Odds & Ends: Eldritch Moon, Part 1

Posted in Making Magic on July 25, 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.

For each set, I do a series called "Odds & Ends" where I answer your questions about the new set. Well, Eldritch Moon is out, so it's time to see what questions you all have.

Here's the tweet I posted:

As always, I try and 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. 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.

With that out of the way, let's get to the questions.

You know how when we do something a little out of the ordinary the audience always has a very polarized reaction? Some of the audience is tickled pink that we're pushing boundaries and trying something brand new. Others are very apprehensive and worry that we're messing around in an area that we shouldn't. Internal reactions are usually very similar.

Some people internally saw meld and responded with total enthusiasm. They couldn't wait for us to print it. Others were against it, believing it was doing something Magic shouldn't do, and lobbied hard for us not to do it. Meld was as polarizing internally as it's been externally. In fact, one of the stories Sam Stoddard, the lead developer of Eldritch Moon, tells is how a few members of his development team weren't doing any work on the meld cards because they were so sure they were going to get cut. Sam had to finally tell them to work on them because no, they weren't getting cut.

Knowing when to push boundaries and when not to is a big part of my job as head designer. I want to make sure we're always investigating new risks ("the greatest risk to Magic is taking no risks"), but making sure we do so smartly, that we're making a choice because it enhances the design, not because it's there solely for the sake of being different.

Usually, when we have something as polarizing as meld, we work hard to make sure that we're addressing the concerns of the people who don't want to do it. What elements are problematic for them? Often the skeptics give the best criticism because they're not swayed by the grandeur of the new idea.

The short answer is there wasn't room. We already pushed the planeswalkers in the block from our default five to six. Jace had to be there—he's the protagonist. Nahiri is the antagonist. Sorin, Liliana, and Tamiyo all play a major role in the story. That left only one last slot. For color-balance reasons it had to be green, with red-green being ideal.

Although Tibalt was mono-red the first time we met him, I actually believe he's black-red. He's definitely not red-green, though, so he didn't have the right colors. Flavor-wise, he just wasn't part of the story. We were trying to tell a mystery. Tibalt didn't fit in anywhere, and we already had the villain we wanted in Nahiri.

Also, Tibalt is a Planeswalker. While it's okay for Planeswalkers to show up on their native plane, it's also nice to show Planeswalkers off on other planes. It helps reinforce that these people have the power to visit other worlds when, well, you see them visiting other worlds.

So, will we ever see Tibalt again? I think so. He's an interesting character that's surprisingly popular given how low-powered his planeswalker card is. His absence is one of the most common questions I get about things missing from Shadow over Innistrad block.

The story team is working hard to use as many of our roster of Planeswalkers as they can, but they want to make sure that each one being used makes sense and works within the context of the story. Just as I explained above how design doesn't want to use mechanics just to use them, the story team doesn't want to include characters in sets just to include them.

I will say to all you Tibalt fans out there (and there are a lot more than you might realize) that the story team has Tibalt on their list of characters to keep an eye out for.

Meld uses a very valuable resource: double-faced cards. We wanted to keep the as-fan the same as Shadows over Innistrad, so that meant that we only had a limited number of double-faced cards available. Also, remember that each meld cards uses up not one but two double-faced card slots. Design played around with a bunch of low-rarity meld cards to see if we could make them a major part of Eldritch Moon Limited.

In the end, we decided that the mechanic thrived more as a Constructed thing and just was too unwieldy to make consistent for Limited. We left in one lower-rarity meld combo to allow it to occasionally happen in Limited but more as a special thing and less of a guarantee.

The other big factor was us evaluating how many we needed to make the splash we wanted. The cards with the mechanic all work similarly, so there isn't a ton of design space. Having a few would excite the players who wanted to see Magic venture in this area and, yes, lessen our risk if the cards failed.

Finally, we understand that mechanics are a resource that can be used again. If meld cards are a huge hit, we have the ability to make more down the road—so only having a few in Eldritch Moon isn't problematic.

As I explained last week, the move from mono-blue to Bant (green-white-blue) was motivated not by story or character decisions but by developmental ones. The reason we restrict ourselves to five planeswalkers per block is so that development has the freedom to be able to push them. Tamiyo originally wasn't going to be in the block as a planeswalker card even though she plays a role in the story. It was just a smaller role than everyone else who had a planeswalker card. (And remember that Arlinn Kord existed because we needed a red-green planeswalker for color balance, meaning that slot could never be Tamiyo's.)

We really wanted to have a Tamiyo planeswalker card, so that made us ask the question, what could we do to have it? The answer was the card had to be narrow enough that we could push it without complicating the planeswalker balance in Standard. Making her three-color accomplished this best. So, why is she three colors? Because that was the only way we could let her have a planeswalker card. Once the choices were three-color planeswalker card or no planeswalker card, the story team worked to figure out what colors flavorfully made the most sense because they felt the story was better served if Tamiyo had a card.

The bigger issue here is that Magic is first and foremost a game. Yes, our story and flavor are very important to us, and we spend a lot of time fine-tuning mechanics to match the flavor as best we can, but there are limitations that being cards in a game puts on us. My job, as the guy who writes about why we make all sorts of behind-the-scenes decisions, is to help you understand the forces at play to explain why we do what we do.

This all leads up to the short version of your answer: we did it because it was what allowed us to make the best game we could.

Emerge was inspired by an old mechanic, but interestingly it wasn't offering. The original inspiration was ninjutsu, the ninja mechanic from Betrayers of Kamigawa. The idea was to create a mechanic that surprised the opponent mid-combat as it mutated into its new form. Tying it to creature combat didn't end up working well, so the development team (the mechanic was created in development) experimented with different tweaks and ended up with one that played closer to offering.

