#631: Morningtide, Part 1
This is part one of my three-part series on card-by-card design stories from Morningtide.
Posted in Making Magic on April 29, 2019
Last week, I started telling my War of the Spark card-by-card design stories. I only to managed to get to f, so I have a bunch of stories still to tell. Let's get to it!
It's Gideon, so there had to be some way for him to get into the fight. Instead of an activated loyalty ability, this time he's turned into a creature by a static ability which only works on your turn. Gideon is the one planeswalker to get a second static ability that keeps him extra safe while a creature. His plus ability is there to show him being a team player. His ultimate shows his aggressive side in stopping the bad guys. Because he was a mythic rare, he was allowed to have four ability "slots" (Liliana and Nicol Bolas do as well). His name is a nod to the fact that he now wields the Blackblade (which he picked up in Dominaria).
In the story, Liliana makes the choice to betray Bolas and help the Gatewatch and their allies. She does this knowing that it will result in her death. To her surprise, she doesn't die because Gideon makes the ultimate sacrifice, taking all the damage meant for her. This was a very important story moment, so we wanted to capture it on a card. The cleanest execution was a damage-redirection spell that moved all the damage to a creature of your choice—flavor bonus points if you choose Gideon.
This uncommon cycle of instants and sorceries is a mirror of the Defeat cycle from Hour of Devastation when Bolas defeated the Gatewatch. In that cycle, each card did something and if the thing affected was a certain Gatewatch member, it did something extra. The Triumph cycle is the opposite. You do something, and as long as you control the appropriate Gatewatch member (or former Gatewatch member if it's Nissa), you get an added effect. Even though the composition of the Gatewatch has changed, the cycle kept the same five characters, showing them defeating Bolas.
In Hour of Devastation, Bolas's minion Gods killed four of the five Amonkhet Gods (everyone save Hazoret). It turns out Bolas wasn't quite done with them yet; they became part of his Eternal army. The challenge in War of the Spark was designing a near-cycle of God-Eternals. Each God lost indestructible but kept the same other evergreen keyword they had on their Amonkhet version. Each God then had their own unique static or triggered ability, usually tied thematically to their ability from their first card. Finally, each had a death condition where they are placed in their owner's library third from the top if they're ever destroyed or exiled. The power/toughness was kept similar, but Kefnet and Bontu had their power shifted by 1. (I believe this was done for play design reasons.) The goal of the Gods was to have them feel similar, but different, and still intimidating.
The other challenge was filling out the cycle, as Hazoret didn't die. The solution here was Ilharg, the Raze-Boar—a god the Gruul worship. Ilharg had been referenced in the story, so that he could act as a fill-in for Hazoret. He was designed to be similar in structure to the God-Eternals, even including the third-from-the-top death trigger.
The original version of this green-white uncommon hybrid planeswalker granted +1/+1 counters. That became Ajani and moved to rare. Luckily, green and white have more overlap than any other color combination. Once Ajani left the slot, Huatli was the obvious replacement. Once it was Huatli, that meant the ability wanted to be related to creatures as Huatli's power suite is creature-based. I think the static "deal damage with toughness rather than power" ability came first. The key was then finding a hybrid ability that tied to creatures. The Set Design team wanted to do life gain because that's a strong tie between green and white, but tied it to creature's toughness to make it feel connected thematically to the other ability.
One of the things that happens when you make a theme is some players want to play a deck filled to the gills with that theme. We knew that would be true for planeswalkers (there's even a deck called "Superfriends" that plays a high number of planeswalkers), so we made this card to help people build that deck. One of the trickiest things about playing a deck with a lot of planeswalkers is getting the various colors of mana to work; Interplanar Beacon was designed to help with this exact problem. Note that in the story, this is the item that Ral Zarek built that lured many Planeswalker to Ravnica.
With so many planeswalkers, it was important to make them a bit more focused than normal. For Jace, the decision was to play into his card-drawing (aka knowledge) aspect. His ultimate lets you draw seven cards while his +1 ability tied his card draw to milling (aka putting cards from the library into its owner's graveyard). His static ability created an alternative win condition to allow you to turn card drawing directly into a win. This is the first alternative win condition to ever appear on a planeswalker. The extra rider was added to his ultimate because it felt like drawing all your library should let you win (but technically didn't with the static ability).
