In this podcast, I talk all about the history of one of the most popular creature types in Magic, Slivers.
Posted in Making Magic on January 22, 2018
I've spent the last two weeks sharing stories about cards from Rivals of Ixalan. I didn't finish, so I've got some more stories for you. I see the end of the alphabet getting closer, so today should be the final installment.
Path of Mettle / Metzali, Tower of Triumph
The Rivals of Ixalan double-faced cards (DFCs) have an adventuring quest theme to them. Path of Mettle is one of the most top-down in design. You want to get into Metzali, Tower of Triumph? You have to earn it by making it through a series of traps. The skill most needed? Speed. If you're fast enough, you can avoid the pitfalls in your way.
How do you top-down design the concept of speed? By referencing the evergreen keyword abilities associated with speed.
Why can my creature hit first with first strike or double strike? It's fast.
Why can my creature attack and still block with vigilance? It's fast.
Why can my creature hit my opponent right away upon being cast? It's fast.
So, when you test yourself on the Path of Mettle, all the slow creatures take damage, but if you can get enough of the fast creatures through—all you need is two—you get to advance to Metzali, Tower of Triumph.
The Tower of Triumph then follows through on the flavor of destruction. It's a dangerous place that you can use to your advantage. How do we reflect that in the two colors? Red is easy, as red has direct damage. White is a little trickier, but it's able to destroy attackers (and blockers). How do we make it feel a little more chaotic and trap-like? By making the destruction random.
And that is how you get a tower full of traps and destruction.
Profane Procession / Tomb of the Dusk Rose
Path of Mettle/Metzali, Tower of Triumph is a top-down design. Profane Procession/Tomb of the Dusk Rose is a bottom-up design. What's a cool thing a white-black land can do? Both colors have the ability to reanimate creatures (with black being primary in the ability and white being secondary). Is there a way to tie a quest into that mechanically? What if you have to kill creatures as part of the challenge to get to the land? Then the land could bring them back.
It seemed more fun to kill the opponent's creatures and bring them back than to kill your own. Could the spell just monitor when creatures died? It could, but that didn't feel proactive. What if you paid mana and directly killed things? That felt flavorful. Also, reanimating any creature was very powerful. Was there a way to limit what could be brought back? What if the effect exiled the creatures instead of destroying them and you were limited to reanimating just those? That felt about right. The only thing left to do was figure out how many creatures you needed to exile to transform the card.
Once the mechanics were figured out, flavor was added. What if the land was a tomb filled with dead things and the front was a dark church where parishioners were sacrificing other people? That felt pretty white-black, using the trappings of religion for something nefarious.
One of the challenges of making the same game year after year is discovering ways to find mechanical variation on the same flavor. Take Phoenixes as an example. They are always red flying creatures made of fire that have the ability to be reborn (aka come back from the graveyard, most often onto the battlefield). On the surface, that seems pretty narrow, but we've actually found many different ways to do it.
The usual trick is to change up the condition under which it gets to return. If possible, we tie that condition into one of the mechanical themes of the set. (For example, Akoum Firebird in Battle for Zendikar used landfall.) Rivals of Ixalan went a completely different route, though. Instead of the Phoenix coming back directly, the task of bringing it back falls to a token, a 0/1 red Elemental creature token. The flavor is that the Phoenix dies into a state that allows itself to be reborn, but that rebirth takes time. From a mechanical standpoint, it creates different gameplay from previous Phoenixes. If you want to stop the Phoenix from returning, you need to kill it while it's in its Elemental phase. This ability to interact with the inert Phoenix is unlike what we've seen before, so it allows us to have the flavor players expect with gameplay that's very different from the Phoenixes that came before—a pretty cool design 25 years into the game.
Silvergill Adept, Sadistic Skymarcher, Daring Buccaneer, and Thunderherd Migration
This is a pretty quirky cycle, not only because it's only four cards, but because three of them are creatures and one is a sorcery. So how did this come about? Ben and his design team knew they wanted to ratchet up the tribal-ness of the set. One way to do this was finding more ways to make the four tribes matter. As is often the case when we revisit a theme we've done before, Ben and his team went back to look at the previous tribal blocks (Onslaught, Lorwyn, Innistrad, and Shadows over Innistrad).
