Counterflux | Art by Scott M. Fischer
Abrupt Decay/Counterflux/Loxodon Smiter/Slaughter Games/Supreme Verdict
My column today is about single cards, but there was one cycle I didn't get to last week. As it's getting a lot of attention, I thought I'd say a few words about it.
The "can't be countered" cycle has drawn a lot of attention to itself. So how and why did the design team put it into the file? The answer is we didn't. This entire cycle was, in fact, thought up and executed by the development team as the creation of the lead developer, Erik Lauer. The reason it exists is that Erik was looking to both add a splashy cycle and create something that would have relevance to some older eternal formats. The "can't be countered" rider fit the bill for both problems. His one obstacle was me.
You see, one of my roles in R&D is to function as the color pie guru. Whenever I see something out of color in a file, I make a note. "Can't be countered" has been established as a red and green ability. Red gets it on instants and sorceries and green gets it on creatures. We once gave it to blue to allow blue to have an uncounterable counterspell.
I told Erik that I didn't think the "can't be countered" cycle could work because the ability wouldn't fit onto all the spells. Now you get to see a very familiar story I tell, but one where I'm on the other side.
Erik: Okay, so red gets "can't be countered" on spells.
Erik: And green gets "can't be countered" on creatures.
Erik: And blue has the ability as a tertiary because we've independently put it on a mono-blue card.
Me: Fine, I'll give it as a tertiary thing in blue.
Erik: All right. Counterflux is fine because it's a red instant.
Erik: Slaughter Games is also okay because it's a red sorcery.
Erik: Loxodon Smiter is okay because it's a green creature.
Erik: Supreme Verdict is okay because it's blue and a tertiary ability can be used every once in a while. The last time we used it was Darksteel.
Erik: That means the only color pie abuse is Abrupt Decay. And it's not even that much of a stretch. It's a green card and green is one of the primary "can't be countered" colors. It's just not a creature. For the sake of an exciting cycle, can't we let green just once have an uncounterable spell?
Me: Fine, fine. Do the cycle.
From this conversation, some of you might be asking, "So what about Gatecrash?" Orzhov will be pretty hard to justify as it's the two colors that have nothing to do with "can't be countered." The answer is that some cycles carry over and some do not. The "can't be countered" cycle is one that does not. It is merely a single cycle in Return to Ravnica. Many of the other cycles, such as the five I talked about last week (the charms, the guildmages, the guildgates, the "shocklands," and the guild leaders), will be picked up in Gatecrash.
The final question I get about this cycle is this: "Why do some cards say 'can't be countered' while others say 'can't be countered by spells or abilities?'" The answer has to do with whether or not the spell has a target. If it does, the card needs to make sure that the game itself can counter it if there is no longer a valid target.
I've been asked what this card has to do with Return to Ravnica. It feels like a bit of an odd fit. It is. Let me explain how it got here.
One of the jobs of development is to figure out when the environment needs a reactive card to help offset some effect of previously printed cards. These reactive cards are usually added late in development to allow the developers to have as up-to-date information as possible.
Quite often, I'm shown one of these cards and asked if it makes sense in the set it's being put in. Because it is reacting to cards already in print, it usually is referencing a completely different block. As a designer, I'm always looking to make sure that cards make sense in the set they're released in even if the point of the card being added has nothing to do with the current set.
One day, development came to me and asked me what I thought of this card for Return to Ravnica. I said that it seemed like a great card for the Innistrad block but not so much for Return to Ravnica. The Golgari messed with the graveyard but other than that there wasn't much graveyard interaction in the set. And the card didn't even work with Golgari's keyword, scavenge.
We tried tweaking the card but in the end no version was doing the necessary work that Ash Zealot was. Internal consistency is very important, but so too is having a balanced environment. So Return to Ravnica took one for the team and includes a card that wasn't a perfect fit but one that would do good things for Magic in general.
Here's a common problem that happens in design. A designer makes a cool card but it just doesn't fit neatly into any of the five colors. What is the designer to do? Often, he or she tries to force it into the color where it makes the most sense. My mission has been to get designers to recognize when something doesn't fit and not force it.
Multicolored cards are very popular. They are a resource we're going to be visiting again and again, and the design space is not nearly as deep as many people think. As such, we have to stop worrying when ideas don't fit into a single color and understand them for the gift that they are. Certain ideas are meant to be multicolored cards. We have to treat them as such.
