A Solemn Oath, Part 1

Posted in Making Magic on December 28, 2015

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 week of Oath of the Gatewatch previews. This week we'll be talking all about the second and final set in the Battle for Zendikar block. I'm going to introduce you to the design team, talk about how the set got its biggest mechanical theme, and show off not one but two new preview cards. If that sounds fun, buckle in and I'll get started.

The Oath Makers

Before I talk about the design, I like to start by talking about the designers:

Ethan Fleischer (lead)

Ethan got his initial internship for Magic design by winning the second Great Designer Search. He quickly turned that internship into a full-time design job and hasn't let up since. Ethan's first design was for Journey into Nyx, the third set in the Theros block. He then led the design for last year's Commander (2014 Edition). Oath of the Gatewatch was Ethan's third design lead, and as you shall see, he did a great job.

One of my favorite things about watching Ethan lead a design is something I first witnessed in the Great Designer Search 2 (and one could argue was one of the major reasons he won): he has a good intuitive knack for figuring out where interesting things lie in a design. Oath of the Gatewatch was an especially tricky design, but you wouldn't know that by watching Ethan at work. The set required two distinctively different components to intertwine, and Ethan wove them together beautifully.

Graeme Hopkins

Graeme is one of my secret weapons when putting together a design team. He first came to Wizards after participating in the first Great Designer Search, but has always worked with another group. I borrow him whenever I'm able because he adds so much to any design team I put him on. Graeme approaches a design from a very unique vantage point and always ends up designing cards that no one else does. This was especially handy for a set as quirky as Oath of the Gatewatch.

Ari Levitch

Ari was the creative representative, which meant he got to do things like explain what exactly Kozilek does (more on this in a moment). I've talked recently about how in this new era of Magic we've doubled down on story, and that means it's extra important in design to have a strong handle on what exactly the story is, who the characters are, and what about the environment is key to making sure the audience knows what they need to know. Oath of the Gatewatch, in particular, had an extra task, as we were showcasing the creation of a new team that would be the core of storytelling moving forward—the Gatewatch. Ari (and the whole design team) stepped up and did a great job making the set an extension of the creation of the Gatewatch.

Ken Nagle

Ken is the third Great Designer Search alumnus (he finished in second place in the first one) working on the Oath of the Gatewatch design team. While I still think of Ken as a brash newcomer, he's actually the veteran of the team, now in his eighth year as a Magic designer. Ken is a fountain of ideas, so he's always valuable on any design team.

Adam Prosak

Adam was the development representative on the design team. His job was to make sure we didn't design things that couldn't be developed. This set being as weird as it is kept Adam on his toes, but he always managed to keep us from crossing over the line into the undevelopable (although we came very close).

Mark Rosewater

With the change over to the Two-Block Paradigm, I now have an extra design team per year to be on. To help offset this, I've started attending small sets only half of the time, which means I'm in one of the two meetings per week. Ethan and the rest of the team had a good handle on the set, but I popped in once a week to keep abreast of the design and help out where I could.

Time for the Butcher

When the set started, the design was very focused on one thing. Battle for Zendikar ended with Ulamog getting trapped by our heroes within a series of hedrons. Oath of the Gatewatch begins with the arrival of Kozilek, another of the Eldrazi titans, but one who most thought had fled the plane. Kozilek had instead burrowed deep underground and was now returning, coming to Ulamog's aid. The Oath of the Gatewatch design team was focused on finding a way to mechanically bring Kozilek to life, much as Battle for Zendikar had done with Ulamog.

To do this, we had to start by understanding who Kozilek is and what effect he had on the world around him.

Ulamog is known for his great hunger and his ability to destroy, well, pretty much everything. Kozilek, on the other hand, is known for affecting the environment around him. The way we talked about it in design was that he messed with the laws of physics. When Kozilek is around, things don't work the way they normally do. But how exactly do you capture such a concept mechanically?

The team experimented with a lot of weird ideas. We tried inverting how keyword mechanics worked. We explored altering certain game rules while certain Kozilek spawn were on the battlefield. We messed around with effects that changed how cards were cast. The problem was that we kept creating things that were odd for the sake of being odd and not things that led to fun gameplay.

Ethan finally decided to change our approach. Instead of making things work differently, was there some way to care about something that players normally don't care about? Battle for Zendikar, for instance, had messed with the exile zone and made players care about it in a way they never have. Was there a completely different vector Oath of the Gatewatch could mess with?

