My family went to Chicago to drop off my oldest daughter Rachel at college, so I talk all about how the city of Chicago has intersected with Magic.
Posted in Making Magic on November 19, 2018
This article started with me being given a preview card for Ultimate Masters. As I began thinking about stories to tell about the design of the card, it made me realize a larger story I could tell. So today, I'm going to talk about how we turn characters into Magic cards, and to do so, I'm going back to a time where I was very involved with the story—the Weatherlight Saga.
For those unaware of either the Weatherlight Saga or my involvement in it, many years ago (back in 1996), my friend Michael Ryan and I were bemoaning that Magic didn't have a larger overarching story. So both being writers, we decided to make one. We then pitched the idea to the Magic Brand team and were given the thumbs up to make it. (How that all went down is a story for another time.)
Part of making an ongoing story involved creating an ongoing cast, characters that the audience could connect to and bond with as we told the larger story. Our main conceit was that the main characters had a flying ship, the Weatherlight, and traveled from plane to plane going on various adventures. (The first being the rescue of their captain, Sisay, who'd been kidnapped.) The plan had always been that, slowly, during the course of the story being told, we would turn all the Weatherlight crew into cards. Today's column (and the one two weeks from now) is the tale of that journey.
The story started in Weatherlight (released in May 1997) and ran through Apocalypse (May 2001). Every set had at least one crew member (or former crew member) as a legendary creature with the exception of Weatherlight (which featured some villains) and Prophecy (which had no legendary characters from the story). I'm going to walk through set by set and talk about how we created each of the characters and then explain what we did to make them into cards. One of those cards, by the way, is being reprinted in Ultimate Masters, and I'll show off that preview when we get to it.
When we first made the Weatherlight crew, our goal was to show off the breadth of both Magic's creature types and color pie. Interestingly, Orim, the ship's healer, was a last-minute addition. Because we had a flying ship, we looked at other mass media properties with a vessel to see how they comprised their crews. There were numerous constants—a captain, a first mate, a navigator/engineer, and, of course, a doctor. Somehow, though, when we made our first pass at the crew, we'd forgotten to put a doctor in.
I pointed it out to Michael, so we thought about what was the most Magic-y thing that felt like a doctor. We ended up with Samite Healer, a staple white common from Limited Edition (Alpha). As Samite Healer was a Human, we made the character a Human so players could make the connection. Because we had more male characters than female on the crew, we made her a woman. As it was a last-minute addition, I named her Oram which was just "Maro" (my nickname) spelled backwards. I believe the plan had always been to get her a real name, but the name grew on us, so we ended up just changing the a to an i to hide the name's origin.
Because we wanted a little time to build up the main crew members in the story, we decided to start with some of the ones with smaller roles. Interestingly, we didn't think about how making the character a legendary creature would up the audience's awareness of them and thus make them feel more important. Orim would go on to play a major role in the Mercadian Masques story.
As Orim was inspired by Samite Healer, her card seemed pretty straightforward to design—just make a bigger, more impressive Samite Healer. We ended up letting her prevent 3 damage rather than 1 and made her a 1/3 rather than a 1/1 so she was harder to kill. As she was a rare and had never been a Constructed card, we were able to do all that for just one extra white mana.
Starke was created solely for story reasons. We needed some way for the crew to get to Rath to go rescue Sisay. We also wanted Volrath, the main villain, to sneak aboard the ship later in the story (more on that in two weeks), so we liked the idea of a traitorous character who helps out the crew only because there's something in it for him—the rescue of his daughter (named Takara).
His design was a bit trickier. The character was an unreliable scoundrel who only looked out for himself. How exactly do you convey that on a Magic card? The flavor we ended up with was a card that wasn't faithful to you, the player. Yeah, you could cast him, but maybe he wouldn't stay on your side. While that sounded awesome from a flavor perspective, why exactly would you put something like that in your deck? The answer we came up with was that he was useful, you determined when you lost control of him, and you got to use him first.
Red could blow up artifacts and damage creatures, so we ended up having him destroy an artifact or creature as it played into his traitorous nature. Note that this was back in the day when we blended colors a bit more than we do today and we allowed red to destroy creatures. Today, we make red destroy them with damage.
