You Just Fell For The Trap

Posted in Latest Developments on September 11, 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.

Compared to most trips into the Zendikar wilderness, this one so far had been easy. Your map had not been cheap, but it was more accurate than any other you have used before. The grinning goblin said that it would take you to a subterranean library that held forgotten secrets. This chamber full of endless shelves covered in ancient tomes and scrolls testify that he did not deceive you.

You pull a book from one of the shelves, and thousands of years of dust cloud the air. Breathless from the dust and your excitement, you open the book and discover that you cannot make any sense of it. The pages are covered in runes that are clearly a precursor to the language of magic that you have been taught, but they are archaic enough that you will need your home library to decipher them.

You put the book in your pack and pull another off of the shelf. As you do, a deep cracking sound reverberates through the chamber and light begins to shine from above. You look up and freeze, terrified, as the ceiling begins to crumble. Boulders fall around you like raindrops. One of them lands squarely on your head, and you crumple to the ground.

You frown to yourself as huge chunks of rock bury you with thousands of tomes you will never read. Your father always said that your books would be the death of you, but he probably didn't have anything like this in mind.

Today I have the privilege of introducing traps, one of Zendikar's mechanical themes. I'll start by taking a look at some of the ones that are already in the Visual Spoiler.

Whiplash Trap

Mark Rosewater's article next Monday will talk about how Zendikar's land theme led the set to become a wilderness world of high adventure, and how that journey influenced the mechanics in the set. One of the mechanics that came out of this creative focus was traps. Indiana Jones, Dungeons and Dragons, and other high-adventure settings are famous for traps of all sorts, ranging from crushing walls and rolling boulders to poison gas and arrow traps. Knowing this, Mark Rosewater's design always had traps in it once we knew that we wanted an adventuring feel.

However, the designers struggled to find a mechanic for the traps that both felt "trappy" and was fun. Many attempts at the traps were very high-concept; one even involved exiling the trap card face down with an "arm counter" on it, and later playing the spell from the exile zone. The correctness of this mechanic was a matter of much debate. One side argued that it was wrong for the controller of a trap to have to alert the opponent that the trap was coming, which is exactly what the mechanic that required exiling a trap facedown does. Others said that anyone in a fantasy adventure world who was going on expeditions into dungeons should be expecting traps. This question was never resolved satisfactorily.

Early in development, the development team decided that the trap mechanic handed off from design had too many problems and cut it entirely from the set. A bit later, however, we became concerned about the set's flavor. Too much of what gave Zendikar a mechanical feel that matched with the creative had been lost. We split up into teams to create evocative and flavorful cards to recapture this feel. I was part of the team that designed the new version of the trap mechanic.

We knew the basic shape that our new traps would take before we began to work. Traps should surprise players by being a powerful effect that happens at a time when the opponent does not expect it. Of course, a trap must be triggered to go off, so they should only do this under certain conditions. We decided that the triggers for our traps would be things that sometimes happen in games of Magic, but don't always happen. We also decided that we wanted our trap cards to do something even when the trap is not triggered, because it isn't very fun when a card does nothing.

Creating traps that worked under these parameters was tricky. Making instants is easy, but making instants that both feel natural as surprise "gotcha" moments and do something that makes sense when they aren't a shocking surprise is more difficult. Another difficulty was that the "trap condition" needed to match the card's effect in a natural way. For example, we can design cards like this until we're blue in the face:

Bizarro Trap
Instant - Trap
You may cast CARDNAME without paying its mana cost if an opponent attacked you this turn with a creature that had flying.
Return up to two target creature cards from your graveyard to your hand.

However, it's really hard to grok something like this because the trap condition and the effect of the spell are entirely disconnected. Another difficulty is that our traps needed to make sense as fantasy concepts. The goal behind their creation was to support Zendikar's adventure world feel, so they needed to feel like some kind of trap that an actual adventurer of some sort might face. Bizarro Trap above fails this test rather miserably.

We used two main sources as inspiration for our traps. One was to go back to the inspiration for Zendikar's flavor. We thought through all sorts of existing fantasy adventure settings to look for famous traps that might make sense as Magic cards. This pass gave us tons of great trap tropes.

The simplest ones we got from this pass were ordinary physical traps. A few examples of these are pit traps built into the ground or dungeon floor, and traps that fire weapons like arrows or spears at unwelcome adventurers, or drop huge boulders on them from above. Some traps also released living natural hazards, like snakes or more fearsome beasts. Dungeons and Dragons has many traps that summon magical creatures to defend a dungeon. These tropes allowed us to make resonant traps that were removal spells or created token creatures.

Pitfall Trap

The first of these that I designed was a "Pit Trap." It was clear to me that a pit trap was supposed to be a spell that destroyed an attacking flying creature without flying. Designing a trap condition to fit this, however, was a little tricky. We bounced around for a while before eventually settling on the idea that a pit trap would only be cheaper to use against a lone creature. A friend would help spot such a trap, but a lone creature could be caught unaware.

