#575: SDCC 2018
Every year, I attend San Diego Comic-Con where I run a Magic panel among other responsibilities. Upon my return, I always record a podcast about it. This is that podcast.
Posted in Making Magic on October 1, 2018
Last week, I started sharing some card-by-card stories about cards from Guilds of Ravnica. I had many more stories to tell, so this week I'm going to just pick up from where I left off last week.
I often talk about how Magic is in many ways multiple games that share a rules system. Some people open booster packs to play the game of Standard, some Modern, some Booster Draft, some Commander, and so on and so on. Each format has different needs, so there are pressures pulling the game in various directions. The problem is that we have to make a singular game. Our cards don't get to vary based on the format in which they're played.
One of the places this has proven most problematic over the last few years is in the color pie in red and white. Commander tends to have games that go longer (partially due to the higher life total and partially due to the nature of multiplayer politics). Red and white, for different reasons, don't naturally fit into the play style of Commander, which has resulted in a lot of pressure from Commander players to stretch the colors and make them more Commander friendly.
The goal of the Council of Colors (and R&D as a whole) has been to find ways to allow red and white to do more Commander-friendly things while staying true to their essences. Dawn of Hope is a good example of us struggling to do this. White is the color of answers. As the most defensive color, there are few problems that white doesn't have some kind of answer for. To keep this from making white too strong, we did two things. One, the answers are spread out on many different cards; we don't tend to give white singular cards that solve too many threats. The idea being that white is great at stopping you if it knows what threat is coming, but it can put its stock in the wrong answers if you surprise it. Lack of flexibility is one of white's weaknesses.
Second, to ensure that white doesn't draw all its answers, we made white the worst at card drawing. It gets cantrips (a "draw a card" rider) like any color, but it doesn't get card drawing that gives it card advantage. This drawback has proven to be a big problem for white in Commander because longer games require ways to restock one's hand.
One of the answers we've experimented with is allowing white access to card drawing but in a way that requires a dedication to a specific strategy. For example, Mentor of the Meek, from Innistrad, lets you draw cards for playing small creatures. To capitalize on this, you need to have a deck full of small creatures, which means you don't get a lot of answer cards.
Dawn of Hope is a very contentious card because it's starting to stretch the boundaries of what being forced to dedicate to a theme means. Yes, you have to have life gain cards in your deck, but we use life gain often enough as a rider, that it might be too little of a barrier. The fact that it also has a built-in way to gain life even undercuts how much space in your deck you have to dedicate to the theme. I'll be honest, as a color pie person, this is the card in the set that scares me the most. I hope my fears end up unfounded.
In Return to Ravnica, we were trying to figure out how to do a common dual land. Our default was just to use the tap lands (lands that tap for one of two colors and enter the battlefield tapped), but we were concerned as we had the shock lands at rare (lands that tap for one of two colors of mana, and for which you can pay 2 life to have them enter untapped) that the common lands were strictly worse in multiple ways. The solution was to create "Gates" that were essentially the tap lands but with a land subtype. This would allow us to make them mechanically relevant to make them different from the shock lands in some way.
Return to Ravnica didn't end up having very many cards that cared about Gates—only three (Armory Guard, Ogre Jailbreaker, and Gatecreeper Vine). Gatecrash had double that number (Guardian of the Gateless, Hold the Gates, Way of the Thief, Gateway Shade, Crackling Perimeter, and Greenside Watcher), and many of the cards got stronger the more Gates you had. Dragon's Maze then had a five-card common creature cycle that had an "enters-the-battlefield" effect if you controlled two or more Gates (Sunspire Gatekeepers, Opal Lake Gatekeepers, Ubul Sar Gatekeepers, Smelt-Ward Gatekeepers, and Saruli Gatekeepers).
Guilds of Ravnica has six "Gate matters" cards (Guild Summit, Circuitous Route, District Guide, Garrison Sergeant, Gatekeeper Gargoyle, and Glaive of the Guildpact), two of which are artifacts so that they can go in any deck. Guild Summit was designed as a Gate build-around card for Draft. It essentially lets you draw a card for each Gate you have. If you draft this early, it can lead you to be more aggressive in drafting Gates, which will allow you to play more colors and thus have many different drafting options. I'm interested to see what decks people draft with it.
One of the things that's interesting about Magic design is how the creation of one card can branch off and create new design ideas to explore. Case in point, Divine Visitation. What two cards in Limited Edition (Alpha) led to the creation of this card?
