A Conspiracy, I Swear
He really wasn't the one that made the call. Honest!
In December of 2003 I took over the position of Head Magic Designer. Five months later I had the privilege of announcing the existence of Unhinged. As the most adamant supporter of the Un-sets, many people found it convenient that the return of the silver bordered sets came under my watch. But I swore up and down that the set had been planned and designed over a year before. While a vocal supporter, I was not the person that greenlit the set. I think the majority of the readers believed me. But here's where the conspiracy theories start.
Saviors of Kamigawa was the first set where the entirety of the design (I took over in the middle of Betrayers of Kamigawa design) took place under my rein as Head Designer. It has a cycle of Maros (in rare, one of which I'll be getting to later in the article). I swear on all that I hold dear I had nothing to do with this. Well, other than design Maro in the first place. (Go see my column “There's Always Two Maro” if you're interested to know more about that.) Brian Tinsman and his team decided to this with zero influence from me. Nada. Nothing. Zilch. Really. No, really. Really. Really. I swear, really. Really.
And when Ravnica comes out with its poison-laden squirrels, I'll make the same claim. (Note to the rumor sites – this is a joke. Ravnica does not have poison-laden squirrels. Ten bucks that there's a thread before the end of the day “[RAV] Maro claims poison-laden squirrels are coming”.) Everything before this paragraph was completely serious. Not that anyone's going to believe me. But at least I know the truth.
Give Them a Hand
Splice stayed in the hand after use. Soulshift returns cards to the hand. The arcane/spirit triggers make you constantly monitor what is in your hand. The ninjas surprise-attacked from the hand. The “pitch” mechanic required pitching cards from the hand. And bushido? Okay, not everything cares about the hand, but then again bushido is not exactly the most block-defining mechanic. The team noticed that Kamigawa block made you more conscious of your hand than the average block. And that is when Brian dug into the “war chest”.
One of the constant worries I hear about as a designer is from people concerned that we're going to run out of ideas. I find this quite funny because the exact opposite is closer to the truth. I'm not sure if I'll even find a way to use all the mechanics we've already come up with over the years. You see, for every mechanic that works we have ten others that don't. Now often times it's because the mechanic falls apart under scrutiny. It sounds cool so you make a few cards. But just a few playtest games show quite vividly that the idea sucks. But other times, the mechanic is good but the timing is wrong. It's too close to something we did recently. It has bad synergy with the other mechanics. It requires more playtesting that we have at the time it was thought up. There are all sorts of reasons why we don't use good mechanics. So where do they end up? The war chest.
The idea of the war chest is simple. Don't throw a good idea away simply because it's no good now. Save it for the future. The time will come eventually where it's the perfect fit. What tends to happen with the war chest is that over time ideas start to clump together. Certain mechanics start to attach to others. Eventually enough merge together that we have an idea for an entire block. One such clump was simply known as “hand” cards. These were cards that had some interesting interaction with the hand.
One day, Brian and I had the following discussion:
Brian: So what are you planning to do with the “hand” mechanics. Is there enough for a block?
Me: In theory there is.
Brian: In theory?
Me: There's enough of them to fill up a block. But I'm not sure that it has the weight to carry an entire block. The multi-color block people get. The artifact block. Fine. The tribal block? A little trickier, but it worked. The hand block? I just don't know if it's something that we can maintain for three sets.
Brian: How about one set?
Me: Yeah, it'd be cool for one set. But all the mechanics wouldn't fit in one set.
Brian: What if you didn't do all of them. What if you concentrated on one aspect of it?
Me: Which part?
Brian: The Maro part.
Me: Ah you're buttering me up. But you're doing it well, so continue.
Brian: The idea of hand as a resource. That there's a reward for filling up your hand instead of playing every spell as soon as possible.
Me: That's cool.
Brian: Would that be an interesting theme for a single set?
Me: A small set sure.
Brian: Maybe a small set like Fire? (Fire was the codename for Saviors. I quite enjoyed asking team members, “Are you on Fire?”)
Me: Are you on Fire?
Brian: I'm leading it.
Me: I know. I just quite enjoy asking team members that.
Brian: So what do you think?
Me: You had me at Maro.
Brian: The team was actually thinking of doing a cycle of Maros. Completely independently of any input from you. I'm not sure why I felt compelled to say that.
Me: It's called dramatic license. Anyway, sounds like a good idea. Why don't you have the team give it a try?
And give it a try they did.
