Zendikar Talk

Posted in Making Magic on October 12, 2009

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.

Hello, everyone. I've spent my preview weeks talking about Zendikar and the big picture. I walked you through the design of most of the mechanics. Now it's time to focus on some of the smaller pictures. I'm going to spend my column today exploring some of the stories about individual cards.

    Archive Trap

The original version of Archive Trap "Cranial Extractioned" the opponent (it removed all copies of a single card from their library). The idea was that they would trigger the trap by trying to search for something, but the trap would spring and remove the card (at least, the one you thought they wanted) before they could get to it. Flavorful and cool, right? Only one problem: the rules.

Mark Gottlieb (the Rules Manager / my nemesis) worked on the problem for a while but in the end, it just didn't work. Your opponent got the card before the effect could remove it. When we realized that the design version could not work, we changed to its current version with the flavor of "If you access your own library, you trigger the trap and allow me access to trash it."

    Beast Hunt

When designing a set, I'm always looking for interesting reprints that blend into the new set's theme. With Zendikar, the two reprints I threw into the very first playtest were Harrow (more on that below) and Mulch.

Mulch quickly proved in design to be too good in the environment so I changed it to "Creature Mulch," which is just Mulch with the word "land" changed to "creature." Creature Mulch was the card handed off in the design handoff to development. Creature Mulch proved in development to be too strong so the development team changed it into Beast Hunt.

One other noteworthy thing to say about this card. A while back I explained that Zendikar was not about pirates and dinosaurs. Before I made this bold statement, I checked Multiverse to make sure that neither creature type existed in Zendikar (both are Magic creature types, although Dinosaur is currently only in silver-bordered land). What I didn't do was ask Creative if either existed in the world. Why do I bring this up? Because the art for Beast Hunt appears to negate my claim that there are no dinosaurs in the plane of Zendikar.

You got me. My claim has been proven factually incorrect. Does this mean Worldwake will have pirates? I feel it best if I don't promise one way or another.

    Bladetusk Boar

Intimidate, huh? Where did this keyword come from? It actually came about in a far less direct manner than one might guess. One of the things we did during Magic 2010 design and development was to fix up things we felt didn't make logical sense on the surface. The keyword fear always bugged the creative team because the adjective was backwards. The creature with this ability wasn't afraid. It didn't have fear; it created fear in others. These creatures were scary not scared. As this fit into our goals for the new core set, Aaron made the call to remove fear from M10.

Aaron then asked me if I was okay with removing fear from the game. I asked for a few weeks to think it over. My answer when I returned was: "No, I need it. Black needs to have several different ways to have evasion for Limited."

Aaron said that if we brought it back, we were thinking about changing the word. If you're doing that, I said, then I have a plan for you: Have the keyword mean that I can only be blocked by creatures of my own color. That way we can spread the ability out to other colors. As I've mentioned numerous times in this column, I was frustrated that fear was a keyword we could only make use of in black.

Playtesting showed that it was too powerful if it didn't allow artifact creatures to block as well, so we made that change. All the creatures with fear were changed over to intimidate. Then Aaron piped up again. If we're changing the keyword so that it can go in other colors, he asked, shouldn't we put it into another color? I agreed and said that red seemed like the color that most likely would get the ability in the secondary slot, for both flavor and mechanical needs. Bladetusk Boar is the creature that resulted from that conversation.

One last note. On a black creature, intimidate works exactly like fear except for one difference: Color changing effects now interact with it.

    Bloodchief Ascension

For many months in the file, there was a rare creature with this ability, and a very popular one at that. When we were looking to fill out the Ascension cycle we got the idea to turn it into the black one as the ability seemed very flavorful for something you'd have to work to achieve.

    "Convertible Turtle"

I promised I would talk about Convertible Turtle when we got to Zendikar. For those who have been trying to deduce which card was Convertible Turtle, I have to 'fess up: The card didn't actually make it into the set. But have no fear turtle lovers, the card will be coming out in Worldwake. Here's what happened. I came up with a cool idea for a common blue landfall creature. With just that info, I have faith that people will be able to make pretty good guesses as to what this card does.

While the card was much beloved (probably for the name as much as anything else), it got, as we say, "forced out by the numbers" during development meaning that the need to put other things in the set forced the card to lose its slot. Recognizing this, the Worldwake design team saved the card and put it in Worldwake. Mike Turian, the lead developer for Worldwake, liked the card and kept it in the set during development. In fact, he even made it better by fixing one of the key problems with the card. When I do the equivalent article to this one after Worldwake comes out, I promise to point out Convertible Turtle.

    Crypt Ripper

This card was in the very first Zendikar file under the name Hasty Shade. The biggest difference was that it was for a 1/1. The card was mocked all during design. What good is a Shade with haste if you have to spend all your mana to cast it? My reply was that this set was rewarding players for playing with a lot of land, and Hasty Shade was an excellent late-game card. Plus, we had never done a Shade with the haste ability before (mostly due to the fact that haste has been secondary in black only since Future Sight). Mike Turian (on the Zendikar development team) liked the Shade and got Development to change it to a 2/2. Once it started doing a little better, it got mocked less and less. At the final set-review slideshow, I was quite happy to see that Hasty Shade had made it to the finish line.


