Land of the Lost

Posted in Making Magic on October 26, 2009

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.

I have spent numerous columns talking about what we did with the land theme in Zendikar. Today, I thought I would spend some time talking about what we didn't do. You see, a tiny percentage—under 1%—of all the cards designed for a set ever make it to print. Most cards fall along the way. Today we'll look at some of these fallen cards. To keep it focused, I have chosen to only look at cards that I could classify as having a land theme, be they cards that cared about lands or were themselves lands. Note that I have chosen a single design file to pull these cards from, so they are whatever land-related themes we had in the set at one particular point in time. Some of the cards were in file but not allocated a card slot in the set at the time.

One other thing before I continue: Zendikar had an awesome design team consisting of Doug Beyer, Graeme Hopkins, Ken Nagle, Matt Place and myself. All the cards you are going to see today were created by one or more of these five people.

This Land Is My Land (or Doug's or Graeme's or Ken's or Matt's)

During the very first Zendikar design meeting, I asked the team to start thinking about what we could do mechanically with land. What follows are some of the cards that were created.

Freshen Up
Target player gains 6 life.
Manabond (You may discard this card instead of playing a land to put a City land token into play. City tokens are colorless basic lands with "T: Add 1 to your mana pool.")

If you had asked me before the design began what mechanic I thought we were going to end up with, I would have said the mechanic you see above, then called Manabond. The idea behind this mechanic is pretty simple: what if we made modal cards in which one mode was a spell and the other mode was a land? Even though the basic idea is simple, the execution proved to be very complicated. Here are different versions we considered:

Split cards – The idea was that you'd have a split card in which one mini-card was an instant or sorcery and the other was a land. If the card was on the battlefield, then you'd know that it was played as a land. It turned out that the rules don't exactly work the way I wanted. If one half of a split card is on the battlefield, all of it is considered on the battlefield. Add this to the fact that if an instant or sorcery ever ends up in play, the space / time continuum collapses (at least that's what rules manager/archnemesis Mark Gottlieb tells me) and you can see that the split cards don't work within the confines of the current rules.

Face down – The next thing we talked about was having the option to put these cards in play face down as a land that taps for one colorless mana. Again we ran into problems with the rules. It appears that face-down cards on the battlefield have been defined already—as 2/2 colorless creatures.

Pitch to get a land – We discussed the idea that if you invoked the land portion of the card, you could search your library for the appropriate basic land. After about a ten-minute conversation, Ken chimed in. "Isn't that just landcycling from Scourge?"

We ended up at the version you see above because it was the only version that seemed like it had some chance of working in the rules. When we playtested it, we found a few flaws. For starters, tokens make horrible lands. Normally you can tell what has attacked by grouping attacking creatures together, even if they're tokens. The fact that it's hard to tell if you've tapped the creature (assuming you're using something like a round glass bead) isn't a huge problem. The tapped state on lands, on the other hand, is a much bigger deal. You are constantly making small choices about tapping them that are hard to remember.

The mechanic also didn't play that well. Yes, it helped players' mana bases, but it simply wasn't all that interesting to play. In addition, the design space also felt very much like cycling as the kind of cards you want (sometimes important but often something you're willing to trade in) were the same. Cycling did have the advantage that you very often were turning your dead cards into other cards that you could then play.

This mechanic would be eclipsed by what ended up as our common cycle of "spell" lands.

Plains Explorer
Creature — Human Soldier
Discard a Plains: Untap CARDNAME. CARDNAME gets +1/+1 until end of turn.

The idea behind this card was that it allowed lands in hand to have added value. Whenever an opponent had to size up this creature, they had to predict what was in your hand. Did you have a land which would allow you to unexpectedly block, or grow enough to win a combat, or do some other trick the opponent might not see coming?

While I liked the idea of lands in hand gaining utility, the unknown qualities of this card made it too hard to process and, as such, not as fun as we had hoped. Often in playtests, players would attack saying, "Well, if you have a land you got me, but I can't just never attack."

In addition, this mechanic tended to mana-screw a lot of players when their mana curve got tossed to the wolves as they tried to make use of this ability.

Holdback Commander
Creature — Commander
Holdback – At the end of your turn, if you didn't play a land this turn, you may put a 1/1 white Soldier creature token into play.

This mechanic was a variant of landshort. (I talked about the ability during my first Zendikar preview article if you want more detail.) While this card answered a few of the issues landshort had (for instance, it was clearer when you did and did not get the bonus), it failed to solve the ultimate problem: it mana-screwed the player using it. Holdback was particularly bad, because it encouraged players to skip their land drop every turn.

