M11 from the Inside

Posted in Savor The Flavor on August 11, 2010

Despite how many dream of being a designer for Magic, I have to confess: I didn't set out to design any Magic 2011 cards. I'm here to wrangle sentences and make up words. To me, officially, that rules text box is terra incognita, except for when there's room for our writing teams to plant some flavor text in it.

So when I showed up to my first M11 meeting, the possibility of actually forging hunks of rules text—gloves and goggles on, smacking away at it with the hammers of playtesting while it cooled—was barely on my radar. I was there as a "Creative rep," a kind of combination Imagination Facilitator and Bad Cop; there to point the designers toward resonant fantasy tropes while policing individual card designs so we didn't end up with cards that wouldn't fit Magic.

M11 designer: How about a card based on this dream I had last night?
Me: No cards about teeth falling out while being naked on test day.
M11 designer: You're no fun.

But I had a chance to stretch some new muscles while playing creative Facili-Cop. I had been on a design team before—Zendikar—and had contributed design-y tweaks to cards on a few development teams. But on those teams, most of my card cookery was like throwing a sprig of parsley into an industrial vat of chicken noodle—subtle and mixed with the flavorful contributions of others.

M11 was different, and the difference was the emphasis on flavor. The core set's mission is to show off the distilled essence of Magic with flavorful, straightforward card designs. Rules complexity is dialed comparatively low, while flavor is cranked, and top-down designs are falling out all over the place. My boss, Brady Dommermuth, helped with the design of Magic 2010, running creative point on the premiere of this new core set philosophy—and I shoe-filled on M11.

I was front and center to witness some design stories from M11, and even got to honest-to-goodness design some cards. Here are a few such tales.

There are a few methods to get your pet cards printed in Magic sets. Out of all of the methods, being Director of Magic Ramp;D Aaron Forsythe is probably the most effective one. While there was resistance from development for this Man-o'-War update to reenter tournament play, Aaron was passionate about it, and here it is, with only a bit more colored mana for its trouble. I had already been looking for a spot for blue to get a classic Human Wizard, so I was happy for a place to concept one.

It was Magic art director Jeremy Jarvis's idea to depict Ajani in the clouds above the jungle scene. That's not a card design story, but it's cool.

As we were creating these planeswalker-flavored spells and creatures, all of us on the design team submitted designs for cards to go with all five planeswalkers. My design for Ajani's Pridemate was chosen. It has a bit of an awkward template, which ended up needing some reminder text, but I like the feeling of Ajani healing you and his Pridemate getting inspired as a result. The card even ended up with the same placeholder name I gave it. (And no, I didn't throw that pass to myself—my fellow Creative team member Jenna Helland ran the names and flavor text team for M11.)

There have been a lot of variants on "fire-breathing dragon" in Magic, but there are plenty of ways yet to explore this classic mainstay of fantasy. I submitted this design to represent a dragon that strafes the battlefield with its breath—sort of a fiery, draconic bombing run. Jason Chan's art completed the slam dunk.

As I remember, this card came more out of development than design, but I'm still enamored of this card. Creatively, we like white to be the master of domesticated animals; white welcomes any beast into its community as long as it serves the good of the whole. The griffin bred for war fits in nicely with Siege Mastodon and the mounts shown in Cloud Crusader, Vengeful Archon, and White Knight.

The idea here is that it's a species of boar that has a coat pattern (called "brindle") similar to that of certain cows. In other words, it's the perfect eatin' animal, if you're into well-marbled mammals.

First you forge a glimmering image of your enemy out of delicate glass, and attach a little golden hammer to it with a chain. Then you find your enemy, show him the effigy, and smash it to pieces. Artificers aren't always the most direct mages, but they off their foes with style.

I've already mentioned that I offered up the design of Chandra's Outrage as a drawback-free version of Char. And it certainly charges up Chandra's Spitfire nicely. But I wanted to point out that Chandra's Spitfire was given that strange "noncombat damage" wording to work not only with precombat fire spells but also with the "pings" of Chandra herself.

