Fate-ful Stories, Part 1

Posted in Making Magic on January 12, 2015

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.

The Fate Reforged preview weeks are over, which means it's time for me to start telling some card-by-card stories. There are so many stories to tell, in fact, that I've decided to make it a two-parter. Enjoy!

Alesha, Who Smiles at Death

Normally, the second set in a three-set block is the easiest to design. It wants to stay close to the first set, tweaking a few things but leaving room for the third set to make a larger shift. Fate Reforged, though, was hardly the easy set in this block. In fact, for the first time ever, the structure was built around the second set. The fact that this set was the pivot at which both drafts connected became the starting point of design.

There were many issues and I'll touch upon a number of them this week and next, but let's start with one of the bigger ones. Khans of Tarkir is a wedge set. Dragons of Tarkir is not. Fate Reforged would have to both play nicely with a wedge set and play nicely with, well, not a wedge set. How can a card be both wedge and not wedge? Add to that the desire to have more legendary creatures that allowed three-color play in Commander and the Fate Reforged design team had a rather complex puzzle on our hands.

The first piece to solving the puzzle was an understanding of the Commander rules. In Commander, decks have something known as color identity. Here's the actual rule:

903.4. The Commander variant uses color identity to determine what cards can be in a deck with a certain commander. The color identity of a card is the color or colors of any mana symbols in that card's mana cost or rules text, plus any colors defined by its characteristic-defining abilities (see rule 604.3) or color indicator (see rule 204).

Color identity is defined by both colored mana in the card's mana cost and in its rules text. That means that as long as a colored mana symbol appears anywhere on the card (note that currently mana cost and rules text are the only places it's allowed to be) it helps define the commander's color identity. Also, it's important to know that in Commander, a hybrid mana symbol is considered to be a mana symbol of each color. That means a commander having a white-black hybrid symbol is considered to have both a white mana symbol and a black mana symbol, making it both white and black.

What all this meant was that we didn't have to make a three-color card. We merely had to make a card that had three colors represented on it. And by using hybrid mana, we could also make cards that didn't even need three colors to maximize its use. In the end, for this cycle of legendary creatures, we chose to make them all monocolor and then have either an activated or triggered mana ability that would use hybrid mana.

Once the general structure was decided, the next challenge was figuring out the individual designs. Let's take Alesha as an example. She was the Mardu representative. We made her a mono-red card, as red is the center color of the Mardu clan. Because she is a mono-red card, she first needed an ability that was red. Next, as she was a Mardu card, she needed an activated or triggered ability that was white-black hybrid. All of this, by the way, had to match the overall flavor of her faction, which meant it had to be aggressive in nature.

We wanted a creature that wanted to attack, as the Mardu are the most aggressive clan, and 2R for a 3/2 with first strike was an aggressive body. Then we chose to give her an attacking trigger to further encourage her to attack. The trickiest part was what was an ability that either white or black could do that you would want as an attack trigger? Remember that the ability itself wanted to be aggressive in nature. The team explored with the idea of making tokens but that was something just red could do.

One of the areas of overlap between white and black is reanimation. Both colors can take creature cards from the graveyard and put them onto the battlefield. The problem is that white is more limited, as it can only do so with smaller creatures. (Black is the best at reanimation.) The key was to take the overlap, which is white's ability, and grant that. You can reanimate a creature with power 2 or less and have it enter the battlefield tapped and attacking. Mardu was the clan with the cheapest creatures, so this fit well into the play pattern Mardu wanted. All five of the cards in this cycle proved to be tricky to design.

Atarka, World Render; Dromoka, the Eternal; Kolaghan, the Storm's Fury; Ojutai, Soul of Winter; Silumgar, the Drifting Death

If you're traveling to the past of a world where all dragons are extinct, it's a pretty safe bet that the audience has one big expectation—dragons. The big question was what role would our cycle of rare Dragons take? The answer came from looking at Khans of Tarkir. Even though the dragons are all dead in modern-day Tarkir, the presence of the dragons was still felt through the clans, each of which idolized one aspect of the dragon. What if these five Dragons were the personification (or should I say dragonification) of each attribute? The Dragons were made allied colors such that each one clearly only fit into one clan. Which Dragon, for example, represented the endurance of the dragon? The green-white dragon, because that color combination only shows up in the Abzan. Two-color enemy pairs show up in two different clans.

