M-files: War of the Spark – Monocolor

Posted in Play Design on May 3, 2019

By Dan Musser

A former tournament grinder from Ohio, Dan is currently part of the Play Design team within Magic R&D.

Greetings, fellow development enthusiasts. Our latest and greatest expansion set, War of the Spark, is finally out, and I am here to give you a look behind the mysterious Chain Veil of design, development, and whatever other fun dev words you've heard before!

War of the Spark is more story driven than most sets we make, and for that reason, I want take a small pause here and say that there are minor story spoilers in some of the commentary you are about to read. Please continue at your own peril.

Now that you are ready to continue, I also want to note that the style of this article is just a bit different than ones I have written in the past. Regular readers of the column will notice more depth. Instead of mentioning many cards briefly, I have decided to comment on slightly fewer cards but in more detail. I have also chosen cards with a bit more "juice" to their commentary.

Speaking of commentary, let's meet our cast of Wizards who have graced these cards with their words:

Cast of Commenters

DGH – Dave Humpherys, lead set designer

DSJ – Donald Smith, Jr., play designer

TOMR – Tom Ross, former play designer

ELI – Eli Shiffrin, rules manager

ALLI – Allison Medwin, digital product manager

TABAK – Matt Tabak, senior editor

MDT – Melissa DeTora, play designer

AF – Aaron Forsythe, senior director of R&D

ID – Ian Duke, lead play designer

PTL – Pete Lee, former lead exploratory designer

EEF – Ethan Fleischer, designer

MJG – Mark Globus, former director of product design

DOUGB: Doug Beyer, lead writer

GJ – Glenn Jones, editor

ABRO – Andrew Brown, play designer

AP – Adam Prosak, play designer

PC – Paul Cheon, play designer

ERIK: Erik Lauer, set designer

GSV – Gavin Verhey, product designer

NKM: Nat Moes, former editor

MT – Mike Turian, principal product designer

DBURD – Dan Burdick, former play design manager

MJJ – Mons Johnson, Duel Masters lead developer

DMUS – Dan Musser, play designer

Tomik, Distinguished Advokist

DGH: New text (for Legacy?)

DGH: Also added flying

DSJ: This rate might make the cut to fill the last few slots in FFL's white weenie decks. Not a bad thing, but something to keep an eye on.

TOMR: Cool card! Definitely going in my WW FFL deck. Can the wording be tweaked to stop World Shaper? Like "Lands can't enter the battlefield from your opponent's graveyard"?

DGH: Changing to Tom's suggestion. Need to reality check this with Fall of the Thran.

DGH: New last paragraph. Check again with rules/editing. Check with digital.

ELI: Better than "can't leave the battlefield"; I think it's fine. Will investigate more.

ALLI: MTG Arena's given the thumbs up to "lands can't leave opponents' graveyards."

ALLI: Following a Magic Online conversation, here are proposed new words to dodge the "can't prevent impossible decisions" problem:

Lands can't be the target of spells or abilities your opponents control.
When Tomik enters the battlefield, exile all land cards from all graveyards.
If a land card would be put into a graveyard from anywhere, exile it instead.

TABAK: While this barely fits at minimum, that is a dumpster fire of a card. By the time I get done reading the third ability, I've forgotten what the first one does.

ELI: You forgot what flying does?! Oh, dear.

MDT: With this text, opponent can't target their lands with positive effects like Nissa's animate land etc. Is that the intent?

DGH: Yes, since I want to stop Dark Depths–type shenanigans, which probably means this has to be the case.

AF: I assume this shows up some in Standard as a French vanilla.

ID: Yes, and to turn on the creature land.

Tomik was an interesting example of finding words that match the intended goal of the card. Dave wanted a card that could see some Eternal play, interacting with cards that mess around with lands and graveyards. Additionally, it was important that the card be useful in Standard. As you can see from the discussion above, there were many proposals to try and achieve these goals.

But what specific cards did we want to have this interact with? Which cards would still function even with Tomik on the battlefield? Which words function on Magic Online and MTG Arena? These were all questions that the development team was left to answer.

As a 2/3 flying creature that only costs two mana, Tomik would see Standard play without much more in his text box. Check. With 3 toughness, Tomik would survive one hit from the legacy Lands deck's most potent removal spell, Punishing Fire. Check. Having land cards be mostly untargetable, regardless of their location, significantly hinders decks looking to abuse them. Check. Both digital offerings could implement this set of rules text without issue. Check.

