M-Files: M19 Edition – Red, Green, Gold, and Artifacts

Posted in Play Design on July 20, 2018

By Dan Musser

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

It's that time again. Today, we are going to wrap up all the Core Set 2019 development goodness. If you missed the first installment, be sure to check it out here.

If you're new to the series, the M-Files is where we share some of the more interesting design comments from our internal file database, Drake. The process of making Magic cards involves many people and tools, and Drake is one place where we record changes, comments, and feedback.

For Core Set 2019, lead set designer Ethan Fleischer shared many of his #M19CardStories on Twitter. That means you'll be getting bonus content from Ethan himself along with all the usual development and design comments you've grown to love.

Click below to see who will be commenting today.

Cast of Commenters

DEL – Del Laugel, lead editor

EEF – Ethan Fleischer, lead vision designer, lead set designer

ABRO – Andrew Brown, play designer

MDT – Melissa DeTora, play designer

SPS – Sam Stoddard, set designer

KEN – Ken Nagle, set designer

ID – Ian Duke, Play Design lead

ROSEJ – James Rose, Magic: The Gathering Arena designer

DSJ – Donald Smith, Jr., play designer

JDR – Jules Robins, designer

PI – Pete Ingram, former play designer

YS – Yoni Skolnik, designer

GJ – Glenn Jones, designer

AP – Adam Prosak, play designer

AF – Aaron Forsythe, senior director of R&D

ELI – Eli Shiffrin, rules manager

VEENA – Andrew Veen, designer

JWW – James Wyatt, lead conceptor, lead writer

MJJ – Mons Johnson, Duel Masters lead developer

DOUGB – Doug Beyer, principal game designer

NB – Nicol Bolas, the mind-ripper, the deathbringer, the winged dark that terrifies your dreams, the first to witness the sun rise on Dominaria, and the last to watch it set for the final time


EEF: New card. Sorcery Fling for R.

YS: Added from Limited changes/mini teams/hole-filling.

MDT: Flang, wow, card name+.

ABRO: I love flanging things.

EEF: Flang and Fling are just too close, sorry. RIP Flang

MDT: Noooo

DSJ: Thud lit

Card names. One of the most important parts of a Magic card, names usually change many times during development. Thud was inspired by Fling, but one mana cheaper and at sorcery speed. Surprisingly, this card's design remained the same throughout the entire process—a rare feat indeed. Unfortunately, we didn't want players getting the names confused, so Flang became Thud.

Apex of Power

EEF: New card. Story Spotlight #1: Nicol Bolas had godlike power.

EEF: Possible names: Planeswalker's Will, Dracopotence.

ABRO: Holy moly, can I chain these together?

YS: Good callout, ABRO. That almost certainly means we shouldn't make this card. Hmm . . . It might be possible to add text of "You may only cast CARDNAME from your hand," or, "If you cast CARDNAME from your hand." This also makes it so the card doesn't chain, which takes out a lot of the power, so it can cost less.

EEF: Is there a number of cards less than seven where it's still an awesome card but isn't too strong?

EEF: 7RRR seven cards -> 6RR five cards.

EEF: 6RR five cards -> 7RR only works if you cast it from your hand. Doesn't chain now.

EEF: Cast cards with paying mana costs -> add WWUUBBRRGG.

DEL: Missing words?

EEF: Added words. Subtracted "if you cast from hand" text.

EEF: Add WWUUBBRRGG -> add RRRRRRRRRR spend mana as if it were any color. Tracking all that mana was difficult.

ABRO: Can we have a "cast from hand" back? I don't want to chain it.

EEF: Now you can only cast it from your hand.

MDT: Hard to figure out how much R I'm getting. Can we write out the number of R? Players had this complaint about all the EEEEEE in Kaladesh too.

EEF: Now makes ten of any colors.

EEF: Changed from a casting restriction to a bonus (mana) if you cast from hand.

EEF: 7RR -> 7RRR because bonus

ID: When do I choose what colors of mana I get? I can see this being a hassle in digital.

