The M-Files: Core Set 2020 – Red, Green, Gold, and More

Posted in Play Design on July 19, 2019

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 the M-Files, Core Set 2020 edition! This time we're gonna cover cards in red, green, and gold, plus artifacts and lands. Melissa DeTora here, ready to show you some insight and commentary on in-progress cards from the Vision, Set, and Play Design teams, one year later!

Drake, formerly called Multiverse (and where the M-Files got its name), is our internal database used to track Magic cards already printed, in design, and everything in between. We occasionally make passes on the cards in the design process and leave comments for the set lead. The comments you see aren't the only discussions we have about the cards; they're just one of the many ways we communicate with a set lead and give our feedback.

If you'd like to put a face with each name, click below to meet our commentators.

Cast of Characters

YS – Yoni Skolnik, M20 lead designer
ELI – Eli Shiffrin, rules manager
BRYAN – Bryan Hawley, Play Design manager
SPS – Sam Stoddard, former set designer
ID – Ian Duke, technical lead of Play Design
AF – Aaron Forsythe, director of R&D
CJB – Corey Bowen, designer
TOMR – Tom Ross, former play designer
DEL – Del Laugel, principal editor
MJJ – Mons Johnson, Duel Masters lead developer
ALLI – Alli Medwin, digital liaison
GSV – Gavin Verhey, product designer
MJG – Mark Globus, Former product architect
ABRO – Andrew Brown, play designer
MDT – Melissa DeTora, play designer
PC – Paul Cheon, former play designer (now esports manager)
DGH – Dave Humpherys, game design architect
NKM – Nat Moes, editor
DSJ – Donald Smith, Jr., play designer
KEN – Ken Nagle, senior game designer
GREGG – Gregg Luben, editor
DMUS – Dan Musser, Duel Masters play designer
MAX – Max McCall, senior game designer

Chandra's Embercat

MH: If this creative sticks, I predict it'll be extremely popular.

PC: Very nice enabler if the Elemental/Chandra deck is a thing.

GREGG: Template changed from "Elemental creature spell" to "Elemental spell," This is a slight functional change—devcheck?

ABRO: Should be fine, Nameless Inversion for more people!

This cute common kitty Cat is doing a unique thing we don't see very often. Fast mana ramp is in red's color pie, but with a catch. It's usually on one-shot effects such as Pyretic Ritual, requires a cost such as sacrificing a creature with Skirk Prospector, or has some other requirement, such as dealing combat damage with Neheb, Dreadhorde Champion. However, a red mana dork that doesn't require you to jump through hoops to get your mana is a rare occurrence. We've had this effect on cards before in Magic's early days, on cards like Sisters of the Flame. But, generally, red can only add mana in this way if it's going about it in a red way. In M20, we have a heavy Elemental tribal theme, and we have three different Chandra cards. We wanted to include a red mana dork to help these decks cast their spells and give them cards to play before turn three. Since the Embercat's mana is conditional and can be used to cast red things, we were able to print it here.


ID: We might want this as instant.

YS: R Sorcery -> 1R Instant

DSJ: "Clearly the dinner isn't happening at a diner, because Fry can't be countered" —Yoni

GREGG: slow clap

Fry, known to Play Design as its playtest name, "Fowl Roasting," is part of our enemy-color hate cycle. We made this cycle alongside our decision to bring back protection in M20. There were several reasons for bringing back protection, and you can read about why in last week's M-Files, but one of the reasons was to give players obvious sideboard cards to play when an environment calls for it. If you're losing to a deck with both Teferi, Hero of Dominaria and Lyra Dawnbringer, it was not very obvious which sideboard cards to play in your deck to fight it as a red player. For example, you can play Fight with Fire to kill Lyra, but that doesn't help against a turn-five Teferi. We wanted to make sideboard cards that are clear and clean answers to powerful cards in the environment.

Some things we considered when designing this cycle were:

  • What do the decks of these colors look like? What kinds of permanents and spells do they play?

These questions helped us determine what kind of effect we wanted and what amount of damage was right.

  • What kind of answers can I expect my opponent to have? What does my opponent do in response to this?

In Fry's case, we can expect blue players to have countermagic, so it was important for this spell to be uncounterable.

