elcome to the third week of Scars of Mirrodin previews. In case the Part 3 didn't give it away, this is the third column about the Scars of Mirrodin design. Week one I talked about the fourteen-year quest to get poison as a significant element into a Magic set. Week two I talked about what went into designing the Mirrodin portion of the design. This week I'm going to talk about what we had to do to create the Phyrexian portion. If you haven't read the first two parts, you might want to, as this column assumes you have. (Here is Part 1 and Part 2.)
I will do a quick recap though for those that have read the first two parts but might not have the best memory. Scars of Mirrodin was our return to the plane of Mirrodin. When we first created Mirrodin eight years ago we layered something into the background that we planned to come to the foreground when we came back to Mirrodin many years later. That "something" was a very slow takeover of the plane by longtime Magic villains the Phyrexians.
Wait, didn't the Phyrexians die in Invasion block? Wasn't Phyrexia destroyed at the end of the Weatherlight Saga? Yes, it was. But the thing that turned Phyrexia into Phyrexia was still at large—what we call the Phyrexian oil. I'm sure Doug Beyer will explain this in his column one of these days but here's the short version. The "Phyrexian Force" (my name for it, I don't think it's canon) is this thing that wants to propagate itself. It is deep within the oil and it spreads to everything it comes into contact with. The Phyrexia we know didn't start as Phyrexia. It was some poor plane that the Phyrexian force got its oil into.
The corruption of Mirrodin by the Phyrexians is a slow process. So slow that eight years later, the Phyrexians are still corrupting and the Mirrans are still completely unaware. The big difference is that in these last eight years (and however long time has elapsed in the story—more than eight years is all I know) the Phyrexians have gained some real ground.
I explained last week that in Scars of Mirrodin eighty percent of the cards are Mirran and have the Mirrodin watermark.
The other twenty percent are Phyrexian and have the Phyrexian watermark.
The only cards in Scars of Mirrodin that do not have a watermark are the basic lands and the planeswalkers. Before I'm done today, I'll explain how exactly it was decided which cards got the Phyrexian watermark.
The crux of Scars of Mirrodin design came down to figuring out a design for each side. Last week, I talked about the problems facing designing the Mirrodin side. Today is about designing the Phyrexians. Here are the three major problems that came up (also from last week):
#1 It Has to Feel Like the Phyrexians. Often when we design something, what we are creating is unknown. That is, design has the luxury of defining the mechanics however they want because the flavor will follow suit—the Creative Team will "make it work." That system doesn't work as well when you're designing a known quantity. The Phyrexians are the "big bad" of Magic. They have been well spelled out over many years. Design couldn't lead, we had to follow. We had to design something that built upon what had already been established. Plus, the Phyrexians are the gold standard of Magic villains. We didn't just have to match it, we had to nail it.
#2 We Had to Make Poison Work. Last week's column was about all the ways poison hasn't worked in the past. To sell poison to R&D (and please remember, even as Head Designer I don't just get things rubber stamped—the only way to get a thumbs up is to prove that it's good) I had to solve all the problems it's had in the past. As I will spell out when I get to this section—these problems are quite a challenge.
#3 There Had to Be More Than Just Poison. I've focused a lot on how much of a perfect fit I felt poison was for the Phyrexians. Even if my team managed to get R&D buyoff on poison, there was still much design work to be done. Poison could be an element but it wasn't the be-all end-all of making the Phyrexians work. The design team had to discover all the pieces to the Phyrexian jigsaw puzzle.
Let's walk through how we solved each of these issues:
#1 It Has to Feel Like the Phyrexians
One of the first things I had my team do was come up with a list of adjectives to describe the Phyrexians. The reason I did this is that in order to design mechanics, I wanted my team to have the qualities that defined the Phyrexians. I needed adjectives that could describe the mechanics as much as it described the Phyrexians themselves. You can ask if a mechanic is Phyrexian but it's easier to ask if it feels toxic or viral. Also, I am a word person and I've learned through my writing the power of using words to focus on for creative endeavors.
After sifting through numerous adjectives, we whittled down our list to four words:
Let me walk you through why we chose these four words.
