Odds & Ends: Amonkhet, Part 2

Posted in Making Magic on May 29, 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.

Last week, I started a mailbag column answering your questions about Amonkhet. You guys gave me so many good questions, I had to turn it into a two-parter. That said, let's get to the questions.

Two reasons. One, we decided that we wanted to treat Gods like we treat planeswalkers. There's a reason Ajani isn't creature type Cat and Karn is no longer card type artifact. Being planeswalkers transcends other states. We wanted Gods to work the same way. Two, in Egyptian mythology, the gods liked to take certain forms but that didn't mean they were that animal type.

We had a playtest where we tried using counters. It had a bunch of problems:

  1. It was confusing. The set has -1/-1 counters. When you see a creature with a counter on it, you perceive it as having a -1/-1 counter.
  2. It was wordy. It takes a lot of words to put and then later remove a counter from a creature.
  3. It was ambiguous. If -1/-1 counters are just used to kill things, there's not a lot of use for the counters. That means we want -1/-1 counters to often end up on creatures without killing them. If an exert creature gets a +1/+1 counter, we now have a hard time differentiating the counters. Well, what if the counters were -1/-1 counters? Now we can't use exert on any 1-toughness creatures.

In the end, we came up with the idea of the punch-out counter card as a tool to help people remember when they've exerted a creature.

The answer I've given when asked this question before is that we wanted a number high enough that it felt like you had to work for it but low enough that it got completed a good chunk of the time. Three was the number we started with back in design and it never changed throughout design or development.

That was, of course, before I read your question. Now my answer is it's the smallest number to make a pyramid.

I feel like we're in the middle of watching the movie Titanic and you're asking "Why no iceberg?" Amonkhet is the first part of the story. There's a second part. It's called Hour of Devastation. Hour. Of. Devastation! Perhaps the iceberg is coming.

I'm going to give you the honest answer that I'm sure you'll be unhappy to hear: It never occurred to us. We put Evolving Wilds or Terramorphic Expanse in most sets and we were just on autopilot. When I first read this question, my response was "Yeah, why didn't we?" So I asked Ethan and he was, "Yeah, why didn't we?" I promise if one day we return to Amonkhet, I'll keep it in mind.

The goal of this set was to try to create a sense of dissonance, of unease. We wanted you to feel like the Gatewatch feels—that there's something wrong with this world that you can't quite put your finger on. To capture this, we made the mechanics feel one way while having the creative elements go another. The names and art tell you that this is a glorious world where the inhabitants are content, but just play a little bit and you start getting the feeling that this world is a lot meaner than it seems to communicate on the surface.

First, some background. Naga, as a creature type, was not introduced in Amonkhet. They were first introduced in Khans of Tarkir back in 2014. Cyclopean Mummy first appeared in Legends in the summer of 1994 and it was printed with the creature type Mummy. It was later changed to Zombie in the Grand Creature Update back in 2007 and all mummies since then (there aren't a lot) have been creature type Zombie.

So why have we chosen to maintain Naga as a creature type rather than retreat to Snake while continuing to use Zombie for mummies rather than bringing back the Mummy creature type? The answer is a fuzzy one. We have to weigh the equity of the word versus the utility of the creature type. Is Naga getting to be Naga worth not having all those cards count as Snakes? Likewise is Mummy not getting to be Mummy worth the Zombie tribal-ness it has? And finally, why are these two handled differently?

The key to answering this questions is to look at the numbers.

Snakes—There are sixteen cards in Magic that make Snake creature tokens and seven cards that, in some way, care tribally about Snakes.

Zombies—There are 79 cards in Magic that make Zombie tokens (and about fifteen more that put creature cards onto the battlefield from the graveyard and turn them into Zombies) and 61 cards that care tribally (in a positive way; there are a bunch more where being a Zombie is punished) about Zombies. The only tribes that rival Zombie in number of tribal cards are Goblin and Elf.

Now we have to try to measure the resonance weight of Naga and Mummy. Naga is more derived from the Eastern Hemisphere and is a little less known by the Western Hemisphere, which makes up the majority of Magic players. Being more worldly in our fantasy representation is a goal, though. Mummy is clearly more resonant than Naga to most of our players.

