Under Besiege, Part 2

Posted in Making Magic on January 24, 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 Mirrodin Besieged Preview Week 2. Last week, I introduced you to the design team and the two new mechanics. This week I'm going to talk about the big picture and many of the moving parts that went into designing Mirrodin Besieged. What's a preview column without a preview card, so sometime before I sign off I'll show you something you probably haven't seen yet. It's both a cool build-around-me Johnny card and one of my favorite Limited cards in the set.

    Besiege Perilous

To understand the mindset of Mark Gottlieb and his Mirrodin Besieged design team (Gregory Marques, Ken Nagle, Mike Turian and myself), let's examine what issues they had to deal with. A large set begins with a blank piece of paper (well, not always—sometimes, things before or after a block will define it partially), the small second set never so. Mirrodin Besieged began with the goal of following the path set by Scars of Mirrodin. The role of a large fall set is to set the structure and tone for the block. Scars of Mirrodin introduced us to two very clear factions, the Mirrans and the Phyrexians. Mirrodin Besieged had to take that structure and tone and advance it.

In addition, it had the job of getting us to the third set. Here's where the story gets a little hard to tell. An important part of Mirrodin Besiged is setting up "Action" (the codename name for the 2011 spring set; it will be called Mirrodin Pure if the Mirrans win the war and New Phyrexia if the Phyrexians win the war). As it's a surprise, I can't talk about it. Not yet anyways. (Trust me, when the time comes you'll hear plenty about it from me)

The foundation of story is something called "three-act structure." All stories can be broken down into three distinct parts. Conveniently, most Magic blocks are three sets long. This means that the second set is telling the story of Act II of our tale. What is Act II? For Scars of Mirrodin block, it's war. In Act I, we are introduced to the environment and the characters. Act I introduces the conflict but does nothing to pay it off. We see what is coming but none of it happens during Act I.

I like to compare Scars of Mirrodin to the beginning of a horror film. We visit whatever the setting is and meet the seemingly normal people living their seemingly normal lives. We, the audience, get to see that things aren't quite so normal. In fact, something horrific is about to happen and we get to watch the people walk around ignorant of its existence. Sure, someone starts to notice something is wrong but everyone around ignores that person as the one who is mistaken. At some point though, the humans come face to face with the horror and then the story kicks into drive. That kick is the cross between Act I and Act II.

To see what the Mirrodon Besieged design team had to care about, let's examine what has to happen to kick off Act II:

    80%-20% Becomes 50%-50%

I spent a great deal of time talking about how we drew a hard line at twenty percent for the Phyrexians in Scars of Mirrodin. I even explained how we set hard and fast rules mechanically for what got to count as a Phyrexian card (for those that missed it, here). Why did I draw such hard lines? Because I wanted to make sure that the evolution of the set was clear. If the Phyrexians started at 50% then Scars of Mirrodin would have felt like the war set. It would have felt like Act II. To be Act I, the horror has to start in small numbers. You have to get a hint of what is to come but it can't be in the volume appropriate later in the story. Why? Because one of the ways to show a side advancing is to show it grow in numbers.

As I've been using horror films for my analogy I'll stick with it. Notice during Act I of a horror film you barely see the monster (or whatever it is that will be running amok later in the film). The horror film will deliver on the horror but it starts by just giving you little glimpses. It sets tension while allowing the later film to deliver the true horror.

So Act I didn't want too many Phyrexians. Mirrodin Besieged, on the other hand, needed to make the Phyrexians feel like a real threat. Add to it that we wanted to hang the third set on the outcome of the war, we needed to get to a place where the two sides felt equal. Nothing says equal quite like 50%-50%. Once we knew that the middle set wanted to be 50%-50%, we worked back and that's how the 80%-20% number was reached.

Once you open up the floodgates to bring the Phyrexians up to 50%, a few things have to change. First, the hard and fast rules have to stretch a little bit. While everything on the list needed to stay Phyrexian, there was no way to reach our numbers without allowing other things to also bear the Phyrexian watermarks. As an example, let's talk vanilla and French vanilla creatures. In Scars of Mirrodin, Mirrodin had to take the complete load. When you're 80% of the set, you carry the cards that have to exist to make the set function. But come Mirrodin Besieged with the numbers changing, the Phyrexians are now responsible for taking its share of necessary cards. These cards will be carried less by the mechanical flavor and more by the creative flavor. A vanilla 8/8 can be Phyrexian if the creative makes it so.

The other half of this change is the reduction of the Mirrans. We wanted to make sure that we continued the Mirrodin themes (metalcraft, imprint, charge counters, darksteel, Equipment, etc.) from Scars as well as introduce new war elements, such as battle cry. This meant that the Mirran side was going to be very tight. It's not easy to keep the status quo and add new elements while sluffing off over a third of the cards allotted to you.

