The M-Files: Core Set 2020 – White, Blue, Black

Posted in Play Design on July 12, 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! Melissa DeTora here, ready to share 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

Gods Willing

BRYAN: Big fan of this card.

ELI: Honor the gods of Theros, and they will do whatever they want to anyway because they're jerks.

SPS: Protection is back! I like us supporting it in fashions like this.

Protection was formerly an evergreen mechanic but got bumped out of evergreen for various reasons. Protection is a hard mechanic for new players to understand because there is so many rules to learn about it. Enfranchised players and judges understand it, but with no reminder text and no other context on the card, it's not clear what it means, and that can be a barrier for many players. Additionally, it can be frustrating to face off against a creature with protection from red as a mono-red player and feel like you have no answers to it.

After many meetings and discussions, we decided to bring back protection in M20, with a slight philosophy change. The biggest change is we want to aim "protection from [color]" permanents as sideboard cards that you won't generally play in your main deck, unless it's a very specific metagame. One-shot effects, like Gods Willing, are more fun than permanents that some players may have no answers to.

Finally, we now have reminder text for protection that is easy to understand! We'll use this reminder text in core sets, as we do for all our evergreen keywords.

I like to use the acronym DEBT to help remember what protection means:

D: can't be damaged by that source
E: can't be enchanted or equipped by that source
B: can't be blocked by that source
T: can't be targeted by that source

As you can see, there are lots of rules that come along with protection, and that's why we've pushed back on it until now. We do find the gameplay of protection fun, which outweighs the rules baggage that comes along with using this keyword.

Leyline of Sanctity

YS: Leyline cycle are potential desirable reprints. We'd likely reprint white, blue, and black and make new red and green.

ID: Will we be happy with this in Standard? Hard card to test in Future Future League, maybe should be a group discussion?

ID: Noting that we discussed and decided to keep this. Alternative would've been Leyline of Rule of Law.

We were excited to reprint Leylines in M20, especially Leyline of Sanctity (honorable mention to Leyline of the Void). We felt it would be a positive edition to Standard. However, it was a hot topic among Play Design as it is a very impactful card that can be swingy in some matchups, specifically against burn. Since Leylines are generally sideboard-only cards, we were worried they would not get the same attention other cards would. We thought that Leylines were exciting enough to reprint, so we gave them the extra attention they deserved both in playtests and group discussions.

Cavalier of Dawn

YS: New design. Thanks Corey, Nagle, and Melissa—a real team effort.

YS: To clarify, the token should only be created if you choose to destroy the permanent. But it is still created if the permanent does not get destroyed (indestructible).

AF: Do we need the extra words to protect this from being a 3/3 Refurbish? Up to one means you won't have to kill itself if you don't want to. There are one too many restrictions.

YS: Changed to be able to destroy itself.

YS: Protection from tokens -> vigilance

The M20 Set Design team wanted to create a new cycle of splashy mythic rare creatures that followed a pattern similar to the Magic 2010 Titan cycle. We wanted the cycle to be as impactful as the Titans but feel different from them. We knew that these creatures having an immediate impact was important for them to see Standard play, and we settled on a cycle with a keyword ability, an enters-the-battlefield trigger, and a dies trigger.

The white Cavalier had many designs over its lifetime. At one time, it was reanimating small creatures, but it felt too similar to the black Cavalier. At one time it gave a stat bonus to your team, but as a five-mana creature, it didn't really belong in go-wide decks. Yoni Skolnik, the set lead, sent out a request to team members and other designers to come up with their best ETB and dies triggers in white that tie into each other in some way, and Corey Bowen, Ken Nagle, and I all submitted similar ideas. Yoni then took the best of each one and came up with the card you know today.

Gauntlets of Light

CJB: Interesting card, cool with the 1/3 lifelink and 1/3 flying vigilance

TOMR: We currently have this in Modern Horizons as a green totem armor. We decided on +2/+2 over +0/+2 to avoid confusion.

YS: Now has 2W untap enchanted creature.

YS: Note infinite combo with Leyline of Harmony and Incubation Druid. Not scary.

DEL: Review—MH1 card waffled about this versus symmetrical P/T boost. Green in that set, but Yoni says it's also in white's slice of pie.

