At Death's Door, Part 2
Welcome to my second Theros Beyond Death preview week. Last week, I introduced the Vision Design team and walked you all through the creation of the new escape mechanic. This week, I'm going to be exploring all the returning mechanics in the set. Also, before I'm done today, I have a cool preview card to show off. That said, on with the article.
Back in the Game
One of the things we do on any return is list every mechanic that's appeared in a set based on the world and figure out which ones we might want to bring back. Here are all the mechanics from original Theros block:
Theros: Bestow, devotion, heroic, monstrosity, scry
Born of the Gods: Inspired, tribute
Journey into Nyx: Constellation, strive
Non-keyword mechanical things: Enchantment creatures, "enchantments matter," Gods, Minotaur tribal
Let's go through them one by one.
Bestow – Bestow was relatively popular and was the glue that made original Theros work. It allowed you to choose between making the card an enchantment creature or an aura. A definite maybe.
Devotion – Devotion was probably the most popular mechanic of the original block. It was a scaling mechanic that cared about how many colored mana symbols you had of a certain color on your permanents. It was also woven into the nature of how the Gods worked (which I'll talk about in a second). Devotion is the closest thing to a yes of any of the mechanics.
Heroic – Heroic was also pretty liked and played well. It was a mechanic that went on creatures and was triggered whenever the creature was targeted. Its design space was a little tighter than most of the other mechanics. Also a maybe.
Monstrosity – Another popular mechanic from Theros. It was a one-time mana cost that allowed you to upgrade your creature into a bigger and badder version of itself. It was super flavorful and had tons of design space. Another maybe.
Scry – The mechanic had since become evergreen, so Theros Beyond Death was going to have it. It is a great fit for the set flavorwise.
Inspired – Inspired was not terribly popular. This mechanic went on creatures and triggered when they untapped. A pretty firm pass on bringing it back.
Tribute – Tribute was even less liked than inspired. It was a creature ability that let your opponent choose whether the creature got +1/+1 counters or an "enters the battlefield" effect. The fact that the decision was out of your control really hurt the mechanic's appeal. Also a no.
Constellation – Constellation was very popular. It triggered whenever an enchantment entered the battlefield under your control. As I'll talk about more below, it was the mechanic that most played into the "enchantments matter" theme, which the audience was quite eager for (we'd purposely held it back until Journey into Nyx). The biggest strike against the mechanic was a play design concern that every constellation card fed every other one as the mechanic only appeared on enchantments. This was another maybe.
Enchantment Creatures – Enchantment creatures (creatures that are both enchantments and creatures) were fundamental to making Theros block work and were pretty iconic to the world. Not only would they be expected by the players, but I'm not sure we could even accomplish our enchantment theme without them. A definite yes.
"Enchantments Matter" – In an attempt to solve the "third set problem" of making the last set in the block stand out enough, I held back the majority of the "enchantments matter" cards until Journey into Nyx. This was probably my biggest design mistake in the whole block (although Journey into Nyx definitely benefited from it). Like enchantment creatures, I don't think it would be possible to return to Theros without this theme as the audience would 100% expect it. Another definite yes.
Gods – This was another iconic part of Theros, and a very popular one at that. Theros introduced the God creature type and used devotion very effectively in their design. All three sets of the block had a cycle of Gods. It was pretty clear we needed to bring some of them back, but we wouldn't have space in one set to bring back all fifteen (okay, fourteen; one of them died in the story). Another definite yes. This also meant we'd probably have to have devotion as all the Gods used devotion.
Minotaur Tribal – Players tend to like tribal themes, and Minotaurs were liked enough. The biggest problem was that we'd made some creative decisions about their size, making it extra hard to build a Minotaur tribal deck. We'd definitely have more Minotaurs, as you don't get much more mythological than Minotaurs, but we weren't sure how much Minotaur tribal we needed.
Here's where we ended up:
Yes: Devotion, Gods, enchantment creatures, "enchantments matter"
Maybe: Bestow, constellation, heroic, monstrosity, Minotaur tribal (but not necessarily a lot)
No: Inspired, tribute
Already going to be there: Scry
We began by going through our yes mechanics.
