Shamans Intended, Shamans Spontaneous

Posted in NEWS on March 28, 2008

By Devin Low

Richard Garfield's Alpha contains Island Sanctuary, an appealing, protective enchantment that renders its controller nigh-invincible to creature assaults. Once you have the Island Sanctuary, you're not only safe from most creatures, but you're safe from getting decked as well, since you can skip your draws. Falling back to your Island Sanctuary seems to leave you with only two vulnerabilities: creatures with flying and creatures with islandwalk. Is it perhaps a coincidence that this second enchantment was printed just a few sets later?

Mystic Decree

The answer is that of course it's not a coincidence. There is no doubt in my mind that Mystic Decree was designed specifically to be a combo with Island Sanctuary. And that can sometimes be a fine way to design a card. Island Sanctuary appeals to a player who seeks immortality and immunity from attacks. Mystic Decree fills in that one flaw in the defense, keeping you safe from all creature attacks altogether. Since that total immunity is exactly what players who like Island Sanctuary are looking for, there's a good chance that those players will be want to complete the defense with Mystic Decree as well.

Mirage contains Flash, an instant that lets you put a creature into play from your hand at instant speed. The card's name partly inspired the name of the flash keyword in modern sets, which has a similar effect. Since flash costs 1U, and it would be pretty clunky to have to play seven mana to put out Serra Angel at instant speed, Flash gives you a discount of two colorless mana on the creature's mana cost to make up for the 1U it cost to play Flash. If you try to put Mahamoti Djinn into play with Flash on turn two, and you can't pay the rest of Mahamoti's casting cost, then the Djinn has to go to the graveyard because you couldn't pay. Is it perhaps a coincidence that this creature was printed years later?

Protean Hulk

The answer is that of course it's a coincidence! There is no doubt in my mind that the designer of Protean Hulk had no idea whatsoever that it would create a bizarre combo with Mirage's Flash that would consistently win the game on turn one or two or even earlier than that (yes, winning earlier than turn one) in Legacy, most notably at Grand Prix–Columbus. The restoration of Flash's rules text that allowed "Hulk-Flash" to be a sick combo deck didn't even happen until after Protean Hulk had been printed. The combo ended up being so powerful in Legacy that the card Flash was banned from Legacy tournaments.

The contrast between Mystic Decree and Protean Hulk shows how some combos and synergies in Magic are specifically intended by designers and developers, while others appear spontaneously, like electricity between two wool sweaters, without any planning at all.

Among Magic's tribes, the same is true. The members of some tribes are clear-cut and intentionally planned out, while other tribes' members seem to appear wildly and spontaneously. The Shaman tribe includes elements of both extremes, incorporating synergies both intended and spontaneous.

Tribes Intended

Some tribes are focused exclusively in just a couple of sets within a several-year-span. Take Slivers as a classic example. When Slivers first came out in Tempest, there were only eleven of them. The designers and developers had a very clear idea of what combos were available to Sliver decks. After all, each of the possible combinations was listed right there every time R&D ran a Multiverse search on "SubType=Sliver".

The Tempest developers knew that a Sliver deck could play Muscle Sliver, Muscle Sliver, Winged Sliver, Clot Sliver, and Heart Sliver to make five 3/3 flying haste regenerators, and they knew those combinations were really fun and potentially powerful. But they couldn't be surprised by suddenly realizing that Mogg Fanatic was a Sliver, because of course Mogg Fanatic isn't a Sliver. Since the Tempest teams knew clearly which creatures were Slivers, they intentionally made many of the combos built into those Slivers.

Just like the developers of Tempest were hyper-aware of which creatures had the Sliver type, soon real-world players were too. It would be almost impossible for a player to play a Winged Sliver and have the opponent sincerely say "Hey wait, that guy is a Sliver?? Winged Sliver is a Sliver creature?? I never knew that!!" You can't get surprised by suddenly noticing that Winged Sliver is a sliver, because being a sliver is its whole identity. You can't even hold Winged Sliver in your brain without knowing, with incredibly certainty, that it is indeed a sliver.

Lead_Belly_Chimera Kobolds in Legends, Chimeras in Visions, Thallids in Time Spiral block, and Kithkin in Lorwyn block are all well-defined tribes in the same way. If you think of some random Magic creature, you will immediately know whether that creature is a Kobold, a Chimera, a Thallid, a Kithkin, a Sliver, or none of the above. You won't ever suddenly discover that there's an additional Chimera for your Chimera deck in the previous block before Visions, because the previous block doesn't have any.

