Solving the Core Set's Dilemma

Posted in Latest Developments on July 10, 2009

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.

Magic 2010 marks a shift in the way we see core sets. When Aaron Forsythe introduced it, he wrote about how we wanted Magic to have as much fantasy resonance as possible, and that is a large part of what drove its creation. However, we were also excited to use the ability to make new cards for the core set in other ways. The Magic 2010 development team worked to make the set just as accessible to new players as any other core set while also making it something that players who have been with Magic for a very long time would want to play with. We did this by making a set that we would want to play with ourselves. Magic 2010 contains many evocative new cards. We also used that ability to make new cards to sculpt the Limited environment so that it was both balanced and new. Of course, there are also plenty of old favorites returning. I'll talk about each of these categories in that order.

New Cards

Magic 2010 is a core set, so it does not deviate from "normal" Magic that much. However, we wanted it to feel like a new set as well, and making new cards strong and important was part of how we achieved this. The Magic 2010 designers created a card file full of resonant fantasy concepts and cards designed for each of them. As the development team worked on the set, we protected cards that were perfect for their concept. We also found new cards that were perfectly on-concept that we thought would be fun to play and made them stronger, so that Magic 2010 would feel like its own new world.

One of the concepts that was in the design file was the idea of the sleep spell. Many fantasy worlds include this idea, and it's natural to conclude that in Magic a sleep spell should tap creatures. Originally it was a common and only put a few creatures to sleep. However, the game play was confusing when a few creatures didn't untap because they had been put to sleep while other creatures had attacked, so the development team chose to change it from a common trick to an uncommon spell that is deliciously powerful. Here's Sleep.


This card has never been printed before, but it will end plenty of games at the Prerelease this weekend by allowing armies of blue and white flyers to outrace a ground force, or giving just such a green ground force the ability to crash through for massive amounts of damage.

Another concept that the design team chose to implement was the banshee. Magic's first banshee—conveniently named Banshee—was not a particularly appealing card. It's expensive and hurts only its controller, and the card's power as a way to trade life for card advantage is difficult to see. Therefore, the design team decided to try again with a banshee whose scream agonized every player, and only once. We thought the card looked fun, so we let it be powerful.

Howling Banshee

We discovered during playtesting that Howling Banshee is still not immediately a hit with every Magic player, and we're okay with that for three reasons. First, Banshees scream and hurt everyone around them, so the card was perfectly on concept. Second, some players get a kick out of hurting everyone, and this card will be great fun for those people. Third, it's often fun when cards surprise players by being stronger than they appeared at first glance. I am confident that black players who put Howling Banshees in their Sealed Decks this weekend will not be disappointed.

In some places, the design team chose to do things that flew in the face of Magic's historical precedents to create evocative cards. The development team protected those things when they made sense. For example, the unicorn that is in Magic 2010 is green, rather than white. However, it has an ability that is famously green. What gives?

Prized Unicorn

In mythology, the unicorn is an elusive creature that is hunted for its horn, so the Lure mechanic makes a ton of sense. It is also a natural beast, which is the sort of thing that green gets from a creative sense. Doug Beyer thought that Magic 2010's unicorn should be green because of the overlap between the mechanic and the mythological flavor. The development team respected his wishes. I enjoy using Giant Growth and Oakenform to turn my Prized Unicorns into enormous creature-eating monsters, and I remember in one playtest draft using a Might of Oaks with my Prized Unicorn to eat all of fellow developer Mike Turian's creatures in one shot. I'm glad this unicorn is green.

Mechanically speaking, Prized Unicorn fits perfectly in green even though the creative concept has not been green before. There is also a card in Magic 2010 that has a classically green concept, but a decidedly non-green mechanic. Meet Entangling Vines.

Entangling Vines

This card is a bit of a goofball if you take it together with other Magic cards. This exact text box was blue in Lorwyn with Glimmerdust Nap, and now it's green in Magic 2010. We can't do that with a straight face with very many enchantments' text boxes. However, many fantasy-themed games include spells that nature-themed wizards can cast that summon roots from the ground to keep an enemy from moving around. Such a spell is clearly green in Magic. It's also reasonable that the corresponding Magic effect is keeping a creature tapped. The development team looked at this card, decided that this was indeed what entangling roots do, and protected it.

New Experience

Magic 2010 also gained from our ability to make new cards because it let us sculpt the whole play experience more carefully. To set the stage for this, I'm going to share with you a dirty little secret about Tenth Edition. In that set, white is just weaker than the other colors for Limited. I have heard and read many strong players complain about this. I have also heard people defend the set, saying that we wouldn't print a set that was not color-balanced for draft. Unfortunately, in this case the complaining players are absolutely right. Our internal Limited card evaluation process told us that white was underpowered, and yet we printed the set anyway. What gives?

