Every Card Has a Story

Posted in Making Magic on February 26, 2018

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.

Welcome to Masters 25 Preview Week. This week we're going to be showing off many of the cards in the newest Masters release. All Masters sets are composed of reprinted cards, but this one's a little different. To explain why, I have to tell you a little story.

The set has an interesting history. Ethan Fleischer was unhappy that Magic's 20th anniversary hadn't had many products associated with it (just that year's From the Vault release). He set out to change that for the 25th anniversary and started a five-year campaign to make Masters 25. R&D does an off-site every other year, and at the last one we had a product fair where any R&D member could propose a product. Ethan proposed Masters 25.

It was a set made up of all reprinted cards, but with a twist. To celebrate Magic's first 25 years, the product had a goal to have a reprint from every tournament-legal Magic set. (Sorry, Un- sets.) Then, to highlight where all the cards came from, each card had a watermark from the set it premiered in. Finally, rather than focus on mechanics or archetypes as most Masters products do, he focused more on cool combos and iconic cards from the past to make the gameplay as high on nostalgia as possible.

Ethan was successful at the product fair, and Masters 25 became a reality. While Ethan contributed to the set, the lead designer for Masters 25 was Adam Prosak, and the lead developer was Yoni Skolnik (Masters 25 was one of the last projects built under the old R&D system).

My original plan for this column was to write a whole bunch of behind-the-scenes stories about cards in the set, but I realized there was one problem. I'm writing the very first article previewing the set (there are others coming out today as well), meaning that none of the cards are known yet, so it's hard to write about them. I do, however, have two preview cards. What if I wrote about them? I don't often get the chance to dive in deep on my card stories, so I figured today could be the day you get to hear a lot about the history of two cards.

So, I'm going to preview a card and then tell you all about how it came to be.

Click here to see the first preview card!


To understand how we designed Akroma, Angel of Fury, I must first talk about the card that inspired it. This card:

For those of you unfamiliar with the story of Onslaught block, here's the quick and dirty version. In Odyssey block, we met Kamahl, a pit fighter who saved the day by killing the bad guy with a special sword made out of the Mirari (a super-powerful magical item that would go on to make the plane of Mirrodin, but that's a story for another day). The battle changed Kamahl, making him into more of a reflective druid than a fighter. He returned to find his sister Jeska, who was injured by a wound he had inflicted on her, missing. She had been taken by the evil Cabal and, through dark healing magic, was turned into Phage, a woman whose very touch is deadly. Phage ended up fighting in the pits against the duo of Ixidor, an illusionist, and Nivea, an angel. The two were in love, and this fight was their chance to finally get away from pit fighting. Phage killed Nivea, and Ixidor was caught using his powers to cheat. Ixidor was left to die in the desert but realized his powers were stronger than he knew. From his imagination, he created the angel Akroma, in Nivea's image, as a means to exact revenge on Phage.

Design had the task of bringing Akroma to life as a card. She is vengeance personified, so I spent a lot of time trying to find various ways to capture this top-down flavor. Meanwhile, Bill Rose decided to go a different route. He piled every creature ability he could think of on it (what R&D refers to as a "kitchen sink" creature, as in "everything but the kitchen sink"). I thought the card was a bad fit for the character and was pushing hard for an Angel that couldn't die, as that was how Akroma worked in the story: a character who kills whatever she touches versus an angel who doesn't die. I also didn't like the creature having haste, as that isn't an ability white is ever supposed to have. I obviously lost this fight. Akroma then went on to be a very popular card (as did Phage). (For a lengthier version of this story, check out my article from Akroma Week—I'll get to how this happened in a second.)

Fast-forward to years later and we were working on Time Spiral. One of the cool parts of the set was that it had a "timeshifted bonus sheet" where we included 121 cards using the old card frame (aka pre-Mirrodin). We were discussing what legendary creatures to include on the timeshifted sheet when I came up with an idea. When the website started up, I wanted to do a daily feature I called "Head-to-Head," where we came up with themes and then had the audience vote on a heads-up challenge each day. (My Twitter followers are aware that once Twitter added voting software, I finally brought my Head-to-Head idea to life.) What if the website ran a Head-to-Head to determine what the fans' favorite legendary creature was? To hide the reasons for doing this, we said the winner was going to get its own theme week.

