Ambassador Oak (Morningtide)
Here's what this card started out as:
Creature – Moose
When CARDNAME comes into play, put a 1/1 green Squirrel token into play.
In all later incarnations it became:
Moose and Squirrel
Creature – Moose
When CARDNAME comes into play, put a 1/1 green Squirrel token into play.
For those that might not get my 60s pop culture references, this card is a throwback to The Rocky and Bullwinkle Show. The Russian bad guy Boris Badenov (this name is itself a pun on Russian leader Boris Godunov) and Natasha Fatale always referred to the protagonists as "moose and squirrel."
My inspiration for making it was that I thought it might be interesting to have a creature that was actually more than one creature. For your mana you get two bodies instead of one. I had always liked Stangg (from Legends) and felt that the design space for multiple creatures from a single card had a lot of promise. The other important thing I'd like to note is that other than the creature types, this card is printed in Morningtide exactly as I first designed it. In 1996!
Yes, this card was first created during the design of Tempest, my very first design team—twelve years ago. So what happened? Here's the funny part. Everyone liked the card. (Not necessarily the moose and squirrel part, but I had no illusion that the creature types were going to stay—okay I hoped, back when we still supported squirrels at a higher level than once every few years as the fourth creature type referred to on a throwback land.) It just got cut due to numbers.
A quick aside—what does "cut due to numbers" mean? I use the expression all the time but I've never defined it. Here's what it means. In any set there are cards that serve the basic purpose of the set and then there are cards that are what I'll call filler. Filler cards aren't bad; they're just cards that could go in any set. When cards that specifically make sense in a particular set get pushed up against filler cards, guess which almost always win? Yes, the card that can only be printed in a certain set tends to trump cards that could be printed in any set. That's been Moose and Squirrel's problem. It can always just go in another set.
Moose and Squirrel has been submitted for over ten designs (almost every one I've lead plus several others than I've been on the design team for). And each time people really liked it and each time it lost out to some card that was just more integral to the set. Now comes the great irony: I didn't put the card into Morningtide. Mike Turian did. Like many other R&D members he'd seen the card in sets over the years and he liked it. More importantly, the card actually served a purpose in Lorwyn block. It was a card that produced creatures of two different creature types. It wasn't filler, it was synergistic. That appears to be the key.
When the set gets handed off from editing (basically the part where R&D is totally hands-off as production starts preparing it to be printed), we always use a Tuesday Magic meeting to see the "one-ups" (a.k.a. the cards in the set one at a time) of the set as a final showoff of how the set is going to look with all the elements together. When Ambassador Oak showed up on screen, I let out a hoot. Then I shouted, "Finally!"
One pet card down, two hundred and fifty four to go.
Bog Hoodlums (Lorwyn)
It's usually quite obvious what the popular cards are. A much trickier task is figuring out what cards players don't like. Sure, cards like One With Nothing and Moonlace make it easy as those cards are designed to be "bottom of the barrel" bad (you can check out my column One With One With Nothing to understand why we make cards like this), but trying to figure out what wasn't liked from cards that aren't self-sabotaged is a lot harder. Why do I bring this up? Because this lovely Warrior from Lorwyn ended up in last place in our "god-book" study of Lorwyn (basically market research where we show players cards and asks questions about how they feel about them). My best guess is because this card was a combination of low power level and a card with clash (this is the mechanic that scored the lowest of Lorwyn's new mechanics). Plus, perhaps players just really like being able to block. Number one card in the study? Garruk Wildspeaker.
Boldwyr Intimidator (Future Sight / Morngingtide)
This isn't exactly a design story but there's some feedback about this card I have to address. I'm sick and tired about people complaining that this card has new art. While design and development took a lot of time and energy to figure out some whole cards that we planned on doing as "future repeats" in Future Sight, it just wasn't feasible to make the creative team create, design, and compile a team of concept artists to build a style guide for each world from every future block that we "borrowed" cards from. It wasn't remotely close to possible.
So we had artists take educated guesses using almost zero information (the reason it's almost zero is that we haven't fleshed out any of the future worlds yet; we're still working hard on "Rock" block's world). The plan is that if the art from the Future Sight card by some string of luck makes sense, we'll use it. If not, we commission new art that matches the current world's style guide. There's more "future repeats" coming. Just be warned that in most cases they will have new art.
