Last week, I started showing off the handoff document I created when we turned over Phyrexia: All Will Be One from vision design to set design. Most of the text below is the actual document as it was turned in with my notes in boxes for greater explanation and context.

Oil Counters

Neuron Disruptor
Creature — Phyrexian Beast
Oiled 2 (CARDNAME enters with two oil counters and gets an oil counter when empty if you proliferate.)
When CARDNAME attacks, you may remove an oil counter from it. If you do, target creature can't block CARDNAME this turn.

The oil counters thematically represent the spread of the Phyrexian oil and only appear on cards that are Phyrexian in nature or transform into Phyrexian things. Oil counters carry no inherent mechanical meaning and have proven to be very flexible in how they can be used. In vision design, we explored numerous executions which are listed below. Set Design is free to use (or not use) any of them in whatever volume best serves the set.

Oil counters at handoff were a little more controversial than one might think. The idea that they were inherently blank met with some skepticism. Shouldn't they do something? The Vision Design team felt they served the set better the more flexible they were. To show off that flexibility, and to give the Set Design team a lot of options, we listed some different ways they could be used.

Before we get into the executions of oil counters, I wanted to touch upon two universal things about them. One, we have a philosophy that carries through all executions such that having oil is always a positive thing, meaning if you ever proliferate, you are always happy to add another oil counter.

Two, we represent permanents with oil counters by having the ability oiled N. This means two things: the permanent enters the battlefield with N oil counters, and if you ever proliferate and the permanent has no oil counters on it, it gets one. That is, whenever you proliferate, a permanent with oiled will always get an oil counter (but only one) if you want one. This second ability was added to remove any tension between using oil counters and proliferating. (It also has the nice side effect of granting oiled a static ability.)

Oiled is a good example of us trying to unify the oil counters through a mechanic. It ended up not being necessary, but words are a powerful tool to convey flavor. Again, this is Vision Design over-delivering to give Set Design options. The oiled mechanic ended up not being necessary, so it was cut.

  • Oil counters as usage markers

Centurion of Sheoldred
Creature — Phyrexian Warlock
Oiled 2(CARDNAME enters with two oil counters and gets an oil counter when empty if you proliferate.)
Whenever CARDNAME attacks, you may remove an oil counter from CARDNAME. If you do, draw a card and lose 1 life.

This subset of oil counter cards are cards with oiled that enter with some number of oil counters that you can then use as part of the cost of an activation or trigger. This allows you to create cards that only have a limited number of activations. Proliferating these cards gets you extra uses (or partial uses if the cost involves more than one oil counter).

We listed this option first because we knew it had the most potential. We were right. I think this is the use of oil counters that ended up on the most cards, although it was combined a lot with the next category, and the oiled keyword went away.

  • Oil counters as build-up

Assembler Slith
Creature — Phyrexian Slith
Whenever CARDNAME deals combat damage to a player, put an oil counter on it.
Remove two oil counters from CARDNAME: Create two colorless 1/1 Phyrexian Mite artifact creature tokens with poisonous 1 and "can't block".

This subset of oil counter cards also requires you to spend oil counters as part of an activation or trigger. The difference is that these cards aren't necessarily oiled and come with a means by which you can acquire oil. If you pick a requirement that can only happen once per turn and requires multiple oil counters per use, you can create cards that can't be activated every turn (but can be regular, like every other turn). Proliferating these cards tends to speed up their use.

This is the other category that saw a lot of use. I think this category led to the best build-around oil counter cards.

  • Oil counters as vanishing

Shimmer Sphinx
Creature — Phyrexian Sphinx
Oiled 4 (CARDNAME enters with four oil counters and gets an oil counter when empty if you proliferate.)
At the beginning of your upkeep, remove an oil counter from CARDNAME. If CARDNAME has no oil counters on it, sacrifice it.

This subset of cards are oiled permanents that require you to remove a counter every turn and are sacrificed when you remove the last counter. This lets you make cards that have a timed duration. Proliferating these cards allows them to stay on the battlefield longer.

During a short stint in early set design, the oiled mechanic was changed to this. A tiny bit remained in the set.

  • Oil counters as a mark of effect size

Magister of Vorinclex
Creature — Phyrexian Wizard
Oiled 1 (CARDNAME enters with one oil counter and gets an oil counter when empty if you proliferate.)
T: Target land you control becomes an X/X Elemental creature until end of turn, where X is the number of oil counters on CARDNAME.
6G: Put four oil counters on CARDNAME. Use this ability only once per game.

This subset includes permanents with oiled that have an effect that is set by the number of oil counters on them. These cards then have a one-time activation that allows you to add more counters to the card. Proliferating these cards increases the size of their effect.

This is another effect that saw a bit of usage, but not at common.

  • Oil as bloodthirst variant

Vulshok Volunteer (current version)
Creature — Human Warrior
CARDNAME enters the battlefield with an oil counter if an opponent was dealt damage this turn.
When CARDNAME dies, it deals damage to each opponent equal to the number of oil counters on it.

