Don't Boros With the Details
In case you haven't seen the new Boros keyword, battalion, let me start by showing it to you.
Last week, I showed in detail how evolve came out of the second Great Designer Search. Battalion came from the exact same place—just a different designer: Shawn Main. Shawn had created a world named Wodotha. His one-liner describing it was this: A crumbling world in a state of total war. Part of this world was a mysterious force called the blight, which was slowly eating away the world. Shawn started building Wodotha by trying to make a mechanic that represented the blight. In week two, Shawn realized his set needed something more. Here's what he wrote about battalion's creation: (Note that Shawn called the mechanic "assault"—that was also its design name in Gatecrash.)
The breakthrough moment came after contemplating what the world of Wodotha might look like: small bands of survivors, fleeing blighted lands, driven into conflict with their neighbors. Mechanically, this brought me to the assault mechanic. There was often an air of desperation to the combat it set up, which felt very appropriate and it played well, even in blue, even against blight. I imagine assault to be a central mechanic in each color. I toyed with the idea of "battle plan" assault enchantments like Zendikar's quests or assault spells like Worldwake's landfall instants, but both had a complexity that felt inappropriate for first-set commons.
Shawn talks about blue because during the second week's challenge, they were asked to design commons from their set in a color of my choosing—and I chose what I thought would be the hardest color for them. For this reason, the very first assault card ever submitted was blue:
Assault- Whenever three or more creatures you control attack, Skydive Ambusher gets +2/+2 and gains flying until end of turn.
MR: Assault could be an interesting mechanic—in the right color. I could see this mechanic in just about any color save blue. For starters, blue is the color most focused on spells and least focused on creatures. Traditionally, in common in a large set, blue has the smallest number of creatures. Besides being a misfire on the color pie, it also doesn't work for me philosophically. You've done a lot of work to play up blue's love of knowledge. Where does assault come from? Blue isn't the "run into battle" color. No, blue likes to take its time thinking through the repercussions of its actions before it ever acts.
Assuming assault can work in blue (a big "if" in my mind), the design of this card seems pretty clean. There's the issue of whether or not you're supposed to count this card with its bonus, but templating can solve that issue. I do like how the timing works out well allowing you to get your flyer before it can be blocked by a ground creature.
Two weeks later, Shawn resubmitted the mechanic, now in white:
Assault—Whenever you attack with three or more creatures, CARDNAME gets +1/+1 and gains first strike until end of turn.
MR: You put assault into a color where it makes sense. (For the readers, Shawn Main previously had this effect in blue, which I called him out on.) On blue, the mechanic seems out of place; on white, it's a perfect fit. I like this card and I think it will play well.
I want to point out that other than the blue misstep (which was more about working within the confines he had been given) Shawn nailed battalion out of the gate. He even managed to figure out that it was an ability word and not a keyword. He also got the right number of attackers and was pretty in the ballpark about the types of bonuses. There was one thing that I felt he was slightly off on but we'll get to that in a moment.
So, when Gatecrash started, I knew I had two mechanics in my pocket—evolve and battalion. One of the many reasons we do Great Designer Searches is to create new material, and both these mechanics were solid. More so than that, each mechanic perfectly fit a guild (Simic and Boros, respectively), both of which were in Gatecrash.
I talked Simic last week, so let's focus on Boros. I knew I wanted Boros to have an aggressive combat-oriented mechanic. Of all ten guilds, Boros is the fastest, most aggressive color combination. Boros wastes no time building an army and attacking. That meant I needed a mechanic that supported a weenie rush strategy.
In addition, I felt like the guild I let down most during the first Ravnica block was Boros. I feel like their original mechanic, radiance, was the least flavorful and didn't play as well in the archetype as I had hoped. I felt strongly that I had to make sure this time I got it right.
That's why I was excited by battalion. It was exactly what a weenie rush deck wanted. It also was a mechanic that encouraged a low-end mana curve, which was what red-white provides. I only had one issue with Shawn's mechanic. It was clearly the intent that the creature with battalion should be attacking, as the bonus usually didn't mean anything if it wasn't in combat, but I've learned that mechanics work better when they're less subtle about what they want you to do. By changing it to require the creature to attack along with two other creatures, it better sets up what the player is supposed to be doing. In addition, I felt the flavor was more solid.
