This is the third and final of my Amonkhet card-by-card design stories. As I have a lot of stories to tell, so let's not waste words on my introduction.
Hapatra, Vizier of Poisons and Temmet, Vizier of Naktamun
I often talk about how top-down design requires hitting resonant concepts that the audience is aware of. For Amonkhet, we discovered a new problem we hadn't faced before in top-down design. Egyptian mythology and history provided a lot of broad influences (mummies, pyramids, deserts, hieroglyphics, etc.) that let us make categories of cards, but proved much more difficult when we were trying to make individual top-down cards.
Innistrad was playing into horror tropes from pop culture. There were tons of stories we could riff off (Dracula, Frankenstein, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, etc.). Theros, while playing more into cultural tropes, still was closely tied to mythological stories that were decently well known by our audience (Icarus, Theseus, Medusa, etc.), although less so than the source material for Innistrad. Egyptian mythology has a lot of easily recognized iconography, but the stories and characters are much less known by the majority of our players, which made top-down designs, especially of characters, very difficult.
We looked through the most popular of the Egyptian mythology and did a little research, which reinforced that the only characters people knew at all (and, even then, far less than the source material for Innistrad or Theros) were the gods, and they were already being incorporated into the Amonkhet Gods. So we turned to history and pop culture. Who were well-known famous ancient Egyptian people? We made a list but ended up with only three that seemed worth designing.
First was Cleopatra. Cleopatra VII Philopator lived from 69 BC to 30 BC. At eighteen, she became leader of Egypt and has gone onto become a historically iconic figure featured in over a dozen films. Designing her proved a challenge, though, because what exactly did Cleopatra do that translates into a Magic card? She was a leader, as were all three of our choices, but the story had Bolas being the God-Pharaoh, so we couldn't play up her leadership abilities. She interacted with both Julius Caesar and Marc Anthony, but we didn't want to define the one female top-down character by her relationship to men. We ended up leaning into the story of her death. Cleopatra famously died from an asp bite, and because of that is often pictured holding a snake in art. She supposedly was fascinated by snakes and studied them, so we decided to lean into the snake-loving aspect of her personality, as that was something we could make a cool Magic card around.
Second was King Tut (aka Tutankhamun—and yes, making him a 2/10 common was a joke made throughout the design). Tutankhamun was a boy king living from 1341 BC to 1323 BC who became king at the age of nine. His real claim to fame though was the discovery of his tomb in 1922. Egyptian leaders were buried with many riches, most of which were later looted. Tutankhamun happened to have a tomb that didn't get disturbed until it was discovered and thus is the best look into what an ancient Egyptian leader's tomb looked like. His mummified body was also discovered. That meant we really only had "boy king" and mummy to work with, so we ended up making him a commander for embalm, putting him into the two colors that focused on the mechanic. And, of course, he eventually gets to become a mummy when he dies.
Third was Ramesses II. He lived from 1303 BC to 1213 BC and reigned from 1279 BC until his death (a 66-year reign). He was known as Ramesses the Great and Ozymandias. He was one of the better-known Egyptian pharaohs and is the character most pop culture uses as the pharaoh of the Exodus in the Bible (aka the Passover story seen in movies like The Prince of Egypt and The Ten Commandments). He's usually portrayed as completely bald and extra mean. The design we played around with for him was him forcing others to do things (I think we were experimenting with him granting exert at one point) to capture the idea that he was a vicious taskmaster.
The creative team had worked with us to find a home for each of these characters, but the Ramesses character was problematic. The pop culture portrayal of Ramesses revolved around him treating his people (a subset of them) badly and them suffering. The people of Amonkhet gladly embraced what is being asked of them, and the character just didn't fit. So, we were asked if we could scrap it, which we did.
Liliana, Death's Majesty
The design goal of this card was clear from the start. We're in Amonkhet, a world of mummies, and Liliana loves Zombies. Let's make her a card that you could build a Zombie deck around. As she's a much beloved character, we wanted to make sure the design still enabled her to be played in a large amount of black decks. This created the challenge of designing a Liliana that both was Zombie-themed (aka good in a Zombie deck) and generally useful.
First, she could make Zombie creature tokens. That would play well in both scenarios. Also, creature tokens work well with planeswalkers because they help protect them from attacking creatures, so we put this as her plus ability.
Next we made her ultimate. Destroy all non-Zombie creatures. Once again, this was generally useful, yet stronger in a Zombie deck. The fact that her +1 made Zombie tokens allowed the two to synergize. Pump out a small army of Zombies to gain loyalty and then as an ultimate eventually destroy everything but the Zombies.
