After previews, I like to do my card-by-card design stories. I didn't work on Core Set 2021, but that doesn't mean I don't have stories to share, as a lot of the cards in the set are reprints from sets that I did work on. So, today, I'm going to share stories about cards I (and others) made long ago that are coming back in Core Set 2021.
Baneslayer Angel (Magic 2010)
This card was pretty controversial when it was originally designed in Magic 2010. I believe it had vigilance instead of first strike. We knew Serra Angel was going to be in the set at uncommon, and this seemed better than Serra in too many ways. It was +1/+1 and had three extra abilities for the same cost. Obviously, we have cards that are better than other cards, but somehow doing this to Serra Angel just felt wrong, so we lobbied to change vigilance to first strike, so Baneslayer Angel stayed at roughly the same power level but now wasn't completely strictly better than Serra Angel. You might still want Serra if Stasis was out.
Dual Lands from Khans of Tarkir
Our story starts not in Khans of Tarkir design but in original Invasion development (kind of a cross between current set design and play design). Randy Buehler had recently joined R&D as we were trying to hire some pro players to help with development. Invasion was a multicolor set, and Randy felt our dual lands weren't strong enough, so he proposed the following lands:
The rest of R&D thought they were too good, but Randy argued they weren't. We listened to Randy as that's why we hired him, to help with power level issues, and low and behold, they weren't too good. The "tap" lands would become a staple of the game.
Flash forward a number of years to original Zendikar design. Zendikar's theme was lands, so we wanted to make sure we included a number of interesting lands in the product. It turns out that in the years since Invasion, we'd learned something—not only weren't the tap lands too strong, they were actually a bit on the weak side. We had room to make them a little better. The land set seemed like the perfect place to do that.
The big question was what kind of bonus should the lands give you? We experimented with a few different things, but interestingly, the correct answer was the first thing we thought of—life gain. You didn't get a lot, but 1 life proved to be the perfect fit. The small incremental gain added up as you played a bunch of these lands over the course of the game. We chose to put them at uncommon and called them Refuge lands.
Now, we flash forward to Khans of Tarkir. We had a three-color set and wanted to make sure we gave the players enough color fixing. What if we put the Refuge lands at common? Also, players had been begging us for the enemy versions of them for years, so we could do those too. Unfortunately, we'd named the Refuges after places on Zendikar, meaning the names didn't work on Tarkir, so we ended up making a brand-new 10-card cycle of lands, complete with names that we could potentially use on other planes. That is what we've used in Core Set 2021.
Cancel (Time Spiral) and Shock (Stronghold)
Back in the day, one of my focuses was taking cards with staple effects that were clearly the wrong mana cost and then making a new version, hopefully to be used for the rest of time. I spent great care designing and naming these cards because I was trying to make something timeless. Not all of my designs ended up working out, but these two did.
Cancel was obviously me reworking Counterspell. It was a perfect, clean, classic effect, just a little undercosted at UU. The problem we had was the correct cost was probably ½UU, but, other than Unhinged, we don't use fractions in our costs, so the only option was to cost it at 1UU. That does mean that we can make variants of it that get a little something extra, but we like having the option to just print the base effect, such as in a core set.
Shock is a fix for Lightning Bolt. I realized that adding mana didn't really solve the problem as one of the important things about Lightning Bolt was that it only cost one mana. The solution was to just reduce the damage by one. There was a little worry, at the time, it might be too weak, but Shock has proven over the years to be plenty effective.
Faith's Fetters (Ravnica: City of Guilds)
Are you aware that this card is part of a cycle?
This cycle was made by Richard Garfield in the design of original Ravnica. Auras have always been a problem, as they allow the opportunity for card disadvantage (since the opponent's kill spell will essentially destroy the creature and the aura on it), so R&D has spent a lot of time trying to come up with different ways to offset that card disadvantage. This was one of Richard's attempts. The idea was to give the caster basically a spell effect in addition to the aura, so even if they lost the aura, they weren't down a card as the spell effect was like a card.
The cycle wasn't particularly connected to the themes of the set. They weren't multicolor or tied to the guilds in any way, but they were solid designs, and not everything has to be connected directly to the theme, so I put them in the set.
The cycle mostly stayed as Richard designed them save for some development tweaks (aka we changed mana costs and numbers in rules text). I think Richard might have turned Faith's Fetters in as a Pacifism (can't attack or block), and we turned it into an Arrest (can't attack, block, or use activated abilities), and I believe we upped the amount of life. The card was meant to be an attempt at a tournament card. We succeeded, obviously.
Quirion Dryad (Planeshift)
Planeshift was the middle set of the Invasion block. The Invasion block was our first themed block, and its theme was multicolor. As such, all the sets had a bunch of multicolor cards and some themes that played well with them. One theme was "color matters." This means that we made a bunch of cards that cared, in some way, what the color of other permanents and spells were.
Green has always had a theme of playing the nicest with the other colors. It has the land-fetching cards that can get lands that produce other colors, and it has creatures that can tap for mana of any color. With this in mind, I set out to design a card for Planeshift.
Green's the best at growth, so I decided to make a creature that got bigger whenever you cast a non-green spell. I had it care about all the colors because I wanted to reflect green's willingness to work with others. I used +1/+1 counters, as that's how you make a creature grow. I made it a 1/1 to give it room to grow. I believe the version I made is the card that got to print. I do remember in editing that there was talk of changing the card to care about any spell that wasn't green, but that then allowed colorless cards to give it a +1/+1 counter, which wasn't a change in functionality we wanted. I didn't particularly think I was making a powerful creature, but it ended up seeing quite a bit of tournament play. I'm excited to see it come back.
