Greetings and Extortions!

Posted in Latest Developments on January 4, 2013

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

It's Gavin Week here on!

Yes, that's right. In addition to Gatecrash previews, this week has a secret theme: a double dose of Gavin! In addition to my normal ReConstructed column, I am also writing Latest Developments this week! Like Flametongue Kavu, this is definitely a two-for-one I can get behind.

You might be wondering, "What is this poor schlub doing writing Latest Developments this week?" Well, I like to attribute it to a little design concept that I call "Gavin creep."

...but in case you don't buy into the idea of Gavin creep, there's another good reason: I was on the Gatecrash development team! Latest Developments articles for Gatecrash preview season is going to come to you straight from members of the team. This week kicks off with me, the development rookie; followed by Brand Manager Mark Purvis next week; and then finally with Dave Humpherys on the final week. (Dave also has a feature article this upcoming Monday as well.)

I'll let Dave Humpherys introduce you to the team in his feature article on Monday. In the meantime, I want to share with you some of my development experience on the set, with a focus on extort! Let's take a look.


Ever since being brought into R&D, I had wanted little more than to be put on a set. It wasn't long before my wish was granted. I came into R&D right as Return to Ravnica was entering Future Future League, and just a few weeks later I was put on the Line (Gatecrash) development team. It was time to hit the ground running, make tons of cards, and show everybody how well I could do my job, right?

...actually, it turns out that what I was mostly going to do was learn a lot about development.

Like anybody who enters R&D, I had a lot of excitement and enthusiasm. I thought I knew exactly how everything worked. I had read enough Making Magic and Latest Developments to know that, right?

Turns out, developing a set is a lot different than you might expect.

Just like it's easy once you have a high amount of football knowledge you think you know the right play a football coach should call, so too is it easy to think that once you have a high amount of Magic and game-design knowledge you should know how to develop sets. While you may have all of the tools in your mental toolbelt needed to develop a set, it's knowing how and when to use them together that's important. You wouldn't pick up a sawblade to nail in a hammer, would you?

Rather than explain it all, let me set just one scene that provides an example of this.

Call of the Nightwing | Art by Adam Paquette

You walk into a small meeting room for the first Gatecrash meeting. There are six of you in total. These are the six people who are going to have the largest impact on this set—a set that thousands upon thousands of people are going to play—from this point forward. For the next two hours, the discussion topic is going to be nothing but Gatecrash. The set's lead developer—Dave Humpherys—sits down and hands everyone a printout of all the cards design handed off in the set and a sheet about the set. You begin to get excited to look through them—but not yet.

First, it's time to talk about set goals and specifics. Dave covers everything. Which mechanics are in the set? What are our goals for the mechanics? How many multicolored cards are in the set? Is that the right number?

Finally, that discussion is settled. Everyone is sold on the basics of the set, with the exception that Orzhov's mechanic needs to be redesigned. It's been giving us trouble—but that's not a problem to be solved here. Your fingers flick the edges of the card file, scratching at it like it might be a winning lottery ticket as you wait to open it up. Your patience has held for long enough. What's the first task going to be? Killing cards? Making new cards? Talking about which rares we want to be Constructed playable?

What you hear next isn't quite what you're expecting.

Dave explains that it's time to go through a set pass and determine which cards you feel are safe to "concept"—that is, tell the flavor team and artists that they can go ahead and start working on the card.

Dave details how each set has two "waves" of concepting. One of them happens at the beginning of development, and the other happens later on. Cards have to be concepted this early to give the flavor team and especially the artists enough lead time to work on them. The goal for the rest of the meeting will be deciding which cards are least likely to change drastically in form and function so that they can be concepted.

Ozbedat Ghost Council | Art by Svetlin Velinov

You think to yourself, Why is this relevant to development? Isn't that the flavor team's problem?

As if Dave Humpherys is psychic (then again, you aren't totally convinced he isn't), he continues to explain. If a creature is concepted as having flying, or as a giant, or as a sneaky spy, or any number of imaginable things that are greater than minor details, that card needs to adhere to that concept. If a creature has flying in the art, you can't just remove flying from it in development or you'll end up with a cosmic tragedy like Whippoorwill.

That means that if, for example, you find Dimir has too many fliers for Limited and you've already concepted all of the fliers, tough luck—the only option at that point is to make some fliers weak. You can't take away flying, and the power and toughness needs to match the art appropriately—so you're left pushing the mana cost higher and higher. Concepting poorly could permanently mess up the Limited format.