The tricky part was creating a negative loyalty ability that could synergize with both other abilities while still being Zombie-themed. If it could somehow also make Zombies, it would synergize with Liliana's ultimate. How else can you make Zombies in Magic? The answer was reanimation with the caveat that the reanimated creature becomes a Zombie (it was made black to contrast with the embalm token-creature Zombies being white).
The card was close, but there was one small problem. The first and second abilities didn't synergize. Yes, they both made Zombies, which was thematically connected, and they both worked with the ultimate, but the two didn't interact mechanically. The solution to this problem was to add a rider to the first ability. What if in addition to making Zombie creature tokens, you milled yourself (put cards from the top of your library into your graveyard)? This would allow the first ability to help feed the second ability. We made you mill two cards as the aesthetics then lined up with the 2/2 tokens. (Mill two and make a 2/2.)
With that final piece, we had an amazing design. Each piece worked with a Zombie deck but also worked in a generic black deck, and it all felt very Liliana. It was matched with one of the most beautiful pieces of art in the set to make a classic planeswalker card.
Nissa, Steward of Elements
One of my jobs as head designer is conserving design space. We plan to keep making Magic for years and years to come. At 600-plus new card designs a year, that requires a lot of resource management. One of my biggest concerns has always been planeswalkers. It's our most popular card type, and it has the smallest amount of design space, so I've made sure that we carefully use up the majority of all the existing planeswalker design space before opening up new veins. That said, from time to time, we do get to do some new things.
Nissa, Steward of Elements does something we've talked about for years but have always pushed off. Finally, it was decided it was time to put an X in a planeswalker mana cost. (We've done an X in a loyalty payment cost many times.) The obvious choice for our first use was to have X be the loyalty count. Pay X and the planeswalker enters with X loyalty. We really wanted the X to mean something more than just how many uses did Nissa have with her negative activation, though. Was there a way to make one of the loyalty abilities interact with how much loyalty Nissa had?
We didn't want to use an X in an activation cost because we were worried it would cause confusion (yes, as long as X is the same variable the rules can handle it, but experience has shown us time and again that variables are one of the most confusing things in the game for a lot of players), so we tried having the effect limited by the size of the X variable. Usually planeswalkers have some means to protect themselves, so we played around with an effect that could get creatures and lands from the top of your library onto the battlefield. Lands were particularly cute because they have a converted mana cost of 0, meaning they'd always be free to play as Nissa had to have 1 loyalty to be on the battlefield.
The middle ability was getting you creatures and lands. What could the ultimate be? Nissa is known for using nature, so what if you transformed lands into larger creatures that could help end the game, maybe even lands that the second ability got onto the battlefield? To help add a little more blue to the card, we gave the animated lands flying as that is something mono-green Nissa could never do. We gave them haste because we like to give animated lands haste to avoid the "having to remember which land was played this turn and thus would be summoning sick" issue. We keep them lands as well so you can still tap them for mana if you need to.
The big question on this card was what should the first ability be? The splashy ability was the middle ability, so we decided we'd like to have synergy with that. This led us to scry 2 because the best thing you can do to set up the middle ability is to know what's on top of your deck. Scry, especially scry 2, also leans a bit more in blue's direction.
Both Nissa and Liliana were created in design and, other than some number tweaking, were kept as-is by development.
I often talk about my responsibilities as head designer (see above for an example), but that's not the only role I play. I'm also one of the main spokespeople for Magic. Part of that job requires a lot of interaction with the public on social media. Through this process, I learn a lot of information from all of you that I try to share with my coworkers. Also, I use the information to improve our designs (so in some ways it is part of my responsibility of being head designer). I've learned many things, but for this card there's only one lesson that matters: players love Cats.
We make a lot of Cats (143 prior to Amonkhet), but we haven't made a lot of Cat tribal cards. In fact, there's only one card in all of Magic other than this one that mechanically enhances Cats—this card (and yes, there are lots and lots of Cat token–making cards):
However, Raksha Golden Cub, from Fifth Dawn, is both seven mana to cast and has a hoop to jump through—Raksha needs to be equipped before boosting all your Cats. Raksha's also legendary, which is great if you want a commander but less so if you want a Cat lord you can get out in multiples. On my to-do list for many years has been "Make a better Cat lord."
