For each article in this series, I'm asking the same four questions and then I'm examining the design of the guild mechanic from both Ravnica block and from Return to Ravnica block. With that out of the way, let's start talking Simic.
What's the Easiest Thing About This Color Pairing?
At first glance, one might think these two colors have nothing in common. Green is a hardcore creature color and blue is a diehard spell color. As it turns out, though, the two colors share a lot of mechanical space:
Hexproof: Untargetability was something seen in the early days on blue and green creatures. Eventually, R&D decided to put the untargetability naturally on green creatures and enabled blue to add it to creatures with spells and enchantments. This slowly shifted over time until green had what we know today as hexproof and blue had what we know today as shroud. When the ability was keyworded to shroud, both blue and green got the ability. When it shifted to hexproof, blue and green shifted over.
Flash: Green and blue share not one creature keyword, but two. Green gets flash to represent its speedy animals that can jump out and surprise you. Blue gets it because it's the color that most often wants reactive "enters the battlefield" effects on creatures.
"Curiosity" Ability: When we talk about abilities that could get keyworded, this ability (draw a card when the creature deals combat damage) often comes up. This ability overlaps green and blue because of the next category.
Card Drawing: Blue is primary at card drawing but green is secondary. (Black is also secondary but it always pays something extra for the cards—most often, life.) Green's card drawing is restricted to involving creatures in some way. Green and blue are also the two colors that get cantrip creatures.
"Maro" Ability: Creatures with this ability have a power and toughness equal to the number of cards in your hand. It's in green to represent growth (green is the color of */* creatures that grow over time) and in blue to represent a connection to knowledge.
Big Creatures in Common: Which two colors routinely get 5/5 and larger creatures at common? Green, because green is the "big creature color," and blue, because blue gets serpents.
Counter Manipulation: Green is the color that most often generates counters (another offshoot of its growth theme) and blue is the color that does sneaky things like move around counters and Auras. Normally, this is a pretty unused design area (a few cards a block at most), but when green and blue get together it is probably the most flavorful and deep, designwise. It's no accident that both Simic keywords have played around in this space.
Duplicating Your Creatures: Green tends to do this by going into the deck and getting another copy of a creature you have. Blue clones. The end result is similar, though, if you're focused on copying your own creatures.
Untapping Creatures: Recently, we've given green the ability to untap single creatures with spells to allow them to be surprise blockers. The ability used to be in white, but white had so many ways to protect against attackers—and green had only Fog—that we moved it over to green. Blue has twiddle effects (i.e., "tap or untap target permanent").
Islandwalk: This is the kind of overlap you usually only see on green/blue hybrid cards. I just wanted to point it out to be thorough. Green is king of landwalk and gets all five basic land types. Each creature gets landwalk on its own land (flavored as it understands its own terrain) so blue gets islandwalk.
Only white/green and black/red have any chance of coming close to this overlap.
What's the Hardest Thing About This Color Pairing?
While the two colors have a decent amount of mechanical overlap, thematically they are wide apart. Green is focused on creatures and its spells tend to be sorceries. Blue focuses on spells and it leans toward instants.
You'll notice that the Simic, creatively, were the guild most overhauled between original Ravnica and Return to Ravnica. That reflects a theme seen in mechanics as well, which is that the identity of the overlap is an odd one. Most of the other enemy pairings find a clean way to bring the opposites together. They tend to make one color the goal and the other color the means to achieve it. For example, the Boros want peace but they use their strong impulses to guide them. The Orzhov want power and their tool to achieve it is order.
The Simic don't line up as easily. They're not after either growth or knowledge, exactly. The way I like to explain it is they want to "improve upon nature." They're trying to make a better world. Neither color leads but they blend together. Mechanically, it's similar. The feel of green/blue isn't blue and isn't green. It has a feel that you have to sense as you're working and that's a hard thing to do.
