One of the things you learn when it's your job to continually design Magic sets is that sometimes it takes ideas a while to make it to print. Sometimes it's months, sometimes it's years—and sometimes, it can even take over a decade. That's why I've learned over the years the value of patience. As I like to say, "Magic is a hungry monster. If you have a good idea, we'll get to it eventually." Today's column is about many of the things I've had to wait for. I'll talk about when I first had the idea, why it didn't happen then, and what eventually got it to print.
Soul Foundry (1997–2003; 6 years)
The idea behind the card was that it was a creature token maker, but that it allowed you some customizability with the token. You got to choose the color and the creature type. The card was pretty popular, so during the design of Urza's Saga, I decided I wanted to take the idea a step further. What if we let you have even more control over what the creature could be? The problem I kept running into was that the more you got to choose, the more memory was involved. Was there a way to let you totally customize the creature token without creating a huge memory issue?
Eventually, I found the solution. If you exiled a creature card from your hand when it entered the battlefield, you could use that card as a memory aid to remember what the card was making. I was very excited with the design, which I called Clone Machine. The card got put into the set and even had art commissioned for it, but then I got a visit from the rules manager. (I don't even remember who it was—my best guess based on the time frame is either Tom Wylie or Beth Moursand). The card couldn't work within the rules, and we had to change its functionality. Because the art was already in, I designed a new card that matched the art. You all know the card as Phyrexian Processor.
Phyrexian Processor was a good card that saw a lot of tournament play (including a memorable mirror match in the 2000 World Championship between future Hall of Famers Jon Finkel and Bob Maher, Jr.), but I always regretted that Clone Machine didn't get printed. Flash forward to original Mirrodin design. I was looking for innovative artifact designs and remembered Clone Machine. I went to the rules manager at the time (again, I'm not sure who, but my best guess is it was Paul Barclay) and pitched the card again—and this time I'm told the rules can handle it. So, finally, Clone Machine made it to print as Soul Foundry.
Return of Delve (2007–2014; 7 years)
I wasn't quite sure whether to list this as the return of delve or the premiere of delve. You see, delve first appeared on three future-shifted cards from Future Sight.
It represented a possible mechanic from the future. A bunch of the futureshifted mechanics ended up being things we didn't want to make a whole bunch of cards with, but delve was something that R&D, in general, seemed to like (although, we were aware was playing in potentially dangerous space). Whenever we had a set with a graveyard theme, we'd look into whether delve would be a good fit for the set. During original Innistrad design, for example, we spent some time exploring whether delve was a good fit. We ended up going with morbid instead.
Each time, for various reasons, it didn't work out. We realized that delve tended to fight itself, meaning you couldn't play a lot in the same deck. This meant it didn't work in a set where it was expected to play a larger role. And then came Khans of Tarkir. One of the factions was Sultai, which had a graveyard theme. Because there were five factions, and the morph mechanic, we were looking for something we could do in smaller quantities—which made delve's bug into a feature and finally found it a home.
Mindslaver (1996–2003; 7 years)
Back in the day, I had this theory about something I referred to as a "marquee card." Inspired by Jester's Cap from Ice Age, I believed that every large set needed to have a card any deck could play (back then, that meant either an artifact or a land) that did something splashy that Magic had never done before. This is what inspired me to create Grinning Totem for Mirage (the first card ever to let you play a spell from your opponent's deck).
For Tempest, I made a card I called Volrath's Helm (later renamed Helm of Possession) that represented a device Volrath could use to take control of other people. The card's design allowed you to take control of other players. It came about because I was trying to solve the Word of Command problem—based on a card from Limited Edition (Alpha)—where you could force another player to cast a spell. The issue was that the opponent could always cast things in response to you casting your spell, so a lot of text was required to make the card work the way it was intended.
The big leap I made with Volrath's Helm was that if you took control of an opponent for a whole turn, they weren't able to respond to it when it took effect, plus, you would get to untap all their lands and draw a card, allowing you to do things that the opponent couldn't necessarily undo ahead of time. Again, I was informed by a rules manager that the card didn't work within the rules (or at least was too messy to write without a lot of rules text), and it was changed late in development.
Flash forward to original Mirrodin design. I was looking for cool artifacts, so I dug into old ideas I'd had from the past. Again, the new rules manager told me I could do it, so Mindslaver finally saw the light of day.
Return of Proliferate (2011–2019; 8 years)
Proliferate first appeared in Scars of Mirrodin. I created it originally as a one-of card to represent the infestation of the Phyrexians. The one card turned into a vertical cycle and then an unnamed mechanic and eventually a named keyword mechanic. The mechanic originally only affected -1/-1 counters and poison counters, but after a suggestion from design team member Mark Globus, I changed it to affect all counters. Anyway, the set came out and proliferate was a huge hit. I knew one day we'd bring it back. My plan was to find a set where it was more constructive than destructive.