Collective Blessing is a perfect example. White is both the enchantment and the army color. It likes to work as a team and it enjoys using enchantments to do so. Alpha had Crusade and Magic 2012 had Honor the Pure. Green is the color of growth and giant creatures. One of its iconic spells is Overrun, where it grants +3/+3 and trample to your entire team.
So where do you put Collective Blessing? It's an enchantment and boosts the team. That sounds white. But it grants +3/+3. That sounds green. (Remember that we separate the creature growth effects with white getting the +1/+1 and +2/+2 boosts, while green gets the larger ones.) The answer I gave when asked about the card is, "It's white and green."
Luckily, the set in question was a multicolored set, but if it hadn't been, my answer would have been the same. Collective Blessing is a white and green card. If the current set couldn't make use of that then we would need to wait for a set that could. Multicolor cards and effects need to stay multicolor.
For those of you who might not be aware, I love doubling things. Love, love, love it. In fact, I've taken it on as a personal crusade to get as many doubling effects as I can in Magic. One might even say I'm continually trying to double the amount of doubling effects. Sometimes the templating folk replace the word "double" with other words but you all know what's going on.
Anyway, during the last Ravnica block, I made what I consider to be my Mona Lisa of doubling cards:
A crazy little thing happened. It turned out I was not alone. Magic has many fans of doubling effects. Doubling Season went on to be a very popular card.
Flash forward to a few years later. I was designing Zendikar and I realized it had a property that basically all my designs have—it had a lot of counters and token creatures. Doubling Season would fit in wonderfully. So I put it in the set.
During development, I learned some sad news. Doubling Season + Planeswalkers (a card type that didn't exist at the time of the original Ravnica block) = trouble. Development had to sadly remove Doubling Season from the set. I say sadly because development too had grown to love the card.
So R&D set out to create replacements for Doubling Season. The first was Parallel Lives and was put into Innistrad. At the time, I argued that the first Doubling Season variant should be held for Return to Ravnica, as it was a throwback to a card from Ravnica. Erik Lauer said it was doing good work in the set and that there were plenty more variants we could do.
There was a little bit of a +1/+1 counter theme in Return to Ravnica (with possibly more to come in Gatecrash) and it was decided that having a card that doubled +1/+1 counters fit in well. It was stuck onto a creature because previously we'd always done this kind of an effect on enchantments and we thought it would be cool to try it on a creature. It was also nice because this creature didn't require any other creatures to get a benefit from its effect.
And that is how Corpsejack Menace came to be.
This card seems to raise two questions. I will now answer them.
Question 1: You said you weren't going to mention "Planeswalker" directly in rules text. What happened?
Magic is a game about breaking the rules. In order to have rules to break, we first have to make them and then, when we think the time is right, we break them. This doesn't mean we break every rule or that we break rules without cause, but it does mean that the reason we make so many rules is that we need to keep having rules we can break from time to time. Dreadbore is an experiment. We are seeing what the players think about cards that directly reference Planeswalkers. I'm curious for your feedback.
Question 2: There are many cards similar to it that are uncommon. Why make it rare?
One of the things you have to be careful about is making spells that refer to cards the players might not have. Planeswalkers are a mythic rare thing. If we put Dreadbore at uncommon, we have greatly increased the number of players who would have a card that destroys Planeswalkers without ever having seen a Planeswalker. Also, the idea of spell that destroys a Planeswalker by concept shouldn't be very common. It's rare because, well, it's rare.
The number one question I get about Dryad Militant is, "Is this a white and green effect?"
The answer is that there isn't a lot of precedent to determine what exact color it's supposed to be. There are a number of counterspells that exile spells, including instants and sorceries, after they counter them. Leyline of the Void kept any card from going to the graveyard.
In the end, it was decided that this effect was undefined enough that we could use it wherever we felt it made the most sense. In a vacuum, I would put this effect in white as white tends to be the color to most proactively prevent changes and does the most exiling. Green as one of the two strongest graveyard colors felt like an okay second. There's a fine argument that black should be second but it's undefined enough that I felt Dryad Militant made enough sense color pie-wise to give it my blessing as the color pie guru.
From time to time, the lead developer of a set will come to me asking for help filling holes in the set. This time, that developer was Erik. He was looking for a card to help Selesnya in Draft, something that would reinforce the strategy they were already playing. He asked me if I could think of a way to help a token deck.
There is a place for subtlety in design, but sometimes the correct answer is the most blunt one you can think of. If you wanted to help tokens, I said, "How about a Crusade for tokens?" I suggested putting it on a creature so it could benefit from any other card-helping or team-buffing the deck included.
