The Question of Life and Death

Posted in Latest Developments on January 11, 2013

By Mark Purvis

"How we deal with death is at least as important as how we deal with life, wouldn't you say?"
—Captain James T. Kirk,
Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan

The question of life and death comes up often in R&D when developing a Magic set. In recent years, R&D has been pushing the power level of creatures, but it will always be important to have access to spells that kill those creatures, lest they get out of hand and turn every game into a no-fun, "no-win scenario." The balance between creatures and removal is one of the most important things to get right in a set in order to make it a success.

In the first few months of 2012, I was spending a lot of time in R&D's Pit, contemplating "matters of life and death" in Gatecrash. I don't get to spend time in the Pit very often. The Pit is the part of the building where mechanics are painstakingly invented and cards are rigorously tested by professional Magic designers and developers. I'm a brand manager for Magic, so I spend most of my time an entire floor up from the Pit in the brand area. That's the part of the building where marketing plans
and business processes are painstakingly written and rigorously implemented by business professionals.

But R&D has an unwritten policy of bringing in an outsider to serve on each design or development team and, for Gatecrash, that was me. But don't get me wrong—an R&D outsider doesn't mean a Magic outsider! My friend Lee taught me how to play Magic in the fall of 1994, so I'm certainly not new to the game. I've played a lot of Magic in the last eighteen years, but it was usually done at an FNM, a Prerelease, or a kitchen table.

Most of the people on development teams in R&D have some experience as professional Magic players, and one of their main concerns is creating an exciting but balanced set for competitive play. I felt my job on the development team was to represent the casual player and fight to make the set fun for people at every skill level.

Working on Gatecrash would mean a chance to work on a team where Pro Tour Hall of Famer Dave Humpherys would be lead developer. I would be able to learn how to develop a Magic set from one of the very best at Wizards of the Coast. Dave is a pretty thoughtful guy, and he runs a democratic-style development team where he listens to any reasonable input or any cause championed by individual members. That feeling of being able to contribute is important when you're doing all of your development work after hours and on the weekends in addition to your normal job duties.

It also meant that I would be able to help shape the cards in my favorite guild: Boros. I've always loved the versatility of tools available to a red-white deck! They can deploy efficient creatures; cast devastating, board-clearing spells; and can use pinpoint removal to eliminate any kind of permanent.

As many readers know, the design team for a set generally comes up with the themes and mechanics of the set, and the development team polishes the specific cards to a point where the set is exciting and fun, but still reasonably balanced in both Limited and Constructed play. We use playtesting, internal polling, and more playtesting to determine what cards are the
most fun, what guilds are overpowered, and what balance tweaks
can be made to improve different aspects of the set.

Development teams actually end up creating a lot of new cards in a set, too. Probably more than most people would expect! Although the modification of set mechanics in development is rare, it's not unusual for as many as half of the cards to be created or modified by a development team.

The Gatecrash design team handed off a wonderful set to us, with intriguing new mechanics that fit very flavorfully with each of their associated guilds. As soon as the development team received the handoff, we began to play with the set, and it was pretty great to play right out of the gate! A properly drafted Dimir deck felt appropriately sneaky and powerful. Gruul decks threw out large beasts that could quickly go on a rampage and smash face. Simic decks harnessed the power of bizarre life forms that were growing wildly out of control.

But after a few drafts, one thing was nagging at me: the removal spells. This was the set of Orzhov and Boros, two guilds that should be ruthlessly efficient at eliminating pesky individuals standing in the way of their guilds' ultimate goals. Many of the removal cards in the set were what I called "conditional" removal spells: Spells that required the target to meet some pre-existing condition before they would work. A perfect example of what I would call a "conditional" removal spell is Ultimate Price from Return to Ravnica. It's an efficient kill spell, as long as your target meets the condition of being monocolored. Murder from Magic 2013 , on the other hand, doesn't care about any of the traits of whatever it is that is getting run through with the long sword.

Ultimate Price

Conditional removal spells are important to a set's identity, and many of them are quite good (in the right circumstances). My concern was with how many existed in the early Gatecrash file, because they set up some frustrating play situations which were decidedly "un-fun" for me.

I recall one early playtest game where I was playing "Borzhov" (white-black-red, my favorite three colors to draft in Gatecrash), and one of these frustrating situations came up. I was at 5 life and was staring down an opponent's 5/5 Deathpact Angel. I had just used my last flying blocker to keep myself alive for one more turn, but now my skies were wide open and I needed a miracle. On my turn, I drew a conditional removal spell with the playtest name Sniper Fire, and it was the third conditional removal spell in my hand:

  1. A card with the playtest name Vigilante Justice, which would have killed the Angel, but could only target a creature that did damage to you this turn.
  2. Ultimate Price. Yes, this card was in Gatecrash originally. And yes, even then it couldn't kill Deathpact Angel (at the time it was actually called Punish the Unguilded and read "destroy target creature that isn't two colors").
  3. A card with the playtest name Sniper Fire that I'd just drawn, which did damage to attacking or blocking creatures, but not enough damage to kill the Angel without help from a flying blocker.

Ultimate Price was a blank against the Angel, since she's both black and white. Vigilante Justice would have worked perfectly to kill the Angel, but I'd have to let her do 5 damage to me first, and I was at 5 life. Sniper Fire would have worked in combination with just about any flying blocker, but I'd just used my last flier to block the Angel last turn so I wouldn't lose the game then.

