Touch of Evil

Posted in Making Magic on May 2, 2011

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 second New Phyrexia Preview Week. Last week I talked about the creation of Phyrexia mana. This week I'm going to pull back the discussion a bit to talk about a bigger-picture design issue, something that the design team had to deal with from day one. That issue: making the set feel Phyrexian. In today's column I'll be walking through the set pointing out the many ways we accomplished this task. Yes, today is all about eeeeevil. (Imagine me putting my pinky to the corner of my mouth—yes, somehow New Phyrexia makes me keep referencing Austin Powers.)

    Faces of Evil

Normally when a set begins design, I will sit down with the lead designer and just go over the basics of what I expect as the head designer. I like to think of it as painting the bull's-eye for the lead designer and his team (in this case, Ken Nagle and his team of Joe Huber, Dave Guskin, Matt Place and myself) to hit. For New Phyrexia, the bull's-eye was very simple: make this set feel Phyrexian. Scars of Mirrodin and Mirrodin Besieged had elements of the Phyrexians but both were set on Mirrodin. Now that the Phyrexians have won the war, they've remade the world in their image. That is what New Phyrexia had to capture. Mirrodin as a plane is dead. This set had to introduce us to the world that is taking its place.

Knowing what the bull's-eye is and hitting it are two very different things. The bull's-eye was very straightforward. The execution to get there was anything but. Today's column talks about how the team figured out how to accomplish this goal. As I explain the tools that the design team ended up using, I will look at some examples from the Card Image Gallery.

    Riding in Scars

The first place for New Phyrexia to start was to look at what Scars of Mirrodin and Mirrodin Besieged did for their Phyrexian-stamped cards. The low hanging fruit was "do more of that." During my preview of Scars of Mirrodin, I talked about how in order for a card to be considered Phyrexian, and thus get the Phyrexian watermark, it had to have one of six qualities:

  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.

After a little uproar about Geth, I added a seventh quality on my Twitter feed (@maro254):

7.The card is a legendary creature that's Phyrexian.

From this list we can start building a list of our tools which will allow us to feel Phyrexian.

    Tool #1: Mechanics That Have Been Identified As Being Phyrexian

The list isn't very long—infect, proliferate, and living weapon—but it's pretty potent as these three mechanics have ranked the highest in the block in player feedback (I'm talking data through surveys, not anecdotal evidence). New Phyrexia wanted to make sure that all three showed up. Done. New Phyrexia wanted to advance each one showing some evolution. Let's see how that was done:

Infect – Infect finally shows up in red and on creatures in blue. Black, green, and white all get more. In addition, the concept of being "poisoned" which first showed up in Mirrodin Besieged gets more play. In a related note, there are a number of cards that encourage playing some infect creatures without necessarily pushing you to play only infect creatures. An example would be this card:

I'll talk more about this card's design in two weeks, but you can see that this card definitely makes you have to rethink some attitudes you might have about how infect decks work, especially in Limited.

Proliferate – Proliferate shows up in red (although not white—there were proliferate cards in white in design, but none made it through development) and continues in blue, black, and green.

Living weapon – Living weapon doesn't evolve as much as just shows up on more cards. While Mirrodin Besieged was in development and New Phyrexia was in design, the two leads, Erik Lauer and Ken Nagle (who happened to be roommates—I smell sitcom), worked out which set would get what so that the coolest living weapon cards could be split between the two sets.

    Tool #2: -1/-1 Counters

When I talked about Scars of Mirrodin design, I explained how we used the disease metaphor as a way to create a mechanical feel for the Phyrexians. One of the ways to help New Phyrexia feel Phyrexian was to continue building on this mechanical metaphor. Obviously infect and proliferate became key components of the Phyrexian identity because of the desire to create this disease feel.

Each block, design commits to a single counter type that is used on creatures. Usually that counter is a +1/+1 counter. Scars block, though, chose to use the -1/-1 counter as it was necessary to do infect the way we wanted. The great thing about -1/-1 counters is that they allow the slow attrition of creatures, making it much easier to get a sense of things being sick. New Phyrexia took good advantage of this feel.

My favorite card from New Phyrexia that uses -1/-1 counters is this card:

I feel like this card is possibly the best top-down card in the whole block to give you the disease feel of the Phyrexians.

    Tool #3: Sacrificing Permanents

In gaming terms, the Phyrexians are what we in Ramp;D call "min-maxers." They optimize every decision they make to ensure that they are getting the maximum allowed out of the resources they have access to. Min-maxers psychographically fall square in the Spike camp. (Note that while almost all min-maxers are Spikes, not all Spike are min-maxers.) A big part of this is that they are more than willing to sacrifice whatever they need to get what they want. As such, there is a lot of sacrifice in New Phyrexia.

My favorite of the sacrificing cards is this one:

While this card has plenty to offer Timmy and Spike, I love this card because it makes my inner Johnny wildly come up with wonderful things you can do with it. I like this card in New Phyrexia because it shows off the Phyrexians take on how it uses sacrifice. It uses it carefully to trade up. Each sacrifice is just part of its min-maxing.

