Magic Design A to Z, Part 3

Posted in Making Magic on July 25, 2022

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.

These last two weeks (Part 1 and Part 2), I've been telling design stories about 26 cards starting with A and ending with Z. Last week I got up to Q, so this week we start with R.

Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary

When Michael Ryan and I wrote the initial Weatherlight Saga story, we knew we needed a reason for Gerard leaving the Weatherlight. A key component of the story concerned the Weatherlight crew showing up and saying that they needed Gerrard's help in rescuing Sisay, but in order for him to return, he had to have left. And we felt it needed to be a serious reason, as the Weatherlight and the Legacy were his destiny.

After much discussion, we decided someone close to him had to have died. We had Gerrard and Mirri study under Multani as a means for them to become best friends. What if there was a third person that studied with them who also joined the ship? What if it was their death that made both Gerard and Mirri leave the boat? The big question was who was this character supposed to be?

When we had made the initial crew, I'd made a list of potential character types we might have wanted. One of the ones we didn't find a home for was a Llanowar elf. This ended up becoming Rofellos. Michael and I spent a lot of time writing about Rofellos, but it was mostly as backstory for Gerard and Mirri. I never expected Rofellos to get a card. He was dead before the story started.

But then, something happened I hadn't expected. Michael and I were removed from the story, and the new team decided we were going to go back in time to explain how Urza was connected to the story (the original story has a loose tie, but in the rewrite, it became a much bigger deal). Urza would, in fact, get a whole Saga (and Legacy and Destiny) about it.

When I ended up leading the design for Urza's Destiny, I realized I had an opportunity to actually make a card for Rofellos. Elves live longer than humans, so that meant he'd be alive during the time frame of Urza's Destiny. He was a Llanowar elf, so I decided to make a turbo-charged version of one. Instead of tapping for one green mana, he'd tap for a green mana for each Forest you controlled. Rofellos ended up being quite good (so much so, he's currently banned in Commander).

Scragnoth

To the best of my knowledge, this is the earliest card I ever designed to see print in a Magic set. The very first deck I ever built was a mono-green deck. The first pack I opened had a Craw Wurm, and it drew me in. The second deck I built was mono-blue. I'm not sure why my early decks were all monocolor, but it just didn't occur to me that I could play more than one color.

Because in the early days there weren't organized events yet, and I didn't have any friends who played Magic, I used to play a lot against myself. I'd build two decks and then see how they'd play against one another. I tried as best I could to make decisions as if I didn't know what my opponent had in their hand. Anyway, of all the matchups I played, mono-green versus mono-blue was the one I did the most.

One of the things that annoyed me in the matchup was that blue had answers to green's threats, but green didn't really have answers to blue's threats. This inspired me to design a card, I believe one of my earliest designs. The card, named Greased Weasel, was a green creature with protection from blue. I'll admit I didn't fully understand how protection worked, but I knew blue couldn't mess with it. I assumed that blue couldn't counterspell it. Flash forward some number of months when I have a better handle on how protection works, and I realize that it actually doesn't stop a counterspell, so I add "can't be countered" to it.

A few years later, I'm leading my first design team, Tempest, and I put it in the set. Everyone seemed to like it, so it stayed. When we got to templating, the editor (my guess is it was Darla Willis, later Kennerud, but I'm not sure) wanted to use a longer template, something like "while this spell is on the stack, it can't be the target of an instant," and I just said, "can't we just use 'can't be countered'?" Scragnoth would go on to be a thorn in blue players' sides for many years.

Triangle of War

One day during Visions development, Bill Rose pulled out a picture of the art for Triangle of War. With some dramatic license, here's what occurred (here, it's just Bill and me talking, but imagine the whole team chiming in):

Bill: See this picture? We need to make a card for it.
Me: What is it?
Bill: I have no idea.
Me: I mean, why do we have to make a card for it?
Bill: It's going to be on the booster box.
Me: Why is that the image on the booster box?
Bill: I don't know. They commissioned it, and it's going on the box. Not my department. They did ask us to make a card for it.
Me: I guess I'm back to what is it?
Bill: I don't think it can be a creature. It doesn't have any body.
Me: It doesn't have enough action to be an instant or sorcery.
Bill: I guess either an artifact or an enchantment.
Me: It seems kind of angry.
Bill: What if it promotes something aggressive?
Me: We've been talking about wanting to make Arena (a book promo card) into a one-shot artifact. It could make creatures fight with one another.
Bill: I'd buy that. Done.

From start to finish (although the costs might have been fiddled with later), the card was designed in under three minutes.