The obvious answer was Serra Angel as this card creates 4/4 Angels with flying and vigilance. But Berserk? What in the world does Berserk have to do with this card? The answer is it inspired me as a player many years ago. It was the first card I ever played with that doubled things, and I loved it. So much so, that it inspired a love of doubling things. Once I got into R&D and could start designing cards that saw print, I started making a lot of different cards that doubled things. Probably my most famous doubling design was this card:
Ravnica: City of Guilds had both counter and token themes (the former in Golgari and the latter in Selesnya), and I was looking for a way for a mono-green card to help with both themes as green was the color that showed up in both guilds. What could I do to counters and tokens in a singular way that would tie the card together? I could double them.
In order to make this happen, I had to create a replacement effect for the counter/token making. When you would make one, instead make two. This now opened up the door to a new avenue of design. Doubling Season changed one token to two, but what if it instead made a different change. That's what inspired Divine Visitation. What if instead of doubling it, it turned it into a Serra Angel?
The cool thing about this is it means any time we innovate and make new cards, we're opening up future design space to explore. That's why after making 18,000-plus unique cards, I have no fear that we can't make 18,000-plus more.
Usually, if a character plays a major role in the story, we try and make sure that character has an exciting card. It might not necessarily be a top-tier tournament card, but we want it to be something that someone, in some format, we'll get excited to play. Emmara Tandris played a big role in the Return to Ravnica block story (told through Doug Beyer's novella The Secretist). She should have had an exciting card. She didn't.
Here's what happened. Emmara was originally a mythic rare card and had the rules text of Voice of Resurgence. Dragon's Maze had ten legendary creatures (maze runners in the story—the Izzet one got swapped for Ral Zarek before the actual race, but he still got a card). Originally, five of them were rare creatures and five of them were mythic rare creatures. Late in the process, we decided it was odd to have the maze runner cycle stretched out over two rarities, so we chose to make them all rare.
Voice of Resurgence had been tagged as one of our mythic rare tournament cards, so when we moved Emmara down to rare, we ended up swapping her ability with the green-white creature that was at rare. This was a card designed for Selesnya, but it wasn't nearly as exciting as the Voice of Resurgence text. It was late enough in the playtesting process though that we couldn't make a new card, at least not one we thought could potentially see tournament play, so Emmara ended up getting printed with less-exciting rules text than we normally would have given her.
Now, flash forward to Guilds of Ravnica. We're back on Ravnica, which means we have another chance to make an Emmara card. We felt a bit guilty about last time, so we set out to make an Emmara that would excite more players. We also felt the 5/7 body was a bit weird for Emmara, so what we wanted was something smaller but played very well with Selesnya. The Selesnya mechanic was convoke, so we liked the idea of creatures that generated effects when tapped. Selesnya is very creature-centric, so one of the best effects we could have would be token making. That felt very flavorful for Emmara and would be the kind of effect that a lot of different decks could use. And thus, Emmara 2.0 was created. I hope she makes up for last time.
Alternate win conditions (called "alt cons" in R&D) are tricky to design. If you make them too easy to do, they threaten to undermine the whole game. Why bother to go through the rigmarole of dealing 20 damage if you could just do Thing X? If you make them too hard to do, they get frustrating. Finding the right balance is key. Etrata plays in a space we've done before, the "I hit you and win the game" type cards first seen on Phage the Untouchable from Legions.
Because Phage's one-hit victory condition was so strong, we had to add a bunch of extra text to keep you from "cheating" her onto the battlefield. With Etrata, we tried something a little different. What if she was an assassin who killed creatures when she dealt combat damage to a player and if she did that enough times, she won the game. The reason this design is nice is that her route to winning the game is itself useful. If she kills one or two creatures, she still has helped you advance toward winning even if her alternate win condition isn't what wins the game.
You can note the nod to multiplayer play as Etrata shuffles herself into the library with each hit. If this wasn't a legendary creature, and thus a commander, I don't think we would have included this line of text. This is definitely a push toward us hinting more at multiplayer formats in the rules text of a Standard-legal set.
The plan had always been to include both hybrid mana and split cards in Guilds of Ravnica (as both were in the two previous trips to Ravnica). It was Set Design's idea to do both on the same card. The idea was simple: one of the mini cards would be hybrid and one would be traditional multicolored. Because hybrid has an easier time having a lower converted mana cost, they chose to make the hybrid ones less expensive.
