Birth of a Notion

Posted in Making Magic on May 5, 2003

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.

My column last week taught me two important things. One, more people like Trogdor than I would have guessed and two, when you hide the preview of the card, you get a few nasty letters. So this week, let me start off by showing the preview card. Here you go:

Noble Templar

I assume your eyes are drawn to the new keyword: plainscycling. That's good because today I'm going to walk you through the life and times of this new mechanic. Before we move on, let's take a visit to the Scourge Orb of Insight . For those unfamiliar with this little toy, it's a original that lets you see how many times any word exists on cards in Scourge (not counting flavor text).

According to the Orb (and believe me, you can trust the Orb), there are two cards with plainscycling, two with forestcycling, and one each of islandcycling, swampcycling, and mountaincycling. What the Orb won't tell you is that one of these cards is possibly the best card in the set. Is it Noble Templar? No. But that doesn't mean the Noble Templar doesn't have a story to tell. So sit right back, and I'll tell you a tale. A tale of a fateful trip.

One Token over the Line

The story for me begins in an early meeting of "Bacon" design. (Bacon was the codename for this year's fall expansion, Mirrodin). Not Scourge design, mind you, Bacon design. You see, I wasn't on the Scourge design team. Although Brian Tinsman was. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

It was early in design, so I had asked the members of the team (Brian, Mike Elliott, Tyler Bielman, and myself) to come in with mechanics they liked. Brian had a neat idea. In an attempt to create a series of cards that helped with mana problems, Brian made some spells that could be discarded to put a land token into play. These land tokens would count as the land drop for the turn and would produce one colorless mana.

While land tokens seemed novel (Brian is definitely an "out of the box" type of designer), they presented a number of problems. There were confusion issues (all Magic tokens up until now have been creatures), rules concerns (how do you have a token coming into play count as a land being played), and templating concerns (the rules for tokens are woven into the rules for the game because players can't read tokens).

With land tokens ruled out, the team considered the idea of simply turning the cards upside down and stating that the card would represent a colorless land. But there was morph. Magic had defined what a face-down card was. While there is some chance we might do something different in the future, we weren't going to do it in a Standard environment that overlapped with the Onslaught block and morph. Back to the drawing board.

It took several iterations, but the team finally ended up with a mechanic we liked. And is this how landcycling came to be? No. The Mirrodin design team didn't come up with it. The Scourge team did. Huh?

When you cycle the Templar, you get a plains instead of a random card from the top of your library.

Double Your Pleasure

You see, Brian Tinsman was on two design teams at once, Mirrodin and Scourge. (Due to the extra time needed for the large expansion, there are occasional design overlaps.) Around the same time he came to the Mirrodin team he also approached other members of the Scourge team (Worth Wollpert and Bill Rose) with the same idea. All this is fine. Brian's fatal flaw is that he didn't tell either team that he had pitched the mechanic to the other team.

This means that for several months, the two teams were independently working on the same idea. I found the entire incident to be quite enlightening as the two teams went down very different paths. The Scourge team also dismissed the land token idea. But they liked the idea of the card becoming a land, so they began thinking about how the card could work without a token. Then it hit them. How about Rampant Growth?

The idea was quite simple. The card "became" a land by searching the library for it and putting it into play. While elegant, this idea caused a few problems. First, land searching is a green ability. In addition, the Visions card Tithe gives white a history of searching for plains. What if the team followed Tithe's lead and allowed each color to get only the appropriate type of land? It would be a little bit of a bleed, but the cards seemed flavorful enough that it seemed acceptable. (Also, note that the two colors where the ability was in flavor got two copies while the other colors got one.)

The second problem occurred when the knowledge of the dual designing came to light. How did that happen? Let me present a re-creation of said event.

The Location: Bacon (a.k.a. Mirrodin) design meeting

Mark, Brian, Mike, and Tyler are going over the Bacon card file.

Tyler: I'm beginning to like this mechanic. I think it plays well.
Brian: Yeah, in Scourge, we did something very different.
Mark: What did you just say?
Brian: That it plays differently in Scourge?
Mark: The mechanic that we've spent the last two months on plays different in Scourge?
Brian: Yeah.
Mark: Okay, I'm just going to go out on a limb here and ask the question on everyone's mind. Why is Scourge playing with this mechanic?
Brian: It's not this exact mechanic. It's just based on the same idea. You guys have actually gone in very different directions.
Mark: Brian, how can I put this delicately? Is your mechanic seeing other design teams?
Brian: If you count Scourge, yeah.
Mark: If I count Scourge? If Scourge counts? If the only other set in design counts, then yeah, we've been duplicating work for two months.
Brian: Is that a problem?
Mark: Have you ever seen Dr. Strangelove?
Brian: A long time ago.
Mark: In it, the Americans learn about something called the "Doomsday Device" that was built by the Russians. The device is designed to blow up the world if Russia is ever attacked. Dr. Strangelove, the title character, a scientist, is asked his opinion about the Doomsday Device. His response, "An excellent idea, IF YOU TOLD SOMEONE ABOUT IT!"
Brian: So maybe I should have told you I gave the idea to Scourge?
Mark: Yeah, maybe.

Goodbye Mirrodin, Hello Scourge

So, I went to the Scourge design team and asked them if they needed the mechanic. They said yes, so the mechanic was pulled out of the Mirrodin design. (Truth be told, the Mirrodin set was flush with mechanics.)

When I got a chance to see the version for the Scourge set I had a similar response to a number of other R&D members. "I like it," I said. "It reminds me a lot of cycling. Too bad cycling's already in the set."

Most of my problem-solving skills come from my writing days. You see, this dilemma happens quite often in fictional writing. There exist two things that each seem plausible but seem too similar to both work. The answer in writing is to tie the two events together. (Both the protagonist and antagonist have to be injured in an explosion? Make it the same explosion.) What this meant for the Scourge set was that the new mechanic had to be inched closer to cycling. The team embraced this idea and changed the mechanic to landcycling. It was now a twist on cycling. This means that it interacted with everything that interacts with cycling. When you use the plainscycling ability on Noble Templar, for example, you get to flicker something out of play with Astral Slide.

The one other shift between the two design teams was that the Scourge set moved toward creatures while our mechanic worked better with spells (although we had one or two creatures). You'll notice that I haven't really explained what the Mirrodin team did with the mechanic. There's a reason for that. We liked what we did, and we feel we could use it in the future. Not in the same environment as landcycling, but some length of time after it has left Standard. You see, having two different design teams work on the same idea created two different mechanics. One you get now. And the other? We'll get to it. I don't know when, but it's sitting in our bin of good ideas to dust off in a few years.

And that is the story of landcycling.

Join me next week when I explore how sometimes in design bigger is better.

Until then, may your ideas "see other people."

Mark Rosewater

Mark may be reached at

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