Last week, I started sharing some card-by-card design stories from Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths. I didn't finish, so this week, there's more tales to tell.
The Mentor Cycle
One of the things we knew from the very beginning about creating a monster plane was that we wanted to create a relationship between the monsters and some of the humans of the world. Bonding between monsters and humans is a big trope in the monster movies we were using as the source material for the plane. The big question was how to capture it? Yes, it was easy for us to make big monsters—Magic already excels at that—but crafting a relationship between those monsters and little tiny humans was much trickier.
The Mentor cycle came about because we were trying to capture this flavor. The question we asked ourselves was how could the humans help the monsters? Well, we had keyword counters as an element of the set. What if the humans granted keyword counters to the monsters? I believe the playtest versions were called "trainers" in that they were helping the monsters learn new things. This was another trope of monster movies. To reinforce this flavor, the Mentors were all Human and could only put the counters on non-Humans. I believe this was the first time we used "non-Human" in the set.
The next step was creating a bond between the Mentors and the monsters. We accomplished this by making an activated ability that granted a second ability to a target creature with the appropriate keyword (the keyword that the Mentor just stuck on a creature). The Mentor could use the ability on any creature with this keyword, but obviously, the enters-the-battlefield effect guaranteed there would be at least one target. The original abilities were different for each creature in the cycle with the green one, if my memory serves me, being the one that granted a +1/+1 counter.
Set Design kept the cycle but made two changes. One, instead of each creature having a different effect, it had all of them use +1/+1 counters. This had been the most effective ability, and syncing them up helped the cycle feel more cohesive. Two, they changed the ability from affecting "target creature" with the ability to affecting all your creatures with the ability. This helped make the cycle stronger while also further encouraging keyword counters (and playing creatures naturally with those abilities).
Lukka, Coppercoat Outcast
Lukka is a major character in the story and the new planeswalker of the set. Lukka is a bonder, meaning he's one of the humans who can connect with monsters. While we've made a lot of green planeswalkers that interact with larger creatures, we hadn't made a red one yet. That was the guiding principle in Lukka's design. The big question was how could we interact with larger creatures in a way that felt red?
I believe the ultimate was the easiest to design. What does red like to do? Direct damage. How can we tie that to larger creatures? Base it on their power. This is an ability that R&D calls "biting" (as opposed to fighting where damage goes both directions). We've moved biting primarily into green, as red has numerous forms of direct damage and green can really use a creature-focused version. That said, red still gets the ability, so an ultimate that let all your creatures bite your opponent seemed like a good fit for Lukka.
Next came the middle ability. A few years back, we decided that we were going to shift the "polymorph" ability from blue into red (that is, turning a creature on the battlefield into another creature off the top of the library). The idea was that blue would keep creature transformation where you knew the outcome and red would get it when the outcome was random, playing into red's chaotic side. To play into the larger creature theme, Lukka's middle ability polymorphs, but only polymorphs up in cost, meaning when you use the ability, you know that the new creature will be of a higher converted mana cost than the one you exiled. This encourages you to play Lukka in a deck with large creatures.
The most contentious ability was Lukka's first ability. We wanted something that was red but that played into the creature theme. I think the earliest version of this ability was a normal "impulsive draw" effect where you exiled cards off the top of your library that you could cast for the turn, except it was restricted to creature cards. The problem with that version is that it encouraged you to play cheap creatures, as you didn't want to miss the window to cast them. A version that let you play larger creatures wanted to allow the effect last longer.
This led the Set Design team to come to the Council of Colors with the current version where the creatures could be cast as long as Lukka remained on the battlefield. There was a lot of discussion, but we decided that we were willing to test pushing things a little more. The key was that we wanted some pressure to encourage you to play the cards sooner rather than later. The fact that you lost access to them when Lukka went away seemed to meet this criteria, so we signed off on giving this a try. I don't know if we'll make more cards like this. It will depend a lot on how this experiment goes.
The Mythos Cycle
As I said in my preview article, Ikoria is a monster set with a wedge component, not a wedge set with a monster component. That means that we want to incorporate the wedge themes in a way that plays nicely with the rest of the set. The Mythos cycle is a good example of this philosophy in action. Each Mythos is designed to be playable as a monocolor card but comes with a serious upgrade if you're playing the wedge colors. The challenge to this design was finding the two-level step to the effect. You want the base effect to be good enough to play and the upgrade tempting enough to encourage some splashing. This task is accomplished in a number of different ways.