The trick with Jaya was finding a way to make her such that she felt different from Chandra. We ended up going with the "impulsive drawing" ability for Chandra, so that let us give Jaya a direct-damage ability. When her static ability was added, we knew we wanted it to push toward using her in a burn deck, so it rewarded you for having a lot of red burn spells. There was talk of having Jaya's static ability affect her own loyalty ability, but we felt that it would lead to more confusion than it was worth as the card would read as her doing 1 damage and you had to figure out that it actually meant 2. We ended up making the static ability affect "another red source."
The +1/+1 counter–granting ability started on Ajani, but when he got moved up to rare, we moved the ability from the green-white hybrid planeswalker to one of the uncommon mono-green planeswalkers. We did this before we were aware the card was going to be Jiang Yanggu, one of the Chinese Planeswalkers from the Global Series. When a static ability was added, we tied it to +1/+1 counters to create synergy between the two effects. Mana production felt very green and allowed the deck to play larger creatures, another green theme.
Karn is always tricky to design, as he's a planeswalker requiring only generic mana. The trick to making this work is to give him a very narrow ability that would be good in the right situation, but wasn't something every player would throw into their deck. We ended up focusing on animating artifacts, an ability from Karn's legendary creature card and Vanguard card. We made his ultimate a wish for artifacts (aka putting cards from outside the game into your hand) and his static ability something that messes with opponents' artifacts.
Kasmina filled another of our monocolor uncommon planeswalker slots we didn't have a character for. Six other characters have appeared on a mono-blue planeswalker card (Jace, Mu Yanling, Tamiyo, Teferi, Tezzeret, and Will Kenrith). Jace was a rare card. Tamiyo appeared as a rare green-blue card, Teferi appeared as a rare white-blue card, and Tezzeret was the Buy-a-Box promo. We had other plans for both Mu Yanling and Will Kenrith, so that opened up a slot for a new character. We had an interesting idea for a Planeswalker for a future story, so this was the perfect opportunity to introduce her. I don't want to say too much about Kasmina, but I will say her abilities were made to match her character as a small tease of things to come.
There were only two choices for the white-black hybrid planeswalker: Sorin or Kaya. It made more sense for Sorin to be a traditional two-color rare, so Kaya became the uncommon hybrid planeswalker. Once we knew it was Kaya and white-black hybrid, the very first ability we made was the -3 exile ability. She is an assassin, after all. We were a bit more aggressive with her in vision design, but set design and play design ended up making her a bit more expensive to help balance the card. While the -3 loyalty ability came fast, it took a while to find the right static ability for Kaya. In the end, we liked this one as a means to let her kill things that aren't normally easy to kill, which is kind of Kaya's specialty.
Some of the cards were designed before we knew who the planeswalker was going to be, and some were designed after. Kiora's card is a good example of the latter. I think we started by making a more generic green-blue card, but once we realized it had to be Kiora (Nissa, the other potential green-blue Planeswalker, wanted to be a mono-green rare), we completely changed the card. Both abilities play into Kiora's affinity with giant sea monsters. The static ability allows you to draw a card when you play a big creature, and her -1 loyalty ability lets her untap it. It also lets her get mana to cast the large sea monsters. Both abilities play nicely in the hybrid space. Blue and green both have card drawing, but green's is most often tied to creatures. Green got creature untapping from white a few years back and blue has the Twiddle ability ("tap or untap target permanent"). The total package makes a very Kiora-y planeswalker.
Krenko was a fan favorite that we felt deserved another card. The goal was to make another legendary creature that helped you create a lot of Goblin creature tokens, but in a slightly different way. The solution was to make his ability an attack trigger that keeps making Krenko bigger and thus able to produce more and more Goblins.
Liliana is one of the major characters in War of the Spark, so we knew she was going to be a mythic rare card. That in turn meant she got four slots, one of which would be a static/triggered ability. Her +1 loyalty ability was straightforward; she's a necromancer, she makes Zombies. Her -4 loyalty ability was also pretty straightforward—she kills things, although in this case she requires all players to sacrifice creatures, including you. Her other two abilities were a little newer for her. Her triggered ability allowed her to draw cards in a black way, this time when your creatures die. This is a little bit of a bend in that it doesn't require the sacrificing of the creatures, allowing you to benefit when another card (or her -4 ability) kills your creature. The ultimate is the biggest bend, though, in that it lets her destroy a large amount of permanents, including things black is usually not good at destroying—artifacts and enchantments. The fact that the opponent gets to keep a permanent of each type keeps her from being able to necessarily get rid of a troublesome artifact or enchantment.