You can see how this might be frustrating.

With the goal of eliminating such situations, I began to lobby the development team to improve removal in the set. Dave Humpherys had already worked with the Return to Ravnica development team to swap Ultimate Price for another removal spell before I began my crusade, which did make a difference. I also successfully lobbied the team to drop the condition "to you" from Vigilante Justice, so now that axe can fall on any creature that deals damage (similar to how Avenging Arrow now works). Despite these changes, I still felt like Boros was missing a big removal spell, and Dave Humpherys had challenged me to come up with options.

Art by Tyler Jacobson

I spent a couple of weeks trying to think of creative new removal spells, but I wasn't entirely happy with any of my efforts. My Orzhov ideas were too similar to existing cards. My Boros ideas were often a mix of damage and lifegain, a combination of effects which R&D had dubbed "Pink Bolt," a term I first heard Dave Guskin use. I later learned that Pink Bolt was Lightning Helix’s playtest name. There were already several Pink Bolt effects for Boros in Gatecrash, including the awesome war Angel, Firemane Avenger.

When you combine the kinetic energy and raw emotion of red with the absolute order and discipline of white, a Planeswalker should be able to channel that energy into a powerful, versatile, awesome removal spell. After struggling to come up with spells that had traits that were both white and red, I decided to tackle the problem from another direction. Instead of trying to think up a removal spell that embodied both red and white, I asked myself: "What spell would the military of a city-world need to pacify large groups of (possibly spell-casting) denizens of Ravnica?"

One day, midway through development, the team had decided to kill a Boros rare spell that wasn't working out. Dave Humpherys asked the team to think about submissions to fill the hole in the set, and I saw a chance to test out an idea that had been rattling around my brain since thinking about what the Boros military needed. The idea I submitted was a spell called I called Stun Ray:

I thought that this spell would be the perfect tool for Boros. It could be used to "stun" a large crowd of unruly denizens, really put the hurt on a small gang of criminals, or utterly incinerate one really problematic foe. I also thought it was awfully powerful, and I was pleased when Dave Humpherys decided to put it into the set for the next round of playtesting. As a Star Trek fan, it also tickled me that it had many of the same "settings" as Captain Kirk's phaser.

Things evolved pretty quickly for Stun Ray after that! On advice from the FFL, the wording was tweaked to allow players to cast creature spells after being hit. Another change for it was the promotion to mythic rare.

You see, when contemplating life and death in a Magic set, there are a couple things to tweak. The first is the quality of the individual removal spells in the set, and that had been increased. But you don't want the balance between life and death to tip too far the other way! If removal spells are cheap and plentiful, players who are excited to play their awesome creatures can have equally frustrating games where after each one hits the board, it is eliminated by cheap, plentiful removal.

Stun Ray was proving to be one of the more devastating removal spells in the set. By promoting it to mythic rare from rare, the development team was turning another knob at its disposal: How often the card would show up in any given Draft or Sealed Deck. As a mythic rare, it is unlikely that any Boros drafter at a table of eight would have more than one of these spells at his or her disposal.

Toward the end of development, the file was handed off to the creative team, who gave it the placeholder name "Archangel's Vitriol." A team of name and flavor text writers set about creating the final names for each card, and it changed to be more Boros-specifc. Behold Aurelia's Fury!

>> Click to Show

In Sealed and Draft playtests, it was simply a bomb. This you can probably tell just by reading the card! If you get in early damage with a wave of cheap creatures, you can often finish an opponent off by stunning all of his or her creatures at the end of his or her turn, and then sending your army of cheap creatures over the sleeping defenders for the win on your turn. Or, if you've whittled down your opponent enough, you can channel all of Aurelia's Fury onto a single player, where X is his or her life total. It's a perfect finisher for a Boros deck!

But I found that its correct application is rarely so obvious. I've struggled in the midgame with interesting choices that this card creates. Should I stun my opponent's team and sneak in a big chunk of (nonlethal) damage? Or should use it to flat-out kill one or two of his or her creatures? Or is the correct play to hold it until I have enough mana to cast it to win the game?

It's these questions of life and death that sometime make the game so fun!

There are other applications for this flexible Boros spell as well. I've used Aurelia's Fury in Draft to generate a Fog-like effect in the early game, stunning my opponent's team on his or her upkeep in the hopes that preventing an attack one turn might give me time to regain some momentum. In Constructed play, stunning an opposing player on his or her upkeep can prevent your opponent from casting a key sorcery spell that might be part of a devastating combo, allowing you another turn to set up a win.

Where I can't wait to see Aurelia's Fury shine is in my Kaalia deck for Commander. It fits in perfectly with the Angel theme of that deck, and I think this spell will create some interesting scenarios. Imagine a Commander game with four players where you're in the weakest position at the table, but you use Aurelia's Fury to tap all of the creatures of the person on your left at the end of his or her turn. One way to avoid being attacked is to create a more enticing target!

How will you unleash Aurelia's Fury? After the Prerelease, I would love to hear stories about ways this card had an impact on life-and-death matters in your Magic game. Until then, may your phasers always be set to stun!

Mark Purvis

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