Time Spiral’s Wizards

Posted in Latest Developments on November 3, 2006

By Aaron Forsythe

Wizard Week is an awkward theme for me. With the exception of Voidmage Prodigy, there are no cards in Standard that care one way or the other about whether a creature is a Wizard or not.

They aren't the theme of a current set, so there aren't any rules about how to develop Wizards. In fact, whether a card is a Wizard or not is a decision made by creative, not development. (The Wizard creature type is usually reserved for white, blue, and black creatures that are small and have “utility” abilities. Red and green creatures with similar abilities are often labeled Shamans.)

But many Wizards are interesting cards on their own, so I figured I'd take that angle this week. Below are paragraphs on every Wizard card in Time Spiral – where they came from, how they changed, all that good stuff! And I saved a whopper of a story for the end… check it out!


Crookclaw Transmuter
Crookclaw Transmuter

For a very long time, this card was merely a 3/1 flier with flash (called “Friend to Counterspells”). As part of a movement to make flash feel like it meant something relevant to gameplay apart from just making surprise blockers or playing creatures at the end of opponents' turns, lead developer Brian Schneider decided to make more of the flash creatures have comes-into-play-abilities. The “transmuter” ability was added, which was a fantastic fit on a 3/1 creature. It can come into play and block as a 1/3!



Drifter il-Dal
Drifter il-Dal

If you haven't figured it out yet, the Drifter is an almost exact reprint of Spindrift Drake from Stronghold. We don't do aggressive blue weenies much these days, but we felt we could do some in Time Spiral if they had good nostalgic links to stuff people remembered. I question just how memorable Spindrift Drake is, but the card he spawned is proving to be a popular one regardless.

We argued in R&D for a while as to which card was better, the flying Drake or the shadowy Drifter. I believe more of us sided with the Drake. Even though it can be blocked by more creatures than the Drifter, the ability to block – even in high-level Constructed – is important enough that shadow is not always a net positive.



Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder
Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder

Endrek was a top-down design based on a character from Dominaria's past; he is the a member of the Ebon Hand and created the sinister race of Thrulls. Check out this line from the flavor text of Basal Thrull:

“To create the first Thrulls, I only introduced alchemic elements into the Order's necromancy; Tourach's principles remained unchanged.” —Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder

Sahr's failures—the most notable being the Derelor – led for a call for his execution by other members of the Ebon Hand. From the Fallen Empires Derelor:

“Strength it has, but at the cost of a continuous supply of energy. Such failure can bear only one result.” —From the execution order for Endrek Sahr, Master Breeder

And from the Fifth Edition reprint:

“The derelor's greatest contribution to the Ebon Hand was the inspirational effect its creator's execution had upon the other thrull breeders.” —Sarpadian Empires, vol. II

As the story goes, the Thrulls eventually turned on their masters and overthrew the Ebon Hand, as hinted at in the flavor text of Thrull Wizard:

“In crafting intelligent Thrulls to assist in sacrifices, Sahr inadvertantly [sic] set the stage for the Thrull Rebellion.” —Sarpadian Empires, vol. II

So now Sahr appears in Time Spiral, and we can surmise that he was yanked from his own time just prior to his execution. His card mechanic lets the constant struggle of Thrulls vs. their creator play out time and again; within each new game, Sahr tries in vain to control his sinister creations, and time and again they grow too large in number, rebel, and overthrow him. What a great Vorthos card!

The card went through a couple iterations before we settled on the final ability:

Thrulls get +2/+1
1BB, Sacrifice a creature: Put X 0/1 black Thrull creature tokens into play, where X is the toughness of the sacrificed creature.

Whenever you play a creature spell, put X 1/1 black Thrull creature tokens into play, where X is that spell's converted mana cost.
Whenever a Thrull is put into a graveyard from play, its controller loses 1 life.

There were problems with these abilities' power level and with their flavor, and I'm pleased that I was the one that came up with the ability that made the card finally “click.”

I do find it interesting that players familiar with that part of the Magic storyline find the card a home run in terms of flavor: “His ability ties well in with his flavor, supplementing each critter spell you cast with a small army of his minions, and yet you must be cautious, lest Endrek be overwhelmed by his own creations and cast aside. Sadly, he lacks in flavor text, but overall the card is very satisfying.” –Rivien Swanson, “We Pause and Reflect (A Flavor Review of Time Spiral Legends),” starcitygames.com.

