In this podcast, I examine the history of Squirrels in Magic.
Posted in Making Magic on October 8, 2018
Over the last two weeks, I've been telling card-by-card stories about Guilds of Ravnica. I have more stories to tell, so I'll continue today.
Normally when we design a card, it's important that, at bare minimum, that card does something. Often the card will get better when certain conditions happen, but the idea is that the card in a vacuum still has some value. This is, for example, why many proliferate cards (You choose any number of permanents and/or players with counters on them, then give each another counter of a kind already there) in Scars of Mirrodin block created a counter in addition to proliferating. It's why populate cards (Create a token that's a copy of a creature token you control) in Return to Ravnica often made a creature token. We want cards to get better when you mix them with other cards, but we tend to avoid having them sometimes do nothing.
This was one of the biggest problems we had when we originally designed undergrowth. We didn't want to force the players to constantly have to check the status of creature cards in their graveyard, so we made it a thing you checked once when you cast the card or the permanent entered the battlefield. For creatures, this was mostly okay because the undergrowth effects didn't tend to affect the size of the creature, so even on an empty graveyard, you still got the creature. The spells and Golgari Raiders though don't do anything until you have at least one creature card in your graveyard. We talked a bit how problematic it was that we had a mechanic where a lot of the cards had the potential to do nothing and whether that was a fatal flaw.
After much discussion, we decided that we could proceed for a few reasons. One, the ask of getting a creature card in your graveyard was not a particularly high one. The natural state of the game tends to cause creatures to die, so it was something that should be expected to happen in most games and usually not that long into the game. Two, we felt we could have support cards that would help you get more creature cards into your graveyard. For example, having the Dimir mechanic, surveil, put cards in the graveyard was a big help.
There was some talk about whether we wanted to do Golgari Raiders because it is the one creature that you essentially can't cast unless you have a creature card in your graveyard, but we felt that it was a cool card and we had the support for the spells anyway, so it was kept in the set.
Most of the time when we make a cycle, it's done all at once in the same set, usually at the same rarity. Every once in a while, we'll plan out a cycle to take place over a period of time. Odyssey, for instance, had an alternate win condition cycle (Test of Endurance, Battle of Wits, Mortal Combat, Chance Encounter, and Epic Struggle) that it put out over the course of the three-set block. The most famous example of a stretched-out cycle was what R&D called the mega-mega-cycle that started in Mirage with the card Teferi's Isle and ended four years later in Invasion with Keldon Necropolis. (For the full story on the mega-mega-cycle, click here.)
Sometimes though, cycles don't start out being cycles. For example, Antiquities had the card Atog.
It was just a cool creature that matched the artifact theme of the set. Then in Mirage development, I realized that the Design team had basically made a green Atog (one that ate Forests instead of artifacts) without realizing it, so we leaned into it and made it an Atog. Then for each of the next three sets, we set out to make an Atog out of another color until by Tempest, we'd made all five.
Then we started getting into what I call the "long" cycle where we make a second card in a different color that is reminiscent of another card and then we start filling the cycle over time.
The classic example of this is the "-ling" cycle. Morphling first appeared in Urza's Saga. Then many years later in Planar Chaos, we made a nod to it with Torchling in red. Then another few years later in Conflux, we made the green version with Thornling. Battlebond recently put out the fourth in the cycle, the white one, Brightling. I can't tell you when or where you'll see it, but the final black one has been designed.
This gets us to the current cycle, which is a little subtler.
Cone of Flame first came out in Weatherlight and was just designed as a cool direct-damage variant, one where you damaged three different things each with a different amount of damage. Having a sorcery with three effects that did 1, 2, and 3 was cute, so it inspired us over the years to make others like it. I actually tried to get Bestial Menace into a set numerous times, but it was ultimately made not by me but by Kelly Digges, who was unaware that I'd been trying to get it to print and managed to actually fit it into Worldwake.
Gruesome Menagerie is the third in the cycle, this time a black sorcery that does 1, 2, then 3. It even costs five, two of which are colored mana, so I guess we're setting ourselves up to one day deliver white and blue cones of something. R&D calls things like this that dictate future designs "throw-forwards" where we're setting ourselves up to deliver a design in the future that the players are expecting. Because this cycle doesn't have a word in its name that calls attention to itself, I thought I'd just point it out for those that might not have understood the bigger story of this card.
In my former life, before becoming a game designer, I was a writer of fiction, so I've always been a big fan of card designs that don't just play well but also tell a story through their mechanics. Hunted Witness is an excellent example. White creatures with a death trigger that makes a creature token is nothing new for white, but this design manages to give a fun flavor to the card.
