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Journey to the Center of the Set, Part 2

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The letter T!wo weeks ago, I started telling some card-by-card stories about Journey into Nyx. I only got to G and thought maybe I'd just stop there, but then I realized, "Right, pattern completion; readers might get upset if I don't finish." So here is part number 2.

 

Usually, when we first make a mechanic, we'll take a design meeting to create cards with it to try and get a sense of what can be done with it and how much design space it has. The trick with constellation was that we wanted to make sure we were giving you enough different kinds of cards that you could build many different enchantment decks.

The key to giving players a theme to play with is making sure you are also giving them enough variety within that theme. For example, this is why, whenever we give you a tribal theme or subtheme (Minotaurs in Theros block being the most recent example) we tend to put the tribe into a second color, sometimes bleeding it to do so. This allows a player wanting to build around that tribe to have options, and thus, not all Minotaurs decks will look the same.

The key for enchantment decks was making sure that there were different win conditions. Yeah, you were going to play a lot of enchantments, but how exactly were you going to win? By carefully crafting some of our constellation designs, we hoped we could encourage deck builders to want to include different types of enchantments.

For instance, Grim Guardian comes with a built-in win condition using life loss. It basically says that if I can get this onto the battlefield (and hopefully more than one), and play enough enchantments, I will win. This now makes you think about how to do that. Do you want an aggressive strategy using enchantment creatures that attack with Grim Guardian, giving you enough extra damage to make the deck viable? Do you want to make a control deck that gums up the game, knowing that you will win by casting enough enchantments?

The constellation mechanic has to give you cards that encourage you to want to do things and we wanted to make sure that different ones push you in different directions. Ideally, we like each card to have the capability by itself to encourage different strategies. I am happy with the design of Grim Guardian because I believe it serves this role well. This was one of the first constellation cards we designed in that meeting and I've been happily playing it ever since.

 

When I talked about the design of the strive mechanic, I mentioned that we had tried multiple mechanics earlier, one of which had been called enhance. Enhance was a mechanic that doubled all the counters on a target artifact, creature, or land. In the end, while enhance was fun, development felt it was too dangerous, so we scrapped it. (Okay, we actually tried weakening it first, but that didn't pan out.)

For most of design, this card was as-is, except the activated ability was enhance. The idea was that you could use it on itself or use it to enhance other cards. This was one of our favorite enhance cards because it was useful all by itself but also "played nicely with others." In fact, it was this card that led us to change how we were designing enhance cards, to make sure they always had some use, even if no other cards with counters showed up.

This is an issue in design we call the "A/B problem." An A/B problem is a mechanic where you have cards that affect something (A) and cards that have the something (B). Now, the B cards are fine in a vacuum, because they just do what they do, but the A cards, being conditional, require B cards. Sometimes, as with tribal, this is fine. You have a Goblin lord—well then, put some Goblins in your deck. Other times, we solve this problem by making sure that A cards have a B component built in. This way, the cards work even if you don't get other B cards.

Anyway, Heroes' Bane was one of the superstars of the enhance mechanic, and when it went away, we were sad that we had to lose this card. That's when we realized that we didn't have to lose this card, we simply had to alter it. Just have it double its own counters and 90% of the play value was kept. And that is how we got Heroes' Bane.

 

Before Journey into Nyx, two cards were the holder of a record that I'm sure no one paid attention to. Hydra Broodmaster takes away the record from them.

Chronicles and Commander (2013 Edition) each had one of the two cards:

Can you figure out what that record is? (Warning: it's a silly one.)

Voodoo Doll (and only the one from Chronicles) and Marath, in their printed rules text boxes, have six Xs. (Note that I'm not counting the letter X in words only Xs that are a variable.) Hydra Broodmaster has seven. (Triumphant trumpet sound!) That might not sound like much, but after more than twenty years, it's hard for any new card to break a record.

Those of you who know your Oracle text will point out that in Oracle Marath has seven Xs. (The line "X can't be 0." was added) but Hydra Broodmaster was first to print with seven. Thank you to my many Twitter followers who helped me figure this out.​

 

When Gild premiered in Born of the Gods, many people asked me, "Where's King Midas?" The answer is here. The most interesting part of the story, though, is how he ended up here. As I explained in my card-by-card article for Born of the Gods when I talked about Gild, King Midas started as a white creature in Theros design. After I wrote that article, a lot of players asked me, "Why white?" The answer was this card:


I designed Aurification in Onslaught as a kinder, gentler version of No Mercy, a black enchantment from Urza's Legacy that killed any creature that damaged you. The creative team flavored it as you turning things to gold, so I believe when we made King Midas originally, we were thinking, "Oh, white turns things into gold."

