Last week, I shared some card-by-card design stories from Phyrexia: All Will Be One. I'd gotten some feedback that my stories tend to focus on the higher rarity cards, so I wrote only about common cards in Part 1. Today, I'll tell some more card design stories but while addressing a different note from readers. I've been spending a lot of time showing the evolution of each card's design, and I got some feedback that people liked when I told stories that gave larger historical context for cards, so today's column is going to take that approach.
The Compleated Planeswalkers
Planeswalkers first came about because Matt Cavotta swung by my desk to say, "I have an idea." Matt was on the Future Sight design team and at the time was part of the Creative team. They were working on the story for the Time Spiral block, an event called the Mending, which was created to allow us to power down the Planeswalkers as it was hard to relate to characters with godlike powers. Matt felt that we were doing so much to support having Planeswalkers that we should make them a card type.
I agreed, and we set out to see if we could make one. First, the Future Sight team worked on it with the idea that we'd have three of them on the futureshifted sheet, but it was clear by the time design ended that we weren't close enough. We decided to take the time to do it right and put them in whatever set made sense. We did, though, hint at them in the reminder text for Tarmogoyf.
I then put together and led a Planeswalker mini team. The team's earliest version was the design that we later adapted for Sagas. Eventually, we settled on a design, and planeswalker cards were introduced in Lorwyn.
I realized that planeswalker cards had a limited design space, so I was careful to have us slowly roll out additions to it. For instance, I didn't allow them to have static abilities (save some double-faced card shenanigans) until War of the Spark. This story begins when I was leading the vision design for Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty.
We'd outlined the Phyrexian storyline, and we knew Tamiyo was going to be Phyrexianized in Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, Ajani in Dominaria United, and five other Planeswalkers (that hadn't been nailed down yet) in Phyrexia: All Will Be One. I was assigned the task of figuring out what it meant to be a Phyrexianized planeswalker card.
My first idea—the one I was most excited by—was Phyrexian loyalty, which let you spend life in place of loyalty. Play Design told me that this was inherently broken. I ended up producing a document that suggested five other possible ways to do it, each with several tweaks. For the first time ever, here were my five suggestions, along with my sub-suggestions:
Suggestion #1: Make Use of Poison
The Phyrexians are associated with poison, so I designed a bunch of versions that used poison as a restriction.
- All loyalty abilities grant you poison.
- Some abilities, mostly plus loyalty abilities, grant you poison.
- Forced proliferate grants a little poison.
- Loyalty abilities that can grant you poison if you choose to push them.
- Loyalty abilities that sometimes grant you poison (based on certain things happening).
- Granting poison as a static ability to stop you from keeping them for long.
Suggestion #2: Make Use of Life Loss
In Scars of Mirrodin block, we associated the Phyrexians with life loss, so that was another theme we explored. Most of the themes were the same ones we tried with poison.
Suggestion #3: Make Use of Sacrifice
Sacrifice was another Phyrexian theme in Scars of Mirrodin block, so we also experimented with using that as a cost. Again, structured similarly to how we did poison.
Suggestion #4: Make Use of Proliferate
Proliferate (along with poison and Phyrexian mana, the three P's of Phyrexia) was strongly associated the Phyrexians, so we explored this as a theme.
- Every planeswalker has +0: Proliferate.
- Every planeswalker references a kind of counter, and proliferate is on at least one ability.
- Proliferate forces you to proliferate your own poison counter; some could come with one.
Suggestion #5: Make Use of the Library as a Resource
The library is not as associated with the Phyrexians, but it was a resource that you tend to have more of, so it gave us additional flexibility in costing. All these versions exiled cards from your library and usually gave you some way to use some of them.
All these ideas were explored, but in the end, none of them were used. Instead, they found a version that let them use Phyrexian mana by adding an additional cost (giving up loyalty). I like to use this as a good example of how some ideas require a lot of time and attention to find the proper answer. I am happy with how they ended up.
When Alpha came out, the internet was young. The World Wide Web was just gaining ground, and most talk online was through a thing called the Usenet (kind of like a bulletin board). In addition, Richard Garfield's original vision was that players would discover what cards existed through playing with other people. As part of this in the early years, Wizards of the Coast did not publicly print card lists or show decklists from events. This meant that what was most popular in Alpha early on were cards that just excited people, regardless of their power level, as most players didn't yet have the skills to judge what was strong and there were no public expert opinions.
There was one card I really wanted, but no one would trade it away, so the only way to get one was to open it in a booster (which I excitedly did). What was that card? Take a guess and then click below to see the answer.
When I started designing original Mirrodin, one of the first things I created was the cycle of mana Myrs (
For their creature type, I chose Gnome. Why Gnomes? Gnomes had oddly become an artifact creature type and were used on a bunch of small artifact creatures in the early years of Magic, and the public, myself included, found them endearing.
Then one day, Brady Dommermuth came to visit me. Brady would later go on to become the creative director of the Creative team, but this was before that happened. Here, with a bunch of dramatic license, was our conversation:
Me: What about them?
Brady: You have Gnomes in the set?
Me: Because they're adorable, and players like them.
