#593: Mechanic Inspirations
In this podcast, I talk about the various ways we create Magic mechanics to answer the question "Where do mechanics come from?"
Posted in Making Magic on December 3, 2018
Two weeks ago, I started telling the story of how we designed cards for all the crew members from the Weatherlight Saga. I only got through half the crew, so I'm back to tell the rest of the stories.
Volrath was one of the main villains of the Weatherlight Saga, but he's included here because, for a time, he was a Weatherlight crew member. How could that be? Well, Volrath was a shapeshifter and when Gerrard and company rescued Sisay, Karn, Tahngarth, and Takara (Starke's daughter) from Volrath's Stronghold, Volrath tagged along disguised as Takara. This famous art from Mercadian Masques' Unmask was when the audience learned that Takara was secretly Volrath (this happens after he kills Starke).
Interestingly, in the original pitch by Michael Ryan and myself, the crew stayed on Mercadia for the entire block, and the second set was a murder mystery built around who killed Starke. We were going to weave clues through the names, art, and flavor text and have a contest to figure out who killed him. The answer was going to be Volrath disguised as Tahngarth. (In our version of the story, the audience learns Volrath is there long before the crew does—Volrath had a lot more to do in our version). Many things changed, including who Volrath was disguised as.
In the revamped version of the story, after Volrath kills Starke and unmasks himself, he returns to Rath where he ends up getting killed. That meant if we wanted to represent him as a card, we had to do it in Nemesis. As a character, Volrath is blue-black, but Nemesis had no multicolor cards in it, so we had to do him as either mono-blue or mono-black. We had done numerous Shapeshifters in blue, but never in black, so we thought it would make for a more novel design. (Note that the card was not originally a Shapeshifter in creature type because, at the time, legendary creatures were creature type Legend.)
The challenge to the design was to create a mono-black creature that felt like a Shapeshifter. We ended up designing a card that allowed you to discard a creature card to temporarily change size. This is one of the Weatherlight crew designs that I'm unhappy with (although not the most unhappy, we'll get to that one). While it did capture a Shapeshifter feel, it didn't really capture the cleverness of Volrath. One of these days, I'd love to redesign him as the clever blue-black Shapeshifter he was supposed to be.
Only two characters got multiple legendary cards designed for them during the course of the Weatherlight Saga, and one was Crovax. His first card had shown his transformation into a Vampire from a nobleman. Since that time, Crovax had betrayed the Weatherlight crew and worked to become the evincar (or leader) of Rath. Just when it seemed like he was about to attain his goal, Volrath returned from Mercadia. The two were forced to battle to the death, and with some help from Ertai (more on him in a minute), Crovax killed Volrath and become evincar. This altered version of Crovax called for a new card.
The goal of the card's design was to capture that he was now leader of his people yet ruthless in his willingness to hurt others. To capture the first part, we decided to let him boost your creatures. Black, though, doesn't tend to buff your whole team, so we decided to restrict the buff to black creatures. (Remember back in the day, "lords" tended to pump all creatures that mattered and not just your creatures.) Then to convey his cruelty and mirror the creature boosting, we had him give -1/-1 to all nonblack creatures.
We considered giving him activated flying like his earlier card, but decided the card was just cooler if he could fly all the time. We ended up with a 3/3 body because that allowed us to make him for 4BB.
In Planar Chaos, we made the mirror of this card where he boosts white creatures and hurts nonwhite creatures as a way to portray the alternate reality version where Mirri got cursed by Selenia instead of Crovax.
The Weatherlight Saga was into its final block and there were numerous important Weatherlight crew members we hadn't made into cards yet. A big one was captain of the Weatherlight, Sisay. When Michael and I had first put together the story, we borrowed the Weatherlight from the Mirage story. It had played a small role in that story, helping a key character travel to face the enemy. The one crew member mentioned in the story was the ship's captain, Sisay. She had shown up in a few pieces of flavor text and in the title of one card (Sisay's Ring in Visions). From those pieces, we crafted a character that we thought would serve as a great captain and be someone Gerrard would feel compelled to rescue.
There were a number of facets to play around with on her card, but the one we liked the most was the idea that she was great at acquiring heroes to help her in her task. As Invasion was a multicolor set, it allowed us to make her two-color—green-white. I believe the ability to tutor for legendary creatures (putting them from the library into your hand) was the first and only ability we tried on her. We didn't make her too big because it wouldn't match the story and it let the card focus on what was cool about it—her ability. Sisay has gone on to become a very popular commander.
