spent the last two weeks talking about the design of Avacyn Restored. I thought today I'd jump into some card-by-card design stories. There's lots to talk about, so let's get to it.
In Innistrad design we made the following five lands:
The lands were created to show the home of each of the five races we were pushing mechanically (Humans, Werewolves, Spirits, Zombies, and Vampires, respectively). At the time, it wasn't our intent to make a larger cycle, as the five cards felt pretty complete.
Then, during Dark Ascension development, the team had the idea that it would be cool to do the two black allied lands that hadn't been done in Innistrad. When asked about it, I said that those cards were fine but doing them committed Avacyn Restored to do the remaining three.
I've talked numerous times about how human brains seek out pattern completions and that if you start creating a pattern, you have to finish it—otherwise, you create negative feelings in the audience, which expects the pattern to finish. Everyone agreed that we would finish the cycle and we did, leading to these three cards.
Alchemist's Refuge and Desolate Lighthouse acted like hybrid cards in that they found overlapping space between the two colors. Slayer's Stronghold acted more like a traditional gold card in that it combined abilities from both colors to make a combined effect that is synergistic.
This card was designed specifically to be an anti-Zombie Apocalypse.
The only slight change is that Angel of Glory's Rise exiles the Zombies rather than killing them, but we felt that it had better flavor. (Also, it allowed us to talk about Zombies first and humans second, just like Zombie Apocalypse.)
I often talk about design challenges during design but I spend far less time talking about design challenges during development. Case in point: this card. So, Erik Lauer (head developer) needed an answer to a bunch of cards in Standard (including Phyrexian mana and Birthing Pod). He liked the idea of stopping players from paying extra costs but didn't know how to fit it flavorfully into the set.
The solution ended up being the discovery that black is king of paying life and sacrifice costs. By making an Angel with a strong anti-black feel, which was very easy in a set where white is the symbol of good and black is the symbol of evil, text could be added and feel as a white-hates-black card. The key to helping with this was the line where the Angel pumped only nonblack creatures to reinforce the anti-black flavor.
The lead developer for Avacyn Restored was Magic Hall of Famer Dave Humpherys. One of Dave's goals was to fit in as many flavorful repeats as he could. These three cards all made mechanical sense while dripping with angel flavor.
One of the big challenges of Avacyn Restored was the desire to get angel flavor into more decks when the creative dictum was that Angels had to be partly white. I was very happy with this artifact because it felt in flavor (and even made a white Angel) but had a home in decks that didn't necessarily run white.
The earliest Avacyn designs all used the forbidden mechanic that got abandoned partway through design. Even then, though, Avacyn had a "protect my people" aspect to her, although I believe early on she prevented all damage.
Avacyn then went through a phase where instead of being defensive she got aggressive and started destroying other creatures. This was supposed to reflect her soldier nature. I argued hard, though, that I thought Avacyn's role in the set was as a savior. Her return is what turns the tide and saves the day, so I pushed hard for a version I had made earlier where she acted as guardian.
We eventually decided that her making everything indestructible sounded cooler so we made the switch. The only change I believe made during development was that she used to have trample and that was deemed too good, so it was removed.
This cycle of three cards came about because we were trying to think of what we could do to help make Avacyn Restored more of an Angel set. Brady Dommermuth (head of the creative team) had already laid down the law that all Angels had to be white. So the design team asked, "Do they have to be just white?" When Brady said "No," we were off to the races.
We knew we couldn't have a black and white Angel because black was isolated as the side of evil. That left us with three gold Angels we could make. Design turned in three gold Angels but they all changed during development, as development wanted them even splashier than design had made them.
My favorite tidbit about this trio comes not from us but from all of you. The nickname for them on the Internet is the Powerpuff Girls. For those who don't know the cartoon, the Powerpuff Girls are three superhero girls who fly. One is dressed in red, one in blue, and one in green (Blossom, Bubbles, and Buttercup respectively). You can even make an argument that their powers and personalities line up.
