The M Files: Khans of Tarkir, Part 1

Posted in Latest Developments on September 19, 2014

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.

Welcome to the M Files, where Sam goes through the Multiverse database to see what people had to say about cards during their design and development.

As the Prerelease approaches, it's time to visit that most mysterious of places: the M Files, where we go through the Multiverse (the database we use to manage our card files) and see what people had to say about cards during their design and development.

But first, our trusty cast of characters:


EVL: Erik Lauer—head developer and lead developer of Khans of Tarkir

MR: Mark Rosewater—head designer and lead designer of Khans of Tarkir

AF: Aaron Forsythe—senior director for Magic


BH: Ben Hayes—developer

DE: Dan Emmons—former Magic designer

DH: Dave Humphreys—development manager


EEF: Ethan Fleischer—Magic designer

Max: Max McCall—former Magic digital developer

ID: Ian Duke—Magic developer


Ken: Ken Nagle—Magic designer, lover of fatties

SPS: Sam Stoddard—Magic developer; also, that's a-me!

TML: Tom LaPille—Magic Online digital designer


SM: Shawn Main—Magic designer

DB: Doug Beyer—Magic senior creative designer

TABAK: Matt Tabak—he is the Rules


Del: Del Laugel—editing manager

SW: Steve Warner—former Duel Masters/Kaijudo and Magic playtester

MJ: Mons Johnson—Duel Masters/Kaijudo developer and Magic playtester

And now, onto the set:

Kill Shot

EVL 7/24: 2W → 1W
EVL 9/6: After a month of playing it at 1W, it was more fun at 2W, so changing it back

One of the important distinctions we make in R&D is finding out not just where cards should be for power, but where they should be to be maximally fun in their environment. In this case, Kill Shot was pretty strong at1W for Limited, but not out of bounds…but we found that the environment as a whole was just more fun when the card was 2W, so we moved it back.

Wingmate Roc

DB 7/15/2013: I kind of want it to "Stangg" (make a token copy of itself) as a raid bonus. That might not be white though.
SM 7/23/13: Wish this leveled up to something that looked different than Baneslayer. Stangg idea sounds fun.
KEN 7/24/2013: It does read like "work for it" Baneslayer. Could have bigger numbers all around, more like Furyborn Hellkite?
DE 7/25/13: Doesn't feel mythic rare
EVL 7/25: OK, changing to Doug's idea.
Del 8/8: Raid ability was missing a trigger condition. Guessed ETB.
DH 8/9: Looks very strong but I'm probably overoptimistic about Raid.
SPS 8/14: Lammasu!
EVL 8/21: 4/4, loses lifelink.
DH 8/28: Needs some trinket text.
DB 9/11/2013: "Tap an untapped Bird you control: Target creature gains flying UEOT." Swoop!
TML 9/11/2013: I feel like this card is just a little high on impact still. I'd suggest 2WWW if we weren't in wedge land.
SW 9/24: It would be nice if the trinket text was something that went up with the card, IE, whenever this attacks gain 2 life. Or gain 1 life for each creature attacking etc.
EVL 10/14: ETB gain 1 life per creature you control.
EVL 10/23: 4/4 → 3/3
EVL 10/25: Now an attack trigger
TML 11/1/2013: Both creatures to 3/4.
Del 11/12: Confirm that this shouldn't count your teammate's attackers in 2HG?
EVL 11/13: Counting teammate's attackers is better.

Wingmate Roc went through a lot of permutations until we finally found the version we liked. Making mythic rares is hard because the cards need to feel mythic rare—which has a kind of special oomph that is pretty hard to quantify. We don't just make our most powerful cards mythic rare, although many of the most powerful cards in Limited are the mythic rares in the set. The goal is to make something that will turn heads, and after a lot of searching I think we got the Roc to the right spot. Even if it stopped being a Lammasu.

Clever Impersonator

EVL 7/9: New card (Josh Jelin)
EEF 7/23/13: This is a pretty exciting mythic rare. Copy a Planeswalker? Cool!
KEN 7/24/2013: Nice! I wonder if it's better to debut this as a Planeswalker's ability.
TML 8/22/2013: I prefer this as is.
TML 10/14/2013: Starting to wonder if Clone gets to be four mana these days. Wondering about "an opponent controls".
ID 11/6/13: Not looking forward to a penny with a d10 on it representing a Planeswalker. I'd really like to make generic clone tokens at some point.
MR 11/20/13: Is this better as a creature that can copy target permanent? I'd really rather have a card marker than a penny or glass bead.
TML 11/20/2013: Now nonland.
EVL 11/21: Now a shapeshifter.

Josh Jelin was an analyst who worked for us a few years ago, who was pretty good at filling hole submissions. He also created Master of Waves. He has since gone back to school, graduated, and moved on to Google, where he will probably be making fewer Magic cards. We like to use as much input from people around the company as we can, and hole filling is a good spot where we can let people's imaginations run rampant. It also gives us ideas for cards that we might not have come across in the Pit.