We were looking for a card to replace Ignite Disorder in the cycle of core set color-hosers. If that previous sentence is a bunch of flavorless jargon to you, I don't blame you. But know this: red can now kill Baneslayer Angels dead.

Kodama's Reach was in a similar boat as Counsel of the Soratami—it was an appealing, simple mechanical design that was attached to flavor that wasn't core set friendly. With a new name and the loss of the Arcane subtype, it was ready for prime time. Now Cultivate is having a lovely time in a much better boat along with Divination (okay, well, Divination didn't make it into M11, but you get the idea).

It was a giddy day when we made this card in design. It made us even giddier to see the Shaman sail through development, changing hardly at all despite its obvious power. Maybe it's a bit strange for green to discard creatures as a cost these days, but the feel of Survival of the Fittest returning to modern game play was too appealing to pass up. Green is the master of creatures—not just in terms of power and toughness, but also in summoning the most appropriate menagerie for a given purpose—and Fauna Shaman proves it.

Aaron and I were both enamored of the idea of making a new four-card "cycle" of Elementals across red and blue, creatures that we could name after Air, Earth, Fire, and Water and give flavorful abilities. Air Elemental was about the only card left from the original four that made much sense, which is why it kept getting reprinted while the others didn't. (Seriously, Water Elemental is a 5/4 vanilla?) Initially, Fire Servant had a sacrifice ability that would double the damage from a single red spell of your choice. I felt like that's how the fire elementalist would use the elemental: throw it into a spell to power it up for one gigantic blast. But in playtesting, no one ever seemed to use the ability except when the doubling made a spell lethal; giving up your 4/3 was just too much of a drawback unless it won you the game. That didn't feel right. So it became a ability, meaning the fire elemental could aid your fire spells at certain times, but still it wasn't being used for that purpose very often. In the end we just had it "always on," which was the simplest and most fun version during play. Feel free to throw an (*2)-damage Fireball thanks to your fiery elemental Servant.

Here's an Elemental of a different color. For a while this card just had shroud, but we liked the feel of this civilization-smashing champion of nature being able to be targeted by its own color. This allows you to pump it with green magic if you want—but it's a nature elemental, so it disdains picking up a piece of Equipment.

This card got reprinted so fast, he must have dug a tunnel straight from his Rise of the Eldrazi booster to the M11 Prerelease.

Dragons breathe fire—and Ancient Hellkite demonstrates that quite nicely. Another tried-and-true draconic behavior is the classic "sit on my big pile of treasure that you can't have unless you slay me," which is the flavor Hoarding Dragon was intended to represent. In this case, of course, when you summon this greedy lizard, you get the artifact, even if your opponent manages to slay the dragon. How is that fair? Fair schmair, is my argument—and when the word is repeated but the first letter is replaced with "schm," you know that the matter is formally settled.

You taunt the creature, which makes it so mad it turns red as a beet while its buddies laugh at it. Is the color-changing bit cute or just silly? I'm still not sure. Maybe Indigo Faerie can tell the creature a sad story so it'll turn blue.

Maze of Ith had great flavor but actually implemented it strangely—and it was miserably powerful. Mystifying Maze is still powerful—since it makes mana and enters the battlefield untapped, you can expect to see it making its way into tournament decks—and it improves on the flavor of getting a creature lost in the labyrinth. I wish there had been room for it to summon a Minotaur.

Takklemaggot was a very flavorful and fun card for exploring the idea of a deadly, communicable disease. But have you seen Takklemaggot's Oracle text lately? With Necrotic Plague we endeavored to deliver the flavor of a contagious, self-reattaching Aura of illness in the cleanest way possible.

This card was concocted by development more than by design. Something about punishing some deck known as Jund? Anyway, I was happy to put a baloth into the set, one of my favorite types of green beasties. I'm still tickled at the art—aside from some reference on what baloths look like, the only thing we asked of artist Chris Rahn was that he make it look—well, obstinate. The idea is that this baloth digs in, and doesn't go anywhere even if you try to move him (say, if you try to cause him to be discarded). And man if he didn't draw a baloth that was obstinate!

