Today, I'm going to go into some depth on a term R&D has used for a long time but is something I've never delved into much in my column—the term "deciduous." What exactly does it mean and how does it impact how we design sets? Today, I answer those questions.
I think we need to first begin with a different keyword: "evergreen." This term was coined very early on in Magic's existence (although I don't remember by whom) to describe mechanics that Magic uses every set or almost every set. This includes things like flying, deathtouch, and trample. These are named mechanics that are just things we use all the time. Usually in sets aimed at beginners, these mechanics have reminder text. For more on the history of evergreen mechanics, you can read my article "Evergreen Eggs & Ham."
The term "deciduous" (which I believe I did coin) was created to label mechanics that aren't quite evergreen but are still mechanics that designers have access to in any set where they want to use them. I like to think of deciduous mechanics as a toolbox full of more specialized tools that are available if needed but aren't expected to be in most sets. As you will see today, how often a deciduous mechanic gets used varies widely. Like evergreen mechanics, a deciduous mechanic can be used in whatever volume is needed, so it could be on one card or many cards.
Today, I'm going to walk through all of the current deciduous mechanics, explain their history, why they're deciduous, and how we tend to use them.
Like many things that I'm going to talk about today, anchor words are a little more of a tool than a mechanic, but they are a design resource available to all sets. Anchor words are descriptive text used to differentiate choices in a modal spell. So far, there are three different ways we've used them.
First, to show a conflict. Cards can show each side of a fight, but it's sometimes hard to illuminate the conflict itself, and anchor words do a good job of flavoring two sides. Fate Reforged, the first set to use anchor words, built a whole cycle around the conflict between the khans and the dragons.
Second, they also are good for creating a narrative of a design tree where the player must choose what they do next. Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms made very good use of this second technique.
Third, they can be used as a tool to help the players reference a mode for a secondary use. On Buzzing Whack-a-Doodle in Unstable, the players have to compare which modes they each chose that impacts what effect happens, and having a singular word for each ability makes it much easier to use.
Anchor words have proven to be flavorful and can make the cards more intuitive, so we made them deciduous.
Artifact tokens have proven popular as a simple tool to help flavor a set. The key to them is being concepted as a commonly found item that is doing one simple task, usually for a cost, that is applicable to many decks.
Blood tokens were introduced in Innistrad: Crimson Vow, so they really haven't had a chance to return yet, and I guess time will tell if they become deciduous, but they were designed such that they could be useful in small doses in future designs. In a game about combat, it's not that hard to create spells that flavorfully care about Blood. Rummaging (R&D speak for discarding and drawing) is, likewise, universal as a mechanic.
Cantrips are a slang term for cards that draw you a card as a secondary effect in addition to the main effect of the card. Basically, cantrips don't make you go down a card because they replace themselves.
Cantrips first appeared in Ice Age (as a collective thing; Jeweled Bird from Arabian Nights has the honor of being the first card that did it), but all of them were what we now call "slowtrips" because you didn't draw the card until the beginning of your next turn. Interestingly, it was the set Portal that first did just "draw a card," and it did it to simplify the effect and remove memory issues (as Portal was an entry-level product). Seeing how these played fine, R&D changed over to normal cantrips in Weatherlight.
I list cantrips as deciduous because they're not things we go out of our way to make sure are in every set. We use them when we need them, but they're never a requirement.
Clue Tokens and Investigate
Clue tokens began as a tool to solve a problem. We wanted investigate to be a keyword, but having it directly draw you cards was proving to be too powerful. We asked, was there a way to draw half a card? That led us to the idea of an artifact token that required you to spend mana to get the card.
Clue tokens were so successful that they opened the door to artifact tokens as a design tool where we built sets around a single, flavorfully named token that had a basic effect. Unlike all the artifact tokens that followed in its wake, Clue tokens are tied to a named mechanic, investigate. Technically, we are allowed to make Clue tokens without having to "investigate" first, but we've found the word very flavorful.
Artifacts go all the way back to Alpha, but for many years, all artifacts were colorless. Then in Future Sight, we printed Sarcomite Myr as a hint that colored artifacts might be something players would see in the future. Interestingly, when we made that card, we were hinting at the return to Mirrodin where the Phyrexians were going to take over as the place we expected colored artifacts to "premiere," but they ended up being used in large number first in Shards of Alara to mechanically represent the creatures from the Esper shard.
The early plans had been to use colored artifacts sparingly, but when Kaladesh was the third artifact block to cause major play design issues, we realized that we couldn't keep making powerful colorless artifacts (at least not ones without a very niche use case) and needed to come up with a plan to address the issue. After some discussion, R&D adopted the idea of colored artifacts being much more prevalent. We're making so much use of colored artifacts these days that this is probably the category most likely to just become evergreen.
