Welcome to Graveyard Week. This week we'll be talking about one of my all-time favorite zones: the graveyard. In fact, it turns out that I'm such a fan of the graveyard that over the years I have made a lot of graveyard cards, mechanics, and even sets. A lot. A lot! It's kind of scary actually. Today and next week I'll be walking you through many of those designs for a firsthand account of how the cards were designed.
I wasn't sure what order to go with, so I decided to go chronologically. (Also note that I'm not hitting every graveyard card I did, just the ones that were most defining.)
One only needs go back to the very first set I designed to discover that my love of the graveyard started early. This card's design would seem like a pretty straightforward story. We wanted an "enters the battlefield" effect (what Ramp;D calls an ETB effect) on a creature, so we used the effect of a common black card from Alpha, Raise Dead. The road to a simple design, though, is never that simple.
For starters, ETB effects on creatures weren't a thing back then. When we (Richard Garfield, Mike Elliott, Charlie Catino, and myself) began working on Tempest design, we were working on Mirage development, meaning I had not yet seen the Visions file, which put ETB creatures on the map with cards like Man-o'-War, Nekrataal, and Uktabi Orangutan. (It was created—Mirage and Visions had been started before Magic even came out—I just hadn't seen it yet.)
Gravedigger came along because we were trying to do something much trickier: draw triggers. During the design I came up with the idea of cards that did something when you drew them. The idea was that the cost of the spell balanced the free spell effect you got upon drawing it (more expensive for a positive effect and cheaper for a negative one). One of the spells was an expensive 2/2 that allowed you to return a creature card from your graveyard when you drew it.
Yes, that card was broken. Yes, we never were able to make draw triggers work. But it did force me to rejigger the card when the draw triggers got removed from the file. My simple solution was to just have the card have its effect happen when it entered the battlefield rather than when it was drawn. And in that roundabout fashion I designed my very first ETB creature.
Intuition is proof that it wasn't my intent to make so many graveyard cards. I didn't even think I was making a graveyard-enabling card when I made it. I just liked the idea of a cheap instant tutor that you couldn't control what you got. But wait, couldn't you just get three of the same card? Yeah, interesting story: I didn't think of that when I made it. Once I saw how the other Ramp;D members were playing it, I explained to them that my intent was for it to be three different cards. They liked how it played as was so they didn't change it. Years later I would fix this problem by making the same card again except the way I intended (much the way that John Hughes remade Pretty in Pink with the movie Some Kind of Wonderful, with swapped genders, ending it the way he wanted and not what the studios made him do—poor Duckie.) This revamped card also turned out to be pretty good. I'll get to it next week.
I believe the original name for this card was Plague Bolt. If you can interpret the playtest name you can deduce its mechanical origin. Yes, this card was designed because I was trying to make a Plague Rats for spells. Since spells don't end up on the battlefield, the only way to track them was to count the number in the graveyard. The "Kindle mechanic," as we call it, proved popular and has been tapped in numerous designs since Tempest (often by me).
Besides graveyard cards, another long history I have in design is making broken cards where I take some old design I loved and attempt to fix it. So, I was a huge fan of Animate Dead and its Ice Age imitator Dance of the Dead. The problem, I felt, was that it was very clunky as an Aura—not conceptually, as everyone got Animate Dead, but more due to the requirements for the text. Why not turn it into a sorcery?
I wanted to keep it cheap, because at the time I felt like one of the defining qualities of these cards was that they were inexpensive (ah, youth). I came up with a way to make it harder to play bigger creatures: I would add a life loss tied into the creature's converted mana cost. This was one of many cards to teach me that "mana restrictions do a much better job limiting access than life restrictions." If paying a lot of life will help you win the game, then players will spend the life. It's not so restrictive.