We knew devotion had been the homerun in original Theros block and definitely wanted it back. We made two changes for its return. One, we were a little less stingy about giving it to all five colors (although certain colors still got more than others), and two, we had an overall higher volume of it (24 cards versus 16 cards in original Theros). We again wove it into the Gods and into our new cycle of Demigods (more on this below). We also gave it more support by including more double and triple mana–symbol cards than we normally do in a set this size.
Another thing we liked about devotion is that it played into the monocolor themes we'd set up in Throne of Eldraine. We knew the same decks that wanted to play adamant would also enjoy playing devotion. Part of the shift to the 3-and-1 model (three separate large standalone sets with a core set) was a requirement on our part about being more conscious to make sure adjacent sets had complementary themes.
There was no question about including Gods, but which ones? In the push toward monocolor, it seemed like redoing the five "major" Gods from original Theros made a lot of sense, especially as Heliod and Erebos play a larger role in the story. We also included one other God that we felt players would like to see. We used the same structure for the Gods' designs. All the Gods are indestructible, require a threshold of a devotion of five to become a creature, and have two other abilities, one static or triggered ability and one activated ability.
When we were designing original Theros, we realized very early on that one of the biggest stumbling blocks to making enchantments matter is having enough of them in your deck to be relevant. The only way to solve this in Limited (and, to a lesser extent, Constructed) was to create enchantment creatures. Because I wanted to justify the enchantment creatures being enchantments, I laid down a rule that all enchantment creatures had to have an enchantment-like effect with the only exception being creature tokens. One of my lessons from the block was that this rule was a little too harsh. We make colored artifact creatures that have no defining artifactness other than flavor. We could do the same with enchantment creatures where we needed to in order to have better gameplay. We did try to add enchantment lines of text where we could, but this time we didn't demand it as a requirement. As a result, you will see vanilla enchantment creatures at common (usually with double colored mana in their cost to also help with devotion).
As I said above, my biggest takeaway from Theros block was that my withholding of "enchantments matter" until Journey into Nyx was a mistake. No matter how much messaging we did, the players expected it, and I didn't feel we could return to Theros without it. The big question was how were we going to do it? More on this in a bit.
Now we get to our maybe mechanics.
Bestow was definitely a cool mechanic, but it came with a lot of baggage. It was complicated, both in understanding how it worked and playing with it. It also added a lot of words to cards. Finally, it required a significant amount of infrastructure to work. I only wanted to bring back one to three named keyword mechanics, and devotion was already taking up a slot, so there was a lot of competition. The more we talked about bestow, the more it seemed like it was being beaten out by other choices. The one big issue of leaving it out was making sure we have the components we needed to hold the set together without it.
We knew we wanted "enchantments matter" to be in the set, and constellation was both popular and flexible to design. The big sticking point as I mentioned above was the play design issue that every constellation card fed itself because Journey into Nyx only put the mechanic onto enchantments. Sam (Stoddard, the initial set design lead) stressed that if we wanted to do constellation, we'd have to be willing to put it on some nonenchantment cards. That was an important knob Play Design would need to balance the mechanic. We decided to playtest other enchantments-matter mechanics, but if we did choose constellation, we'd be willing to put it on nonenchantment creatures.
Heroic was a fun and flavorful mechanic. Players generally liked it. It just wasn't the kind of thing that was going to win out when stacked up against other choices. It fit Theros just fine, but it's the kind of thing we could do on many different worlds. Magic is a game about conflict. There's a lot of fighters, and many of them can be labeled heroes. In the end, we decided to pass on heroic but left open the possibility that we might make a few unlabeled heroic cards. The set ended up with five, all in red and white, all with the same output (hint: it helps the aggressive red and white strategy of the set).
Monstrosity kind of suffered from the same fate as heroic. It's fun and flavorful, but it's just the kind of thing we can do in any set. We don't make Magic sets without monsters, so it's not as if we won't find another place to use it. There was a small window where we considered putting this into the set, but I don't think we ever had a playtest with it.
We did a lot of asking around what people's favorite thing was about Theros block. We asked a lot of people and no one said Minotaur tribal. We ended up deciding we'd put Minotaurs in black and red (as they had been in original Theros block), but we wouldn't require any tribal support. We just had too many other things we felt were more important to fit in.
I don't feel a great reason to talk about the no category. These were things we didn't think players wanted back, and we were already fighting for space.