A Little Thing Called Wisdom
Truth be told, there's a lot more that went into the theme than an imaginary conversation I made up in my head. I know that Brian and his team were very influenced by the theme of ancestors (fleshing out the non-spirit side of the war). And once they stumbled onto the hand-size matters theme, they and the creative team started interweaving it with the idea of wisdom (the library and hand being your mind – it's all over the place creatively if you look for it). But to be honest (and other than when I'm lying for comic effect when aren't I honest?), this is more Brian Tinsman's domain than mine. So keep an eye out for an upcoming feature from the Saviors team lead about how the set got designed.
To Maro – You're Only a Day Away
So the Saviors team chose to pursue a hand size matters theme. This led them down the path I like to refer to as “the prism path” (that's one of the coolest things about writing this column, I just to get to make up terms). What is the prism path you ask? Here are a few of the cards that have traveled down it:
Have you figured it out yet?
Here's how the prism path works. I'll walk you step by step:
Step #1 – The designers pick a theme for their set.
Step #2 – The designers think back to old cards that fit the theme looking for inspiration.
Step #3 – The designers stumble upon an old card that was really cool. The exact kind of card they need.
Step #4 – The designers think about reprinting the card.
Step #5 – The designers come up with an even better idea. Instead of reprinting it and getting just one card in one of the five colors, what if they redo it as a cycle? This makes five cards and hits all five colors.
Step #6 – The designers think to themselves: “Hey, we just went down the prism path. I'm sure glad Rosewater gave it a name.”
For Saviors design, the card in question was Maro. Some of you might be asking why Maro? I prefer to ask why did it take so long? The reason that the card has stuck around in the base set for so long (“um, because you're in charge of design” – curse you conspiracy theory) is that it's a fun card that creates many “build around me” possibilities.
But this led to an interesting question. How does one make a cycle of Maros that doesn't just feel like five copies of the same card? The answer is that you shake things up a little bit. For starters, the base Maro ability (power and toughness equal to hand size) is tweaked on a few cards. Second, several of the Maros have keyword abilities that play nicely with the ever-shifting quality of the Maros. And finally, a number of the Maro's have an extra activated ability. Such is the case with Kagemaro, First to Suffer (the black Maro). Yes, this is today's preview card. (I'm almost there.)
Called Blaro in design, short for Black Maro (along with Waro, Uaro, Raro and Graro), Kagemaro was designed as a Maro with one simple twist. When he wasn't helping you beat down your opponent, he could help handle crowd control. (You know, kind of like a bouncer.)
One last quick aside before I show you the card. The development team (once again, with no prompting from me) wanted all the cards to reference the original Maro. They couldn't be creature type Maro and they needed to be spirits for story sake. (Oh yeah, and Maro isn't a Maro; it's an elemental formerly a nature spirit). And they couldn't be called Maro because they weren't actually Maros (living embodiments of a forest's essence). That is when Brandon Bozzi (he wasn't just a design team member, he was also the man in charge of Saviors' names and flavor text) came up with a clever compromise. What if the word “maro” was worked into the name of each card? It had a nice Japanese feel. (It turns out that it was used as a modifier for names in Japan in the eleventh and twelfth centuries to imply nobility. Who knew?) And thus, “maro” sneaks its way into a few more cards. (I needed the help. “Mago” is Spanish and Portugese for wizard. Wizard! It comes up in the game a few times. Is there any chance “maro” might be Spanish for “target”?)
Having written “Making Magic” for over three years has taught me to be able to sense what my readers want. Right now I'm getting: For the love of god, show us the preview card! Always wanting to please, here you go. I present the Black Maro:
Not too shabby, huh? Even by the high standards set by Maro. (I mean the card, not me. Eh, I mean me too.) I hope you all have a chance to enjoy it in action.
I hope you had fun and that you leave here today with one message. No, actually two messages. Three, three messages. Okay, four but I'm stopping there. One, our chief weapon is surprise...surprise and fear...fear and surprise..... (Man, why couldn't The Dark have been printed in Spanish?) Sorry, geek spasm.
One, try playing with Saviors of Kamigawa. (There's a prerelease this Saturday. You can see “Revenge of the Sith” on Friday. Who am I kidding? You can see the midnight Wednesday showing.) Two, try Kagemaro, First to Suffer. (To quote an unnamed R&D member: “I wouldn't kick it out of my deck.”) Three, the cycle of Maros, the hand size matters theme, the sneaking of the word “maro” in the names – I was responsible for none of it. None of it! (Not that I wouldn't like to have been. But I wasn't.) And four, there are no poison-laden squirrels in Ravnica. (“Would you settle for a slightly venomous chipmunk?”)
Join me next week when I explore the design of yet another Saviors mechanic. (What were the chances?)
Until then, may you have positive associations with the name Maro.