Odds & Ends: Amonkhet, Part 1

Posted in Making Magic on May 22, 2017

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.

For every main expansion, I do a mailbag column called "Odds & Ends" where I answer questions from all of you about the latest set. No reason to stop the tradition now, as there's plenty players want to know about Amonkhet.

Here's the tweet I put out:

As always, I try to answer as many questions as I can, but here's why I might not answer your question:

  • I have an allotted word count, which means that there are only so many questions I can get to.
  • 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.

Now that I've said all the stuff I need to, let's get to the questions.

The reason the two different sets of Gods diverged mechanically actually goes back to the source material. In Theros, we were trying to capture the feel of the ancient Greek gods, that their influence was everywhere. We used the enchantment card type as a means to show the touch of the gods—their creations, their influences. Even the Gods themselves were enchantments to try to convey the sense that they were willed into existence by the people.

The Amonkhet gods, in contrast, are more tangible. They walk among the people. They aren't the embodiment of a concept; they are physical creatures that you can interact with. That's why, for example, the Amonkhet Gods are always creatures whereas the Theros Gods required devotion to take creature form.

From a higher design vantage, there's a second reason. Gods will get boring if every incarnation works identically mechanically. Yes, we want some connection; we like that there are qualities similar about the Gods, but being identical serves neither the flavor nor the novelty.

No. The Cat Monkeys, I believe, were inspired by the Indian mythology source material we used to flavor the plane of Kaladesh. We knew that Amonkhet was going to have a little Cat tribal, so we were aware of the synergy, but it wasn't done specifically to create it, just a nice side benefit.

@maro254 Why did so much rules baggage go into Embalm? Specifically, why the rider that the token copies lose CMC?

Skyl3lazer (@Skyl3lazer)

If the tokens had a mana cost (note that converted mana cost is a different thing—the total amount of mana rather than the specific colors needed to cast it), we would be required to put it onto the token because the token is supposed to represent everything the card currently is. Our concern was a token with a mana cost looks a lot like a card you cast, which wouldn't actually be the case. By removing the mana cost in the rules text, we avoided this problem. Yes, "with no mana cost" is four words and every word matters, but they're short words and we decided they were worth it to lessen confusion.

We knew early on we wanted Curses, as they were a cool fit for the world. We never planned for them to have any pattern. We didn't even particularly plan for them to just be black. We made them on a case-by-case basis as we came up with them and put them into the set. Design handed over a bunch more Curses than ended up in the file. Because the Curses were never thought of as a connective thing with each other, I doubt anyone ever saw the pattern of a vertical cycle of one black common and one black rare with a missing black uncommon.

I should note that it's much easier to spot patterns when you see the set as a locked singular thing. The card file is constantly changing during design and development, so it's much harder to step back and see the larger patterns.

Back in the olden days when we had a two-year Standard made up of two one-year-long blocks, we would put cards relevant to the previous block in the third set to create a little synergy right before the first block was rotating out. This way, the block that was rotating in would knock some stuff out of the environment that had been powering up the other block it would be sharing space with in Standard. This would help the new block stand out a little more.

When we moved to the eighteen-month Standard with three blocks, we shifted the strategy to have the first and third set have an overlapping theme to create the same type of effect. That's what's going on with Shadows over Innistrad and Amonkhet. This ended up burning us because the new block system had some fundamental differences. For example, this strategy prevented us from putting graveyard hosers in Kaladesh because we didn't want to pre-emptively de-power Amonkhet. That was never a problem in two-year, two-block Standard. And then, we reverted to a two-year Standard, which threw even more chaos into the mix.

We do normally like to have links between all the sets in Standard, and if you look, there are mechanical overlaps between Kaladesh and Amonkhet (revolt in particular has a lot of synergies with the new set). But yes, they are, by design, purposefully subtler and a bit lower in number.

There were a bunch of challenges and I promise to write an article about that when we get to a set that was designed with a two-year Standard in mind. The decision to change back to a two-year Standard, though, was made long after design was finished with Amonkhet, so it's not really relevant to today's topic as it didn't influence Amonkhet's design in any way.

Here's how creature types work in design. We figure out what we might want to mechanically care about. For Amonkhet, we knew, for instance, that we wanted Zombie tribal with mummies. Our early work led us to believe we wanted white and black mummies, so we worked with the creative team to make sure that was okay. Luckily, it played perfectly into the world they were building, so we were able to institute it without much problem.

We also wanted a little Cat tribal, so we made sure that the world was going to have Cats. The ancient Egyptians revered cats, so that was also an easy sell to the creative team. There are a few other requests that were made that you all will see in Hour of Devastation. I don't believe any of those led to a fight either.