This is an interesting lesson in how we communicate when different sets are being designed at the same time. Similar cards often pop up in set files, and that's what happened here with Gauntlets of Light and Treefolk Umbra in Core Set 2020 and Modern Horizons respectively. This is one of the many reasons why designers from outside the team are encouraged to do playtests and file passes of sets they're not working on—to recognize these cards that are functionally the same but read differently and line them up.

Bishop of Wings

ELI: Do you want the last ability to watch for nontoken Angels, or are you okay if this is absurd with Divine Visitation?

MJJ: I played it a little with Divine Visitation previously. It seems okay, a brick wall against creatures but vulnerable to most pointed removal.

SPS: Any worries with this plus the Angel card in Guilds of Ravnica?

DEL: Review—Concept issue with Angels coming back as undead due to efforts by Avacyn cleric?

YS: Changing 2/3 > 1/4.

One thing that we actively do for core sets is to recognize themes from last year that didn't quite get there and design cards to power those themes up. One deck that showed up for a short time but didn't have much traction was Red-White Angels. This deck had some huge holes at two mana, so we decided to design a card for it! Later in the process, we changed its toughness to 4 so it survives Deafening Clarion, a card that this deck typically plays. For the Johnny players out there, this intentionally works with cards like Divine Visitation and Arcane Adaptation!

Atemsis, All-Seeing

ALLI: Seems really easy in long Commander games. Maybe too easy?

GSV: "This is Seth, prooooobably better known as SaffronOlive, with Against the Odds . . ." (Love it!)

MJG: Instead of winning the game, is this more fun if you can then cast those cards for free?

YS: 5 -> 6. Keeping "win the game" for the buzz it generates.

YS: 4/4 -> 4/5, 4UU -> 3UUU

Designers in Magic R&D love to see how players use the cards and sets we make. We do this often by reading social media and articles and videos made by our content creators. As you can see from Gavin's comment above, SaffronOlive has gotten himself a reputation around here for building the jankiest of Johnny decks.

As a designer, Johnny cards are some of my favorites. I love reading a new card and then not immediately knowing what kind of deck it slots into or how to best build a new deck with it. Any time a card has an alternate win condition, the Johnny players are going to start brewing. I'm looking forward to seeing what the deck builders come up with for this one.

Mu Yanling, Sky Dancer

YS: -10 emblem -> -7 Flow of Ideas

ABRO: I would suspect -8 is the right place to start.

PC: Agree with Abroham

YS: New numbers

YS: New (old) numbers

DEL: Review—only one option when ETB? Yes, novelty.

The planeswalkers in this set were tricky to get right. First, they are coming right after a set that had 37 unique planeswalkers. Second, we knew this set would have Mu Yanling, a character who has not gotten a card in a booster release yet. We had to make this one special, have it not feel like something we'd already done in War of the Spark, and have it feel different from our other mono-blue Standard Planeswalkers, Jace and Kasmina.

Mu Yanling's Planeswalker ability suite cares about flying, and M20 had a flying theme in the set, so that was the first place we went. We then built several different flying decks to figure out where Mu Yanling fit best on the curve and what abilities the deck needed. We wanted her to be able to protect herself and help fliers get through for damage. We also found that the deck was lacking big creatures, so we added the ability to make a large flying token. This is a typical design process for most of our new Planeswalkers.

Portal of Sanctuary

AF: Watch how much this hates on Pacifism effects. Might want "target nonenchanted creature"

YS: Could also bounce Auras attached to it? Can be upside with Wolfkin Bond.

AF: Could do that. Gives me flashbacks to all the tricks we tried to build into Galvanic Arc/Flight of Fancy in Ravnica.

BRYAN: This card is super sweet. Hopefully it targets Frilled Mystic less than 50% of the time.

One of our processes for Set Design teams is running mini-teams. For mini-teams, the team takes a break from meeting for a week and each team member will lead smaller meetings with other designers outside of the Set Design team about different topics the set needs work on. For example, one of the teams could meet to design Constructed rares, one team could design cards for a specific mechanic, and maybe another team will design Limited commons and uncommons.

During my time on M20 Set Design, I decided to run my mini-team on Limited build-arounds. Draft is my favorite format, and I love designing cool Limited formats. One thing that makes Limited formats dynamic is having cards you can open while drafting that give you a direction for what kind of deck to build.