When we weigh the two, the Naga/Snake decision is the tougher one. There aren't a lot of cards that tribally care and diversity of creature types is an issue. On the flip side, seven tribal cards is more than enough to make a deck out of, and one is legendary, which allows the possibility of a Snake tribal Commander deck. We discussed this one a lot and there's disagreement about it in R&D. (For example, if it were my call, which it isn't, I would probably have gone with Snake.) It's a tough call that clearly could have gone either way. We made the call for Naga in Khans of Tarkir, and for Amonkhet we decided to stick with the status quo.

The Mummy/Zombie decision seems easier. Yes, mummies are resonant, but there's so much Zombie tribal in Magic (not to mention in Shadows over Innistrad, which is in Standard with Amonkhet) that siding with Zombie seems the obvious choice.

Story spotlight cards are chosen because they're the best mechanical representation to capture a story moment. Usually, we start by looking at existing cards in the file to see if there's a good fit and if not we make a card for the slot. We don't care what the card is. It can be a reprint. It can be any color or any rarity. Whatever best serves the story moment. In this case, Renewed Faith was the perfect card and name to capture the moment we wanted to reference, so we used it.

Curses are deciduous. Any designer or developer is free to use them, and as few as one, in any set.

Here are questions I ask about any bend in a set I'm making:

Is it really a break? Is this card allowing a color to do something it's not supposed to be able to do? Is it undermining a purposeful weakness of the color? If the answer is yes, I cut it from the set. No flavor is worth undermining the fundamental health of the game.

Is it actually flavorful? It's very easy to do something different and then use flavor to justify it. Is the card in question serving the flavor, or is the flavor serving the rule bend? If the latter, I cut it from the set.

Is it something the color can naturally do, but done in a way it doesn't normally? Often what makes something a bend isn't the end but the means. If in the end a card fundamentally does an effect that color normally does but does it a little differently, I'm willing to accept it if it's serving the greater needs of the set.

Does it overall feel like the color? Another place I look for breaks is where the composite of the card feels right even if elements of it are a little off. Form of the Dragon is a great example of this. An effect that stops non-fliers isn't particularly red, but turning someone into a dragon does feel red. As long as that quirky element isn't undermining the color's integrity (allowing it to overcome a weakness), I usually let it stay.

Why is it in this set? If it doesn't hit any of the other questions, I start trying to judge why it's there. Just because a card is cute in a vacuum isn't often reason enough to leave it in a set. If it's serving the greater good and not undermining anything, I usually let it stay.

Here's how I like to look at it: Amonkhet is top-down Egypt with a small helping of top-down Bolas. Hour of Devastation is top-down Bolas with a large helping of top-down Egypt.

Between Shadowmoor, Scars of Mirrodin, and Amonkhet blocks, there's not a lot of untapped -1/-1 design space remaining. -1/-1 counters are significantly narrower than +1/+1 counters and tend to push the environment in a very specific direction (toward attrition)—one, by the way, that is tricky developmentally. The biggest design space remaining is probably finding an effect that was just on a handful of cards and fleshing it out into a whole mechanic. It doesn't take much to find a new environment, and I could imagine that a little tweak could one day involve -1/-1 counters. That said, I would think of -1/-1 counters as a strong spice that has its uses but isn't pulled out of the cabinet a lot.

No, I'm not your mummy, dearest.

It's almost as if the creative aspects of the set and the mechanics seem at odds with one another. Hmmm . . .

I think the hardest secret to keep was that we were finally doing a top-down Egyptian set. Players have been asking us to do this for fifteen-plus years. As I explained in my first Amonkhet design story article, Champions of Kamigawa was almost a top-down Egyptian set, so the idea of us doing one also goes back many years.

I was also very excited to have Nicol Bolas come back. He's been my second favorite Magic villain (behind the Phyrexians), and I absolutely loved the idea of crossing Egypt with Bolas. I remember looking at the wall after the worldbuilding was done and thinking how excited I was for you all to see what we were doing.

The set does have five cards with "Mummy" in their name (Binding Mummy, Festering Mummy, Miasmic Mummy, Sparring Mummy, and Tattered Mummy). That's a lot for one set. The reason we don't overdo it with the same word in card titles is because they serve as an important tool to help players communicate. If too many different cards share the same word, it can start becoming difficult to differentiate between them.

