#639: Top 10 Worst Mechanics
I realized I hadn't done a Top 10 list in a while, so I decided to talk about bad mechanics.
Posted in Making Magic on May 27, 2019
Last week, I talked about how Ethan and I turned our idea for making a more complex, nostalgia-rich supplemental product aimed at enfranchised players into a week-long Hackathon project and ultimately the 2019 innovative product. I discussed how we put together our team and explained that we started by putting the mechanic changeling in the set as our glue. This week, I'm going to discuss all the various themes we put into the set. Also, I have a pretty exciting preview card, one that should make long-time players smile. That said, let's talk Modern Horizons vision design.
Let me start by talking a little more in depth about what I brought up last week. Changeling was added to the file to serve as a glue for the set. It allowed us to do a few things:
#1 – Splash tribal themes
Normally in a set, it's hard for us to include a tribal theme at uncommon or below unless the set has a certain level of support (aka a large enough as-fan of that creature type). Having a bunch of creatures with changeling essentially allowed us to reach that threshold for all creature types, which meant that any and all tribal cards were now fair game. That did a lot in allowing us to add individual cards we knew players had been asking for. Also, as you will see, the tribal component is a major foundation upon which the set is built.
#2 – Make simple cards
While Modern Horizons was created as a product with an overall higher complexity level than Standard-legal sets, there's still was a limit to how much complexity we could have. Changeling allowed us to make a bunch of cards that were vanilla (they did nothing else), French vanilla (they had a creature keyword or two), or had just one other line of text.
#3 – Riff on old cards
Many of our changeling cards are making a nod to an older simple card that we've repeated except with the changeling ability.
Changeling shows up in white and black, with a splash in green, multicolored, and artifact. We also had our concepters come up with a new visual take for the mechanic.
A big inspiration for themes in Modern Horizons came from ongoing requests from the players. Of the themes I get asked about, there's probably not a louder one than "bring back Slivers." Slivers first appeared in Tempest block. They then returned in Onslaught block, then Time Spiral block, then Magic 2014, and then Magic 2015. Inspired by Limited Edition (Alpha)'s Plague Rat, Slivers are a race of creatures representing a hive mind that share abilities with one another. (Technically, they're shapeshifters that use the hive mind to share knowledge of how to shape new body parts and thus gain new abilities.)
One of the biggest challenges with Slivers is that because we've done them so frequently over the years, we've eaten up a lot of the design space for them. Each one has to have a keyword ability, and there's not a lot of evergreen ones we haven't done. Future Sight, though, taught us a cute trick. If you put them in a set where you can have access to a larger amount of mechanics, you can start pairing them with creature abilities that appeared in sets without Slivers. Well, Modern Horizons had that in spades. Add to it the tribal theme that changeling enabled, and this set seemed like the perfect place to bring Slivers back.
The slivers show up in all five colors but are focused in red and white, so if you're drafting the set and want to play Slivers, I'd recommend sticking to Boros colors.
Before I move on, I just wanted to share a designer story. One of the fun things we did while designing Slivers was constantly try to one-up one another. If we could design a Sliver that made everyone else on the team say, "You can't do that," we knew we'd done something good. I'm honestly shocked how many of our Sliver designs got okayed by Play Design because there are a few of them that when I designed them, I never thought they'd ever see the light of day. That's just my way of telling Sliver fans that you're in for some exciting new Slivers.
Another big request is for more Ninjas. Betrayers of Kamigawa, which introduced Ninjas to Magic, only had nine. Commander (2018 Edition) would add two more Ninjas. Unstable would add three more. And that's it. There have only ever been fourteen Ninjas ever printed in all of Magic's history, and only eleven in black border. (And yes, I mean with the word "Ninja" printed on their type line, so not counting Mistform Ultimus and all the changelings.) There was definitely a pent-up demand. And as Modern Horizons was leaning toward tribal themes, Ninjas seemed like a good fit.
The first decision made was to limit them to blue and black, the only two colors Ninjas have ever appeared in. We decided to give most of the Ninjas ninjutsu as every black-border Ninja to date had the ability, but were willing to make a fewer lower-rarity ones without it. We did make sure that those still had mechanics that made them feel ninja-y.
