Dungeon Tales, Part 2

Posted in Making Magic on July 26, 2021

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 sharing the early designs of some of the legendary cards from Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. This week I continue sharing more.

The Tarrasque

The Tarrasque is a giant creature 50 feet high and 70 feet long that weighs hundreds of tons. It's native to the Prime Material plane and is one of the nastiest creatures in the Monster Manual.

The Tarrasque (version #1)
Legendary Creature — Dinosaur
CARDNAME costs {oX} less to cast, where X is the highest level among permanents you control. (A card that costs 10GGG is level 13.)

The first version of The Tarrasque was made a 17/17 because Magic has an ongoing game where we keep making creatures +1/+1 bigger from the last "biggest creature" we've made. Magic's first "biggest creature" was Force of Nature in Alpha (8/8), then Colossus of Sardia in Antiquities (9/9), then Leviathan from The Dark (10/10), then Polar Kraken from Ice Age (11/11), then Phyrexian Dreadnought from Mirage (12/12), then Krosan Cloudscraper from Legions (13/13), then Worldspine Wurm from Return to Ravnica (15/15), and finally Impervious Greatwurm from Guilds of Ravnica (16/16). (And yes, we have made B.F.M. in Unglued (99/99) and the Marit Lage token in Coldsnap (20/20).)

It was made with cost reduction to allow you to get it out faster based on what other expensive creatures you have on the battlefield. As I mentioned last week, the design team was experimenting with "level" being a replacement term for "mana value" (they were technically replacing "converted mana cost," which itself had been replaced by "mana value" with the release of Strixhaven: School of Mages). It was indestructible because The Tarrasque is famous for how impossible it is to kill.

The Tarrasque (version #2)
Legendary Creature — Dinosaur
CARDNAME costs {oX} less to cast, where X is the highest level among permanents you control. (A card that costs 10GG is level 12.)
CARDNAME can't be blocked by creatures that of level 2 or lower.

The 17/17 version ended up being a little too hard to get onto the battlefield, so they shrunk both its mana cost and its size. They also gave it an ability that was a tweak on what R&D has nicknamed "daunt" (can't be blocked by creatures with power 2 or less), but instead of caring about power, it lines up with the rest of the card and cares about "level" (mana value).

The Tarrasque (version #3)
Legendary Creature — Dinosaur
CARDNAME costs {oX} less to cast, where X is the greatest toughness among creatures you control. Spell armor {o10} (Spells your opponents cast that target this creature cost an additional {o10}.)

The next version changed the cost reduction to care about toughness rather than mana value and switched indestructible for ward 10. (Spell armor was an early design name for ward.) These changes allowed it to change its stats from 14/14 to 15/20 without changing its mana cost.

The Tarrasque (version #4)
Legendary Creature — Dinosaur
Armor {o10} (Whenever this creature becomes the target of a spell or ability an opponent controls, counter it unless that player pays {o10}.)"
CARDNAME has haste if you cast it.
Whenever CARDNAME attacks, it deals damage equal to its power to target creature or planeswalker defending player controls.

The next version kept ward 10 (although the design name for it changed from spell armor to armor) but changed everything else. It now had haste when you cast it (the cast rider was to protect it from being too good when "cheated" onto the battlefield; there are numerous ways to get a creature onto the battlefield without casting it, reanimation being the biggest threat) as well as an attack trigger that allowed it to deal damage to a creature or planeswalker. Its mana cost also changed from 10GG to 6GGG, and its stats went from 15/20 to 10/10. It shrank in size mostly because the ability to kill creatures when attacking is quite powerful.

The final version also shifted ward 10 to only work if The Tarrasque was cast, and the bite (deal damage equal to power) was turned into a fight, which meant The Tarrasque could no longer damage planeswalkers.


Tiamat is one of the best-known named dragons in D&D. There are five different colors of chromatic dragons (interestingly, also the five colors of Magic—uncommon has a cycle), and Tiamat has five different heads, one of each color.

