Dinosaurs and Vampires and Pirates (and Merfolk), Oh My, Part 1

Posted in Making Magic on September 25, 2017

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.

As the Ixalan preview weeks are over, it's time to start the card-by-card design stories. I have a lot of stories to tell, so let's get started.

Admiral Beckett Brass

The reason behind creating two three-color factions wasn't because we expected players to play all three colors, especially in Limited, but rather because it allowed us to offer up numerous one- and two-color options. If you wanted to play Pirates, for example, you could play mono-blue, mono-black, mono-red, blue-black, black-red, or blue-red. But we knew two things: one, some players were going to want to put all their favorite Pirates in a deck together and they'd want at least one card that encouraged that, and two, Commander players were going to want a legendary creature that captured all the colors of the tribe. So, for both Pirates and Dinosaurs (I'll get to Dinos later) we made a mythic rare three-color legendary creature with strong tribal properties. Mythic rare was chosen because we didn't want three-color being something players felt forced to do too often in Limited.

For Pirates, we wanted a creature that heavily encouraged playing a lot of Pirates, but also encouraged Pirate-y behavior. For starters, we made it a lord, meaning it boosts all your Pirates (well, all your other Pirates—we use that template to make math simpler) by giving them +1/+1. The second ability is a stealing ability (because Pirates are known to steal things) that requires you to attack with a lot of Pirates. We liked the idea that it represented your band of Pirates plundering another ship (as you can see in the art). We felt the whole package would combine to make a Pirate deck that felt extra Pirate-y.

Arcane Adaptation

I like to pick on Homelands, but it actually was the first set to have a card where you got to select a creature type. The card was called An-Zerrin Ruins, and it was a red enchantment that didn't let the chosen creature type untap. Limited Edition (Alpha) had a card called Smoke that limited how many creatures could untap, so for a small time, not untapping was partially a red thing. Mercadian Masques had a card called Caller of the Hunt, which was the first card to do something beneficial in this space—Caller of the Hunt's power and toughness were equal to the number of creatures of the chosen type on the battlefield.

Apocalypse had the blue enchantment called Unnatural Selection, which was the first card to let you change the creature type of other creatures into whatever you chose. Conspiracy, a black enchantment from Mercadian Masques, was the first card to change all your creature cards into the creature type of your choice, and not just the ones on the battlefield but in other zones as well. Standardize, a blue enchantment in Onslaught, brought the ability back to blue but only affected your creatures on the battlefield. New Phyrexia would bring back this effect with Xenograft, a blue enchantment, which was more expensive than Standardize and added the chosen creature type rather than having it replace the existing creature type(s).

Arcane Adaption is the first blue version that mimics Conspiracy in that it changes not just creatures on the battlefield but also spells and cards in the graveyard.

Arguel's Blood Fast/Temple of Aclazotz

Designing the double-faced cards was tricky. Here's what each one required:

  • A tie to one of the four tribesIxalan was a tribal set with four factions. We made sure each of the colored cards tied to a faction and most of the artifacts. I'll talk about each of them as I get there.
  • A flavorful and fun exploration-themed hoop to jump through – These cards represent you searching for a far-off secret land. We needed them to capture a top-down feel while also promoting a game state that would be fun to try to create.
  • An exciting and flavorful land – To get players to jump through hoops, you must offer them a good prize. The lands on the backside had to be something that would inspire players to jump through the hoop to get them.
  • A thematic connection, through flavor and gameplay, between the two sides – The front and the back had to feel connected and cohesive. They needed to tell a story and also offer an effect on both sides that you would want in the same deck.

So let's walk through how this card did each of these:

A tie to one of the four tribes – This card is tied to the Vampires.

A flavorful and fun exploration-themed hoop to jump through – The Vampires belong to a religious order. One of their beliefs is that starving themselves (of blood, as they're Vampires) leads to having visions. This card shows the Vampires finding a new land through the act of this blood fast.

