Dinosaurs and Vampires and Pirates (and Merfolk), Oh My, Part 2

Posted in Making Magic on October 2, 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.

Last week I started telling Ixalan card-by-card design stories. I got up through J, so there are more stories to be told.

Kinjalli's Caller and Otepec Huntmaster

While we have some smaller Dinosaurs, as a tribe they ended up a bit more expensive on average than the other tribes. This wasn't a problem for green as it's a color that naturally ramps. Green normally has more expensive creatures to cast. The key was to find ways to help white and red. After trying a bunch of different things, the development team ended up with Dinosaur cost reduction. There was some discussion, as neither white nor red normally does this kind of thing (red's mana acceleration is one-shot and white's is mostly non-existent), but playtesting showed that nothing else they tried worked as effectively. There was much discussion, but in the end we decided if it was very narrow as to not let the colors do this broadly (i.e., only for Dinosaurs), it would be okay.


Kopala, Warden of Waves

One of the discussions we had when creating this set was trying to make sure that each of the tribes had their own feel to them. It's a very easy trap to do basic things that make all the tribes function similarly. Kopala is a good example of a tribal card that works in a different space. He's one of the leaders of the Merfolk, and his job is not making the Merfolk better but rather protecting them. When he's in play, your Merfolk deck improves not because it's stronger on offense, but rather because it becomes more defensive and harder to deal with. I enjoy that the Merfolk are more about being troublesome to handle than being overly powerful.


Legion's Landing/Adanto, the First Fort

Here's white's part of the double-faced land cycle.

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 – How do you find the land you're searching for? Manpower. Put together a searching party and with enough people, you'll eventually find it. The card obviously plays into white's traditional go-wide strategy of attacking with a lot of small creatures.

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

Kjeldoran Outpost was a very powerful and popular land in the early days of Magic. The one tweak is the 1/1 white creature tokens have lifelink (and are Vampires), so it costs one more to activate.

A thematic connection, through flavor and gameplay, between the two sides – Both sides create 1/1 white Vampires with lifelink, allowing this to go in a deck that cares about Vampires, creatures, tokens, life gain, or any go-wide strategy.


Primal Amulet/Primal Wellspring

How did this card meet its requirements?

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

A flavorful and fun exploration-themed hoop to jump through – For much of the design, the Merfolk were tied to noncreature spells. For example, as I explained in my preview articles, prowess spent time as a Merfolk-only thing. This artifact is a remnant of that early theme. Flavorfully, the idea is the artifact has some property that allows you to find where it originally came from.

An exciting and flavorful land – This is another original land design. How do you make a land thematically connect to instants and sorceries? What if the mana it produces helps you copy them.

A thematic connection, through flavor and gameplay, between the two sides – Both sides of this card heavily encourage a strong instant and sorcery theme for your deck. The things you need to do to jump through the hoop are the same things you get rewarded for by the land.


Search for Azcanta/Azcanta, the Sunken Ruins

This is blue's part of the cycle.

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

A flavorful and fun exploration-themed hoop to jump through – How do you find a lost land? A lot of searching. This card provides a hoop that the card alone will get you to eventually, but it encourages you to put it in a deck that will speed the process along.

An exciting and flavorful land – This is another original design. It helps you seek out noncreature, nonland cards from your library.

A thematic connection, through flavor and gameplay, between the two sides – These two cards have more of a thematic connection than a mechanical one. Both cards allow you to search your library, and hopefully you could use that to build around.


Shining Aerosaur

Now we get to the real controversy of Ixalan—flying Dinosaurs! Pterosaurs are from the time of the dinosaurs, they fly and they look pretty dinosaur-ish, but technically from a scientific standpoint, they aren't dinosaurs. According to Wikipedia, "the term 'dinosaur' is restricted to just those [sauropsids] descended from the last common ancestor of the groups Saurischia and Ornithischia (clade Dinosauria, which includes birds), and current scientific consensus is that this group excludes the pterosaurs."

One of the things we liked about putting Dinosaurs in white is that it would allow us to get a full range of flying Dinosaurs. From a gameplay perspective, evasion is important and red and green are traditionally bad at flying (with red having the Dragon/Phoenix exception). It was pointed out very early on when we made flying Dinosaurs that labeling them Dinosaurs was scientifically inaccurate.