Adaptive – The Phyrexians' greatest strength is that they have the ability to change so easily. They are always looking for ways to improve themselves. If the enemy shows them something better than what they have, the Phyrexians will instantly adopt the new, more powerful thing. The Phyrexians have no sentimentality. They will use what works. (Hmm ... kind of like Spikes.)
Toxic – The Phyrexians do what is good for the Phyrexians. What they do is seldom good for everyone else. In fact, the Phyrexians take advantage of their ability to survive by making the environment toxic to everything but themselves. They win by making the environment only sustainable to them.
Unrelenting – The writers of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" explained that they created the Borg because they wanted an enemy that the crew of the Enterprise couldn't reason with. The Phyrexians are much like the Borg in this manner. The Phyrexians live to propagate themselves. Nothing can stop them in their drive because they have such a singular goal. The Phyrexians have only two states: propagating and dead.
Viral – Don't mistake the time taken to corrupt Mirrodin as a sign that the Phyrexians are slow. They are just very, very thorough. While the Mirrans don't understand what is going on yet, the Phyrexians have taken the time to spread their influence through almost every facet of the plane. This lack of a singular plan makes them extra hard to deal with. One attack can be countered. Millions of attacks? Not as easy.
When you combine these four words, one strong image comes to mind—disease. The same four attributes of the Phyrexians are exactly what you would use to explain a plague. The design team embraced this idea and ran with it. Phyrexian = disease. We would treat the spread of Phyrexian influence over Mirrodin as a disease. This metaphor helped us immensely.
#2 We Had to Make Poison Work
Two weeks ago I talked about how I was looking for a set that had to have poison. That is, I wanted to find a block that needed poison not the other way around. I'd been looking for years, so when I first put the idea of Return to Mirrodin on the five year plan (which became a six year plan for those in the know) I was excited because the idea of connecting the Phyrexians to poison seemed like such a perfect fit.
Poison's strong suit has always been its flavor, so obviously it was easy to make poison feel Phyrexian. The real problem wasn't making poison fit but just making it work in the first place. You see, one of the reasons I had such trouble getting poison into a set is that poison was, well, a poorly designed mechanic. Let me count the ways:
Problem #1—Poison Is Just Another Life Total. The fun of alternative win conditions is that they allow the player to win a game in a different manner than normal. Winning through decking (running a player out of cards in their library) is a very different experience than lowering their life total to 0. Alternate win cards like Battle of Wits or Barren Glory force the player to design an entire deck around the win condition.
Poison, though, functions a lot like life loss. You have a number that changes as your opponent attacks you. When that number reaches a particular spot, you lose. Sure, life counts down and poison counts up, but their feel is pretty similar.
What that meant was that we had to take steps to make poison feel different from life loss. The first one is something I've talked about before. Life gain is an integral part of Magic. This means that when attacking a life total, there is always the problem of the opponent undoing the damage done to them. To give poison a different feel, I kept poison removal out of the block. Note this doesn't mean there aren't answers to poison (because there are) just that these answers aren't about undoing the damage already done.
The second big change was to try and keep the granting of poison focused. This is the reason that very few cards simply grant poison to the opponent. By putting most poison onto creatures we make poison have some restrictions that life does not. Playtesting showed that we needed one more component to help push poison over the edge but that mechanic would not come until later in the design.
Problem #2—Damage Often Finishes the Opponent Before the Poison. Another big problem is that with the exception of Swamp Mosquito all the previous creatures with poison dealt damage alongside the poison. This led to the problem that often times the damage not the poison is what proved fatal.
When designing a poison keyword in Future Sight, it was this issue that originally lead us down the path to making poisonous. The idea was if we could set a number, we could make sure the ratio most often worked in poison's favor. The earliest poison creatures in Scars design all had a poisonous number that killed faster than their damage.
Problem #3—Poison Was Very Parasitic and Didn't Blend Well With Other Cards. In R&D we use the term parasitic to describe mechanics that are very insular. That is, mechanics that forced you to just play them with themselves. Poison comboed with cards that granted evasion but that was about it. There was little you could do with other cards to affect how much poison was granted (both offensively and defensively).