An exciting and flavorful land – One of the things we did when creating the backside lands was to look through Magic's history to see if we could find exciting lands as inspiration. Temple of Aclazotz was inspired by this card from Arabian Nights:

Diamond Valley was not originally tied to black, but it has a pretty black feel about it, as black is the color most associated with sacrifice. To tie Temple of Aclazotz to black, it was given the ability to tap for black mana. Diamond Valley didn't tap for mana at all. (Richard Garfield was experimenting with land design in Arabian Nights. We later made a rule that lands have to either provide mana or allow you access to things that can.) We did look through numerous black-affiliated lands, but Diamond Valley served the card best.

A thematic connection, through flavor and gameplay, between the two sides – The land on the back allows you to gain life. This made the hoop of having to get low on life synergize the two sides. Also, fasts are associated with weakness, so losing life was flavorful. We added in card drawing, partly because drawing cards for life is a black thing and partly because it played into the theme of information through visions.

Boneyard Parley

One of the fun things to do in design is what I call "blind date." That's when you take two cards and try and see if you can combine them to make a cool new card. Now, this doesn't always lead to great designs. In fact, most of the time it doesn't lead to great designs—but every once in a while it does. Boneyard Parley is one such card.

"Hey Zombify, have I got the card for you. She was very popular in her day."

"Hey Fact or Fiction, I hear you like tall, dark, and handsome. Well, I got you two out of three."

They hit it off and combined into a cool new card.

Conqueror's Galleon/Conqueror's Foothold

Here's another double-sided card. Let's talk about how it was put together.

A tie to one of the four tribes – The "conquerors" are the Vampires.

A flavorful and fun exploration-themed hoop to jump through – One of the earliest flavors for lands we played around with was a Pirate's hideout. It was a Pirate trope that we felt we could put a fun spin on. As we played around with different flavors, we started to realize that Pirates had more tropes that led to double-faced cards, so we repurposed the land and made it place where the Vampires congregated. The flavor was pretty straightforward; the Vampires are looking to set up a home in a foreign land, and they dismantle their ship to establish a new base.

An exciting and flavorful land – Most of the lands were inspired by famous old lands, but this one is more of an original creation. It has three different ways to get cards. The cheapest activation lets you get a new card but at the cost of discarding a card. The second one lets you just draw a card. And the third lets you pick what you want but restricts you to your graveyard. The flavor here is that the Vampires can study and learn about the new world as they rest in their foothold.

A thematic connection, through flavor and gameplay, between the two sides – This connection is far more flavor than mechanics. Card drawing is generally useful, so the two sides play fine together, but they don't have the mechanical synergy seen on most of the other double-faced cards.

Dire Fleet Ravager

Dire Fleet Ravager is the fifth card in the history of Magic to have the word "third" in its rules text. All of them are mono-black. How many can you name?

The easiest one to guess is Pox. It first appeared in Ice Age and then was reprinted in Fifth Edition. It makes each player loses a third of their life.

Next easiest to guess is Incremental Blight from Shadowmoor. It was reprinted in the first Planechase and the first Archenemy. It puts one -1/-1 counter on a creature, two on a second creature, and three on a third creature.

The next easiest to guess is Lost Hours from Future Sight. The opponent reveals their hand, you choose a nonland card from it and put it into their library third from the top.

The trickiest is Regicide from Conspiracy: Take the Crown. When you draft it, the player to your right picks a color, then you choose a second color, and then the player to your left picks a third color. You can then destroy a creature that's one or more of the chosen colors.

Dowsing Dagger/Lost Vale

A tie to one of the four tribes – This card is loosely tied to the Pirates, as they're the ones most connected to Equipment.

A flavorful and fun exploration-themed hoop to jump through – This card is the most darling of the double-faced designs. To find the lost land, you have to hack through the vegetation. This is accomplished by giving the opponent two 0/2 green plant creature tokens they can use to slow you down.