There's a giant mural of Tiamat in the kitchen on the third floor at Wizards where R&D works, so, back when I was in the office, I used to see Tiamat every day. Of all the cards we knew we were going to make when we signed up to make a D&D set, Tiamat was high on the list. Here's the first take on the card:

Tiamat (version #1)
Legendary Creature — Dragon God
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, search your library for up to five Dragons with different names, reveal them, and put them into your hand. (Then shuffle your library.)

A lot of my stories last week and this week are about how cards go through many changes. Tiamat is a different story. The first take on the card was very close to the finished version. Other than being a 7/7 rather than a 10/10 and not restricting you from getting another Tiamat, it's exactly what we printed, even down to the mana cost. Interestingly, although the first pass was so close, the team did try a slightly different version:

Tiamat, the Dragon Queen (version #2)
Legendary Creature — Dragon God
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, search your library for up to five Dragons with different names other than CARDNAME, reveal them, and put them into your hand. Then shuffle.
Other Dragons you control get +1/+1.

This one was a 6/6 for just WUBRG, and it also served to pump your other Dragons. I assume that was added to play up the flavor of her as a leader of the Dragons. In the end, they decided that they didn't need her to pump your Dragons, as they're already big and focused the card on helping you play a Dragon deck by tutoring for a whole bunch of Dragons. Playtesting showed that she could be a 7/7, which was cool because it matched her mana value.

The reason I bring this story up is because I wanted to stress that sometimes the design comes together quickly and there's no need to go through five-plus iterations. The initial designer had a cool take on the character, and that basically stuck.

Volo, Guide to Monsters

Volo is a human adventurer known for his storytelling. His guides on various parts of the world, including the many monsters he's witnessed, have been the subject of numerous D&D books. He's a popular character that we wanted to find a fun design for.

D&D Volo Covers

Volo (version #1)
Legendary Creature — Human
Whenever CARDNAME becomes blocked, you may untap it and remove it from combat. Whenever CARDNAME deals combat damage to a player, draw a card.

I think the first version was trying to play up the fact that Volo always seemed to get himself into the thick of trouble but has a knack for surviving. The card drawing represented that he always learned knowledge in his adventures. He was obviously blue because he deals in information, but I don't know why the first version was white.

Volo, Esteemed Loremaster (version #2)
Legendary Creature — Human Wizard
As CARDNAME enters the battlefield, choose three creature card names.
Spells you cast with one of the chosen names cost {1} less to cast.
Spells your opponents cast with one of the chosen names cost {1} more to cast.
GU, T: Tap or untap target creature with one of the chosen names.

The design team quickly figured out that what made Volo special was not that he tended to survive but rather his knowledge of monsters. Was there a cool way where knowledge of creatures would help make the card more powerful?

The more you, the player, knew about creatures, the better the card would get. The first shot at this was making you name three creatures when Volo entered the battlefield and then giving bonuses to you and penalties to the opponent for playing them. This played out in two ways. One, it changed their mana costs. It made your copies cheaper and your opponent's copies more expensive. Two, it gave you a way to interact with them—untapping your creatures and tapping the opponents. All in all, a nice little package of abilities.

This is when Volo went from being white-blue to green-blue, which honestly is where he should have been in the first place. Green and blue do a good job of capturing someone who wants to know about the creatures of the world. He also went from a 1/2 to a 2/2.

Volo, Guide to Monsters (version #3)
Legendary Creature — Human Wizard
As CARDNAME enters the battlefield, choose three creature card names.
CARDNAME can't be blocked by creatures with one of the chosen names.
Spells you cast with one of the chosen names cost {o1} less to cast.

The next version simplified things a bit. You still named three cards, but how it affected things lessened in number. Your named creatures were still cheaper, but now the opponent's versions of them couldn't block you. This was playing into the flavor that Volo's knowledge of the creatures allowed him to avoid being caught by them. Volo was also granted vigilance and changed his mana cost from GU to 1GU and his size from 2/2 to 3/3.

