#735: Matt Place, Part 1
In this podcast, I interview Matt Place, a former pro player and Magic R&D member.
Posted in Making Magic on May 4, 2020
Editor's note: This article is best viewed on a desktop or laptop computer.
At the end of all vision designs, the lead vision designer creates a vision design handoff document for the Set Design team. The document lays out the vision that the Vision Design team created for the set and spells out all the mechanics and themes that they've created thus far. I showed the Throne of Eldraine vision design document last fall (Part 1 and Part 2), and it was received well, so I thought I'd do the same with the Ikoria (called throughout the document by its codename "Cricket").
Two notes before we begin. One, everything not in an aside is the actual document as I wrote it two years ago. The asides will be me giving some added insight into what was going on during vision design and/or me talking about how things would later be adapted during set design. Two, a lot changed during set design, so what you're seeing is the set as it was handed off. This is about as in the weeds and behind the scenes as it gets.
Vision Design team
Every set has a core identity, and Cricket is about monsters—making monsters, playing with monsters, bonding with monsters—mayhem with Monsters.
The vision for the set, including all its mechanics, came out of a desire to dedicate a set to monsters and bring it to life.
There were a few challenges to overcome:
1. Magic normally has monsters. How does this set stand apart as particularly being about monsters?
2. Monsters tend to be large, making them skew higher in mana cost and rarity. How do we keep focus on the theme when the default as-fan is so low?
3. The traditional gameplay with monsters is ramp. How can we create a variety of play patterns while still staying true to our theme?
Here's how we approached answering each of these questions.
1. This set had to have more monsters than normal. Vision Design needed to figure out how to do that, most likely through our choice of mechanics.
2. We needed to figure out a way to get smaller and cheaper monsters as well as find more ways to justify having more large monsters in your deck than normal.
3. Part of finding new ways to get monsters in the set was building in new play patterns with them. We knew one of the ways we wanted to do this was to make the monsters over time.
We wanted some kind of monster evolution, so we examined the various ways we could handle it.
The lowest-hanging fruit was a series of creatures that evolved from one another. Play Creature A. It can evolve into Creature B, which can then evolve into Creature C. This had a number of issues, the biggest two being difficulty in consistently making it happen and the repetition of play when you do. We decided we wanted to create a more fluid evolution where various creatures could evolve into others. We also liked the idea that this evolution had some variance built into it.
That's when we remembered something that had been created during the Design Hackathon just a few weeks earlier. We were exploring what we could do with the punch-out technology that Amonkhet had used. One idea that we came up with was keyword counters where counters represented the permanent granting of a keyword. A +1/+1 counter grants a creature +1/+1. A flying counter would grant it flying.
The Cricket Vision Design team examined all the evergreen keywords and picked out the ones we thought would be useful:
The evergreen keywords we didn't use:
Defender – It seemed wrong to grant a negative keyword.
Double strike – We didn't think we wanted to use it enough to justify the counter.
Haste – It wasn't synergistic with our mutate mechanic, which I'll get to in a minute.
Hexproof – We were worried that granting hexproof too much would make for unfair gameplay.
Indestructible – We didn't think we wanted to use it enough to justify the counter.
Prowess – The ability stacks, and we were trying to avoid keyword counters that you would want multiples of on the same creature. There's also a lot of talk about removing prowess as an evergreen keyword.
Realizing we were shy in blue keywords, we ended up adding two new keywords:
Sneaky – "Creatures with power 3 or greater can't block this creature." (Used in blue and black.)
Resistance – "Spells or abilities that target a creature with this ability cost 2 more." This was designed not to stack. (Used in green and blue.)
The Vision Design team is handing off a suggestion of ten keyword counters, but the logistics will allow more. The things to watch out for are having enough options for all the colors and not stacking. Every color combination is covered with the exception of blue-red.
Keyword counters are being used in several ways:
Mutate – More on this in a moment.
Spell effects – Any place we would grant a keyword ability until end of turn we instead put a keyword counter on the creature.
Versatile creatures – These are creatures that give you a choice of keyword counters when the creature enters the battlefield. There is a common cycle that gives you two choices and some higher rarity cards that give you more than two choices.
Trainers – This is an uncommon cycle of humanoids (non-monsters) that put a specific keyword counter on another creature when they enter the battlefield and then have an activated ability that can affect a creature with that ability.
Cycling – We have an uncommon creature cycle with cycling. If you cycle the card, you get to put a keyword counter on target creature that has the ability on the creature.
