Before I get to the meat of today's column I have to start by defining two concepts. Note that in order to define them, it is important that I assign words to the concepts so that I can talk about them. I understand that I am slightly bending the definitions of these words but I need to do so as a word with the exact meaning of what I want does not exist. (As longtime readers of my column are well aware, I have no problem bending word definitions to my will.)
The two concepts I am about to define I have labeled "iconic" and "characteristic." Each of the two concepts below talks about how a particular item is representative of something larger.
Some objects are representative of a larger group because they are so well known and/or so dominant that they have become synonymous with the item in question. For example, the Statue of Liberty is an iconic element of the United States of America. There is only one, but it has become such a memorable and symbolic thing that you can use it by itself to represent America.
Some objects are representative of the larger group not because any one is memorable, but because the sheer volume of its presence makes people think of the larger item. For example, a visitor to the United States might connect Starbucks with America because it feels as if there is one on every corner (possibly the statement "it feels as if" is factually incorrect). It's not that any one Starbucks evokes America, but the overwhelming presence of them creates the connection.
To better understand the difference between these two concepts, let me apply them to a number of different things:
Iconic – Tiger Woods
Characteristic – Golf Carts
Iconic – The Hollywood Sign
Characteristic – Actors Waiting Tables
Iconic – Batmobile
Characteristic – Batarang
So what do these two concepts have to do with Magic? Quite a bit. As I've explained numerous times, I believe that at the core of Magic is the color wheel. It is the thing that all the elements of the game—be they creative or mechanical—spring from. As such, it is very important that we be able to define what the colors represent.
To accomplish this task, we make use of both the iconic and the characteristic. As an example, lets take the color red. Red's iconic creature is the dragon. Yes, there aren't many of them but the ones that do exist are some of the most exciting examples of what red is capable of. Red's characteristic creature is the goblin. No creature is more prevalent in red than the goblin. It has become red's staple race.
"I Love It When a Clan Comes Together"
Very little talk of Vampires thus far for a Vampire theme week ... I'm getting there. Now it's time to talk about what happened to Vampires during Magic 2010 and Zendikar. We moved them—from being iconic creatures to being characteristic creatures. What does this mean? Let's answer that by examining what exactly it means to be an iconic and characteristic Magic creature.
Iconic Magic Creature
- You show up only a few times per set (and many times only once).
- You are almost exclusively rare or mythic rare.
- You show up on splashy cards.
Characteristic Magic Creature
- You show up many times per set.
- You show up in all rarities, especially at common.
- You appear on many mundane, basic cards (such as vanilla and French vanilla creatures—R&D-speak for creatures with no rules text or just simple creature keyword abilities.)
Before M10, Vampires followed the rules of an iconic creature. As of M10, they follow the rules of a characteristic creature. What happened?
I guess I should begin by explaining the Great Black Iconic Face-Off. (I completely admit that out of context that sounds very weird.) Red and white have their iconic creature. Blue's working on building up its iconic creature while green is, well, trying its hardest. Black, though, has had its iconic creatures battling for years.
Yes, it's Vampire versus Demon, fighting for the darkened soul of black. Let's examine what black is about:
Desire for Power – Advantage Demon
Parasitism – Advantage Vampire
Selfishness – Advantage Demon (although close)
Sacrifice of Others – Advantage Vampire (although also close)
Corruption – Advantage Demon (wow, so many of these are so close)
Deceit – Advantage Demon
Amorality – Advantage Demon
As you can see, Demon slightly edges out Vampire. In fact, in the world of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (aah, Whedonverse) the vampires are demons. While each color can support many creature types, in the end only one gets to stand on top as the icon.
Meanwhile, let's take a look at the characteristic battle for black.
Don't get me wrong, I love Zombies as much as the next guy, in fact, much more than the next guy. (Shout out to you, Ga'Aark.) The problem is that undead, mindless hordes have trouble embodying the essence of black. Sure, they embrace death and spread their sickness while carnivorously eating whoever they can, but Zombies have never quite made sense as the key race for black. Black at its core is about selfishly grabbing for power. Zombies don't quite hit that note.
