M-Files: Theros Beyond Death – Red, Green, and the Rest

Posted in Play Design on January 31, 2020

By Jadine Klomparens

A former Magic tournament grinder and a forever Modern Jund aficionado, Jadine Klomparens is currently a contractor working with the Play Design team.

Welcome back to the M-Files! Jadine Klomparens here again to bring you the second half of your regularly scheduled behind-the-scenes look at how the cards in Theros Beyond Death came to be.

Here at Wizards of the Coast, those of us working on Magic design have lots of tools to help us communicate about the cards we're making. One of those tools is Drake, formerly known as Multiverse, our internal database where we leave comments about individual cards as we work on them. Drake comments can be all sorts of things: changelogs, things to keep in mind as we go forward, expressions of delight, and sometimes of disapproval. They don't capture all the work that goes into making each Magic card, but they do provide a snapshot of what we were thinking about while making them.

Click below to put faces to the monikers and meet our commenters.

Cast of Characters

MAGO – Mark Gottlieb, THB lead designer
GREGG – Gregg Luben, THB lead editor
TABAK – Matt Tabak, senior editor
PC – Paul Cheon, former play designer (now esports manager)
AP – Adam Prosak, play designer
KEN – Ken Nagle, senior game designer
ABRO – Andrew Brown, play designer
ELI – Eli Shiffrin, rules manager
DGH – Dave Humpherys, game design architect
DSJ – Donald Smith, Jr., play designer
AF – Aaron Forsythe, director of R&D
MJJ – Mons Johnson, Duel Masters lead Developer
VEEN – Andrew Veen, former set designer
MDT – Melissa DeTora, play designer
DEL – Del Laugel, principal editor
ID – Ian Duke, technical lead of Play Design
SPS – Sam Stoddard, former set designer and early THB lead designer
JK – Jadine Klomparens, play designer
HINDERM – Michael Hinderaker, play designer
NKM – Nat Moes, editor
YS – Yoni Skolnik, set designer
MMAJ – Michael Majors, play designer

Now, back to the cards!


Arena Trickster

MAGO: New red common reward for cast-on-opponent's-turn deck

JK: Awkward output. Not being able to pump power on my turn is sad. Maybe this is tricky enough to be fun?

MAGO: 1/3 gets +2/+0 -> 1/1 gets a +1/+1 counter

ABRO: 1R 1/1 -> 3R 3/3

HINDERM: This looks so much more satisfying to play with.

Doing something even slightly novel always comes with unexpected problems. Conceptually, structuring the blue-red Limited theme of the set as "play spells on your opponent's turn" didn't sound much harder than the instants- or sorceries-matter themes we've done in many sets. In practice, the fact that you definitionally could not trigger your rewards on your own turn made this difficult to execute on.

Arena Trickster started as a simple toughness-slanted red creature that had a trigger to temporarily boost its power. Because Arena Trickster could never get bigger on your own turn, it was a weird defensive creature that was much less fun to play then similar cards. We wanted to change the reward but had a problem: there aren't very many effects for red common creatures that make sense on your opponent's turn, and we were using all of them elsewhere. In the end, we made the red common getting +1/+1 counters do something else, freeing us to make the version of Arena Trickster you can see at local draft tables today.


Blood Aspirant

ABRO: New design for the BR sacrifice deck in Limited

MAGO: 1R 1/1 -> 2R 2/2

ABRO: 2R 2/2 -> 1R 1/1

ABRO: Should this be one mana?!?!

ABRO: I am inclined to go with this change. An exciting add to Constructed. But we will have to be aware of risks.

ID: I'm inclined not to risk a one-drop here, seems like a narrow power target to hit and pretty snowbally. If this just slots into aggro instead of necessitating heavy build-around, we've probably made Standard less fun.

Cards move around a lot as we work on our card sets. We develop Limited and Constructed somewhat in tandem, so card changes for one will sometimes create opportunities for the other. Blood Aspirant was made to work well in black-red Limited decks with lots of cards that sacrifice things. As the details of the Limited format fell into place, it became clear that Blood Aspirant would work better in that deck if it cost less than three mana.

This was a clear opportunity for Play Design. At one mana, Blood Aspirant would be poised to make waves in Constructed. This change sounded exciting, so we went ahead and built some decks to quickly test out how the card would feel at one mana. The interactions it had with the strong sacrifice cards in Standard were clearly powerful, and at that point in the set's life cycle, we didn't have enough time to fully explore the power of the decks that would form around it. We concluded that the risk was greater than the reward, so two mana it was.


