One of the responsibilities of a Magic designer is to have a good understanding of what different players like. Your job is not only to design for yourself but to make the game something that every player can enjoy. That said, this doesn't mean you never get to design things you like. There are some players similar to you, so one of the fun parts of being a Magic designer is that you get to occasionally create cards that excite you as a Magic player. I don't talk a lot about what kinds of things I enjoy as a player, so for today's column, I thought it would be fun to explore the things that I enjoy most about Magic and look at some of the designs that have been inspired by these interests.
One of the themes of today's column is going to be the influence of certain early Magic cards on me (as that's when I began playing—players are often influenced by things they encounter early on). We'll start with this one:
I first learned how to play Magic when I bought a starter and three booster packs of Alpha at a local game convention. I was instantly smitten, but when I went to the store to buy more, I learned that Alpha was sold out. When Beta came out about a month later, I bought two boxes of starters and two boxes of boosters. As I knew it was going to sell out quickly, I bought a significant amount of cards. My plan was to see if my friends wanted them so that I had someone to play with. It turns out most of my friends weren't interested (for the most part, they weren't gamers—I would later make a bunch of gamer friends through Magic), and I ended up opening most of the boosters and starters myself. Every day, I allowed myself to open one booster (and later, part of a starter).
I remember the day I opened Berserk. I couldn't believe what I was seeing. It was as if the word "doubles" floated off the card and was illuminated by lights. I had a green deck that already had a Craw Wurm and a Regrowth in it. The three combined to make a trampling Wurm with 24 power. How could anyone stand up to that? And, thus, began my love of doubling things.
For example, I was given my very first set to design (Tempest), and one of the first cards I made was this:
I'm not sure what part of my brain doubling things triggers, but it always makes me so happy. From there I just started to look for more things to double.
I could double mana.
I could double the size of a creature.
I could double life.
I could even make a creature that keeps doubling itself. (Here's a cool story about a crazy thing I did when previewing Chameleon Colossus at a World Championships.)
Then, of course, there's my ultimate doubling card:
As I'll talk about below, I also love tokens and counters. It turned out that the overlap between the green-white faction of Selesnya and the black-green faction of Golgari in original Ravnica, aka green, had a counter and token theme. Was there a design I could make that could help? Well, I'd doubled +1/+1 counters, but never any other kind of counter. And I'd never doubled tokens (I would go on to make the populate mechanic when we returned to Ravnica years later). What if I made a card that just doubled every glass bead you had sitting on your side of the board?
My love of doubling is infectious, though, so I've gotten lots of other designers to start making doubling cards. (It doesn't hurt that it's very popular with players.) One of them even made this card:
When the card was shown during the R&D slide show for Theros Beyond Death, I responded, "Wait, wait, wait! We can triple things?"
One could argue this is just an extension of doubling things, but another love of mine is copying stuff. This also goes back to Alpha with these four cards:
My inner Johnny loves making decks with two things—many options and high variance, that is, creating decks that play out very differently each time you play them and give you, the person piloting the deck, many choices for what you can do. Clone and Vesuvan Doppelganger let me do that in fun and splashy ways. My second deck after my mono-green Berserking Craw Wurm deck was a mono-blue Shapeshifter deck with no repeated creatures other than Clone and the Doppelganger (okay, the Clone—I only owned one Doppelganger). My rule for the deck was that, whenever possible, I would first copy my opponent's creatures.
Once I finally opened a Copy Artifact, I built an entire artifact deck around it, again with only one copy of everything. Then, when I got my hands on a Fork, I made a blue-red deck that copied everything. At that time, I was making "Magic: The Puzzling" (my puzzle column) in The Duelist, and I used copy effects so often it became a running joke with my editor. In my defense, they made for good puzzles.
Again, you can see my pet favorites by looking at Tempest, my first set. I put three cards in that copied stuff—one an artifact, one a creature, and one a spell. (I personally designed the first two, the last one was designed by Mike Elliott.)
Over the years, I'd copy anything I could copy, any card type, any effect. I even found ways to do it, in color pie, in various colors.
I created Sculpting Steel to make an artifact that copies artifacts.
I created Copy Enchantment to make an enchantment that copies enchantments.
I created Vesuva to make a land that copies lands.
I created Mirari to repeatedly copy spells.
I created Panharmonicon to repeatedly copy triggered abilities. This last design came about because I wanted to copy enters-the-battlefield effects. Kaladesh was making quirky build-around artifacts, and this card had been rattling around in my brain for years.
I went back and looked at all the copy effects from the past that I'd designed, and it was a lot (over 40). One could say I like copying copy effects.