For more on Tomik, Distinguished Advokist, you can check out Melissa's preview article here.

Gideon Blackblade

PTL: New design from Mark Rosewater.

DGH: His static is supposed to affect himself?

PTL: Static "creatures you control get +1/+1" -> "Attacking creatures you control have first strike."

EEF: This turns into a Soldier. Classic Gideon.

DGH: Creature slot

DGH: Redesigned. Is lifelink okay here character-wise?

DOUGB: Lifelink is okay

MJG: Sweet!

ELI: The forced sacrifice on the last ability implies that Gideon has to survive the -6 to get to exile a thing. Is it really necessary? Another card spotlights his self-sacrifice.

DGH: Will move the sacrifice to the second sentence to see if that helps if that is part of the issue?

DGH: Added a loyalty

DGH: Down to three mana

DGH: Demote to rare

DOUGB: Story-wise, Gideon's sacrifice is to keep Liliana alive, not to kill a thing. Exiling something isn't wrong for his card, but I'd prefer it not be paired with "sacrifice me."

DGH: Makes sense. Will rethink this one.

DGH: Deleted sac as part of the last ability to maybe lessen the creative concern, since I think it was there in part for flavor but contradicting it.

DGH: Back to mythic rare

GJ: This Gideon looks really cool.

Gideon started with the normal song and dance—one of his abilities turned him into a creature. Once a creature, his static ability would affect himself and other creatures you control. But Dave had something else up his sleeve this time. Since every iteration of Gideon has always had an ability to make himself a creature, why not turn that into the static! People loved this change, and we moved forward from there.

Earlier versions of Gideon required his ultimate to also sacrifice himself. Often when using the ultimate, Gideon's loyalty would be reduced to 0 and would be sacrificed for that reason before his ability caused you to sacrifice him. Eli pointed this out, and a discussion about why Gideon was being sacrificed at all was sparked. Doug came to the rescue and illuminated us all to the story moment where Gideon sacrifices himself to save Liliana. If his card was sacrificing itself to exile a creature, that wouldn't really highlight the story moment very well. Plus, Gideon's Sacrifice was already being depicted on its own card.

Story has always helped guide the text that shows up on cards, however, you can see the impact of that here more than in most sets. As a reward, you get a slightly stronger Gideon that does not require him to sacrifice himself. Rejoice!

Augur of Bolas

DGH: Reprint from Magic 2013

MJG: Nice reprint!

ABRO: This is nice.

PC: Is there potential here to make a new variant that allows you to get planeswalkers as well?

DGH: Reprinting cards with PW names is super powerful here, especially one for Bolas.

AP: The glue for one of my favorite Standard decks of all time (White-Blue Flash). I am unreasonably excited to cast this again.

TABAK: I too am excited for you to put the top three cards of your deck on the bottom.

Holy Bolas, that's a beautiful piece of art. Great work, Alex!

Paul's suggestion is exciting, but Dave has an excellent point. With 37 planeswalkers (if you count the Tezzeret Buy-a-Box promo), War of the Spark had a high demand for Planeswalker-related cards from both functional and story perspectives. Regardless of how well Augur of Bolas works with planeswalkers, it has proven itself as a viable Constructed option in the past. That fact combined with name dropping the big bad of the set made it a slam dunk instead of creating a new card to fill that role.

Spark Double

DGH: New from Jules

ID: This seems really cool to me. Having two of the same planeswalker or legend opens up a lot of fun deck building.

ELI: Narrower Clone at 3U is a little sad. Can we get away with this at 2U or 1UU?

GSV: Does this need to be limited to your own stuff?

DGH: From quick conversations, it sounds like this would likely need to cost one more mana to hit opposing stuff.

AF: Magic 2019 has "Clone your own creature" for 2U at uncommon. It seems hitting a planeswalker costs a lot here.

DGH: Is adding proliferate to this unreasonable?

DGH: Added proliferate

GSV: I would check with rules to make sure the templating here works. Loading proliferate into an "as" trigger smells like something that could have trouble working to me.

DGH: Fair. Added that without thinking about the "as." Will make it its own trigger.

DGH: Help? Does ETB work on opposing cloning? It loses other text. Does this need some sort of "except" text? Maybe it's just supposed to enter with loyalty or +1/+1.

DGH: Never mind on some of the last comment, but this still could use editing/rules help I'd guess.