In Unglued, I made a card called Volrath's Motion Sensor that made another player balance the card on the back of their hand. Because it was literally touching them, and it was an Un- set, I made it an "enchant player." At the time, that wasn't a thing. Flash-forward several years, and I'm working on the initial Innistrad design. The design team was tickled by the idea of curses represented by enchantments, and I recommended we make them enchant player. The total package was a flavor hit and, due to the ease by which we can use it, Curses became something we've revisited whenever we're on a world where they make sense.
Cycling, created by Richard Garfield, first appeared in the design for Tempest, but got removed because the set had too much going on. It would then make it to print a year later in Urza's Saga where it was one of the main two mechanics in the set and block. It was then the first non-evergreen named mechanic to be reused, returning in Onslaught block. It has gone on to be the most used non-evergreen, non-deciduous mechanic, appearing in Time Spiral block, Shards of Alara block, Amonkhet block, and Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, as well as in various supplemental sets, like Modern Horizons.
But wait, what is it doing here? Cycling isn't deciduous. It is now. As of Streets of New Capenna, we've added it to deciduous status. We wanted to do the arc/shard versions of the Triomes, and we didn't want to wait until we had a three-color set that also had cycling, so we made the decision to make the cycle and have cycling appear on only those five cards. This decision is a sign of some larger movements in R&D that I will get to at the end of this article.
Double-faced cards first appeared in another trading card game Wizards makes called Duel Masters. When we were trying to solve how to mechanically execute on Werewolves, Innistrad Design Team Member Tom LaPille, who had worked on Duel Masters, suggested using double-faced cards. Originally, the plan was to have a one-sided card that went into the deck that summoned the double-faced version, but the printers couldn't guarantee that the two cards would always appear together in booster packs, so we changed to just having the double-faced cards and created checklist cards that allowed you to represent them in a deck if you didn't have opaque sleeves.
While at first controversial both inside and outside of Wizards, they went on to become quite popular with the players. Innistrad introduced transforming double-faced cards (TDFCs) that always were played as the first face but had a means to change to the second face, and sometimes back again.
DFCs returned in Magic Origins with five legendary creatures that could change into planeswalker versions of themselves (Core Set 2019 would do this with Nicol Bolas, the Ravager). They would return in Shadows over Innistrad block, with Eldritch Moon introducing a new kind of DFC, meld cards. These were cards where if you got the right two on the battlefield at once, they transformed into one giant permanent (inspired by B.F.M. from Unglued).
New TDFCs that transformed into lands showed up in Ixalan block. Zendikar Rising introduced modal double-faced cards (MDFCs) where you could play either side of the card from your hand, but they never transformed into the other side.
MDFCs also appeared in Kaldheim and Strixhaven: School of Mages. TDFCs returned in Innistrad: Midnight Hunt and Innistrad: Crimson Vow, and they showed up on Sagas that turned into creatures in Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty.
Double-faced cards have proven to hit the trifecta of having a very deep well of design, creating amazing flavor opportunities, and being quite popular among the players. This has caused R&D to use them a lot as of late (with six of the last seven premiere sets having DFCs). That volume is going to slow down (with none appearing in Streets of New Capenna, for example), but will be a recurring tool that R&D is going to make use of.
Food Artifact Tokens
Food tokens first appeared in Throne of Eldraine prompted by the success of Clues and Treasure artifact tokens. It turned out Food played a big role in a lot of fairy-tale tropes, so it made sense in the set. Its tie to life was a flavor homerun. Over time, we've found several sets where Food made sense flavorfully, so it's been something R&D has been happy to reuse. The one challenge to be careful with is making sure there's not so much life gain that it dramatically slows down games.
Hybrid mana is a mana symbol of two different colored mana that allows you to pay either of the two colors. It first appeared in original Ravnica block. It then showed up in large number (about half the set) as the major theme of Shadowmoor block.
Hybrid mana has been used in many sets (Alara Reborn, Fate Reforged, Throne of Eldraine, Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, Zendikar Rising, Jumpstart, and Strixhaven: School of Mages) and has proven to be a very versatile design tool. It allows multiple colors access to cards and abilities. It adds colors to color identity without increasing color requirements. It can subtly convey flavor. It's probably the best example of a deciduous mechanic in that it performs useful functions that help solve larger design issues yet is not necessary for every design.
Protection is a complex mechanic that appeared in Alpha that helps protect your things from certain subsets of cards. (The latest reminder text is "This [object] can't be blocked, targeted, dealt damage, enchanted, or equipped by anything [quality].")
Protection was evergreen for many years but was changed to deciduous because of its complexity. A few years back, it was sort of returned to evergreen status but is sporadically used, so I wasn't sure whether to label it evergreen or deciduous. My gut says it's slightly more evergreen than deciduous right now, but I wanted this article to be thorough, so I chose to include it.
