That's Going To Leave Scars, Part 2

Posted in Making Magic on December 6, 2010

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.

Two weeks ago, I started going through Scars of Mirrodin to tell some stories about individual cards (Part 1 is here). I only got through "D," so it was clear that I needed a second part (and possibly more, but we'll see how it goes today). I'll cut my thesis paragraph short today to make room for more card-by-card stories.

During Part 1, I talked about how there was a sacrifice theme that was woven into black and red that got watered down a bit during development. (This is not a knock on development, by the way. Design usually over-delivers a little to allow development to have more material to work with giving them more options on how to finish the set.) In the design hand-off, black sacrificed creatures (a Phyrexian thing) while red sacrificed artifacts (a Mirran thing). This allowed us to create a dichotomy that helped define the two sides while also making a viable black-red draft strategy.

The trick to designing cards in this kind of theme is that you want to do so without being too blatant about it. Flesh Allergy feels very black and the sacrifice feels integral to the card rather than tacked on. (For those following the GDS2, this is how you keep from making a "hot glue gun design," a.k.a. a design where the components feel artificially forced together.)

One of the things we try to do at uncommon is create what we call a "draft around me." These are cards created to send drafters down a path if they get this card early in a draft. The idea behind draft around me is that it encourages you to focus on some aspect in the set more thoroughly than normal. Furnace Celebration, called Sac-a-Gogo in design, was a draft around for the sacrifice theme I talked about above. Remember that in the design handoff, there were cards that had death triggers ("goes to the graveyard from the battlefield" triggered effects) but had a larger effect if they were sacrificed. If you picked up Furnace Celebration early, you would be extra eager to draft the death trigger cards along with sacrifice outlets.

Most players love Lightning Bolt. It's flavorful, it's powerful, and it's nostalgic. You know who doesn't love Lightning Bolt? Designers. When your one-drop direct damage spell is as good as it can possibly be, it makes it very hard to make another one drop direct damage spell that doesn't look horrible in comparison. This is the reason for the recent overrunning of "deal 2 and conditionally deal 4" direct damage cards. That said, I do like Galvanic Blast, but it's a little more paint-by-numbers than I would have hoped.

During the third Scars of Mirrodin Preview Week, I gave a list of the six things you have to do mechanically to get a Phyrexian watermark:

  1. The card's rules text mentions poison.
  2. The card's rules text mentions proliferate.
  3. The card's rules text mentions -1/-1 counters.
  4. The card was a creature with a "put into a graveyard from the battlefield" effect.
  5. The card involved sacrificing creatures.
  6. The card used life as a payment.

This list prompted numerous letters that all said the same thing: what about Geth? Geth has a Phyrexian watermark symbol yet fits none of the above six categories. At the time I responded on Twitter, but now that I have a chance, I'll give the answer to all of you that aren't following me on Twitter (@maro254—it's a chance to hear me talk about Magic not in 3000-word bursts): I should have included a seventh category, legendary characters that are Phyrexian.

The other question that Geth seemed to spawn was "Why is a black card milling?" Let me explain. In the color pie, milling is in two colors, blue and black. Traditionally, blue does milling from top of library. This is flavored as I'm mentally attacking you but not on any specific knowledge. I'm just trying to spill information out of your mind. Black normally attacks the library directly, removing cards from it surgically. This is why all the cards that "cap" (slang for exiling specific cards from a player's library, named after the card Jester's Cap from Ice Age) an opponent are usually in black.

Flavorwise, Geth is black. We liked the interconnectivity of the mill effect with the reanimation. We had two choices: make Geth black-blue or just allow the milling to bleed a little. As black already was in this general space, and black-blue didn't make any sense story-wise, we made the choice to bleed the "top of library" milling to black for this card.

Every designer has his or her pet mechanics. Flickering (this is what Ramp;D calls this ability) is one of mine. I made the very first flickering card, called Flicker, no less, in Urza's Destiny. Originally, it was designed as a vertical cycle, (usually three cards—a card in common, uncommon and either rare or mythic rare), but development dropped it down to just one card. The important thing a designer has to be aware of is that he is including an effect that the set needs and not just one that he likes. This means that whenever I think about putting in a flickering effect, I have to examine what role it would play in the set.

Scars of Mirrodin has a significant amount of counters (another pet favorite of mine), the two biggest of which are -1/-1 counters and charge counters. Flickering allows you to reset all counters. As this essentially heals creatures injured by infect creatures and refills all the artifacts with a limited number of uses, it felt like a great tool for Mirrodin.