Last time, I explained how we looked into various crews in pop culture to figure out what all of them had, and one item was a navigator, or engineer. We had a flying ship, someone had to keep that thing flying. As it was a magical ship, that meant that the person needed to be well versed in magical items. We chose to make her female because, at the time, all the engineers in the stories we were looking at were male. We liked the idea of shaking things up.
Meanwhile, we were trying to solve a completely different problem. We were putting together the crew, and we knew we wanted a wizard. Because we were flying all over Dominaria to gather the crew, we loved the idea that the wizard would be from Tolaria, but how exactly do we get the Weatherlight to go to Tolaria? What if our engineer was from Tolaria? She obviously had to be well versed at magical items. What if she learned that at the Tolarian Academy?
It was then that I had an interesting idea. What if we tied this character to the older Magic story? (Remember, at this point, Urza was not part of the Weatherlight Saga—that would come after Michael and I left.) What character that lived at Tolaria could have a daughter? I knew I didn't want it to be Urza, but what about his right-hand man, Barrin? Barrin had a wife (Rayne), so it seemed like the perfect fit.
The backstory we came up with for Hanna was that her father had trained her to be a wizard, but she was far more interested in magical objects than magical spells. Hanna's choosing to join the Weatherlight crew was seen by Barrin as a slight by his daughter, and it created some tension between them. This added a lot more gravitas to the story when the crew came to Tolaria looking for a wizard.
Hanna's card was also in Invasion, so it too got to be multicolored. We ended up making it white-blue because that matched the character. I wanted the card to have a Johnny/Jenny feel because it felt like an engineer wanted to be a card that enabled your deck to do cool things. I ended up being inspired by this card, from The Dark:
I had always been enamored of Skull of Orm. It enabled me to build so many fun decks. It only had two problems. One, it was a bit expensive for what it did, and two, it didn't let me get artifacts. Enchantments and artifacts are the things I, as a Johnny, tended to build around, and Skull of Orm only got me one of them. Hmm, maybe Hanna could help me solve this problem.
For starters, Hanna being white-blue was a perfect fit for what I wanted. White cared more about enchantments, and blue cared more about artifacts. I saw the fact that her character was a mix of those two colors as destiny that this card I'd always wanted to make finally would have a home. Also, because she was multicolored, I could bring down the activation cost. Instead of five, it could cost three, but it required you having white and blue mana. I made her a 1/2 so I could keep her at three mana as it tickled me for her to be the same cost as Skull of Orm.
When Michael and I were first writing down ideas for crew members, we wrote "a Hurloon Minotaur" because Hurloon Minotaur had become the de facto Wizards of the Coast mascot. Wizards' only T-shirt had Hurloon Minotaur on it. Wizards' only jean jacket had Hurloon Minotaur on it. It felt only right to have a Hurloon Minotaur on the crew. You might note that Tahngarth did not end up being a Hurloon Minotaur but instead was a Talruum Minotaur. The reason for that was Hurloon Minotaurs have tattoos on their faces, and it was believed that was too big of an ask to have every artist who drew Tahngarth have to draw the tattoo, so we changed it to a different race of Minotaurs.
Michael and I were very big on archetypes, and we wanted to have an overeager warrior archetype. That is, a character that was all about being the best warrior they could be. They were proud, noble, and willing to do whatever it took to make sure the right thing was done. They were also impulsive, never hesitating to take the action that needed to be taken, even if that decision might cause them problems down the road. The reason this seemed like a perfect fit was the archetype felt pretty red, and Minotaurs were red.
As explained above, the original plan had been for Volrath to take the shape of Tahngarth, so we had originally planned to do one Tahngarth during Tempest block and then another one later that would subtly hint that Tahngarth had changed. (Tahngarth got deformed while a prisoner of Volrath, so we thought the new card would portray how Tahngarth had changed because of it.) When that plan changed, we ended up not doing a Tahngarth in Tempest block.
It was Planeshift, though, and the story was coming to an end. It was time to finally make a Tahngarth card. We had a couple things we wanted. First, Tahngarth was a great fighter. We wanted to make sure his card was good in combat. Second, we wanted to capture a little bit of his impulsiveness. What if Tahngarth could fight someone even if it wasn't in combat? Remember that this was before fight was a thing. (It didn't become a keyword until Innistrad many years later.)