Designers and developers can do a lot of good work on tribes that are this well-defined. Since we can examine all of the cards in one of these well-defined tribes at once, we can make sure to build in cool little synergies and combos. We can make sure that the tribe has a cool mechanical flavor, like the "We are stronger when attacking!" flavor on many Kithkin. We can plant the seeds of open-ended synergies in the cards that will play well when players choose how to put them together.

We can make sure to spread the tribe members along a lot of different mana costs and sizes to give players options in making their own mana curves. We can make sure not to have the members of the tribe all sitting at 4 mana and being the same size (I'm looking at you, Chimeras!) We can intentionally shore up vulnerabilities in the tribe's strategies, by giving Kithkin some cards that help them recover against Wrath of God and Damnation, for example.

When someone plays Goldmeadow Stalwart on turn one, then Wizened Cenn on turn two and attacks for 3 damage, it feels very satisfying, and that's definitely an opening that designers and developers intended. When Cenn's Tactician adds +1/+1 counters to a Kinsbaile Borderguard so that the Borderguard pops into more 1/1 Kithkin tokens later, that synergy was built in to Kithkin intentionally too, and that makes for some neat synergies that play well together and feel right.

It's also important that even with a well-defined, intentionally crafted tribe like Slivers or Kithkin, we don't build an exact 60-card decklist and hand it to players. Instead, we intentionally make tons of Slivers in all five colors across Tempest and Stronghold, so each Sliver player can pick the ones he or she likes best and build his or her own favorite combinations. And we intentionally make a much higher number of playable Kithkin over the course of the four-set, two-block Lorwyn / MorningtideShadowmoor / Eventide year than any single deck could hold. That way, each Kithkin player can build his or her own deck with its own individuality and personality.

Tribes Spontaneous

In contrast, some tribes include creatures from a ton of different Magic sets in a ton of random places. Take Morningtide's Gilt-Leaf Archdruid. If you build a deck around him, take a look through Gatherer for all the Druids in Magic. There are 97 Druids in Magic, scattered across a huge number of different Magic sets in a fifteen-year span. When the Morningtide teams made Gilt-Leaf Archdruid, they could look up all the Druids in Magic, but they definitely couldn't control who they were.

Among other druids, Llanowar Druid was printed in Weatherlight as "Creature — Elf." Because its creature type was just "Elf," for many years Llanowar Druid didn't count as a Druid at all, despite being called "Llanowar Druid." There was even a Druid lord, Seton, Krosan Protector, that powered up all your druids, yet he didn't help your Llanowar Druid! That was clearly pretty ridiculous. The Grand Creature Type Update updated weird or incorrect types like that to something sane, including updating Llanowar Druids creature type from "Elf" to "Elf Druid." The updated creature types tend to be what you would expect from looking at the name and the art of the old cards, and if you're not sure of an old card's creature type, Gatherer can tell you.

Odyssey's Werebear, Urza's Saga's Priest of Titania, and Onslaught's Kamahl, Fist of Krosa are all powerful Druids from sets long past. The combos and synergies that emerge from a tribe like Druids aren't carefully mapped out by designers—they're completely spontaneous. Priest of Titania in particular is totally insane with Gilt-Leaf Archdruid. With a turn-one Llanowar Elves or Boreal Druid, a turn-two Priest of Titania can easily provide mana for a Gilt-Leaf Archdruid on turn three, power out seven cantrippy druids on turn four, and steal all your opponents' lands every turn for the rest of the game.

Baru, Fist of Krosa

Sometimes the interactions between these spontaneous tribes are super-awesome, and sometimes they are unfortunate, but because we can't control the members of these spontaneous tribes, we have to take the good with the bad.

Because the Druids of Magic are a spontaneous tribe scattered across such a huge variety of sets, there are a lot of hidden, golden nuggets to discover. People go back to their Gatherer searches and flip through, looking for awesome Druids that will unlock combos. And when you find an awesome creature in a corner of a card binder that happens to be a Druid, there's something deeply gratifying in the way you get to find that spontaneous combo yourself and know that no one planned it out for you. ("Nantuko Vigilante is randomly a druid? Sweet...")

I love making cards that send people back to look through their binder for sweet combos. Because those searches for cool cards that go with a new card are awesome moments in Magic. When Momentary Blink comes out, you go back to the binder to find cards like Mystic Snake or Avalanche Riders that will be sick combos with it. When Scarblade Elite comes out, you go back to the binder to look for Assassins, and find out that Big Game Hunter and Nekrataal are actually both Assassins.