Mythos of Snapdax accomplishes this by giving you more control of the effect in the three-color version. Mythos of Illuna, in contrast, grants you a second ability, one that's very synergistic with the first one. Mythos of Nethroi removes targeting restrictions in its three-color version, giving you more options. Mythos of Vadrok grants an additional effect on the targeted creatures in the upgraded version. Mythos of Brokkos shifts what gets affected by the spell. Each card handles the upgrade differently but does so in a way that makes the spell feel enhanced. I was not involved in this cycle's design, as it happened during set design, but I'm impressed with the different tools used to make it work.
Narset of the Ancient Way
Narset was the last planeswalker to officially make it into the set. (Vivien and Lukka play a bigger role in the story.) Here's how she ended making the cut. Because the set had a small wedge theme and there are so few planeswalkers with wedge colors ("few" being one—Sarkhan Unbroken is green, blue, and red), we decided we wanted a wedge planeswalker. Since Sarkhan Unbroken already exists, that left a planeswalker of one of the other wedge combinations: red-white-black, white-black-green, blue-red-white, or black-green-blue. The trick was finding a character who existed in two colors already but also made sense in a third color.
For example, take red-white-black. Who are red-white planeswalkers? Ajani, Huatli, and Nahiri have all existed in red-white, but only Nahiri is still red-white. Could we add her in black? Hmm, maybe. Who are the white-black planeswalkers? Kaya and Sorin. Would either of them make sense to add in red? Not really. Who are the black-red planeswalkers? Angrath, Daretti, and Sarkhan have all had black-red planeswalker cards. There are also arguments that Ob Nixilis and Tibalt are fundamentally black-red characters. Do any of them make sense adding in white? Maybe Angrath, and that's a big maybe. Okay, so, after exploring our options, we end up with Nahiri and Angrath as our possibilities.
We did the same with white-black-green, which gives us Calix, Garruk, Sorin, and Vraska as possibilities. Blue-red-white gives us Narset, Ral, Saheeli, and the twins (Rowan and Will). Black-green-blue gives us Ashiok, Kiora, Nissa, and Oko. If you start by taking away all the characters currently in Standard (not counting War of the Spark), that removes Ashiok, Calix, Garruk, Kaya, Oko, Ral, Sorin, Vraska, and Rowan and Will. That leaves us with Angrath, Kiora, Nahiri, Narset, Nissa, and Saheeli. Most of those are stretches to get to the third color, but one wasn't. Narset might have been white-blue and mono-blue in her previous planeswalker cards, but her legendary creature was blue-red-white. After looking at all the choices, it was clear Narset was our best option.
What remained was making a cool blue-red-white planeswalker version of her. Narset has always had a theme of caring about "noncreature spells," so that's where we started. Her first ability was designed as way to help you play noncreature spells. Blue and red both have a little bit of mana creation (blue is usually colorless and red is temporary), while white provided some life gain. This first ability is a little bit of a stretch color pie-wise, but the push toward spells (blue and red's area of expertise) helps. The second ability plays into both her quest for knowledge and her martial expertise by combining blue's looting with red's direct damage. Her ultimate combines noncreature spellcasting with direct damage. The card does lean a little more into blue-red than white, but because blue-red-white is a very spell-oriented wedge, the card feels like the three colors as a whole. As I often say, it's tricky making three-color cards because it's tough adding elements of all three colors, so we try hard to make sure the whole package matches the feel of what we want for the three colors as a combination. I think Narset does a good job of that.
Back in 1998, I made this card:
I'd originally designed it for a Standard-legal set, but I was informed that turning counters from one type into another wasn't something that black-border rules handled well. Years later in original Mirrodin, I made this card:
It solved the rules issues by turning the counter into one of two types of counters based on what you targeted. I bring this all up because The Ozolith started with Aaron Forsythe telling Dave Humpherys that the set should have a Giant Fan. Aaron recognized that one of Ikoria's unique qualities was how many different types of counters it had. It would be fun to have a card that allowed you to move those counters.
I believe this card went through a number of iterations but moved away from an activated ability to two triggered ones. The current version ensures that your keyword counters never get wasted. If a creature dies with them, you get to save them to distribute them elsewhere. The upside, versus Giant Fan, is that you don't need to use mana for the ability. The downside is a little less flexibility.
The Ultimatum Cycle
As I explained in my design article, we made a list during vision design of all the cycles that existed in arc versions (aka a color and its two allies), but not in wedge versions (aka a color and its two enemies). The cycle clearly at the top of the list, as gauged by player demand, was the Ultimatums, which first appeared in Shards of Alara.
In order to make new Ultimatums, you have to first go back and look at the old Ultimatums. What defines an Ultimatum? Basically, three things:
- It must cost MMNNNOO where N is the center color and M and O are the other two colors.
- It must be a sorcery.
- It must be a large, splashy effect.