Massacre Girl was another character players have been asking us to make for years. War of the Spark being set on Ravnica without having to be guild focused allowed us to finally make a bunch of these Ravnican characters into cards. As her name is Massacre Girl, it's pretty clear that she needed to be killing things. The death trigger upon things dying allows her to kill more things, helping her live up to her name. We added menace, because wouldn't you be afraid of her?
As a general rule, Planeswalkers can't planeswalk with other living things. One of Jiang Yanggu's magical abilities is that he can planeswalk with one living creature, his faithful companion, Mowu. As Yanggu was finally showing up in a Standard-legal set, we couldn't pass up the chance of making his dog as a legendary creature. Mowu was designed to be synergistic with Yanggu. Each time he puts a +1/+1 counter on Mowu, instead it's two counters. Mowu then has trample and vigilance to combo with his growth in size.
This is one of the abilities I believe we designed before we knew who the Planeswalker was going to be, although looking at the options made it a pretty straightforward choice. Two of the three Planeswalkers to appear as red-white cards (Ajani and Huatli) are both now green-white. Red can deal direct damage, and we allow white to deal damage to attacking or blocking creatures. White also has occasionally been able to destroy/exile tapped creatures. This meant dealing damage to a tapped creature worked as a red-white overlap. The static ability came about in set design after it was known that this was going to be Nahiri. Red and white seemed like a good place to grant first strike. R&D has been moving more toward having first strike only work on your turn to make it a more aggressive mechanic. The equipment reduction tied into the equipment theme first seen on Nahiri's original mono-white planeswalker card.
We were having problems finding mono-blue planeswalkers. White-blue, though, was filling up fast. We only had two slots for any two-color combination: an uncommon hybrid slot and a potential rare traditional two-color slot. Uncommon was going to be Dovin, one of Bolas's lieutenants, and rare was going to be Teferi, one of the Gatewatch. The answer was to take Narset and let her be a mono-blue planeswalker for this set. The character is base blue, so that felt okay to us. We ended up giving her a library-filtering ability that let her find noncreature, nonland spells as her powers are information based. We then gave her a static ability that tied into the library, but instead of helping you, it restricted what the opponent could do (draw cards).
Nicol Bolas was the major antagonist and thus got a mythic rare card. This meant he got a static/triggered ability and three loyalty abilities. As Nicol Bolas's whole plan had to do with stealing the sparks of every other Planeswalker, we liked him being able to "steal" the abilities of other planeswalkers. This also would encourage you to build a planeswalker-heavy deck with Bolas, which felt very in flavor to what was going on in the story. His +1 ability plays into the "everything I gain is at your expense" feel of Bolas. His -3 ability played directly into the story where he's killing Planeswalkers. His ultimate wanted to be something super splashy, so we made it the first ability to ever win the game—or, more accurately, make the opponent(s) lose the game. The no legendary creature/planeswalker condition tied nicely to his -3 ability. When we first designed the card in vision design, we gave him a hybrid blue-red mana symbol in his mana cost to make it easier to play Bolas in decks, but him being the only hybrid card outside of the hybrid uncommon cycle felt odd to people, so his mana cost was changed back to a traditional three-color one.
Even though Nissa left the Gatewatch, she still showed up for this final showdown. As a former Gatewatch member, we felt she deserved a rare card. Over the years, Nissa's abilities have tied more and more to lands, so we liked the idea of all her abilities being very land focused. Her static ability is a Forest-only Heartbeat of Spring, helping you ramp out your big spells. Her +1 ability animates lands, turning them into 3/3 Elementals with vigilance and haste. (We always grant haste to land animation so you don't have to remember which specific land entered the battlefield this turn.) Her ultimate makes all her land creatures indestructible and lets you go and get as many Forests out of your deck as you wish. I like how this card shows Nissa focusing all her nature powers to create her own Elemental army.
War of the Spark is filled with a lot of story moments. This is the one where Niv-Mizzet returns from the dead in his quest to help the guilds stop Bolas. This version of Niv-Mizzet was designed to play with a five-color deck that makes use of all ten two-color combinations. The dream when playing the new Niv-Mizzet is to draw the top ten cards of your library. The goal behind this design was to make a five-color commander that heavily encouraged you to play lots and lots of gold cards.
That's all the time I have for today. As always, I'm eager to hear your feedback on today's column, any of the cards I talked about, or War of the Spark itself. You can reach me through my email or on social media (Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram).
Join me next week as I finish my War of the Spark card-by-card design stories.
Until then, may you reenact the War of the Spark story however you see fit.
This is part one of my three-part series on card-by-card design stories from Morningtide.
This is part two of my three-part series on card-by-card design stories from Morningtide.