Gisela, Blade of Goldnight | Art by Jason Chan
The last question I keep getting is, "Why is Bruna's colored mana cost while Gisela's is and Sigarda's is ?" The answer has to do with how multicolor mana costs are written. Here is Del Laugel, Magic's lead editor, explaining how the mana symbols are ordered from an "Ask Wizards" of many years ago:
Our current (and final!) system for ordering mana symbols is pretty simple. If you look at the back of a Magic card, you'll see the pentagon of colors. Going clockwise, the colors are white, blue, black, red, green, white, blue, black.... To order a pair of mana symbols, find them in that list, and then put them in whichever order puts the fewest colors between them. For example, white/red has two colors in the middle (blue and black), but red/white has only one (green). That's why Goblin Legionnaire's mana cost is .
No one on this planet likes seeing the word "double" in Magic rules text more than I do. As such, I've made it my lifelong goal (well, one of them) to try to double things as much as I can on cards. So when I see a card like Burn at the Stake that says "three times" it makes me question myself. Have I not pushed hard enough? Am I settling? Cards like Burn at the Stake keep me up at nights.
I often talk about how I'll want to make a card and it takes X number of years to finally see print. So when did I first try to get this card into print? Fifteen years ago! Yes, I first tried to get an instant flicker back in Urza's Destiny, but the development team changed it to a sorcery. You might know the card as Flicker.
Yes, the card that started it all. The card that first used this mechanic was supposed to be an instant. Now, to be fair, my version didn't restrict itself to permanents you control, but with 20/20 hindsight, cards with insta-flicker—that is, they come back right away rather than at the end of the turn—tend to want to target only your permanents. (Yes, you can hose Auras, but poor Auras can use the help.)
In fact, when I made flicker in Urza's Destiny, I had made it as a vertical cycle—a common, an uncommon, and a rare in the same color—and Flicker was the common. So not only was instant flicker finally made, but it was made in common—the place I tried to have it made originally.
I think from the outside it might be surprising what cards the designers are most excited to see printed, but this card is in my Top 5.
Flickering is a white and blue ability, but in a set where it's a subtheme, I didn't want to let only white and blue have all the fun. Also, this is the kind of flickering card that makes my inner-Johnny smile.
When Dark Ascension came out and I talked about Faithless Looting, I said that looting was being moved into red (in addition to being in blue) and that R&D was planning to give it its own identity, but we hadn't figured it out by Dark Ascension. Well, we did by Avacyn Restored. So now it's time to fill you in on how red looting is going to work. Two rules, really:
Rule #1) Red discards before drawing. Red is reckless, blue is methodical. One way to allow looting in both colors was to change how they did it. The fact that red is throwing things away not knowing what is coming felt very red, while blue wanting to know everything before making a decision felt more blue.
Rule #2) Red cannot get card advantage through looting. What this means is that sometimes we make looting cards where the player is up cards. These cards are half looting/half card-drawing. We decided that those don't make sense in red, so we've chosen to keep them out.
There are a bunch of caveats to this rule. First, we do count the card being used when casting it, so red could have a spell that discards one and draws two because overall it's not up cards. Second, we're wording some cards such that red can get card advantage if its hand is empty. (Dangerous Wager is one such card.)
But wait, you say, don't both of these rules work in blue's favor? Isn't blue getting the better version each time? Yes, but two things. One, we will be costing them accordingly, so red gets a little cost saving for its recklessness. Two, looting is actually very synergistic with red's style of play. Getting that last piece of direct damage can very often win the game for red, so getting looting will be good for red overall.
One last thing—Tibalt might be making many people think that red is going to be getting a lot of random discard. No, it will not. Red will get it infrequently when we need to use it (more on this when I get to Tibalt), but by default—which will be the vast majority of the time—red's discard will not be random.
The way design and development work is that we have defaults for everything. Magic has lots of rules in place and barring a reason to alter them, that's how they work. I bring this up because these two cards are a perfect example of how things can get backwards sometimes when rules are bent because they make sense in the set they're in.
Normally, black is the color that animates creatures from the graveyard to the battlefield with no restriction. White can do it but we tend to limit how big those creatures are. Often, for example, we'll let white get back a few small creatures. Avacyn Restored, for various reasons, swapped this around in this set. It's not a big deal or anything, but as a color pie purist I also have to take a second look when things like this happen.
