M-Files: Throne of Eldraine – Red, Green, and the Rest

Posted in Play Design on October 11, 2019

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.

Hello and welcome back to the M-Files, Throne of Eldraine edition! Melissa DeTora here, ready to share some insight and commentary on in-progress cards from the Vision, Set, and Play Design teams, one year later!

Drake, formerly called Multiverse (and where the M-Files got its name), 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 the design process 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.

Cast of Characters

ERIK – Erik Lauer, Throne of Eldraine lead designer (second half)
MaGo – Mark Gottlieb, Throne of Eldraine lead designer (first half)
YS – Yoni Skolnik, set designer
ELI – Eli Shiffrin, rules manager
BRYAN – Bryan Hawley, Play Design manager
SPS – Sam Stoddard, former set designer
ID – Ian Duke, technical lead of Play Design
AF – Aaron Forsythe, director of R&D
TOMR – Tom Ross, former play designer
DEL – Del Laugel, principal editor
MJJ – Mons Johnson, Duel Masters lead developer
ALLI – Alli Medwin, digital liaison
GSV – Gavin Verhey, product designer
ABRO – Andrew Brown, play designer
MDT – Melissa DeTora, play designer
PC – Paul Cheon, former play designer (now esports manager)
DGH – Dave Humpherys, game design architect
NKM – Nat Moes, editor
DSJ – Donald Smith, Jr., play designer
MH – Mark Heggen, product architect
KEN – Ken Nagle, senior game designer
MT – Mike Turian, product architect
ROSEJ – James Rose, MTG Arena game designer & member of the ELD Set Design team
PTL – Peter Lee, former game designer
TABAK – Matt Tabak, Throne of Eldraine lead editor
JDR – Jules Robins, set designer
CJB – Corey Bowen, set designer
HINDERM – Michael Hinderaker, play designer
ARI – Ari Nieh, designer and winner of Great Designer Search 3

And now, on to the cards!

Seven Dwarves

PTL: New top-down card from PTL.

JDR: Very cute

MAGO: Changed to a Dwarf-counter rather than an Avarax-style fetcher. Kind of strange to have Dwarf tribal rewards rather than non-Human rewards; not sure I like it here

AF: I'm not sure if this is a chase uncommon. If not, probably more net fun as a common.

AF: Random question—if I draft ten of these, am I only allowed to play seven?

Seven Dwarves, both the name and design, was in the set file as early as Vision Design. As we transitioned to Set Design, the team questioned what rarity this should be and how it should work in Limited. The current rule for Limited was that you could play as many copies of a card as you drafted. Seven Dwarves was the first card to have this type of deck-building restriction. While having eight of these was extremely unlikely, we still had to make the decision of how this card should behave. It's very unlikely to have more than seven of these in a Limited card pool, so we went with the clean wording and more intuitive rule. Please tweet me pictures of your Draft card pools if you end up with more than seven Seven Dwarves!

Bonecrusher Giant

SPS: I can't tell if this is a strange, awesome, or both place to put a bunch of Constructed power.

PC: Given this move to two mana, we seem to be high on two-mana removal but light on one-mana effects. Shock is currently our only one-mana red removal; do we want a Pillar of Flame or Magma Spray variant?

ABRO: Adding Thunderbreak regent text.

ABRO: Adding damage prevention against Fog. Note interaction with protection.

Bonecrusher Giant was a fun card to play in Constructed, but we had a hard time getting it to what we thought was the correct power level. If you read last week's Eldraine M-Files, you'd have read that Play Design wanted to give players choices with adventurer creatures and provide a variety of play patterns. When we had Stomp at one mana, playtesters were casting the Adventure first every time because it was so easy to do, and that made games feel more same-y and much less interesting. Also during this time, Guilds of Ravnica was the newest set in Standard, and Turbo Fog–style decks were growing in popularity. While answers to that strategy existed in Duress, Thought Erasure, and counterspells, there weren't enough answers in every color. We wanted to start adding safeguards to damage prevention in other colors, and Stomp ended up picking up that text. Between that and adding more power to the creature, we felt players would have plenty of options with Bonecrusher Giant.

Robber of the Rich

GSV: Great flavor makes this weird card work for me. Nice!