We had two problems:

  1. Making the flying "Dinosaurs" something other than Dinosaurs hurt the gameplay. Tribal play revolves around the creatures in your deck all being the same creature type, so taking away the creature type limits options for the tribe.
  2. Most people think of things like pterosaurs as dinosaurs. Before the Wikipedia article states that they aren't dinosaurs, it claims "pterosaurs are often referred to in the popular media and by the general public as 'flying dinosaurs.'" This means that if we made them something other than Dinosaurs, we'd get a lot of complaints because the majority of people believe they are Dinosaurs.

So we were in a rough spot. Call them Dinosaurs and we get complaints for being scientifically inaccurate, or don't call them Dinosaurs and we upset an even larger share of the audience and hurt the gameplay.

The telltale sign of what decision we'd make could be seen in the card Shipbreaker Kraken in Theros. Krakens aren't from Greek mythology, but due to their presence in the movie Clash of the Titans ("Release the kraken!"), many people assume they are.

In the end, we sided with the better gameplay and public perception, knowing that we'd take a hit from the scientific fans. The way I like to think of it is maybe the science on Ixalan is just a little different than here on Earth.

And that is why we have flying Dinosaurs.


Star of Extinction

Longtime readers/listeners of my work know that I don't like red's direct damage getting too big as it crosses over into "destroy target creature," which is black's domain (and in this case "destroy target planeswalker," which is also in black's domain). So what's going on with this card?

For starters, it's dripping with flavor. We were looking for cool top-down Dinosaur designs, and a meteor that destroys all the Dinosaurs was pretty neat. The question I then needed to ask was whether the card is a bend (doing something the color normally doesn't do but not undercutting its inherent weakness) or a break (doing something the color isn't supposed to do and weakening the divide created by the color pie).

We do let red do large amounts of damage, provided red pays for it. For instance, red gets X spells that can essentially kill any creature or player as long as you have enough mana, and the card is seven mana to cast, so it's not something that can be done before the late game. Also killing creatures and planeswalkers is not a weakness for red, it's not something it's supposed to be unable to do, so we called this a bend rather than a break.


Thaumatic Compass/Spires of Orazca

A tie to one of the four tribes – This card is the one not tied to any faction but rather to Jace, whose hand can be seen holding it and who is quoted in the flavor text. (This card is one of the story spotlights.)

A flavorful and fun exploration-themed hoop to jump through – The Compass appropriately enough helps you find land. The hoop you then have to jump through is having enough land, something you'll get to eventually but can build around to speed it up.

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

I'll be honest. I'm not a huge fan of Maze of Ith, but it works much better when you play it mid to late game rather than turn one.

A thematic connection, through flavor and gameplay, between the two sides – This card was working hard to convey a story point, so it isn't as mechanically connected as some of the others. On the plus side, getting land and stopping creatures are both very universal effects that most decks can use.


Tishana, Voice of Thunder

We didn't do hybrid mana in Ixlan, but I believe if we had, this card could have used green-blue hybrid mana. It has three abilities. The first ability is what R&D calls the "Maro ability" first seen on the card Maro in Mirage: power and toughness is equal to the number of cards in your hand. (Variants can care about cards in other players' hands or all hands.)

The second ability, no maximum hand size, was first seen on Library of Leng in Limited Edition (Alpha). It has shown up most often on artifacts but has been used on blue, black, and green cards. The third ability is a card-drawing ability, but one tied to creatures—something both green and blue can do.

The three abilities combine together nicely and create a fun green-blue legendary creature for your Merfolk decks.


Treasure Map/Treasure Cove

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

A flavorful and fun exploration-themed hoop to jump through – The idea of a treasure map was one of the earliest ideas we had for the double-faced cards. We were playing with Pirate tropes, so we knew we wanted a treasure map somewhere. The card's hoop is mostly a time and mana sink.

An exciting and flavorful land – This land is another original design. It started as a top-down design called Treasure Island. We changed it to Treasure Cove because we were afraid "Island" in the name would convey it tapped for blue mana. This is also the one double-faced card that triggers an effect when it transforms.

A thematic connection, through flavor and gameplay, between the two sides – The front side helps you set up your deck and the back side helps you draw it. This card was designed to be played in a deck that would produce Treasure through other means, most likely a Pirate-themed deck.


