Odds and Ends: Oath of the Gatewatch, Part 1

Posted in Making Magic on February 1, 2016

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.

From time to time I do mailbag columns in Making Magic. On occasion, I've done ones where I allow people to ask questions, mostly design questions as that's what I do, about the latest set. This allows me to answer the questions that you all are most interested in hearing about and lets me explain things—especially smaller issues—that I might not have been able to in previous columns.

I've been doing a blog on Tumblr called Blogatog where I do this all the time, but it dawned on me that this was something I should just be doing for all major sets. Why not make sure to dedicate a column or two four times a year to actually address the things you are most curious about? As such, I've decided to brand this column so you'll all know what it is when you see the title. The name I've chosen is "Odds and Ends," as the column will allow me to explain a lot of the bits and pieces that I missed in my other articles about a particular set's design.

With that out of the way, let's get started. Here's the tweet I posted:

As always, I try to answer as many questions as I can, but there are a few reasons why I might not be able to get to your question:

  • I have an allotted word count, which means that there are only so many questions I can get to. I should note that on my blog I tend to give shorter answers, but as this is my column, I lean toward giving longer answers with more detail.
  • Someone else might have asked the same question. I will usually answer the first person who asks.
  • Some questions I either don't know the answer to or don't feel qualified enough in the area to properly answer them.
  • Some topics I'm not allowed to answer for all sorts of reasons, including spoilers for future sets.

On with the questions!

I can't give the story answer as that's not my area, but I can give the design answer. Sets thrive when they have focused themes. Oath of the Gatewatch being half about Kozilek and half about Emrakul would have led to a very confusing set. Each would have had to have their own mechanical theme, and communicating which theme went with which titan would have muddled the overall mechanical message. Yes, that means having three Eldrazi titans and two sets in the block doesn't perfectly line up, but design isn't always neat and tidy. Besides, we've just put together a team of Planeswalkers to solve problems of the Multiverse. Having a few unsolved issues is probably good for storytelling.

Here's the problem. For developmental reasons, we don't want to make too many planeswalker cards. We want them each to be cool and playable, and we can't do that if we make too many. Our default for a block is five planeswalkers, which leads to us making ten planeswalkers a year. (Note that we used to do five during a three-set block and then five in the core set.) Battle for Zendikar block had the following planeswalkers play a role:

  • Gideon
  • Nissa
  • Ob Nixilis
  • Kiora
  • Jace
  • Ugin
  • Chandra

That's seven characters and we only have five planeswalker cards. This leaves us with two options: have fewer Planeswalkers in the story or start a precedent that being in the story doesn't always guarantee you a planeswalker card. The former causes all sorts of problems. Do we tie the hands of the story team by limiting how many Planeswalkers can be in the story? That makes it very hard to have them as our main characters, especially now that they're working as a team. The biggest downside would be the inability to involve other planeswalkers. We want to be able to do things like make use of our full roster of planeswalkers and allow everyone's favorites to turn up from time to time. If there had to always be a one-to-one connection between characters and cards, we'd simply be able to do that a lot less.

That meant we had to go with the latter, not always tying the presence of a Planeswalker in the story to a planeswalker card. Yes, this will take a little getting used to, but I believe it will lead to a much richer and more enjoyable story. Also, it's not as if Jace will never get another planeswalker card. He's part of the Gatewatch. You're going to see him again, and some of those times he'll get a planeswalker card. (Hopefully, Standard will be up to the challenge.)

The original plan was to have Inquisition of Kozilek in the set. In fact, it was in the design file. But we quickly ran into a problem. All of the Eldrazi-related spells were colorless (either true colorless or devoid). It's the same reason we had a problem with Ghostfire, a colorless spell that was flavored as not Eldrazi. So we sat down with the creative team and tried to see if we could work out a solution. What if the card represented sympathizers of the Eldrazi who weren't themselves Eldrazi? We had two lines of flavor text. Could we convey that?

While we were trying to figure that out, we learned that it didn't matter. Development had been trying out Inquisition of Kozilek in Standard and it was causing problems. Even if we could solve the creative issues, we couldn't solve the developmental ones. And that is why the card was not reprinted in Oath of the Gatewatch.

Once we decided that the set was going to have a "teamwork" theme, we definitely thought about what we could do with the set to make it friendlier for players helping other players. As is usually the case, design tends to start by pushing boundaries as far as we can. We do this because it's important to map out the design space. What kinds of things could we do?