Tectonic Giant

MAGO: New design from Melissa

PC: Card has felt pretty strong and has a very resilient body. I'm wondering if we just want this to only do damage much like Thunderbreak Regent instead of being able to put you up on cards.

AF: I like the card, maybe the fact that it's an attack trigger is too much.

ABRO: FFL has been finding that choosing damage is stronger most of the time.

ID: Is this easier to parse with a modal template? (Choose one)

ABRO: That would be great.

MAGO: Made that change

MAGO: Now second mode can play lands

MAGO: 4/4 -> 3/4. Second mode now exiles two cards, though you can play only one of them.

When we make cards that give the player a choice (R&D parlance: "modal" cards), we want that choice to be meaningful. Players don't need to be picking each option an equal amount of the time, but we don't want the choice to be so lopsided that one mode on the card is being chosen every time, regardless of in-game context. At various points in time, Tectonic Giant was a modal card with just such an unbalanced choice.

There are two paths you can take to make choices more balanced: you can weaken the strong choice, or you can strengthen the weak choice. In the case of Tectonic Giant, we ended up doing a little of both. Exiling the top card of your library to play later had a bit too much variance to be a compelling option, so we made it exile two and you chose one of them to play in order to give the player a bit more control. We didn't change the 3-damage mode directly, but moving the card down to three power meant the damage mode was less powerful, nonetheless.


Phoenix of Ash

MAGO: New design from mini-team

AP: A phoenix with escape sounds great!

ABRO: 2RR 4/2 escape 3 gaining haste on escape -> 1RR 2/2 base haste and +2/+0 on escape.

MAGO: Outlier. Only escape creature (other than the titans) that doesn't escape with +1/+1 counters

MMAJ: Have interest in leaning this design into being more midrange/resilient.

ABRO: Escape 4 -> escape 3, escape +2/+0 -> escape with a counter

ABRO: Too easy to ignore. Adding weak Firebreathing.

ABRO: 1R: +1/+0 / escape 3RR 2 counters -> 2R +2/+0 / escape 2RR 1 counter

Making a Phoenix with escape seemed like a natural fit, but the details proved tricky to get right. We're used to Phoenixes coming back from the graveyard, so we wanted to position the Phoenix with escape to come back from the graveyard more often than other creatures with escape. To that end, we positioned Phoenix of Ash as a cheap threat that would die easily so you could escape it early and often.

From there, we ran into a bit of an issue: Phoenix of Ash wasn't enough of a threat for anyone to care about, so it never died. That was the opposite of what we wanted to happen! To solve this, we opted to add a Firebreathing ability to the Phoenix so that you could punish your opponent for ignoring your clearly imposing Phoenix.


Ox of Agonas

DEL: Review—complex uncommon?

ID: New costs, new rarity. 5/2 -> 4/2. Mandatory discard and draw.

HINDERM: This is super cool.

AP: This looks too generous, at least from the "I never want to actually cast this from my hand" angle.

ABRO: FFL suggests 4RR, ability on ETB, RR escape eight cards.

MAGO: Done.

ABRO 4RR -> 3RR.

TABAK: This card proves you don't need to be a god or a titan or a legend or a story about gods, titans, and legends to be a successful mythic rare. Go get 'em, ox.

We don't start work on a set knowing exactly what all the mythic rares will be. We know a good deal of them, like the Gods and Elder Giants in Theros Beyond Death, but others we're less sure of. Because of this, we generally have the flexibility to turn any super-sweet designs that emerge into the mythics they deserve to be. Ox of Agonas started life as an uncommon, but soon became a mythic rare after turning a few heads.


Wolfwillow Haven

MAGO: New design from mini-team

MAGO: Onboard defensive trick hiding in opponent's lands. Hm.

MAGO: Added a "your turn" activation, which reads better than a "sorcery speed" activation. The important part is not doing this during opponent's combat, right?

DSJ: Correct. It's annoying to keep track of onboard tricks like that, especially when it is stacked with lands. Sorcery vs. your turn doesn't matter much here.

ID: FFLers tell me the activated ability hasn't been very relevant. Word shave? Or just remove sorcery restriction? 2/2 rarely eats a creature and survives.

