Welcome to Commander (2019 Edition) previews. All this week, we'll be sharing with you the themes of the four decks and showing off preview cards. As we've done in past years, each day is going to show off a different deck along with preview cards from that deck. I'm going to begin by walking you through the overall structure for this year's Commander 2019 decks and then talk specifically about today's featured deck and show off my preview cards—two brand-new and one reprint with new art.
What the Deck
Every year, the Commander design team comes up with a unified way to structure their decks. Sometimes it's color-based (e.g., all the decks are wedges), sometimes it's built around a theme (planeswalkers that can also be commanders), sometimes it's built around a mechanical hook (each deck has a tribal theme). For Commander (2019 Edition), the design team decided to build around popular Magic mechanics. For each deck, the team chose a mechanic and then picked the colors that best complimented that mechanic. Today's deck is a three-color deck (black-green-blue) built around the mechanic morph. Morph was originally in Onslaught block but has been brought back in Time Spiral block and Khans of Tarkir block.
I'll get to my preview cards in a moment, but first I want to tell the story of morph's origin. I've told this story before, so I thought today, I'd go into a little more detail than I have in the past. We begin our story by going back to Limited Edition (Alpha). When Richard Garfield was initially designing Magic, he was creating it to be a normal game. It's just not practical to design a game assuming it will become a breakaway phenomenon. What that meant was, original Magic was designed to be a game you played at home with your friends. As such, Richard purposefully designed some cards that were very flavorful, but a little vague. Part of the fun of exploring the environment was figuring out how some of the cards worked. To Richard, cards that spurred conversation about how exactly they functioned were features and not bugs. The assumption was each play group would talk out how they wanted it to work.
Flash forward a few years. Magic had become a breakaway phenomenon. People weren't just playing in their homes. They were coming to game stores and playing in tournaments. There was a Pro Tour and many Grand Prix and a whole tournament structure. The game couldn't just let players figure out how they wanted cards to work, there had to be hard and fast rules. This led to the creation of Classic Sixth Edition rules, which cleaned up a lot of loose ends and caused the creation of what was known as the rules team, a group of people dedicated to ironing out all the odds and ends that early Magic cards had created. As the rules needs have since shrunk, the rules are now handled simply by the rules manager (who used to oversee the rules team).
The rules team at the time (Paul Barclay, Elaine Chase, Brady Dommermuth, Jeff Donais, Mike Donais, and Collin Jackson) would meet once a week and work through a backlog of old cards that had to be brought in line with the current rules system. Two of the most nagging cards were Illusionary Mask and Camouflage, both from Alpha.
The idea behind them was a lot of fun. You would take a creature and place it face down, and as long as it was face down, the opponent didn't know what the creature was. In the early days, players would attempt to do things to the card, and the card's owner would inform them whether it worked.
"I Terror it."
"It doesn't die."
"Okay, it must be a black creature or an artifact creature. If it was untargetable, you would have had to tell me it couldn't be targeted. Now I Shatter it."
"It doesn't die."
"Not an artifact. It must be a black creature."
This was a fun game to play at home, but in a tournament setting where the opponent couldn't confirm anything that was being said, it was problematic. The rules team had worked through a backlog of troublesome cards, but Illusionary Mask and Camouflage had proven to be thorns in the rules team's side. Then, one day, they came up with an out-of-the-box solution. What if face-down cards had a defined quality? That way when they were face down, you knew what could and couldn't happen to them. Both Illusionary Mask and Camouflage would allow you to turn the creature face up so if you ever wanted to take advantage of its true nature, you could, but then you'd have to reveal publicly what the creature was. This made the cards work in a way that rules could handle.
While they were happy they'd found a solution to the two cards, the rules team was thinking bigger. This technology could be used to make a mechanic. What if there were cards with this ability built in? You could unify their mana cost so any of them could be played without giving away what they were and without creating a need for the players to know which specific card it was. It would require players revealing any face-down cards at the end of the game to prove they had the mechanic, but tournaments could handle that. As they were having this excited conversation about this new mechanic, they heard a loud voice coming from the room next door. That loud voice was me.