We wanted this spell to kill Teferi, Hero of Dominaria the turn it ticks up as well as creatures with high toughness—both things that red struggles with, which is why we chose 5 damage and the ability to hit both creatures and planeswalkers.

Chandra, Awakened Inferno

PC: The plus ability looks pretty unappealing here. The four-mana Chandra also deals 2 damage? The emblem also looks miserable to play against. Maybe her plus can be +1 "look at the top two cards and you can play nonlands until your next turn"?

DSJ: Now that I'm building with this card in the context of the FFL, it feels like I have a lot of better options that cost five-plus mana. I think our six-mana cards just need to be extremely impactful.

ID: Non-Elemental is easy to overlook on the second ability. Especially given none of her other abilities reference Elementals in any way. How relevant has it been?

ABRO: It's pretty relevant for keeping the mana dork alive. That being said, you don't need it as much post -3.

YS: Non-elemental on -3 makes it a consideration in jungle-reef decks, which I think is cool.

YS: -X lost exile, now has fourth ability.

YS: Lost fourth ability, gained "can't be countered."

We just had a set with 37 new planeswalkers. For M20, we wanted the planeswalkers to be unique from those of War of the Spark, and one of the ways we did that was with Chandra's ability to plus and give an emblem, and potentially give many emblems over the course of a game. Some play designers (myself included) were a bit concerned about this because there aren't any ways to remove or interact with emblems. We had plenty of discussions about whether it was right to have this kind of ability. We decided to put this version of Chandra through its paces, and we got it to a spot where it felt fun and impactful against certain decks. As you can see from the comments, it went through a lot of iteration to get there.

Goblin Ringleader

YS: Interested in either this or Goblin Matron as splashy reprint. FFL can test either, but not together.

ELI: This is on the "random order" side of the line for Modern cards, but it's a reprint so that can't really change. Does that impact the random/any order line for the rest of the set? (My real preference is to just use "any order" and let Digital make it random on their expressions of Magic so we can stop worrying about this!)

We were excited to add both Goblin Ringleader and Goblin Matron to Modern to help Goblin tribal decks, and Modern Horizons felt like the perfect place for both of these cards. But we had Goblin tribal in Standard as well and wanted to help that deck a bit too. We compromised and gave one to each set, knowing that these two sets would be released around the same time. For a short time, we were playtesting both in Standard (not in the same decks, as noted above). I hope all the Goblin fans out there enjoy these new additions to Modern.

Woodland Champion

GSV: Neat! Clean, clear token reward.

MH: Big fan.

DSJ: Does this lead to anything undesirable if it just references tokens in general? I think it would be pretty cute if Treasure tokens and the like trigger this card.

YS: Now any token, yay Treasure and [redacted].

As the comments say, the intention for this card is a fun, directional build-around for both Limited and Constructed. Most interestingly is that it works with any type of token, not just creatures. I think this can grow to enormous sizes in formats with Clues, Treasure, and other random tokens being made in Commander and other Eternal formats.

Veil of Summer

ABRO: Too weak?

YS: Replaced by New Veil.

YS: Alternative option:

Exile each opponent's graveyard if it has a blue or black card in it.
Draw a card.

SPS: One thing I dislike about this is that people may expect to cast this in response to a blue or black spell to draw a card, but that doesn't work.

YS: I'm pretty sure it does?

We probably spent more time designing Veil of Summer than we did on all the other cards in the cycle combined. Our first version of this card was the obvious fight spell, like Hunt the Hunter from Theros. It dealt damage equal to your creature's power to target blue or black creature or planeswalker. That design had some problems. First, you needed a creature in play for the card to even do anything. Against a controlling color combination like blue-black, that's a hard thing to ask for. I felt that a bigger problem with the old design was that it killed creatures and planeswalkers, when blue and black were more focused in playing spells to interact with you. We wanted a hate card that was strong against what blue and black were doing, like using removal and discard spells, and felt that a creature and planeswalker hate spell wasn't going to cut it.

Gargos, Vicious Watcher

YS: 2 -> 4. Obviously.

ABRO: Absolutely love this now

GREGG: Maybe tricks new players into legendary rule problems?

ELI: That "another" is awfully weird linguistically. Could this only fight opponents' creatures to avoid that?


