A quick note before I begin. I've told parts of some of these stories before. It's hard to write for ten-plus years without any repetition. Also, I don't want newer players to not hear fun stories because they don't search through more than five hundred old columns. I will try to add some new elements to the stories I've told before to let even the longtime readers learn something new.
This card is from Odyssey. What most people don't realize was that it was part of a cycle that stretched across the entire block. Each card was an enchantment with an alternate win condition. Here's how they were released:
Why did we spread them across the entire block? Because we felt five win condition cards in one set was a little too much. Why did we divide them as we did? It's pretty straightforward if you think about the sets. Torment, the black set (if you're unaware, the set had significantly more black cards than any other color), got the black one. Judgment, the white and green set (to off balance Torment, Judgment had more white and green cards, black's enemies) got the white and green ones. The blue and red ones ended up in the last set they could go in, which happened to be the first set. Another cool thing we did (note—I was in charge of names for Odyssey) was used a different word for "duel" in each of the card names.
Why is Battle of Wits the only one standing? Because it was far and away the breakout card of the cycle.
It ended up being a fun card to build around and players flocked to it, so it managed to escape its cycle and just became a card on its own.
Every set wants to appeal to every kind of Magic player, but for each one I get a sense of what the set most wants to be and which type of player it leans toward. I make sure to mix up the sets, so all of mine aren't leaning in the same direction. Anyway, Fifth Dawn was the last set in the Mirrodin block. That meant it had to have a lot of artifacts in it.
Mirrodin and Darksteel had been a bit more Timmy and Spike, so I thought it might be fun to make Fifth Dawn a little more Johnny friendly with a bunch of artifacts that all had strong build-around-me vibes. I designed Clock of Omens with this idea in mind.
Clock of Omens is what we call an "engine card," in that it allows you to turn one resource into another; in this case, it allows you to trade untapped artifacts for tapped ones. I made it at a 2:1 ratio to try and keep it in check power-wise. I'm very happy with this design because it does what I love a good Johnny card to do. It has lots of potential yet it never quite tells you what to do with it. It hints at possibilities but makes you go find them.
Here's a little story most players don't know. For about six years Clone didn't work. Obviously, the card existed, as it was printed in Alpha, but for many years no one could work out the rules. The only solution was to stop printing it. That's why it appeared in Revised and then disappeared for many years.
I tried to bring the card back in Urza's Saga but the rules team at the time gave up and requested we change the card at the last minute. The art had already come back so we had to design a card that mechanically made sense with the art. Here's what the card became:
Note that the art is doing a riff on the Clone art from Alpha.
Eventually, the rules manager figured out how to make it work within the rules and the card came back in Onslaught.
Players just see a card as is because that is all they've ever known of the card. For a designer, though, you often see a card not as it is but as it was. Door to Nothingness will always be one of these cards to me. The card was in Fifth Dawn, which had a sharp right turn at the end of the artifact block with a theme about caring about playing all five colors. This came about because the block was spinning out of control power-wise and we had to focus "somewhere else." Aaron Forsythe, director of Magic R&D (Fifth Dawn was the very first Magic design team he had ever been on), suggested the five-color theme along with the sunburst mechanic.
Since we had a five-color theme, it seemed only right to have an artifact that activated for all five colors. Eventually, we hit upon the idea of having an activation that was two of every color and won you the game when you activated it. Aaron and I wanted a little splash, though, so here's the original card we came up with.
CARDNAME comes into play tapped.
WWUUBBRRGG,T, Sacrifice CARDNAME: Destroy target creature or player.
Aaron and I loved this card. It was perfect. The problem was we weren't allowed to say "destroy target player." Why? Because the game didn't allow that. "But it could," I argued. "Players would get what it meant."
"No," said the rules manager (Mark Gottlieb at the time). "We have a template to make another player lose and it is 'Target player loses the game.'"
I dug my heels in and fought that the two might be similar on the surface but the feel was completely different. Aaron and my version was whimsical and fun. It felt like it broke new ground even though it wasn't really doing something Magic couldn't already do.
I often tell stories about how I fought and fought and managed to finally get my way. This was one of those stories where I didn't. I tried my hardest but in the end I couldn't get enough support for "destroy target player."
To this day, all I see every time I look at this card is that battle, and each and every time I still mourn that I, in my mind, failed the card. That said, it did go on to be popular (and obviously was reprinted here) so maybe I was wrong. (My brain says yes but my heart says no.)
A little theme for today is that cards are more often part of a bigger picture than you realize. Duress was actually designed as a pair of cards in Urza's Saga block. To spread them out, we stuck Duress in Urza's Saga and it's reflection in Urza's Legacy:
The two got brought back together for Seventh Edition, but after that it was decided to just use Duress, which turned out to be a more popular (and, not a coincidence, more powerful) card.
