#643: Breaking Rules
In this podcast, I discuss when rules should and shouldn't be broken in Magic design. It involves a bunch of talking about planeswalking and puppies.
Posted in Making Magic on June 10, 2019
Every set, I like to go through some of the cards and share stories about their design. Modern Horizons is a set filled with awesome design stories. I only have one column to fit it all in (next week starts Core Set 2020 previews), so I'm going to try and fit a lot of stories in a single column. Strap in!
Ethan Fleischer (the co-lead designer of the set) loves Bears. He has a Bear-themed Commander deck, and he's always on the lookout for a cool new Bear or Bear-themed tribal card. In Core Set 2019 (for which he was the lead set designer), he managed to get in Goreclaw, Terror of Qal Sisma, the very first legendary Bear. But that card was more about helping large creatures than specifically helping Bears, so Ethan was still eager to make a tribal Bear-themed Commander. It turns out with its nostalgic theme and its changeling tribal glue, Modern Horizons was the perfect set to include it.
One day, Ethan came into a Vision Design meeting and said, "Today, we're making a tribal Bear commander." The biggest challenge of the design is that Bears as a tribe aren't particularly all that strong. This meant that the Bear commander had to help turn a bunch of mediocre 2/2s into powerful creatures. After some brainstorming, we liked the idea that every Bear would trigger some effect when cast. Putting two +1/+1 counters on target Bear sounded cool because it would make the Bears bigger and scarier. You obviously could always choose to put the counters on the Bear that was entering the battlefield. Having your Bear fight another creature also felt cool as it was super flavorful. Rather than choosing between the two effects (it was a rare after all), we decided to include both as they seemed synergistic. Build up your Bears until they're big enough and then start having them fight. The one tweak that happened during set design was the team added a bunch of cards that made Bear tokens, so they reworked the card to trigger when Bears entered the battlefield under your control, so it would be triggered by the creation of all the Bear tokens.
One Vision Design meeting, we decided to focus on Slivers. We knew we wanted to include them in the set because a) the fans have been clamoring for them to return for quite a while, so Slivers were a great choice for a nostalgic set; b) the hardest part about making Slivers is finding enough abilities to put on them, so a set where they had access to a huge number of mechanics was ideal; and c) the inspiration for this set was "Time Spiral 2" and the Slivers were such an iconic part of the Time Spiral block.
The meeting started innocently enough with us pitching some safe, obvious choices for things to put on Slivers. But then we started to one-up each other, trying to come up with the craziest mechanics we could put on them.
"How about outlast?"
"How about unearth?"
"How about exalted?"
"How about cascade?"
We laughed and then we wrote them all down. Now, not all of our list made it onto cards, but a bunch of the craziest ones did. We ended up putting cascade on our legendary five-color Sliver. Magic has a history of making five-color legendary Slivers (Sliver Queen, Sliver Overlord, Sliver Legion, and Sliver Hivelord), and we knew Modern Horizons needed to have one that stood out from the crowd.
What's the longest amount of time it's taken to finish a five-card cycle? As of Modern Horizons, the answer is now 21 years. It all started back in 1998 in Urza's Saga with the card Morphling.
This card was originally going to be the card Clone. Clone was in Limited Edition (Alpha), and due to rules issues, copying creatures had been off the table for new card designs. We thought we'd figure out how to make it work, so, as a celebration of the event, we brought back the card Clone to be printed in Urza's Saga as a rare (it was originally an uncommon in Alpha). Unfortunately, at the very last minute, after the art was in (you can see that Morphling was riffing off of the original art conceit of Clone), we were told it couldn't be Clone and had to be changed.
The card needed to match the art, so we thought about how to make a Shapeshifter if we couldn't use copying. The idea we came up with was to give it a bunch of different abilities so that it could change itself in numerous ways. We started by giving it +1/-1 and -1/+1, so that it could change its size. We ended up giving it the ability to untap itself so that it could attack and then block, flying for evasion, and shroud (unnamed at the time) to protect itself. The card ended up being both powerful and popular (those two things are frequently interconnected).