The blue-black Limited mechanic was control with creature ETBs, and we already had plenty of creatures that had ETB value effects, but not much in the way of Johnny cards that tell you to build a specific deck. Portal of Sanctuary was a shot at giving the Limited archetype something new to do besides just playing creatures. Picking up your creatures during your turn to rebuy ETBs is fun, and you can also save your creatures in combat on your turn from your opponent's removal and combat tricks.

Winged Words

YS: Was Divination, wanted more common synergy cards. The big question with this card is whether we'll be happy with it in Welcome Decks.

PC: A little concerned that this might actually be a little too strong at common given how trivial it is to put fliers on the board. Love the card, though.

DGH: Appealing

BRYAN: Noting heavy overlap with Chart a Course. We have a lot of one-mana fliers that are Constructed-ish, and those are the best enablers for both Chart and this card. More likely to do something cool if it's differentiated from that card.

When I think of staple cards in core sets, Divination is among the first that come to mind. While we do want to print staple effects for Standard in core sets, Divination was already present in Standard in two of last year's sets, and, frankly, the card has some room to improve in order to impact Standard. As I mentioned before, one of blue's Limited themes was flying, and this was a good opportunity to make a new common card that filled the role of Divination, had synergy with the Limited theme, and was more likely to impact Standard.

Cerulean Drake

YS: Functional reprint of Sea Sprite, may end up being named that.

YS: Drake concept here, definitely not gonna be actual Sea Sprite. Sorry, Homelands fans.

ELI: Sea Drake! Wait a second . . .

ABRO: Is there some way we can make this not functional Sea Sprite?

YS: Added sacrifice to counter spells that target you. Hits Duress and burn. Is that too strong? Should it be Mana Leak?

PC: I like pay two or three on the sacrifice. Card doesn't need that much more help, I think.

I already talked a bit about protection for Gods Willing, but this is a good chance to talk more about the cycle of creatures with protection in this set. At first, this cycle was a simple French vanilla cycle of creatures, all two mana, with varying stats. This proved to not be impactful enough against the color they were meant to be strong against, and we then decided to give each of the cards varying stats, costs, and abilities depending on what it needed.

Some of the things we asked ourselves when coming up with abilities were "What kind of deck would this creature go in?" "What does that deck do?" "How do I lose if I have this in play?" After answering these questions, it was easier to figure out what each of these cards needed. Mono-red decks can win pretty easily through this with direct damage, so we added an ability to counter burn spells to the Drake.

Rotting Regisaur

MJG: Awesome!


AF: Is this any good? I hope it is.

BRYAN: Me too.

ELI: Sue, is that you?

ID: Looks like it should cost 1BB.

YS: 6/6 -> 7/6

PC: Does this move the needle enough in terms of playability? I remember being very excited seeing this at 6/6. At what point do the stats start looking a bit ridiculous.

This card was probably the card that got the most mixed reactions from Magic R&D. I found this card to be harder to evaluate than most rare cards we print. Its rate is really aggressive, but how impactful is that drawback exactly? This was one of the first cards we put into decks and got into play in FFL, because many of us were unsure of its power level. As you can see above, it got a small buff, and Paul still wasn't sure what to make of it. Ian, on the other hand, thought the card was already pretty generous and suggested a more restrictive casting cost.

Embodiment of Agonies

YS: Converted mana cost 6 -> 4. Test please!

YS: No lifelink, CMC 4, continuous tracking.

ID: Looks strong on rate. Have people tried this in "normal" decks?

SPS: I do not think tracking this will be fun at all. Also super easy to miss. What does it mean with Phyrexian mana? ETB seems easier to track, but doesn't make this as exciting for Modern.

ELI: B and b/p are different mana costs, so they're both counted.

YS: Switched from continuous tracking to ETB with counters

YS: Adding deathtouch

DSJ: This is some nice reminder text.

ELI: It's secretly saying "don't mentally add 'converted' in there; I didn't say 'converted' did I?"

When we first started our M20 Standard playtesting, this was one of the cards that looked the most exciting to build around. When building decks around specific cards, one of the things we look to do is stretch that card to its maximum potential. In this case, that meant playing it in all-in graveyard decks with lots of self-mill and lots of different mana costs. The biggest takeaway from that exercise was that this card was great to play at any point of the game, because its power and toughness changed over time. However, the graveyard tracking was pretty taxing on players, since the P/T is constantly changing as cards go to the graveyard, and the play pattern is at a higher complexity than we would like for a core set.