But to players who might not know it as well, the card makes little sense. A “master breeder” who dies from what he makes? What in the heck? “Really though, why does he have to die? Game balance should never be so transparent, as it actually kills this card. If you can't do it right, don't do it at all. It just doesn't make any sense to me why he would die, logically speaking. Do they kill him? I doubt it.” –Jamin VanderBerg, “31 Flavors of Time Spiral,” londes.com

Okay, so the card might be a little highbrow from a flavor standpoint, but I believe it does what it does very well: provide Johnny with an interesting piece to work with, and make flavor nuts happy.

The funniest anecdote I have for this card, however, is the flavor text that was commissioned but never actually made it onto the card:

“But… but vol. II says you're dead!”


Ith, High Arcanist
Ith, High Arcanist

Another attempt at a flavor card. It was obvious from the start that Ith should have the ability of his Maze of Ith, and once the creative team assured us that he was “one of the good guys,” we slotted him in as the blue-white legend in our rare cycle.

As he was white, vigilance made a great combination with the Maze ability, but the card needed something else. I studied up on the character and tried for another top-down ability.

In the storyline that takes place in the novels cycle that includes The Dark and Ice Age, Lord Ith is imprisoned in Barl's Cage for twelve years by Mairsil the Pretender before finally being freed by the archmage Jodah. I wanted an ability that played into the “imprisonment” feel, forcing the player to wait before unleashing Ith's power.

Lord Ith comes into play tapped with four prison counters.
Lord Ith doesn't untap during your untap step if he has one or more prison counters.
3: Remove a prison counter from Lord Ith.

The flavor was okay, but the ability had so many words and wasn't popular with the other developers. On top of that, he was a pretty weak card to play with, as you had to pay his mana cost (which I believe was at the time) plus twelve more mana before you could use him.

With the possibility of the card being cut from the set, I came to the conclusion that we should just use the “wait before you can use your card” mechanic we were already featuring in Time Spiral: suspend. “—Suspend 4” is such a cleaner ability for this card, and I got to make my slow-pay-to-remove-counters-for-a-big-effect card with Dark Depths in Coldsnap. Everyone wins!

I've seen people bemoaning Ith as being a bad card, but I think he has a chance of seeing a little Constructed play before his time in Standard is done.


Lim-Dul the Necromancer
Lim-Dûl the Necromancer

When we were making lists of all the old characters we wanted to bring to life in Time Spiral, Lim-Dûl was not the design team's necromancer of choice; we wanted to make Nevinyrral, he of Disk fame. But our creative guys put the kibosh on that idea quickly, as “Nevinyrral” is “Larry Niven” – one of Richard Garfield's favorite sci-fi authors, I imagine – backwards. And while that is a nifty little Easter egg, it is a dumb name for a character in an intellectual property that tries to take itself at least somewhat seriously. Okay, I can buy that. We had Lim-Dûl in reserve, so it was all good.

Lim-Dul began life as a 4/4 that had the ability to repeatedly Zombify two creatures at a time… provided they had the same name. So, while he couldn't bring a lone Simic Sky Swallower back to life, he could bring back a pair of them all at once, should two of them end up in the bin somehow.

I liked the idea of the design (Rosewater's, by the way… yes, we pick on his cards just as much as we pick on Great Designer Search contestants), but felt the execution was off. My comment from last October: “We need to talk about if this is the right ability. I have the feeling it will come up about as much as Bloodbond March, which was (frustratingly) almost never.”

I'm not sure who came up with the replacement ability, but it sure was a lot more powerful. It, too, led to some debate in R&D.

Matt Place: “Not a fan of this version. Wish there was a hoop to jump through to get him to work.”

Then Randy Buehler: “As I was reading I kept waiting for the catch ... but it never came. The result in my case was a raised eyebrow, not disappointment.”


Mangara of Corondor
Mangara of Corondor

Mangara is male. Stop referring to him as “she.”

I imagine there is supposed to be some kind of flavor to Mangara's ability, but I don't remember what we were thinking at the time. His character is clearly white, and is most famous for being trapped in the Amber Prison. (Magic story fans must enjoy tales of people being trapped.) Perhaps his ability is meant to evoke him blinking out of the Amber Prison and into the post-apocalyptic world, grabbing a hold of something, and then taking it with him when he is sucked back through time to the Prison. Sounds good, right?