I often talk about how there are cards I try hard to get into Magic but have to keep resubmitting set after set. Disfigure is one of these cards—just not mine. Known as "Black Shock," the card has been put into many sets by Aaron Forsythe. Finally, in the wild world of Zendikar, Black Shock found its home.

    Grappling Hook

While designing with the "Adventure World" flavor in mind, we got a note from the creative team that they felt we needed a bunch of explorer-style Equipment. I tasked the rest of my team (Doug Beyer, Graeme Hopkins, Ken Nagle, and Matt Place) with creating top-down explorer-style Equipment. I chose to make a grappling hook, because I liked that it could be used for climbing or used aggressively as a weapon. I really wanted the Equipment in this set to have that dual-purpose feel. The final version is very close to my original version, with only two changes: One, my version gave the equipped creature +2/+0 rather than double strike. Two, my version was common.

It took only one playtest to realize that this ability was a wee bit nutty in Limited. We tried moving it up to uncommon, but that still warped Limited too much, so the card got moved up to rare. The double strike change happened in development because now that the card was rare, they wanted the card to feel rare.

    Grim Discovery

While this card does a lot of cool things in this set, it's interesting to note that its original purpose no longer exists in the set. When we first started messing around with "land matters," we decided to have each color interact with land in a unique way. After a playtest, we tweaked it so that each "interact with land" element would show up in two colors.

In this version of the design, black and red both did a lot of sacrificing land. Black and green returned lands from graveyards to hand for effect. This card was made to fit into the black/green theme in such a way that it worked well with the black/red theme. Black was very good at playing spell lands (remember there were a lot more in early design), sacrificing them for effect, regrowing them for a different effect and then playing them again. This flavor very much defined how black was played. Grim Discovery is one of the few remnants of that part of the design.


There are certain cards that I champion, and Harrow is definitely one of the cards I always look out for. I designed the card in Tempest design (calling it Crop Rotation, which would later become the name of an Urza's Legacy card). I convinced Bill (Rose) to stick it into Invasion because of the synergy it had with the domain mechanic. And I put the card into Zendikar even before we knew we were doing landfall. It had me at "land set." The joke around Ramp;D is that each time I bring it back, I find a way to make an environment that makes it more powerful than the last time it showed up. I'm not sure how exactly I'm designing the next Harrow block, but I'm sure I'll come up with something awesome.

    Journey to Nowhere

I am a huge fan of Pacifism and Oblivion Ring. My favorite take on white's answers is that white has the solution to every problem. The sticking point is that there is always an answer to white's answer. I love the flavor that white doesn't like killing. It wants to neutralize it in a way that doesn't permanently harm it. Of course, things that aren't dead can come back to haunt you. (Of course, in a world of magic, things that are dead can also come back to haunt you.)

This card came about because I wanted to have Oblivion Ring in my set, but I didn't want to repeat it in the large set for the third year in a row. I tried out this version early in design, and it never changed.

    Kor Cartographer

For all of design, this card was part of a cycle. Each one allowed you to search for the appropriate basic land when it entered the battlefield. For a while, the cycle allowed you to choose between putting it into play tapped or putting it into your hand. In this set, each choice is one you might make. Development knocked down this cycle to just white, as they didn't want to bleed the ability to get lands out of the library so easily to all the colors, and green was already well stocked with common land search.

    Kor Skyfisher

Up in the entry for Grim Discovery I talked about how different colors in early Zendikar design had different synergies with land. White and blue's thing was bouncing lands for positive effect. The earliest version of this card bounced a land. I got a lot of notes that the word "land" was showing up in too many text boxes, so I changed this from "land" to "permanent" to hide what the card was up to. Along the way, other parts of the set become synergistic with this card (I'm looking at you, Allies), and it managed to stick around even after the mechanics that prompted it faded away.

    Landbind Ritual

Knowing we were following on the heels of a glut of multicolored cards, we thought it was important to have some monocolored themes running through the set. As we were land-centered, we liked the idea of caring about how many of a particular basic land you might have on the battlefield. Landbind Ritual was one of the first cards we made that cared about this theme.

    Lorthos, the Tidemaker

There comes a time during late design or early development where the designers get a list of legendary characters that need designs. Each one comes with a description that lets the designers know the essence of that legend. The write-up for Lorthos went something like this:

For this card we are looking for a design for the legendary creature Lorthos. He is some kind of kraken or serpent or octopus that has been terrorizing...

Here's what I saw:

For this card we are looking for a design for the legendary creature Lorthos. He is some kind of kraken or serpent or octopus that has been terrorizing...

I was off. 8/8 for eight mana was the only possible power/toughness/mana cost combination. Now how to use the eight tentacles? My original design was:

You may choose to not untap CARDNAME during your untap step.
T: Tap eight permanents. These permanents do not untap as long as CARDNAME is tapped.

