Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths M-Files – The Humans and Everything Else

Posted in Play Design on April 30, 2020

By Jadine Klomparens

A former Magic tournament grinder and a forever Modern Jund aficionado, Jadine Klomparens is currently a contractor working with the Play Design team.

Welcome back to the M-Files! Jadine Klomparens here to bring you a behind-the-scenes look at how the cards in Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths came to be. This time around, we're taking a look at some of the things Ikoria has to offer besides huge monsters.

Magic designers at Wizards of the Coast use lots of tools to help us communicate about the cards we're making. One of those tools is Drake, our internal database where we leave comments about individual cards. A Drake comment can be anything on a designer's mind, whether that's a note of a change made, a worry to share, or just a simple "wow, this is awesome." They don't reflect close to all the work that goes into making a Magic card, but they do give a sense of the shape of each card's months-long journey from idea to finished card.

Click below to meet today's commenters.

Cast of Characters

VERHEYG – Gavin Verhey, product designer
DEL – Del Laugel, principal editor
CJB – Corey Bowen, set designer
DSJ – Donald Smith, Jr., play designer
DGH – Dave Humphreys, Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths Set Design lead
ELI – Eli Shiffrin, rules manager
ABRO – Andrew Brown, play designer
PC – Paul Cheon, former play designer (now esports manager)
DOUGB – Doug Beyer, worldbuilding designer
REGV – Reggie Valk, set designer
AN – Ari Nieh, set designer
JDR – Jules Robins, set designer
DMUS – Dan Musser, game designer
MMAJ – Michael Majors, former play designer
AP – Adam Prosak, play designer
MDT – Melissa DeTora, play designer
TABAK – Matt Tabak, editor
EEF – Ethan Fleischer, set designer
BRYAN – Bryan Hawley, play design manager
KEN – Ken Nagle, set designer
HINDY – Michael Hinderaker, play designer
GFAN – George Fan, former set designer
NKM – Nat Moes, editor
SKOLNIJ – Yoni Skolnik, set designer
MJJ – Mons Johnson, Duel Masters lead developer
AF – Aaron Forsythe, vice president of R&D

Let's dig in!


Fight as One

DGH: New

DGH: Added +1/+0s

ABRO: Cool for Constructed.

DGH: Any chances this should be +1/+1 to also get around -n/-n effects?

DGH: Changing to +1/+1 for math(?)

While working on Ikoria, I always thought of it as three things: Humans, monsters, and Humans and monsters. The idea of some Humans and monsters working together was crucial to the set's themes, so we made sure to make some cards that showed it off. Fight as One is one such card, and one that Play Design was particularly excited about.

Defensive, anti-removal instants like Fight as One are fun cards we like to have in most Standard environments as an option to go against strategies that load up on removal for your creatures. The problem with making them is that most designs in that space look very similar to each other. Making something unique in the protection space isn't easy, but Fight as One's ability to protect a Human or a non-Human, or both, lets us execute on a protection spell in a new, exciting way.


Of One Mind

DSJ: I could see this or Anticipate gaining some rider if you control both a Human and non-Human creature. Either cost one less or draw +1 card.

DGH: Trying cost one less for now

DSJ: I've been liking this in Draft a lot more than anticipated. Adds a cool "side quest" to complete and calls out that creature types matter.

VERHEYG: Have really been enjoying this. Seems like it could be fun in Constructed. :)

DGH: Now cost two less.

MMAJ: Fun deck-building quest.

DOUGB: I love the art this would get. :)

At one point in Ikoria set design, there was a push to get more "Humans and non-Humans together matters" cards into the file. Some cards, like Fight as One, were created wholesale to do that. Others were modified from their original design to highlight the togetherness aesthetic. Of One Mind entered the file as a Divination reprint but went to print as something else altogether.

Our approach on the cards we were modifying was to try a whole bunch of different rewards and see what people liked in our playtests. Of One Mind's mana discount proved to be one of the most fun rewards we tried, and it quickly became clear that the new text was going to stick. In fact, we liked it so much in Limited, we wanted to give it a shot in Constructed as well and increased the discount to two mana to make it a reward potentially worth building around.


Mythos of Illuna

DGH: New from hole filling

DGH: Changed so you can target opposing stuff

DGH: Changed to copy any nonland

DGH: Can copy lands

DGH: Added a "when you do" based on a game where this was cast and no chance to respond to the token entering felt wrong. Is this template okay?

