The M-Files: Rivals of Ixalan Edition – Red through Lands

Posted in Play Design on February 9, 2018

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 the old Latest Developments column because it's always fun looking back at the design file a year later to see insight and commentary on in-progress cards from the Vision, Set, and Play Design teams making the set.

Drake, formerly called Multiverse, 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 Set Design 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.

Click to Reveal

BH – Ben Hayes, Set Design lead

MAGO – Mark Gottlieb, set designer

SPS – Sam Stoddard, designer

ELI – Eli Shiffrin, set designer and rules manager

ID – Ian Duke, Play Design lead

BRYAN – Bryan Hawley, play designer

ROSEJ – James Rose, MTG Arena designer

GJ – Glenn Jones, set designer and editor

JDR – Jules Robins, designer

NKM – Nat Moes, editor

GSV – Gavin Verhey, product architect

MJJ – Mons Johnson, Duel Masters lead developer

MDT – Melissa DeTora, set designer

AP – Adam Prosak, play designer

DEL – Del Laugel, principal editor

ABRO – Andrew Brown, play designer

EEF – Ethan Fleischer, designer

TABAK – Matt Tabak, senior editor

VEEN – Andrew Veen, Duel Masters designer/developer and part-time play designer

MJG – Mark Globus, product architect

TJA – Tim Aten, former editor

MKH – Mark Heggen, product architect

PI – Pete Ingram, former play designer

AEJ – Alexis Jansen, MTG Arena developer, and winner of the Great Designer Search 1

Blood Sun

ID: I was wondering if this can cost two for Standard, but I worry about shutting off fetch lands in other formats.

ID: I doubt this is doing anything in Standard at three mana. If we need this to answer Deserts and double-faced lands, it probably needs to cost less, cantrip, or have some additional utility.

BH: Now cantrips.

ROSEJ: I'm surprised this doesn't just stop activated abilities. Really want to turn off Urborg and Eye of Ugin?

DEL: Doesn't actually turn off Urborg. Type-changing is in an earlier layer than ability-removing effects.

ID: And this lets Urza lands still tap for multiple mana?

BH: We're aware that this doesn't turn off Urborg, and fine with people who play Modern needing to learn that. We prefer not dirtying up this card.

This card was designed to be an answer for double-faced cards in Standard. We typically don't print land destruction spells at Standard Constructed rates, and we wanted to give players the option of counterplay against flipped lands, especially if these lands made it into top-tier decks (something we had anticipated, especially with Search for Azcanta).

One thing that the Play Design team was trying to accomplish was having answers to set themes in the same block. For past sets like Shadows over Innistrad and Kaladesh, answers did not appear until a block later. This proved to be problematic, as the themes were strong and there were not reliable answers. Those strong themes and lack of answers led to bans in Standard. Emrakul, the Promised End may have played much differently in Standard had there been graveyard hate printed in the same block. We are working toward including more answers to set themes in the blocks that the themes appear in, and Blood Sun is only the beginning.

Fanatical Firebrand

BH: Now tap plus sac; was just sac.

MDT: What was the reason for the change? It's sad that I can't attack, trigger raid, then sac this guy.

BH: Added haste, changed to Pirate.

GSV: A point of damage sitting on the board with no cost on it at all times sounds annoying. I know that this isn't the strongest card, but when this does end up in play I'm not sure I like what it adds.

I really enjoy seeing throwbacks to cards from 20 years ago. Mogg Fanatic was a strong card during its lifetime in Standard and Extended, and this was a good opportunity to make that kind of throwback while adding a new twist. Fanatical Firebrand is a strong one-drop for mono-red and Pirate tribal.

Brass's Bounty

TJA: This card seems reasonable and appealing at these numbers. (I'm prepared to look stupid for saying so in the M-Files three years from now.)

BH: Future Future League, keep an eye on this with the two "If you control N or more blah blah, win the game" cards.

One of the tasks we do as a part of Play Design is identify any cards that enable combo decks and stress-test all cards that we identify. Some of the things we look for are cards that provide bursts of mana, flood the board with a large number of permanents, or scale with a certain resource you have. Brass's Bounty checks all those boxes, so this card was on our radar from the beginning of Set Design. As you can imagine, this card changed a lot throughout its development. It works with anything that asks you to control a lot of Treasure or artifacts (Mechanized Production, Revel in Riches, and Marionette Master combo nicely with this card), and casting it will get you over the threshold for the city's blessing immediately.

Tim was referring to a completely different card when he made the above comment. Originally this card was a Hammer of Bogarden variant, but we had a very similar card in Ixalan. We design sets side by side, and we will often discover similarities among cards as we playtest. The Ixalan card, Repeating Barrage, got to stick around, as Ixalan was much further along in development and already had art assigned. The above card was redesigned to be a Treasure-matters card.

