A Vision of Compleation

Posted in Latest Developments on May 6, 2011

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.

As a Magic developer, I've worked on what is essentially product development for the past three years. One of the lessons I've learned during that time is that it's impossible to create a good product if you don't understand the vision for it. Every product has a big picture, and every little decision you make needs to help create the big picture. This is especially true for the lead of a project, as that is the person who makes both a lot of final decisions and a lot of decisions that are invisible to the team. It is, however, also true for team members, and I was on the New Phyrexia team. It was on me to develop my own vision for the set, and see if it matched what everyone else came up with.

Mark Rosewater talked during Scars of Mirrodin previews about the four words that he came up with to describe Phyrexia: adaptive, toxic, unrelenting, and viral. I copied that exercise from him, but I didn't want the same results. New Phyrexia was, well, new, so I wanted to have some different words.

For myself, I came up with two words: violating and transgressive. To me, the Phyrexians serve a similar function to the extraterrestrials in alien invasion movies: mysterious outsiders we can't talk to who have completely alien moral systems and don't care about our well-being one iota. Now that they have won, they're free to do whatever they want to Mirrodin. The things they do, for contrast's sake, should be things that we wouldn't have seen happening beforehand. Seeing as the Phyrexians are an amoral and viral swarm of mechanical monsters seemingly controlled by a hive mind intent on taking over the Multiverse, they're bound to stumble across some actions that strike normal humans like us as violating and transgressive. We needed to show that on cards.

This wasn't exactly the same as the vision that lead designer Ken Nagle and lead developer Aaron Forsythe came up with. If I had to guess their two words, I would guess "evil" and "griefer." Griefer is a natural one for both of them, as they make no secret of enjoying when they put their opponents through less-than-fun experiences. Evil is also a natural one to choose for Phyrexia, even if I might quibble about whether they are evil or just amoral and alien. Either way, they both were very interested in making cards that satisfied my two criteria, so I was not worried. Let's look in detail at a few of them.

This card came straight out of design, so there isn't much of a development story. The story lives, instead, with the other members of this cycle that are no longer in the set. Ken liked the "good for me, bad for you" angle a lot, and so did we. Unfortunately, it was a little bit ambitious to try to come up with three whole cycles of these. The Exarchs and the Praetors are already in this space, and already used up huge swaths of abilities, and we found that there just were not enough good abilities left to do another cycle. This individual card was one of everyone's favorites, though, so we kept it.

I enjoy this card for its subtlety. The words on this card are fairly pedestrian to me, as I've been playing Limited Magic for over ten years. However, the collective effect of many of its triggers over time make it very difficult to race in a fight between two aggressive decks. While playing against this card, I often found myself in disbelief at what had happened to the life totals over a few turns while I wasn't looking. Some cards strike me as being somewhat self-aware about trying to be cool; Suture Priest is just happy to be a workhorse without needing to feel special about itself. That feels just right for a member of a creepy alien hive mind.

This card is an obvious reference to enchantments like Oblivion Ring and Journey to Nowhere that temporarily exile an offending permanent. With those other cards, though, if someone is able to remove the enchantment, they get their permanent back. The Phyrexians just aren't that generous, so Exclusion Ritual doesn't let you have it back. They keep it, and they aren't sorry about it. Oh, and you can't cast any more of them.

We've discovered between finishing New Phyrexia and now that tons and tons of people misplay this card. They think, due to Oblivion Ring and Journey to Nowhere, that they'll get their card back when they kill the Exclusion Ritual. That just isn't true. I've talked before in this space about how in cases when people misplay cards, it's usually best to make them work the way that people think they do. I still agree with that, but there's a reason that sentence has an adverb in it. I just don't buy that Phyrexia would be willing to give the exiled card back. When someone discovers for the first time that they aren't getting that card back, they usually feel violated, as they were expecting that. I feel like that sudden unpleasant moment of discovery and violation is a perfect meta-expression of what New Phyrexia is trying to do, so I don't regret it one bit. We can always make Magic cards that work the way people expect, but when it's actually appropriate to violate expectations, I have no qualms with doing so.

Ken's original design for Praetor's Grasp had you shuffling the stolen card into your library. This is something that non-silver-bordered Magic has never done before, which is, I think, why Ken was so attached to it. There were a few issues with that. One very big issue is that the Magic rules deal very poorly with it, by which I mean they don't deal with it at all. Another issue is that practically speaking, if you and I have differently colored sleeves, we're all going to know where that card is at any given time.

The biggest issue to me, though, is that that isn't what Phyrexia would want to do. Phyrexia doesn't care about you. It cares so little about you, in fact, that it doesn't even get a buzz out of making you sad. It just wants to win, and hiding your card in my deck doesn't really help me win. It just makes you sad.

Eventually, rules problems killed the previous version. When that happened, we came up with this one, which gives you indefinite access to the card you steal. That feels much closer to what a Phyrexian would do to me, as it's just more powerful.

By the time Phyrexian mana was added to the file, the development team was already active. One of the things we asked Ken to produce was a suite of Phyrexian mana cards that could be free and felt transgressive when used as a surprise. Ken's brain was already there, and he produced this "free" Extirpate almost immediately.

Ken's instinct here was spot on. Cards like Lobotomy, Cranial Extraction, Extirpate, and Memoricide have been popular with griefers since the beginning of Magic. That popularity has also been out of proportion to how powerful those cards historically are, as it's just fun to rip a bunch of cards out of someone's deck. Making Extirpate free is especially nice, because you can dream of casting a Duress, getting someone's important card, and then Surgical Extractioning it before they even get a turn. We expected to cause a stir when we first showed you this card, and we were not disappointed.

If you're not as excited about doing terrible things to other people as you are about building something for yourself, there are still cards for you in the set. White, blue, and green all have "Splicers," which are 1/1 creatures that create one or more 3/3 Golem token artifact creatures. There are cards like Puresteel Paladin and Jor Kadeen, the Prevailer that still ask you to play with a bunch of artifacts. There's also Darksteel Fragment, which is, well, I guess nothing at all. But particularly if you are excited about doing mean things to other people, though, I suggest you make time this weekend to get to a Prerelease. It may be a long time before you see another Magic set that is as suited to your tastes as this one!

As I said last week, I'll be at the large regional prerelease in Columbus, Ohio this Saturday. If you're in the area, stop by and say hello!

    Last Week's Poll
What is the most recent block that you own a significant amount of cards from? (You decide what a significant amount is.)
Scars of Mirrodin block110435.6%
Zendikar block57618.6%
Shards of Alara block2989.6%
Ravnica block2197.1%
Time Spiral block1575.1%
Mirrodin block1133.6%
Lorwyn block1103.5%
Onslaught block832.7%
Shadowmoor block822.6%
Kamigawa block722.3%
I don't own a significant amount of cards.712.3%
Urza block591.9%
Invasion block431.4%
Odyssey block371.2%
Mirage block260.8%
Masques block180.6%

    This Week's Poll
Are you attending, or have you attended, a New Phyrexia Prerelease event this weekend?Yes, at a local store.Yes, at a large regional prerelease.Yes, both kinds.No.

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