ELI: Fine by me.

DGH: Creature token is gaining a fight ability, which future clones can now make use of (including any more of these Mythos you might cast). One of the more meaningful functional changes in this last batch.

With the Mythos cycle, we wanted cards that one- and two-color decks would consider playing, but that also unlocked some extra oomph in decks that had access to all three of their colors. Specifically, we thought a lot about making these attractive to two-color decks that could easily splash a few sources of the third color just to access the upgrade some of the time. This goal put a lot of pressure on the three-color upgrade effects we chose, as they needed to be exciting and strong enough to feel meaningful but not so strong that casting the card when you couldn't manage the bonus felt worthless.

Mythos of Illuna was one of the harder ones to pin down. The general scheme of the base card making a token copy that fights if you have the upgrade felt good, but the details were tricky. Fighting is a pretty powerful upgrade, so we took some time to make sure that casting the base spell by itself was worth doing. To accomplish this, we slowly expanded the range of things that could be copied until we were happy with the base spell. After that was done, we took another look at some timing issues with the fight ability. Originally, fight was part of the effect of Mythos of Illuna, but that meant opponents had no chance to use removal to kill the token creature before the fight was over. We didn't like that gameplay, so our last change to Mythos of Illuna was to the template to make sure there would be a window for counter-play.


Heartless Act

AP: Love this card. Maybe uncommon is more appropriate? Could be too generous, given that it's VERY close to Heroes' Downfall. I would believe 1BB here.

DGH: Move to uncommon

GFAN: I'll note that on my very first playtest, this card read as "Destroy target creature with no +1/+1 counters on it." I didn't realize the keyword counters also counted as counters.

ABRO: Exciting card. I'd suspect we go to sorcery here. But I love trying it at this rate.

DSJ: I hope we don't. I think this is about the power level of 1B removal we want. (I actually think Cast Down is a touch too weak for reference).

PC: +1 DSJ

KEN: "Uncounterable"

ABRO: Now modal; wanted a stronger two-mana instant-speed removal card. Talk to Doug about concept.

NKM: This might be playable in Vintage. Good against Shops creatures.

Magic has a long and proud tradition of black two-mana instant removal spells that can kill any creature, with just a few small exceptions. Well, now Doom Blade, Cast Down, Victim of Night, and Ultimate Price have a new friend: Heartless Act. We aim to keep the power level of removal in our environments a little bit cyclical, and with Ikoria, the time had come to introduce a strong black removal spell.

The original design of Heartless Act didn't have the option to remove three counters from a creature. That version was a strong card, but we found that there were a few too many creatures in the environment that came with counters for us to consider it a truly premium removal spell. We wanted Heartless Act to provide slightly wider coverage, so we added the option to remove counters. Now, no matter what kind of creature you're facing, Heartless Act will have something to say about it.


Extinction Event

DGH: Too strong? Four mana? And exile? Or other text?

DGH: 1BB to 3B

DGH: Added exile

Despite its lack of Drake comments, Extinction Event was a widely discussed card among Play Design team members. The design looked like it could play a cool role in the environment as a sweeper-style effect that got rid of what you needed to get rid of but still left your opponents with some battlefield presence to work with. We were also excited for it to be available as a safeguard for the odd or even companion decks, if necessary.

To accomplish this, we needed Extinction Event to offer a compelling reason for why you would want to play it over a more traditional sweeper effect like Shatter the Sky. The trade-off we hit on was that Extinction Event would let you exchange the ability to deal with their entire battlefield for the ability to reliably deal with the portion of their battlefield you most cared about. By moving Extinction Event from destroying to exiling, we ensured that Extinction Event could answer some creatures that something like Shatter the Sky couldn't and made the choice of which sweeper to play with more interesting.


Fire Prophecy

DGH: Scry to loot or "mulligan"?

ABRO: I buy that here

DGH: Preferences?

DSJ: I think I'd rather this London loot (bottom of deck). I'd like people to commit more to deck building if they're trying to enable stuff like Arclight Phoenix.

ABRO: Scry -> London mulligan

Fire Prophecy entered the Ikoria file as a functional reprint of Jaya's Greeting, but we wanted to try something else. The general structure of the card was doing good work in Limited, so we were just interested in exchanging the scry part of the card for another type of card selection. With the London mulligan now fully introduced to players, we were interested in exploring "bottom of deck" technology in other contexts and decided to try out a red London loot on Fire Prophecy. We liked how it played, and the text was here to stay.


