More than an Illusion
The changeling mechanic started here:
Actually, that's not true. I believe it started here:
Or even more accurately, here:
Actually, I think we have to go all the way back to here:
Creature - RACE2
1: CARDNAME is the type of your choice until end of turn.
This is the card as it existed in design. I'm not talking about the finished design that got handed over to development. No, this card existed before there was a strong tribal theme. It was designed by Mike Elliott, the lead design of Onslaught. Yes, at one point in early Onslaught design, the set wasn't about tribal. One of the key things that moved it in that direction was this card. Well, this group of cards. The file actually had a number of what we now refer to as Mistform creatures. I remember when I was asked my opinion about the early version of the file, the Mistforms were probably my favorite thing in the set. I had always been a big proponent of tribal, and I loved the design space that the Mistform creatures hinted at. They could become any creature type. Cool. Now why would someone want to do that? Flash forward many months, and Onslaught had transformed into a set with a tribal theme.
Flash forward some more to the design of Legions. As with most blocks, we were trying to make a riff off of a mechanic from the first set for the second set. What could we do with the Mistform mechanic? How could we step it up? The earliest version of Mistform Ultimus had an activation cost of . The next step was to just cut out the middle man. If the creature could essentially be any creature type, why not just make it every creature type? This led to the next jump in design—why limit the change to just in play? Wouldn't it be cool if he was just always everything no matter where he was? The answer proved to be yes, he was much cooler if he was just every type everywhere.
Playtests showed people liked it. We were already to go when we realized we had a small problem. By being every creature type, he ended up carrying some rules baggage, because at the time two creature types had rules associated with them. The first was Legend (remember kids, once upon a time the supertype legendary was the creature type Legend—well, for creatures at least; this is another one of those rules issues from the past that's best left undiscussed), but we were okay with this as the ability seemed like something that wanted to be unique (yeah, yeah, I get the irony—I'll be there soon enough). The other trouble creature type was Wall, because at the time Walls essentially all came with defender. For a little while the card was every creature type except Wall but I managed to convince everyone that it was cooler to just add a line letting it attack despite it being a Wall than to have it be every creature type but one. Now thanks to defender errata, it doesn't even have that line.
Anyway, everyone internally liked the finished card so we printed it. And wouldn't you know it, the card seemed just as beloved on the outside. Why? I think the main reason was because it was so unique (yeah, yeah, I get it—I promise I'll get there). And it allowed for all sorts of crazy comments. ("I can think of a blue Goblin.") It was a cool card that added not just to the game but to the metagame. Legions has a rep of having some of the all-time most popular legends. Mistform Ultimus hangs with that crowd.
Just My Creature Type
One of the questions I've been asked numerous times is this: What exactly does the Head Designer do? Each expansion has a lead designer responsible for that set. How does the Head Designer's duties fit into an expansion's design? The answer is not a simple one as it varies from set to set, but one of the most important duties is something that I do every set. I'm a sounding board for the lead designer. When he (I would love to say "or she" but as of yet we haven't had a female lead designer—something to do with having very few female TCG designers. One day, though) wants to talk about where the set is going, I'm one of the first people to talk to. When they need someone else to step back and give the set a holistic once-over, I'm their guy. And when they feel the set is missing something, they tend to turn to me.
In any creative endeavor, experience is very important. You learn not from studying a creative art as much as from just doing it. Most of my expertise as a Magic designer comes from the thousands upon thousands of hours I've logged doing Magic design. I'm good at solving design problems because for many of them I've already been there. I've had to figure out the solution from being inside the problem. In addition, I have both a strong instinct and a holistic vision. It helps me get a sense of a set long before any intellectual observation can kick in. This skill is especially valuable when trying to deduce what is missing. The example I like to use here is cooking. When cooking it is much easier to figure out when you have too much of some ingredient than it is when an ingredient is missing. It is very hard to "see" (or taste in this metaphor) what isn't there.
Why do I bring this up? Because I believe my greatest contribution to Lorwyn design is the introduction of the changeling mechanic. Although I was on the design team, I feel that the changeling mechanic came about more from me as acting as Head Designer than as design team member. Let me explain. There comes a point in each design (and for some sets numerous points) where I need to come in and evaluate how the design is going. If I'm on the design team, which lately is almost always, this means I need to take a few days to pull myself out of the minutiae to try and look at the set in its entirety. For Lorwyn this happened in late Spring (this is a few months before the set gets handed off to development).
At this point the tribal theme had been very fleshed out. We knew the eight tribes we were focusing on. We knew what colors each tribe was in. We had a feel for how each played. And we had the tribal card type (although at this point it hadn't yet become a card type). I spent a few hours combing through the file at which point I came to an important conclusion—the set in general and the tribal theme in specific was missing something.