Some of you have already figured out that Mangara's ability is worded such that he doesn't remove himself from the game as a cost, so if you can untap him or remove him from play via some other means (Tolarian Sentinel, Momentary Blink, etc.), or if the target of his ability becomes illegal (and thus his effect is countered on resolution), you'll get to use him more than once. This odd template was a conscious decision by R&D to enable such trickery. I'll admit to being against that template at the time, but I've grown to love Mangara for all of his combo potential.


Pit Keeper
Pit Keeper

Pit Keeper was the first card designed by Magic Assistant Brand Manager Jake Theis to make it into a Magic set. There is a small group of Magic players in the company that work in other departments than R&D that we'll often include in the mailing we do when soliciting submissions to fill holes in a set, and occasionally we'll use cards from those people.

Jake showed enough promise that he's going to be starting a six-month gig in R&D next week as part of some of the design and development teams for sets in the “Peanut” block. And to think, it may have all started with Pit Keeper.

Pit Keeper is a great common card for Time Spiral. It has a nostalgic ability (from Oversold Cemetery) and provides interesting play decisions. How greedy are you? Are you willing to wait turn after turn to get +1 card advantage, or will you play the Keeper ASAP to get some damage in and trade with an opposing creature? A fine design.



Sage of Epityr
Sage of Epityr

A simple, simple card; its playtest name was merely “Sage.” Sage Owl has long been a favorite of many players, and we felt that we owed them a nice, cheap version after heartlessly yanking the original out of the Core Set in Ninth Edition.

I was surprised to see that some very good Magic players were including this card in their decks at Pro Tour – Kobe. We didn't give it that much respect in our playtesting.



Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir
Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir

What a bomb this guy is! While he may seem like an attempt at a top-down card – Teferi is, after all, the Master of Time – this card wasn't designed for Time Spiral at all.

Devin Low made the card during Coldsnap design; it was part of the three-color gold rare cycle. Its mana cost was and its playtest name was “Lord Panthro” (as a nod to Fleetfoot Panther), but everything else was the same.

As Time Spiral design was coming together and flash was being proposed as one of the set's major themes, the Time Spiral team requested that Lord Panthro be dropped from Coldsnap and shipped to Time Spiral. After all, the card was a perfect fit for the set's novel protagonist, a blue legendary former-planeswalker named Teferi.

As development dragged on, Teferi's mana cost was lowered from to , and as the card started showing up in more and more decks, we began to realize just how much more powerful the card was compared to how it read. Sure, it prevented counterspells and combat tricks. But it also prevents suspended cards from working at all. And madness cards. It was like Teferi was inadvertently an answer to everything in the entire set!

We wrestled with that knowledge for awhile, and there was some discontent with the fact that Teferi did all these things that weren't spelled out on the card and that the full impact of his power wouldn't be clear to most players, but in the end we let the Master of Time do his thing.


Voidmage Husher
Voidmage Husher

As I mentioned in my Suspend Week article, we playtested Voidmage Husher during most of development under the impression that it could counter a suspend card getting time counters when it was removed from the game initially. Sadly, the final template for the suspend ability ended up being a “special action” and not an activated ability.

And now for the most important Wizards in the set…

The Magus Cycle

When Time Spiral was handed off to development, the design team had a decent amount of the necessary stuff in place. There was a nostalgia theme, some new mechanics in split second and suspend, and the “timeshifted” subset all there. But what was missing was a splashy cycle of rares that would make people's jaws drop. So the development team set about looking for one.

There we were, sitting in the International House of Pancakes, enjoying some breakfast: the Time Spiral development team – Brian Schneider, Matt Place, Mike Donais, Devin Low, and myself. Brian had promised us that if we all showed up for his absurdly-early meeting time that we could go out to breakfast and talk there. Somehow, we all managed to get out of bed. Today's topic: What should the hallmark rare cycle of Time Spiral be?

After some long discussions and several forkfuls of delicious breakfast meats, Matt and Mike came up with our answer. It was crazy. It had never been done before. It would make people think about deckbuilding in a whole new way. It was obviously not the Magus cycle.

No, this cycle was something far more ambitious. It was completely new design space of the type that would cause shockwaves throughout the entire game – organized play, Magic Online, you name it. We got back to the office and pitched it to the rest of the R&D crowd. It was met with a mixed reaction of awe, horror, and disbelief. From somewhere, Rosewater piped in, “I like it!”