ELI: I see the "reach equals Robin Hood the archer" connection, but reach still feels weird on an aggressive-leaning 1/1 that isn't even actually an Archer.

DEL: Review—Only space for one class type. Figure out what word is important.

MAGO: Wants to be an Archer because archer, wants to be a Rogue because thief. I decided that the word to cut was actually "legendary." This is a top-down card of a specific character (trope), but it's not a Throne of Eldraine story character.

MAGO: This has color pie concerns and length concerns, but it was #2 on the rare poll, so we need to find a way to make it work.

These comments illustrate the kinds of restrictions we have in design. Between text that was too long and color pie violations, this card needed to change.

For each set, the Design team sends out a rare poll to the other departments inside Wizards. Employees are asked to rate cards on a scale of 1–10 based on how excited they would be if each card were printed. We do this to get first impressions from people who are Magic players but are not designers, which is very valuable in helping us see through any biases we have. The employees are also able to write in their own comments about the cards to help us understand why they either love or hate the cards. Robber of the Rich scored very highly in the poll, so we wanted to preserve the functionality of this card in some way. Play Design made a number of design changes, one of them being a change from an Adventure sorcery that happened once to an attack trigger that happened every turn.

Gilded Goose

ABRO: adding 2GG, T: Create a Food token.

KEN: It eats its own eggs? The story of the cannibalistic filicidal goose?

ELI: Geese are evil creatures, Ken.

CJB: For what it's worth, the Council of Colors was iffy on this card but mostly enjoyed it as a Birds of Paradise callback. The further it is from that, the more resistance I expect this will get.

ABRO: 2GG -> 1G on activation

SPS: Much more appealing now.

Gilded Goose was a callback to Birds of Paradise where you needed to play other Food cards to make it strong and reliable. The problem was that the Goose was really weak if you didn't have more Food. We didn't like this A+B synergy on a one-mana card, because it created a huge feel-bad if you had your powerful play on turn one but weren't able to use it. We decided to add an ability so that the Goose could fuel (feed?) itself. This solution not only made the Goose more functional, but it also provided synergy with other Food cards as well.

Lovestruck Beast

ELI: Wow, that is super adorable!

YS: Really cool, disappointing part is that "Beauty" is vanilla. Is there a version with U Adventure cost that makes a unique token?

MDT: Maybe we can make Beauty a legendary token and have it do something besides be vanilla (See Tolsimir and Voja from War of the Spark.)

MAGO: Increased P/T. Changed first ability so it's inert, not sacrificed, if lonely. Now cares about 1/1s, not Humans. Could alternately care about 1-power creatures, etc.

AP: Love this card. I see we're taking a literal meaning to counterplay (put a +1/+1 counter on opposing creatures)!

HINDERM: This is my favorite card I've had a chance to play with from ELD. Enjoyable mix of flavor and gameplay.

Sometimes a top-down design's story is so strong that it's beloved even if the card is in flux. That was the story of Lovestruck Beast. Everyone loved it, but it was too strong and not fun in Limited. We made it weaker and everyone still loved it, but the team wasn't satisfied with the new design. We kept trying different things until we got to a fun spot for both Limited and Constructed. And no matter what the design was, we never changed anyone's mind—everyone thought it was adorable.

The Royal Scions

SPS: How often does this hit creatures? Any fizzle rule worries?

AF: If we're worried about fizzling, let's try "Draw three cards. When you do, . . ." That way you can prioritize your target after you've seen what you drew.

ABRO: three cards -> four cards per the Future Future League

ABRO: Adding trample to +1. Now a priority test.

The Set Design team wanted to make sure our planeswalkers were unique and cool, especially coming so soon after War of the Spark, a 37-planeswalker set. We already have blue-red planeswalkers in Ral Zarek and Saheeli Rai. Will and Rowan had to be different and special.

We knew that Will was an ice mage and Rowan was a lightning mage, so the card had to capture that somehow. We settled on the final abilities by playtesting a variety of blue-red decks and figuring out what the decks were doing and what they were missing. In Throne of Eldraine, the blue-red identity was small flying creatures and tempo. It wanted to win quickly with fliers and disrupt the opponent with cheap interaction. It also had a theme that cared about drawing your second card in a turn. We played into those two themes and came up with abilities that captured both Planeswalkers' identities while also being something that slotted nicely into Standard decks.