So we picked what we thought were the 64 best choices and let the audience duke it out over the next thirteen weeks. When the dust settled, Akroma was the winner. We put her on the Time Spiral bonus sheet and did an Akroma-themed week on the website. Done. Well . . . did we have to be? I came up with a clever idea. What if we stretched the Akroma love all block long? Planar Chaos was messing with alternate realities. What if we took Akroma and moved her into a different color?

What color would make the most sense for an alternate-reality version? Green isn't supposed to have much flying, especially big fliers, and philosophically, it was an odd place to move her. The character was a bit cruel, so we could shift her toward black. She was also essentially an illusion, so we could shift her toward blue. More than anything, though, she seemed really angry, and that got us to push her toward red. If ever there was a character of an emotion personified, it was Akroma.

We started by figuring out what would stay the same. "Legendary Creature – Angel" had to stay. We liked her as a 6/6 and decided we'd keep her at the same mana cost (five generic and three colored), except the white mana was shifted to red. As she was an Angel, she had to keep flying, and as she was a 6/6, we decided we'd like to keep trample. We also liked her having protection from her enemy colors, the color switch obviously changing that from protection from black and red to protection from white and blue. Everything else was going to change.

Let's walk through the changes. Not counting flying, trample, and the two protections, she had three other abilities: first strike, vigilance, and haste. First strike and haste could be done in red, but we felt that if we kept them the same, it wouldn't feel like enough of a shift. That meant we had to find three new abilities for her—which wasn't easy, as white Akroma had used up an awful lot of red keywords. After looking at all the options, we ended up going with "can't be countered" and firebreathing (R: +1/+0 until end of turn). We still needed one more. That's when we realized that we were in the middle of Time Spiral block, which allowed us a little more freedom to access old mechanics. Akroma was created by Ixidor. You know what else he made in the story? Morph creatures. (If you've ever seen the weird clay spiders in any of Onslaught block, those were Ixidor's doing.) What if Akroma had morph? This would add a whole different play style to her, as well as let us get around her expensive mana cost. I was quite happy with where the card ended up.

Before we move on, I must tell a quick story about this card:

Once we put an Akroma in Time Spiral and Planar Chaos, it became clear that we had to put her into Future Sight as well. Design has a truism that says, "All but one makes the audience grumpy." What that means is if you have a connected group of things, doing something in all but one of them makes the audience feel uneasy, as you're breaking a pattern. Sometimes you might create this unease on purpose to accomplish a goal, but it shouldn't be done unless it's done for a strong reason and not because you just didn't get around to it.

The question was, what exactly did having an Akroma in Future Sight mean? Time Spiral reprinted a card from the past. Planar Chaos showed the alternate present. What exactly did the future have to do with Akroma? We talked about having an ancestor (as other cards in the set did that), but her storyline didn't really didn't lead in that direction. What if she's gone, but there's something to remember her by? That led us to make Akroma's Memorial. We actually had the name before we designed the card. Then we asked, what exactly would Akroma's Memorial do? What if it "inspired" all your creatures into becoming Akromas? That sounded cool. We made it legendary and put it at rare (mythic rare wasn't a thing yet). And that is how Akroma turned a Head-to-Head vote-off into a three-card cycle.

Now it's time for the second preview card.

Click here to see the second preview card!


The start of this story goes back to the Prerelease for Mirage. Ice Age was the very first Magic Prerelease ever held. It was a single event in Toronto at a comics convention. (Dave Humpherys won it, for those who like their trivia.) Homelands was the second Prerelease, again held at one location, this time New York City at an event known as the Gathering. The third Prerelease was for Alliances, and it was held at one of the Pro Tours in Los Angeles aboard the Queen Mary. (If memory serves me, there might have been another Prerelease on the East Coast—I want to say New York City.) For Mirage, it was decided that it was time to make the Prerelease something that happened in many places and not just one or two.

Wizards lined up events across the United States and Canada and sent a Wizards employee to each one. The cool part was we were asked where we wanted to go. My first choice was clear: Alaska. I'd always wanted to visit Alaska, but never had the chance. This would be the perfect time. I remember the day they called me down to tell me where I was going—Toronto! Toronto is an awesome city, but I'd been there a bunch of times already. I grew up in Cleveland and, as a kid, had visited a couple times. I'd also been there for the Ice Age Prerelease. It turns out they had a new tournament organizer and they wanted to send someone with tournament experience just in case they needed it. That someone turned out to be me. (I still haven't gotten to Alaska. One day.)

