A Theros By Any Other Name, Part 2
Welcome to the second Theros Preview Week. Last week, I began telling you about Theros design, so if you haven't read that you might want to do so as I'm assuming you have. To quickly recap, Theros started out as a completely different block idea but when that idea was nixed, the suggestion of having a Greek mythology set with an enchantment theme was pitched. (Hmm, it was nixed so it got Nyxed.) I spent some time trying to wrap my head around what that meant and ended up getting inspired by a child's book on Greek mythology with the subtitle "Gods, Heroes, and Monsters." Today, I will walk you through how each of those three aspects got woven into the set, and I'll even show off a new preview card. Hopefully, that sounds like fun.
- "Then shalt thou count to three."
You'll notice that I keep coming back to the concept of gods, heroes, and monsters. The reason I do is that after a lot of exploring how I wanted to structure the set, I found this division made the most sense. Why is that? Well, let me explain.
When I first started Theros design I was very much guided by Innistrad design. That was the one other time I had done a top-down design and, as it was very successful, I felt like it was a good template to work from. In fact, as I explained last week, I started off the first Theros design team meeting doing the exact same exercise I had done for the first Innistrad design team meeting.
After a few weeks, though, I quickly figured out I had a problem. While on the surface both sets seem to be very similar, once you started digging in, you realized the difference. The flavor of horror was based on media properties—movies and television shows. I had a sense of how vampires and werewolves and zombies behaved because I had watched many stories where I saw them behave.
Nylea, God of the Hunt | Art by Chris Rahn
Greek mythology, though, was experienced much more through word. Yes, there were a few movies like Clash of the Titans but most of the experience with Greek mythology happened where each individual was imaging what he or she thought it looked like. How does a gorgon behave? There wasn't a shared cultural answer. Thus, I found myself having very incomplete answers.
For example, I knew that zombies were a slow horde that built up over time. I got their shamble and had a good sense of the kind of threat they created and what emotional sense they evoked. Centaurs? Um, they have crossbows? They often are wise and serve as mentors? They have horse-like qualities? How did I mechanically design zombies? To act like zombies. I knew not only what I knew but what our players knew. I understood the expectation. How does a centaur function? I realized I had no idea—at least, not in a manner that would be consistent for the majority of players. Why? Because there isn't a shared cultural identity for centaurs, meaning there's not a unified expectation of how they behave.
What this meant was that I wasn't able to approachTheros design exactly like Innistrad design because the source material had been absorbed differently by the audience. The more I studied it, the more I came to realize that the modern audience is very influenced by Greek mythology—but less so by characters and more so by the archetypes that Greek mythology brought to the world. A lot of the kinds of stories that we tell today are based upon the epic myths of the Greek heroes. This meant that instead of capturing the feel of my source material, I had to capture the tone. To non-designers, this might sound like I'm splitting hairs, but the two are done differently, design-wise.
The easiest way to explain it is this. For Innistrad, I had to make the Werewolves feel like werewolves and the Vampires feel like vampires and the Zombies feel like zombies. For Theros, I had to make the set as a whole capture the sense of Greek mythology. This meant that I could break down Innistrad into its component monster (and human) parts. For Theros, I had to break it down structurally not by creature but by tonal element. The reason I was so excited to stumble upon the idea of gods, heroes, and monsters was that those were components I could design to. Each of those meant something internally to the audience and, more importantly, it meant something consistent.
The trick then was to figure out what exactly it meant and how to convey that mechanically.
- The Gods Must Be Crazy
Last week, I explained that I came to the conclusion that there was no way to do Greek mythology (or more accurately, a Magic world inspired by Greek mythology) without having a pantheon of gods. The idea that they would be tied into the color wheel, the core of Magic's identity, was a no-brainer. The trickier part was what exactly would be the players' expectation of gods.
For starters, I knew that talking about the gods wasn't just about how the gods themselves would be represented (although that was a problem that needed solving) but how the gods' influence on the world was represented. Greek mythology is not just about the gods but about their interaction with the people and how their influence affects those people.
Erebos, God of the Dead | Art by Peter Mohrbacher
I talked last week about how I liked the idea of using enchantments as a means to represent the gods' influence. Enchantments are the perfect card type to show lasting influence, both in global enchantments that sit on the battlefield and redefine the environment and in Auras that sit on permanents to change them in some fundamental way. In addition, I really liked the idea of figuring out how to make enchantment creatures relevant and having them be creations of the gods felt perfect. It also felt right that the gods themselves were enchantment creatures.
On top of it all, I wanted to be able to demonstrate the people's attachment to their gods. A lot of Greek mythology revolves around the gods wanting (and, one could argue, needing) the admiration of the people. I needed to find a way to make this connection mechanically relevant.