While everyone loved the legendary Octopus, there was some concern that players don't want to lock down their own 8/8. The mechanic was changed to trigger when Lorthos attacks.

    Lotus Cobra

One of the quirky things about Hollywood is how decades can go by with no one making a movie about an asteroid hitting the earth or volcanoes or Christopher Columbus, and then all of a sudden two movies go into production at the same time. How does that happen? Well, Magic design has a similar phenomenon.

Often in design, I will ask for my team to send in designs only to have two people make the exact same card. Sometimes it's an obvious choice because there's just a card that is the lowest hanging fruit. Other times though, it just kind of happens. Case in point, Lotus Cobra. Who designed Lotus Cobra? I did. Oh, and so did Graeme Hopkins (of Great Designer Search fame). We didn't work together. We didn't riff off of each other. Each one of us were tackling a problem—interestingly enough, not the same problem.

I was trying to make an improved Ley Druid. Graeme was trying to fill a legendary creature slot. I started with the following card:

Better Ley Druid
Creature – Elf Druid
T: Untap target land.

Then I changed it to make use of the landfall mechanic.

Landfall Druid
Creature – Elf Druid
Landfall – Whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control, untap target land.

Then I decided to be a little trickier.

Landfall Druid 2.0
Creature – Elf Druid
T: Untap target land.
Landfall – Whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control, untap CARDNAME.

That was a little too good, so I changed the effect.

Landfall Druid 3.0
Creature – Elf Druid
T: Add one mana of any color to your mana pool.
Landfall – Whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control, untap CARDNAME.

This was also a little on the strong side, so I made the first effect the landfall effect.

Landfall Druid 4.0
Creature – Elf Druid
Landfall – Whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control, add one mana of any color to your mana pool.

Meanwhile, Graeme was trying to make a legendary creature based on some kind of druid character who was very in touch with the land. (I don't know what happened to this character, but he never made it into the set.) As a legend, this was going to be either a rare or mythic rare. Graeme's submission:

Tiller of Turntimber
Legendary Creature – Human Druid
Landfall – Whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control, add one mana of any color that land could produce to your mana pool.

"Landfall Druid 4.0" and "Tiller of Turntimber" were submitted at exactly the same time. I realized they were very close to the same design, so I went with my costing but in the slot Graeme had designed for. And that is how both Graeme and I designed the same card independently.

    Pyromancer Ascension

Tom LaPille talked about the creation of this card two weeks ago. We were in a meeting to try and revamp quests. The attendees were myself, Tom, Matt Place, and Gregory Marques. We had already made the decision to change maps into quests (and thus from artifacts to enchantments). The question was whether we could find a simple, elegant way to do them.

Matt presented the idea that you would finish the quest by doing the same thing multiple times rather than the three different things the maps required, and that gave me an idea. What if, I suggested, we had quests that you had to "skill up" to use? That is, what if there were some quests that represented more powerful spells that you couldn't use until you'd mastered a certain skill? The skill would be represented by a game action that you would mark with a counter every time you did it. The team wasn't quite sure what I meant, so I designed Pyromancer Ascension on the spot to demonstrate my point. The team liked the card so much that not only did they move ahead with this version of quests, they even kept my proof-of-concept design in the set.

    Scythe Tiger

When we started exploring land mechanics, one of the first older cards I turned to was Rogue Elephant. Thinking that it was a little too strong, I made our version 3/2. Obviously, I was a little off on the power level, as development kept it at 3/2 but added shroud.

    Shoal Serpent

One trick that always works when you have a triggered effect that gains you abilities – have a card with an ability that the creature doesn't want that goes away when you hit your trigger. We only tend to do this trick once or twice per set but it is a clever design trick nonetheless.

    Steppe Lynx and Friends

This cycle (Steppe Lynx, Windrider Eel, Hagra Crocodile, Plated Geopede, and Territorial Baloth) was in the very first playtest after we decided to try out landfall. There were only two differences: one, our base stats were less aggressive, and two, the landfall bonus was only +1/+1. During devign (the process in between design and development where design makes changes based on development's concerns), we were told that we weren't making landfall matter enough. We needed to be bolder. So we upgraded the creatures' stats and changed +1/+1 to +2/+2, and never looked back.

    Trapfinder's Trick

When we created the traps in design, we made Trap a subtype of whatever card type we were using at the time. Mark Gottlieb would often chime in that we cannot use Trap as a subtype unless it mattered mechanically. Don't worry, I promised him, we will. And thus, Trapfinder's Trick was born. (One other other card, Trapmaker's Snare, makes use of that subtype.)

    Vampire Nighthawk

Numerous times in our Multiverse database, someone would comment that deathtouch and lifelink don't really combo with each other, to which someone else would reply, "It's deathtouch and lifelink. Why are you messing with something so awesome?"

    Zendikar Trip

I hope you enjoyed the little stroll through Zendikar design. It's always fun to look back and remember the journey along the way.

Join me next week when I explain why there's a sucker born every minute.

Until then, may you enjoy the journey on the way to the destination.

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