Surprising Subtypes

Posted in NEWS on October 12, 2007

By Devin Low

For years ahead of time, we knew Lorwyn was going to be "a tribal block," but no one could have predicted how fundamental the "tribal" type would become. With 31 cards, an entire card type, and dozens of interactions throughout the set, the tribal type is a huge part of Lorwyn's design, whose story Aaron's tells in this week's feature article. When a mechanic that big lands on development's collective desk, we start with four big questions: First and foremost, is it fun? What problems does it cause? What benefits does it provide? And is it worth it?

As soon as we started playing stickered playtest cards, it was clear that it was fun. People were using Giant Harbinger to go get "Sorcery — Giant" spells, they were triggering "Whenever you play an Elf" with "Instant — Elf" terrors, and they were sacrificing their "Enchantment — Goblin" to Tar Pitcher. Interactions abounded, and whenever you pulled one of these tricks, you felt like you were really getting away with something.

Tribal vs. Arcane

Summon the School and Eerie ProcessionBut a specter loomed over the mechanic. When was the last time we added a new subtype to a bunch of instants and sorceries to trigger some other cards? Kamigawa Block's "Sorcery — Arcane" mechanic. Arcane came from a similar origin in flavor: What if the Kamigawa Spirits had their own unique magic? What if the Spirit creatures could interact with Arcane sorceries in some interesting ways? Arcane had some fun cards and some cool moments, but we definitely made some mistakes with it, and it suffered from some problems that we had failed to catch. Here are four of Arcane's problems, and how tribal was designed to defeat them:

First problem with Arcane: When Joe Magic Player is building a mono-red burn deck, and he considers adding Lava Spike, he has to wonder: "Hey what is this Arcane word on here? There's no reminder text... What does Arcane even do?" Then there's a risk that Joe concludes, "I guess this card is for some deck that does something with Arcane cards. But my deck doesn't do about that, so this card's not for me." And he can conclude this even though Lava Spike is a fine card for a burn deck even when the deck doesn't do anything with Arcane at all! Player feedback supported the idea that this phenomenon really occurs. The word "Arcane" also did not give much of a clue as to why the card had a subtype, or to what creature type it was linked (Spirit).

Conveniently, we also knew that creature subtypes on creature cards are immune to this phenomenon. When Joe Magic Player is building a mono-red weenie deck, and he looks at Mogg Fanatic, he never thinks, "Hey, this guy's a Goblin? My deck isn't focused on Goblins. Goodbye Mogg Fanatic!" Instead he just thinks "Cool—an awesome red beater." Players are used to scanning past Goblin, Elf, and Giant on type lines and ignoring them, without getting jarred into stopping and wondering, like they might on seeing Arcane.

Furthermore, 28 out the 31 tribal cards in Lorwyn also mention their specific subtypes in their text boxes, helping players understand why the card has a subtype in the first place. Why does Elvish Promenade have the Elf subtype? Because it counts Elves and makes Elf tokens. So it feels totally natural that the spell is an Elf itself. Why does Crush Underfoot have the Giant subtype? Because it has you choose a Giant creature to deal out some damage. These links help the subtypes feel natural and integral to the tribal cards, instead of arbitrary and pasted on, like Arcane sometimes felt.

Second problem with Arcane: Having to pay extra mana for a word that doesn't seem valuable to you is annoying. Sixth Edition's Fallow Earth costs 2G. Betrayers of Kamigawa's Uproot is exactly the same as Fallow Earth, except that Uproot is also Arcane and it costs 3G. Shower of Sparks costs R. Betrayers' First Volley is exactly the same as Shower of Sparks, except that First Volley is also Arcane and costs 1R. There are other cards in the set that reward you for playing Arcane cards. But when you read Uproot and First Volley, they don't tell you about any of those benefits, and you end getting frustrated that these cards seem randomly to cost more than the non-Arcane versions you know.

In Lorwyn, we made sure the tribal cards didn't pay extra mana for being tribal. Shock is a powerful burn staple at one mana for 2 instant damage. What does the tribal shock Tarfire cost? One mana for 2 instant damage. Tarfire can let you do a lot of things Shock can't do, but Tarfire doesn't quite obsolete Shock (a card we still want to be good), because it isn't better if your opponent has Warren-Scourge Elf or Bog-Strider Ash out... or some guy called Tarmogoyf.

Third problem with Arcane: Arcane spells usually mattered in just two ways: The phrase "Whenever you play a Spirit or Arcane spell" and "Splice onto Arcane." Each of these phrases was on dozens of cards in the block. The first few times you see them and play with them they are interesting, but having such a huge number of cards across the block with identical triggers can eventually become tiresome. In Lorwyn, as you've seen and heard many times by now, the subtypes on tribal cards are relevant in a great variety of different ways in play, and also in your hand, in the graveyard, removed from the game by champion creatures, or in the midst of being played from your hand to the board.

