An Outside View

Posted in Making Magic on April 27, 2009

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 almost three years, from Dissension through Shards of Alara, I was on every design team. While it was exhilarating, it was also very tiring, and thus I was happy to take a breather during Conflux and Alara Reborn (and by breather, I mean merely leading the design of Zendikar, the 2009 large fall expansion). While I was involved in a macro sense as Head Designer, I was not involved in the day-to-day design that goes on with every set. As such, I come to Alara Reborn with much fresher eyes than I do with the average set of the last few years.

What this means is that this set isn't filled with cards that I watched continually evolve. I don't have design stories about them because, with only a few exceptions, I wasn't involved in designing them. This does allow me to let you see what happens when I look at a Magic set that I wasn't intimately involved with. Today, I am going to peruse the set and make comments on different cards based on my perspective as a guy that's designed a lot of Magic cards, just not these Magic cards. Hopefully, my insights on the cards will prove entertaining.

    Blitz Hellion

The thing I enjoy about this card is a simple thing. Both halves are things we've done numerous times (the "Ball Lightning" half and the "shuffle me in" half), yet we've never done them together. Designers love chasing after the unknown and unexplored, but time has taught me to also appreciate the value of using the known and explored. Magic has so many pieces that there are numerous new creations that can be made by joining two old things together.

    Breath of Malfegor

I like that this card stays very conscious of multiplayer play. One of the challenges of Magic design is that the game is so many different things to so many different people. Every set has to have a little something for everyone. One such group (and a much bigger one than I think many people are aware) is the multiplayer group. One of the keys to making this group happy is to just remember they exist when we design and template cards. If we can create a card so it works better in multiplayer play without really impacting the two-player experience then we should be doing that whenever we can.

    Dragon Broodmother

There's a lot of focus on card combinations in Magic. What is equally fun, though, are cards that create synergy with themselves. Dragon Broodmother has great game play that requires no other cards. Each new Dragon token gets to think about each Dragon token that came before it. Every set needs to have cards like this and it is something that I think about during every set I lead.

The other thing I love about this card is how flavorful the mechanic itself is. Often when we talk about mechanics and flavor, people think of them as separate entities, but they are not. Mechanics are a means of expressing flavor. The best mechanics use flavor to help define what they do. Why does everyone understand flying so quickly when they first learn? Because the flavor allows it to make perfect sense. Of course a nonflier can't block a flier—it doesn't fly!

Flavor is one of the facets of the game that most easily excites people. It's visceral and immediate and it makes you smile.

    Finest Hour

Every once in a while, gold sets do this odd thing. They create a multicolor card that makes sense when you look at its pieces yet doesn't have the color that the whole effect is normally associated with. The classic example of this is the card Lightning Helix from Ravnica:

Lightning Helix deals 3 damage to target creature or player—check, that's red.

You gain 3 life—check, that's white.

Deal 3 damage and gain 3 life—wait, that's Essence Drain, a black card.

It turns out that combining damage to a creature with life gain can be done in monoblack or in red-white.

Finest Hour is a similar card. Exalted falls into all three Bant colors. Untap and then attack again. Well, white and blue can untap creatures (green used to but has since lost that ability). Blue gets "Time Walk" effects where you get to take extra turns. Green is king of doubling things. Combine them all together and you get an effect that makes sense in green-white-blue. But wait, that's Relentless Assault (and its ilk), a red card.

Quirky, but often times that's just how design rolls.

    Intimidation Bolt

I believe there are a number of amateur designers out there who feel that flavor is not a crucial component of design. To them, it's window dressing. Once you've figured out the card's mechanical relevance, it allows the artist to paint a pretty picture. My proof that this way of thought is wrong is this card.

Mechanically, what does a Lightning Bolt to creatures and a one-shot, one-sided Pacifism have to do with one another? Nothing really. The two have some synergy as it's nice to be able to Fog for a turn while also getting rid of one of the attackers, but when you try to match them up mechanically, the card falls a little short.

Now add a little flavor—the idea that the Bolt to the creature's face is the reason that the creatures don't attack—and suddenly it all fits together. That's what impresses me most about this card. The two disparate mechanical components blended so well with flavor that it makes the whole card work. This isn't easy to do, so the designer in me is mighty impressed.

