Two Explorers in a New Domain

Posted in Latest Developments on February 13, 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.


Domain as a theme was part of Conflux from the very beginning, and that never changed from conception to print. However, every Magic card we print goes through rigorous testing, and Ken Nagle and I both put lots of time into making Conflux-based domain decks as fun as possible. Today we'll peer into the period of Conflux development where we were doing that work, and you'll understand parts of how we think about making build-around themes functional and fun.

The domain theme in Conflux presented us with an interesting development challenge. Domain encourages people to build whole decks around the mechanic. However, there were no explicit domain cards in Shards of Alara, so we had one 145-card set with which to make a domain deck functional and fun. Of course, we couldn't just put cards in the set that rewarded having lots of basic land types. For all those tempting domain cards to work, we needed to include cards that helped people find the right basic lands. Essentially, we had to put all of the enablers and rewards for an archetype into one small set, and the end result needed to be fun.

The design team did the work of including the enablers and rewards for domain. You might recognize a few of the enablers from your experiences at the Prerelease. There's an entire cycle of basic landcycling cards at common, as well as the spectacular Armillary Sphere. Those, along with the basic land searching effects that were already in Standard, are plenty for a domain deck to function.

Armillary Sphere
Gleam of Resistance

With that in place, the design team needed to choose what the rewards for domain would be. Those cards were sprinkled around common and uncommon.


Exploding Borders
Voices from the Void

There were no rares in the set with domain abilities when the set left design. My assumption is that the many cards with mana costs or activation costs were meant to fit in any five-color deck, whether that deck was interested in the domain mechanic or not. Whether or not this would be enough to make the deck sing was something that the designers left to Development.

Two of us in the Pit had special soft spots for domain during Conflux development. Designer Ken Nagle loves decks that are a little bit sideways, so he built a casual spin on domain. As I mentioned last month, I love domain also because it was the last casual deck I ever built, so I also built a version of the new domain deck. Amusingly, our versions of the deck were very different. Ken is a hardcore casual player, and his goal was to make sure that someone who "followed instructions" and just put a bunch of domain cards and land searching in a deck would have a good time. I, on the other hand, am a very Spikey Spike, so I built for power. You can see how that might lead Ken and me in different directions.

On a side note, working with Ken during development was really interesting. He's a very serious casual player, and therefore his instincts about cards are totally different from the developers' instincts, but they are equally valid. Ken and I are tentatively scheduled to both be on the development team of a set this coming year, and I'm very excited about that because he brings a point of view that is very unique inside Magic R&D. Ken is also interesting because he goes out of his way to not make decks too powerful. We recently defined a metric for measuring deck power levels, and on our internal discussion page for that topic Ken posted that he deliberately doesn't build anything past a certain point on our scale because if he did cool things couldn't happen in a game. That's not the kind of thing that any of our developers would think, and it's awesome that we have someone thinking about that.

Ken and I used many of the same cards in our decks. We were both playing four each of Rampant Growth and Armillary Sphere to help get the lands we needed. We each also had four Spore Bursts and Matca Rioters. Those two cards started development at the same mana cost, and Ken got them changed so one curved into the other, which made the deck play much more naturally.

Spore Burst
Matca Rioters

Ken, however, stayed true to the domain theme after that with cards like Drag Down, Manaforce Mace, and Aven Trailblazer. He chose not to play Voices from the Void because that card isn't fun, and stayed away from other cards because they didn't use the domain mechanic. I had no such compunctions about fun or staying on theme, and therefore I was playing lots of copies of Voices from the Void, and I maxed out on Maelstrom Archangels to take advantage of my five colors of land.


I threw in one copy of Conflux—the card, not the set—on a lark, and it turned out that I actually wanted to play more than one. It is excellent to play a Conflux for free off of the previously mentioned Maelstrom Archangel, since you get to play all your shiny new cards right away. It's also awesome to play Conflux before attacking with Maelstrom Archangel, since then you get to choose any spell in your deck to play for free! For a while in development the card Conflux cost a mere , and in that world the number of Confluxes in my deck started creeping up and up. The card was moved to because it was a little over the top at seven mana, and when it did I went back down to one again and stayed there until I stopped playing the deck.

Both Ken and I were having fun with our respective domain decks even though they were pretty different, so overall we were happy with where the cards were. I originally was concerned that I didn't have rares that explicitly said domain on them, but I was having so much fun with the crazy five-color cards that I completely forgot about that until I was asked later on. Clearly the five-color cards were doing their jobs, so I was happy. Our decks got even better when Exploding Borders was added to the set as a late push to have more gold cards!