Additionally, Magic has been most successful lately where flavor has integrated into the cards. It's up to development to make sure you preserve flavorful cards and give the creative team ample time.

Roughly half of the set has to be concepted by the end of the week. Much of the meeting time this week will not be spent deciding whether or not any given card is too powerful, but which cards are most likely to retain the same general shape. It's a challenge that will take you some time to wrap your head around.

Welcome to development.

Treasury Thrull | Art by Mark Zug

Concepting is something few people outside of R&D would ever really sit around and think about—let alone practice before entering R&D—but it's a very real development concern. And that's just one example of a unique function you have to do as a developer that I didn't even really consider at all before entering the building. Like anything else, with practice you become much better at this sort of thing—but a year ago, that was a mostly foreign concept.

Sure, some meetings are full of killing cards and designing new cards and debating over whether a weak-in-Limited common should have 3 or 4 toughness. But many others are full of concepting, pointing cards for Limited, and determining what fringe archetypes should exist. There was much for me to learn throughout Gatecrash development—and one of the big areas I could learn from was how we implemented our five mechanics.

Revving the Chainsaw

When everything goes perfectly, the handoff from design to development contains everything developers need to craft a Magic set. As Erik Lauer likes to say, "Designers use a paintbrush, being careful artists who populate a set with wonderful content. Developers, on the other hand, use a chainsaw, cutting things off left and right." In an ideal world, developers could just tweak the design handoff, fill some holes, and call it good.

However, we don't always live in an ideal world. First off, there still aren't vegetables that taste like ice cream. Second off, not everything that's handed off by design ends up working. In reality, quite a bit of it is cut off by developer chainsaws. Usually it's just cards—but occasionally, it'll be mechanics as well.

When the set was handed off, four of the five mechanics looked to be in good shape. Let's take a look over them:

Evolve was the brainchild of Ethan Fleischer and came from the Great Designer Search 2 with minimal tweaking. This mechanic was playing great and captured the essence of Simic very well.

Battalion was taken straight from Shawn Main's Great Designer Search 2 mechanic "assault," and it was also playing great. (This set, by the way, is the point where you really begin to feel the impact of the Great Designer Search 2 designers on Magic.) Hitting a critical mass for your army felt very Boros.

Bloodrush, originally called "ambush" in playtesting, was doing what we wanted the red-green mechanic to do: let you play a lot of creatures without losing spell slots. It also encouraged you to attack, which felt very Gruul.

Cipher, originally called "encode" in playtesting , was a very late addition in design and early devign, but we liked it a lot. It read powerfully and felt very Dimir. We kept some hints of the old "grind" mechanic—an ability that milled your opponents until they hit a land—in the set on a few cards, but unkeyworded it. There are definitely some good stories to talk about how we reached this mechanic—but that's a story for another day.

Instead, I want to focus on how extort came to be.

However, as I alluded to earlier, Orzhov's mechanic just wasn't working. I can't tell you what it was or Mark Rosewater will strike me from afar with throwing stars (little known fact: Mark Rosewater is actually in every episode of Roseanne, you just can't see him because of his aptitude as a ninja), but it needed replacement.

It's rare that an entire mechanic is missing from a set when development starts, so we quickly assembled a mini-team between designers and developers to work on it. How does that work? Well, everybody on the development and design teams could submit some options and then, after a few days of discussion and playtesting, one was settled on.

What were we looking for with this mechanic, specifically? Well, there were three key components this mechanic needed to make sure it hit.

  1. It needed to feel Orzhov. If you'll notice, a running theme behind every single one of the other mechanics in the set is that it felt like not only the color combination, but the guild as well. We needed something that felt resoundingly Orzhov.
  2. It needed to be a "mana sink" mechanic. By that, I mean a mechanic that allowed you to spend extra mana for some sort of effect. We quickly noticed in early playtests that the set was a little short on ways to use extra lands. It's crucial there are enough of those in sets for a few reasons, but especially so extra lands are given function and you can make interesting decisions with the number of lands you choose to play.
  3. It wasn't all about attacking. Three of the other mechanics encouraged attacking, so we didn't need yet another mechanic that rewarded attacking. Something that could be used defensively would be nice.

After trying out several mechanics, we finally settled on extort—which made it through nearly exactly as you see it today.

It hits all three notes well. Draining the opponent—1 life point at a time—felt quite Orzhov and on theme, while it could be used aggressively it could also be used defensively, and it was a tiny mana sink that prompted interesting decisions.

There was a bit of a discussion of whether it could be used on mono-white cards since it drained the opponent, which is not something white normally does, but eventually it was decided the black mana symbol in the text box—even though optional—made it feel Orzhov enough to do on even a mono-white card.

