The M-Files: Ixalan Edition, Part 1

Posted in Play Design on October 13, 2017

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.

It's time again to return to the M-Files! We're continuing this popular tradition from Latest Developments because it's always fun to look back at the design file a year later to get insight and commentary on in-progress cards from the designers and developers (and now play designers) making the set.

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

Click to Reveal

SPS – Sam Stoddard, Ixalan lead developer

KEN – Ken Nagle, Ixalan lead designer

AP – Adam Prosak, development team

SOOYJ – James Sooy, Magic: The Gathering Arena designer

MJG – Mark Globus, product architect

TJA – Tim Aten, former editor

MDT – Melissa DeTora, development team

JDR – Jules Robins, designer

DEL – Del Laugel, editor

GSV – Gavin Verhey, designer

DOUG – Doug Beyer, creative lead

ABRO – Andrew Brown, development team

PI – Pete Ingram, development team

ID – Ian Duke, play designer

NKM – Nat Moes, editor

EEF – Ethan Fleischer, designer

ELI – Eli Shiffrin, rules manager

BRYAN – Bryan Hawley, play designer

YS – Yoni Skolnik, designer

Legion Conquistador

SPS: Now Squadron Hawk–osaurus.

AP: Sam, I think it's poor form to seed your own M-Files articles.

SOOYJ: These have been surprisingly good in Sealed, even if with just two.

MJG: This generates a lot of shuffling for a common. Is it worth it? Can I search out more at once (like Squadron Hawk)?

SPS: Now gets any number.

TJA: Entirely possible that 2W 2/2 enters-the-battlefield draw three cards pushes this into Constructed range.

Legion Conquistador is my favorite common in the set. We have tried a lot of "Squadron Hawks" in the past, and other than actual Squadron Hawk, I usually found them to be either too weak or too strong. Some examples include Daru Cavalier (weak), Avarax (strong), Embermage Goblin (weak, but brutal against weenie decks), Howling Wolf (weak), and Screaming Seahawk (weak). I believe that Legion Conquistador was done right. It's a simple, straightforward card, and I'm surprised that this combination of converted mana cost and stats had never been done before. A three-mana 2/2 vanilla is an unappealing Limited card, but with this significant upside and a goal to work toward in Draft, the card becomes quite strong.

One issue we had in our playtests with Legion Conquistador was the constant shuffling. An earlier version of this card searched for only one copy when it entered the battlefield. You could still chain them and still search them all out, but the older version had you searching your deck every turn, which slowed games down significantly.

As you can see with Sam's "Squadron Hawk–osaurus" comment, this creature was originally a Dinosaur. It was changed to a Vampire when we settled on what each tribe was doing mechanically. Dinosaurs didn't really have a reason to search out copies of themselves, and a 2/2 is pretty small for a dino. Vampires were the go-wide creature strategy, so it was a much better fit for this design.

Adanto Vanguard

MDT: Why 4 life? Seems like a huge amount of life for a 3/1. Is 3 life reasonable?

MDT: Never mind. Card has been strong at 4 life.

JDR: Life payment in white is really jarring.

SPS: Kind of the point. We need a way for white Vampires to "feel" correct.

DEL: New template on first ability.

I remember Deepwood Ghoul and how strong it was in Limited. It may look like a weak card, but back when damage went on the stack and creatures were tiny, this guy did some serious work. Adanto Vanguard plays in the same space, but since regeneration is no longer evergreen, we gave it indestructible instead. Originally a 3/1, Adanto Vanguard was a reason to draft white in Limited and was a strong Constructed card as well. The problem, however, was that during our Ixalan Future Future League (FFL) period, we were finding that Mardu Vehicles was one of the strongest decks, not only internally but also in the real world. We felt strongly that it was wrong to give Mardu Vehicles another two-mana creature that could crew Heart of Kiran, let alone an indestructible one. We didn't want to knock a Vampire out of Constructed, so we made it 1/1 and gave it +2/+0 as an attack trigger.

Also during this time, the Magic: The Gathering Arena team was (and still is) hard at work creating MTG Arena. While it was important for MTG Arena to have a fully supported rules engine, it was also important for the user experience to be clean and enjoyable. More triggered abilities meant more clicking, and we were looking for ways to reduce clicks in digital Magic. Adanto Vanguard's template was one way to solve that. Instead of a trigger, it has a static +2/+0 that is in effect only when it's attacking. We're planning on using this template more to avoid unnecessary triggers. While it does mean that you can no longer respond to an attack trigger, it still functions similarly, and you can still cast your removal spell in the beginning of combat step.