Michael and I created Crovax because we wanted a crew member to cover the black aspect of the color pie. We loved the idea that he was a Vampire as that felt like a cool addition to the crew. Just one small problem: why in the world would a crew ever allow a Vampire on board? So, we came up with a cool workaround. What if he wasn't a Vampire when he joined the crew but became one later? That way, he was already a member of the crew and it made sense why they'd keep him around. We ended up making him a cursed nobleman. That curse (tied to an Angel named Selenia, who had also shown up in Tempest) would be the thing that turned him into a Vampire. That event happened in Stronghold when, to save Mirri, Crovax was forced to kill Selenia. Selenia's death completed the curse and transformed Crovax into a Vampire.
As that was a key moment in the story and Crovax was finally the Vampire we wanted, it seemed like the perfect time to make his card. For the design, we went all in on him being a Vampire. What is the defining trait of a Vampire? We focused on the need to constantly feed off of other creatures. If he fed, he got stronger. If not, he got weaker. To pull this off, we made him a 0/0 that came with four +1/+1 counters. Sengir Vampire, a popular Vampire from Limited Edition (Alpha), was a 4/4, so that felt like a good base for a Vampire. We represented feeding by you sacrificing a creature. Then, because we wanted him to have some evasion but didn't want the story character being able to fly, we gave him activated flying to imply that he was good at jumping.
Crovax would show up later on two cards. I'll get to the first one printed in part two. The other was this card:
Planar Chaos was an alternate-reality set, so we played around with an alternate reality where Mirri got cursed instead of Crovax, who went on to become a virtuous hero.
Mirri came about because we wanted a character that was in the green part of the color pie. We wanted the crew to have a bunch of good fighters, and we really wanted Gerrard to have a female best friend with whom he was in no way romantically involved. Mirage block had a number of cool Cat Warriors that we liked, so we ended up making her a Cat Warrior.
While I'm not getting into the story here, Exodus was where Michael and I parted ways with the Weatherlight Saga. I was still the liaison between the story and R&D, though, so while I wasn't involved in making the story anymore, I was in charge of making sure the characters got turned into cards. For reasons I disagreed with, it was decided that in Exodus, Crovax was going to turn evil and kill Mirri. If we wanted a Mirri card, it was now or never. (We didn't know of a future where we had supplemental products like the Commander decks that printed characters from the past on cards.)
Mirri's most important trait was she was a good fighter, so we wanted to make a card that was good in combat. Our first pass was a 2/2 for 1GG that had first strike, forestwalk, vigilance, and protection from black. At the time, neither first strike nor vigilance was in green, but we allowed special exceptions for important story cards. (That philosophy has shifted quite a bit over the years.) Mirri was given protection from black because black creature kill was a big part of the Standard metagame at the time.
When we made the card, we knew that Mirri was slated to die, but the fact that Crovax killed her hadn't been decided yet. As soon as I found out about that, I came back to the Design team and said we had to remove the protection from black. In story, she was killed by a black source (aka Crovax) so having protection from black on her directly contradicted the story. We spent a lot of time trying to figure out what ability to replace the protection with. We talked about her having protection from blue, but that just didn't matter in Constructed play in the way we wanted. In the end, we made the choice to add an extra toughness and make her a little more resistant against early red removal.
Mirri would show up on two later cards.
The first card is her Planar Chaos card where she gets cursed with vampirism instead of Crovax. The second is a green-white version of her from Commander (2017 Edition). Commander products have started making old story characters popular, and I was asked if it was okay to expand her into green and white. I said yes, that was a good fit for the character. She was mono-green mostly because Exodus didn't have any multicolor cards in it. (Back in the day, it was the policy to withhold multicolor from sets to make it more exciting for sets with multicolor themes.)
