Hooked on Draconics, Part 2

Posted in Making Magic on March 23, 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.

Last week, I started my card-by-card design stories of Dragons of Tarkir. I didn't make it all the way through, so that means today you all get a Part 2. If you haven't read Part 1, I suggest giving it a read because I may reference it. That said, on with the stories.

Illusory Gains

One of the things I love about Magic design is that even after so many years, we keep finding cool tweaks on effects we've done again and again. I love the design of this card (I would give credit if I knew who made it). It's a stealing card but it presents itself in a very different way than most stealing cards. Illusory Gains steals the last creature the opponent cast.

The reason this is so cool is because it makes a very dynamic effect. The user of the card won't always have the same creature. It will constantly be changing. The opponent isn't completely helpless, either, because he or she has some control over what gets taken. Therein lies a neat little game. The opponent is going to have to keep playing creatures, otherwise he or she will be at a disadvantage, but every creature cast becomes a new threat as the enchantment's controller always gets to have the creature first.

I'm not saying this is necessarily a strong card, but rather it's a neat card that creates a very fluid game state, one where neither player knows quite what to expect. Each time you play this card, the game you're going to get will be very different from the last time you played it. Cards like that always make me happy as a game designer because they are hard to create; especially one as elegant as this.

Lightwalker

One of the keys to making a mechanic thrive is not just making good cards with the mechanic but also making what we call support cards. A support card is a card that makes the mechanic better for being in the environment. Lightwalker is a fine example. Lightwalker might not say the word "bolster" on it, but it was designed specifically as a bolster enabler. It is a creature you put into your deck because it wants to be bolstered. It's small, increasing its chances of being bolstered, and its ability improves it if bolstered.

Support cards range from being pretty blunt, as in Lightwalker's case, to being somewhat subtle. You want to allow the players to find some easy answers and then have to hunt around for some of the more complex ones.

Living Lore

This card almost existed with a silver border. I once made it for an Un-set. In my version, you took an instant or sorcery and put it directly into play, where it became a */* creature equal to its converted mana cost. Then when it died, it was cast. If we make a third Un-set, this card could easily have made the cut, so imagine my surprise when I saw it in a black-bordered card file.

Living Lore doesn't do the effect quite as wackily as I did mine. The instant or sorcery never gets to actually be in play (the black-bordered rules aren't too keen on nonpermanents being on the battlefield) but it captures 95% of the play value doing it in a way that the black-border rules can accommodate. In my heart, I'm counting this as another silver-bordered card that's made it to print.

Megamorph Dragon Cycle

This Dragon cycle was designed for Limited play. Let's walk through a lot of the design decisions that went into making it. First, to simplify things, the design team wanted a cycle that worked relatively similarly. These Dragons were going to be seen a lot in Limited and we wanted to make sure it was easy to remember what they did. To do this, we lined them up. Let's walk through each of these components:

Mana Cost—The five Dragons all cost six mana, five generic and one colored.

Flying—All Dragons fly so this was a gimme.

Second Creature Keyword—This ability is the same one found on the respective dragonlord. (Belltoll Dragon gets straight up hexproof, while Ojutai only gets it when untapped.)

Megamorph—Each Dragon has the same megamorph cost, five generic mana and two of the respective colored mana.

Trigger When Turned Face-Up—All the Dragons have the same effect when turned face-up: they put a +1/+1 on every other Dragon you control. The idea is that it extends the megamorph ability to all your other Dragons (which is why the Dragon's effect doesn't put a +1/+1 counter on itself). This ability was important on the uncommons, because we wanted some pressure in Limited to want to play a number of Dragons. It also helps it feel as if the Dragons on some level are helping each other out.

3/3—There was a big debate about how small Dragons were allowed to be. Tarkir didn't have baby Dragons (as the Dragons are born full size from dragon tempests). At what size did a Dragon feel too small? Everyone agreed that 4/4 was okay, but there was great debate as to whether 3/3 was okay. The reason this cycle was signed off at 3/3 was because they megamorph, so all of them had the potential to become a 4/4.

Multicolor Rare Dragons

This is another loose Dragon cycle. We wanted a rare cycle of two-color Dragons but we wanted them to each feel unique, so there's almost nothing tying this cycle together other than they are each one of the ally-colored pairs.

I guess this is as good a place as any to answer the following question. When Avacyn Restored did an "Angel set" all the colored Angels had white in them. Angels are, after all, white's iconic race. Why then are there so many Dragons that aren't red? The answer is that we hold Dragons up to a different standard than the other iconic races.

