Titanic Trouble

Posted in Latest Developments on July 30, 2010

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 might say that the five Titans are the biggest thing about Magic 2011.

They are huge in play, of course, but they are also huge in terms of the set's identity. We knew that they would be, so we also put a huge amount of work into them. I'll talk about that work today.

I was on the Magic 2011 design team, so I was there from the very beginning—when the Titans were conceived. They were, in fact, the very first thing we decided on, as it's important to know what the centerpiece of a set is before one designs a ton of cards. Aaron's vision for them was to hearken back to the classic "smart giants" from pre-Magic fantasy lore. Games like Dungeons amp; Dragons and, well, Titan, were full of things like "fire giants" and "ice giants" that were big, inscrutable, powerful, and intelligent, not stumbling oafs like the ones in Lorwyn. That spoke to Aaron, and when he presented it to the design team, we found that it spoke to us too. Therefore, we chose to move forward with the Titans as our centerpieces.

This, of course, meant that we needed to find a mechanical identity for them. Aaron's goal was to find a line of text that we could use on all of the Titans that still left holes for us to plug in abilities that got the flavor across. As long as we had something that was loudly common amongst all five of them, that line of text would be invisibly associated with the status of being a Titan. It would disappear, allowing the unique parts of their abilities to portray the sort of being that each particular Titan was.

Aaron's first pass at them was to give each of them one keyword and an enters-the-battlefield modal trigger. Aaron's love of modal cards and triggers is well documented, as he is also the designer who created Lorwyn's Commands. So, it's not a great surprise that he went back to that well. The Titans' modal triggers had three modes, of which you could choose one. One of the three modes hated on an enemy color, and the other two were in line with the flavor we found for each color's Titan.

Early playtests of the Titans, unfortunately, indicated that this direction wasn't that great. We needed the Titans to be sweet enough to be our centerpiece, and this first design felt like a sort of glorified Viridian Shaman or Shriekmaw. There is also some amount of awkwardness to large creatures with enters-the-battlefield abilities. With something like Monk Realist, you don't mind holding onto it for a while because a 1/1 body isn't as important as the enters-the-battlefield effect. If Monk Realist were a six-mana 6/6, though, you might not be sure what to do when you hit six mana and they haven't cast an enchantment. Do you cast your creature because you are supposed to attack for 6? Do you wait for them to cast an Oblivion Ring? Are you depressed when they Oblivion Ring your 6/6 enchantment-killer? We can't avoid tension everywhere in Magic, but we can attempt to avoid tension when we are trying to make a centerpiece cycle that has universal appeal.

Designer Ken Nagle, however, had an idea.

KEN 6/9/2009 "Can we try attack triggers on these to make them "better" in casual games where repeatable effects are hot? That way you simply cast it immediately instead of, say, holding on to this hoping they will drop more enchantments."

This suggestion was definitely an improvement, but it still had issues. Attack triggers would improve the cards for multiplayer and casual games, but would hurt in competitive Constructed, where you really wanted to get value out of a creature even if it just ate a Doom Blade a moment later. Erik's idea was to try doing both things: that is, one single ability that triggers upon entrance to the battlefield and on attacking. This led us to the hard part: finding the abilities, which is the part of the story where the five Titans part ways.

    Sun Titan

Going by color order puts the toughest one out of the way first. This card was really tricky to get right, as the first several abilities we tried either weren't satisfying on a six-mana creature or were gross in play. The first version was " ... exile target nonwhite creature," which as you might guess was really strong and more than a little depressing. While he's sitting on the table, you don't want to play any new creatures, because they'll just get stepped on, and that's lame. We don't like lame.

Our second attempt was to give all your creatures +2/+2 until end of turn. This was better, since it was a constructive ability rather than a destructive one. Playtesters found this to be very powerful, and there was open debate about whether or not it was too powerful. Despite this, several others complained about the design. To them, giving your creatures +2/+2 was an unnatural thing for this card to do. In what deck do you expect to both have a bunch of little creatures to take advantage of this bonus and want to play a six-mana creature to follow them up? The overlap is not high, so we went back to the drawing board.

The third attempt was to return cheap creatures from your graveyard to the battlefield. This turned out to be about right, although we wanted it to be just a little bit stronger. Ramp;D producer Mark Globus provided the answer—he suggested returning any permanent that cost three or less instead of just any creature. That turned the card into a cool build-around, and led to us getting back things like Jace Beleren, Tectonic Edge, and Scalding Tarn with it. That change inspired people to start building more decks, which is a good sign.

