wo weeks ago, I started telling some card-by-card and cycle-by-cycle stories about Theros. I didn't finish, and I promised a Part 2, so let's continue on. I believe we're up to N.
It's time to play the game "What Was the Germ of the Idea That Led to This Card?"
This is a good candidate for this game because it could have started in so many places. Where did it start? Our desire to make a temple. Note that this was before the scry dual lands existed, so at the time the set didn't have any temples in it and everyone on the design team felt strongly that if we did Greek mythology without at least one temple, we were making a mistake. The temple played a vital role in Greek mythology and we felt like we had to make Theros deliver one. As it's a place, we decided that it wanted to be a land.
A quick aside—once upon a time, we used both lands and artifacts to represent places. The idea was that buildings could be artifacts. Eventually, we realized that we needed to make a call and decided that lands did a better job at showing places and let artifact be more things than structures.
As this card was a land, it needed to produce mana. As we didn't have slots for five lands, it couldn't be a cycle, which pushed us to have it make one color or all five. Meanwhile, we were messing around with devotion. I liked the idea of a land that could help out devotion without helping others too much. I don't know if we got the numbers right out of the gate (and if I was a betting man, I'd say no) but the basic essence of the card was done early in design and never changed throughout the process.
Once I'd cemented down the idea that enchantments were the influence of the gods on the world and its inhabitants, I knew I wanted to do a cycle that represented heroes being sent on quests. As a kid, one of my favorite parts of Greek mythology was the heroes and how many of their quests started with a god saying, "You must do this."
The original versions of this cycle in design put a +1/+1 counter on the creature every time it attacked. Then when you had three or more counters, the creature got a bonus ability, often a creature keyword. I really liked how this showed the hero improving as he or she completed the quest.
When the card got to development there was a problem. The creature kept on getting +1/+1 counters even once it had finished its quest. This was not only a flavor disconnect but it was causing the Auras to be much more powerful. One of the things that's very important when design interacts with development is making sure you communicate what the important aspect of a design is.
To me, this cycle was all about god-decreed quests. I wanted the creatures to build up and I wanted a payoff at three counters, but I had no need for the extra counters. They happened solely because it was the easiest way to make the rules text work. The reason the open dialogue between design and development is so important is that Erik might have assumed the ever-growing +1/+1 counters were the point of the cycle.
Erik's fix was very elegant. Once you got to three counters, the enchantment sacrificed itself and produced a spell effect. It didn't further buff the creature but it did feel like a good payoff and it got rid of the problem that the Aura kept on going.
All in all, I think this cycle points out the perfect example of how design and development work together. Design had a strong concept and built a design to accommodate it. Development worked with us to fine tune it to keep the element that gave the flavor we needed while improving overall game play.
We feel it's important that every color have what we call an iconic creature. That is, we want something that is a splashy, recognizable creature type we can use on rares and mythic rares that embody the essence of that color's philosophy. Alpha managed to find three of them right out of the gate. White had Angels, Black had demons, and red had Dragons. Blue and green took a lot longer for us to find appropriate fits.
Eventually, we settled on Sphinxes for blue, as they had a nice combination of size, flying, and a flavor of intelligence and knowledge-seeking. The last nut to crack was green. Wurms didn't have the splash value and we tended to want to use them at common. Beasts were not distinct enough. Treefolk lacked the pop we wanted. Finally, one day we landed on Hydras.
Hydras did a great job of being both feral and centered on growth. It also was something we could make visually very compelling. The only thing left to do was to make some high-profile ones to cement Hydra as green's iconic. We've done a few over the years but when I knew we were doing Greek mythology, I said, "Okay, if ever there was a year to make Hydras rock, this is it."
The hole Polukranos would eventually fill was literally called "Bad-Ass Hydra." The version design made was a little different than this version. When you paid the monstrosity cost, the design version said "Polukranos fights all of target player's creatures." We liked the idea that it got huge and then just attacked everything (well, everything but your creatures).
This led to two problems in development. One, this often led to Polukranos dying every time you made it monstrous. The few times it didn't it, you essentially won the game, so there weren't a lot of fun moments using Polukranos on later turns. Second, it caused templating issues. In the end, Erik tried to capture the flavor but in a way that didn't act like a Wrath of God and was something we could actually write on a card.
Most of the top-down designs are pretty obvious. I have found that this one is caught by some and seems to go over the head of others. Pyxis of Pandemonium is Pandora's Box. For those unfamiliar with the myth, Pandora was the first woman. As a punishment for Prometheus, Zeus gave Pandora, the wife of Prometheus's brother Epimetheus, a jar (it wasn't actually a box) with instructions never to open it. Curiosity got the better of Pandora and she opened it, releasing evil onto the world of man. At the bottom of the jar was the one good thing in it, hope.
