M-Files: Theros Beyond Death – White, Blue, Black

Posted in Play Design on January 24, 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 to the M-Files! I'm Jadine Klomparens, here for the first time to bring you 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
PC – Paul Cheon, former play designer (now esports manager)
AP – Adam Prosak, play 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
LL – Lukas Litzsinger, game designer
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
DOUG – Doug Beyer, worldbuilding designer

Now, let's get to the cards!


The Birth of Meletis

MAGO: New design.

PC: I liked how the abilities on the Dominaria Sagas had a good amount of synergy or similar abilities. For people who don't know the story, the effects here look very random.

AP: I agree with Paul's comment. No idea what's going on here.

MAGO: There's no real story here; you're building a city/civilization (in a somewhat abstract way).

MAGO: Trying a white midrange/control Constructed shot; if it doesn't work, revert.

ABRO: 0/3 -> 0/4

ABRO: Chapter 3—gain life equal to toughness -> gain 2 life

Getting to tell the stories of Theros with the new Saga subtype was one of the most exciting parts of Theros Beyond Death. Because they need to both tell a story and be fun to play, Sagas are some of the trickiest cards to make. When the original design for The Birth of Meletis wasn't quite working, we saw an opportunity to tell its story with a defensive card that Play Design was interested in. City Founding 101: find some land, build on that land, and then watch your city grow and prosper.

We thought a lot about what exactly the life gain in chapter three should be. Originally, you gained life equal to the greatest toughness among creatures you controlled. This told the story of a thriving city but created swingy gameplay. Aggressive decks in our Future Future League (FFL) were beating this card whenever they could kill the Wall token and losing whenever they couldn't. In the end, we settled on a static gain of two life to keep the Saga useful when your Wall gets destroyed and beatable when it doesn't.


Daxos, Blessed by the Sun

MAGO: New devotion ability on Demigod cycle. New second ability on this one as well.

ABRO: WW -> 1W slight nerf

ELI: What a world where WW -> 1W is a slight nerf.

DGH: Looks scary in a goldfishing sort of way.

DSJ: Scaling power on two-drops is too snowbally in Constructed

MAGO: */2 -> 2/*

ABRO: 1W -> WW FFL

PC: I like this change. Wasn't a very good defensive creature early.

The details of the devotion ability on the Demigod cycle changed a lot throughout Set Design. When the file reached FFL, the current scheme was that all the Demigods would have power equal to devotion of their color. Play Design was excited about this idea, with one notable exception: having to make two-mana cards with this ability.

We knew making two-mana Demigods under this paradigm would likely make for aggressive decks that either won by a lot or lost by a lot every game, with little room for good gameplay in between. After some testing, we determined that this was the case and approached the Set Design team with the idea that the two-mana Demigods would have toughness equal to devotion instead. The new cards were much more fun to play, and still felt like Demigods.


Shatter the Sky

MAGO: Placeholder for a Wrath effect that FFL wants.

MAGO: New from mini-team

ABRO: Destroy three creatures to draw -> destroy power 4 to draw

ELI: This doesn't English. Should check the draw before destroying, or check the destroyed creatures.

AF: Each player that controls a creature . . . draws a card. Then Wrath.

MAGO: Yup

ABRO: If we don't end up liking this I have some backups I've always wanted to try for Constructed.

MAGO: My only design priority here is "Cool Wrath," so keep me up to date with what the FFL wants.

DGH: I like what this is trying to do. Hopefully appealing enough.

MJJ: Rude with Gideon Blackblade.

Shatter the Sky is a great example of a card that started life as a Play Design request. After dipping our toes in the waters of four-mana Standard wraths with Kaya's Wrath in Ravnica Allegiance, it was time to dive right in with a fresh monocolored take on White's iconic sweeper.

Wrath of God itself is still stronger than we'd like sweepers to be in Standard, but there's a lot of room to be weaker than Wrath of God and still be a strong card. Play Design was ready to settle in for the long haul to find the rider text that would make this card fun in Standard, but as it happens, we found it relatively quickly. After a little bit of template work, we had a card that allowed creature decks to stay in the game after a sweeper and let the truly ambitious profitably put creatures in their sweeper strategy.


Elspeth Conquers Death

MAGO: New Saga—Elspeth returning from the Underworld.

MAGO: New ability suite from Prosak.

ABRO: And ABRO!!!

ELI: Team Probro

MAGO: Edit—new ability suite sent to me by Prosak but designed by a shadowy cabal of unknown figures

AF: Reads like it's probably a worse Eldest Reborn.