Now we cut to a different part of this story. Bill Rose was the head designer at the time and had asked my help with the Onslaught design that had just been turned in. While there were a lot of cool individual designs in it, Bill was concerned about the two major mechanics in the set. He asked me to spend some time thinking about how I might change it. The reason I was next door to the rules team was because I was meeting with Mike Elliott, the lead designer of Onslaught, to talk through some of my thoughts. I had this idea that it would be cool to take a tiny tribal theme that was in the set and ramp it way up, making it the main theme of the set. He and I were talking about this when Jeff Donais ran into the room.
Jeff Donais ran our Organized Play program back in the day and was part of the rules team because it was important to think through Organized Play ramifications when making rules decisions. Jeff had heard me (again, I'm pretty loud) and ran next door to tell us about the new mechanic idea the rules team had. He excitedly pitched the mechanic to us. If a card had this mechanic, you could play it face down for two mana and get a 1/1. Then, if you paid a certain cost, you could turn it face up and it would become whatever the creature naturally was. Mike was unimpressed. It seemed fiddly and not worth the bother of having face-down cards on the battlefield. I liked it, but I said to Jeff that it felt like it needed some work. I was on the hunt for a new mechanic for Onslaught and felt like morph might play well with a tribal theme, so I got together with Jeff separately to talk through the new mechanic. Jeff explained all the nuance, and I asked for a week to think it through.
During that week, I set out to make some cards with the mechanic to get a feel for what it could do. I quickly came to several conclusions:
- A 1/1 was too little. You seldom felt a need to block it, as 1 point of damage usually wasn't worth the potential blowout. Also, it was a little too easy to kill. My suggestion was to change it from a two-mana 1/1 to a three-mana 2/2.
- Just changing shape wasn't enough. I felt that the mechanic had room for more. What if some creatures also had an effect when it was turned face up? This allowed a lot more gameplay options and opened design space.
- It needed a name. A lot of selling a mechanic is giving it a sense of flavor. I called it "stealth" to begin with.
I then designed enough cards to fill two decks of different color combinations. The idea was instead of explaining the new mechanic to people, I would just have them play it. I'd learned over the years that the best way to get people excited by a new idea was to let them experience the fun of the thing while playing it. Little by little, I played the decks with all of R&D and slowly built some consensus. Bill, who'd been skeptical of the initial pitch from the rules team, enjoyed the gameplay and signed on to having it be one of the mechanics in Onslaught. To give the mechanic some room to grow over the block (and to help with the creature-only Legions design), we purposely held back the "spell" morphs for the second set. And that was how morph came to be.
With that out of the way, it's time for my preview cards. We'll start with the reprint (with new art).
Next is a brand-new card, one with a tweak to morph that I tried and failed to get into the game for a long time.
Now we arrive at the preview card I'm most excited to show off. It's a character I co-created many years ago.
The Morph You Know
That's all the time I have for today. I hope you're excited to see the new decks and play with the new cards. As I said up top, check in each day this week (for the next three days) to learn about each of the other Commander (2019 Edition) decks and see more preview cards. As always, if you have thoughts on today's column, including things on Commander 2019, morph, auramorph, Volrath, or anything else I've discussed here, please feel free to email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram).
Join me next week for a look into thematic parties.
Until then, may you enchant Gift of Doom on your Vesuvan Shapeshifter copying Volrath, the Shapestealer.
#659: Modern Horizons Cards, Part 1
#659: Modern Horizons Cards, Part 1
This is part one of a four-part series on card-by-card design stories from Modern Horizons.
#660: Modern Horizons Cards, Part 2
#660: Modern Horizons Cards, Part 2
This is part two of a four-part series on card-by-card design stories from Modern Horizons.