We've done lots of market research about creature types and Dragons always win, hands down. Players loved Dragons. They really, really love them. So long ago we decided that we would allow Dragons to dip into other colors when we make high-profile cycles of them. If you go back through Magic's history this has happened on numerous occasions.

So all the nonred Dragons in Fate Reforged and Dragons of Tarkir are not us changing anything about the color wheel. Green is still not going to have many fliers and Dragons are still red's iconic creature race, but just for a small moment where the game is celebrating Dragons we've let them loose in all their many-colored splendid glory.

Narset Transcendent

Narset is the member of a very elite club, what I like to call the Legendary Planeswalker Elite. These are characters who have existed as both legendary creature cards and as Planeswalker cards. The current members of the Legendary Planeswalker Elite are Karn, Nicol Bolas, Ob Nixilis, Teferi, Venser, Xenagos, now Narset.

I remember when I first learned of the creative team's plans to have Narset get her spark in the alternative timeline. I had been stressing that we needed to create cool contrasts of characters between their first timeline incarnations and their second timeline incarnations. Moving from a legendary creature, a khan no less, to a Planeswalker seemed quite cool. It also got us a living white-blue Planeswalker, something I've been getting requests for ever since Ajani, Mentor of Heroes finished off the box-checking for two-color Planeswalkers.

Pitiless Horde

Here's another fun take on dash: instead of encouraging dash to take advantage of a positive ability, use it to avoid a negative one. The trick here is to give the creature an upkeep cost. If you dash it into play, your creature is never around during upkeep and thus gets the creature's benefit (being a 5/3 with haste for four mana) without having to suffer its drawback.

Salt Road Ambushers

I've explained how we used face-down as a means to create three distinct mechanics that helped convey the basic structure of our time-travel story. Having a common mechanical bond run through morph and manifest and megamorph not only helps thematically connect them but it also allows us to make cards that take advantage of the connection.

Salt Road Ambushers is a good example of a card that encourages you to play with all three mechanics in the same deck. We spent a lot of time making sure the three mechanics work well in conjunction, so it's important for us to make cards like this to encourage that behavior.

Sarkhan Unbroken

Having two versions of Sarkhan, one before he travels to the past and one after, was planned from the very beginning, even before we knew it was Sarkhan who was going to be the protagonist. The entire time-travel story structure wanted to have stark contrast between the two timelines and seeing our protagonist change was one great way to do this.

This incarnation of Sarkhan does a couple different things. First we now have a second three-color Planeswalker—another very common request. Second, Temur gets its first Planeswalker. And third, Sarkhan now adds blue to the roster of colors he's capable of (he's been everything but white, although always red). Designwise, note that the card has three abilities—one blue, one red, and one green, but with the blue and green abilities each having a touch of red. Sarkhan might be many colors, but at his core, he's red.

Scion of Ugin

Let's talk as-fan. For those who might not remember, "as-fan" is a term used by R&D to talk about how much a particular aspect shows up in an average booster pack. Usually, R&D talks in term of how many cards in an average booster show off a particular theme. As-fan is key to the creation of Scion of Ugin, because it was made to address an as-fan problem.

You see, it was important for Fate Reforged to have some Dragons. Sarkhan was going 1,200+ years into Tarkir's past, back to a time when the Dragons weren't extinct. The not-extinctness of the Dragons was a pretty major point, so it was important for Fate Reforged to have a significant amount of Dragons. In fact, Fate Reforged ended up having a Dragon as-fan that was higher than the Dragon as-fan of any previous set.

But we were making Dragons of Tarkir. Fate Reforged might have Dragons but we were designing the "Dragon set." Our Dragon as-fan had to be higher. Here's the problem. Fate Reforged is a small set. You need fewer of your thing to get up the as-fan in a small set. This meant beating Fate Reforged's Dragon as-fan was going to be hard to do. One day we did the math and realized something important. The only way for us to beat Fate Reforged's Dragon as-fan was for us to have a common Dragon.

Now, as-fan is already a complicated term, but it gets more complicated. The raw as-fan is about how many times something shows up. Each color, though, has an in-color as-fan, which says how often that color gets the subset in question. The trick to bringing up in-color as-fan without bringing up the main as-fan is colorless cards. See, if you make a colorless card, then anyone can play it, so it goes toward all five colors' in-color as-fan.

This meant to solve our problem we needed a colorless Dragon. Okay, artifact Dragon it was. But the creative team jumped in. You can't have artifact Dragons. If people could make Dragons out of artifacts, how would they have gone extinct? The reason they died off was the Dragon tempests went away. That meant it was important that all the Dragons were biologically alive. How could we have a colorless Dragon without using artifacts?