Monstrosity – There are a number of spells that use the monstrosity ability to grant a keyword counter rather than a +1/+1 counter. These cards could be done without the monstrosity keyword, but the flavor seems like such a homerun for this set.
Mutate is the keyword we're using to let players build their own monsters. Here is the current rules text for it:
If you cast this spell for its mutate cost, it becomes overlaid on target creature you own that shares a creature type or inheritable keyword with it. Put counters on it for that creature's inheritable keywords.
There is a bunch of new vocabulary introduced in this reminder text, so let me walk through how exactly this works. A creature with mutate is a normal creature with a mana cost that can be cast normally. All creatures with mutate costs will be represented as "monsters" from this world. Creatures with mutate have a second cost called a mutate cost which allows you to play the creature (most often) for a lower mana cost.
To use a mutate card, you must overlay an existing creature you own on the battlefield that shares either the creature type or a keyword with the mutate creature. For example, if you have Winged Cat, a 2/3 Cat with flying, as your mutate creature, you can overlay a creature that is a Cat or that has flying (or both). Overlay means that you put the card directly on top of the card being overlaid and the creature is now considered to have changed to the stats of the mutate creature. An overlaid creature is considered the same creature, so any quality of the original creature is shared by the mutated creature, including tap state, summoning sickness state, and any attachment or counter. If another spell or effect causes the mutated creature to change zones, it and all cards overlaid underneath it go to the new zone. For example, you mutate a Beast with your mutated Beast. It then gets unsummoned. Both the original Beast and the mutated Beast would go to their owner's hand.
Two other things happen when you mutate. One, any inheritable keyword (defined as a keyword that exists as a keyword counter) on the overlaid creature turns into a keyword counter on the mutated creature. Two, all mutate cards have an effect if you mutate them into play. Here's an example. You have Winged Cat, a 2/3 flying Cat with mutate. When it mutates, you put a +1/+1 counter onto Winged Cat. You have Watch Cat, a 2/2 Cat with vigilance, on the battlefield. You mutate Watch Cat into Winged Cat. As Watch Cat has vigilance, Winged Cat gets a vigilance counter. As you mutated it, you also put a +1/+1 counter on it. Winged Cat is now a 3/4 creature with flying and vigilance.
Mutate is currently cycled in all its incarnations. Here are the cycles:
There are five primary creature types associated with mutate:
Cat (primary in white, but appearing on creatures in red, white, and black)
Elemental (primary in blue, but appearing on creatures in green, blue, and red)
Nightmare (primary in black, but appearing on creatures in white, black, and green)
Dinosaur (primary in red, but appearing on creatures in blue, red, and white)
Beast (primary in green, but appearing on creatures in black, green, and blue)
Every mutate card is the creature types of the color it's centered in. All white mutate creatures are Cats. All white-black mutate creatures are Cat Nightmares. All red-white-black mutate creatures are Cat Nightmare Dinosaurs. Monocolor mutate creatures have another creature type which comes from a secondary list. This secondary list (which Set Design is going to create) is designed to help Set Design make mutate creatures work with other creatures in Standard. Being primary in a creature type means you have a higher count and as-fan, although the creature type will also show up in your other wedge colors.
The one last thing to mention about mutate creatures is what happens if the creature they're mutating gets destroyed from under them as they are mutating. My Winged Cat targets my Watch Cat to mutate it, but the Watch Cat gets Shocked in response. The Winged Cat still enters the battlefield, but it doesn't mutate, meaning it won't pick up any attributes from the creature—in this case, it won't get a vigilance keyword counter and won't be free from summoning sickness (and it wouldn't get any enchantments, equipment, or counters on the Watch Cat)—and the effect that happens when it mutates (the +1/+1 counter in this case) doesn't happen. Winged Cat would enter as a 2/3 flier with summoning sickness and not a 3/4 creature with flying and vigilance that can attack right away.
Mutate lets you build a monster, but that means those monsters are going to be hybrids of different creatures. We knew we wanted some trope-y monsters like King Kong that are more singular in nature, so we set out to find a mechanic that would let us make some of those. Also, to play into the "bonding with your monster" theme, we liked the idea of a mechanic that felt as if the monster and you had some special connection.
