elcome to Pro Tour Dark Ascension Week. From now on, we are going to lead into each Pro Tour with a theme week playing up the upcoming Pro Tour. What exactly does that mean? I asked our new editor-in-chief Trick Jarrett. He said to talk about the upcoming format or the set the Pro Tour is named after. "So," I asked, "I could talk about Dark Ascension?" "Absolutely."
And that is how I've done a Making Magic first. Today is part three of a column and it's the theme week. Yes, I'm making the sacrifice of talking about Dark Ascension just days after it's been released. That's the kind of sacrifices I'm willing to make. With my intro out of the way, let's get back to talking about design stories of Dark Ascension cards.
I've obviously talked before about my sitcom-writer career. I've mentioned that I used to do stand-up (where I was mentored by Louis CK—but that's a story for another column) and that I started and acted in an improvisational troupe in college (Uncontrolled Substance). What I've never talked about, though, is how often I design cards that start out as a joke. Case in point: Ravenous Demon.
With comedy writing in my blood, I tend to like to riff on things. "Riffing" is a stand-up term for talking about a topic and finding the inherently funny things about it. I was going off on demons eating humans:
I don't think the average human understands how demons see humans. We're snack food for them. Demon is sitting around his hell dimension and says to his fellow demon, "You know what I could go for right now? I'm having a hankering for humans."
Humans aren't particularly good for demons. We're like Lays potato chips to them. They can't just eat one. So once they have a taste, they start binge eating. It's kind of why demons keep their distance from humans—they're watching their weight.
The idea of "humans as Lays potato chips" stuck with me and inspired me to make this card. The idea is simple: We have a demon. He's powerful but he hasn't really unlocked his true power. Then he eats a human and bam, his demon instincts kick in and powers him up. But now he's tasted human so there's no going back, so you, as the planeswalker, better keep him fed or he's going to get irritable.
And that is how Ravenous Demon / Archdemon of Greed got made.
It's time to play R&D's favorite game show: "Find The Perfect Repeat."
Here's how it works: While working on a file, each member of the team tries to find the card from the past that seems like it was actually made for this set and fell through a rift in time (paging The Doctor) into some set of the past. R&D then tries to one up each other with a reprint that's even more perfect until everyone agrees someone has nailed it.
The winner of one such contest was Ray of Revelation. Dark Ascension already had a flashback cycle with off-color kickers that went the opposite direction from the Innistrad cycle. The team also wanted to find decent enchantment removal. Then someone pulled out Ray of Revelation from Judgment and everyone was "Done!" The name even had a nice flavor for white in the set.
I'm a big fan of flashback Zombie token makers. Innistrad originally had a bunch more of them (Moan of the Unhallowed and Army of the Damned were the two that stayed). Dark Ascension needed a black card with a blue flashback, due to the cycle I just talked about above, and a Zombie token maker seemed perfect as black and blue were the Zombie colors.
To match the difference between black and blue Zombies, the flashback cost originally was cheaper but required exiling a creature card from your graveyard . The idea was that black got the Zombie it's way, raising the dead, and blue got the Zombie it's way, scientific experimentation on a dead body. Tom appreciated what we were doing but as exiling was the only non-mana flashback cost in the cycle, he thought it felt clunky and changed it to the current version. I do understand his concerns but I was a big fan of the earlier version.
At one point we had the following card in the Dark Ascension design file:
Everyone's A Ghost
Whenever a non-Spirit creature you control dies, put a 1/1 white Spirit creature token with flying onto the battlefield.
Someone pointed out that this card looked an awful lot like the card Field of Souls from Tempest.
The only difference was the mana cost (3W vs. 2WW) and the reference of non-Spirits rather than nontoken. The "non"-blah reference was done solely for flavor, as ghosts don't die and become ghosts. Both solved the problem of the tokens you made not triggering the creation of other tokens when they died.
The mana cost could easily change but the other thing was key to the flavor, so we couldn't just reprint Field of Souls. But printing a card that was almost Field of Souls also didn't feel right, so the solution was to stick the ability on a creature rather than on an enchantment.
Little girl wearing red cape. Grandmotherly woman. Woodsman with ax. All three turn into a big bad wolf. Is something going on here? Maybe.
This card was created in the same meeting we created Lost in the Woods. The goal of the meeting was to create some rare top-down cards that oozed flavor. When I had asked Jenna (Helland, member of both the creative team and the design team) to come up with cool card names, one of the ones she listed was Séance. The Innistrad design team had never made a card for the name but I felt like it was an evocative horror trope, so when we had our meeting to make some more top-down rares for Dark Ascension, we decided to make it.
The biggest question I get on this card is, "Why doesn't it grant the creature haste?" The short answer is because haste is not in white's part of the color pie, but I feel that answer doesn't really get to the heart of what is being asked. The question I feel is really being asked is, "Why do you design cards leaving off some aspect that most players clearly would want?"