Brady: So, when this artificial plane was created, someone said, "You know what we need? Gnomes."
Me: I take you don't like it being Gnomes.
Brady: It just doesn't make any sense from a story perspective. Why do you want it to be Gnomes?
Me: I just wanted a little softness, something players could find lovable.
Brady: Okay, what if I make a brand-new artifact creature that's lovable? Something new to this plane. Would that be okay?
Brady then went away and came back a month or so later with the earliest design of the Myrs. I believe they were influenced by the Myrmidons from Greek mythology, so Brady called them Myrs. (It rhymes with "deer.") I thought they were great. So much so that we added a bunch more to the file. Mirrodin came out, and Myrs were a huge hit.
After Mirrodin block was done, the Myrs went away as they're specifically from Mirrodin. The next time one would appear would be
The card was meant as a big hint of what was going to happen when we returned to Mirrodin. We had subtly set up the Phyrexian invasion in our first visit (for example, Memnarch literally encounters a strange oil in the beginning of the book), and
The Myr returned in Scars of Mirrodin block. Like many of the denizens of Mirrodin, we watched some of them fall to the Phyrexians. A few showed up in Modern Horizons 2 on cards set on New Phyrexia. Which brings us to Phyrexia: All Will Be One.
We were returning to New Phyrexia, formerly Mirrodin, the only plane where the Myrs exist, so we knew we wanted some new ones. The set had a lot going on, so in the end, there was only room for three in the main set and one in a Commander deck. We did make sure the Commander card was a Myr build-around with a five-color identity. All four Myrs were made colorless, with only one being a Phyrexian. We wanted to show that while many Myrs had fallen to the Phyrexians, not all of them had.
We tied the one Phyrexian Myr, Myr Convert, to the toxic mechanic with a second ability that was a throwback to the original mana Myr cycle, although with a life payment to make it feel more Phyrexian. Myr Custodian was made to help with deck smoothing, something all decks could use. Myr Kinsmith was made to interact with Myrs, giving it a little utility in Limited but a much more powerful effect in larger formats where you have access to more Myrs.
Looking back, I'm so glad Brady steered me away from making Gnomes.
The story of the Spheres begins with the design of Return to Ravnica back in 2012. We were going back to Ravnica, so we went back and looked at the original Ravnica to figure out what we could improve upon. The number-one answer was the color fixing. Ravnica had been revolutionary in many ways, but it came up short because it was often hard to play three-color decks, something the Ravnica block encouraged, especially in Draft when you added the second and third sets of the block.
We decided that we wanted it (and Gatecrash) to have a cycle of common dual lands and a cycle of rare dual lands. The best option for the common dual lands were the tap lands (dual lands that enter the battlefield tapped; they first appeared in Invasion block), and the best option for the rare dual lands were the shock lands (dual lands that enter the battlefield tapped unless you pay 2 life; they first appeared in the original Ravnica block). The problem was that the rare duals were "strictly better" than the common lands—that is, they did what the common dual lands did, but with a bonus. We're fine making strictly better cycles, but we tend to avoid making them in the same set.
This raised the question: could we tweak the tap lands? They were a bit on the weak side, so we had room to add some additional ability. What did that ability want to be? Also, could it be something that felt like it specifically belonged in Ravnica?
The answer came from the Creative team. They'd been building out the plane, as we do on returns, and came up with a concept of each guild having a gate. It was going to play a role in the larger story. What if we flavored each dual land as a Gate?
The next question: how do we make them different mechanically. We explored a lot of options but landed on the idea of doing a land subtype. In the beginning, land subtypes were just the five basic land subtypes, but over time, we started making more use of them. They began appearing on card type lines in Eighth Edition to solve some rules issues. We also went back on things like the Urzatron to use subtypes to help the cards mechanically function. We used them sporadically but usually to make cards work individually and not simply as a marker (although Desert retroactively became one).
The plan was to have the common dual lands be subtype Gate and have a handful of cards that cared about Gates so the cards would have some extra functionality. This was a bit controversial at the time, but it seemed like the cleanest execution, so we got everyone on board. Gates went on to be a success.
Flash forward to Phyrexia: All Will Be One design. New Phyrexia, in trying to reflect old Phyrexia, created nine spheres. It was an important story point, so we wanted to reflect it in the set if possible. That raised the question: how exactly do we communicate that New Phyrexia has nine Spheres? Yeah, we could mention it in flavor text or a card title, but neither of those seemed grand enough. The solution was to borrow the same trick we used with Gates.
Phyrexia has nine lands representing the nine Spheres of the plane. We then had one card, Monument to Perfection, mechanically reference them. Five of them became part of a common cycle that was used to add some card flow in the late game. Each one represented one of the five colors. This was done by looking at the nine available Spheres and picking the one that felt like it captured the aspect of one of the five colors most. The remaining four were then designed top down and put at rare.
That's all the time I have today. I hope you enjoyed my stories. As always, I'm eager for any feedback. You can email me or contact me through my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week for the Phyrexia: All Will Be One vision design handoff document.
Until then, may you visit all nine spheres of New Phyrexia.