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A Rivals Like No Other, Part 2

Posted in Making Magic on January 15, 2018

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 telling some card-by-card stories from Rivals of Ixalan. It was fun, so I've decided to do it again.

Ghalta, Primal Hunger

The goal of each of the Elder Dinosaurs was to make something splashy and Dinosaur-y. For green, the decision was to make it the biggest Dinosaur—something giant with trample, a Dinosaur that would make other Dinosaurs tremble. That meant making it pretty expensive, so the design became a challenge to figure out how to help get Ghalta cast. Was there some kind of cost reduction that would be flavorful for a giant Dinosaur? Was there a way to make the king of the Dinosaurs want to be in a deck with more Dinosaurs? What if the cost reduction was tied to how big your other creatures were? If you played a bunch of Dinosaurs, which should all be decently large, maybe you could get this out cheaply.

The design team tried a bunch of different numbers but ended up with a 12/12 with converted mana cost 12. They put two green mana in the cost so it would always require at least two mana to play. It was a legendary creature, which would keep you from chaining out multiple copies. And thus, green got its mighty Dinosaur.


Golden Guardian / Gold-Forge Garrison

As I explained last week, we wanted the double-faced cards (DFCs) in Rivals of Ixalan to tell stories. This card does an excellent job of this task. So, the Gold-Forge Garrison is a cool place. It's a two-mana land, and it also can pump out 4/4 Golems. The problem is, the very Golems it makes are used as guards to keep people out, so if you want to visit it, you must first fight your way in.

How exactly do you mechanically capture that flavor? We've experimented numerous times with a creature under no player's control, but every time we try this, Eli Shiffrin, the rules manager, glares at us until we change the topic. Okay, what if the Golem you have to fight is a card you play? For flavor purposes, it can be a defender. It's a 4/4, as that's what's made in the Garrison. Then when you're able, you can have it fight one of your other creatures. This way, you gain entrance by fighting it. It captures the flavor and allows us to create a card you'll put in your deck and use until you can set up what you need to defeat and transform it.

As someone who's been doing Magic design for a long time, I love when we find these kinds of designs, because they have such a unique feel to them.


Hadana's Climb / Winged Temple of Orazca

Golden Guardian/Gold-Forge Garrison was more of a top-down design, creating mechanics to match flavor. Hadana's Climb/Winged Temple of Orazca, in contrast, took a more bottom-up approach by starting with the mechanics. Was there some effect you could create that has utility unto itself but also allows you to progress toward a goal? Also, the card was green-blue, so it had to fit into the themes of those colors.

Well, green-blue has a +1/+1 counter theme in the set. What if we made an enchantment that granted counters? Then we could monitor how many counters existed to create the triggered transformation. (Note that the enchantment grants the counter at beginning of combat, allowing you to get use out of it right away and speeding the transformation.) The subtlety of this card is that it allows you to use the card in several different ways. One, you could just put +1/+1 counters on the same creature three turns in a row and transform it. The Winged Temple of Orazca side has an activation that is beneficial to use on a high-powered creature.

You also could choose to spread your counters around such that you purposely stay on the Hadana's Climb side and generate as many +1/+1 counters as possible. The game with this strategy is seeing how many counters you can get out of the enchantment. The third strategy is to combine Hadana's Climb with other green and/or blue effects to place additional +1/+1 counters and make the transformation happen in less than three turns, possibly even the turn you cast it.

The flexibility of this design allows you to have different ways to interact with it and makes for a fun quest card that functions differently than some of the other quest DFCs.


Huatli, Radiant Champion

Last week I talked about the planeswalker grid, which we use to make sure the colors of planeswalkers are roughly balanced in Standard. Due to numerous factors, the grid told us we needed a green-white planeswalker. Our normal go-to green-white planeswalker is Ajani, but for story reasons, Ajani couldn't be on Ixalan, so we were forced to make a new character. Or were we? It turns out that when we were first making Huatli, we considered making her red-green-white, as she was being created as the Dinosaur-related planeswalker. We needed her to be two-color in Ixalan, so we ended up making her red-white. The character, though, clearly had a green quality to her. What if we used the story to pivot her character slightly and let Huatli be our green-white planeswalker for the set?

