#430: Guildpact, Part 1
This is first part of a three-part series on the design of Guildpact.
Posted in Making Magic on May 1, 2017
Last week I started sharing some Amonkhet card-by-card design stories. I only made it to D, which means I have a lot more stories to tell.
This story goes all the way back to my very first design, Tempest. I was trying to make a rare blue-black spell, so I thought I could make my opponent discard and then do something blue-ish that had to do with the card I made them discard. What if, I thought, I countered all future copies of the discarded card? I called the card "Lobotomy."
This version had a couple problems. First, there was a big memory issue, especially if you cast more than one of them. Second, it caused a giant card disadvantage for your opponent. Each draw of the named card was essentially missing a draw. That meant the spell would have to be very expensive to offset the huge card advantage swing.
The solution to both issues was to go through your opponent's library and exile the cards instead of countering them. The effect was basically the same thematically but avoided the memory and card-disadvantage issues. Once we were removing cards from the game, it became clear that we could hit more areas other than just the library. A lobotomy should prevent you from ever casting the spell again, so we also removed copies from the hand and graveyard, both things black could do. We, of course, ended up with this card:
The card was very popular. So much so that we started putting the Lobotomy effect onto other cards. Because we didn't always have access to multicolor (this was back in the day where we wouldn't put multicolor cards in sets without a multicolor theme), we decided the ability made the most sense in black. Black was already the discard color, and the lobotomy theme—permanently messing with people's minds—felt pretty black.
Eventually with time, we started making more narrow Lobotomy effects. In Kaladesh, we made Lost Legacy that went after everything but lands (we normally don't let you Lobotomy land for gameplay reasons) and artifacts. As Amonkhet followed Kaladesh and wanted to have some answers to the previous block, it felt only right to make the companion spell to Lost Legacy, a card that lobotomized only artifacts. Amonkhet had a tiny artifact theme (there are a bunch of top-down Egyptian artifacts), so it fit flavorfully.
While I hit upon most of the mechanical themes in my preview, here's a mini-theme that I missed, an unnamed mechanic R&D likes to call "heckbent," as it's a riff off of the Rakdos mechanic hellbent from Dissension. Heckbent cares about you having one or fewer cards in your hand (as opposed to hellbent, which requires your hand to be empty). If you do, your creature gains an ability that makes either itself or others better.
The ability is a black-red mini-theme and it shows up on one mono-black card (Dread Wanderer), two mono-red cards (Hazoret the Fervent and Thresher Lizard), and one black-red card (Neheb, the Worthy). The ability came about because R&D often talks about how we would tweak old mechanics to improve them; heckbent was made as an improved version of hellbent. The difference between having something in your hand and nothing is a huge improvement for gameplay, both because it allows hidden information and creates more dynamic gameplay situations.
We liked the mini-theme in Amonkhet because the top-down Nicol Bolas feel wants things to feel stressful. Having to use up cards plays into this feel. You're always mentally pushing yourself.
The idea of making cards representing embalming goes all the way back to Amonkhet exploratory design. We experimented with a mechanic called embalm that went on creatures. When the creature died, it created a 2/2 black Zombie with wither.
A quick aside. In early exploratory design, we hadn't yet gotten the idea of white Zombies being the embalmed mummies, and at the time, we were playing with all mummies having wither. The creative aspects during exploratory design are in their early stages, so a lot of concepts—including ones that come out of decisions made in design—haven't happened yet.
We also tried a mechanic called mummify that also went on creatures and was an activated ability usable only in the graveyard that allowed you to exile it to make a 2/2 black Zombie token with wither. We ended up ultimately not liking these because the Zombie tokens were feeling a bit too similar to what Shadows over Innistrad was doing with Zombies.
Then, when design started, we created our list of things to top-down design, and an artifact that embalmed was one of them. I think we played around with both a card called "Embalmer's Tools" and a different card called "Embalming Station." The early Embalmer's Tools returned a creature card in your graveyard to the battlefield, but now as a Zombie. The card sacrificed itself, so it was a one-time-use artifact.
When embalm became a mechanic, we changed the card to embalm any creature card in your graveyard. I believe that version got killed in development, as embalming any creature was much more abusable than just allowing you to embalm creatures we designed for you to embalm.
Meanwhile, there was a separate card called "Embalming Chamber" that reduced embalm costs. When Embalming Tools got killed, we changed Embalming Chamber to Embalming Tools because we thought it was a better card concept.