I loved Lhurgoyf. I felt at the time that it was supposed to be in black as black was more graveyard focused (I've since come to believe that both black and green are allowed a graveyard focus, each for different thematic reasons), so I moved it to black. I added flying to make it feel a little different. If you're unsure how to tell how much I loved Lhurgoyf, read the flavor text of Revenant. I wrote it as a tribute to Lhurgoyf's flavor text. (One of my all time favorite pieces of flavor text.)
These four cards are the answer to an offbeat trivia question: What is the five-card cycle that has one card in the large fall expansion and the other four cards in the small spring expansion? I was so happy with Gravedigger that I finished out the cycle by making these four cards. Another quirky part of this cycle is that one of the card types, enchantment, is never used. (Monk Idealist would appear in the following set, Urza's Saga, so it's possible we left that one out knowing it was coming up.)
Here's another example where I tried to fix an older beloved card. The card in question was Hell's Caretaker from Legends. I changed it from a creature to an enchantment (I'm not sure why, at the time, I thought that would weaken the card), added a cost of returning it to your hand, and made the activation happen only when you could cast a sorcery. What I ended up with was a card far more broken than Hell's Caretaker. (Perhaps you can see why I shifted from being a developer to being a designer.)
The key bit of trivia about Urza's Destiny's design was it was the one design team I've led in which I was the entire design team. One of the things I was very interested in was creating a bunch of cards that you could build new deck archetypes around. I'm very much a die-hard Johnny, so I saw my one-man team as a chance to make a super Johnny-friendly set. (Since that time I've gotten a lot more respect for balancing each set to have interests to all the various types of players rather than skewing heavily to one type.)
Although the books based on the block were called the Artifacts Cycle, it actually had a strong enchantment theme. (Talk about the left hand and the right hand not working together—we're much better about this now). In Urza's Destiny, I was very excited about creating some new "enchantment matters" decks. I liked how All Hallow's Eve (from Legends) had spit all the creatures in the graveyards back onto the battlefield. What if I did that for enchantments? I tweaked it a bit. It only affected your enchantments, and it happened right away.
Interestingly, I thought Replenish was very powerful, so much so that I built my Future Future League deck around it. (Back then, I played in the FFL; I even built my own decks.) My deck was a mono-white deck that used Replenish and Academy Rector to get Yawgmoth's Bargain onto the battlefield. It then used Scent of Jasmine to gain huge amounts of life, allowing me to draw my deck with the Yawgmoth's Bargain. While this deck might sound odd, it won me a lot of FFL matches, which is saying something as I was, and am still, on the lower end of Ramp;D play skill. Despite all this, Replenish was printed at the cost that I turned it in at. I joke that if I realized development wasn't going to change it, I might have priced it higher.
When Michael Ryan and I first came up with the idea for the Weatherlight Saga, we decided that we wanted to make up a crew of characters that would represent all five colors and as many basic character archetypes as we could. One of the obvious archetypes was the comic relief, a character that could generate laughs. Magic made our choice very easy, because the game already had an iconic race dedicated to comic relief: the goblins.
Squee was named after the flavor text of the card Relentless Assault (from Visions). For those unaware of the flavor text's origin, here's the nutshell version. I was on the flavor text team for Visions. I hated the then-flavor text of Relentless Assault. I knew the card would be popular so I wanted it to have good flavor text. I was given until the end of the meeting to come up with something better. I wrote the flavor text that ended up on the card during that meeting. Squee got his name because I needed a goblin-sounding name that rhymed with "tree."
When Mike and I wrote Squee into the first part of the story (our involvement only lasted through Tempest block—but that's a topic for another column), the running joke was that he kept avoiding bodily harm through a combination of fear and luck. When it came time to design his card in Mercadian Masques, I decided it would be fun to play up this flavor. The mechanic of his card constantly coming back was trying to capture this "he just won't die" quality that we found funny. Later books would make this mechanic more literal by making Squee actually impossible to kill. He literally kept coming back from death. (Not exactly where I would have gone with it, but I have to admit a goblin that can't be killed does have plenty of comic possibilities.)
