Aether Way, Part 2

Posted in Making Magic on January 23, 2017

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

Last week I started telling card-by-card design stories about Aether Revolt. I got up to D, which means I'm not done yet. So without further ado, let's continue.

Deadeye Harpooner

One of the cool things we like to do in design is to sneak in functionality that isn't necessarily obvious at first, so players get to discover it. The reason this is so important is that players are more emotionally attached to things that they feel personally connected to, and one way to help forge that bond is create opportunities for the players to discover things. That way it becomes something they have found rather than something that we made. I do understand that me explaining how we do this on this particular card undermines our goal, but part of a magician showing you his tricks is letting you peek behind the scenes.

We wanted a lot of the revolt cards, especially at lower rarities, to be "one and done." That is, to be an effect that just happens once and then you can stop worrying about it. An easy way to do this is as an enters-the-battlefield effect. Meanwhile, we also wanted to find ways for different colors to interact with revolt. One means we found for white and blue was to do flicker effects (exiling a permanent and then bringing it back to the battlefield).

The fun comes when you combine these two things—a revolt enters-the-battlefield trigger and a flicker effect. Let's take Deadeye Harpooner as the example. Your opponent has a tapped creature that you'd really like to get rid of. You have a flicker effect. You exile Deadeye Harpooner and then return it to the battlefield. As it's entering the battlefield and something has left the battlefield this turn (itself), its trigger happens and you can destroy the creature.

During playtest, we actively think about trying to create moments of discovery and then carefully weave them into the design. The rest of the examples you'll have to find on your own.

Disallow

There are a lot of cards that can counter spells, but much fewer cards that can counter abilities, especially triggered abilities. Interestingly, it all started in a place you might not have guessed—green.

The first card to do it was Rust from Legends. I'm pretty sure this card was a top-down design. If I Rust your artifact, what would happen to it? It would stop working. Stopping continuous effects is tricky (and I don't think triggers worked the same then as they do now), so the card just stopped activated abilities of artifacts. As was often the case in early Magic, when a card does something for the first time, it staked the claim for the ability in its color.

Brown Ouphe (Ice Age), Bind (Invasion), and Ouphe Vandals (Fifth Dawn) all put the activation countering in green. The one exception during that time was the card Interdict (from Tempest), which put the ability in blue, the color that has traditionally countered things. Then in Dissension, we made the card Voidslime, which was a Simic card (green-blue) that countered a spell or an activated or triggered ability. The idea at the time was that blue countered the spell and green countered the ability.

This issue came to a head in Time Spiral. Was green really supposed to be the ability-countering color? We traced it back to Rust. Of the monocolored green cards, only Bind countered abilities that weren't from artifacts. It had really started as another way to demonstrate green's anti-artifact bias. We had a meeting about the issue and decided that ability-countering just made more sense in blue. It's been strictly a blue thing ever since.

This is an elaborate way of explaining why Disallow is a reprint of Voidslime without any green in it.

Dispersal Technician

Richard Garfield came up with so many good ideas when he created Magic that it's easy to miss some of the subtler ones. One of my favorite creations is the concept and word "target." Richard was trying to make a game with a lot of modularity. He wanted all the various pieces to click together in cool ways. One of the many tricks to doing this was to make the spells themselves very flexible. The idea of targeting took what might have been a wordy, complex idea and narrowed it down to a single word. Your spells will often have targets—that is, you need to choose what you're using your spell on.

Targeting does wonderful things to enable the rules and help simplify how spells are processed, but that's not my favorite part. My favorite part is that it enables a very cool Magic moment. You see, when people read "target," they get to fill in what they think the spell is about. For example, let's take Giant Growth.

The card gives target creature +3/+3 until end of turn. Give this card to a newer player and what they will read is "I can give my creature +3/+3 until end of turn." The looseness of the language allows them to just accept whatever subset they think the spell is supposed to be about. This is important because it makes the spell very lenticular. That is, it hides some of the complexity from less experienced players while still leaving it available for more experienced players.

Then one day, they are going to find themselves in a situation where Giant Growthing their opponent's creature is going to be the right play. Let's say they have Smite the Monstrous that can only destroy a creature with power 4 or greater. They'll read the card to make sure that they can do it and realize that "target" doesn't restrict them as much as they had assumed. They can use it on an opponent's creature.