When we design sets, we try to include cards for all player psychographics. (The player psychographics are Timmy/Tammy, Johnny/Jenny, and Spike.) Gargos was designed as a generic green Timmy card that might give a player a direction to build a Hydra tribal deck. As we were playtesting this card, we found it to be pretty fun but too weak to consider for a Standard deck, even at the FNM level. We tried a few tweaks to this card, including making Hydra spells even cheaper. We found it hard to jam lots of expensive Hydras into a deck, but with a cost reduction of four, it was doable. We were happy with where the card ended up.

Vivien, Arkbow Ranger

YS: I know we have made a lot of Nissas, but what sets Vivien apart from Nissa? I think this card could easily be called Nissa.

MDT: Ultimate is not exciting enough to make me use it instead of plussing.

PC: Feels more like Domri than Vivien?

KEN: In this set, digging finds one creature but tutors find two.

YS: -7 now gets two creatures!

YS: New ultimate, -7 was creature from deck to battlefield.

MJJ: Zegana is another four-drop that also gives trample. Guess that is just a thing with +1/+1 tokens.

As we were iterating on Vivien, we were having trouble making it feel both different from M19 Vivien and different from Nissa's power suite. We tried a variation of abilities with the traditional "plus, minus, ultimate" planeswalker ability suite, but most abilities we tried still felt too similar. Eventually we were happy with the first two abilities of the package and thought it was at a good power level. We wanted to add something novel to the final ability, and wanted to try a non-traditional ultimate. We also wanted it to be something you'd want to do when you have no creatures in play at all. We don't often use "wishes," or effects that fetch cards from outside the game (in most circumstances, this means your sideboard), and were interested in trying more abilities like that, so we added it here. It gives Vivien utility in a generic green deck and allows you to play a toolbox of creatures that you wouldn't want to play main deck, which is great for formats like Standard best-of-one on MTG Arena.

Risen Reef

YS: Trying this as the core of an Elemental Standard deck.

YS: 2GU 2/2 -> 1GU 1/1

BRYAN: Very cool card

YS: Slight tweak, you no longer reveal

Risen Reef is probably the card that I've had the most fun playing in M20. It's an interesting card to brew with, in that it's a synergy card and the payoff is a nearly unstoppable value engine, and it scales very well the more you build around it.

By the time M20 hits, we have a lot of options for tribal in Standard, including Merfolk, Dinosaurs, Vampires, Wizards, and more. We were adding an entire new tribe with tribal payoffs all in one set. It was going to be hard to compete with. We wanted to make Elementals feel different from other tribes, and we did that by making them more about ramp and value than about aggressive creatures and lords. This kind of strategy is appealing to players who like either of these strategies or both, and Risen Reef can stand alone without much other tribal support.

Yarok, the Desecrated

YS: Legendary creature with off-color activation cost.

YS: New structure, now is all permanents.

ID: Please check for infinite loops.

MJJ: I couldn't find anything stronger than things you could already do with Naru Meha, Master Wizard plus flicker. I would point out this is a little unintuitive with some Sagas.

When M20 first entered Set Design about a year and a half ago, we were unsure where Brawl would be as a format when this set released. If Brawl took off, we wanted to make sure all the color combinations were represented, including the three-color combinations. We decided to design a cycle of wedge legends to give both Brawl and Commander players new cards to build with.

The first cycle of these legends were actually ally colors to cast and had off-color activations. Cards like this are quite hard to balance while also keeping them in-cycle. Some of the activation costs were working fine, while others were not. Yarok in particular was one of the cards that we were struggling with getting right. The first design for this was a Panharmonicon variant that affected creatures only. We struggled to find abilities that were in color pie, made sense on the card, and fit in the text box. Other designs in this cycle had similar problems. We decided to try making them wedge colors to cast, and that allowed us to make more powerful cards since they had more restrictive casting costs. Yarok was then changed to affect all permanents instead of only creatures to be more exciting as a Commander.

Kaalia, Zenith Seeker

ABRO: I would like something else on this card and take back from the stats a bit.

ID: What about something in the space of choosing Angel, Demon, Dragon at random then tutoring for that type? Alleviates density problems and makes it more of a toolbox card.

MDT: What about smaller stats, look at five, find ALL Angels, Demons, and Dragons!

YS: Added vigilance, still considering adding "gain life for each revealed this way."

AF: "If you don't find one, this gains haste"

YS: Find one -> find one of each

MJJ: Exciting buff!

