The M-Files: Dominaria Edition – Red, Gold, and Artifacts

Posted in Play Design on May 11, 2018

By Dan Musser

A former tournament grinder from Ohio, Dan is currently part of the Play Design team within Magic R&D.

Welcome back, denizens of Dominaria! I hope you are ready for the riveting conclusion of this installment of the M-Files (if you missed the first half, check it out). Here we look back at the design and development files from a year ago and share some of the more interesting, insightful, and hilarious excerpts with you all.

Making Magic: The Gathering cards is an extraordinarily collaborative process. All members of R&D are encouraged to make regular file passes and comment on cards. Today, those members are going to be your commentators! Click below to meet them.

Click to Reveal

DGH – Dave Humphries, lead set designer
MH – Mark Heggen, product architect
GJ – Glenn Jones, set designer and editor
MDT – Melissa DeTora, play designer
ELI– Eli Shiffrin, set designer and rules manager
MJG – Mark Globus, product architect
DOUGB – Doug Beyer, creative lead
ALLI – Alli Medwin, Magic Online editor
AP – Adam Prosak, play designer
KD – Kelly Digges, lead writer
KEN – Ken Nagle, set designer
ABRO – Andrew Brown, play designer
EVL – Erik Lauer, co-lead set designer
YS – Yoni Skolnik, set designer
JDR – Jules Robins, designer
ID – Ian Duke, Play Design lead
BRYAN – Bryan Hawley, play designer
EEF – Ethan Fleischer, lead exploratory designer
DEL – Del Laugel, editor
GSV – Gavin Verhey, designer
MJJ – Mons Johnson, Duel Masters lead developer

Wizard's Lightning

DGH: New from KEN.

MH: Love this.

GJ: Also really enjoy this elegant card.

MDT: Great card!

ELI: Wizard Bolt and Wizard Counterspell speak loudly to the olden days without looking strange or out of place in modern design.

Dominaria brought with it the exciting challenge of reimagining some of Magic's most iconic cards. Ken came up with a design where you could have the original Limited Edition (Alpha) spell if you paid homage by controlling a Wizard. This lent the set a very classic fantasy feel while also allowing Wizard's Lighting to be a Standard-power-level callback to Lightning Bolt. Genius!

Goblin Barrage

DGH: Sacrifice artifact or Goblin?

DGH: Sure, let's see.

MJG: You made me laugh.

ELI: The art makes me laugh.

Here, Dave wondered if it was creatively possible to design a card that would sacrifice an artifact or a . . . Goblin?! I wonder if he was originally asking fellow designers if they preferred a card that sacrificed a Goblin or a card that sacrificed an artifact. When no one responded, Dave thought he would try and get away with both. As if Goblins and artifacts are functionally no different! Turns out most things are, in fact, possible.

Fight with Fire

DGH: Kelly expressed a desire for a card like this, Jaya doing-damage spell that can be divided.

MJG: I like this, but I would have expected it to be uncommon.

ELI: Also feels super uncommon to me.

DGH: Moved to uncommon. Cut a mana off initial cost.

DGH: Added players to kicked part.

DGH: Increased number to push for Timmy/Tammy.

DOUGB: Timmy likes.

DGH: Changing the last to any targets.

Fight with Fire is an example of a card that was designed at the request of the Creative team. They wanted a moment to showcase Jaya and her mastery of fire spells. The reason this is so interesting is that normally the Creative team takes the card designs from the Set Design team and then finds innovative ways for them to make sense in terms of the story. This is a rare case where things actually happened in reverse.

Valduk, Keeper of the Flame

DGH: Added Aura onto this.

DGH: Changed upkeep to combat trigger.

ALLI: Very appealing for Commander.

DGH: Not sure this needs to scale per attachment, but people have been enjoying it.

GJ: I found the scale particularly alluring, especially for Commander.

Eli: I wouldn't look at this twice for Commander or as a build-around in general if it didn't scale.

