Twelve Labors

Posted in Feature on January 20, 2014

By Ken Nagle

Ken Nagle was a finalist in the first Great Designer Search and joined Wizards of the Coast as a design intern. He has since gone on to work on twelve Magic expansions, including four of which he led, as well as leading the design of Archenemy and the first Commander decks.

Born of the Gods will be in your hands soon, during the Prerelease February 1–2 at a store near you. I hope you find fun, excitement, and memories waiting inside your booster packs. New cards doing new things, exploration, and discovery await.

Opening my first cards from Ice Age booster packs felt like gifts from the gods. I never thought to question how or why these new cards existed, how they came to be. I simply wanted more cards, needed more cards. There existed cards by the thousands I'd never learned or played.

I played. I learned. I discovered that cards do not spring full-formed from heavenly deities. They're put there by mortal hands with mortal minds.

A decade later, I began designing those cards. I had gained the power of the gods I once never questioned or understood.

There is something magical about Richard Garfield's original vision: Magic players would seek each other out to explore another's cards neither knew existed. Some of that magic has been lost to modern information sharing. However, I have Magic cards to show you: playtest cards. I have a box of year-old playtest cards from design that I've been saving for today.

As lead designer of Born of the Gods, I'm taking this opportunity to show you twelve behind-the-scenes stories of how some of the cards you'll open in boosters came to be. Some sprang forth fully formed from creative foreheads. Others morphed over time from one animal to another. And countless many of them died of grievous wounds inflicted by designers, developers, conceptors, artists, editors, and rules managers.

These are twelve labors from the Born of the Gods design team.

Labor #1—A Humble Upbringing

Our first card is about birth. With Theros being a top-down Greek mythology plane, design looked to creative for inspiration. This particular card began as a card name from a list of potential card names generated by Jenna Helland while she was on the Theros design team:



Expand the Menagerie

Immortal Interference


Arcane Medicine

Expand the Empire

Immortal Vengeance

Realm of the Dead

Arrow of Life

Eye Gouge


Riddle of the Sphinx

Art of Prophecy

Faithful Messenger

Install a Puppet King

Righteous Anger

Athletic Prowess


Intoxicating Power

Rod of Two Serpents

Avian Transformation


Intrigued by Knowledge

Sack of [Troy]

Besiege the City

Fitting End

Itinerant Poet

Sacred Citadel

Beyond the Sea

Flawed Character


Sacred Fire

Blind Folly

Flee into the Wilderness


Savage Temper

Blind Prophet

Flesh-Eating Horses

Labors of Hercules

Savage Winds

Blind Your Enemies



Seek Your Fortune

Blood Guilt

Foretelling Glory


Set Adrift


Frantic Passion

Lightning Bolt




Lion-Skin Armor

Siren's Song

Celebrated Battle

Gate of Clouds

Lose your crew/peril

Skill in Hunting

Celestial Steed

Gaze of a Hundred Eyes

Lost at Sea

Song of Wisdom

Chained to a Rock

Giant Flood

Lost to the Sea

Speak in Riddles

Chariot of the Gods

Gladiator's Arena

Man-Eating Birds

Spoils of the Chase

City Walls

Golden Age

Master of the Seas

Starscape Navigator


Golden Bridle

Master of the Winds

State of Torment

Claims of Glory

Gracious Gifts

Mental Toughness

Strength of a God

Conqueror's Banner

Great Deed

Messenger God

Strength of Will

Cornerstone of Delphi

Great Unknown

Mosaic of X

Sun's Palace

Cunning Solution

Griffin's Gold


Superhuman Strength

Deceptive Speech

Guardian of Gates

Never Surrender

Swallow a Stone



North Wind (etc)


