Skeletons in R&D's Closet, Part 3

Posted in Latest Developments on August 22, 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.

Since the beginning of time (or at least a long time), designers and developers have been leaving comments in Multiverse intended to generate discussion and hopefully improve the quality of the sets. Most cards in Magic are fun and balanced and work well. When we make our cards, we try to hit about the right level of power, but there are always going to be some we miss in one direction or another.

For instance:

Test for quick kills. Extreme examples:
Turn 1: Swamp, Bog Rats
Turn 2, Ritual, Ritual or Mana Vault, ChannelHowl, you're dead. (5 cards)
Or . . .
Turn 1: Swamp, Ritual, Ritual, Mana Vault, Nether Shadow, ChannelHowl, you're dead. (6 cards)
The playtest groups did some of this and the decks were not strong.

So yeah, I think we can agree in hindsight that these decks did end up pretty strong. Also, they didn't run Bog Rats. So yes, we get things wrong from time to time. Luckily, in more recent years, we try to take risks on card that are generally pretty fun, so if we are wrong, at least games don't come down to Trinispheres, Memory Jars, or Skullclamps.

Like both Aaron Forsythe and Tom LaPille before me, I decided to take a gander through some cards that we have decided, in hindsight, are stronger than we want in modern sets, to try and figure out just what the other designers and developers were thinking when those cards made their way through the process.

The names have been removed to protect identities, and the quotes have been paired down a bit for both brevity and humor's sake.

This is Skeletons in R&D's Closet, Part 3.

Umezawa's Jitte
D1 3/25: this is pretty random. is this a story card?
D2 3/31 Umezawa is the hero.
D3 4/2 Sword of Light and Smoke and Growth. I get it.
D4 4/20: the ritual vibe as black bothers me a little bit. what's the flavor reason for it?
D5 4/28: the more i think about this card the worse it seems. for four mana you get nothing on the first attack, which feels a lot like banshee's blade except the blade gets insane over time but this doesn't. maybe we don't need it to be good, but just saying.
D6 4/30: I agree that this card is clunky now, and it would be nice to change some numbers and make it better. On the ritual thing, what if it added RR? BR? Charge counters would interact better with MRD than some other counter.
D2 5/4 Agree they should be charge counters. Also, you now get two counters per hit
D1 5/11: no longer seems completely useless power-wise. still looks useless, just not completely. I want to put this on Godo just 'cause. adding bb still seems strange...
D7 6/30: changed the middle mode from a mana ability to -1/-1 as per HS's request. Also, no room for equip reminder text.

By June 30, the card was mostly out of development's hands and in templating. Turns out that giving -1/-1 and keeping people from ever being able to beat the card was a slight problem. And this is why we don't make huge changes in templating anymore.

Dark Depths
D1 10/20: Word from editing: ain't no way to fit that version. So I'm cutting the mana ability completely
D2 11/11: Why not tap for 1? If this card isn't remotely playable, it feels like a waste of 20/20. I liked it at fringe.
D1 11/21: Tap for 1 would fit but tap for 1 and an ice counter does not. Team prefers this version and expects players will enjoy the idea of the challenge much more than actually playing against it in constructed

It's amazing how much more reasonable this card was before Vampire Hexmage and Thespian's Stage. Probably not reasonable enough to let it tap for colorless mana, but enough to at least discuss it.

Dread Return
D1 12/19: lowered from 3bb to 2bb
D2 1/22: Not a fan of lowering this cost, not sure why we want to push reanimation when it impacts what creatures we can make.
D3 1/23: I don't think this is enough of a power-up to reanimation to change anything.

Nope. Couldn't imagine it changing anything. In fairness, the power in the card was in the flashback and not in the front end. Which shouldn't matter. Except for one little thing...

D1 6/26: This with grave troll and flashback zombify.
D2 7/3: Cool card.
D3 7/9: Can someone try this?
D4 7/12: Doesn't seem worth jumping through any hoops for a random Sea Eagle.

D1 had it right, even if that didn't change anything. Time has told us that some people were willing to jump through a few hoops for this random Sea Eagle. When discussing the Top 10 creatures of all time in the Pit, opinions on split on if Narcomoeba is in that list, or whether it should be counted at all.