Triangle of War and Visions expansion symbol
Triangle of War by Ian Miller, and the Visions expansion symbol

 

Urza's Factory

Michelangelo used to say that the statue was always there in the block of marble. It was his job to chip away everything around it. In many ways, Urza's Factory feels more like a design we discovered than one we created. Here's how it came to be.

Antiquities was the second-ever Magic expansion and the first one with both a mechanical theme (artifacts) and a story (the Brothers' War). To represent places in the story, the design team made several lands named after each of the brothers. Urza got what is now called the Urzatron (Urza's Mine, Urza's Power Plant, and Urza's Tower). Mishra got Mishra's Factory and Mishra's Workshop. All five of these lands would go on to see a lot of Constructed play.

  • 1083
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In Time Spiral design, we were trying to make new designs that were throwbacks to old designs. The Urza and Mishra lands were very iconic, so we looked to see if we could do a tweak on one of them. One of the early questions we asked was, could we swap Urza's and Mishra's name on any of them? It was clear that we couldn't do Mishra's Mine, Mishra's Power Plant, or Mishra's Tower without doing all three together. It was Mishratron or nothing, and at the time, we decided we didn't have the space in the set for that. That left either Urza's Factory or Urza's Workshop. Both seemed cool.

The next thing that dawned on us was that it would be cool if the Urza land had an activation for seven generic mana as that's what the Urzatron produces (the reason we didn't consider seven colorless mana was because colorless costs weren't a thing yet). What exactly was fair game for seven mana? This led us to the realization that it could produce a 2/2 colorless token. And guess what, there was a 2/2 colorless token associated with Urza and Mishra, Assembly-Worker. Once we made it that, Urza's Factory seemed the right choice as Mishra's Factory was the first card to reference the 2/2 Assembly-Worker (you could spend mana to turn it into it). It also tapped for a colorless mana because all our lands either tap for mana or, these days, are fetch lands that can (with a few very rare exceptions).

Looking back, I do realize we designed the card, but it really felt like it designed itself and we were just there as spectators.

Vizzerdrix

Back in the late '90s (I think it was 1998, but I could be off by a year or two), we made a series of Magic commercials set in an R&D lab. The premise was that R&D was a giant science department testing all the things that would end up on cards. One of the commercials was called "Fluffy Bunny." You can see it below.

In the commercial, R&D combines a professional wrestler with a rabbit to make Kezzerdrix, a card from Tempest.

The agency that wrote the ad just looked through Magic cards and picked the one they thought worked best for the commercial. We really liked the series of commercials and were eager to use them to help drive new players to the game, but there was a concern that Kezzerdrix was not new-player friendly, so we were asked to make a new monstrous rabbit creature for the latest beginner product, which at the time was Starter 1999. The two decks were mono-red and mono-blue, and the mono-red deck had an Orgg in it that was featured in the other commercial (they came out in twos), so we decided to put the monstrous rabbit in the blue deck. That is how Vizzerdrix came to be. It's just a 6/6 because we were trying to keep it simple for the gameplay. Poodleboy (and Bob from Accounting) would show up in Unglued 2, never to see the light of day. (Click here to see both cards.)

Wasteland

One of the joys of being an early Magic designer is having the ability to redesign a broken card, miss, and make a slightly weaker yet still broken card. Wasteland is a perfect example of this occurring. Antiquities included a card called Strip Mine.

For the cost of a land drop, you got a land destruction effect for free. It didn't take long for everyone to realize that this was hugely problematic. In fact, I think Strip Mine was the first land ever to be banned.

Anyway, when designing Tempest, I got it into my head that I needed to make a "fixed" Strip Mine. I decided that the problem with Strip Mine was that it could destroy basic lands, so I made my new card only capable of destroying nonbasic lands. It turns out, in larger formats, not a lot of basic lands get played, so basically, I'd just made a new Strip Mine for those formats.

Wasteland taught me a valuable lesson, that when you're trying to fix something broken, you usually have to make it significantly weaker than you might think at first blush. Or maybe the even better lesson is, you don't have to make fixed versions of things that aren't fun.

X

One of the fun things about creating Un- cards (at least silver-bordered/acorn ones) is that you have a lot more tools at your disposal to design the card. Case in point, X.

The goal when I was designing X was that I wanted to make a master spy. What would a master spy do? Well, in a normal set, I could mess with the opponent's stuff in many ways, but the one that's always been problematic to do has been casting spells out of their hand. We've tried numerous times, but it's never been a huge success. But this was an Un- card, so I decided to try something a little unorthodox. What if X was able to go into the opponent's hand and then cast spells out of it? The biggest problem with cards that can cast the opponent's cards is that it happens at a single point in time and the opponent can usually respond by casting the spell you'd want to cast. But if X were in the hand, he could find opportunities where the opponent couldn't do that.