Devouring Flame


Pandora's Box


Dire Prophecy

Heroic Code

Perpetual Spring



Home from War



Divine Counsel





Horned Shield

Pillars of Hercules

Thunderbolt Forge


Horns of the Bull

Poison-Spitting Hydra

Tragic Fall

Echo of the Sea Nymphs

Horrible Anguish

Portal to the Immortal World

Trojan Horse

Endless Toil



Uncommon Wit


Household Shrine

Queen of the Amazon

Uncontrollable Strength

Epic Voyage


Quest for Redemption

Warrior King

Ever-Wakeful Dragon

Human Destiny

Quick Thinking

Waves Run Red with Blood

Exalted End

Ill Fate

Raised by Wolves

Wreath of Serpents

One name from this list that we tried is "Raised by Wolves." The card name was contentious because the story of Romulus and Remus is Roman mythology rather than Greek mythology. However, I wanted all the top-down cards I could get that were excised from Theros, so into Born of the Gods went my design:


The card survived to print with a better manacost. Here is what's inside Born of the Gods booster packs:


There're more cards we designed from the above list, but those are for later.

Labor #2—Create Your Own Destiny

There are two kinds of history: history as it was, and history as it is told. Greek mythology has enjoyed countless retellings, and it enjoys another retelling with Theros. Magic wants cards that tell recognizable stories, but even that can go too far:


This card, although epic in game play, is too pop culture-referencing. Magic wants to depict its own spin on Greek mythology, not depict others' spins on it. The final card became:


Labor #3—Collect Godly Blessings

Born of the Gods continues the heroic mechanic from Theros:

Wingsteed Rider

Because we were changing up the monstrous ability to tribute, we felt it necessary to continue heroic without evolution. It's unintuitive to change the "input" to heroic (targeting your creature with a spell), but the sky's the limit for changing the output (usually, put a +1/+1 counter on this creature). White and green have a theme—white heroic creatures get a +1/+1 counter while green ones get multiple +1/+1 counters.

Phalanx Leader
Staunch-Hearted Warrior

The green-white draft seed rewards being heroic:

Chronicler of Heroes

So, it's a given that Born of the Gods needs at least one white creature and one green creature with heroic that adds +1/+1 counters. We tried a couple things for the higher rarity white creature:


First of all, you can see how the heroic trigger was a little different during design, until I suggested the printed template. Second, the bonus this card provides is a little deceptive, putting a +1/+1 counter on target creature rather than just on itself. This subtle trick was invisible to enough playtesters playing the card that we changed it to something louder:


This card entered the file around the time when bestow (called imbue in design) was being properly costed by Theros development, with relatively high bestow costs. This card's goal is to be a kind of Kor Spiritdancer lord for the bestow cards. During development, we found cost reduction of on a one-drop is too much even for just bestow cards.

The card changed to reward Auras in a different way:


The final card:


The final card is friendly to all Auras, including bestow creatures, and in particular combos with up to three Ordeals on turn three.

Ordeal of Heliod

Labor #4—Navigate Uncharted Waters

Natural disasters are the result of gods squabbling and smiting, manifested as hurricanes and earthquakes. At one point we were looking for a Scylla and Charybdis (and everything else that wasn't already in Theros).

This top-down natural disaster design entered the file from developer Billy Moreno (BM):

KEN 6/13/2012: New whirlpool from BM. Left off defender so it can get Aura'd and attack.


I won't be revealing the final card here, but I'll offer clues with these Multiverse comments:

KEN 6/25/2012: Too much CC and defense.
TML 8/3/2012: !
KEN 8/20/2012: Shrinking and moving down to common as a pseudo-defender spell slot.
TML 8/28/2012: Is this top-downing something?
KEN 8/29/2012: It's a whirlpool where things get flushed down.
KEN 9/4/2012: Changed the functionality so that it works as Chance expected. Instead of freezing as long as it stays on the battlefield, now freezes for one turn. Better in most cases. Fun that it hosed my 1/1 dreamer.
KEN 9/6/2012: No longer taps and holds. Now shuffles opposing creatures into their owner's library unless they pay U or 3, similar to an ability on Kiora.
BM 9/11/2012: Not a common like this. Did Tom suggest shuffling this back in as well with no buyout?
KEN 9/11/2012: Now shuffles itself and the opposing creature in.
TML 9/17/2012: This is a cool idea. Does having G 1/1 deathtouch in FRI kill it?
TML 9/26/2012: We're going with no for now. Swapping to uncommon.
TML 11/14/2012: Now can float around and suck things down proactively.
TML 11/26/2012: I wonder how often people will get to double activate this.
Mark Gottlieb 12/12: Watch what happens with the creature type with regard to the blue Elemental lord in THS (the one that makes 2/0 tokens). Those are the only Elementals in THS. Does it want to be a unique type?
TML 12/13/2012: Now 1U to cast.
Dan Emmons 1/3/12: This feels rare to me. See Void Stalker
TML 1/4/2012: I feel like this is closer to Gomazoa than to Void Stalker. Also, this set's Aura theme means we can't make Paralyzing Grasps, so other blue removal needs to come down in rarity a little to compensate.

The final card in booster packs will be revealed on January 24 at the Card Image Gallery. More speculation!

Labor #5—Weave a Dream

Born of the Gods introduces a new mechanic: inspired!


The flavor of the inspired mechanic are creatures' imaginations becoming reality. This taps into the underlying ethos of Theros: the gods originally came to rule the plane because Theros denizens "believed them into existence." God magic is represented by enchantments, thus many inspired cards create enchantment permanents. These inspirations are their beliefs, their thoughts, and even their fears made manifest. If one beseeches a god earnestly enough or believes in something fervently enough, a god, a muse, or even the nature of Nyx itself can make it true. Their inspiration is… born of the gods.

Design went through lots of iterations to arrive at inspired in its present form.

  1. We wanted another reason to enchant your creatures besides the heroic ability.
  2. Since heroic happens once per spell, we wanted an ability that could happen multiple times to be different.

Very early we came up with tapped-creatures-mattering. Normally, you attack with a creature to tap it, and Auras (and bestow creatures) help buff up your creature to be strong enough to attack.

We started with the flavor word "Dreamweave" and tried many versions of "tapped-matters" mechanics on creatures:

That "Q" is the the untap symbol first introduced in Shadowmoor. It means you have to untap the tapped creature as part of the cost. The untap symbol can be dangerous, creating "engines" that can go infinite if their outputs can generate their inputs (such as Elvish Aberration + Umbral Mantle).

During "devign" (the short time between design and development) Lead Developer Tom LaPille suggested using the Hollowsage "becomes untapped" wording:


Since we can still put a mana cost on this ability, we can make any effect we want while still costing it appropriately. Sometimes it takes lots of iterations on a sideways theme to find just the right spot for a mechanic.

Labor #6—Break What Is Unbroken

One way to view Magic is that every card is a tool, and a deck is a collection of tools designed to perform a focused job. Most empty card slots in a set have jobs to do—counter a spell, kill a creature, find a land.

Oftentimes, the tool for the job already exists—it's time for a reprint! After all, reprints are cards that already survived the rigorous game-design process.

One such reprint we tried is:


Normally, I am not keen on the Prodigal Pyromancer-style cards ("Tims") where you can kill any number of your opponent's 1-toughness creatures. It leads to a feeling of helplessness; I would know, my first Magic deck is bunch of Norritts and Zuran Spellcasters, Prodigal Sorcerers, and Pirate Ships.

However, there are many reasons for Power of Fire in Born of the Gods.

  1. We want a cycle of Auras to, at minimum, trigger heroic creatures.
  2. We want these Auras' game play to be different than the myriad bestow creatures in the set.
  3. Since bestow cards never grant tap abilities (it's bizarre trying to figure out if your Aura taps or can be tapped), these Auras can grant tap abilities.
  4. These tap abilities should allow your inspired creatures to become tapped without risking them in combat.
  5. The tap ability needs to be relatively clean and simple, without being narrow to use.

Power of Fire does what we want outlined above. There's a very real danger that Power of Fire can lock down the game, especially on an inspired creature also cranking out tokens. Ultimately, this was Power of Fire's undoing, as it happened too often for fun's sake.