MAGO: -1 mana

PC: I get that this gets back Elspeth to tell a story. It's just a little strange since Elspeth also tells this story since she already has escape.

ABRO: Elspeth card -> planeswalker card.

DGH: Looks appealing/strong. Comparable to Eldest Reborn in some ways.

Making Sagas that play well in Constructed is no easy job. As the team the most involved with our Constructed formats, Play Design had the task of designing many of Theros Beyond Death's Sagas. Since this Saga was supposed to show Elspeth's path to returning from the Underworld, it was clear that chapter three should be able to return an Elspeth from your graveyard to the battlefield. Most of our work centered around finding two other abilities that would play well as the prelude to a reanimation ability in chapter three. This ended up being one of my favorite cards in the set, and I hope you have as much fun with it as I have.


Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis

MAGO: Past Elspeths do four things: make tokens, pump creatures, gain life, blow up stuff. Trying something weirder here.

VEEN: I'm in.

MDT: I think the escape design is great.

ABRO: Looks super dope

DEL: Review—awesome, sighs, lots of reaction.

MAGO: New abilities from mini-team

ID: New escape cost

ABRO: Second ability hasn't been a lot of fun; look for other abilities?

ABRO: New abilities, new card.

ID: 4 loyalty -> 5 loyalty

Elspeth, Sun's Nemesis wins the Theros Beyond Death award for being a topic of conversation at the most FFL meetings. Everybody loved the idea of doing an Elspeth planeswalker with escape and all minus loyalty abilities, but designing a fun planeswalker under that paradigm was easier said than done. As you can see from the Drake comments, we tried a lot of different ability suites on Elspeth, but we never deviated from the all-minus-abilities loyalty scheme.

We quickly learned that it was very important for Elspeth to have a -1 ability. Early versions of the card without one found themselves stranded on the battlefield, unable to use any loyalty ability. Similarly, we learned that we wanted the -1 ability to be strong enough that the opponent had to care about it: it wasn't fun when opponents were incentivized to ignore Elspeth to prevent her from escaping and resetting her loyalty.

Elspeth's unorthodox loyalty scheme forced us to be creative and resulted in some of my all-time favorite Play Design tweaks. On early versions of Elspeth, the strongest thing you could do was make tokens until she died, then escape her and make some more. We thought about weakening her token-making ability, then realized we could fix the problem by giving her an extra starting loyalty instead. Because using her -2 twice no longer used all of Elspeth's loyalty, this change made it much harder to make tokens, escape Elspeth, and then make more tokens in a single turn, which was the exact play pattern we were trying to eliminate!


Shimmerwing Chimera

PC: Enchantment Esperzoa is nice! Love it with the Omens.

LL: I like this card a lot. Blue has really fun "enchantments matter" cards.

VEEN: Big fan of this card and the archetype it creates

DEL: Review—could say "another" to avoid feel-bads? Dave just wants consideration to be given. Does makes sense with constellation.

MAGO: This does not want to say "another"—that would incentivize you to build a deck with no other enchantments, so this is an under-costed Air Elemental.

ABRO: 4/4 -> 4/3

ABRO: 4/3 mandatory any enchantment -> 3/2 another and optional

Shimmerwing Chimera started out as an enchantment version of Esperzoa. Feedback from early Limited playtesting was that this card was a lot of fun but the constellation mechanic made it feel pretty different from Esperzoa. On Shimmerwing Chimera, the upkeep return-to-hand text was nine parts value engine, one part drawback, the inverse of how it played on Esperzoa. In the end, we decided to focus on the value engine as the fun part of the card and abandoned its identity as an above-rate flier.


Nadir Kraken

MAGO: Simplified and moved to rare

CJB: Love this Kraken design.

MAGO: Trying a draw trigger instead of an end-of-turn trigger. More blue, more build-around. First token is slower. Could be too explosive?

JK: Draw trigger looks both strong and prone to go infinite.

ABRO: Tentacles give +1/+0 -> Tentacles give +1/+1 and added mana gate to draw trigger.

HINDERM: Has been mostly enjoyable but definitely snowbally.

NKM: No longer do I have to choose between going tall or going wide. I'm glad this ability costs mana.

ID: Checking that we prefer dynamic +1/+1 for each Tentacle rather than create a Tentacle and put a +1/+1 counter on card name.

ABRO: Putting the counters and the token making together.

Set Design was interested in a terrifying sea monster that became more terrifying as the game went on and made sense at a low converted mana cost. You don't have to say much more than "blue draw engine reward, but on a creature" to get Play Design excited. Together, we made Nadir Kraken.