This subset includes creatures that enter with an oil counter if an opponent was dealt damage this turn. They are designed to be cards you play in the early game but get an upgrade later in the game using oil counters. The upgrades were designed to be something with less value than a full card.

This category didn't see any use.

  • Oil counters as upgrades (currently retired)

Vulshok Volunteer (original version)
Creature — Human Warrior
At the beginning of your upkeep, put an oil counter on CARDNAME.
As long as CARDNAME has 3 or more oil counters on it, it gets +1/+1, has first strike, and is a Phyrexian in addition to its other types.

This subset includes permanents that gain a counter each turn and then upgrade after you get a certain threshold. (That threshold is three on all the cards in the file.) The delta of that change is up to the discretion of the Set Design and Play Design teams. Proliferating these cards speeds up their transformation. This execution was retired from the file at Erik's request, but I'm putting it here so everyone on the Set Design team will know that it's something we tried.

The set did end up with a few cards that grew oil counters over time and then upgraded at a threshold, but usually as a triggered effect based on a certain thing happening.

Oil counters show up in all five colors, but three colors specifically care about oil counters entering or leaving. White and blue have cards that trigger whenever an oil counter is placed on a permanent you control. Red has cards that trigger whenever you spend an oil counter on a cost.

Dedicated Perfectionist
Creature — Phyrexian Advisor
Whenever you place one or more oil counters on a permanent you control, tap or untap target permanent.

Oil Drinker
Creature — Phyrexian Warrior
Whenever you spend an oil counter, CARDNAME gets +1/+1 and gains menace until end of turn.

Set Design would end up focusing oil in blue, red, and green. They also made a theme that cared about how many permanents you had with at least one oil counter on them. This was done to allow for a red-green draft archetype built around oil counters.

Phyrexian Mana

Creature — Phyrexian Shapeshifter
(p/u): Switch CARDNAME's power and toughness until end of turn.

Along with poison and proliferate, Phyrexian mana was the third thing that we felt players would expect in a Phyrexian-themed set. Phyrexian mana has its share of issues though, so Vision Design spent some time trying to figure out how to address those issues in a way that would allow us to use Phyrexian mana. Here's what we did.

1. Phyrexian mana is never used in normal mana costs.

Phyrexian mana caused two major problems. One, it allowed players to play their cards significantly earlier than they should and allowed them to put cards in decks that couldn't support their color. By keeping Phyrexian mana out of mana costs, we avoid both issues.

The compleated planeswalkers would end up using Phyrexian mana in their mana costs, but the compleated mechanic added a secondary cost (getting less loyalty), which allowed Play Design to balance them.

2. We allowed Phyrexian mana in activation costs.

Grizzled Hornclaw
Creature — Phyrexian Beast
1(p/g): Target creature blocks CARDNAME this turn if able.

We used Phyrexian mana on activated abilities on permanents where we felt the ability would want to be used on many turns. This would allow the player to occasionally use life in place of mana but would make it something they would only use some of the time. The activation costs can also have generic mana in addition if you need the ability to mana gate the activation.

Vision Design ended up being a lot more enthusiastic about this than the Set Design team. The finished product has seven cards with it, five of which are part of a rare cycle (the Domini). Early on, I was skeptical any Phyrexian mana was going to make it all the way to print, so twelve cards total (five planeswalkers plus seven activations) is pretty good.

3. We used Phyrexian mana in the relentless costs.

Grim Determination
Return target creature card from your graveyard to the battlefield.
Relentless 4(p/b)(p/b)(p/b) (If you cast this spell from your hand, exile it as it resolves. You may cast it from exile for its relentless cost if you've played a land that turn.)

Let me start by explaining what the relentless mechanic is. It goes on instants and sorceries. When you cast it, the spell is exiled. Then on any turn that you've played a land, you are allowed to cast it from exile (putting it into the graveyard) by paying its relentless cost. The monocolor mana in all relentless costs is Phyrexian mana.

Relentless was designed to (a) be something new, (b) fill up the spell space as most of the other mechanics are permanent-centric, and (c) reinforce the relentless nature of the Phyrexians. Phyrexian mana works well here because it's gated behind the initial mana cost. As with the activation costs, you have generic mana to use as a means to guarantee some mana is spent to pay the cost.

If for some reason Phyrexian mana proves to be too much of a play design issue, it could be replaced by some new Phyrexian mana variant. I do think the set wants some take on Phyrexian mana, as I believe there's a high player expectation of it being here.

Relentless ended up not being necessary. I'm not sure the Phyrexian mana helped its chances, but there were a lot of things going on, so odds were high that some would get cut. While we tried to flavor this as a Phyrexian thing, one of the biggest strikes against it was that it didn't feel as ingrained in Phyrexia as the other mechanics did. We'll likely try this again in a future set, although probably without Phyrexian mana. It did play well.