I designed Squee to be Johnny-friendly, but I didn't realize how Spike-friendly he would also become.
The set before Odyssey was Invasion. Invasion was the first block to have a strong mechanic identity. I liked what Invasion did, so when I set out to design Odyssey I made a choice to focus the design around one theme. That theme was the graveyard. Both keyword mechanics, flashback and threshold, revolved around the graveyard, as did many of the cards.
Why did I choose the graveyard theme? It wasn't inspired creatively. As I've mentioned before, it was the disconnect between the graveyard theme and Odyssey's flavor that led Brady Dommermuth and me to come up with what would eventually become Innistrad. I think I ended up with a graveyard theme for the same reason that I made so many graveyard-related cards: There's just something about the graveyard that fascinated me as a designer, and as such, I keep finding myself pulled back to it.
One of my favorite cards in Alpha was Regrowth. I always loved getting a spell back to cast it a second time. Several years ago, I shared the deck I played at the very first Worlds and talked about the deck being able to win on turn two. I had numerous people writing in unable to see the possible turn-two kills. The mistake they almost always made was forgetting about Regrowth (usually with Berserk).
Flash forward to the feature match arena at the Pro Tour. Once upon a time, I used to run the feature match arena as well as judge it. One of the perks of being a feature match judge was that I got to watch a lot of high-profile matches. Whenever one player had a huge advantage on the other, I started making up a little game where I would grant a special ability to the losing player, in my head, and see if that player could come back from the brink.
One day, the special power I gave the losing player was the ability to cast spells out of the graveyard. As I was examining all the possibilities it allowed, it dawned on me that I had just come up with a pretty cool mechanic. I kept the idea locked away and then put it into the first set that it made sense in: Odyssey, a graveyard set.
I was always a fan of Buried Alive from Weatherlight. Odyssey was a graveyard set with many cards that had extra value in the graveyard. I thought it would be neat to have a Buried Alive variant. My tweak was to make it cheaper and an instant but limit it to only one card. This is another card that I thought of as a Johnny card with lots of flexibility. What I hadn't realized was how much Odyssey would change the value of having specific cards in the graveyard. Entomb went on to be a tournament staple that finally had to get banned in some formats.
Shortly after I handed the file over to Randy Buehler, the lead developer for Odyssey, he told me that he thought it might be fun to add a cycle of gold Atogs to the set. He was looking for ways to help players fill up their graveyard, and he thought Atogs might be a fun way to do this. So I was given the design challenge of creating a cycle of allied-color gold Atogs.
I knew the following:
- They were Atogs, meaning they had to eat something and get bigger.
- They were going to start as 1/2 as the vast majority of Atogs were 1/2.
- They had to reflect both of the colors in their mana costs.
After some thinking, I landed on the idea that each Atog would sacrifice the two things its monocolored equivalents did. White would eat enchantments like Auratog. Black would eat cards out of the graveyard like Necratog. Red would eat artifacts like the original Atog. And green would eat land like Foratog. (True Foratog only ate forests but I felt land was in spirit and just more generally useful.) The only problem color was blue because eating time/turns, as Chronatog did, was hard to grok. In the end I went with discarding cards as Odyssey really liked having ways to fill up your graveyard.
Psychatog proved that discarding cards was probably the most powerful ability especially when combined with a second ability that could eat the cards you just discarded. Interestingly, Phantatog and Psychatog had their names reversed for most of development. (Due to a gap in our creative team I was in charge of naming for Odyssey.) I changed them at the last minute because it was clear that Psychatog was the strongest of the Atogs and I thought Psychatog was a better name than Phantatog. Wanting the better card to have the better name I swapped them late in the process.
- End of the Line
I have a lot more cards to talk about but not enough words to do it today. This means next week will be the second part of this column. (Really, the title should have given this away.) I hope you are enjoying me digging up the graveyard's past. Join me next week when I continue my exploration into my enabling of graveyard decks, including my creation of a little mechanic called dredge.
Until then, may you foster things you love.