Three Lights at the End of the Tunnel

Posted in Latest Developments on January 30, 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.

One part of why games are fun is that we don't know what will happen when we play them, and therefore we feel a sense of tension and exploration. When the outcome of a game is obvious and inevitable and the game keeps on going despite that, those feelings of tension and exploration disappear and are replaced with a sensation that is much more like that of walking down an endless dark tunnel. I have three preview cards today, and I'll use their stories to illustrate how we developed a mini-cycle of cards that had the potential to create dark tunnel games.

Thanks to shuffling, the draw step, and lots of hidden information, many games of Magic leave players in suspense until close to the end of the game about who will win. However, sometimes those precautions fail and both players know exactly who is going to win but must play out the game for many turns before reaching an end. In that case, however, the losing player is free to concede the game and move on. A scenario that is even worse is when one player has such an overwhelming advantage that it would be quite shocking if he were to lose, but the person who is likely to lose has a tiny chance to win the game and feels obligated to keep playing and chasing that tiny chance. This is the worst kind of dark tunnel game since the light from the small chance to win that you do have motivates you to keep soldiering on in the dark, which isn't very fun.

My fellow Magic developers and I think a lot about what makes games of Magic fun, and often we can tell immediately when something that design gives us has a potential to lead to unfun games. This can put us in an interesting spot, as it's our job to make the sets that we print fun to play. The easiest answers are to just cut the potentially unfun cards or make them unattractively weak. Those answers are also very poor. Design's job is to find fun thematic ground to tread, and Development's job is to take the things that Design creates and make them fun to play. Rather than cut off the legs of Design's vision, Magic developers must do their best to make sets fun while preserving the important parts of designs. Today's preview cards are examples of exactly that balancing act.

The story begins with Conflux lead designer Bill Rose observing that simple cards that tap for a resource every turn are beloved by players of all levels. Most cards involve some kind of choice that can be made incorrectly, and it is fun to have cards that give you a break from that pressure because it's just correct to activate them. For many Magic players, Onyx Goblet and Marble Chalice are very attractive cards because they make your position a little better every turn without asking questions. Both of those cards were enthusiastically adopted by most players at the Shards of Alara Prerelease I attended, and I was very happy to watch smiles as players incremented and decremented variables with them every turn.


Marble Chalice
Onyx Goblet

Perhaps these two artifacts in particular do not excite you. Would you be more interested if I offered you Caustic Tar for your Limited deck? Three life per turn is a ton, and if you know this is your plan it's not too hard to architect a board stall that gives you time to fling enough tar at your opponent to kill them. Were you looking for a card you could play in competitive constructed? Many control decks in Time Spiral block won slowly and inevitably with Urza's Factory, and I and other Spikes secretly adored how that land gave us slow but inevitable victories while requiring very few slots in our decks. Simple resource-incrementing cards are exciting and liberating even for Spike if they are costed aggressively enough. Here are the cards we ended up with:

Scepter of Insight Scepter of Fugue
Scepter of Dominance

Down the Tunnel

Shards of Alara originally included a white Icy Manipulator, but it was pushed off to Conflux due to numbers. Bill was sad to see this, and decided that Conflux would spend a whole Esper mini-cycle to bring simple resource-incrementing fun to everyone, including even the Spikiest of Spikes. The Conflux designers identified two other artifacts from Magic's history that were loved and made sense in black and blue but had fallen out of Constructed since their heyday. They then put a colored mana cost on each of them and put them in the file together for comments. Of course, colored mana costs are just harder to pay than colorless ones, so they got to make them a little bit cheaper than before too!

"White Icy Manipulator" was what inspired the whole cycle, so of course it got to stay. "Icy" was beloved in Alpha and was also part of many tournament decks when it was printed in Ice Age. However, its next trip through Standard as part of Mirrodin showed that modern constructed formats had sped up and couldn't wait for a four mana tapping artifact. Clearly the card had room to become more efficient before it would be problematic in Constructed.

Blue likes to draw cards, so Jayemdae Tome was a perfect match. The "Book" was a key piece of control decks in Magic's very earliest days, but has not seen the light of tournament play much since then. Once again, this card had clear room to grow in power.

The black member of the cycle was a little bit more contentious. Discard is a black ability so Disrupting Scepter would have been an easy choice, but Editor in Chief Scott Johns had a crazier idea in Phyrexian Processor, a very powerful card that did a lot of winning in tournaments during Urza's Saga's time in Standard. Conflux lead developer Mike Turian knew that he was playing with fire, but he also knows that powerful cards are exciting and wanted to see if it could stand up to playtesting.

Design had now assembled its team of artifacts and handed them off to Development, which was already concerned about the cycle's fun in play. Our goal was to cost each card so that it was fun in play while still being exciting. For each card I'll talk about why we were concerned, and then tell the story of the card's journey through development.

Icy Manipulator

Repeated tapping effects don't so much create a dark tunnel as they do make the player on the receiving end feel like they are slogging through mud. You end up staring at your best creature in play turn after turn as an artifact you probably aren't prepared to kill continues to keep it out of the red zone. This is mildly annoying on its own. It starts to feel surprisingly tunnel-like, however, once the player with the Icy Manipulators starts playing mass removal spells like Wrath of God or Martial Coup. One creature alone doesn't get through for any damage, two creatures get through for a few damage, and the third creature finally gets the control player to spend a spell to kill everything. The card is also sometimes frustrating in multiples.

