Phyrexian Powers: International Mana Mystery

Posted in Making Magic on April 25, 2011

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.

Welcome to the first New Phyrexia Preview Week! I have some fun stories to share and cool cards to show you, so let's not waste time on my thesis paragraph. Phyrexia, ho!

    Team Players

As always, I want to start by introducing you to the New Phyrexia Design Team:

    Ken Nagle (lead)

I still like to think of Ken as the "new designer," but the day Ethan (Fleischer, the GDS2 winner and my new intern) showed up, I realized that Ken has been working at Wizards for over four years! Yes, somehow when I wasn't looking, Ken became a design veteran. (They grow up so fast.) The reason we picked Ken as the lead designer of New Phyrexia is that we knew that it had the potential to be one of the griefer-iest (yeah, I'm not afraid to make up words) Magic sets possibly of all time. After all, the Phyrexians are not known for playing nicely with others. And no one in the offices (well, except perhaps Magic digital studio director Worth Wollpert) enjoys griefing more than Ken, so we knew he was our man. (Aaron is also up there, which is why we made him the lead developer of the set.)

We also picked Ken because we knew this set was going to be very hard to design and Ken is one of the best we have. How do you imbue a set with a Phyrexian feel while still making it fun to play? I told Ken on day one that this set had a lot of hidden pitfalls that wouldn't be obvious until you fell into them. Ken did an awesome job of leading a team through this jungle of pitfalls, and we ended up with a very cool and remarkable set. Next up—we give Ken his first large set to design: 2012's fall set, codenamed "Hook."

    Dave Guskin

Dave's full-time job is working on the Ramp;D Magic Digital Team. This means he spends the majority of his time making sure all the various ways to play Magic that involve 1s and 0s are as fun as they can be. Luckily for both Dave and Ramp;D, we like to make sure that everyone who works on Magic in Ramp;D has the opportunity to be on design and development teams. I always enjoy having Dave on a design team because he does not shy away from asking the hard questions.

Dave's favorite question is "Why?" as in "Why do we have to do it that way?" Dave is always watchful to see if there is a better path we might have missed. New Phyrexia had a lot of opportunities for Dave to ask "Why?" and I feel the set was better for the questioning. I look forward to working with Dave again on a design team (which I know won't be that far away).

    Joe Huber

Every once in a while I get to introduce you all to someone you've never heard of before. So who is Joe Huber? Joe is a designer in Ramp;D. Believe it or not, Wizards of the Coast makes games other than Magic (shocker, I know), and we hire people to design them. Joe is one of those people. But he is in the building and he does have design skillz (yeah, that's a z), so we put him on a Magic design team so he could show us what he's got. Turns out, quite a bit.

It's interesting to have a designer try his hand at Magic with the vantage point of designing other games. While Joe plays Magic he is not as up to date on Magic's voluminous past as most of the other Magic designers, so it's very interesting to get his vantage point on things. Often he'll ask have we tried something and I'll answer, "Why yes, we have. Let me tell you all about it." Joe is already working on other Magic design teams so I know his name will pop up in this column again.

    Matt Place

Here's what I had to say about Matt in his Scars of Mirrodin design team bio:

And the developer for the second half was Matt. As with Nate, Matt has gone on to work for a different game company. As this is Matt's last team appearance and thus the last time I get to talk about him in a bio, I just wanted to take a minute to say how awesome Matt was. Most of the developers are very logical and tend to approach problems systematically. Matt worked much more on feel and I believe a lot of the goodness of the last few years came out of this ability of Matt's to see the bigger picture. Rise of the Eldrazi was Matt's last lead (as a lead developer) and his touch is all over that set. I was very sad the day I learned that Matt had chosen to leave and I wish him the best in his future endeavors. They say that the surest way to improve is to work with the best. Working with Matt did a lot to make me a better designer.

About a month ago, Matt was in town as he was just about to get married (congratulations, by the way, to Matt and Diane). During lunch, the topic of this bio came up and Matt said, "That was a real nice write-up, Mark, but you do realize that I was on the design team for New Phyrexia."

Um, no I did not. So, uh, what I said for his Scars bio—again. Awesome to work with. Great insight. Helped me become a better designer. All of that.