ROSEJ: Big hassle for Magic Online. Not great to have mediocre user experience on mythic rares.

EEF: I'm happy to tweak this to make digital implementations work better. I'd love to hear suggestions.

ELI: You could get ten mana of any one color and then it can let you spend mana for the rest of the turn as though it were mana of any type. I suggest "any one color" to avoid putting ten mana symbols in a row in the text.

EEF: Oooh, Black Lotus text. I like Black Lotus text.

As part of the card cycle that tells the story of Bolas's downfall and return to power, Apex of Power had to feel unique, exciting, and powerful. When making huge effects like this, we need to be extra careful that the card isn't overshadowing everything else in Standard. It took some iteration to mold the original card into this final package. At the beginning, you could chain these into each other and run through a large portion of your deck as soon as this was cast. Sure, it cost ten mana, but it was still having unintended consequences. Melissa excellently pointed out a common complaint from Kaladesh block where players had to count out all the energy icons on their card to figure out how many were there. This led to the final version of the card, awesomely giving it Black Lotus text!

Tormenting Voice

EEF: Functional reprint of Tormenting Voice

JWW: I turned it into an actual reprint, per our conversation.

EEF: If this is too strong (for Constructed) we can use Rummaging Goblin or something like that. Or move it to uncommon?

VEENA: This isn't an official or final answer, but the last time we brought it up in a Play Design meeting, we felt that while it is the strongest filtering red gets, red should probably have it most of the time.

Red card draw is normally done much differently than blue card draw to keep the color pie nice and clean. We want red card draw to exist, but it needs to be more difficult in some way. A way we have traditionally approached this is that red needs to discard some number of cards to draw new ones. We nickname this "rummaging." At the beginning of development, the story for Core Set 2019 wasn't solidified, and thus Ethan began with a functional reprint of Tormenting Voice here. As the story solidified, the flavor from Khans of Tarkir in which Sarkhan is being tortured by visions from Ugin resonated perfectly with the focus on Bolas and the overall dragon theme.

Sparktongue Dragon

DEL: Iconic at common? I hear Mark Rosewater's voice in my head questioning this.

EEF: 3RR 3/4 must attack -> 2RR 2/2 attack trigger +1/+0 and first strike.

YS: We talked about this becoming 2RR 2/2 flying first strike.

EEF: Removed "attack trigger +1/+0 and first strike." Now has static first strike. Previous card was pretty adorable, so I'm interested in whether people like this newer, simpler version.

ELI: It's cute! Red fliers at common are unusual enough that "there's a Dragon subtheme, that's why" may be the only time we get to do this card.

EEF: 2RR 2/2 flying first strike -> 5RR 5/6 2R: flying until end of turn. This is pretty weird for a red common.

EEF: -> 3RR 3/3 flying. ETB pay 2R to deal 3 to anything.

MDT: This does not look like a common to me.

ABRO: Like this more as an uncommon

JDR: Thirding Melissa's and ABro's feelings.

AF: Common Dragons either don't look common or don't look like Dragons. Opting for the lesser crime here. Needed for the red-green ramp archetype.

EEF: This card is doing a lot of work. We have a Dragon tribal theme in this set; we need a common Dragon.

Not only do Dragons look odd at common, they spark an above average amount of development comments! Dragons are supposed to be giant, flashy, and strong. How could we make one into a simple common? With Dragon tribal as one of the themes of the set, we needed something appealing for the archetype at common. It took a lot of iteration, and even at the end, people weren't completely sold on this. Turns out, common Dragons are rare . . .

Dryad Greenseeker

EEF: New card. Vizier of the Menagerie enabler. Also, Sindbad returns!

YS: Added from Limited changes/mini teams/hole-filling.

AF: Better than Sindbad? Probably?

ID: Looks strong for a common.

MJJ: From the name, I expected this to be a common.

EEF: Changed name from Common Farmer to Uncommon Farmer.

