#725: Theros Beyond Death Cards, Part 3
This is the third part of a series (of five) of card-by-card design stories from Theros Beyond Death.
Posted in Making Magic on March 30, 2020
About three months ago, I did a podcast where I examined the top 50 creature types in the game (as measured by how many unique cards had that creature type in Oracle). Number one, by more than a three-to-one margin to number two, was Human. Over the years, we've made a lot of Humans, but interestingly, the creature type didn't start as part of the game and Human tribal only goes back to original Innistrad. Humans play a role in Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, so I thought I should write an article talking about the history of Humans in Magic before previews start up next week. Sit back and read on as we return to 1993.
I'll start with a question. How many creature cards in Alpha were Human (as determined by Oracle as of the writing of this article)?
Once you have your guess, click below.
The first expansion, Arabian Nights, at almost a fourth the size of Alpha, had more Humans portrayed on cards (sixteen). This was mostly due to the source material that focused heavily on Humans. Antiquities, in contrast, with its focus on an artifact theme, only had six cards representing Humans. Legends, though, would put them all to shame. With its focus on legendary creatures, based mostly on characters from the roleplaying games of its designers, Legends had 46 cards representing Humans. Interestingly, 35 of the Humans were legendary, and at the time, legendary status on creatures was designated with the creature type Legend, meaning that most of the Humans in Legends weren't even printed with a class creature type. So, even in its first year, Humans were a big part of Magic flavorfully, but they weren't being referenced as such, meaning the game had no way to mechanically care about it.
What follows is the story of how Humans came to become represented in creature types and eventually cared about mechanically on cards. It takes a little bit of a detour, but I promise it all gets back to Humans. Part of sharing the history of the game is revealing the behind-the-scenes moments that moved the game in certain directions, even if it took many years to do so.
In 1994, I start freelancing for Wizards of the Coast, which led to my fulltime employment in R&D in the fall of 1995. For the purposes of this story, you need to know only one thing. I liked creature types, and I felt the game was way too stingy with them. When I said that Legends only used Legend as the creature type on their legendary creatures, that wasn't quite true. There was one exception. There was a cycle of three-color dragons that got the creature type Elder Dragon Legend. Three whole creature types! It was awesome. I knew it was awesome. All my fellow Magic players down in Los Angeles (where I lived prior to moving to Wizards) knew it was awesome. But, for some reason, R&D, at the time, wasn't nearly as impressed. Obviously, the cycle of cards would go on to inspire one of the most popular formats of all time (Commander started as Elder Dragon Highlander as you had to choose one of the five dragons as your "general") and introduced the game's most famous villain—Nicol Bolas.
As a Johnny deck builder, I had a lot of fun making tribal decks. The one big problem at the time (remember, Magic's just two years old at this point) was there wasn't enough of most of the tribes. Part of this had to do with how things were labeled. Goblin Rock Sled, as an example, was a Rock Sled for some reason and not a Goblin, but I felt a bigger issue was the limitation of one creature type per creature. Very shortly after coming through the door, I raised the issue that I felt we were being too stingy, but the argument fell on deaf ears (much like my argument for Dog over Hound). For those who know me, it meant it was time to start playing the long game. (Yes, part of the secret of my success is sticking around forever and slowly advancing things I care about.)
The first advancement of my goal came a few years later during Urza's Destiny (the set where I was the entire Design team) with this card:
Rayne, Academy Chancellor is the first card with two creature types on it that don't follow any of the exceptions I laid out above. I argued that not having a second creature type on our legendary creatures was preventing us from giving them extra flavor and possibly making them matter mechanically. Yes, Rayne was a Legend, but she was also a Wizard. (Rayne is Barrin's wife and Hanna's mother.) Okay, there weren't any Wizards-matter cards at the time, but I was thinking toward the future.
Then, a year later in Mercadian Masques, I finally won the argument that artifact creatures should have relevant creature types when they clearly had a creature type we supported. For example, Crenellated Wall was obviously a Wall and Toymaker was clearly a Spellshaper. I couldn't convince them to make Henge Guardian a Guardian, but I was making progress.
Then, in Invasion, I designed this cycle:
They were flavored as the crossing of two different creature types of different colors. Clearly, they had to have both creature types. I mean, that was the whole point of their design. Okay, their flavor isn't exactly the best, but I had noble intentions.
A year later, Bill Rose (I believe had become the VP not too long before this) came to me and asked a favor. The current Creative team had left, and R&D was searching for new members. Would I mind overseeing the creative aspects of Odyssey (aka the names and creature types; at the time, this didn't include the card concepting as the Creative team and the Art team had not yet been combined)? I had done the work for Unglued, which made me the only person in R&D who had done it, so I said I'd be happy to help. Here was my big chance.
I looked for every opportunity I could to put two or more creature types on creatures. First up, there were two new races, the aven and the nantuko, and I gave each a two-word creature type. The aven were Bird Soldiers and the nantuko were Insect Druids. We flavored the threshold mechanic in green as a type of lycanthropy, and then I put both the before and after creature types on the cards. We flavored the white threshold cards as Nomads who could tap into mystical energy, and I made all of them Nomad Mystics. I made a Zombie that was a Giant and then put both creature types on the cards. I found opportunities to add classes, like Wizard and Minion, to cards. I even made a creature that was both Dragon and Vampire.
The following year was Onslaught. I convinced R&D to go all in on a tribal set, which meant that creature types mattered mechanically in a volume like never before. Whether it was cross-pollination of relevant creature types, cycles where the creature type identified the cycle, or just cool, flavorful interactions, Onslaught took what I'd started in Odyssey and continued to turn the dial up. Because I was working closely with the new Creative team, I got them aboard with my goal of making more creatures with multiple creature types. Little did I know that they were going to take the idea to the next level.