Matt's a great friend and it saddens me that I don't get to see and work with him every day. I like to believe that Matt's current absence is just a temporary thing and one day in the future we'll be working together again. Anyway, having Matt on the New Phyrexia team was great, even if I blanked on it six months ago.

    Mark Rosewater

I don't know if there will ever be a Guinness Book of World Records for Magic, but if there is, I plan to lock up the "Been on the Most Design Teams" category. I was on the New Phyrexia design team because it's what I do. As you'll see over the next few weeks, I carried my own weight.

And that, in just over 1,000 words, is the fine collection of designers who made the set I'm going to talk about today.

    Fee Phy Fo Fum

As many of my design stories begin, we go back to a set from many years ago. Today's destination (I made my Twitter tweeps—I don't like the term followers—try to guess which set while I was writing this article) is Future Sight. The design in question is this card:

This is the first ever colored artifact. Well, at least a lot of people think it is. The actual first colored artifact is below. See if you can guess before you reveal it.

Click here when you think you've guessed it or just don't care to guess and want to see it.

Sarcomite Myr's actual first was that it was the first artifact with colored mana in its mana cost (although not its activated ability costs, I should point out). The card came about because I had the joyful task of designing common future-shifted cards. The rule I 'd laid down for future-shifted cards (I was the lead designer for Future Sight) was that they had to have some element that had never yet appeared in Magic. To have the feel of the future, they had to hint at something we could do but hadn't previously done.

The common cards were an extra challenge in that they had to be something that we hadn't done already, yet was simple enough to go at common. To solve this problem, I made a long list of things that I felt we might do one day. (And then I made a list of things we wouldn't do—I felt the future-shifted sheet could have some red herrings.) One of the items on the list was artifacts with colored mana in their mana cost. While the idea had a lot of baggage, the execution was very simple and thus made a fine common future-shifted card.

When the card went to the creative team for concepting, Brady (Dommermuth, the head of the team) looked ahead to worlds he thought we would visit and came to the conclusion that the most likely place we'd make artifacts with colored mana in their costs would be when we return to Mirrodin and discover that it's become New Phyrexia. (My Phyrexia Week column, The Untold Story (Well Until Today), explains how last year's fall set shifted in design.) Brady chose to tie the creative on the card to New Phyrexia. When I tell you that we knew Mirrodin was going to be corrupted by Phyrexia long ago, here's yet another piece of proof. Sarcomite Myr, from Future Sight (released in May 2007), pictures a myr being infected by Phyrexian influence.

So Sarcomite Myr in Future Sight was a preprint from New Phyrexia. Is this a card I'm showing off today? No and no. Sarcomite Myr isn't in New Phyrexia. Why? Because of a little world called Esper. When I designed Sarcomite Myr in Future Sight I knew it was a mechanic we were going to do. When Brady tied the card creatively to New Phyrexia, he did so because he knew it was a creative element we were going to do. Fate, though, kept these two things from actually colliding. Let me explain.

    Between a Rock and Shard Place

During Shards of Alara design, Bill Rose (lead designer of Shards of Alara and Ramp;D vice president) made the call to create five shard design groups. Each one was responsible for one of the five different shards. The team I was picked to lead was Esper, the white-blue-black world. My team consisted of myself, Mark Gottlieb and Mark Globus (the very first all-Mark design team). The flavor had been well spelled out by the creative team. Esper was a world where knowledge and technology ruled the day. The people had improved everything they could even their own biology.

The trouble we were having was finding a way to capture the essence of Esper in a way we could execute at common. (See last week's column for more on designing commons.) And then Gottlieb (I'm using last names because otherwise this story would be very hard to follow) said, "What if all the people are artifacts?" Obviously, this meant we'd have to make colored artifacts, as the entire point of the shards was that they represented three and exactly three colors.

My response was, "I like it. I'm not sure I can get Bill to go for it, but I'll try." Gottlieb's solution was clean and cut through the Gordian knot that had been Esper. Not only did I like it for being a cool solution to our problem, but also because it was the only good one we'd been able to come up with. I went to Bill and, to my surprise, Bill loved it. He actually liked how it made such a strong statement in a very straight-forward way.