Players frequently ask me how often my designs are inspired by the decks I play. The answer is that most of my designs aren't inspired by my decks, but a few of them are. Fervor being one example. This card was printed in Weatherlight but I originally designed it for Tempest. It was inspired by this card:
Concordant Crossroads was from Legends. For those unfamiliar with enchant worlds (now called World Enchantments) it was a mechanic where any new enchant world replaced any existing enchant world. I've talked numerous times before that my first major deck was a blue/green weenie swarm deck.
I had always loved how Concordant Crossroads played and felt it would be great to bring that feel over to the color that was supposed to give all your guys haste—red. The one change I made was to make it only affect your guys, because otherwise the card was usually only good in a deck where you were trying to be faster than your opponent.
I very happily put Fervor into the Tempest file. There's a rule I don't talk about much but I'll call it the "You've Got Time" rule. The You've Got Time rule says that any set chronologically earlier is allowed to steal things from sets coming out later because that set has more time to find a replacement. I'm not sure what exactly led to Weatherlight needing Fervor but they came and took it. I'm just happy to see the card's still around after so many years.
From time to time you'll hear about rules gurus. Those are the people who know the Magic rules the best and they are consulted when some new rules issue pops up. Their extensive knowledge of the rules helps them figure out new rulings to make sure they are consistent with how the rules actually work. I'm what's known as one of the color pie gurus. I do the same thing but with color philosophies as they apply to mechanics. Basically, when someone wants to know if a certain effect can be done in a certain color they come to me.
Many years ago, I was assigned the task as a color pie guru to go through the color pie at the time and see if I could come up with any philosophical issues. Were there any areas where the mechanics did a poor job of matching the philosophies? It turns out I found just such a problem.
The blue/green conflict is about nature vs. nurture. Blue believes that everything is born as a blank slate and that you can use whatever tools necessary to educate and improve it. Green believes you are born with everything you will be already inside you. Blue embraces education. Green embraces destiny. As such, blue looks to tools as being an important and crucial part of life. Green sees them as something interfering in the natural way. This means blue embraces technology while green shuns it.
In the world of Magic, technology is represented by artifacts. To stay true to the colors, blue should be the greatest ally of artifacts and green should be its greatest enemy. The first was clearly true. Blue had the closest mechanical tie to artifacts. Green, though, wasn't king of destroying them. I talked this out with other gurus and it was agreed that the greatest hater of artifacts was green, then red, and finally white in a distant third. White could destroy artifacts when pushed but it wasn't a drive of white like it was for green and red. (While green believed they should be destroyed, red just enjoyed destroying them. Blue and black tended to like artifacts and had a greater synergy with them. Neither was particularly good at destroying them.)
So I suggested we start making better green artifact hate. Red's staple was Shatter, so it wasn't hard to make green better than red. The problem that came up, though, was Disenchant. As long as Disenchant was around, white was always going to be #1 in artifact removal. I sat down and did the math. In artifact removal, green was #1, red #2, and white #3. In enchantment removal, white was #1 and green was #2. We wanted enchantments to be the least fragile, so we decided that only two colors should be good at destroying them. (Blue had counterspells and black had discard; enchantments would always be the bane of red—it just can't handle things it can't physically blow up.)
The numbers were clear. The color that was better at destroying both was clearly green, not white. Also, this would allow artifact removal in red common, enchantment removal in white common, and artifact and enchantment removal in green common—the ally of white and red—creating a nice balance. Finally, by moving Disenchant to green we also would cement green as king of artifact removal and so the move was made—Disenchant became Naturalize.
This card comes from Lorwyn. It came about because I was working hard to help give white an identity with its removal. I'd never been a fan of Swords to Plowshares because I felt it basically translated into "destroy any creature" for , because the drawback was so minimal versus the value gained. Who cares if your opponent has some more life? You just got rid of his or her biggest threat and the thing that would have most likely stopped you from damaging your opponent.
I felt like Pacifism and Arrest were going in an interesting direction because they gave white answers that worked differently from the removal of other colors. These cards could work on any creature but there was an answer to them. If your opponents can answer the threat, they get back their creatures. In white, your answers had answers.
I liked this a lot because I love the flavor it gives white. White is the color least willing to kill things. It tends to find a way to stop creatures without having to kill them. (Swords to Plowshares, by the way, was playing into this same flavor.) The danger of not permanently removing your threats is that they might come back to haunt you.
So I was trying to find more ways for white to have this feel. Then I stumbled upon this card.
I had always loved Oubliette because it both had great flavor and great game play. What if white could do something like that? I took out the maintaining the Auras, Equipment, and counters on it because the game play wasn't worth the word space to define it. I believe it was Aaron, the lead designer of Lorwyn, who suggested it remove any permanent rather than just a creature.
