Cards of Alara

Posted in Making Magic on September 29, 2008

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.

It's time for what's become a bit of a tradition the week after the set's out. I have a lot of cool stories about individual cards so I write a column where I tell them. This is that column. If you have an irrational fear of columns combined out of lots of small stories, run screaming now.

Ad Nauseam

This card's art, by Magic Art Director Jeremy Jarvis, was done long ago for Ravnica, before Jeremy even worked for Wizards. The art never got used because the card it was meant for got killed in development. Jeremy has often told us that he would love to use the piece if we ever made a card appropriate for it. Flash forward to Shards development. It was decided that this piece made sense for Grixis so we went about designing a card for it.

My goal in designing this card was to match the art. Let's take a look at it blown up a little:

In the piece, the central figure keeps drawing the same symbol to such a crazy point that it has withered down his body. The figure is obsessed with repeating this action. From that, I knew I wanted to create a mechanic that did the same thing over and over. I also liked the idea that using the spell submitted the player to whittling down his or her own "body." The idea for this card was taken straight from Dark Confidant, Bob Maher's prize card for winning the Magic Invitational. I felt the effect was a neat thing to allow the player to repeat as much as he or she wanted.

Agony Warp

I'm very proud of the design of this card. I love how it takes reflecting parts of the color pie and matches them up in a way that feels very natural. I'm pretty sure this card will see the light of day once again, as it's hard to design gold cards this elegantly.

Akrasan Squire

Design has little design challenges it keeps repeating. One of them is making new one drop white creatures with the ability to attack for 2. Nearly every block has at least one, often more than one. Exalted proved to be the tweak of choice for Shards of Alara.


Here's the original version of Blightning:

Mindpeel Bolt
CARDNAME deals 2 damage to target creature. That creature's controller discards a card.

So what happened? Development did to it what they do to all dumb, overpowered, "makes the game excruciatingly not fun" cards. They changed it.

Blister Beetle

This card was designed by the Jund design team (Bill Rose, Mark Globus and Mike Turian) and was originally called Dark Globus (I'm not sure whether Mark actually made the card or Bill just named it that as a joke). The reason the Jund team created it is that they were trying to make good "food" for the devour creatures. One way to do this was to make cheap creatures with "comes into play" effects. This way most of the value was used up when you fed them to your devour creatures.

Branching Bolt

In my thirteen years in Magic Ramp;D I have learned many important lessons: don't be late to meetings where action items are handed out; move quickly when someone says "free cake"; keep your eyes and ears open the day the product comes in to be checked—this is when the first draft with the new set happens; change your password the day Tech Services tells you to do so; never eat food when it is presented to you with "eat this"; always double check your article before it goes live; and whatever you need to do, avoid working on templating.

The first six are obvious, but let me explain the last one. Templating is a vital, important part of Magic, and without it the game would be infinitely worse. That said, the procedures to do templating are tedious and, in my far from humble opinion, brain-meltingly boring. (I should point out that for a small subsection of humanity the task is "interesting," and I thank whatever quirk of genetics made it so, since it means I don't have to do it.) For the last thirteen years I have been avoiding templating like the plague. Luckily I'm horrible at it and have thus been spared its crushing weight.

I have, though, in my thirteen years made two contributions to templating. My first contribution happened during the development of the first set I ever designed, Tempest.

Here is the card as it existed in the file:

Giant Ferret
Summon Ferret
Protection from blue
While Giant Ferret is being cast, it cannot be the target of interrupts.

For trivia buffs out there, this is the card that would later be called Scragnoth. The original design name was Greased Weasel but it somehow changed to Giant Ferret by development. I am showing you this version of the card because it is the point in time where my templating contribution happened. Below is my one dev comment (the dev comments are a field in our card database, called Multiverse, where Ramp;D members can comment on cards):

3.07 MR I'm going out on a limb by suggesting a new template: "Cardname cannot be countered". Its simple, elegant and everyone and there brother will understand what it means.

My radical suggestion of "cannot be countered" was obviously met with much agreement by the rest of Ramp;D. If only I had learned the proper use of "it's" and "their."

