This is another in my series "20 Years, 20 Podcasts" where I talk in detail about all the Magic stuff that happened in a particular year.
Posted in Making Magic on April 24, 2017
Previews are over, which means it's time to start the card-by-card Amonkhet design stories. Buckle in, faithful readers, and we'll get started.
There are many things I love in Magic design. Two of them are making counters or tokens and doubling things. In original Ravnica, I realized I had the opportunity to cross the streams and made a card that doubled all counters and tokens. I spend a lot of time making cards for various types of players, but Doubling Season's design was a pretty selfish one. It was just an effect that I wanted to see in the game. It thematically fit in the set, so I put it in. One of the perks of leading Magic design is you occasionally get to do this.
I was not prepared for how popular the card would become. Apparently, other people also loved both counters/tokens and doubling things. While never being much of a player in tournament Constructed, the card became beloved in many casual formats. So much so that many years later in Zendikar design, I tried to reprint it. Zendikar had a strong counter and token theme (as many of my designs do), and it was the perfect fit. Development unfortunately removed it. When I asked why, they explained that since its printing we had introduced planeswalkers, which used loyalty counters, and the interaction between Doubling Season and loyalty counters was problematic for Standard.
This has led us to making a few of Doubling Season variants:
Corpsejack Menace (Return to Ravnica)—This card only copies the ability for +1/+1 counters, but makes up for that by putting it on a 4/4 body for four mana.
Anointed Procession is the first Doubling Season variant to move out of green. It is basically a color-shifted Parallel Lives. This was because white is the best color at making volumes of creature tokens, as it creates a lot of small 1/1 tokens, playing up its flavor as the army color that beats you down with a large number of small creatures. This card is especially useful in Amonkhet because of embalm. Where in most sets white would just be doubling a lot of 1/1 creature tokens, here it's making copies of a much wider and larger range of creature tokens.
For fans of Doubling Season, I believe we'll being seeing variants for many more years to come.
Archfiend of Ifnir
Cycling was a mechanic first created by Richard Garfield in Tempest design. I had stuffed way too many mechanics into the design, so cycling was removed during development. Mike Elliott put it in Urza's Saga, the large set the following year. Several years later, we brought back cycling in Onslaught. To add a little tweak to it, I designed a few cards that triggered when you cycled a card.
Cycling would return for a third time in Time Spiral block and then for a fourth time in Shards of Alara block. It has proven to be a useful mechanic in that it's fun to play, popular with the audience, and has a deep design space. The big question whenever we bring back cycling is figuring out how to blend it into the current set.
With Amonkhet, we made the discovery that cards that cared about discarding could care both about cycling and madness from Shadows over Innistrad block—both of which were going to overlap in Standard. This was a way for us to make cards like Astral Slide and Lightning Rift, but include a larger group of effects.
Initially, the trigger just said, "when you discard a card" because both cycling and madness require discarding, but playtesting showed that not enough players got that the effect was referring to cycling. Eventually we decided it was better to be clear and changed the template to "cycle or discard," even though the "cycling" was technically already covered by "discard."
Back in May of 2007, we released the set Future Sight. The gimmick of the set was it had a bonus sheet of "futureshifted" cards, cards that came from a potential future of Magic. The real purpose of the futureshifted cards was to point at potential mechanical and creative places we might go one day. In that regard, the futureshifted cards were very successful. A lot of future Magic, both mechanically and creatively, was hinted at in those cards.
Another gimmick we intended to follow was that in the future whenever we had the opportunity to pre-print (aka the printing where the futureshifted card "came from") one of the futureshifted cards, we would. This has proven to be a lot more difficult than we thought. Now, we did manage to pre-print a number of cards during the next year, but that had been pre-planned. Finding places for cards that we didn't pre-plan has been a lot harder.
Here are a few examples. We made Sarcomite Myr knowing one day we'd return to a Phyrexian infected Mirrodin, but we ended up using colored artifacts on the Esper shard in Shards of Alara, which prevented us from making straight-up colored artifacts in Scars of Mirrodin block (we ended up using Phyrexian mana to make colored artifacts).