What follows is the evolution of the design. The card's abilities didn't change much. This is a chance to show you the challenges in capturing a difficult card in templating. Here was the first stab at the design:

Top Agent (version #1)
4UB
Legendary Creature — Spy
4/4
You control this card in all zones.
UB, T: Put CARDNAME face up third from the top of target player's library. While this card is in your opponent's hand, you may look at that players hand.
2UUBB: You may play a card from that player's hand without paying its mana cost. Play this ability only on your turn, and only if this card is in an opponent's hand.

You can see the basic concept was there from the very beginning. X could sneak into the opponent's hand and cast cards from it. To explain how to use X when it was in your opponent's hand, we started by saying that you control it in all zones.

Top Agent #000 (versions #2)
UB
Legendary Creature — Spy
2/2
You control this card in all zones. (You may activate its abilities whenever you can pay their costs.)
UB, T: Put CARDNAME in target opponent's hand.
UB: Look at target opponent's hand if CARDNAME is in it.
2UUBB: You may play a card from target opponent's hand without paying its mana cost if CARDNAME is in it. Activate this ability only on your turn.

The next version shrank him from a 4UB 4/4 to a UB 2/2. It also put him directly in the opponent's hand rather than making him go through the library first. As X's mana cost and power/toughness never changed after this, I'm just going to show you the rules text as we try to figure out how to actually word the abilities.

X (version #3)
You control this card in all zones. (You may activate its abilities whenever you can pay their costs.)
UB, T: Put CARDNAME in target opponent's hand. While CARDNAME is in opponent's hand, you may look at that player's hand at any time. That player cannot cast this card.
3UB: You may play a card from target opponent's hand without paying its mana cost if CARDNAME is in it. Activate this ability only on your turn.

This version finalized the activation costs (UB and 3UB respectively) and folded in looking at the opponent's hand as part of X being in your opponent's hand. All the following versions are basically just different template changes.

X (version #4)
CARDNAME's owner controls it while it's in an opponent's hand.
UB, T: Put CARDNAME into target opponent's hand. As long as CARDNAME is in that player's hand, you may look at his or her hand. (That player can't cast this card.)
3UB: You may play a card from target opponent's hand without paying its mana cost. Activate this ability only during your turn and only if CARDNAME is in that player's hand.

Instead of caring about all zones, this version just cared about when X is in the opponent's hand, as that's the only zone that matters. The player not being able to cast the card went from being rules text to reminder text, as that is established by the opponent not controlling it while it's in their hand. (We didn't want the opponent casting X.) The second ability swapped around different elements of the text.

X (version #5)
CARDNAME's owner controls it while it's in an opponent's hand.
{oUoB}, {oT}: Put CARDNAME into target opponent's hand. As long as CARDNAME is in that player's hand, he or she plays with his or her hand revealed. <i>(That player can't cast this card.)</i>
{o3oUoB}: You may play a card in the same opponent's hand as CARDNAME without paying its mana cost. Activate this ability only during your turn.

This version changed letting you look at the opponent's hand to having them play with it revealed. It also cut down the second ability by no longer reminding you that X has to be in their hand, as it was decided it was implied earlier in the text. The larger issue going on here was that the text was a bit too long, and Glenn Jones, the set's editor, was trying to trim words to make it fit.

X (version #6)
X's owner <i>(and no one else)</i> may cast X and activate its abilities as long as it's in an opponent's hand.
{oUoB}, {oT}: Put X into target opponent's hand. That player plays with his or her hand revealed until X leaves his or her hand.
{o3oUoB}: You may play a card in the same hand as X without paying its mana cost. Activate this ability only during your turn.

This template clarified that the opponent can't cast or activate X while he's in their hand and made the reveal effect durational.

X (version #7)
As long as X is in X's owner's opponent's hand, X's owner may cast X and activate X's abilities. That opponent can't cast X and plays with his or her hand revealed.
{oUoB}, {oT}: Put X into target opponent's hand.
{o3oUoB}: You may play a card in the same hand as X without paying its mana cost.

The previous template was still too long to fit in the text box, so it was shortened again. The solution was to shorten the rules text on the activations and have the static ability carry the weight of explaining that the opponent can't cast or activate X and has to reveal their hand. I don't often show the evolution of templating, but it's something that happens on most complicated cards that are messing in new design space.

Yargle, Glutton of Urborg

How exactly did Yargle come to be? The slot was always assigned to an uncommon black legendary creature but went through endless designs. It was a Human Cleric, then a Zombie, then a Human Wizard, then a Zombie again, then an Ooze. It was a reprint at one point, a creature with historic at another. The team just tried lots of different options.