Using a card in a way differing from how you feel it was intended is a very empowering moment. The player gets this sense as if they've taken control of the game and forced it to do something it's not normally supposed to do. They feel clever, and it opens up their eyes that Magic has a lot more discoveries for them to find. It's the kind of moment that bonds a player to the game.

Dispersal Technician is a perfect example of "target" used in this manner. On the surface, the card seems to be a tempo card. I get a creature and force my opponent to have to replay an artifact. But the more you play with it, the more you start to understand that it has a lot of other functions, many of which require you to bounce your own artifact. Dispersal Technician isn't just a knife, it's a Swiss Army knife with many different functions. The fact that we can do that with such a simple-looking card is a testament to Richard, the wonderful craftsmanship he put into creating Magic, and the awesomeness of the word (and concept) "target."

Embraal Gear-Smasher

Aether Revolt had a few goals mechanically. One, it wanted to capture the essence of the story. Kaladesh was about the celebration of invention, of how it can be used to build things up. Aether Revolt is the flip side of the coin, looking at how invention can also be used to tear things down. Two, it wanted to play nicely with Kaladesh. Yes, the story took a turn, but it's still all one block, and we needed to design both sets to mechanically synergize with one another. Three, while we were happy with Kaladesh, the one thing we felt we ended up a bit light on was the "artifact matters" theme. We were hoping that Aether Revolt could help nudge us a bit more in that direction.

Embraal Gear-Smasher was like these three ideas got together and had a baby. It sacrifices artifacts and deals damage to the opponent. It's hard to capture the feel of a revolt more than that. Kaladesh has a lot of artifacts and produces a lot of artifact creature tokens, both of which play nicely with Embraal Gear-Smasher. Finally, the card pushes you toward playing an artifact-heavy deck where Embraal Gear-Smasher is the win condition. Deal as much damage as you can with artifacts, and then Embraal Gear-Smasher throws them at the opponent to finish them off.

Finally, I like how the flavor text implies that after you use the wrench to destroy the gears, you get to also throw it at your opponent.

Exquisite Archangel

Most of the time, we don't figure out what a card is going to look like until after we've designed it. Every once in a while, though, we get a cool idea in our head for an image and have an artist draw it before we know what it's going to do. Platinum Angel, from original Mirrodin, was one such card.

The Mirrodin design team liked the idea of an artifact Angel. Angels are one of the iconic creatures of Magic (plus Angels are second in popularity of creature types behind Dragons), and we'd never made an artifact version before. Well, we were now in a metal world and it seemed like time to finally make one, so we commissioned an artifact Angel with the promise that we'd design something cool for it. The art came back and it was great (illustrated by Brom). Now the pressure was on for us to come up with something awesome. We tried a lot of different things, but once we saw "You can't lose the game," we knew we had our winner.

Platinum Angel was an instant hit. The Spikes liked it because it was powerful. The Timmies and Tammies liked it because it had such a potent ability. The Johnnies and Jennies liked it because you could combine it with cards that would normally make you lose the game and explore brand-new space. When anything is this popular, it makes us designers look for ways to do something similar.

Angel's Grace from Time Spiral was a nod to Platinum Angel as an instant that granted the ability but just for one turn. Ken Nagle turned Platinum Angel on its head in Worldwake to make Abyssal Persecutor, a 6/6 for 2BB that gave you the negative that you couldn't win the game while it was on the battlefield.

Exquisite Archangel is our latest take on Platinum Angel. Still an Angel, it saves you from losing, but just once. It does reset your life total on its way out to keep you safe a little while longer. Note that we say "starting life total" to be kind to formats like Commander that start with more than 20 life.

Gonti's Aether Heart

One of the things that often happens in the first set is that you play around with your new mechanics to figure out what you can do with them. You stretch them to help you get a sense of what's possible. Then once you get a sense of that, you draw a line and save things over the line for the next set. Gonti's Aether Heart is one of these cards.

We were playing around with big energy effects. An obvious one was to gain an extra turn. The problem with this ability, as we've learned time and again over the years, is that cards capable of taking multiple turns are dangerous. Energy was a resource though, so we felt if we charged enough, we could do it.

The other piece of the puzzle was we wanted the card to stand on its own. We wanted you to have the dream that this card alone could get you an extra turn. We tried a lot of different triggers to gain energy in Kaladesh design and we definitely had this trigger (it's an artifact block after all), but I'm not sure if this trigger was put with this effect. This is a good example of a card that I'm not sure if it got pushed off whole cloth from Kaladesh design or if the Aether Revolt team designed it in parallel following the same impulses that created it the first time.