We got a similar response when we printed this card in Shards of Alara:
Why couldn't Ooze Garden just be activated normally? Why limit it to sorcery speed? The card would be so much better if you could just use it whenever you wanted.
The answer to this question boils down to an important truth about game design. We, the game designers, aren't trying to make things easy for you. In fact, it's our job to specifically make things hard. Why? Because an important part of games is forcing the players to have to use their mental resources.
People don't play games so things will come easily. No, they play games to challenge themselves. Many activities are meant to be mindless, but games are, by definition, meant to be mindful. They are supposed to force players to have to work.
Would Séance be easier to use if it granted the creatures haste? Of course. Would it be a better card from a design standpoint? No. What's cool about Séance is that it forces you to figure out how to use it. I'm calling back creatures from the dead to communicate with them. I can't attack with them, but is there some other way to make them useful?
One last thing I should point out is that different cards are aimed at different audiences. Séance is clearly designed to be a Johnny card. We want players to figure out how to build around it. That's its purpose. Could we make changes to it to make it more attractive to another psychographic? Sure we could, but good design is making the person who the card's designed for love it, not to increase its appreciation by others. As I like to say: We have to design cards players love, not avoid designing cards players won't hate.
The reason playtesting is so important is that sometimes new mechanics aren't used the way you intended. For example, I talked about how undying was created to capture the flavor of the monster that comes back stronger after it was seemingly killed. In my mind, undying was to allow creatures to be aggressive. I wanted the scary monsters attacking. The problem was that the undying mechanic works very well defensively. I'll sit here and block you. Then your creature will die and mine will come back stronger.
The question was how could we get the undying creatures attacking and not blocking? This was especially important at common. Nearheath Stalker is a 4/1 in red, so its very nature made players want to attack with it. Young Wolf is just a 1/1, so it seemed less of a problem. The two troublemakers were in black and blue. Remember that white was left out of this cycle because undying was for monsters and white doesn't have monsters (well, only benign ones).
The solution to this problem was pretty straightforward. "Cannot block" is a normal black downside we use at common. We don't want the common black undying creature to block—there, done! For blue, we had to dig a little deeper into blue's bag of tricks. The answer rested with an ability we call "high flying" in R&D. High fliers are fliers that can only block other fliers. This mostly gave the card "cannot block" while doing it with a blue ability.
Cards can be created from all sorts of inspirations. This card was the result of the work of a man named Richard Whitters. Richard is the creative team's concept illustrator. His job is to help figure out how elements of the world are going to look when the creative team is putting the world's look and feel together.
During the world creation of Innistrad, Richard drew a picture of a dryad.
During Dark Ascension, Jenna commented that Richard had made this dryad in the style guide. The creative team liked it and had wanted to use on a card but that no card seemed appropriate in Innistrad. Could Dark Ascension make a card specifically to be this dryad? Yes, yes we could.
The number one question I'm getting about Sorin is: "Why isn't he just mono-black?" Doug Beyer covered the flavor reasons for this in his column on Sorin. So I thought I'd answer the underlying question I feel is behind the question. ("Join me next week on another episode of The Question Behind the Question.") "Wouldn't Sorin be more useful and fit in more decks if he was mono-black?"
The answer to the question is "Yes, but that wasn't our goal." I think many players think anything we can do to make a card more appealing to more players is in the best interest of the card. I don't believe that's true. As a designer, I want each player to love the set I'm creating. It's not important to me that they all love the same things. In fact, it's better for me if they don't all like the same things.
Having players feel differently about different cards has a number of benefits:
We can design "bad" cards that aren't unwanted by everyone. As I've explained numerous times (here being the most famous) bad cards have to exist. It's the nature of a trading card game. Having different players value different cards, allows our bad cards for any one player to be cards meant for someone else. That allows us to pack more goodies in each set.
It encourages conversation. I talk a lot about how there's much more to Magic than just the game; what we in R&D refer to as the "metagame" (different meaning than the tournament meaning of what's good and what's bad). A big part of that is we want the game to inspire discussion. A fun part of Magic is that each player gets to decide what he or she feels is important and then share that with others. Having different cards favored by different players helps spur these conversations.
It allows more people to love individual cards. Above I talked about the importance of trying to get people to love cards rather than keep people from hating them. Let me explain a little more the rationale behind this concept. Let's say we could get every person to rate every card by how much they like it on a scale from 0 to 10, with 10 being the highest. Now you have to choose between the following: every card in the set is a 7 or the cards range evenly between 0 and 10. At first blush, the 7 average might sound more appealing. After all, the second option has an average of 5, well below the average of the first choice.