DGH: Words from Eli

TABAK: Fun fact: it can qualify for both bonuses. Hello, Gideon.

ELI: This set's Gideon but no other Gideons.

DGH: Any loops here with persist (or similar stuff) that we care about?

MDT: Does this need "you control"? Already is restrictive with only targeting legendaries. Clever Impersonator wasn't over the line.

ERIK: I like this one more than Clever Impersonator; it is 1 loyalty stronger with your own planeswalker but does not discourage your opponent from playing planeswalkers.

DGH: I like the "you control." I would be interested in letting this copy nonlegendaries without the counter, but it isn't clear that is easy to word? Eli, Tabak?

ELI: See Templating Comments for a first draft of words for that. Not entirely thrilled with it, but there's so many clauses.

DGH: Trying Eli's words since I think we want that functionality to make this a bit less narrow, and assuming we can afford an improved clone in this way.

ELI: For what it's worth, Tabak and I will hammer on the words more for something better if this sticks around; we know the words are quite a weird mouthful.

DSJ: This will be the fourth blue "Clone your own creature" card in the FFL.

AF: Hard to read.

DGH: Changed to get counter even if it is not legendary

DGH: Reordered sentences to move the counter nearer the clone part so it didn't sound related to the legendary part.

DGH: Why do clones need "you may have"?

ELI: So you're not forced to copy creatures with drawbacks if the board state changes in between casting and resolving. Note that this isn't an extra click for digital; the choice is "pick a creature or don't," not "y/n? pick a creature."

Definition time. A clone is the shorthand name for cards that copy other cards, named after the original card from Limited Edition (Alpha).

At the beginning, Spark Double only copied your own legendary creature or planeswalker. There were some interesting rules interactions that came up during the development of good ol' Sparky here. What happens when you add a proliferate trigger to an "as this enters the battlefield" ability? Certainly, adding proliferate rules text after the required words necessary for a clone would make a card too long.

The reason Dave was looking for something additional this card could do was because reducing the converted mana cost to 3 was just a bit too powerful for Standard. During that exploration, he suggested Spark Double come into play with an extra +1/+1 counter or loyalty. That ended up being the boost the card needed to deserve its cost of 4. At some point, it also gained the ability to clone nonlegendary things you control, adding even more power!

You'll have noticed that recent designs of most cards that involve cloning only let you copy your own things. This is mostly because of Erik's point, it feels super bad when you play your really cool, expensive card only for your opponent to come back with a cheaper cloned version that could potentially destroy yours that very turn! Why did you even play your cool thing? If only you had never played your cool thing, your opponent couldn't have copied it and won the game. This negative line of thinking and emotional response can all simply be avoided by making a change to the way clone type cards are designed.

Finally, what's this about cloning Gideons? Without going into too much detail, clones "generally" only copy what you see printed on the card you are copying (unless that thing is also another copy, eww). For this reason, because Gideon Blackblade's static ability causes him to always be a creature on your turn, you will get both an extra loyalty and an extra +1/+1 counter if it's your turn. But since other Gideons are only creatures when something modifies them (usually their own loyalty ability), that effect would not be copied and Spark Double would enter the battlefield only as a planeswalker if it were to copy one of those.

Bolas's Citadel

DGH: New scary design. Template help likely needed, especially as far as playing lands.

DGH: Trying Eli's clearest wording suggestion.

GSV: I am excited to build with this!

ELI: Per Dave via desk chat, changed to pay life rather than mana instead of life plus mana.

DGH: New words to better capture intent

JDR: This is terrifying and sweet. Heroes' Reunion deck, here I come!

GSV: Wow. I am excited to brew with this. Definitely feels like it could be mythic rare to me.

ABRO: Agree with Gavin, feels mythic rare. Also cool.

NKM: This feels dangerous in Vintage, maybe Legacy too? I think I can play this turn one and then play the rest of my deck.

ALLI: The land ability here doesn't feel mono-black at all, even in the context of being able to play any nonland as well.

DGH: Reordering abilities so you see lands part after the life part, might help a tiny bit?

NKM: This is really powerful in storm combo.

DGH: New words. Still likely some color pie issues.

ERIK: Isn't this a lot stronger than Ad Nauseam in a one-turn-kill deck?

ELI: You get stopped if you hit a second land.

NKM: The deck I build with this card will have 0-1 land.

GJ: This card looks quite solid in Vintage and probably on par with Legacy options.