Other than being in an ally color pair (with only one colored mana from each color) and epitomizing the appropriate clan attribute, each Dragon was free to do whatever it wanted. The mana didn't have to line up. The power/toughness didn't have to line up. Being a cycle of ally-colored Dragons was enough to make them feel connected.

Cloudform, Lightform, Rageform

Manifest is proto-morph, meaning it's the morph of the past. That meant we got one set to play around with it and see what we could do. One idea the design team came up with was a series of Auras that manifested as you played them and then entered the battlefield attached to the manifest creature. Just one problem: the rules didn't allow it. Auras target when cast and that was too early for the manifest to have already happen. The answer was to turn these into enchantments that have a triggered ability to turn into Auras when they enter the battlefield. That way, they would become Auras at the same time the manifest creatures were formed, and thus could attach to them. The cards ended up reading a bit quirky but we liked the gameplay, so the development team chose to let them stay.

Crux of Fate

One of the important things for any set is to have at least one theme that embodies the essence of what your set is and what sets it apart from other sets. For Fate Reforged, that thing was the idea of choice. The entire set sits on the crossroads of time and is the forked path that leads to two different timelines (represented by Khans of Tarkir and Dragons of Tarkir). To capture this feel, we wanted the set to give you, the player, a lot of decisions where you had a similar feel, where you were at your own crossroads. Some of these decisions would be more card-centric but some would be more story-centric. Crux of Fate is clearly the latter.

Early in design, we tried to come up with some larger spells where you had to choose between the khans and the dragons. Nowhere was this message clearer than on Crux of Fate. We occasionally like making black creature sweepers and this one felt epic. You could destroy all the dragons or everything but. That felt thematic and we knew would be a cool card to play.

Meanwhile, when the exploratory design team first stumbled upon the idea of a time-travel story, we just outlined the role each set had to play. The first set would be a troubled world visited by our hero. When the hero gets the opportunity to go back in time, the hero takes it as a chance to right some wrong of the past. The second set would be the past world, where both timelines still existed as possibilities. Then, once the events of the second set happened, there would be a third set where we return to the present to find the alternative timeline.

What the troubled world was, why it was troubled, who the hero was, what needed to get changed, what happen when the change occurred—all that was left up to the creative team. We had created a structure to design around, but the details were left to the experts in crafting the story and world. Once Tarkir was chosen it was clear we were starting with a dragonless warlord world and would end up in a world where the dragons weren't all extinct. That meant the past had to have some key component where the hero could change everything.

The creative team knew Ugin would be involved (more on that next week, as I get to Ugin's card) but wanted something epic. It was then that they realized there had been an epic event already hinted at in Magic's past—the battle between Ugin and Nicol Bolas. Clearly, at least one card in the set had to focus on this momentous battle. Crux of Fate was chosen as the ideal spot to do this.

Once Crux of Fate had its name and art added to its mechanic, it became clear that this card was not just important, it was key to the entire story. In fact, long before we even knew the preview plan, we knew one card had to be the first card previewed, and that was Crux of Fate. It showed the key story event, it played up the set's major theme, and it was just a very cool card.

The basic design happened early and never changed, but the card did generate a lot of discussion. The cards that forced you to choose between things flavored as favoring the khans and things flavored as favoring the dragons were tricky (note not all choice cards specifically hit this larger story theme—I'll get to those later). When we just gave you two choices, the larger thematic choice wasn't always clear. Getting that one side was the khans side and one side was the dragons side was very hard to read from card mechanics. In the end, it was decided that we just needed to be more blunt, so we literally made you choose "Khans" or "Dragons." Even that was up to some debate as dragons are a creature type and thus an already existing Magic term with certain baggage, but in the end, the names of the two large sets seemed like they weighed heavily enough for us to just use the words.

Daghatar the Adamant

This card was designated as the Abzan clan, as white is the center color of Abzan. Abzan is the clan of endurance, so it wanted to be a card that fit the slower, defensive style of play. The design started by making Daghatar a 4/4 creature with vigilance for 3W. The trick was finding a black-green ability that could make sense on a defensive 4/4. Black and green overlap on two creature abilities—deathtouch and regeneration. Deathtouch had been associated with the Sultai so that was off limits. Regeneration made sense but was pretty boring. This cycle wanted slightly more dynamic abilities.

The key to solving this puzzle was to look at the Abzan. What was the clan doing gameplay-wise that Daghatar could take advantage of? Both abilities, outlast from Khans of Tarkir and bolster from Fate Reforged, made use of +1/+1 counters. Because of that, the clan had numerous cards that cared about +1/+1 counters and often granted abilities to creatures with +1/+1 counters. Was there a way for Daghatar to make use of +1/+1 counters?