So, we had two creatures fighting for ionic status while characteristic status was filled in by the only undead creatures wandering around. How could we fix this problem? Now let's add in one last component, what I will call the outside world. (We don't often talk about the world outside Magic here in Making Magic—you know, other than my personal life—but for the first time I'll make this bold statement: It exists.)
If we believe the media (and we've been trained to do so basically since birth), it appears that people seem to like vampires, yet demons keep stealing their iconic creature slots in Magic. All while the black characteristic slot seems to be desperate for someone to fill it. What to do, what to do?
The creative team had considered the "swap iconic for characteristic" option for many years, but it's often hard to fight the status quo. Then along comes M10 with its dictum "Let's do what is right, not just what we've done before." Magic Creative Director Brady Dommermuth saw the opportunity to make the switch. Vampires stopped being iconic black creatures and turned into characteristic black creatures. (This doesn't mean we can't still make cool splashy rare or mythic rare Vampires from time to time—look at Malakir Bloodwitch)
This does mean that each individual vampire gets less special. Magic has to have its 2/2 vanilla (with the occasional drawback) after all. (Yeah, yeah—I know that card isn't a Vampire.) On the upside, Vampires can now be a theme in Constructed decks and Draft strategies (no, seriously, mono-black Vampire decks can kick butt in Zendikar drafts). With volume comes options.
Undead Men Don't Wear Plaid
So Zendikar was allowed to have a lot of vampires? Not exactly, at least not during design. Zendikar started design before Magic 2010 did. As such, the Great Vampire Swap didn't happen until the tail end of Zendikar design. Because of this, Zendikar was handed off to development without any Vampires—not at common or uncommon, that is. During development, in order to help fine-tune certain aspects of the set, there were some design teams made to take a design approach to different issues that had come up in development.
One such issue was the desire to add Vampires to the set. The team responsible for Vampires (as well as the Kor, also added during development, and a smattering of one-of cards) was led by Ken Nagle and included Ken, Tom LaPille (of Latest Developments fame) and Steve Warner, one of R&D's most dedicated playtesters. Their task was to find a mechanical feel for Vampires, something that would give Vampire decks a flavorful theme when you played them. The solution for their problem came from two very different places: the shard of Grixis in Shards of Alara block, and the game of Dungeons & Dragons.
While trying to solve the problem of his design team, Ken thought back to a solution arrived by a different design team a year earlier. The Grixis design team was led by Devin Low and included developer Erik Lauer and designer Brian Tinsman. One of the team's tasks was to come up with a mechanic that would represent the essence of Grixis. One design idea was submitted by Erik Lauer. He liked the idea of creatures that got better when your opponent's life was below a certain threshold. I believe the cycle he submitted as proof of concept of his idea had a common creature that improved when your opponent was at 15 life, an uncommon that improved if your opponent was at 10 life, and a rare that improved if your opponent was at 5 life. The idea wasn't used for Grixis, but it lasted long enough for other members of R&D, including Ken, to see it.
Meanwhile, Tom was looking at a completely different inspiration. While the vast majority of his time is spent working on Magic, Tom spends some of his time developing another Wizards of the Coast game—a little roleplaying game known to its fans as D&D. Tom joined a Dungeons & Dragons campaign when he came to Wizards and had so much fun that it inspired him to work behind the scenes on it. In D&D, creatures have a number known as hit points that represent their life total (apparently non-two-headed planeswalkers in Magic have 20 hit points). When a creature has half of its starting points or less remaining, it is called "bloodied." This idea of players reaching a plateau where they become bloodied intrigued Tom.
I was not on the team, so I'm not sure how exactly the chocolate ended up in the peanut butter, but the two ideas merged. What if the boost provided by your opponent's life total reflected the idea that you had "bloodied" them? Instead of thinking of the Vampires as feeding on other creatures, as the flavor for cards like Sengir Vampire does, what if the Vampires fed on your opponent? Then, when they reach a certain threshold and the Vampires sense weakness, they harden their resolve and become even more aggressive.