We finally managed to put delve into a set (Khans of Tarkir), but the three cards that foretold of it each ended up with various problems. Death Rattle used a template we'd moved away from and had an anti-green flavor we didn't want. Logic Knot proved too clever for its own good and we wanted a simpler version of a counterspell with delve. Tombstalker got cut for creative reasons and was forgotten about when that creative decision changed late in the process.
Ghostfire inspired the mechanic devoid, but creatively was a mismatch as all the devoid cards represented the Eldrazi and Ghostfire represented Ugin's colorless magic. We tried desperately to fit it in, but the story to justify it just got too convoluted.
Lucent Liminid proved problematic in Theros as we didn't do vanilla, non-token enchantment creatures (and the creative was a bit off). Grave Scrabbler didn't fit with how we were doing madness in Shadows over Innistrad block (and was a little stronger than we wanted). Seht's Tiger, which hinted at an Indian flavor, didn't work in Kaladesh because we had changed protection away from being evergreen.
Occasionally though, the stars align and we're able to get a futureshifted card into a set, Aven Mindcensor being one such example. Ethan Fleischer (my co-lead designer on Amonkhet) makes it a habit of checking the futureshifted cards whenever he leads a design. He realized early on that Aven were going to be on the plane and knew that the card mechanically made enough sense to include. (Flash, which was once secondary in white, has since been pushed back to tertiary—but that at least means it occasionally gets it).
Aven Wind Guide
We use a cycle of multicolor uncommons in many sets to help set the tone for the various two-color Draft strategies. For the white-blue card, we were interested in focusing on the mechanic that the two share: embalm. (Embalm also shows up in red and green, but only on a single card each.) There are a number of different ways to help embalm.
You can focus on Zombie tribal, but that is more of a white-black thing as those are the two colors that naturally have Zombies (the other colors have embalm creatures that can become Zombies). You could focus on how they are all white after embalming. You could focus on that they have an ability that works in the graveyard. In the end, we chose to focus on the fact that embalm makes creature tokens.
The creative team hates when we do this because creatively there's no difference between a card that's a Zombie and a creature token that's a Zombie. Mechanically though, there is a difference, so it's a tool we use from time to time.
Bounty of the Luxa
During the preview weeks, I explained that I had Shawn Main do some research on Egypt to help us get a better understanding of what we were top-down designing. One of the concepts that came up in his research was something known as the Fertile Crescent. As described by Wikipedia, "The Fertile Crescent (also known as the cradle of civilization) is a crescent-shaped region containing the comparatively moist and fertile land of otherwise arid and semi-arid Western Asia, the Nile Valley, and Nile Delta."
The Fertile Crescent was very important to ancient Egypt because it included a vital stretch of the Nile leading up to the river's mouth, which allowed the civilization to thrive while being surrounded by harsh deserts. In building Amonkhet, we wanted to get a similar feel. Bounty of the Luxa was us top-down designing a card to match the concept of the Nile. We wanted to convey the sense of the tides of the river while also expressing the benefit they brought to the area.
In the end, we borrowed some technology from this card:
Homarid was the first card to mechanically capture the feel of the tides. For Bounty of the Luxa, we condensed down to just two states, rather than four, which we then rotate between. The fertile land will provide you knowledge (expressed by card draw) or mana. Because the card draw was the more powerful effect, we let the player get that effect first. We ended up at green-blue because we wanted to capture both the splendor of nature and the shifting tides. The two abilities obviously are one blue ability and one green ability.
Whenever we do a block with -1/-1 counters, I am always asked, "How are they different to work with than +1/+1 counters?" There are five big differences. One, +1/+1 counters have a bigger scope of how they can be used. +1/+1 counters are about growth, which is basically infinite; -1/-1 counters are about shrinking, which is much more constrained. For instance, if I have a 3/3 creature, I can put as many +1/+1 counters on it as I want (although once its power is equal to the opponent's life total, the value gained drops off quickly). I can only put three -1/-1 counters on it before the rest become meaningless.
Two, what you use them on differs. Because +1/+1 counters enhance a creature, you usually use them on your creatures. -1/-1 counters decrease a creature, so you usually use them on your opponents' creatures.