Bramblewood Paragon (Morningtide)
In design, I made a cycle of creatures of which Bramblewood Paragon was one. All five worked like Bramblewood Paragon. I was playing around with doing lords a bit differently and I liked the idea that they permanently enhanced anything that came into play while they were in play. I also liked how its effect would live beyond it. These new lords would inspire their people and that inspiration lived on past their own deaths.
The original versions didn't have the second half which made the +1/+1 counters have an additional relevance. I believe they were added later in design as the +1/+1 counter sub-theme started to take shape. And again, all five worked like Bramblewood Paragon. So why did the cycle drift from its original form? Because the development team (led by Mike Turian) felt like the cards would play better if they mixed up a bit how they used the +1/+1 counters. Personally, I would have preferred them to work the same for simplicity's sake, but I understand what the development team was trying to do and I admit that it does allow the lords to have a very different feel from one another in play.
Commander Greven il-Vec (Tempest)
I talked about this card in my column The Making of a Legend when I talked about designing legendary creatures:
If my Hollywood days taught me anything it's the importance of a good villain. The Tempest storyline used the time-tested strategy of using two villains: a lesser "brawn villain" reporting to a much nastier "brain villain." Greven is clearly the "brawn villain" of Tempest. This meant that I had to make him physically impressive. In addition, I wanted to give him some mechanic that stressed how intimidating he was.
The very first thing that came to my mind was a big creature with fear. To balance out the card and to add a little flavor about how Greven has no qualms killing those around him if it benefits his agenda, I added a creature sacrifice when the creature came into play.
I was quite happy with the card as I felt it did a good job of representing the essence of Greven. Little did I know the odd fight I was about to have. Here (with a lot of dramatic license) is the conversation:
Not Me: I think we have a problem with Greven.
Me: What kind of problem?
Not Me: Vhati il-Dal.
Not Me: He can't kill Vhati il-Dal.
Not Me: So, in the story, Greven kills Vhati il-Dal. He throws him over the side of the Predator. On Diabolic Edict.
Me: Yeah, yeah. "The fall will give you time to think on your failure." I know the scene. I wrote the flavor text. I don't understand the problem. Greven's 7/5 and Vhati's 3/3. How can he not kill him?
Not Me: But you're forgetting Vhati il-Dal's activated ability. Vhati could turn Greven into a 1/5. Or a 7/1 that he could then trade with. And remember in the story, it isn't close. Greven kicks Vhati to the curb.
Me: Maybe Vhati has summoning sickness.
Not Me: No, no, he's been attacking the Weatherlight for quite some time.
Me: Perhaps he's so intimidated that he forgets to use his activated ability.
Not Me: I don't think so. Look, we're just going to have to scrap the card.
Me: That's crazy. It's a good card.
Not Me: Not if it can't kill Vhati.
Me: Wait, I got it. When Greven comes into play, you sacrifice Vhati. Like when he shows up on the Predator and there goes Vhati. Vhati dies to the sacrifice effect. He can't stop that.
Not Me: But for that to happen, both creatures have to be on the same side.
Me: Same side. Exactly. Just like the story. (Pause.)
Not Me: I like it.
Greven demonstrates how the flavor can extend beyond the original card to its interaction with other story cards.
Eladamri, Lord of Leaves (Tempest)
Flash forward to Tempest, my first design team (and my first time as a design lead—I sort of leapt into the deep end my first time out). As luck would have it, Michael Ryan and I were in charge of the story and we needed a band of elves led by a very obsessed leader. He clearly had to be one of the set's legendary creatures. Finally, I could make an elf lord.
I started by creating it to match the Alpha lords. I had Eladamri give all elves forestwalk just as the Goblin King, Lord of Atlantis and Zombie Master all gave their minions the landwalk of their basic land type. Instead of giving them boring +1/+1 like the Goblin King and Lord of Atlantis, I decided to be flavorful. Eladamri was renowned because he protected his people. How better to reflect this mechanically than granting shroud to all Elves? Yes, it wasn't called shroud back then, but thanks to Oracle technology shroud pops up in Tempest. I will point out that Lorwyn has made a big change in lord design technology. Before Lorwyn (with only a few exceptions), lords always granted all creatures of the appropriate type the ability. Lorwyn changed it so now lords only grant all of your creatures of the proper type the bonus.