The only change we made to Shawn Main's initial extort design was making it more powerful in multiplayer late in development based on some Commander feedback. How so? We changed it to "each opponent" rather than "target opponent." If you enjoy draining all of your opponents and gaining a ton of life, rejoice!

(Un)Limited Power

Extort looks quite unassuming at first—1 life is typically not a lot in Magic. People crack fetch lands without a second thought, and we live in a world where the default mode for most Ravnica dual lands is untapped. However, we quickly discovered that extort was a lot more powerful than any of us anticipated. Quite often, you would have one mana around to spare, and the life really added up quickly.

In Limited play, extort rapidly became the favorite Limited mechanic for many internal players. It rewarded people who could play well and identify when to play their spells on curve and when to wait to extort; it wasn't always clear whether to extort or not. It could either stabilize you over time to get you out of the range of a burn spell or perhaps be the force that eliminated your opponent's last few points of life.

Extort really begins to shine in multiples. If you control two cards with extort, suddenly all of your spells can start draining your opponent for 2 life! At that point, the pushing force of extort really starts to become a problem for your opponent. It's great for beatdown decks and control decks alike.

My favorite thing about extort is that—just like Orzhov's tiny taxes—it doesn't feel like anything is happening.

Just 1 life here, 1 life there—nobody notices it going directly into your coffers. And then one turn, you ask your opponent what life total he or she is at... and the confident smile breaks as your opponent looks down at his or her lifepad and sees he or she somehow dropped to 12 life and your 3-power flier is just four attacks away from victory.

Art by Art by Chris Rahn

After a few playtests, we knew extort was perfect for Limited. Constructed, on the other hand, was where we needed to make sure it worked as well.

Cranking Extort for Constructed

In Limited play, you often have the time or flexibility to use an extra mana to extort your opponent, and even if you can't the card extort is on is probably reasonable to play anyway. Constructed is a much different animal.

In Constructed, every mana counts. Most decks are optimized to curve out and tap all of their mana every turn, giving you few windows in which to extort. And while a two-mana 2/2 with extort is great in Limited because the 2/2 body is fine on its own even if you can't extort often, in Constructed it's not nearly as exciting. Furthermore, the 1 life matters even less in Constructed, where games aren't as much of a "game of inches" as in Limited.

We knew that, while extort was pulling plenty of weight in Limited, we were going to have to make some seriously juicy cards to get the mechanic into Constructed.

Fortunately, making juicy cards is something we can do.

What if an extort card helped make all of your extort costs free? And, what if in the process, you could also quickly ramp into some insane spells? How strong does having access to ten mana on turn five sound to you?

Well, in R&D, our imaginations tend to become reality. Take a look at Crypt Ghast!

>> Click to Show

This four-drop extort creature packs a serious punch. In a mono-black deck, he just straight up doubles all of your mana. Turn-five Griselbrand, anyone?

Want to play more colors? Well, we made sure he also worked well with the Ravnica dual lands! If you want to play an Orzhov deck, all of your Godless Shrines still tap for an extra mana—even if you tap them for white. Even if you don't have anything titanic to cast, he still helps pay for all of your extort costs by kindly handing you an extra mana.

There are a few other exciting extort rares for Constructed in the set—including an enchantment that helps answer several cards that are at the peak of Standard right now. You'll want to make sure to tune back into the Gatecrash Card Image Gallery to see them as they're added!

The Mysterious and the Orzhobvious

A new set brings many questions—and each new mechanic is one of them. It's still not completely clear what role extort will play in the upcoming Standard season, but I wouldn't be surprised if Crypt Ghast was part of it. As far as Limited play goes, I know I talked extort up a lot in this article for Limited—but don't take my word for it. Give it a try in the upcoming Prerelease and see its power for yourself!

If you liked this article, hated this article, enjoy extort, think Crypt Ghast is ruining Magic, or simply have any comments in general, I'd love to hear it! Feel free to use the "email the author" button below and I'll read through any comments you have. I'll also be reading all of the posts in the forums, and you can always catch me on Twitter.

Also, if you'd like to see more of me on Latest Developments in the future, be sure to let my editor know (@Trickmtg on Twitter). If you enjoyed this, I'd be happy to come back and do an occasional piece from time to time.

Next week, Mark Purvis will be joining you to talk about a card that's very near and dear to his heart. (And slightly less near and dear to the hearts of people who have to play against it.) And, as usual, you can catch me at my Tuesday ReConstructed slot. See you then!


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