    Karrthus, Tyrant of Jund

I know the kind of responses a card like this can get from some people: a seven-mana Dragon that steals every other Dragon and gives them all haste? When is this situation going to come up exactly, where you're still alive yet your opponent has Dragons just lying around waiting to be stolen? My response to these people is this: this card isn't for you.

While players understand that there exist other types of players, for some reason they forget this when they run across a card that doesn't make sense to them. Why did Wizards print such a card? The answer is because we believed someone else would value it. Karrthus might not win any tournaments (even then, he is a 7/7 flier with haste for seven mana—hey, aesthetics popping up its head again), but I do know he's going to go into a bunch of Dragon decks. I know that there will be players who rip him open and gape because in the circles they play, this is going to be an awesome card.

Karrthus is fun. Maybe not for everyone, but definitely for the people the card was designed for.

    Knight of New Alara

My favorite thing about this card's design is a simple thing: it scales. The card manages to care about how many colors a card has in a very natural way. Scaling is important for two reasons. First, as I've explained before, players tend to imagine a card's ideal when examining it. What's the best it can be? Scaling cards give you lots of room for potential. A five-color creature can get +5/+5. That's pretty exciting. Second, the scaling gives you some variance, which gives you something unknown.

Most cards are a known quantity when you draw them. Cards like Knights of New Alara, though, have a built-in surprise. The card can change depending on certain factors. This creates more fun moments, I believe, because having something happen on the high end of a variance is exciting. In a job where you cherish fun, excitement is a valuable commodity.

Lighting Reaver

When players process cards, they tend to think about what they could do in the context of the iteration of one turn for one player. Why? Because that's the nature of Magic. Cards stay tapped for one turn. Creatures keep their damage for one turn. Most effects last just for a single turn. Richard (Garfield) did this because he was trying to lessen the complication of memory. If you have to remember things longer than a turn, the information builds up over time and it becomes harder and harder to process it.

The end result of this effect is that cards aren't often thought about in terms longer than a single turn. This is why cards like Lighting Reaver have a novelty about them. This card isn't about repeating the same thing from turn to turn. Lighting Reaver grows over time. Magic doesn't want to support too many of this type of card as it would undo the good work Richard did when he created the game, but a little goes a long way. I should also note that the card uses counters, which is design's answer to tracking things that need to be tracked beyond a single turn.

    Maelstrom Nexus

This card brings a smile to my face as it plays into a time-honored design tradition: making the card that grants the set keyword ability to all other cards that fit the proper parameters. Not a single set goes by without a card like this being turned in for every keyword in the set. Often these cards get killed because they are inherently dangerous. It's one thing to hand-pick effects for a keyword. It's another to allow it to be grafted onto any spell in the game.

Fortunately, cascade is a pretty locked-in effect. No matter what the spell does, adding cascade does the same basic effect, with the only unknown variable being the converted mana cost of the spell. Note that it was also stuck unto a five-colored card, ensuring that it cannot be easily stuck in many decks. Decks that want this effect are going to have to build around it. That said, I'm quite excited to see what players do with this card as it seems like it's going to make some fun decks.

    Mind Funeral

This card is going to create some cool memories. Why? Because the card doesn't dictate exactly what's going to happen.

Let me step back a moment. What is the role of a game designer? What exactly are we being paid to do? In my opinion, we're being paid to provide entertainment. We are creating fun for the players. How do we do this? There are many ways. One way, and Mind Funeral embraces this, is to make cards that create moments. Cards that stop the game and say, "Okay we're now going to play this little minigame." It's important that this minigame matters.

At minimum, Mind Funeral is going to mill (slang for "put from library into graveyard") four cards. It could mill half the deck. Potentially, it could mill [the deck – N], where N is all the lands remaining minus four. That's a wide spread. And as milling is a win condition, the success of this spell could have a big impact on the outcome of the game.

Magic is filled with these kinds of cards (I know, I keep designing them—though not this one, of course). In general, they've gone over pretty well so we keep making them. But wait, don't players hate randomness? Some players dislike certain kinds of randomness. Most Spikes, for example, hate randomness that they have no control over.

