Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths M-Files – The Monsters

Posted in Play Design on April 23, 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. Hope you like monsters, because this trip behind the curtain is going to be full of them.

Magic designers at Wizards of the Coast use a lot 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 come close to reflecting 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
SKOLNIJ – Yoni Skolnik, set designer
MJJ – Mons Johnson, Duel Masters lead developer
AF – Aaron Forsythe, vice president of R&D

On to the cards!

Helica Glider

DEL: Review—concepting challenge?

VERHEYG: Consider dropping flying here and having it be a +1/+1 counter instead? Never seen anyone not pick flying.

CJB: FWIW I've seen FS picked on this a few times

DSJ: I've picked first strike a few times, especially on the draw vs. aggro. I think we should have some "obvious" versatile creatures too.

VERHEYG: I come back months later to inform the world that I, too, have chosen first strike on this a couple of times now. Some future play design article can make fun of my claim with a short, pithy comment.

DGH: Nightmare Squirrel!

ELI: Thanks to Rosewater, now I know there's a unicode character for squirrel.

First blood.

Now that that's out of the way, let's talk about Helica Glider. This Nightmare Squirrel is part of a common five-card cycle of choose-your-own French vanilla creatures (Magic lingo: French vanilla creatures have no abilities other than a keyword). Most Magic sets have a few French vanilla creatures in them, as they are a great way to make creatures that pack a punch in Limited but don't add much complexity to battlefields or booster packs. In Ikoria, one of the cool things keyword counter technology let us do was add a bit of spice to the French vanilla concept while preserving their role as minor contributors to complexity.

Gavin's specific concern that flying was going to be picked every time may not have panned out, but his underlying worry is certainly valid—we don't want to make cards with false choices. If a card gives you two options but it's always strategically correct to pick one of them, it ends up feeling like a trick question on a test. There's plenty to think about in a game of Magic without having to be on the lookout for gotcha questions on your cards. In this case, first strike on Helica Glider was chosen and impactful often enough throughout our playtests for us to be happy with this choice.

Shark Typhoon

ABRO: Could also see UUX for the cycling and making the same X/X flying token.

DGH: Changed to cycle trigger per ABRO's request

DEL: Playtest favorite

PC: This card doesn't look like it's quite there. Could we try X1U to cycle? The mana is very rough when trying to make a Jeskai cycling deck.

DGH: This change sounds fine. Will go with that until I hear otherwise.

ABRO: 4UU -> 5U

DGH: Believe this will be changing to Shark tokens

ABRO: The Sharks are also on a more Constructed card. Everyone wins.

DOUGB: OMG this art :D

REGV: This card is silly and awesome.

Shark Typhoon's an enchantment, so I guess it's not technically one of the monsters of Ikoria. But we don't really do Drake comments for tokens, so I'm going to make an exception to my own rule in order to show you the backstory of this awesome card. The Pit really geeked out over this card when the art came in, and I think you can see some of our excitement reflected in these Drake comments.

The creative and art on this card is amazing, but some cool mechanical game design went into this one as well. We started with the idea that we wanted Shark Typhoon to be a Metallurgic Summonings style finisher for late-game-oriented decks, with an exciting cycling trigger for when things weren't going according to plan. The more we played with that scheme, the more we realized that the card was super flexible, and the more we wanted to play with it in a wide variety of decks. The colored-mana intensity of the card was getting in the way of that, so we went down to requiring only a single colored mana in both costs.

Hunted Nightmare

DGH: New design in general space AF requested. Maybe more appropriate at rare, but I had this slot to fill.

ABRO: I think this has a higher chance of success down at three mana. 1BB 4/5?

DGH: Changed to ABRO's suggestion

AN: Feels more rare than mythic rare to me.

DGH: Demoted to rare

JDR: This is really cute.

DMUS: Love it

Progress isn't always linear in Magic design (or any other creative discipline). Sometimes you set out to make an uncommon and end up with something that looks more like a rare. Hunted Nightmare started life as a fill for a mythic rare slot but wasn't a perfect fit. As Play Design fiddled with the numbers to make the design the most fun version of itself, it moved down the curve and started to look even less mythic rare.