Reinforced LandLord
Put a 1/1 white Kithkin token into play. If you control 7 or more lands, put 5 1/1 white Kithkin tokens into play instead.

The idea behind this cycle was that the spells ramped up late game when you had a bunch of land in play. This idea fell by the wayside when we decided to put kicker in the set, as this is exactly what kicker does. In some ways this is the precursor to the rare kicker cycle where big things happen when you pay the large kicker cost. I also believe cards like this paved the way for some of the rare land designs and Scute Mob.

Rampant Bird
Creature — Bird
When cardname goes to the graveyard from play you may search your library for an island and put it into play.

This card was actually part of a five-card cycle. Each card was a creature that had a "goes to the graveyard from the battlefield" trigger (what we in R&D call a "death trigger") that allowed you to search out the appropriate basic land in your library and put it onto the battlefield. At this point, all the nonbasic lands in the set had basic land types, so you could do fun stuff like go get a spell land when one of these died. While these cards played really well (and lasted quite a while in the file), in the end they got removed because they made it too easy for nongreen decks to search out lands. Also, when the nonbasic lands lost their basic land types, the utility of cards like these dropped significantly.

Landbounce Draw
As an additional cost to play CARDNAME, return a land you control to its owner's hand.
Draw three cards, then discard a card.

This card came about during the time when we gave two-color pairings different "land matters" themes. White and blue liked to return lands to the hand as a "cost." If we had kept the theme, I definitely would have kept this card as it played interestingly. I particularly like how often you didn't discard the land in this environment. At some point I believe this card changed "land" to "permanent" as I was trying to cut down on the number of times the word "land" appeared in text boxes. Remember, the land theme was not exactly popular at this point in the design. This card went away entirely when the color-specific "land matters" subthemes were removed (although one card of this theme, Kor Skyfisher, managed to make it to print).

Kor Skyfisher

Creature — Merfolk
When CARDNAME comes into play, if you control more lands than any other player draw two cards.

One of the ideas we experimented with was caring about having more lands than your opponent. The very first playtest reminded us of Saviors of Kamigawa, and we realized that constantly checking your land count against your opponent's would get annoying quickly.

Lash Troller
Creature — Horror
Whenever CARDNAME deals combat damage to a creature, that creature's controller discards a card.
Swamp Power - CARDNAME gets +2/+0. (This ability is active as long as you control more Swamps than another other basic land type.)

Instead of monitoring whether you had more lands than your opponent, what if you just kept track of which basic land you had the most of? Nope, just as annoying.

Muck Thrower
Creature — Zombie Giant
1B, Sacrifice a land: Target creature gets -2/-2 until end of turn.

Magma Rift

Black and red's subtheme sacrificing lands for effect. (Mana Rift is the lone holdout from this theme.) The nicest thing about this theme was that it was something that black and red already did from time to time and thus seemed very natural. The biggest problem with the sacrifice land theme was that it had the potential to mana screw you. The bonus was that it was yet another reason to play with more land. Note, as I'll talk about below, that black's other "land matters" subtheme played nicely with sacrifice.

Immanuel Kant
Creature — Human Philosopher

This card existed during the period when the manabond mechanic was making City tokens, which tapped for one colorless mana. The idea was that this was an answer to manabond in that it discouraged the opponent from making a land token. Why is the card called Immanuel Kant? I have no idea. I will go on the record, though, as saying that the card was a real pissant.

IRS Goblin
Creature — Goblin
At the end of each opponent's turn, CARDNAME deals two damage to that player if they did not play a land this turn.

Finally, a card that cares how your opponent plays his or her lands. This card was cut because we found that making decisions about when to play your own land was simply more enjoyable.

Recovery Wolf
Creature — Wolf
When CARDNAME comes into play, return target land card in your graveyard to its owner's hand.

Grim Discovery

Green and black focused on returning land from your graveyard to your hand. On this card, it is used as a cost. You can now see the synergy that existed between sacrificing land cards and what I'll call regrowing land cards. Grim Discovery is the Zendikar card that started in this "land matters" subset.

Elf of Paradise
Creature — Elf Shaman
Whenever a Forest comes into play under your control, CARDNAME gains "G, T: Add two mana of any combination of colors to your mana pool." until end of turn.

While we ended up with landfall referring to any land, we did play around with cards that only triggered if a particular type of land enters the battlefield. In the end, we found these restricted versions to be harder to follow (sometimes you had to care about numerous different lands) and less fun, as they triggered fewer times.

Green with Envy
Whenever a land comes into play under and opponent's control, you may search your library for a forest and put it into play tapped.

This was another card that cared about when your opponent played lands. The big negative with this mechanic was that it discouraged your opponent from playing lands, and we found that anything that stopped playing of lands led to mana screw and unfun games.