Rewind (Urza's Saga)
One of the things we used to do was to stop doing certain things, like say make multicolor cards, for a number of sets, so that when we brought them back, the audience would be excited to see them. One of these things was cantrips (aka cards that have an added "draw a card" rider). I was not a fan of this. I felt cantrips were just a tool and every set should have access to them, but it wasn't my call to make, so Urza's Saga was declared to be a cantrip-free set.
This got me thinking about finding a different way to play in cantrip space. What exactly was a cantrip? It was a spell that didn't cost you a card. What if we flipped that on its ear? What if we had a spell that cost you a card, but not mana? What would that mean? We couldn't just have spells that were free. Okay, what if you had to pay the mana, but we gave it back to you. That way, you could only play a spell if you were able to pay its cost. That raised the next question, how exactly could we give the mana back to you? The idea I came up with was that it would untap a number of lands equal to the spell's converted mana cost. If the spell cost you four mana to cast it, you would get to untap four lands and get four mana back. (With 20/20 hindsight, I should have just added the mana cost's mana to your mana pool.) I dubbed my new mechanic "free spells."
For those of you that don't know your Magic history, the "free spells" went horribly wrong. You see, we put it in a set with lands like this:
So, when you untapped four lands, you got way more than four mana. From a play design standpoint, the "free spells" proved to have a very problematic quality. Normally, if a spell is too powerful, you add mana to its mana cost, but with a "free spell," often adding mana made the card more powerful. Anyway, we chalked up the "free spells" as a bad experiment and vowed to never do them again.
Flash forward to the design of Eighth Edition. I was on the team. Randy Buehler was the team lead. He was trying to find a counterspell for the set and was looking at old sets for options. Remember, back then, core sets were only reprints, so his only choices were existing cards. He came up to me and said, "What do you think of Rewind?"
At first, I thought he was joking. I got teased in R&D for years about making the "free spells." Randy said, "The problem with the 'free spells' was when they were proactive. You could cast them whenever you needed to. Rewind, though, is reactive. You can't just cast it whenever you want. I think it might not be a problem."
We put it in the set, because we thought it would be exciting if we could actually include it in the set. No one would expect it. A lot of us were skeptical, but playtesting showed that Randy's hypothesis was correct. Rewind was playable, but it wasn't broken, so it got printed in the set. It came back in numerous other core sets and wasn't a problem in any of them either.
So, it turns out my experiment to find a "cantrip alternative" wasn't a total disaster.
Solemn Simulacrum (Mirrodin)
After the 2001 Magic Invitational, I was called to the office of the head of Organized Play and informed that in the following year, the Invitational's budget was being dropped to $0. They were happy to have me run it. I just wasn't getting any money. This meant I had to get creative. First, I had to find a partner that could help us get some budget. That partner ended up being Magic Online. It was, at the time, a relatively new thing, and they were eager to get more people aware of it. The Magic Invitational was a high-profile event and was a popular tournament to spectate. It was a perfect fit. Second, we needed to find a place to play. As we had a small budget, that place ended up being the Wizards corporate office in Renton, Washington.
The event was won by a player named Jens Thorén. For winning the Invitational, Jens was allowed to design a Magic card that he would also appear on in the art. My job was to work with the winner to tweak the card so we could get it into a set. The goal was to both make it feel like a natural inclusion in the set and something the Invitational winner was happy with. Here's the card Jens turned in:
Creature – Elf Wizard
When Forestfolk comes into play, you may search your library for a basic land and put it into play tapped. Then shuffle your library.
When Forestfolk leaves play, draw a card.
R&D actually liked the card a lot. Many former Invitational winners had turned in cards that were much harder to work with. The only real issue was that the set this was scheduled for was original Mirrodin, and it really wasn't a multicolor set. It was an artifact set. I met with Jens at the next pro tour and said, "How would you feel if we turned your card into an artifact creature?" He asked if it would have to cost more. I told him that the R&D folks who were in charge of power balance said no. He smiled and said, 'Sure.'" And that is how Solemn Simulacrum came to be. Here's the original version with Jens pictured on the card:
Skeleton Archer (Core Set 2019)
This isn't a design story I was involved in, but it's a cool one, so I thought I'd tell it here. For years when we've designed Skeletons, the trope we'd most often follow were Skeletons that reassemble themselves when they're destroyed. The idea is that they're a scary foe because they keep coming back. This goes all the way back to Alpha.
One day while chatting in the Pit, Ethan brings up that the skeleton trope we keep hitting is pretty dated, that it goes back to movies from our youth. Kids today don't think of skeletons like that. In video games, when you destroy a skeleton, they tend to stay dead. Maybe, he suggested, we should start designing Skeletons that match the expectation of younger players.
That's the impetus for Skeleton Archer's design. What do skeletons do in modern video games? They tend to have bows and arrows and shoot at you? So, that's what Ethan designed.
Formerly Known as Reprints
Thanks for reading everyone. I hope you enjoyed these stories from the past. As always, I'm eager for any feedback either on today's column or on Core Set 2021. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week for my Core Set 2021 mailbag column.
Until then, may you have fun playing with goodies from Magic's past.
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