Over the years, we made a bunch of different blue cards that made a nod toward Morphling, but nine years later, we made a set called Planar Chaos. The main conceit of the set was that it was an alternative reality where the color pie had followed the same philosophies but had ended up in a different configuration of abilities.
One of the things we did in the set was take existing cards and make alternate-reality versions. Why not do that with Morphling but put in red instead? We liked the idea that we would keep five abilities including the "1: +1/-1" and "1: -1/+1," but change out the three activated abilities requiring a single colored mana to add abilities that color had access to. As it was Planar Chaos, red has access to a different group of abilities than normal. For example, untapping was red, so Torchling had the same first ability as Morphling. Then, instead of evasion, we gave it an ability that could force blocking. Finally, rather than shroud, we gave it a defensive ability that could redirect spells that targeted it. It was named "Torchling" to make sure it was clear that this was an alternate-reality Morphling.
The plan had never really been to make a cycle out of these cards, but two years later, while designing Conflux, we stumbled across the idea of making a green version of Morphling.
It again had the "1: +1/-1" and "1: -1/+1" abilities, but its three other abilities were just things green had access to: haste, trample, and indestructible—with the third ability again being something defensive to protect it. It was named "Thornling" to continue the pattern.
Then there was a nine-year gap where we didn't make either the white or black Morphling. Finally, in Battlebond, we discovered a place to make the white Morphling. It had "1: +1/-1" and "1: -1/+1" abilities, but they were combined to a single line to save space. The first two abilities were vigilance (similar to Morphling and Torchling's untap ability) and lifelink. Its defensive ability was self-bounce to put it back into your hand if it was ever in danger of dying.
Endling followed Brightling's condensing of the +1/-1 and -1/+1 abilities. It got menace and deathtouch, and then undying as its defensive activation. Endling is the first Morphling to use a nonevergreen keyword, but that felt apropos as it was in Modern Horizons. Note that it's the only card in the whole set to use the undying ability.
So, just 21 short years later, we've finally finished.
In Champions of Kamigawa development, I created splice as a way to add a spells-matter element to the set. The mechanic allows you to essentially staple the effects of a card with this mechanic onto another spell. In Champions of Kamigawa, that spell had to have the subtype Arcane. I realized late in the development that it might be possible to splice onto instants and sorceries rather than onto a specific spell subtype, but that discovery came too late in the process to change things.
I'd always hoped one day we'd be able to bring splice back and broaden it to make it more backward compatible. We tried splice onto instant and sorcery as the Izzet mechanic in Guilds of Ravnica, but it didn't work out. The mechanic is only on two cards in Modern Horizons, but it's a chance to finally let all of you give it a go. Your feedback, as well as watching how it does in gameplay, will inform us whether and/or how soon we should bring it back.
I've explained that when I originally pitched my idea for the Hackathon, I called my idea "Future Sight 2." One of my favorite things about Future Sight's design was the use of "mix-and-match" spells that combined two different non-evergreen keywords on the same card. I (and others) designed a whole bunch of them for Modern Horizons, but they tend to get pretty wordy, so only three made it through the process to print. These are the three.
Feaster of Fools combines two mechanics that both want you to have a lot of creatures: convoke and devour. The idea is that your creatures can be used to make your Demon cheaper to cast and then can be sacrificed as it enters the battlefield to make it bigger. With four creatures, you can have an 11/11 for BB.
Hogaak, Arisen Necropolis combines two cost-reduction mechanics: convoke and delve. It doesn't matter whether you have creatures on the battlefield or in your graveyard (or other cards in your graveyard), there are many ways to pay. Hogaak even lets you cast it from your graveyard, lining up with the flavor of the delve mechanic.
Throes of Chaos allows you to turn itself and later other lands in your hand into random spells in your library that cost three or less. The synergy is very useful, as it turns dead land draws in the late game into actual spells.
I hope you all enjoy the touch of Future Sight in the set.