The solution to this problem also came from the Design Hackathon, a mechanic that we're currently calling covenant. A creature with covenant can be played as normal, but if your deck meets a certain deck-construction condition (such as having a Singleton deck or having half the deck be basic lands), the creature can be exiled before the start of the game (or possibly going to the command zone). For purposes of deck construction, the covenant creature is counted as being in your deck. You will then be able to cast it during the game as if it were in your hand. You may only have one covenant creature per restriction, but a deck can meet numerous restrictions to include multiple covenant creatures. All covenant creatures are flavored as monsters.
In the file as handed off, we have two cycles of covenant creatures, one at uncommon and one at rare. The uncommon cycle was designed for Draft with deck-construction build-arounds we think are possible much of the time. The rare cycle was designed with Constructed in mind, both casual and tournament. Some of them are possible in Draft, but that isn't their focus. The covenants were planned for all five colors, but they don't necessarily need to be cycled (meaning they don't have to exist in a power of five) and there is probably room for some more. Note from the editor: No really, we removed this text. You can't see it. It isn't ready for you. You may find out soon enough, but now is not the time.
We had room for one last mechanic, and we were hoping, as normal, to have it be a returning mechanic (we like to try and have one old mechanic per set if possible). As this is the monster set, we were looking for something that would let us get even more monsters into decks. Cycling proved to be the perfect choice, as it lets us make big creatures that you can cycle away if you can't cast them yet. This allows players to get a higher density of monsters in their deck.
Because mutate and covenant are both splashy and have some complication (especially mutate), we chose not to stretch cycling design too much. Here are the few things we've done with it:
Twobrid cycling – At rare, we have a cycle of powerful enchantments (this year's two themes that cross all the sets are monocolor and enchantments) that each cycle for twobrid mana (2 or M).
Uncommon cycling enchantments – Uncommon also has a cycle of cycling global enchantments, things that are good in Limited.
Keyword counters – There is an uncommon cycle of creatures with a keyword that puts that keyword counter on target creature when they cycle.
Cycling matters – In red and white, we have several cards that care about when cards are cycled. This was designed as a Draft theme for these two colors.
While the monsters are the key focus, not everyone in Cricket is a monster. The world also has humanoid creatures that are meant to interact with the monsters in various ways—some bond with them, some hunt them, some run away screaming when they come near. Because mutate cares about keyword mechanics, we've made the choice not to put any keyword mechanics on non-monsters. This allows for us not to mutate non-monsters into monsters within the dome of Limited (that's Innistrad's gig). Note that you can put a keyword counter on a non-monster and then mutate it, but that's a two-step process that allows us creatively to never have to show it. The humanoid creatures can have enters-the-battlefield effects, death triggers, activated abilities, triggered abilities, non-keyworded abilities—anything but creature keywords.
The final thing to talk about is the use of multicolor in Cricket. The plan was to have a wedge theme at high rarities for Constructed purposes to take advantage of the mana from Guilds of Ravnica block, which will rotate out with Diving (Zendikar Rising). Here's how multicolor shows up in Cricket.
Common enemy hybrid cycle – To help Limited without having common gold creatures, common has a cycle of hybrid creatures. As they are two colors, they have both relevant creature types.
Uncommon enemy mutate cycle – These are enemy color mutate creatures without any keyword but a mutate spell effect.
Uncommon enemy creature cycle – These are enemy color creatures that play into the two-color Draft archetype.
Uncommon enemy noncreature cycle – These are flavorful enemy color noncreature spells.
Rare enemy mutate cycle – These are wedge color creatures with one keyword and a powerful mutate spell effect. They have a higher mutate cost than mana cost.
Rare enemy spell cycle – These are wedge color instants and sorceries.
Rare enchantment cycle – These are three-drop wedge color enchantments.
Mythic rare enemy mutate cycle – These are wedge color creatures with two keywords and a very powerful mutate spell effect. They have a mutate cost that costs 1MM (hybrid mana) where M is the primary color and the hybrid mana is the other two colors.
That's everything to convey about Cricket. The Vision Design team is very proud of what we've created and hope the Set Design team can turn it into an amazing set. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.
That's Ikoria's vision design handoff document. I hope you found it interesting. I'm planning to continue posting these in the future as long as people keep communicating that they want to see them. As always, I'm eager to hear your feedback on today's column, the vision design handoff documents, or Ikoria. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week when I answer your questions about Ikoria: Lair of the Behemoths.
Until then, may you enjoy digging deep behind the scenes.
In this podcast, I interview Matt Place, a former pro player and Magic R&D member.
Matt Place had so much to say, we had to do a second podcast.