Zero to Sixty: Past, Present, and Future

Posted in Reconstructed on September 4, 2012

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

When I was 10, I started playing Magic and coming up with my ideas for Magic cards.

When I was 11, I decided I wanted to work at Wizards of the Coast making Magic.

When I was 13, I did my first Magic design exercises with friends.

When I was 16, I qualified for my first Pro Tour.

When I was 21, I started working at Wizards of the Coast.

While I am 22, the first Magic card I made will be released to the public.

After twelve years, a fully printed piece of cardboard with a Magic back—Deckmaster logo, accidental pen mark, and all—sits in my hands. Black and red mana symbols sitting next to crisp artwork and a full text box makes my palms feel unnaturally warm. I think I can feel my brain smiling.

There's something remarkable, and a little odd, about knowing I was responsible for writing down words that later caused a separate artist to create a piece of artwork based on my idea, and then yet another person to write flavor text for it. And soon enough, these words I just wrote down one day by happenstance will be affecting thousands of players around the globe.

Are you ready to be among the first of those affected?

Havoc Festival

I'm currently living in the future. I'm happy to report there are no zombie apocalypses—although you should definitely stock up on IBM 5100s while you have the chance. Overall, though, the future is a bit of a strange place.

Most people view time as a strict progression from cause to effect. Inside R&D, it's a little different. Every story here has a beginning, middle, and end—but not necessarily in that order. In many ways, it's more like living in an alternative timeline than an actual future.

What you're seeing as the future right now is really the past for me. Moreover, it's a past that was constantly changing before it became your future.

Meanwhile, our past—your present—is changing all of our futures. While you're out there playing in the present, we're making cards with everything you all are doing in mind. You are directly changing the future.

To make things more confusing, the cards are always in flux.

The largest adjustment to working here is knowing that cards can and will change. When you see a card out in the real world, it's done and printed. It's as though it fell down from the sky. Here, things are changing all the time. No, really, all the time—I have literally had spells change what they do while they're on the stack. (Usually followed by me saying, "Seriously?")

Havoc Festival | Art by Johannes Voss

Some cards, like Havoc Festival, changed relatively little. It simply gained a mana and the awesome "player's can't gain life clause" in development. (And also losing the awesome playtest name Half-life—alas!) But tons of cards moved around, got killed, had radical changes of effect and mana cost, and so on. Many awesome cards got killed for one reason or another—and not just because they're bad or unfun.

Plenty of fantastic cards just don't fit and end up sitting on the cutting room floor or moved elsewhere. For example, just from personal experience, another card I had in Return to Ravnica got pushed off to next year. Meanwhile, a different card I designed from Gatecrash got moved up, modified a little, and put into Return to Ravnica.

Our cards, like time, are always moving. But because of the weird symbiotic relationship between each of our pasts, presents, and futures, we work together to create the best game we can. Every time you build a new deck and play it somewhere, you're potentially changing the future of the game.

If this is more confusing to you that the movie Primer, that's okay—you're not far off. (And if you haven't seen Primer, you should definitely give it a watch.) Fortunately, it seems like all of these confusing timestreams seem to work out for the better.

Art by Chase Stone

Sometimes, a trip to the past can be informative for present-day deck building.

Magic is an ever-changing game, with new card sets constantly sculpting and resculpting the field of play. Despite all of that, looking to what has already been done can be a great starting point. Somebody already laid the road's foundation for you—now all you have to do is pave it.

One of the first questions I ask myself when I see a card is, "Where does this fit? What does this remind me of?" As a six-mana enchantment that gives you complete inevitability, Havoc Festival seems like it's in a bit of an odd place. A control deck doesn't want it because it will slice your head open and make you lose a lot of life, but it's a little too pricy for beatdown.

Well, perhaps for most beatdown decks.

Let's set our DeLoreans for summer 2006. It's time to return to the original Ravnica! The Pro Tour format is Team Ravnica Block Constructed, and Standard decks were modeled on these archetypes for months afterward.

One of the more popular beatdown decks was an aggressive Rakdos deck. But what made these decks so unique is that they actually topped out rather high, using Demonfires to deal a large chunk of damage.

Rakdos Guildmage

Johan Sadeghpour's Big Rakdos

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Kyle Mechler's Big Rakdos

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Now, there are numerous things that are different this time around. The format is probably a little faster than it was then, and the creature quality is different. We're also going to have to play more lands to make it work. However, it's still plenty possible.