Tokens and Counters
Here's another two cards I loved from Alpha:
The Hive was the first and only, at the time, card that made creature tokens. It was so popular that the only way to get one in the early days was to open it in a booster pack, as no one was going to trade it to you. I remember the day I opened mine. I had my one allocated booster pack of the day. I would always take the cards out face down, revealing them one at a time. When I turned up The Hive, it took me a moment to realize what I had. While most players had heard of The Hive, I'd only seen one in person once. I was so excited that I did a lap around my apartment. My roommate, who didn't play Magic, had no idea what was going on. My chanting "wasp token!" over and over again probably didn't help. I had somewhere around ten decks at the time, and I kept moving around which deck got The Hive.
Alpha had many different counters—five different types (the ones that didn't change stats didn't get a name—naming counters would come later) spread over seven cards. Clockwork Beast, Sengir Vampire, and Rock Hydra all had fans, but Fungusaur was the one near and dear to my heart. Something about a creature that grows stronger if you damage it but don't kill it spoke to me. I'd opened two, and they went in my mono-green Berserking Craw Wurm deck. (I'd later trade one away to my dad for a Mox Emerald—and, at the time, I thought I was doing him a favor.)
When I started designing my own Magic cards (before I was at Wizards), I was enamored with both creature tokens and counters and used them every chance I got. That trend didn't really stop when I came to work at Wizards.
The first mechanic I designed which made it to print, the Spikes (in Stronghold, but previewed on a single card in Tempest) made use of +1/+1 counters. That would begin a long string of counter and token mechanics that I had a hand in creating—bloodthirst, bolster, clash, embalm, energy, evoke, exert, fabricate, graft, infect, kicker, living weapon, megamorph, mentor, modular, monstrosity, multikicker, persist, populate, proliferate, raid, reinforce, scavenge, sunburst, support, suspend, undying, vanishing, and wither. (And I'm for sure forgetting a few more.)
Many of the sets that I lead design and/or vision design for have a creature token and/or counter theme. I'm directly responsible for token cards existing (they premiered in Unglued), which, when they started getting put in booster packs, then justified us making even more token-making cards. In my defense, I also started the rule that limited how many different counters we use in any one set. My time on Magic has clearly been good for the glass bead and dice companies of the world.
Alpha had these three cards:
These are the three creatures in the set that encouraged you to play a deck of a certain creature type. I'll remind you, when Alpha came out, decks were only forty cards and you could play any number of a particular card. That was important because there was only one Merfolk (Merfolk of the Pearl Trident), one Zombie (Scathe Zombies—although years later Scavenging Ghoul would get changed to a Zombie), and two Goblins (Goblin Balloon Brigade and Mons's Goblin Raiders). Even the lords weren't technically their own creature type at the time. I was intrigued by these cards as I loved the idea of a tribal deck but wasn't willing to make a deck mostly using just one card. I kept my eye out for more Merfolk, Zombies and Goblins, but it took years for them to slowly trickle out.
Whenever a new card with a tribal component was released, it would raise my eyebrow, but too often there wasn't enough support. I bided my time but eventually saw my shot when Bill Rose asked me to review the design file for Onslaught. Mike Elliott and Mike Donais's design had a very light tribal element. My suggestion to Bill was to "turn it up to 11." Instead of being a minor element in blue, we could make it the major theme of the set. Bill said yes, and the first full-blown tribal set was born.
When I took over as Head Designer, one of my dictums was that I wanted most sets to have a least a small tribal element. The idea was, for each set, fans of tribal would have something they could build and possibly draft in Limited. Meanwhile, I was also working with the Creative team to up the average of creature types per card (with things like race and class).
But even in this larger category, I still have a few pet favorites:
In the early days, Merfolk and Goblins got a lot more tribal love from the fans (probably because their lords were stronger than Zombie Master), but Zombies were the ones I most wished I could make a deck out of. So, when I got the keys to Tempest design, I began my plan to make Zombies a playable deck.
I started by making 2/2 Zombies for one black in the block. Also, note that you can offset Sarcomancy's downside by playing other Zombies, a subtle nod to Zombie tribal.
I made an unblockable Zombie that grows as other copies of it die and a repeatable assassin that requires a stream of Zombies. Mix these together with a few very potent black cards (with the MVP being the card Hatred), and a mono-black Zombie deck finally made it into Standard.
Then from time to time, I would make sets with a Zombie tribal component. Slowly amassing a giant horde of undead over the years.
For more about the early days of Zombie design, you can read an article named "I cc: Dead People" that I wrote for Zombie Week back in 2003. (The article has my all-time favorite title.)