In New Phyrexia, we printed a card called Beast Within.
One of green's weaknesses is its over-reliance on creatures. In particular, it's not supposed to be able to kill a creature without having a creature itself. This is why fight is green's main weapon in most sets. It uses its own creatures to kill the opponent's creatures. Beast Within references creatures (as it makes a token), but doesn't require a creature to play. Thus, it allows green to do something it's not supposed to do: remove a creature threat without itself having any creatures. It's one of green's biggest color pie breaks.
I often state this on my blog, which lead to the following question: "Okay, if green isn't supposed to do this, what color is?" The answer I always give is white. White is the best at overall removal and is the color that most often gives the opponent something when it destroys one of their permanents. If Modern Horizons was "Time Spiral 2," maybe it would be cool to get a little Planar Chaos in. Now, we don't want to create any more color pie breaks, but color shifting a card into its correct color was fair game. And that is how a white Beast Within made it into the set.
Alpha is famous for having a number of misprints. One of them was a card called Orcish Oriflamme. The card is supposed to cost 3R, but it was accidentally costed on its Alpha version at 1R.
It was fixed in Beta, but for a while in the early days, tournaments had cards function as printed rather than have all cards work the same (Oracle hadn't become a thing yet). That made the Alpha Orcish Oriflamme a stronger card. It was actually restricted in the very first banned and restricted list. Interestingly, time has shown that the 1R cost isn't remotely close to being broken. In fact, it's perfectly printable in Modern. The first version of this card was named "Alpha Oriflamme" to lean into the joke. The finished card ended up being themed as a Goblin card, but the word "Oriflamme" was kept as a nod to the original design. One final piece of trivia: I designed this card for the original Time Spiral, but it didn't end up making it to print.
Let me geek out for a moment. This card was made during set design, as I saw it for the first time in the set's slideshow. I don't know whose idea it was to combine the anchor words of Khans of Tarkir block (the whole "choose Khans or Dragons" thing) with the Mirran/Phyrexian War, but it's a thing of brilliance. The Mirran side feels Mirran, the Phyrexian side feels Phyrexian, yet both sides play beautifully in an artifact-themed deck. And it even gets another Magic set name onto a card title. It's a card that only could be made in Modern Horizons.
We made this card during the Hackathon and were inspired to try and make a full ten-card cycle out of it. For each color pair, we wanted an iconic spell that appeared at the same cost in both colors. We tried, we really tried, but we just never got a cycle that lived up to this first card, so in the end, we just made the cool card by itself.
Mons Johnson is a longtime friend of Richard Garfield, and was a member of R&D for many years. His love of Goblins was so intense that Richard made Mons's Goblin Raiders in Alpha.
The "Mons" in the card title refers in-world to Pashalik Mons, a great Goblin leader. We've tried many times over the years to make a Pashalik Mons card. For instance, it was in the design file handed off from the Time Spiral design team. We've talked about it being in various supplemental sets including Commander decks. Somehow it always fell through the cracks and never got made. Modern Horizons finally rights this wrong by bringing Pashalik Mons to the people.
We knew from the start that he needed to be a tribal Goblin card. I believe his activated ability was designed first. He was a leader of Goblins and is forever connected to 1/1 Goblins because of his card in Alpha. The cost of sacrificing a Goblin requires him to have at least one other Goblin to start, but from then on, he can sacrifice the Goblin tokens he's created. I really enjoy that his Goblin army just grows over time. The static ability was added as a way to get some damage dealing onto the card in a way that organically tied to Goblins and his activated ability. I'm curious to see what all the Goblin fans are going to do with it—especially Mons.
One of the challenges of Modern Horizon was how to design French vanilla creatures (aka creatures that just have evergreen keywords). Every set needs some, but Modern Horizons made designing them difficult as they needed a reason to feel like they fit in the set. While designing cards in the original Hackathon (you can read about this in my first Modern Horizons preview column), I came up with the idea of doing a common cycle of "young" iconics where I took famous creatures from the past and made smaller versions of them. I believe the earliest version of this card was:
Young Serra Angel
Creature – Angel
During vision design, Kelly Digges came up with a way to one-up the joke making use of an old in-Magic joke, one that dated back to 1994 from Legends called Segovian Leviathan.