We then became enamored by the idea that Tahngarth could fight while he was attacking. The problem was that we needed the ability to have a tap, as we didn't want him activating multiple times per turn, which meant that the only way to do this was if he didn't tap when attacking. While vigilance wasn't keyworded yet (it would happen in Champions of Kamigawa), it was a white ability. Other than a few offbeat cards (a creature that was a book promo card and an Aura in Legends), vigilance wasn't a red thing. It worked perfectly with this card, so we decided to make a special exception (back in the day, we were more willing to put out-of-color abilities as a one-of on special legendary creatures).
Of all the characters to deviate from Michael's and my original version of the Weatherlight Saga, Ertai was probably the most severe. In our version of the story, Ertai started as a young, arrogant wizard fresh out of wizard's school and ended as a wise, old mage. (In our version of the story, the Weatherlight ends up going through a planar portal that also takes them through time on the Weatherlight's return to Dominaria.) Part of making that story work was we had to leave Ertai behind on the escape from Rath.
This is the way we worked it into the story: Ertai was sent to get a portal open so the Weatherlight could use it to escape Rath. (The Weatherlight's planeshifting ability had been damaged in its fight with the Predator.) Events at Volrath's Stronghold would delay the crew, and their only chance at making it through the portal before it closed was by using an artifact from The Legacy called the Skyshaper, which had the ability to create great winds. This last-minute escape would result in Ertai being left behind on Rath, setting up the later story.
When the story changed, Ertai ended up taking a very different path, becoming a much more warped version of himself as he aided Crovax. We ended up making a new version of him as he had changed enough to warrant another card. For starters, he needed to be more colors than his original mono-blue version. We obviously wanted to add black to represent how he had been twisted, but the character also had some white in him (he had taken actions to protect others), so we ended up choosing to make him white-blue-black as Planeshift had three-color arcs (a color and its two allies) in it.
We liked the idea that Ertai still countered spells as his original card had done, but now he was a twisted version of that. The first iteration we tried sacrificed creatures to activate the ability but that felt blue-black and not at all white. We added in the ability to sacrifice an enchantment instead of a creature to add some white to the card. We made him a bit bigger as all the changes to him had hardened him. The three-color requirement allowed us to make him a 3/4.
We waited until the very end to do the final crew member, the main protagonist of the story, Gerrard. Gerrard had been an idea that Michael first pitched. He liked the idea of taking the lovable rogue archetype and making them the main character. Michael thought it would be cool to see that archetype from a different vantage point.
As the main character, Gerrard had many facets, so one of the reasons we put off making his card was we weren't quite sure how to design it. The audience had been asking for it for years, so we had the added pressure of living up to expectation. In the end, we chose to make him a fighter as that was an aspect that got played up a lot. The ability we gave him was the ability to keep creatures from blocking him. To keep him from sitting back and not attacking, as that felt out of character, we made it only usable when attacking. I think we made it activated and not triggered because we wanted him to be able to use it on multiple creatures if you had enough mana.
His other ability came from a weird place. Back in Weatherlight, the set that started the Weatherlight Saga, we had made a card with Gerrard's name in it called Gerrard's Wisdom.
The card had become very popular, so, for some reason, we decided we should reference it on his card. We lowered it to 1 life and changed it to care about the opponent's hand as it felt more in line with him fighting the opponent.
With all that said, this card is to me, by far, the biggest failure of all the Weatherlight crew cards. First off, Gerrard is a red-white character. His card was even in Apocalypse, the enemy color set. I have no idea why we didn't choose to make him red-white. Second, his two abilities don't work together mechanically or fit together creatively. Third, for a card that had so much anticipation, we didn't push it at all. It just ended up being a pretty flavorless card that no one wanted to play. So, while I know it was made many years ago, let me officially apologize for this card. I hope in the future we'll be able to make a card that does Gerrard more justice.
And that ends our journey through the design of the Weatherlight crew. As always, I'm interested to hear what you thought of this column and any of the characters or cards I talked about in it. 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 explore where Magic set ideas come from.
Until then, may you have fun playing one of the Weatherlight crew.
In this podcast, I talk about the various ways we create Magic mechanics to answer the question "Where do mechanics come from?"
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