Modal designs (especially ones with three modes) aren't as easy to design as you might think. There are only so many effects and, at three a pop, you chew them up quickly. Escalate is the kind of mechanic that we can never do too much of within any one set. That said, it is something that we could do from time to time because each time you redo it you can mix and match the effects differently. Will we do escalate again? It depends a lot on how the mechanic goes over. If history is any guide, it should do well, as players tend to love things with modes.

The problem with that is there is a functional difference between a melded creature and a token. For example, if you bounce (return to owner's hand) a melded creature, both pieces go back to their owner's hand. If you bounce a token, it's gone from the game and doesn't end up in anyone's hand. What this means is the card you're talking about couldn't technically be a token, which puts it into odd territory. I'm not the rules manager, so I don't know if there's some kind of workaround, but my guess is it's a more complicated issue than most people might think. We did do overlays for morph and manifest, so my best guess is yeah, it's probably possible.

While Vampires are undead on most worlds, I believe they're not technically undead on Innistrad. The process by which they are made works differently. It's one of the reasons that Sorin is able to both be a Vampire and hold a Planeswalker spark.

We made the decision to have the double-faced cards in Eldritch Moon (save Ulrich) represent Emrakul mutations rather than dark transformations. We still wanted Werewolves though, so people could have more Werewolves for their Werewolf decks, which left us with a puzzle. How could we make Eldrazi Werewolves?

The shtick we were playing around with is that the front side of the double-faced cards in Eldritch Moon started where previous double-faced cards ended their transformations. That meant the front side was going to be a Werewolf. In addition, the current Werewolf mechanic (transform if no spells, transform back if two spells) represents the natural transformation that comes from the full moon appearing. These cards were not representing that transformation, so we didn't want to use that mechanic.

The problem we had to solve was we wanted the Eldrazi Werewolves to play nicely with all the rest of the Werewolves. We also needed a different transformation. What if we played into the idea that as creatures go mad they unwittingly play into their own mutation? This meant that the Eldritch Moon Werewolves (once again, save Ulrich) would pay mana to transform. This works nicely with the older Werewolves because having things to do with mana that don't require casting spells helps you transform all your normal Werewolves. We playtested and found that the two types of Werewolves worked well together. And that is why the transformation triggers are not the same.

No. The Gatewatch will continue on, but they will encounter other threats. I'm not saying we'll never see the Eldrazi again, but for the immediate future we're going to test our band of Planeswalkers against different villains, some of whom you've met before and some of whom you haven't.

Not that I know of. The story already had so many Planeswalkers central to the plot that we didn't need to add in Garruk's story. Yes, Innistrad is where Garruk got cursed, so I could imagine us making a block set on Innistrad in which Garruk plays a major role, but that would be a very different story than the one we're telling in Shadows over Innistrad block.

Here's what happened. When we designed Innistrad block, we talked about having a legendary Werewolf, but we didn't like the logistics of how it would work. For example, you could play the Human side, transform it, and then play a second copy of the Human side. Then if the second Human transforms, one of them would die. So, we chose not to make a legendary Werewolf.

When Innistrad released, the players were very vocal that they wanted a legendary Werewolf. The problem was, by the time you all saw Innistrad, Dark Ascension was already completed. There wasn't any chance for us to add a legendary Werewolf. And then in Avacyn Restored, all the Werewolves became Wolfir, so we missed our chance.

Werewolves are mostly a double-sided thing, and we didn't make any other worlds with Werewolves on them after our visit to Innistrad. That meant the earliest chance to make a legendary Werewolf was in Shadows over Innistrad block. Ulrich was originally going to appear in the first set, but we didn't want two mythic rare red-green Werewolves, so we pushed Ulrich back to Eldritch Moon so Arlinn Kord could be in Shadows over Innistrad. So even though it took a while to happen, we did, in fact, do it at the next (almost) earliest possibility.

When we revisit a character, our goal is to make sure that the new card feels similar to the old card. It doesn't need to be an exact copy. We just want the two cards to feel as if they represent the same creature. As such, we do not feel a need to have the exact same power and toughness. We just like to be in the ballpark. Yes, Emrakul was made at 13/13 because we were on Innistrad. Likewise, she cost thirteen for the same reason. (In case you weren't aware, Magic has never previously had a creature with a converted mana cost of 13.)

We handled each Eldrazi titan separately, so I don't think we saw the pattern you're talking about. If we had, we would have probably tweaked either Ulamog or Kozilek to not create the expectation that Emrakul would return unchanged in size.

There are two issues here. First off, Magic is a collaborative endeavor, meaning that no one person makes all the decisions for the game. Yes, I consider Donate a mistake and it makes me nervous that we printed Harmless Offering, but here's the thing: it wasn't my call. I wasn't the lead designer on the set. I wasn't the lead developer. There were many people who worked very hard to make Eldritch Moon an awesome set, and the majority of them decided they wanted Harmless Offering to see print.

Second, my biggest issue with it is a developmental one. Cards like Harmless Offering make it easier to abuse drawbacks. We make cards with drawbacks balanced against what you get out of them. Harmless Offering can let you turn a drawback into an attack against the opponent. This, in theory, can be abused, but development knew this and playtested to ensure Harmless Offering wouldn't break anything. No such thing was done with Donate. So yes, Harmless Offering is potentially dangerous, but so are many cards, and I have to trust development when they say that they feel something is safe to print.

So Many Questions

That's all the time I have for today, but I got so many questions that I'm not done answering them. (The "Part 1" might have been a giveaway.) As always, I'm interested in your feedback on both today's column and Eldritch Moon. You can email me or talk to me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram). Drop me a note and tell me what you think.

Join me next week for part two of my Eldritch Moon "Odds & Ends."

Until then, may you play a lot of Eldritch Moon so you can create even more questions.


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