The final card does most of what Power of Fire was doing, but without the repetitive game state problem. Since I'm not a fan of repetitively dealing 1 damage anymore, I feel like we ended up with a more fun card.

The final card will be revealed January 24 at the Card Image Gallery. More speculation!

Labor #7—Escape from the Underworld

For better or worse, designers are prone to falling in love with cards just like players are. I believe if this didn't occasionally happen we'd be doing something wrong. We can't expect to have passionate players if we aren't passionate game designers. This labor is about my favorite Born of the Gods card that didn't make it.

To call Theros a top-down Greek setting with a straight face, each set in the block needs its fair share of top-down cards. I wanted a black, green, or black-green Persephone card that would alternate from the graveyard to the battlefield, simulating summer while on the battlefield and winter while in the graveyard.

KEN 7/10/2012: Persephone-based card.


As a first draft, this card is too disjointed. It's pretty far from telling a story.

KEN 7/19/2012: There's already deathtouch-granting. Trying Zo-Zu the Punisher effect. Hopefully some players will follow a 0 land/2 lands sequence simulating winter/summer seasons. 1/2 → 0/2 because it blocks infinite.


In playtesting, players would sometimes play two lands, then zero lands. But is that actually summer/winter, or is it just a bizarre card?

TML 8/3/2012: I don't really get this card.
Mago 8/28: Me neither. It's a lot of text (and a bizarre template) for not a lot of gain.
DH 8/29: Also confused.
CAD 8/30: Too confusing
KEN 9/6/2012: Revamp away from land drops to spellcasting. During "summer" players draw cards and during "winter" they discard cards.
KEN 9/10/2012: Trying gain/lose 1 life instead of draw/discard. Removed legendary because only Gods get to be legendary enchantment creatures. BG → 1B.
TML 9/17/2012: At some point, Ken, I'd love for you to give me a few examples of the kind of decks you want this card to help.
AF 9/27: Feels like infinite futzing for little to no effect.
Mago 9/28: It's important to Nagle to get a top-down Persephone card into the set. That's a fine goal, but this isn't the card.
SPS 10/1/12: I like what this is attempting, but not how it is accomplishing that goal. I like the idea it is only in play for part of the turn cycle, but not what the current extra ability is.
TML 10/5/2012: I continue to have no idea what is going on here. What cool action-packed thing does Persephone do exactly?
MJG 10/10/12: Weirdo card. I don't like it.
MLG 10/11: If we accomplish the goal of doing a Persephone design, is there a reason it can't be black-green? Persephone was a nature goddess kidnapped to the underworld and now doomed to cycle between the realm of the living (= summer) the realm of the dead (= winter). Feels like a very black-green concept.
TML 10/11/2012: Our mythic rares right now are white, black, red, green-blue, WUBRG, and allied colors. I sorta like that. Let's see what designs we get back.
TML 10/24/2012: New design from Ken, with the Gottlieb stamp of approval.

Legendary Enchantment Creature—Spirit
At the beginning of your upkeep, return a land card from your graveyard to the battlefield. If you can't, sacrifice CARDNAME.
At the beginning of your upkeep, if CARDNAME is in your graveyard, you may sacrifice two lands. If you do, return CARDNAME from your graveyard to the battlefield.

BM 10/30/12: I like this. Seems like low-level fun for larger formats.
DH 10/30: Hopefully our Wastelands remain bad enough that this isn't a Crucible of the Worlds in Standard?
KEN 10/30/2012: Pretty sure M14's 4,T: Wasteland precludes any kind of Crucible of Worlds here. :(
Mago 10/30: Could say "basic land" if that's a problem.
Mago 10/30: I like this card. I really wish it were black-green.
SPS 11/27: I think this has to say basic. Seems WAY too good with M14's Wasteland. Or just, you know, Strip/Wasteland.
TML 11/27/2012: Now makes lands indestructible. Hooray! Also is gold because I guess this just is gold and all our mythic rares are gold forever.