ABRO: I would also advocate for shaving the sorcery speed.

MAGO: The "your turn" restriction is to shut down the onboard trick hiding in your opponent's lands in Limited, not Constructed.

We want our cards to play well in both Limited and Constructed, which sometimes creates mismatched incentives. For Constructed, the Wolf-making ability on Wolfwillow Haven could have lost its timing restriction. That "your turn" activation was important for Limited though, where we try to keep the number of onboard tricks down to avoid painfully complex battlefields. Limited won out this time, and Wolfwillow Haven kept its timing restriction.


The Binding of the Titans

MAGO: Story—Klothys traps the titans in the underworld, then they break out.

MAGO: No one likes this card but me. :/ It's a (slow) two-for-one that enables graveyard synergies; seems like it's doing good work. But it clearly needs help. I'm committed to the story. Suggestions?

MAGO: New design

ABRO: Chapter 2 and 3 put together. Net buff.

PC: Could you also get back a land as an option for chapter 3? I'm afraid that you will miss too often since I think you want to be running this out turn 2. Would be a callback to Grapple with the Past. I think I'd also be much more likely to play this card.

ABRO: I think that's in bounds.

MAGO: I added "or land." It tells the story slightly worse but doesn't break it.

Some stories are harder to tell than others. Like many of the Sagas in Theros Beyond Death, The Binding of the Titans went through a lot of changes during the Future Future League (FFL) period of the set. Play Design really enjoyed the idea of a low-casting-cost enchantment that filled your graveyard, thereby helping to support both constellation and escape synergies. Figuring out what else the other chapters could be that would make it play and tell the story well wasn't easy, but in the end, taking some inspiration from Grapple with the Past did the trick.


Setessan Champion

SPS: New design.

ABRO: Nice!

KEN: Why yes, I like fun with my fun.

MAGO: 1/1 -> 2/2

MAGO: 2/2 -> 1/3 at some point

ABRO: I take full responsibility

Our plan for bringing back constellation was to put it on non-enchantment creatures this time around after using it exclusively on enchantments in Journey into Nyx. This scheme meant that we could create callbacks to the old constellation cards that would play very differently. We knew that going in, but we still didn't quite appreciate just how different these new cards would play.

Setessan Champion is reminiscent of Eidolon of Blossoms, but with the additional ability to grow into a super-strong fighter as you play out your enchantments. When we started playing FFL games with it, we quickly learned that it was difficult to play all the available constellation rewards in the same deck because doing so wouldn't leave you with enough enchantments in your deck for them to be strong. That knowledge let us make each of the individual constellation cards stronger. We thought it was a little too easy to kill Setessan Champion before it drew a card in the environment, so we chose to strengthen it by giving it more resilient base stats.


Arasta of the Endless Web

MAGO: New design from hole-filling and Ian

MMAJ: Very cool.

PC: Can confirm this card is the hotness.

ABRO: Noncreature 3/4 -> instant or sorcery 3/5. FFL. Goal is for this to be a strong option against instant/sorcery decks, was splashing too hard on planeswalkers and enchantments.

Play Design loves cards that are strong against specific strategies. One of the greatest things about Constructed Magic is losing to a deck, then going home and crafting the perfect strategy to beat that deck next time. Cards that let you do such are very important and something Play Design strives to make sure are present in every set. The danger with these safeguard cards is that it's very easy for them to end up too strong against too broad a swath of strategies.

At one time, Arasta of the Endless Web triggered whenever an opponent cast a noncreature spell. The card was a safeguard-style card that was fun to play in FFL, but Play Design was worried that it might end up being too punishing against a lot of strategies. When a safeguard card ends up too strong, it gets played no matter what the metagame looks like and renders the strategies it's particularly good against completely unviable. We call that splash damage, and we try to avoid it whenever possible. To avoid that fate with Arasta, we narrowed the trigger condition down to just instants and sorceries.


The First Iroan Games

ID: 3/3 token -> 1/1 token, didn't look reasonable for Constructed. Prefer smaller creature to adding mana since it takes so long to play out.

MAGO: Great

ABRO: I like this

ABRO: Chapter 2/3 combined, adding a 4th chapter getting you a gold medal.

MAGO: Added a new token to the set (with Theros precedent). Must be Gold, not Treasure. Need to check fit.