After we changed this card to gaining counters on ETB, we found that this card's play pattern was to wait until you had a full graveyard and then play it for maximum value. We added deathtouch to give you a reason to want to play it earlier in the game.

Scheming Symmetry

AF: Field of Ruin. Solved it.

DSJ: Field of Ruin is a two-way street.

ID: Looks dangerous for combo, at least Game 1. Should test in Bolas's Citadel.

BRYAN: Does look super dangerous, but super exciting if it's at a realistic power level.

DGH: Looks scary in a bad way. Dangerous with cantrips for combo decks.

MJJ: Interesting with Experimental Frenzy

NKM: Interested to see what happens with this in Vintage. It will certainly get attention. Six-of VT is worth a build-around.

This card came about in one of our Constructed mini-teams as one of Gavin's designs that he's tried getting into sets for years but has been vetoed because it's an incredibly risky combo enabler. With our change to the Vision/Set/Play Design structure, we now have more flexibility to test risky cards like this in our sets. Members of Play Design were a bit skeptical about this in Standard, but we put it through its paces in many different decks, not only in combo decks but also in more generic decks like midrange and control. We thought the card was exciting and fun, and since it's a sorcery-speed symmetrical effect, it's often stronger for your opponents than it is for you!

Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord

AF: I'd love it if we could figure out a way to make this 2B. Vampires has Elenda, Sanctum Seeker, and Twilight Prophet at four mana right now.

ABRO: This design is trying to cheat in Champion of Dusk and Vona.

MDT: Looks lame for a mythic rare planeswalker. Does too little on an empty board. Could look at both hand and graveyard.

YS: New 2B design

MJJ: Good with Oathsworn Vampire

YS: -1 becomes 0. Oathsworn Vampire away! I also made this a may, so if they kill your weak Vampire in response, you don't have to sac your good one.

YS: Middle ability 0 -> +1

Similar to Bishop of Wings, Sorin, Imperious Bloodlord was intended to be a new tool to power up one of last year's strategies. In this case, we wanted to give the White-Black Vampires decks from Ixalan a little more love. However, that wasn't this card's only intent. While its main goal was to give players a new card for their Standard Vampire decks, Vampire tribal is also a popular casual and Commander strategy, and this was a good opportunity to design a card to fill both roles. As you can see in the comments, this card went through many changes, including several buffs, before we were happy with the power level for Standard and casual play.

Thought Distortion

ABRO: Woah, can we take lands here?

YS: Okay, hits lands now.

YS: Doesn't hit lands now.

TOMR: Good with Waste Not. Odd interaction with madness.

YS: Now uncommon, taking Diabolic Tutor's slot.

YS: Now exiles their hand instead of making them discard, relevant with . . . Ajani's Last Stand from Core Set 2019?

ELI: Paging Gavin for color pie check on "can't be countered" in black.

GSV: I am entirely okay with "can't be countered" in whatever color needs it, given how seldom we use the text and that we often use it as a knob to help tactically make Constructed cards—especially ones that help fight bad play environments. If other council of colors members disagree, let me know and let's talk about it.

In Magic R&D we have a team of designers who meet weekly to look at sets in progress and identify cards that don't adhere to Magic's color pie. After the cards are identified, they'll talk to the Set team about what the cards' goals are and how they can be changed to be in pie and still meet the goals. This team is called the Council of Colors. Currently, the council members are:

  • White: Andrew Veen
  • Blue: Ethan Fleischer
  • Black: Gavin Verhey
  • Red: Jules Robins
  • Green: Ken Nagle
  • Colorless: Corey Bowen

We use these designers as resources when we're designing new cards and aren't sure if the card is in color pie. For Thought Distortion, we wanted to add "can't be countered" because we found that it wasn't doing its job as a control hoser, and, surprisingly, that line of text had never been printed on a mono-black card before. As you can see, Gavin was summoned and gave his thoughts about this line of text being okay on cards that need it. Thanks, Gavin!

That's all for this week! I'll be back next week to talk about cards in red, green, and gold, plus artifacts and lands. Thanks for reading!

Melissa DeTora

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