The Darksteel Returns

Posted in Making Magic on December 13, 2010

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.

Welcome to Darksteel Week! Note that this is Darksteel Week not Darksteel Week (the italics makes all the difference) so we're going to be talking about the indestructible metal and not the expansion that broke Magic in half. Okay, I'm going to be talking about the indestructible metal and not the expansion. I'm not sure if all the other columnists are up on the italics tech.

There are thirteen cards in Magic with Darksteel in their name. Here they are in case you're curious:

All thirteen are indestructible. So if I'm going to tell any design story today it should be about how indestructible came to be. I designed it so who better to reveal the origin of the mechanic. Well, apparently me. I already told the origin story of the indestructible word (it's not technically a mechanic—it's just an English word—yes, I invented an English word, but I like to think of it as a mechanic) in an article during the first week of, you guessed it Darksteel previews. Oh no, I talked about Darksteel when I said I wouldn't.

Rereading that article, I realized that while I explained the origin of indestructible I didn't dig as deep as I wish I had, so I'm going to rectify that today. Today I'm going to expand upon my origin story and along the way talk about a few things that I feel are fundamental to making Magic work.

    Darksteel the One

One of the fun things to do when talking about the origin of a design is to trace the impetus of the design back as far as you can. At its core, what made me design indestructibility? I've talked many times about how a writer has a key theme that they keep coming back to. Could the same be true for a card designer? It's possible because the origin of indestructibility goes all the way back to the first card I ever designed. (Okay, the first I ever remember designing, and the first one that I designed prior to coming to Wizards that I actually got printed.) The first card I ever designed was this card:

The first card I ever designed conveniently showed up in the first set I ever designed. What made me design Scragnoth? Simple. This card:

The first time I ever laid eyes on Counterspell I thought it was wonderful. It was flavorful, powerful and just felt like the kinds of things mages would come up with if they had to have magical duels with other mages. But the more I played against it the more frustrated I got. One of the things I loved about Magic was that no one strategy was unstoppable. If I knew what my opponent was playing, I could always design the deck that could beat it.

I think this concept of every element having an answer is key to what makes a trading card game tick. If any player can put any card in his or her deck, the system has to make sure that there isn't one best deck. By making sure that every strategy, every mechanic, every effect had an answer, you allow the existence of a metagame that can keep all the elements in check.

I loved this quality to Magic, so I was especially upset when I realized that there existed a card that this wasn't true for: Counterspell. If my opponent had a Counterspell in his hand, there was no card that allowed me to trump it. Yes, I would later learn that there were things you could do to try and play around it (try to goad the opponent to counter a different spell, for example). Every other card in the game was scared of some other card, but not Counterspell.

Scragnoth was designed to be that answer, to be the card Counterspell was sacred of. In particular, the ability "CARDNAME cannot be countered." It felt like finally someone was calling Counterspell out. For the first time, there was a card that made Counterspell nervous.

With a designer's eye, looking back I think I can see an interesting series of events playing out. Richard Garfield invents Magic. He realizes that every card needed an answer to it. To make sure this happened, Richard came up with the idea of answer cards. These were cards that preyed on other cards, most often destroying them. If a card was a problem, put one of these cards in your deck. Thus every card had an answer. Counterspell was the catchall answer. The creation of Counterspell ensured that every card had an answer, because if nothing else existed, it was an answer.

A quick game design aside: Countermagic is quite tempting to include in your game but they come with a lot of rules baggage. So much that whenever we design a new trading card game at Wizards (not as frequently as we once did), we figure out up front whether or not we plan to have countermagic in the game. It's an early design fork in the road that I think many people don't even realize is a fork. Magic obviously chooses its path right out of the gate.

Our story jumps ahead a few years to when I enter the picture. Like Richard I see the importance of answer cards. But I ask the next question: What answers the answer cards? (Magic's version of Who Watches the Watchmen?) Not only did I feel that each card has to have answers but it was important that the cards that kept those cards in check also have cards that kept them in check. It was fine for a Counterspell to stop other spells from happening, but something should exist that Counterspell can't deal with.