DGH: 3/1 -> 3/2

Valduk appeared for a moment to be at risk of losing some of his coolness. Resident Commander format enthusiasts saved the day and convinced Dave to keep the scaling text. The result is a dreamy build-around for Standard and an appealing commander. Win-win.

Jaya Ballard

DGH: New design.

ALLI: This seems so close to Chandra that if we change just the name and subtype I wouldn't blink.

AP: What's the difference between Chandra and Jaya?

KD: I'd like to see Jaya double down on either spells or red spells, differentiating her from most Chandras.

DGH: Changed based on Constructed mini team suggestions.

DGH: +2 loyalty.

Chandra has been hogging the mono-red planeswalker spotlight for so long, there was some difficulty in making Jaya Ballard distinct. Thankfully, Kelly Digges illuminated the fact that Jaya cares a bit more about spells than Chandra. Mechanically, it is quite a challenge to find non-damage-based repeatable red effects that also provide fun gameplay patterns. Stone Rain you, Stone Rain you, Stone Rain you just doesn't cut it these days.

Saproling Migration

EVL: New card. Best Buds.

DGH: Now kicks for even more buds.

KEN: Combos with sac effects, go-wide effects, and kicker-matters.

AP: I liked the Best Buds name . . .

MDT: My Best Buds are gone, noooo!

ELI: They'll always be our Best Buds in our hearts. We should probably see a doctor about that.

ABRO: Riperoni pepperoni, best buds.

DGH: 5 -> 4 to kick.

All cards need names. A design lead will normally assign card names that convey the meaning of the card in as few words as possible. As you can likely tell, Saproling Migration's original name was Best Buds. Creating two Saproling tokens, two plants who likely were once very good plant buds long, long ago. Best. Buds. While the name seemed charming, it failed at conveying a cohesive fantasy concept. Sad Salad.

Adventurous Impulse

YS: I like this a lot. Strong while not giving card advantage.

DGH: I've been enjoying where this is at.

DGH: Changed from reveal to look.

DGH: People have really been liking this name

ABRO: I do love going on adventures, impulsively.

On the other hand, Adventurous Impulse fit the bill in every way. It conveyed the mechanical meaning of the card's design while providing the Creative team with fantastic space to develop a concept. Very few cards get the privilege of making it through every aspect of design without changing names. Quite an adventure.

Sporecrown Thallid

DGH: New simple lord.

ELI: Lords create some math challenges already, I'm concerned that non-square stats might add to that challenge.

DGH: 1/2 -> 2/2

DGH: Changed to pump Fungi too?! Not so simple anymore.

DOUGB: Cool! Amusingly, the "other" in the text makes it read like it's reminding you about the taxonomy of Saprolings. Not actually a problem, just cute.

ELI: Now I'm going to read this in a dry biology professor voice, thanks Doug.

First, some shorthand definitions:

  • A lord is a creature that grants a bonus to all creatures of a certain type.
  • Non-square stats mean a creature's power and toughness are not equal.

That being said, one of the rules we try to adhere to while designing cards is "Don't make people do advanced mathematics unless they really want to." Reducing unintentional battlefield complexity is generally seen as a net positive, and once Sporecrown Thallid gained the ability to pump a second creature type, the squaring of the stats helped immensely. To make the card more clear, it was worded such that it looked at Fungi and Saprolings separately. Doug decided this was for another reason, however.

Multani, Yavimaya's Avatar

YS: Fascinating. Tells a fun story. Will definitely try this in an Amonkhet-based self-mill deck.

DGH: Was exiling from the graveyard to animate a land for one turn. Now just returns for more action.

DGH: Cut a mana. Changed return condition.

DGH: Cut another mana.

DGH: Added trample per Constructed mini team.

ID: 5GG -> 4GG, per the Future Future League.

DGH: Return three lands becomes return two lands, 2G to 1G in ability.

Multani is a great example of how you can increase the power level on a stat-based creature when you have certain removal spells defining a format. The Standard environment Multani will be a part of contains Vraska's Contempt, Seal Away, Settle the Wreckage, Cast Out, and Teferi, Hero of Dominaria. Because these would be among the most popular answers to any particular threat, we were increasingly generous with the costs, stats, and keywords that eventually coalesced into this final package.

