Two Great Flavors From Magic 2010

Posted in Latest Developments on July 24, 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.

Favorite Flavor Week presents me with an interesting challenge. People come to Magic for many reasons, and by far the biggest reason I came to Magic was that its game play was amazing. For me, Magic replaced games like chess and go. I approached Magic for years as just another classic game and was almost completely blind to flavor.

That all changed when I started working here at Wizards. There are dragons, elves, and knights all over the walls. Many people's cubicles are covered in miniatures. The printers in R&D are named after sample characters from old Dungeons and Dragons books. This company is filled with people who love fantasy, and that love is infectious. During my first months here, I received an education in common fantasy tropes. Various coworkers loaned me books that I devoured. I played in a couple of Dungeons and Dragons campaigns, then later ran one of my own. I started to accumulate my own miniatures collection that now lives on the bases of my computer monitors. Slowly and surely, I grew to love fantasy just like the rest of Wizards.

Two years ago, I would have struggled with Favorite Flavor Week because I was immune to flavor. Now, I have the opposite problem and I think that most things in fantasy are awesome. However, as a member of the Magic 2010 development team, I could not afford to play favorites. The entire set was built to be recognizable as possible, so we had to make every card be resonant. Today, I'll tell you stories about two cards from Magic 2010 that the development team worked hard to make resonant.

Magic 2010 and the Aaron Forsythe Design Challenge

Aaron Forsythe was the lead designer of Magic 2010. A few months before the design process began, he led Magic R&D through a series of top-down design exercises. Once a week, he would send out a top-line concept like "djinn" or "demon" and have us all design a single card to that concept. Then, he would create mock-ups of each of the submitted cards, post them all on a bulletin board, and have the department vote on the best card. This process continued through a number of tropes, and both provided Aaron with top-down cards built on baseline fantasy concepts and helped the department understand what he was trying to accomplish with Magic 2010 as a set.

Although Aaron and his design team had final say on what cards went into the file, many cards that won these votes ended up in the design handoff. I was on the development team, and we made sure to preserve the concepts that Aaron included in the design file. However, we were willing to change cards that we thought weren't doing their job, even if they were designed to concepts we liked. In those cases, we designed new cards to those concepts that solved the problems we had. Today's cards are two of these.

Djinn of Wishes

The concept of the djinn is a classic one, but Alpha's Mahamoti Djinn is a little bland, so we chose to make a new one for Magic 2010. Djinn of Wishes looks exactly like the sort of card that the Aaron Forsythe design challenges might have produced. However, Djinn of Wishes was made during development.

Dave Guskin won Djinn Week of the Aaron Forsythe Design Challenge with this text box:

When Dave Gusk-Djinn enters the battlefield, search your library for three cards, shuffle your library, then put those cards on top of it in any order.

This won the vote between all of the Djinn submissions with a flavorful take on the concept of "three wishes," but that doesn't mean that it was fun in play. It shouldn't surprise you that if this guy resolves and you get to take your next turn, it's difficult to lose. Magic 2010 lead developer Erik Lauer had the honor of being both the first and last person to cast this card. In a Sealed Deck playtest, he cast it against then-intern Bill Stark. When Bill failed to kill Erik on his next turn, the following exchange took place:

Bill: I'm not winning this game, am I?
Erik: No.
Bill: What three cards did you get?
Erik: Cancel, Fireball, and Earthquake.

Just as Erik predicted, Bill did not win that game. After the playtest, we pulled that Djinn out of the card pool and put it on a list of cards to talk about during our next meeting.

In that meeting, we decided that we did want our Djinn to have a mechanical representation of the "three wishes concept." We also realized that using counter technology meant that we could to get the word "wish" into the text box. Erik's background in mathematics and computer science makes him very good at solving problems under tight constraints, and after a minute or two of thought he produced almost the exact text you see on the card today.

Djinn of Wishes

The only significant difference between the printed text and Erik's text was that when Erik's Djinn ran out of wish counters, it shuffled itself into its owner's library. Mythological djinns don't stick around after their wishes have been exhausted, and neither did Erik's. However, we never found a wording for this ability that we were happy with. Later, Magic senior editor Del Laugel told us that the ability might not fit on the card. Rather than continue to wrestle with it, we decided that Djinn of Wishes could stick around even after its controller was done wishing.

I fell in love with Djinn of Wishes while working on the Magic 2010 Intro Packs. More than once, I made desperate wishes in response to spells like Overrun or Nightmare and was rewarded with exactly the Negate or Essence Scatter I needed to counter it. By this point, the only difference between the card in the file and the card we printed was that the Djinn of Wishes I was playtesting with was merely a 3/4. Near the end of development, Erik asked me what Magic 2010 cards that I enjoyed playing with that were too weak for me to think about putting in decks. Djinn of Wishes was one such card. We chose to improve the card to a 4/4 rather than let it continue to feel anemically sized.