As I look through my designs, I do see a recurring theme that I'm always trying to find new answers to old problems. Which, of course, brings up an interesting aside. If I believe everything needs an answer, why did I keep us from printing cards that remove poison counters? My answer is that I wasn't trying to stop answers from poison. I was trying to give poison an identity and part of that was cutting off the obvious avenue for answers. There are still answers for poison, but it forces the opponent to be more proactive than reactive. In other words, infect has many built in weaknesses that can be exploited if you know you're fighting against it.

Which all brings us to indestructible.

    Darksteel Crazy After All These Years

Of all the answers in Magic, none is more brutal than destruction. How do I deal with your threat? I get rid of it, permanently. Richard's attempts to counter destruction in Alpha were protection and regeneration. The former was proactive and the latter reactive. Both worked but left some gaps that needed to get filled in. The next evergreen ability to come along was shroud. Shroud prevented most destruction effects by stopping the targeting.

While each of these effects does a decent job of stopping some damage effects none of them were effective at stopping all damage effects. Why? Because that wasn't their ultimate goal. Each mechanic was trying to provide a tool to help a creature protect itself but none took the direct approach. That's what indestructibility was created to do. What's the best way to stop a destruction effect? By making a mechanic that prevents cards from being destroyed.

A lot of time designers try to be subtle and solve problems without making it obvious that's what they're doing. While there is obviously a place for subtlety, there is also a place for being straightforward. I think too often designers are so caught up in the cleverness of their design that they don't take the step back to ask if their solution actually solves the problem. Life preservers are made orange on purpose. They want to draw attention to themselves because it's more important to their function that you notice them than that they blend in and seem natural. Mechanics function much in the same way.

There's a funny scene in the movie Dr. Strangelove that hits a similar point. If you haven't seen it, stop and go rent it, then watch it and come back. If for some reason you don't have the time, or access to do that, but also haven't seen the movie yet, skip ahead to the next paragraph. In the scene, the Russian ambassador to the United States informs the president and his cabinet that there exists a Doomsday Device that will destroy the world if the United States attacks Russia. Dr. Strangelove replies:

Dr. Strangelove: Of course, the whole point of a Doomsday Machine is lost, if you keep it a secret! Why didn't you tell the world, Eh?

Ambassador de Sadesky: It was to be announced at the Party Congress on Monday. As you know, the Premier loves surprises.

Answers are very similar. It's all fine and good to stick answers in your set, but if the audience doesn't see them, it's very similar to not putting answers in your set. One of the GDS2 contestants, Scott Van Essen, was also a GDS1 contestant. When talking about valuable advice he got from the judges from GDS1, Scott said the most valuable advice was one he got from Gleemax (yes the alien brain in a jar that runs Ramp;D): "The goal of a game designer is not to outwit the players."

One of the reasons behind indestructible was that it wanted to wear its purpose on its sleeve. Do you get frustrated when your permanents get destroyed? Well, here's one that won't—not conditionally, not some of the time, not with any limitations. Indestructible was made to be a blunt instrument because sometimes that's what you need to get the job done.

For some reason indestructibility seems to get more complaints than the average mechanic. I've gotten many letters from players saying, "How can you make indestructible creatures, there's no way to deal with them?" While I agree that indestructiblity may counter many of the answers that tend to show up in decks, that's a far cry from not having answers to it. Just of the top of my head, a few ways to deal with an indestructible creature:

  • counter it
  • force them to discard it
  • steal it
  • exile it
  • Pacify it
  • lock it down (so it doesn't untap)
  • shrink it's power to 0
  • reduce its toughness to 0
  • put -1/-1 counters on it (includes infect)
  • block it with a high toughness creature
  • block it with a regenerator

My point is that Magic has numerous answers to any problem. Stopping one answer just forces players to get creative and find a different answer to it.