Settle the Wreckage

GSV: This looks miserable. Not only is it No Mercy, but it's No Mercy that adds in a bunch of shuffling. Ick.

DOUG: "Opponent controls," maybe? It would be weird if white token decks had better ramping than green. I'm not sure that's true here, but it would be weird if it were.

KEN: Sometimes I Path to Exile my own creature, and feel smart.

DEL: Sam agrees to make this targeted in order to get simpler text on the card. (Templating team was getting bogged down in corner cases.)

There were a lot of crazy things going on with this card when we started playing with the set in FFL. The earliest design was an enchantment that gave a creature's controller a land whenever it hit an opponent. That caused crazy amounts of shuffling in games and just was not a fun card. We changed it to an instant that could target any player. That enabled some crazy non-green ramp strategies, and some designers questioned if it was color-pie-appropriate for white. We decided that targeting yourself wasn't something that you would do very often with this card, and if you were using this to ramp in a token strategy, then that was a feature, not a bug.

Glorifier of Dusk

SPS: Now a flier that lets you put counters on your creatures.

SPS: Was 3WW 3/2 hit your opponent: pay 2 to put a +1/+1 counter on a Vampire. That's kind of what Merfolk is doing. Now still a life-payment reward.

ABRO: Serra Angel. At any cost. Well, 4 life. Greatness.

We wanted each tribe to have a distinct mechanical identity, but we were struggling to find the right one for Merfolk. Vampires were working very well as a go-wide strategy, and +1/+1 counters naturally work well with that kind of strategy. Our Merfolk were a spells-matter tribe, with many cards that cared if you cast noncreature spells or multiple spells in a turn (see Deeproot Champion). There were some problems with this mechanic in green, because it was hard to get a noncreature-spells theme to work in a color that mostly cared about creatures. Additionally, green was also shared with Dinosaurs, and they didn't play well with Merfolk at all. We ended up scrapping that mechanic but preserved Deeproot Champion because we thought it was still a sweet card, and Merfolk became the +1/+1 counter tribe. Glorifier of Dusk turned into a build-your-own Serra Angel, which played well with the Vampires' life-gain subtheme.

Looming Altisaur

SPS: 1/7 vanilla

SPS: Now 2W 3/3 vanilla

SPS: Per design meeting, don't want a 2W 3/3 vanilla

Early in development, each tribe had multiple mechanics or themes. Dinosaurs had enrage as a main mechanic and "largeness" as a secondary mechanic. We'd never done Dinosaurs as a set theme, and we wanted them to feel like dinosaurs. To do that, we made them overall bigger than other tribes.

All of our sets have vanilla creatures. They reduce complexity and make the game more accessible for new players. We wanted a vanilla Dinosaur, and tried to do something different with its stats by making it a 3/3. Usually only green gets a three-mana 3/3 vanilla at common, but we justified doing this by giving it the Dinosaur subtype. It was a top common in white and caused some balance issues, since Pious Interdiction was in the set as well. In a meeting to discuss vanilla stats by color, we decided that the 2W 3/3 was not okay for white. Cutting this creature from the set helped with the balance issues and allowed us to make Pious Interdiction stronger, and making Looming Altisaur a 1/7 made it a role-player for decks that needed a defensive Dinosaur or a synergy card for Belligerent Brontodon.


MDT: I'm excited for Opt. Here's hoping it sticks around.

PI: After the Pro Tour, I am less excited about this card.

MDT: I still feel okay about Opt. It doesn't make energy!

We have not had a strong one-mana blue hand-fixing spell in Standard in quite some time, and we really wanted to find one that was appropriate for Standard and wouldn't break Modern. We decided on Opt, a card originally printed in Invasion. Fun fact: it was the first card to ever let you scry. We also thought it was cool that it would get the new template with the actual word "scry" printed on it. We played it a lot in our FFL and thought it was fun and appropriate. Pete's comment was referring to Pro Tour Aether Revolt, where Aetherworks Marvel dominated, and he feared that Opt would make the combo more consistent and problematic. There were some mixed opinions on whether we should keep Opt, but we ended up keeping it in for the time being. After the Aetherworks Marvel ban, we were no longer concerned with Opt in Standard; we felt that it would do good things for the format and make players happy.