This particular one works great as a mythic rare because it is a pretty simple line of text, but one we haven't done before. It stopped being a token, for the reason Ian pointed out, and lost the ability to target lands, because it was both confusing and made the card a little more powerful than we wanted.

Dig Through Time

EVL 6/26: New
DH 7/3: Delve is hard to evaluate. The first one you draw always seems so good in theory. This looks good for control, post-Revelation.
SPS 8/13: this card is super confusing when you do it for one, for what it's worth. Feels like a lot of card draw in the set.
DH/16: Could say X can't be 0 or 1, shrug. Not pretty but we did similarly on Mind Grind.
EVL 8/16: added another U
EVL 10/25: Currently not an X spell.
EVL 10/25: Trying as a fixed number. Looking at 7, putting 2 into your hand. Initially trying as costing 4UUU.
FFL 10/30/2013: Trying three cards instead of two.
TML 11/1/2013: Adding two mana in meeting.
SW 11/4: It's odd that there is this, and banquet of pleasures, both seem to be 9 mana draw 3 spells.
TML 11/11/2013: Does something different now.
EVL 11/13: 6UU
TML 11/20/2013: Trying at seven mana again for a bit.
EVL 12/2: Back to 6UU

The original version of this spell was XUUU look at a X, put two in your hand. This obviously did very weird things when X was at 0 or 1, but writing "X must be at least two" felt like a weird thing to put on a card. In the end, though, we were coming off of two years of Sphinx's Revelation and wanted this card to fill a similar role of giving the control decks a real "turn the corner" type of card that could let them set up their mid- to late-game shift, but we didn't want it to just feel like a wimpy version of that card. Going with a fixed number let us keep the cost (relatively) low, while getting the control decks to dig for the right number of cards.

Jeskai Windscout

SM 4/18/13: New kung fu.
TML 5/30/2013: Your new kung fu is impressive! You have learned much!

Prowess was originally called kung fu, which while a more fun name, put it both too close to the real-world version and would've made it impossible for us to print in another setting—a mistake we made with bushido.

Pearl Lake Ancient

EVL 11/26: New card for FFL
EVL 2/3: I removed prowess.
Del 2/13: Prowess returns.

As Erik mentioned in his preview card article, the prowess was removed because we felt the card was powerful enough without it, but put back on because of how obnoxious it was when two of these were staring at each other. Prowess means that if they rumble, there is a really good chance that one is going to end up either in the graveyard or in somebody's hand, making sure the game will come to an eventual end.

Riverwheel Aerialists

SPS 8/14: SO MANY LAMMASU
Del 8/23: I'm only seeing two plus a token.

While Del is right, in my defense we were tripling the number of Lammasu ever printed at that point. JUST SO MANY. We were so worried about Lammasu creep that we changed them all to other things. Lammasu creep is a real thing.

Wetland Sambar

EVL 6/13: Blue needed a vanilla.
DB 6/21/2013: CU01 is an 0/3 for U with upside.
EVL 6/21: Good point. New vanilla!

Elk creep is a real thing.

Bellowing Saddlebrute

SM 4/18/13: Raid offsets downside.
SPS 6/3/13: I like this take on raid!
TML 10/18/2013: Now a 4/5.

I was happy that we managed to do different things with raid. This downside offset is a minor thing, but I think goes a long way to making the mechanic feel more robust in the set.

Dead Drop

SM 4/2/13: New card to play with delve.
TML 5/30/2013: The more I look at this, the more unsatisfyingly biodomey it looks.
EVL 6/20: New card intended to be weak enough to excite Johnny.
BH 6/20: Exciting.
TML 6/26/2013: Ari crushed me with this. I think it's probably about right.

Johnny doesn't want cards to just be powerful—he wants them to have powerful effects, but difficult enough to use that he can feel clever when he actually manages to do the thing. For that reason, Dead Drop remained at a pretty high cost, both for Limited balancing and to give Johnny a really cool thing to do. Also, to reveal to Riddle of Lightning. Pew-pew!

Debilitating injury

SM 1/11/13: Weakness → -1/-1 cache
SM 3/22/13: Back to Weakness (no cache)
AF 6/4: Weakness has some caché!
Del 8/23: Hurray for usable Weakness art that shows weakness!
EVL 9/3: Replaced weakness; black needed a -2 toughness effect.
EVL 10/24: 2B → 1B to try and slow down Limited a bit.

Cache was one of the early mechanics tried out in the set. The later changes to the card were intended to balance Limited, which is very much based around the shape of the common removal—something I plan on writing about in a few weeks.

Dutiful Return

EVL 6/12: Now delve.
SPS 7/6: I dislike the ordering of operations on this. I feel people will exile their targets, esp on Magic Online
EVL 7/17: No longer uses delve.

It may not seem like a big deal, but a lot of making the game as fun as possible is making sure that "misclicks" scenarios are hard to do. The original version of this card cost more mana, but had delve. But we realized that you would be able to announce your targets, then accidentally eat them. Rather than lead to that disappointment, we went with a new wording—one that made it a functional reprint.

Empty the Pits

DH 6/24: Guessing this is undercosted. It was 9 2/2s on turn 6 against me in sealed today.

First version was XBB.