AF: <3

ABRO: Third mode capped at three cards. Was draw = to the highest power among creatures you control. Recheck back with Mark

DGH: This looks overly generous, largely since the third mode still looks really strong if it happens (on top of all the other stuff).

ID: Chapter 3 now only draws one card and only if you control a creature power 3 or greater.

AP: Chapter 3 feels like a participation trophy. You don't have to do anything to get it!

ABRO: Draw a card -> draw 2 cards

ABRO: Could be distribute on chapter 2 for small power buff.

MAGO: Two counters, care about 3 power -> three counters, care about 4 power

The First Iroan Games oozes with flavor and was a joy to work on. The story is simple: you enter the competition, you train and get better, you win or you lose, and then you claim your prize. From a game-balance perspective, the most interesting part of working on this card was the realization that its chapter three ability is much stronger on chapter three then it would be on chapter one or two.

Timing is everything in Magic, and The First Iroan Games is no exception. Chapter three of a Saga is very different from chapters one and two because you have an entire turn with access to all your mana before it triggers. This means that you can set up to maximize chapter three far more effectively then you can for earlier chapters. As a result of this, the third chapter ability on The First Iroan Games went through a lot of iteration as we figured out just how strong it was in decks that truly let it sing.


Haktos the Unscarred

SPS: New design from Ian

VEEN: Noble goal. Currently plays a lot like Progenitus.

ID: I think we can get this to a fun spot.

MAGO: Changed the weakness to a choice between 2, 3, and 4, rather than an Erratic Explosion action. Less words, less outliers (pro-all CMCs except 7!)

DGH: Appealing now at least

ELI: Change "when" to "as" so Haktos is invulnerable from the moment he's around, or do you want that window to kill him as a baby before his mom dips him in the river?

MAGO: Yes, "as." Changed.

ABRO: 2RW 5/1 -> RRWW 6/1

ELI: RRWW? New Boros guild leader here!

NKM: What a heel.

From the beginning, Haktos the Unscarred was a very exciting design. The flavor was on point, but so too was the potential for it to be a four-mana Progenitus. Fortunately for Haktos, the exact numbers that he could be vulnerable to were not a load-bearing part of the design. Play Design was able to choose numbers that meant he would be at serious risk against most Standard decks most of the time. We also made sure the environment would have cards like Purphoros's Intervention that can answer Haktos no matter what number gets chosen.

With the problem of reliable complete invulnerability solved, the next worry on Play Design's mind was a deck looking to cast Haktos and then protect him from his vulnerability with counter spells. We didn't think such a deck was likely to emerge but knew it probably wouldn't be much fun if it did. To mitigate that risk, we moved Haktos's casting cost to all colored mana, making him much harder to splash into a three-color deck.


Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger

MAGO: New design from mini-team

ABRO: FFL wants to continue testing as is but is interested in the trigger becoming destroy target nonland at random.

ABRO: Highest CMC -> random. FFL. Check back later?

ID: Adjusted escape and casting costs, weakened abilities.

AF: These words are miles better than previous iterations.

ABRO: 1BR -> BR, sacrifice -> discard. Less lockout gameplay.

MJJ: Pretty interesting with Lazav, btw.

MAGO: Slightly different discard ability—hits you if you discard a land, not if you don't discard a nonland

ELI: Dryad Arbor cries and I laugh at its tears.

MAGO: Reverted back to old template for FFL functionality

Designing the Theros Beyond Death Elder Giants, Kroxa, Titan of Death's Hunger and Uro, Titan of Nature's Wrath, was a task Play Design devoted a lot of resources to. Set Design came up with the awesome scheme of giving them an "enters the battlefield or attacks" trigger, an escape ability, and a sacrifice trigger if they weren't escaped. The details were left to Play Design, and it wasn't a task we took lightly.

Our first iteration of the titans put more power into their "enters the battlefield or attacks" trigger and less into their body. We found these designs played out too much like spells and weren't incentivizing players to escape them as early as possible, instead saving them in your graveyard for the best possible moment. We wanted the titans to be awesome creatures you wanted on the battlefield as soon as possible, so we changed the scheme to give them weaker spell-like effects, lower up-front casting costs, and a stronger presence on the battlefield. This played out much better, and after a lot of detail fine-tuning, the Titans were here.

