It’s About Time

Posted in Making Magic on May 15, 2006

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.

Welcome to Tempo Week! Now I'm probably the biggest fan of theme weeks of all the columnists (I've been on theme for every theme week but one, when I announced that Unhinged was actually happening), but every once in a while a theme week comes along that really doesn't make it easy to play along. Tempo Week is one such week. My first instinct was to talk about how the timing of cards work from a design standpoint. You know, how do we decide when something is an instant or a sorcery. But then I discovered that I already wrote a column on instants (“Instant Winners”) and one on sorceries (“Slow and Steady.” No, not the column on Azorius, I actually had an early article with the same title about sorceries – during Sorcery Week no less; oops).

Then it dawned on me that perhaps I could write an article on the difference between instants and sorceries that functioned very differently from those two articles. Yes, this week I will teach through the use of pop quiz (a grossly underused genre). A surprise pop quiz, as I didn't warn anyone they were supposed to study. Worry not. All you need to do well on this quiz is to have been paying attention to your Magic cards. Here's how it's going to work. I will show you a number of potential cards that could show up in a design file. Your job is to figure out whether R&D would make the spell an instant or a sorcery.

A few guidelines before I start. First, I am not going to include the mana cost, as that wouldn't be decided until after we know the card type of the spell. I will simply write it as follows: (assume I'm doing a red card) ?. This means some amount of mana as yet unknown which will include at least one red mana symbol. Two, I am looking for the answer R&D is most likely to give. Yes, there are exceptions. Yes, many of the tournament quality cards tend to be the exceptions. Yes, we break our own rules. The point of today is to look at general trends in design. I am not looking for the exception today, but rather the rule. Three, I'll do my best to get the template as close to real as I can, but please be aware that most design files try to get the gist of the spell rather than the exact text. Four, have fun. (I mean, if you can't have fun with a pop quiz…)

Card #1

Brain Surgery
?
_______?

As an additional cost to play CARDNAME, sacrifice a creature.
Target opponent reveals his or her hand. Choose a card from it. That player discards that card.

Instant or Sorcery?

Make your guess and click here.

Sorcery.

R&D has chosen to have all discard spells be at sorcery speed. (And yes, as I said above, there are always a few exceptions.) The reason for this is that we don't like for players to deny other players a chance to play their cards. By making all discard work at sorcery speed, we ensure that players always have a window to play their card after they draw it.

Card #2

Scorch
?
_______?

Destroy target land. CARDNAME deals 3 damage to that land's controller.

Instant or sorcery?

Sorcery.

As with discard, R&D has chosen to have all land destruction default to sorcery speed. The reasons for this are twofold. One, land destruction tends to be one of the mechanics that most upsets people. As such, R&D has made a conscious choice to keep the power level of land destruction a notch lower than most other mechanics. Making most of them sorceries help this. Two, there is great confusion what happens if you Stone Rain a land in response to it being used to play a spell. This confusion is wrong on so many levels, yet experience has shown us that less experienced players get confused when things interact with lands at the time they are trying to use them to get mana out of them. (Mana Short has caused similar problems.)

Cards #3

Divine Action
?
_______?

Target creature you control gains protection from the two colors of your choice until end of turn.

Instant or sorcery?

Instant.

While this spell has a few proactive applications (like keeping your opponent's monocolored army from blocking), it is mostly a reactive spell. Reactive spells are primarily instants, as they need the flexibility to react.

Card #4

Toughen
?
_______?

Target attacking creature gets +4/+4.

Instant or sorcery?

Instant.

“Attackers” only exist during combat, at which time only instants can be played. If this card was a sorcery, it couldn't do anything.

Card #5

Investigate
?
_______?

Look at the top four cards of your library. Put two of those cards on the bottom of the library in any order and put the other two cards in your hand.

Instant or sorcery?

Sorcery.

As part of our tightening down on blue, R&D made a conscious choice to shift blue's card drawing from instant speed to sorcery speed. But due to the existence of cards like cantrips and filtering cards, blue needed the ability to occasionally draw at instant speed. As such, R&D drew the line that all cards that net two or more cards have to be sorceries. (I know I said three or more in the original “Slow and Steady” column, but we've tightened up a bit since then.)