Legendary Enchantment Creature—Spirit
Lands are indestructible
At the beginning of your upkeep, return a land card from your graveyard to the battlefield. If you can't, sacrifice CARDNAME.
At the beginning of your upkeep, if CARDNAME is in your graveyard, you may sacrifice two lands. If you do, return CARDNAME from your graveyard to the battlefield.

ID 12/11: Strange card. Pretty nutty with Grisly Salvage and Commune with the Gods. Seems really powerful in Legacy, at least as a GSZ target in Knight of the Reliquary decks.
SPS 12/12: My biggest concern is that this just ends up being a house in Modern Jund. Return a fetch every turn, and indestructible Treetops/Raging Ravines.
TML 12/12/2012: We can change the rate, but at this point any card that moves Modern is probably very impressive.
TML 12/13/2012: Now both are upkeep triggers. Would love to make this legendary.
ID 12/14: Indestructible Mutavaults sound annoying in Standard. But maybe that's just part of what this guy does?
TML 1/3/2012: Nothing annoying must stay. If something sucks, tell me and we'll figure out how to fix it. Also, now legendary.
KEN 1/4/2012: Deathrite Shaman is her bane.
TML 1/25/2013: New card.

Ultimately, Persephone was cut. I like to think she is simply waiting in the underworld for the next change in season.

Labor #8—Brave the Labyrinth

As the sequel to Theros, Born of the Gods continues most of its themes. The black-red theme is Minotaurs, a tribe with meager support from Homelands . With Theros in development, I and my coworkers had drafted Minotaurs. They weren't where they are today; they needed dire help. The curve was clunky, full of vanillas that no one else really wanted in their decks, and in general it felt like playing all the worst black and red cards together while other players played the better ones you passed them.

In Born of the Gods, we set out to remedy this with a loud incentive to draft Minotaurs.


This card is trying to be as loud as possible for the Minotaur tribe:

  • It's a Minotaur.
  • It's both black and red, which are the Minotaur colors.
  • It can come down on turn two, and at the time Minotaurs lacked two-drops. There was a "Hurloon" rule that Minotaurs are 2/3 or bigger, which makes it difficult for them to also cost two mana without a downside.
  • It makes your other Minotaurs cost less, a powerful ability for a two-drop, and almost necessary to remove the clunkiness of the rest of the Minotaur tribe.
  • Its power scales based on your number of Minotaurs, rewarding a very dense Minotaur tribal deck. If you cast Corpsehorn Shaman late in the game, when its mana reduction ability doesn't help, you get a big 5+/3 anyway.

In general, it's good to put some power points into lords like this because it brings the entire tribe up. After both Theros and Born of the Gods did some rejiggering of their Minotaurs to improve the tribe overall, here is what you open in booster packs:


Labor #9—See into the Future

Inspired creatures need a less dangerous way to become tapped than through combat. Equipment is a nice fit for this job because an Equipment helps inspired creatures more than heroic creatures. Mix in some flavor, and I designed this card:


Being the second set of the block, Born of the Gods was in design while Theros was in development. Through the normal course of development cards are cut, leaving holes. Since earlier products have less time before printing, they get priority.

Sometimes, later sets are pillaged for their best content. To put it bluntly: my Eyeball was stolen from my set and put into Theros. On the bright side, my card is so cool it got printed three months early and Born of the Gods got another card.

Here's the final card in Theros booster packs:

Witches' Eye

This is an example how sometimes a card ends up in a different product from where it began.

Labor #10—Follow in Footsteps

Early on, the creative team knew that Kiora would be the set's sole Planeswalker. Fans have been clamoring for her physical card since playing her popular GU Eldrazi deck in Duels of the Planeswalkers 2012.