One funny quirk that affects domain's position in Standard is that the nonbasic lands available to players are much better than those that were in the format during Invasion block. Invasion block combined with Seventh Edition offered players a full set of ten painlands and five "comes into play tapped" dual lands, and neither Mercadian Masques block nor Odyssey block offered much in the way of super-powerful color fixing. On the other hand, current Standard offers players all the same painlands and five "comes into play tapped" lands that are better than the Invasion ones, as well as ten Shadowmoor filter lands, five Vivid lands, and Reflecting Pool. That's a lot of very strong nonbasic lands that compete for land slots in decks.

Happily, domain offers something to players that a bunch of nonbasic lands doesn't, and that is the feeling of building a fun machine. As you build your mana base over time, you can viscerally feel your domain cards powering up, and that is something that a bunch of soulless nonbasic lands can never offer. We know that domain works best for people who like that feeling, so we did our best to make it fun for that audience. I had a blast during development working on the deck, and I hope everyone out there also enjoys it.

As always, while doing research for this article in Multiverse I came across some fun comments about domain cards both from Conflux and from past sets. I'll talk about two Conflux cards and one notable card from Planeshift.

Aven Trailblazer

Aven Trailblazer

drea 4/30: Domain requires counting and thought (unless we're on MODO). That counting and thought for a static statistic is fine -- but not for toughness. Feels like too much work for a very "meh" reward. YES, 2W for 2/5 flying is nifty... but I doubt it is worth the mental work.
EVL 5/1: I like counting!
KEN 5/2: I think 2W for 2/4+ flyer is hot sauce. I've been murdered by Spire Golems for years.
AF 6/27: There's nothing wrong with this card.

Maple Story iTCG designer Andrea Jennifer Shubert's comment is a very astute one. It's very important for players to know the toughness of creatures in play, and it can be jarring to see an asterisk there rather than a number. Using variable toughness requires players to keep track of that in their heads. This is generally not a great idea since it requires a lot of counting over and over again. We printed the card as is because much of the appeal of the domain mechanic is, in fact, the counting. A domain player always knows what the domain count is at all times, and the opponent usually keeps track of that as well. Domain counts also generally only go up, they max out at five, and there is a moment of triumph when the domain player hits five and is at full power. Because of that, we chose to go ahead and print this appealing little flyer as it was.

My favorite part of these comments is when math genius Erik Lauer jumped in to remind us all that some people just like counting. It was amusing, and also a reminder that the audience for this card is people who want to count.

Drag Down

Drag Down

KEN 1/14: Wouldn't mind trying 2B Instant -1/-1 here for simplicity's sake.
BR 1/17: changed from: Destroy target creature with toughness X or less, where X is the number of basic land types among lands you control. Now closer to the Invasion card. That doesn't bother me.

The initial version of this card was worded in an awkward way to get around similarity to Exotic Curse, an Invasion card with a similar mechanic. However, "Destroy target creature with toughness X or less, where X is the number of basic land types you control" is just worse in a lot of ways than "Target creature gets –X/-X until end of turn." Eventually we went with the simpler template, which is also much more interesting for game play. As printed, you can use Drag Down as a trick to shrink your opponent's creature mid-combat. On the other hand, Exotic Curse lets you play it whenever you want and build up a large enough domain to kill the creature later. Both cards have their unique upsides and are fine Magic cards.

Now for some fun from the archives!



Bill (2/12): Would like it if we could cut — If CARDNAME would be put into a graveyard from anywhere, remove CARDNAME from the game instead.
Tey(3/3): Hard to see how we could do this. Even if it comes into play tapped, it's still scary with reanimation.
Tey(2/11): It's fun to see 18 on a casting cost!
CC 4/3: Don't like the 18 on the casting cost. This will be a design constraint as we do reference casting cost on other cards.
Bill: Aren't 8 or 9 mana creatures already a design constraint?
CC 4/10: Yes, but not nearly to the same extent.
CC 5/1:How about a casting cost of 8, and a comes into play effect of pay 2 for each basic land type you don't control or sacrifice CARDNAME. This way you don't have to have the last paragraph (go ahead and animate it) AND you don't have a design constraint on any other cards that refer to casting cost. Besides being better designed, then the card is also shorter.
WJ 5/5: cost lowered to 16 in the issues meeting. One reason is design concerns with the high cost; other is to leave ourselves room to do a higher cost creature later. Team to look at changing stats to 7/7 (or not).
WJ 5/30 raised P/T from 8/8