We later realized that not all gold-turning was equal and King Midas was a pretty black character, so when we tried putting the card back in a set we changed it to black. King Midas got cut again, this time from Born of the Gods. During Journey into Nyx design, we were looking for an effect for a black inspiration card and it dawned on us that maybe this would be the place to put King Midas. So, the first two King Midases burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp. But the third one stayed up.

 

During the design of Onslaught, I was trying to prove that we could bring back cycling, but many of the R&D members were skeptical. (Remember, this was back when we didn't repeat non-evergreen keyword mechanics.) They wanted to see something new we could do with cycling—well, more than change the number from 2. I designed this card to prove there was new design space:


What if a card cared about things being cycled and then dealt damage? R&D liked it and cycling was in. Little did I know what I was starting.



Enchantments that Shock something when you do a particular thing have become a go-to design staple, so Knowledge and Power is in good historical company.

 

Most of the time, when you make an Aura, it tends to be used either on your creatures or on your opponent's creatures. Usually, this is a matter of whether or not the effect is positive or negative. Sometimes we design Auras that have an ability that is part positive and part negative to try and make it usable on both your's and your opponent's creatures (for instance, I talked two weeks ago about us doing this with bestow creature in Journey into Nyx).

Nyx Infusion is a different strategy to accomplish the same thing. Rather than have one ability, this type of Aura has two abilities: one for one subset of creatures and one for another. The idea is that the first subset is something you've built your deck to include. The trick to this type of design is to create some kind of connection between the two abilities so the aesthetics work out. Nyx Infusion uses a popular version where one subset gets +N/+N and another gets –N/-N. To match the theme of the set, the line between the two subsets is whether or not you're an enchantment. As this is an enchantment, and thus on the side of the gods, it punishes the enchanted creature for not being an enchantment.

 

So we made a Centaur lord. This brings up two questions, both of which I will answer.

Why a Centaur lord?

Every block has a little tribal in it. Obviously, we chose to spend most of our tribal points on Minotaurs in this block, but we are always on the lookout for random lords that (a) we have never done (or that we feel players might want more of) and (b) make sense in the world we are in. Centaurs have never had a lord and they show up in Theros block enough that it will allow players to be able to build a Centaur deck.

If you were going to put a second lord in the block, why Centaurs instead of some other creature type?

Theros block has plenty of other creature types in it. Why did Centaurs get the nod? The answer is that it's a creature type that has a lot of backward compatibility. Pheres-Band Warchief was made with casual play in mind and those decks will have fun scouring Magic's history for Centaurs, of which there are plenty. This is why it got the nod over something like a Satyr lord, that would have much fewer cards to draw off of. Another way to think of this is that every creature type has its fans, and over time we are trying to make as many of them happy as we can. To do this, we tend to lean toward what we think will be the larger group of players, and Centaur fans have had many more years to yearn for their lord. If some Theros creature type hasn't yet had a lord that you want, let us know and hopefully one day we'll be able to make that as well.


Part of the block plan was watching the denizens of the world slowly lose faith in their gods, leading to a conflict in the final set. To help convey this, mechanically, we made a mechanic specifically to represent the devotion the people had in their gods. Obviously, that mechanic was heroic. I kid, I kid. The plan all along was for devotion to start high in the first set and then go down as the block continued. The final set, barring the five enemy-colored Gods, would have no devotion.

But we knew that a lot of players would have built monocolor decks with devotion, so we wanted to give them something for their decks in Journey into Nyx. This cycle is an odd one, as it's not all in the same rarity, but it does give each color a card that has an effect that counts the number of basic lands you have of the appropriate type.

 

One of the things we tried hard to do during Theros block was make a lot of references to popular Greek myths. Renowned Weaver is a nod to the story of Arachne. For those unfamiliar with the story, she was a great weaver. Unfortunately, she was a little too proud and boastful. Athena took offense and challenged her to a weaving contest. After Athena won, Arachne hung herself. Taking pity on the woman, Athena brought her back to life but turned her into a spider. And that is why spiders spin webs. This card plays into the story of the weaver who becomes a spider, although in the Magic version, when she becomes a Spider she gets a little tougher and gains reach (aka the Spider ability).

 

This card makes use of an age-old design goody, the "it seems like it's a drawback but actually it's not" card. Constellation wants you to cast enchantments. Heroic creatures wants you to cast spells that target them (you know, such as Auras). Returning Auras means you can change who they go on. Returning bestow creatures that were played as creatures mean you can now use them as Auras. There are lots and lots of reasons why this drawback is anything but.

The reason this type of design is fun is because it makes players feel as if they're getting away with something. Turning a drawback into an advantage just makes players feel good, so it's the kind of thing we make sure to do from time to time.