We knew that this would be tricky to capture as I'm not quite sure what releasing evil means. Instead, we chose to release chaos. We also knew that we wanted you to sacrifice it to use as we felt that symbolized opening it. What happens is kept unknown so that it creates some curiosity, encouraging you to "open" it.
When we sat down to start Theros design, I gave some thought to whether or not we wanted tribal to be a major theme in the block. Innistrad had been top-down and it used a strong tribal theme. It quickly became apparent that the answer was no. While horror is full of shambling hordes of zombies and vampire clans and werewolf packs, Greek mythology had less of a sense of like creatures banding together (other than maybe human soldiers).
Every block will always have a little bit of tribal, so I decided that I would show tribal love to one group and use that as a means to allow a fun casual Constructed deck and possibly a drafting theme. As I looked through my choices, the winner jumped out immediately—Minotaurs. Minotaurs have been part of Magic since Alpha and for a short time even served as Wizards of the Coast's mascot (Hurloon Minotaur, for those who might not be as old as me). The one other thing that convinced me was this card:
This is Didgeridoo from Homelands. This card is popular despite many shortcomings. For starters, powerwise it's pretty weak. Flavorwise, it doesn't make a lot of sense. Why would minotaurs care about an Aboriginal woodwind instrument? Nonetheless it's beloved. The only reason I believe Didgeridoo is this popular is that there is a subset of players that just want Minotaur tribal. Often, by the way, a great sign of something that will be popular is when players bend over backwards to do it even when it's horrible.
Once I knew I wanted to do Minotaur tribal, I figured out what I had to do to make it happen. For starters, I am a firm believer that two-color tribal is just more fun. It gives the players choices, allowing them access to two monocolor decks and one two-color deck. You'll notice that I used the technique both in Lorwyn and Innistrad blocks.
Obviously, Minotaurs would be red. The big question was what was the second color should be. We explored blue, as this was the choice Homelands made. Labyrinth Minotaur would have been a perfect flavor match. The creative team, though, felt that they wanted more wild minotaurs and blue implied restraint. The creative team asked if they could be black and it lined up nicely with how the set had been coming together. We didn't make the Minotaurs red-green, by the way, because the creative team wanted Satyrs in red and green. As Xenagos played an important role in the story, and he was a satyr, we agreed to have Satyrs be red-green.
Kragma Warcaller came about because we decided to create a cycle of uncommon two-color cards that were there to help point you in the direction of what those two colors were doing together in a Theros draft. We wanted black and red to be Minotaur tribal so we put a strong lord in the multicolor slot.
To drive home the casual Constructed Minotaur deck, I wanted a second lord and it seemed clear it wanted to be mono-red. I don't remember when Rageblood Shaman became a strictly better Hurloon Minotaur but I'm very happy that's how it ended up.
Also, I should note that we had a little bit of Human tribal in design that got raised a bit in development.
Two weeks ago, I talked about the creation of Chained to the Rocks. In the very same design meeting we made that card, we also made this one. (It was a very good meeting.) As I explained last time, growing up, I went through a phase where I was a huge Greek and Roman mythology fan. During that time, one of my all-time favorite stories was Orpheus and Eurydice.
Orpheus was a gifted musician able to play music so beautiful that it supposedly could make the gods weep. He was married to Eurydice, who died an accidental death. He was so sad that he traveled to the underworld to rescue her. The one condition he was given was that he could not look back at his wife as they left the underworld. Once he stepped into the light, he turned around, forgetting that both had to have exited the underworld, and she was lost to him forever.
We were brainstorming how to touch upon that story when the idea of using a reanimation spell as a means to show a rescue from the underworld. Since it was key to the flavor that they were rescued, we came up with the idea that you sacrificed a creature as part of the cost. This way, the creature would have to die to get to the underworld, but then the spell would bring back both creatures.
But wait, shouldn't the spell try to bring back the creature only to have it return at the last moment? Well, we decided to let Orpheus succeed this time. Note that in design, the card was a sorcery and that development decided it could be an instant.
Ah, the kraken, a great monster from Greek mythology. Here's the thing though—it wasn't. Krakens are actually Norwegian. But, you see, there was this movie called Clash of the Titans featuring the famous line "Release the Kraken!" and, well, a kraken.
One of the lessons of Kamigawa block was that we have to deliver not on what a source of inspiration actually is but rather on what players think it is. Perception is more important than reality. Clash of the Titans brought krakens to Greek mythology (note, by the way, that sea serpents are very much from Greek mythology, so mostly were talking about a word choice) so we felt we had to deliver on a kraken.