While Magic needs some parasitic mechanics, R&D sees the parasitism as a handicap. I believe one of the greatest strikes against poison was that it was very hard to synergize with other cards in Magic.
Problem #4—Poison Wasn't as Scary as it Needed to Be. Let's say you had seven poison counters and a creature that granted two poison attacked you. There was very little to be afraid of. You knew for a certainty that letting the creature hit you wouldn't kill you. In fact, all the early poison counters were easy to ignore because it wasn't until a lethal strike came your way that you had to even change your playing behavior.
Problem #5—Poison Works Differently on Creatures than Players. Another big disconnect that poison has always had is that the flavor works wonderfully on players but not so much on creatures. A poison creature had no effect when it got into a fight with another creature. Why did the venom of the snake hurt the planeswalker so badly but not touch the creature blocking it?
This issue came up during Scars design and our answer to it was to repeat the wither mechanic from Shadowmoor block. At first some Phyrexians had poisonous and some had wither but over time we found ourselves putting both mechanics on the same creatures. If it was poisonous it also permanently hurt creatures.
While we liked how there was now some connection between damage to players and creatures, we had one big problem. Poisonous and wither don't work the same. Poisonous only needs to damage the opponent to have the poison work. If a 3/3 trampler with poisonous 3 gets blocked by a Grizzly Bear, the one point of trample damage triggers all of the poison damage. Wither, on the other hand, was directly tied to damage.
While discussing this problem, someone on the team said (and I don't remember who), "What if they both worked the same?" Everyone's eyes lit up. That was it. What if poisonous worked like wither? What if the damage turned into poison counters? That completely solved both problem #2 and problem #3. In addition, it also really helped deal with problem #4. All of a sudden, just the threat of a Giant Growth made an infect creature very scary.
We talked about creating a new keyword for wither-like poison and putting wither and this new keyword on every creature, but it quickly became apparent though that it was wasteful. If every creature was going to have both abilities, and we wanted both to address problem #5, then why bother putting two words on when one would do. The existence of infect does not lessen wither as a mechanic. Infect is not strictly better as it doesn't deal normal damage. This means that wither is still in our design toolbox and most likely will be used again.
The next big question was where to put infect. We felt it was best to isolate infect as the decks that want to use it want a lot of creatures (well, the aggro version anyways) so we thought it best to concentrate the mechanic into two colors. Obviously, artifacts would also have access to infect as the Phyrexians do so love corrupting artifacts. The two colors were a pretty easy choice as poison has historically been in two colors, what I'll call the color of the snakes—black and green. Black likes to poison you because, well, black will use whatever works. Green's use of poison is more connected to its embracing of the poison found naturally in the animal kingdom.
Playtesting showed infect answered all of the problems I outlined above and finally I had a poison mechanic that I could get all of R&D aboard on. It took fourteen years, but I feel I finally got it right.
#3 There Had to Be More Than Just Poison
One of the things you'll notice when you look at the set is that every card, except basic land and planeswalkers, has either a Mirran or a Phyrexian watermark. How did we decide which card got which symbol? I'll tell you because for Scars I actually made a list in my handoff design philosophy document. Because the Phyrexians only make up twenty percent of the Scars cards, the rule I laid out was for which cards got the Phyrexian symbol. There were six reasons you got one. Here they are:
The card's rules text mentions poison.
The card's rules text mentions proliferate.
The card's rules text mentions -1/-1 counters.
The card was a creature with a "put into a graveyard from the battlefield" effect.
The card involved sacrificing creatures.
The card used life as a payment.
Let's examine the list to see why each of these mechanics was designated as Phyrexian.
1. The Card's Rules Text Mentions Poison. I've spent an article and a half explaining why poison and the Phyrexians were a perfect fit. So, what I already said.
2. The Card's Rules Text Mentions Proliferate. The proliferate mechanic deserves a lot more space than a few paragraphs so I'll leave its origin story for another column. It was designed to help reinforce the disease flavor of the Phyrexians. Not only do the Phyrexians infect everything, but they also have the means to fan the infection and make it spread.
