The M-Files: RIX Edition – White, Blue, and Black

Posted in Play Design on February 2, 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 to look 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 everywhere 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 had 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

Baffling End

BH: Was the mostly-fog, but replacing with re-adding Journey to Dinosaurs at the Future Future League's request for more interactive cards.

SPS: What? Journey to Dinos was just too cool?

NKM: This can give a Dinosaur to a different opponent than the one whose creature was exiled. Okay?

TABAK: I think it has to be. Otherwise, if the leaves-the-battlefield ability resolves first, the ability references an undefined ability and we have Laquatus's Champion.

One of the jobs of the Play Design team is to find holes in the environment and create cards to fill them. As of Rivals of Ixalan, the Play Design team was still in a transition period and not really in existence as a full team, but some of us were in the building and actively playtesting FFL. Baffling End was a card that the FFL requested to be added to the environment after discovering that white was missing an interactive spell to cast before turn three. Baffling End, or "Journey to Dinos," as it was known during playtesting, was created to fill that hole.

Paladin of Atonement

MDT: Strong with Mana Confluence in Amonkhet.

ID: Has the end step bug, where if I want to damage myself after I've done the rest of my turn I have to stop in my second main phase. If I want to damage you, I can do it in your end step. Also it might actually be easier to remember if it upkeep checks the previous turn. I don't know.

MAGO: To address Ian's concern, this could say "At the beginning of each end step, put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME if you lost life this turn." Upside is that you can make yourself lose life during end step in response to trigger. Downside is that it will trigger every end step, whether you lost life or not (more annoying on Magic Online).

NKM: Going with the First Response–type template.

When Rivals of Ixalan entered set design, but before it entered the FFL playtesting period, our Standard rotation happened every six months. When we decided to change Standard rotation back to once a year, some of the cards in Amonkhet became casualties. Mana Confluence was one of those cards. With Amonkhet now existing in the same Standard environment as Battle for Zendikar, aggressive mana bases were too strong and the card was cut from the file.

While Mana Confluence would have been strong with Paladin of Atonement, the Hour of Devastation uncommon Deserts are just as strong, and this was an interaction that we tested quite a bit. Fun and intuitive play patterns are something we look for when we playtest, and with this card especially, we wanted to make sure it triggered at an appropriate time and didn't cause players to do things at times they wouldn't have otherwise. If the Paladin triggered at the end step, it caused players to use their Deserts to cast spells during their opponent's second main phase rather than at their end step. This interaction is not intuitive to everyone, and as noted, the card was changed to trigger at the beginning of the upkeep instead.

Famished Paladin

GSV: Neat design

SPS: This is really cool. Does this go infinite with anything? Like, an Aura that has "Tap, gain 1." We should be careful with this exact trigger.

ELI: No existing two-card combos; Ephara's Radiance is the closest and it's bad. Three-card combo if you make it a pinger and grant it lifelink.

ID: Just noting that cards like this cost a lot of Play Design resources.

One of the checks that the Play Design team does is frequent file passes to look for cards that have unique effects and effects that could cause loops or trigger infinite combos. Once those cards are identified, we not only playtest the interactions, but also note which of the cards may limit future design space. We then will change cards based on how problematic they are. We want to avoid combos that are hard to interact with, are easy to set up, and don't require many cards to pull off. For more information on our philosophy of combo, check out the article here.

Famished Paladin is an example of a card that could limit the design of future cards and mechanics. Any Aura that grants the creature "Tap: Gain 1 life" is an infinite life combo that is easy to achieve when facing down a tapped-out opponent. This combo does exist in Modern, but it is hard to accomplish due to how easy it is to interact with (bonus points if you know what the combo is). In Standard, however, answers are less efficient, and we have to be careful with cards like this. That said, it's okay for infinite combos to exist—but they should be easy to interact with, require multiple cards, and not be as consistent as their Modern counterparts.

Slaughter the Strong

BH: New card. Might be busted?

ELI: I like this design a lot, but I also like Retribution of the Meek.

BH: Multiple different people misread this in the rare poll, missing the word "total." Keeping an eye on it, no change for now.

BRYAN: Seems really aggressive.

SPS: Feels more defensive to me.

