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The Origin of the Charms

Our story begins in Philadelphia. Richard Garfield loves playing bridge, so while he was in graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania, he went to a local bridge club. It was there that he befriended a bunch of fellow gamers who he would later ask to help him playtest a new game he was working on. Once it was clear that Magic was going to make it to print, Richard asked his various playtest groups if they could start designing new sets. The bridge club group began working on a set they called Menagerie. You all probably know it betters as Mirage and Visions. (The two sets were—at one point—one large set. When it became clear that we were moving to a block plan, the team split the set into a large set and a small set.)

One of the problems the Mirage design team tried to solve was a similar to one the Ice Age design team (a different group of original playtesters, this group comprised of gamers Richard had met through the University of Pennsylvania, often referred to as the "East Coast Playtesters") was also working on. The problem was what do you do with effects that are too small for a single mana? In creating the mana system, Richard had created a power ladder where different cards could have different-size effects, but were balanced by the fact that the bigger spells required more resources. The problem, though, was that something had to cost one mana and anything with an effect smaller than the baseline of one mana was hard to put onto a card.

One option was cards that didn't cost any mana. While this solution wasn't the first one thought up, it was the first to appear in print: Antiquities's Ornithopter. (The Ice Age design team also designed Antiquities.) The problem with this solution was that cards actually had two costs: one was the mana and the other was the cost of the card itself. Some effects were small enough that even for free, they could not justify the spending of a card. Interestingly, this led to the Ice Age design team's best solution to the problem.

One way to justify a smaller effect on a card was to offset the card expenditure by giving the caster a new card. These spells were known as cantrips. Because the team was tickled with the card Urza's Bauble, an artifact for 0 that you could tap and sacrifice for a card, they made all the card draw delayed, having the players get it at the beginning of the next upkeep. (Urza's Bauble with a normal draw would have let you essentially play a deck with four fewer cards.) Cantrips were a big success and started as an occasional addition to sets. It finally became an evergreen tool to be used whenever it's needed. R&D would later tweak the cantrips to have the card draw happened immediately to avoid memory issues—players forgetting to draw the card.

The Mirage design team, though, ended up solving the problem in a very different fashion. Instead of trying to justify a single small effect, they put multiple small effects on the same card and let the caster choose which one he or she wanted. It turns out that one small effect might not be worth a mana, but the option between three small effects was. Why three effects? Two wasn't enough to justify the cost and four didn't fit on the card. (Commands would later solve this problem, but it required committing to slightly shorter abilities.)

When I asked Bill Rose (he was the co-lead designer of Mirage and Visions about the creation of charms, he stressed that they were made more for functionality than splash. The Mirage design team loved drafting (and were the ones, by the way, which first invented Booster Draft) and cards with small effects were just never worth playing. By putting a bunch of them on one card, they hoped the utility would make them sometimes playable.

The term "charm," by the way, came from the design team. Much as the Ice Age design team had dubbed their creations "cantrips,"—a fantasy term for a magical spell with a tiny effect—the Mirage design team had called their creation "charms," referencing a fantasy term for a small object with tiny amounts of magic. Interestingly, Magic has cracked down on nonartifacts using creative expressions of being magical objects of physical form (as opposed to being comprised of magic). The name "charms" has become a staple for this type of effect, but the names now imply a small magical effect rather than a magical object.

The Origin of Entwine

One of the questions I often get asked in interviews is "What is the strangest way you've ever designed something in Magic?" The answer to that question always results in me telling this story about the design of entwine. What's so special about entwine's design? Well, in my twenty years designing Magic cards, entwine is the only one I ever designed in my sleep.

To understand how this happened, let's back up a little. Invasion block was the first block where we had a mechanical theme tying it together (and was the start of what I call the Second Age of Design). It was a multicolor block. Then we did Odyssey, which was a graveyard block. Next was Onslaught, which ended up being a tribal block. It was clear to me what was coming. Artifacts had always been popular with the players and it was clearly a theme that could handle the design load necessary to create a block. I pushed hard for two things: 1) that Mirrodin be an artifact block and 2) that I lead the design. I was ecstatic when both came true.

Back in the day, Magic design was run a little differently. Bill Rose was the head designer. As he was also the VP of R&D, Bill didn't have time to sit in on design meetings as I do. Instead, at different times during the design, you would submit your set and Bill would give you notes which you then had to address. The biggest notes of all would come right before the set was about to hand over from design to development, usually about three weeks before (devign, the period of time where the two cross over had not yet come to be).

The set had Equipment, affinity for artifacts, imprint, and a final mechanic which I shall call Mechanic X (it goes unnamed as it's something I'm hoping for you all to play some day, when it finds the proper home). I was a huge fan of Mechanic X but Bill felt there was too much going on in the design and we had to cut back. Once we removed Mechanic X, it was clear to Bill that the set was missing a mechanic, not something as big as Mechanic X but something.

My other three mechanics were all tied to permanents (okay, affinity from artifacts went on spells as well as permanents), so Bill wanted this missing mechanic to be spell-based. The set was also very artifact-focused so Bill was hoping that this mechanic could appeal to the players who might not be the biggest artifact fans. The clock was ticking, though, as the handoff to development was just a few weeks away.