The card did a good job of helping Selesnya in Draft but also began to start helping the Innistrad Spirit decks in Constructed. Erik didn't want to give that deck more cards, as he was worried it was getting a little too good, so he raised the creature up to four mana so it would fight for the same slot as Sorin, Lord of Innistrad—a card that would most often just be better for the deck.
Two weeks ago, I talked about the creation of the Rakdos keyword mechanic, unleash. I explained that the design team had actually started with a completely different mechanic called paincast. I then said you all would see the paincast ability when Rakdos was revealed. Well, here's the card, so let's talk paincast.
Rakdos doesn't have the paincast ability. Rather, he grants the ability to all your creatures. The paincast ability made spells cheaper for each point of damage you dealt this turn to an opponent. The reason we moved away from the mechanic was that it created a very warped game play that forced us to make a bunch of cards that worked well but only in the paincast deck. Also, it was what we call a "rich get richer" mechanic, meaning it tended to most help players when they least needed the help.
We did think the mechanic was very flavorful for Rakdos, but the frustration level of it being unusable when you most needed it persuaded us to look for a different mechanic. As I explained in the article on unleash, there were also other pressures to find something different for Rakdos.
I am glad we got to use the paincast ability on Rakdos himself, because even though it wasn't something we wanted to support with the guild mechanic I still wanted Rakdos players to have a chance to play with it. Also, because the ability is on Rakdos, it guarantees you already have some build-up before you get a chance to use the mechanic.
One day, a player goes to his local shop and buys a pack of Magic 2013. In it, he sees a copy of Rootborn Defenses. Magic booster packs usually have ten commons in them; none of those commons, though, tend to be from the next unreleased set!
He goes to the Internet to share his news. There is much skepticism. The question everyone was asking was "How could that even happen?" He ends up contacting Wizards and we ask him to send in the card so we can figure out what is going on. Once we are done with our investigation, we had Erik Lauer sign the card (he designed it) and sent it back with a Selesnya banner signed by all the members of the Return to Ravnica design and development teams.
So, how could that even happen? Here's my best guess. We print a lot of cards. As such, quite often, our printings are scheduled back to back, meaning the printer will print one Magic product, finish, and then set-up to do another printing of a different Magic product. My best assumption is that the printer in question printed a batch of Magic 2013. After that was done the printer moved onto other projects. At some point, the printer printed an early run of Return to Ravnica. Directly after that printing, it did a reprint for Magic 2013.
When a printing is done, the printer cleans out the hoppers (i.e., where all the cards rest directly after being printed). Every once in a long while, the printer misses a card. Often, things get released chronologically upon being ordered or it's another run of the same product so no one notices. When the Magic 2013 reprint was done, the missed card got scooped up and packaged with the new printing .
And that is (probably) how a Return to Ravnica card got sold in a Magic 2013 booster months early.
One of my favorite things to do is design cards that seem perfectly fine in a vacuum but work nicely in the set they're placed in. I put a lot of things into Slime Molding that I like in my designs. It's an Ooze. It makes creature tokens. It's scalable.
All of that would be fine in any set. The reason I loved it in Return to Ravnica is that it plays very well with populate, Selesnya's guild mechanic. I explained two weeks ago that designing for populate was tricky because it required an infrastructure of token makers.
My goal with Slime Molding was to allow Selesnya to have access to something that could make very large creatures. Sure, Grove of the Guardian makes 8/8s, but sometimes 8/8 isn't enough. (That was for you Dick van Patten fans.) Slime Molding would allow you to make creatures as big as you want (green is the color of ramping after all).
It was a simple task, so I was happy to fulfill it with such a simple card. Enjoy!
One of the great joys of design is to take an effect that players always use and find a way to force players to use that effect differently. Stab Wound is a perfect example of such a card. Every set has what I'll call weakness effects, that is, Auras that give a creature minus power and minus toughness. Usually, they're used as kill spells for smaller creatures.
Stab Wound, though, forces you to take that basic idea and turn it on its head. This -2/-2 Aura actually prefers you not to kill the creature. Yeah, you can in a pinch, but if you can use it to turn a threat into a non-threat, you also get to continually hurt your opponent.
As a designer, I love cards like Stab Wound. I'm hoping that, as players, you do too.
Card to Believe
That's all we have time for today. I hope you enjoyed my stroll through the cards of Return to Ravnica. Don't forget to go to the Prerelease this weekend so you can do a stroll of your own.
Join me next week when I revisit the mellowest guild.
Until then, may many Magic cards have a story for you.