Lute of Life
At the end of each opponent's turn tap all lands he or she controls. You gain one life for each land tapped this way.

Part of the experimentation of land mechanics was finding different ways to care about land. This card is an example of a card that might seem on the surface to be about land but really isn't. This card is an artifact that punishes players for not spending all their mana. Yes, it manages to get the word "land" on the card, but it only minimally affects how you play your land (the only effect is that it might keep you from putting lands in your hand into play if you have enough mana for the spells you want to cast). You'll also notice that this card was made before the decision to remove mana burn in Magic 2010, as this card would have to work differently in a world without mana burn.

Isle of Knowledge
Land — Island
CARDNAME comes into play tapped.
T: Add U to your mana pool.
When CARDNAME comes into play, you may pay 3U. If you do, target player draws two cards.

I put this card in as a reminder that we were messing around a lot with lands that doubled as spells. This card, by the way, was mega-broken. It turns out to draw two cards is pretty awesome when it doesn't cost you a card. Also note that the land was an Island. Lots of fun was had with this interaction. Remember the rampant creature cycle from above that got you the relevant land when the creature died – good times.

Partial Cover
Enchantment Land
Creatures you control get +0/+1.
T: Add 1 to your mana pool. CARDNAME deals 1 damage to you.

I encourage designers on my teams to get wacky. A lot of times really out-there ideas can lead to very cool yet doable things. It turns out not with this card, but the idea of allowing designers freedom to explore outside normal boundaries still stands. I think the idea of this card was trying to use lands in the role of enchantments. It never really got off the ground.

Sac Peek Land
CARDNAME comes into play tapped.
T: Add U to your mana pool.
U, T, Sacrifice CARDNAME: Target player reveals his or her hand.

One of the ways we explored "spell" lands was to make lands that could be sacrificed for an effect. It didn't take much playtesting to realize that these cards caused some problems. Number one, they complicated the board because once they entered the battlefield, the opponent had to constantly keep track of them. Two, if the effects were compelling enough, it was another mechanic that could lead lesser players to mana-screw themselves. The solution we ended up with was to have lands that triggered when other lands were played but only once you reached a threshold of land. This way it was much clearer when you needed to watch out for the effects. Also, we stuck these kinds of cards at rare, away from the majority of Limited play.

Basic Land — City
T: Add {o1} to your mana pool.

Yes, you can count Zendikar as yet another design that had Barry's Land in it for some portion of the design. (See my column on Barry's Land if you have no idea what I'm talking about.) We knew Conflux had the domain mechanic, so we toyed around with the idea of putting the sixth basic land type in. For a good while, the manabond mechanic made a City token.

One final thing from the design file, mostly because I thought it was neat that we had a card slot just for this information:

Land Drawback Notes
CIPT (Coastal Tower)
Pain for colored (Adarkar Wastes)
Pain for any mana (Nomad Stadium, Horizon Canopy)
2 life or CIPT (Hallowed Fountain)
Reveal or CIPT (Wanderwine Hub)
Bounces land (Azorius Chancery)
Legendary (Flagstones of Trokair)
Loses counters (Gemstone Mine, Tendo Ice Bridge)
Gains counters (Calciform Pools)
Only makes colorless (Prahv, Spires of Order, Desert)
Makes no mana (Dark Depths)
Opponent gains life (Grove of the Burnwillows)
Requires basic land types (Nimbus Maze)
Depends on land drop (River of Tears)
Hybrid for colored (Graven Cairns)
Stays tapped (Cloudcrest Lake)
Only filters (Skycloud Expanse)

In the end, "enters the battlefield tapped" was all we needed.

"Huge Tracts of Land"

My hope for today's column is to give you a better understanding of how many elements of a design are trimmed along the way. And remember, that this was just one moment in time on one aspect of the set. Most often when I'm talking about a design it relates to some element that made it. I think this gives a false impression that most ideas that the design team comes up with survive to print. The exact opposite is true. Very few ideas make it through the gauntlet that is Magic design and development. This isn't a bad thing. The entire process has been created to allow us to cull everything but the crème de la crème.

It is great for a designer to get to watch something he or she has worked on so long finally make it to the players' hands. Just understand that this doesn't happen nearly as often as my column would suggest. This is a big part of the reason why I'm so excited about the pieces I create that do make it through: I have to watch the vast majority of my creations fall along the way. Please understand that this doesn't upset me. This is the way of creative endeavors. You have to let the good ideas rise to the surface.

I hope you've enjoyed seeing many of the land mechanics that didn't make it to the Big Show.

Join me next week when I talk about the value of friends.

Until then, may you stop on your journey to see the path that led you to where you are.

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