What prompted us to make this change? Of all things, a vote in Selecting Eighth Edition, the first promotion where we let readers choose cards for the base set. Trying to be clever in our intent to put Crusade in Eighth, we let the public choose between it and Glorious Anthem. We were quite shocked when Crusade lost. It was clearly the more powerful card. What happened? After much study we believe that Glorious Anthem was liked better by more players because it only helped you. Crusade had the potential to help the opponent and the majority of players didn't seem to like that. (Also, we believe a big factor was that Glorious Anthem helped all your creatures while Crusade was only fully powered when you were playing mono-white.)
The final design decision was to make Eladamri a two-mana 2/2 like Lord of Atlantis, Alpha's best lord (from a power-level perspective). To do this we had to make it . I'll end with a little piece of cool trivia. (Yes, this has been in a Card of the Day, but it was July 3, 2002 so perhaps this tidbit will be new to a number of you.) Eladamri was named by Michael Ryan (remember, the person who pitched the Weatherlight Saga—see my column Weather(light) Report if you don't know what I'm talking about). The card is named after his mother Irma and step-father Dale. That's where the name Eladamri comes from. It's Irma/Dale backwards.
Goblin S.W.A.T. Team (Unhinged)
One of the great things about designing Un-cards is that I get to start from radically different places than I do on the design of normal cards. (As a quick aside, I believe this is one of the greatest values of the Un-sets is that it forces us to new veins of design that can later be tapped for "normal" Magic.) This card started out with a very simple goal. I was looking to create cards that caused the players to play little side games while they were playing the main game.
Upon the way, I stumbled upon the idea of an activated ability that worked only if the opponent didn't realize what the player was up to. This is the same vein, by the way, that led to the creation of Cheatyface. Anyway, after goofing around with a bunch of different versions, I decided to tap into a game of my youth. Unfortunately, I forget the name of it but it was a card game where the opponent had to swat your cards if you ever had a certain card on top of your pile of cards. If he or she didn't catch it, then you got rewarded. The closest connection to this in a popular current game is probably the "Uno" rule in Uno where you have to say "Uno" when you have only one card before someone else does.
That's where I started from. I would use the activation and my opponent had to figure out I did and slap the table before some amount of time elapsed. As I played around with it, I realized that the coolest game was merely to make the opponent realize you named the card in question. To keep this from being to easy, I decided that I had to give the card a somewhat bulky name to make getting away with saying it on the hard side. Very soon after I realized that there was pun potential with the acronym S.W.A.T. Cross that with my love of over the top silly goblin names (and with what we're willing to print in "normal" Magic, the Un-versions have to be even more over the top) And voila, Goblin S.W.A.T. Team was born.
Finally, the original version let you try to say the name as many times as you wanted. This quickly proved to be very, very annoying ("Ha ha, I said it thirty-five times and you merely swatted the table thirty-four. By the way, is your hand starting to hurt?"), so I limited the activation to once per turn.
Maraxus of Keld (Weatherlight)
Here's the problem. Most of the set was designed before we knew it was going to be about the Weatherlight story. The graveyard theme, for instance, has nothing to do with the story. This wasn't going to be a problem moving forward, and Tempest shows how integrated the mechanics and flavor could be given the proper amount of time. Back to Weatherlight. We had the ability to affect art and flavor text. This meant that any characters we needed to use had to come from existing designs.
We needed a bad guy, and as we looked thorough the set we stumbled upon Maraxus. We liked him for two reasons. One, he seemed like a very powerful adversary, and two, he had a built-in weakness (he derived his power from those around him) that our hero could figure out and exploit. That's how Maraxus became the major bad guy of Weatherlight.
Mirri, Cat Warrior (Exodus)
This is another Warrior I covered in my column The Making of a Legend:
Sometimes, story is able to change mechanics. Mirri's creation is one such incident. While designing Exodus, we knew we had to create a Mirri legend as Mirri died during the Exodus story. We had promised to print all of the major Weatherlight crew as legends so this was our last chance for Mirri.
