Development Questions with Amonkhet

Posted in Latest Developments on April 14, 2017

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.

Hello and welcome to another edition of Latest Developments! Before you read my column this week, you should probably read over the full Amonkhet set, which can be found here. Not because you will need the information to understand my article, but because hey . . . new cards!

Now that you are done with that, it's time for me to hit you with some knowledge about the set and give you an idea about what development was thinking about as we worked on Amonkhet. Today's topic is some of development's goals for the set as we were getting into the devign period (between design and development) and a bit before. While design definitely has dominion over the file during the actual design period, they do look for information from the development team to make sure things are progressing. Often that leads to design and development discussing some of the decisions that were made in the set for design reasons and development telling design how they will end up working on the cards, thereby giving design first crack at . . . designs. Design can out-and-out reject the advice—but that makes it much less likely that those cards will see print. We tend to work these problems out together and come up with solutions that both parties are happy with.

To meet our goals for the set, we had to answer several questions while we were designing Amonkhet. Without further ado, let's get into some of those questions now.

How Do We Maximize Design Space with -1/-1 Counters?

We don't do -1/-1 counters frequently because of our rule about not doing them in the same sets as +1/+1 counters. There is just much less design space in -1/-1 counters than +1/+1 counters, so you need to figure out what the novel space is and mine it. The number-one cool thing that -1/-1 counters do is create an interesting upper-bound on cards. One of the challenges with a card like Slith Firewalker is that they can easily run away with the game. Being able to create similar cards but with an upper bound is nice because it can't ever get to a point where it is too large to deal with. We can balance them out so they can dominate a game without making a comeback impossible.

Early versions of Amonkhet had wither, but it was preventing us from doing other things we wanted to with the set. It was bogging games down too much. The development team floated the idea to do some of what Shadowmoor did with Grim Poppet and use the counters as a resource, but there was some push back from the design team on having too many cards where -1/-1 counters were a benefit. Their reasoning was that the counters were here to show pain, injury, and generally create a world about being torn down instead of built up. There was also a desire to, as much as possible, only put -1/-1 counters on your opponent's creatures.

All of these together ended up with some pretty cool cards in Amonkhet, my favorite of which is Channeler Initiate. It gets to do some of the "use -1/-1 counters as a resource," but it's much more about making the card stronger. You get to use it for the first few turns as a mana creature, and once you have sort of run out of things to ramp into, you end up with a hefty beater.

How Do We Balance Aftermath Cards with Their Constraints?

Aftermath cards were kind of weird. I'm not talking about the visuals or how they work, but the process for creating them. What we usually do is create the cards we want to make, and our creative team does their best to add flavor to them. That is much harder with split cards because we only have so many name combinations left with them. Luckily for us, these worked differently than our last few batches, so we were able to abandon the "Blank and Blank" naming convention and move on to "Blank to Blank," giving us a lot more room to make cards. But not infinite space, so in the late design process, there was a lot of work put in by the creative team to figure out as many different possible card names as possible. Between the design and development teams, we needed to work toward those names. It's not a coincidence that Never to Return does what it does; we had the names and came up with cool cards that would fit them. But for the development team, that constrained our ability to change cards. We had a lot of room to tweak numbers, but would have to really work if we wanted to change functionality too much.

All of that is before we even start talking about actually making the cards fun! The trick to making flashback work tended to be to either making cards that weren't close to being playable by themselves but had a pretty low flashback cost (like Think Twice, Ancient Grudge, or Gnaw to the Bone) or making cards where the front half was pretty close to a card you would play on its own and the larger flashback cost was just gravy (like Chainer's Edict, Firebolt, or Increasing Ambition). We started there with our cards, but we needed to find pairs that could work together.

Riches (Rags to Riches) | Art by Greg Opalinski

There are a lot of different kinds of aftermath cards. First, we have ones where each individual half does something that can be useful, but maybe at different times (Heaven to Earth), ones where you have an "early game" effect that likely leads to your late game effect (Rags to Riches, Cut to Ribbons), and ones where the first part sort of sets up the second part (Mouth to Feed, Failure to Comply). Then there are ones that kind of fit into multiple categories—there are just a lot of options for making these cards work. While that may seem freeing, it also creates a ton of challenges since we don't have a ton of room to make the cards do whatever we want. We have to work within those creative restraints. It took a ton of time, but I am very proud of where the cards ended up.

How Do We Improve on Gods from Theros?

This was not the first set with Gods—that honor lies with either Champions of Kamigawa or Theros block, depending on how you want to count the Myojin. Gods are something we don't want to do frequently in Magic, but it makes sense that they would pop up now and then, especially when we deal with top-down sets that tie into real-world cultures that had a pantheon of deities. It's not going to be the last time we do it, and we needed to make sure that the connection we tied between the two was something that we could pay off again when we revisit Gods in the future.

We learned a lot from Theros block about Gods and knew that we couldn't do them the exact same way if we wanted to make for a fun Standard environment. Development was very outspoken with the design team about the challenges, and what they could try to do to mitigate those. We didn't want people running only one or two Gods by default because they were impossible to deal with once on the board. We also didn't think that just making them really strong creatures would do a good job of tying in the whole "deity" thing.

Devotion wasn't in the set, and really, we hadn't set up Standard with any ideas about just putting it on the Gods. There were options, like having devotion to different things, whatever that meant, but it felt like a dead-end for Gods. A decision was made that "can't attack or block unless . . ." was a close enough to the devotion space that it felt like they were related but let us do something else whenever we come back to Gods in the future.

We also had the problem last time that the Gods were too hard to interact with because they weren't creatures most of the time. We also knew we didn't want them to be enchantments because that was a Theros thing, but we needed a through line. Keeping them as giant indestructible creatures felt like they were at the right spot—and with both their bodies and their "can't attack unless" conditions being something people could interact with, we felt we were in a good spot for making fun cards.

That isn't to say these were the only three things we were thinking about—we also had to do things like figure out what to do with cycling, figure out how deserts would play into the set, and also make fun embalm designs. I will be talking about those in future weeks, starting off with embalm next week and going over our efforts to work with the mechanic.

In the meantime, take another look at the full Card Image Gallery and get ready for the Prerelease starting April 22!

Until next time,
Sam (@samstod)

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