Like evolve, battalion entered the file early and stayed all the way through. Cipher wasn't such an easy path.
Dimir Has Two Faces
So if you looked at a god book study of the original Ravnica, what card rated the highest of the whole set?
What was second?
These two facts, combined with a whole bunch of other data, pointed to one pretty compelling fact: a lot of players like milling. For those who might not know Magic slang, milling is the effect where you put some number of cards from a player's library into the graveyard. The term comes from a card called Millstone from Antiquities,Magic's second-ever expansion, which was the first card to ever have this effect in the game.
This effect plays into the fact that players lose the game if they are ever unable to draw a card. (Note: You don't lose for having an empty library, you lose for being unable to draw a card.) Richard Garfield put this rule into the game to make sure the game ended if it ever became stalemated. Millstone showed up in Antiquities and all of a sudden a new style of deck was born. Usually called a milling deck, the deck beats you by running you out of cards rather than through damage.
How exactly did the Dimir become synonymous with milling? As the lead designer of Ravnica, I'll explain. Just as Golgari is about the graveyard, because black and green are the two colors that interact with the graveyard the most, Dimir is about the library, because blue and black interact with the library the most. This is both positively, to help yourself with things like tutoring, drawing, and card sifting, and negatively, with things like milling and exiling specific cards from the opponent's library.
For those who haven't read through my archive, I have a soft spot for alternative win conditions. I obviously am poison's number one fan and I've made more alternative win cards than any other designer (Battle of Wits being my most famous alt-win design to date). Because of this, I've been a huge fan of milling. Look for sets with a milling theme and odds are I was the lead designer of the set.
So there I was in charge of designing Dimir. Milling fit not only mechanically, but just nailed the flavor of the Dimir. They are sneaky and underhanded and they tend to win in ways the opponent can't see coming. Milling was right up their alley, so I made it a subtheme of the guild—a second way to win. Anyway, that's how milling became a thing in Dimir.
It's seven years later and once again, I'm leading a set with Dimir in it. I remembered all the data and I said to my team that the Dimir mechanic was going to revolve around milling. I just made a decree. We played around with a bunch of different milling variants. What I wanted was something that gave a twist to the mechanic.
One day, I decided to play around with the idea of milling a random amount of cards. I liked the idea that each time you milled the opponent, there would be some drama. We experimented with various ideas but the one that played the best was this: the mechanic would name a number and then the opponent milled until they milled that many lands. Lands proved to be the best marker, as we knew every deck would have them, and roughly in the same percentage. We called this mechanic "grind."
Grind did what we wanted, but much like propagate in Selesnya in Return to Ravnica, it required a second tier of cards. Propagate needed token making and grind needed cards that cared that things had been milled. This was important because it made the grind cards relevant even in decks that weren't necessarily trying to mill out the opponent. The easiest way to do this was with cards that cared about what was in the opponent's graveyard. This theme played easily into black but was a little more of a stretch for blue.
A lot of the development team had issues with grind. The biggest was that it didn't play nicely with the other guilds. Most of the other mechanics could be mixed and matched, meaning even if you were playing another guild, you could still play monocolored cards with a different guild's mechanic. They were right, but I was being a little stubborn. I really felt a milling keyword would be very popular. I spent a deal of time fighting to keep grind as the guild keyword, but I could read the writing on the wall.
As it turns out, I was very close to handing off the file to Mark Gottlieb, so I explained everything to him and let him make the call. The option he chose was the one he and I had talked about—keep grind in the set but on fewer cards and not keyworded. That meant the guild was going to need a new keyword. Luckily, as I saw this coming, I worked on something.
Before I move onto that keyword, I want to show you today's preview card, because it makes use of the grind mechanic. In fact, the card is named Mind Grind>> Click to Show
Hopefully, Mind Grind demonstrates that Dimir isn't forgetting the milling fans (and remember, the set has more grind cards). Grind's not the guild keyword but there's enough to build a deck around.
