Grave Consequences, Part 2

Posted in Making Magic on November 21, 2011

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.

Last week was Graveyard Week, so I decided to start talking about the design of some graveyard cards, mechanics and sets I've done. Turns out that I'm kind of fond of the graveyard and have done more than my share of graveyard cards, enough that I wasn't able to fit it all into one column. Today I'll talk about some more contributions I've made to graveyard-based strategies.

The design for this card was inspired by a card (a non-graveyard one) that I made a few years earlier. Hint: it was during the first set I led. Care to take a guess?

Click here to see the answer.

The card was Lobotomy from Tempest. That card was inspired by its name. I wanted to create a spell that was a lobotomy. The idea behind it was that you were removing all memory of a spell from a wizard, thus preventing them from ever being able to cast it.

The thing I enjoyed about Lobotomy was that I liked that the card put pressure on players to not always play four of a card. I liked the idea that design could encourage a little variety in deck building. Maybe instead of four of a card, you use three and then choose a slightly different card to fill that last slot.

Anyway, I was looking for another Lobotomy-style card, something that would remove cards from the game. Odyssey was a graveyard set, so instead of going after the hand as I had in Tempest, I liked the idea of going after the graveyard. The first version of the card just took one card, almost exactly Lobotomy but getting the card from a different zone. Playtesting showed that it wasn't different enough, so I decided to try ratcheting it up. Instead of one card, why not all cards? (Okay, other than basic land—I had some restraint.) The card was strong but not broken, so we went with the "all-out" version.

Most people don't realize that Deep Analysis is part of a cycle.

As you can see, Flash of Defiance, Acorn Harvest, Spirit Flare, Crippling Fatigue, and Deep Analysis are all instants or sorceries and each has a flashback cost of 1C (C stands for a colored mana) and 3 life.(Note that today we would never make four sorceries and one instant in a cycle; either we'd sync them all up to be the same or split them two and three.)

I designed this cycle because I liked the idea of playing around with other costs. Normally black is the color to pay life costs, but as this was Torment, the "black set," I thought I'd help build this feel by bleeding a black-flavored element to the other four colors. Life payment felt like a bleed, but not something so egregious that it fundamentally broke the color wheel.

The one other thing to point out is the throwback to Masticore in the art and flavor text. Deep Analysis was one of the first pieces of flavor text written by Doug Beyer, long before he became the man in charge of flavor text.

I talk all the time about my Johnny impulses. I spent a whole article once explaining one of my greatest Timmy moments. It turns out I actually have some Spike in me, and this card was my way of letting this part of me design a card. My Spike isn't so much about winning as it is about enjoying the mastery of resources. Something I learned long ago is that Spikes are the ones that love comprehending what makes the game tick. They love digging in deep to understand the minutiae of what matters.

The reason for this is simple. If you're trying to win, you need to understand what it is you're supposed to care about. Winning is about prioritizing the elements that matter. Because of this predilection, many Spikes tend to focus on resource management. Control the resources, they say, and you win the game. My inner Spike loves resource management. In fact, I've always considered Odyssey block to be tribute to resource management. The block was not particularly loved by the Timmies and Johnnies; its fans fall squarely into the Spike camp. Who wants to throw away his or her entire hand to give a creature first strike even though that creature doesn't even need first strike? Spikes.

Odyssey block wasn't just a block about the graveyard. It was a block about resource management. As such, it seemed only fair to make some cards where those two themes overlapped. Grim Lavamancer was one such card. I loved the idea of red using up the graveyard wantonly in its quest to destroy things. (Innistrad's Harvest Pyre travels down a similar path.)

I don't think I set out to make the card as good as it was. I just think I made a very attractive card for Spike and the many Spike developers found it fun and kept it.

I often tell the story about how I have a pet card that I keep submitting until it finally sticks and sees print. Cabal Therapy is one of those stories, but with a twist. The original card I wanted to print was this one:

Go Fish
Name a card. Target player reveals his or her hand and discards all copies of the named card.

The idea for the card was very simple. I took the key mechanic from the game "Go Fish" (a kid's card game using a normal deck of cards, if you've never heard of it). I name a card and if you have it you have to discard all copies. The problem with the spell is that it's pretty weak at and it's hard to make spells cost less than one mana. (Hard but not impossible, by the way.) So after submitting it for numerous sets I realized that if I was going to get it in a set I had to add something extra. I don't often talk about this, but often when you can't get a card in a set you have to examine whether it needs to be enhanced in some way. In many cases this isn't needed but in some, it is. Go Fish was one of these cases.

