I've been waiting a long time for this—getting to preview a card for a set that I was actually the lead on. For today's article, I want to talk a little bit about the role that reprints play in making our Core sets, and what the future of reprints will look like without them.
Making Reprints Work
When working with reprints, we are reminded just how contextual power level can be. Call of the Herd and Nantuko Shade where remembered as two of the strongest cards in their respective sets, but when we reprinted one in Time Spiral and the other in M11, they came back to a very different world, and were just not able to compete on the same level. A lot of the support structure for those cards didn't exist, and they rotated out without making as much as a peep.
That cuts both ways, though. There have often been cards that we have assumed would be fine and easy to reprint, only to be blown away by how powerful they were due to context differences. Late in the development of M14, for example, we found that we needed the slot for a cheap, blue, card-filtering spell because the one in the file just wasn't working. Going through the ones we thought were reasonable reprints, we spent an hour or so playing with Telling Time. As it turns out, looking at three cards and putting one on top can be pretty strong when that card is a Bonfire of the Damned.
It's not just Constructed that feels this. I remember trying Battle-Rattle Shaman out in M15 for a little while as an interesting Limited card. We put it in the same slot that it had occupied in Rise of the Eldrazi—as a common—and quickly found that it was just a huge beating. We didn't remember it being nearly as strong as it was, but the quality of red cards in Rise was just off the charts, with Battle-Rattle coming in behind Flame Slash, Staggershock, Heat Ray, and Emrakul's Hatcher in the ranking of commons. Besides that, the set was designed to make the kinds of decks that made Battle-Rattle strong not work well. Once you put it into a set without those kinds of restrictions, and the card suddenly feels dominating.
The philosophy behind why we reprint cards is not simple. Sometimes it's because we really like what the original card was doing and see no need to try and improve on an already strong design. Other times it's because the card in question fits perfectly in a setting and goes a long way to making players happy. Reprints are an important part of nostalgia, and I think allowing people to use the exact pieces of cardboard they used a decade or more ago is a great thing when we can do it. It's not always going to be the case—sometimes old cards have really wonky wording, name problems, or have some slight problem that leads us to make a new card to fit the role.
What we found was that players really liked new cards and often disliked opening up cards they already had when purchasing a core set. Beyond that, putting the same cards into Standard over and over again brought an increased risk that people would get tired of playing against the same cards and play less frequently.
Origins had another complication with its reprints—they could only come from one of the ten planes that are featured in Magic Origins, or have plausible deniability. Nothing from Tarkir, Mirrodin, Kamigawa, or the various other planes was allowed. This made the task of tweaking cards late in development much more difficult, since wanting to move one mana cost often caused a cascade of changes as we looked for replacements that fit the requirements.
One of the great things about being the lead developer of a set is that you have a lot of leeway for putting in a few cards that you just plain like, including reprints. That doesn't mean you get to force in whatever nonsense or overpowered cards you want, but you do get to make a lot of decisions, and nudge in cards that you think would work well. It's one of the things that helps each Magic set feel different from each other, since each one has a lead designer and developer, and are not just made by committee. Different people's preferences come out in each of their sets.
My preview card today is one of these exact cards—something that I loved in my career as a Magic player, and something that I wanted to bring both into Standard and Modern. As I mentioned earlier, it was also important that the card did have a real chance of being good in those formats—previous reprints of strong cards like Call of the Herd or Nantuko Shade into environments where they were much weaker had some of the cool nostalgia thing for people reading the set, but left them unsatisfied when their memory of just how powerful the card became tarnished.
But, I've been beating around the bush for long enough, let me introduce you to my favorite reprint in Magic Origins—Goblin Piledriver:
One of the things I have always enjoyed about Goblin Piledriver is that it is a Goblin lord in some sense, but not in the traditional way of making all of your creatures larger. He couldn't care less about the safety and wellbeing of your Mardu Scout over there, he just wants to get in and be all that he can be. And why not? Goblins are not exactly known for their charitable nature—they are in it for themselves. It provides the card with some weaknesses—blockers for example, but it also has a stronger bonus per Goblin than we would give when we let the stat boost go wide.
I really like this idea of different tribes having lords that feel like they are getting an advantage in different ways, and it's something that I have been pushing for as a member of the development team. Dwynen, for example, does give all Elves +1/+1 but that's because that feels like the exact kind of bonus that a tribe like Elves would give each other. I don't think we will stop making the occasional lord that gives a +1/+1 bonus to your team, but I do hope that we end up making fewer of them as a whole in the future.
An interesting fact—Goblin Piledriver is actually the only card with protection in the entire set. We had a few other cards in for a while, but over time cut or changed them. There came a time when I could've cut the Piledriver for a mostly-functional reprint that left off the pro-blue, but I think that was some of the charm of the card. It kind of doesn't make sense, but serves an important purpose, especially if the card is going to have a chance in Modern. Plus, how could you ever beat the Matt Cavotta art?
The Future of Reprints
Although the number of reprints in our core sets had been rapidly dropping over the past few years, the core set going means there will be even fewer spots for planar-specific reprints in the future. There is always some wiggle room, but we do need to match the requirements of the world, and there are limits. Even if Darksteel Reactor is the perfect card to put into a set, we can't just put it anywhere—it has to go someplace where Darksteel exists, which is (as of now) only Mirrodin/New Phyrexia. We can make a card that is functionally identical, but that name has to go. Similarly, if a world doesn't have Goblins or Elves, we can't just use a creature that is a Goblin or Elf on that world, we need to go with a functional reprint.
That being said, we still believe that reprints have an important role to play, and have put more work into trying to get reprints into our sets from Battle for Zendikar onwards. We don't have exact targets for what the reprint count should be in each set, as there is much more pressure to put them in returning sets than new planes. But when possible, we want to keep the best and most resonant cards coming back to Magic every once and a while.
Besides just trying out more reprints in our standard expansions, going to two planes a year will also increase the speed at which we can visit places, leaving more room to use these specific cards. And we have a number of other products like Commander and Duel Decks that can use these kinds of cards, so they aren't going to go to waste.
That's it for this week. I hope you enjoyed the first week of Magic Origins previews, and I look forward to talking to you more about the set when I get the chance.
Next week, I'll be back with more information on the Magic Origins development team, and talk about the challenges of making a set somewhere between a core set and a regular expansion set.
Until next time,