Volo, Guide to Monsters (version #4)
Legendary Creature — Human Wizard
As CARDNAME enters the battlefield, choose three different creature types.
Spells you cast with exactly one of the chosen types cost {o1} less to cast.
{o3oGoU}: Search the top ten cards of your library for up to three creature cards, each of which has exactly one of the chosen types, reveal them, and put them into your hand. Put the rest on the bottom of your library in a random order.

This next incarnation kept "choose three creatures" but again changed what benefits you got. Spells were still 1 cheaper, but they closed a loophole where a creature with multiple creature types could be made 2 or 3 mana cheaper.

The other ability let you fetch named creatures from the top ten cards of your library. This second ability also had the "exactly one of the chosen types" rider to cut down on shenanigans. As the ability got stronger, it let you go up in cards, the mana cost change from 1GU to 3GU. This did allow them to grant Volo an extra toughness.

Interestingly, the printed version of the card went in a whole new direction. Instead of having to name different creatures, it rewards you for playing a deck with all different creature types (sort of an anti-tribal theme). The design team thought this made for a fun build-around Commander. As for the effect, the design team chose to make copies as it's something both blue and green can do. (Green can only make copies of its own creatures while blue can copy anyone's.) They also tweaked the mana cost and stats (to 2GU and 3/2). The finished design is very novel and does a great job of capturing Volo.

Xanathar, Guild Kingpin

Xanathar is a beholder who's the crime lord of Xanathar's Thieves' Guild in a place called Skyport. He's probably best known for a D&D book with his name on it.


Xanathar's design story is a bit different from the other ones I've been telling in that the character was originally designed to fill a different slot in the set. You see, when the set was first being made, Xanathar was created to fill a blue rare slot and a different character, The Eldest (a creature known as an Aboleth), was in the blue-black mythic rare spot. The story of Xanathar's design parallel's the design of this card:

The Eldest morphed through several different creatures ending up with Grazilaxx. Here's the first version of the cards for the two slots:

The Eldest (version #1 of the blue-black mythic rare slot)
Legendary Creature — Aboleth
As CARDNAME enters the battlefield, choose an opponent.
You may look at the top card of the chosen player's library at any time.
You may play the top card of the chosen player's library, and you may spend mana as though it were mana of any color to do so.

Xanathar (version #1 of the rare blue slot)
Legendary Creature — Beholder
Whenever a permanent you control becomes the target of a spell or ability, you may return that permanent to its owner's hand.

The Eldest is an ancient, mysterious, malevolent creature, so the first version of the design was trying to capture its mysterious hold on the environment by granting it a hold on the opponent. The design allowed you to play cards off the top of the library of another player. It was cool, flavorful, and felt like a mythic rare.

The first take on Xanathar played up his ability to manipulate and protect his things, so it allowed you to bounce any permanent you controlled, either in response to an opponent's attempt to hurt it or you targeting it in response to something bad about to happen to it.

Here's the second approach to each card:

Elder Brain (version #2 of the blue-black mythic rare slot)
Legendary Creature — Elder Illithid
At the beginning of your upkeep, choose an opponent. This turn, you may look at the top card of the chosen player's library. You may play the top card of the chosen player's library, and you may spend mana as though it were mana of any color to do so.

The Xanathar (version #2 of the rare blue slot)
Legendary Creature — Beholder
Paranoid Preparations – Whenever a creature you control becomes blocked, you may return it to its owner's hand.
Protection Racket – Whenever one or more creatures you control deal combat damage to a player, draw a card unless that player has you gain control of an artifact they control.

The second version of the blue-black mythic rare slot stayed mostly the same mechanically: it let you play spells off your opponent's deck. The one change was that it let you pick a new opponent at the beginning of every upkeep rather than being locked in on a single opponent you chose when the creature first entered the battlefield.

The bigger change was who the card represented. Instead of being The Eldest, it was now an Elder Brain, the last stage of a mind flayer. It manipulated people's minds, so the mechanic also made sense for an Elder Brain. To capture the body, the spell was changed from a 2UB 2/5 to a 3UB 4/5.