    Darksteel Waters Run Deep

Indestructability also touches on another interesting design issue: what I've chosen to call the Terror Conundrum. (With modern cards it should probably be called the Doom Blade Conundrum but the Terror Conundrum just sounds a lot better.) I've explained many times the importance of the mana system to the game of Magic. If you can put any card in any deck there needs to be some way to make spells of all levels matter. If there is no barrier to playing the best spells then that is all that will be played. A lot of people focus on the biggest downside of the mana system (mana screw and color screw) that they miss all the valuable stuff it is doing.

So Magic needs to have creatures of every cost and size. Also, as I explained above, Magic has to have answers to every threat. If creatures exist then creature destruction needs to exist. Where there is yin, yang will not be far behind. With creatures it is easy to scale based on cost because you have many knobs to play with (power, toughness, abilities, mana cost, etc.) Creature kill basically does one thing: destroy target creature. You can add riders to it (or limitations) but in the end every creature destruction spell has the same basic function. That function has a cost. Time has shown that cost to be somewhere around four to five mana with limitation versions at two to three mana.

Creatures start at zero and go up, currently, to fifteen mana. The game needs this spread of creature costs yet it also needs creature kill. When you compare the two, it seems a bit odd. If left unchecked, shouldn't the creature destruction just top the creatures? If you're spending four or more mana on casting a creature and I'm spending three or less to destroy it, aren't I supposed to come out on top there?

The conundrum led to a lot of design decisions, which can be boiled down to two major components:

    #1: Limit Your Destruction

If you look at Limited EditionAlpha, you'll see that almost all of the destruction came with a limitation. Even Terror, for which this conundrum is named, didn't work on black or artifact creatures.

Part of helping out the creatures is making the creature destruction less reliable. This carries through to modern day design, because this truism holds true today. If you make a single spell that easily destroys any creature without a significant drawback, you start mucking with the basic elements of the game. The minute destruction just trumps creatures, it's the beginning of the end. Which brings us to our second component:

    #2: Build In Answers To Destruction

There are a bunch of ways to do this. Let's walk through some of the most prevalent:

Create an ability that restricts spells from destroying the creature. This is so important that design has mined a great deal of space in this area. Prevent the targeting, reduce the damage, redirect the spell, keep from being destroyed, return to play once destroyed ... the list goes on and on. The key here is you make the creature immune, in some ways, to some of the answers.

Frontload the majority of the card's usefulness. The most frequent example of this is creatures with ETB (enter the battlefield) effects. The opponent can destroy the creature, but by the time it can, the majority of the value of the creature has already been used.

Create value when it's destroyed. These type of effects, the most popular being a death trigger (a creature that has an effect when it's put into the graveyard from the battlefield), limits the usefulness of the destruction because it allows the creature's controller to get extra value from the creature.

Exceed the opponent's destruction capabilities. A good example here is a creature that creates creature tokens. Instead of stopping the destruction you create a system where you are creating faster than they can destroy.

The reason I bring up the Terror Conundrum and all the resulting design it creates is that indestructibility was not a design that just popped up one day. It's the result of years of design evolution. Creatures have to exist, which means the creature destruction has to exist, which means that creatures have to evolve to fight that destruction. This cycle has continued on and on since the beginning of the game and will continue for as many years as Magic is created (a large number, I believe). Indestructibility is not an end state but a middle state, one which I believe will spawn more designs.

    Darksteel Had All These

Hopefully, today's exploration into the creation of indestructibility has given you a different vantage point to look at it. And you have the whole rest of the week to see what everyone else thinks about it. You may even hear about Darksteel.

The next two weeks are "best of" weeks so you'll get a chance to see what I feel were my best two columns of the year. Three weeks from now will be Part 3 of my Scarscard-by-card article. (I am doing everything in my power to not have to do a fourth.)

Until then, may you have the happiest of holidays.

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