Michael and I created Ertai for two reasons. One, we wanted a crew member from the blue part of the color pie and two, we wanted a Wizard. To tie the Weatherlight Saga to older Magic story, we made Hanna, the daughter of Barrin (Urza's right-hand man—more on this when we get to Hanna). This allowed us to get our Wizard from Tolaria. In our version of the story, the Weatherlight unknowingly travels through time trying to get back to Dominaria to warn them of the upcoming Phyrexian invasion (finding it has already happened, and the Phyrexians won), and there, they meet a crew member that had gotten left behind on Rath (stranded when he helps the Weatherlight escape through a portal), now old and wise. To play up this contrast, we wanted him to start young and cocky. (For flavor text, we broke up assignments by character. I ended up writing the flavor text for Ertai and Karn.)
I knew exactly what I wanted Ertai to do as a card. I wanted him to be a walking counterspell. Ertai's whole character revolved around him being good at magic, especially countermagic (his signature flavor text was him taunting people whose spells he had countered) and being very braggadocious about it. He was 1/1 because he wasn't much in a fight and we wanted him to be easy to destroy. Then we gave him an activated counterspell. It tapped so you could only counter one thing a turn, which allowed your opponent(s) to play around it. We also made it activate for four mana (two of which was blue) so that using the counterspell made it difficult early on to cast many other spells.
Like Crovax, Ertai would show up again as a legendary creature before the end of the Weatherlight Saga. (I'll get to that card in two weeks.)
Michael and I created Karn because we wanted an artifact crew member. There weren't a lot of choices for artifact creature types at the time, so we went with a Golem because we liked the idea of him filling the archetypal role of the "gentle giant" (that is, a large, powerful, intimidating character that ends up being the kindest of the group). To capture this, we chose to make Karn a pacifist. In his backstory, he accidentally killed someone, and it had a major impact on him, so he opted never to be violent again. (Karn has been through a lot, so this aspect of him is no longer true.) We named him Karn based off the word "cairn," which is a mound of stones built as a memorial or landmark. We chose to make him a silver Golem because we thought it would lead to a cool visual.
For a split second, there was a thought that the card Steel Golem in Weatherlight would be Karn, but we needed time to figure out his look and ended up making it Steel Golem instead. We ended up making Karn in Urza's Saga because he was one of only a handful of crew members (and the only active crew member) that was alive at the time. Karn's design was a bit more circuitous than many of the other crew members. To explain how it got made, I first have to talk about a supplemental product we made called Vanguard.
Vanguard was a supplemental product made not to be sold but given away as part of an in-store league (something called Arena, sort of a precursor to Friday Night Magic). The idea behind Vanguard cards was that it was a card external to your deck that adjusted your starting life total and hand size, and then granted you an ability usable during the game. Vanguard had been created before the Weatherlight Saga had been greenlit, but once I realized that it was going to happen while the story was going on, I made the pitch that the Vanguard cards should reflect the characters in the story. I was then given the assignment to make that happen. We had numerous Vanguard cards designed, so my job was to go through them and see if I could find good fits between the preexisting cards and the characters. Some were perfect fits, others more of a challenge, with Karn being in the latter category.
In the end, I had a Vanguard card I really liked that animated artifacts. Karn was an artifact and was the keeper of the Legacy, a collection of important artifacts in the story. He didn't exactly animate artifacts, but I liked the tie to artifacts as it played up an important role he had in the story. Thus, Karn ended up with the following card.
When it came time to design Karn's legendary creature, everyone assumed it was going to have the Vanguard animating artifact ability. I tried to explain that I'd stretched story-wise, giving it to him in Vanguard, but everyone said, "That's canon now," so I gave in and gave him the artifact-animating ability.
We had one small problem to solve, though. Karn was pretty big and powerful, so we made him a 4/4. Him being a pacifist was a key part of his identity. The idea that he would fight and kill other creatures in combat felt wrong. We thought about making him unblockable and "can't block" to avoid the issue, but it just didn't feel right. Our solution was the -4/+4 ability, which made him extra-hard to kill in combat but ensured that (without help) he would never kill anyone.
Karn would later become a Planeswalker and, so far, has shown up on two other cards, one in New Phyrexia and the other in Dominaria.
