Unanswered Questions: Theros

Posted in Making Magic on November 4, 2013

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.

Editor’s Note – Due to the number of tweets embedded in this article they may be a little slow to appear. Please give them a moment or two. Thanks!
– Trick


When I was doing "Six Hundred and Counting" (every hundred columns, I look back and grade my previous hundred to allow newer readers a tool to figure out what to read in the archive), I realized that I had started a sub-column called "Unanswered Questions" that I had intended to keep up but had forgotten about. So, today, I am going to bring it back with a new installment, this one obviously all about the latest set—Theros.

I posted the following tweet on Twitter:

What follows are some of the questions I received.

If I had to pick one, I'd choose Rescue from the Underworld, with my runner-up being Chained to the Rocks. Those are the two home-run flavor cards we made early that really shaped how I and the rest of the design team thought about the set. We made both in the same design meeting (I'm a big fan of group design during meetings) and at the end of the meeting, I pulled them out and said to the team, "These two cards are the perfect examples of what I want to do with the set."

Rescue from the Underworld
Chained to the Rocks

The reason I choose Rescue from the Underworld over Chained to the Rocks is that it is the more unique card, mechanically. By following flavor, I feel we made a card we might never have otherwise made. It also has neat game play and creates cool stories, both things that are the sign of a great design. I also like that it was the creation of not one person but the entire Theros design team.

Okay, now I'll answer some questions from people who aren't coworkers. Hi Mike.

I got a lot of questions asking if we're going to include some Greek mythological thing that Theros did not. I chose this question because Lisandro asked first. The answer is that we have two more sets in the Theros block and we wanted to make sure we saved some resonant Greek mythology things for them.

I will say that design made a card for just about every Greek mythological reference you can imagine (and yes, we designed an Achilles-like creature) but not all of them made it through the development process. Being a cool reference wasn't enough—it also had to play well and work within the environment.

The short answer is wait and see. There's definitely more Greek mythological references coming in Born of the Gods and Journey Into Nyx.

There wasn't a lot of denim in ancient Greece.

The question has different answers based on what you are asking. If you are talking about bestow cards that work within the parameters that we set up (for example, they always grant power and toughness bonuses that match the creatures' stats), then there's some, but not a huge amount. Basically, we left an amount so we had enough to do for the next two sets.

If you are asking what we could do with simply the bestow mechanic using different parameters, then there is a bit more space, some of which I'm interested in possibly using and some of which I am not.

For starters, Theros is just Greek based and not Roman (more on why below). Magic makes use of other cultures in almost every world we build. Lorwyn, for example, was built upon Celtic mythology while Innistrad made use of some Eastern European influences.

Are you asking if we are going to do other top-down designs based on real-world sources, both historical and mythological? Then yes, absolutely we will.

Because we felt the following scenario was horrible flavor:

"Hello, mortal. I am Heliod, God of the Sun! You shall rue the day you made an enemy of me."


They are gods, which meant they had to be of a little more substance than an average creature.

Design actually had a few originally, but as we looked at what we wanted to do with the block, we realized that they were getting in the way, so development rightfully pulled them from the file. The fact that the set ended up the way it did is very much on purpose and as the block evolves I can explain more of what we were up to.

Bestow did end up a little more complicated than we first thought. I actually think the thing I would most want to change is the template for bestow. I think we could have found one that did a little better job of helping players grok how exactly bestow worked.

Am I upset bestow is in the set? Absolutely not. It's the glue that holds the design together. Pull out bestow and everything falls apart. In fact, bestow was originally going to premiere in Born of the Gods and we pulled it back to Theros because we needed it to make the set function.

The set has Tymaret, the Murder King so it already has one legendary Returned. Will we see more of the Returned in Born of the Gods and Journey Into Nyx? Absolutely.

Tymaret, the Murder King

One of the things I liked about the mechanic when Aaron Forsythe first pitched it on a card in Fifth Dawn (that's where it started) was that it made you care about something that you don't normally care about. All of a sudden, a creature is not the same as a creature for a reason other than casting it.

Devotion also allows us to make different creatures matter to different levels. If devotion was just about having a certain color permanent on the battlefield, it pushes you going wide with things like token making. Devotion, on the other hand, pushes in a different direction, making the player prioritize a unique set of cards. In other words, counting color permanents would make a mechanic that encourages something we've encouraged numerous times while devotion encourages a strategy that is unique unto itself.

So, why? It's more dynamic, it's more unique, and it plays better.

Yes, the cycle of the gods' weapons started as "Enchantment Artifact – Equipment." When development got the file, they were told by creative that they had to be legendary. There was only one Spear of Heliod, for example. "Legendary Enchantment Artifact – Equipment" didn't fit on the type line, so Erik Lauer, Theros's lead developer, had to remove something.

It couldn't be "legendary" because of creative's demand. It couldn't be "enchantment" because they were clearly of the gods. It couldn't be "artifact" because, flavorwise, they were definitely artifacts. That meant equipment had to go. Erik asked me if that was okay and I said sure. These artifacts are so powerful that only Planeswalkers themselves can wield them. I thought it was pretty good flavor.

The Ordeals started out as top-down flavored "being sent on a quest of the gods," so they were always quests, but we weren't thinking of the Zendikar quests in particular when we made them. They do both come from a similar flavor space, so even without mentally connecting them, they share some mechanical identity.