Fourth problem with Arcane: Arcane is a classic example of not being backwards-compatible. When you look at your "Splice onto Arcane" spells, what cards can you splice them onto? Only Kamigawa Block cards, because that's the only place where Arcane exists. That's pretty closed-in. In contrast, what can trigger Lorwyn's elf-loving Lys-Alana Huntmaster? Masked Admirers, Prowess of the Fair, and Woodland Changeling in the Lorwyn set, sure, but also Radha Heir to Keld, Elvish Champion, Llanowar Elves, Allosaurus Rider, and dozens and dozens of Elves from all Magic sets across all of time. You get to choose what you combine it with, and you're not restricted to a single block.

And that's how the tribal type was designed to defeat Arcane's problems.

Subtypes...With Benefits

Gilt-Leaf Ambush

Here are a couple of side benefits of doing tribal cards in Lorwyn: Tenth Edition started putting creature token cards and Tips & Tricks cards in packs as a sixteenth bonus card. The Lorwyn designers and developers knew we wanted to do that again for Lorwyn, so we tried to come up with as many different token generators as we could, so we could put lots of diverse token creatures on that sixteenth card. So the designers set to work on making tokens in a lot of different ways. They made them with creatures, instants, sorceries, and enchantments. And every noncreature card in the set that makes creature tokens is a tribal card that has the subtype of those tokens. (Well, except for planeswalkers Garruk Wildspeaker and Ajani Goldmane. Despite his bestial appearance, we couldn't have Garruk's typeline read "Tribal Planeswalker — Garruk Beast.")

Another benefit of the tribal cards that development had more to do with is that their subtypes don't just come up in Limited—we expect them to be relevant and powerful in Constructed too. The "reveal" creatures like Goldmeadow Stalwart and Flamekin Bladewhirl are very tempting for Constructed, with aggressively undercosted bodies. The "race lands" like Gilt-Leaf Palace are quite tempting too. In Kithkin, Elemental, and Elf decks respectively, each of the cards I've mentioned is always "turned on." But it's also very possible to play each of them in "somewhat Kithkin," "somewhat Elemental" and "somewhat Elf" decks. Some people will experiment with playing them in 90% Elf decks, and some people with playing them in 5% Elf decks. It's a balance of reveal consistency vs. how many non-Elf cards you want to play in your deck. The real percentage of Elves you want to play them with is a puzzle to figure out and one whose answer up to you, and will vary from person to person. But no matter what that percentage is, the tribal spells, including Tribal — Shapeshifter spells (which all have changeling), can help you get there. Besides these cycles, tons of other race-matters cards in the set are likely to appear in Constructed, bringing their Tribal spell and Changeling friends with them.

Which Cards Are Tribal?

Another task that falls to development is deciding the size of each of a set's various mechanics. The designers make a strong recommendation by choosing what size each mechanic is at handoff. Then the set's developers play the set and discuss the ramifications of each of the mechanics en route to figuring out at what size each mechanic should be in the published set, from "zero cards," up to a few, up to the number submitted, up to even more than that. So one of our tasks was answering the question, "Which cards in the set should have the type tribal?"

One of the Lorwyn designers' goals was that each tribe have at least two tribal spells. That way whenever you are looking at a race matters card like Giant Harbinger and thinking, "What can I get to interact with this?", there are always at least 2 answers that are noncreature spells in addition to all the answers that are creatures (plus all the Changeling Tribal spells). There were times during development when a tribe had less than two, but by the end we made sure that each tribe had at least two options, with several tribes having as many as four. The designers also wanted to have a mixture of card types in each tribe's tribal spells, with some instants, some sorceries, and some enchantments. We maintained that, too, and there is a nice spread in each race.

Militia's Pride

As the development team was revising its philosophy on which cards should have the tribal type, one concern came up surrounding Militia's Pride. Militia's Pride is a powerful enchantment for white weenie decks. It makes Kithkin creature tokens, but Militia's Pride doesn't require other Kithkin cards to be effective. It fits great in a deck with Soltari Priest, Knight of the Holy Nimbus, and Glorious Anthem even if that deck contains no other Kithkin.

But we worried that if we added a "Kithkin" subtype to Militia's Pride, Priest / Knight / Anthem players would see it and think "Oh, a Kithkin card? This isn't my Kithkin deck. That's not for me." We went back and forth, and flipped it in the file a couple of times, but eventually we decided that Militia's Pride with a Kithkin subtype would be perceived as closer to putting a creature with the Kithkin subtype into your Priest / Knight / Anthem deck (which doesn't feel weird), and not like putting a "Sorcery — Arcane" into that deck (which to some players did feel too weird). Since we were close to the line on this question, we decided to go with the better gameplay, which is helping players put Goldmeadow Stalwart in their non-Kithkin-focused white weenie decks by giving them another card with the Kithkin subtype, and giving focused Kithkin decks another Kithkin option that can fit right in.