The creative team might taketh away, but they giveth too. They realized we needed a colorless dragon and came up with an elegant solution. Tarkir had colorless Dragons. Well, at least it had one colorless Dragon—Ugin. Okay, he was a Planeswalker and not a Dragon card, technically, but if Ugin exists, who's to say there weren't Dragons like him. In fact, perhaps there were offspring of Ugin.

That led to the creation of Scion of Ugin at common. It was later moved to uncommon, but it was originally created to be a common, colorless dragon.

Summit Prowler

As we were figuring out all the different cool ways to contrast the two different timelines, we came up with a neat idea. What if there was one thing that just didn't change? What if switching the timelines had a huge impact on most of the world, but some small aspect stayed the same. Sarkhan going back in time and saving Ugin just didn't matter in this small part of the world.

We gave the idea to the creative team and said to them, "Pick whatever you like and we'll make sure to repeat the card." In the end, the perfect choice seemed to be a vanilla card. Every set has to have vanilla creatures, so we might as well use one of them to tell this story. The creature that ended up being chosen was the Summit Prowler. Dragons, no dragons, it didn't have much impact on the yeti.

You can see the Khans of Tarkir version so you can see the subtle differences.

Regent Cycle

This rare Dragon cycle was a lot looser than some of the other Dragon cycles. The requirements were simple: each had to be monocolor, have a power of at least 4, fly, and then do something cool and splashy. Part of making a "Dragon set" work is making sure there were enough different kinds of Dragons, including a number of build-arounds. This cycle definitely leaned more toward the build-around.

Color-Hosing Cycle

If you go back and look at Alpha, you will see that Richard tried very hard to communicate which colors got along and which ones did not. With time, we've realized that we have to be careful how we communicate the relationships between the colors. If we mess with dual lands too much, we lessen the amount of decks available to the players. If we create too many hosers, we shift the focus of tournament play too much toward sideboarding. It's a gentle balance and R&D has been working hard to find it. This cycle is us doing a color-hosing cycle (where a color punishes its two enemy colors) at a level we think can matter without mattering too much.

Vial of Dragonfire

Vial of Dragonfire does something very few Magic cards ever do. It was referenced in rules text by name in a set that it wasn't in. The card in question was Fate Reforged's Renowned Weaponsmith. The flavor of that card is that he is a famous weaponsmith who will make at least one artifact that is famous 1,200 years in the future. The shtick is that what he is known for changes between the two timelines, so Weaponsmith's card references one card from Khans of Tarkir and one from Dragons of Tarkir.

Interestingly, on my blog there was a fight between the players who found the future hint very cool and those who don't like the gimmick. I firmly stand in the camp that it isn't something we should do often but that it's fun if done infrequently. In particular, I like the execution of it on Renowned Weaponsmith, because it makes it very clear where you are going to see the unknown card.

Virulent Plague

The creative team never likes it when we make cards that interact specifically with token creatures. The reason is simple. A Human creature token is no different creatively than a Human represented by a creature card. So when we make a card like Virulent Plague, the creative team tends to just pretend like it's a normal spell and doesn't try to explain what being a creature token means. So why do we make cards like this when they are disruptive to flavor? Because sometimes mechanically we need cards to do things like keep creature tokens in check. For example, when I see this card, my first response is, "Oh, development was having some issue with creature tokens."

Wandering Tombshell

The baby version of Meandering Towershell never made it into Fate Reforged, but that didn't mean we were done with the giant Turtle just yet. Unlike the Yeti, the change in the timeline had a big impact on Meandering Towershell. I'm not quite sure how one kills a Turtle of that size, but apparently someone did (I'm assuming it was a Dragon). It's interesting to note that undead giant Turtles are both a little faster and way more common.

Zurgo Bellstriker

If Tarkir block is Back to the Future, Zurgo gets to be Biff. He starts as the main bad guy but by story's end he's reduced to being an insignificant peon in the big picture. Zurgo went from khan of his clan to having a very insignificant role—that of being a bell ringer, apparently.

I believe it was Tom LaPille who came up with the idea of making him a very efficient one-drop. This allowed us to show the change in his stature while still making a card worthy of tournament play. Making him a one-drop 2/2 with the "coward ability" (the unwillingness to block larger creatures first seen on Ironclaw Orcs in Alpha) mixes wonderful flavor with a necessary mechanical drawback.

"Time's Up!"

Whew, made it all the way to Z. I hope you enjoyed the card-by-card design stories of this week and last. As always, I would love to hear your comments on the two-parter (or Dragons of Tarkir) in my email or any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week when it's time for some nuts and bolts.

Until then, may you get a chance to experience some of the cards I've been talking about.

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