The other way we designed trap cards was to look through Magic for things that players have historically disliked that we could use as trap conditions. For example, if your opponent is countering your spells, casting many spells in one turn, or dumping tons of cards in their graveyard to use with other cards, you might very well want to punish them for it. We tried to make cards that had these sorts of trap conditions, actual card effects that felt connected to them, and overall concepts that made enough sense. Here's an example of one of those cards.

Mindbreak Trap

I designed this card as a stopgap measure against combination decks that played tons of spells in one turn. My original submission looked like this:

Counter Trap
Instant – Trap
You may cast CARDNAME without paying its mana cost if an opponent has played three or more spells this turn.
Counter target spell.

As you can see, the development team changed it so that it does this job even better. Now instead of only one spell, Mindbreak Trap stops all of them. The team specifically made this change so that it would be a powerful tool against storm combination decks in Extended, Legacy, and Vintage. However, we also discovered that it is a potent card against the cascade mechanic. In one very memorable game, I had the good fortune of being able to stop an Enlisted Wurm, Bituminous Blast, Bloodbraid Elf, and Blightning with only a single Mindbreak Trap while I was tapped out!

All the traps have "trap" in their name. However, we also gave each of them "Trap" as a subtype. This was not strictly necessary to make the cards work, but while we were working on the traps, we realized that there were a number of flavorful cards we could make that referred explicitly to Trap cards. We needed a subtype to make these cards, so we asked for the subtype and were granted our wish.

When the trap task force completed its work, we gave the development team traps across all colors and rarities. However, we discovered in Limited playtesting that traps had a mildly onerous effect on game play when they were extremely common occurrences. For example, when Pitfall Trap was a common, it was very unwise in a draft game to attack with a single creature when your opponent had a single white mana up if you really needed it to hit your opponent. Thanks to how ubiquitous commons are in Limited, this was true even if you weren't sure whether or not your opponent had a Pitfall Trap in his deck. It became very important to internalize the list of common trap conditions and play around all of the relevant ones whenever possible, which was frustrating and stifling.

To combat this, the development team chose to move traps out of common in every color except blue. This gave blue some definition as the tricky color, and also relieved the pressure on players that all the common traps gave. This also made the traps a lot more fun to both play and have played against you. Because the traps were so much less frequent, we stopped playing around them automaticaly, so it was much more common for a trap to actually go off at its discounted price.

This also made it much less annoying to fall for a trap. The biggest reason for some people was that you fell for each trap much less often, so it didn't feel like it was happening every draft. For me, the biggest reason was that moving the common traps to uncommon made it incorrect to play around them until you knew that a particular trap was actually in the opponent's deck. As a variable-maximizing Spike, I felt obligated to play around every last common trap condition when they were common, but now I don't feel like I have to do that until I know that a particular trap is out there.

Let's talk about Archive Trap, today's preview card.

Archive Trap

Archive Trap's story is very simple because it is what we call a "brain-to-print" card. That means that someone created it out of whole cloth, and it survived unchanged all the way through design, development, and editing. I'm pretty happy about this because in the case of Archive Trap that someone was me. I left the meeting where we created this version of the traps with the card in my mind, and I wrote it down as soon as I got to my desk. The following is copied and pasted from the document I created for our first trap meeting.

Mill Trap
Instant – Trap
You may cast CARDNAME without paying its mana cost if an opponent has searched their library this turn.
Target opponent puts the top thirteen cards in his or her library into their graveyard.

This is also exactly what I handed off to the development team when our trap task force finished. Between then and now, the template we used for the alternate casting cost changed because the development team wanted to be able to make some of the traps' discounted versions still cost mana. This both protected the color pie in places where it felt weird to get a particular effect for free and allowed us to make traps with splashier effects, like this one.

Lavaball Trap

I hope you like Zendikar's traps. I'm biased because my handprints are all over them, but I think they do a great job of getting across the set's adventuring flavor. Of course, that's not all there is in Zendikar. Even though the set is full of adventure, it is still a land-themed set as well. Come back next week, when I'll talk about the nonbasic lands in Zendikar.

Last Week's Poll

Zendikar previews begin next week. Which of the Zendikar cards that Mark Rosewater teased this past Monday are you most excited to see?
A cycle of cards that players have been begging us to print for years. 4647 37.6%
A legendary Octopus 2130 17.3%
A card with the reminder text "The land continues to burn ...." 1677 13.6%
A card that is a two-card kill combo with a rare card in Magic 2010. 1065 8.6%
A creature whose rules text includes the phrase "you win the game." 913 7.4%
A spell that can allow you for no mana to put a creature from your library onto the battlefield. 735 6.0%
A creature that can sacrifice itself to make a planeswalker go to the graveyard. 521 4.2%
A spell capable of making a 14/1 token. 351 2.8%
A card that allows you to pay eight mana for four 4/4 fliers 304 2.5%
Total 12343 100.0%

Okay, but I can only show you two of the five right now.

Arid Mesa Misty Rainforest


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