Card #6

Start Over
?
_______?

All players sacrifice all creatures and lands.

Instant or sorcery?

Sorcery.

R&D believes that global mass removal spells are large enough and important enough to make the player commit to the action. You want to wipe out a good chunk of the board? Then you need to accept the risk of playing the spell during your main phase.

Card #7

Postpone
?
_______?

Target player cannot play spells for the remainder of the turn. Gain 3 life.

Instant or sorcery?

Instant.

The answer is obvious if you think through how the spell would work in each incarnation. If the spell was a sorcery, all you would be doing is stopping your opponent from playing instants, all of which they could play in reaction to you playing this spell. By making the spell an instant, you allow the spellcaster the ability to shut down an opponent's non-instants (by playing the spell during their upkeep).

Card #8

Fry
?
_______?

CARDNAME deals 6 damage to target blue creature.

Instant or sorcery?

Instant.

This spell is designed as a hoser for blue. Blue is the king of counterspells. Because of this fact, blue hosers have to do one of the following: be very cheap to “sneak out” before the blue mage can stop it, be uncounterable, or be an instant to allow you to play the spell when the blue player is tapped out, most often at the end of your turn. The cheap option doesn't work so well for Fry, as getting the spell in early isn't too useful as you need something substantial to target. The uncounterable option doesn't work because, well, the spell isn't uncounterable. This leaves the last option – making it an instant. This version allows you to punish a blue player for tapping out at the end of your turn by zapping one of their larger creatures.

Card #9

Double Your Pleasure
?
_______?

Copy every instant or sorcery spell on the stack. You may choose new targets for the copies.

Instant or sorcery?

Instant.

Sorceries can only be played during your main phase when you have priority and the stack is empty. Thus a sorcery version of this spell would be awfully boring.

Card #10

Power Grab
?
_______?

At the start of your next upkeep, gain control of all permanents controlled by target player until end of turn.

Instant or sorcery?

Sorcery.

The “At the start of your next upkeep” clearly implies that the intent of this spell is to allow your opponent a little bit of time to deal with the upcoming effect. If the spell was an instant, it could be played at the end of the opponent's turn and resolve almost immediately (yes, they would have a chance to respond to it with instants). Making it a sorcery allows the affected player an entire turn to try and do something about the upcoming beating they are about to take.

Card #11

Block Me Not
?
_______?

Up to two target creatures cannot block this turn.

Instant or sorcery?

Sorcery.

The reasoning here is quite simple. What extra value would you have if this spell was an instant? Either way you are able to prevent blocking before the opponent can block. No extra strategic value is added if it happens before combat begins or shortly thereafter. In short, cards that can be either instants or sorceries with no significant strategic ramifications are made into sorceries (well, most of the time – we'll get to the exception soon enough).

Card #12

Friends Forever
?
_______?

Put two target creatures that share a color from the graveyard into play.

Instant or sorcery?

Sorcery.

This card is a sorcery because we don't like what making it an instant would do. The point of reanimation is not to be as a surprise blocker (this is not really in black's flavor). If we added that functionality, we would have to make the player pay for it and really, when you're raising the dead, you want to do so as cheaply as possible.

Card #13

One More Time
?
_______?

Return up to two instants from your graveyard to your hand.

Instant or sorcery?

Sorcery.

The need for this to be a sorcery is a need to keep the card from being degenerate. If the card was an instant, then it could keep getting itself back. As a general rule, we try to avoid cards that endlessly cycle themselves. Sometimes determining whether a card is going to be an instant or a sorcery has to do with how the choice interacts with the actual mechanic of the card.

Card #14

Upgrade
?
_______?

As an additional cost to play CARDNAME, sacrifice two lands.
Search your library for up to three basic lands and put them into play. Then shuffle your library.

Instant or sorcery?

Instant.