Our goal for Ninjas was two-fold. One, we liked it as a blue-black Draft strategy. Two, we wanted to add enough Ninjas (and Ninja-related cards) to the system to help players build Ninja decks. I'm optimistic that we accomplished both those tasks. Happy ninja-ing, everyone!
What's a tribal theme that players would enjoy drafting around and Modern could use? If you said Goblins, then you know how to read headers. Yes, Goblins felt like a fun addition to the set for several reasons. First, Modern had numerous Goblin decks that players enjoyed that could use a few new cards. Second, Goblins have a long and storied Magic history that would allow us to both bring back a few Goblin cards and allow us to make new cards that riffed off of old popular Goblin favorites (and convert a few other favorites into Goblin-themed cards).
To do this, we needed to stretch Goblins into a second color. Historically, two sets have had a Goblin faction in a second color. Lorwyn block had Goblins in red and black. Unstable had Goblins in red and green. (Technically, Shadowmoor had green Goblins, but there were just a few of them.) As black has had more one-of black Goblins and black border was a better precedent than silver border, we opted to make black the second color.
The black-red Goblin archetype for Draft plays into the chaotic nature of Goblins, both creating a lot of Goblin tokens and allowing you numerous ways to sacrifice them. As with Slivers and Ninjas, the changeling theme (seen in black; red doesn't have any changelings) helps fill out the deck.
The changeling infrastructure also allowed a lot of one-of tribal cards. These were designed with two basic uses in mind. First, there are just a lot of tribal requests that we've gotten over the years. We couldn't make a tribal theme out of all of them, but we could give the fans of that creature type one tribal card to help beef up their deck. Second, this seemed like a fun thing that players might want to draft around. Pick up as many different cards as you can and then use the changeling glue to play them. This secondary theme was aimed at Limited but was also available for casual Constructed.
Because changeling is focused in white and black, that meant most of the one-of tribal cards at lower rarities had to be in one of those two colors. Other colors, or combination of colors, could have tribal rewards, but we tended to do those at higher rarities where it was more about building around them in Constructed.
The other thing changeling does is it allowed players playing the assorted tribal theme to borrow from Slivers, Ninjas, and Goblins. Slivers are focused in white, and Ninjas and Goblins are focused in black. That means the person drafting the white-black assorted tribal deck will be interested in a subset of cards being drafted by other players, something we try to build into sets so there's more variance from draft to draft. So, if you've been holding out for a tribal reward for the tribe you most enjoy, I can't promise we'll make you all happy, but we will get a bunch of you at least one new tribal card (and a whole host of changeling creatures for the rest of you).
Another very common request we get is for more snow cards, especially reprints of the snow-covered basic lands. Interestingly, the snow theme didn't happen until set design. Early on, we were exploring other land-related themes and went down a couple paths that didn't end up working out. At one point in set design, I was asked if the players had any common land-related requests and brought up the snow-covered lands.
The snow-covered basic lands were originally printed in Ice Age with a number of cards that specifically cared about snow-covered lands. Alliances had a slight nod toward the snow theme (the designers of the set hadn't intended to have the set be an extension of Ice Age, so the few snow cards in the set were created by development), but didn't have any of the lands in it. Coldsnap was designed as the "missing" third set from the Ice Age block, so it revisited the snow theme, adding in snow mana as a cost and using the snow supertype on permanents other than lands. Coldsnap also reprinted the snow-covered basic lands. This was important as their inclusion in Coldsnap made the snow-covered basic lands legal in Modern and provided a few higher-powered snow-matters cards to make players want them.
Set Design decided to add in the cycle of snow-covered basic lands (in full-art frames, no less).
To support that, they then added in a number of snow-matters cards, both cards that cared about you having snow-covered permanents and ones with snow mana as costs. This theme was put into green and blue (being the colors of nature and water, respectively) and used as a deck archetype for Draft. The snow theme can also been seen on artifacts and a tiny splash in white and black.