I waited a number of years, but Kaladesh seemed like a perfect fit. The set had energy counters and +1/+1 counters, and it thematically made sense in a set trying to get the audience to "feel like an inventor." Sadly, the mechanic was a little too powerful with the +1/+1 counters which, because of the fabricate mechanic, wasn't something we could tone down. We tried again with Aether Revolt, as it didn't have fabricate, but still proliferate didn't work out. Next, we tried it as the guild mechanic for Simic in Ravnica Allegiance, but it didn't play nicely with the guild mechanics in the overlapping colors. There was skepticism when we tried it in War of the Spark, but it worked well with our planeswalkers—many of which had no natural way to uptick loyalty. It required being careful with our +1/+1 counters, but we were able to tweak the other named keyword, amass, such that it was synergistic with proliferate without being problematic. The fourth time turned out to be the charm.
Heartbeat of Spring (1995–2004; 9 years)
One of my favorite cards in Alpha was Mana Flare.
I was a Johnny deck builder and liked having mana to do all sorts of crazy things. The only thing that bugged me about Mana Flare was that it seemed to be in the wrong color. Red wasn't the color of mana ramp, green was, so one of my earliest tasks when I started working at Wizards of the Coast was to make a green Mana Flare. I believe I first suggested it as a card to fill a hole in Alliances (my first development team). They chose a different card.
Then during Mirage development, I again submitted it to fill a hole. Once again, another card was chosen. I tried in Visions and Weatherlight without any luck, so in Tempest, the first set I was leading the design for, I just put it in. It ended up getting removed during development, not because people didn't like it, but just because there was something else more central to the set's design, and this card could go anywhere. Urza's Saga block, Mercadian Masques block, Invasion block, Odyssey block, Onslaught block, Mirrodin block—I just kept putting it into sets. Sometimes it would stay a month, sometimes six months, but every time there always was some reason why we wanted a different card instead. The funny thing was everyone was on board with us making a green Mana Flare, but it kept losing out to other more pressing stuff.
Then in Champions of Kamigawa, I put it in and it didn't get taken out. I'm not sure if it just suited the set it was in or simply there wasn't a more pressing card that took precedence. It just stayed in and made it to print. After nine years of me trying, the card finally saw the light of day. That's how this works sometimes; you just keep trying until one day, it sees print.
Ambassador Oak (1996–2008; 12 years)
I first submitted this card in Tempest as a design I called "Moose and Squirrel." I was interested with the idea of a card that netted you two creatures with only one card. While that's something we do often now, back in the day we'd did it far less. The problem Ambassador Oak had was similar to the problem the Heartbeat of Spring had—it's the kind of design that we can put into any set. Every Magic set has green 3/3s and 1/1s, so it kept getting what we call "cut for numbers." That's an R&D term for "There were things more central to the theme of the set, so we had to get rid of cards we knew we would find a home for elsewhere."
I put Moose and Squirrel in so many different sets, it became a running joke in R&D. Interestingly, I didn't put it into Morningtide. Mike Turian, the set's lead developer, was looking for ways to cross multiple creature types (and this card could let him have a card that was both a Treefolk and an Elf) and remembered Moose and Squirrel. At the Morningtide slide show, I let out a big yell when Ambassador Oak appeared on the screen. When a newer employee asked why I was yelling, Mike responded, "He's been waiting a while for this card to see print."
Bestial Menace (1996–2010; 14 years)
This card was inspired by a card in Weatherlight called Cone of Flame.
I was tickled by having a card that had 1, 2, and 3 damage on it, and I like token making, so I made a sorcery I called Cone of Creatures that made a 1/1, a 2/2, and a 3/3. I believe I first made this card during Tempest design (or possibly to fill a hole in Tempest development). The problem with the design was it required you to make three different tokens, and this was back in the day before creature tokens were a thing (they premiered in 1998 in Unglued and didn't become a thing that showed up in Standard-legal booster packs for over a decade).
For years, I put the card in sets, but it never made it to print because of the multiple creature token issue. R&D eventually decided, as a rule, we didn't like cards that made more than one different creature token. I even wrote about the rule in an article during a token creature theme week back in 2002 ("Tokens of My Affection"). So, I stopped submitting it.