Brady Dommermuth started as an editor for Magic. He then went on to be a technical writer. Eventually, he ended up overseeing the Creative team. One day, Brady asked if he could have a meeting with me. He said he'd seen what I'd been doing with the creature types and thought I might be interested in something he was working on. What did I think of introducing a race and class model to creature types? Races and classes were first introduced, I believe, in Dungeons & Dragons. For your character, you got to choose what race it is (human, elf, dwarf, etc.) and you get to choose what class it is (fighter, wizard, thief, etc.). What if we used the creature types to mimic race and class on creatures? What if every creature, at least every humanoid creature that had a job, had one creature type that was its race and one creature type that was its class? Some creatures might even have two classes or possibly two races. If the creature didn't do something that we had a creature type for, it could just have a race. Brady said that he pitched it to me first because he knew I'd be the most receptive designer to it. Could I help him sell it to the rest of R&D?
After looking over the plan, he and I agreed that the big sticking point was Humans. You see, once we moved to a race-class model, we couldn't just avoid calling Humans Human. Every creature that had an obvious race needed to have it listed in its creature type, and Humans were a little too recognizable not to name. We looked for words other than Human, but none felt right. This was the big change to the proposal, and we both knew it was big changes that make people worry. I did a lot of one-on-one talking with R&D members and helped Brady with the presentation he was putting together. The crux of it was about how race and class were a staple of fantasy gaming and that we should be leaning into it.
The presentation went well, but as expected, the one sticking point was the Human creature type. I argued that Magic already had Humans in it. It had had them since the very beginning. We weren't adding them, we were just labeling them. The counter argument, though, was that once we labeled them, it would allow us to make it mechanically relevant, and the "no" contingent didn't want that to happen. Yes, I argued, but it didn't have to. We had control over whether we made cards that mechanically cared about Humans. (And yes, there were a handful of cards that let you pick a creature type, but none of them at the time were particularly powerful.) The compromise was made—we'd institute the race-class creature type model (starting with original Mirrodin) but consciously not make the Human creature type mechanically relevant.
Flashforward eight years. I'm working on the design for Innistrad. We're making a top-down gothic horror set, and it becomes obvious very quickly that the set wants some monster tribal. The set already had Vampires, Werewolves, and Zombies, so those seemed like obvious choices. I realized that we could also include Spirits, as ghosts were as in-theme as it got. It was clear to me that we had to have Humans. The monsters wouldn't mean anything if the plane didn't have victims for them to prey on. When I broke it out, it mapped perfectly to the set. We would have five ally color factions—the four monster types and Humans. The only problem was the promise we'd made eight years earlier. We weren't supposed to make Humans mechanically relevant.
So, I go to Bill's office. He and I were the only two people who'd been in that meeting who were still in R&D, so I figured we needed to be the ones to hash this out. I explained to him my issue. "I have a great structure for Innistrad, but it requires Human tribal." As he knew, we promised we wouldn't do that. Bill asks me, "Do you want to do Human tribal?" "I wanted to do it eight years ago," I said, "but I wanted the race-class system, so I was willing to compromise." Bill said that he didn't have any issue with doing Human tribal. He thought that race and class were good ideas. The compromise wasn't to make him happy. "Let me just make this clear," I said, "We're both on board with us doing this and nobody we promised we wouldn't is still here?" "Correct," replied Bill, "I do have one question, though, before I'll give it my thumbs up. Will it make the set better?" "Absolutely," I said. "Then let's do it," Bill replied.
Innistrad ended up having sixteen cards that mechanically cared about Humans in some way, most positively (in white, green, and artifacts), but a couple negatively (in red), and one that kind of worked both ways (in black). No one else in R&D raised a fuss about us making Humans mechanically relevant, with quite a number expressing excitement at us finally doing it. Dark Ascension and Avacyn Restored continued with the Human tribal, with Dark Ascension punishing Humans more, as the story was about how it was the Humans' darkest day, and Avacyn Restored helping them to reinforce the story of the angels being released from the Helvault and saving them.
From that point on, Human tribal was on the table as something designers could use as they saw fit. There were a few cards here and there, mostly using Human tribal to add a bit of flavor. The next big push of Human tribal came when we returned to the gothic horror plane in Shadows over Innistrad and Eldritch Moon, again, primarily focused in green and white.
Human's next big appearance mechanically was in Throne of Eldraine, but mostly for the use of "non-Human." We'd tried batching a bunch of creature types to be the faerie folk of the world, but we quickly realized that they were mostly defined by being everything but Humans, so for the first time, we tried a negative tribal theme where you were rewarded for not being something—in this case, Human. Humans have had a lot of support over the years (and even have some powerful tribal decks in larger formats), so we figured it was okay to punish them for a set.
Which brings us to Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths. I can't go into detail just yet about what role the Humans play in the set, but much like the Innistrad blocks, the source material has a lot of Humans in it. In fact, in just about every monster movie you've ever seen, Humans are there playing a big role. Ikoria will be no different.
I hope you enjoyed today's story. Humans' path from being a creative element of the game to also becoming a mechanical one was quite a journey, one with a number of twists and turns. I'm curious what you thought of today's story and if you're interested in hearing others like it. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumble, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week when Ikoria: Lair of the Behemoths previews finally begin. I have a monster of a design story for you.
Until then, may you play the long game when you must.
This is the third part of a series (of five) of card-by-card design stories from Theros Beyond Death.
This is another podcast in my two-color philosophy series. This time, I talk blue-red.