By the end of the set, the main guideline the development team used to say whether noncreature cards had subtypes or not was "If it mentions a creature type in the text box, it gets a subtype, and vice versa." 28 of the 31 tribal cards in the set follow this criterion. The three that don't have specific reasons why they're tribal: Tarfire, Favor of the Mighty, and Faerie Tauntings.

Tarfire was submitted by design under the title "Goblin Shock"... and the card delivered what it promised. Unlike First Volley and Uproot, the card gave you the same power level you knew you liked, plus a million cool interactions with other cards in the set. Regrowing Tarfire with Wort, Boggart Auntie and Boggart Birth Rite received many, consistent "This is fun!" reviews from playtesters, which I always value extremely highly. We knew some segment of the audience would be psyched to be able to play 8 "Shocks" in the same deck by playing Shock and Tarfire, in the same way that Fyndhorn Elves was exciting in Ice Age even though it was the same card as Llanowar Elves, because its different name meant you could now play 8 Llanowar Elves. And the card had some awesome Constructed-level synergy with a little card called Tarmogoyf.

Favor of the Mighty was submitted in a hole-filling pass to match the art on a card that hadn't worked out. We requested designs for a Giant creature or an enchantment that would help Giants. The design that we accepted fit perfectly with one of the Giants' sub-themes in the set: rewarding you for making the gigantic-est creatures of all (see also Crush Underfoot, Hamletback Goliath, and Brion Stoutarm). Those cards all look at your creatures' power, and this design did too, giving its bonus to the creature "with the highest power," but obscure rules problems forced us to change it to the creature "with the highest converted mana cost," which usually tended to be the same creature. This card fits perfectly with this Giant sub-theme, and it also fit Giant-wielding playtesters' requests for cheaper Giant cards that would let them fill out their curves and activate Blind-Spot Giant more quickly, as well as their requests for cards that would help them keep their most expensive and enormous Giants alive. With so many factors pointing toward a Giant subtype, we put it on.

Faerie Tauntings originally said "Rare. 1B Enchantment. Whenever a player plays a spell, the player whose turn it is loses 1 life." There are three differences between that card and the published one. First, it was one mana cheaper. Second, if your opponent had this out, it hurts you every single time you play a spell, plus hurting you whenever your opponent plays a Faerie with flash or an instant during your turn. It often caused about as much life loss as a two-mana 3 or 4 power creature with unblockability, unkillability, and haste. Weenie decks could not outrace the vast lifeloss that this enchantment was pouring into them. It was just too fast. In the meantime, feedback came back from some of our casual player contacts rating the rares in the file: they all hated this card, giving it some of their lowest ratings despite the card's high power.

Why didn't they like it? We talked about it and decided that they had read the card and hadn't thought about Faeries or flash creatures at all. Instead they had thought, "Hmm, so I play this enchantment and then whenever I play a spell I make myself lose a life? How lame!" We already knew we had to make it weaker than the broken version, and moved it to 2B. Then to address the casual players' perceptions, we changed it to hurt only the opponent, stopped it from making opponents hurt themselves, made it more multiplayer-friendly by hitting each opponent, and added the Faerie subtype to hint to players that it's a combo with all the Faeries with flash.

And that's how development put instant and sorcery subtypes right.

Next Week: I'll be overseas watching the newest Extended tech play out in Valencia, Spain at the Pro Tour this weekend. Check out the Pro Tour coverage (starting early Friday morning Pacific time) at our Tournament Center. This weekend also marks your local store's Lorwyn Release Events, which have been recently revamped to be cooler than ever, featuring demos, leagues, tournaments, prizes, an exclusive promo card, a chance to meet other players, and the first time and place where Lorwyn will be on sale. I won't be back in time to write my normal column, so please welcome next week's guest columnist, all-star Magic Developer Erik Lauer.

Last Week's Poll

How often do you go to Prereleases?
I always go to every Prerelease 2093 20.4%
I go to most of them. 2172 21.2%
I go to most of the big sets, but not necessarily the small ones. 334 3.3%
I go when the set seems cool, otherwise no. 766 7.5%
I've only been to a couple. 1818 17.7%
I've never been. 3075 30.0%
Total 10258 100.0%

I was happy to see that some 70% of you said you had been to at least one Prerelease. Most emailers who haven't been to any Prereleases named distant location as the primary reason. I was also interested to see how few people differentiated between big sets and small sets when deciding whether to attend.