Rakdos Augermage
Rakdos Pit Dragon

When attempting to build off of a pre-existing deck, you want to try and figure out what the crucial elements of that deck were. In this case, it's plenty of efficient burn and some strong creatures to back it all up.

What's important to note is that the burn tends to go larger—like Demonfire—as opposed to 3-damage spells that just hit opponents, like Bump in the Night or similar. Against beatdown decks you can just kill all of their creatures, then land a Havoc Festival and let it cause them some serious harm.

Emulating some of what Kyle and Johan were doing, you might end up with something like this:

Gavin Verhey's Return to Rakdos

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Each of your creatures represents a huge threat. Beatdown decks will often need to two-for-one you to deal with your creatures, and control decks must answer each one in turn while worrying about your Salvo of burn. You can either take a more aggressive stance or kill all of their creatures and bide time while setting up for a Rakdos's Return—you have some play either way

Rakdos's ReturnDreadbore

Empty white desk? Check. Barren shelves? Check. Printed spoilers for the next year sitting out? Check.

These are the hallmark traits of a new intern in R&D.

I sat at my desk, poring over set lists. It was as though I was a food critic at a buffet—I wanted to savor each morsel of information, but at the same time I needed to memorize and devour it all. It was only my second day, but there was already plenty to look at. Everyone was eager for my initial impressions. I was just hoping to analyze everything enough to not say anything ridiculous. I was already in shock that miracles were real after writing on my design test that they were "completely unprintable"—oops.

Rakdos's Return | Art by Daarken

And that's when I heard it. The murmur from the next row of desks over. I only caught two words, but those were the two words that perk up a new employee's ears like no other. "Design cards."

Hey! I'd like to design some cards!

I had entered right as the Return to Ravnica file was getting solidified, and during this time in a set's life cycle, R&D does what's called a "hole-filling exercise." Normally, only people on the team for that set work on designing new cards and filling holes, but eventually there are empty spots in the file that have been looked at for hours on end and nobody is happy with the designs they came up with. These various slots are sent out to all of the designers and developers with brief descriptors of what the team is looking for, and then we send back our card submissions.

I walked over to the desk of Erik Lauer, the lead developer for Return to Ravnica.

"Did I hear that right? Are there open submissions to design cards?"

"Yes! It wasn't really intended for you since submissions close tomorrow morning, though... it was sent out last week."

"Can you forward me the email anyway? I can design some cards before then."

Erik put on a wide smile. It was the kind of grin a mad genius gets before pushing the big red button. Well, either that or the kind an assassin gets right before closing in on his target—but I prefer to think it was the former. "Sure thing!"

Art by Izzy

I went back to my desk and spent the next hour and a half working on cards for the submission. Finally, I got down to the last hole. After spending so long on all of the others I was running low on time, so in about a minute I just typed out the first thing that came to my mind for the "Rakdos Noncreature Rare Hole" and clicked send:

Barbs of Battle
At the beginning of each player's upkeep, that player loses life equal to half his or her life total, rounded up.

There's no time like the present.

Whenever an entire block rotates, it's wise to turn toward the previous Block Constructed format for an indicator of what might be to come. In this case, the Innistrad Block Constructed format had one pretty clear favorite among players: Jund.

In the World Magic Cup that just happened a couple weeks ago, a whopping three-quarters of the teams fielded the Jund deck! Full of powerful single cards and mana acceleration, this deck was troublesome for most players to fight with any sort of consistency.

Grgur Petric-Maretic's Jund

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With all of the acceleration in here, reaching six mana isn't that difficult. Havoc Festival provides this deck with major inevitability—once it's in play, your already-scarred opponent is going to be within a turn or two of dying. And all of the creature removal in the world won't save him or her from an enchantment!

Devil's Play
Appetite for Brains

With Magic 2013 also up for grabs in Standard, Thundermaw Hellkite is a fantastic addition and Farseek is a lot harder to deal with than Scorned Villager. The dual lands also go a long way toward fixing the mana in this deck, which means you can cut Divergent Growth.

You could try making a few minor tweaks and start with something like this:

Gavin Verhey's Jund Update

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How good is Havoc Festival here? Well, you can power one out as early as turn three—and coming back from a Festival against a deck full of large, efficient creatures is going to provide quite the challenge for your opponent. Of course, the deck is full of plenty of power on its own. Huntmasters and Dragons and Silverhearts all pose a threat—Festival is just another piece in the mix. But it's certainly one worth trying.

Thundermaw Hellkite
Wolfir Silverheart

You want to work for Wizards. Okay Gavin, ask them smoothly. I'm sure they'll give you an answer. It's going to be fine. Just be calm about it. Breathe.