But here's the problem. People don't make decisions based on their average impression. They make their decision based on the extremes. A rating of 7 is good but it's not great. The all-7 experience is just so-so. Nothing grabbed them. The 0 to 10 experience is much higher because the ceiling was a 10. Something in the set really excited them, and that excitement is going to be the thing that drives their opinion. The 0 to 10 range is going to create a stronger impression.
So why is Sorin white-black instead of mono-black? Because making the white-black choice is going to lead to a better and more exciting card for those who embrace it. Fewer people might rank it highly, but those who do are more likely to rank it a 10.
I previewed this card during the first week of Dark Ascension previews. Probably the most asked question about this card was its relationship to this card:
"Why would we print a card strictly worse than one already in Standard?"
The first point is to refute part of the question. Soul Seizer / Ghastly Haunting is not strictly worse. It's different. Maybe one could argue its overall power level is lower, but that doesn't make it necessarily a worse card. One of Magic's strengths is that it allows players to discover how best to make use of cards. It would not surprise me at all if someone found a reason why, in a constructed deck, Soul Seizer was better than Mind Control. Perhaps the fact it's a creature can be exploited in some way.
In addition, power level is just one part of the game. Soul Seizer / Ghastly Haunting was created because it was a very flavorful way to use double-faced cards to make a ghost trope. It wasn't created to usurp Mind Control, but rather to be an alternative. Magic does that. There are a lot of effects in Magic that double up or triple up or even way-more-than-that-up in Standard. What's important is that each version has a reason for being. Making exactly Mind Control for doesn't make a lot of sense, but making an alternative that has very different play value is perfectly in line.
The most popular question I've received on this card is: "Why is this card green?"
Undying shows up in all the colors but white. As it's essentially a combination of regeneration and +1/+1 counters, two things in green's color pie, it seems like a fine fit for green. As for the haste—as I seem to explain every few months, haste is tertiary in green, which means green gets it every once in a while, but not in common and not usually with the ability to grant it. Development loves haste in green (as it functionally helps green do something it needs to do in constructed) so they tend to use it sparsely.
This card came about because, for a Zendikar design playtest, I was assigned to make an Allies deck. If I remember correctly (and I might not), the deck was red-white. The deck worked well but it had a tendency to run out of gas in the long game. I designed the following card to fix this problem:
When you cast CARDNAME choose a permanent type. All cards of that type controlled by target player are exiled and then returned to the battlefield.
The card played great and not just in Allies. My landfall deck, for example, loved flickering all of its land to retrigger every landfall trigger. Development wasn't as much of a fan of the card and removed it.
So I tried again and got it into Worldwake. It was removed. I got it into Rise of the Eldrazi. Removed again. In Scars of Mirrodin; out of Scars of Mirrodin. I tried Mirrodin Besieged and New Phyrexia. I tried Innistrad. No luck.
To explain what happened, let me quote "Monty Python and the Holy Grail."
King of the Swamp Castle: When I first came here, this was all swamp. Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp, but I built it all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. That sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the fourth one stayed up. And that's what you're going to get, Lad, the strongest castle in all of England.
Yes, eventually the card didn't sink into the swamp. Along the way, though, it went through some changes. To get the card into Rise of the Eldrazi, I agreed to have the cards exile until end of turn. The cost also went up as I made different versions. To make the card simpler it was also changed to flicker all of target player's permanents rather than just the chosen type.
The final change actually happened in development. Someone played the card with Sundial of the Infinite and it went from being a fun build-around card to a crazy-good tournament-worthy combo card. That wasn't so much fun, so the card was changed to only flicker nonland permanents.
It took three years, but as time has shown, persistence is an important attribute of a designer.
This card, as many have guessed, was called Silver Arrows in design.
I get to save one of my favorite stories for last. The Dark Ascension team designed two cards:
Return all Zombies creature cards from your graveyard to the battlefield tapped.
Destroy the Humanoids
Destroy all Humans.
Both of these cards were made independently by multiple members of the design team. The first because we loved Zombies (really, what's not to like about zombies?) and the second because the Humans were supposed to be having a hard time in Dark Ascension. Both easily made it into the file and sailed through design into the handoff to development.
One day, Tom LaPille, Dark Ascension's lead developer, came up to me and we had the following conversation:
Tom: You have a minute?
Tom: So we had a development meeting today. How do you feel about us combining Zombie Apocalypse and Destroy the Humanoids into one card?
Me: That sounds awesome. My only sadness is that we didn't think of it.
Tom: Everything's good?
Me: I have just one request.
Tom: What is it?
Me: Can we call the new card Zombie Apocalypse?
Tom: Already done.
And thus we have my favorite card in the set.
Whew! Only ten thousand words later and I'm done with my Dark Ascension stories. I hope you enjoyed them.
Join me next week when I explore a different facet of Dark Ascension.
Until then, may you know the joy of sharing the little stories.