Designing Rivals of Ixalan Planeswalkers

Posted in Play Design on January 19, 2018

By Melissa DeTora

Melissa is a former Magic pro player and strategy writer who is now working in R&D on the Play Design team.

Hello and welcome back to Play Design. This week I'll be talking about how we designed the Rivals of Ixalan planeswalkers, and how we approach planeswalker design in general. Unlike most other cards in a set, planeswalkers are designed by the people who work on Standard (currently the Play Design team, formerly the development team with contributions from people who play in the Future Future League). We design the planeswalkers later in the process than most other cards, because these are our important story characters and have a huge impact in Standard.

Typically, we know which Planeswalker characters are going to be in the set, we just don't know what they're going to do when the set is in vision design. As worldbuilding is done years before a set is released, the characters in the story are determined. As we get further along, the Play Design team will figure out what the planeswalker will actually do, based on Standard needs.

The Design Process

Planeswalkers are the most difficult cards to design, because each planeswalker must be unique and true to its mechanical identity and flavor. For example, Garruk and Nissa are both green Planeswalkers but are very different mechanically. As we print different versions of different characters, we must make sure that the abilities we give them are true to what the character can do. For example, Nissa is an animist who is good at making mana and turning lands into creatures. It wouldn't be appropriate for Garruk to do that, despite him being a green Planeswalker. Garruk is an assassin and fights and destroys creatures, which is not appropriate for Nissa. The design team maintains a list of Planeswalkers and their mechanical identities, and what each character is allowed or not allowed to do. We often refer to this list when we're having trouble designing a planeswalker. Having the restriction of color pie and character identity makes these cards tough to design at times.

In addition to designing to the character, we also try to make each planeswalker card feel different from other planeswalkers of that character. Many planeswalkers have what we call a traditional ability suite, which means "plus, minus, ultimate." We often stay true to this ability suite, but sometimes we stray from it, especially when we want to make certain characters feel different. You may see a plus, plus, ultimate; a planeswalker with a few pluses and no ultimate; one with only minuses; or a variety of other variations.

One of the most common ways we design a planeswalker is to hold a "mini-team," or a small group of designers who meet for about an hour or two and brainstorm abilities that a new planeswalker could have. Once we have a list of pluses, minuses, and ultimates, the team will meet with the set lead. We'll talk about what kinds of holes the Standard format has, and come up with a design based on that.

The Rivals of Ixalan Planeswalkers

Generally there are two different types of planeswalkers in Standard. The first is strong, versatile planeswalkers. These cards will be powerful in almost any deck of the planeswalker's color. They usually have the traditional plus, minus, ultimate suite of abilities, and they let you do things you will always want to do—such as drawing cards, dealing damage, or destroying permanents. Some examples of these planeswalkers are Chandra, Torch of Defiance; Ob Nixilis Reignited; and Gideon, Ally of Zendikar. We don't make every planeswalker like this—in fact, strong planeswalker designs usually only happen once per block or even year. The reason we don't design every planeswalker with such broadly usable versatility is that it makes the format less diverse. If every deck wants to play planeswalkers, the format becomes about who has the most planeswalkers. Sometimes the availability of too many versatile planeswalkers leads to Superfriends decks, and too many of those can make a format unhealthy. For example, during Worldwake Standard, Jace, the Mind Sculptor; Jace Beleren; Ajani Vengeant; and Elspeth, Knight-Errant were all in the same Standard. These planeswalkers were all very strong and even all played in the same deck at times. The format had little diversity and most decks were some combination of these three colors. Eventually, the format became all about Jace, the Mind Sculptor.

The second type of planeswalker is a build-around planeswalker. This is a planeswalker that fills a niche role and only goes in one type of deck. One example of this is Domri Rade. Since this planeswalker finds creatures and fights with creatures, it shines best in a deck that's nearly all creatures. Midrange and control decks would not benefit from a planeswalker like this.

We have come a long way in planeswalker design. With more and more characters being added to the game, R&D had to learn and adapt strategies in designing them. Build-around planeswalkers became more common. We have also strayed more and more from the traditional plus, minus, ultimate suite of abilities and found other ways for planeswalkers to add and lose loyalty.

For Rivals of Ixalan, we had two planeswalkers in the set: Huatli and Angrath. We wanted one to be a stronger planeswalker that fit into a variety of decks and one to be a build-around.

We chose for Huatli be the build-around. We were very interested in an ability that was not a traditional plus or minus, but added loyalty in a new way. We knew that she was green-white, so we made her the "go-wide" planeswalker (the opposite of Ixalan's Huatli, Warrior Poet, which was more of a "go-tall" planeswalker). Since we were playing around with new ways to add loyalty, we decided to try out adding loyalty for each creature you controlled. This asked the player to build a very specific deck. Her strength is dependent entirely on your battlefield. The more creatures you have in play, the more loyalty she could gain. And unlike most planeswalkers in existence, Huatli can ultimate on her second turn as long as you have the appropriate battlefield. Additionally, her minus is also powerful if you have a high creature count. If you have the right board, Huatli is capable of outright winning the game. This type of planeswalker is strong, but requires you to build a certain type of deck.

Angrath, however, is the opposite. This character was brand new, and the first pirate Planeswalker. We also haven't had a black-red planeswalker in Standard in quite a long time, so for Angrath we chose to make his card strong in a wide variety of decks and not limit it to only one type of deck like Huatli.

The criteria we were given for Angrath's mechanical identity was "uses and punishes opponent's creatures, specifically Act of Treason effects."

Our goals for designing him were that he:

  • Have an ability that can win you the game if he were left unchecked;
  • Help catch you up against an aggressive board; and
  • Be strong against all types of archetypes, not just one (in other words, be a card that you will be happy to play in your main deck).

When designing planeswalkers, one thing that we keep in mind is play patterns. We want to make sure that the game remains fun when it's left unchecked for many turns. In the case of Angrath, the Flame-Chained, the play pattern of "plus until you can ultimate" works nicely. The ultimate should win the game for you if you plus Angrath many times. The opponent is losing life with each activation while filling up their graveyard with discarded cards. One thing we try to avoid in a design like this is the player not wanting to use the ultimate. If the plus will inevitably win you the game, why would you ultimate? We wanted to avoid that with Angrath.

Angrath's second ability is one that he needed to be true to his character. He steals and punishes creatures, so an Act of Treason effect was necessary. During playtesting, we were finding Act of Treason to be very weak, unless the creature was winning you the game outright. More iteration was done until we arrived at sacrificing the stolen creature if it had a low converted mana cost (CMC). This ability met our goal of helping you catch up when you were behind.

The final goal for designing this type of planeswalker is to be a card you could use in most scenarios and something you would happily main-deck. In Angrath's case, he is strong on an empty board (make your opponent discard to get further ahead, working up to an ultimate), strong on a midrange board (best-case scenario: steal their guy, attack their planeswalker, sac their guy), and strong against a board with one low-CMC creature. He is weak when facing an aggro swarm, as five mana is a weak rate to kill one creature, but ideally your deck contains removal, sweepers, or creatures of your own, and the worst-case scenario doesn't come up very often.

That's about it for Rivals of Ixalan planeswalkers. I hope this article gave you some insight into how we approach planeswalker design and the kinds of possibilities and restrictions we face. Thanks for reading. Next week we'll begin the Rivals of Ixalan M-Files.

Until next time,

Melissa DeTora

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