Odds and Ends: Oath of the Gatewatch, Part 2

Posted in Making Magic on February 8, 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.

Last week, I started a mailbag column for questions about Oath of the Gatewatch. I had so many questions I couldn't fit them all in one column, so I decided to make it a two-parter. (I urge you to read last week's column if you haven't, because I'm going to assume you did.) That said, let's get to the questions:

When design started for Battle for Zendikar, we looked through every available reprint and made a list of ones that would both serve the set and excite players. We then passed that list through development and the creative team. Development pulled the ones that were obviously problematic from a power-level perspective and creative pulled the ones where the flavor no longer matched the world. We then put a bunch of reprints in the file.

In general, the problem with old landfall cards, especially the ones powerful enough that players wanted to see them reprinted, was the speed of the cards. While the landfall mechanic was very popular, we made a tactical mistake about how aggressive the mechanic should be when it was first released. It ended up greatly increasing the speed of Limited and Standard. Since then, we have slowed Limited and Standard down a bit, and most of the successful old landfall cards no longer worked properly in the environment, so we ended up cutting the few landfall reprints we had in the file.

The tool that design and development uses most when trying to set the overall power level correctly is what we call "as-fan." As-fan is a measure of how often certain elements get talked about in relation to how many cards in an average booster have that element. For instance, let's say you made a set where artifacts matter. One of the things R&D would care about is, what is the as-fan of artifacts? Do you open, on average, two artifacts per booster? Three and a half? Six?

This is so important because the nature of a trading card game means that R&D never knows for sure what someone will open. But by calculating numbers and probabilities, we can understand what the average player will see and can craft the environment from there. So why is Grasp of Darkness uncommon rather than common? Because at common, it made the as-fan (most likely of black creature removal) too high. Rarity switching is a good knob that R&D can use to adjust the as-fan—and thus the overall power level—of the issue in concern.

It started in the file and stayed in for a good chunk of the design. If memory serves, I think development took it out either in devign (the period where design and development overlap) or in early development. But it never bounced back and forth. It was in until it was out, and then it stayed out.

I think the weight of whatever part of the story gets told in which set has a lot to do with how sets are taken in by the audience. The first set is introductory (or, as was the case with Battle for Zendikar, reintroductory). Its job is to show off the world and get the players comfortable with the new surroundings. As such, it tends to hold a little less of the plot than the second set. Add to this that the second set has fewer cards, and the perceptual difference between the two is significant.

Is this the right approach? That's a good question and something I know R&D (and especially the story team) has been doing a lot of thinking about. Add in the fact that players tend to absorb whole chunks of the story at once as the new cards get released, and it becomes a very complex problem.

Now, to answer your question. Do I feel that too much of the story is told in the second set? No, I don't.

Sometimes you set out to make a cycle and sometimes you don't. The Oaths were created as a means to show through the cards that a Planeswalker is joining the Gatewatch. We saw the first four in Oath of the Gatewatch (the name of the set might have told you it was important) as the team being formed. There were only four Oaths because only four Planeswalkers were joining the team. Yes, they happen to represent each color except black, but that's what happened.

Regular readers know that I'm a big stickler for aesthetics, and I normally do not like making incomplete cycles. The Oaths were a good example of an important exception, as they represent a key story point we were trying to establish. We went into this with our eyes open, knowing that the lack of a black Oath would draw attention—but as there was no black-aligned Planeswalker joining the Gatewatch, we didn't want a black Oath. Could we have found a way to make a black Oath? Not without compromising both the story and the larger mechanic structure of having a clean way to show when Planeswalkers join the Gatewatch through mechanics.

I got a lot of questions when Battle for Zendikar was released about why there were no devoid white cards. People were curious whether it was a mechanical or creative decision, and the answer was neither, really. Here's what happened. In Battle for Zendikar design, we made devoid cards in all five colors. The idea was that the Eldrazi messed with every aspect of Zendikar, sucking the colored mana out of things due to whatever unexplained activities they were up to.

In development, there was a lot of shifting around of mechanics in colors, and many of the Zendikar-themed mechanics (particularly awaken and rally) were assigned to white. The development team had to shuffle cards around to make room for this, and the white devoid cards got removed little by little. It wasn't the intention to avoid white devoid cards, it was simply a matter of numbers. White just didn't have the room. The creative team never made a reason for the lack of white creatures with devoid because it was never purposefully done.

When Ethan (Fleischer) was leading the design for Oath of the Gatewatch, he decided he wanted to get some white cards with devoid into the set. One of the things he did to do this was make a cycle of rare cards with devoid that each had a colorless activation. Once again, numbers forced the other white cards with devoid out, but this cycle managed to stay and Ethan at least got a single white devoid creature into the block.

The "colorless matters" mechanical theme is what R&D refers to as an "A/B design". What that means is that it has two components. One set is cards that have or generate something (the A cards), and the other is the ones that care about that quality (the B cards). Usually, the A cards have the ability to stand on their own because they are doing something that has some game relevance (in the case of colorless mana, they are making mana that can be used to cast spells). The B cards require having enough A cards to work.

