#537: Poll Position #1
I started a new feature on my Twitter where I polled the audience about various Magic design issues. This podcast goes over the issues I asked about and the feedback I received.
Posted in Making Magic on May 21, 2018
Hello everyone, and welcome to Battlebond Week. Normally during a preview week, I introduce the design team, talk about the design of the set, and show off a preview card. But I didn't work on Battlebond, and Gavin, who was the lead designer for the set, was interesting in introducing the design team and talking all about the design. So I decided that for my Battlebond column, I would venture off into a different direction and talk about one card from the set.
I've done columns about single cards only twice before. I did My Favorite Card Week, where talked all about the card Maro (the card named after me), and Akroma Week (a week dedicated to the legendary creature that won the very first Head-to-Head poll before it was a thing I did on my Twitter).
This card is obviously a reprint, as I didn't work on Battlebond. Recently, we had a talk in R&D about what card design each person would most want to be associated with. The card needed to be iconic and represent the person as a designer. Today's card is the card I picked for myself. Now, I've designed a lot of cards over the years, many of which are pretty iconic, but I didn't have to think twice about my answer (note that Maro is the card I'm most personally attached to, as it's associated with me, but this was asking for something slightly different). It turns out that this card is also in Battlebond, so I'm going to reveal the newest incarnation of the card and do a deep dive into how it came to be.
There are plenty of clues to figure out what this card is, but in case you don't know, or just want to see the cool new Battlebond art, click here.
Yes, I have chosen Doubling Season, a design near and dear to my heart. But how exactly did this card come to be? Today, I'm going in deep and telling you all about it.
Our story goes all the way back to Limited Edition (Alpha). The first time I played and purchased Magic was at a gaming convention in Los Angeles. Deciding that 20 bucks was about what I wanted to spend on a game, I bought a starter deck and three booster packs. When the game first came out, Magic was sold in two ways: a fifteen-card booster pack and a 60-card box called a starter deck. It had two rares (I got Stasis and Darkpact) and enough land that you could play it out of the box. It was all five colors, so it wasn't the best play experience. Anyway, my first Magic purchase was 105 cards plus a bunch of additional basic lands I was able to get at the convention.
Back then, Constructed decks were 40 cards. The 60-card Constructed deck minimum didn't happen until the DCI was formed early in 1994. I looked through my cards and decided to make a single-color deck. I chose green because I had this card.
Alpha was much stingier with higher-powered creatures at common. Craw Wurm was the only creature I got with a power greater than 3, so clearly it was the most broken card I'd opened. As I didn't have a lot of cards, all my green cards went into my deck. One of those cards was a little card called Berserk.
Here is the Alpha wording, complete with my very new-player thought process as I read the card:
Until end of turn, THIS EFFECT DOESN'T LAST VERY LONG. I HOPE IT'S GOOD.
target creature's current power doubles "DOUBLES"? DID IT SAY "DOUBLES"? IT DOES SAY "DOUBLES." WHAT IS DOUBLE SIX? IT'S TWELVE. I WIN WHEN I DO 20 DAMAGE, RIGHT? OH MY GOSH! OH MY GOSH! OH MY GOSH!
and it gains trample ability. TRAMPLE? WHAT'S THAT? I HAVE NO IDEA. SOUNDS COOL THOUGH.
If it attacks, I JUST DOUBLED THE CREATURE'S POWER. WHY IN THE WORLD WOULDN'T IT ATTACK?
target creature is destroyed at end of turn. IT WANTS ME TO KILL MY OWN CRAW WURM. WHY WOULD I DO THAT? THIS CARD SUCKS!
This spell cannot be cast after current turn's attack is completed. I HAVE NO IDEA WHAT THAT SENTENCE MEANS.
The card was confusing and it killed my Craw Wurm, so I didn't want to put it in my deck, but I wanted an all-green deck and I didn't have a lot of green cards, so it went in. I don't think I cast it the first few times I drew it, but finally I got to a game where doubling my creature's power and giving it trample won me the game. (I also had a War Mammoth, so I spent a bunch of time reading the rule book to figure out what trample did.) Then I liked it. I still only cast it when it could win me the game, but that was enough to make me start to come around on the card. I even started to figure out times to cast it when it didn't immediately win me the game.
Fast-forward to the summer of 1994. Legends had just been released and I was playing Magic on a regular basis. At the time, the concept of formats didn't exist yet. Limited wasn't really a thing, and there was only one Constructed format: what we would now call Vintage (aka all the cards). The DCI had formed and there was now a banned and restricted list, on which Berserk was restricted.
Thanks to cards like Legends' The Abyss, conventional wisdom was to not play creatures (although temporary creatures like Mishra's Factory were all the rage). A Johnny and a rebel, I loved bucking conventional wisdom, so I decided to make a competitive creature deck that won by doing 20 damage with creatures.