So yes, early design definitely played around with putting the word "teammate" on more cards. We made global enchantments that helped you and your teammates. I even think some of them made it to the development handoff. The problem we found as more people playtested it, though, is an issue I call the "additive distraction."

To explain, imagine I made a vanilla creature (this is design so creative hasn't seen it yet):

Bear on Steroids
1G
Creature – Bear
3/4

If I showed that around, I'd probably get pretty good responses. We've only done one card with the same cost and stats before (Plant Elemental from Portal) and it required you to sacrifice a Forest. Now imagine I tweak the card:

Geeky Bear on Steroids
1G
Creature – Bear
If you control at least ten artifacts, CARDNAME gains trample.
3/4

If I show this card around, I'm going to get a lot fewer positive responses. People will focus on the condition about ten artifacts, and many will come to the conclusion that there isn't really a deck for this card.

But here's the thing: players were excited by the card without the extra line of text. Geeky Bear on Steroids is by every definition of the term "strictly better" than Bear on Steroids from a power standpoint. It has a conditional upside. It's just as good as the original and, in a very narrow case, can be even better.

My point is that how players perceive cards is very connected to how they process what's on it. Having the word "teammate" on cards was throwing people because it made them evaluate the card in terms of whether or not they might play a format where having a teammate mattered.

In the end, we decided to keep some of the teammate stuff (such as the surge mechanic), but others like the global enchantments went away.

One of the things the design team did do that was pretty subtle was we looked for ways to make cards more teammate-friendly without actually putting the word "teammate" on them. The most common way we did this was to make more effects targeted than normal, allowing you to positively affect teammates with those effects.

Ian Duke, the lead developer of Oath of the Gatewatch, came to me during development and said that they were interested in making a tutor for planeswalkers. As we had never done this before, he was curious what color made the most sense for the ability. So I walked through each of the colors:

White—White currently can tutor for artifacts (usually Equipment), enchantments, small creatures, and Plains. It definitely is the color most associated with teamwork. A good possibility.

Blue—Blue currently can tutor for artifacts, instants, and sorceries. Blue plans ahead but it's less teamwork-oriented. It seemed less of a good fit.

Black—Black is the color of tutoring for any card. As such, we don't often have black tutoring for specific types of cards (with the one big exception being Swamps). Also, the flavor would probably need to be one of coercion, which didn't fit the flavor of the card in Oath of the Gatewatch.

Red—Red is the color that is least about planning, and as such the only tutoring we tend to put into red is for very red-focused things (like Dragons and Goblins, and even then we do it infrequently). Red is the color of strong familiar bonds, so I could see ways to flavor it, but philosophically it felt wrong.

Green—Green currently can tutor for lands and creatures. There was some argument for putting the ability in green, as green is very much about the interconnectivity of living things. And Nissa was the emotional glue in the story that pulled the team together. That said, green didn't seem like the perfect fit either.

I came back with the recommendation of white, which is exactly the color Ian had put it into.

Hedron Crab was in Battle for Zendikar design. It was a popular creature with landfall, so it felt like the perfect reprint. I have fond memories of using it in Battle for Zendikar playtests. Unfortunately, it turned out to have issues in development and was killed for Constructed reasons.

Absolutely. The very first card to ever give land creatures +1/+1 was the design version of mono-green Kamahl from Onslaught, and its design name was Kamahl, Land Lord. Ever since then, whenever we've made a creature grant power/toughness boosts to lands, it's had "Land Lord" in its name.

When the design team began, we treated effects requiring colorless mana much like we treated artifacts. That is, we made sure that the effects created didn't trump what the colors of mana could do at the same cost. When the file got handed over to development, the development team spent a lot of time thinking about what colorless mana should and shouldn't be allowed to do.

Ian came and talked to me one day because he had come up with a way of thinking about colorless mana that was different from how the design team approached it. Ian explained that we needed to think of generic costs (that is costs that can be paid by any mana, colored or colorless) as being different from colorless costs. Generic mana required no hoops to jump through. You could always pay the cost no matter what lands you had.

Colorless costs, on the other hand, required a dedication to lands that produced colorless mana, something you couldn't get out of basic lands (well, other than Wastes) and only sometimes got out of nonbasic lands. As such, argued Ian, we should think of colorless mana as having a higher bar to use, which meant that we could give it access to some abilities at levels that equal monocolor abilities.

Colorless mana in costs proved to require a lot of support within a set to implement, meaning that while we may use it again, it would come with a substantial cost and thus not be something we'd just dabble in. This meant that its use would be infrequent, which allowed us to craft a color pie that matched the needs of the set and the Eldrazi. The abilities were mostly invasive, ones that messed with the opponent in some way.