Design- and development-wise, this means that you need to have more A cards than B cards, because players can play with A cards without having to have B cards but cannot play with B cards without having A cards. As such, we're always very conservative with how many B cards we make.

I'm assuming the dual lands in question are the allied "battle lands" introduced in Battle for Zendikar. There was some discussion about whether or not we could have the enemy battle lands in Oath of the Gatewatch, but development felt that Standard couldn't handle ten of them so we chose to leave them out.

The one and only way to get an Oath card is to join the Gatewatch. There are no exceptions.

When we first designed the Oaths, we didn't make them legendary. Not really because we felt they shouldn't be, but we just didn't think of it. Then during development, there were some issues in playtesting of having multiples in play. I believe Gavin Verhey is the one who suggested making them legendary. It fit flavor-wise and allowed development to push them a little bit, knowing that there couldn't be multiples of the same one on the battlefield.

The new colorless mana symbol is the only new addition in Oath of Gatewatch that I currently expect to be evergreen moving onward.

Once we knew that we were changing the colorless mana symbol, there was much discussion about whether or not to introduce the new symbol in Battle for Zendikar or Oath of the Gatewatch. Each had their pros:

Battle for Zendikar—Normally, when we introduce something new that we plan to keep moving forward, we introduce it at the start of a block. For example, keywords like haste and vigilance and fight all got introduced at the beginning of a block. It would also allow us to not have cards that work the same look different within the same Limited environment. For instance, Eldrazi Scions appear differently depending on which set the token you are using comes from.

Oath of the Gatewatch—The argument for waiting was twofold. First, the difference between colorless mana and generic costs is a tricky one. Waiting until there was a mechanical difference that we can point to made that explanation much easier. Two, it was the splashy new thing of Oath of the Gatewatch. Introducing it early would undercut much of that splash.

R&D was really split on this one (I was actually on the side of putting it into Battle for Zendikar), but we talked it through as a group and reached the decision to wait until Oath of the Gatewatch. It does create some awkwardness in Limited, but we decided it was a cost we were willing to bear.

For those wondering why it wasn't introduced in Magic Origins, where we introduced a number of other evergreen changes, the answer is that we didn't know we were doing it in time to put it there.

Unless a block has a tribal theme or subtheme, most blocks tend to focus their tribal efforts on a single tribe. That tribe for Battle for Zendikar block was Allies.

The card was actually called Devolve in design and turned the creature into a red Lizard.

As I explained during the second preview week, we decided that we wanted to focus on the creation of the Gatewatch, and that made us design a bunch of mechanics that had a teamwork feel to them (surge, support, and cohort). The first two ended up also being very good for team play. Once we realized that this would allow for a more robust Two-Headed Giant format, we talked with the brand team and Organized Play and decided it would be fun to have a little more focus on the Two-Headed Giant format while Oath was coming out. That's what led to the additional Two-Headed Giant play at Prereleases.

It's not our intention for this to be a major push as an ongoing thing, but we do want players to let their local stores know if they enjoy the Two-Headed Giant format, because that is something that can be run at the local level if players are interested.

If other Planeswalkers join the Gatewatch, there will be other Oath cards. They were designed to allow us to do that.

For the same reason that the Avengers or the Justice League exists. As I've talked about a lot, I feel Planeswalkers fit squarely in the superhero archetype, and teams are a big element of the genre. Plus, there comes a point where it just gets awkward to have Planeswalkers keep running into one another coincidentally. Finally, I think it leads to a lot of cool storytelling. Characters, each with their own outlook and agenda, being forced to interact leads to a lot of fun moments.

This is a complex question that I think I'll leave to the story team to answer fully, but I can say this. Neither Sorin, nor Nahiri, nor Ugin ever tried to kill the Eldrazi.

Card numbering has always been divided less by color than by card frame. That's why all the multicolor cards get grouped together, for example. Editing was the first one to bring it up, and we had a few meetings talking about all the ways we could order the devoid cards. In the end, we decided to group the frames together and clump the devoid cards at the beginning of their color. I believe devoid went first because we normally put the colorless frames (and here I mean true colorless and not artifacts) before the colored frames.

The biggest effect was the changing of the set size. It also had an impact on how many new mechanics were made. Finally, it had a lot of impact on as-fan numbers, as what you could expect to open shifted with the change from one to two small-set boosters.

The plan was always for this adventure to be the start of the Gatewatch, and we didn't think you could start a team by having them lose out of the gate. Why would people continue to work together if their first attempt failed miserably? So I would say very little consideration was given to the idea.

The order of the Eldrazi titans appearing was 100% a story-driven decision.

Mailbag of Marbles

Once again, I have to draw the column to a close. As always, I had a lot of fun answering questions about the latest set and plan to do an Odds and Ends when Shadows over Innistrad comes out. Being that this is going to be a recurring feature, I'm eager to hear your feedback about what you think of it and how I can improve future iterations. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week when I move from Odds and Ends to Nuts and Bolts.

Until then, may you explore more of Oath of the Gatewatch to see the things I talked about this week and last.


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"Drive to Work #303—First, Part 1"

Melissa DeTora joins me again as my carpool guest for a two-parter (to and from work). This is the first part of a two-part series where she and I talk all about our Magic firsts.

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