Kroxa in particular was quite the design challenge. Because Kroxa was the Titan affiliated with death, it needed to have a negative effect on the opponent rather than a positive effect for you. Negative effects are fundamental to the game of Magic, but we do have to be careful with repeatable negative effects. These cards can lock players out of the game and have the potential to provide an unfun play experience. For this reason, we payed close attention to Kroxa throughout its time in FFL and experimented with a lot of different negative effects until we found one we were happy with.


Shadowspear

MAGO: New design from hole-filling. We considered a provoke-type effect (as on Grappling Hook). We also considered an activation for the first ability of "0:" or "T:"

ABRO: I like the idea of this being a sideboard option against stuff with hexproof and indestructible. Can we make it more niche as well? I.e. exile all creatures dealt damage by cardname, etc.

ABRO: +2/+0, 3 to equip -> +1/+1, 2 to equip. FFL. Note power with ELD Fervent Champion.

MAGO: Does the first ability want to affect all permanents, or just creatures?

ABRO: Happy with permanents

MAGO: OK, changed

MAGO: I like this as an experiment of "can an Equipment have a 'normal' artifact ability?"

An Equipment is a non-traditional choice for a safeguard effect, but when Set Design created a Shadowspear design that had an anti-indestructible/hexproof ability, Play Design was interested in performing the experiment. We knew that a way to fight the Gods and other difficult-to-interact-with cards in the set would be a welcome tool for Standard. From there, we engineered the rest of the card to be useful to as many decks as possible that might want access to an anti-indestructible card.


Dream Trawler

MAGO: Redesigned. Moved from U to WU.

ABRO: I like this, lots of knobs

MAGO: 5/4 -> 2/4, attack trigger pumps power and gains life = # of cards in hand

ABRO: Has been too strong. Want to try mana Gate on the flicker.

MAGO: 5/4 -> 3/5, mana Gate on flicker, draw trigger for +1 power

ABRO: Mana Gate makes this much less appealing. Trying hexproof instead of flicker, no mana Gate.

ABRO: Gain 1 life per card -> base lifelink

ABRO: 4WU 3/5 draw one -> 2WWUU 2/5 draw two

GREGG: Per ABRO, back to 3/5, draw one

ABRO: We're right this time I swear?

DSJ: ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Big, standalone threats that can quickly end games you have control of (Magic lingo: finishers) are a class of card that Play Design is very passionate about. We want to be sure players who want to play control in Standard have options for finishers that they are excited to put into their decks. When the control finishers in a format are too weak, control strategies are either too weak or take a very long time to win the game and aren't very fun to play against.

As you can see from the Drake comments, we tried a lot of different things with Dream Trawler. Our main struggle with Dream Trawler was getting the attack trigger into the right spot. When it was too weak, Dream Trawler players would never attack, just sit back on defense and the game would take too long to end. When it was too strong, games would end too fast. Eventually, after a lot of games and a lot of discussion, we found a middle ground we liked.


Enigmatic Incarnation

MAGO: New. Transformation looks for cards with +1 CMC so you can't just chain enchantment creatures into themselves.

ABRO: Activation cost UG -> 1 please!

MAGO: Done

MJJ: This seems too strong at the current numbers. It should say "sacrifice another enchantment" so you can't just use it as a four-cost tutor and play a four-drop.

AP: I am also interested in a once-per-turn clause. But I like this more than I like creature -> creature Birthing Pod variants.

MAGO: Added "once each turn" and can no longer sac itself

GREGG: Review—are there too many restrictions/too much cognitive load on this card?

ABRO: Trying new four-mana version that triggers. Less words, yay. Was 1GU, 1 sac an enchantment: effect/sorcery speed.

MJJ: Nice change. Card reads and plays better. :)

ABRO: Combat step trigger -> end step trigger

I love Enigmatic Incarnation as an example of how a large structural change to a card can preserve its function, flavor, and fun while making it read and play much better. We started Enigmatic Incarnation's ability to sacrifice an enchantment and get a creature as an activated ability. From there, we realized it needed both a "once per turn" and a "only during your turn" restriction. The card was complicated to play and a mess to read.

At some Play Design meeting, the idea was brought up that we could rework the card to use a triggered ability rather than an activated ability. After all, an ability that triggered during each of your turns and a once-per-turn activated ability are not so different in function. Everyone loved the idea, and after figuring out when exactly it should trigger, our new scheme for Enigmatic Incarnation was here to stay.

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