M-Files: War of the Spark – Multicolor

Posted in Play Design on May 10, 2019

By Dan Musser

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

You're back, seeking knowledge of what secrets lay behind the Chain Veil of Magic design and development. Part two of the War of the Spark M-files is before you. Travel forward with caution.

This article contains spoilers for those who have not read through the War of the Spark story. Proceed at your own risk!

We are in the middle of a war. Stay with me, do not stray. The way forward is fraught with peril. Luckily, we are not alone. Meet our companions:

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

TABAK – Matt Tabak, senior editor

MDT – Melissa DeTora, play designer

AF – Aaron Forsythe, senior director of R&D

ID – Ian Duke, lead play designer

DOUGB – Doug Beyer, lead writer

GJ – Glenn Jones, editor

ABRO – Andrew Brown, play designer

AP – Adam Prosak, play designer

PC – Paul Cheon, play designer

GSV – Gavin Verhey, product designer

MT – Mike Turian, principal product designer

DMUS – Dan Musser, play designer

JDR – Jules Robins, set designer

MMAJ – Michael Majors, play designer

KEN – Ken Nagle, set designer

YS – Yoni Skolnik, designer

Casualties of War

DGH: New from Jules

DGH: This is more appropriate in black-green than white-black?

ABRO: What do I win if I get all of them?

DMUS: The game?

ELI: If you devour all that strength? You get a tummy ache.

DGH: This was the fourth-highest card in Rare Poll. I'd like to keep it.


DGH: To 2CCDD. Think I'm more likely to learn more this way. Hard to really guarantee CCCDDD on curve.

AP: This card is sooo cool. I love Decimate.

KEN: I'm going to loop this really hard in Commander.

These days, multipurpose card destruction has more often resided in the black-green part of the color pie. While this card could defensibly be white-black as Dave asks, we have come a long way since the days of Vindicate. What change(s) do you think would need to be made to Casualties of War for it to be more convincingly white-black?

It has been mentioned in previous installments of the M-Files that development comments in Drake are only one of the many ways we garner feedback on cards. Another is called the "Rare Poll." During a certain point in set design, the lead designer will put together a survey with every rare and mythic rare in their set. That survey is then sent out to all members of R&D and loads of other people throughout Wizards, asking them to rate and leave any comments they have on each card. Scoring in the Top 10 of the Rare Poll is generally a good sign you have a successful design that will delight the public.

Feather, the Redeemed

ELI: This has some pretty big object-tracking issues. Should it get the spell back if it's countered?

DGH: No. What are the words for that functionality if these are not?

ELI: The template is unprecedented. It's rules-doable. I'd add "if it resolves" to the end for clarity in playtesting, and if this sticks, the editors and I can figure out specific words later.

DGH: Added "if it resolves."

ID: Was frustrating with Chandra's Pyrohelix in Limited.

DGH: A legendary match for this?

DGH: Plus flying and becomes Feather? Asking around. Doug thought it would be fine.

DGH: 3/3 -> 2/4 given next card in set.

TABAK: Review: weird card. Fix later?

TABAK: If I cast a spell that you own, is it supposed to be returned to your hand? Sounds better if that never happens.

DGH: I'd prefer that not happen if there are easy words, correct. I don't want this to be a drawback in that case.

GJ: Might be my favorite card in the set right now.

ABRO: 1RW 3/3 -> RWW 3/4

AF: Amazing.

It's not every day you see Eli comment that something is "unprecedented"! Initially, Feather (who wasn't even Feather at the time) would return to your hand any instant or sorcery spell you used to target one of your own creatures. Games became less diverse and thus less interesting due to the repetitive nature of spam-casting the same spell turn after turn. Adding a delayed trigger removed some power from that ability but allowed us to move that strength to other parts of the card.

Both Eli and Matt pointed out issues and suggested fixes to the complex nature of how spells act when they either don't go where they are meant to go, or they don't come from where they naturally come from. "As it resolves" was the unprecedented text that was added to ensure you only returned successfully cast spells to your hand. But the narrow case of targeting your own creatures if you are somehow able to cast a spell you don't own is trickier. Luckily, spells you cast but don't own do not go to your graveyard as they resolve, therefore the replacement effect of Feather does not apply, never exiling the spell, and therefore never returning it to your hand. Whew.