Mirri was a cat warrior that lived with the Llanowar Elves. In addition, she was a strong fighter. To capture this flavor we decided to give her four abilities: first strike, forestwalk, protection from black, and does not tap to attack. But there was a story problem that I brought up:
Not Them (aka Me): We can't print Mirri as is.
Them: Why not?
Not Them: Because Mirri can't have protection from black.
Them: Once again, why not?
Not Them: Because she's killed by Crovax.
Not Them: He's a black creature from Stronghold. (Blank stare from Them.)
Not Them: A black creature really has a hard time killing a creature with protection from black. I suggest either changing the protection ability or rewriting the story to have Mirri laugh while Crovax tries to kill her.
In the end, we changed protection from black to "cannot be the target of spells or abilities". But then in typesetting the card proved to be too long so we had to trade untargetability for a third point of toughness.
Norin the Wary (Time Spiral)
I talked about Norin during my column Name Dropping, where I talked about how certain famous Magic characters ended up as Time Spiral legendary creatures:
Let's start with good 'ol Norin. When we started making the lists, he was the first one on mine. He was dripping with flavor, and while he wasn't in all that many pieces of flavor text, the few he was in had a bit of a cult following. I think he was the first character to have a continued joke on his flavor text. By that I mean that it was the first time that understanding a piece of flavor text required knowing an earlier piece of flavor text (it might not be the first and my faithful readers will let me know, but it was mighty early - the piece in question is on Goblin Shrine). Anyway, I was so excited to include him that I created a card and submitted it. Here's my original version:Norin the Wary (version 0.0)
Legendary Creature - Human Warrior
Whenever a player plays a spell, remove CARDNAME from the game. Return CARDNAME to play under its owner's control at end of turn.
My original version was basically a Raging Goblin with a bonus/drawback. The idea was that he'd come and hit your opponent if there wasn't any danger, but at the first sign of trouble, he'd be out of there. During development, it was decided that he would be even more flavorful if he just never put himself in harm's way. After all, being able to get into combat can't be good for a creature's health. I liked the change as I felt it made the card both more flavorful, more unique, and a little more Johnny-licious. (If that somehow isn't a word yet, dibs on trademarking it.)
With the extra text, Norin was bumped up to a 2/1 because, well, why not? 2/1 creatures that can't attack don't tend to be problematic in beatdown decks. Unlike some other cards coming up, Norin was in very early, and there was never any serious discussion about removing him.
Orcish Artillery (Alpha)
I thought I'd bring up these guys because there's something about them that not a lot of players know (well, not any more). Let me show you the original Orcish Artillery, the one printed in Alpha, alongside the current one:
Can you see the subtle difference? It costs . This was a typo which was corrected in the Beta printing. Here's the other important thing to know. When Magic began, the official rules were that you played the card as it was printed. This meant that if you had an Alpha version in your deck, you could play it for 1R. This made the Alpha version very popular. Just a little nugget from Magic's past.
Root-Kin Ally (Ravnica)
Part of the guild model for Ravnica block design was giving each guild its own feel mechanically and then finding as many different ways to play into that feel. Selesnya had a flavor of the group mattering more than the individual. The group's strength came from the fact that it stressed the importance of working together. Because of this, I was very conscious of trying to find ways to mechanically play this up.
Convoke was originally created by Richard Garfield for Boros. (Most of the cards he designed to show off the mechanic had a combat flavor.) I realized that what made convoke kick was that it allowed creatures to aid in playing spells and that felt very much like Selesnya, so I did what lead designers do and moved it to where I felt it did the most good.
Another mechanic I stumbled upon while trying to find mechanics in this space was the card Llanowar Behemoth from Weatherlight. I loved the idea of the team helping make this one guy big. This card came about because I liked the cool flavor of having a guy that was both cheaper and bigger due to his buddies.
Sandstone Warrior (Tempest)
This card represents a little moment of joy that every designer gets once in a blue moon. One day you're sitting at your computer making up cards and you design something that seems like it must have been done already because the combination of the abilities seems too perfect and obvious not to have been done before. Then you go on Gatherer (or back in the day, looked at godbooks) and check to see if it has been done and you learn that somehow it hasn't. I have no idea how first strike and firebreathing never crossed paths on the same card until Tempest, but as the guy who put them together for the first time (and I'm well aware that this isn't some great achievement as much as dumb luck), I can still remember the moment where I realized I had hit the design jackpot.
