Making Enemies

Posted in Making Magic on August 4, 2014

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 Predator Week. In honor of Garruk's dark transformation highlighted in Magic 2015, we are dedicating a week looking at the darker side of Magic. Back during Nicol Bolas Week, I wrote an article about the nature of villainy and what it takes to make a good villain. Today, I'm going to be talking about what it takes to make a good villain card. I'll be doing this by walking through numerous villain cards of the past that I had a hand in designing and talk about how they were created. In other words, today is card-design stories—villain edition.

Greven il-Vec (Tempest)

One of the rules of villains is what I call the Brains/Brawn Henchman Rule. The main villain needs to have a lesser villain to serve as a sidekick. The reason for this person is you need to give your heroes a chance to work their way up to defeating the main villain, and this sidekick serves as a prelude to the "final boss battle." Now, it is important when creating your villain to have one villain with brains and one villain with brawn. If the main villain is a brainy villain, then the sidekick needs to be brawny. If the main villain is brawny, then the sidekick needs to be brainy.

So the main villain of the Weatherlight Saga (well, the beginning part, anyway) was Volrath. Volrath was clearly a brainy villain, which meant he had to have a brawny sidekick. Thus, Greven il-Vec was born. Greven was created to be big and vicious, a strong fighter with no mercy. We used him in the beginning of the story to deliver our hero a defeat. (It's important that the task at hand feel daunting, so it's customary for the hero to suffer a loss to the villain—often to the villain's sidekick—early in the story.) Greven attacks the Weatherlight with his ship, the Predator (ooh, it's Predator Week) and gets into a hand-to-hand fight with Gerrard—which he is clearly winning—when Vhati il-Dal, Greven's second-in-command, does something stupid (i.e., firing upon the ship, which causes Gerrard to fall overboard).

In designing this card, we needed to make sure it was both powerful and scary. Usually, in a fight, Greven was going to kill the other creature. The card didn't want to be too clever, though, because this is the brawny one and not the brainy one. Why is Greven a good villain and card? Because he kills other creatures.

We decided to give him decent-sized stats with power greater than toughness. 7/5 seemed good. We then gave him the fear ability (not named at the time; for newer players, fear is similar to intimidate, except the color was spelled out to be black). But then we ran into a problem because of this card:

Vhati il-Dal

This is Vhati il-Dal, second-in-command of the Predator I talked about above. In the story, when Vhati sees Greven and Gerrard fighting, he gets a great idea. He could fire on the Weatherlight, blowing it out of the sky, which would then cause it to plummet, killing everyone aboard—including the one man between him and becoming captain of the ship. It was a great idea in theory, but the Weatherlight was able to take a little more damage than Vhati thought it could. So all he really does was apparently kill Gerrard, which made Greven quite angry (in retrospect, a poor decision).

In the story (spoilers), Greven kills Vhati by throwing him off the ship. The problem was that in a fight in the game, Vhati's ability would prevent Greven from destroying him. That felt like it contradicted the story too much. Meanwhile, we wanted to cost Greven aggressively to get him out onto the battlefield. We found a solution we felt solved both issues. When Greven entered the battlefield, you had to sacrifice a creature. If you had nothing to sacrifice, Greven would sacrifice himself.

This allowed us to both price Greven cheaper and give him a little extra flavor that helped with the Vhati issue. Greven's the kind of villain who is constantly killing other creatures, including his own men. When he shows up, creatures get sacrificed. That's what happens to Vhati.

Volrath (Nemesis)

By the time Volrath finally got a card, he had been one of the villains of the storyline for multiple years. The key to capturing Volrath was the following:

  • He was smart
  • He was a shapeshifter
  • He was power-hungry

At the time, we were pulling back how many multicolored cards we were doing in sets, so there was a desire to do Volrath as a monocolored card. In retrospect, this saddens me, because Volrath is clearly a blue-black villain, not just because of his shapeshifter abilities but also his desire to constantly learn things. Volrath was famous for his cruel experiments he conducted in his quest to discover new secrets. Yes, he planned to use that knowledge to gain more power, but he also was interested in the knowledge itself. That said, the decision was made to make him mono-black.