Essence Scatter

I'm glad that we stuck with the three wishes mechanical theme for Djinn of Wishes. When we did the Aaron Forsythe design challenge for Djinns, almost every submission had some kind of mechanical representation of three wishes, so it was clear that this idea was resonant. I also find it amusing that multiple people from elsewhere in the company who participated in the design challenge have stopped by the Pit and expressed their pride that their Djinn submission was printed. Each time this happens, Erik and I look at each other and shrug, but these occurrences made us confident that we made the Djinn that players expected. Hopefully none of the people who have claimed Djinn of Wishes as their own will read this article.

Protean Hydra

I have worked on many Magic sets, and often events surrounding cards run together and become blurred. For me, the story of Protean Hydra is one such story. It is possible that Aaron's design included a specific green Hydra that the development team decided not to use. It is also possible that Aaron simply said "There should be a green Hydra that costs here." and gave us free reign to make it. Were I at the office, I would look this up in Multiverse. However, as I write this I am on a plane traveling to the United States National Championships, which will have begun by the time many of you read this. Instead, I will tell you the story from the earliest point that I remember the exact details.

Historically speaking, Magic's Hydras use +1/+1 counters to represent heads. They also often have in their mana cost and conveniently enter the battlefield with X +1/+1 counters. We have now moved Hydras into green, so it was somehow decided that Magic 2010 would contain a Hydra that cost to cast.

In the same meeting in which Erik designed Djinn of Wishes, we discussed other top-down cards. Erik's goal for the Magic 2010 hydra was to be as faithful to the source material as possible. In the Greek story of the Hydra, every time a head was cut off, two more heads grew from the stump. Erik liked the use of +1/+1 counters as heads and asked his team members to try to combine these two ideas into a Hydra that made sense. It didn't take us long to figure out our hydra should lose +1/+1 "heads" rather than take damage, then get two +2/+2 counters to replace each lost head. The details, however, were tricky.

One simple way to write this is "If Protean Hydra would be dealt damage, prevent that damage and remove a +1/+1 counter from Protean Hydra for each damage prevented this way, then put two +1/+1 counters on Protean Hydra for each damage prevented this way." It gives the right sense, but it has two problems. The first is that it might as well say "... instead prevent that damage and put a +1/+1 counter on Protean Hydra," which makes it a lot harder to figure out the flavor connection. The other problem is that it cannot be killed with damage, which is not great game play.

Erik theorized that it would take some amount of time for a Hydra's head to regrow, so we explored using a triggered ability instead. Our first attempt was "At the beginning of the end step, put two +1/+1 counters on Protean Hydra for each +1/+1 counter that was removed from it this turn." This works for combat damage, but has bizarre loopholes. One could allow this trigger to finish resolving, then Lightning Bolt the Hydra in the end step. Because of the way the trigger is worded, the three heads lost to the Lightning Bolt will never come back, and that's just wrong.

Protean Hydra

We ended up going with a slightly strange wording so that we could accomplish exactly what we wanted. This kind of ability is called a delayed triggered ability because it's a triggered ability that sets up another triggered ability: the first when the heads are removed, and the second at the beginning of the next end step. As printed, however, no matter when a head is removed, it will eventually grow back given enough time. We were not thrilled with how much text it took to accomplish our goal. However, many cards from Alpha were resonant despite having large blocks of text on them, so we went ahead with it.

My favorite part of the Protean Hydra story is that for many weeks we thought that the card would have another ability on top of everything it had. We went through tons of lines of text, and none of them made us happy. Two things happened almost simultaneously that snapped us out of it. The first was that we realized that it was essentially a perfect Hydra without any extra text. The second was that we were informed that more text would not fit on the card. These were both good reasons to stop looking for more text.

Erik did a fantastic job of making a Hydra that both matches the ancient Greek source material and is fun to play with in games of Magic. We will be hard pressed to top its mechanical match to the concept.

Magic 2010 is full of cards with great flavor that I enjoyed helping to make, but Djinn of Wishes and Protean Hydra are two cards that I am especially proud of for how well they match their top-down concepts. As I said before, I can't say that either of them are my favorite flavor, but I do enjoy both of them quite a lot.

Last Week's Poll

Do you become frustrated when a poll does not contain an option that allows you to express your exact situation or feelings?
Yes 3754 59.2%
No 2591 40.8%
Total 6345 100.0%

Let's have a conversation about polls.

I construct my polls with care. Each one has a suite of mutually exclusive answers that is designed to give me information about a particular topic. Unless I have made an error, exactly one of the poll options each week will be correct for you to choose.

I have learned from the volume of forum responses complaining about the polls that you all love Magic and it's very important to you that you convey that to me. Unfortunately, there are going to be times when you must answer a poll in a way that is not satisfying to you. There is no way for me to cover every possible scenario in the poll. No matter how many different "No, because of reason X" or "No, but I may exhibit future behavior Y" options I include, I will have missed someone's reason or potential future behavior. When splitting options in this way makes sense for a question, I will do it; when it does not, I will not.

It does not offend me when you answer a poll with truthful information, even if you feel it is not complete. You are reading my article every week, and that alone tells me that you love Magic. I am honored that you enjoy our game that much, and you have nothing more to prove to me. If you want to add extra detail to your position on any given poll, I invite you to do so in the forums.

All that said, let's try a poll.

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