Chart a Course

KEN: Ornithopter-matters.

ID: It's unclear to me how healthy it is for aggro decks to have better card advantage options than control decks.

NKM: This probably gets Vintage consideration.

DEL: I removed the raid ability word to simplify the card text.

Chart a Course was a card we played a lot of, and we've never had a card like it. It's a better-rate Catalog and a better-rate Divination, as long as there are creatures in your deck. There was some concern about it being one of the better draw spells in the format, and we were essentially giving that draw spell to aggro decks. We did however think it was a fun card.

Originally Chart a Course had raid, because, well, it technically has raid. The word "raid" was taken off to make the card more elegant and clean. We didn't want players to have to read a keyword and then reminder text to understand what it did, especially a card that we thought would be a format staple and popular casual card.

Entrancing Melody

SPS: New design. Now a one-turn Control Magic for an attacker.

MDT: This played out like a really slow Threaten (felt more uncommon than rare, and weak). This card should do more. Dominate variant?

SPS: Now gets a creature with converted mana cost X or less.

AP: Nice!

EEF: So elegant!

The original version of this card stole an attacker until end of turn. That's it. It wasn't Ray of Command. It was just "steal an attacker." It wasn't very effective when the creature came under your control tapped, and played very much like a Fog for one creature. We needed this to be stronger, especially since it was rare.

One little-known fact about me is that I am the Mercadian Masques block master. Ethan Fleischer and Yoni Skolnik gave me this title when I worked with them on the 25th Anniversary set and impressed them with my knowledge of the block. It was the block I drafted when I really started getting into competitive drafting, and I drafted it a ton. I think it's kind of crazy how much I remember about a block from almost 20 years ago—especially since the block is considered weak and not very memorable. But here we were with this blue rare card that steals creatures, and I knew that it wanted to be a Dominate variant. Nemesis was created for a very different environment, however. Creatures were much weaker and less impactful, and a card like Dominate was not super strong in that format. We tried an instant-speed Control Magic in this slot, but it proved to be too oppressive. Eventually we ended up with the card you see today.

Jace, Cunning Castaway

ELI: Infinite Jaces and Illusions with Doubling Season; probably not the most awful planeswalker-season interaction in Modern.

SPS: Let me introduce you to Jace, Architect of Thought.

EEF: Are the copies supposed to have no name to future-proof the design against the upcoming planeswalker uniqueness rule change?

DEL: Tweaked wording of the ultimate to make sense under the new rules.

Ixalan was the first set with our planeswalker uniqueness rules change. With our Planeswalkers being important story characters and sometimes having multiple cards in the same Standard (and even more so with the Standard rotation changing back to yearly), we were very happy with this change. This Jace is the first planeswalker to create token copies of planeswalkers, which just made the rules change more amusing, because we couldn't simply say that the tokens had no type; they had to lose legendary status in order for the card to work.

And yes, we realize that every planeswalker we make basically goes infinite with Doubling Season.

Dreamcaller Siren

BRYAN: Pretty unexciting rare design.

MDT: Agree that it's not an exciting rare, I'd like to see flash on this again for a Constructed shot.

SPS: Now also hits Vehicles.

ID: Hitting artifacts reads a little more natural. I guess the Siren luring the Pirate ship away makes some flavor sense.

MDT: I also prefer artifacts to Vehicles. That lets it hate on Kaladesh block a little more.

AP: FFL meeting—redesigned; goal of worse versus creature decks, better against control

AP: FFL meeting—"nonland"

One thing that we do when we first start playing a set in the FFL is look through the file for cards that look cool and fun but aren't quite there. Once we identify those cards, we buff them to a point where we'll happily play them in a deck. Dreamcaller Siren was one of those cards. I think that blue flash creatures with disruptive enters-the-battlefield triggers are fun, especially when they are fragile and must be built around. Dreamcaller Siren encourages you to build a tempo-oriented Pirate deck, and we designed this card to be the top-end for that deck.