Play Design encounters this a lot as it works on the details of card sets. Rounds of iteration on a card have moved the card further and further away from the goals set out for it, until it's clear that the card is not meeting its original goals. At crossroads like these, a decision must be made: do we change the goals or the card? Generally, the answer will depend on how well liked the card is. In the case of Hunted Nightmare, we liked the cleanness of its design enough to want to preserve it and found a spot for it at rare where we could keep it as-is.

Dirge Bat

DGH: DT to flying for a Bat

MMAJ: Cool!

ABRO: Now symmetrical. FFL.

DGH: Suggested numbers for a nerf where it is still fringe?

ABRO: I can't think of anything outside of 4BB to mutate. The onboard nature of it puts you in a tough bind. I wouldn't want to make this particular design strong.

DGH: 3BB to 5B to mutate

DGH: Void to Pulse back to 5 mana to mutate

DGH: And back to 5B to mutate

DGH: 2BB 3/3 to 1BB 3/1

JDR: I was pretty surprised to see this go echoing. I feel like my repeatable kill spells should be bad against token swarms.

DGH: Pulse to Hero's Downfall

DGH: Gains flash, up a mana on costs. 3/1 -> 3/3 Took a colored mana out of the mutate cost so it isn't too hard for the UB deck?

Dirge Bat wins the Ikoria edition of the award for the card that came up the most in Play Design meetings. We wanted a black rare mutate creature that mutated to kill opposing creatures, but the details proved to be extremely tricky to nail down. Designs that lean into mutate triggers are inherently snowbally, since you quickly start getting a lot of value every time you mutate. When some of that value comes in the form of removing your opponent's stuff, the snowball rolls down the hill faster and hurts more when it hits.

We quickly moved from Dirge Bat's ability destroying all things of a chosen number (Void) to it destroying everything of the same name (Maelstrom Pulse) and finally landed on it just killing a single thing (Hero's Downfall). We wanted to limit the snowballing as much as possible, and the potential to destroy multiple things at once just wasn't helping. That change helped, but we were still having trouble with the Bat.

We had hit a wall. The Bat wasn't fun when it was strong because too much of its power was in removal snowballing. We needed a way to make Dirge Bat stronger without making it better at locking opponent's out of the game, but we didn't have one. Until one fateful day when we hit upon the idea of giving the Bat flash. There's a lot of power in being able to pass the turn with your mana up and decide later what you want to do with it, but that power doesn't directly improve the Bat's ability to snowball games. We finally had the ability to give power back to the Bat in a fun way.

Yidaro, Wandering Monster

DGH: New from Corey.

DOUGB: This as a "wandering monster" is delightful.

ELI: If you have one in Limited and draw it and two Mountains in opening hand, the odds of getting it free on turn three looks like 0.018%

AP: I think this would be cool if it were harder to cast but had trample or another keyword.

CJB: Agree. It's very easy to miss doing the cool thing on this card. Higher cost for higher payoff would feel cooler to me.

DGH: Up to 1R to cycle, now seven mana to hard-cast

DGH: Added haste, trample. 10/10 -> 8/8.

MDT: Looks super fun in Constructed <3

Some cards are more open-ended than others. The cool thing about Yidaro, the core of its design, is that it's a huge monster that meanders its way from zone to zone throughout the course of a game, until eventually it finds its way to the battlefield and starts demolishing your opponent. Super awesome, but the idea leaves a lot of questions unanswered. How big is huge, exactly? What length of journey is the most fun? How big a push does a Turtle need to get it out the door?

That last one maybe goes a bit too far down abstraction lane, but for the most part, these are the kinds of questions that Play Design is best equipped to answer. The first change we made was to make Yidaro's quest a little more difficult to complete. We wanted players to have to sacrifice some development if they wanted to cycle Yidaro right away every time they drew it, and that just wasn't happening with a one-mana cycling cost. After that, we made sure it would be worth completing the quest by giving Yidaro a more meaningful body—huge numbers may look impressive, but haste and trample do a better job of guaranteeing the reward for completing the quest is meaningful in most game states.

Kogla, the Titan Ape

DGH: New top-down

PC: Doesn't look very exciting as a Constructed option. Think we can juice this card up a bit.

MMAJ: Don't think this card can get much or any stronger due to Castle Garenbrig. Have been pretty happy with it.

