#711: Head-to-Head – Commander, Part 1
This podcast is part one of a two-part series on a Head-to-Head I did on Twitter about possible changes to the Commander format.
Posted in Making Magic on February 10, 2020
With Theros Beyond Death out of the way, it's time to start talking about the design of the next product, one near and dear to my heart—Unsanctioned. Over the years, I've designed numerous Un- sets (aka silver-bordered sets that lean into the more humorous and jovial side of the game). Unsanctioned is the first Un- product that is not sold in a randomized booster. How did it come to be and how did we design the sixteen new cards in it? Well, sit back, and I'll spin you a tale of the latest Un- product.
It all began with Gavin Verhey. Gavin was given the following product to oversee. The business needed a Magic product that we could create and then save to deploy whenever we needed a product quickly. The idea was that it would be advantageous to spend time and energy now making a product so that in the future, if we ever needed something, we had it already made and ready to go. The project was codenamed Parachute as it was something we could pull the cord on to save us if we ever needed it.
Because of the nature of Parachute, the product had a number of restrictions. First and foremost, it had to be something that wasn't timely. Much of what we make is designed to interconnect with the products around it, but as we wouldn't know when this was getting released, it had to work by itself and not care about the calendar. This in particular made the use of high-demand reprints tricky because we didn't want a desired reprint stranded (if one set uses it, that makes it off limits to other products near it) because we didn't have the need to print the product yet.
One day, Gavin approached me saying he wanted to run an idea by me. Unstable had been very successful, which demonstrated a desire from some of the playerbase for silver-bordered cards. What if we made a box product of silver-bordered cards? Most of it would be reprints, but because we'd never reprinted any of the Un- cards (save a few promo cards), it would be a resource we hadn't tapped. Because it was silver-bordered, it wouldn't cause any tension with sets around it, no matter when it was released. Gavin pitched the set to me as having some new full-art basic lands and a small number of new cards, all of which I could oversee the design of. I told him that sounded great.
The idea for how to execute Unsanctioned came out of a brainstorming session Gavin ran. We've talked for years about doing something with half-decks. There was a product aimed at younger players (that we never made) that used the half-decks to great effect, and Unsanctioned seemed like the perfect place to finally make use of it. It would consist of five thirty-card monocolored half-decks. Each player would put together two of the half-decks to make a sixty-card deck and then play. The original product spec called for three new monocolored cards per half-deck. It also called for only one-sided cards, which meant that we couldn't use contraptions in the product as they have a different back.
Gavin assigned the product to R&D member Max McCall who then got a freelancer named Gaby Weidling to make the first pass on the design. Gaby would be responsible for making the half-decks, including choosing the themes and selecting the reprints, and I would be responsible for the new card designs.
Before the product design began, I was asked what new silver-bordered cards I wanted to see. Were there things players had been asking for that this product could deliver on? I said yes. Here was my list of things I wanted to see:
Unstable had made allied commanders, but there weren't any enemy-colored Un- commanders in silver border and I was hoping this could be the product to fix that problem. The issue was the design of this product had monocolored decks. How could we fit in enemy-colored commanders? The answer was to make legendary creatures with a single-color mana cost that also have an activated ability of the second color to give the card a two-color color identity. The trick was making sure the card functioned without the second color in case you didn't pair up with the half-deck of that second color. As you will see, this would be an ongoing headache during the design.
One of the biggest complaints from the Commander crowd about Unstable was that I hadn't made a host/augment commander that could play all the host/augment cards (the one in the set was green-white). This would require a monocolor card that somehow had all five mana symbols on it. More on this when we get to the card.
Unstable had Urza, Headmaster, but I wanted another Un- planeswalker. As you'll see when I get to the card, this required some negotiation with our franchise team who oversees the planeswalkers.
We were reprinting cards from all three Un- sets. We wanted some cards that referenced Unstable, but also some that could reference Unglued and Unhinged.
There had been a number of cards that players had expected in Unstable that we didn't make. I wanted to look back at that list and see if we could make one or two.