In addition, one of the pushes in our desire to lower board complexity at lower rarities made us more willing to create cards that do their thing the turn they are played and then basically function as vanilla creatures for all the rest of the turns. Design calls these cards virtual vanillas (those of you who took the GDS2 multiple choice test might be aware of this vocabulary). A very popular type of virtual vanilla is the creature with an ETB ("enters the battlefield") effect. Flickering works great with ETB creatures as it essentially allows you to reuse the ETB effect.

The big point here is that I wanted to do flickering effects and the set wanted to have the flickering effects, so Glimmerpoint Stag has worked out pretty well for me and my set.

Flickering is one way to reset cards with counters, but it's not the only way. One of the roles of a designer is to figure out what they want colors to do and then find multiple different ways to make that effect. This creates some depth to the design as it ensures that certain effects happen but in such a way that the game play isn't all the same.

I really liked the idea that white was the reset color and so in the design I looked for numerous ways for white to do this. (There's more, by the way.) A while back we decided to allow white to bounce its own permanents and this execution felt flavorful and allowed for clever moments (defined as moments where the player gets to find a trick to do that wasn't obvious from the card at first read) which design is always looking out for.

So why did design connect this card with Glint Hawk? We didn't. When Glint Hawk Idol was handed over in the design file, it only had the first ability. During concepting, the creative team liked the idea that this card was an idol of some kind so they looked through the file for a 2/2 flyer. They found Glint Hawk in white and concepted this card as an idol of the white card.

Flash forward a few months. It is near the end of development and Mike Turian, the lead developer of Scars, is addressing various notes. One note was that there weren't enough artifacts with colored activations. One of the things we've learned over time is that artifacts are a little overwhelming for less experienced players because there are just more choices available when building a deck in Limited. One of the ways to help lessen this choice is by adding colored requirements to the card. This is because focus tests have showed us that these players treat an artifact with a colored activation as if the card is only supposed to be used in a deck of that color.

In general, we love divides like this because it allows us to do things that make it easier for the beginner. Yet, this still allows more choices for the advanced player who is able to see the value in an artifact that has some use even without access to a specific color. As a result of this note, Mike set out to add colored activations to a cycle of common artifacts. The challenge here was that all the cards were creatively locked down as the art was already in. Adding a color component to a card that wasn't concepted to have any color relevance can get tricky.

As the lead designer for Scars, I was helping Mike with last-minute design tweaks on the set, so I took the first pass on trying to find the five cards to change. When I got to white, I stumbled across the connection between Glint Hawk and Glint Hawk Idol. Obviously, this needed to be the white part of the cycle, but what exactly could I allow white to do? After some thinking, I settled on the idea that white could awaken the artifact creature whenever it wanted, but that any other color was forced to cast an artifact. This would make the card playable in any deck but clearly better in white.

Can you find the other four cards in the cycle?

Click here to see the answer.

I felt it was important to use more cards that were indestructible than normal because I considered darksteel to be one of the most defining elements of Mirrodin block. The challenge with doing so is that we had to make sure that the set had answers to indestructible cards. Luckily, infect worked like a charm because the -1/-1 counters are a perfect answer to darksteel. (I also liked how it felt like the Phyrexians engineered an answer to one of Mirrodin's greatest weapons.) Grasp of Darkness was yet another answer the set had for indestructible creatures. The quirky thing about it was that because it didn't use any of the criteria for being Phyrexian, the card is marked as a Mirran card even though its existence in the set was to fight one of the Mirran elements of the set.

Sometimes in a design, you know you need a card so you just make a card in Multiverse (our internal card database) and write whatever your need is along with the word "hole." For a while in the file, this card was Infect Lord Hole. We knew that infect was going to be a major part of the set and as it was super-linear, we knew players were going to build around it. When this is the case, we tend to make at least one card that helps tie the deck together to help players who need a little boost when starting to build the deck.

The big question wasn't would we have an infect lord but what would it do? +1/+1 seemed like a no-brainer as it's our go-to ability for lords and power pumping has high synergy with infect. The second ability took a lot longer to create. In the end, we decided to fill in a weakness of the infect deck—getting in the last few poison tokens. In general, we tried to keep it from being too easy to poison opponents without damaging them with infect creatures, but we felt like this deck was already dedicated to that strategy so a little late-game help felt okay.