The card is a 3/3, yet in the art it's shown swimming with whales that are tiny in comparison. Rather than just own up to the odd disconnect, the Creative team at the time (then called "Continuity") explained that this creature was from the Plane of Segovia and on that Plane, everything is tiny, so when you summon a Leviathan, you're getting a much smaller creature than you might normally get if you summoned a Leviathan from any other world. Thus, Segovia, the plane of tiny creatures, was born.
Kelly's idea was to make the Angel from Segovia as a way to explain its tiny size. Ethan liked the joke and shrunk the creature to a 1/1 to further play this up. The rest of the cycle got knocked out during vision design as it seemed funnier as a joke on a single card than a whole cycle. Segovian Angel managed to make it all the way to print—one of about fifteen cards from the original Hackathan to do so.
One of the things we've been doing in supplemental sets of late is taking popular old characters that have a legendary creature card and doing an updated version. Sisay has proven a popular commander for her ability to fetch legendary cards out of your library. Her big drawback is that she's limited to just green and white cards, as that's her color identity. The idea we had was to make a new Sisay, but one with a five-color identity to allow you to play whatever legendary cards you wanted.
We made her mono-white so that she wasn't hard to cast, then made her fetching ability require WUBRG to get Sisay her five-color identity. (Color identity looks for any colored mana symbols on the card.) We had the ability put the cards directly onto the battlefield as it cost a lot of mana to use, unlike the tap ability of her original card. Then, to encourage you to play all five colors, we made the static ability, which defines her size and how big of things she could fetch. As the co-creator of the Weatherlight Saga, I'm always happy to see another Weatherlight crew member get a new card.
One of the fun things of making a supplemental set aimed at enfranchised players is that you can make some pretty good in-jokes. Smiting Helix is a great example of this. It's making fun of the fact that "CARDNAME deals 3 damage to any target and you gain 3 life" is both a black ability and a red-white ability. This is definitely not a card you'd ever see in a Standard-legal set.
One of the tricks we used to design new cards with old mechanics was to look for faction-based mechanics and then explore the colors outside of that faction. I'll use overload as my example. Overload was the Izzet mechanic in Return to Ravnica, which means we'd only ever designed blue and red overload cards. That gave us free reign to find interesting white, black, and green effects we could use with overload, as we'd mined out blue and red.
The key to a good overload design is finding an effect that's in color both as a single targeted effect and a mass effect. For example, white is allowed to grant a single creature +2/+2 or all of its creatures +2/+2. (White stops at +2/+2, as +3/+3 or greater is green's territory.) With a higher overload cost, this makes for a good combat trick that doubles as a late-game breakthrough card that helps win the game. Scale Up is a similarly designed card in that it allows the card to be played early and late. Mind Rake plays in reverse space where it gets a cheaper overload cost because the targeted effect is stronger (just making the opponent discard). Each of these effects are something new because neither blue nor red could do them. (Blue might change the size of a creature, but not to a 6/4.)
Time for another round of Magic trivia. Okay, String of Disappearances is a riff on what Magic card?
Original Mirrodin block was the set that introduced Equipment to the world. In Darksteel, we made two Swords, each representing an internal conflict in Magic. Both Swords cost three to cast and two to equip. Each gave +2/+2 and protection from the two colors represented in its conflict. Then each granted its user two Saboteur abilities (things that trigger upon the equipped creature dealing combat damage to another player), one in each color referenced in the protection. The Swords were powerful and popular.
They also heavily hinted at a cycle, so for years I was asked "When are you going to finish the '_____ and _____' Swords cycle?" Upon our return to Mirrodin in Scars of Mirrodin block, we decided it was time to give the players what they wanted.