We then broadened out the cost reduction, allowing you to interact with any card with an activation in a graveyard and not just embalm. This change still wasn't giving the card enough value, so we added a Zombie tribal ability that milled (put cards from the top of a library into its owner's graveyard). The two abilities both play nicely with embalm without having to specifically call it out by name.
One of the fun things about having a game that's 24 years old with over 16,000 pieces is that you have lots of opportunities to make subtle nods to the past. Festering Mummy is a great example.
We wanted a one-drop mummy, so we did what we often do—check Gatherer for every card we've previously printed with the same mana cost/stats. Prior to Amonkhet, there were ten one-mana 1/1 black Zombies. None of them were a great fit, so we broadened the search to just black creatures, removing the Zombie restriction. (We can always change the creative to shift a creature to a new creature type.) That got us to 74 creatures. One of them that caught our eye was this card:
Festering Goblin from Onslaught was the first ever mono-black Goblin we made. You don't get too large an effect on a 1/1 for B, so it had a simple death trigger—target creature gets -1/-1 until end of turn. We already had to change the card, as it was a Goblin and we were looking for a Zombie. We also realized that we had an opportunity to tweak the effect as Amonkhet was a block using -1/-1 counters. What if instead of being a temporary -1/-1, it was a permanent -1/-1? Creatures had gotten a bit stronger since Onslaught, so it was deemed acceptable. The creative team played along with this Easter egg and used "Festering" in the title as a wink to the players who got the call back.
Gate to the Afterlife
During my card-by-card design stories for Aether Revolt, I talked about the card Dark Intimations, which mechanically hinted at an upcoming card. Well, it's only a set later and we're up to a similar trick. Gate to the Afterlife has two abilities. The first is useful by itself—it turns your dying creatures into life gain and looting (drawing a card and then discarding a card). The second, though, puts a card called God-Pharaoh's Gift from your library onto the battlefield. Here's the thing. As of Amonkhet, there isn't a card called God-Pharaoh's Gift. Other than being a permanent (as it can be put onto the battlefield), we don't even know what kind of card it might be.
What made us just a set later create yet another forward-looking card? The answer was the story. You see, everything is not as it seems on Amonkhet. The Gatewatch has figured out that something's wrong, but haven't quite pieced together what exactly that is. What is Nicol Bolas up to? As Nicol Bolas is the God-Pharaoh, clearly the God-Pharaoh's Gift might help solve the mystery.
As we intertwine the story more and more with the cards, we're looking for additional ways to have the rules text itself play a role. The trick mechanically is to make sure that the card is useful in the set it appears in but that it will have an additional function with the next set. And yes, we'll see the God-Pharaoh's Gift in Hour of Devastation.
Back in 2005, I had to write a theme week about the latest core set, so I had a little fun with it and turned my article into a Survivor parody. And so began what I referred to as "Core Set Survivor." Which Magic card starting in Limited Edition (Alpha) would be in the most consecutive core sets? The winner was, of course, Giant Spider, which beat out Giant Growth in Magic 2012 to take the title.
The interesting thing is for all the core sets Giant Spider appeared in, there's one thing it had never appeared in before—a non-core set expansion. It's come close.
Giant Mantis from Mirage turned Giant Spider into an Insect, while Towering Indrik from Return to Ravnica turned it into a Beast. Both were mechanically identical to Giant Spider save the name and creature type changes.
Blightwidow from Mirrodin Besieged added infect. Graverobber Spider from Born of the Gods added an additional graveyard-caring black activation. And Guardian of the Great Conduit from Kaladesh (specifically the Nissa Planeswalker Deck) turned Giant Spider into an Elemental and added a bonus if you have a Nissa on the battlefield.
Amonkhet, though, marks the first time Giant Spider itself has ventured forth from the core set. We realized that every time we had ever put it in a non-core expansion, we had changed the card in some way, and it seemed only right to finally let Giant Spider visit a new plane.
Gideon of the Trials
Gideon plays a major role in the Amonkhet story, so it was obvious that we were going to have to design a card for him. In the story, he decides to participate in the Trials, so we wanted to focus on that aspect of his character. We wanted to play up his invulnerability, which is key to him competing.
His middle ability was done first, as one of the constant traits of Gideon planeswalkers is that he always gets personally into the fight. He's been a 4/4, 5/5, 6/6, and */* in the past, always with some type of indestructability. For this version, we were interested in having a cheaper three-mana version, so we went with 4/4.
For both the +1 loyalty ability and the ultimate, we went with a defensive flavor. Gideon is protecting you. His +1 ability helps him be defensive, allowing him to cover whatever the biggest threat is. The ultimate, which isn't something you have to build up to, creates an emblem that keeps you safe as long as Gideon is there to protect you.
