The Heroes Who Cried Battle

Posted in Latest Developments on February 11, 2011

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.

Today is the end of Battle Cry Week. Mark Rosewater talked during the first MIrrodin Besieged preview week about the genesis of the battle cry mechanic. I was on the Mirrodin Besieged development team, so I'll be picking up the story after that mechanic was given to us.

Battle cry was one of the odder mechanics I've dealt with as part of a development team in terms of process. The decision to add it was made well after the preliminary design handoff. Rather than being handed a bunch of cards that use the mechanic, we just got a mechanic, and were told to go ahead and make some cards. That's not our usual process, but by then development had done enough work that we all thought it would be best for the people who were closest to the file to be making the card that had to be fit in somehow.

With that decision made, we sat in a room and had a fevered bout of card-making. Then, we played with them a lot, and they changed. I'll go through them card-by-card.

Loxodon Partisan started life exactly as it was eventually printed. As it turns out, five mana is about the right place for a common battle cry creature. Why would I say that, you might ask? Let's move on to the next card.

It was clear that we wanted a common battle cry creature in both red and white. While we guessed correctly about what the white one should be early on, the red one was a subject of much more debate. We started with this text box, except that it cost and was a 1/1. As you might guess, the card was pretty nice, allowing some super-fast wins and cool decks in Constructed. It was so nice that some people thought it was too nice, and wanted it weakened.

Even ignoring the power level concerns, there were a few problems with this. One was that it was not actually a very good Limited card. We want our commons to be things that show off the new mechanics, but if our red common battle cry creature wasn't good enough to play in Limited, that job wasn't getting done. A second problem is that from a design perspective, battle cry creatures want to be at the top of the curve, not the bottom. It feels better to have a bunch of creatures out already when you first attack with a battle cry creature, and it feels silly to attack with a lone battle cry creature on turn one. The third thing we learned was that an efficient one-mana battle cry creature was going to be important to getting battle cry into Constructed. It was so important, in fact, that limiting that to red only seemed wrong.

The solution was to move this card to four mana so that it could come out after a few other creatures, be bigger, and be strong enough to play in Limited. Later on, the mythic rare red battle cry creature moved to four mana, and this one swapped up to five. It was equally satisfying at both numbers, as there was time to get a bunch of other creatures in play beforehand.

This card's story is over, but the one-mana creature story isn't. I'll get back to that in a bit.

I wish I had a better story about this card, but I don't. First, Erik made the numbers. Then, we were all surprised at how good it was. Then, we thought it might be a little too good. Then, we got better at building all the other decks in the format and it seemed all right. Then, we printed it. Hooray!

Thinking about Goblin Wardriver causes me to remember a lot of contentious pit discussion; but the story of what happened with the card is oddly short for how much conflict I remember around it. The first version of the card had different numbers, cost three mana, and had haste. The numbers were a little generous, but the real discussion was about whether haste was a good idea on a cheap battle cry creature at all. People were effectively losing Constructed games basically out of nowhere on turn three, and it made tapping out for a Sphere of the Suns on turn two into a seriously risky proposition. The conclusion we came to was that a battle cry creature with haste was something that we could do, but not that cheaply.

The idea for the simple card we ended up making here came from both Erik and creative manager Brady Dommermuth simultaneously. An efficient goblin with battle cry would have obvious appeal to players with goblin decks, so we made one. It still starts to cry battle on turn three, and it's strong enough for Constructed. If you want haste, you can just follow this up with Goblin Chieftan.

Okay, let's return to the one-mana battle-cry creature story. As I said before, we discovered that a one-mana battle-cry creature was important enough that keeping it to only one color might be a mistake. That meant we had to make it an artifact. Our first version of this was a simple one mana 0/1. Over time, I came to the conclusion that this card was okay, but that it could use marginally more juice. Not everyone agreed with me, but part of that was that we couldn't come up with the right juice to give it.