The person who didn't like it was Brady. And the reason was none other than Sarcomite Myr. "Artifacts with colored mana is a great idea... for New Phyrexia." Why were we squandering it here? The Phyrexians, he explained, were all about turning flesh to metal and metal to flesh. The very essence of how they transform things cried out to be something that combined color and artifacts. This was the perfect solution. We had to find something else for Esper.

I had my team look some more, but we couldn't find anything close in quality or execution. Esper was a hard design nut to crack (it's a knot, it's a nut—colored artifacts are metaphorically many things). Also, time was of the issue. Shards of Alara had to start committing to mechanics. New Phyrexia was years away. I told Brady that I agreed with him that artifacts with colored costs would be perfect for New Phyrexia, but that sometimes we don't have the luxury of holding ideas.

Ramp;D has a standing rule that if an earlier set needs something, it gets to trump later sets. We are careful to use mechanics in their proper place, but sometimes two sets can both use something and the earlier set gets first dibs. I knew I was creating a problem for us when we returned to New Phyrexia but I said I'd solve it when we got there.

    We're There

I often joke that I'm very mean to Future Mark. I think it has something to do with the red part of my Izzet personality. Future Mark always has so much more time to solve his problems. And besides, he lives in the future. Sure, he has to do my dirty work, but at least he gets to travel around in flying cars.

What this all means is that when design started for Scars of Mirrodin, which at the time was New Phyrexia, (once again all explained in this column if you're interested) I had to solve the colored artifacts issue. To do this I set down a few rules for myself. First, I made the commitment to find a way to get colored artifacts into the block as it was the perfect representation of Phyrexia's whole "flesh to metal, metal to flesh" thing. (The Phyrexians like converting things that are flesh into metal and vice versa.) Two, I couldn't just do straight-up colored artifacts a la Esper. Choosing to use that execution for Esper meant that I was obligated to find a new way to do it.

So I dug down deep and found inspiration in a set I had done many years earlier: Shadowmoor. If you haven't picked it up yet, design is constantly influenced by the many years of design that came before it. One of the biggest pluses of being here for fifteen years is that I have a lot of knowledge about what we've done and, equally importantly, what we came up with but never used. Anyway, back to Shadowmoor. The answer to my problem, I believed, rested in the following cycle of cards:

In Ramp;D, we called this cycle the 2/Cs (pronounced "two sees"). In official Magic-speak they are called monocolored hybrid cards. When we were searching for an answer to our problem, these are the cards I latched onto. The cycle in Shadowmoor had all been instants and sorceries. What if we instead made creatures? Not just any creatures—artifact creatures.

The idea I loved is that the colorless mana in the cost would reinforce the feel of artifacts, but the colored mana would keep the cards colored. It was a way to make colored artifacts that were different from how Esper had done it. And I felt like the Shadowmoor cycle had been very popular, and more 2/Cs would be well received. Everything seemed to be lining up perfectly. Only one small problem: everyone other than me in Ramp;D hated them.

One of my most common stories is how I had an element that no one liked and over time I slowly won them over to my side. Yeah, that didn't happen here. The feeling was that the monocolored hybrid creatures just didn't give the players much space to play with. They would look weak because of how they would have to be costed and they had a very narrow window where the play was interesting. I believed that the monocolored hybrid cards would have some appeal that the rest of Ramp;D wasn't giving them credit for, but it was an argument I couldn't win, and the cards were pulled from the set.

    Mana on the Street

Flash forward several months. We are now at the end of devign (the process between design and development). The team has been struggling to make a mechanic (I'll call it Mechanic X) work. Mechanic X is a bit on the wild side and messes in areas that really haven't been messed with. The Rules Manager kept telling us he didn't know if it the mechanic could even work. The team really liked Mechanic X, and kept trying to make it work despite all the roadblocks. Finally Aaron Forsythe (both as director of Magic Ramp;D and as lead developer of New Phyrexia) stepped in and killed Mechanic X, saying that we had run out of time to make it work. We needed to focus our attention on something else. What was that something else? Aaron laid out four restrictions:

1. The mechanic had to feel Phyrexian.

One of the big drivers of New Phyrexia design is that we wanted to capture the feel of the Phyrexians remaking Mirrodin in their image. The Phyrexians weren't just winning the war they were fundamentally changing Mirrodin into New Phyrexia. That change had to permeate all of New Phyrexia so, of course, the key mechanic had to feel very Phyrexian.