What was it missing? There's no technical term for it but I've always called it "glue." In mechanical terms "glue" is the thing that helps connect the different pieces of a design. In Ravnica, for example, we had taken great pains to build monocolor themes that overlapped the guilds. Green, for instance, had a strong token-making theme. Selesnya (white-green) used the token making as a way to build its army on the road to swarming the opponent. Golgari (black-green), on the other hand, used the tokens as fodder for its many sacrifices. This theme was very important to the design as it helped us created cards that could swing multiple directions, that is they had value to different parts of the set.
The reason this is so important is threefold. First, it created more flexibility, especially for Limited play. When every card only has use for one subset of cards it makes for less decisions and less modularity. Second, it helped linked different guilds (Ravnica's pieces had a name) together. This allows for more deck building synergies as it gave rise to three-color deck building options. Third, it gives the design more depth. This is a subtle reason but a very important one. The easiest way to explain it is to compare it to creating characters in fiction. A three-dimensional character, that is one that has conflicting elements that create internal tension, makes a more compelling story than a two-dimensional one. Readers (and game players) like when they have some options to explain why something may or may not be happening. A good story (or game) needs to allow different people to have different interpretations.
So "glue" is important. A set has to have interconnections. The individual pieces have to have mechanical resonance with one another. Lorwyn was missing that. Why? Two reasons that I could make out. First, the design team was so focused on making each tribe work that we hadn't taken the time to make sure that they worked together. Second, we had made a key decision that had taken us down a different path than Onslaught block. What was that decision? We chose to focus on race over class. All eight tribes we selected were races and not classes.
Why did this matter? Let's take a look back at Onslaught block. The eight tribes in that block were:
You'll notice that these eight tribes break down to four races (Beasts, Birds, Elves, and Goblins), three classes (Clerics, Soldiers, and Wizards), and one hybrid race / class (Zombies).
A quick aside on Zombies: When we made the race / class system we decided to put every existing tribe in one of the two boxes, race or class. There were a few problem children but none more problematic than Zombie. Usually Zombie is a race—for example, a Zombie Cleric or a Zombie Solider. But we also used it as a way to show other races that are now undead such as Zombie Goblin or Zombie Elf. When we did that we used Zombie as a class (even if it does show up first). The important point here is that for functional purposes in Onslaught block Zombie was able to be used as a class.
This meant that we had two groups that were allowed to overlap. True, it did not create total connection as races were not allowed to overlap (no Goblin Elves), but classes were, as we could have Cleric Wizards or Soldier Wizards. On top of that we had the Mistforms which had the ability to become any of the above.
So Lorwyn had no class to intersect with its race. This, of course, begs the question "Why not?" Why doesn't class matter in Lorwyn? Excellent question. So good, in fact, that it deserves its own column. One I will write. Just not yet. (Hello, rumor sites. How are you guys doing?) Lorwyn also had no Mistforms. Eight tribes with no crossover. This was a problem.
To solve it, I suggested a number of fixes. I stressed that we needed cards that cared about multiple races. (A number of these would make it to print.) I suggested a few other things that would later find their way into Morningtide. And I made up a cycle of tweaked Mistforms. Here's the cycle I sent to Aaron to try out in the file:
Creature - Kithkin Shapeshifter
While CARDNAME is in play, it gains all the creature types of any creature you control.Faerie Infiltrator
Creature - Faerie Shapeshifter
While CARDNAME is in play, it gains all the creature types of any creature you control.Goblin Infiltrator
Creature - Goblin Shapeshifter
While CARDNAME is in play, it gains all the creature types of any creature you control.Giant Infiltrator
Creature - Giant Shapeshifter
While CARDNAME is in play, it gains all the creature types of any creature you control.Treefolk Infiltrator
Creature - Treefolk Shapeshifter
While CARDNAME is in play, it gains all the creature types of any creature you control.
Each was basically a French vanilla creature (R&D slang for a creature with just evergreen creature keywords) with a Mistformish ability. It's interesting to note that both white and red have the same ability, first strike. We would never repeat a keyword in a cycle (except flying in certain circumstances) so I must have changed one at the last minute not realizing I already had the ability in another color. Not at all important, but I've been told that some Making Magic readers like hearing about that kind of thing.
Lorwyn cares about tribal everywhere—in your library, in your hand, in your graveyard. In addition, it was very frustrating when you cared about having a certain creature type in play but the shapeshifter wasn't that because it needed to have another in play to become it, at which point it didn't matter any more. We kept tweaking the cards to try and make them more of what the environment wanted while at the same time trying to keep Mistform Ultimus unique. What we ended up with was very clunky answers. Finally, I just said that this was crazy. We had a perfect clean template to do what we wanted: the one on Mistform Ultimus. We should just use it. At least for playtesting. You know, just to see how it felt.