Late in development, I led a small task force consisting of myself, Kelly Digges, Matt Tabak, and Mark Purvis that went over the Mirran commons and uncommons to give them a little more Mirrodin-ish texture. Part of that time was spent going over art descriptions. The art description at the time for this card had it as a little mechanical spy swinging through trees, which immediately made me think of Treetop Bracers. I suggested that we give it that text. The team's response was lukewarm, but I was amused enough that I passed it along to Erik anyway. When I showed him the art description that inspired the idea, he was equally tickled, and the card changed. Testing showed that this was about the right amount of juice.

The last part of this card's story is a bit anticlimactic. The art description changed, and now Signal Pest is no longer swinging through trees, but somehow can only be swooped down on from above. Oops. At least we found the right power level.

I'm only now realizing an interesting pattern: our white battle cry creatures went through without much modification, while our red ones went through a lot of iterations. Erik knew exactly what he wanted out of this slot, so he didn't really give us much choice in the meeting when we made it. This was going to create attacking tokens. He knew that the timing interactions were a little goofy, and players would need to stack the two triggers correctly for the attacking creatures to get the bonus, but that was what he wanted to do. It ended up playing very fun, so we kept it.

On the other hand, this card was a bit challenging to cost. We are getting pretty good at costing cards that have "enters the battlefield" triggers, but we don't have as instinctive an understanding of how much an attack trigger should cost. You always get an enters-the-battlefield trigger while an attack trigger can be prevented with a simple Go For the Throat or Doom Blade, so the attack trigger is worth less mana, but by how much? Our first guess at its numbers were a little generous, as it was a 4/3 with vigilance for the same cost. After some testing, and experiencing just how powerful the attack trigger is when it goes off, we removed vigilance and made it only have 3 power, but gave it a fourth toughness so it survives Lightning Bolt. I think that made the card less powerful overall, but it may have made it better in this particular Standard environment. Time will tell.

Hero of Oxid Ridge, rather than being a story about how the card really wanted to be this way, is a story of engineering solutions to a problem. It has a line of text that looks a little strange to some people on first read. Like most things Erik does, there's a good reason for it.

While we were working on Mirrodin Beseiged, one of the stronger decks we had in Standard with just Scars was a white-blue control deck that had a huge pile of planeswalkers that it would set up behind Wall of Omens and Sea Gate Oracle. Those, combined with Gideon Jura's +2 ability, made it rather difficult to attack a white-blue player for damage successfully, let alone take down a planeswalker. Another strong player in our pre-Mirrodin Besieged format at the time was a Matt Place-built green-white deck that played Fauna Shaman, Squadron Hawk, and Vengevine. Both of these decks were very good at throwing tons of small creatures onto the battlefield very quickly, which we discovered was trouble for the kind of fast red deck that Goblin Wardriver encouraged.

Erik wanted fast red decks like that to be possible, and decreed that our red mythic battle cry creature would need to help them, and specifically it should help them get past piles of low-power creatures. That made haste obvious. For a while we experimented with a trigger that destroyed creatures of power 1 or less, but that was a little bit crushing. Also, it seemed more fun to make a creature with a better cost-to-stats ratio. We tried the can't-block line of text that is on the card now instead, and we were satisfied that this was enough to give the red decks what they needed.

In the end, the two decks we engineered Hero of Oxid Ridge to deal with were never really dominant. That's okay. He's still a fine card, and has already had more tournament success than most cards can claim. Also, he'll still be around for a while, and if a deck like the white-blue or green-white decks I was talking about become something your red deck needs to deal with, he'll be happy to help.

Speaking of battling, one of the most high-tension matches of Magic that will be played this year will be webcast live at 3 a.m. Eastern time on Saturday morning. That match, between Brad Nelson and Guillaume Matignon, the two co-winners of last year's Pro Tour Player of the Year race, will determine which of them actually wins the Player of the Year title. I'm in Seattle, so that's midnight between Friday and Saturday for me. I'll be staying up tonight to watch it.

Of course, that's hardly the only excitement going on this weekend at Magic Weekend Paris. There's a Standard Pro Tour going on, and a Grand Prix. I'm sure there are all kinds of fun event coverage things going on right now. Why not go over and check it out?

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