Birthing Pod
D1 2/2/2010: New card that's kind of like Hibernation's End but you have to sacrifice creatures.
D2 5/5: Made it into a ! artifact instead of an enchantment that triggered during your end step.
D1 5/5/2010: ?!?! Sac 2-drop, fetch 2U Twiddle Pontiff, untap this, sac 2U, fetch 2GG Druid Pontiff.
D2 5/5: A lot of dream scenarios go away if we add mana to activate it.
D1 5/13/2010: Could be (G!) to activate.
D2 5/21: Was 2G!G! and T.
D3 6/8: Wow, that does sound good :)
D2 6/16: If it needs weakened, I'm fine with 3(G!) and 1(G!).
D2 6/21: Made that change; was 4G! and G!,T.

Glad to see that the final cost on the card was increased. I can't imagine this would still be legal in Modern at that cost.

Snapcaster Mage
D1 11/29: New version
D2 11/30: Templated to match Recoup. Made optional for the same reasons that Gravedigger is optional, but I could be talked out of that.
D3 1/19: This card is supposed to have Flash based on my conversations with Tiago; I assumed it had Flash from the beginning.

Hmm...awkward. It's generally best to test with the versions of cards we are intending to print. Luckily, we have a sticker tool that prints out the most recent versions of cards to prevent this in the future.

D2 1/27: It's never had flash in the file, but D5 adds it now.
D4 2/1: suddenly, in an instant, this card doesn't suck anymore.

"Doesn't suck" might be an understatement.

D1 6/8: Was "CARDNAME's power and toughness are equal to the number of different card types among cards in all graveyards. (The card types are artifact, creature, enchantment, instant, land, planeswalker, and sorcery.)"
D2 5/2: Awesome to see "Planeswalker" on another card.
D1 5/5: That is cool, this card feels like it escaped from Unhinged. Not loved overall.
D3 5/16: I disagree with D1's Unhinged comment; I don't see anything Unhingedy about this ability. If it said "expansion symbols" I'd agree, but we've dealt with card types before (Fertile Imagination in DIS, for example).
D4 8/15: Now 1G.
D1 8/28: Added Tribal to reminder text.

Ah, "Now 1G." Add this to the long list of brief comments that changed the Magic world.

Bloodbraid Elf
D1 8/21: Could this be a constructed push?
D2 9/11: From 2/2 to 3/3!
D1 9/17: This card is totally sick. I think that at this level it is one of the top five constructed cards in the set. I love the third point of power, but I don't like the third toughness. He already draws a spell and usually makes two mana, which is completely sick.
D2 9/18: From 3/3 to 3/2. Still testing.
D1 9/24 We moved it to 2/2 in the playtester meeting, yes?

As you might guess, the final decision did not go in the direction of making this a 2/2, although it probably would've been playable at that—at the possible cost of making Jace, the Mind Sculptor even more powerful the next year.

Speaking of the Great One:

Jace, the Mind Sculptor
D1 4/22: New Jace!
D2 4/27: The bounce might be a bit much on this guy. But I do like the ult. D3 4/30: The -1 doesn't feel like part of the story, unless I'm missing something.
D4 5/1/2009: You can -1, then +2 yourself to get rid of 2 junky cards in a Brainstorm + Mental Note combo. The -1 is the chessiest ability for any Planeswalker thus far.

It should be noted that at this point, the +2 was mill a player for two, not fateseal.

D2 5/7: I kinda wish his ultimate was something like "you gain whenever an opponent draws you may draw". We have had one milling Jace already. Although I like this one better for milling it doesn't change the fact we have one already.
D1 5/11: Updated Jace. Reordered his abilities. Gave him new wording.
D4 5/19/2009: Mr. Manaless Tome here loves having Loot Sphinx on D. I go the Ultimate plan a reasonable amount of time because protecting Jace for 4 turns is often easier than dealing 20 damage.
D5 6/15: This ultimate is no fun to play against. If you play cards to try and beat it you will have fewer cards to put in your library. If you hold your cards... well if they didn't help you before they're not going to help you later. It's too much of a "scoop owl" finish to a game.
D4 6/16/2009: I appreciate the lethality of his ultimate. Ajani Vengeant is a jerk because he freezes a land forcing to drop more, but then nukes them all. Theoretically you can claw you way back by holding lands, but I just scoop instead.
D6 6/19: New first ability. Was Mill 2.
D6 7/9: Last activation cost changed from -8 to -12.

Last minute changes never work out well. At least the ultimate gained two full turns.

Sensei's Divining Top was covered in Part 2, so let's talk about the unbanned card—Counterbalance.