Shanna, Sisay's Legacy

DGH: Changed to */* per creature. Not sure we can do this at two mana? Might need to be three mana with additional text.

DGH: Added some text.

DGH: Changing situational trample, vigilance to Soul Warden text, which also feels good here.

KD: Vigilance/trample text and life-gain text push this concept in very different directions—martial leader versus cleric/druid type.

DGH: Cutting extra text.

DGH: Added hexproof from Wizards.

BRYAN: That text is very narrow and could be confusing.

DEL: Could consider "can't be the target of abilities of permanents your opponents control" for clarity, though this is functionally stronger.

JDR: Nameless Inversion claims another victim.

At some point in Shanna's storied past, she was being developed with various assortments of keywords. Since Dave was trying out a bunch of different options, Kelly astutely pointed out that each of the abilities would take Shanna down disparate creative paths. With Kelly's guidance, Dave was able to choose a direction that eventually led to the protective ability you see today. Interestingly, Shanna now avoids awkward interactions with fellow resident of Dominaria Merfolk Trickster.

Jodah, Archmage Eternal

DGH: New from Sam.

ELI: Oh, I like this for Commander!

EEF: This is sweet! I love it!

DGH: Cut a mana. Lets you try to curve into the dream.

ABRO: Noting that we have the Amonkhet land that is 5, T: add 5 of any combination.

GJ: I like the curve dream a lot more than him being WUBRG to cast.

DGH: From 3/3 to 4/3.

Jodah is the ultimate definition of "curving into the dream." Once you untap with Jodah, literally anything is possible. That is, if you can produce all five colors of mana . . . While Jodah might not be the strongest card in terms of Standard power level, Magic cards need to appeal to a wide variety of players. The dream of casting any spell in the game for five mana certainly is appealing.

Howling Golem

EEF: New card by Richard Garfield.

YS: Love it!

GSV: Changed from draw step trigger to attack/block trigger at playtester feedback.

YS: Still love it!

AF: "Karn's Pet."

KEN: It's the beatdown Temple Bell more so than Howling Mine.

DGH: Down to uncommon.

YS: This does not stop me from still loving it!

DOUGB: Seems really fun.

KEN: I, too, still like this card.

A design from the master himself. Richard Garfield, creator of Magic: The Gathering, took one of his original designs from Alpha and reimagined it for us! Just like when a musical artist remixes their own song. Howling Mine 2018 by DJ Garfield. And yes, I know I am ignoring Kami of the Crescent Moon . . . Also, we learn here that Yoni really, really likes Howling Mine.


GSV: Now finds any legendary card!

MJG: Love the thematic ties.

DOUGB: Sweet design.

MJJ: Can this be a 4/5, beat up on Heart of Kiran?

KD: I would love for this to stack up against other Vehicles in Standard.

DGH: Now 4/5

DGH: Look at five cards and now finds any historic card.

The word "crew" takes on a whole new meaning when talking about the legendary Weatherlight. Jhoira is leading the charge this time around with friends Raff, Arvad, Tiana, Shanna, and Slimefoot. Mechanically, I find it very pleasing that each member of the Weatherlight crew can activate it (though some may take more work than others). The ship flying around and finding historic things to carry is another thematic home run. Functionally, Weatherlight and Board the Weatherlight line up very well, though it took some iteration during set design for them to end up that way. Finally, rare is the moment when a card name and a set name can be one.

Sparring Construct

DGH: New from Sam.

DGH: FFL wants this to be a Construct.

ABRO: Perfect for my KARNstructed deck now!

I think Andrew suggested I include this card in the article just so he could show you the following decklist. For real, though, as far as processes are concerned, early on in development creature types are in flux and generally open to change if they can serve some goal. Andrew saw a use for this little fighting robot and asked for a type change. His wish was granted, and the rest is history.

Abro's KARNstruct Aggro

Download Arena Decklist

Until next time,


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