Interestingly, we figured out the latter goal before the former one. One day, Zac Hill came to the design meeting and said, "You know what would be a good mechanic to bring back in this set? Chroma." For those unaware of chroma, it was a mechanic first hinted at on this card in Future Sight:
One of my goals with the Future Sight future-shifted cards was to show glimpses of areas we were thinking about one day designing. I designed Phosphorescent Feast because I was fascinated by the idea of having colored mana symbols in mana costs matter. At the time, I didn't know where exactly I was going to use it, but I knew it was ripe space for exploration. A year later, while working on Eventide, I realized that I had a set focused on the colors of mana cost (as the set was about hybrid mana). We reprinted Phosphorescent Feast and introduced the ability word "chroma" to the world.
The response was lukewarm. Now, to be fair, the response to the entire set was lukewarm. Deep down, I felt like chroma was better than how we had executed it. We did it devoid of flavor and spread it around so much (chroma had you looking all over for the colored mana) that it didn't get a strong feel in play.
That's why I was excited when Zac brought up the idea of bringing back chroma. We were looking for a mechanic that represented the people's love for their gods and chroma was a pretty good fit. Now, there were some problems with it. First, the name was devoid of flavor and actively didn't work in the set, flavorwise. I decided that I was willing to rename it if necessary and kept trudging along.
The second problem was that I realized that what I wanted was to only care about the battlefield and chroma was broader than that. That's when it hit me. Perhaps if I limited it to the battlefield, that would not only fit the flavor better but it would allow me the excuse to give it a new name. As I messed around with new names, I realized what I wanted was to create a thing I could refer to rather than an ability word. That meant I had to turn it into an actual keyword. I chose the word "devotion" because it fit well in Theros but was broad enough that it could work in other worlds. I also chose to tie the word to the color so that a creature would have "devotion from blue" or whatever color it cared about. Once I tried out the "devotion from BLAH", it was crystal clear that was the perfect fit.
A nice side benefit of keywording devotion to a color was that it would allow us to refer to it on other cards, something that chroma, an ability word, could not do. For those unaware, the rules do not allow you to reference ability words in the rules text of other cards. For example, you cannot say "Whenever you cast a card with ABILITY WORD, something triggers." The gods referencing the amount of devotion you have is also something that would not have worked with chroma.
So one problem was solved pretty easily. The other problem would end up being solved by someone who wasn't even on the design team, although he got credited for being so because of the mechanic I'm about to explain. (If you read last week's column, you'll know I'm talking about Billy Moreno.)
- Working Ahead
Later this year I'm going to be writing an article about something we call advanced design, which is something that has completely changed how we do design. I haven't talked about it yet because although we've been doing it for a while, it hasn't yet affected products the public has seen. That is, until now.
The short version—I'll save the long version for that article—is that we now have a team that works on designs before the design team gets its hands on them. Theros didn't have an advanced design team but Born of the Gods did. And it was there that Billy made a mechanic called bestow.
But before I tell you that story, I have to tell you this one. (If I didn't become a game designer, maybe I could have written children's books.) We figured out early on that the enchantments would represent the influence of the gods. Greek mythology is full of gods bestowing gifts, as well as curses, upon mortals. The gods are fickle and they like messing with mortals. We realized that enchantments captured this sense well with their flavor. In particular, Auras did a great job of showing the gods having an influence on a particular thing, most often a creature.
Gift of Immortality | Art by Matt Stewart
Auras also worked well to capture the sense of growth and accomplishment. I'll get to this a bit more when I talk about heroes, but it was important to capture the feel that creatures grew and improved over time, and Auras did this well while also feeling like the hand of the gods was involved.
We made all sorts of good Auras, but we quickly ran into a problem, what I like to refer to as a problem of math. In Limited, people tend to play twenty-three spells and seventeen lands (this is an average, so yes there is variance). Of those twenty-three spells, usually around sixteen are creatures. That means that no matter what we do, the best we could hope for is that each deck has seven Auras. And that assumes we're using Auras to do a lot of the work instants and sorceries normally do, because the Auras would have to be taking those spots.
I talk a lot about "as-fan," which is a term that talks about how often a certain component shows up in the average booster. Another important concept is what we call "as-played." We can give you a giant number of Auras but if only so many can fit in a deck, it doesn't matter how many you open.
So we had Auras worthy of playing (in Limited, at least—remember that design plays with a flat power level to try things out in playtest) but not enough slots to play them. Also, they were fighting against other things like creature removal that Limited really needs (yes, we could make Auras that are creature removal but then they aren't really acting as Auras). We needed numbers to make our game play work but the math was having, shall we say, issues.