The answer came in the most unlikely of places. In Battle for Zendikar, I had decided to focus on colorlessness. There were many mechanical facets from Rise of the Eldrazi that I didn't feel we could repeat, so I was looking for some trait to tie the Eldrazi together, and colorlessness seemed like the perfect fit. (You can read more about this in my Battle for Zendikar preview articles.) This led to the creation of the devoid cards. It also led us to create a number of lands that produced colorless mana, as many of the Eldrazi are what R&D refers to as "true colorless" in that they have generic mana costs and are colorless. If the Eldrazi cared about colorlessness, perhaps Kozilek could care about colorless mana?

Ethan got the idea from a man named Jon Loucks, who was a fellow contestant in the second Great Designer Search. Jon had created an underground world named Penumbria and was playing around with the themes of light and darkness. The "colorless mana matters" mechanic was attached to the dark side. In one of the assignments, contestants had to work on another player's world, and Ethan had a chance to work more closely with Jon. As Ethan was thinking about ways to play into the colorless theme, he thought back to Jon's colorless-matters mechanic.

A quick aside for a little primer about the history of colorless mana. Alpha had these three cards:

The idea of colorless mana began with the game. It was pretty straightforward. Most mana comes in one of five colors (white, blue, black, red, or green), but there is a sixth subset of mana that is not any color. This mana can only be used to pay for costs that don't require color. For example, all three of the colorless-mana-producing cards above are artifacts, and none of them require colored mana, so you could use colorless mana to cast any of them.

Colorless mana is often used as a way to balance cards, especially lands. If a land does something that would make it strictly better than a basic land, one of the downsides you can give it is to have it tap for colorless mana rather than colored. But so far in the history of Magic, colorlessness was nothing but a downside; it could only restrict your options.

Ethan wanted to explore the idea of colorless mana meaning something, of it not just being a disadvantage. What if there were cards that required colorless mana, costs you couldn't pay with colored mana but only colorless mana? It would sort of make colorless mana into a pseudo–sixth color.

It was weird. It was design space that had never been used before (although R&D had messed with it in past designs). And it fit into the larger colorless theme that the Eldrazi already occupied. Ethan believed they were onto something.

While the idea of colorless mana mattering was cool, it came with one big problem. I'm going to use Sol Ring to explain it.

To properly explain the problem, I must first define two terms. Note before I begin that not all players understand why these two terms are different. Once again, I'm using Sol Ring as my example. The cost of Sol Ring is one "generic" mana. What that means is you can use one of any mana, colored or colorless, to pay for it.

Sol Ring produces two "colorless" mana. That is, it produces two mana that have no color. As I explained above, colorless mana can only be used to pay for costs that are not colored.

Now, you can use colorless mana to pay for generic mana costs, but they're not the same thing. "Generic" is a type of cost. "Colorless" is a type of mana. You cannot produce generic mana, nor could you have a colorless cost before now.

Now, here's where things get confusing.

This is the latest version of Sol Ring from Commander (2015 Edition). Look at its text box. Instead of spelling out "two colorless mana," it has a little mana circle with a 2 in it. You see, many years ago, we made this card:

For all of design and most of development, it tapped to produce GG. But late in development it was decided it should instead tap for one colorless and one green mana. Writing it all out felt ugly, as it had both a colorless and a colored component and we didn't write out colored costs anymore. The editor (Del Laugel, who is now Magic's head editor) tried out 1G using a mana circle for the 1. Everyone understood it, so it stayed. Now that we had a simpler way to write out colorless mana in effects, editing starting using the mana circle on things like lands that produced colorless mana. It turned out to be cleaner than writing it out, and players intuitively understood what it meant.

Here's the problem. Look at the Commander (2015 Edition) version. Sol Ring has a generic mana cost of 1. It requires one mana of any color to cast. It has an effect that produces two colorless mana. That 1 in the first mana circle and that 2 in the second mana circle mean different things.

We got along for years with this not being too big of a problem, because if the mana circle appeared in the mana cost or in the cost of a text box (usually before a colon), it was generic. If it was something produced as part of an effect, it was colorless. But Oath of the Gatewatch was planning to mess this all up because in order to make colorless mana matter, we had to stick it in costs—the place where normally only generic mana goes.

For instance, one of my preview cards today costs four generic mana and one colorless mana. How do you write that? A mana circle with a 4 next to a mana circle with a 1? That would both confuse players and not even be accurate. Did the card cost four generic mana and one colorless mana or four colorless mana and one generic mana?

This was a big problem that had to be solved.

Mo' Problems

There was still another problem facing the design team with making colorless mana matter. The problem was being able to generate enough colorless mana. Because colored mana can pay generic costs, the current system for deck building has never been an issue. Even if your deck was nothing but generic mana costs, you could still just play whatever basic lands you wanted. But if your deck was full of cards that required colorless mana, it became a little trickier. What Oath of the Gatewatch wanted was a basic land that produced colorless mana.