That created a bit of a challenge. Shapeshifters are traditionally done in blue, where you're able to use cloning technology. The trick was finding a black way to feel shapeshifter-y. In addition, we wanted the card to have the ability to surprise the opponent. As I stated above, Volrath was a brainy villain and we wanted you, the player, to be able to occasionally outthink your opponent.

The solution was to grant him an ability to temporarily pump his power and toughness. This is basically a variant of the shade ability, which is in black. We chose to have you discard a creature card as a cost partly for flavor and partly as a costing mechanism, but also because your opponent wouldn't necessarily know (as long as you have at least one card in your hand and two open mana) when you would be able to grow Volrath. The threat would often be there.

We chose to make him 6/4 just to make sure he was imposing.

Cabal Patriarch (Odyssey)

The Odyssey story was two years long and ran through both Odyssey and Onslaught block. The protagonist was a man named Kamahl (he started as a pit fighter and ended as the "fist of Krosa"). One of the antagonists, and the main antagonist for the Odyssey portion of the story, was a man only known as the Cabal Patriarch. He was the leader of a group called the Cabal, which ran the pit fights that Kamahl started the story fighting in.

The Cabal Patriarch was evil, vindictive, and very smart. I wanted to make sure all of that showed up in his card design. To convey that he used others, I liked the idea that he sacrificed other creatures. I also knew the effect needed to be on the meaner side, most likely something that could kill other creatures.

I also liked the idea that he made use not just of living creatures but dead ones as well. He was the leader of the Cabal, a black organization, and in no way was death any kind of escape from the clutches of the Cabal. Also, remember that this block had a graveyard theme and we wanted our major villain to play into that theme. Cabal Patriarch's second ability was meant to mirror his first. Cabal Patriarch was able to do the same thing by exiling a creature card in your graveyard as he was sacrificing a creature. We even talked about having just one ability which read "Either sacrifice a creature or exile a creature card from your graveyard:" but at the time that template didn't work (I don't remember why).

The big question was, what we would make that ability? I wanted it to have the potential to kill creatures but a simple "destroy target nonblack creature" (the popular black kill effect back in the day) was too much. I liked the idea that you might have to combine effects to kill something. I wanted you to be able to sacrifice a creature and then use the same creature in the graveyard for the second activation.

Giving -N/-N felt like a good way to create an effect that could be combined to kill things, but -1/-1 didn't feel substantial enough, while -3/-3 seemed too strong. We tried -2/-2 and it worked wonderfully in playtesting. The last thing to figure out was his size. We wanted him big enough to be hard to kill and ended up with a 5/5; with activation costs (it was important to me that both activations were the same) was what development felt he needed to cost for those abilities.

And that is how the Cabal Patriarch was designed.

Phage (Legions)

In the Odyssey/Onslaught story, Kamahl had a sister named Jeska. Through some dark means, Jeska got transformed into an evil character named Phage, whose touch killed. When I sat down to design the character, that trait seemed like the most important quality.

The keyword for deathtouch didn't exist but the mechanic did (as Richard had put it on two green creatures in Alpha) so, obviously, Phage could have the then-equivalent to deathtouch. That wasn't particularly exciting, though. By Legions, we had used the ability numerous times (enough, obviously, for us to eventually keyword it) so it seemed more business as usual than something splashy. So I thought to myself, what was the splashiest way to convey Phage's touch of death?

The most over-the-top idea I came up with was that she had deathtouch not just to creatures, but also to players. What if her damaging players made them lose? Now that was splashy. I checked with the rules manager to make sure I wasn't breaking some rule I didn't know of, but I was told that the rules could handle it just fine.

Next was the developmental impact. What did it mean to have a creature that could kill in a single blow? In theory, we could make a 20/20, which most of the time would have a similar function, but it would have to cost a lot more. After some playtesting, it was decided that a six-mana () 4/4 was safe enough. Her 4/4 was chosen to make her large enough that she wasn't so easy to block but small enough that there were answers to deal with her.