You'll note that I skipped over death triggers (Ramp;D slang for cards that trigger "when they are put into the graveyard from the battlefield"). The reason for this is that with so much going on, there wasn't a lot of room for death triggers in New Phyrexia. The feeling was that the block had enough to create the feeling we wanted so we cut back on how many this set had.

    Tool #4: Life as a Payment

This was the one category I listed that raised the most eyebrows. Scars of Mirrodin only had two cards (Moriok Replica and Necrogen Scudder) that used life as a pseudo-payment. Why was I bothering to even list it? As you can see, part of block planning is setting up where you're going. (Which, by the way, is a good way to piece together what we're up to. If something seems like it's getting more attention from me than you think it should, odds are there's a reason.)

Obviously the biggest use of life as a payment was the topic of my column last week: Phyrexian mana. It's the biggest "new thing" in the set and as you will see its presence will be felt strongly in all formats. That's not much else to add as I covered this mechanic pretty well last week. I just want to point out the Phyrexian mana card that most tickles my designer sensibilities:

It's become a running joke inside Ramp;D how much I love copy effects. I really like how Phyrexian mana can bring an artifact sensibility to a colored card. While we've dabbled with Clones in artifacts, we've never done this straight-up a clone (okay, Duplicant was pretty close). I'm very curious how exactly this card is going to get used.

    Tool #5: Life Loss as A Rider

Not only do the Phyrexians spend their own life, they also like taking away their opponent's life as well.

This is best seen through a small recurring theme in the set, "lose 1 life" as a rider on spells. Let's explain how this came about. I talked about at the start of this article how I asked the design team to capture the essence of the Phyrexians. An unspoken part of doing this is that the team had to answer this question throughout the set at all rarities. It's not that hard to make rare cards feel evil. Common cards, on the other hand, are a bit more of a challenge.

The question that kept popping up was how to create an evil feel in a simple, easy to understand way. Phyrexian mana is cool and all and it can exist at common, but it's just not simple. One of the paths I started looking for was trying to find some small effect that felt evil but was very simple unto itself. If we could repeat this ability as a rider, a la cantrips, perhaps we could help create a simple but evil feel. After thinking about the issue for a week, it became clear that the cleanest way to do this was simply to make the opponent lose 1 life.

This worked for me on several levels. First, life loss felt pretty mean. Second, it played well into one of the major Phyrexian themes: life as a payment. If I suck away your life, you have less to spend on things. Third, I felt like it was an effect we could bleed into all five colors. All five colors already do damage in various ways, so allowing straightforward life loss felt acceptable.

When I first pitched the idea to Ken, he was a little skeptical, but as we tried to find other answers to this problem, Ken began to realize that there weren't any other options that were as simple.

    Tool #6: Good for Me, Bad for You

Another big problem in a set trying to feel evil is that it's hard to create cards that help yourself. In a general sense, cards that help you feel good while cards that hurt your opponent feel more evil. It was easy to do bad things to the opponent that felt bad. How exactly could we do good things to ourselves that had an evil feel? The answer came with the design of this card:

This card came about because I was trying to find a way to gain life that felt Phyrexian. Obviously Drain Life type cards worked, but I really wanted to find a way to make cards that could allow you to benefit yourself without necessarily hurting your opponent. The design of this card solved that problem. The key? The trick was to pair up mirrored effects, one good for you and one bad for your opponent. Since the card had the potential to do evil, it overall felt evil even if you never chose that option.

Also the contrast of the two effects created an interesting feeling. A creature capable of helping and hurting felt extra evil. It wasn't as if the creature had to hurt things. It obviously knows how to help. No, it hurts things because it enjoys doing so.

After I made the first creature with a modal "enters the battlefield" effect, it was crystal clear that I had stumbled onto something good, so I made some more. I sent my cards to Ken. He liked them and made some more. Then Ken showed them to the rest of the team and they made some more.

Quick aside: When you make a design and it inspires others to make more of that design, that's a very good sign that you've tapped into something interesting. Good design ideas spur designers to create more things with them.

These cards ended up being turned into a cycle called the Exarchs. This path ultimately led us to make the current cycle of Praetors.

Going into design we knew that the set was going to have a cycle of praetors. Here's what we had to work with:

  1. Legendary creatures representing the leaders of each of the five Phyrexian factions
  2. Splashy mythic rares
  3. Oozing Phyrexian-ness

As the Exarchs started taking shape, Ken explored the idea of trying the same schtick but in a slightly different way. First, instead of having the option of doing good for yourself or bad for your opponent, the Praetors would do both. Second, instead of a single effect, the Praetors would have static abilities, more like enchantments.

Following in the Exarchs' footsteps, the two effects were designed to mirror one another. The evil you did to your opponent was the opposite of the good you did for yourself. The biggest problem this created was that it is hard to find two effects, one good for you and one opposite and bad for your opponent, in the same color. Thus, to make the Praetors work, we bled some of the abilities, as with Urabrask above. (I promise that within the next month I'll write an article about when and how we bend the color pie.)

