As Good as Gold

Posted in Making Magic on September 4, 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.

Next week is the first Guilds of Ravnica Preview Week. Last week, I ran through the designs of Ravnica and Return to Ravnica blocks. Today, I thought I'd take a look at the design of some iconic cards, one from each of the ten guilds. I got these cards by going on Twitter and asking what you all thought were the most iconic multicolor cards from each guild. I'm going to discuss the top pick for each one.

Azorius (White-Blue)

Sphinx's Revelation from Return to Ravnica

One of the trickiest parts of designing multicolor cards is that you have to get the feel of both colors. For example, if you're making a white-blue card, it needs to feel both white and blue. This tends to make multicolor cards a bit wordier than the average monocolor card, because you have to get two different effects on the card.

There are a couple ways to skirt this issue. You can make a single effect that both colors can do, but now that hybrid cards are something we make with regularity, we tend to save those effects for hybrid. You can do a single effect that neither can do by itself but can do when the colors overlap (black-green destroying a permanent is a good example). Or, you can pick two effects that have very short rules text so combining them is no longer than the text of a single effect. Sphinx's Revelation takes this path.

"Gain N life" (R&D uses "N" to mean any number) and "Draw N cards" are both simple, flavorful abilities. They also are both things you want in a control deck, as they help you do two things control decks want to do: hold off the opponent and get more resources to continue holding them off until your deck can gain control of the game. The first time Azorius showed up (in Dissension), the Standard metagame at the time forced us from pushing Azorius as a control deck archetype, so although we stumbled upon the clean life-gain-plus-card-draw combo, it wasn't something we could push.

When Azorius came back in Return to Ravnica, that was no longer an issue, so we chose to actively steer into the control archetype for Azorius. Sphinx's Revelation came about because we were trying to make a tournament-viable version of "gain life plus draw cards." In the end, we chose to make it an X spell because that allowed the deck the greatest amount of versatility. We put one white and two blue in the mana cost, because we wanted both to use X, and card drawing is the more powerful effect.

Dimir (Blue-Black)

Glimpse the Unthinkable from Ravnica

Every time we've designed a Dimir mechanic, we've been tempted to build it around milling (putting cards directly from a player's library into their graveyard). Each time we ended up going a different direction for the keyword mechanic, but still put in a strong milling theme. Glimpse the Unthinkable came about because we were interested in the following question: if we made the cheapest blue-black card possible (two mana, as we wanted it to be a traditional gold card and not hybrid), how many cards could it mill?

I went around to each R&D member and wrote down their answer. We hadn't made a lot of cheap milling spells at the time, so there was a bit of variance in the answers I got. In the end, the original version of the card milled eight cards. In development, they realized that the milling theme was working out well, so they decided to push the card and upped it from eight to ten. When the change was made, I said, "If I'd known we could have done ten cards, I would have started there."

Rakdos (Black-Red)

Rakdos's Return from Return to Ravnica

One of the other tricky things about designing multicolor cards is that you have to make the two effects of the card feel connected. It's not just enough to do a black thing and a red thing, you want to make those two things feel as if they're joined in a way that makes the card have a singular feel. There are a bunch of ways to do this.

First, you can have the two effects have synergy with one another. That way the combined effect feels more as if it's one spell rather than two unrelated spells. Second, the two effects can be paralleled in some way. For instance, both could use the same number in the size of their effect. This overlap of components helps aesthetically make them feel connected. Third, the effects can be mirrored. For example, the first effect moves something from one zone to a second zone while the second ability moves something from the second zone to the first one. The audience will recognize that there is a relationship between the two effects which will help them feel connected.

Fourth, both effects can have the same target. If you're targeting a creature, the second effect could target that creature's controller as it feels connected. This is the technique that Rakdos's Return uses. The reason this works so well is it encourages the player to find a way to flavorfully connect the two. In this case, the damage from the spell is causing memory loss. This makes it feel like the spell is doing one thing even though two effects occur.

Gruul (Red-Green)

Borborygmos Enraged from Gatecrash

When trying to figure out how we wanted to represent each guild, I went and talked with Brady Dommermuth (see last week's article for how he came up with the guilds). We talked through various ten-card cycles that would involve each guild (and be broken up over the course of the block). One cycle we agreed on was a cycle of guild leaders. Gruul proved to be the toughest guild to make a leader for because Gruul was the guild least about structure. What if the leader is just the biggest, strongest member that others look up to simply because they're so big and strong?

With that in mind, the creative team came up with the idea of a cyclops leader. (Borborygmos, by the way, is derived from a word that means "the rumbling of the stomach.") The original Borborygmos captures the flavor that he was a creature that inspired those around him, but it didn't really capture the flavor of a wild cyclops. With Return to Ravnica, we wanted to fix this.