PC: I was wrong, this card gave me a savage beatdown.

ABRO: 7/6 deal damage trigger naturalize -> 6/6 attack trigger naturalize

ABRO: 6/6 -> 7/6 FFL

DGH: Changing this to be "up to one" on the fight.

TABAK: That change is in. Kogla can now behave appropriately given his fear of deathtouch creatures.

Play Design does a lot of things, but our core mission is to keep our play environments fun and balanced. That means it's our job to keep track of all the cards that will be in Standard together and to always be on the hunt for powerful interactions between cards in different sets. Using Castle Garenbrig to power out Kogla, the Titan Ape on turn five was one such interaction that Play Design had its eye on.

Getting your six-drop ahead of schedule without having to take turns off to cast ramp spells is a lot of power, and it meant that we had to keep a tight rein on Kogla's aggressive power. Trample, for instance, was off the table—we didn't want a turn-five Kogla to end the game on its own that easily. Instead, we looked to give a bit of a boost to the card's utility and moved destroying an artifact or enchantment to an attack trigger instead of a combat damage trigger. After all, the weakness of giant green creatures without trample has always been chump blockers, and we didn't want to exacerbate that issue by letting a blocker save both seven life and an artifact or enchantment.

Sprite Dragon

VERHEYG: Should this have square stats now that it's always gaining the counters? (It's uncommon, so it doesn't need to, just posing the question. How absurd is this as a 2/2?)

EEF: This looks sweet!

ABRO: 2/2 for Constructed?

DGH: Added haste. 1/2 -> 1/1

ABRO: Even better

The original version of Sprite Dragon was a fun card doing good things for Limited. When we tried to have fun with it in Constructed, we found it to be a little weaker than we would like. Finding ways to buff cards in one format but not another is one of the most challenging things in Magic design, and it comes up a lot. A simple stat increase would have made Sprite Dragon stronger than we wanted in Limited, so we had to look for knobs that would be more powerful in Constructed then Limited. Giving Sprite Dragon haste allowed us to dial in the power level we were looking for in both formats at the same time.

Regal Leosaur

BRYAN: This looks like it could be a Constructed card, but it's too hard to mutate into without a keyword using Constructed cards. Might be correct, leaving the note for now.

BRYAN: Definitely a Constructed card with new mutate paradigm

DGH: Up a mana to mutate

DGH: "Other" as nerf

DGH: 1RW 3/2 to RW 2/2

ABRO: Exclamation-pointing cat

One of the things Play Design keeps in mind while working to get a new mechanic like mutate to be fun in Constructed is that we need cards that do lots of different things. We need standalone cards with the mechanic that can be fun and useful in any deck, we need cards with the mechanic that ask you to build around them, and we need cards with the mechanic that ask you to build around them in a completely different way. If all the build-around mutate cards do the same kind of thing and point toward the same deck, eventually the best version of that deck will be found and the "correct" cards to play decided.

Enter Regal Leosaur. Because of how mutate triggers work, most mutate designs encourage you to load up on the same creature and create a single, hugely powerful monster to win the game with. Regal Leosaur fights that by encouraging you to go wide with creatures to get more value from its mutate trigger. If you want to play a deck with Regal Leosaur, you're interested in ways to make token creatures and get aggressive, things other mutate decks aren't necessarily interested in at all. Making mutate cards that push toward different strategies helps us ensure that mutate cards stay fresh and fun even as the metagame becomes well explored.


DGH: New

DGH: Changed to modal—draw or lose

ABRO: You may draw or hit them -> just draw a card

ABRO: Adding mana gate to draw

TABAK: Changed "a" to "another" for now to help the obvious misread.

DGH: 1UB to UBB. Reverted text.

Creating cards that fit into decks that already exist in the environment is a tricky thing. "Options, not power" is the mantra. It's awesome when we can give old decks new options that they will be interested in against certain decks but not others, it's less cool when we give them new options that are strictly better than the options they had before.

Play Design's goal was for Slitherwisp to be both exciting in a pure Dimir Flash deck and for it to give Simic Flash players the option of moving to Zagoth Flash if they wanted to play with it. Ideally, metagame churn would make different versions of the Flash deck strongest at different points in time.