The one change I know for sure that Aether Revolt development made was changing this to a legendary artifact. I'm not sure if we went to the creative team wanting this legendary for developmental reasons or if they came to us asking for us to make Gonti's Heart. Nonetheless, it's a wonderful marriage of mechanics and flavor.

Greenbelt Rampager

Of all the evolutions of energy in Aether Revolt, this one's my favorite. We managed to not only make a modal card that hides that it's a modal card, but also a 3/4 for one green mana. One of the rules we made for ourselves when creating energy was that we wanted every card that used Energy to also be able to generate it. (We did have a handful of cards that produced energy without giving you a way to spend it, but we kept those cards to a minimum.) That made using energy as an additional mana cost hard to do.

Greenbelt Rampager was our clever solution to be able to do this. If you didn't have the energy, you didn't get the creature but you did get one energy. This way you could save up to eventually be able to cast the creature. The cool part though is that if you're able to get energy through other cards, you can cast this creature faster. Also, because it can produce energy, it has a function in the late game after a 3/4 without evasion is less practical.

This is one of those designs that seems obvious only after it's designed. If you had asked us earlier in the process if we could stick to our rule and have a creature which (essentially) required energy to cast, we probably would have said it was impossible. So I use this card as a plea to all the amateur designers out there. Never take it for granted that something can't be done. Some of the most elegant designs have come about when we asked ourselves how else might we be able to solve the problem at hand.

Heart of Kiran

This was a daunting card to design because it was a top-down request from the creative team. In the story, our heroes fought back against the Consulate with a special airship. In a block with Vehicles, how could we not make that ship into a card? The problem was that we wanted to make something that felt extra special. Obviously it would be legendary, but we wanted something mechanical about it that set it apart from the other Vehicles.

We started by trying to come up with a lot of different things the Vehicle could do. We talked with the creative team and used the story as inspiration for new functions, but nothing was clicking. We then asked ourselves if there was a way to hit the flavor from a different angle. The Gatewatch uses the Heart of Kiran (named after Chandra's dad, for those who might not know); was there a way to have the Vehicle interact with the Gatewatch members in card form?

The problem was that Vehicles are crewed by creatures, not planeswalkers. This, of course, led us to the idea of finding a way to let planeswalkers crew a Vehicle. I don't remember everything that was tried, but I believe there were several different stabs at letting a planeswalker crew it. In the end, we went with the simple use of a loyalty counter, as it was elegant, flavorful, and easy to write.

Ice Over

During Kaladesh design, we came up with a joke that we had invented a new tool—the "or artifact" tool. Here's how it works. Take any card that affects a permanent other than an artifact, usually a creature. Then add "or artifact" to the text. I'll give an example. "Return target creature card from your graveyard to your hand."

Poof.

"Return target creature or artifact card from your graveyard to your hand."

Technically artifact comes first as we list the permanents types in alphabetical order, but you get the gist. In an artifact block, you can make new cards by simply taking things you normally do and letting them also affect artifacts. Ice Over is just one of many examples. In particular, we got a lot of mileage out of "Enchant artifact or creature."

The Implement Cycle

This cycle is all artifacts with a colored activation and a sacrifice cost to generate an in-color ability. They also all draw you a card when they're put into the graveyard from the battlefield. This cycle exists because it manages to fulfill multiple functions all at once:

  1. We wanted to support improvise. To do that, we need a threshold of artifacts, especially ones that can be tapped with minimal cost. (Artifact creatures, in contrast, lose their ability to attack or block if tapped). Note that each card in the cycle costs three mana or less to help you get them out early.
  2. We wanted to support revolt. This required having cards that you can make leave the battlefield at the time of your choosing.
  3. To help our "artifacts matter" theme, we wanted more color integration into our artifacts to allow us to up the as-fan (the percentage of the theme showing up in booster packs) without mucking too much with the color pie.
  4. We wanted ways to help with deck smoothing.

As a designer, I'm always really happy when I can fulfill multiple functions with a single card or cycle, and the Implements are a great example of doing this elegantly and efficiently.

Aether Lore

That's all the time I've got for today. As always, I'm eager for feedback, so you can write to me through my email or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

As I'm only up to the letter I, join me next week for Part 3.

Until then, may you have a fun revolt.


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