Kaalia is another card from our wedge legend cycle. The original Kaalia of the Vast is a well-liked commander, and we wanted to design a new one that would delight Kaalia fans and also be a fun Standard build-around. We designed a version that was a big flier that "impulsed" for an Angel, Demon, or Dragon. That card was not very satisfying to play as it was hard to build around and felt bad when it missed. We tried many tweaks that we weren't happy with. The version we ended up with is meant to be an exciting payoff if you are building a deck loaded with Angels, Demons, and Dragons.

Golos, Tireless Pilgrim

YS: New design, don't miss second ability.

YS: Now finds any land.

YS: Four-mana 2/2 with WWUUBBRRGG: three cards -> five-mana 3/3 3WUBRG: two cards

GREGG: Consider "Globos"

AF: This could stand to have more stats. 4/4? 3/5?

We often design cards to fill multiple roles. Rather than design a card whose sole job is tier 1 Standard card, Limited bomb, or Commander staple, we have better results when we design cards that can be fun in many settings. When Play Design started playtesting M20 Standard, we looked at this clearly Commander-pointed card and thought it looked like a really fun design for Standard. We playtested and iterated on it until we were happy with its Standard power level and satisfied it was still an appealing commander. Finding any land was important for Commander, and strong stats were important for Standard. We ended up with a really fun card.

Mystic Forge

YS: 1 mana -> pay 1 life, CMC 3 -> 4. May also make a change where it lets you play colorless spells instead of artifacts.

DEL: Review—"cast . . . colorless card" in this set is weird? Yoni says yes, weird. Goal is combo with Karn, Scion of Urza, but potential for confusion is there.

TOMR: Feedback—In Limited, given the colorless callout, it was quite weird to cast colored artifacts but not play lands.

NKM: I think if this hits Vintage it will do something new and fun.

We liked this card, but it wasn't cutting it in Standard because there aren't enough artifacts to build a cohesive deck. Tom Ross, who was the main champion of this deck, advocated to add the ability to cast colorless cards since we had some powerful colorless planeswalkers in the format in Karn and Ugin. With no other context, having that text on this card was pretty bizarre, since there aren't any colorless non-artifacts in M20 but there were plenty of colored ones, and the callout was pretty weird. We didn't want to cause confusion to players who were new to Magic or Standard. We went back and forth on this, but, in the end, we thought that the gameplay outside of M20 was more fun when you could cast Karn and Ugin with it.

Lotus Field

YS: Combo with Blood Sun.

Max: This makes me like Elvish Reclaimer more

YS: Gains hexproof.

ID: Please test with Kiora, Behemoth Beckoner.

Lotus field did not have hexproof at first, making it way too risky to play in your deck in most formats. Field of Ruin was seeing main-deck play at the time, and we felt this card didn't have much of a chance to succeed. We added hexproof to make it strong against land destruction and give players a little more security if they want to play this.

Field of the Dead

BRYAN: FFL requests "Whenever CARDNAME or another land enters the battlefield under your control, if you control seven or more differently named lands, create a 2/2 black Zombie creature token."

YS: "T: add C" -> Add B

YS: "T: add B" -> T: add C. Reverting primarily for art reasons. Also nice for some Commander decks.

When designing cards, we often look at what's in real-world Standard and not seeing any play. One of the cards that met that criteria was M19's Scapeshift. Scapeshift has succeeded in the past mostly in part because there was a land you could search up (Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle) that gives you a large amount of ETB triggers and likely wins you the game. A card like that did not exist in Standard, so we decided to make one in M20. Field of the Dead gives you a fun deck-building quest to go on without Scapeshift and, with Scapeshift, gives you a large amount of Zombies and likely wins you the game—or at least giving you an incredible advantage. There's even a fun deck to be built with other M20 cards that search up lands, like Golos and Elvish Reclaimer!

That's all for the Core Set 2020 M-Files. I'll be back in a few months for another M-Files after the fall 2019 set (codenamed "Archery") is out. Speaking of Archery, we'll be having a panel at San Diego Comic-Con tomorrow (Saturday, July 20, 2019), and you won't want to miss it. We'll be announcing the name of the fall set and what it's all about. No spoilers, but it's probably my favorite set of all time and I'm very excited about it!

Thanks for reading!

Melissa DeTora

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