This is a hard mark to hit, and the first versions of Slitherwisp we tried didn't quite manage it. We found that incorporating enough black sources into Simic Flash to play Slitherwisp wasn't enough of a cost in deck building for the choice to feel meaningful. After trying a few different solutions, we eventually landed on adding a second black mana symbol to Slitherwisp to ensure that choosing to play a mana base that could cast it would be one option among several and not the default.

Obosh, the Preypiercer

DGH: Do sources have CMCs?

DGH: We want to say, "If a source you control with an even converted mana cost would deal damage to a permanent or player, it deals double that damage to that permanent or player instead."

ELI: They do, that's fine.

ABRO: Suggested FFL Change 3HH 3/5

DGH: Taking FFL suggestion.

The companion mechanic presented a lot of unique challenges for Play Design, not least of which was just how hard they were to change. Normally, changing a card's mana cost isn't that big of a deal. When Play Design reached the point where we wanted to try a five-mana version of Obosh, the Preypiercer, we had to change everything.

Obosh was originally the even companion. We started testing it at four mana, dinged the rate from there a couple times, and eventually decided that there wasn't a four-mana version we would be happy with. We wanted to try five mana, but five being an odd number complicated things. Getting Obosh where we wanted it meant that we had to switch which companion was odd and which was even, which meant going back to the drawing board on all the decks we had built and starting from scratch. The switch was a success though, and both Obosh and the even companion ended up in a place we were happy with after a few tweaks.

Kaheera, the Orphanguard

ELI: Intent is that each creature must be a Cat, or must be an Elemental, etc.?

DGH: Yes? Each creature in your deck has to have at least one of these types is the intent.

ELI: But not necessarily the same type (one can be a nightmare cat, one can be a hound elemental)

DGH: Correct

SKOLNIJ: Okay with creatureless decks trading sideboard slot and information reveal for a Gray Ogre? Both a real cost. Although information cost goes away if there is also a creature Kaheera deck in the meta.

MJJ: Those creatureless decks could have a lot of tokens, so it isn't always just an ogre.

ABRO: Other creatures you control get +1/+1 2/2 -> laundry list +1/+1 3/2

Play Design was hyper aware of all the ways to "cheat" companions throughout the design process. Creatureless decks having access to Kaheera, the Orphanguard was something we were thinking about from day one. After weighing the pros and cons, we decided we were okay with it—but we wanted the value to be as low as possible so that the question of whether it was worth a sideboard slot was as interesting as possible. This meant that we wanted companions to be as close to simple French vanilla creatures as possible for players who weren't actively building around them.

The earliest version of Kaheera that we played with was an anthem for all your other creatures, not just the types called out in the companion restriction. After playing with that, we decided that even creatureless control decks had too many incidental token creatures for us to be happy. In the end, we went with Kaheera only giving out a bonus to those called-out creature types. Don't worry, Kaheera still loves tokens—as long as they are Cats, Elementals, Nightmares, Dinosaurs, or Beasts.

Snapdax, Apex of the Hunt

AF: So many Lightning Helix riffs.

MMAJ: Card felt extremely strong. On watch list—9 damage from hand is a ton of pressure so early in the game.

ABRO: Any target -> creature or planeswalker

DGH: Mutate trigger helixes for 4 now, up to 5 toughness

MJJ: Opponent controls? (Now hits itself on an empty board)

ABRO: Good catch

Early versions of Snapdax, Apex of the Hunt were indeed providing too much from hand aggression too early in the game. That kind of stuff is commonplace early on in a set's FFL period, and something Play Design catches every day. What I want to highlight here is the subtle pairing of increasing the amount of damage Snapdax does at the same time as increasing its toughness.

We try to avoid cards that have "don't blink" play patterns in the mirror match, where whoever plays their copy first loses. We've seen these dynamics play out before with cards like Flametongue Kavu and have found that they slow games down to a crawl and generally aren't very fun. We've solved this problem in various ways over time; Glorybringer's non-Dragon clause is another nod to this same phenomenon. In the case of Snapdax, we were able to avoid the problem by keeping its toughness one point higher than the amount of damage dealt.

Fiend Artisan

DGH: New design. I was looking to riff off of iconic cards into black. Looks very green, but everything about it also feels black?