While a lot of the themes came from us trying to meet player requests, not all of them did. A good example is the "lands in graveyard" theme. We were making cards with old mechanics, putting them in the colors that seemed most appropriate, and noticed that a lot of the mechanics we happened to put into red and green (both keyworded and not) were getting lands into the graveyard. All we had to do was add in a few cards that provided rewards for lands being in your graveyard, and suddenly, a bunch of random cards started working together synergistically. This is a good example of how we were able to find recurring themes showing up that we could weave into deck archetypes.
In addition to particular mechanical themes, Modern Horizons also steered us toward a few other goals.
We set out to make a Time Spiral-y set. One of the things that entailed was having a lot of various keywords. One of the things that was endearing about Time Spiral block for the more enfranchised players was that it included so many old keywords. It was a lot fun to get to play these keywords again and watch them mingle with one another. We knew we wanted to recreate that feeling, so Modern Horizons leaned into using as many mechanics as it could. That's one of the things you'll experience when you play the set; it's filled to the brim with mechanics from the past. Yes, it adds complexity, but it also creates a very unique play experience. This set's Hackathon codename wasn't "Decadence" for nothing.
Another thing that Time Spiral block did that we copied was weaving a lot of synergy into the set. Cool combos are a rich part of Magic's history, and we wanted to make sure the Limited experience of the set allowed you to feel clever as you mixed together the game's past. A big part of this was leaning on the fact that a lot of Magic mechanics play off similar aspects (the graveyard, instants and sorceries, creature combat, etc.) allowing us to create open-ended cards that interact well with one another. When you play this set, you'll find you have a lot of moments where you'll be able to combine things you've never before combined in splashy and exciting ways.
As this product is aimed at more enfranchised players, we also leaned into being as nostalgic as possible. That meant always being aware at every step of the process of trying to tie into existing references where we could. The trick, though, was making sure that those references were lenticular, meaning they added to the card if you got the reference but didn't distract you from appreciating the card if you didn't. This set is filled with Easter eggs and references to the games past, both mechanically and creatively. To write this article, I reviewed the entire set and was grinning ear to ear as I looked at all the cards. If you are at all a Magic fan who's been playing for any length of time, I believe you'll be grinning when you see the whole set as well.
The name Modern Horizons definitely implies that this set is for Modern, but we didn't stop there. The set was aimed at all sorts of Magic players. For instance, we spent a bunch of time making sure there are lots of goodies for Commander players. There are a number of legendary creatures, including a number from Magic's past that players have been asking for forever. For the Cube players, we had a lot of fun making new cards of old mechanics, often putting them into colors they hadn't appeared in before. For casual players, we have lots of tribal cards to allow them to make a horde of different creature decks. For the Vorthoses, there are tons and tons of references to Magic's story, characters, and worlds, some appearing on cards for the first time (my preview today is one of these). Basically, the set was made for anyone who loves Magic and isn't intimidated by a little extra complexity. Keep watching the previews, and I think you'll see that this set has something for almost everyone.
Speaking of making a card for the Commander players and Vorthoses, I have a preview card to show off, and it's quite a doozy. It's a legendary creature card for a character players have been begging us to make for years. Years! Finally, it's time to meet Yawgmoth. You heard me. My preview card is Yawgmoth, officially, Yawgmoth, Thran Physician (aka younger Yawgmoth).
That's all the time I have for today. I hope you enjoyed my walk through the many themes of the set. I can't stress enough that Modern Horizons is a set that needs to be played to be properly understood. It's not normal Limited Magic, but it's quite fun. I'm eager for you all to get a chance to play and tell me what you think. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media outlets (Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram) to let me know what you think about any of the things I talked about today or even just to give me your thoughts on Modern Horizons overall. I hope it's clear how proud I am of the set, and I can't wait for you all to experience it.
Join me next week for "Nine Hundred and Counting."
Until then, may you smile as much playing Modern Horizons as we did making it.
I realized I hadn't done a Top 10 list in a while, so I decided to talk about bad mechanics.
In this podcast, I walk through all the Planeswalkers to explain who they are and how they're mechanically represented on cards.