Once we had decided we were using Huatli, the next question was how to design her card. We liked the idea of her being a "creature-friendly" planeswalker. Her red-white Ixalan card played in this space, so it would create continuity of character. Green and white are the two creature-heaviest colors, so we knew we had lots of mechanical space to work with. Instead of caring about the size of the creatures, as she had in her red-white version, what if this version cared about how many creatures you controlled? I believe the middle ability came first: she could make a creature stronger based on how many creatures you had. Next was her ultimate. What if she made an emblem that rewarded you each time a creature entered the battlefield under your control?

There were a bunch of options for the +1 ability. Making small creature tokens fit mechanically, but wasn't a great match for the character. Huatli tended to gravitate toward larger animals. Also, her red-white version had made Dinosaurs, so we wanted to do something different than tokens. Then came the idea that her first ability could tie creatures to loyalty. The more creatures you had, the more loyalty you acquired. This fit mechanically and flavorfully (and also made both Huatlis play well with one another).


The Immortal Sun

Every once in a while, we have an item that plays a pivotal role in the story, and it falls to the designers to make a card that captures the flavor in a way that translates to gameplay. Sometimes the mechanical connection is obvious and the card almost designs itself. Other times, though, what it does in the story isn't as clean a translation and the designers have to work a bit more to find a good fit. The Immortal Sun fell firmly into the second category.

Here's what was known: The Immortal Sun was an item of incredible power that every faction wanted, but for completely different reasons. Oh, and it kept Planeswalkers from planeswalking away from Ixalan. What exactly does that mean when planeswalking doesn't actually happen in the game? Planeswalking happens in between the sets, so it's not something we tend to reflect mechanically. Also, how do you make an artifact that everyone wants for a different reason? How is that reflected mechanically?

The second problem got solved first. What if we made it a generally useful artifact that any deck could use? To do that, we had to give it a bunch of abilities that most decks would want. Card drawing? Yes, almost every deck would want that. Spell cost reduction? Most decks could use that. A creature anthem (+1/+1 to all your creatures)? Useful in most decks. Okay, we made something generally useful and powerful. The trick was finding the first part.

The Immortal Sun interferes with Planeswalkers doing what they do. What if we found a different way to translate the same idea to gameplay? What if this artifact interfered with planeswalker cards? What would that mean? It could stop them from activating their loyalty abilities. That would interfere with them. The design team tried this idea out and found that it both had the right feel and played well.


Induced Amnesia

This card is another story spotlight. At one point in the story, Jace erases Vraska's mind. How do we capture this on a card? Often we tie memory loss to black cards using some kind of discard, but this spell was being cast by Jace, so it needed to be blue. Okay, usually the hand or library is used to represent the mind, so how can blue interact with one of those two? Okay, it's amnesia, so you need to convey the losing of memories. Could it use milling (putting cards directly from the library into the graveyard)? It captures the memory loss, but it lacks some panache. Is there a way to attack a hand?

The trick to solving this problem was to step back and ask simple questions. Can blue make a player discard? Card filtering is drawing and discarding, but the discard comes last. Does blue ever discard before drawing? It does when it's doing a hand exchange. Okay, what if this was a card that forced a player to discard their entire hand and then draw that many cards? That's a good start. If we want to match the flavor, though, we need to have a way for the player to get their memory back. We can solve this by making it an enchantment that exiles the hand for as long as it's on the battlefield (after replacing it with a new hand). This design would allow you to use it offensively against an opponent or on yourself if you had some way to destroy/sacrifice Induced Amnesia after you cast your new hand of cards.


Journey to Eternity / Atzal, Cave of Eternity

One of the challenges to making the Ixalan block DFCs was finding different ways to create transformations. For the uncommon enemy cycle in Rivals of Ixalan, all five cards were enchantments. Journey to Eternity is the only one of the cycle, though, to be an Aura. Its quest is built into killing the creature it enchants. You can do it through combat, with a kill spell, or through sacrifice. Interestingly, once you can kill that first creature, your reward is you start to get your other creatures back out of the graveyard.