Further playtesting showed that, as you started getting creative with how to abuse her, she got pretty dangerous. Her ability had to specifically work with combat damage and not just damage. She also was a bit of a problem if you got her out much earlier than normal, so we added the clause to keep her from getting onto the battlefield any way other than being cast. To stay in flavor, we had her kill you if you got her there any other way.

Phage ended up being the second-most popular card in Legions, following the other antagonist of the set, Akroma. (For the full story of how I tried to stop Akroma from having the design she did, read this article I wrote during Akroma Week.)

Nicol Bolas (Conflux)

Nicol Bolas first showed up in the expansion Legends, with the creature type Elder Dragon.

The mechanics of the card played up that Nicol Bolas was someone to be feared, even if the art was a little less threatening. ("How shall I destroy you? Research!") The card quickly became a fan favorite and Bolas, one of Magic's classic villains, began his ascent. It wasn't until many years later, though, that he would get another card, this time a Planeswalker card—something that didn't exist the first time Bolas showed up on cardboard.

By the time we were designing the Planeswalker card, we knew Bolas was one of the big baddies of Magic, possibly the biggest one. That meant his card had to hit a few key points:

  • He was powerful and very dangerous
  • He was a puppet master
  • He was a giant dragon

One of the trickiest things about conveying power in Magic is that it can mean one of two things. The card can be powerful because its combination of cost and ability is potent or it could be powerful because once it's on the battlefield, it's very hard to deal with. The first way requires an aggressive cost, which is harder to do with something that is supposed to represent great size. That means we had to lean toward the second. Yes, Bolas was hard to get onto the battlefield (he's not all that easy to convince to help you), but once he's there, he's a threat to be reckoned with.

The earliest version of Nicol looked like this:

+3: Return target noncreature permanent to its owner's hand. Then that player discards a card.
-1: Destroy target creature.
-7: Target player discard seven cards. Target player sacrifices seven permanents. Nicol Bolas deals 7 damage to target player.

His first ability was basically the spell Recoil. His second ability was a kill spell without any restriction. His third ability was a riff off of his Legends card. Just like the legendary creature, he deals 7 and makes the player discard his or her hand. The sacrifice of seven permanents was added to just make it feel even more evil.

Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker | Art by D. Alexander Gregory

My issue with this version was that it made him seem powerful and dangerous and even conveyed the scope of his size as a dragon, but it did very little to convey a sense of him being a puppet master. As far as I was concerned, that was Bolas's number one trait. So I massaged the abilities a little. The first ability dealt with noncreatures. To keep the card elegant, I was trying to make the abilities as short and sweet as possible. I wanted Bolas to feel elegant. So, I changed it from Recoil to a straight up destruction spell.

But wait, wasn't the second one a destruction spell? It was, but Bolas was a puppet master. Destroying creatures seemed so wasteful. A good puppet master makes use of creatures, so I changed it from a destruction effect to a stealing effect. Then, to hammer home that he was the ultimate puppet master, I made his ultimate the Mindslaver ability. What's more puppet master than taking control of your opponents?

When I turned in my suggested version, the development team liked it—well, most of it. Development thought the change to the first two abilities was an upgrade, but the team really liked the original third ability. I argued that it felt a little too Time Spiral-y where the ability was cute because it was a nod to his old card. The counterargument was that it was the kind of ability that conveyed the devastation of Bolas and that the tie to his original card was a cute Easter Egg. I argued my case for the Mindslaver ultimate the best I could, but it was a fight I was unable to win. The ultimate I designed would later be put to good use on Sorin Markov.

Elesh Norn (New Phyrexia)

When we first told Bill Rose, the Vice President of R&D, that we were going to go to New Phyrexia (and remember: originally, the first set of the block, the one that came out as Scars of Mirrodin, was originally going to be New Phyrexia with a reveal at the end of the block that this scary new world used to be—da da dum—Mirrodin), he was concerned it was going to be difficult to convey the feel of the Phyrexians through colors other than black.