In our internal Future Future League deckbuilding, we do those exact same explorations of spontaneous tribes like Druids or Assassins, or open-ended combo cards like Momentary Blink, Rings of Brighthearth, or Thousand-Year Elixir. It's a ton of fun for us to do those explorations internally, just like it was when we were all Magic players for years and years in the real-world.

When you play a game with a spontaneous tribe, you get to share those moments with your opponent too. It's awesome when you have out the Knight lord Kinsbaile Cavalier, you play Suq'Ata Lancer, and your opponent says, "Wait, Suq'Ata Lancer is a Knight?" Then the next turn you play Tivadar of Thorn, and your opponent says "Wait, Tivadar of Thorn is a Knight too??" The other players really feel the value of your explorations.

When you have out cantrip Merfolk Silvergill Adept, and you play Lord of Atlantis, no one is ever going to say with surprise "Wait, Silvergill Adept is a Merfolk that gets pumped by Lord of Atlantis??"

Shamans Swing Both Ways

The Shaman tribe is both intended and spontaneous. It gets to have it both ways. The Morningtide Shaman-matters cards have some intentional synergies built-in that are designed to play well together, with little combos seeded in here and there. You can play:

Turn one: Essence Warden
Turn two: Bosk Banneret
Turn three: Wolf-Skull Shaman, Wolf-Skull Shaman, Emberwilde Augur
Turn four: Make two Wolf tokens, Flamekin Harbinger to put Rage Forger on top,, Leaf-Crowned Elder
Turn five: Make two Wolf tokens, play a free Rage Forger with Leaf-Crowned Elder's kinship, play another Rage Forger and, having gained at least 12 life off of the Essence Warden, attack for 44 more damage.

Several Shaman synergies are intentionally designed into Morningtide, especially the Shamans' powerful relationship with Kinship, having the highest number of Kinship cards, two of the most powerful Kinship cards, and the most ways to setup successful Kinships.

But there are also lots of random creatures that happen to be Shamans from the past, opening up tons of spontaneous Shaman interactions. Years ago in the FFL, R&D Developer Mons Johnson memorably put together a Standard Shaman tribal deck in the Champions of Kamigawa days, revolving around the ability of Sachi, Daughter of Seshiro to grant "TAP: Add GG to your mana pool" to all your Shaman creatures.

Mons's deck was packed with powerful creatures whom Mons had noticed happened to be Shamans. His opponents were constantly asking in disbelief, "The new Uktabi is a Shaman?" Then a turn later asking in disbelief "Troll Ascetic is randomly a Shaman?? And Sakura-Tribe Elder also? And now you're telling me Eternal Witness is randomly a Shaman too? Mons, is any card in Magic not a Shaman?!?"

Mons was tapping for GGGGGG to put out the best green creatures in the format and reusing his Viridian Shamans and Oxidizes again and again with Eternal Witness. The Shamans Troll Ascetic and Viridian Shaman are both in Tenth Edition to continue their spontaneous Shaman interactions.

Nantuko Shaman

In a crossing of the streams, sometimes these spontaneous Shaman interactions even build into the intended Shaman interactions. Future Sight's Llanowar Empath is a Shaman whose scry 2 ability helps him perfectly setup your Shamans' kinship. It's quite amusing that if you Kinship out a Nantuko Shaman with your Leaf-Crowned Elder, you get to draw a card because you control no tapped lands, even though you didn't suspend the Nantuko Shaman.

And Llanowar Augur and Emberwilde Augur have a nifty trick with Leaf-Crowned Elder. Normally you have to wait a turn to activate the Augurs, but because kinship puts them out during your upkeep, you can use their abilities immediately.

So that's how intended tribes and spontaneous tribes are each a healthy part of Magic, with Shamans sharing the benefits of being both intended and spontaneous.

Last Week's Poll

Last week I missed two Mirrodin reprints from my list. I had thought about Atog, and how he was famous for being absolutely terrible throughout his life in Antiquities, Revised, and Fifth Edition, then came back in Mirrodin to wreak his revenge, winning multiple Grand Prix and Pro Tours on the backs of the artifact lands. I knew we had remade Chromatic Sphere in Time Spiral and Tenth Edition as Chromatic Star, but I had forgotten that Mirrodin's Chromatic Sphere was itself a reprint from Invasion.

Did you know Neurok Spy was a reprint of Bouncing Beebles?
Yes 1945 21.9%
No 6934 78.1%
Total 8879 100.0%

Most people did not know about the Neurok Spy's beebley origins, though a sizeable minority did see through his beebley disguise. Now you've just got to ask yourself: Did you see through the reprint-disguise of Hornet Harasser?