The idea I came up with was a deck that played cheap little creatures that it then aggressively pumped and killed you. Berserk was a key player in the deck, because it often allowed me to do 10-plus damage for a single green mana. I called it "Mark's Little Deck" because almost every creature in it was a one-drop (I played two Argothian Pixies main deck because of all the Mishra's Factorys).
Before I continue, a quick little puzzle. You go first, drawing seven cards. (The play/draw didn't actually exist yet, but you can solve the puzzle with a seven-card opening hand.) Assuming your opponent can't mess with you in any way (this is pre-Alliances and Force of Will), can you put together an opening hand that can win before the opponent takes their first turn?
Click here to see the answer.
While Berserk was initially the most influential Alpha card I opened, it's not the only Alpha card relevant to my story. This next part of our story is about two cards in Alpha that I lusted after for months. I saw each in the wild (this was back before the internet was in full swing and before most people had a graphical interface, so you tended to learn about new cards by actually seeing them being played by other people).
I tried trading for these two cards, but they were so popular that no one was willing to part with their copy. My only hope of owning one of them was opening it up in a booster pack. The two cards I'm talking about:
Really, these two cards? A couple points. One, as I said above, the internet as we know it was in its infancy, so information wasn't quite as fluid as it is today. Information was much more local than global, so each pocket of Magic players was forming its own opinions. Two, in the beginning everyone was a beginner. There were no experienced players or even any writing about the game to educate a new player. This meant early Magic created a lot of quirky demands based on what many players perceived as good cards. Take The Hive as an example. The Hive was the very first card to create a creature token, and it could make one every turn. Creature tokens were pretty cool and, in the early days, there was only one card, and a rare one, that made them. Yes, by modern standards, it's a pretty weak creature token maker, but back then, it was the best in the game.
Clockwork Beast was a creature that got counters, in its case +1/+0 counters, and it slowly wound down as you used it. Clockwork Beast was only one of four Alpha cards to use counters, and it was one of only two creatures. (The others were Cyclopean Tomb, Living Artifact, and Rock Hydra.) Clockwork Beast and The Hive were hot, and I remember the day I opened each in a booster pack. I'm pretty sure I danced when I opened The Hive.
The reason I bring this up was that I had an affinity for counters and tokens from the very beginning. A lot of my early favorites (like Khabal Ghoul and Unstable Mutation from Arabian Nights and Triskelion and Tetravus from Antiquities) made use of counters and/or tokens.
By early 1994, I was designing my own Magic cards, and I found myself again and again being drawn to counters and tokens.
Legends led me to my first major tournament deck, but it's also important to our story for a card that came out in it. Two cards, actually. These two cards:
Pit Scorpion and Serpent Generator introduced a brand-new way to win at Magic, and they did so by giving a different kind of counter to the opponent: a poison counter. I was instantly enamored. I was a Johnny who loved winning through crazy means, so a new win condition was right up my alley. When I started working at Wizards, I was determined to make poison a bigger part of the game. It took a while, but I finally succeeded. (You can read the full story here.) Poison also had another important impact; it expanded how I thought about counters and opened up new ideas for how to use them in designs.
Now we fast-forward to November of 1994 and the release of Fallen Empires. At this point, I was freelancing for Wizards and they brought me up to the Renton office for the first time. I remember Kathryn Haines, editor-in-chief of the Duelist (Wizards' magazine dedicated to Magic), showing off a sheet of counters and tokens for Fallen Empires that was going to be included with the next issue. My first thought at seeing the sheet was pure excitement given my love of counters and tokens.
The deck I built from that era was a mono-green Saproling/Fungus deck making use of the Thallids from Fallen Empires. The Fungus creatures both used counters and generated tokens. You would build up spore counters, and every third turn, you got to generate an effect, often creating a green 1/1 Saproling creature token.
A year later, I was working full-time at Wizards. A year after that, I'd convinced the Powers That Be to let me lead design on my own expansion, that set obviously being Tempest. I was very liberal with my use of counters and tokens. Tempest uses +1/+1 counters, -1/-1 counters, bounty counters, scream counters, delay counters, elixir counters, treasure counters, magnet counters, and pain counters. I even designed an entire mechanic around +1/+1 counters (the "Spike" mechanic, which mostly got pushed off until Stronghold). The design also had a strong poison theme, which ended up getting cut in development.
As for tokens, Tempest made 1/1 white flying Spirit tokens and Pegasus tokens, 1/1 green Hound tokens, 1/1 green Saproling tokens, 2/2 black Zombie tokens, 2/2 white Reflection tokens, and 3/1 red Beast tokens. The design had even more than that, but development scaled them down a bit.
Tempest also allowed me to revisit another popular theme of mine: doubling. We were trying to make a splashy rare red enchantment, and I came up with a clean and simple answer—doubling all damage.