EEF: 1/2 -> 1/3

YS: Wow, from Sindbad to Sindokay, and now to Sindgood?

AP: Looks Sindgreat to me.

Talk about power creep! Poor Arabian Nights. Dryad Greenseeker isn't a strict upgrade from old Sindbad, as filling up the graveyard could be useful in some cases. Color-shifting this to green is quite appropriate. Keying off lands certainly feels more green than blue and boosting the stats a bit puts our little Dryad right at home.

Pelakka Wurm

EEF: Reprint from Rise of the Eldrazi. Is this an A+ or a Moti?

MDT: Moti!

ABRO: Moti

EEF: CQIed. I think we need to design a new card for this slot.

EEF: Moving this to rare; the world needs to know the feeling of resolving a Pelakka Wurm.

If you played Standard back in the Rise of the Eldrazi days, you may remember this gigantic Wurm as an uncommon. To explain why we moved it up to a rare, we first need to define some of the shorthand language used in the comments above.

  • A+ is the second highest rating on a scale that we use to grade cards for their strength in Booster Draft.
  • Moti (short for the original Limited bomb, Mahamoti Djinn) is the highest rating on that scale, usually reserved for only rares and mythic rares.
  • CQI stands for "continuous quality improvement," which is admittedly a mouthful. This means that we need to improve the quality of the card in this slot.

Now that we have some vocabulary sorted out, Play Design didn't want a menace such as Pelakka Wurm terrorizing a core set Draft experience, but Ethan wanted the world to enjoy casting huge, value-laden monsters in Standard! The compromise was to raise its rarity so that its appearance in Limited was . . . limited.


EEF: This could just be a huuuge vanilla.

ROSEJ: Ixalan has a 9/9 for 6GG at common.


ROSEJ: Liking this more. You get a lot of Dino for that broccoli.

KEN: Curves right before Primalcrux!

YS: Good game, great game, greatest!

YS: If we end up thinking this is miserable, then I'd say this card would be higher net fun at 10/7 and still pretty exciting.

EEF: But 10/10 is just so beautiful.

ID: Looks strong with Rhonas providing trample


Satyr Enchanter

EEF: New card.

YS: Added from Limited changes/mini teams/hole-filling

MDT: I love this!

JDR: I don't think this being optional is a good trade-off. Occasionally I won't want to draw, but I always won't want to click an extra time.

EEF: Removed "you may" for fewer clicks! Great point, Jules.

AP: 2GW -> 1GW, 2/4 -> 2/2, you want to actually cast this before some amount of enchantments.

DEL: Enchantresses have been Druids in the past, check creature type.

EEF: Now a Druid

We try and template cards to be intuitive and easy to use in a functional manner. If you are playing this card, you will almost always want to draw a card when you cast an enchantment, though it isn't 100%. We could choose to give you the option to draw a card, but that situation will be so rare that it simply isn't worth the words, rules cases, and extra work need to be done in a digital game. Also, Druids. Enchantresses are always Druids.

Chromium, the Mutable

EEF: New card from hole-filling.

YS: Added from Limited changes/mini teams/hole-filling

DEL: Filled in type line

EEF: Making these all six-mana 6/6 fliers for Limited playtesting purposes.

SPS: Feels weird to do a cycle of shard mythic rare Dragons in a core set.

AF: I think it's the right amount of texture.

ELI: Agree with AF, core sets can really use something cool and memorable as a hook.

EEF: Play Design requests a classic control finisher here.

ABRO: Yes, I request a classic control finisher.

EEF: New design. This Dragon can turn into a Human with hexproof if it needs to hide.

DEL: Query "white Human"? Might want to stay away from that one and simply let the creature keep its current colors.

EEF: Removed "white" and added "indestructible."

EEF: Indestructible -> unblockable

EEF: Activation cost 2 -> 1

Del: 3WUB -> 4WUB; 6/6 -> 7/7

Del: Picks up "can't be countered." Activation cost 1 -> discard a card.

