Getting Colorless to Work

Posted in Latest Developments on January 8, 2016

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.

Here is a card that you probably don't remember, but it was actually a big deal internally.

This was the first card to use {1} instead of writing out "one colorless mana." It was something that was a bit contentious on the inside, since there is a big difference between colorless and generic mana. But, it turns out, people on the outside managed to get the card and, without blinking an eye, use it exactly as it was supposed to be used. There was no confusion that {1} might be generic and be used to cast spells of any color. Once we realized that, we got to save a lot of space on cards.

Thirteen years that stood, but like many things, it eventually changed. Oath of the Gatewatch wanted to do something that would show off what Kozilek's influence on Zendikar was, and what the exploratory design team came up with was cards that could only be cast with colorless mana. Getting the ability to cast spells that needed colorless mana was easy—we came up with the idea of having a symbol that meant "Can only be cast using colorless mana" to solve that—but it also meant that you needed to know colorless mana was different from generic. In some sense, this was a nod to a sixth color of mana, but one with all kinds of mana fixing already available in Magic. Plus, it came with the huge advantage that we didn't need to print a lot of mana fixing to make it work, since there are already a ton of cards that add colorless mana to your mana pool.

Of course, that made the whole usage of colorless mana in the costs of spells a lot more complicated, because, well, people are generally confused by the difference between colorless and generic mana. I know I myself have made the error of describing the mana in the top right of a card as being "colorless mana" when it is definitely not. We needed a better way to move away from the old template we used on cards, and put something in their text boxes that actually told you how to cast your colorless-mana spells.

Moving from 1 to C

This was, perhaps, the most contentious part about introducing colorless mana. Very late in the process, we had the colorless mana symbol in the top right of cards, and we were still putting reminder text on the cards that mentioned that this cost could only be paid with colorless mana—but it was very hard to fit all of that on a few of the mythic rares. Beyond that, testing with people around the building who were not familiar with what we were doing pointed toward people finding the mechanic much more intuitive when the new colorless mana symbol was also used on the cards that generated the mana. This was something we had talked about, but decided against.

Furthermore, we also found that people (as a whole) reacted better to using the colorless symbol when generating colorless mana than when they generated "1" or "2." That pushed us toward making the change not just for Oath of the Gatewatch, but for all of Magic from this point on. While many people (myself included) were weirded out at looking at the mock-up of Sol Ring adding "CC," we also agreed that if we were making Magic again from the start, we would almost certainly have made the distinction between colorless and generic mana more clear, and the colorless mana symbol is the perfect way to do that. It's important to know when a change feels weird because it isn't right versus because of inertia. This one fell heavily into the second camp.

Deceiver of Form | Art by Viktor Titov

At that point, changing Battle for Zendikar was difficult but not impossible. We wanted to make the decision that was correct for each set. A big concern with putting the colorless mana symbol in Battle for Zendikar was that it would take away by far the most new and exciting thing that Oath of the Gatewatch had to offer. People might be happy when we met expectations, but it wouldn't have the impact we were hoping for with the set.

In the end, we knew that it wasn't ideal to have Eldrazi Scions in BFZ sacrifice for 1 and Scions in Oath of the Gatewatch sacrifice for C, but the truth is that there are a lot of situations where nothing is ideal. What we did is go with the solution we felt was best for Oath of the Gatewatch, and for Magic as a whole.

Making Colorless Mana Work in Standard

As I mentioned earlier, colorless mana was something we knew was coming for a while. It was at the top of the exploratory design for Oath of the Gatewatch, and when we were working on Battle for Zendikar we made sure there were powerful colorless lands that would help you cast your spells.

The challenge of making colorless mana work for Standard was that, of course, pushing people off of the strongest mana base that Standard has had in quite some time (and some would say ever) was going to be difficult. While I have seen people playing Jeskai, Dark Jeskai, and Golgari-Jeskai, I severely doubt they will easily be able to add yet another virtual color to those decks' mana bases.

One of the reasons the pain lands remained in Magic Origins was to have an easy source to provide colorless mana on lands that you would play in Constructed. While the mana base for the four-color decks in Battle for Zendikar Standard is powerful, it does come with some downsides in terms of speed. The pain lands, by virtue of entering the battlefield untapped, allow decks that want to use colorless mana access to enters-the-battlefield-untapped dual lands. If a deck wants to play two colors and colorless mana (as many of the black-red-colorless decks might), it gets some tri-lands. If it wants to run a monocolor deck and add colorless mana, then you just get dual lands that enter the battlefield untapped, as well as the option of using a lot of very strong utility lands, such as Tomb of the Spirit Dragon, Foundry of the Consuls, or Ruins of Oran-Rief.

Developing Colorless Cards

Probably the biggest challenge for getting the designs of the cards with colorless mana in their cost was figuring out their position in the color pie. While this is usually a job for design, these cards required a lot of work from development because, well, we had no idea where to start with them. As I mentioned earlier, we had a good amount of colorless mana fixing in Standard, but we also needed to make sure that these cards could be positioned in such a way that they wouldn't be overpowered when the fetch lands rotated out of the format. While we had some ideas from the design team, we quickly found that we needed to give the cards quite a bit of juice to get people to play decks that weren't so heavily based around the fetch/battle land mana base. But, with the fetch lands rotating out of Standard soon, we needed them to not be a lot stronger than anything we would be printing in a world that didn't have wedge cards. Let's just say it was quite the pickle.

The solution was to figure out the exact kinds of cards that would be good in this Standard, and make some of them colorless cards. This is where the big color pie questions came up. What did it mean to be "colorless" mana? What could these cards do? We could make them do what other colors did at a worse rate, but then people would just move to using cards of the other colors. No, the solution was to make designs that could solve real problems. For instance, both Warping Wail and Spatial Contortion kill Jace, Vryn's Prodigy. We wanted to give decks like Mono-Green Ramp the ability to use their Sanctum of Ugins and Shrine of the Forsaken Gods to deal with a Jace or a number of other threats. At the same time, those decks could get rewarded with powerful top-end ramp cards like World Breaker. Decks that want to trade off early can use Matter Reshaper. If you want a top-end card in an aggressive deck that can keep an opponent from using a wrath, then try including Thought-Knot Seer.

Once we had a good handle on what the cards should be doing, it was about finding the right decks for them. Of the decks that I think have the highest chance of showing up in Standard, green ramp with colorless mana and either a black-red or just black-colorless aggressive deck are at the top of the list. There is also some chance that I think we will end up seeing Eldrazi Displacer either killing tokens or blinking its own Siege Rhino or other utility creatures. In any case, I hope that you all enjoy playing with the colorless mana cards as much as we enjoyed getting them to work. I believe they will have a good impact on Standard, and maybe even some older formats.

That's it for this week. Join me next week when I talk about the role of Two-Headed Giant in the design and development for Oath of the Gatewatch.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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