Yes, I'm starting to get a little sneakier. Land searching is mostly done at sorcery speed, but we make one exception. Land searching that involves sacrificing lands, we've chosen to make mostly at instant speed to allow you to use them in response to land destruction.

Card #15

Persuade
?
_______?

Untap target creature with a power of three or less and gain control of it until end of turn. That creature gains haste until end of turn.

Instant or sorcery?

Sorcery.

But wait, wasn't Ray of Command an instant? Yes, it was. But when we moved temporary stealing to red we decided to shift the mechanic (default-wise) to a sorcery. The reason is that blue is more defensive than red. When red steals a creature, we want you to attack with it not make a surprise blocker. The way to insure this is to make the spell a sorcery.

Card #16

Look Within
?
_______?

Do not draw a card for the current turn. Instead gain 10 life.

Instant or sorcery?

Instant.

This is an interesting one. It's a spell that can only be played on your own turn yet needs to be an instant because it wants to be played at a time (during your upkeep, the one opportunity before you draw) that only an instant can be played.

Card #17

Final Jeopardy
?
_______?

Take an extra turn after this one. At the end of that turn, you lose the game. Draw a card.

Instant or sorcery?

Instant.

Remember earlier when I said that if a card has no functional difference, we tend to make it a sorcery? Here's the exception. Sometimes when we're making a super splashy card (like say a Time Walk effect), we err on the side of making it an instant just to make it seem that much better. Getting the extra turn during your turn versus during the end of your opponent's turn doesn't matter all that much (although yes, there are narrow situations where it can matter), but we like to give every oomph we can to our splashy cards. How do we tell splashy from not splashy? (We'll have to save that one for a future pop quiz.)

Card #18

Learned Tutor
?
_______?

Search your library for a blue card and reveal that card. Shuffle your library, then put the card on top of it.

Instant or sorcery?

Instant.

Another tricky one. Tutors, by default, are sorceries. But we have one exception. If the tutor puts the card on top of the library, we make it an instant. This allows the player to essentially replace their draw with the tutored card.

Card #19

Dark Conversion
?
_______?

As you play CARDNAME choose two creature types. All creatures of the first creature type become the second creature type. (This effect does not end at end of turn.)

Instant or sorcery?

Enchantment.

The lesson here (besides that I'm a sneaky, sneaky man) is that not everything can be an instant or a sorcery. Permanent change is a tricky thing to handle in a game. If you allow too much unmarked change of state, it becomes too hard to keep track of what's going on. As a general rule, we try to keep a reminder on the board of a permanent change (most often through enchantments - thus the choice above), especially one like this that can change multiple permanents. The one big exception to this rule is change of control. Since we assume players know their cards, we feel like having one of your opponent's cards on your side, or vice versa, is reminder enough and even then we don't do unmarked change of control often. (And yes, we also do Sleight of Mind/Magical Hack changes without reminders; I'm not sure why, maybe it was grandfathered in.)

Card #20

Absorb Aura
?
_______?

Destroy target enchantment. Gain 5 life.

Instant or sorcery?

Instant.

I left this one for last because it demonstrates how layered this question can become. This card has two different effects: enchantment destruction and life gain. Both effects show up in instant and sorcery forms. Enchantment removal tends to lean towards instant if it's targeted single removal and sorcery if its untargeted global removal. Life gain, on the other hand, leans slightly towards sorcery in green. The answer to this question is to look at what the card is doing. The card is trying to be what I call a swing tempo card (hey, it is tempo week after all). That is, it is both reactive and proactive. Not only are you ridding your opponent of a pesky enchantment, but you're changing the clock that he or she is working off of. Because we are fond of cards that swing tempo, we tend to err on the side of making them instants to allow for exciting game moments. For this reason, this card is more likely to be made an instant than a sorcery.

Pop Goes the Quiz

You may put your pencils down. I hoped this pop quiz was less painful than those you might have taken in the past. I you liked this format let me know, and perhaps I'll do another like it sometime.

Join me next week when I speak my mind about a topic that's been bugging me.

Until then, may you move at whatever speed serves you best.

Mark Rosewater

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