Bonus Question: Can you name the card Dave is referring to with his comment "3/3 ->2/4 given next card in set"?

Tyrant's Scorn

GSV: Cool design for Constructed.

ABRO: I think this is too weak for Constructed.

DGH: Knobs on this? Power 3 and sorcery too strong/weak?

DGH: Sorcery -> Instant

PC: I kinda like the card where it is now, to be honest.

DGH: Changed caring about power to caring about converted mana cost 2 instead of 3 power. Destroy to exile.

AP: Love this card.

DMUS: Good against Death's Shadow and Gurmag Angler, excellent work.

DGH: Exile back to destroy. FFL request given amount of exile already around.

YS: FFL suggests CMC 3 or less, or choose one—Smother / Unsummon

ABRO: 2 CMC -> 3 CMC

DGH: Changed to FFL suggestion

TOMR: *thumbs up*

Play Design flagged this early as an interesting option to include in the removal suite that would be available for Constructed. Tyrant's Scorn had a ton of knobs that could be dialed up or down to adjust the range of cards it interacted with. Through rigorous play, the team was also able to identify that much of the strong removal in FFL was putting cards into exile. Formats are generally more fun when there is a diverse suite of answers, not just different cards all doing the same thing.

Aside for card designers: A reasonable number of knobs on your cards will increase the chance the development team can get them into the right spot in terms of power level instead of just killing your precious design.

Soul Diviner

GSV: I have enjoyed this card so far.

DGH: 2/2 -> 2/3

ELI: Beware the interaction with Sagas! You can repeat one chapter over and over and over. (The rules are okay with this if Set and Play Design are. Could also add "nonenchantment" if it's bad.)

DGH: Thanks for that note, Eli. That does sound a bit scary. Will check with Play Design.

DGH: Going to add nonenchantment

DGH: Spelling them out. Somehow looks better than nonenchantment, in my opinion. Hoping that "you control" applies to all in terms of parsing?

ELI: Bazaar Trader says this is fine.

AP: Very nice!

MMAJ: This can remove Isareth's corpse counters; is that considered too weird/problematic?

ELI: Note that removing those counters doesn't remove the "exile it if it would die" effect; it just creates little memory issues.

MMAJ: Interacts very well with Blast Zone. A free counter to remove.

GJ: This looks fun and strong.

Big save by Eli on this one! While it was not overly strong in terms of power level to be able to remove counters from the Saga enchantments from Dominaria, it was clearly too repetitive. Being able to remove any type of counter from most of your permanents was already an open door that could inspire many different weird and wacky interactions. As you can see, Michael was tossing any random card with counters into his Soul Diviner decks trying to see what some of the easiest ways to draw cards would be.


DGH: New design from Ian and others

DGH: Eldritch Evolution up +1 CMC. Sounds like two mana is too aggressive for this? Starting at three.

DGH: Is this okay as green-blue? What other color pair (with green) would it be? Seems like a good match for Simic.

DGH: Currently exiling the base creature to feel more blue.

DGH: Could also be shuffle the creature into your deck, but I wasn't quickly finding good words for that.

ELI: This is what Vannifar, the Ravnica Allegiance Simic guildleader, is doing; awesome or awful?

AP: Awesome

TABAK: Shuffling the creature in has good words if you move that out of the cost. Otherwise, not really.

DGH: Could see this entering with additional +1/+1 counter like Finale of Devastation if that isn't too strong?

PC: Could see this if we add +1/+1 counter.

MMAJ: Are we interested in a four-mana version that gives a +1/+1 counter? Also, should this card exile itself upon resolution?

DGH: Added the mana and +1/+1 counter, did not add self-exile.

DGH: Self-exiled.

ABRO: This has been pretty fun, would like to get it into a playable spot. Currently a poor rate. Compares poorly with Vannifar.

DGH: 2GU to 1GU. Does this still need exile?

DGH: Cut self-exile

DGH: Sac creature instead of exile

ELI: Confirm you want exactly CMC+1, not that number or less?

DGH: Confirmed. Play Design (or others) can let me know if they feel differently. Same as Birthing Pod.

DGH: Down to just GU.