I finally got my chance to make my own set, and I filled it with all the themes I enjoyed. This pattern followed through all my other designs. I started getting a reputation as a designer that liked counters and tokens and doubling things.
Our story now jumps ahead to 2003 and original Ravnica. The idea behind the block was that it was another traditional multicolored block, with its main goal being "feel different from Invasion block" (the previous traditional multicolor block). Since Invasion was about playing as many colors as you could, I decided to make Ravnica about playing as few colors as possible. As it's a multicolor block, that means playing with two colors. I also decided to approach all ten two-color pairs as equal. While this might seem like a normal thing to do, at the time, we treated ally and enemy combinations quite differently, playing into the idea that ally colors should work better together.
This idea led Brady Dommermuth to come up with the concept of guilds within a city world. I took an instant liking to the guilds and chose to build the block around them, coming up with the 4/3/3 plan where each set only had certain guilds in it. Ravnica, the large set, had four factions—Boros (red/white), Dimir (blue/black), Selesnya (green/white), and Golgari (black/green). To help differentiate the guilds, I made sure that each color that overlapped two guilds had a color identity for each.
Green was part of two guilds, Selesnya and Golgari. For the Selesnya side, I decided to play into a go-wide strategy where green made a lot of creature tokens. (Note that in the modern day we tend to make white the best at making small creature tokens while allowing green to make bigger creature tokens, but back in 2003, green was best at all creature token making.) For the Golgari side, I decided to play into a go-tall strategy where things got stronger over time, with green putting a lot of +1/+1 counters on its creatures.
Also important to this story, whenever I designed a monocolor card in Ravnica, I made sure that it worked in one of the two guilds associated with it. Whenever possible, I tried to have the card be relevant in both guilds. This was more important on lower-rarity cards that I wanted to serve multiple purposes in Draft, but I carried the philosophy up to the rares (remember, mythic rare wasn't a thing yet).
I was looking for a splashy mono-green rare that could work with either Selesnya or Golgari, or ideally both. I asked myself something I often ask when doing a splashy design: Is there anything I could double? It hit me that doubling the tokens would be cool. I was reminded of a card I designed in Torment called Parallel Evolution.
Parallel Evolution copied all your creature tokens. That was a cool card. Was there a way to double creature tokens in a different way? I was then reminded of a different card I designed, Dual Nature from the set Prophecy.
Dual Nature tried a different approach, where it copied all your nontoken creatures as they entered the battlefield. Hmm, what if I applied the same technology used in Dual Nature but had it apply only to token creatures? The problem was, if I had it trigger when the creature entered the battlefield, each new creature token would retrigger, creating infinite creature tokens. Dual Nature only affected nontoken creatures to avoid exactly this problem.
Okay, what if instead of triggering on the creature tokens entering the battlefield, it triggered off the effect that made the tokens? What if I made it a replacement effect? I checked with the Rules Manager and learned that we could do it. Ooh, an enchantment that doubled all creature tokens. Selesnya would really like that.
Was there a way to make Golgari like it too? Golgari did a bunch of sacrificing, so extra creature tokens were relevant. It would be even more relevant, though, if it copied counters as well. I believe I first referenced +1/+1 counters, as those are the kind that matter most to Golgari, but soon realized it would be cooler to just double all counters.
I was really excited by this design. I called it Doubling Season. I joked that it was an enchantment you could play with any Rosewater-led expansion. I talk a lot about how designers have to design for all sorts of different players. One of the best things about designing Magic sets is that, from time to time, you get to make cards that you really want, to play and Doubling Season was as a Rosewater card as it got.
When design handed off to development, I went and talked to Brian Schneider, the lead developer of the set. I told him that Doubling Season was my favorite design, and could he please leave it in the set? There's a lot of card flux in development, so I'd often champion a single card I wanted to see get to print. No one on the development team was as much a fan of the card as I was, but everyone saw that it was synergistic and knew how much I wanted it in, so Doubling Season stayed in for all of development. The creative team even let it keep its name.
Eventually Ravnica came out, and Doubling Season was an instant hit. Not only was it powerful, but it turned out that my love of counters, tokens, and doubling was shared by a lot of players. I tried reprinting Doubling Season in Zendikar, but it turned out to be developmentally problematic with planeswalkers, which didn't exist when it was first printed. That meant that any future reprints would be in non-Standard-legal sets . . . sets like Battlebond.
And that is how just one card in Battlebond came to be. Hopefully, you've enjoyed my deep dive into the design of a single card and perhaps have learned a little more about some of my biggest influences as a Magic player and designer. As always, I'm eager to hear your feedback on today's column—about both Doubling Season and spending the whole column on a single design. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).
Join me next week when I continue answering your questions about Dominaria.
Until then, may you know the joy of doubling things in Magic.
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