A lot of cards in Scars of Mirrodin were designed by someone name Mark. Gottlieb, Globus, and myself, for example, were all on the design team and we all contributed numerous cards. A different Mark, though, designed this card, one not even in Ramp;D. Heavy Arbalest was design by Mark Purvis, one of the brand managers for Magic. (The brand managers are involved on the business end making all sorts of relevant business decisions like how much to print, what marketing plans to use and how best to maximize the Magic brand.) Purvis was on the development team and he turned this card in as a card he thought was both very flavorful and played well.

As I talked about above, one of the big issues with infect was trying to figure out how easy it was supposed to be to poison a player to death. In the end, we decided that it worked best if strongly tied to infect creatures attacking. This created more interaction with the opponent and caused fewer games where the opponent died without being able to do anything about it. Ichor Rats had been in the file very early and everyone loved the feel of it. When we decided to cut back on combat damage poisoning, we cut every card that did it except for Ichor Rats. (Hand of the Praetors came later.) We decided that one was okay, especially as it only gave a single poison counter, and if we were going to keep one, why not the most flavorful one?

One of the challenges of designing infect was finding as many ways as possible to make it feel different from life. Interestingly, one of the ways to do this was to make life gain easier to access and stronger when used. This way, the decision as to which avenue to pursue between life and poison could shift during the game.

This brings up an even more interesting design observation. One of the downsides of an Ramp;D playtest is that the players are of a much higher caliber than the average player. Not only do we play Magic every day for many hours, most of Ramp;D got their job because they proved they were able to play the game at a higher level. The reason I bring this up as a downside is that it can warp playtests.

Scars of Mirrodin, by design, has two different strategies for winning, one through normal damage and one through poison. The higher-level players quickly make the jump that your deck needed to really commit one way or another. Play to win through damage or play to win through poison. Your deck shouldn't be trying equally hard to do both.

My contention was that many players wouldn't make this jump and would play with some infect and some non-infect creatures in their deck. What this would result in was games where the players have to start making choices about which avenue to worry about. If this is how many players would play, design had to take it into account. So I had a playtest with people from elsewhere in the building and had them play. Lo and behold, almost every player did exactly what I predicted. They mixed and matched normal damage with poison damage. This meant things like the extra life gain would quite often become relevant and it stayed in the design.

For the record as someone who has played with this set a lot, I believe that the conventional wisdom of not mixing infect with non-infect is nowhere as clear-cut as the better players believe.

One of the running jokes in design is that it's very easy for design to take credit for the successes and pass off blame to development for the mistakes. ("It's their job to catch our mistakes.") Design, though, has to suck it up for Liquimetal Coating. We messed this one up big time and while development didn't stop it, I feel the blame is squarely on our shoulders.

What am I talking about? This card should only have targeted creatures. Why I appreciate all the fun shenanigans the current version allows, it does all sorts of color pie breaking that it just shouldn't. Red is supposed to have an issue with enchantments, as the best example. The fact that this card can just work around that so easily is a design mistake. In fact, if I were allowed to snap my fingers and just have one change retroactively happen, this card would be it.

This card came about because one day I decided that we should have a charge counter artifact at mythic rare. The set was full of these artifacts that had to work up charges to create effects and I liked the idea that at least one appeared in every rarity. However, making a mythic rare meant that I had to come up with a pretty splashy effect.

After some thought, I decided to make the bluntest and splashiest thing I could—I made a card that destroyed things. What things? Anything. That sounded pretty splashy to me. I called the card Killing Machine and stuck it in the set.

During the employee Prerelease, I had the following conversation:

Them: I play Lux Cannon.
Me: What's that?
Them: It's an artifact that can destroy your permanents.
Me: Oh, Killing Machine.

Other than its name it had made it through the gauntlet to print.

    Give 'em "L"

Well, looks like I made it to "L". That's almost the middle of the alphabet. Looks like there's going to be a Part 3 although not until the new year. Next week is our last week of new content before our two best-of weeks.

But before that, I'm off to the Magic: the GatheringWorld Championships in Chiba, Japan (it's near Tokyo). If you're in the neighborhood, come check it out. If not, we're going to be having coverage all event long, letting all of you see what's happening at the biggest Magic event of the year. I'm scheduled for a couple of things including taking on Richard Garfield in a game involving giant Magic cards (what we call Massive Magic). Check out that event and more (I think they're going to crown a world champion or something) this weekend.

Join me next week when I demonstrate that some things can't be destroyed.

Until then, may your stories come in bite-size morsels.

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