The Walking Undead
I looked over to see Mark Gottlieb impaled with an odd-looking harpoon. I had been so caught up in thought that I hadn't noticed that the Pit had visitors—blue-skinned, gilled visitors. If I didn't know any better I would have guessed they were merfolk, but what would merfolk be doing at Wizards?
Most of R&D fled the Pit to the stairwell. As a general rule, when fellow employees get harpooned by strange blue men, it's time to go. We reached the first floor and ran towards the exit. Except it wasn't there. Right where the door should be was a wall. We tried another exit, only to find the same thing had happened. Minus one door, plus one wall. A quick check of the first floor revealed that all the exits were gone.
Just as panic began setting in, an angel flew down the hall. It wasn't just any angel, though. I could tell from the way she was dressed that she was a Serra angel. And she was out for blood. R&D darted back for the stairwell but she was fast. Tom LaPille fell to the ground, while Ken Nagle pressed his hand to a giant gash in his side.
As I ran up the stairs, I was trying to piece together what was going on. We were being attacked by what appeared to be merfolk and a Serra angel, not to mention whatever was going on with the missing doors. There had to be some connections in this madness; I just had to figure it out.
As a fan of writing archetypes, I recognized we were trapped in some kind of horror story. If I understood the attacking horde trope correctly (and yes, I love writing the word "trope"), all the creatures attacking us had to be connected in some way. Deducing this connection would be key to saving ourselves. We couldn't stop the problem until we understood it.
All right, what do merfolk and Serra Angel have in common? They were both in Alpha. They're both in Magic 2012. They're both creatures. They're both humanoid. They both predate Magic. They both have shown up in winning tournament decks. I wasn't figuring it out.
Think, think, I said to myself. How about the missing doors? What did missing doors have to do with Magic? The merfolk and Serra angel clearly made this feel Magic related. Innistrad has Cellar Door. There was Door to Nothingness and Door of Destinies. It wasn't about the doors. The doors weren't what was there. All that was there was the walls. Walls!
Okay, merfolk, Serra Angel, and walls. All creatures. Think back to the trope. What was I working on when this all started? Those little details always matter in the horror story. The hero's never just reading a random book when the story begins. No, the book always matters. It foretells what's to come. What was I working on?
It was Undead Week. I was writing my Undead Week column. I was trying to find an original take on the undead in Magic. Oh my...
That's it! We were being attacked by the undead of Magic. Not the zombies, vampires and skeletons—not those undead. These were the things that we in R&D killed, the things that didn't stay dead, that came back.
As I had the realization of what was going on, I heard a distinctive sound that I couldn't place right away. It was the sound of flapping wings. The Serra angel was in the stairwell below.
Shortly after I had begun working at Wizards, I wound up on the Fifth Edition development team. The design team removed Serra Angel because it was deemed "too powerful." Five mana for a 4/4 flier with an extra ability. We couldn't let a monstrosity like that loose on the public. I tried fighting for Serra because I thought she was being unfairly accused, but it wasn't a fight I could win. The development team, of which I was a member, rubber-stamped her exile from Magic.
I tried pleading my case in silver-bordered land with a card in Unglued II called Que Serra, Serra (with full length card art done by Doug Shuler, Serra Angel's original artist).
Unfortunately, Unglued II got put on permanent hiatus, and the card never saw print.
Years later when the design team was putting together Seventh Edition, the argument was made that Serra Angel wasn't too good; it was just much better than the majority of the creatures in her time, most of which sucked. Serra Angel wasn't too good. It was where creatures should be power-wise. Years later with the addition of Baneslayer Angel it was shown not only that Serra Angel was not too good, but that better could be done safely.
Knowing we'd never last against a warrior angel, we ducked into the second floor. We were only a few steps in when Ryan Spain got bit. We looked down to see the floor crawling with snakes and scorpions. I started rattling off various snakes in my head. From Nafs Asp to Ambush Viper, snakes have been part of Magic for its entire life. It was only when Ryan collapsed to the ground that I realized what we were facing: "Poison creatures!"
Poison first started in Legends and had enough fans in R&D that it kept getting printed in dribs and drabs through Visions. The power level was always low and the mechanic was considered to be mostly a joke. During Mirage block, a lot was done to tighten up the game (the Sixth Edition rules change, for example, began in R&D around this time). Poison was seen as a mechanic that added fiddliness for little gain and was excised from Magic.
It took over ten years and the almost complete rotation of Magic R&D for me to finally convince everyone that poison had potential to be something more than a joke. I argued that if we brought it back we had to find a way to make it matter so that it was worth the extra attention needed to track it. The mechanic returned in Scars of Mirrodin and was voted in the godbook studies to be the favorite mechanic of the block. (For the longer version of this story, click here.)
Facing a roomful of poisonous snakes and scorpions seemed almost as bad as facing a Serra Angel, so we decided to head back to the stairwell. We turned around to find the door gone. Yes, the walls were back.