Green is king of +1/+1 counters mechanically, so it could do almost anything with them. Black, on the other hand, was a little more limited. Black tended to get +1/+1 counters, but usually at other creatures' expenses. Hmm, what if we turned that idea on its ear? What if black used the ability a little backwards? What if the +1/+1 counter generation was at the expense of the creature it was on? Rather than have Daghatar be a 4/4, it could be a 0/0 with four +1/+1 counters. Then it could have an activated ability that could move them to other creatures. It was a little bit of a stretch for black but close enough to things black could do that we let the good gameplay and clan matching carry the day.

Formless Nurturing

One of the questions I get all the time is do face-down creatures have to be 2/2? Why don't we make them 3/3 or 4/4 or even sometimes 1/1? And the answer has to do with the rules. The rules have to define a face-down card as a singular thing, because at the time, nothing else is known about it. There's no way to distinguish between a 2/2 and a 3/3, so it's not something the rules allow.

Knowing that players have been asking for non-2/2 face-down cards, we made this card. This card makes a face-down 3/3. Okay, it has to use a +1/+1 counter to achieve this but you work with the tools you have. This might be my favorite manifest card because it is so simple yet has a surprising amount of depth. If you are able to turn a manifest creature made by this card face up, it retains the +1/+1 counter, so this allows you to create creatures with slightly different stats. Add into this that the set has cards that care about +1/+1 counters, as well as a creature's power and/or toughness, and this is a card that has a lot of sweet interactions.

Ghastly Conscription

When manifest was first designed, it only put cards from the top of your library onto the battlefield. At one of our exploratory design meetings, I asked the team to broaden the mechanic. "See what happens if you can put cards onto the battlefield face-down from other zones." One of the cards generated was an early version of this card and it was what convinced me that manifest didn't have to always be from the top of the library.

Hooded Assassin

As I explained above, the set has a choice theme that plays up the crossroads-of-history feel of the set. At higher rarities, you get to choose between "khans" and "dragons," but that was a little much for common. What we wanted at common was a cycle of creatures that gave you an interesting choice when you cast them that would play out over the course of the rest of the game. You would have your own mini-crossroads moment when you played it.

The idea was simple. When the creature entered the battlefield, you could choose to either put a +1/+1 counter on the creature or get a spell effect. The +1/+1 counter would play out more over time while the spell effect was something you would get right away. The tricky part of the design is we wanted to make a choice where one answer wasn't clearly always correct. The key was finding an effect that was equivalent to your creature permanently being +1/+1.

The other nice thing about this effect is it played well with other aspects of the set. Some of the Abzan cards cared if you had a +1/+1 counter. Ferocious cared about the size of your creatures. Raid allowed you to get use out of the small creatures if you opted for the spell rather than the +1/+1 counter. The more we played with this cycle the more we loved how interactive the choices were.

Hooded Assassin is a fine example for this cycle. You get a choice between a 1/2 or a 2/3. The 2/3 is valuable because of morph and manifest being in the block. Killing a creature is also quite valuable but it requires a little hoop jumping as the creature has to be damaged. One of my favorite tricks with the Hooded Assassin is to attack with a 1/1 into a larger creature. The opponent assumes you're attacking to get raid and blocks and then you get to bring in the Hooded Assassin, killing the creature.

Jeskai Runemark

Hybrid was one tool to make three-color cards that weren't three-color cards. The Runemark Auras (I'm talking about the Jeskai one here but there's one for each clan in the clan's center color) are another. The Auras are all 2C (where C stands for a colored mana) for +2/+2 plus a keyword if you have a permanent of the color of one of the other two colors in the clan. For the Jeskai Runemark, that's red or white. Note that the ability gained is still in the color pie of the color of the card. For example, flying is a blue ability.

Folding the Cards

That's all the time we have for today. I hope you've enjoyed Part 1 of my jaunt through the cards of Fate Reforged. As always, I would love feedback on this article. Feel free to write to me through email or contact me through any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week for Part 2, as the design stories continue.

Until then, may you take the time to see what stories each card can tell you.

"Drive to Work #190—Card Being Made"

Mark talks about the process of how a card is made, from the blank page to holding it in your hand.

"Drive to Work #191—World Building"

Matt Cavotta joins Mark to talk about what the creative team must do to create a new world every year.

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