One of the questions I often get is how much design does Magic have left in it? How long before Magic runs out of card ideas? Quirion Dryad is a perfect example that we've got plenty of space left. Why? Let me explain.
Quirion Dryad came about because I was trying to combine two different things. It was Invasion block, so I was trying to promote playing as many colors as possible (that was a major theme of Invasion block). At the same time, green has a strong theme of growth and I like to make sure that green always has creatures that can grow. This card came about because this was an interesting intersection of the two areas I was combining.
The reason I have a lot of faith in the design space of Magic's future is that every time you give yourself new constraints (or one might say, restrictions) you will find new and different answers.
I'm often surprised when cards I made to be fun turn out to be good. It's not that I don't realize cards can turn out to be good, it's just funny to me that the cards tend to come about for reasons so different than "I thought this would help the Constructed environment," which is how I think a lot of players think I design cards.
This card was originally printed in Urza's Legacy. Many players might not realize that it came from a cycle. This cycle:
Even fewer might remember that the Urza's Legacy cycle was actually following in the footsteps of a cycle from Urza's Saga. This cycle:
Now here's the fun part. These two cycles are connected. Can you see how?
This one's a little tough to see. Each color got two Auras with the "deathback" mechanic (that was R&D's name for it). One was designed to be positive and put on your creature and one was designed to be negative and put on your opponent's creature. Rather than put all the positive ones together and all the negative ones together, they were broken up between the cycles. To further hide this, we pushed off one cycle from Urza's Saga to Urza's Legacy.
I believe the original Rancor was simply a +2/+0 Aura designed as mirror to Despondency, but that didn't end up being good enough, so trample was added in development. Now, there's an age-old story that Rancor was actually supposed to cost and it got messed up when the card got laid out and never caught until it was printed. I've had numerous players ask me is this true or is it just an urban legend?
Today's the day I lay the issue to rest. What do you think: true story or urban legend?
Find out!>> Click to Show
Here's what happened. The development team (Henry Stern, Mike Elliott, William Jockusch, Bill Rose, and myself) went back and forth on the cost between and . We wanted to be aggressive with the card but not have it be broken. The card changed many times in the file but eventually we decided on .
Flash forward to a number of months later, when we got what we call the print text. This is the earliest run of the cards where we have a chance to make sure there aren't any major printing errors. It was at this point that we realized Rancor said instead of . Well, the cards had already been printed and going back to press would have been a huge expense and could have potentially delayed the release, so we decided to just live with Rancor at .
It obviously went on to be a giant hit without causing major problems so I guess you could call it an accident with a happy ending.
This card is from Urza's Saga. It uses what R&D refers to as the "free mechanic." The idea with it is that if you have enough mana to cast it, it doesn't really cost you anything. The free mechanic came about because I was trying to find something to replace cantrips. You see, Bill Rose had deemed cantrips off limits (once upon a time, cantrips was a thing we did every once in a while rather than an evergreen tool) so I was trying to find similar space. Rather than a card that didn't cost you a card, how about a card that didn't cost you the mana?
The free mechanic proved to be what we in R&D call "bah-roken" and it was one of a handful of things that made Urza's Saga block the most overpowered block ever. I'm pretty sure the free mechanic is the most broken mechanic I've ever designed, although I don't consider it the most broken mechanic ever (that honor, I believe, goes to storm, created by Brian Tinsman).
What makes it so broken? Let's look at a card.
Here's what seems a pretty innocent card. It's a 1/1 flier for . This card got played a lot in Constructed events at the time. Why? Because the free mechanic was poorly named. You didn't get Cloud of Faeries for free—no you got paid to cast it. Urza's block had many lands that were able to tap for more than one mana. Cloud of Faeries's favorite was Tolarian Academy (because it was both the most broken and produced blue mana). Often, Cloud of Faeries would net a player four, five, six mana—or more.
Now we get to why the mechanic was so broken. Now that we know Cloud of Faeries is overpowered, what can we do to weaken it? Traditionally, we just raise the mana cost, but here's the problem. If Cloud of Faeries cost instead of it's possible it's even stronger. You can generate even more mana off it. When mana can't solve power issues, your mechanic has a huge problem.
The interesting part of this story is that Rewind is in this set. What's going on? Well, it turns out that reactive free spells aren't nearly as problematic as proactive ones, because you don't control when you can use it. Cloud of Faeries got cast when you needed the mana. Rewind often can't be cast when you need the mana. This makes it safe enough, it turns out, that we can print it today. (Also, we make a lot fewer lands that can tap for more than one mana.) And that is how the free mechanic ended up in Magic 2013.
Old Acquaintances Shouldn't Be Forgot
I hope you enjoyed a few stories about some old cards for a change. Let me know if you'd like to see more card-by-card stories of other old timers.
Join me next week when I answer your questions about Magic 2013.
Until then, may you share your old stories with someone interested.