Ingest was the mechanic connected to Ulamog. Battle for Zendikar was his set, so that's where the mechanic showed up. Oath of the Gatewatch is Kozilek's set. His main mechanic is colorless mana in costs, so that is what shows up in Oath. Note that the Eldrazi as a whole are still very much about exiling, so while Oath of the Gatewatch doesn't have any more Processors, it does have more cards that enable it. This, for example, will allow the Processors to work when you draft the two sets together.

Now that we're done with the block and are looking back with 20/20 hindsight, yes, mechanically speaking, there are some things we could have done if the two titans were reversed that would have been interesting. But remember that Magic design is an ongoing process, which meant that by the time we were playtesting Oath of the Gatewatch mechanics, many elements of Battle for Zendikar were locked in, including Ulamog being the only titan on Zendikar. (Kozilek we later learned was underneath Zendikar.)

But if I could ignore the realities of making Magic sets and could just snap my fingers, there is a lot to be said for starting off with colorless mana and devoid going hand in hand to drive home the colorless theme of the Eldrazi. The set could also introduce exiling as being part of how the Eldrazi functioned and then have ingest and Processors be something that built upon that in the second set.

As I explained above, colorless mana in costs requires a substantial amount of support to work in a set. Hybrid mana, in contrast, requires none. Magic already produces colored mana in volume in every set thanks to basic lands. That means C mana is more of a snow/Phyrexian mana thing than a hybrid thing.

I will stress though that C (the new symbol for colorless mana) is here to stay, and that symbol should be showing up in most sets, as usually there's a least a couple cards that produce colorless mana.

This seems like a good final question for today. Let's start with the fact that a few more mechanics return than you're listing, although in very small number. Landfall is on two cards, a red uncommon (Embodiment of Fury) and a green uncommon (Embodiment of Insight). These cards started out as a cycle, but we ended up just doing the cards in the two colors that were most focused on landfall. We really liked the design, so we made sure to get them in the set.

Likewise, white and blue each have an uncommon creature (Wall of Resurgence for white and Cyclone Sire for blue) that essentially has the awaken mechanic. Technically the mechanic only works on instants and sorceries, so it had to be spelled out in the rules text.

Your general point is a very valid one, though. There is a lot of change-up between the two sets. Why did we do that? There are three reasons:

  1. This was our fifth expansion set on Zendikar—The only other planes to have this many expansions have been Dominaria, Mirrodin, and Ravnica. Dominaria accomplished it by essentially moving to a new section of the plane that functioned much like a different plane would. This continent is Nordic in flavor, this continent is African in flavor, this continent is heavy in a few specific tribes, and so on. Mirrodin, the second time around, got attacked by an outside force and got transformed into a different plane. Ravnica has the guilds and two-color multicolor to work with, both of which are pretty deep. Zendikar has a tighter area of design space it's playing around in. As such, we wanted to make sure that the world wasn't getting too repetitive, so we changed up things a little more than normal. As a corollary to this, many of the Zendikar mechanics like landfall and lands with enters-the-battlefield effects were getting stretched thin, and we decided we would rather play with new space than make bad versions of mechanics players enjoy.
  2. This was the first time a second set was to be drafted with two boosters—Players have been asking for a long time for the ability to draft two boosters of the second set. With the change-up of the Two-Block Paradigm, it seemed like the right time to make the switch. There are other ramifications, which I'll talk about next week, but the important one for this question is that we wanted to make sure the two sets would feel different enough in their drafts. One way to help ensure this was to be a little more aggressive with the number of new mechanics.
  3. We were trying to theme the sets to the Eldrazi titans—Part of giving each set its own identity was tying each one to a different titan. In order to do this, we connected certain mechanics to each one and then limited those mechanics to just the set they were in.

And that is why Oath of the Gatewatch has a bigger shift than most previous second sets.

Mailbag of Tricks

That's all the time I have for today. Luckily, I got so many good questions that I'll have a second part next week where I'll answer even more of your questions about Oath of the Gatewatch. Thanks to everyone who sent in questions. I'm eager to hear your feedback on, well, your feedback. Did you enjoy today's column? When I do this for the next set, is there anything you'd like me to do differently? Send me an email or talk to me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram) and let me know.

Join me next week for part two.

Until then, may my answers give you something to think about the next time you're playing Oath of the Gatewatch.


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