I was ready.

"Mister Buehler, what does it take to get a job in Magic R&D?" my 11-year-old self blurted out.

The grizzled Magic R&D member looked up from his spellslinging match as the loudspeaker boomed in the background, advertising one more for a triple-Odyssey Prerelease draft and filling the silence between my question and his answer. I looked as he sized me up, taking my question completely seriously.

"Well first, you need a college degree," he began.

My little heart slightly sunk. How I was I ever going to get one of those? That would be years and years from now!

"Second, you need to show that you're good at the game by having Pro Tour experience."

My heart climbed back up from its cliff. I didn't know about this whole "college degree" thing. But a pro player? Yeah, I could do that. How hard could it possibly be?

Art by Clint Cearley

One of the best places for the rogue deck builder's head to be is in the future.

Maybe the format isn't right for a card right now, but simply knowing what certain cards can be used for helps you rig up alarm bells to go off in your head when you encounter a situation that card would be useful in. It trains you to keep track of cards like tools in a toolbelt, ensuring you can grab whichever ones you need when necessary.

Dreadbore | Art by Wayne Reynolds

In this case, Havoc Festival serves a few important metagame roles that are important to keep in mind.

First, it shuts off lifegain entirely. If a lifegain deck ever rises to prominence, Havoc Festival will cut it down to size. Not only does it stop that deck's main plan, but, provided the deck doesn't have an instant that destroys it, the lifegain player's life total is going to drop by half. Hopefully, that sets you up for the kill. There are already some reasonably good lifegain cards in Innistrad and Magic 2013, and there's one particular mythic rare in Return to Ravnica you're going to appreciate shutting down the lifegain of. If that card were to rise to popularity, having Havoc Festival around would be a pretty reasonable thing to do.

Second, it serves as an inevitability engine against incredibly slow decks. If the opponent's plan was to control the game and eventually win with one of his or her two seven-drops, this forces your opponent to somehow start laying the attack quickly or fall to the mounting chaos of the festival.

Additionally, knowing what future cards you would want to break this card in half is useful. Spend a moment thinking about how you could break this card. Think about it.

Easy answers might be burn or ramp. Others might thought of cheating it onto the battlefield somehow, waiting for a card that referenced playing enchantments or multicolored cards for free.

Auger Spree | Art by Raymond Swanland

However, the savvy among you will have figured out something even deeper. If you double the life loss Havoc Festival deals, then your opponents just die! They could be at five billion—dealing half of their life total rounded up and doubled is still quite lethal. A Wound Reflection on the table means that if you land a Havoc Festival then all of your opponents are dead.

Now, that combo is mostly relegated to the Commander tables. Resolving two six-mana enchantments is hard enough. However, if there was a cheaper card that doubled your opponent's life loss, it could make Havoc Festival quite potent.

For now, if you're just looking to have some fun in Modern casual, you could use a shell like this:

Gavin Verhey's Casual Budget Wound Festival

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Lay Wound Reflection on one turn. Untap, lay Havoc Festival, and watch the carnage ensue!

If you wanted to unbudgetize this I would recommend Ravnica dual lands, Thoughtseize, and Damnation to start with. You could also try a green version with a bunch of ramp spells and Tarmogoyfs to hold the fort. (Or just attack for a ton with Wound Reflection.) It's not exactly going to tear up the competitive Modern scene, but it's a fun casual deck to try out!

Now it's time for the present to influence the future once more. In two weeks, I'll be back with an exciting preview card!

Format: Future Standard (Innistrad, Dark Ascension, Avacyn Restored, Return to Ravnica, and Magic 2013)
Restrictions: Your deck must be green or black. It does not need to be both, and it does not need to be Golgari-themed. (Although it certainly can be!)
Deadline: Tuesday, September 11, at 6 p.m. Pacific Time
Send all decklists via email by clicking the "Respond via Email" link at the bottom of this article

There's plenty of room to send decklists this time around. Show me what you can do! The card I'm showing off has a lot of uses, so I'm confident there will be some great fits for it this time around.

As always, if you have any questions or comments feel free to send me a tweet or post in the forums and I'll send you a reply. It's always great to hear from you.

Hopefully you're enjoying Return to Ravnica so far. The set is great—and I'm proud to be a part of it. I hope you enjoy playing with it as much as I enjoyed making it!

Until next week, may all your travels—through time or otherwise—go smoothly.

Gavin Verhey


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