Interestingly, this request had come up two previous times in Magic's history. In Invasion, we used a then-unnamed mechanic (which has since been ability-worded as domain) that counted the number of basic land types you had on the battlefield. The idea of turning domain up to six was very attractive, and we tried numerous times to make a basic land that produced colorless mana to achieve this. Rules issues always prevented us. (You can read all about it in my column "Whatever Happened to Barry's Land?")

Meanwhile, there was interest in a colorless-mana-producing basic land from a completely different source—the Commander format. You see, one of the deck-construction rules is that you cannot have any card with a colored mana symbol not part of your commander's color identity. So if you want to play with a colorless legendary creature, an artifact creature, or an Eldrazi, you have to do so without using any basic lands. While this is possible, as the game has lots of lands producing colorless mana, it makes deck building much more difficult to do. A basic land that tapped for colorless mana would be very helpful for colorless commanders.

After some investigation, the design team realized that they could help the Commander players but not the domain fans. The rules still prevent a true "Barry land."

Symbol Status

After much soul-searching, not just on the design team but R&D in general, we came to the conclusion that we had to stop using the mana circle with a number to represent both generic and colorless mana. This decision isn't just for Oath of the Gatewatch but for all of Magic. Changing how we represent colorless mana was easier, as it's represented far less, so we opted to make a new mana symbol that represents one colorless mana. We could then use that symbol in Oath of the Gatewatch on colorless mana costs.

Here is the symbol we chose:

For those who love technical behind-the-scenes talk, this new mana symbol has caused us to have to rejigger some of our symbolism. Previously, we would have written the effect of a Sol Ring as "T: Add 2 to your mana pool." Now we'll write it as "T: Add CC to your mana pool," meaning that C now stands for a single colorless mana (using the new symbol). We previously have used C to represent "one of any possible color" for the effect of a City of Brass ("T: Add C") or when writing out a cycle to indicate that you plugged in the appropriate color ("The cycle are all 3C for a 3/3"). In these contexts, C will now be replaced by M (for mana).

And here is the basic land the team made:

We chose to make it full-art because all of the basic lands in this block are full-art.

Which brings us to my two preview cards today. First up is a card called Walker of the Wastes. Once the design team had made Wastes, they decided they wanted to make some cards that cared about having Wastes on the battlefield.

Click here to see Walker of the Wastes.

The idea behind Walker of the Wastes was that Oath of the Gatewatch wanted to reward players playing decks full of colorless cards, and one way to do that was to reward them for playing a lot of Wastes—something you could only do if you had mostly colorless costs.

The other thing the design team was interested in was making cool nonbasic lands that tapped for colorless mana. My second preview card, Mirrorpool, is a good example of one of these designs.

Click here to see Mirrorpool.

The one design question I know Mirrorpool brings up is how colorless mana interacts with the color pie. For example, the effects are pretty blue (and somewhat red) in nature. We spent a lot of time talking about what effects colorless mana should be able to get you, and finally decided that as it functions a lot like a sixth color (you need lands/other permanents that produce specifically it), we could define a color pie for colorless mana. Also, its use lessened your ability to access other colors, making it harder to bleed effects in other colors.

But Wait, There's More

After a few months of work, the Oath of the Gatewatch design team had made a lot of headway into creating a set that played up the influence of Kozilek. And then Ethan was called to a cross-team meeting to talk about the set. A member of the creative team explained that this was the part in the story where our heroes came together to form the Gatewatch, a pivotal moment in our saga. "So," asked a member of the brand team, "how does this set reinforce the idea that it's about our heroes finally forming their own team?"

Ethan's reply: "I'll have to get back to you."

And I'll have to get back to you next week, as today's column is coming to a close. As always, I'm eager to hear your feedback about either today's column or Oath of the Gatewatch. You can email me your thoughts or talk to me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week when I talk about how a set all about Kozilek also became a set about the founding of the Gatewatch.

Until then, may you use the terms "generic" and "colorless" correctly.


While I took two weeks off from Making Magic, Drive to Work did not stop—so here are the six podcasts since my last column:

"Drive to Work #286—Designing for Limited"

In this podcast, I explain the many things design has to care about while designing for Limited.

"Drive to Work #287—New Players"

I talk about what we know about new players, how that affects design, and what you can do to make teaching a new player easier.

"Drive to Work #288—Dragons of Tarkir, Part 1"

This is the first part of a six-part series on the design of Dragons of Tarkir.

"Drive to Work #289—Dragons of Tarkir, Part 2"

This is the second part of a six-part series on the design of Dragons of Tarkir.

"Drive to Work #290—Dragons of Tarkir, Part 3"

This is the third part of a six-part series on the design of Dragons of Tarkir.

"Drive to Work #291—Live Life Like a Gamer"

This podcast is based on a column I did several years ago where I talk about the important life skills people pick up from gaming.

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