As I explained in my preview column, Guilds of Ravnica has a "Cold War feel." Everyone is looking over their shoulder because no one quite knows what threats lurk in the shadows. Our hero is a little 1/1 creature that clearly knows something but is being followed by something sinister that wants to silence him. No one pays attention though until he dies, at which point a cop (or a Boros Soldier, in Ravnica terms) shows up to investigate his death. From a story-crafting/game-design vantage point, Hunted Witness is a thing of beauty.
During set design (and before that, in development), cards are often pulled from a set for various reasons and a "hole" is made in the file. There is a process we have called "hole filling" where we send out needs for various designs and have people from around the company design possible cards to fill those holes. Hole filling is usually very successful and has proven to be a great tool to create new cards to fill the needs of holes in the set. I say usually, because sometimes hole filling isn't able to make the necessary cards.
One such time was during Future Sight development. One of the themes of the block was a timeshifted sheet that got inserted into the boosters. Each timeshifted card used different frames and had a theme tying into past, present, and future. Time Spiral's bonus sheet had cards from the past complete with the old frames. Planar Chaos had cards from an alternate present where the color pie and card frames had played out a little differently. Each card was a colorshifted version of an existing Magic card. Future Sight had cards from potential futures with a futuristic frame.
Mike Turian, lead developer for Future Sight, had sent out a hole filling for the set, but while he was able to get cards for the normal set, the outside designers were having a real hard time with the futureshifted cards. To be honest, it was a difficult ask. We wanted cards that teased potential future design space. Making cards that tease what we could do but haven't done yet is tricky, so whenever they got a futureshifted hole, Mike would come to me and say, "Mark we need another futureshifted card." I'd say, "What color?" and I'd make him one.
Narcomoeba and Bridge from Below were the last two cards designed for the set. It was pretty late in development when Mike said he had two holes, one blue rare and one black rare. I don't remember why, but he needed them pretty quick, so I had about an hour to design these two cards.
Narcomoeba came about because I was trying to think of a trigger we'd never done before. It was in blue, so I thought, what does blue do that it could help trigger itself? I wrote down a bunch of ideas, but milling (having a card put into the graveyard from the library) was the one that seemed the coolest. My initial design was for a 2/2 flier, but Mike thought it was a little too good and changed it to a 1/1.
The plan for the futureshifted cards was always that we'd try to do some of them in the future. The preprints for the first year were all planned out, but we had enough "throw forwards" that we figured we'd be able to pay some of them off many years down the line. Usually how we do that these days is at some point in design, the lead designer will take a look at the futureshifted cards and see if any make sense mechanically in their set. Each card also has a future flavor on it, but our ability to lineup both the mechanic and flavor throw-forward is difficult, so as long as the mechanics work and the flavor isn't contradicting the world, we're usually okay with using it.
I believe Erik Lauer, Guilds of Ravnica's lead set designer, was the one who realized that Narcomoeba was a good mechanical fit for the set. Everyone who saw it was pretty excited to see it in the set as R&D loves finding uses for futureshifted cards. I hope all of you enjoy its first printing.
Designing a legendary creature can be a challenge. You have to understand the flavor you're trying to capture and then find a mechanical execution that both expresses it and plays well. Now, imagine having to do it again and again for the same character. One of the challenges of returning to Ravnica for the third time is having to make another incarnation of some characters we've already made cards for twice. Case in point: Niv-Mizzet.
Niv-Mizzet is a genius Dragon. The first time we designed his cards, we were very focused on how to capture both the genius and the Dragon. As he was the leader of the Izzet, it also meant he needed to be blue and red. Obviously, we decided to use the blue part to capture the genius and the red part to capture the Dragon. Niv-Mizzet used information as a weapon. Was there a way to capture that? We tried a bunch of different things, but what worked best was using card drawing as a trigger for damage. Then we gave Niv-Mizzet the ability to draw cards so he could trigger it when he wanted to (as well as getting damage every draw step). We gave him flying, a Dragon-size body, and some offbeat flavor text (I explain it here) and called it a day.
When it was time to design the second Niv-Mizzet, we had to keep in mind what the first one did. We always try to make sure that any future versions of a character match any previously created cards. Obviously, it needed a Dragon-size body and to have flying. (We ended up changing it from 4/4 to 5/5, but, in general, players don't complain when you make things slightly better.) We then got the idea of inverting what the first Niv-Mizzet did. Instead of dealing damage based on drawing cards, we had Niv #2 draw you cards based on dealing damage. We then gave it an activated ability that dealt damage to allow him to trigger himself as the first version of him had done. Instead of a tap ability, we made it an activated ability requiring both colors but allowing you to activate it multiple times per turn.