The concern while working on Nadir Kraken was always that the design was very swingy. You'd get this on the table, make a lot of tokens, and crush your opponent with your giant monster and friends. Sometimes you'd draw two Nadir Krakens and super crush them. Other times they'd have a Deafening Clarion and erase all your hard work for three mana. Moving to using counters for the growth on Nadir Kraken let us make the card less swingy by eliminating both its self-synergy and its weakness to damage-based sweepers at the same time.


Kiora Bests the Sea God

MAGO: Modified ability and story. Now also Confiscates

ABRO: Can we tap more than one thing? Two things?

DSJ: Could we have Chapter 1 tap and freeze all nonland permanents?

MAGO: Changed

YS: A lot more powerful if you make the token before tapping. Is that an option?

ABRO: Reversed modes 1 and 2. Adding untap to the steal so you don't steal something tapped. Now seven mana.

MAGO: 6/6 token -> 8/8

DGH: Looks scary if there's a Zombify for enchantments, Starfield of Nyx, etc., but not seeing one at any scary costs?

Kiora Bests the Sea God began life a very different card. We started with a lower mana cost and weaker abilities for all three chapters. As we played with the card, we kept making changes to make the card more satisfying to play and awe-inspiring to read. Those changes made the card much stronger, so we moved it up the curve to compensate. We didn't set out to design the first seven-mana Saga, but that's where making a card worthy of representing Kiora's victory over Thassa took us.


Thassa, Deep-Dwelling

MAGO: New. Last ability could be "Exile, then return immediately" or "Exile, then return at end of turn."

ID: Worried about lockout states with enters-the-battlefield kill or counterspell creatures. What about a triggered ability that blinks at end of turn?

MAGO: OK

AF: Flicker seems super fun.

PC: Is this a spot where we could have Thassa grant evasion of some kind? Would be nice to have a deck for Silent Submersible.

MAGO: Activated evasion overlaps original Thassa.

MAGO: Put a new (shorter) activated ability on there.

MAGO: Why does the last ability say "another"?

MAGO: Answer: for Arena

Returning to Theros meant we were signed up for some challenges before work on the set even began. One of them was making new versions of the Theros Gods. Creating new cards for iconic characters is always a challenge, as you want the new card to still feel like the same character while playing differently as a Magic card. In the case of the Theros Beyond Death Gods, because we were reusing the devotion text from their original cards, we tried to avoid reusing any other abilities from their original cards as much as possible.

Thassa, God of the Sea was integral to mono-blue devotion decks in Theros Standard, so we wanted to make sure our new Thassa played out as a build-around deck centerpiece as well. At the same time, we didn't exactly want to run back Thassa's role as a cheap indestructible attacker at the top end of a beatdown deck. A flicker ability seemed perfect, a powerful ability that demands you build your deck around maximizing its power. Some detail work later, and Thassa, Deep-Dwelling was here.


Ashiok's Erasure

ABRO: Adding can't be countered to make it have a clearer role in Constructed.

ABRO: FFL wants to test returning the spell to hand.

DEL: Doesn't fit. Needs to change.

DGH: Cool. I was wishing this card was in real Standard the other day.

ABRO: Now exiles its target without countering first

MAGO: Removed "can't be countered"

In other sets, Ashiok's Erasure would likely have ended up as a simple instant. In Theros Beyond Death, we were actively interested in interactive spells that were also permanents with mana costs that would get devotion decks excited to play them. Once you decide you're going to make an enchantment counterspell, there's lots of cool things you can do with an enchantment that you can't with an instant. All you need is an idea of what role you want the card to play in the metagame.

The job we settled on for Ashiok's Erasure to do was simple: be there ready and able to answer any decks built around escaping the same card over and over that might pop up. Simply exiling the spell it countered would work in most universes, but if a truly all-in escape deck emerged, it would likely have no problem finding a second copy of its key escape card. Hence, Ashiok's Erasure's cast-restriction ability.

Handling all-in escape decks is a pretty narrow role for a card, so we wanted to make sure Ashiok's Erasure had another small niche to call its own. We tried a few different things but ultimately settled on letting this effectively counter spells that can't be countered. Normally we stay away from doing that so our can't-be-countered cards can do their job effectively, but we realized it was okay in this case since you can destroy Ashiok's Erasure and get your spell back for later.


Hateful Eidolon

MAGO: Moved ability from black Demigod here because it's cool and fits the white-black Limited theme. It's better on a card that doesn't say "play mono-black."