I knew I couldn't deliver on contraptions as we didn't have access to double-sided printing (well, of things other than the normal card back), but I could deliver on Unstable's other major mechanic. Because host/augment are combinatoric, even adding one of each would juice up the mechanic. The trick would be finding a trigger and an effect we hadn't done yet.
Gaby did the first pass at the decks, including some nods at concepts for the new cards. Then when she turned it in, it was up to Max McCall and Chris Mooney to oversee the decks and reprint choices and up to me to oversee the new card designs. While I had a lot of input from numerous designers, the two other people who did the most design work were Ari Nieh and Chris Mooney (both from Great Designer Search 3). As there are only sixteen new cards, I decided it would be fun to go through each one.
As I explained above, I wanted to make nods not just to themes from Unstable but also ones from Unglued and Unhinged. Unhinged in particular ended up being challenging as there were themes I was unhappy with in original Unhinged that I asked to be kept out of this product—the gotcha mechanic and fractions. The former because it proved to be an unfun mechanic in that it discouraged interaction, and the latter because it was harder to process than we had originally hoped. (You're at 9 life and get hit by a 3½-powered creature. What's your life total? Too many players couldn't solve that quickly.) The other major theme of Unhinged was "artist matters" where you had cards that cared about who the artist was. That seemed like a mechanical theme we could play around with.
Most of the "artist matters" cards in Unhinged pushed you to want to include many cards by the same artist. That works fine for casual Constructed, but played poorly in Limited, and would suffer in the half-deck format of Unsanctioned. What if we went in the opposite direction? What if the card rewarded you for playing different artists? This led us to the next question—how does having different artists reward you? I liked the simple reward of +1/+1 counters. As you play different artists, it gets bigger.
The original version of the card had you record the artist as you played it, but we ran into some issues. Some artists aren't listed by the exact same credit. For example, certain artists changed how they want to be referred to on cards while others had legally changed their name. What if instead of caring about artists specifically you care about the first letter in their name? Mostly, that kept you from wanting the same artist, but had a clean answer if an artist changed their name between cards. It also slightly slowed down how fast the creature was growing, which helped balance the card. Finally, we got to create a new creature type—Art.
Of all the complaints I got from Unstable, probably the largest was the lack of a Squirrel commander. The set had Earl of Squirrel, but because it had a stackable ability, we didn't want to make it legendary, so non-Commander Squirrel decks could get multiples out at once. The vast majority of Squirrel cards are either black or green, so that seemed to be the colors the commander wanted to be. We were making enemy-colored commanders, so I saw that as a sign that we needed to put it into Unsanctioned.
This design had to tackle many issues, so let's go through them in the order I chose to solve them. First up, most Squirrels are creature tokens. (There are only six Squirrel creature cards in Magic—two from Odyssey and four from Unstable, one of which is an augment.) This meant any bonus you gave had to be relevant to creature tokens. This is a pretty big restriction. You have to care about them on the battlefield, which means you fetch them or reanimate them. You can't care about casting them. You can't flicker them. You can't bounce them. You have to be very focused on either granting them a bonus or caring that they're entering or leaving the battlefield. I was intrigued by the latter. To make sure it happened enough, I made it trigger off both Squirrels entering the battlefield and dying.
Which brings us to our second problem. Even if you count every card that's a Squirrel or makes Squirrel creature tokens, you still don't have enough to build a Commander deck around. (I believe there's twenty-two in all that mention Squirrel by name; there are a few others that let you name the creature token you make.) How could we increase that number while still being Squirrel themed? Well, as we're in silver border, we could care about a quality of squirrel-ness that black border couldn't—the art. So, instead of just triggering off Squirrels coming and going, we could also care about a player casting cards with squirrels in the art. (There's a bunch more of those.) Yes, most Squirrel-related cards had squirrels in the art, but that just meant more triggers, which was fine by me.
The final problem to solve was how to make this card a monocolored card with an off-color activation where the card still functioned without the extra activation. Based on the way we'd structured the cycle, this card needed to be mono-black with a green activation. Early on, I came up with the idea that the triggers all generated acorn counters which you, the player, got to control. I decided to have two activations—one in black and one in green. My goal was to make them feel thematically connected. I tried a lot of different things, but the cleanest was actually the very first thing I tried: -X/-X to a creature for the black activation and +X/+X to a creature for the green activation. I made the template the same for each ability and then costed the activations appropriately (making things smaller is more powerful than making them bigger, as the former can kill things). The card worked fine with just the black ability but definitely gave you more utility when you added green. There was some concern that this won't trigger a lot within these decks, but I decided to prioritize the Commander needs. We did up the Squirrel count a little to help.