Vance's Blasting Cannons/Spitfire Bastion

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

A flavorful and fun exploration-themed hoop to jump through – Another way to find a lost land: just try a lot of different things. This card ties red's impulsive draw with the goal of playing three spells a turn.

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

Valakut had its own hoop to jump through, but has the same effect.

A thematic connection, through flavor and gameplay, between the two sides – These two cards are connected by the fact that the front encourages you to play a cheap, aggressive deck and the back gives you a finisher card, so although they're not tied mechanically they are synergistic with a common red strategy.


Vona, Butcher of Magan

The goal of Vona was a simple one. She was designed as a legendary creature to build your white-black Vampire deck around. To do this, we decided to emphasize one thing. The vampire deck is good at gaining life; Vona needed to be good at spending life. Yes, she's 4/4 and has lifelink and vigilance, so she also can also get you life, but what's special about her is that she allows you to use your excess life in a powerful way.

It turns out that no single color gets "destroy target permanent." Two two-color combinations are allowed to have it: black-green and white-black. What if you could use Vona to destroy any card that got in your way? Well, almost any card. We decided to prevent her from destroying lands, as we prefer to let players have their resources to play their cards. The only thing left was to figure out how much destroying a nonland permanent should cost. After some testing, we ended up at 7 life.


Vraska, Relic Seeker

The goal of this design was simple: be pirate Vraska. Okay, what exactly did that mean? It means we had to pick abilities that felt Vraska-y while at the same time feeling Pirate-y. The original Vraska made black Assassin tokens. Well, what are Pirates if not black Assassins, kind of? So, her first ability, the only positive loyalty one, makes 2/2 black Pirate creature tokens with menace. We chose those as that was the Pirate creature token already in the set.

Next, Vraska likes destroying things. Her original planeswalker card could destroy any nonland permanent. Could we tweak that? Okay, what if she could kill any artifact, creature, or enchantment while also stealing from it. That's expressed through the making of a Treasure token. The final loyalty ability captured her Gorgon gaze. What if her ultimate let her use it on your opponent? We don't like winning the game outright, so it just reduces the opponent to 1 life.

And that is Pirate Vraska.


Walk the Plank

In Alpha, Richard Garfield made this card:

Terror was a top-down spell representing the Planeswalker using fear as a weapon. You literally scared a creature to death. Richard used "nonblack" and "nonartifact" on the card solely for flavor. Other black creatures don't scare easily, nor do artifact creatures as they most often don't have emotions. As Terror was the only straight creature destruction card (that is, said "destroy target creature") R&D took the card as a precedent and for a while both "nonblack" and "nonartifact" remained on creature destruction spells. Eventually we stopped using the "nonartifact" rider, but the "nonblack" stuck around for many years.

Finally, we had an R&D meeting where we discussed the topic. Why won't black kill black creatures? It made sense on Terror, but it seemed odd, as philosophically black has no qualms with killing anyone, including fellow black creatures. Also, the "nonblack" rider was pulling down the quality of black's ability to kill, and black was supposed to be the best color at it. It was brought up in that meeting that black having limitations with its kill often led to interesting gameplay, so we decided to allow ourselves to drop "nonblack" as a requirement but that we would often have riders to help tweak gameplay, especially in Limited.

Flash forward a decade or so. One of my concerns in early Ixalan design was that I felt we weren't making enough top-down Pirate and Dinosaur cards. I've learned over the years that if I want something from my design team, it often helps to make an example, so I set out to create a top-down Pirate card. What was a good Pirate trope or expression? How about "Walk the Plank"? Nothing gets more Pirate-y than that. Okay, what would Walk the Plank do? It was a technique used by Pirates to kill people, so a kill spell made sense, but just "Destroy target creature" didn't seem flavorful enough. Was there a rider I could use to add flavor? That's when I realized that one of our tribes, Merfolk, lived in the water. Obviously making them Walk the Plank wouldn't mean anything. I added "non-Merfolk" to the ability and I had what I wanted: a clean but flavorful top-down spell.

Walk the Plank was added to the file the next day and inspired a number of other top-down Pirate spells. The development team played around with the cost, but the rules text was never touched for the rest of design and development.

Putting the Cards Away

And that's all the stories I have for today. I hope you enjoyed them. As always, I'm eager to hear your feedback both on today's column and on the cards I talked about. You can email me your feedback or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week when I answer your questions about Ixalan.

Until then, may you find the tribe that speaks to you.


 
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