Borborygmos was designed top-down from the idea that he likes to throw trees at people. How exactly can you do that? We started by having him sacrifice a land, but that plays against the general play pattern of Gruul; Gruul wants to constantly be building up. That led to the idea of discarding a land. That was better, but it still slowed you down from building up your mana base. What if the card helped you get more land in your hand. Borborygmos flavorfully likes attacking, so what if we gave him a combat damage trigger that helped you get lands?

To avoid constant reshuffling, we had you look at the top of your library. We chose to have you look at three cards, so sometimes, you'd be able to draw more than one land, allowing you to both play a land and throw one. Borborygmos kept trample (his original version had it) and was changed to a 7/6 from his original 6/7. This allowed him to get through much of the time and fuel his tree throwing.

Because there are those who will ask, yes, we originally considered only having him discard Forests as he's throwing trees, but we found the gameplay was just better if he could throw any land. Many lands, we figured, had trees.

Selesnya (Green-White)

Voice of Resurgence from Dragon's Maze

In Limited Edition (Alpha), there was a card called Keldon Warlord whose power and toughness were equal to the number of creatures you had on the battlefield. It was a cool design to put on a creature because it would always be at least a 1/1, as it counted itself. I eventually convinced R&D that the ability made more sense in green than red, so the ability was moved. Then years later at an R&D meeting, the idea came up that maybe this ability should be white rather than green, as white is more about the army of little creatures. There was much discussion, but eventually the ability was moved to primary in white and secondary in green.

Voice of Resurgence came about because it was a creature that made creature tokens with this ability. As the ability straddles white and green, and it revolved around the theme of rewarding a lot of creatures, it seemed like the perfect design for Selesnya. Many triggers were explored, but in the end, we chose to trigger off the opponent playing spells. I believe in development, the death trigger was added to make the card tournament viable. The card felt like a wonderful mythic rare.

We had initially chosen to turn the card into Emmara Tandris, as she was one of the major characters in the Return to Ravnica block story (told in the novella The Secretist written by Doug Beyer). The story had ten characters, one per guild, that were each their guild's representative for something called the Implicit Maze. Originally, the ten legendary characters were split between rare and mythic rare, but we decided it was odd to split the cycle across rarities, so we moved all the mythic rare cards to rare. Voice of Resurgence mechanically felt very mythic rare, so we kept the card at mythic rare and changed an existing rare into Emmara.

Orzhov (White-Black)

Ghost Council of Orzhova from Guildpact

The Orzhov guild is run by a council of ghosts, so the challenge with this design was capturing the feel of a committee of undead Spirits. Because Spirits were in white and we were trying to capture their ephemeral and sneaky qualities, we leaned a bit onto flickering (exiling a permanent for a certain duration of time and then returning it to the battlefield). We liked the idea that the Ghost Council was hard to kill because it could disappear at any time.

To match the feel of Orzhov, we made the flickering ability require a creature sacrifice. We then gave it an "enters-the-battlefield" ability to trigger whenever it is cast or flickered. We chose draining the opponent for 1 life because it played into the "bleeder" archetype we were positioning Orzhov in. (A "bleeder" deck is one that slowly nibbles away at the opponent while gumming up the board so nothing substantial can happen.) Both the creature sacrifice and draining also helped the card feel black, as flickering is a white ability.

To allow us to maximize the power/toughness-to-cost ratio, we put double mana of both white and black in the mana cost. We chose to keep the activation cheap and generic to make it hard to kill the Ghost Council.

Izzet (Blue-Red)

Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind from Guildpact

Niv-Mizzet is the leader and founder of the Izzet guild. "Izzet" comes from his name. He's a super-intelligent Dragon. (Magic has a bunch of these.) The card design stemmed from us trying to figure out how to design a blue-red "smart Dragon." We liked the idea that card drawing mattered, as card drawing represents knowledge, and Niv-Mizzet hoards knowledge as the most important commodity. Card drawing is very blue, so we wanted to find a way to tie it to red. The most obvious effect was direct damage.

The next big leap was the idea of making card drawing the trigger. We liked it because the game naturally has one card draw a turn, so the card would always be doing something each turn, but if you can figure out ways to draw more cards, you can increase the card's effectiveness. We put an additional card-drawing ability on Niv-Mizzet both to make the card better and create more interaction. He's a 4/4 flying creature because, you know, Dragon.

For those who are confused by the flavor text, let me explain. Take the first section "(Z–>)90º" It's saying to take that whole expression and turn it 90 degrees (clockwise). When looked at from that angle, the shapes spell out "NIV." Do the same with the second section: (E–N2W) 90º. That will read "MIZE." You're supposed to add a second z because it's to the second power. Finally, "t=1," meaning add a t at the end. Put it all together and you get "NIV-MIZZET."