Three, +1/+1 counters push toward aggression while -1/-1 counters push away. When your creature is made more powerful and tougher, you are more inclined to attack with it. If they become less powerful and weaker, you're less inclined to attack with them.
Four, +1/+1 counters are more likely to stick around on the battlefield. Making a creature bigger increases its chances for survival, while making it smaller decreases its chances.
Five, the design space for +1/+1 counters is significantly larger. This is due to all the reasons I've just explained. There are just more ways to build things up than tear things down.
The reason I bring this up is because Channeler Initiate is us playing around with less traditional -1/-1 design space. It uses -1/-1 counters both as a cost and as a resource. If I want a 3/4 for two mana, I have two options. First, I can put my -1/-1 counters onto other creatures, either sacrificing one smaller creature, weakening a number of creatures, or greatly weakening one larger creature. Second, I can produce a 0/1 that will be able to produce a colored mana three times, growing each time. (Okay, technically I have a third option to do some of each.)
Using -1/-1 counters as a cost essentially lets you swap power and toughness between creatures. Using the -1/-1 counters as a resource has a side effect of making them act similarly to +1/+1 counters but with a built-in cap. The net result is some designs that we can't normally do.
Before I joined Wizards of the Coast and started making Magic, I was a Magic player. I was a Johnny who enjoyed making all sorts of strange decks with offbeat win conditions. But one time, I tapped my inner Spike to make a strong competitive deck. No one at the time was playing creatures, so I made a green-blue weenie deck designed to hit the opponent so fast that they didn't know what hit them. (See if you can find the possible first-turn kill.)
A big part of this deck was playing small flying creatures (Scryb Sprites in green and Flying Men in blue) and then pumping them up and hitting the opponent for large amounts of damage. To accomplish this, I had two one-mana cards that gave my creatures +3/+3. In green, that was Giant Growth, which I assume most of you are aware of. In blue, I had this card:
Unstable Mutation was a flavorful little card from Arabian Nights that let you pump up your creature at the long-term cost of it slowly weakening and dying. Not really a blue thing. Early Magic tended to put a lot of things in blue that we'd later move elsewhere. I was always a fan of Unstable Mutation, so when we realized that we had the ability to properly color shift it, I was excited.
First, we moved it to the color it should always have been in, the color of short-term thinking: red. Other than a slight tweak of flavor, the card is exactly the same. (Okay, it grafts the ability onto the enchanted creature, for those who want to get technical.) So, I hope those of you who have never had the joy of casting an Unstable Mutation finally get a chance.
Cruel Reality and Trespasser's Curse
In my preview articles, I talked about how we had written Curses down on our list of top-down Egyptian things. Magic already had a mechanical execution for Curses, so it became more a question of how many did we want rather than how we represented them. In the end, we decided that a little would go a long way and opted to just have two Curses in Amonkhet, both in black, the color that made the most sense for Egyptian curses.
The first Curse, Cruel Reality, is a story spotlight card where Gideon watches as the Test of Ambition takes a cruel turn. The second Curse, Trespasser's Curse, plays around in a space we mostly steered away from: the Egyptian trope of booby-trapped tombs.
This card went through many iterations but has always stayed true to its very first design goal—making a black-green card that encouraged you to play -1/-1 counters as a cost. Early design had a mechanic that put -1/-1 counters on your own creatures (the theme remained but not the keyword), and we needed a card to encourage you to use the mechanic.
It was ultimately this card and cards like it that doomed wither. It turned out we couldn't both aggressively put -1/-1 counters on the opponent's creatures and also use them as a resource. For example, players weren't attacking with wither creatures if their opponent had a means to turn -1/-1 counters into something of value.
That's all the time I have for today. As I only got to D, I'm obviously not quite done. I am interested, though, in any feedback on either this column or any cards I talked about today (or just Amonkhet in general). You can email me or reach me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).
Join me next week for part 2.
Until then, may you help your opponent discover the harsher side of Amonkhet.
This is another in my series "20 Years, 20 Podcasts" where I talk in detail about all the Magic stuff that happened in a particular year.