Now let's return to our other story. Advanced planning had originally started for "Huey" but we had received enough benefit from the team that I realized I could use the help on the Theros block. While trying to figure out how to advance both the Aura and enchantment creature themes, Billy came up with the idea of bestow. The idea of bestow was that it went on enchantment creatures that you could choose to play as Auras. If you did, when the enchanted creature died, the bestowed Auras fell off onto the battlefield as creatures.
Celestial Archon | Art by Matt Stewart
Originally, the cost was the same whether or not you cast them as a creature or as an Aura, but development quickly figured out that it was more interesting if you had a choice, and that meant making the Aura more expensive, as that option came with the built-in creature.
The bestow creatures were set for Born of the Gods because I liked the idea that the first enchantment creatures you met were the gods and you got to meet their creations in the second set, but math reared its ugly head. Erik Lauer (the lead developer of Theros) and I came to the same conclusion at the same time. Erik came to me to explain that the key to solving the math was to use the mechanic that allowed creatures and Auras to overlap. Bestow creatures, he said, would solve our problem because people could play them as creatures while also upping their Aura count. My reply to Erik was, "I came to the same conclusion. They're already in the set."
It turns out today's preview card is a creature with bestow, so why don't we take a look at it?
Everyone, I'd like you to meet Boon Satyr.
Both enchantment creatures and creatures with bestow have a number of design constraints on them, so I thought I would walk you through the constraints and explain why they exist.
- Constraints for Enchantment Creatures
#1: They must have an enchantment component and a creature component.
The reason Lucent Liminid is not in Theros is that it breaks this rule. It was important to me that enchantment creatures be both enchantment and creature. As they all have power and toughness and are able to attack and block, this satisfies the creature component. For the enchantment part, I wanted to make sure each enchantment creature had some element that felt like an enchantment. Obviously, having bestow qualifies as the enchantment component.
For those of you dying to have some vanilla enchantment creatures, we did make one exception to allow you to have some. We decided that tokens could be vanilla enchantment creatures because we tend to avoid putting a lot of rules text on tokens. This also avoids us having any vanilla enchantment creatures sitting on cards (with the obvious exception of token cards).
#2: All enchantment creatures use the new frame.
The new frame that we showed off for the first time at the San Diego Comic-Con Magic Panel is for enchantment creatures. The block very much cares about them and we wanted to make sure it was easy to differentiate the enchantment creatures from the normal creatures.
- Constraints for Creatures with Bestow
#1: All bestow creatures in their Aura form grant power and toughness equal to their own power and toughness.
For example, Boon Satyr is a 4/2 that grants +4/+2. This means that all bestow creatures have to grant at least 1 toughness, otherwise, in creature form, the creature would die as a state-based effect once it hit the battlefield. It also means that the vast majority of creatures with bestow boost both power and toughness as Auras.
#2: Any ability the bestow creature grants as an Aura it must have naturally.
If a creature with bestow grants flying then it must naturally have flying.
I'm sure some of you notice that these rules cut down some design space. While that is true, we felt the bestow mechanic was already complicated and we wanted to do everything we could to make it easier to understand as well as make it easier to understand what each card with bestow did. I feel this trade of consistency for design space was the right choice.
- Bestow and NWO
NWO stands for "New World Order" and it is a method by which Ramp;D keeps the complexity of common in check to make sure the game stays approachable for new players to learn. (Here is more detail about what New World Order entails and how we use it.)
Bestow is wordy and a little complex. Why is it in common? First, while it is tricky to put into words, we believe the basic usage of bestow is something players will figure out quickly. It mostly does exactly what you would expect it to do. There are plenty of corner cases, but we've worked hard to make sure they don't come up much in common. Probably the biggest question from common will be the interaction of bestow and heroic. As the answer is "it works" (i.e., enchanting a creature that has the heroic mechanic with a bestowed Aura makes the heroic trigger happen) we believe it will do what the players want and expect it to do.
Leafcrown Dryad | Art by Volkan Baga
The other reason we kept bestow at common was that, as I explained above, it is vital to make the math work out. Remember that NWO doesn't say common can't have any complexity but that it has to be rationed and used carefully. As bestow was key to making everything work, we chose to put our complexity points in its basket. That meant that we worked hard to make sure the things around it at common were as easy to grasp as possible.
- One Down, Two To Go
That's everything I wanted to say about gods. I've run out of time for heroes and monsters but, luckily, I have Part 3 next week to finish that up. As always, I am eager to hear your feedback on how we put the set together and hear your first impressions. I'm also eager to hear your first impressions after getting to play the set for the first time. You can drop me an email, respond to this thread, or talk to me through any of my social media outlets (Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+).
Join me next week when, well, I talk about what I just mentioned above.
Until then, may you feel the touch of the gods in all of your games of Theros.