When you find that middle ground, the Simic shine (and I'm very happy with how they turned out in Gatecrash), but it's a difficult target to hit.
What's the Mechanical Heart of This Color Pair?
The mechanical design is the key part of the design that comes first and that the rest of the design has to work around. It's the jumping off point. So where do you start when you combine green and blue? Interestingly, it's the creatures. But it's not that simple. Green/blue is about experimentation, about metamorphosis, about forced change. That means, before you begin Simic design, you have to figure out how the creatures are going to change. The mechanical heart is this change.
For example, the Simic in Gatecrash are about evolve and all the requirements the mechanic requires. I'll be talking about this below. The reason this is found on creatures is that the improving of nature tends to rest on the creatures created. Yes, green/blue has spells, but its identity is found in the weirdness of its creatures.
From that nugget, the design then figures out what kinds of creatures have been made, how they can be further adapted, and how the environment can be crafted to play into this evolution. In some ways, the designers of green/blue are much like the scientists whose work they are trying to recreate. When we make green/blue, we're improving upon the nature of Magic.
What's the Focus of This Color Pair?
The mechanical heart is what the set is built around. The focus is about how the color pair plans to win. Some colors have a wide divide between the mechanical heart and the focus. Not so much green/blue. Green/blue is going to make and evolve creatures. This ongoing change will ultimately lead to victory if the opponent does not stop it.
Green/blue's route to victory is a little more open-ended than other color combinations. Green/blue is going to make something that will grow and evolve and adapt. That thing might result in aggressive creatures, strange combos, twisted environments, or who knows what. The key is that green/blue will have the tools to fiddle with and create something which should ultimately lead somewhere, but that outcome isn't as known as most other color combinations.
The open-endedness of possibilities is the focus of green/blue. Things will happen. If left unchecked, those things will lead to victory. What exactly are those things? You'll know when green/blue figures it out.
In the original Ravnica block, the Simic were in the third set, Dissension. The Dissension design team was comprised of Aaron Forsythe (who was leading the design of his very first set), Mark Gottlieb, Brandon Bozzi (a member of the creative team), and myself. Because this was the final set in the block, a significant amount of creative work had been done. We knew going in Simic was going to have an Island of Dr. Moreau feel, so the team was interested in exploring a mechanic that felt like experimentation. The big question was, how exactly do we do that?
The first thing that became obvious was that the mechanic was going to play out on creatures—on the experiments themselves. We had talked about different cards that affected creatures but it felt like we were pulling focus away from what the Simic was about—the creations. The key, we decided, was to find a mechanic that showed off the mutations. To do this, we had to figure out how we mechanically represented mutation.
One week, Aaron gave us the homework to design a "mutation mechanic." It was Gottlieb, I believe, who came back with a mechanic he called mutato. Gottlieb's idea was to use +1/+1 counters to represent mutation, and the mutato ability would allow the creatures to spread their mutation to other creatures. The mutato creatures then had a second ability that allowed them to grant abilities to any creature that had been mutated by a mutato creature. We would soon change that requirement to just having a +1/+1 counter. That simplified the wording and also created a little backward compatibility, allowing the mechanic to interact with the many other Magic cards with +1/+1 counters.
The one other small change made was that the original mutato creatures all were base 1/1 creatures. We did this to separate them from the spikes from Tempest block, but development rightfully turned them all into creatures with a base 0/0. This made it easier to do the math on the creatures' power and toughness and removed them from the battlefield when they had been "used up."
Finding the abilities was actually pretty straightforward, as they mostly granted the creature abilities that green and blue had access to. The most controversial card was this:
This card was called Wall of Hats in design and the whole idea was that all it did was the basic graft part. To make the card even more odd, it could neither attack nor block. The card just handed out pretty hats to boost other creatures. There were a lot of discussions in R&D about whether this card made any sense in a vacuum. A creature that couldn't attack or block? What? By the way, the original version of Wall of Hats had defender and "CARDNAME cannot attack." In the end, we convinced the others that the card would play well and its quirkiness would tap into the feel of the Simic guild.