The trick when designing split cards is making two effects that felt aesthetically correct on the same split card. The team usually started with the hybrid ability because that was more restrictive. They then found a traditional multicolored effect that complimented it in some way. Let's take Find // Finality as an example. Black can return creature cards from the graveyard to your hand. Green can return anything, so returning creatures is the overlap.
The Golgari Swarm is all about the cycle of life and death, so if the hybrid card returned cards from the graveyard, it felt only right to make an effect that can put cards into the graveyard. Black can kill creatures all on its own, so the key to making it also a green card was finding a way to boost something up as a means to save it from the black part of the effect.
Another problem this cycle created was that we were running out of an important resource, the naming convention of split cards. When I first made the split cards in Invasion, I came up with the idea of having names that went together when you connected them with "and." There were a lot of "blank and blank" expressions, so I figured we'd be fine. I didn't take into account though how popular split cards would become. It turns out we want to make more cards than the naming convention can sustain. (And yes, there still exist some unused names, but we need enough to give us flexibility in what the cards do.)
This meant that Doug Beyer, who was responsible for names in Guilds of Ravnica, had to come up with a new naming convention for split cards. The names had to connect in some way, and it had to be something that had a lot of room in it as we knew we were going to make many more in the years to come. Doug's solution was to have both names be one word and share the first three letters. This met all the requirements and allowed Doug to create some pretty cool names.
The one other thing to bring up is the collector number. The reason the information sits in white lettering on a black band at the bottom of the card is that information is necessary for the printer when they print collated sets. The information needs to be exactly in the same place on every card for the printing machinery to be able to scan and read it. Commander (2016 Edition) was the first product with the new frame to have a split card, but because the Commander decks aren't collated (every deck has the same combination of cards), it didn't have to have the information at the bottom of the card, so we put it at the bottom of the "mini cards" instead. Unfortunately, as Guilds of Ravnica is collated, that wasn't a possibility.
Everyone in design has to create cards aware of the work people have to do downstream of them. For example, Vision Design costs cards at an even power level so in playtest, we have the ability to play all the cards and figure out which ones are the fun ones. Later on, Set Design and Play Design have to decide the proper power level for each card. In order to give them the tools to do this, we have a concept we refer to as "knobs."
A knob is a component of a card design that can be changed. All nonland cards have a mana cost that can be tweaked. Creatures also have power and a toughness that can be altered. The more knobs you have in your design, the more ability you give Set Design and Play Design to fine-tune a card to the proper power level. I bring this up with Firemind's Research because this card is very "knobby." Let's examine all the knobs.
Knob #1: The card has a mana cost. Because this is a two-color card, it has to at least have a converted mana cost of 2. If the card really needed to cost one, you do have the option of making it cost one blue-red hybrid mana.
Knob #2: The card has a trigger condition. Trigger conditions aren't always necessarily knobs, but this one has a little bit of give, so I'm calling it one. For example, if you wanted to weaken this card's effects, you could change it to only care about instants being cast or only care about sorceries being cast. If you wanted to make it stronger, you could make it care about noncreature cards being cast.
Knob #3: This card has a charge counter economy. The trigger produces charge counters, and the two activated abilities spend them. You could tweak how many charge counters you get per trigger as well as how many is required to use each activation. The two activations need not cost the same number of charge counters, so that lets you have them be at different power levels while still being balanced.
Knob #4: Each activation has an ability that itself can be altered. The blue activation could "loot" (draw and discard a card) if drawing proves to be too good or it can draw you two cards if it's too weak. Likewise, the amount of damage dealt by the red ability as well as what it can target can all be tweaked to adjust power level.
Not every card has to have a lot of knobs, but the more knobs you give a design, the easier it will be for the Set Design and Play Design teams to properly adjust the power level of the card. Just an interesting way design looks at cards that you might not have been aware of.
Once again, it's time to wrap things up. I hope you enjoyed my peek into some Guilds of Ravnica cards. As always, if you have any thoughts on this column, any cards I talked about, or just the set of Guilds of Ravnica itself, feel free to email me or talk to me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).
Join me next week when I talk about even more cards (my stopping at f might have been a clue this was coming).
Until then, may you play and make some stories of your own.
Every year, I attend San Diego Comic-Con where I run a Magic panel among other responsibilities. Upon my return, I always record a podcast about it. This is that podcast.
At my SDCC Magic panel, I gave a little presentation about the history of Magic. This podcast is a slightly longer version of that talk.
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