With that out of the way, let's get onto cipher.
One of the things we did during design was to list a primary and secondary way for each guild to win. For a while, Dimir's primary way to win was milling. Its secondary route to victory was a slower controlling deck that used evasion to sneak in and finish off the opponent. This meant we were giving Dimir a little higher evasion than the other guilds in the set. This was easy to do, as blue and black are slightly higher in evasion. Before we removed grind as the keyword mechanic, I agreed to swap the primary and secondary routes to victory. That meant Dimir would have a strong evasion theme. Was there some way to take advantage of this?
I flashed back to Mirrodin design and imprint (I'm talking about the original block and not Scars of Mirrodin). One of the cards I designed was a creature that allowed you to imprint an instant or sorcery from your hand. Then whenever the creature dealt combat damage, the imprinted spell would go off. I don't remember why that card didn't make it to print but I've always liked the design. This got me to thinking about trying something similar.
I started, though, from the other direction. Instead of having a creature that could imprint spells onto it, what if we had spells that could imprint themselves onto creatures as combat damage triggers? Note that I messed around in similar space when I made the splice mechanic in Champions of Kamigawa block. The splice mechanic grafted itself onto instants and sorceries (with the Arcane subtype). This time, I was trying to graft the spell onto creatures. The idea was half imprint and half splice.
Gottlieb brought up that we could just make the cards as Auras but we've done tons of combat-damage-triggered Auras, so it didn't seem like a new mechanic. I suggested instants that permanently grafted the ability onto creatures a la splice. Gottlieb suggested we allow it to resolve first as a spell and then attach. (Note I'm using the word "attach" in the vernacular and not in Magic rules speak.) This would allow the caster to get one guaranteed use out of the card and most often a second use, as the opponent wouldn't yet know he or she had to block the creature. I loved the suggestion and made the change.
I should note before I continue on that newly hired designer Dan Emmons designed a mechanic similar to cipher in his design test as one of the 101 designers to advance past the multiple-choice test in the Great Designer Search 2. I read 101 tests in a few day period, so it's all a blur in my head, but it's very possible that my subconscious liked what Dan had done and some of it stuck as I was searching for a Dimir mechanic.
Cipher played well in playtests but it proved to be a difficult mechanic to design for because the band of effects that worked was on the narrow side. Luckily, guild mechanics are perfect for mechanics that have a little—but not a lot of—space, as they only have to make it on a dozen or so cards. I really liked the feel of the mechanic and felt we had nailed Dimir. Development was more nervous about the mechanic but I'll leave that tale for a future Latest Developments column. All in all, it worked out and we have a new Dimir mechanic.
One quick note before I wrap for the day. A number of people online have compared cipher to haunt, which I've publicly stated I felt was a mistake. Why is cipher okay when haunt was not? The answer has a lot to do with what I call intuitive design. I don't mind a little complexity if the mechanic works the way everyone expects it to. The reason I feel cipher succeeds is the idea of grafting a spell effect as a combat mechanic is easier to wrap one's head around than a permanent or spell that has an effect or enters-the-battlefield effect that then becomes grafted onto a creature as a death trigger. Haunt might just seem like an extra step, but it's that added change that can make an idea hard to wrap one's brain around.
The differences are subtle, but they are the difference between something that can be understood with one explanation rather than multiple. A lot of this comes from playtesting with people new to the mechanic to see what concepts are sticky and which ones are not.
Three Down, Two to Go
That's all the time I have for today. Fans of Orzhov and Gruul, come back next week for the final column in this three-parter, where I explain how we ended up with the final two guild keywords.
Join me next week when it's Gruul to be kind.
Until then, may you attack with weenie swarms or precision strike with sneaky spies.
Drive to Work
- Episode 15 : Codenames (14.6 MB)
- Episode 14 : The Pro Tour (14.4 MB)
- Episode 13 : Unglued (18.9 MB)
- Episode 12 : The Great Designer Search (1 & 2) (14.4 MB)
- Episode 11 : Ten Things Every Game Needs (14.8 MB)