Before I move on to the next part of the design story, I need to talk about one other returning mechanic, one that wasn't even in original Theros block. Sagas premiered in Dominaria and were a new enchantment subtype with a special frame and unique rules that captured the flavor of a story. Sagas were a big hit in Dominaria, and we knew we wanted to find a place to bring them back (ideally before a return to Dominaria). Here was what we felt was necessary to make Sagas work:
A world with stories: Because Sagas are about stories, they made the most sense in a world that had stories to tell. This ended up falling into two camps. One, worlds we've previously visited, as there were old Magic stories to tell. Two, worlds built on a top-down design with a source material that came with stories the audience would already know.
A set with room for enchantments: Sagas are global enchantments. Most sets don't have a lot of room for global enchantments, which meant that the set had to have a need for them over and above just being random cards in the set.
A world with an art style: This last one was the least important, but Dominaria had established an art style for Sagas where the story in the illustration was told through an art style of the world. This meant that Sagas were happiest in a world that had defined art styles.
It was a running joke in R&D for a while that every design lead would come up with a reason for why their set made the most sense for Sagas. Guilds of Ravnica and Ravnica Allegiance were our third visit to a world with lots of stories we've already told, and wouldn't a cycle of guild Sagas be awesome? War of the Spark was the culmination of a giant story, and every Planeswalker in it had their own backstories. Throne of Eldraine was a top-down fairy tale world, literally a world built on famous stories. But Theros Beyond Death had the best pitch of all.
It's a revisit to a world based on a top-down source of known stories with a mechanical identity built on enchantments, focusing on a culture known for their distinctive art styles. Yes, every other set had a good argument for Sagas, but none as good as Theros Beyond Death. It was clear we were supposed to include them.
In general, we didn't do much innovation with the Sagas as there was still a lot of room to design, but we did make one change. Some of the Sagas in Theros Beyond Death go up to four chapters (the ones in Dominaria always had three).
Here's what we had. We were going to bring back devotion, Gods, enchantment creatures, Sagas, and "enchantments matter" in some form, as well as a new mechanic based on the underworld. We spent our time looking for two things: an underworld mechanic and an "enchantments matter" mechanic. I talked about our underworld mechanic search last week (which resulted in Vision Design creating the stygian mechanic—Set Design would later replace it with escape). Today, I'll discuss our search for an "enchantments matter" mechanic.
The search actually started in exploratory design as we knew a return to Theros was going to have an "enchantments matter" theme. We tried threshold mechanics (think metalcraft but for enchantments), we tried utility mechanics (think convoke but for enchantments), we tried upgrade mechanics (think champion but for enchantments), we tried out mechanics that only showed up on enchantments, we tried mechanics that only worked on enchantments, we tried mechanics that turned things into enchantments and ones that turned enchantments into other things. We tried a whole bunch of things and ended up at the realization that constellation was the best choice.
Then, in vision design, we did the same search all over again and ended up in the same place. Constellation was just the cleanest, easiest way to matter. Following Sam's advice, we opened up the mechanic to not always being on enchantments.
Before I move on, my preview card today is a constellation card (one that appropriately enough isn't on an enchantment).
Click here to meet Archon of Sun's Grace
Before I end for today, there are a couple other innovations in the set. Let me touch upon them briefly.
Demigods – Theros Beyond Death was looking for unexplored space in Greek mythology, and we realized that Theros had Gods but didn't have Demigods. That oversight was corrected with an uncommon cycle of legendary Demigods. As one would expect, they hint toward the Gods without quite being Gods.
Interventions – This is a rare spell cycle tied to the five main Gods. Each spell is a modal X spell with two different functions for X.
Top-Down Greek Mythology – We also used the return for a chance to do some Greek mythology cards we hadn't managed to do on the first visit. I'm excited for you to see them.
Sweet, Sweet Death
I'm very happy with the mix of mechanics we ended up with for Theros Beyond Death. I feel as if we have a nice combination of old and new that come together to create a Therosian set that is reminiscent of the last visit while being distinctly its own. As always, I'm eager to hear your thoughts on both today's column and the set itself. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram).
Join me next week as I start telling card-by-card design stories from Theros Beyond Death.
Until then, may your return to Theros be memorable.
In this podcast, I talk about an aspect of Magic that's core to trading card games and can influence how we design sets—collecting.
This is the first in a series on the two-color pairs. I begin by examining white-blue.
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