Mark got to work making the individual cards using the parameters that the development team set forth. The cards were put into the file. Comments were made, emails written, meetings called.

Suddenly everyone even remotely closely attached to Magic was interested in these cards, from Vice President Bill Rose on down. Were they a good idea? Could they work? What would new players think? Would they understand them? What would Magic Online players think? What would judges think? How much work would need to be done to the comprehensive rules? The floor rules? Crazy times indeed.

And oh, were there dissenters. “This is a dumb idea,” they'd repeat, over and over again, “a really, really dumb idea.” Corner cases were examined, wordings attempted, ramifications analyzed. Reactions were gauged, problems identified, solutions proposed. And slowly, enthusiasm began to wane. It seemed that some of the problems were unsolvable in the time frame we had. The limits of the game were being tested, and they threatened to break. So Brian Schneider had to pull the plug on this, the Most Grand of cycles.

I really wish I could tell you what I was talking about. I like being the guy that will show you the dirty underbelly of the process of making this wonderful card game, but I need to keep this one in-house. I'm confident that we'll get it right one day, and I'd like it to feel amazing to all of you when you finally get to see it.

One_with_NothingSo suddenly we were left with nothing great. Development was drawing to a close. Art descriptions had been written for all but a few stragglers in the set, and artists were being corralled to illustrate the final few pieces. Theme decks were built, templating was being done, and Limited was being tweaked in microscopic intervals. And we had no cycle.

I went to get some coffee with Brian one afternoon, and he was fretting over our lack of a cycle, and distraught that if we couldn't come up with something quickly, R&D management was going to do something potentially drastic. We started talking about what the set had and didn't have, what nostalgic wells we had been to and what still remained untapped. There were some decent rare cycles there already: the free suspend spells, the rare Slivers, rare morphs, gold legends, buyback spells, split second cards. What else could we do?

I put forth the claim that a lot of the rares that I found exciting in the set let me experience cards that had generally been considered too good to ever print again. Time Spiral offered me Ancestral Recall, Balance, Wheel of Fortune, Juzam Djinn, all kinds of “taboo” cards in new and balanced – yet still plenty exciting – forms. There had to be more of that kind of stuff available, and this was the set to do it in. My mind drifted to artifacts. We had a Black Lotus and Gauntlet of Might, but there were many, many more powerful artifacts than that out there. After all, artifacts have historically been some of the most broken cards in the game. Then it hit me.

“We should do new versions of really powerful artifacts, except we can't do them as artifacts or else they'd just have to be too expensive to be cool. Let's just make creature versions of stuff like Nevinyrral's Disk, Black Vise, and Cursed Scroll – stuff they'd never expect to see back.”

Brian liked it. We started naming all the decent candidates and proposing colors for them. Disk and Scroll were locks. Memory Jar, one of the most insane artifacts of all time, would be a great fit, pending testing that it wouldn't be too good even as a creature. We sped back to the office and looked up old artifacts, settling on the cycle in under an hour. The way things fit into colors was almost too good to be true. Brian shopped them around, they went over extremely well, and suddenly they were in the set and being painted – all by some of our best artists, might I add. Even creative took the ball and ran with it on these cards.

Its funny to me that one of the most high-profile cycles in the set is barely a cycle at all in strict terms. They're all Wizards, sure, and all have “Magus of the” in their titles, but if you don't recognize the cards they homage, they just look like the most random abilities of all time. Ah, the power of nostalgia!

That's the story of the Magi and the Cycle That Wasn't. Someday I hope to talk to you about what we really tried to attempt initially, but until then I hope you enjoy the product of my eleventh-hour inspiration.

Last Week's Poll Question:

Which Time Spiral theme has been the most enjoyable for you?
Slivers (all five colors) 3715 30.3%
Thallids (green) 2655 21.7%
One Big Turn (red) 1505 12.3%
Madness (black) 1493 12.2%
Morph (blue) 1180 9.6%
Flanking (white) 1043 8.5%
White Matters (white) 452 3.7%
Echo (red) 208 1.7%
Total 12251 100.0%

Mine is probably morph. I've seen some really fun competitive morph decks come out of this set, which is more than can be said of the entire Onslaught block!

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