Cathartic Reunion

DGH: Changed to separate from cycling. Reprint KLD. Hoping concept works well here too.

DGH: Maybe Chapter 3 of the Forbidden Friendship storyline? Not sure what chapter 2 is.

DOUGB: Haha awesome.

ID: May be too much total red looting given Thrill of Possibility. We can test.

MJJ: One of the better targets for Expansion

One of the risks of printing cards that are variants of the same effect is something Play Design calls "critical mass" issues. Some effects are safe to print as many versions as we want in the same Standard environment. For instance, if we printed four variants of Fire Prophecy in an environment, we wouldn't expect a deck jamming sixteen copies of that effect to be strong. But if we printed four versions of Savannah Lions, we would expect White Aggro to be a strong deck in that Standard.

When Cathartic Reunion got added to the Ikoria file, we flagged it as a potential critical mass risk given the presence of Thrill of Possibility in Throne of Eldraine. We weren't sure how much having access to eight red rummage spells would improve decks interested in that effect, but we knew we needed to find out. After testing, we found that having both Cathartic Reunion and Thrill of Possibility simultaneously in Standard was fun and kept Cathartic Reunion in the file.


Vivien, Monsters' Advocate

DSJ: Do we think we could get a satisfying number set at five mana from this design?

DGH: Trying at five mana, -2 to -3, 4 to 3 loyalty

PC: Super excited to put this into play

MMAJ: "Next time" is easiest knob. Worried we would just encourage playing all 1's and 2's as a Frenzy variant. Sweet card.

DGH: Preemptively changing to "next time." Good note

HINDY: Is this supposed to be able to get copies of the same card?

DGH: Added "different name." Need to check fit on this.

DGH: Changed text to not care about names and for a "lesser" CMC if those are words that work? If not, maybe fit issues again? ". . . than it"?

DGH: -3 to -2

It's always interesting to see how effects that let you search your library end up getting used. When a card with such an effect shows up in a file, it's easy to imagine it playing out in any number of ways. It's Play Design's job to figure out the strongest ways to use these cards and make sure those ways result in fun games. The minus ability on the first version of Vivien, Monsters' Advocate we played let you search your deck for a creature with the same converted mana cost as the one you just cast. This was interesting to think about but, in practice, made us want to search for another copy of the same creature almost all the time.

This play pattern was fairly powerful, but our bigger concern with it was that it wasn't very fun. Tutoring effects that encourage you to play a bunch of one-ofs in your deck as a toolbox of narrow effects to find in certain situations are awesome, and Vivien was the opposite of that. To fix this, we first tried only letting you search for a creature with a different name and the same converted mana cost as the creature you cast. The problem with this version was that it was really difficult to play a variety of differently named creatures at high mana costs. One of the most natural sequences with Vivien is to play her on turn five and then use her minus ability to cast a six-mana creature on the next turn, but most Standard decks have a hard time wanting to play several different six-mana creatures.

After that, the next version we tried let you search for any creature with a lesser converted mana cost than the creature you cast. We really liked knowing that if we put a three-mana creature in our deck for its narrow effect, we'd be able to find it with any of our larger creatures. This gave Vivien's minus ability the consistency it needed to encourage including a toolbox of search targets in your Vivien deck. This version of Vivien's minus was a little weaker in terms of raw power since it gave you less mana in creatures, so we moved the loyalty cost from -3 to -2 to compensate.


Skull Prophet

ABRO: Nice card.

DSJ: Can we have this mill three?

DGH: Critical mass of ETB self-mill in FFL?

DGH: Moved ETB to second activated ability, mill two to mill one

DSJ: 3/1 might be an interesting mana dork stat line. Have we ever done that before? Could give some power back.

DGH: Sure, 2/1 -> 3/1

HINDY: Can we combine the two abilities? This one bothers me for whatever reason.

DGH: I kinda like them this way so you can undo mana easier. Can this mill you for two instead?

DGH: Now mills two

Originally, Skull Prophet's ability to put cards from your library into your graveyard was an enters-the-battlefield trigger instead of a tap ability. After some testing, we found that Skull Prophet was stronger than we would like alongside the escape cards from Theros Beyond Death in Constructed and changed it to the activated ability version to limit the power of that interaction. We still wanted Skull Prophet to give you something you couldn't get with the other mana creatures in the environment, so we settled on a 3/1 stat line to give Skull Prophet some real offensive potential.

