Something For Nothing
As empires go, the Roman Empire was pretty impressive. They had roadways, aqueducts, architecture, a nifty calendar, good salad, live entertainment, plumbing (yeah, yeah, they used lead – so there was room for improvement), all sorts of modern advances. Do you know the one thing the Roman Empire did not have? The concept of zero. Have you ever noticed there's no way with Roman numerals to represent nothing? That's because they never came up with it. Why am I deviating into ancient history? Two reasons. One, I have an obsessive-compulsive writing style that forces me to stray off topic into random pieces of trivia. But more importantly, two, it makes an important point about how hard the value of nothing is to grasp.
But Richard Garfield was a math professor, so he was well versed in the concept of zero (I was as well although I attribute it to Schoolhouse Rock's “My Hero Zero”). Thus when he first created the color pie, he realized the value of making something that didn't fit in it. Something that was the antithesis of the color pie. An item that had no color to it. Be aware that this item wasn't artifacts at first. It was colorless mana.
Why was nothing so important? Because Richard didn't want to have to associate every element of a cost to color. If a five mana red spell cost five red mana to play, players would be stuck playing mono-color decks. So Richard realized that he needed part of the cost to not limit the player to color. From there it was a short hop, skip, and a jump to generic mana costs. If part of a cost could be colorless, why not the whole thing?
But what to do with these colorless spells? Fortunately from pretty early on Richard knew that he wanted to include magical items. After all, anyone who's ever played Dungeons & Dragons (or, for that matter, just about any fantasy role playing game) knows the value of magical items. Any mage could pick up a magical wand, helmet or didgeridoo. It didn't seem like color should matter so it was a perfect fit.
So, artifacts aren't a color. They are the absence of color. They don't represent a particular philosophy. They represent the lack of a philosophy. The mage who specializes in artifacts isn't trying to find the key to life. Rather he's avoiding sticking to much of anything.
Just My Type
Now, just because artifacts don't have a philosophy doesn't mean they don't have a flavor. The trick is you have to know where to look on the card. Artifacts need to be grouped not by their mana cost but by their card type. It's not white, blue, black, red, green and artifacts. It's creatures, enchantments, instants, lands, sorceries and artifacts. (Interrupts have been wiped from the family tree.) And each of these card types very much has a flavor.
Artifacts – Let's start with artifacts for two reasons. One, it's the topic of the column and heck, the whole week. Two, it comes first alphabetically. (How convenient.) Artifacts are objects. Physical, tangible, you can hold them in your hand objects. I'm sorry. Physical, tangible, you can hold them in your hand magical objects. That one word is actually very important. Artifacts are not just items. They are items imbued with magical properties.
Saviors of Kamigawa isn't going to have an artifact representing a chair. (Well, maybe a throne if it was made out of bone or something. Man, I can see the rumor mills tomorrow – Maro claims Throne of Bone reprinted in Saviors. It's not as if anyone can't tell that last sentence is a joke.) Artifacts are special rare magical items. That's why, for instance, you don't see common artifacts very often. Artifacts by definition aren't common. (Okay, except maybe on a world made of metal.) So what aren't artifacts? Everything else. (Yes, I answer the hard questions here in “Making Magic”.) What counts as everything else? I'm glad you asked. That brings us to the other five card types.
Creatures – Creatures are living, breathing, sentient organisms. Well, that's not quite right. Zombies aren't exactly living. And I don't know if elementals actually breathe. And when you get right down to it, plants aren't all that sentient. Okay, they're organisms. Things that are alive. Or at least once were alive. Or act very much like alive things act. What creatures aren't are physical objects that don't do any of the above living, breathing or thinking. This is why we have purposefully moved away from inanimate objects as creatures. A Wall of Stone, for example, isn't a creature creatively speaking. It's a bunch of bricks and mortar. (Ever see bricks and mortar drop dead of fright, kid? It ain't pretty.) This isn't to say there isn't room on a Magic card for a wall made out of stone. It just shouldn't be a creature.
Enchantments – This is where things start getting a little more muddy. Enchantments are long lasting magical effects. They can be tangible, but if so they are concepted as being made of magical energy. For example, an actual cage such as the one poor Barl found himself locked in during The Dark – Barl's Cage - would be an artifact (provided of course it had some magical property). Champions of Kamigawa's Cage of Hands, on the other hand, is a metaphorical cage wherein magical energies (taking on the appearance of hands) trap in the poor subject.