Frenetic Efreet is probably the most famous card that played up this problem. The coin flips were crucial yet there was no outside way to influence them. As such, Frenetic Efreet turned key moments of tournament games into watching a coin flip in the air. On the flip side, one only need to look at the Semifinal match between Pat Chapin and Gabriel Nassif from Worlds 2007 to see what excitement a random card could create. (Hit the link for the full story—it involves an Ignite Memories with a storm count of 4.)

My point is that the right randomness in the right place can create exciting moments of Magic.

    Offering to Asha

The thing I'm happiest about when I see this card is that it appreciates aesthetics. The converted mana cost is four, the mana required is , the spell gains you 4 life, the flavor text is four lines. (I'm kidding about that last one.) On the surface this might seem silly, but I have studied aesthetics long enough to know that if something feels right that it simply makes people happier and more receptive. Aesthetics, for those of you that haven't seen me talk about this before, is the study/philosophy of the creation and appreciation of beauty. It's a lot more objective than you might assume. (For more about aesthetics, feel free to check out my column Zen and the Art of Cycle Maintenance.)

The more design I've done, the more I've come to respect how crucial the tiny details are. People notice them, oftentimes at a subconscious level. Numerous times, I've seen people on Magic forums support or reject a possible card because it does or doesn't "feel" right. Human nature is a force that designers have to design around. As I love to say, whenever you (as a designer) fight human nature, you lose. Good design complements human nature—it doesn't fight it.

    Predatory Advantage

This is one of my favorite designs in the set. The funny thing is, I can't easily explain why. I enjoy that the card punishes something that in general we like to punish. (Magic at its heart is about creatures; I'm not saying creatureless decks shouldn't exist, just that I'm fine with them having some threats in the game.) I like that the card has some neat build-around-me properties. The flavor oddly speaks to me. Most of all, the card just has some quality to it that excites me as a designer. (The card, by the way, is the creation of Mark Gottlieb.)

    Sen Triplets

As the man behind Mindslaver, I've always had a fondness for messing with your opponent's stuff. This card answers the traditional problem that cards like Word of Command creates by only allowing one player at a time access to your opponent's hand. I also like that this card makes you pay for your opponent's spells with your own mana to give the card a limitation to work around in deck construction (and help keep the power to some extent in check).

    Sigil Captain

One of the things that I love about Magic design is that we're able to constantly shake up the players' experiences. One cool way to do this is to create cards that care about something that few other cards in Magic care about. The designer in me really appreciates how this card says, "Go through your collection and now look at it from this vantage point." I also appreciate how the card helps token-making cards without specifically calling them out by name.

    Thopter Foundry

The first reaction I get when I see this card is "Oh, I'm going to get some mail complaining about the word 'nontoken.'" Why do I think this? Because I always get email when we include the word "nontoken." You see, the only reason we use the word at all is that the card works with itself in a way that takes advantage that we don't like. Let's use Thopter Foundry as the example.

I can tell that the intent of the design was to let players turn any artifact into a 1/1 flier. Why would they want to? Most often for the evasion, every once in a while for the life gain.

Here's the problem. If you allow the card to sacrifice tokens then you essentially turn the card's ability into the following:

: Gain 1 life.

When the 1/1 artifact flier turns into a 1/1 artifact flier you've neutralized the effect. The ability to gain a life for each mana you have is pretty powerful, especially on an artifact that could be used turn after turn. As such, the card's mana cost would have to reflect the existence of the ability. But the whole point of the card isn't to be a repeatable life gainer, so to keep the design intent, the word "nontoken" has to be added.

It's important to remember that just as I feel creativity needs restriction, so too does design. What makes many cards shine is that they don't do everything. They force the player to solve their problems with the limited abilities at hand, and that kind of creative thinking on the fly is what makes awesome and memorable game moments.

    My 30 Cents

That's my insights for today. I hope I managed you to look at a few Alara Reborn cards in a different light. Join me next week when I take you all out for a spin.

Until then, may you admire the works of those around you.

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