An exciting and flavorful land – This land is inspired by a land from Weatherlight:

Interestingly, Lotus Vale is itself a riff off Black Lotus, the most iconic card in Magic. Gaea's Cradle was the first land we built a double-faced land around, but Lotus Vale was the second.

A thematic connection, through flavor and gameplay, between the two sides – This card tells a charming story, but the two sides aren't particularly connected mechanically. Luckily, providing mana works in most decks, so it's not hard to build around.

Field of Ruin

The set Antiquities had a strong artifact theme. By strong, I meant the word "artifact" appeared on almost every card in the set. The one card it didn't appear on was Strip Mine, a land that tapped for colorless or could be tapped and sacrificed to destroy a land. The card proved to be very powerful and incredibly unfun, so it was eventually banned. In Tempest, I attempted to make a fixed Strip Mine called Wasteland. It was the same card except it could only destroy a nonbasic land. It too was broken and eventually banned.

My next attempt to make a fixed Strip Mine was the card Dust Bowl in Mercadian Masques. It required three mana and the sacrifice of a land (not necessarily itself—a mistake) to destroy a land. It wasn't quite as bad as Strip Mine or Wasteland, but it was still unfun. In Dissension, I tried yet again. (I'm a stubborn man, if that wasn't clear yet.) Ghost Quarter was Strip Mine but with one rider: the controller of the destroyed land was allowed to go through their library, find a basic land, and put it onto the battlefield. The idea was that the card would be good at destroying utility lands but didn't disrupt the opponent's mana base. This one worked.

So when the Ixalan team was trying to find a land to help deal with all the powerful lands in the set (mostly the backsides of the double-faced cards), they made a Ghost Quarter variant. The difference is it costs two mana to use the ability, but all players get to search for a basic land out of their deck.

Gishath, Sun's Avatar

I explained earlier our desire to have a mythic rare legendary creature for our two three-color tribes. Gishath, Sun's Avatar is the Dinosaur one. We knew we wanted something T-rex-y for our Dinosaur lord. That meant it had to be pretty big and want to attack.

The first thing we did was give it three keywords. It originally had trample (as that's red-green), vigilance (as that's green-white), and first strike (as that's red-white), but the first strike was a little too much. It was impossible to kill in combat. We then pulled back and gave it three keywords, each primary in one of the three colors: trample (green), vigilance (white), and haste (red).

Next was we wanted an ability that encouraged aggression but also had some kind of Dinosaur tribal tie. We experimented with an attack trigger than boosted other Dinosaurs, but it was hard to set up and didn't feel mythic rare enough. We then stumbled upon the idea of it having a combat damage trigger based on how much damage it did, which would make the trample serve an extra purpose. The question though was how to make a tribal combat damage trigger.

We explored with different ways to boost Dinosaurs, but it just wasn't happening enough. What if the trigger made Dinosaurs? We tried Dinosaur token making, but that wasn't sexy enough. What if you could put Dinosaurs off of the top of your deck onto the battlefield? Now that sounded cool! Finally, we had our Dinosaur leader.

Growing Rites of Itlimoc/Itlimoc, Crade of the Sun

A tie to one of the four tribes – This card is tied to the Dinosaurs.

A flavorful and fun exploration-themed hoop to jump through – How do you find a lost land? Follow the creatures. This card is creature-centric, both helping you to get creatures and requiring you to have creatures.

An exciting and flavorful land – This land is inspired by a land from Urza's Saga:

Gaea's Cradle comes from Urza's Saga, the most broken expansion in Magic's history. One of the cool things about the double-faced cards in Ixalan is that they let us create lands that are too powerful to make normally. I believe the very first card we made to demonstrate what the double-faced cards could be had Gaea's Cradle on the back. It's just a very cool card.

A thematic connection, through flavor and gameplay, between the two sides – The two sides are very synergistic. The front side helps you find creatures and rewards you for playing them. Then the back side rewards you for having them on the battlefield. It's a pretty tight little package of a card.