Dire Fleet Daredevil

PI: Sort of would love to see this become literally reverse Snapcaster (flash, until-end-of-turn, etc.)

BH: This and the one Ixalan card may both want to pick up "you may spend mana as though it were any color," as that's really been tripping people up on the rare poll.

JDR: Making opponents feel stupid for bringing cool cards to the table is an easy trap to fall into with all this Pirate-y theft. I'm not sure that this one's over the line, but we should keep an eye on all of these.

BRYAN: Note from Play Design team—This should exile the spell it casts to avoid repetition and heavily punishing the first spell you cast that it can use.

On the plane of Ixalan, pirates are known for plundering, and in gameplay, we represented that by having Pirates steal the opponent's stuff. Hostage Taker, Dead Man's Chest, and Dire Fleet Daredevil were all cards that stole something from the opponent, whether it was creatures or artifacts from play or spells that may not have even been cast yet. However, one thing that wasn't fun was not being able to cast the spell you stole. Treasure was a way to help you cast those spells, but it was not reliable enough, and stolen things were often sitting there unable to be cast. We added the ability to cast the spells with any mana (referred to in R&D as "mana washing") to solve this problem.

Thunderherd Migration

JDR: I wasn't expecting this member of the cycle. Pleasantly surprised!

AP: <3

ID: Very nice.

VEEN: Please let this be named "Life Finds a Way."

Once we knew we wanted Silvergill Adept as a reprint in Rivals of Ixalan, we decided to complete the cycle of cards that had a cost reduction if you revealed the appropriate creature type from your hand. As we were designing this cycle, we realized that it would be interesting if some of the cards in the cycle were noncreature spells. Once we determined what all of the tribes were doing mechanically, we realized that the Dinosaur spell should be a ramp spell. While Thunderherd Migration was the only noncreature spell that made it, it has been a nice addition to Dinosaur ramp decks as a two-mana ramp spell.

Jadelight Ranger

MJG: Love this card; it was a lot of fun to play with.

MAGO: Cool. Happy it's back.

ID: Very clean and exciting to me on rate.

Not every card in Ixalan block was made with tribal in mind. While Jadelight Ranger does have a relevant creature type, it is also just a strong card on rate. It is a nice midrange card that can help smooth out your draws, and has great synergy with Winding Constrictor. Since it is a Merfolk, you can play it in your Merfolk tribal decks, but it's also nice to have good options for players who aren't into tribal.

Ghalta, Primal Hunger

JDR: "When you cast the second one, it's GG."

BRYAN: Ooooooh.

ID: Maybe this is just pure Timmy/casual and it doesn't matter, but if we want to aim at Constructed it'd be nice to have some element against going "all-in" into a Wrath.

MJJ: I think this card is rather competitive already in conjunction with Vehicles. Casting this turn four is easy if the opponent is not destroying creatures

DOUGB: Giant Growth doing its best Dark Ritual impression.

The Play Design team does much more than find the best decks and fix things that are broken. We also look for cards that are fun and elevate them so they can succeed in Standard. One of the decks that we found fun was the Dinosaur midrange deck that played Otepec Huntmaster and Regisaur Alpha. However, we knew that deck was lacking something, and as we playtested we looked for ways to make it stronger. We realized it was missing a gigantic, hard-to-deal-with finisher. Ghalta became the ultimate reward for playing out a ton of on-curve Dinosaurs, especially with ways to give it haste.

One thing that was concerning with Ghalta was how "win-more" it was. We didn't want players to fall into a trap of overextending their board to cast a cheap Ghalta only to get blown out by a sweeper. We added trample to it at some point, and while this card does force you to risk overextending, its highs are very powerful—especially when there are two different haste-granting cards for the deck. There are ways to cast it as early as turn four. Can you figure out how?


BH: New design here. Not intended to impact Constructed, but just to be exciting for less competitive formats with a big Timmy/Johnny dream.

MDT: We can't make this with Dino Harbinger, it is infinite Dinos!

GSV: Draws the game with Æther Flash. #TheMoreYouKnow But in all seriousness, we should be cognizant of making any "creaturefall: deal <4 damage" cards in Standard while this is around. They may not be a problem, but it's just good to keep in mind.

AP: Constructed card solely because of interaction with Aetherworks Marvel.

To give you an idea of how far ahead we work, when we were playing this card, Aetherworks Marvel was still legal in Standard. You can deduce from the comments that the rates on both Polyraptor and Forerunner of the Empire (called "Dino Harbinger" at the time) were different, and the interaction was concerning to the Play Design team. After the rates became more reasonable, we began playing this card with Aetherworks Marvel, which made the combo with Forerunner much more consistent.