I was not yet working for Wizards when Tenth Edition was developed. However, I have learned some things about the challenges that faced the Tenth Edition team. Near the end of the Magic 2010 development process, director of Magic R&D Aaron Forsythe sat down by my desk and started talking about how awesome the ability to make new cards in the core set was. When I asked him what prompted him to be so excited about this, he told me the following anecdote from Tenth Edition development.

The team had just finished doing Limited pointing, which is one of the processes we use to evaluate each color's relative strength in draft and sealed deck. The data came back with white as the worst color. The team was interested in powering up white. However, they could only change the set by adding cards that had already been printed. They left the meeting with the mission of looking through all of Magic for cards that could be core set commons with a straight face and would power up white. They came back empty handed. They could not find cards in all of Magic's history to solve their problem. They were happy with the set otherwise, so they frowned, accepted this unfortunate fact, and handed the set off.

I was on the Magic 2010 development team and had never worked on a set where I could not just make new cards, so I took the freedom to do that for granted. When white needed a big guy to hold the ground while flyers took the game over, we engineered Siege Mastodon to do exactly that. The fact that this particular vanilla creature had not been printed before did not get in the way of our having the card we needed. Magic 2010 lead developer Erik Lauer was a computer scientist in his previous career and is a master of logical problem-solving, and every time we had a problem to solve with a card slot he guided the team to the right solution. Usually, that meant making a new card.

The ability to make new cards also helped us sculpt the environment is larger ways than individual cards. Early in development, Erik identified what made each color unique and how each color would use that strength to win games, and kept those things in mind while we tweaked cards. Each individual adjustment we made was minor, but collectively those changes produced an environment where each color feels different from one another and can win games in its own distinct way. It is difficult for me to imagine trying to achieve this without the ability to make tiny tweaks to cards.

Old Favorites

Of course, a modern Magic core set would not be complete without a few awesome cards making return trips from the past, and many of them will make their presence felt in Magic 2010 Limited. We've talked an awful lot about one of them in particular that is a strong candidate for the title of most powerful Constructed card in the set, as well as a card that will be very important in Magic 2010 Limited games. You may have heard of it before. It's called Lightning Bolt.

Lightning Bolt

Magic 2010 will mark the first time in over ten years that Lightning Bolt is available in either Standard or Limited. It felt awesome to cast in Sealed Deck playtesting and in the Future Future League, and I felt that excitement even more this week at the Wizards employee Prerelease when I cast my first printed Magic 2010 Lightning Bolt. Of course, it didn't hurt that the Lightning Bolt I opened there was foil, but there were plenty of other Lightning Bolts flying around and the excitement among players who remembered the card from their very early days of playing Magic made for an electric atmosphere.

Another card making a return is the classic Fireball.


Fireball has an awesome name and is a very powerful card. However, I seem to love it for different reasons than others. We had an interesting conversation in the Pit a few days ago about how we liked to use Fireball. The number one way all of us like to use it is to kill an opponent outright, but my second favorite thing to do is to gain card advantage by killing multiple creatures. I discovered in that conversation that I'm much more patient with Fireball than most R&D members. Magic 2010 Limited is slower than Shards of Alara block Limited, so I find that I am usually able to wait to cast Fireball until I can split it. Other people found this tactic strange, but I find it very effective.

Another red X spell from Alpha returns in Magic 2010. This one won't show up quite as often because it is a rare, but it will often shake up the game more when it does.


Does your opponent have only a single Forest untapped when it looks like you can attack for the win? In Tenth Edition you would have been safe to swing for the fences, but in Magic 2010 your creatures may run into some inclement weather and get lost.


Finally, one of Magic's most iconic creatures is returning to its rightful place as an uncommon.

Serra Angel

There were plenty of uncommon Serra Angels beating people up at the Wizards employee prerelease yesterday, and I expect that to be the norm in the real world too.

The Magic 2010 development team spent lots of time making the set as fun as we could for Limited. There are plenty of cool new individual cards, and we also used our ability to tweak new cards to craft the overall experience. Along with that, plenty of old favorites from Magic's history are coming back. We're proud of the set, and we hope that you enjoy this weekend's Prerelease events.

Previous Poll

How happy are you that Lightning Bolt is in Magic 2010?
I'm thrilled! 4848 51.0%
I'm very happy. 1494 15.7%
I'm mildly happy. 1131 11.9%
I'm indifferent. 764 8.0%
I'm a little unhappy. 628 6.6%
I'm furious! 335 3.5%
I'm very unhappy. 300 3.2%
Total 9500 100.0%

We are also thrilled. Come to the Prerelease this weekend and you'll have your first chance to cast Lightning Bolt in limited in over ten years!

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