To give Kiora more "screen time," design wanted to give her a vertical cycle of cards (one common, one uncommon, one rare, one mythic rare). The uncommon slot was designed to be a signature Merfolk for Kiora to summon:


In an attempt to give each Planeswalker an identity, we wanted Kiora to be the green-blue "monster summoner" Planeswalker. Eventually, we settled on Kiora being a four-mana Planeswalker and her Merfolk a powerful two-mana accelerator that can help cast her on turn three:


As a bonus, Kiora's Follower can trigger inspired by untapping your creatures at opportune times. Or you can go crazy with two Kiora's Followers and a Mesmeric Orb. What's your favorite permanent to untap?

Labor #11—Learn from the Past

This card originates way back in New Phyrexia design. I was the lead designer of New Phyrexia, and my design team was tasked with establishing Magic's most historied villain with a new home plane. I wanted the setting to evoke a feel of "evil" and "violating," a cool villainous place, but you'd never want to live there.

To get this feeling, we wanted lots of bad things happening. Because players make choices about what to put into their decks, almost every Magic card either:

  • Does something good for you.
  • Does something bad to your opponent.
  • A mix of both.

It wasn't very evil feeling for New Phyrexians to gain life, pump up your creatures, or get more lands—moving your variables in the positive direction. After playtesting a set too saturated with destroying things, infecting things, dealing damage, and losing life, we needed some cards that built up your side. After all, you have to build nice things before you can destroy them in a horrible fashion.

Experience Designer Dave Guskin came up with the idea of doing "Phyrexian Slivers" that help each other, but also hose the opponent. Called Elites, here is an example card:

Elite Hulk
Creature – Elite Horror
Your Elites have trample.
Creatures your opponents control lose and can't gain trample.

This way, the card does "nice things for you" and "bad things for your opponent" simultaneously. Ultimately, we removed the creature type restriction, upped the mana costs, and they became the mythic rare cycle of Praetors that rule New Phyrexia:

Elesh Norn
Urabrask the Hidden

Fast forward to Born of the Gods design. We are debuting enchantment creatures (without bestow) and we wanted each of them to feel like "an enchantment on legs." That means, if you take off the power/toughness box, it still could be an enchantment.


This card passes the "could it be an enchantment?" test, but there's a bigger issue: we do this kind of "enchantment on legs" creature all the time. Even just recently, there's:

Crowned Ceratok
Maze Behemoth

Therefore, we wanted something more novel here. We eventually settled on doing the Elite mechanic from back in New Phyrexia that also hoses the opponent. Because Nylea, God of the Hunt already grants trample to your attacking creatures, we changed trample to hexproof, yielding:


Labor #12—The Ultimate Gift

Born of the Gods continues the bestow mechanic, and I tasked my team with designing a "mythic rare imbue" card. Designer Ryan Spain and Developer Billy Moreno both submitted similar cards:


This card kept its structure of a mana cost and five color-specific keywords. The red keyword was haste but changed due to being very strange to bestow haste onto a creature that probably didn't need it. Still weirder is that Flying Spaghetti Monster probably doesn't need haste when the creature it bestows leaves the battlefield. We try not to put unintuitively blank abilities on cards.

At one point it had the keywords of all the Archetypes, like these:

This doesn't work because of the strangeness of the enchantment having and granting hexproof (see above). Can you target it while it's an Aura? Probably not, but unsure. So hexproof is a no-go.

When the editors started attacking this lengthy card, they noted deathtouch and a few other possible combinations make the text not fit on the card by about five characters. After significant rejiggering and FFL playtesting, Chromanticore was ready for booster packs:


If you're looking for a starting place for your Chromanticore deck, it is best friends with the similarly named:

Chromatic Lantern

Return Home Victorious

I hope you have enjoyed this insight into how twelve cards did or didn't make their way into booster packs. All had good intentions behind them, but the game-design process can be cruel even to the strongest and noblest card designs. I encourage you to use the feedback form below or reply to me on Twitter at @NorrYtt with your feedback and favorite things you discover in Born of the Gods.

Fun is just ahead. I can't wait to open and play with Born of the Gods cards the talented mortals here brought into the world.

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