Huatli, Warrior Poet

Large sets traditionally have three planeswalkers in them. Jace and Vraska both play a large role in the story, so we knew each of them was going to get a card, Jace in mono-blue and Vraska in black-green. That meant we had a planeswalker slot left over.

We knew four things about this planeswalker:

  1. It ideally wanted to be in red and white, as that would color balance the planeswalkers.
  2. We were interested in her being female, as we've been trying to gender balance our Planeswalkers and, due to an abundance of early male Planeswalkers, we've been making more of our newer Planeswalkers female.
  3. We wanted her to be a native of Ixalan. Both Jace and Vraska are outsiders, and we wanted at least one of the planeswalkers in the set to be from the plane.
  4. We wanted her to be connected to one of the factions. Being red and white meant that was going to be the Dinosaurs. Since many have asked, we like our Planeswalkers on the more intelligent end of the spectrum, so no, she couldn't be a Dinosaur.

I believe the first ability made was a Dinosaur-making ability. The Dinosaur token in the set was a green 3/3 with trample, so we used that. It was made a 0 ability so it didn't make her loyalty go up or down. Next came the -X ultimate that allowed her to do direct damage to creatures spread around as she chose. The "can't block" block rider was added because it was flavorful and worked as a finisher to get creatures through. Neither of those abilities leaned toward white (white makes tokens but usually smaller ones), so the plus ability needed to be a white one. What would play well with Dinosaurs yet be very white? How about life gain tied to creature power? Dinosaurs tend to be big, and in the worst-case scenario, you could make a 3/3 Dinosaur token first.

And that is how our Dinosaur-loving planeswalker came to be.

Jace, Cunning Castaway

Jace's power suite is mind magic. Part of that is messing with memories and reading thoughts, but another important part is illusion. Over the years, I've made numerous Illusion Jace designs, but for different reasons, they never saw print. Well, in the story Jace gets amnesia (again—if only he knew how often it happened) and forgets the mind-reading part of his powers (it was key to the story that Jace was left in the dark about a number of things). This means that in Ixalan, he's only using his illusion powers. So finally it was time for an Illusion Jace design. Unfortunately for me, this was all figured out in development, so I didn't get a chance to use any of my old designs.

I believe the first thing designed was his ultimate. What's the first trick an illusionist learns for combat? Making copies of themselves in battle. Then came the illusion creature tokens making use of the "illusion ability" where the creature gets sacrificed if targeted by a spell. The second and third abilities needed to be negative abilities, so Jace was given a looting ability as his positive loyalty ability, but it was tied to combat damage to allow it to interact into the second ability.

Jace Basic Land Cycle

  • 435438
  • 435434
  • 435422
  • 435430
  • 435426

At the end of Hour of Devastation, Jace has a mental battle with Nicol Bolas and loses badly. He instinctively planeswalked away, but ended up losing his memory. He ended up on Ixalan, but due to some force on the plane, he's unable to planeswalk away. That meant for the beginning of the story, we see memory-less Jace wandering around the wilds of Ixalan. The creative team realized that was a cool opportunity and jumped on it.

In one cycle of the basic lands (there are four of each basic land in Ixalan), we see Jace walking around. He's not prominent in most of the illustrations, but if you look for him you can find him. I'm curious what you all think of us sneaking a little story into the basic lands.

The Cards Have Been Dealt

That's all the time I have for today. I hope you've enjoyed the stories. As always, I would love your input about today's column or any of the cards I talked about, either by sending me an email or by contacting me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week for part two of my card-by-card stories.

Until then, may you make some Ixalan stories of your very own.

#472: 20 Lessons: Designing Components
#472: 20 Lessons: Designing Components


This is the fifteenth podcast in my 20-podcast series "20 Years, 20 Lessons." In this podcast, I talk about the importance of designing a component for the audience it's intended for.

#473: Gavin Verhey
#473: Gavin Verhey

For the first time ever, I have a guest who isn't in the car with me. Thanks to new technology, I now have the ability to have a guest phone in. Gavin Verhey of Magic R&D tests out this new technology with me.

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