    Evolution of the Phyrexians

Another thing that had to happen if we were going to tell our story was that we had to let the Phyrexians do what the Phyrexians do. If you remember back to my article on designing the Phyrexians during Scars preview week 3, I explained that I came up with four words to describe the Phyrexians to help my design team have something to hang the Phyrexian mechanic design on. Those words were: adaptive, toxic, unrelenting, and viral. Note the first word, adaptive. What that means is that the Phyrexians have the ability to constantly shift, becoming whatever they need to succeed.

If the Phyrexians are adaptive, that means that we had to see this in the mechanics. They had to be able to do more things that they did last we saw them. Part of this was a new mechanic, living weapon, which we saw last week, but a bigger part of this was taking mechanics already in the Phyrexian domain and expanding them.

Let's begin with my favorite Phyrexian mechanic: infect. In Scars of Mirrodin, infect was solely the domain of black, green, and artifacts. In Mirrodin Besieged, we expand infect to a third color—white.

Why white? Because there were only three choices: red, white and blue. Blue already had a Phyrexian component with proliferate. That leaves red and white. We chose white for two reasons. One, creative felt strongly that red was the color most resistant to the Phyrexians. Red is all about freedom and individuality. Second, white offered the most interesting space to move infect into. Red infect creatures would have been much closer to what we'd already seen in black and green.

Another benefit of the shift is that it played well into our new drafting order. Starting with Mirrodin Besieged, the draft order goes from A-A-B (A being the first set and B being the second set) to B-A-A. Having all the white infect in the first pack helps you have a better idea if your infect deck wants to go into white. Mirrodin Besieged has a number of options, like white infect, that play nicely with the new draft order.

The other Phyrexian mechanic is proliferate. In Scars, proliferate only appears on blue and artifact cards. In Besieged, it shows up in two other colors (on one card each; there is just a smattering of proliferate due to the fact that development needed to keep it at low numbers to keep it in check). The first new color to have proliferate is black, on a card already previewed—Spread the Sickness.

The other new color to have proliferate is on my preview card today. If you want to see it, just click here.

Yes, proliferate moves into green, and on a repeatable effect no less. When we first created proliferate in Scars design we toyed with the idea of having it in two colors. From a color pie perspective, green seemed like the perfect choice. Green already manipulates counters and has a theme of growth. In fact, the first version of Plaguemaw Beast appeared in Scars design. In the end, we decided to keep proliferate in just blue and got rid of our green proliferate cards. Mark Gottlieb liked Plaguemaw Beast and moved it to Besieged.

The card was removed during development in an attempt to tone down the number of proliferate cards. I went to Erik Lauer, the lead developer for Mirrodin Besieged, and begged him to put this card back in. It was my favorite proliferate card in the set and I really wanted to create a build-around-me proliferate card in a second color to help stress the spread of the Phyrexians. Erik agreed and Plaguemaw Beast found its way back into the set.

    The Mirrans Become the Phyrexians

One of the scariest things about the Phyrexians is that they turn you into them. The Phyrexians grow by taking over their victims and turning them into Phyrexians. The reason that the Phyrexians went up 30% as the Mirrans went down 30% is because the Phyrexians turned about a third of the inhabitants of Mirrodin into Phyrexians. It was important for Mirrodin Besieged to play this up because much of the horror of the Phyrexians comes from this growth through corruption.

There were two big ways to pull this off. The first was mechanical and the second was flavor. Let's start with the mechanical option. Last week on @dailymtg's Twitter feed, Monty Ashley revealed this card to the world:

I created this card for one reason. (Okay, two reasons—I also thought it was pretty cool.) I wanted to communicate that Phyrexia's advancement was coming through the transformation of Mirrodin and its inhabitants. How do we mechanically convey this? Take a card that is iconic to Mirrodin and show it changed to Phyrexian.

I spent a lot of time looking through Gatherer at Mirrodin, Darksteel, and Fifth Dawn. I made a list of what I considered not only iconic but also powerful. Phyrexians converting a little mana Myr doesn't exactly strike fear in the heart of the players. I wanted to take something that stood for the power of Mirrodin and corrupt it.

Meanwhile, I had another completely independent goal. I wanted to create an infect creature with a power of 10 or greater. Many years ago (in Legions) I designed the card Phage the Untouchable and it was something we haven't really tapped since. Magic doesn't want too many "I hit you and you're dead" creatures, but it felt like we'd waited a proper amount of time since Phage the Untouchable. You can see the peanut butter and chocolate lining up to collide. My short list included Darksteel Colossus. Adding infect to it would allow me to check off both my boxes.