This brings us to my second templating contribution, Branching Bolt. The earliest version of the card was this:

CARDNAME deals 3 damage to target creature with flying and deals 3 damage to target creature without flying.

The problem was that the card often sat in your hand because there weren't both targets available. So the card was changed to:

CARDNAME deals 3 damage to up to one creature with flying and deals 3 damage to up to one creature without flying.

The problem was that most of Ramp;D hates the template "up to one." Testing has shown that it just confuses people. "Up to two" makes sense, but somehow the idea that the choice is between zero and one just throws many players off. To solve this problem all sorts of suggestions were made. Many of them functionally changed the card to make it do something we could write more easily. Finally, I pitched my "Choose one or both" template (interestingly, Alexis Janson pitched the same template independently around the same time). Miraculously (thanks in part to the efforts of Mark Gottlieb and Del Laugel to make sure it would work in the rules), the card saw print this way. Expect to see more "choose one or both" in the future (as well as "cannot be countered"—hmm, perhaps I could combine them into one über-spell...).

Broodmate Dragon

So one day Devin Low came up to me (remember, Devin was the lead designer of Shards of Alara) and said that he wasn't happy with one of the dragons. What he wanted was something that was simple but had a lot of oomph. The card I gave him, which I named Double Dragon, is what became Broodmate Dragon. This card came from an idea that I've been playing around with for a long time: the idea of cards and creatures not always being one-for-one. That is, traditionally a creature and a card have a direct correlation. Each creature costs one card. What if we had more cards that broke that model. B.F.M., from Unglued, for instance, was two cards for one creature. Ambassador Oak (which will always be "Moose amp; Squirrel" to me), from Morningtide, was two creatures for one card.

Anyway, when I was told to make a cool dragon, I flashed back to a running joke I made during the Wizards Invitational (an event like the Magic Invitational held online but with Wizards employees—would us doing this again be of interest to anyone?) when I ran a Dragon deck. I would get a Dragon into play and start attacking. Then a turn or two later, I'd say, "What's worse than a Dragon?" The answer, of course, was "Two Dragons!"

So my wacky pet design theory coupled with a bad joke came together to create this awesome card. Now if only I could have convinced creative to keep the name Double Dragon.

Bull Cerodon

This card came about because I was trying to think of a simple card design for white-red. I liked the idea of a French vanilla with one white keyword and one red keyword. One of my first pairings was vigilance and haste (I liked the idea that you could attack right away but still be able to block). I looked up the combination of the two abilities in Gatherer to see what had been done before and realized that while the two abilities have shown up combined with other abilities—Lightning Angel and Razia, Boros Archangel combined them with flying; Horde of Notions combined them with trample, and Akroma, Angel of Wrath combined them with basically every known keyword—there did not exist a card with nothing but those two keywords. At that moment I knew I had my card.

Cruel Ultimatum

Often in design we see a card we like so much that it inspires a cycle. Cruel Ultimatum was the inspiration for the Ultimatum cycle.


Um, isn't this a blue card? What's going on? Two things. One, the color pie, like everything else about the game, is always in constant flux (I'm talking about a gentle, subtle flux, not chaos), and two, we've been trying to help give white a little more bite. One way to do this was to extend white's ability to "delay" into more aggressive forms. And thus we stretched Time Ebb from blue into white.

Goblin Mountaineer

Back in the day I used to write a lot of flavor text. This was when I was single and had things like spare time. I don't know how I got hooked into writing flavor text for Portal Second Age (a.k.a. Portal II: This Time It's Personal) but I did. I wrote the flavor text for this card—it's a reprint, in case you didn't know—as a complete joke. See, we very seldom (I won't say never because that would be a lie) make real-world pop-culture references in flavor text, so when I suggested this text as a joke I didn't expect it to make it to print. But it did. So since most of you are probably unfamiliar with Portal: Second Age flavor text, here's the card in all its glory:

For those who don't get it, it's a reference to the theme song from The Beverly Hillbillies.