Knight of the Stampede

One of the tricks we found with Dinosaur tribal is that, more so than most tribes, a big part of helping it is making it easier to cast the creatures. In Ixalan, we did this with two cards: Kinjalli's Caller and Otepec Huntmaster.

Each was in one of the Dinosaur colors and reduced the cost of Dinosaurs by one. Rivals of Ixalan provides a follow-up in the third and final Dinosaur faction color—green. As green is the center color for Dinosaurs and is already the best at mana ramping, Knight of the Stampede steps it up by reducing Dinosaur costs by two. The card also costs a bit more and is a little bigger to help it get out larger Dinosaurs later in the game. Small sets are best when they feel like evolutions of the big sets, so it's nice when we can find a way to build upon what the first set did but in a slightly larger and more powerful way.


Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca

There are a number of different ways to make a tribal lord. Kumena takes a path that I call "tribe as resource." Rather than making the tribe better, the card becomes more powerful the more of a certain tribe you have. There are a number of different ways to do this: you can count the tribe (on the battlefield or in the graveyard), sacrifice the tribe, reveal the tribe, discard the tribe, exile the tribe from the graveyard, or, as Kumena does, tap the tribe.

This final category was first experimented with en masse back in Onslaught. We were creating our very first tribal block, so we started experimenting mechanically with different ways to care. The ability was used on white cards, as white was most likely to have a lot of creatures of a certain tribe on the battlefield. The experiment proved successful, and it's a tool we've used over the years when doing tribal designs.

Kumena's twist is that it has three different abilities requiring different amounts of Merfolk. This allows him to be played in different Limited decks and creates a ramping effect as the game progresses. As you play more Merfolk, he's capable of doing more things. The first two abilities are primarily blue, while the last ability is primarily green.


Kumena's Awakening

A very common type of design is what I call the upgradable spell. The spell does thing A, but if you meet some criteria, it does A plus B. Sometimes B is just more A, but often it's a separate synergistic ability. We do these types of spells so often, we have a lot of staple upgrades available to us. An example we use all the time is a blue spell that returns a creature/permanent to its owner's hand or, when upgraded, sends that creature/permanent to the top of its owner's library instead.

Kumena's Awakening is a twist that we do from time to time, where the upgrade isn't increasing the ability, but rather taking something away in a way that benefits you. These fall in two camps. It takes away a negative from you, or it takes away a positive from your opponent(s). Kumena's Awakening is the latter. The card starts as a blue enchantment version of Howling Mine—a card going all the way back to Limited Edition (Alpha)—and gives you a way to turn it into an effect just for you. As a designer, I love finding simple, elegant ways to make these types of cards.


Nezahal, Primal Tide

The blue Elder Dinosaur didn't have quite as simple a flavor as its green counterpart. It was a large aquatic Dinosaur that often disappeared under the water. How would we show that? What if you could pay a cost to "flicker" Nezahal? Exiling the Dinosaur then it having it return to the battlefield at the end of the turn was a great way to show it slipping away in the water only to reappear out of harm's way. To make it feel distinct, the ability has a different type of cost; rather than just mana, it requires sacrificing a resource important to blue—cards in hand.

Next the card needed some way to help out with this cost. Well, if you're discarding cards, then probably you need a way to draw them. That's squarely in blue's color pie. Blue, primary in prowess, loves noncreature spells. What if Nezahal loves it when your opponent casts noncreature spells? To make Nezahal splashier, a rider was added to keep you from having to discard for hand size. Then, to add a final bit of splash, a fourth and final ability—uncounterability—was included.

This is definitely one of those cards that doesn't read as elegantly as it plays, but not every card gets to just be a giant 12/12 trampler.

Almost Done

I've run out of time today. As I've only gotten to N, that's a big hint that I have one more Rivals of Ixalan card-by-card column coming. As always, I'm eager to hear your thoughts on today's column, cards, or set. You can write me an email or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week when I hit O through Z.

Until then, may your Elder Dinosaurs win you some games.


 
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