Graft was definitely one of those mechanics that took some people time to warm up to. It took playing with it for many players to start to get its play pattern, but once they did, graft was very popular with the Simic crowd. In fact, other than dredge, graft was my personal favorite mechanic of the Ravnica block.
For the Great Designer Search 2, I asked the finalists to build worlds for their own blocks and then pitch me both the worlds and the block structures. Ethan Fleischer came up with a world where each new set in the block would jump thousands of years in time. To make this work, Ethan started his world as far back as he could—prehistoric times. In my first notes on his block, I stressed that I felt the theme of his block was evolution. Thus, for his first design challenge, Ethan made a mechanic to represent evolution called, appropriately enough, evolve. (For the full story of evolution's creation, check out my column from the first week of Gatecrash previews.)
The thing I really like about the evolve mechanic is how it cares about things you already want to do. Magic design tends to thrive when it pushes players to focus on something they want to do anyway. Landfall, in Zendikar, for example, played into this space by making land drops important even past the time when they usually matter. We knew the Simic mechanic was going to revolve around its creatures (see the mechanical heart, above) so it was nice to have creatures that cared about the playing of other creatures. To maximize this, we did a few things:
Power/Toughness: Evolve cares about having creatures with larger power or toughness enter the battlefield. That means we had to make sure at least one of the attributes was low. How low? Of the eleven creatures in Gatecrash with evolve, three have a power of 0, seven have a power or toughness of 1, and one creature has a toughness of 2 (okay, multiple evolve creatures have a toughness of 2—one creature's lowest stat was a toughness of 2). All of them were designed to grow because, well, that's what evolve does. Remember that part of making an interesting mechanic is also setting up the cards that have it and the environment its played in to ensure that the mechanic has a high likelihood of happening. Additionally, to help the evolve creatures evolve one another, we made sure a number of the evolve creatures, mostly at common, had their other stat be higher than normal.
Abilities: Six of the evolve creatures in Gatecrash, all five commons and one uncommon, are French vanilla (meaning they have no rules text other than creature keywords). Five of those six have a creature keyword in addition to evolve. These abilities were chosen to work better as the creature grew.
Added Ability: The higher-rarity evolve creatures take advantage of evolve in an additional way. Fathom Mage triggers whenever it gets a +1/+1 counter. Others use the +1/+1 counters for additional effects. Still others use the number of +1/+1 counters to define how large an effect they can create. These cards are what we in R&D call "build-around cards" that encourage players to make decks with a new mechanic.
Environment: Another important part of making evolve matter isn't on the evolve creatures but on the cards that are played with them. Just as we were careful with the power and toughness of evolve creatures, so too were we aware of it in the rest of the set, especially in green and blue. Gatecrash also made a number of cards that care about +1/+1 counters. Some grant abilities to creatures with them, some move them around, and some allow you to turn those +1/+1 counters into another resource. In addition, there are cards that care about the highest power of creatures you control. Each of these cards has to matter unto itself, but they all combine together to create synergy and help give green/blue a strong Simic feel.
Like with graft, we worked very hard to allow evolve and the rest of the green and blue cards to get the feel that your creature were experiments with mutations. That you, as the Planeswalker, was changing them as the game progressed, making them better. You know, improving upon nature.
I'm very happy with how evolve turned out. It is my personal favorite keyword of the Return to Ravnica block.
That's what I have to say about the Simic. I'm curious to hear what you think about this guild. Feel free to email me, respond in the thread to this column, or contact me on any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+).
Join me next week when I talk about synergy.
Until then, may your experiments come along nicely.
Drive to Work #21—Innistrad, Part 3
Little did I know when I started out to do a podcast on Innistrad how many weeks it would last. Today is the third and final chapter in the saga of Innistrad design.