GJ: This card is cool.

Core sets in general are of a lower complexity than our main booster releases. Regardless, Elder Dragons coming back sounded so sweet that we decided it would be a net positive to reintroduce them here as a cycle of mythic rares. As our fearless leader Aaron Forsythe noted, it just felt right. At some point in development, Chromium picked up a unique protection ability that happens to be a huge flavor win. His storied journey through the Multiverse had him pose as a human for some portion of his long life.

Nicol Bolas, the Ravager

EEF: Legends version was a super-specter.

DEL: It's going to be a challenge to find a printable name for this card. The title bar needs to contain "Nicol Bolas" and four mana symbols, and that doesn't leave a great deal of space for flourishes. Consider that name choice sooner rather than later?

AP: This card is no joke! Sometimes I'll be sad that I can't keep hitting my opponent with my 4/4 flier while they have no cards in hand! Love the design, could see different numbers.

PI: Super cool card! My guess is a bit too strong currently.

EEF: Does this kill the opponent before you have a chance to transform?

AF: What if he cost a little more and made you discard two cards?

EEF: Specter -> upkeep target opponent sacs a creature or discards

EEF: Target player -> opponent

YS: Added from Limited changes/mini teams/hole-filling

EEF: 1UBR 4/4 -> 2UBR 5/5. At the beginning of your upkeep, target opponent sacrifices a creature or discards a card. Then if that player has no cards in hand, exile CARDNAME, then return him to the battlefield transformed under his owner's control. -> When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, each opponent discards two cards. 4UBR: Gain control of up to one target creature. Exile CARDNAME, then return him to the battlefield transformed under his owner's control.

ELI: I have quibbles with this design, but I'll focus on the rules quirk. You want "target creature an opponent controls" so he can't target himself, right?

EEF: No. I would prefer him to be able to transform regardless of the board state.

ABRO: FFL meeting -> move to 5/4 and 5UBR to activate.

EEF: 5/5 4UBR activation -> 5/4 5UBR activation

AP: Transform now is a Hero's Downfall instead of a Control Magic.

EEF: Hero's Downfall -> Mill 7

EEF: Activated ability target opponent -> each opponent

EEF: 5UBR to activate -> 4UBR.

EEF: 2UBR 5/4 -> 1UBR 4/4. Now only makes opponents discard when it ETBs, not when it attacks. 4UBR mill 7 -> 3UBR Diabolic Edict.

EEF: Activation 3UBR -> 4UBR sorcery speed. Could be 3UBR, T if we prefer that

EEF: Cut Edict from transform ability.

EFF: Hard to position big Grixis creature that ETBs early and still inspire player to transform it.

AF: Much development so far. Isn't it just exciting to flip this thing after a few turns?


MDT: Yes

YS: Yes

Whoa. Nicky B himself, back at it again. This time with a sleek, efficient card as opposed to the usual high-costed finisher. Nicol Bolas, the Ravager went through a lot of iteration to get to the final design you see today. Ethan knew he wanted to keep the design away from Nicol Bolas, God-Pharaoh since they would be sharing space in Standard for some amount of time. We tried many options for how we could make it appealing for you to want to transform into a giant planeswalker. Milling, creature destruction, and Mind Control variants were all tested. It turned out the simplest answer was "Hey, you know there is an extremely powerful, difficult-to-kill planeswalker on the other side of this thing, right?"

Nicol Bolas, the Arisen

EEF: All-new abilities.

DEL: Templated. Check me?

EEF: Looks good.

EEF: +1: Destroy target planeswalker -> -2: Destroy target permanent.

EEF: Tweaked the numbers a bit.

EEF: Up to one target planeswalker.

EEF: 5 loyalty -> 7. +1 draw two -> +2 draw two. +2 destroy planeswalker -> -3 destroy creature or planeswalker. -2 reanimate -> -4 reanimate. -10 ultimate -> -12.

DEL: Review; not feeling red on either side?

EEF: Good catch Del, "Destroy" -> Deal 10 damage.