One of the things Lorwyn played around with was revealing cards in hand as a cost (caring whether or not you had a certain tribe in your hand). The most visible use of this was on an uncommon cycle (Goldmeadow Stalwart, Silvergill Adept, Squeaking Pie Sneak, Flamekin Bladewhirl, and Wren's Run Vanquisher) that made you pay three extra mana unless you revealed another card of a particular tribe.
Ben was interested in doing something similar, but the variance between having and not having the card didn't need to be as high. As there were four factions, the cycle just had four cards. Silvergill Adept seemed to be a perfect fit, so it was just reprinted for the Merfolk. That meant Pirates needed to be black or red. They were trying to stay off the other cycle, which had white as the Vampire representative (the Forerunner cycle I talked about two weeks ago), which meant the Vampire representative of the cycle wanted to be black. This forced the Pirate representative to be red. It also meant the Dinosaur representative needed to be white or green. The team opted for green, but also did something offbeat: rather than put the ability on a creature, they put it on a sorcery. R&D has been moving away from doing Rampant Growth, so the idea came up to do a spell that's Rampant Growth but just for Dinosaur decks. Other players will have to pay 2G for it.
Playtesting showed that the spells couldn't all have the same discount. Silvergill Adept, as a reprint, had to be three, and Thunderherd Migration, by design, needed to only have a change of one, so it was decided to cost each one accordingly. Blue ended up getting the biggest cost savings with three, red got two, and black and green got just one.
Storm the Vault / Vault of Catlacan
When we first came up with the idea of having double-faced cards with lands on the back in Ixalan block, we started thinking about what cool lands we could do. That immediately made us think about famous lands from the past. One of the most famous, and possibly most broken, lands in the history of the game is Tolarian Academy from Urza's Saga.
Tolarian Academy started as a part of a three-land cycle (along with Gaea's Cradle and Serra's Sanctum) that tapped for colorless mana equal to the number of a particular permanent type you controlled on the battlefield. (We humorously worried that land would be too good.) I noticed that we had two other lands that seemed color themed, and that we could attach colors to each of the five cards. Tolarian Academy, for example, was tied to artifacts, and blue has long had a strong connection with artifacts, so it could tap for blue mana instead of colorless. Creatures were tied with green and enchantments with white, so we could treat Gaea's Cradle and Serra's Sanctum the same way. Phyrexian Tower sacrificed creatures for mana, a black thing, and Shivan Gorge dealt direct damage, a red thing. Why not make a colored-related cycle out of it? Yes, my interaction with the most broken land of all time was making it better.
Tolarian Academy went on to be totally busted, and it defined—and continues to define—many Constructed formats, so when we were looking for cool lands for Ixalan block cards to turn into, Tolarian Academy was at the top of our list (along with Gaea's Cradle, which became Itlimoc, Cradle of the Sun in Ixalan). We ended up not finding what we wanted for it in Ixalan, so Rivals of Ixalan was gifted Tolarian Academy as a backside DFC land.
Rivals of Ixalan had a cycle of enemy color DFC lands. The blue-red one seemed like the right fit, as those are the two colors most often associated with positive artifact interactions. (White works well with Equipment and is the third color to work well with artifacts.) The backside wanted you to have a lot of artifacts, so it made sense for the front side to help get you to a place where that was true. The design team explored different ways to do this, starting by exploring various ways to interact with other artifact cards. In the end, they realized that Treasure tokens, a component of the block, were a way for the card itself to generate artifacts. They ended up making combat damage the trigger to get the Treasure tokens to encourage aggression. The final cool touch was making the Tolarian Academy land a vault full of riches.
Tetzimoc, Primal Death
One of the side effects of working on Magic design for so long is that I tend to see new cards through the lens of what cards influenced their design. The first time I saw Tetzimoc, my response was "Hey, Bounty Hunter and Infernal Spawn of Evil had a baby." As both of these cards are pretty old, let me walk you through what they do.
I think I designed this card, but it might have been made by Mike Elliott. It was a simple top-down design. It's a bounty hunter. When you play it, the Bounty Hunter picks its target, and then that creature is as good as dead unless its controller can find a way to stop the Bounty Hunter before it can fulfill its contract. Black had always been the color of assassins, so this design fit right in.