This doesn't mean we skipped lesser-known Greek mythological things, like Hundred-Handed One, but rather that we included them at higher rarities.
This cycle began as a little bit of flavor in the description of Heliod. The way the creative team handled the gods was to give each one to a different creative team member to write up. The team had a meeting where it took all the Greek gods and chopped them up and reassembled them to make the fifteen gods. Then the five major gods, the ones in Theros, got an elaborate write-up.
Because Heliod had a bunch of Zeus in him but lightning bolts are a red thing, Doug Beyer (the one who wrote up Heliod) came up with the idea of giving him a sunlance, you know, for his smiting needs. The design team loved this detail and decided we had to make the sunlance. As we worked out its design it became clear that it had to be both an artifact (because it's an artifact) and an enchantment (because it was a creation of the gods). We then noticed that Nylea's write-up mentioned she was a hunter and hinted that she had a bow, so we made a bow for her. We then went back to the creative team and said, "Could all the major gods have a special item, please?"
When the set was handed over, this cycle was all "Legendary Enchantment Artifact – Equipment." This ended up not fitting, so Erik removed the one he could, Equipment. He figured these were such powerful weapons that Planeswalkers weren't going to give them to minions, they would use the weapons themselves.
In development, Erik set up a mini team for the gods and their weapons that both he and I (and Aaron Forsythe, Charles Rapkin, and Ryan Spain) were all on, and we worked hard to make sure that each god and his or her weapon worked synergistically together.
The biggest question about this card was when did design know the card was going into the set. The answer is when Head Developer Erik Lauer (Erik officially got the title a few weeks ago—congratulations!) told me it was going in. I made a slot for it later that day and stuck it in.
When Erik was working on Modern Masters he was looking for cards we wanted to reprint for Modern but that could go into a Standard set. Mutavault was chosen for Magic 2014 and Thoughtseize was saved for Theros.
Another from our list of "We Have to Do This" was Prometheus. In Greek mythology, Prometheus was a titan who formed humanity out of clay. He would then later give fire to humanity and get tortured by being chained to the rocks. (I talked about this when I covered that card.)
The card's design was very straightforward. This is a giant creature (he was a titan after all) who gives fire to humans. What did that mean? We tried a bunch of different things but, in the end, we liked that it granted humans an ability that tied into red mana and damage.
The only note I have on this card is, yes, the art is a reference to Sisyphus. He was a king who was a bad man forced to suffer in Tartarus, the part of the underworld where bad people went to be creatively tortured. Sisyphus's punishment was having to push a giant boulder up a hill only to have it always roll back down as soon as he finished.
This card represents The Fates, a famous triad known as the Moirai from Greek mythology. The were three sisters who wove the metaphorical thread of life from birth to death. We knew we wanted The Fates but this ended up being a hard design to get just right. We knew we wanted three abilities to represent each of the three fates.
The first activated ability represents Clotho, the youngest of the fates, who spun the thread of life. She creates the fate counters,
The second activated ability represents Lachesis. She was the one who measured the length of each thread, determining how long each life was. Her ability allows her to make any creature with a fate counter on it start life anew by flickering it.
The third activated ability represents Atropos, the oldest of the three Fates. She cuts the thread, ending each life. Her ability kills creatures.
The balance took a long time and had the hands of both design and development on it.
For those unaware, Cerberus is a giant three-headed dog that guards the underworld. I actually told my design team on Day One of design that if we didn't make an awesome Cerberus in Theros we will have failed. This was one of the cards that we kept redesigning. We kept getting aspects of what we wanted but it took us a while to find the right mix. In fact, I believe the final incarnation of this card, while based on a design from the design team, was done by the development team.
You'll Be Mythed
That's all the time we have for today. I hope you enjoyed my stories. As always, I would love to hear your feedback and would love to know what cards I didn't talk about you'd like to hear stories about. You can send me an email, respond in the thread to this column, or send me a message on any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+).
Join me next time when I talk about drawing.
Until then, may the cards of Theros create for you your own stories.
"Drive to Work #58 & #59– Champions of Kamigawa, Parts 2 and Part 3"
The two podcasts this week are Parts 2 and 3 of my three-part podcast on the design of Champions of Kamigawa. Note that I've chosen to continue my Double Scoop into October as I'm not caught up yet.
Working for Magic R&D since October, 1995, Mark Rosewater is currently the head designer. His hobbies include spending time with his family, talking about Magic on every known medium (including a daily blog and a weekly podcast), and writing about himself in the third person.