Widening the Field

Posted in Latest Developments on January 24, 2014

By Sam Stoddard

Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.

The card I am going to preview today isn't breaking new ground, mechanically. It is a bestow creature, which, chances are, you all have seen a lot of. It doesn't have a weird alternative bestow cost, or a particularly strange bestow ability, but it does have a reward that you haven't seen in the first set. No, what is important about this card is not how it does what it does, but why it does it. Before I show you the card, though, I want to go through a little backstory.

In the earliest versions of Theros block, bestow wasn't even included in Theros—it first showed up in Born of the Gods. It was meant to be part of the natural progression of the block, with the enchantments that players were using in the first set "coming to life" in the second set. It was the new spin that the second set always gives. The problem, unfortunately for Born of the Gods, was that the space for regular Auras just wasn't large enough in Theros. While we can make some number of Dragon Mantles and Scourgemarks, we can't just give every Aura enough of a bonus that players will risk getting two-for-oned, or including enough in their decks that they will risk having draws where they get all of their enchantments and none of their creatures. The bestow mechanic was exactly what the first set needed, but that stole some of Born of the Gods's thunder. Luckily, between tribute and inspired, the set has enough new and interesting to go around.

After bestow was moved to Theros, it became important for Born of the Gods's lead designer, Ken Nagle, to have the bestow in his set feel slightly different than the bestow in Theros. Not to the point of feeling like a different mechanic, but so that the individual cards played important roles that made them feel different than the individual cards in Theros. To give you an idea of how this manifested, let me show you my preview—the Eidolon of Countless Battles.

I'll be the first to admit that this guy is a little wordy, but I think that wordiness is worth it to make the card play as well as it does. Bestow is inherently a complicated mechanic, but I think that complexity is worth it for what it is accomplishing. Bestow has some of the most complex interactions of any mechanic we have made since we began operating under New World Order, but it does so because the main concepts behind it are grokable, and the game play of it is very strong. We have definitely taken to heart some of the complaints about the mechanic, however, and are discussing internally what the correct limits are for new mechanics at common.

One of the most important lessons we have learned over the many years of making Magic cards is how to use design space as a resource. When bestow was first debuted in Theros, it was kept pretty simple at common. Just keywords and square stats. Of course, there are only so many keywords, and we wanted to stay away from ones that were relevant for the creature and the Aura at the same time—like hexproof or a regeneration effect. Even though we did play with triggers, activated abilities, and non-square stats at the higher rarities, we wanted to leave plenty of things for later sets to do. After all, we knew there would be a lot of questions about how bestow worked right at the beginning, and giving players the most simple versions of the cards was the best way to do that. By the time the second set rolled around, we would've taught most of our players how the mechanic worked and could introduce a little more variety and a little more complexity, without worrying about explaining the basics. Not having to worry about supporting bestow quite so much also meant we could focus on other things to improve the set.

    Go Wide, Young One

Theros, as a set, is very much about going tall. The biggest thing on the battlefield tends to be the focus of most games. Monstrous has that effect. Bestow has that effect. Even many of the heroes have that effect. While you leave yourself vulnerable for removal, assembling a Voltron is a very viable Limited strategy. A lot of that is because it was part of Mark Rosewater's design vision of the set. While it may not be the favorite strategy of everyone, having an overarching strategy like this in the main set of a block helps to separate one block from another, and keeps Magic sets feeling different from each other. It's one of the things that I believe has kept Magic strong for the past two decades. But part of making a block and not just one set is knowing how to change that vision over time.

Eidolon of Countless Battles | Art by Raymond Swanland

One of Lead Developer Tom LaPille's goals with Born of the Gods was to give players better rewards for going wide, which fit well with the Eidolon of Countless Battles. One of the tips for developers working on a small expansion is to figure out what they believe their set can do to change the Limited experience of the first set for the better, and execute on that plan. This doesn't mean to take the set in a radical new direction, like Fifth Dawn, but instead figure out what strategies could be expanded upon from the first set. In this case, Tom decided to put some work into allowing decks that wanted to go wide to do so and be rewarded for it. Inspired, as a mechanic, helps with this. While you can be rewarded by just building up your one inspired creature and getting through with it, your second inspired creature in this case will go to waste. Instead, the goal was to make it so that if you had multiple inspired creatures, you can go wide and get the maximum value out of each of them. It also means that an opponent who is just going tall is going to have a hard time dealing with your creatures that generate value each time they untap.

Beyond just mechanically, you will find that many of the individual cards in this set push people's decks in Limited to find more rewards for going wide instead of tall. Because of the change we made several years ago to the Draft format, where you started off with the most recent set, we are better able to have the newest set make an impact without totally changing how the Draft environment works. Now, you can know after the first pack if you have the right tools to try going wide, or if you should follow what Theros wants you to do and go tall.

In previous years, this kind of change would've been basically impossible without ratcheting up the Limited power level of the themes in the small set. Lorwyn/Morningtide is a good example of this going wrong. It was an interesting idea in Morningtide to encourage players to draft around classes instead of just creature types, but the only way to get players to actually do it in Draft was to put the power level of the commons in Morningtide at such a high power level that it was worth the risk of blind-drafting one class and hoping to get good cards in it for pack three. If we had reversed the draft order, at least players would've been able to make an informed decision during the draft after pack one on whether they were supposed to focus on a class or a race.

Born of the Gods also does this more subtly by playing up the themes we wanted to increase in volume, and not the ones that we felt were loud enough. For example, because the common bestow cards don't give a keyword, they are good at increasing the size of creatures, but make it harder to assemble a large creature with evasion that also has either lifelink or vigilance. At the same time, we aren't just adding one pack of Born of the Gods, we are also taking one away of Theros, which (when combined with the changes in theme I mentioned before) help to create a Limited environment that feels evolved from triple Theros without taking a radical turn. In my opinion, Born of the Gods feels like an evolution of Theros, not a departure.

    Bestowing on Standard

Another goal of this set was to provide more designs for bestow cards that could see serious play in Standard. So far, both Boon Satyr and Nighthowler have seen some Constructed play, although it has been far less than a monstrous card like Stormbreath Dragon or a devotion card like Gray Merchant of Asphodel. We definitely want bestow to see some competitive Constructed play, and I think the cards in Born of the Gods reflect that. I think we made several good shots at cards in Theros, but the focus there was definitely more directed at Limited. Bestow cards at lower rarities are pretty tightly cycled and done so in a way that really doesn't suit them for Constructed.

Because we have given ourselves a little extra leeway in terms of how we are putting abilities on the creatures, we can more easily craft creatures that are good for both Standard and Limited play, one of which is the Eidolon of Countless Battles. While the effect of a creature like Crusader of Odric is not generally Standard playable, adding in the ability to act as a creature enchantment, and count Auras, is a pretty big boost. After all, there are plenty of Auras that are within range of Constructed seeing play currently in Standard. There are the obvious ones like Unflinching Courage and Ethereal Armor, but there are other noncreature enchantment Auras that can boost up the Eidolon as well, such as Chained to the Rocks, Underworld Connections, or even Nylea's Presence.

We play a lot of games of the sets we develop, but ultimately not nearly as many as the players in the real world will in only the first week of the set's release. We have theories of how Born of the Gods will impact Standard, but only time will tell if they will play out like that. I am looking forward to watching coverage in the first few weeks, and seeing what kind of impact the set has.

Until next time,
Sam (@samstod)

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Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May, 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.

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