My love of Oozes actually predates Magic. I played a Dungeons & Dragons campaign for many years where I was a Wizard. I had a pet baby Gelatinous Cube that I would summon up from time to time. (Yeah, yeah, he eventually got too big, and it led to some problems—but, you know, pets!) There weren't any Oozes in Alpha. In fact, most of the early Oozes sucked. I had a soft spot, though. I designed my first one in Tempest.
It was quite flavorful, but not all that useful. By Unhinged, I was getting a better handle on making Oozes that people would play.
So many people were chasing one another around game stores with Vile Bile, that I had to make a ruling about it. ("You lose life if you touch it, not if it touches you.")
I think it was Experiment Kraj that showed me the potential of what oozes could be.
Then I was off to the races.
When I turned over the vision design file for Ravnica Allegiance, I asked one thing of the lead designer, Sam Stoddard—please include an Ooze lord. (I felt so bad that I'd worked on two previous sets with the Simic and hadn't made one.) Sam came through with a delightful design.
Of everything in today's column, my two loves that are the most public are my love of doubling and my love of Squirrels. I'm a big fan of levity in the game, and something about Squirrels just brings a smile to my face. I was the one who first pushed for Squirrels in Magic on a Mirage card called Waiting in the Weeds.
The card was originally called Unseen Wildlife, and I thought it would be funny if the creature tokens it made were Squirrels. It didn't take me long to get all the other developers on board. But then, due to some confusion with the art description, the card ended up making Cats, not Squirrels. (I go into more detail in my article "Squirrel of My Dreams" from Squirrel Week back in 2002.)
That only inspired me to try harder.
One of my Squirrel designs went on to be a tournament powerhouse (and helped Aaron Forsythe on his path to become a World Team champion). The Brand team at the time wanted the game to be a little more hard-edged and didn't like Squirrels being so visible. I ended up making them part of the Odyssey block (they were the 1/1 green creature token) but promised to make them a little more vicious.
My plan kind of backfired, and Squirrels got removed from black border.
I kept them alive in silver border for the Squirrel fans but have spent years trying to build up pro-Squirrel allies in R&D and pave the way for their return.
The need for a card concept for a tricky card (a creature that sometimes has flying) finally led Doug Beyer to make a black border Squirrel in Ikoria. I hope this will be the foot in the door I need to bring Squirrels back to black border on a more permanent basis.
Another Alpha card that made a big impact on me was this card:
My third deck after my mono-green Berserk Craw Wurm deck and my mono-blue Shapeshifter deck was my mono-black reanimator deck. I had three Animate Deads, and I was eager to use them. The Johnny in me really enjoyed using the graveyard as a resource, and I found myself always drawn to cards that interacted with the graveyard in any way.
The third set I led the design for was Odyssey, and I went all-in on a graveyard theme. This is the set I premiered flashback, a mechanic I designed to let you cast instants and sorceries out of the graveyard. I would go on to design many sets with graveyard themes (including Innistrad and Amonkhet). I also had a hand in a lot of graveyard focused mechanics—aftermath, delve, dredge, embalm, flashback, gravestorm, morbid, persist, recover, retrace, scavenge, undying, and unearth. R&D once talked about a format where decks must only use cards designed by one designer, and I said a Rosewater graveyard deck would be quite potent. (Could it beat the Garfield Power Nine-fueled deck? There was much debate.)
Suffice to say, if you enjoy graveyard strategies, I might have some fingerprints on a number of cards from your deck.
Most of my mechanical loves are generally popular with a majority of the player base. My final one is probably my most polarizing love.
Pit Scorpion and Marsh Viper showed up in Legends and The Dark, Magic's third and fourth expansions, and it was love at first sight. The problem was all the cards with poison were horrible, so building a deck with any chance of winning consistently was impossible. That didn't stop me from trying.
When I finally got to lead my first set, I put a poison theme in it. But thirty cards got cut to twenty, then ten, then five, then one, and then poison was removed from the game (on new cards, the old ones existed). I tried next making it a theme in Unglued 2 with animated vegetables as the source of the poison, but that set was never released. It would be many years before I teased it in Future Sight and finally made it a major component of a set in Scars of Mirrodin, using it to represent the Phyrexians.
Will it ever return? I hope so, but as I said above, it's one of the most polarizing components of the game. You can read more about my quest to bring more poison to the game in my first preview article for Scars of Mirrodin, "Something Wicked This Way Comes, Part 1."
I hope today's column gave you a little peek behind the game designer to see the game player. As always, I'm eager to hear your thoughts on today's article. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week when I look into the future.
Until then, may you find just as many things that makes Magic shine for you.
#743: Mark Heggen
#743: Mark Heggen
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#744: Erik Lauer
#744: Erik Lauer
Erik is my equivalent in set design. He and I talk about our many years of making Magic together.