Neoform went through quite the roller coaster during its development process. As an uncommon, it would make sense to start it at a slightly weaker power level than a previous, similar rare or mythic rare. This is an example of what kinds of things are possible with a fully dedicated Play Design team. Instead of playing it safe and just making an appropriately similar but more costly version of Vannifar, Eldritch Evolution, or Birthing Pod, we were able to explore the range of possibilities more fully. Cheaper cost, adds a +1/+1 counter, doesn't self-exile, and allows die triggers. It took some exploration, but Neo finally ended up in its final form.

Interplanar Beacon

TOMR: Excellent card.

DGH: Added life gain for fear this wasn't doing anything.

KEN: Players are definitely expecting Superfriends enablers like this!

DGH: Is this supposed to be "1, T: Add any two different colors"?

KEN: I think "1, T: two different colors" is more Ravnica given its premise is treating all color pairs equally.

DGH: Changed to the add-two version

DSJ: Should the life gain be a cast trigger so I can't use burn spells on planeswalkers in response to the trigger?

DGH: Yes, good note.

TABAK: Got it.

The development comments on Interplanetary Beacon highlight the diverse representation of player strengths inside Magic R&D. Ken's vast knowledge of Ravnica reminds us that color pairs there are mostly treated equally. If possible, this card should be adding a color pair instead of two of the same color.

After Dave added the original life-gain trigger, Donald's Spikey nature helped him notice an undesirable play pattern. When a planeswalker would enter the battlefield, a life-gain trigger would be placed on the stack. Since planeswalker loyalty abilities can only be activated at sorcery speed, this gave opponents an opportunity to react and use a removal spell before the player ever had a chance to activate their precious 'walker. Changing this to a cast trigger instead of an enters-the-battlefield trigger solved everything!

Niv-Mizzet Reborn

DGH: New. Need help with words as it relates to choose any number of cards from different guilds. This is a wall of text. Otherwise I like it. Inspired a bit by a KEN design. KEN had words like ". . . each guild, . . . (Each guild is exactly two-colors.) Can we somehow define "guild" for this one card (does it need reminder text)? Etc. Does/can this fit?

DGH: Not sure what CMC this was reasonable at? Decided to get stats and CMC to match for now 2WUBRG 7/7. Not being multiples of five is a bit sad, but don't think we can pull that off.

DGH: Does this need a cast-from-hand restriction too?

DGH: Changed some words based on Eli's feedback.

DGH: Design tweak to reveal versus look and new words from Glenn that might work and that would fit.

ID: This is gas.

JDR: This is cool, though I expect a lot of Niv fans who saw him die are going to feel slighted by having him return, but not in Izzet.

YS: Wow! This will be an extremely appealing Commander.

KEN: Can we go 5WUBRG 10/10 and have ETB or attacks for the same trigger?

ELI: You have to choose the target for the damage ability without knowing how much to be dealt. That's super sad. The words to deal the damage separately are getting awfully long, too. "When you put one or more cards into your hand this way, Niv-Mizzet deals that much damage to any target."

DGH: Cut the damage, reduced cost. WUBRG 5/5

MDT: Adorable.

AP: I'm in love with this card. I really hope we can make something like this.

DMUS: The words make me think silver-bordered set, but resolving this actually seems pretty intuitive. Great job!

MT: Does this get three-color cards?

DGH: Nope.

ABRO: 5/5 -> 6/6

DGH: Is this supposed to be mythic rare instead of rare?

PC: Looks pretty mythic rare to me

He's back! Rumors of Niv-Mizzet's demise have been greatly exaggerated. For this one, Ken and Dave wanted to do something truly unique. What if Niv-Mizzet cared about all the guilds and drew you a card from each one? Could we define what it meant to be a "guild" inside the rules of the game? Part-time ninja wordsmith and full-time rules manager Eli Shiffrin conspired in secret (via email) with Dave. They were able to come up with something functional, albeit lengthy, without having to define new game rules.

Ken's original version was more costly but was also larger and had a damage component depending on how many cards you drew off the trigger. Since the card was already lengthy, and the words necessary to choose targets after you knew how much damage was being dealt were inelegant, Dave decided to reduce the cost and cut the awkward damage ability. After a small power and toughness bump, Niv-Mizzet was reborn. Fourth time is a charm?

Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God

DGH: This actually did better than I thought in Rare Poll, lots of 8+ scores, just not a great average due to having hexproof and can't be countered.