Minotaurs were not brought up at all during design. We were more focused on tribes that seemed to fall naturally out of Egyptian mythology. One of the cool things the creative team does though is to take staple Magic creature types and find ways to make them fit into a particular environment. I'm not sure what prompted the inclusion of Minotaurs, but I know I was happy to see them.

That's a real concern, especially since we started speeding up the conveyor belt for different worlds. One of my jobs as head designer is looking at all the designs and making sure we create synergies between them. Those synergies don't have to always be blunt (in fact, making subtle connections that the players must find is cool), but they need to be there. We are working behind the scenes to find structural ways to build those connections more into our processes.

As I talked about during the preview weeks, Desert was in the design file for a while but was removed. In that article, I said it was removed because it was "too powerful," but that actually is a bit misleading. It was removed because it wasn't fun. It, for example, majorly impacted the ability to attack with low-toughness creatures (the lower the rarity of the card, the more problematic). Keeping it in warped the entire Standard environment around it. We didn't believe that would lead to something enjoyable for the players, so we removed it and made different lands with the Desert subtype.

Because there's no in-world reason to do that. One of the ways the game likes to imbue a world with a feeling of Magic is to apply the color wheel to it. Gods represent things, why not the ideals of the five colors? Adding in an off-color activation takes what is a very clean flavor and muddies it. What exactly does it mean that the red God has a black activation?

The larger answer is that while we are conscious of the Commander format and look for opportunities to tweak things to help it, not every legendary card is maximized for Commander. The Gods, for example, are the centerpiece of this world and were designed for many formats. Adding an element that would lessen them for every other format just to add more dual-colored Gods to Commander is not worth the cost.

I've been so busy making Magic sets that I haven't even had the time to do one Trial yet. It's on my to-do list.

We wanted to put Vengeful Pharaoh in the set. In fact, I believe there was a short period of time in design when it was in the set. Yes, it's a perfect fit for a top-down Egyptian world. Just one small problem: it's also a top-down Nicol Bolas world, and Bolas being the God-Pharaoh is a key story point. So, I guess the argument is there is a vengeful pharaoh, but it isn't Vengeful Pharaoh.

We did argue for there being more than one pharaoh. The top-down Cleopatra and King Tut cards (Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons and Temmet, Vizier of Naktamun, respectively) were originally designed as pharaohs, but the creative team felt strongly that it was important there was only one pharaoh, so Hapatra and Temmet became viziers and Vengeful Pharaoh had to go.

There is a new Planeswalker in the block. You just haven't met them yet. Why weren't they in Amonkhet rather than Hour of Devastation? Story reasons.

Champions of Kamigawa block taught us a number of important lessons about top-down design:

  1. Entertainment is more important than accuracy. Champions of Kamigawa was not actual Japanese mythology, and Amonkhet is not actual Egyptian mythology. We are making Magic worlds inspired by them. That means that whenever we get to a fork in the road where we have to choose between being accurate to the source material or making a better, more fun set, we get to choose the latter.
  2. Lean toward resonance. The audience has expectations shaped by years of interaction with the source material, usually through pop culture. Make sure you understand what your audience expects and deliver on enough of it that you're satisfying why players want a particular influence for a world.
  3. Be broader at common. It's okay to have a few obscure things aimed at the most knowledgeable audience, but you want to limit how many you do, and you want to put them at higher rarity so that they show up less frequently.
  4. Find a way to imbue it with Magic. One of the coolest things about a top-down Magic set is that it combines the source material with elements of Magic. It's important we find ways to capture an influence that feels like Magic's take on it.
  5. Be careful with naming. One of the biggest mistakes in Champions of Kamigawa came with its naming. To try and capture the feel of Japanese names, it made choices that made it harder to tell card types apart and gave players fewer hooks they could use to remember the card names. In capturing the feel of the world, make sure your names remain functional.

Harsh Mentor was added in development, so my best guess is that it was created with Standard in mind. That said, I like how it's using red tools to push into a slightly different space. This has been a constant issue for us over the last few years as we've been finding ways to broaden what red can do.

One of the parameters of design and development is that we only get so many tokens. This forces us to consolidate them. (Note that Amonkhet's embalm mechanic was already stretching the tokens to their limits.) White ended up with two non-embalm creature tokens: a 1/1 Warrior with vigilance and a 1/1 Cat with lifelink. So the question becomes, why couldn't Oketra make 1/1 Cats with lifelink rather than 1/1 Warriors with vigilance?

The answer is two reasons. One, mechanically, a 1/1 with lifelink is more powerful than a 1/1 with vigilance. Making that change would have required tweaking the card, and development was happy with where it was. Two, there are four other cards that make non-embalm tokens (Cartouche of Solidarity, Regal Caracal, Start of Start // Finish, and Supply Caravan). Everything but Regal Caracal is clearly making people. Oketra's flavor matches those cards. She is testing the citizens and turning them into Warriors. Her making Cats doesn't flavorfully fit with the world or the story.