I was one of the cheerleaders to kill the Wall creature type. It just didn't make any sense. Creatures are living, breathing, sentient organisms. How is a wall a creature? From a flavor perspective a wall is either an artifact or a land. It was fine for the game to have creatures with defender—just make them things that logically wanted to stay on the defensive.
That logic kept Walls away for several years, but sentimentality eventually brought them back. Although Walls didn't make much sense creature-wise, they did have an über-logic to them in that they were used as a means to protect the player. This meta-flavor was beloved by enough of R&D that Walls returned in Tenth Edition. They are used much more sparingly now, and Creative tries to keep them from feeling like inanimate objects, but Walls are back.
There always comes a scene in the horror movie where our band of adventurers finds themselves trapped with nowhere to escape. We had lost our only exit and now found ourselves just a few feet away from an army of poison critters. Ryan had collapsed, and it was clear it only took one bite for the poison to do its work.
I scanned around us for a weapon to fight the approaching horde, but all I could find was a water cooler. I guess we could talk around it about how we were all about to die. I glanced down and noticed the hairs on the back of my hand standing up. I realized what I had to do.
"Help me get the water tank off," I asked a few others. I instructed them to then douse the poison creatures with water.
"Water isn't going to stop them," Ethan said.
"I know," I replied, "The undead aren't just creatures."
To which Ethan said, "Whaaaa...?"
"Just douse the poison creatures with water."
After they were done, Ethan came back, "Okay, now they're wet and angry. I'm not sure what exactly this is doing for us."
I took off my flannel.
"There's something else after us. The Serra Angel made me realize that it's not just creature types, but individual cards as well. There's another card waiting to strike. Literally. Come on! I know you're out there. You have R&D right here. Now's your chance!"
I glanced down at the hairs on my arm. "Duck!" I yelled.
A second later the Lightning Bolt struck.
The one-drop red instant was killed because it was just one in a line of "boons" from Alpha that proved too good. (The boons were a cycle of cards in Alpha that each cost one colored mana and did or gained three of something: Healing Salve, Ancestral Recall, Dark Ritual, Lightning Bolt, and Giant Growth.) When Lightning Bolt was retired, we created the strictly worse card Shock to take its place.
Flash forward to Magic 2010, and Aaron Forsythe was looking for a sexy card to reprint in the set—something that players wouldn't expect us to bring back. He chose Lightning Bolt because he believed it fit the criteria. The creation of Shock convinced the world that we were never going back, but Aaron felt that Lightning Bolt—while at the top of what was safe—would be okay in modern-day Standard. Aaron was proven right, as the card had an impact but served its two-year stint without any serious power problems.
The Lightning Bolt did exactly what I had hoped for it to do. It rattled R&D, but it electrocuted all the soaking wet poison creatures.
"Let's hurry. We have to make it upstairs. Fourth floor!" I yelled.
"Why the fourth floor?" Ken asked. I could tell his cut was getting worse.
"I think I know who's behind this, and we'll find them on the fourth floor."
We had to do a run-around on a squadron of rebels. We lost Erik and Billy to a pack of thrulls. Brady came this close, ironically, to being done in by a group of squirrels. But eventually we made it up to the fourth floor.
"Where are we going?" Ethan asked.
"To the Bridge," I answered. The Bridge is the boardroom right off of the fourth floor lobby. It was named after the key locale on Star Trek.
Unfortunately, directly between us and our destination were the merfolk, who had traveled up a flight from the Pit.
The creative team had always had issues with sea-based creatures, as the game of Magic, flavorfully speaking, occurs on a battlefield. Summoning sea creatures never made much sense. It wasn't hard getting rid of the Octopuses and the Sharks, but the Merfolk proved to be a harder job, as they had become the core race of blue and there wasn't anything obvious to replace them with.
Odyssey removed several of the core races for a block to try and shake things up, and Merfolk went away and never returned—that is, until years later. Many players had always liked Merfolk and were unhappy with their absence. Whenever we would ask about creature types, the demand for Merfolk to return was always very loud. In the end, we decided that in this case the overall happiness of having Merfolk in the game overrode the inconsistency of the flavor. The creative team also looked for ways for them to make sense; the merfolk of Zendikar, for example, have finned legs rather than fish tails. (The story of Merfolk history was told, a bit unconventionally, during Merfolk Week.)
For all the talk of how poorly they would fight on land, they did a good job of holding us off. Our only chance seemed to be to take advantage of a quirky quality of the Wizards building: its circular floor plan. We retreated the other direction to try and reach the Bridge. Save for a lone gremlin, we didn't run into any more of the undead.
As we approached the door to the lobby, Ken fell over. He was sweating and looked pale. I assumed the injury was finally taking its toll when I saw that Shawn, Zack, and Ethan were looking likewise ill. That's when it hit me. I'm not sure how to describe it. It was a combination of sickness, fatigue and weakness all at once.