DGH: Changed a colorless to hybrid mana

MDT: I dislike hexproof here. This card seems so unbeatable.

AP: Pretty excited about this.

PC: I don't think I like hexproof on this. Seems almost unbeatable in the control mirror. It's already quite strong in those matchups without hexproof. Also feels a little weird casting Bolas off just red and black mana.

DGH: New static, cut hexproof. Seeing if we can get this down to five mana to avoid Liliana in this set and Vraska in Ixalan. Hybrid changing to gold. Need to sort out card-text length or where we might be able to trim to fit if we like this new static.

DGH: Changing last ability to fixed damage for space.

DGH: If this is too strong, maybe the discard in the plus becomes a punisher or discard/sacrifice a permanent?

PC: Either of those sounds like a reasonable place to start. Tested the current version and can confirm it's too strong on rate.

DGH: Changing to punisher discard or sac, also not strictly worse due to empty hand so it still looks nice. Need to check fit on card again.

JDR: Does this still need "can't be countered" with its cost reduced? Maybe it reads a lot cooler to others than it does to me, but I'd be much more excited by this card if I just started by reading the other part of the static.

DGH: Cut the "can't be countered."

GJ: Very exciting card. The -3 has a little tension with the static, but I imagine his abilities are better than most anyway.

KEN: Could be an imprint effect that "harvests" a Spark. "-3: Exile target creature or planeswalker. Bolas gains that card's loyalty abilities."

ID: Has felt roughly the right power level

DGH: Planning a new ultimate

AF: Dope card.

DGH: "You win the game if none of your opponent's control a (legendary) planeswalker (or creature)"? Would prefer something more red, but . . .

DGH: I'm tickled by this the more I think about it. Will check around some more for others' thoughts.

ELI: I love that you can throw out canon and have Bolas just straight-up win.

DOUGB: Agree with Eli. This establishes the stakes really well—here's what'll happen if nobody stops him. Maybe in your game, the story will go another way.

DGH: Ultimate -9 to -8

DSJ: Does this card need some red ability?

DGH: It's a good note. Sounds like we're okay with it just feeling like a good Bolas.

ELI: Emergency Powers from Ravnica Allegiance gives you a seven-drop, so you can use it to call in Bolas. Good.

DGH: Changed words on ultimate to improve in multiplayer.

DGH: Do we want the +1 to exile from hand (to get around Nullhide Ferox) and/or from play for gameplay or aesthetics at that point?

DGH: "+1: You draw a card. Each opponent exiles a card from their hand or exiles a permanent they control."

DGH: Added these words. Need a template check and make-sure-it-fits check.

Millenia of planning the demise of the Multiverse deserves a comments section of similar length. Nicol Bolas went through a plethora of iterations to be the Dragon-God you see today. After performing well in the Rare Poll, despite having a few unfriendly static abilities, we began by seeing how necessary those abilities truly were.

Initial testing showed that even without hexproof, Bolas was still strong in control mirrors, the place that was most likely to matter. Dave replaced that with the "all loyalty abilities," giving Bolas a truly unique power suite. Since there were already some powerful planeswalker options floating around at six mana, we shaved a mana off, and after trying hybrid mana for a bit, landed on UBBBR.

While Bolas's +1 ability went through some fine tuning to decide which version of discard/exile/sacrifice felt right, his ultimate changed much more drastically. You'll notice some comments on many multicolor cards about requiring abilities that are emblematic of each of the colors present. Originally, Bolas had an ultimate that dealt 20 damage to a player. This was certainly a red ability, and the number 20 doesn't often show up on cards we design. Was 20 enough? It was exciting but . . .

Dave set out to do better.

Nicol Bolas is iconic. A stalwart pillar of Magic story. Nicol Bolas doesn't need to fit the mold of your normal everyday multicolor design. Nicol Bolas would be partially red regardless of whether he had a truly red color pie–adhering ability! The color pie bends to Bolas's will, not the other way around.

It was at this point in development that Bolas drew one final breath, erasing the Drake data containing his ultimate ability. Letters slowly materialized in the now vacant space. Those remaining would be forever defeated lest they prove truly worthy of being in the world he'd left behind.

The war is over. Our lives eternally changed. Go forth in peace. Rest weary adventurer, you've earned it.

—Dan Musser

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