2. The mechanic could not be parasitic.

For those not up on their Ramp;D-speak, parasitic means that a mechanic is reliant on other cards in the same set. A lot of the ideas we'd come up with for mechanics for New Phyrexia were too self-contained, meaning that they required you to add a whole bunch of cards to your deck to work. Aaron felt strongly that the set had enough parasitic elements. This mechanic had to allow cards to stand on their own. Players could choose to put just one copy of a card with this mechanic into their already existing deck.

3. The mechanic needed a visual component.

One of the things the design team knew we wanted from day one was some aspect of the set that had a strong visual appeal. (Mechanic X did, for what it's worth.) Not every set needs this, but New Phyrexia was working so hard to create an entire different feel that we felt we needed to find a visual component to help us out. We hadn't found it yet, so Aaron decided that as long as we were looking for a mechanic we could hit this goal as well.

4. The mechanic had to be able to work at common.

As I talked about last week, a set's theme has to live in its commons. They make up two-thirds of every booster pack, so they share the lion's share of conveying what the set is about. If this mechanic was going to fill that role, it needed to be able to work at common. This meant a lot of things. It couldn't be too complex. It couldn't be too wordy. It had to be easily grokable. In short, it had a lot of restrictions.

One of the parts of design I don't talk about too much is the feeling of dread when you have a long list of restrictions for some component of a set with no idea how to meet them all. The design team had been banging its head against this problem for months. The answer to our problem ended up coming from Aaron. What if, he proposed, we had a new type of mana: Phyrexian mana. Phyrexian mana would be mana that you could pay either one generic mana () or 2 life for.

I remember distinctly Aaron telling me his idea for Phyrexian mana just before lunch. Moments after he got in the elevator to go downstairs, I realized that Aaron had solved my colored artifact problem. I ran down the stairs to catch him in the lobby. "It has to be colored mana!" I shouted at him as he was walking out the front door.

After catching my breath, I explained to Aaron how we could combined Phyrexian mana with a goal I had been working on the entire block. Instead of being colorless mana, we make the colored mana Phyrexian. This had a number of positive effects:

1. It gave the Phyrexian mana more flexibility.

As generic mana, Phyrexia mana allowed one thing, it could reduce costs. By making the Phyrexian mana colored you added two other interesting uses. First, you could allow decks to bleed into the effects of other colors (I'll write an article soon about the impact of Phyrexian mana on the color pie—it's too big an issue to discuss today). Second, it allowed you to make spells in any color that could be played for no mana.

2. It was cleaner in presentation and to read.

Imagine there was a mana symbol that meant or 2 life. It would be very hard to combine that symbol with other generic mana. This restriction would cause all sorts of constraints on what cards you could do and how you could cost them. Colored Phyrexian mana did force you to make all colored mana on that card into Phyrexian mana, but that restriction was far less restrictive.

3. It allowed us to make colored artifacts.

This was the big one for me. If you made the Phyrexian mana colored, that meant that every card with it would have the ability to be played without paying colored mana. This was crucial, because that one quality is a key quality of artifacts. Essentially, colored Phyrexian mana allows every permanent to feel like a cross between an artifact and a colored permanent, which is exactly what we wanted for the Phyrexians.

The best part was that it did it in a way that felt very different from Esper. The Phyrexian mana permanents had a very distinctive feel that captured the "flesh to metal and metal to flesh" sense that we wanted.

Moltensteel Dragon | Illustration by James Ryman

Aaron thought my idea sounded good, so our first pitch to the design team had Phyrexian mana live in the colored mana symbols. The idea went over well and as it's the key mechanic of New Phyrexia, obviously things worked out all right. If you haven't had a chance to see Phyrexian mana in action, here are some cards that show it off. My particular favorite is a Dragon that definitely feels Phyrexian in nature. If you're interested in seeing the whole set, you can go straight to the Card Image Gallery.

    Phy Phy

That's all the time I have for today. Join me next week when I'll explore some other aspects of New Phyrexia's design.

Until then, may you enjoy the commingling of flesh and metal.

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