The other thing I want to highlight here is the decision to put the mill ability as its own activated ability instead of having it be part of the mana ability. Mana abilities are a little special in Magic for many reasons, not least of which is that they are the class of ability that gets taken back the most often. It's very common for players to fiddle with their mana sources as they cast spells, tapping and untapping until they get it perfect. For that reason, we try to avoid stapling hard-to-take-back effects to them, and it turns out that flipping the top two cards of your deck into your graveyard is a pretty hard thing to take back.


Death's Oasis

DGH: Changed again. New card, Scrap Trawler Soulshift space.

ABRO: Added Raise Dead on ETB

DGH: Cut Raise Dead, added Plaguecrafter text

DGH: Cut Plaguecrafter, added sac, added self-mill

DGH: Added "nontoken"

Death's Oasis started out with just the text that let you return a creature with lesser converted mana cost to your hand whenever a creature you control died. That design was exciting to read but didn't quite deliver on the excitement in play. We found it to be too hard to fill your graveyard with creatures you could chain together while taking a turn off to cast Death's Oasis itself. The card needed a little more, so we tried a few things out. The first couple things we tried were cool but didn't actually help you get the promised engine of the card going.

To make it easier to get your engine started, we baked some graveyard filling into the effect. With that, any creature dying got you some value, even if you weren't actually able to return something. We were now happy with the card's effect but were somewhat worried this card might lead to players running out of cards in their library and losing the game because their engine was working too well. The card wanted an out clause, so we created the sacrifice effect so that you would be able to get it off the table once its job was done.


General Kudro of Drannith

TABAK: Confirm Kudro can sacrifice himself?

DGH: Confirmed

TABAK: Kudro's hardcore.

DGH: Want this to do a little more

DGH: Added graveyard hate

ELI: Should the trigger condition include "under your control"?

TABAK: Assuming yes.

HINDY: Felt incidentally strong against escape—unsure if positive or negative.

DGH: Changed last from two creatures to two Humans

The interesting Play Design work that went into General Kudro of Drannith was deciding whether its graveyard hate text was good or bad for the environment. General Kudro's graveyard hate is a great example of what Play Design calls "splash damage." The graveyard hate text on General Kudro isn't powerful enough on its own to put General Kudro in your deck just for that. If all you care about is graveyard hate, there's plenty of better options. Instead, General Kudro's power lies in giving Human decks graveyard hate effectively for free without them having to work for it at all.

We want all strategies to have answers you can go to if you want to beat them, but we do want you to have to give something else up for those answers. If a strategy has enough splash damage against it littered around the environment, that strategy will have a very hard time succeeding even if no one is trying to beat it. On the other hand, a small amount of splash damage against hard-to-interact-with strategies can help those strategies be more fun to play against. After playing with General Kudro and exploring the environment, we came to the conclusion that there wasn't enough splash damage against graveyards around for us to be worried, and the graveyard hate text on General Kudro made it to print.


Eerie Ultimatum

AP: Love it. May want to cap to 7 CMC? May not?

VERHEYG: Nice!

DGH: Winner of rare poll by a good margin.

DSJ: Tried to build a deck with this but realized Nethroi was just more powerful aside from some combo kill scenario from hand. I feel the designs are too close and we should pick one.

DGH: CMC to names

DMUS: Whoa, exciting.

DOUGB: Sweet line of text! Exciting.

With Ikoria, we had the chance to complete the cycle of Ultimatums started in Shards of Alara. Completing iconic cycles started many years ago can be a difficult task. The new cards have to live up to the reputation of the old ones, a reputation bolstered by years of play. Safe to say that whenever we hit upon lines of text that were awesome enough to be on an Ultimatum and at a good power level for Standard, we fought to make them work in the set.

The original text on Eerie Ultimatum let you return any number of permanent cards with different converted mana costs to the battlefield. The card was hugely popular internally but had some unfortunate similarities to the design of Nethroi, Apex of Death, which let you return any number of creatures from your graveyard to the battlefield with total power ten or less. To fix this, we buffed Eerie Ultimatum and accentuated the differences between the two cards by making Eerie Ultimatum return cards with different names rather than different converted mana costs. This made the Ultimatum less about numbers, more about just playing lots of different cool stuff, and just all-around stronger.

That's all for the Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths M-Files. Hope you enjoyed it, and see you next time!

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