Flashback seemed like a perfect fit for the card. Not many cards get better the second time you cast them, but Go Fish did, provided that you could cast it on the same turn. (Seeing your opponent's hand makes the second use much better.) That's what inspired me to find a flashback cost that didn't require mana. I went with a creature sacrifice for a few reasons. One, it felt like enough of a cost. Two, I was looking for ways to get creatures into the graveyard. Odyssey block had numerous creatures that liked being in the graveyard. (The Incarnation cycle, for example, had enchantment-like effects when they were in your graveyard and was in Judgment.) Three, it gave the card a cool creepy feeling that I really liked.

And thus, Go Fish finally saw the light (or dark) of day.

Can you identify the card that inspired this design? Hint: it was in The Dark.

Click here to see.

In the early days, Magic was a little more willing to borrow from other people's stories. Frankenstein's Monster was one such nod. The Dark was B.W. (Before Wizards) for me, so I experienced it just like any other player, and I loved Frankenstein's Monster. I've already admitted to loving both the graveyard and power/toughness boosting counters, so this card was right in my wheelhouse. The biggest problem with it is the exact reason that we tend to support only one counter type per block.

Let's suppose Frankenstein's Monster had three counters on it. What is its power and toughness? Here are all your possibilities:

  • 0/7
  • 1/6
  • 2/5
  • 3/4
  • 4/3
  • 5/2
  • 6/1

While working on Judgment, I thought it might be cool to capture the essence of Frankenstein's Monster without all the fiddly bits. Just like the original, you had to dig up corpses when casting it. Unlike the original, I decided that the bigger the corpses, the bigger the monster. I also took the out of the cost because, well, I'm not the biggest fan of and the card didn't feel like it needed it. (I will use an where it is necessary, but I like to avoid using when I can.)

Last week, I talked about the design of Intuition from Tempest. I explained how it was my intent for players to have to name different spells but that I didn't specify it on the design version, and by the time I realized my mistake it was too late. Gifts Ungiven was created to right this wrong. I changed it from three cards to four and allowed your opponent to choose two to mix it up a little, but make no mistake: this was Intuition 2.0.

My one other favorite thing about this card was that it inspired a holiday card many years later that I was very happy to have helped create. If you've never had a chance to see it, let me present Gifts Given.

Ravnica had four guilds in it: Boros, Dimir, Selesnya, and Golgari. We came up with the mechanics for three of the guilds relatively quickly, but Golgari proved to be tricky. We knew a few things. One, the mechanic would have to do something with the graveyard as black and green are the two colors most associated with the graveyard in the color pie (white is third, with blue and red a distant fourth and fifth). Two, it had to have some recursion. Golgari's shtick is that they reuse every resource. Death is just another tool in their arsenal.

We tried mechanic after mechanic, but each one had problems. Finally, I decided to boil down the mechanic to the bare bones of our needs. What if we had cards in the graveyard that had the ability to get themselves out of the graveyard? We couldn't cast them, because that would just be flashback. What if, I thought, you could draw them? That's when I came up with the earliest version of dredge. The cards were very simple. Anytime you could draw from your library, you could instead draw one of these cards from the graveyard.

Playtesting showed that this mechanic was thought-provoking, and it got handed over to development. Interestingly, it was the development team (led by then head developer Brian Schneider) that came up with the additional milling cost. The original version just overcosted the cards to make up for the extra ability. There was no rider other than cost. Obviously, the milling rider turned out to be a very important part of the dredge mechanic.

Take a look at this card. Can you pick the part that the entire card was built around? The answer is the reminder text. This card started because I thought it would be really cool to reference a card type that didn't exist yet. The simplest way to do this was to have a future shifted card whose reminder text casually listed the card types. When we decided to push planeswalkers back from Future Sight to Lorwyn (that story is told here and here), I knew I had the opportunity to tease an actual new card type that would soon exist. Before the card saw print, I was even able to add a second card type, tribal, which was also premiering in the next set, Lorwyn (although it had a cameo in Future Sight in the form of Bound in Silence).

I knew I needed a card that referenced card types so that I could get the reminder text I wanted. To help make futureshifted cards, I made a list of cards that I thought I could riff off of. One of the cards on the list was Lhurgoyf from Ice Age. Thinking about the two together, I realized that I could make a Lhurgoyf that counted card types in the graveyards rather than creature cards.