    Frost Titan

The general shape of Frost Titan's trigger was never in question. Frost effects in Magic tend to involve tapping things or keeping them tapped, and that's what this guy would do too. The first iteration kept two things from untapping next turn, which confused several people who assumed that this also implied that they were tapped. This is not the case, so we changed the card to tap and freeze something. The other thing that changed over time was this card's static ability. Several people have asked why this couldn't just be shroud. The answer has to do with the flavor. There is a cloud of icy cold air that follows frost Titans around; you can get through it, but it's harder than getting through normal air, so you have to pay two more mana to do it.

A few people didn't buy this and tried it with shroud anyway, which is when we learned that being impossible to target with removal made the card stronger than we would have wanted it to be anyway.

    Grave Titan

Grave Titan's story is also the story of Magic 2011 lead developer Erik Lauer's sharp insight. We had trouble getting the black Titan's trigger right, and by the time we really needed to figure it out, we already had a sketch of the art. It just so happened that said sketch had a bunch of zombies falling out of the Titan's gut. Erik decreed then that the card would make zombie tokens. He slept on it for a night, then came back and shopped around the idea that it would make two zombie tokens. Many of us were skeptical, but we were also willing to try it. As it turned out, Erik had intuited the perfect place to put the card, as it was good, but not too good.

We have received some questions about why this card has deathtouch, as it is a 6/6. The reason is that we wanted a keyword ability, and due to the strength of making two zombie tokens, we wanted one that didn't actually add much power. Deathtouch was perfect for the job.

    Inferno Titan

Inferno Titan was by far the easiest of the Titans to make, and was the first to settle down into a comfortable place. Erik decided early on that he wanted his fire Titan to have literal firebreathing, and the Arc Lightning ability stuck from the very beginning of the experimentation with this Titan design.

    Primeval Titan

Primeval Titan took the longest of all the Titans. The first version destroyed noncreature permanents, which was crushing because that actually meant lands. Our next try destroyed artifacts, enchantments, and creatures with flying. This had all the same problems as the first Sun Titan, so that didn't work either. We finally settled on searching for any two lands, which had really cool interactions with Zendikar block's lands. We had tons of fun searching up, for example, two Sejiri Steppes to get our Primeval Titans past two colors of blockers. I told this story in only a few sentences, but getting to this point (and convincing people that this point was cool!) took several weeks. It felt like a grind, and wasn't entirely pleasant, but I'm proud of the card we ended up with at the end.

    Puzzle Pieces

Through all of this, we playtested all five of these cards in the Future Future League. It was clear that all of them were interesting to try in Constructed, and it was hard to be obviously wrong by putting your color's Titan in your deck. Things got ugly, though, when we started to talk about the relative strengths of the Titans. The trend was to think that Primeval Titan and Grave Titan were the strongest and Frost Titan was the worst, but not everyone agreed. I thought quite highly of Frost Titan, and I suspected that it was stronger than Grave Titan and Inferno Titan. The Titan with the highest variance in opinion was Sun Titan, with some people thinking that it was totally awesome and others thinking that it was among the worst.

We never came to a collective conclusion about the Titans' relative power before we were done with development, and I don't think we had much of a better idea before they were printed. This is, in the end, the thing that I'm the most proud of! This may sound odd; we're the developers, so you might think that we're supposed to know everything about our cards. I don't think that's true. If twenty of us could know everything about our set by the time it was printed, it would take the millions of players out in the world no time at all to figure everything out, and that wouldn't be fun at all. We knew that each Titan was strong enough to be interesting to play, and not so strong that you had to play them. I'm glad we had the discipline to avoid making the puzzle any easier.

We had a lot of fun making, playing with, and talking about the Titans. We're glad that they've been doing things in Constructed. We have enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, watching all of you trying to figure out which of them is best.

    Last Week's Poll
Which pair of planeswalker cards is your favorite?
Garruk's Companion and Garruk's Packleader.138026.0%
Jace's Erasure and Jace's Ingenuity.109620.6%
Ajani's Mantra and Ajani's Pridemate.80415.1%
Liliana's Caress and Liliana's Specter.74314.0%
Chandra's Outrage and Chandra's Spitfire.70913.3%
I do not like the Planeswalker signature spells.3987.5%
I'm not sure.1833.4%

My favorite pair of these is the Jace cards. I think it's totally awesome that Jace's Erasure combined with Tome Scour is enough milling support that it can make a draft deck work, and I also think it's cool that we found a place to put an instant card drawing spell strong enough to play.

    This Week's Poll
What do you think of Standard with Magic 2011?It's awesomeIt's goodIt's okayIt's badIt's terrible

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