You see, the first time the Phyrexians showed up in the Magic storyline, they were led by a man named Yawgmoth and, through his guidance, the Phyrexians only showed up on black and artifact cards. That bloodline of Phyrexians was killed off during the Weatherlight Saga, but we had plans to bring them back. You don't just walk away from one of the best villains the game has ever had. Bill's concern, though, was that we were going to have trouble capturing the essence of the Phyrexians in other colors. I was assigned with the task of showing Bill that we could do it. Bill felt that white was the most anti-Phyrexian, so the task before me was to show him a few examples of white Phyrexians.

The key to making this work was to figure out the overlap between white's philosophy and that of the Phyrexians. With some thought, I realized the overlap was actually pretty big. Both white and the Phyrexians are trying to make, in their minds, a better world. They take the actions they do because they believe that, with their blueprints, they can build a better society. White and the Phyrexians both appreciate structure and want to create equality for all. True, the Phyrexian idea of equality is a world where everything is Phyrexian, but now we're just quibbling over details.

One of the cards I made took the idea that I improve my creatures by taking something from your creatures. I felt this had a strong white feel, as the creature was looking out for it own but doing so in a way that still felt very Phyrexian. Bill liked the sample cards and we were allowed to proceed.

Rout | Art by Igor Kieryluk

Now, flash forward many months. The first set shifted from being New Phyrexia to being Scars of Mirrodin, as we made the choice to have the transformation of Mirrodin happen during the block, ending in the creation of New Phyrexia. New Phyrexia was being led by Ken Nagle, and he was trying to find ways to layer in things to make the set feel more Phyrexian. Remembering the cards I had made for Bill, I offered him up an early version of Elesh Norn.

I think my original version might have been an uncommon that gave +1/+1 to your creatures while giving -1/-1 to your opponent's creatures. This card was based on a design I had done year's earlier in black (on Nemesis's Ascendant Evincar; i.e., evil Crovax). This card had a white feel overall, even though elements of it (the -1/-1 granting) was not something we normally did in white. New Phyrexia, we felt, needed to be a little darker than normal, so we were searching for ways to bleed a little black into the other colors, but in ways that matched the feel of those colors crossed with a feel of Phyrexia.

To flesh out this idea, I turned this card into a white uncommon cycle. Ken liked the cycle so much he ended up moving it to rare and made the effects bigger: +1/+1 and -1/-1 turned into +2/+2 and -2/-2. The creatures also went from being on the smaller side to being a bit bigger. Ken then realized this cycle made perfect sense as the cycle of legendary praetors that led each of the five colored factions. Just a few final tweaks and Elesh Norn was born.

"No. Mr. Bond, I expect you to die."

We're out of time for today. I hope you had fun peeking into the designs of some of Magic's most infamous villains. A story often hangs on the quality of its villain, so it's something we spend a lot of time on.

As always I would love hearing any feedback on today's column. You can email me or through any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week when I get explosive.

Until then, may your hero have an uphill battle against a superior villain.

"Drive to Work #144—Redflagging"

Last year, I did a podcast on New World Order, where I introduced the concept of something called redflagging—that is, where we set up a series of rules to help us figure out when a common card might be too complex. In today's first podcast, I explain the redflagging process and walk through what the most common red flags are.

"Drive to Work #145—Getting a Job in R&D"

My second podcast today answers the most common question I get: "How can I get a job in R&D?"

Latest Making Magic Articles


January 17, 2022

The Big Picture by, Mark Rosewater

Welcome, everyone. Regular column/blog readers, or podcast listeners, have often heard me say "Magic is not one game, but many games." Today, I plan to dive a little deeper into what that...

Learn More


January 10, 2022

Even More Words with R&D by, Mark Rosewater

In 2005, I wrote an article called "A Few Words with R&D" where I talked about many of the slang and vocabulary words R&D uses. In 2016, I wrote a follow-up called "A Few More Wor...

Learn More



Making Magic Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All