Just because enchantments can be shown with physical properties doesn't mean that they have to have them. Many enchantments show the result of the magic rather than the magic itself. The reason that a sense of permanence is important is to differentiate it from the instants and sorceries.
Instants & Sorceries – For starters, from a card concepting standpoint, there is no difference between the art of an instant and the art of a sorcery. Both show the result of a magical spell resolving, but a single frozen image cannot convey the sense of timing that differentiates the two. The biggest difference between how instants and sorceries and enchantments are shown is that instants and sorceries tend to be pictured mid-casting while enchantments tend to show the environment after the enchantment has taken effect.
Lands – Lands are places. Physical places. They should evoke not what so much as where. That said, lands have taken over the role as the card types that show man-made structures (you know, such as buildings and walls made of stone). The biggest difference between man-made items shown on lands and artifacts is that artifacts are magical in nature (a building on a land need not be magical per se; the idea of a land card is that the land is rich with mana) and generally portable.
In an attempt to stave off hundreds of letters, let me stress that I'm explaining how we define the card types now. This was not always so. Yes, there's an enchantment called Castle and an enchant creature called Quicksilver Dagger. There are artifacts with land concepts and lands with artifact concepts. And, of course, there's Wall of Stone. And from time to time, we might break even these guidelines. But we'll do it when there's a purpose to break the rules and not because we don't understand what they are.
Artifacts of Life
But there's more to artifacts than just how they're concepted on cards. In fact, when I started the Mirrodin Design Team (Tyler Bielman, Mike Elliott, Brian Tinsman and myself), the very first question I posed to the team was what are the qualities of an artifact. Here's what the team decided.
#1 – Artifacts Have Generic Mana Costs
It's always good to start with the obvious because it's interesting how unobvious the obvious can sometimes become. Just because artifacts have always had a generic mana cost does not mean that rules-wise they have to. For instance, we could create an artifact that cost . That would make the card red (card's colors are defined by the colored mana in their mana cost), but it wouldn't keep it from also being an artifact. The Mirrodin Team felt strongly that artifacts needed their generic mana cost identity. Partially for flavor, but more importantly for the following second quality of artifacts.
#2 – Any Mage Can Play Any Artifact
I used to jokingly call artifacts “the people's card type”. I, and the team, felt that this universal quality to artifacts was one of the elements that most defined them. Artifacts are the universal donors if I opt to use a blood donation metaphor. Any player who sees an artifact they like should be able to pop it into their deck. Now, that doesn't mean that the artifact has any synergy with their deck but mana costs aren't going to hinder them.
It was this quality that led us to design the alternate activation costs (on artifacts such as Mirrodin's Shards). The idea was that certain artifacts were more in tune with certain colors, making them more efficient in that player's deck. But in a pinch, (in something like, say, sealed deck) any player could make use of the card, although at a lower power level. We were even okay with having artifacts such a Gauntlet of Might or Kormus Bell that leaned towards being useful in one particular color because each had some utility available to other colors. For instance, there was a point where players used to sideboard in Kormus Bell against decks running swamps.
This will lead some people to ask about two Mirrodin cards in particular: Proteus Staff and Leonin Sun Standard. These are the only two artifacts in the block that can only be used if you have access to a particular color mana (many artifacts in the block have some added value if you're playing a particular color). These cards caused a lot of discussion in R&D and there were many heated debates. Personally, I consider these cards to be a mistake as I draw the line at the point where the artifact becomes unusable without a specific color of mana. But I was one voice of many and that was not a battle I won. I will say it's a close call. There is a thin line separating Kormus Bell from Proteus Staff but I guess you have to draw the line somewhere and this is personally where I choose. But working in R&D is not about one person's vision. It's a group effort. So when I say I see them as a mistake, what I'm really saying is that it's slightly inconsistent with my personal vision of artifacts. While I might have made different choices I respect the process that led to Proteus Staff and Leonin Sun Standard's creation. This means that artifacts only usable by one color is an area of design space that Magic is occasionally willing to visit.
#3 – Artifacts Are Vulnerable to Artifact Destruction
This quality is so obvious that it often gets missed. Each permanent type has its own removal spells. The fact that only those removal spells can get rid of that particular card type has huge game implications. For example, in most environments, artifacts, enchantments and lands are a bit more durable than creatures. That's because every deck is prepared for creatures but not every deck is prepared to deal with artifacts, enchantments, and lands. In fact, if the metagame is moving away from a particular card type, playing one can prove quite troublesome for your opponents.
This quality was a very important part of our decision to make the artifact lands. At the time we thought that the high concentration of artifact removal would offset the advantage of being able to count the lands as artifacts. (We were wrong, but that was the thought process at the time.)