Spectral Shift | Art by John Avon

The key to solving the problem was figuring out what we had, so that we could scope out what we were missing. We didn't want cost reduction, we had affinity for artifacts. We didn't want something confusing and/or wordy, imprint was taking up that space. We also didn't want anything that copied things, imprint had a few high-profile cards doing that. Looking through the file, I realized we ne needed a mechanic that allowed players to use their mana late-game. Also, it was clear that the set was a little low on choices. We'd known from past designs that players really liked modal spells, so I was hoping to find something in that space. Something kind of like charms but a little different..

As the weeks rolled by, my design team and I were racking our brains trying to solve this puzzle. Soon the handoff was less than a week away and we still didn't have our last mechanic. I was spending all my time at work fixing up the file and all my time away from work trying to solve the problem. It felt like it was all I was thinking about. Then one night, I went to bed.

I'm not the calmest of sleepers. I toss and I turn. It's not unusual for me to wake up several times during the night. I always fall right back to sleep, but something about my dreams tends to wake me up from time to time. So this night, I was dreaming away…when all of sudden, I found myself awake with one thought in my brain: Where's a pencil?

You see, my subconscious wasn't going to let this design challenge go. So somehow I was dreaming about the problem and in my dream I realized the answer. The key to making a choice card that did something unique was to take a modal card and allow the player the option of not just doing "or" but doing "and." I woke my wife up screaming "And! And! And!" She responded "And what?"

Luckily, I had a pencil by my bed (us creative types like to be prepared for situations like this) and managed to write down my idea before it faded away. I mocked up a few sample cards—cards in which the two effects had synergy, so you wanted to entwine them—and took it into Bill. Bill's response, "That's exactly what I was looking for."

The team quickly designed the rest of the cards and the mechanic squeaked in right before the handoff.

The Origin of the Commands

Aaron Forsythe loves modal cards. To be fair, most players love modal cards. They've always been pretty popular. Players like having choices. Aaron, though, loves modal cards even more than the average player. Of all the designers I've worked with in R&D over the last twenty years, I think Aaron might be the biggest fan of modal spells of them all.

In fact, one of the very first batch of cards Aaron ever turned in on his very first design team, Fifth Dawn, was a vertical cycle of green creatures he called "Mode Men". The Mode Men were basically charms on a creature. When the creature entered the battlefield, you could choose from one of three small effects. The Mode Men were in Fifth Dawn design for a while, but ultimately got taken out to make room for cards that were a little more on-theme for the set.

Aaron's work on Fifth Dawn design was so good, we hired him into R&D (he originally started at Wizards of the Coast as the editor-in-chief of this very website). This meant that Aaron started getting put on a lot of different design teams. And on each one he would turn in some form of the Mode Men. (Note that while we have a few cycle of creatures that have choices when they enter the battlefield, the Mode Men have yet to actually see print. Someday….) He didn't stop there, though. Aaron would often turn in a cycle with some modal component.

Flash forward a few years. I was grooming Aaron to be my protégé (okay, that career path changed a little later on) and it was finally time for Aaron to do his first large set, Lorwyn. The set's main focus was doing a tribal theme. Onslaught had been the first tribal block, years before, and we felt it was finally time to do another tribal block. But this time, we embraced the theme even more enthusiastically. It wasn't just a tribal set, but a TRIBAL SET! The tribal components were very loud. So much so, that Aaron was a little worried about the players who might not be so into tribal. (Aaron had picked up this trait from Bill Rose over the years.)

The solution to this problem was to create a splashy rare cycle that would do something cool that had nothing to do with the tribal theme. It wanted to be on instants and/or sorceries because the tribal theme had used up most of the creature slots. Also, by being a creature and having a creature type, it would be hard not to feel connected. So Aaron fell back to his comfort zone. Could these somehow be modal spells?

Aaron was then inspired by a black/red uncommon card he had made in Dissension design called Rakdos Choose-Two Charm. (Dissension was Aaron's first time as a design lead.) I think it didn't make it because it felt like part of a larger cycle, and the Ravnica block was already two-thirds done. Aaron was trying to find a way to make the cards feel rare, and choosing two modes instead of one felt more grandiose. But it wasn't quite enough. Aaron wanted just one more deviation from a charm. What if instead of three choices, you had four? That helped it feel a little different, and more, helped justify it being a rare cycle.

Cryptic Command | Art by Wayne England

Now, notice when I talk about this design that I don't refer to the Lorwyn design team but rather Aaron. The reason for this is that this cycle didn't really go through any design playtesting. Aaron decided the set was lacking something and, just before the design handoff to development, he added it in. He refers to it as "vigilante design."

An interesting thing happened between Lorwyn design and Lorwyn development. Randy Buehler, who had been the head developer, got promoted to being director of Magic R&D (Aaron's current job), and Aaron got promoted to being head developer. This meant that the first set he oversaw as head developer was Lorwyn. (Note that Devin Low was the lead developer of Lorwyn specifically.) This meant that Aaron was able to make sure his favorite cycle got aggressively costed. (I should note that this cycle was actually very popular among all of R&D.)