The team chose 10 life as the cutoff both because it seemed like the right balance mechanically and because creatures in D&D become bloodied at half their life points, so it seemed like a reasonable place to start. Playtesting soon showed that 10 life was the right amount. The design team made a lot of Vampires that took advantage of the "bloodied" effect. The majority of them got a +2/+1 bonus. Why +2/+1? Because it: a) felt different than the normal +1/+1 boosts, b) was reminiscent of Unholy Strength, an iconic black card from Alpha and c) was a significant enough boost that it would make both players focus on the 10-life threshold.
The Zendikar development team spent a lot of time playing with the Vampires and came to the conclusion that while the boosts played well, the set didn't need it showing up on as many Vampires as the Vampire design team had created. They kept their favorites and changed the rest to other flavorful Vampire designs. In addition, development favored some Zendikar designs such as Blood Tribute and Sorin Markov that played into the Vampired mechanic without specifically calling it out.
In The Cards
Before I wrap up for today, I thought it might be a little fun to talk about the design of a few of the vampires in the set.
This is the only Vampire with the 10 life mechanic that was created during design. Note that the "10 or less life" text didn't happen until the Vampire design team, but the idea of a black creature that reanimates itself at landfall was made by the design team.
Gatekeeper of Malakir
I believe the original version of this card was made by Zendikar lead developer Henry Stern to have some more basic "enters the battlefield" kicker effects. Originally, the effect was a "Dark Banishing" effect for . Later in Development, it ended up as a Cruel Edict effect for
Guul Draz Vampire
This card is the closest to the original intent of Ken's design team. It's the only one to keep the +2/+1 bonus.
Kalitas, Bloodchief of Ghet
While this card might seem like it was top-down designed for the legendary Vampire slot, it actually was not. The card was created in design (I unfortunately don't remember by whom) as a cool random rare. When we got the list of legendary creatures from the creative team, one of the slots was for a legendary Vampire (yes, there were some Vampires in design—just not common or uncommon ones). Seeing that the already existing card was a perfect fit (and popular with the design team), I moved the design over to the legendary Vampire slot.
While this card isn't a Vampire, it is a "Vampire matters" card and it has a good story, so I'm going to tell it. The original version of this card was as you see it except for . The card was created by Ken during the vampire design. Ken turned over his card designs to Henry (Stern) to put into the set. Henry typed the card in incorrectly as instead of . When the mistake was noticed, most of R&D found it funny and the card was kept as is.
I didn't like the card as I didn't see the point of making a card strictly worse than a card that is already acknowledged as being pretty weak (Scathe Zombies from Alpha). But just as hard as I fought to remove it from the set (or at least get it back to ), Ken fought to keep it as is. The majority agreed with Ken, and the card went to print. Now that the card is printed and I've seen the public's reaction, I will openly admit that I was on the wrong side and the correct choice was made. The card is viable in Zendikar Limited and I have publicly supported making worse versions of cards that still see play. (If I had had my way, Annul in Mirrodin would have been "Malfunction," which would have cost and only countered artifacts.)
This card was created during development to help give more lower-rarity answers to planeswalkers. We didn't initially realize that its true purpose would be digging 20/20 indestructible flying creatures out from Dark Depths, as seen at this weekend's Pro Tour–Austin.
This card wasn't designed by Ken's team, but rather by the development team. Looking for more aggressive options for mono-black decks, they decided to remake one of their favorite black aggro creatures as a Vampire: Exodus's Carnophage.
Interesting piece of trivia. I created Carnophage back in Exodus because at the time I was trying to push a mono-black aggro Zombie deck.
Undead @ 17
That's all I got for today. I hope my little foray into the world of vampires didn't bloodsuck.
Join me next week when I look at some of the land mechanics that didn't make the cut.
Until then, may you know the joy of bloodying your opponent.