Of course—we were being attacked by -1/-1 counters.
Once upon a time, Magic was crawling with power/toughness changing counters. +1/+1, +1/+0, +0/+1, +2/+0, +0/+2, -1/-1, -1/-0, -2/-0, -0/-1, -0/-2, -2/-2... the list went on and on. Eventually R&D bit the bullet and said no more. Having so many different types of counters made it impossible for players to know what the board state represented, so we decided to do away with them all save the most useful one: the +1/+1 counter.
Many years later while working on Lorwyn, we got the idea of trying to make a softer, friendlier world where things didn't kill you; they merely weakened you. While this sounded good in practice, the actual feel was very malicious, as if the other cards enjoyed torturing your creatures rather than killing them. Experimenting with -1/-1 counters led us to the wither and persist mechanics, which both proved very interesting and demonstrated potential new design space—enough so that we decided to break our ban on -1/-1 counters (although we still keep them apart from +1/+1 counters in the same Limited environment). If you want a longer version of this story you can read my column from -1/-1 Counter Week.
Everyone was dropping like flies to the ground, but I kept going. I have three kids at home, so I've had a little more exposure to this kind of thing. I knew if we were going to survive this onslaught of the undead, I was going to have to make it to the Bridge. As I opened up the door to the boardroom and swung myself inside, I could feel the -1/-1 counters leaving me. Whatever was inside the room was something even the -1/-1 counters didn't want to deal with.
I walked in to find three of the chairs turned away from me. My story training told me that I was about to get a reveal of what Joss Whedon likes to call "the big bad." I, of course, already knew who was sitting in the chairs.
"When I first realized what was going on, I ran through in my head all the things that R&D has killed and brought back. I knew within that list was my answer to what was behind this attack. So, let's talk—demons!"
And with that, the three chairs spun around to reveal three of the biggest, baddest, nastiest, scariest demons you'll ever see.
It was many years ago, when Magic was young. We were just starting to get into the mass market, and we were worried about the impact that having demonic imagery would have on the game. To play it safe, we removed all Demons and demonic imagery from the game.
Demons became Beasts or Horrors, and any symbol that we felt conveyed demon-ness was erased.
Years later, it became apparent that demonic imagery was showing up all over pop culture (in things like Buffy, the Vampire Slayer and Lord of the Rings). The game had grown and was more secure in its position in the market. We realized that demons were a core part of fantasy and keeping them from the game was only lowering Magic's overall quality, so we brought them back. (For the detailed story, you can click here.)
"Ah, Maro. With the combination of your Magic trivia knowledge, puzzle solving skills and your preference to be the protagonist in all the stories in your column, we knew you were going to be the one to figure it out," the head demon said.
He then rose to his feet. The head demon was tall enough that he had to stoop slightly to avoid hitting his head on the ceiling. "Black-bordered core sets, Un- sets, basic land in boosters, the term "cast," colored mana symbols in text boxes, trample in the core set, printing in Korean... I could go on and on. R&D does love to kill things. Too bad for you, that we don't stay dead."
"What is this?" I asked "Revenge? We killed you, so now you kill us?"
"Not exactly. We're here more on... let's call it a fact finding mission."
"And the attack on R&D?"
"We were just having a little fun."
"You've killed all of R&D!"
"I said we were having a little fun." He gestured to himself and his two cohorts. "This is what demons do."
"What do you want to know?"
"We understand death. It's a powerful tool. Something proves problematic, you kill it. We get that. Here's what we don't understand. Why do you bring so many things back?"
"What do you mean?"
"R&D publicly calls shadow a mistake. You say storm never should have been printed. You call madness overly complicated. And then along comes Time Spiral, and you not only reprint all three mechanics, you make new cards with them. Again and again, you make judgments eliminating things from the game only to bring them back years later. We understand why you kill things. Why do you keep bringing them back?"
"This probably is the last thing anyone thought I'd ever say," I replied, "but the answer is humility. If R&D is going to be the stewards for the game, we have to be willing to question our own decisions. Sometimes situations change. Sometimes the players want things we didn't realize. Sometimes we were just wrong. Being in charge doesn't just mean that we have to be willing to kill things; we also have to be willing to bring them back. Magic will always be littered with the undead, because R&D will always question whether or not something needs to return."
"Thank you. That's all we wanted."
With that, the head demon clapped his hands. Before I knew it, a cloud of faeries picked me up and carried me back to the hall. As soon as I left the bridge, I felt the sickness return. The rest of R&D was lying on the floor of the lobby. As my eyes closed, I saw some Birds of Paradise fly by.
I woke up with my head on my keyboard. As I looked around the Pit, everything was back to normal. I turned to see this article on my screen. At the bottom was a single line in red:
Join me next week when I teach a class in design.
Until then, may you be willing to reexamine your own decisions.