Other than that, there are really no guidelines. Well, except one. The effect has to feel roughly like it makes sense in those three colors. Because we want a singular effect rather than a collection of smaller effects (well, save one card), there's no way to capture a sense of each color. The total package just has to feel right for the combination of all the colors. I'll be honest—this is tricky and part of what makes Ultimatums hard to design.
Ruinous Ultimatum is base white. It was of the three colors known for mass destruction. What was the most over-the-top mass destruction effect we could think of? How about destroying all your opponent's stuff? Between the three colors, they could do that, and it seemed pretty splashy. We ended up not destroying your opponent's land, so there was at least a tiny dream of them coming back.
Genesis Ultimatum is base blue. Just drawing cards wasn't splashy enough. How could you turn card draw into something more exciting? What if you could put all the permanents you drew onto the battlefield. That's something green and red could do (albeit red usually does it temporarily), and it added the extra oomph we wanted. The only question left was how many cards. I believe they got to five through playtesting different numbers.
Eerie Ultimatum is base black. It has the three colors most known for reanimation. (Black reanimates everything, while white tends to reanimate smaller things and green has creatures that get themselves back). I assume the first version reanimated all your creatures, but that's an effect we've done before, and it's pretty strong, even at seven mana. Was there a way to tweak it to make it feel a little more unique? What if it got back one creature of each name? That would encourage some interesting deck building in many formats and just be powerful in Commander where the restriction already applies.
Inspired Ultimatum is base red. Okay, this is the one where we cheated a little. All the other Ultimatums do a single large effect. Inspired Ultimatum does three effects, one in each of the three colors. 5 damage for red, 5 life for white, and five cards for blue. My guess is they tried a bunch of different effects, and this is the one that just played the best.
Emergent Ultimatum is base green. It was the three colors that have the most library-focused effects. (Black tutors for anything, blue tutors for spells, and green tutors for creatures.) I think just casting any two spells out of your library for free was a little two strong, so they added a little subgame where you pick three cards (I assume the "monocolor" restriction was done for play design reasons, as they didn't want two casting Ultimatums, for instance) and let an opponent choose which two of the three effects you get. Note that this cards makes you get three different named cards, so you can't just get three copies of the same effect, which would negate the opponent's involvement.
We ended up with five pretty splashy cards, so I hope the ten-year-plus wait for wedge Ultimatums was worth it.
Vivien, Monsters' Advocate
Vivien is another major character in the story. Obviously, she needed a planeswalker card in the set. Here were our goals with her design:
- She's always been creature focused, so we wanted to continue supporting that. Ideally, she should play well with the creatures in this set.
- We wanted to keep her separate from Lukka who also had a creature theme.
- In the early days, we tried not to tie the planeswalkers too closely to the set's mechanical themes, but we've come around to the exact opposite approach. Are there mechanical things unique to this set which would allow us to design a planeswalker we couldn't design elsewhere? If so, we should, as planeswalker design space is already so tight.
Ever since War of the Spark, planeswalkers have had access to static and triggered abilities. Vivien got two related static abilities. First off, she can cast creatures off the top of your library. This plays up her creature theme and helps her with card advantage. Second, to allow her to do this, you can look at the top card of your library at any time. Her bottom ability (it's not really an ultimate as she can do it right away) also lets her gain card advantage, but again, only through creatures. Her going down in converted mana cost helps differentiate her from Lukka, who goes up, and helps with some play design concerns, as searching for creatures is powerful.
Her middle ability takes advantage of keyword counters being in the set. Many planeswalkers can create creature tokens, but Vivien is given a flexibility not normally seen. Yes, she always makes 3/3 Beasts (Vivien does love beasts), but she can determine what keyword ability, from among three, each creature token has. To answer a question I'm sure to get, yes, we did explore allowing deathtouch, as that is a creature token in the subset of keywords that mono-green can create, but it proved to be a little too potent, so it was removed as an option. I believe it was replaced with reach, which was the last keyword to end up on a keyword counter (it didn't exist in vision design, for example).
Ikoria of the Liger
That's all the stories I have to tell from Ikoria. I hope you guys enjoyed them. As always, I'm interested to hear your feedback on today's column, on any of the cards I talked about, or on Ikoria in general. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week for the Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths Vision Design document.
Until then, may you have your own monster tales to tell.
#733: Ari Nieh
#733: Ari Nieh
In another of my interview series, I interview Ari Nieh, winner of the Great Designer Search 3 and someone I work closely with on the Vision Design team. We talk about his early days of Magic, GDS3, and what it's like to work in R&D.
#734: Chris Mooney
#734: Chris Mooney
I also interview Chris who is another GDS3 alum and another person I work closely with on the Vision Design team. As with Ari, we talk about what it's like being a Magic player from the outside who became an insider.