Garruk, Cursed Huntsman

TABAK: Super cool way to do a plus ability.

DEL: Review—Garruk tribal? Yes, doing more of this going forward. Card looks so good.

TABAK: "Ah, you got my friend killed. I feel closer to you."

Just like with Rowan and Will, after designing so many planeswalkers for Standard, we're looking for novel ways make Eldraine's planeswalkers feel different from those in War of the Spark. For Garruk, we tried a new way to add loyalty and not having a traditional plus ability. If Garruk loses his Wolves, he becomes more loyal—so loyal that it's not unrealistic to ultimate more than once in a game. We did have only this Garruk gain loyalty at first but thought it would be cool for the Wolves to care about other Garruks in play. While it's not relevant for Standard, casual players can have fun playing this new Garruk with their older Garruks.

Improbable Alliance

MDT: Reminds me of Bitterblossom.

ABRO: Adding looting to add power.

ABRO: Didn't discuss, but I'd like to entertain rummage.

PC: Added 4UR loot at some point.

Improbable Alliance's design goal was to be a directional build-around for the blue-red color pair, which cared about drawing your second card in a turn. However, the Play Design team couldn't help but notice the similarity to Bitterblossom, in both design and in strength, and tried it in Standard right away. One of the biggest differences between the two cards is the deck-building requirement that each card asks for. Bitterblossom, a tribal Faerie card, asked you to build . . . well, nothing specific really. It was a very strong card that stood on its own and was played in different decks during its time in Standard (even Faeries!). Improbable Alliance wasn't strong enough to play in just any blue-red deck. You had to build your deck in a specific way to be rewarded with a 1/1 Faerie token every turn. This card encouraged some fun decks.

Lucky Clover

MAGO: Was green, but felt out of color pie (copying abilities).

PC: One mana? Lots of two-mana adventurer cards that I'd love to duplicate. Big cost to put this in decks.

ABRO: I'm into one mana.

ABRO: 1 -> 2

ABRO: A tale of Abro's ambition.

Lucky Clover was originally in the set as a green card. Green and white had the highest density of adventurer creatures, and we wanted to make directional build-arounds in those colors to tie in with the mechanic. The problem was that the card didn't fit into green's color pie. We really liked the card and how it played, but it didn't make much sense in the color the effect should actually be in—blue. Blue was about non-Human creatures, milling, and artifacts and enchantments, and it wasn't casting many Adventures. We decided to move it to artifact. It still plays the role of build-around for Limited but now has more flexibility to be played in any deck. For Standard, this was a great change, because the strongest Adventures for Constructed decks are in the non-green colors, so this change to colorless gave us a new deck to try.

Sorcerous Spyglass

MAGO: Torpor Orb is a reprint. FFL is free to change this to a Torpor Orb variant. For now, it's doing the job of being a Torpor Orb.

ABRO: We most likely want a stronger version post talking with ID. Will brainstorm with FFL.

ABRO: Now Sorcerous Spyglass, was a Torpor Orb, which moved to a white creature.

Play Design strives to add a variety of answers and options to Standard so players can have agency in deck building. One way we do this is to reserve slots in set files for any holes we find as we playtest. We usually have placeholder cards in files with cards that are likely to change, and once we know what we want in Standard, we'll add that card to the set. We were missing having access to Sorcerous Spyglass since it rotated from Standard and liked it as a sort of "evergreen" effect that any color could use. This is not a guarantee that it will be in every Standard until the end of time, but we did feel that it was incorrect for it to leave this Standard, so we added it to Throne of Eldraine.

Stonecoil Serpent

AF: Weird card. Every color gets Colossal Dreadmaw with 1,000 upsides

CJB: Agree with AF. Likely just a bend for colorless.

ABro: Reach approved by creative, want to try that.

ABro: Adding reach. Blocks Aurelia now!