ROSEJ: Combo with Chant of the Skifsang! But seriously, you okay with this interaction?

We don't often make sweeper effects that cost less than four mana, and when we do, they either fill a niche role or have some kind of restriction. With Slaughter the Strong, it encourages you to build your deck a certain way to get the maximum value out of it. It was also made as a good check in case specific decks were too strong, such as midrange Dinosaurs or Anointed Procession tokens. I also want to note that Doran, the Siege Tower really likes this card.

Seafloor Oracle

BH: Changed to be less like raid.

MAGO: Most of the blue tribal rewards are "draw a card" (this, Fishy Repulse, Silvergill Adept, Pirate Sneaking).

GJ: Great card, probably a big deal for Modern Merfolk.

BRYAN: Pretty sweet. Does it include itself?

JDR: My kind of lord!

NKM: Ben drops "you may." Drawing cards will be mandatory. Mandatory!

Rivals of Ixalan had a bit of a different take on tribal payoffs than Ixalan did. In Ixalan, many of the tribal rewards were threshold-based, where you were asked to control a certain amount of that tribe, usually one, and payoffs were small. In Rivals, you are incentivized to control as many of your tribe as possible, and the rewards are much stronger. With Merfolk, some of the tribal payoffs are Merfolk Mistbinder, Deeproot Elite, and Seafloor Oracle. All of these cards are telling you to play as many Merfolk as you can, and the more you have, the greater the payoffs. Seafloor Oracle is capable of drawing a crazy number of cards in the right deck.

My favorite comment here is referencing cards in Rivals of Ixalan with past playtest names. Silvergill Adept was a reprint, so that name remained unchanged. Can you identify the others?

Crafty Cutpurse

NKM: This probably would see Vintage play in Monastery Mentor mirrors. Neat design!

MJJ: I am not in the legion of fans here. These very-narrow-yet-powerful cards can lead to unfun games when they show up unexpectedly at Friday Night Magic levels.

MDT: I agree with Mons here. We're not trying to hate on a specific thing (like Notion Thief for Sphinx's Revelation). This card can completely shut down some Commander decks and is just generally unfun.

DEL: Now steals tokens only until end of turn. Was this: "If a token would be created under an opponent's control, it's created under your control instead."

Crafty Cutpurse was a favorite card among many in R&D, but the play pattern of stealing every token forever was very unfun and discouraged a large number of decks. The original idea behind this card was to steal your opponent's Treasure, but in practice that's not what this card was doing at all. We considered a version that stole Treasure only, but in the end we went with a more versatile token hate card. With eternalize decks popping up in Standard, I wouldn't be surprised if this is considered as a sideboard option in the right metagame.

Timestream Navigator

JDR: Not anxious to have a Constructed-level repeatable Time Walk.

GSV: This looks like a fun puzzle to solve. I guess I just try and claim the city, mill my deck, then set this up? Cool.

MJJ: Does this just fit in the Saheeli Combo deck and make it better?

This card was one of my favorites to play, and Pete Ingram and I spent a considerable amount of time trying to break it. Many Time Walks exile themselves after they are cast to avoid repeatable loops, but the Set Design team felt strongly that this card should not self-exile, to give players a dream to chase. This is another example of a combo card that you have to jump through hoops to achieve, but the reward is great when you can pull it off.

Crashing Tide

BH: Was Disperse. Trying a big bonus to make the set feel more tribal. Could be wrong.

VEEN: This has felt very strong as Repulse in the Merfolk deck. Is this still below a half card?

DEL: From the offsite—Instant -> sorcery. Unsummon -> Draw a card. Conditional cantrip -> conditional flash.

One thing we wanted to avoid with Rivals of Ixalan Limited was to have too many cards that were unplayable outside of your tribe, especially with interactive spells. Crashing Tide was intended to be one of blue's premium common bounce spells, but was very weak outside of the Merfolk deck. To solve that, we changed it from an instant that cantripped (meaning it drew you a card) only if you had a Merfolk, to a sorcery that always cantripped, but had flash only if you controlled a Merfolk. This made it strong in most blue decks, but gave you a nice bonus if you were heavier in Merfolk.

Tetzimoc, Primal Death

MJJ: Just the thing for dealing with that pesky Illusion deck.