DGH: Activate only on your turn.

DGH: Changed template to add mana to cost and move to "X or less"

DGH: BG? or B/G Hybrid

DGH: B/G hybrid. Check with Doug about concept working with green

DGH: 0/1 -> 1/1

DSJ: I'd prefer this at sorcery speed. I feel "your turn" only leads to more clicks and obnoxious combat with next to no functionality gain

ABRO: Coming around to agreeing with Donald. Would prefer sorcery speed.

One of the things we're always looking to do as we iterate on Magic cards is trim down on unnecessary complexity. Some of our cards are going to be complicated, but no card should be more complicated than it needs to be. As a card that can repeatably search your library, Fiend Artisan is inherently a pretty complicated card, and we took pains to keep its complexity as low as possible.

The first place we looked to trim back on complexity here was Fiend Artisan's stats. Whenever a creature has an effect that boosts its power and toughness, we've found it's always easier to process if the creature's base stats are square (Magic lingo: power equals toughness). It may not seem like a big deal, but when you find yourself calculating how big a creature is multiple times a game, it adds up quickly. As soon as we were sure Fiend Artisan would be okay on power level as a 1/1, we made the change.

After that, the next place we looked was the timing restriction on Fiend Artisan's ability. We started Fiend Artisan off activating only on your turn and eventually moved it to activating only any time you could cast a sorcery to limit how hard the card was to play against. Thinking through all the different things your opponent can go search for is difficult no matter what, and much harder if you have to worry about how the creature being searched for can potentially affect combat.

Alright, that's all the time I have for today. Come back next week for the second half of the Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths M- . . . wait, what's that? Donald Smith Jr. has one more story to tell? A first-person account of how Luminous Broodmoth came to be? Alright then, go for it, Donald!

Luminous Broodmoth (as penned by Donald Smith, Jr.)

Luminous Broodmoth, aka Mothra. Perhaps more interesting than the card itself is the story of how we got there. There was a Luminous Broodmoth sitting in the file for quite a while before I even worked on the set. It was a simple yet functional card. It worked. There was nothing wrong with it. It didn't offend anyone. We could've printed it, and it would've been a fine white card that saw some play.

But something rubbed me the wrong way. When I read this card without its creature type—Insect—and much less its art, I couldn't tell that it was a moth. It could've been an Angel, it could've been a Cleric, or even a Soldier.

I wasn't going to let this opportunity slip by. Not every set has a moth, much less one at mythic rare. This was my chance to cement the mechanical identity of moths in Magic for years to come, perhaps even decades given our frequency of moths.

So, how do you redesign a card that doesn't need to be redesigned? You have to make something special. I was hammering away for a week, but I hit a wall. I couldn't think of anything that justified replacing that old, perfectly fine design. I put my thoughts on Twitter:

"What do moths do?" That is the question. I didn't just ask Twitter, I asked the whole Pit. I went desk by desk and asked my coworkers what they thought moths did. Some answered with a Magic card, some gave me a biological definition, others described the lore of Mothra, and one person simply said "lamp." Nothing came to me, so I just admitted that I was trying to redesign this mythic rare moth in Ikoria and that I was lost, defeated, and needed help.

They were intrigued. "What do moths do?" is a powerful question and one that catalyzes research and the creative process. All of a sudden, we had Ari Nieh pulling up the Wikipedia page "Moth," Corey Bowen pulling up the Wikipedia page "Mothra," one designer searching all Moth and Moth-adjacent cards on Gatherer, another designer watching Youtube videos about Moths, yet another watching "Godzilla King of the Monsters – All Mothra Scenes," and Yoni Skolnik had his headphones on hammering away at some spreadsheet, presumably to silence the madness.

The ideas were flowing. Designing cards takes time, though. One idea was too similar to another card in the set. Another idea probably didn't fit on a card (when translated to German). The cocoon token is cute, but we don't have space for another token in the set. That design is too risky to introduce late into the Future Future League. I like this design, but can we all agree it just doesn't feel "moth-y" enough? Design after design was being pitched for nearly an hour, and then Yoni took off his headphones.



"It's like undying, but with a flying counter. What if it gave your creatures unflying?"

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