Again, with the new design structure, the Play Design team is working to avoid printing problematic cards like Aetherworks Marvel and Felidar Guardian. This is an example of one of the cards that we identified as problematic, and we got it to a spot where the card remained functional, but it was unlikely to be a problem for Standard.

Relentless Raptor

TJA: No idea what the right stats-plus-cost combination is for this (heck, it could be what's there now), but this is an awesome ability suite for a red-white card.

MKH: Reads super fun.

Not all Dinosaurs are big and expensive. This card was aimed at an aggressive deck with a low curve, but with its 3/3 body it still had a Dinosaur feel to it. It plays particularly well with Path of Mettle.

Kumena, Tyrant of Orazca

BH: 3/3 to 2/4 to get an important Merfolk that survives Lightning Strike.

BH: Still too similar to Ixalan Merfolk legend.

SPS: My blue-black-red legend is currently a tribal Morphling, but in a very different way. I think both are fine.

When sets are designed side-by-side with different team members, there are going to be similarities between cards, especially when those cards are from the same block. One of the ways we avoid this is to do frequent file passes on sets that we aren't currently working on and let the set leads know about the similarities. Kumena was a "Morphling," a term R&D uses to refer to a creature with many activated abilities, and at the time there were other cards in other sets that were doing Morphling-like things. At this point, we collaborate to see what each set needs. The tribal Merfolk deck needed a strong utility creature, and Kumena was a card that could fill that role. At the same time, Admiral Beckett Brass (the card Sam was referring to above) was not working in the Pirate decks, and it got changed to be a classic lord with a plundering ability, as that was a stronger card for a Pirate deck.

Path of Mettle / Metzali, Tower of Triumph

BH: New design. Not thrilled with this side, looking for more iteration.

MJG: Both sides are pretty weird to me.

AF: I'm actually a fan of that "random" ability. Just know that I can block three tokens, let the 4/4 through, then activate this during the combat damage step.

This card was, in my opinion, the weirdest card in the set. It made sense from a flavor standpoint. The playtest name of this card was "Hallway of Traps," and you had to be quick and vigilant to get through the hallway. When you got to the top of the tower, you could shoot things down with the activated abilities. Despite the story the card was telling, the card looked super weird to me. I built a lot of decks with this card and actually found it to be versatile. I had to choose carefully what creatures I would put in my decks, and sometimes the triggered ability on the front half wouldn't do anything, but after it flipped (which was surprisingly easy), I had a mode that was strong against aggro decks and a mode that was strong against control decks. The real world has had success in building decks with this card, which is always a good feeling for the person who did the most playtesting and iteration on it.

Legion Lieutenant

AEJ: I like the clean +1/+1 tribal reward here.

AF: The similarity/power of the Captains in Dark Ascension was considered a bad thing for Draft. Is this going to be okay?

SPS: I love these simple designs.

KEN: This guy is doing the white-black Vampire tribal reward to headline white as a new color for the tribe at Friday Night Magic, but the two legendary white-black Vampires across Ixalan block aren't doing it for Commander. Vish Kal, Blood Arbiter gives no tribal Vampire reward.

Legion Lieutenant and Merfolk Mistbinder were two cards that did not change at all from their creation to print. That is incredibly rare, especially for cards aimed at Standard. There were also concerns about how strong these were in Draft, especially after Dark Ascension, a set that had five tribal lords that were format-warping for Limited. However, the gameplay and appeal of these cards were great. They did exactly what they were expected to do and worked well in both Draft and Constructed. At uncommon, they are great options for players with a limited collection, which was an important goal for these cards.

Zacama, Primal Calamity

MDT: I like them lining up, but wow the white ability is a terrible rate by comparison.

BRYAN: Could be busted, but reads cool.

JDR: I'd be a lot more satisfied if the amount of mana to cast this broke evenly into activations (e.g., cost eight, or ten with five-mana activations). As is, I just feel like I'm wasting mana.

AP: I doubt we'll charge 4.5 mana, Jules.

BH: Abilities now cost three and do 3, instead of costing four.

KEN: Happy that my "Great Whale" idea got in. Shouldn't it be "2G: Scry 3." or "2G: Create a 3/3"?

As implied in Jules's comment, a nine-mana Dinosaur with four-mana activations played poorly. This soon got changed to having three-mana activations, which was much more satisfying. It's been a while since a "Great Whale" design was printed in a Standard-legal set, and we had to be cautious with any multi-mana-generating lands. While cards like that have been problematic in the past, even pretty recently (Peregrine Drake was banned in Pauper last year), you have to jump through hoops to cast this early with multi-mana generating lands.

That's all for the M-Files: Rivals of Ixalan Edition! I hope you enjoy playing with the set. As always, I will take any feedback on Twitter or Reddit. Thanks for reading!

Until next time,

Melissa DeTora

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