The emphasis on story has allowed us more latitude in making these types of foreshadowing cards. My plan is to sit back and see how these two play out. I do think it's the kind of thing we want to do from time to time, but two in back-to-back sets is probably not going to be a common occurrence.

White Zombies are probably going to just be an Amonkhet thing just as blue Zombies are primarily an Innistrad thing. I like bending flavor where it makes sense, but please don't see individual worlds pushing in new directions as an overall directional change.

Hapatra changed a lot over the course of development. When handed off from design she looked like this:

Cleopatra
2BG
Creature – Pharoah
3/5
Wither
Whenever a creature with wither deals combat damage to another player, put a 1/1 green Snake token onto the battlefield.

She started as a wither enabler, but obviously when wither went away, she had to change. The development team kept the Snake flavor but made significant tweaks.

I know the basic strokes of the story so that I can design the set, but I don't know the nuance until I read the stories. And with very few exceptions, I read them when all of you read them.

We tried a lot of different mechanics along the way. The three repeated mechanics we tried were wither, exalted, and unearth. Wither actually made it all the way to development but, as I explained in previous articles, it conflicted with cards that put -1/-1 counters on your own creatures for value. Exalted would lead down the path that eventually ended up with exert. Unearth was an early take at mummies and would eventually lead to the embalm mechanic.

For top-down mechanics, we messed around with some Curses-matter cards back when the set had more Curses in it. Also, as I've previously mentioned, we had a mechanic called "hieroglyphics" that was basically cycling out of the graveyard. It ended up a bit too close to investigate in Shadows over Innistrad and was removed. Its removal did pave the way for normal cycling to make it into the set.

For top-down Bolas mechanics, we had one called "ruthless" for a while where you could increase the effect by putting some number of -1/-1 counters on your own creatures. Although the mechanic went away, a few cards morphed into versions that saw print. We also had a mechanic called "plot" that was sort of a suspend variant representing you planning ahead.

In addition to these, we had numerous early versions of embalm and exert. We also experimented with something called "double cycling" where you discarded a card and another card to draw two cards. The idea behind this mechanic was to help you get things like embalm cards into your graveyard.

We made a conscious decision when choosing the Invocations to prioritize printing cards players would be excited to open (that fit the criteria) over color balance. The list of exciting old cards is not color-balanced, so trying to make a color-balanced list from it is a bit of a fool's errand. This was compounded because the flavor we chose skewed toward certain colors.

The idea that a split card could have an instant and a sorcery on it, which could help delirium, might have been the impetus that got us down the path to making aftermath cards, but it wasn't a priority when making the mechanic. It's quite common in design that you find something you like through one avenue and then prioritize different things as you start optimizing it for the set.

A couple things:

  1. We want every rarity to have exciting cards. Interestingly, had we made this mythic rare, there's a good chance I'd be getting a question saying, "Couldn't this have been rare?" I admit this card is on the cusp between the two rarities, but it feels fine as a rare.
  2. Limited gets to have some "bomb rares." It's important that the lesser player feels like they occasionally have the chance to beat the better player. Having high-variance rares allows this to occasionally happen. Note that we do print answers, so your opponent getting this out doesn't always mean game over.
  3. Other cards might be more mythic rare. A typical reason to put something at rare rather than mythic rare is every other card at mythic rare feels more mythic rare than it. I'm not sure that's the case with Glorybringer, but I bring it up because it's often a reason.

It's in a fuzzy space. Obviously, each component part is blue. You can do this with two different blue cards. That said, just because we can hobble together an effect out of things that are all "in pie" doesn't mean the combined result is okay. Green, for instance, has fight and deathtouch, but a 1/1 deathtouch that enters the battlefield and fights is a little too much like a black kill spell for green. Because this card acts a lot like two cards, it makes this fall on the "it's okay" side of the line for me.

Aftermath designs are much more limited than split card designs because the two effects must have synergy with one another. I'm not saying we won't ever see aftermath cards again, but not at the frequency that we see split cards.

Amonkhet Out of Here

Sadly, I have to call it a day and wrap up this session of Odds & Ends. Once again, I want to thank everyone who sent me a question. These mailbag columns are some of my favorites because you guys ask such great questions. As always, I want feedback on today's column, any of the subjects I brought up, or even just about Amonkhet itself. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week for a big serving of pie: color pie, of course.

Until then, may you keep asking such great questions.


 
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