For a long time, Godsire did not have vigilance. It was just an 8/8 that tapped to make 8/8s. Normally, we tend not to put tap abilities on giant creatures, as we feel it makes an uneasy tension between attacking with it and using the ability, but in this case I felt like the creation of 8/8s was worth not attacking. Also I should point out that on every turn after the first one, you would get to attack with at least one 8/8. Nonetheless, this rubbed many other Ramp;D members the wrong way, and there was a month-long discussion about whether or not vigilance should be added. I'll let you figure out who won. (My articles might make it seem like I win most of my arguments—I actually don't.)

Kresh the Bloodbraided

Originally this card turned all your creatures into Khabál Ghouls (a.k.a. they get +1/+1 counters whenever another creature gets put into a graveyard from play). This card had numerous issues, including interacting with persist in a sick, sick way. In the end, the card had to be changed because development couldn't price it as it was.

Minion Reflector

Originally this card cost and made the copy for free. A little broken, but man was it fun. You can tell this is a Rosewater design due to its combination of copying things and making tokens—a strong theme through not just all of Magic but my Shards of Alara contributions in particular.

Ooze Garden

So this card came about because we were trying once again to make a card that allowed Giant Growth effects to become permanent. I say again, because last time we went down this path I made a card that got kicked off to Unhinged.

While trying to create this card, I started riffing on other designs that had a similar effect. Ooze Garden was the result of that labor. I was instantly smitten with the card (and I should note that as someone who makes a lot of Magic cards I am not smitten with the majority of cards I design—yes, I know my column does not support this truth) because I loved how it tickled my inner Johnny. The card just cried out, "What can you do with me?"

The more I thought about it, the more ideas that I came up with. Suffice to say I was happy when the card was added to the set. One of the very first dev notes in the file was Aaron making a comment about how he didn't like the card. Numerous times during development, Aaron made comments about how we should kill it.

I've talked before about some of the perks of being Head Designer. One is that I have the ability to protect a card I care about. Ooze Garden's existence in the file is basically a testament to my willpower to keep the card in the set. After Aaron's comments numerous other people chimed in that they too weren't crazy about the card. The issue came up in several development meetings and in each one I firmly defended it. I explained that the card isn't for everyone but the player who it is for would really like it.

One of the things we do during design is to seek feedback from other Magic players within the company. We try to get a sense of the average player's reactions to the set. For Shards of Alara we asked these people to grade all the rares in the set. Ooze Garden came in dead last. Suffice to say I had my work cut out for me. As you can see, though, I was triumphant. To all my fellow Johnnies out there—please find cool things to do with this card!

Puppet Conjurer

This card was designed by Brian Tinsman as part of his work on the Grixis design team. Grixis at the time was playing around with "goes to graveyard" triggers and this card was nice because it allowed the player to trigger it each turn. The problem was that for flavor reasons Brian made it a black creature that created white creatures. Grixis doesn't have white creatures. Only Esper does (combined with black creatures, that is). So the card was moved to Esper, where it became an artifact creature that made artifact tokens. Esper, it turns out, really liked the artifact tokens and embraced the card. The tokens were later changed to blue because on Esper the Homunculus were the previously defined artificial (a.k.a. token) creatures.

Another interesting change that happened during development was that the card originally made a token that got sacrificed at end of turn. To allow some tricks, the card was changed into a mandatory sacrifice that happened during upkeep.

Quietus Spike

This equipment started out turning the equipped creature into Phage the Untouchable, but I quickly realized that losing the game might be a touch too much, so I changed it to merely losing half your life. I rounded down the life loss because it amused me that the equipment could never actually kill the opponent, but it was changed to "rounded up" during development.

Ranger of Eos

This card was originally going to be a green-white hybrid card in Shadowmoor, but we ran into a small problem. The winner of the card always appears in its art, but Shadowmoor had no humans. So the card had to be pushed off. Then for a while (during most of Shards of Alara design) the card was a green-white gold card. During development we needed to shift some things around, which required us taking five gold cards and turning them into monocolored cards. This effect seemed okay for mono-white, and we thought that putting it into a single color would make it easier to use.