MT: Seems mythic rare

MJJ: Seems busted

DGH: Look at words for 2 life for a land (only one per turn still).

ELI: Add on a new ability "Whenever you play a land from your library, CARDNAME deals 2 damage to you." Be wary of how much that sounds like it lets you play more than one land, though.

DGH: Are there life-loss words to match the spells part? Damage looks weird.

DGH: Put in some likely inaccurate words.

DBURD: Taking 2 damage for playing a land reads inelegantly. Would rather try at six mana.

DGH: Up to six mana. Reverted the life loss for land.

AF: Seems amazing. And terrifying. I approve.

DGH: Added a tap ability.

DGH: Does this fit still, I'd guess?

MJJ: If ten isn't enough, Mayhem Devil can provide the other ten.

TABAK: Confirm sacrificing itself to the last ability is okay?

TABAK: Dave said that's okay.

I love this card. Who wants to pay mana for spells? Not me. Nope.

All right, all right, the development story here is quite interesting, so let's focus on that. First off, you can see from the comments that the card started at five mana but had some awkward text that made you pay life to play lands sitting on top of your deck. We felt that playing a land for zero life was a little too generous for a five-cost card, even if you were still restricted to only playing one land per turn because of game rules. No one liked having to put special rules on the card so that you had to pay life for lands, so we thought it might be reasonable to increase the mana cost to six and let lands come in for free (still only one per turn).

Even costing six mana, Bolas's Citadel proved strong and scary in FFL. But also, really exciting! Sometimes, with enough setup, turns would take many minutes while playing ten to fifteen cards (or more) off the top of your deck. Going through all that work, the player would generally win with a ton of permanents, even if they had to pass the turn then attack for hundreds on their following turn. When we realized the player was likely to win anyway, we decided to try and cut that time down a bit by adding the activated ability you see now. Instead of taking many minutes to produce a huge board of permanents then kill your opponent later, you could just sacrifice most of those permanents and kill them now. Genius.

Ilharg, the Raze-Boar

DGH: New design

EEF: I would prefer it if this God didn't have the same mechanic as the God-Eternals. Lean into the difference.


TABAK: Review: Is this really a God? No matter what we choose, do not anger the Boar God.

PC: Cool ability, but I would have guessed that you have to sacrifice the creature at end of combat much like Through the Breach/Sneak Attack. Feels more green otherwise.

DGH: Added return to hand to be less green.

AP: Does this not die to third from the top of your library like the other Gods?

ELI: @AP, Ilharg isn't a God-Eternal though.

GJ: Contending for my favorite card in the set.

DGH: 5/5 -> 6/6

DGH: God -> Avatar per Doug. See if this helps with the card not having God-like mechanical text.

DOUGB: Back to God.

DGH: Adding in the God-Eternal text too.

Ilharg, the mythical Boar God from Gruul stories of old. As you can see, there was some tension on whether we should use the same text to prevent permanent death here as we did on the God-Eternals in the set. In the end, all War of the Spark creatures with the God subtype were treated with the same ability. Do you think Ilharg should have received different treatment?

Outside of story concerns, Paul had a great point. Green loves creatures more than red, and if we don't highlight that somehow, the color pie can get mushy. As a red card, there should be some way Ilharg puts creatures into play differently than green does. A green card would simply put the creature into play and be done with it. Dave's solution was that the creature would return to the hand at the end of turn. This way, green still treats creatures a little better and the line between red and green cards remains intact!

Evolution Sage

DGH: Changed to landfall, is this rate reasonable?

DGH: +1/+1

DGH: 3G 3/3 -> 2G 1/1

PC: This card has been very impressive in Limited.

YS: Exciting with Scapeshift.

DMUS: Love it

KEN: Very Commander-relevant.

DGH: 1/1 -> 2/1

DGH: 2/2?

ID: 2/1 -> 2/2. Buff and Chainwhirler.

DGH: 2/2 ->3/2

The evolution of this Sage is truly inspired by the Simic Combine. Fun and impressive in Limited, exciting for Commander. As Evolution Sage grew in our hearts, so did it grow in its stats. Once it became a three-drop, it just kept getting bigger and bigger. Eventually evolving into the swole Sage you see today. Thanks a lot, Goblin Chainwhirler.

What will you be proliferating with your land drops?

Would you look at that? Out of time already. Join me next time for all the exciting multicolor goodness. Spoiler alert: Sparks will fly!

Dan Musser

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