It played wonderfully. The Mistform Ultimus text did everything we wanted. It allowed you to get critical mass when you needed it. It let you to get value out of any one tribal card. It even had an effect I had not anticipated: It created connections between cards that otherwise couldn't happen. For instance, if one card gave a bonus to Goblins and another one gave a bonus to Elves, the Ultimus ability allowed one creature to get both benefits at the same time. In short, the mechanic worked perfectly. But using it meant selling Mistform Ultimus down the river.
Them vs. Ultimus
Which brings us to the dilemma of the mechanic. Several weeks back (in my Tribal Week column, Before and After), I had the following aside:
Quick aside for a rant: It kills me as a designer whenever people get mad because I take a beloved card and make more cards like it. Where am I supposed to get inspiration from? Cards you hate? I don't get the argument that "You're making [card X] less special." Isn't imitation the sincerest form of flattery? One of the ways I know a card is great is because we keep going back and designing more variants of it. Just imagine all the things that wouldn't be a staple of the game if we had just stopped after the first one—vigilance, haste, off-color activations, dragons, angels, permanent stealing, tutoring. The list goes on and on. And this isn't even getting into the issue that finding virgin design space keeps getting harder. If something is good, in time we're going back to that well. Guaranteed! Whew, just had to get that off my chest.
This little aside got me a lot of mail. The changeling mechanic upset a lot of people because Mistform Ultimus was very beloved—for a variety of different reasons, as my email pointed out. I was tapping a little bit into my angry comedian persona (you might remember it from my column on dwarves) so I think I came across a little harsher than I meant. I do understand that the changeling mechanic had a cost to it. How do I know this? Because I too am a big fan of Mistform Ultimus. Not just the card, but the larger sense of what it represented. Remember, I'm a Magic trivia guy. I understand the role Mistform Ultimus has played since its arrival.
If you notice from above. I tried avoiding Mistform Ultimus. My original designs attempted to not step on Mistform Ultimus's toes. Here's the problem I ran into. Making changeling be exactly the Mistform Ulitmus text was the cleanest, simplest, and most direct way to do the mechanic. Every other version was just hackier. Trust me, I tried hard to solve this problem. But in the end I realized that the real issue wasn't how to circumvent Mistform Ultimus but rather why to not circumvent it.
So why did I do it? Because the needs of the future override the nostalgia of the past. As Head Designer my job is to respect what has come before me, but it is also to help set up what comes after. As I've said many times, I design the game given that it is going to be a classic that lasts the test of time. I'm not designing a fad that will be gone in ten years, I'm creating something that will outlive me. As such, I work hard to make decisions that look at what is best for the game in the long term. This is why, for instance, I'm constantly fighting against grandfathered ideas that I feel are flawed. It's why I worked hard to rework the color pie. It's why I've pushed to remake cleaner versions of cool but mechanically flawed older cards. It's why I've tried to turn mechanics from disposable items into tools that we can use again and again.
This isn't to say that I don't feel a need to respect what has come before. Making Time Spiral a nostalgia block was my idea. I like to honor the past when I can. But when the past knocks horns against the future, I know who I back. Magic is defined by its ability to constantly adapt. The moment we let inertia keep us from being able to keep adapting is the day the game dies.
So yes, I am sad that Mistform Ultimus got usurped, but I am not sorry for being the one to do it. Remember, tribal is not a disposable theme. It will be back. And some of the times when it returns (although not always), changeling will be by its side. The mechanic gave up being a legend to become something more immortal.
The story of changeling designs ends as such. We played with changeling (although note that it didn't become a keyword until development). We loved it. We made more. We kept playing it. We made even more. We eventually made tribal changeling spells.
Another quick aside: All the creatures with changeling that were turned over from design had the ability to change themselves in some way most often by changing their power or toughness (you'd be surprised how many basic ways there are to do this, from firebreathing to Looming Shade pumping to the Rootwalla ability) and all the spells changed something else (Giant Growth, Shrink, Afflict, and such). This interpretation was broadened a bit during development.
When the set was handed over to development, I took Devin Low aside (he was the lead designer for Lorwyn) and gave him just one piece of advice: "Don't lose the shapeshifters. They're key to the set."
And that is how and why the changeling mechanic came to be. I'd be very curious to hear from all of you what you think of the mechanic. In addition, having now played with changeling, do you all feel that stealing Mistform Ultimus's thunder was the correct thing to do? (Just do me a favor and don't tell me that we should have tried other ways to do it—we did, we really, really did; this was just the best version by far.) You have opinions? Post in the thread or drop me an email. I'm curious to hear what you have to say.
Join me next week when we share a laugh or two.
Until then, may you remember to occasionally look forward when walking.