TML 6/26/2013: This has to be wrong. XXBBB?
EVL 6/28: First attempt at re-pricing.

At this point, it moved to a fixed cost for a fixed number of Zombies.

DH 7/3: Still looks scary to me. Seems pretty easy for turn 3 if any 1-2 mana enablers are in the format, esp with fetches.
KEN 7/17/2013: Looks powerful with fetch lands and any Tolarian Winds-like card.
EVL 8/14: 6BB → 5BBB
EVL 8/15: Now trying XBB for X zombies.
EVL 8/16: Now XXBB EVL 8/21: Trying the bizarre XXXB to figure out how delve works.
SM 9/11/13: Understand XXX is a test, but it makes the math very difficult.
SW 9/20: With this being a mythic rare should this at least be instant?
DH 10/11: This would be way too scary a finisher for a control deck as an instant. Tap one mana with permission back-up is already solid I think given Supreme Verdict leaves.
TML 10/14/2013: I definitely want the turn delay.
TML 11/1/2013: Instant!
EVL 12/2: XXBB
EVL 12/6: XXBBBB

I wrote about this in my preview article for Empty the Pits here, but here is a more detailed look at all the permutations the card went through before we finally ended up on XXBBBB. And yes, I think the card needed it. We wanted it to be a powerful finisher, but to make sure it had enough weaknesses that it wasn't the only card controls decks go to, and I think we accomplished that.

Rotting Mastodon

EVL 6/12: Black needed a vanilla.
TML 10/18/2013: Lost a mana. Sorry, Catacomb Slug!

More rampant power creep at work.

Ruthless Ripper

SM 9/11/13: Could this maybe be a B 1/1? Right now black doesn't have a 1-drop at common or uncommon for raid decks.
EVL 9/16: good idea
TML 10/14/2013: That is a fantastic upgrade.
MR 11/20/13: This is my favorite morph in the set. I always feel happy unmorphing it.

We wanted to a have a real variety of sizes on morphs to help make the game of whether to block or not interesting. In this case, Ruthless Ripper not only punishes people who block or attack into it with their large creatures, it also gives extra value when they happen to kill it. The base card itself isn't very exciting, but the package works out beautifully.

Arc Lightning

SM 10/12/12: New card.
SM 3/28/13: Now old card.
EVL 8/25: Arc TrailForked Bolt (FFL).
EVL 8/28: Forked BoltArc lightning (FFL)
KEN 9/19/2013: Arc Lightning is superfun. There's a guessing game to deal 2 or 3 damage to morph.

An oldie but goodie that we just kept going back to. Sometimes, you do get it right the first time. It's just a matter of testing the other options until you realize that.

Arrow Storm

EVL 7/17: Now extra damage.
MJJ 8/14: 1 extra damage doesn't feel like enough to justify the rules text, imo. Perhaps non-regenerate clause?
TML 11/19/2013: This and the previous card both feel slightly funny with their "one more damage" clauses. We cut things pretty thin in Magic-land these days. It's probably right, but I find myself wanting to avoid these designs if these are the right numbers (which I think they are).
EVL 12/10: Adding anti damage prevention to the raid clause.

One of the ways we make Limited fun and interesting is figuring out how marginal we can make upgrades on cards for doing a thing, and still get people to do the things they ask for. Attacking is a pretty low bar, and the jump from 4 to 5 damage matters enough that we were pretty happy with it, but it did leave some playtesters feeling like this card in particular wasn't doing enough. Adding the anti-regeneration text didn't come up in a lot of games, but it helped them feel better about the card as a whole—which is also very important to the final presentation.

Monastery Swiftspear

SM 3/28/13: New kung fu.
SM 4/18/13: Newer kung fu.
TML 5/30/2013: Newest kung fu!
SPS 6/3/13: Hi-ya! Should Kung Fu have a number? Any value in creatures with Kung Fu 2?

Early in development, we weren't sure what numbers prowess (then called kung fu) would need to work for Limited. We tried the landfall-like number of +2/+2, but found that while triggering it the first time in a turn was harder than landfall, the turns where you could cast two or even three spells a turn were just too backbreaking. It made the entire mechanic feel like we were printing Overrun at common. Eventually, we moved back to the wording we have today, and left off the number to simplify the mechanic.

Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker

EVL 9/4: He was too fast. Now a 4/4 that deals 4 damage, with more loyalty.
SM 9/11/13: Like Sarkhan so much better now that he has a plus. Excited about the card.
TML 9/18/2013: Some concern in FFL meeting that Sarkhan mirror is weird.
Tabak 9/15: You can use the first ability, Clone him, use the new one's first ability, and attack with both. Fun fix (if this needs fixing): legendary 4/4 red Dragon creature!

Sarkhan turning into a creature led to some interesting possibilities that we weren't expecting: namely that for flavor reasons, since he stopped being a Planeswalker (unlike Gideon) he could have two copies on the battlefield at the same time! We fixed that, and I think the card ended up in about the right space.


That's it for this week. Come back next week for the rest of the M Files, with green, gold, and colorless cards.

Until next time,
Sam (@samstod)

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