JDR: I think this card is a lot more fun revealing at sorcery speed to get that sense of impending doom. This one will frequently just spew a bunch of counters right before coming down.

ABRO: Like sorcery a lot for the first ability. I think that makes it more fun for both players, as they can both anticipate its arrival.

BH: Changed activation to B from 1B, but only during your turn. Added Deathtouch.

Tetzimoc was a Play Design favorite, in terms of flavor and fun. When Michael Majors started working with us, this was the first card he was excited to build around. And, of course, a lot of us made the Infernal Spawn of Evil joke during playtesting. One of the play patterns that the team found generally unfun was the "end of turn, put counters on your opponent's stuff, untap, cast this, kill their stuff." This was a feel-bad moment to players who did not anticipate this coming and weren't able to play around it. It played as an instant-speed wrath that allowed you to play a 6/6 on your turn. The sorcery-speed activation proved to still be powerful and give the opponent a little more time to prepare.

Mastermind's Acquisition

BH: Card suggested by YS and Gottlieb for the story moment where the Immortal Sun is taken off Ixalan. Regardless of whether or not we use it for that, I like this design a lot and want to use it if appropriate.

AP: Can we creep on Diabolic Tutor? This is a sweet card, but I don't think 3BB is the right cost for this effect.

BRYAN: I think we've proven that five mana to Demonic Tutor is too weak to make people happy.

ROSEJ: Diabolic Tutor has been printed ten times in the last ten years. I'm not that excited for a variant, especially at five mana.

This card was originally five mana, and was costed as such because it was a stronger Diabolic Tutor, which was already a four-mana card. However, Diabolic Tutor had not seen Standard play since the days of Cabal Coffers, and the FFL team felt that four mana was more appropriate for this effect, despite that making it strictly better than a previous version. It's been a long time since we could wish in Standard, let alone wish for any card.

Twilight Prophet

BRYAN: Can this get rid of the card somehow if I haven't claimed the city? Otherwise I just reveal every card I draw, which is not fun.

EEF: This looks like a color pie violation to me. Black isn't supposed to make other people pay the costs to draw cards.

GSV: This looks like a bend to me, but not a break. There is some precedent (Shadows over Innistrad Sorin), and I buy that black is happy if someone is paying the cost for it in blood.

The design team has a Council of Colors that does frequent set passes to check for color pie bends and breaks. Twilight Prophet was one of the cards that was flagged for a break. This card "reverse Bobs" (Bob is a nickname for Dark Confidant, and this card has that effect, but in reverse), and generally card draw in black only happens when you are giving something up for it, such as losing life or sacrificing permanents. Twilight Prophet drew you a card and drained life, but Gavin, black's representative on the Council of Colors, found it to be okay as long as someone was paying for the card in some way.

Pitiless Plunderer

AP: My Mycosynth Lattice plus Disciple of the Vault deck will be sooo happy.

MDT: This creates infinite triggers with March of the Machines. If there isn't a Disciple of the Vault or similar card in play, it will just draw the game. It does not seem top-tier in Modern, but also not something we want to encourage.

NKM: Could also trigger on nontokens.

BH: I don't mind this interaction; keeping as is.

I enjoy cards like this in Limited. It enables some pretty cool stuff (such as allowing you to ramp in a color that doesn't usually get ramp), allows you to splash additional colors, and works well with Treasure payoffs in the format like Deadeye Plunderers and Ruthless Knave. As we print more cards with unique effects, we do have to worry about dangerous interactions with older Magic cards, and this card was one of the cards that looked to be problematic in Modern.

The combo was not particularly strong, but the fact that you can draw the game with March of the Machines was not really desirable. However, there are a lot of powerful things you can do in Modern, and a lot of interactions that create infinite loops. This one required two four-mana cards, one of them being a creature, and both being extremely weak on their own. We decided that this looked fun with Disciple of the Vault in both Modern and more casual formats like Commander, so although it can draw the game without a Disciple in play, it is a fun way to win for plenty of players.

That's it for part one of the Rivals of Ixalan M-Files. Next week I'll be back with red, green, gold, artifacts, and lands.

Until next time,

Melissa DeTora

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