D1 9/12: Trimming two mana to try to tempt people (was 2UU)
D2 9/19: Neato
D1 11/21: Not too narrow—it's actually getting played in FFL a bit. We don't want it easier to use.
D3 12/19: Something about this card makes me uneasy.

If keeping one player from playing spells for the rest of the game makes you uneasy, then this card was probably doing that.

D1 5/31: Was "1B Enchantment. 1B: Put a 1/1 black Faerie Rogue creature token with flying into play and return CARDNAME to its owner's hand. Play this ability as a sorcery.
Sacrifice three Faeries: Destroy target creature."

In hindight, I'm not sure that version of the card was that much stronger.

D2 6/1: I think this is way powerful.
D3 6/1: Needs to cost more. Shouldn't compare to Arena as they are really different cards.
D4 6/1: D5 played this card against my Command deck and it made for a great game. Initially, my Treetops just outclassed him and he was behind like 11 to 19, but after some Choose 2 fogs and gangblock trades, he pulled ahead and won on 3 life. This card very loudly tells you to also play a Faerie or Rogue lord alongside it, which is good thing. The old Sacred Mesa version was just a great kill condition in a control deck with way too much mana. This Phyrexian Arena version plays like Dark Confidantish Aggro-Control, which is right on target for Faeries (and maybe Rogues, too). Seeing this card in action, it makes for a great game even from the green mage's side of the table, making it like the Elysian Fields compared to Slaughter Mesa. We should try iterations like 2B optional or reveal a Faerie or whatever we think is right when he's got his lords and mana short Champion alongside him wrecking face.
D5 6/6: I have played this, and played against it, and found it more fun to play it than to play against it, yet still reasonably entertaining from the other side. Of course, I love "deal with the devil" cards!

Deal with the devil is right—although, this one seems to have a pretty low interest rate, all things considered.

D6 6/8: When my opponent plays this, my mind goes "awesome, I just need to race and he'll finish himself off". Reminiscent of when I'd happily let Dark Confidant live when I was fully capable of Shocking him. I sort of hate that this exists alongside Tendrils + Urborg, though. (with Corrupt on the way)...
D4 6/11: ...and Loxodon Warhammer! :D

If only Tendrils and Loxodon Warhammer were the worst of our problems with Bitterblossom.

D1 10/26: Team loves. Both a part of PEA (b/c Clash) and doing something that will be appealing way outside of PEA.
D1 11/30: Now targets only yourself, not any player. Was too good compared to Portent, Serum Visions, Sleight of Hand. People were also concerned it was too good at mana-screwing opponents on turn 1. Team chose this fix over the alternative fix of "Target any player, look at top 2."

While reordering your opponent's top three would be cute with clash, I couldn't imagine the number of tables what would've been flipped after a Ponder following someone missing a land drop. It surely would've been the darkest timeline.

Stoneforge Mystic
D1: Dev wanted a Kor that fetches Equipment. P/T up for debate—0/1 is poetic, 1/1 is for FNM power.
D2 2/19: Now rare, needs rare numbers.
D3 3/18: Squire numbers are rare numbers? This card is less charming now.
D1: This curb-stomps the common LIV Equipment tutor quest. 2 toughness is unappealing to the casual players who play Skullclamps. Maybe this is 2/1 topdeck drills to an Equipment? I was playing a DuelMasters Samurai deck that made good use of "T, Sac an Equipment: Draw two cards."
D1: This could have Multikicker Steelshaper's Gift. White is missing a multikicker rare/mythic rare.
D4 4/6: Added a little more sauce.
D4 4/16: Now 2 mana to Timmy out an Equipment.

"A little more sauce" means cheating out Equipment. I'd hate to see what a lot more sauce would entail.

D3 4/30: This is a many-step process that I find it hard to be excited about.
D1 5/26/2009: Nice art, I hope this card will have fans in the same vein as Master Transmuter; we should try to make her potent with LIGHTS block.

Mission accomplished.

Mental Misstep
D1 6/8: This was a Phyrexian Force Spike. Swapped with the Unsummon.

Well, thank god for that one, at least. I don't think it would've had a big impact on its being banned in Legacy and Modern, but it would've made its Standard year a lot more frustrating.

Well, that's it for this week. I hope you enjoyed the trip through memory lane as much as I did. I for one look forward to doing more of these and eventually getting to the point where my own comments get immortalized in one of these articles. Next week, I'll be back discussing one of the most important aspects of Khans of Tarkir—what kind of risks we encountered when working on wedges, and how we decided to overcome them.

Until next time,
Sam (@samstod)

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