Each set of that block (Scars of Mirrodin, Mirrodin Besieged, and New Phyrexia) had one missing Sword. We ended up putting the red-white sword in New Phyrexia as it had to be themed as Mirran, but most of the plane had fallen to the Phyrexians by that point. The resistance was red-white, so we felt it made sense for them to have the last Sword. We worked backward from there, putting the black-green Sword in the middle set to not have it overlap with the final Sword, and the green-blue in the first set of the block. All of these Swords followed the same pattern as the first two. Again, these cards were powerful and popular.
Once we finished that cycle, we started getting the requests for the allied Swords. The problem was we'd realized that the Swords using the formula that the enemy Swords had all followed made Equipment that was too strong for Standard. We thought about making a slightly less powerful version of them, but felt that would make players more unhappy than happy. We toyed with making shields that could follow a slightly different formula that would allow them to be related but less comparable, but ultimately decided that it was better to find the right home one day and just put the allied Swords there.
It turns out that set was Modern Horizons. Well, for at least two of them. With the original Swords being stretched out of many sets, it felt only right to mimic the enemy color Swords and just start with two. We picked two combinations that didn't overlap in color and followed the old formula. The fact that these were going straight into Modern meant we could have the power level higher than we'd be comfortable having it in Standard.
I look forward to you all enjoying the first two allied Swords and await the many requests for the other three.
This is another card that's trying to help complete a cycle.
It started back in Fifth Dawn with the card Trinket Mage. Fifth Dawn had a "cog" theme focusing on artifacts that cost zero or one. Trinket Mage was designed as a creature that tutored (got a card from your library into your hand) for cogs.
Aether Revolt started filling in the middle with Trophy Mage which tutored for artifacts costing exactly three mana.
Modern Horizons fills in the two slot, leaving two cards remaining: one that gets converted mana cost 4 and one that gets 5. Let's hope we don't run out of t words.
This is another clever design. It's an entwine spell that has two different blue abilities, shrinking (power reduction) and power/toughness swapping. The two abilities combine to do something that blue specifically doesn't do, destroying a creature (one with power 6 or less). Since these two abilities, even combined, aren't a thing blue does, the entwine cost which lets you do both is in the color that does kill creatures all the time, black.
Urza was one of the first major characters in Magic. His name appears in two cards of Alpha (Urza's Glasses and Urza's Sunglasses—the man apparently likes eye coverage), and he was the main character of Magic's first major story, the Brothers' War, first told (in part) in the set Antiquities. As long as I've been interacting with the Magic public, there's been a request for an Urza card. I made one in Unstable (Urza, Academy Headmaster—in the silver-bordered Un- iverse, he's a disembodied head), but players still want one in black-border Magic.
We knew we wanted to make an Urza card; the question was from what time. Where in his life do we choose? After much thought, we decided to start at the beginning, back in his artificer days, the time era of the Brothers' War. With that choice, we leaned into making an awesome artificer, something you'd want to put into an artifact-themed deck.
We gave him three abilities. First to make Constructs. After all, he's famous for making giant artifact creature armies. We made them variably tied to artifacts so they'd get bigger with the more artifacts you got onto the battlefield (including other Constructs). Second, we gave him a mana-generation ability to allow you to use your artifacts to cast more artifacts. Third, we gave him a flashy ability to cast potentially any spell off the top of your library. We added in the shuffle to keep the card from doing degenerative things.
Hopefully, all of those asking for a black-bordered Urza card can finally enjoy him.
That's all the time I have for today. I hope you all enjoyed my stories. As always, if you have any feedback on today's column, any of the cards I talked about, or the set Modern Horizons itself, you can write to me through email or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram) and let me know what you think.
Join me next week when Core Set 2020 previews begin.
Until then, may you make your own stories with Modern Horizons.
In this podcast, I discuss when rules should and shouldn't be broken in Magic design. It involves a bunch of talking about planeswalking and puppies.
This podcast is all about us adding two words to the rules text of one card and all the hullabaloo that followed. I explain why we did it and walk through the timeline of what happened (it's a little convoluted).