The end result are some very potent and Phyrexian-feeling cards.

    Tool #7: Hit Them Before They Expect It

If you're going to represent ultimate evil, it can't hurt to take a look back at Magic's past and see how we've mechanically handled evil in the past. So what is the most evil creature we've ever created?

Before you click to reveal the card I'm talking about, for legal reasons, we need you to check one of the two boxes below.

I understand the risks inherent in coming face to face with pure evil. I do not hold Wizards of the Coast responsible for any nightmares, daymares, panic attacks, night sweats, or lifelong psychological reactions due to witnessing the card below.

I do not have the strength of character to overcome the terror that will obviously follow clicking the link below. I promise to pass and not click the link.

Sorry, you know, lawyers. Okay, if you want to see the most evil magic card ever created, click here.

I'm sorry I had to force you to bring memories to the surface that your subconscious had long ago pushed to the recesses of your mind. I did so because I needed to talk about the Chancellors.

While the design team was trying to figure out how to capture ultimate evil, this card came up. The team liked how the card was able to do damage before it ever got played. Just knowing that it was coming created enough terror to hurt the opponent. What if we took this idea and pushed it even further? Imagine a cycle of creatures that could harm you if your opponent merely drew them.

Once we latched onto this idea, the team kept trying to one up itself. The team's favorite was this one:

Some of the team was worried that a 3-point Syphon Soul might be too much, but not Ken. If we're going to make a griefer set, Ken said, we have to be willing to grief. It's not enough to fear what your opponent plays. No, in New Phyrexia the terror starts from the opening draw.

    Tool #8: Finding More Ways to Cross Color and Artifacts

Once we knew that we were going to back to Mirrodin, the Scars design team was very eager to find mechanics from the Mirrodin block that we could revisit. As long as we were revisiting it, we might as well spiff it up a bit. You know, tweak the mechanic a little bit to show what modern design can do with seven-year-old mechanics. One suggestion was to move imprint off of artifacts and onto colored cards. We'll do that, I said, but not until the time is right.

One of the things I was sure about was that the core of the Phyrexians was its desire to cross flesh with metal. The Phyrexians like to bring everything towards a disturbing middle where all creatures have biological and mechanical elements. As such, I felt very strongly that I didn't want to mix colored cards and artifacts until the Phyrexians had reshaped the world. That is why, for example, imprint shows up for the first time on colored cards in New Phyrexia.

    Tool #9: Create an Army

Another aspect of the Phyrexians that I was eager for us to do was the Phyrexians love of creating artificial life. Not only do they infect everything they can, but they also like using their technology to create their own twisted life forms. As such, I felt strongly that we should find a way to create some token type that represented this passion of the Phyrexians.

Another reason I felt strongly has to do with an issue I talked about above. When creating evil, inertia makes you want to create cards that hurt others. While that is flavorful, it's important that every Magic expansion have proactive, positive things to do. Building a token army was perfect because it had the right feel yet was more about building up than tearing down.

Golems were not the first token type we played around with. Obviously we messed around with Myr, but their small size didn't quite have the impact we wanted. The final design, I believe, actually happened during development. The development team, led by Aaron Forsythe, looked back at the token types already being used in the block and came to the conclusion that the Golems were the token we wanted to use.

From there came the small grouping of Golem helpers. Each one both made one or more Golems and then boosted them up. Aaron kept the ability down to three colors to make the deck easier to build (and occasionally draft).

    Tool #10: Tapping Into Phyrexian Nostalgia

Scars of Mirrodin had a strong nostalgic streak. It was mostly focused, though, on the world of Mirrodin. For New Phyrexia, the nostalgic pointed to a different place, the role the Phyrexians have played throughout Magic. I'll let Doug Beyer explain the details, but here's the super short version. The Phyrexians on New Phyrexia have no direct connection to the original Phyrexians other than genetics. The only knowledge passed is whatever information lurks within the Phyrexian genetic soup.

This is why, for example, the new Phyrexians don't understand how to build a planar portal to get to other worlds. Luckily for Magic players, the genetic information was all we needed to have some fun.

Just as the Scars of Mirrodin team made a list of all their favorite Mirrodin cards, so too did the New Phyrexia team make a list of their favorite Phyrexian ones. That list led directly to cards like Phyrexian Obliterator. As a long time Magic player, I hope you all enjoy all the nods to the Phyrexians of days gone by as much as I do.

    The Evil That Men Do

And that in ten easy steps, is how the design team put the Phyrexia in New Phyrexia. As always, I am interested to hear in what you think of the set and if you like or dislike the steps we took to make the set feel Phyrexian. You can email me, tweet me (@maro254), or leave a note using the Discuss link below.

Join me next week when I talk about the praetor good (or possibly the praetor evil).

Until then, may you have some fun being just a little bit evil.

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