At some point, the team decided to entertain an idea we'd talked about, making another vanilla legendary creature. (In Part 1 of this series, I talked about how Isamaru became the first vanilla legendary creature.) It was decided that in order to do that, the numbers had to be something novel, not just a combination we'd never done before, but something that would make people get excited about a vanilla creature. The team settled on 4B 9/3 and never looked back. Yargle had a fun art description:

Setting: DOMINARIA
Color: Black legendary creature
Location: Swamps of Urborg (see p. 68) *This unique legendary character is yours to design.*
Appearance: Introduce us to YARGLE, a terrifying swamp spirit. We'd like to use the creature on p. 74C as a starting point, with its huge mouth and claws, but teeny-tiny legs. This creature cannot fly, so we'd like the legs to be firmly on the ground. The result of these proportions can be a bit comical: a terrifyingly large mouth, empty eye sockets, wicked claws—all skittering around on half a dozen little legs. Yargle's body is a bit smoky and indistinct, but his mouth and claws look very solid and real. He's huge, something like 50 feet tall (15m).
Action: Towering over the Urborg swamp, Yargle fights a squad of Cabal knights and soldiers (see pp. 62–65 for Cabal styling, plus knights on p. 67), and he is easily winning. He might be casually tossing a horse and rider into his mouth with one hand while flattening another fighter or tearing them to shreds. Or maybe he's daintier about it, lifting a Cabal knight off her horse and holding her in two fingers like a delicious morsel. Down at the base of Yargle's weirdly proportioned body, one Cabal soldier desperately raises an axe to cut through one of the spirit's tiny little legs. (This should be a non-focal, second-read thing; the main point is that Yargle is terrifying and destructive.)
Focus: Yargle
Mood: Fifty feet of razor-sharp teeth and angry claws (that just might have a weak spot)
Notes: This card's mechanics are that it hits really hard, but it can't take much of a hit back and doesn't have any special abilities.

I'm so glad the audience has taken to Yargle as we'd hoped.

Zephid

I was working on designs for Urza's Saga when I made the following card:

Make Me a Serra
2WW
Enchant Creature
Enchanted creature gets +2/+2 and gains flying. It does not tap when attacking.

Vigilance wasn't named yet. I liked the idea that the Aura granted the creature the abilities of Serra Angel. This inspired me to make a second card.

Make Me a Shivan
2RR
Enchant Creature
Enchanted creature gets +2/+2 and gains flying.
R: Enchanted creature gets +1/+0 until end of turn.

Once I had two cards, it was clear I had a cycle on my hands. Black was obvious. It was Make Me a Sengir. My first attempt at green was Make Me a Force (of Nature). It granted +3/+3 (more than the others) and trample. It wasn't quite as perfect as the first three as it was ignoring part of the original creature in that Force of Nature has an upkeep cost that the enchantment didn't want, but it seemed close enough. The tricky part of the cycle was blue. What exactly did the blue enchantment make you into?

The most iconic early blue flier was Mahamoti Djinn, but that just had flying, and white, black, and red were granting flying plus another ability. (The idea was that the extra power/toughness was green's "second" ability.) We combed through every blue flying creature, but nothing gave us what we needed, a bigger blue flying creature with a second ability.

The solution was to make one in the set and then have the embrace be of that creature. That's why we made Zephid, so we could make Zephid's Embrace. It was the first flying creature to ever have shroud (although before it was named). Blue had some Homarids, and green had numerous ground creatures with shroud, but Zephid was the first time we'd done it with evasion. We felt that those two abilities combined would make for a good Aura, which makes Zephid the first creature (at least that I can remember) to be designed just so we could make an Aura out of it. What exactly is a Zephid? Still not sure.

"Storytime Is Over"

I hope you've enjoyed all my alphabetic tales. It was fun revisiting so many designs of the past. As always, I'm eager to hear your feedback. Any thoughts on today's stories or cards? You can email me or contact me through my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok) with feedback.

Join me next week for this year's State of Design.

Until then, may you have your own A-to-Z Magic experiences.

 
#951: Booster Fun with Tom & Sarah
#951: Booster Fun with Tom & Sarah

31:47

I sit down with Tom Jenkot and Sarah Wassell to talk about the making of Booster Fun variants (all the cool alternate-art cards and special card frames that we do in a set).


 
#952: Lessons Learned – Zendikar Rising
#952: Lessons Learned – Zendikar Rising

34:28

This is another podcast in my "Lessons Learned" series where I look back at sets I led (or co-led) to talk about the design lessons I learned. Today's podcast is on Zendikar Rising.

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