Scepter of Dominance began life with a mana cost of and an activation cost of . Shaving a mana from Icy Manipulator made all the difference in the world and it was showing up in large quantities in multicolor control decks thanks to the Vivid lands and Reflecting Pool. It was good against random creatures but was especially good as a solution to creature lands, which the control decks were otherwise weak to. The intent of the colored mana cost was to limit who could play it to some degree, so the development team moved it to . Almost magically, those same multicolor control decks a week later were playing only a few Scepters of Dominance instead of four while more heavily white decks could still play lots of them. That one colored mana made all the difference in the world, and the card made it all the way to print that way.

Recurring card drawing is one of the classic dark tunnels of Magic. When playing against a control deck, it's often the case that the opponent's hand is full of mystery cards, and it's unlikely that you'll be able to push through their full hand of defense to win. You might draw a miracle series of cards that lets you push through for a win, or your opponent's imposing grip of cards might be full of blanks, but both situations are pretty unlikely. It's often even worse than that because your opponent has cards that draw more cards, and the worst situation of all is when that card drawing is coming from a permanent. How can you hope to outdraw the opponent if he or she is drawing two cards per turn to your one?

Jayemdae Tome

Scepter of Insight entered development with a mana cost of and an activation cost of . At these costs, the card was much, much stronger than we wanted. Jushi Apprentice was very strong in Kamigawa Block Constructed and more than good enough in Standard, and here we were charging only one extra mana to lose the huge drawback of being a creature. Matt Place built blue control decks that used it very powerfully. His first drafts were crazy multicolor decks, and the first change was to move the mana cost to to make it harder for him to play it on turn three. That got him to play it in more heavily blue decks, but it was still one of the most powerful card drawing spells in the Future Future League. We decided that we didn't want to risk making repeatable card drawing too cheap and moved the activation cost to . We were finally happy with the card at that spot. The ability to curve a third turn Scepter into a fourth turn extra card and then play other things on turn five is a huge upgrade over the original Jayemdae Tome, and the card is still plenty strong.

Phyrexian Processor's ability to make huge creatures over and over can be very depressing for an opponent. If you happen to not have an artifact removal spell, you know that three or four turns from now you will probably be dead to a pile of enormous creatures that pop out like clockwork once per turn. In testing, however, we discovered that there was no way for us to cost a black Phyrexian Processor in a way that was both attractive and balanced. It was important to us that the costs on this cycle be lower than the original, and there's no way that Phyrexian Processor would survive a modern development team at to cast and to activate. We decided to cut our losses and ask the design team for a replacement, and they gave us a black Disrupting Scepter, both another throwback to Alpha and yet another potential producer of dark tunnels.

Phyrexian Processor
Disrupting Scepter

Recurring discard is one of the worst dark tunnels of them all. Much like recurring card drawing, recurring discard puts your opponent ahead on cards slowly and inexorably. However, recurring card drawing is at least nice enough to let you play your spells in the hope that your opponent might happen to not be able to deal with it. Recurring discard is not so nice, and instead of giving your opponent more tools to deal with your spells, it simply takes all your spells away. It's always possible to believe that you have a chance to accomplish things when you can't see what cards your opponent has, but when you have no cards in your hand to play it's hard to maintain that illusion. On the other hand, Disrupting Scepter hadn't been played in tournaments for many years so we knew the card had room to grow.

Scepter of Fugue's new version entered the file with a mana cost of and an activation cost of . Many people were quick to put it in mono-black decks with cards like Nyxathid and Hypnotic Specter. However, mad genius Erik Lauer had another idea and built a control deck that was a throwback to "The Deck" with it. He used Scepter of Fugue to strip away his opponent's hand while dealing with whatever the opponent was doing, and once his opponent's hand was empty he would drop a Platinum Angel and smile. Protecting the Platinum Angel was very easy thanks to his counterspells and his opponent's empty hand. However, once we knew what Erik was up to it wasn't too hard to adjust to his deck. The Scepter also spent a significant amount of time playing the hero against slow control decks that weren't prepared to kill artifacts, and we like having cards around that can do that. No one really succeeded in demonstrating that Scepter of Fugue was too good where it was, so it made it all the way to print with those numbers.

Magic developers have an acute sense of what can make a game of Magic turn unfun, but we also love to print exciting Magic cards. Our goal with the three Scepters was to make exciting throwbacks to well-loved cards that were both excitingly costed for modern Magic and fun to play with. I think we succeeded, and we hope you enjoy them!

Last Week's Poll

Do you plan on attending a Conflux Prerelease?
Yes, at a local store. 4454 44.8%
Yes, at a regional prerelease. 1805 18.1%
No. 1742 17.5%
Maybe. 1326 13.3%
Yes, but I haven't decided where. 621 6.2%
Total 9948 100.0%

This coming weekend is the Conflux Prerelease, and it looks like many of you will be making the trip to get your first crack at the new cards. I apologize for not including an option for "I'm going to both a regional Prerelease and a local store Prerelease." I didn't think of that, but we're totally stoked that many of you like Magic enough to spend the whole weekend playing it! Many representatives of Wizards will be attending various Prereleases in the Seattle area, so if you're in the area you might even see one of us there. We hope you have fun!

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