How then did it make its way into a set? I didn't put it there. One day, I just noticed it in the Worldwake file. I assumed that Ken Nagle, the set's lead designer, wanted it there for a reason and, much like Mike Turian, had plucked a card he'd seen me submit numerous times. And I would had gone on believing that had I not written an article about the card's creation. Kelly Digges, who was my editor at the time, was copyediting my article, and when he came to my description of how the card got into the file he contacted me. It wasn't my card. Kelly had designed it completely unaware that I'd been trying to get it into a set for years. So sometimes, if you're patient enough, other people will design the card for you. (Parallel design is a very common occurrence in Magic design.)
The reason this card made it into the set is we'd started doing creature tokens in booster packs and it was decided that, with those aids, the card was acceptable to print (although, it's still not something we do all that often).
Energy (2001–2016; 15 years)
During original Mirrodin design, I looked back at old artifacts as inspiration for new designs. One card that caught my eye was Serrated Arrows from Homelands.
I liked the idea that an artifact could be limited to a number of uses. It felt flavorful and allowed for some interesting play decisions, so I made a number of artifacts that used charge counters. I then made a card that allowed you to use any charge counters from any artifact you controlled. It intrigued me, so I tried something a little wilder—I made all the artifacts that used charge counters allow you to use a charge counter from any artifact you controlled. Now, if Artifact A and Artifact B each came with three charge counters, you had a choice how many times you wanted to use each artifact.
However, playtesting soon showed that keeping the charge counters on the artifacts required a lot of monitoring. Because counters would go away if the opponent destroyed the artifact they were on, a lot of attention had to be paid to which artifact you were choosing to take the counters from. As I didn't feel this was the fun part of the design, I changed the mechanic over to counters that the player got directly, which I called energy.
When I handed in my Mirrodin design, Bill Rose, the head designer at the time, felt my design was too overstuffed and asked me to pull one major component out. As energy was the least intertwined and thus the simplest to remove, I removed it. I really liked energy though, so I kept it in the back of my mind as a mechanic we could use when the right world came along.
I had to be patient, though, as the mechanic had a very particular flavor to it. We experimented with using it for the Esper shard in Shards of Alara but ended up going with a simpler colored artifacts design. Then when Kaladesh exploratory design started, I realized we finally had a world where the mechanic seemed to fit. The Creative team even incorporated the mechanic into the cosmology of the world. It took a long time, but we finally found a good home for it.
Making Poison a Major Theme of a Set (1994–2010; 16 years)
I fell in love with poison when I first opened booster packs of Legends and found these two cards:
When I first started freelancing for Wizards and began having the opportunity to talk with R&D, I pitched the idea of them doing a poison set. They didn't seem particularly interested. Then, when I started working at Wizards, I decided that I would be the one to finally make a poison set happen. I started by pushing to get individual poison cards into sets. Then when I designed Tempest, I put in a poison theme. Tempest's codename, "Bogavhati," was a reference to Bhogavati, a place in Hindu mythology filled with poisonous Nagas. Unfortunately, in development, the theme got whittled away to nothing, and R&D even decided to stop putting cards with poison into sets.
So, I attempted to put a poison theme into "Unglued 2: The Obligatory Sequel," the planned follow-up to Unglued. The set had a vegetable theme and all the animated vegetables were poisonous—aka they gave you poison counters when they hit you. (You can see examples of this in my articles on the set: "Un-Seen" and "Un-Seen 2: Electric Bugaloo.") That set got put on hiatus never to return.
The only path to victory was figuring out a way to convince R&D to return poison to Magic. A big part of this was being patient enough to allow R&D to change. In 2007, I made a set called Future Sight where we had a subset of "futureshifted cards" that hinted at possible mechanical themes from the future. One of the ways I did this was by making new mechanics that players had never seen, including poisonous, which I managed to get onto two cards.
This allowed me to dip my toe back into the poison pool and stir some player interest in the mechanic. Then, when making Scars of Mirrodin years later, I saw my opportunity. The Phyrexians were returning after many years away and were the perfect creative element to match to poison. There was some internal fighting at the beginning, but thanks to the response I'd gotten to the two cards in Future Sight, I was able to convince R&D to let poison come back in a big way.
Playing the Long Game
I hope today's column shows how patience plays into Magic design. Sometimes the way to get what you want is to wait for the right opportunity to come along. It can take a while, but it comes eventually. Which brings us to next week. A week from today, I'll have my first Throne of Eldraine preview column, which starts with a story of patience as I'll explain how my idea to do a fairy-tale Plane took over a decade to come to fruition. As always, I'm eager for feedback on today's column. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram).
Join me next week as I finally get to talk about Throne of Eldraine's journey to becoming a set.
Until then, may you find the patience to wait for the things that you want.
#667: Full-Art Lands
#667: Full-Art Lands
In this podcast, I talk about the history of full-art lands and talk about all the times we've used them.
Magic has six major zones plus a few others used in various formats. I talk all about them including examining the design space of zone changing.