During previews, I talked about how I asked Shawn Main to do some research on Egyptian mythology to help us figure out themes for our top-down design. I remember asking Shawn one day, "The Egyptians liked cats, right?"
"Absolutely," he replied, "The ancient Egyptians adored cats. They were considered sacred. You could be punished for merely hurting a cat, and tortured or even killed for murdering one. One of their favorite gods was a cat goddess named Bastet. Yes, the Egyptians loved cats."
I had my spot for a Cat lord. Here, to the best of my recollection, was the original version of the card:
Crazy Cat Lady
Creature – Human
Cats you control get +1/+1.
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, put two 1/1 white Cat creatures with lifelink onto the battlefield.
Originally, the creature was a Cat-loving Human rather than a Cat itself. The creature tokens were given lifelink because, at the time, we had a bunch of 1/1 white Zombie tokens in the file (along with 2/2 black Zombies with wither). The original also didn't grant lifelink to your Cats.
I believe development turned the card from a Human to a Cat (and thus affecting "other Cats") and added granting lifelink to the +1/+1 ability. I don't believe they changed the cost or stats, which means they simply made the card better.
To the many Cat fans out there who have wanted a lord they could play in multiples and didn't have to worry about equipping it, here you go. Enjoy!
Samut, Voice of Dissent
Of all the design questions I've been getting online, the most frequent has been "Why does Samut have haste and flash? Isn't that a nonbo (aka the opposite of a combo)?"
The answer was this was more of a Vorthos design than a Mel one. The defining quality of Samut is that she's a speedster. She's fast—very, very fast—so we wanted the design to capture the feel of speed. The first thing we did was look at all the evergreen mechanics available as primary or secondary to red or green and ask "does this mechanic imply speed?"
- Deathtouch—No, it implies danger but nothing about it translates to speed.
- Defender—No, if this implies anything it's a lack of speed.
- Flash—Yes, things arriving out of the blue feels very much like speed.
- Flying—No, flying might make you speedy, but speed doesn't make you fly. Also, red is only secondary in flying for Dragons and Phoenixes, of which Samut was neither.
- First strike—Yes, although not as much as double strike.
- Haste—Yes, the word is a synonym for "speed."
- Hexproof—Yes, this could be flavored as you're hard to target because you're so fast.
- Indestructible—No, speedsters are very vulnerable to being hurt if you can hit them.
- Menace—No, this implies you're scary or threatening; it has no speed connotations.
- Prowess—No, neither the name nor mechanic imply speed.
- Reach—No, although the Flash could make little tornados with his hands to shoot at fliers.
- Trample—No, this implies more strength than speed.
- Vigilance—Yes, perhaps the reason you can both attack and be back to block is speed.
After our first pass, our mechanics were flash, double strike, haste, hexproof, and vigilance. Playtesting soon showed us that hexproof, while flavorful, made Samut a little too hard to deal with. The rest of the mechanics stayed.
We then added the "other creatures you control have haste" to imply that she could speedily carry allies around. The activation was added to similarly imply that she was using speed to help others move quicker. We chose to make the activation use white mana (remember green can untap creatures) to give Samut a Naya (red-green-white) color identity for Commander. Her abilities also played well with the exert mechanic, and red, green, and white were the colors for exert, helping Samut double as an exert commander.
So why does she have haste and flash? Because she's fast, and sometimes flavor is worth doing things a little differently.
We knew pretty early in design that we wanted to have white and black Zombies. This card was made to be a white-black-Zombie enabler for both Limited and Constructed in the first month or two of design, and we never looked back. One of our goals with this card was we wanted to encourage a white-black Zombie deck that was a bit different from the blue-black Zombie decks that came out of Shadows over Innistrad.
We wanted this card to be a Zombie so it could interact with all the Zombie tribal, and we wanted it to encourage you to play a lot of Zombies. We also knew we wanted to make sure the white-black Zombie deck had a finisher, and we felt this was a good one. It encouraged you to constantly pump out Zombies while both hurting your opponent and helping yourself. This design was inspired by the Orzhov guild's "bleed" style of play.
I remember when I saw this card pop up in the R&D slide show, I said to myself, "Made it!"
Amonkhet Out of Here
That's all the stories I have for today. As always with my card-by-card stories, I would love to hear feedback about individual stories, the article as a whole, or the design of set I was talking about (Amonkhet in this case). You can email me or reach me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).
Join me next week for "Eight Hundred and Counting."
Until then, may your trip to Amonkhet be as much fun as our job was making it.
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