Note that I don't think it's a bad thing. Part of Magic's charm is that we are willing to bend our own rules to make each set have a unique feel. Sometimes, though, when you're looking at the finished product, it can look a little weird.
One of the tricks in design is to figure out what you need and then find multiple ways to accomplish that task. For example, the good guys in Avacyn Restored have a strong "enters the battlefield" theme. To help with this, we looked for different ways to help trigger these effects more than once. One way was flickering, which I've talked about quite a bit. Another way is the trick seen on these two cards.
Both white and blue are allowed in the color pie to bounce their own creatures. Usually it's done as a drawback to allow you to get a larger creature than normal, but in a set with enters-the-battlefield triggers, the bounce can often turn into upside. The way you can tell that it's important to this set is the volume of them in the set. Normally, a set will have none or one. Avacyn Restored has two, one in each color that can have the effect.
This card was originally designed for Innistrad. At the time, we weren't quite sure where the third set was going, so the idea of an Angel-making card didn't seem all that odd. Once we figured out Avacyn and the Angel theme of Avacyn Restored, we looked back and said, "This seems out of place."
So we talked with Erik (Innistrad was in development at this point) and told him we felt the card should move to Avacyn Restored. He agreed, and the card was moved. Later, during development, it was decided to turn this into a miracle card.
One of the biggest differences between how the world looks at a Magic set and how a lead designer looks at it is that the world is seeing how the new cards affect the world of Magic as they know it. What cards will work in the decks they have? Or what new deck might they make with these new cards as inspiration? A lead designer, on the other hand, is making sure that every note that needs to get hit is getting hit. You are crafting a symphony and you want to make sure every instrument is present.
I bring this up with this card because this is the kind of card that's very easy for the world to gloss over. Nothing about this card brings attention to it, but to me as one of the designers who had to put this set together, this card is a thing of beauty that fits so perfectly into what the set is doing. I don't really want to explain how, because I want you all to get the experience of learning why, but as I look through my Player's Guide to find cards to write about, this is one of the cards that brings a smile to my face. It's elegant and does its job so well. This is the kind of card that makes me, as a designer, happy.
One of the great tensions in design is the following one: Your mechanics are fun new toys. You want everyone to be able to play with your toys so you want to put them into every color. But as the color pie teaches us, what makes Magic thrive is that every color can't do everything. What this means is that you have to find ways to have different mechanics mean different things to different colors.
Let's take soulbond as an example. The first thing you can do is not put the mechanic in every color. Part of separating colors can simply be: these colors get to do it, those colors don't. With soulbond, everybody gets to join the fun but black. Soulbond is the mechanic of the good guys, representing them working together to drive evil from the land. In Avacyn Restored, black is the poster boy for evil (this, by the way, is just an Innistrad block thing—next block we'll get back to white not being just good and black not being just evil again), so it doesn't get soulbond.
The next thing you can do is allow multiple colors to have it but not let them have it at the same level. There are three ways to do this.
First, you can give more of the mechanic to a certain color or colors. Part of defining its role might just be that you see it more in certain colors. Second, you can put more powerful cards with the mechanic in certain colors. Another way to stress a color's strength is make sure it shows up more in decks. Third, you can give a color cards that don't have the mechanic but play strongly with it.
Flowering Lumberknot is an example of the third item. See, we decided that green should be the foremost soulbond color. White was overrunning with things to do and green shares white's sense of community, so we gave green more and better soulbond cards, and we gave it a few cards like Flowering Lumberknot.
The reason this card is so potent is that, in Draft, this card is useless to anyone who isn't using soulbond but is very powerful to someone who is. That means that this card has a much easier time getting into the soulbond player's hands, because that player will prioritize it much higher. And if you are playing soulbond, I suggest you take this card. It's only good situationally, but when it's good it's amazing.
Here's a Story
That's all the time we have for today. As you can tell I only got up to F, so this article will be continued next week. (Okay, the Part 1 in the title might have also hinted at this). As always, I'm eager to hear what you think of my stories and if you have any questions about ones I haven't brought up.
Join me next week when we start with G.
Until then, may your games of Avacyn Restored have as many stories.