This card I know I designed. It was inspired by a humorous sketch that Ron Spencer sent in for a card in a black-bordered set. Artists have to send in a sketch before doing their actual painting, and Ron was screwing around. Everyone had a great laugh and Ron sent in the real sketch a day later. When I was working on Unglued, I asked if we could have Ron paint that sketch. Ron was excited to do it.
For the design, I knew I wanted it to be the evilest of evil creatures to play against the innocence of the drawing. I think I came up with the name Infernal Spawn of Evil before I even did the card design. I eventually settled on a mechanic that allowed you to reveal the card from your hand to deal 1 damage to your opponent. The flavor is that the creature is so scary that just knowing it's coming will cause you damage from fear.
Fast-forward may years later. Ben and his team are trying to come up with a splashy black Elder Dinosaur. What if it could mark things for death, but rather than as an activated ability from the battlefield like Bounty Hunter, as a hand activation like Eternal Spawn of Evil? This would allow you to use it before you got the mana to cast it and, as it's repeatable, would let you potentially kill a lot of creatures. That felt flavorful and mechanically interesting.
Zacama, Primal Calamity
Why stop at just five Elder Dinosaurs? Ixalan had a three-color legendary Dinosaur in Gishath, Sun's Avatar, but we knew that Dinosaurs were going to be popular in Commander, so we decided to make a second one. The challenge was to make something that played well with Dinosaurs yet felt different from Gishath.
The first decision was to make a creature that was generally useful rather than specifically Dinosaur tribal. Gishath had taken the second path, so Zacama would take a different one. Also, Gishath had a saboteur effect (it triggered when it dealt combat damage to players), so Zacama wanted an ability that didn't require attacking. The obvious choice was an activated ability. As Zacama was three colors, how about three activated abilities, one in each color?
Red's activated ability was an obvious choice, as direct damage is flavorful and useful. Green ending up using a Naturalize effect ("destroy target artifact or enchantment") to play into the Dinosaur flavor of it destroying stuff. The white ability took the longest, but after examining numerous options, we opted for life gain as it was simple, useful and, most importantly, easy to fit on the card.
The enters-the-battlefield effect borrowed from a mechanic that goes all the way back to Urza's Saga, what is called the "free mechanic." It allows you to play a spell for free provided you have the mana to pay for it. This ability worked well on Zacama as it lets you activate their abilities the turn Zacama is played. Note that each ability costs three and Zacama costs nine. Activating each ability once is the same as what it costs to cast the card. You do have the ability to activate the same ability multiple times, which means that if you cast Zacama for its cost and then use the same mana to activate its abilities three times, you have the option of nine different combinations. Nine converted mana cost. Nine options upon playing the card. Why not make the Elder Dinosaur a 9/9?
Finally, Zacama got three evergreen keywords. Trample was a gimme as Zacama is a giant Dinosaur and the ability is primary in green and secondary in red. Vigilance also made a lot of sense as it's primary white and secondary green. To keep Zacama a bit different from Gishath, the team wanted a different third ability. If you were looking for abilities that overlapped in at least two of the three colors as primary or secondary abilities, you'd get defender, first strike, double strike, indestructible, and reach. As Zacama was more defensive, reach seemed the right choice. (Defender is obviously defensive, but an odd choice for a Dinosaur.)
Zetalpa, Primal Dawn
White's Elder Dinosaur is what we in R&D call a "kitchen-sink design." That's a creature that just has a lot of keywords. Many years ago, one of the most popular legendary creatures we ever made was Akroma, Angel of Wrath in Legions, and she was a kitchen-sink design.
The trick with Zetalpa was to figure out which keywords were allowable on a mono-white creature:
R&D saw five potential abilities, which felt like enough, so that's what they put on the card.
I've made it to Z, so it looks like it's time to wrap it up for today. I hope you enjoyed the stories. As always, I'm eager for any feedback, be it on the article, the cards, or Rivals of Ixalan itself. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).
Join me next week when I'll answer your questions about the set.
Until then, may your rivals become your friends.
In this podcast, I talk all about the history of one of the most popular creature types in Magic, Slivers.