swamp and two Forests when Matca Rioters comes into play, Matca Rioters will be 2/2. If you play an Island later, Matca Rioters will become 3/3.
  • Matca Rioters's ability is a "characteristic-defining ability." It applies at all times in all zones.


Matca Rioters began life as "Domain Beast" and never changed in overall concept. However, as green creatures in Mike Turian–led sets often do during development, it slowly got better over time. Here is an excerpt from the comments in our Multiverse database. MT is Conflux lead developer and friend to noble green cards everywhere Mike Turian, KEN is Conflux designer Ken Nagle, and GTH is designer Graeme Hopkins.

KEN 3/27: Thinking rare.
MT 3/27: Made common.
KEN 5/2: Sits on the same 3G as the Domain [DELETED] card. I'd rather see the [DELETED]s at common and this guy at 2G uncommon.
GTH 5/31/08: I second KEN's suggestion about rarity swap, [but] I feel 2G for this guy is crazy.
MT 6/2: Now 2G.

It's also not a surprise to see Ken Nagle chime in on behalf of the whole domain suite. He gave lots of quality time to the domain deck while Conflux was in development and is largely responsible for the way that it now plays. I built various five-color decks that tested Conflux's crazy cards using the domain skeleton, but Ken hammered out the details of the base before I got here. For me, the result of Ken's work was a huge nostalgia hit as I first read through the Conflux file. I transitioned from casual player to tournament player almost exactly when Odyssey released, and the very last casual deck I built was an Invasion-based domain deck that killed people with 5/2 Kavu Scouts and 6/7 Emblazoned Golems. I had a ton of fun playing those cards, and it was exciting to relive that time as well as to experience the new twists on the mechanic.

Unfortunately, I don't have any development stories about Matca Rioters to tell. Mike's comment from June 2 was the last comment in the file, and I started working here three weeks after that comment was made. I did, however, do plenty of attacking and blocking with Matca Rioters after it was finalized, and it was totally awesome. It often started at 2/2 or 3/3, but in the crazily polychromatic decks that Conflux enabled me to draft, it would usually grow to full size by the time each game was over. It felt a little bit like Tarmogoyf in those decks, since by the end of a game it was a total steal at . Happily, it's quite reasonable at that cost due to its normal stats on turn three and the hoops you have to jump through to get there. I'm also very glad that it ended up there for the same reasons Ken mentioned earlier—at three mana it curves perfectly with other domain cards you already want to be playing.

The best story from development involving the domain deck is the creation of Exploding Borders, a card you've already seen:

Fiery Fall

On your side of the world, this looks like just a card. However, it was the results of some semi-desperate scrambling on our end. The designers of Conflux included a slot for a green mana-fixer. At first it was just Rampant Growth, but then we experimented with other ideas like reprinting Edge of Autumn to get a Future Sight "preprint" in another set. We ended up deciding that this was too wonky because it would have been the only nonmana cycling cost in the set. Finally, at the same time this was happening, lead developer Mike Turian decided that the set needed another cycle of gold cards at common, and decreed that this card would become some sort of red-green card. The art commissioning process had gone far enough at this point that we were left with this piece to go on whatever card we made:

Exploding Borders

Imagine that you're a designer or developer working on Conflux. The card attached to the above art just got killed. Now, you have to make a new card that is red-green and has something to do with mana-fixing. It should also be a domain card if possible to increase the mechanic's density. Oh, and by the way, the developers are kind of concerned how powerful planeswalkers are and would like to print some more sideways answers. We need a card by Monday. Thanks! This is quite a corner for a designer to be backed into. Happily, we have awesome designers, and they gave us a fun mechanic based on a card that started life in Shards of Alara but was moved to Conflux to become a domain card.

The only difference between the designers' submission and the final card is that the designers' version was able to target creatures as well. That part of the card was trimmed for being too powerful after a week or so of testing mana ramp decks using Fertile Ground, Rampant Growth, and this card that were able to consistently play Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker; Violent Ultimatum, or whatever other expensive cards they wanted before aggressive decks could get anywhere close to winning. Solemn Simulacrum was a powerful card for control decks, and instead of blocking once and drawing a card this thing killed an opposing creature for good. It was totally miserable.

The easy fix was to make it only target players, which both took away the awfulness and made the card weaker. However, we kept playing it to see where it was, and it was still very playable. I still have nightmares of domain stalwart Ken Nagle cackling with glee as he Exploding Bordersed away my Elspeths and Garruks. It also came out of nowhere to win races between my flyers and his forces of Matca Rioters and other domain cards. Ken also documented his love of Exploding Borders in Multiverse:

KEN 7/8: RAWR! I 3 this card! Nuke thy Planeswalker!

Many planeswalkers were indeed nuked in the making of Exploding Borders. My playtest Elspeths still fear it.

Before we finish, I want to share with you two Multiverse comments that are from domain cards I haven't mentioned here that amused me as I looked through the Conflux file. EVL is mathematician and mad genius Erik Lauer, drea is digital games developer and Maple Story designer Andrea Jennifer Shubert, and KEN is still Ken Nagle.

drea 4/30: Domain requires counting and thought. [this] Feels like too much work for a very "meh" reward.
EVL 5/1: I like counting!


KEN 3/18: Delicious food!!! :D CHOMP! :) BARF! :O~

I also like both counting and food. Great minds think alike ...?

Conflux's five-color subtheme requires many things to be well-executed. On one end, it takes seriously good mana-fixing to make cards with five-color costs and rewards exciting. On the other hand, the rewards need to be exciting enough that you're willing to jump through all the hoops to get them. We worked hard to make sure both were present in Conflux, and we hope that you'll be at one of the Conflux Prereleases starting a week from tomorrow!

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