I turned the card in as a */*. While I'm a huge fan of Lhurgoyf, I never liked the *+1 toughness. I feel like it added inelegance for the sole purpose of keeping the card alive on an empty graveyard, so when I made my Lhurgoyf riff, I made it */* instead. Ironically, the card got kicked out of the file to make room for a planeswalker (the card that would later become the first Garruk). When we pushed off the planeswalkers, Tarmogoyf got stuck back into the file. Mike Turian, Future Sight's lead developer, recreated the card from memory and just assumed it had */*+1 because it was copying Lhurgoyf. Mike also dropped the card from to because he felt as it was "just a beater without evasion" it didn't need to cost three mana. The rest, as they say, is history.

Every set in the Time Spiral block had a subset of "timeshifted" cards. The Time Spiral timeshifted cards were from the past. The Planar Chaos timeshifted cards were from an alternate-reality present. The Future Sight timeshifted cards were from the future. The first two are pretty straightforward—old cards in old frames and old cards in a different color—but what exactly makes a card from the future? Isn't any card we haven't made yet a potential future card?

In the end, I decided that futureshifted cards had to have some mechanical element (or, as in the case of the cycle of common creatures, a radical frame treatment) that had not yet been used in the game. In addition, because the futureshifted cards were supposed to come from many potential futures, I wanted as many as possible to not rely on what other cards were doing. The futureshifted cards had to mostly stand on their own.

That was all well and good, but my high standards caused a problem. Usually in Development, cards get killed and the development team either makes some new cards themselves or puts out a list of holes for designers to fill. The nature of the Future Sight timeshifted cards was so out there that the development team didn't want to touch them. It also turned out that it was very hard for other designers to design them, as most designers don't spend a lot of time thinking up mechanics that one day might exist but don't exist yet.

What all this meant was that whenever Development created a hole, Mike Turian would come to me and say, "Mark, I need another timeshifted card," and I would make one.

These two cards are grouped together because I made them at the same time. Mike was close to completing the file, but he still had two holes, one in rare blue and one in rare black. I sat down at my desk and whipped out Bridge from Below and Narcomoeba. Obviously my mind was very much focused on the graveyard, as these two cards have become staple cards in graveyard-centered decks.

Bridge from Below was created whole cloth from the following criteria: I wanted an enchantment that only worked when it was in your graveyard. I liked the idea that it cared about death, so having the death trigger was a natural fit. Making Zombies came about because, well, I really like making Zombies. It seemed appropriate that the enchantment that only worked in the graveyard made Zombies.

Narcomoeba started with the idea of a card that had a mill trigger—that is, it triggered when it was put into your graveyard from your library. The only change I remember on these two cards came with Narcomoeba. I turned it in as a 2/2 flier. Mike sensing that was crazy powerful dropped it down to a 1/1.

At one point during the design of Shards of Alara, there were five different design subteams, each focusing on a different shard. I led the design team for Esper and was on the design teams for Bant and Naya. I was not on the design team for Grixis, but I did happen to create their mechanic.

It came about one day while I was meeting with Bill Rose in his office. Bill was the lead designer for Shards of Alara. The mechanic we had for Grixis wasn't working out and Bill was looking for a new mechanic. I think we were brainstorming when I mentioned an idea I'd come up with. What if we made creatures with flashback? The idea was a simple one. A creature with flashback could be played one more time but was exiled at the end of the turn.

Bill liked it, so we designed a few cards to try it out in the file. I named the mechanic "flash dance of the dead" as 1) it was a riff on flashback (it had to be a new mechanic as flashback only works on instants and sorceries), 2) it brought creatures back from the graveyard like the Ice Age card Dance of the Dead, and 3) it managed to make a pop-culture reference. (Steel worker by day, exotic dancer by night.)

Unearth worked great in playtests and we never looked back.

    Dead and Buried Is Just the Beginning

That's all the time I have for today. I hope you enjoyed the second half of my trip through the graveyard. If you haven't had a chance to play any of these cards, throw most of them in a deck together and have some fun.

Join me next week when I'll explain why Innistrad was able to spare some change.

Until then, may you find your own favorite zone.

Latest Making Magic Articles


September 20, 2022

Making Space, Part 1 by, Mark Rosewater

Welcome to the first week of Unfinity card previews. It feels so good to write that. Today, I'm going introduce all the design teams, walk through how we designed the two main mechanics, ...

Learn More


September 19, 2022

To Unfinity and Beyond by, Mark Rosewater

(Editor's Note: This article originally ran November 29, 2021. With Unfinity previews beginning September 20, we wanted to refresh everyone with what's been shared about the set so far. M...

Learn More



Making Magic Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All