MAGO: Moved to a one-mana 1/2 (and enters untapped) with the primary purpose of the card being a casual build-around, not an aggro stat monster w/ trinkety text. How does FFL feel about that?

ABRO: Still close enough on rate as the payoff. Not sure about the support, but this card looks about the right rate.

MAGO: Added lifelink

Novel space for build-around effects that work in Limited isn't always easy to find, but Hateful Eidolon sure managed it. When a card like this is fun to play in Limited, we'll often try to make sure that it's possible to build a Constructed deck around it that makes sense and is cohesive, even if it's not one of the stronger decks in the environment. In the case of Hateful Eidolon, accomplishing this meant making the card less complicated and paring it down to just the fun engine text we liked.


Woe Strider

MAGO: Can intentionally sacrifice itself. Let's see if that's good or not.

MAGO: It's not good. Added "another." I liked that it could sac itself to enable its transformation to a big monster. I didn't like that then it could loop itself for goats.

MAGO: No longer a Demon because it doesn't fly. Would be interested in 3B 3/2 flying.

MAGO: Changed numbers to be stronger. Could explore getting Goats all the time (as a regular ETB) if that's more interesting

ABRO: Two goats on escape -> one goat on ETB. Trying to even out the power level on cast and escape.

AF: If this year has taught me anything, it's that black rare creatures make Goats.

ABRO: That doesn't strike me as a baaad thing

PC: D-

ABRO: Been making a lot of "woah" jokes when casting this card. Def upside.

Woe Strider is an interesting case study in how a card's identity can change as we work on it. Set Design originally made the card as a cool Demon that brought Goats back from the Underworld to sacrifice. Play Design thought the design looked super fun and latched onto it as an enabler for sacrifice strategies in Standard. Play Design's love for the card ended up meaning that it could no longer be a Demon when it couldn't go to four mana and gain flying, as its spot on the curve was very important for the job it was doing in Constructed.

Most of the work Play Design did on this card was to ensure that casting it for the first time would be an exciting play and not something you suffered through so that you could later escape it. We were very interested in evening out the power level between the two modes of this card. Eventually, we accomplished this by having this make one Goat every time it enters the battlefield. I like to think of that Goat as Woe Strider's best friend, adventuring with it to the Underworld and back, over and over again.


Aphemia, the Cacophony

MAGO: New design, grabbing text from a card we changed

ABRO: Dang nice.

MAGO: +1 mana, +1 power, + flying

PC: Super cool card. One of my favorites in the set.

One of the most satisfying things about working in Play Design is getting to make the fun cards strong. Sometimes in the course of FFL, we'll happen across cards that are really fun to play but not strong enough to be appealing for Constructed. Aphemia, the Cacophony was just such a card at one point in its life, but a few buffs later and it became a fun card that was also strong enough to have a shot at Constructed.


Erebos's Intervention

MAGO: New. Rare X spell cycle

MAGO: Changed last ability to graveyard hate.

MAGO: Last ability could be "Target player chooses twice X cards from their graveyard and exiles them."

MMAJ: This looks closer, but a little under to me. Instant?

ABRO: Sorcery -> instant

The cycle of Interventions are the exact kinds of cards Play Design loves to work on: modal spells with a lot of freedom over the exact details of the effects. The only hard restriction on the cycle was the X/twice X scheme on the two modes, but other than that, Play Design had room to make whatever card we thought the Standard environment needed. Erebos's Intervention was particularly straightforward to make, as we knew we were interested in a flexible graveyard hate spell in the environment and combining that effect with a removal mode made for a great pairing.


Nightmare Shepherd

MAGO: New card from hole-filling

ABRO: Oh, wow, that's cool

MMAJ: Why symmetrical?

DSJ: I don't think we need this card to get bigger at all. The effect + flying is solid as is.

MAGO: Lost Nightmare tribal and now only your creatures.

MAGO: This is now an enchantment creature

ABRO: 3/4 -> 4/4

MAGO: Added "you may" and "if you do." If you control two Shepherds, we didn't want one creature dying to create two tokens. Also, in this set, sometimes you want the creature in your graveyard.

DOUG: Sweet card.

MJJ: Impressive!

The first version of Nightmare Shepherd got +1/+1 for each Nightmare on the battlefield but made your opponent's creatures come back as Nightmares as well. Everybody who saw the card loved the idea of creating Nightmare copies of fallen creatures. In practice, symmetrically creating token copies of every creature that died slowed the game down to a crawl and wasn't particularly fun. As a result, we moved away from the Shepherd's effect being symmetric and developed the card to be a fun, all-upside build-around.

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