Magic has had a tradition of amazing developers. Many of the people in this exchange now have very high positions inside Wizards of the Coast. "CC" is Charlie Catino, who is now responsible for producing Duelmasters. "Bill" is Bill Rose, the Vice President of R&D. Exchanges like this are why those two are now technical leaders. I'm excited to be part of that tradition, and I hope that some future Latest Developments columnist will look back and be able to say similar things about comments that I'll make!

Erratic Explosion

There's a lot of concentrated awesome in Draco, but the Invasion team was not blinded by it. They saw the big number in the corner and had two thoughts. One is that unless they did something drastic, many people would try to cheat by using reanimation or other ways to not pay the mana cost. To deal with that, they added an upkeep trigger that was meant to keep everyone honest. Their other thought was that someday a Magic card would key off of a card's mana cost and be potentially awesome with Draco. Hilariously, they were absolutely right. For a short time in Extended there was a deck that was built entirely around doing 16 damage with Erratic Explosion and hopefully getting the last four points of damage out of Fire // Ice and the opponent's own lands. That deck was potentially pretty obnoxious, and it would have been a lot more powerful if Draco cost 18 rather than 16.

It always amuses me when we make cards a little bit worse by doing things that would make other cards stronger. In most cases, dropping a mana cost by would make a card more attractive. For Draco, however, it made it a bit weaker. A recent case is Kitchen Finks, which started life as a 2/2 but was much too annoying with Reveillark. How did Development choose to make it worse? They added a power. The card is certainly stronger as a 3/2, but it is much less potentially annoying in Standard because of the change.

I hope that those who build domain decks with Conflux cards enjoy it. Ken Nagle and I both put a lot of time into making it fun, and I believe that we did a great job. There's no feeling better than finishing your domain and watching all of your cards work at maximum strength for the rest of the game. Domain's journey from design to development was fairly uneventful aside from some individual card changes, but I'm glad to have left my handprint on it.

Come back next week, and I'll talk about a Conflux mechanical theme that did change significantly after leaving design!

Last Week's Poll

What is your favorite Conflux rare?
Banefire 1411 15.7%
Noble Hierarch 1171 13.1%
Master Transmuter 924 10.3%
Martial Coup 776 8.7%
Knight of the Reliquary 703 7.8%
Meglonoth 432 4.8%
Nyxathid 393 4.4%
Obelisk of Alara 260 2.9%
Bloodhall Ooze 220 2.5%
Inkwell Leviathan 206 2.3%
Sigil of the Empty Throne 204 2.3%
Blood Tyrant 202 2.3%
Gwafa Hazid, Profiteer 178 2.0%
Wall of Reverence 175 2.0%
Kederekt Parasite 167 1.9%
Worldheart Phoenix 147 1.6%
Exotic Orchard 143 1.6%
Telemin Performance 125 1.4%
Rakka Mar 123 1.4%
Cliffrunner Behemoth 119 1.3%
Voracious Dragon 110 1.2%
Goblin Razerunners 101 1.1%
Magister Sphinx 79 0.9%
Scepter of Fugue 76 0.8%
Giltspire Avenger 73 0.8%
Font of Mythos 70 0.8%
Charnelhoard Wurm 67 0.7%
Sphinx Summoner 65 0.7%
Scepter of Dominance 64 0.7%
Soul's Majesty 42 0.5%
Extractor Demon 41 0.5%
Mark of Asylum 39 0.4%
Cylian Sunsinger 38 0.4%
Paleoloth 21 0.2%
Scepter of Insight 4 0.0%
Total 8969 100.0%

The results of last week's poll are largely not surprising. Four of the top five cards didn't surprise me; Banefire, Noble Hierarch, Martial Coup, and Knight of the Reliquary are all clearly powerful cards that I have ridden to many game wins against other Magic playtesters. What did surprise me a bit was that Master Transmuter ended up third. That card is clearly a huge Johnny hit, but it was simply not on my own radar when I was thinking about what I expected to win the poll. Given the enthusiastic response to it on various message boards and from many players, I shouldn't have been surprised. Thanks for the feedback!

[The survey originally included in this article has been removed.]

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