#4 – Artifacts Have a Very Defined Conceptual Flavor
Well, I already covered this one before I got to this section.
#5 – The Utility of Artifacts Pushes Them Towards The Most Generic of Abilities
This is the part where the color wheel comes back into the discussion. Because artifacts have generic mana it becomes very hard to create them without upsetting the color wheel. The way we like to think of it in R&D is that any ability you give to artifacts you are giving to the weakest color in that ability. Take enchantment destruction. Black and red are horrible at enchantment destruction. Any enchantment destruction given to artifacts is essentially being given to black and red. This is why artifacts tend not to have any enchantment removal abilities.
So what do you do if you can't do many of the basic effects that are used to define the colors? You stick to the basics:
- Mana Production – There's nothing more universal than mana. Every color has access to mana. This is why artifacts have pounced on mana production with a vengeance.
- Mana Fixing – While this is green's domain, Magic is just more fun if players have access to more colors. This allows R&D to justify pushing mana fixing a little stronger than it does other abilities.
- Card Drawing – Magic is a card game. As such, every color dabbles a little in card drawing. This gives artifacts another “everyone's doing it anyway” effect.
- Power/Toughness Boosting – I've often said that Magic is at its heart a game about creatures. That being the case, all the colors have some way to beef up their creatures. Thus, fair game for artifacts.
- Creatures – Everybody gets creatures. That said, artifact creatures are constantly trying to find the nooks and crannies that colored creatures have left behind.
If you look at a set with an average number of artifacts, you'll notice the above five categories fill up almost all of the uncommon artifact abilities. Luckily, we have the rares.
#6 – Artifacts Are Wacky
How do you not step on toes? You dance to the beat of a different drummer. Artifacts have solved the color pie problem in two ways. First, it sticks to the basics that every color does. And second, it finds things that no colors do. This venture into the unknown gives artifacts a very quirky reputation. So much so, that in Mirrodin design, the team made a conscious effort to push many of the simple wacky artifacts down to uncommon to get the “wacky artifact” flavor to permeate through the entire set. That is why Mirrodin block uncommon artifacts are filled with cards that in a normal set would only show up in rare.
#7 - Once an Artifact, Always an Artifact
While artifacts are not officially part of the color pie, they have carved out a few mechanic niches for themselves. The most famous of these is milling (putting cards from the library directly into the graveyard). This wasn't planned as much as it just slowly evolved. You see, when designers design artifacts they look back at old artifacts they like. And if an artifact started a new mechanic, artifacts start claiming that ability as an artifact thing. It's a slow process but artifacts know they have a long time to finish their conquest of new ideas. (I think they've been eyeing “Take control of target player” for over a year now.)
#8 – Artifacts Lend Themselves Toward Machines (AKA Combos)
Because Magic design is open ended, it enables card combinations. Artifacts due to their generic costs and wacky nature have this combo potential tenfold. In fact, artifacts often tend to fall together into multiple card clumps that all have interactions with one another. I refer to these types of clumps as machines. Fifth Dawn heavily played into this theme as the Fifth Dawn design team (Randy Buehler, Aaron Forsythe, Greg Marques, and myself) was a big fan of machine decks.
As you can see, artifacts have plenty of baggage. Just not philosophical baggage. (It's hard to check philosophical baggage.) I hope today's article gave you a little better idea of how R&D (both mechanically and creatively) sees artifacts.
Join me next week when I… when I… I don't know. Because all of you haven't told me yet.
Here's how this is going to work. There are going to be two votes. The first is a list of Magic design-themed topics. The second is a list of non-Magic design-themed topics. Note that the second list still has choices that are Magic-specific, they just aren't as specific to the design process. You pick one from list A and one from list B and I will combined them together into an entertaining column for next week. Note that in order to have time to write the article, I am taking the data from the votes on Tuesday, March 1st at noon.
Okay, here's what you all came up with. Note that I took around 10% of the suggestions. Why was stuff knocked out? The number one reason was that it was a topic I already wrote about. I strongly urge any fans of my column to look at the “Making Magic” archive. In addition I had an article called “One Hundred and Counting” that gives a synopsis of my first hundred articles with a quality grade (“Two Hundred and Counting” should appear later this year.) The number two reason for eliminating topics was that they were about things that I am planning to write about in the future when certain sets are released. Third, there were just some things I didn't feel comfortable talking about. But as you will see, I let a lot of very odd stuff through.
Until then, may you learn to value the concept of nothing.