Xanathar went through several changes. First, instead of being targeted, now being blocked allowed you to return creatures you controlled to their owner's hand. Second, it got an ability that granted the "curiosity" ability to all your creatures (that's R&D's nickname for drawing a card when dealing combat damage). Both abilities were given flavor words, and Xanathar was changed from a 2UU 3/4 to a 1UU 3/2.

The design team mostly liked the mono-blue rare design but kept fiddling with the blue-black mythic rare slot.

Next up:

Ioulaum, Elder Brain (version #3 of the blue-black mythic rare slot)
Legendary Creature — Elder Horror
At the beginning of your upkeep, choose an opponent. Until end of turn, you may look at the top card of the chosen player's library, you may play the top card of the chosen player's library, and you may spend mana as though it were mana of any color to cast that spell.

This version became a specific Elder Brain and changed in mana cost and size from a 3UB 4/5 to a 4UB 5/6. The template was tweaked slightly but basically stayed the same.

The Elder Brain of Oryndoll (version #4 of the blue-black mythic rare slot)
Legendary Creature — Elder Horror
At the beginning of your upkeep, choose target opponent. Until end of turn, that player can't cast spells, you may look at the top card of their library, you may play the top card of the chosen player's library, and you may spend mana as though it were mana of any color to cast that spell.

The next incarnation is basically the final version of the design. It adds that the chosen opponent can't play spells that turn, in addition to letting you play spells from the top of their library. The reason this was added was that there were rules issues when the opponent had a way to play cards off the top of their library as well. This made it clear that Xanathar's controller was the one who got to play the cards. The card was also changed to be a different legendary Elder Brain.

It was at this point that both cards got card concepts and art descriptions:

Setting: "Zebra"
Color: Blue and black creature
Location: An underground mind flayer settlement
Action: We see a mind flayer elder brain (page 232) floating above a briny pool. A few regular mind flayers (pages 230–231) kneel on the floor around the pool, heads bowed, telepathically communicating with their elder brain leader. One of the elder brain's tentacles rests on the forehead of one of the other mind flayers.
Focus: The elder brain
Mood: Creepy and slimy

Setting: "Zebra"
Color: Blue creature
Location: Inside the Xanathar's subterranean lair, which looks somewhat like an elaborate and large vaulted cellar
Action: This is The Xanathar, a beholder who is also a crime lord active in the city of Waterdeep. The references are previous depictions of this specific beholder (see pages 227–229 for beholders in general). The Xanathar hovers in the air a few feet above the floor. It is about 8 feet (2.5 m) in diameter. Three of its eyestalks have magic rings on them. Please include the Xanathar's pet goldfish (a koi about 3.5 feet/1 m long) somewhere in the art, but not as prominently as in the references. Maybe we can also see one or two humanoid underlings, acting subservient to the crime lord.
Focus: The Xanathar, looking cool
Mood: A psychopathic crime lord who'll disintegrate you at the slightest provocation . . . especially if you mess with its pet fish

When the art came back, the design team started thinking that the blue-black mythic rare card might make a better Xanathar than a mono-blue rare one. The ability preventing the opponent from playing cards felt a lot like the anti-magic field that beholder's have. Also, there were several people who felt it was weird for Xanathar, as a character, not to have any black in him, so the decision was made to swap the cards.

As for the mono-blue card, the design team decided they wanted to make it an Illithid, so they put the original art in slush and commissioned a new piece of art, the one now on Grazilaxx.

And that is why the story of Xanathar's design was a little more complex than you might have realized.

The End of the Adventure

That's all the time I have for today. I hope you enjoyed these stories of how various legendary cards were designed. As always, I'm eager to hear any feedback on today's column, on any of the cards I talked about, or on Adventures in the Forgotten Realms in general. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).

Join me next week when I answer your questions about Adventures in the Forgotten Realms.

Until next week, may you all have as much fun playing the cards as we had designing them.

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#853: Odyssey with Randy Buehler

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