We originally had this tapping any permanent, and that proved to be frustrating. Tapping lands is fine, but when it's attached to an evasive creature with flash, it can create game states that are impossible to come back from, especially when multiples are played in a row. Elder Deep-Fiend from the previous Standard format was an example of a card that could just lock the opponent out for multiple turns, and that's not a fun play pattern to lose to. We made it tap only artifacts and creatures as a way to get ahead in creature mirrors and also provide a safeguard in case any artifacts from Kaladesh block were stronger than we had anticipated.

Walk the Plank

TJA: Less resonant target for this—Birds of Paradise or Bomat Bazaar Barge?

ELI: Giant Octopus

KEN: Is it supposed to be nonflying, non-Merfolk creature? How deep can the flavor go?

ELI: Victim's holding a big iron weight, so flying won't help you. Yaaar.

Walk the Plank was one of the most resonant and flavorful card names in the set and a favorite card of many members of R&D. It was also one of the few cards to not have its name changed by the creative team. Usually card names change three times during their life cycle. First the vision design team gives it a placeholder name, often something goofy. Electrostatic Pummeler was called Power-Doubling Robot, for example. In set design, the card will become concepted. The creative team will write an art description for the card and give it a name to help the artist create the art. Once the art is done, the card will receive a final name. It's extremely rare for a card's name to not change from design to completion.

However, I'm still not sure how a Birds of Paradise or a Bomat Bazaar Barge can "walk the plank."

Grim Captain's Call

SOOYJ: Spelling out all four creature types looks like something that would be on a rare. Would have expected benefitting tribes here like Aphetto Dredging; this looks anti-synergistic rather than sideways strategy.

GSV: This card is mystifying to me, but I presume it is here for a purpose. To reward the non-heavily tribal deck, I suppose? To Raise Dead two things, whichever tribes you are? I'm sure it's functional, just very surprising.

We added this card to the set as a Draft build-around, and to encourage players to splash multiple colors with Treasure. Many designers thought it was bizarre to see, but it actually played out really well. Playtesters would draft it, build around it, and try to live the dream. It got a lot of positive feedback in our playtests.

Arguel's Blood Fast

YS: I might not want this to flip.

AP: FFL Meeting—"You may"

If you read all the transform cards in Ixalan, you'll notice that some of them must transform, and some give you the choice to. Originally all the transform cards were "you must," and it caused a lot of tension in games. In the case of Arguel's Blood Fast, if you are playing a life-gain strategy, it's very possible that you just want to keep this enchantment around for extra cards while casting life-gain spells to keep the engine going. I can see potential combos with cards like Sanguine Sacrament or Axis of Mortality, where you just don't want to transform your Arguel's Blood Fast. We ended up adding "you may" to transform cards that had relevant abilities when they were on the battlefield, and having a forced transform on cards that had no function when they were in play, like Legion's Landing.

Contract Killing

SPS: New card from Pirate mini team

SPS: Used to give you life if you killed a creature and spent Treasure. Now gives you two Treasures.

Mechanically, blue and black Pirates cared about Treasure and played a control game that allowed you to splash for powerful cards in other colors. Contract Killing was our strong common removal spell, but was not helping accomplish that goal. Originally it gained you life if you used Treasure to cast it, and while it helped Pirates play a control game, it created tension and made people hoard Treasure to get the bonus effect. We didn't want to encourage you to not use your Treasure and not cast your spells, so we made the card give you Treasure when you cast it. That card accomplished our goal of enabling the Pirate deck to splash more colors, but it made the control strategy slightly weaker. To compensate, we gave the blue-black Pirate deck a defensive two-drop in Desperate Castaways.

Sanctum Seeker

SPS: Change into a Vampire lord

SPS: Now 2BB 4/3, with Brutal Hordechief text for Vampires

DEL: 4/3 to 3/3

SPS: Move up to 3/4

Sanctum Seeker was added to the file to be our top end for a Vampire deck. Vampires were small and plentiful, but sometimes had a hard time closing out games, so the drain life text worked well for the deck. One thing that the Play Design team does is size creatures to match up against certain removal spells. It was important that this four-drop survived against spells such as Abrade and Lightning Strike, so it was given 4 toughness to make it more resilient to those cards.

That's it for Part 1. Next week we'll go over red, green, artifacts, multicolor, and lands!

Melissa DeTora

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