I bring this all up because this trip was where I met the designer of Chalice of the Void for the first time. I was picked up at the airport and taken to the site of the Prerelease. The event was the next day, so they walked me through everything that was going to happen. It turned out that the event was being run well. To pass the time, they asked me if I wanted to play some Mirage with one of the best players in the city, a man named Gary Wise. We were both given a Sealed pool. We made our decks and played. I don't remember a lot from that first match between me and Gary, but I do remember two things. One, Gary talked a lot (which says a lot coming from me), and two, I beat him. Gary and I would go on to become friends.

For those who don't know Gary, he's an old-time pro player, Canadian obviously, who got inducted into the second class of the Pro Tour Hall of Fame. Gary played in 44 Pro Tours and had four final-day appearances, including one win as a member of the team Potato Nation (along with Mike Turian and Scott Johns). But Gary was probably best known as a Magic writer. He was the first paid writer for the Magic Dojo (the first Magic website) and spent many years writing for the Sideboard, Wizards' magazine/website dedicated to organized play focusing heavily on the Pro Tour.

Gary's team win in New York got him invited to the 2001 Magic Invitational held in Cape Town, South Africa. Each player at an Invitational was asked to turn in a card design that, if they won, became their prize. Well, at least the starting-off place for their prize. R&D does get to weigh in on the cards. For the event, Gary made the following card (exactly as he turned it in—terminology and templating have changed a bit since 2001):

Artifact of Doom
2
Artifact
As Artifact of Doom comes into play, choose a number.
Spells with a converted mana cost of the chosen number cannot be played.

Gary did okay at the event (he tied for sixth place), but he didn't win, and at the Invitational, only the winner got their card made. So how did the design make its way into a file? It turns out about a year later I was designing the original Mirrodin and one of my goals was to try and make sure the set had some cards for Vintage. It's hard for most Standard-legal sets to make Vintage-playable cards, but Mirrodin was an artifact set, so I was hoping to find some space where Vintage cared about something that Standard didn't. The colorlessness and flavor of the set allowed us to dip into areas most Magic sets couldn't. One of the things I was looking for was a card that would let players who didn't have Moxen—Mox Pearl, Mox Sapphire, Mox Jet, Mox Ruby, and Mox Emerald, all from Limited Edition (Alpha)—compete with the players who did. And that is when I remembered Gary's card.

For two mana, you could shut off all Moxen. It felt a little slow, but you could also shut down anything else regardless of how expensive it was. That felt too fast (and too cheap). So I experimented with making Artifact of Doom cost X. This would allow players to hose Moxen on turn one while making it harder to keep the opponent from playing a giant monster. I believe it only took one playtest to realize that X was too powerful.

It actually took a little while to get to XX. Why? Because at the time, we had never done XX. I'd done XYZ as a joke in Unglued (on The Ultimate Nightmare of Wizards of the Coast® Customer Service), but that was done specifically to be obtuse. Normally, we shy away from mana costs that players might not be able to figure out at first blush. (Our gamer support data shows that X as a cost tends to confuse a lot of players.) Nothing else we tried worked, though, so we gave XX a shot. I wasn't convinced we'd do it, but I was curious to see how well it played.

It played great, but I was still nervous about XX. I tried looking for other solutions, but nothing was working as well. Eventually, we decided that on a rare card designed for Vintage, we could aim for slightly higher complexity. Mirrodin tried a number of Vintage shots, and while many of them didn't hit, Chalice of the Void hit big. We would later reprint it in Modern Masters and give it a new look as a Kaladesh Invention (from the Masterpiece Series).

And that is the story of Chalice of the Void.

"The End"

I hope you enjoyed my previews and stories today. Masters 25 is a fun, nostalgic ride through Magic's past, so if you've been playing a long time, it should put a smile on your face. And if you haven't been with us that long, it's a great chance to try out some of the classic Magic cards from over the past 25 years. Either way, I predict you'll have a lot of fun.

As always, I'm eager to hear your thoughts on today's column (did you like longer stories?) and preview cards. 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 get to the third trial of the Great Designer Search 3, the design test.

Until then, may you have as much fun playing Masters 25 as we did making it.


 
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