MJJ: Shifting Wall has come a long way. Not saying this is too strong, but there is a lot of space between the two cards

The story of Stonecoil Serpent is a funny one. The original design was an X/X for X mana, but you could only spend one color of mana on X. That design was pretty restrictive in what decks it could go in and just an overall unappealing rare. Trample was added, and then protection from multicolored, but the card was still lacking. The big question was why was the casting cost so restrictive? We were trying to encourage monocolor, but the fact that this card was also discouraging playing colorless lands like Blast Zone or Mobilized District made this card less fun. The restriction was lifted, and the result was a card that's several degrees stronger than Endless One.

Tournament Grounds

MDT: I hope that this doesn't make players hold on to their Knights. We may want to consider adding "or choose a Knight you control in play."

ABRO: Yeah, I agree with Melissa, I like the Wanderwine Hub implementation here.

MAGO: You're supposed to cast the Knight you reveal, so it's not crazy to expect that you have one in your hand.

ABRO: I'd rather you not have to reveal every turn. More physical actions/tracking to deal with.

TOMR: Compares unfavorably next to Unclaimed Territory. Don't think the "reveal Knight or enters tapped" clause is necessary.

ABRO: Gains casting Equipment.

AF: You can't Firebreathe your Knights with this, you can't Adventure your Knights with this. Those feel more likely to come up than colored Equipment.

ABRO: We are making the black-red Knight archetype about Equipment. The loss of Adventures and abilities is poor. I think those words wouldn't be downside.

The original design for this card was "T, reveal a Knight card from your hand: add one mana of any of that Knight's colors." This design was problematic for reasons mentioned above, and we changed it to a design that was similar to Unclaimed Territory, but weaker. We looked for ways to make the card not compare unfavorably to Unclaimed Territory. It wasn't until we started designing the Standard format and figured out what each Knight color pair was doing that we found an answer. Red-white was the aggro color pair, white-black was about attrition, and black-red had the most Equipment. Once we settled on those themes, we added the ability to cast colored Equipment.

Fabled Passage

ABRO: New rare Evolving Wilds. Pending creative. FFL request.

ABRO: Creative approved

ARI: Huge gift to Commander players.

ROSEJ: Will come three months after Prismatic Vista in Modern Horizons, but looks different enough.

Fabled Passage was another card to come out of our Play Design FFL holes. Much differently from Ravnica the year before it, Eldraine was promoting more monocolor decks. However, we didn't want every deck to be monocolor, as Standard diversity would suffer. We built many two- and three-color decks and concluded that with the check lands leaving Standard, the two- and three-color mana bases were feeling weak. We felt that it was important to have a strong, flexible land in Standard that could help you play more than one color. Thus, Fabled Passage was born.

Castle Ardenvale

AF: New design. Wanted untapped, tap for color, can put multiples in your deck.

AF: Putting the castle names here because I killed the uncommon cycle. I do think we want illustrations of five castles!

ERIK: After much thought, maybe being like a Magic 2010 check land is correct. So trying not legendary, no land type, sometimes untapped.

ABRO: Castles now cost NCCC to activate.

ERIK: Castles now cost NCC to activate.

As I've mentioned several times in this article, Throne of Eldraine was about monocolor, and as a result, we didn't have a cycle of rare dual lands. We did, however, have a generous cycle of legendary lands reminiscent of the legendary lands from Champions of Kamigawa. They were similar in that they were almost always stronger than basic lands, but the legendary drawback meant that you had to be careful with how many of these you included in your deck. It was always correct to play the first one because it was stronger than a basic land, but questionable whether to include more copies in your deck due to the drawback of only being able to have one on the battlefield. The Design team felt that was the wrong direction, because if we made cool utility lands, we wanted you to play them, and that wouldn't happen if you only played one copy in your deck. We cut legendary from these lands and added a "check land" style drawback. This change met our goal of being sweet and something you want to play multiple copies of. The more monocolor you were, the more of these you'd play, and as you added more colors to your deck, you had more choices of which land to include. These choices were much more fun than when they were legendary.

And that's a wrap for the M-Files, Throne of Eldraine edition! I'll likely be sitting out for the next round of M-Files, which will be taken over by a different member of the Play Design team. In the meantime, you can find me on twitter at @MelissaDeTora, at Magicfest Richmond in November, or on my weekly stream with Paul Cheon on Mondays from 4–6 p.m. PT at twitch.tv/magic. Thanks for reading!

—Melissa DeTora

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