Prowess is an ability that grants creatures +1/+1 until end of turn whenever you cast a noncreature spell. It first appeared as the Jeskai mechanic in Khans of Tarkir. It quickly became evergreen as a mostly blue and red mechanic. Over time we found that it had issues with certain types of designs and got changed to be deciduous. Not every set wants it, but in the sets that do, it's very useful.
Sagas are an enchantment subtype that has a series of different effects that happen over several turns. The mechanic premiered in Dominaria to represent the telling of a story on a card. It was mechanically based on an earlier version of the design of planeswalkers (rejected because it felt like the planeswalkers were lacking agency, but the prescriptive nature lines up well with the flavor of a story).
Sagas were a big hit and have been brought back numerous times (Theros Beyond Death, Kaldheim, Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, and on a single card in Modern Horizons 2). The flavor of stories works well on planes based on top-down narrative sources or on any return where we can tell stories of what happened on previous visits. Its popularity and flexibility promoted it to deciduous status.
Split cards are two different spells on a single card that allow you to cast one of them. They were originally designed for Unglued 2, the Un- set that never saw print, but ended up premiering in Invasion where each mini card was one of two ally colors.
Split cards have returned numerous times with various tweaks. Apocalypse had split cards of enemy colors. Planar Chaos had split cards of the same color. Dissension had split cards of different two-color gold cards. Dragon's Maze had split cards with the mechanic fuse, which let you cast either or both cards. Guilds of Ravnica and Ravnica Allegiance had split cards of the same two-color pair, one a traditional gold card and the other a hybrid card. Amonkhet had a mechanic called aftermath where you cast one card from your hand and the other from your graveyard.
Split cards have become fans favorites and do a good job of creating fun modal cards.
Treasure Artifact Tokens
Treasure artifact tokens allow you to sacrifice them to add one mana of any color to your mana pool. Original Theros block had two cards, King Macar, the Gold-Cursed and Gild, that made Gold artifact tokens that did something similar (except you didn't have to tap them to use them). When we were designing Ixalan block, we decided to tweak Gold tokens, adding the tap as a cost (because of how they interacted with the mechanic improvise from Aether Revolt), and changed their name to Treasure to make them more flexible in what they could represent.
Treasure tokens returned in Ravnica Allegiance and then again in Core Set 2020. In the latter, the tokens were made predefined, meaning the ability was now reminder text rather than rules text. Treasure showed up in Strixhaven: School of Mages and Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. It was in the D&D set that Treasure first showed up on an artifact creature card (Mimic) and created a card that could turn a permanent into a Treasure (Minimus Containment).
Treasure has proven to be both mechanically and flavorfully synergistic and is a tool I expect R&D to use in many sets to come.
Vehicles are artifacts that can be temporarily turned into creatures, usually by tapping creatures (aka crewing them). They first appeared as a mechanic in Kaladesh block but became deciduous almost immediately. Vehicles aren't evergreen because, as a concept, they're not core to every world, so we use them where they're flavorful, but they do get used in most sets.
Looking Toward the Future
Before I wrap up for today, I want to talk a little bit about a shift in R&D philosophy concerning deciduous mechanics. We've always been a bit stingy with them because we've been wanting to be careful with vocabulary overload. But the shift of Magic's core in tabletop to larger formats, with smaller formats having a greater presence online where we can message better, has us rethinking our general philosophy. The best example of this is us making cycling deciduous, something we'd previously chosen not to do. I'm hoping this article can start a dialogue with the audience about what mechanics you'd like to see become deciduous.
Let me make a few notes about things we care about:
- The goal here is not to create a giant list of named mechanics to make deciduous. As you can see above, most things in this list are very functional things that allow designers to capture specific design needs. R&D is considering adding only a handful of mechanics.
- A lot of the usefulness of something being deciduous is the ability to add it in small doses in sets. Please keep that in mind.
- One of the areas we're considering is where we have a keyword for something but write it out much of the time.
- Finally, deciduous mechanics want to be things that have wide functionality and utility. What tools would allow designers to do cool fine-tuning in sets?
I, and the rest of R&D, are eager to hear your thoughts on this topic. While normally I enjoy you all emailing me (and you can here), this is a topic that I'd love to discuss more in the public space so that there can be a dialogue between players. Conversations with me can be started through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok). Let me know what you think should be deciduous.
Join me later in the week next week for my first Streets of New Capenna preview article.
Until then, may you let your thoughts be heard.
#917: Lorwyn with Aaron Forsythe
#917: Lorwyn with Aaron Forsythe
I sit down with Designer Aaron Forsythe to talk about the design of Lorwyn.
#918: Stories from Japan
#918: Stories from Japan
One of the cool perks of my job is that I've had a lot of opportunity to travel to other countries. The country I've visited the most is Japan. In this podcast, I share three stories from three different visits to the Land of the Rising Sun.