For those who never had a chance to see where the Lorwyn Commands started, here is the original cycle Aaron put into the design file at the last minute. He called them "Choose-Twos".

White Choose-Two



Choose two—Destroy all creatures; or destroy all lands; or destroy all artifacts and enchantments; or each player discards his or her hand.

Blue Choose-Two



Choose two—Counter target spell; or return target permanent to its owner's hand; or tap all creatures you don't control; or draw a card.

Black Choose-Two



Choose two—Target player loses X life; or target creature gets -X/-X; or return target creature card with converted mana cost X or less in a graveyard to play under your control; or you gain X life.

Red Choose-Two



Choose two—CARDNAME deals 2 damage to each creature and player; or CARDNAME deals 4 damage to target creature or player; or destroy target land; or choose new targets for target instant or sorcery spell.

Green Choose-Two



Choose two—Put a 4/4 green Elemental creature token into play; or put four 1/1 green Elf Warrior creature tokens into play; or gain 8 life; or CARDNAME deals 4 damage to each creature with flying.

And here are how the five were printed.


If you're interested in hearing about how the designs ended up in their final versions, you can read Aaron's column about their development.

The Commands went on to be very popular with the players, and it was pretty clear that it was something that one day we'd do again.

The Origin of the Exarchs

About once every-other month, we have a meeting where we present to Bill Rose, the VP of R&D. You explain what state the set you are working on is in and what the current issues you're dealing with, and then Bill asks pointed questions about the design (or development, but I'm always presenting designs). In this particular meeting, I was walking Bill through the design of Scars of Mirrodin. In particular I was explaining the block plan.

"In the first set, we've returned to Mirrodin and things are mostly like we remember them…but there's something new there, something sinister. The Phyrexians have invaded. In the second set, the Mirrans realize that their world is under attack, and there's a giant war between the Mirrans and the Phyrexians. Then in the third set, we see the victor of the war—it is the Phyrexians and they've converted Mirrodin into New Phyrexia."

"So the third set is all Phyrexia?"

"Pretty much. They'll be a few lone Mirran holdouts, but yeah, Phyrexia has not only won but has changed Mirran into their new homeworld."

"What do the white cards look like?"

"Which white cards?"

"In New Phyrexia. What do the white cards look like?"


"That's what I mean. Can we have white cards that feel Phyrexian but still feel white?"

"I think so."

"Well, before I sign off on New Phyrexia, I want to see some white cards."

And with that, I was tasked with creating some white cards that felt both Phyrexian and white.

I spent a few days messing around with designs, and soon learned something very important. While making the Phyrexians in Scars of Mirrodin design, we came up with four words to describe them. They were:

  • Toxic
  • Adaptive
  • Viral
  • Unrelenting

Metaphorically, we compared them to a disease.

What this meant was whenever I created a card that did something bad to the opponent, it felt very Phyrexian; but whenever I created a card that helped you, it didn't. The Phyrexians had been defined by how violating they were. The very feel of them seemed defined but how they affected others. The problem is there are a lot of effects you need to have in Magic sets and some of them need to positively affect you.

For example, white is a life-gaining color. In every set in every block, there is at least one white card that gains you life. How was I going to make a white card that gained life yet still felt Phyrexian? My solution came from Fifth Dawn. Not from any of the cards that actually got printed, but from a vertical cycle that Aaron Forsythe had turned in, which later got removed from the set—three cards known as the Mode Men.

The Mode Men had been inspired by the charms and were all creatures which had a "choose one" enters the battlefield effect where the caster could choose from one of three small effects. How was this helpful? Because it meant that I might be able to make cards with positive effects, as long as I paired them with a negative effect. That way each card felt like it had the potential to abuse the opponent even if, at times, you didn't.

The last thing I learned was that the two abilities had to feel somehow connected. "I gain life or destroy your enchantment," felt odd because the two choices didn't feel like they came from the same place. The solution was to mirror the effects so the good things I was doing to me mirrored the bad thing I was doing to you.

Inquisitor Exarch ended up being one of the white cards I made to demonstrate to Bill how we could make cards feel Phyrexian yet still be white. Yes, it wasn't a card we'd make in a normal set (white can deal damage, but doesn't tend to do straight life loss to an opponent), but it was one that would feel right in New Phyrexia. Bill liked the white cards I showed him and gave the thumbs up for New Phyrexia.

When New Phyrexia design started, I showed Ken Inquisitor Exarch and he liked it so much that he decided to make an entire cycle with the same design.

"You Have Chosen Wisely"

I hope those two origin stories give a good sense of how we make modal spells. You can see how one affected the other. As always, I am eager to hear any feedback you have on today's column. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, Instagram).

Join me next week when I teach you how to exploit friends and influence people.

Until then, may you be blessed with choices.

"Drive to Work #216—Innistrad Cards, Part 1"

"Drive to Work #217—Innistrad Cards, Part 2"

I've already done three podcasts talking about the design of Innistrad (episodes 19, 20, & 21) , but that was before I started running through the cards and telling stories, so these two podcasts are parts 1 and 2 of a 5-part series on card-by-card stories of Innsitrad cards.