Mechanically, this was very important because we wanted to make sure that poison had both an aggro and a control strategy. You can load up your deck with infect creatures and treat your opponent as though he has 10 life or you can use just a few to get one or more poison on your opponent and then slowly build it up to ten as you take control of the game.
A number of people asked why proliferate is considered solely a Phyrexian mechanic when it works so well with the charge counter theme of the Mirrodin side. That interplay was very much on purpose as it helped spawn some interesting deck types. Remember, while the over-arching feel of the set is the Mirrans vs. the Phyrexians, the design still wanted you to be able to mix and match the two sides. If we had kept the two sides completely isolated mechanically, it would have greatly reduced the depth of play of the set especially in Limited.
The reason we kept proliferate on the Phyrexian side is that is where it worked most flavorfully. In a set which has two forces pitted against each other, everything wants to pick a side, even mechanics. If proliferate showed up on Mirran cards it would just confuse the message. The watermarks don't stop you from playing the two factions together, they only reinforce the set's flavor.
The set had four keyword mechanics (infect, proliferate, metalcraft, and imprint) and we very much wanted two on each side.
My preview card for today is a proliferate card. So far we've previewed five proliferate cards:
Today, I'll be showing you the sixth and final one. Yes, there are only six cards with the proliferate mechanic in Scars of Mirrodin. While the initial design had a lot more, development showed that there is a certain threshold where proliferate can become problematic and we wanted to have the ability to print more cards later in the block. Five of the six cards allow you to use proliferate multiple times so we believe that even with just Scars cards there should be enough cards to start building decks around it. Plus, as I just said, there's more proliferate coming.
I hope this last proliferate card will inspire some decks to be built around it.
Click here to see it.
3. The Card's Rules Text Mentions -1/-1 Counters. This mechanic is an extension of infect. Since infect flavors -1/-1 counters as Phyrexian disease, it seemed only natural to just carry that flavor over to any card using -1/-1 counters. As I mentioned in my last column (among many others), we do not like to mix +1/+1 counters and -1/-1 counters in the same Limited environment. Once we signed off on infect, that meant the set was going to use -1/-1 counters. When that was known I let my design team loose on creating cards that used -1/-1 counters in interesting ways. As Shadowmoor block did a lot of innovating in this area, you will notice the large influence it had on the use of -1/-1 counters in this block.
4. The Card Was a Creature With a "Put into a Graveyard from the Battlefield" Effect. While keyword mechanics could carry a lot of the Phyrexian feel, we also needed to have a few simpler effects. "Put into a graveyard from the battlefield" was chosen because we felt that it rewarded death and the Phyrexians are all about using death as a resource.
5. The Card Involved Sacrificing Creatures. Speaking of using death as a resource, the Phyrexians also really like sacrificing creatures. It fits their M.O. as a race of creatures willing to use any resource to advance their agenda. Because there was a lot of sacrificing of artifacts in the original Mirrodin block, we decided to divide sacrifice as such: Phyrexian sacrificed creatures while the Mirrans sacrificed artifacts. Artifact creatures—they had to take it from both sides.
6. The Card Used Life as a Payment. This category really only shows up on one card in Scars. Why then did I include it? Let's just say it's my job to plan ahead.
We experimented with different things than what ended up on this list but when the dust settled these six proved to be enough to give Scars the Phyrexian feel we needed. Now, if the Phyrexians ever exceeded twenty percent of a set, then we might need a few more things ... but hey, when's a thing like that ever going to happen?
Ready to Rumble
While I have plenty more to say on this design, I luckily have a weekly column to say them, so I'm calling it a column for today. I strongly urge you to drop by a Prerelease near you as Scars of Mirrodin is a blast to play in Limited. Sure, you're probably going to die to poison once or twice, but hey, those kinds of things happen when Phyrexians invade. I am very proud of the work my team did on the set and while I love to talk about poison there are many other facets to this set that you can explore.
If you attend the Prerelease drop me an email or post to my Twitter account (@maro254) and let me know what you thought. If you attend the large Seattle Prerelease, I'll see you there.
Join me next week when I finally get to my 2010 State of Design column (better late than never) when I look over the last year and talk about some of our goals for the upcoming one.
Until then, may your home never be invaded by pure evil.