Sanctum Gargoyle

This was one of the handful of cards the Esper design team (me, Mark Gottlieb, and Mark Globus) made to show off our idea of all creatures being artifact creatures. Everyone liked the card, so much so that it made it all the way through the process. Actually, it got better. We designed the card as a 2/2.

Also, while talking about Esper design I realized that I left out a cool, 100% true detail from my story last week about how the all Esper creatures being artifact creatures idea came about. (Gottlieb reminded me of this tidbit after he read last week's column.) Gottlieb showed up to the meeting ten or so minutes late. When he walked in, Globus and I had outlined all the potential mechanical ideas that could represent the idea of "control." Gottlieb plopped down in his chair and said, "So everyone runs on logic? Nature and emotion don't exist? That's easy—everyone's a robot!"

It took him a few minutes to convince us he wasn't kidding, and before the meeting was over the whole team was gung-ho about the idea. I know I basically told this story last week but I felt it was a crime to not get the "Everyone's a robot" line in, especially because it was exactly what he said. Normally I have to juice up dialogue to make it spiffier than reality. This time reality was spiffier and I forgot. Hopefully, this will set things right.

Sharding Sphinx

When this card was first designed it triggered off of fliers dealing damage. We quickly realized that it made much more sense in Esper as triggering off of artifact creatures instead.

Tezzeret the Seeker

One of the biggest design questions about this card is this: why isn't Tezzeret an artifact planeswalker? He is. Tezzeret is from the shard of Esper and every living creature on the shard has evolved into becoming an artifact. Then why isn't he an artifact planeswalker on the card? Interesting question. The answer actually comes in two parts.

The first issue actually happened back in Lorwyn development. The five original planeswalkers all have races—to the best of my knowledge they're four humans and a leonin, but don't take me as a definitive source as I have consulted absolutely no one. Why doesn't Ajani (either Ajani) say "Planeswalker – Ajani Cat" or possibly "Planeswalker – Cat Ajani"?

A) It sounds dumb.

B) The rules don't allow it. Cat is a creature subtype. The only way to use it on another card type (and yes, planeswalker is another card type) is to use tribal technology. That means that the card would have to read "Tribal Planeswalker – Ajani Cat". Assuming that all fits, it sounds even dumber than the type line I ripped on up in A).

C) The creative team felt strongly that the planeswalkers had to transcend their individual qualities. Ajani is not defined by being a leonin, but by being a planeswalker. The idea is once you get to that level, nothing else is relevant.

Now let's hop over to issue number two. What happens if we make an artifact planeswalker? I should stress that such a thing is possible in the rules. Two permanent types mixing works just fine. The issue isn't one of rules but of degeneracy. You see, one of the things that helps keep the planeswalker card type in check is that there are very few cards that let you manipulate them. We avoid a lot of shenanigans by simply not letting players do certain things to planeswalkers. But once we add "artifact" on the card, that no longer applies. Just put the word "artifact" in Gatherer (searching rules text only) to see all the nuttiness we've let you do to them over the years. Even if we were philosophically okay with having artifact on the card, the degeneracy would probably force development to yank it.

So to sum up, Tezzeret is not an artifact because we don't want him to be, and we couldn't allow him to be even if we were okay with it.

Tidehollow Sculler

This is another card in Shards of Alara that shows us rethinking how white functions. The idea here is that white should have more universal answers with the weakness that they can be undone. I like to think of this as the next evolution of Pacifism and Oblivion Ring.

Wild Nacatl

This card is another card that showed up during the shard design that made it all the way through the process. This card's playtest name, by the way, was Kird Kitty.

    All Dealt Out

That's all the words I've got for you today. Hopefully you enjoyed my jaunt through the cards of Alara. Join me next week when I talk about what's white with the world (and blue and green).

Until then, may you make stories of your own with Shards of Alara cards.

Shards of AlaraLaunch Parties are this weekend, October 3-5, at stores worldwide, and you won’t want to miss them. Get your chance to buy Shards of Alara cards as soon as they go on sale, play the new set with your friends, and get a foil, alternate-art Ajani Vengeant promo card (while supplies last)!

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