Michael and I created Multani because we liked the idea of Gerrard having a mentor figure. Gerrard studied magic with Multani as a young adult, and that is where he met Mirri and Rofellos. I'd wanted to find a place to fit a maro (nature Elemental) into the story, and this felt like the right fit. Multani would later retroactively be made into a former crew member, but that wasn't Michael's nor my doing. We ended up making his card in Urza's Legacy because he was another character that was old enough to be alive during the flashback block.
As Multani was a maro, we basically designed him to be a better version of the Maro card. His power and toughness weren't equal to the cards in your hand but equal to the cards in all the players' hands. We then gave him shroud to make him hard to deal with. We talked about giving him trample, but decided we couldn't do trample and shroud, and the shroud felt more in character and made for a stronger card.
Multani would show up again in Dominaria.
Rofellos came about because Michael and I realized we had a story problem to solve. We didn't want Gerrard (and Mirri) to be a Weatherlight crew member when the story began because we liked the Weatherlight crew coming to get him and him being reluctant to return. (A big part of his character arc was him learning to accept his destiny.) That meant that we needed a reason for his leaving, something that wouldn't make us dislike him as a character. The solution was for him to have lost someone while serving on the ship. We already had Mirri and Gerrard meeting through Multani, so we decided we'd add a third character that would be the one who dies. It would explain why both Gerrard and Mirri left as they were the ones closest to him.
When we were making the crew, we had a list of different creature types we were interested in using. One of the ones left on our list was an Elf. And as we were playing to Magic's past, why not an Elf from Llanowar? We ended up putting Rofellos in Urza's Destiny because he wasn't old enough to be in Urza's Saga or Urza's Legacy (and he was dead modern-day) but did fit the time frame for Urza's Destiny as Elves have a decently long lifespan.
His design was pretty straightforward; we wanted a very good Llanowar Elves. That meant he needed to be cheap, small, and create a bunch of mana. We wanted him to have the potential to produce a lot of green mana, but we didn't want him broken in the early game, so we ended up tying his mana production to the number of Forests you had on the battlefield. This made him powerful but narrow, as he mostly wanted to be in a mono-green deck.
Squee came about because we wanted some comic relief, and a Goblin felt like the perfect Magic creature to do it. The running joke with Squee was that he was unintelligent and fearful, but he was lucky and occasionally saved the day by accident. He got his name from this card:
During a Visions creative text meeting (aka names and flavor text), I made a comment that I didn't like the flavor text for the card. I liked the comedic concept of the Goblin nursery rhyme/war cry, but I felt the current execution wasn't up to snuff. I was informed in the meeting that I could change it if I came up with a replacement, but that the file was being shipped right after the meeting. I ended up writing that flavor text in the meeting. I needed two Goblin names, both one-syllable and the second one had to rhyme with "tree" and "flee." My solution was Squee. I really liked the name, so when Michael and I were naming the Goblin on the Weatherlight crew, I suggested Squee.
When I designed Squee, my goal was to capture the feeling that he was very lucky. The returning from graveyard to hand wasn't meant as a resurrection flavor, but rather was me trying to convey, "You think he's dead, but he's not" because he's hard to kill since he's so lucky. The card went on to be popular and inspired one of the book authors to make him immortal. When I learned about it, I tried to explain that the mechanic was being misrepresented, but it was already in print. Squee was now immortal. You could kill him, but he'd keep coming back to life.
Squee got a new card in Dominaria that played in similar mechanic space.
One last thing about Squee, Goblin Nabob. It's my preview card for Ultimate Masters. Of all the Weatherlight crew members, Squee's original card has probably gone on to see the most play in Constructed formats, so it seems only appropriate for him to return in Ultimate Masters.
That's all the time I have for today. I still have numerous Weatherlight crew members to talk about, so I'll be back in two weeks with part two of this column. As always, I'm eager for your feedback, about this column, the Weatherlight Saga, or any related topics. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).
Join me next week for part two of my Rabiah Scale article.
Until then, may one of the Weatherlight crew members make it into one of your decks.
My family went to Chicago to drop off my oldest daughter Rachel at college, so I talk all about how the city of Chicago has intersected with Magic.
As I had just dropped my daughter Rachel off at college, I talk about how a designer has to learn to let go of their work and pass it along to other people.