Blightsteel Colossus is the perfect poster child for the mechanical way to communicate Phyrexian corruption of Mirrodin. It takes a card identified as Mirrodin and then adds a mechanical element that clearly communicates "now Phyrexian."

The flavor way makes use not of the rules text but of the name, art and flavor text. As you look through Mirrodin Besiged, you will notice that some of the Phyrexian cards look familiar. That's because last time you saw them, they were Mirran. Yes, when concepting cards in Besieged, the creative team took the opportunity to demonstrate where the new Phyrexian cards came from.

I feel this combination of mechanical and flavor reinforcements does a great job of conveying the true horror of Phyrexia and what their advancement means to the Mirrans.

    Calling the Shots, Part Deux

In addition to evolving the story, Mirrodin Besiged had one other important role—being the second set in the Scars of Mirrodin block. I've talked many times about the responsibility of the second set to both follow in the footsteps of the first set while blazing its own trail. Here are a few of the things the design team had to think about to accomplish this goal:

    Evolution of Deck Themes

One of the goals of the second set is to shake things up. Yes, it wants to build on the first set but it also wants to do a few things that freshen the environment. There are several ways to do this. One is by introducing new mechanics. Another is by taking existing themes and tweaking them.

The Phyrexians made this goal pretty easy because their adaptive nature meant that they wanted to do things differently than they had in Scars. For example, moving infect into white and proliferate into black and green means that there are now deck options that simply didn't exist before. When drafting Scars, for example, an infect deck tended to be black-green, mono-black, or mono-green (there was also some options with blue and proliferate). Besieged now offers up infect decks that include white. Green-white or white-black decks, for instance, become viable.

The shift to the Mirran side was helped by the war theme. As the Mirrans are fighting a war, it allowed the design team to push more aggressive mechanics. You'll notice when you draft Besieged, that Mirran decks have a little more kick to them than they had in just Scars alone.

    Evolution of Mechanics

Sure, there's some new mechanics but the second set also is responsible for advancing the mechanics of the first set. Let's take a quick look at what Besieged is doing with the things it inherited from Scars.

Infect/Poison: I've already talked about the mechanic moving into white, but there's more going on. For example, take a look at this card:

Mirrodin Besieged introduces the concept of "poisoned." The idea behind poisoned is that there is some value to poison counters beyond "ten and dead." Now a player has to think about whether or not they want to take the first point of damage. This allows us to make cards that put into question the idea of poison decks being all or nothing.

Next, let's take a look at this card:

Phyrexian Vatmother uses poison as a cost. In Scars, you only poisoned your opponent. With Besieged, you now have the option of taking poison yourself.

Proliferate: There aren't a lot of new proliferate cards, but there are a few advancements. First, there's the color spread. (See my preview card above.) The other new use for proliferate is a subtle one. Rather than being the thrust of a card's mechanic, Besieged has some proliferate cards that use proliferate as a rider.

This change is important because it makes it easier to throw proliferate cards in a deck. Spread the Sickness, as an example, will be put into decks for the creature kill, but will create more opportunities for cool proliferate interactions. I've been pleasantly surprised how often the rider has eclipsed the card's primary function.

Metalcraft: You know above I said that something had to give when you dropped from 80% to 50% while adding a new mechanic. Well, innovation of metalcraft was one of those things. The set still has some new metalcraft cards but nothing new was added.

Imprint: It seems like every new imprint card adds a twist as no two tend to work the same. My favorite new imprint card is the one I got to preview last week on Twitter:

Myr Welder sets off all my inner-Johnny bells. (I admit out of context, that line might be interpreted wrong.)

    Besiege-Gang Commander

Basically, what I'm saying today is that there are a lot of moving pieces to Mirrodin Besieged's design. We have the war. We have the further corruption of the Mirrans by the Phyrexians. We have a whole slew of mechanics all being juggled at once. What results is something pretty cool.

For those of you unaware, if you go to the Prerelease you are in for a slightly different experience than normal. When you sit down you will be given three Scars of Mirrodin boosters and then for your Mirrodin Besieged packs you will have your choice between three Mirran boosters or three Phyrexian boosters.

Each booster only has cards with its own watermark (plus Tezzeret as he has no watermark so both sides get to play with him). We've never done anything remotely like this so if you want to be part of history, attend a Prerelease this weekend. (Click here to find out what Prereleases are near you, and check out today's feature article for more about what to expect at the Prerelease.)

That's all I got for today. Join me next week when I go card-by-card and tell a few smaller design stories. (Wait, didn't I just do this?)

Until then, may you never know the icy touch of a Phyrexian.

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