For the third Niv, we knew going in a few things. One, it would be 4/4 or bigger with flying. (We chose 5/5 to match the previous incarnation.) Two, it had to involve card drawing and damage dealing, ideally with a trigger based on one of them. After experimenting with various things, we ended up giving him the same ability as his first card using card drawing as a trigger for damage. Then, instead of an activated ability, we gave him a second triggered ability, one tied closely to the Izzet guild, the casting of instants and sorceries. We then gave him a can't-be-countered ability to help get him onto the battlefield. The final thing done was to change his converted mana cost of 6 from 2UURR to UUURRR. This extra color requirement allowed us to make the card a bit stronger.
I like how each incarnation plays just a little bit differently yet still captures the essence of who Niv-Mizzet is as a character. I hope you all enjoy playing Niv 3.0.
I was very excited when I saw this card for the first time. Why? Because one of the things I look for in new card designs are cards that play in an area that suggests more design space. Plaguecrafter is one such card. The idea that it does something, but if that thing can't be done, then instead it does a different thing is a very interesting concept. It, for example, could allow us to make cards where the second ability is bigger and splashier but you must first make sure the initial condition can't be met to reach it. Or you could make a card that has a two-step process and the first time you do it, it does the first thing, which guarantees that the second time it's cast, the other ability happens. There's a lot of cool potential. Just something many of you might all think about when you look at this card.
When Erik first talked to me about bringing back convoke as the Selesnya guild mechanic, I said I liked the idea, but they might want to make a few cards that interact with convoke in a way we haven't before. Venerated Loxodon was one such design to address this issue. The idea is pretty simple. It's a card with convoke that rewards the creatures that convoke it. For example, if you have five creatures (one of which is white), you could pay no mana, tap all five creatures and get a 4/4 on the battlefield while putting a +1/+1 counter on all five creatures. That felt like a cool twist with very exciting potential.
Vraska showed up for the first time in Return to Ravnica.
Her original design played up two things: One, she's a gorgon, and gorgons are good at turning others to stone (aka killing them). Two, she oversees a group of assassins. They, too, are good at killing people. The first two loyalty abilities convey the first thing and her ultimate conveys the last thing.
Vraska's second appearance, Vraska, Relic Seeker, was in Ixalan. Here, we wanted to play up that she now leads a bunch of pirates and that she's still a gorgon capable of killing people. The first and second ability play up the former while the second and third ability play up the latter. Her Planeswalker Deck card is less pirate focused and more plays up her gorgon-ness. Her first loyalty ability is playing up that she tends to be a good leader. (Simple "help yourself" abilities are tricky to find in black.)
The Vraska in Guilds of Ravnica is trying to play up her role as leader of the Golgari. Her first loyalty ability is showing how she uses her subjects as she sees fit. It's also a good enabler for undergrowth, the Golgari mechanic. The second and third loyalty abilities play into her destructiveness. Note that the third ability doesn't make assassins but rather turns all your creatures into assassins. I like that as a leader, she is willing to turn any of her people into a killer. Vraska's Planeswalker Deck card again has a first loyalty ability that is helpful. Her second loyalty ability plays up her being a killer. Her ultimate reinforces her Golgari nature and is basically undergrowth, although not specified as such.
I will now present a short scene I call "How Wee Dragonauts Got into Guilds of Ravnica."
INT. CONFERENCE ROOM, WIZARDS OF THE COAST
Five designers sit around a conference table. It is early vision design.
MARK: Okay, we need some cards for Izzet. For starters, we probably want something that cares about instants and sorceries being cast. Something that helps end the game. You know, something like Wee Dragonauts.
JULES: I have an idea. How about Wee Dragonauts?
ARI: I like it.
SAM: Let's do it.
MARK: Okay, Wee Dragonauts is in the set.
And that's all the time I have for today. I hope you've enjoyed these last three weeks of card-by-card stories about Guilds of Ravnica. If you have feedback on the columns, any of the cards I talked about, or the set itself, please email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram) with your thoughts.
Join me next time when I talk about how we make factions.
Until next time, may you find the guild that speaks to you.
In this podcast, I examine the history of Squirrels in Magic.
My carpool guest Scott Van Essen and I talk about the design of the new Transformers Trading Card Game, which he and I both worked on.