The Non-Phyrexians

Rebel Blade
Artifact — Equipment
Take up arms (When this enters the battlefield, create a 2/2 red Rebel creature token. Attach this to it.)
Equipped creature gets +1/+1.
Equip 2

One of the unique things about this set is that 80% of the set shares the same creature type—Phyrexian (although I should point out the nature of the Phyrexians means that it can appear on almost any type of creature). The set uses "Phyrexian" occasionally in place of "creature" to create some flavorful effects, mostly on cards aimed at Limited. On occasion, it will also reference "Non-Phyrexian." The non-Phyrexians are the Mirran rebels (and various creatures) that have managed to hold out despite the occupation of the Phyrexians.

There's only one card that mechanically cares about Phyrexians in the set (The Seedcore) and none that care about non-Phyrexians. This is mostly due to the fact that the cards worked so differently between Limited, where the vast majority of the creatures are Phyrexian, and Constructed formats, where they make up a tiny percentage. You'll note that the holdouts being Rebels was in the vision design handoffs.

The non-Phyrexians show up in all the colors but are focused in red and white. The red-white draft archetype is the Mirran Rebel deck which focuses on Equipment. The Mirrans have managed to repurpose the Phyrexian living weapon equipment. We call it "take up arms," but it's quite possible the mechanic is supposed to go unnamed in the set. (The creature and creature type of the token will sell the flavor.) Take up arms cards are all Equipment cards (and all Equipment cards in the set have take up arms). They are all white, red, and colorless cards that create a 2/2 red Rebel creature token and attach to it when cast. The 2/2 body allows us to make Equipment with smaller effects than normal.

The Set Design team didn't change how take up arms works but designed new cards for it. The ability mostly stayed in red and white, with one card in blue and one in green, and was renamed "For Mirrodin!"

Draft Archetypes

Here is Vision Design's best guess at draft archetypes:

It's not Vision Design's job to finalize the draft archetypes, but we like to take a first stab at it to help Set Design start to think about it. As you will see below, some draft archetypes stuck around, but many changed in set design. Again, this is a normal part of the process.

White-blue: Oil + Proliferate. These are the colors that get the reward for getting oil counters. White generates a lot of oil, and blue is number one in proliferating.

This ended up focusing more on artifacts than proliferate. The vision design did have a little bit of artifacts matter, but as you'll see below, it was more focused in black-red. White-blue is a better home for it, as blue is primary in caring about artifacts and white is secondary.

Blue-black: Poison Control. Give your opponent a poison counter and then start proliferating. Either poison them to death or take advantage of black's corrupted cards.

This archetype stayed close to what we turned over.

Black-red: "Sole Survivor." You have a lot of kill cards and some value cards (powered up corrupt cards, Equipment from arms, some relentless spells exiled), but you need to win before a deck that combines proliferate with poison counters finishes you off. We wove a little bit of caring about artifacts into this color pair.

This was one of those archetypes that we were a bit vague on. Set Design did a good job of giving it more definition. A big part of that was tying oil counters to it.

Red-green: Power Matters. This color combination has a few cards that care about having creatures with the highest power (playing into the Phyrexian theme of trying to always improve). Red and green tend to have the largest creatures, and red has its Equipment theme.

This is the archetype that changed the most. Looking back, while we had oil counters in the set, we didn't really build any draft archetypes around them. Red-green would end up going all in on oil counters as the draft theme.

Green-white: Go-Wide Poison. Green and white are both poisonous colors, and white creates the 1/1 Phyrexian Mite tokens with poisonous 1 and "can't block."

This draft archetype is exactly as we imagined it in vision design.

White-black: Corrupted. White and black are both poisonous colors and have the most and best corrupted cards. This is the poison deck that often wins by giving you some poison.

During vision design, white-black was the corrupted deck, which stayed true, but what that meant and how it played changed significantly in set design.

Blue-red: Spells Matter + Relentless. These two colors will probably have the most relentless spells along with some instants- and sorceries-matter cards.

This draft archetype stayed spell focused, but obviously lost the spell mechanic that got removed from the set.

Black-green: Big Poison. Black and green both have poisonous and have the larger poisonous numbers. This is the midrange poison deck.

The three poison archetypes (between white, black, and green) were the things that stayed the closest to Vision Design's take on the draft archetypes.

Red-white: Equipment Aggro. Red and white have most of the Mirran Rebels and an Equipment theme.

This is the non-poison draft archetype that changed the least from the handoff.

Green-blue: Proliferate + Poison. Green has the biggest poisonous creatures, and blue and green are the two best proliferate colors.

A lot of the execution of this draft archetype changed, but the core concept of poison and proliferate stuck around.

In Conclusion

I'm very proud of the Vision Design team and their work. I think we did a good job of taking elements that the audience would expect of a Phyrexian-themed set and combining them to make something new. I have every confidence the Set Design team will be able to use these tools to build a great set. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.


Mark Rosewater

I'm happy looking back. The vision of the set crafted by Vision Design held firm throughout. Yes, a few mechanics were dropped and a lot of card designs were tweaked, but that's all part of the normal process.

That wraps it up for today. As always, I'm eager to hear your feedback, be it on the document, my comments, or Phyrexia: All Will Be One itself. You can email me or contact me through my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).

Join me next week for "1,100 and Counting."

Until then, may you and the Phyrexians get to know one another.