Tahngarth, Talruum Hero (Planeshift)
It's interesting to go back with hindsight and look at cards you designed. I believe this card has one huge mistake. Can you figure out what it is?
It's not a mono-red card. It has two abilities. Vigilance, a white ability (and yes, I know it showed up on Windseeker Centaur, but book promo cards are not exactly the best precedent setting cards), and the "tracker" ability, a green ability. What would I change if I chose to break out R&D's trusty time machine? Only one thing. I would make Tahngarth a white-red creature. I feel the card does a good job of capturing him. I just don't think he's mono-red. Sure he was emotional and quick to act, but he had numerous other traits such as nobility and focus that feel very white to me. This would explain the vigilance, and I can accept the "tracker" ability on a red card (in small doses mind you) in that red does seem like a color that enjoys picking fights.
Tar Pit Warrior (Visions)
Sometimes design is about learning what you like and doing more. I was a huge fan of Skulking Ghost (in Mirage) and really believed that the "skulking" ability had promise. So I just started designing cards that had it. This was the first one to find a home in a set.
Tel-Jilad Chosen (Mirrodin)
Some card's designs have very elaborate stories and some have very simple ones. This is one of the latter. Back in the day, my pet deck was a mini blue-green weenie deck. By why talk about it when I can just show it to you.
This is back in the days where Magic had only one format—the one where you could play anything. I specifically made a weenie deck because it was so antithetical to what the environment was about. Anyway, I have a very emotional attachment to this deck and the cards in it. One such card is this:
If you compare the two cards, it's pretty obvious that I didn't design Tel-Jilad Chosen. I just updated Argothian Pixies to modern templating. (Okay, I made it an Elf rather than a Faerie as Faeries are no longer green and non-flying Faeries just feel weird.)
Vhati il-Dal (Tempest)
So our hero had to meet our villain (and yes, this was our secondary villain, a flunky to the main villain), lose to him in a fight but somehow survive to see another day. We then came up with the idea of the Weatherlight getting attacked by the Predator almost immediately upon arriving in Rath. Greven gets to jump aboard and beat Gerrard in a fight. But how does Gerrard get away? What if he falls overboard? That would explain how the fight ends and make a reasonable excuse for why Greven leaves. But how exactly could we knock Gerrard overboard? He couldn't just trip as that would make our hero seem less heroic. What if an outside force caused it? Then we remembered our desire to show Greven being a villain. What if the outside force was the second in command of the Predator who might have been trying to knock Greven overboard instead? It did a good job of differentiating the Predator crew from the Weatherlight crew and it allowed all the pieces to logically work.
As a quick aside, here's the Magic Arcana entry that shows the sequence of Greven confronting Vhati for his little stunt) in art and flavor text:
The story behind this exchange is as follows: Greven had boarded the Weatherlight and was engaged in a swordfight with Gerrard. Vhati—back aboard the Predator—ordered his moggs to fire upon the Weatherlight, hoping to kill Gerrard and rid himself of they tyrannical Greven at the same time. Unfortunately for Vhati, things didn't go as planned....
Once we created the character of Vhati (named, by the way, after Tempest's codename Bogavhati, an Indian mythological land of poison snakes—you see, Tempest started with a huge poison theme—poison fans be patient, I actually know which block is going to have poison as a substantial feature) it became obvious that we needed a legendary creature. So how did we design Vhati once we knew he was going to be a character? We didn't. The card was already in the file. It had been designed by Mike Elliott, one of the four members of the Tempest design team (along with Richard Garfield, Charlie Catino and myself). We thought the card was cool and decided that as we knew so little about Vhati anyway it was okay to give him a quirky ability.
War(riors)! What Are They Good For?
I know today's column was sort of a smorgasbord, but I hoped everyone found some thoughts to nibble on. As always, I'm curious for any feedback readers would like to leave in the thread or email to me specifically.
Join me next week when I talk about what exactly is innovative about race/class mechanically.
Until then, may you find you own inner warrior.