The longer you stay in the cocoon, the more powers you get. I consider this Buttersafe web comic to be the inspiration for this card.

I'll be the first to tell you that I have strange pet peeves, but one of my pet peeves has always been that Skeletons don't "regenerate" (taken in the colloquial, non-game-mechanical sense) the same way that Trolls do. Trolls magically heal their wounds, but Skeletons reassemble themselves. Trolls' regenerative powers cause them to sometimes fail to die to lethal damage. Skeletons collapse in a heap when you destroy them, totally re-dead, but their bones twitch and then they magically put themselves back together again. Finally, we have Reassembling Skeleton, which is the perfect implementation of that skeleton flavor, as far as I'm concerned.

I designed Sorcerer's Strongbox as an homage to making countless "Pick Locks" skill rolls in front of countless locked chests in countless fantasy games. I must tell you I have an irrational love for this card. It is one of the most (heads) fun and (tails) irritating ways to draw cards in the game. Feel free to curse my name and lineage when you fail your fifteenth flip.

Originally this malleable Elemental had colorless mana activations. I thought it was more flavorful for it to activate with blue mana—something about seeing that blue teardrop on the card to cause its watery contortions. I thereby made the card effectively worse. Sorry about that. In other news, artist Igor Kieryluk knocked it out of the park, illustrating what I believe is the coolest water elemental I've ever seen in Magic or in any fantasy game, ever.

The core set is a great Vorthosian canvas, and I was excited to get the chance to contribute to the mural. I hope you enjoyed hearing some tales from the scenes, and from behind them.

Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,
I've been wondering about Gargoyle Sentinel since I first saw it in the M11 Prerelease I played in a few weeks ago.

I enjoy the card, but the flavor seems a little off to me. As I understand gargoyles, they appear as inanimate objects until they come alive to surprise their opponents.

This tactic seems to be what is represented by paying the 3 mana to have it lose defender until the end of turn. That makes enough sense, but what bothers me is that it is still able to block without paying this cost.

If a gargoyle is inanimate until it is able to make an attack, then for all intents and purposes, it's just a statue. How much "blocking" can a statue really do?

In my opinion, the card would have made more sense flavorfully if it read along the lines of: "This creature can't attack or block" "3: This creature gains flying and can attack until end of turn". It may not have made as effective of a card, but it seems like it would be more in line with the card's flavor.

I understand though, that this could cause some confusion since Defender is an evergreen word and having a mechanic so closely mirror it could be confusing to newer players. Is that why the card was designed this way?


Thanks for your question, Jason! Nailing the flavor of a gargoyle is tricky business. Certainly Gargoyle Sentinel does a good job of representing the "come to life and fly off the rooftop" flavor with its activated ability. But why can it block? Is a gargoyle "on" when it's rooted to a castle rampart, able to munch on passersby? Or is it a mere stone decoration? It's possible that Jade Statue has the flavor you're looking for, Jason—an inanimate statue (a noncreature artifact) that can temporarily "wake up" (become a creature) to fight, either on defense or offense, but otherwise just sits there.

But I think the ability to block goes nicely with the protective, watchful feel of the classic gargoyle. You put a bunch of gargoyles up on your castle not only to look cool and to occasionally wake up to attack, but also to ward off evil spirits and invaders. Maybe that means that this gargoyle can literally move while in defensive mode, which seems in-bounds for castle-encrusting fantasy gargoyles. Or maybe attackers just find themselves creepily facing gargoyles that always seem to be in their way—you never see the stony creatures move, but as you make your way up the castle wall, they're just there to trip you up.

Gargoyle Sentinel | Art by Drew Baker

It's also, as you say, just a more effective card this way. The concern of having the cards be good enough to play is always in the mix when designing top-down core set cards. I think Gargoyle Sentinel is a nice balance between showing off plenty of flavor while still being an appealing card that will make it into decks. After all, if no one ever plays a card, then it never gets to show off its flavor.

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