Golgari (Black-Green)

Deathrite Shaman from Return to Ravnica

Deathrite Shaman is a pretty complex design. For starters, it's a hybrid design, which means it has to overlap abilities found in black and green. Deathrite Shaman cheats on this a little, though. Before we get to that, let's talk about the actual hybrid part. It's a 1/2 for b/g. Traditional multicolor cards can't cost one, as they require at least one colored mana from both colors. Hybrid cards allow us to get multicolor cards at one mana, so Deathrite Shaman is taking advantage of this (and you'll notice we tend to do a bunch of one-drop hybrid cards in Ravnica sets because of this).

The first ability, allowing you to exile land cards to get mana, is technically in both colors. Green can just tap for mana and black is allowed to get mana if it spends some resource to get it. The other two abilities each require colored mana because it allows the card to do things only allowed in one of the two colors. The abilities not only do in-color things but are mirrors with one another. The black ability makes the opponent lose 2 life, while the green ability gains you 2 life.

Now, let's talk about the card requirements for each ability. To tie all three abilities together, each requires a specific card type be exiled from a graveyard (note it doesn't have to be yours). We considered all the cards exiling any card, but the design was a little too strong (assuming we wanted to keep it at one mana to cast). We ended up putting restrictions on each ability to limit what various cards could be used for.

A land card was the perfect fit for the mana-generating ability. Mechanically, it's also hard to get land cards into your graveyard early, so this also served as a safeguard for the ability. The green ability used creatures mostly because it's the most benign ability, the one we were willing to let you activate the most often. Also, the flavor of eating dead creatures for energy as food was spot on. For the black ability, we were left with any of the other card types (artifacts, enchantments, instants, sorceries, and planeswalkers). We chose instants and sorceries, one, because they thematically felt like they would go together, and two, because they're the card types most likely to end up in the graveyard.

It all comes together to make a very potent and flavorful package.

Boros (Red-White)

Lightning Helix from Ravnica

This is an odd design in that the majority of the time spent wasn't in creating it, but in discussing whether we should print it. You see, white is the color of life gain and red is the color of direct damage, so combining the two feels pretty red-white. The problem was that we do this effect all the time—in mono-black as what we call a "drain effect." Was it okay that red and white came together to make something we normally do in mono-black?

The Ravnica Design team thought so, but it became on ongoing debate topic in the Pit. We actually had an entire meeting about it where the topic was heatedly discussed for a whole hour. In the end, no one could make a compelling argument why we shouldn't do it. The best argument was that it would "feel" wrong, but I countered that the component pieces felt so in-color that the audience would be okay with it. Obviously, we were correct.

Simic (Green-Blue)

Coiling Oracle from Dissension

Coiling Oracle is a good example of a subtle design technique I call "interweaving," where you take two distinct different effects and combine them so it reads as a singular effect. Let me explain. Blue is allowed to draw cards as an effect. It often uses card draw as an enters-the-battlefield effect. Green is allowed to get lands onto the battlefield from the library, either by searching it or by looking at some number of cards on top of it.

If we made a 1/1 that looked at the top card of your library when it entered the battlefield and put that card onto the battlefield if it was a land, that could be a mono-green card. If we made a 1/1 that look at the top card of your library when it entered the battlefield and put it into your hand if it was a nonland, that could be a mono-blue card. The beauty of Coiling Oracle is that it takes both effects and puts them together on a card, but because they are the opposites of one another, an effect always happens. This makes the effect feel like one effect rather than two.

Going for the Gold

That's all the time I have for today. I hope you enjoyed my peek back at some famous guild cards from yesteryear. As always, I'm eager to hear your feedback on my column or on any of the cards I talked about. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week as I start to tell the design story of Guilds of Ravnica.

#567: Magic Evolution, Part 5
#567: Magic Evolution, Part 5


This is another in my series where I go through Magic sets and talk about what each one added to design technology. In this podcast, I talk about original Mirrodin block.

#568: Throwing Parties
#568: Throwing Parties


My wife and I love throwing parties, so in this podcast, I talk about the numerous lessons we've learned over the years and how I've been able to apply those lessons to designing Magic sets.

Latest Making Magic Articles


Guild to Order, Part 2 by, Mark Rosewater

Hello, everyone! Last week, I started talking about how Guilds of Ravnica was designed and introduced you to the Vision Design team. I only got to one of the four guilds, so I'm back toda...

Learn More


Guild to Order, Part 1 by, Mark Rosewater

Welcome to the first Guilds of Ravnica Preview Week. Today, I'm going to start telling you about the design of Guilds of Ravnica. I'm also going to introduce you to the Vision Design team...

Learn More



Making Magic Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All

We use cookies on this site to personalize content and ads, provide social media features and analyze web traffic. By clicking YES, you are consenting for us to set cookies. (Learn more about cookies)

No, I want to find out more