I often talk about Magic as being a pendulum (the hanging ball over a pit kind). I feel design's job is to keep pushing the pendulum in different directions. We knew Return to Ravnica block was going to be very popular, so to follow it up, we decided the best course of action was to just go in a very different direction. A monocolored subtheme fit well. Note that we didn't choose to do a monocolored subtheme because of Return to Ravnica block but when the set naturally created one through the flavor, we encouraged it.

No, this is just the set bending in the direction of its mechanics. The goal of this set was to have the heroes build up over time, so we chose +1/+1 counters over temporary buffs to capture this feel. When the pendulum swings back to its neutral position, white will return doing what it always does.

Two reasons. One, Theros uses the mechanics to represent different things. Heroic goes on heroes while monstrosity goes on monsters. What card would have both? A heroic monster? Second, we tend to do things as simply as we can in the first set to allow the block to have space to evolve. If we combined two mechanics on a single card, odds are it would be later in the block.

Except she's not a new character but an existing character, and that character is a Planeswalker. Also, she is following the path of the hero (much like our branded play) which wouldn't make any sense if she was a god rather than a hero.

Being that it was not planned as a cycle, I think the chances of us completing it are low. Although, historically, Magic has inadvertently made and finished cycles without R&D being aware that they were cycles in the first place.

The reason we do new things in design isn't just to do them but because there is a reason. I didn't set out to make enchantment artifacts, but once we realized that we wanted to turn the gods' weapons into cards, it ended up being the way they needed to be.

If we happened to find a card that required all four of those card types, we wouldn't shy away from it, but being that we aren't going to do it just to do it, the chances are small.

We have ten more gods, all minor gods, coming in Born of the Gods and Journey Into Nyx (five in each) and the creative team did use the Greek gods as inspiration. Note that rather than just make direct correlations, they took bits and pieces from different gods. Thassa, for instance, is a combination of Poseidon and Athena. That said, when the dust settles, there are a lot of Greek gods and only fifteen of Theros's gods, so not every aspect of every Greek god will be represented.

Because Magic is a better game when there is variety. Also, lining up costs puts a huge restriction on development and makes it much harder for them to be able to balance each card correctly.

Note that the devotion we're talking to is devotion to an ideal (something all five colors understand very well) rather than devotion to a person or group.

New World Order (NWO) doesn't say there's no complexity at common. Rather, it states that there is some and it has to be properly allocated. NWO allows 20% of the commons to be above the baseline and bestow was allocated within that 20%. In other words, we knew bestow was one of the more complicated aspects of the set and surrounded it with simpler things at common so that it could be the most complex thing.

In the end, was bestow too complex? It ended up a little higher than we thought and, yes, I wish we had a better template. Some testing on our part shows that most players get the basics and that it is interactions causing most of the confusion, not the basics of how the mechanic works.

Because any two-color gold cards will feel like they are from Ravnica. There is a limited mechanical space for two-color cards and Ravnica always uses it all up, so whenever you see other two-color gold cards they are going to feel Ravnican.

Only objects created by the gods are enchantments. The temple was made by the humans (and human-like things) to pray to the gods, so making it an enchantment was never on the table.

Early on, the creative team decided that Greek and Roman had enough distinction that we should use one and save the other for the future. The mythology leaned more toward Greek than Roman (the Romans borrowed much of their mythology from the Greeks) so we chose to lean toward the Greek side of the mythology.

The answer I can give now is that it's what the block plan needed. There is a method to our madness. Ask again after the whole block is out.

Development chooses what dual lands are in a set because they are more about supporting Standard than anything else. Because of the imbalance of how the dual lands were distributed during Return to Ravnica block (they showed up when their guild did), the development team decided to have Theros use the Gatecrash mix to give them a little time in the Standard sun.

I think you are basing you're question on Earth-bound grizzly bears and philosophers. Therosphilosophers are made of sterner stuff than the wimpy Earth philosophers.

A lot. One of the reasons we leaned toward enchantment creatures and a strategy that put Auras on creatures was that black and red, while not great at dealing with enchantments, are pretty good and dealing with creatures. Development also spent a lot of time thinking about the issue as well.

Wouldn't that be "God Human?" No, there are no plans.

I believe the creative team made references to gods where they made sense and didn't push it where it didn't naturally feel right.

The word "god" can be used gender neutrally, meaning it can signify a male or female. In addition, the creature type had to be God (no longer word fit) and we didn't want to have a card referred to as both a god and a goddess.

We did. Early in design we talked about what mechanic to bring back and level-up was on the short list. It fit well with the "improve your creatures over time" feel I wanted for the block. Once we knew we needed bestow, it was going to suck up most of our complexity, so something like level-up would not be possible. (By the way, we chose to return devotion before bestow was in the set, so there were other reasons as well for level-up not returning.)

A recurring theme of today's column is there is a reason behind what we chose to do and not do in Theros. There are still two more sets coming.

Twenty (Plus Fourteen More) Questions

I hope I managed to answer a few questions that each of you may have had about Theros. As you can see, a lot of thought goes into every aspect of the set. If I didn't answer your question here, feel free to drop me an email, respond to this column in the thread, or talk to me through any of my various social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+). I won't have time to answer all the questions, but I'll try to answer some of them.

Join me next week when I venture to where the wild things are.

Until then, may you keep asking questions.

"Drive to Work #66 – Development"

I normally use my podcast to talk about design. For this podcast, I turn the spotlight onto development.

"Drive to Work #67 – Creative"

I follow up my podcast on development by talking about what the creative team does on Magic sets.

One last thing. I've realized that I enjoy doing my podcast too much to ever catch up so I've decided to make two podcasts a week permanent.


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