There were a bunch. Here's a few I remember:

  • Cursed Mummy—If you do a top-down association with mummies, it doesn't take long to get to curses. A mummy that curses you was super resonant, so we made one. I believe when it entered the battlefield it tutored for a Curse. You shouldn't have woken it. At the time, the set had a lot of Curses in it. Then we made the decision that we were focusing more on sunny, living Egypt than dead, dusty, tomb-raiding Egypt. As such, we pulled way back on those kinds of tropes and the number of Curses dropped to two. That became not enough to justify a Curses-matter card and Cursed Mummy went away.
  • Chariot and Funeral Barge—At one point, we had Vehicles in the set, so, of course, we made some cool top-down Egyptian Vehicles. We later realized we were making the set a bit too complex, so we were looking for things to cut, and as we only had a few Vehicles, we chose to cut those.
  • Canopic Jars—These were very important to ancient Egyptian embalming practices. These were the jars that internal organs were placed into to preserve them for the afterlife. We never had a great design for them (other than knowing it was an artifact, I don't even remember exactly what the card did), and as most players wouldn't get the reference, it ended up not making the cut.

We did make a white-black Zombie enabler with Wayward Servant. Making a legendary creature was a lot more difficult though because white mummies and black mummies mean such different things flavor-wise in the world of Amonkhet. Also, we were pinched for legendary space because we had five Gods along with a host of cards we needed for story and top-down reasons. So no, I don't believe it was ever considered.

No, neither Leonin nor Viashino were ever in the set. Here's how the process works. The creative team is responsible for filling out what is known as a creature grid. The grid covers all five colors for small, medium, and large creatures in both non-flying and flying versions. Certain grids like small red and green fliers is usually scratched off, as it isn't needed.

Once the creative team fills out the grid, they stop because there's no need to design things that there won't be space for in the set. Because mummies were playing a major role in white and black, there wasn't a need to create unique races for those colors.

Let me let you in on a little secret. Double-faced cards are awesome! Players love them, they allow great storytelling, and they're very deep in design space. So why don't we just use them every set? A few reasons:

  1. Not everyone loves them. Double-faced cards are very polarizing. Yes, the majority really likes them, but there's a minority that despises them. Making them a staple, all-the-time Magic thing would make those players very unhappy.
  2. They're extra hard to do. Because the back of a Magic card is always the same, changing it so the back is different creates a number of challenges. First, the print quality of the front is different than the back. Second, there's effort required to make sure the back and front match. This isn't an issue when the backs are all the same. Also, to maximize the above, we need to print double-faced cards on their own sheet which creates additional issues. In short, it's a big change, one that comes with a lot of extra work.
  3. They're costly. All of the above comes with a price tag. We have the budget to do it some of the time, but not all of the time.

Did we discuss the embalm cards being double-faced? Yes, we did. We also talked about the aftermath cards being double-faced. In the end, though, we had one-sided solutions for both mechanics and decided to save double-faced cards for a place that didn't have one-sided answers.

The earliest versions of Invocations were instants and sorceries. We soon found we had trouble filling out the list with just those two card types. (Remember, we also had the restriction that they fit the world.) We came to the conclusion that we had to adjust the audience from always expecting Masterpieces to be just a single card type because that wasn't a theme we could keep up for long, and it wasn't something we could even do here. Amonkhet was a test to see if players would accept a theme that was flavor based because if not, things looked grim for future Masterpiece themes.

There are two basic problems. One, there's only so much space for evergreen status. Vocabulary is a big issue with barrier to entry because not understanding what cards say is off-putting and scares potential new players away. Two, while cycling plays great, it's got zero flavor. Part of making the vocabulary less scary for new players is picking flavorful mechanics. So, while I'm fine with cycling coming back on a frequent basis, I don't think it's a good candidate for evergreen status.

Amonkhet Me Some Answers

We've run out of time for today. I want to thank everyone who wrote in with questions. I got so many good ones that this is going to be a two-parter. As always, I'm eager to hear your feedback on my answers. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week for more questions about Amonkhet.

Until then, may you continue to explore Amonkhet and discover even more questions.


 
#436: Great Designer Search 1, Part 1
#436: Great Designer Search 1, Part 1

41:15

This is part one of a two-part series where I examine the first Great Designer Search in detail. I walk through all the tests to get in and then all the challenges given to the contestants.

 
#437: Great Designer Search 1, Part 2
#437: Great Designer Search 1, Part 2

30:08

This is part two of a two-part series where I examine the first Great Designer Search in detail. I walk through all the tests to get in and then all the challenges given to the contestants.

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