NB: Buff candidate.

AP: Nice try, Nicolas

Once the creature side of Nicol Bolas, the Arisen was hammered out, the planeswalker half fell right into place after only a small amount of iteration.

Meteor Golem

EEF: New card.

ROSEJ: This is also super cool.

EEF: permanent -> nonland permanent

EEF: 6 2/2 -> 7 3/3

EEF: Nonland permanent -> permanent.

MDT: Are we sure we want this to say "permanent"? Blinking and stuff could make this card very unfun.

PI: Why is this permanent over nonland permanent?

EEF: Permanent -> nonland permanent

DEL: Review: Permanent versus nonland permanent? Cleaner words plus general answer versus risk plus feel-bads with land destruction.

EEF: Added "an opponent controls" so it doesn't blow up your own stuff on an empty board. I think there are more positives at nonland.

Awesome flavor. Powerful effect. Not too oppressive and allows the game to play out naturally. Generally in the past, we have seen artifacts that act as removal sit on the battlefield and their controller activates them at some point to destroy something when they deem it worthy. We found it interesting and enjoyable to play around with a strong enters-the-battlefield effect on a more expensive design. And as you can see above, we were very conflicted as to whether this should be able to destroy lands. What do you think?

Desecrated Tomb

EEF: New card from Aaron Forsythe (who else?)

EEF: I'm concerned that this is just busted with Tormod's Crypt-type effects.

AF: Yeah, this can't make a Bat for each creature. I think this is clear, but it could check at end of turn as an alternate template.

EEF: "a creature card" -> "one or more creature cards"

ID: Potentially broken depending on what there is to do with it. Let's look for combos.

EEF: What does this do with dredge decks?

AF: When you dredge a Golgari Grave-Troll, you get a Bat.

ROSEJ: This costs mana and a card, where as Narcomoeba or Bridge from Below only costs a slot in your deck.

MJJ: Scrapheap Scrounger is nice with this. Two Bats per activation (one on the cost, one on resolution)

EEF: FFL suggests trigger once on end step. Or a tap ability that's conditional somehow?

EEF: Now triggers on each end step.

DEL: Trigger condition changed back, have fun.

This is a good example of restraint in Magic design. The initial card proposed was mostly unbounded and could make a 1/1 Bat for each creature card exiled from your graveyard. A deck with mostly creatures and Desecrated Tomb could use Tormod's Crypt to generate a ton of Bats earlier than we would be comfortable with. While it was suggested to go to a design where you would only get a maximum of one Bat per turn, we were able to find a middle ground and let you try and get a few Bats a turn. Go compromise!

Transmogrifying Wand

EEF: New card from Mark Heggen.

DOUGB: Should I be able to transmogrify my own indestructible creature? Wheee, I'm an ox farmer.

ELI: Can the wand transmogrify them into Dinosaurs?

EEF: Cows are funnier than Dinosaurs. Changed this from an Equipment to a regular ol' artifact.

ABRO: Goats > Oxen in magic whimsy

EEF: I don't think a 3/3 should be a Goat though.

EEF: A lot of discussion about what the funniest card type is for this. Ape and Elephant are possibilities. Maybe we're supposed to introduce a new creature type here?

EEF: 2 to activate -> 3

EEF: Now uses charge counters.

EEF: 3/3 Ox -> 2/4 Ox for greater Oxiness.

AF: Now that this has only three charges, can it be cheaper to activate?

EEF: 3 to activate -> 1.

DEL: "non-Ox" removed from the targeting restriction

Most of the discussion surrounding this beauty of a design from our resident product architect, Mark Heggen, centered around the funniest creature type to transmogrify things into. Mark started with Ox, and even though many other types were suggested, ultimately, he had hit the ox right on the head. I'll leave you with this final tidbit: due to the length of the card after it picked up some charge counters, it lost its originally submitted flavor text, "Into the pasture with you." Nice try Mark, nice try.

Until next time,

Dan Musser

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