Two extra tidbits. The first being that when I turned the card in, it just referred to acorn tokens. James Arnold, the designer doing the graphics, suggested making an acorn symbol, which was instantly accepted the moment it was suggested. Secondly, I named the card after spending an afternoon trying to come up with the best Squirrel name. I latched onto trying to form it around a Squirrel word, and when I realized that Cornelia started with "corn," I knew I'd found my answer. The card's design name was Acornelia, Goth Squirrel, but not enough people got the Squirrel/Girl reference ("Squirrel" is a word pronounced differently based on where you're from), so we changed it.
In Unglued, I wanted to make fun of our tendency to take animals and turn them into humanoids, so I thought of the silliest animal to do that with. I came up with clams and designed the Clamfolk. As we were looking for fun Unglued throwbacks, I suggested that we make a new Clamfolk. The key, as with the previous Clamfolk, was making sure we got a good name. Gaby had suggested Clamity Jane. I thought it was funny but was worried not enough people knew who Calamity Jane was (she was a frontierswoman and renowned sharpshooter). So, I put out a call to the Pit asking for people to get me the best pun clam name they could. One day, Chris Mooney suggested Alexander Clamilton. I said, "We can stop now. We have our card name."
We knew the card was named Alexander Clamilton. We knew it was mono-blue with a red activation. What exactly did it do? We started by figuring out what the audience would know about Alexander Hamilton. Obviously, the musical Hamilton had been a giant hit, making people much more aware of him. First and foremost, he's a prolific writer. Second, he was in the government. Third, he died in a duel. Could we make use of any of that? Chris suggested that the card make use of the keyword wordy (a spell is wordy if it has four or more lines of rules text) which showed up in Unhinged and Unstable.
The idea for the red activation was to make Alexander Clamilton duel, as fight is secondary in red. Chris's original design had you doing a little fighting mini game. Ari suggested that we tie it into the wordy mechanic and came up with a power boost that cared about how wordy the top card of your library was. That led us to make the first ability's effect scry so that you could set up the duel. We made him a 0/4, so you really need wordy cards to make him win the duel.
He originally was just a Clamfolk Advisor, but Chris came up with the awesome idea of also making him a Rebel.
We knew going into this we wanted to make a host and an augment. This is how we ended up with Bat- as our augment. We weren't tied to either being any color. The only thing I said ahead of time was that I wanted them in different colors. So, to make the augment, I wrote down every trigger we'd used on an augment.
We'd covered all the obvious choices and a few of the less obvious ones. From all my playtesting with the host/augment cards, I knew the best triggers came from things that you, the player, had some chance of making happen. Half-Orc, Half- had a trigger that cared about the opponent being damaged. What if we tweaked that a little? What if it cared instead about your opponent losing life? It would still care about damage but would also care if your opponent spent any life. To separate it from the Orc, we made the threshold higher than 1. We chose 3 as it seemed doable, but not easy.
Next came figuring out what the creature wanted to be. The trigger needed to be black, so I tried to figure out what black creature would make a fun augment. We'd already done a Zombie and a Ninja in Unstable. My first thought was a Vampire, but I realized that a Bat would have a similar feel and wouldn't need as much of a bonus. A Bat let us do +1/+1. It also allowed us to add flying. Hummingbird was the only previous augment to add flying.
May you make many Bat- creatures.
That's all the time I have for today. Hopefully, the title having "Part 1" gave you a hint that I wasn't going to finish. I'm eager to hear your thoughts on today's column, Unsanctioned, or any of the cards I talked about. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram).
Join me next week for Part 2.
Until then, may you do something unsanctioned.
This podcast is part one of a two-part series on a Head-to-Head I did on Twitter about possible changes to the Commander format.
In this podcast, I talk about the design of Theros Beyond Death.