This version of Gideon took a bunch of tweaking to get all the numbers right, but I enjoy how it's both flavorful and functional.
When I was a student in middle school, we had an assignment in math class talking about how math might help our future career. I don't remember what I actually said in my report, but I remember what I thought: Math isn't going to matter in my future career. I was planning to write and create television shows. As long as I could count my paycheck and keep track of page numbers, I was going to be fine.
And then I became a game designer. And not just any game designer, but a Magic game designer. And Magic, as it turns out, has a lot of math in it. Richard Garfield was a math professor, after all. Interestingly, one of my jobs as a Magic designer has been trying to reduce the impact of math on the players. I'm not talking about reducing the math that can be opted into (if you want to run spreadsheets to optimize your land mix, have a great time), but rather the math required to simply play the game.
The place this shows up most is on effects that change power and toughness both temporarily and permanently. The latter is less problematic as we tend to give you some tool usually a card or counter to help mark the change. Temporary changes are tougher because they're all memory. The easiest way to help is having things that change be square stats—that is, their power and toughness are equal—and have the changes also be square stat changes. A 2/2 that gets +1/+1 until end of turn is pretty easy to calculate.
That's a bit too restrictive to always do, so we look to other options. Another trick we use a lot is to only change the power, as most of the complication revolves around the toughness. If the toughness stays static, I can figure out whether or not I can kill another creature. The third trick, which shows up on Glory-Bound Initiate, is to do what we call "inverse addition," where you take two different numbers for power and toughness and then have the boost be those two numbers swapped. This results in a square stat where both numbers are the same that's easy to deduce. If you add +1/+3 to a 3/1, you get a 4/4. Glory-Bound Initiate is a good example of this last trick.
I'm sorry I doubted you, math.
One of the first things we wrote down on our top-down Egypt list was deserts. When it came time to work on deserts, the first thing that popped into everyone's mind was this card:
Yes, Magic has a card called Desert. And even though it appeared in Arabian Nights, it was a common, meaning that it doesn't appear on the reserved list. We can reprint it. So we put it into the file. It turned out to be harsh and unforgiving. While quite flavorful for a desert, it wasn't particularly fun to play with.
So, we decided what we needed to do was make a new desert card. Thanks to the original Desert, Desert is a land subtype, so we'd be able to make use of that. Grasping Dunes design was simply us taking the elements of the original Desert and tweaking them to play better.
First off, tapping for a colorless mana is pretty flavorful for a desert. Second, having an ability that conveys the harshness of the desert was pretty cool. Desert's problem was the repetition of it proved too much. Using -1/-1 technology, we could make something that was used once yet had a lasting effect. The timing restriction was added because we didn't want the Grasping Desert used mid-combat, as it made the combat math much more complex—especially if two or more were out.
In early Tempest design, we were playing around with a mechanic that had a draw trigger, that is when you drew the card it would make something happen. We planned to make the backs a different color so all the players would know when one was about to be drawn. (This was before opaque card sleeves were a big thing.) Eventually the logistics of the new mechanic killed it.
There was a black creature that when you drew it, it allowed you to get a creature out of your graveyard and put it into your hand. I really liked the card, so I was trying to figure out a way to salvage it. My solution was to have the effect happen when you played the card, which eventually became a trigger when it entered the battlefield. I had inadvertently created an "enters-the-battlefield" trigger.
The Mirage design team (Bill Rose, Joel Mick, Charlie Catino, Don Felice, Howard Kahlenberg, and Elliot Segal) while working on Visions ended up creating enters-the-battlefield effects as well, but I hadn't yet seen the cards when I created Gravedigger. It's an obvious design idea, so I'm not surprised multiple people found it independently.
Gravedigger has gone on to become one of the most reprinted cards. It has been in nine core sets (Sixth Edition, Seventh Edition, Eighth Edition, Ninth Edition, Tenth Edition, Magic 2010, Magic 2011, Magic 2012, and Magic 2015), two beginner products (Portal and Starter 1999), two normal expansions (Tempest and Odyssey), and five supplemental sets (Beatdown Box Set, Planechase, Magic: The Gathering—Commander, Tempest Remastered, and Eternal Masters).
Gravedigger ended up getting reprinted in Amonkhet because both its flavor and mechanics were a perfect fit for the set.
That's all the time we have for today. Obviously since I didn't finish yet, there will be more stories to come. As always, I'm eager to hear your thoughts on both today's article and Amonkhet. 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 3.
Until then, may you conquer the rough elements of Amonkhet.
This is first part of a three-part series on the design of Guildpact.