 

If heroic ever returns (and I believe its chances are good), this card hints at where we might evolve the mechanic. The heroic trigger is one we've seen before (although not in monocolor blue—more on this below)—granting a +1/+1 counter. The evolution is the second ability, which allows you to trade in the +1/+1 counters for extra turns at a rate of five per turn. This technology lets us change the type of effects we can tie to heroic because we can connect them to multiple heroic triggers. For example, I could imagine cards in a future set with heroic where you are getting large, sweeping effects but at the cost of numerous +1/+1 counters.

 

Whenever we put a mechanic in all five colors, we like to subdivide what the mechanic can do to help colors play differently. For example, with heroic, we chose to have some creatures grow bigger with +1/+1 counters while others created spell effects. In both Theros and Born of the Gods, +1/+1 counters on heroic creatures were restricted to green and white cards, with green getting more cards that put on multiple counters.

When we got to Journey into Nyx, we were trying to find a way to create a feel that the denizens of the world were banning together to fight against the gods. Originally, the denizen mechanic was enhance, a mechanic that doubled +1/+1 counters, so we made sure to branch out heroic granting +1/+1 counters to all five colors. Enhance was eventually replaced with strive, but development felt that giving every color growing heroic creatures helped advance the feel we wanted and encouraged more playing of strive.

 

Well, the enhance mechanic didn't make it all the way to print, but that doesn't mean we left all the counter doubling behind. We had a fun time with enhance, so once we realized it was going away, we picked a few cards to keep the ability on. This card is particularly fun because it allows you to double the counters on not one, but multiple, creatures. Also, I should point out that tying it to strive is a very subtle way to keep token doubling away from noncreature permanents, many of which are much more troublesome with doubling. (I'm looking at you, Planeswalkers.)

 

Twinflame is yet another red card that demonstrates an area we are looking to expand red's piece of the color pie. To play into red's impulsiveness, we've been experimenting with giving red access to some abilities it does not normally have, but only for the duration of a single turn. This was seen last year on Chandra, Pyromaster's middle ability, that allowed you to draw cards but forced you to cast them that turn or lose them. Twinflame expands this idea to cloning, allowing you to clone another creature but only for a single turn.

For those who are interested in Magic's design history, this is an area we have played around with in the past but drifted away from. Our desire to find ways to expand red's piece of the color pie has had us reexamining whether or not abandoning this design space was the right thing to do.

 

Tempest was my first design. At the time, I believed in a concept I called a "marquee card." A marquee card was a card that could go into any deck (usually an artifact, but it could in theory be a land—colorless spells didn't exist yet) that did something Magic had never done before. I got the idea from the popularity of Jester's Cap in the set Ice Age. The card let you go into your opponent's deck and remove cards. Your opponent's deck! In Mirage, I made a card called Grinning Totem. It allowed you to go into your opponent's deck and cast a card out of it. What?!

For Tempest, I had come up with something equally crazy. The villain was named Volrath and he had a helm capable of mind control. (Yes, Volrath's Helm.) The card I designed allowed you to take control of another player and play his or her side for a whole turn. It had some rules issue that I wasn't able to work out, so the card got shelved. During the design for Mirrodin, I dusted it off and tried again with a new rules manager. This time, I was successful.


I tried to use the mind control ability again when I was designing Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker for Conflux. His ultimate was "control target player's next turn." Actually, I think it might have been "control target player's next two turns." The development team decided to go with a different ultimate. Months later, when Sorin Markov got designed, someone remembered the ultimate from Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker and thought, "Hey, Sorin's a vampire. They use mind control."

Worst Fears sees this effect finally make it to a spell and it was decided to give this ability to black. Yes, blue does most of the control, but black has shown that when it messes around in this space it's a little more vicious.

The Journey Concludes

I hope you enjoyed all my stories from two weeks ago and today. Journey into Nyx was a blast to design and it was equally fun to share a lot of stories from that design, as well as give some historical context to where some of the cards came/evolved from. As always, I would love to hear any feedback on this column. You can write me an email, respond in the thread, or talk to me through any of my many social media outlets (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week, when a third of what I say will be a lie.

Until then, may you take Journey into Nyx and create some of your own stories.




"Drive to Work #118—Zendikar Cards, Part 2"

Last week, I started a podcast telling some card-by-card stories from Zendikar design. Today is the second part of that four-part series.

"Drive to Work #119—1999"

To have a little breather from Zendikar stories, my second podcast today is the next podcast in my "20 Years in 20 Podcasts" series, where I am going through each year of Magic's life. Today I talk 1999.

Multi




 
Mark Rosewater
Mark Rosewater
@maro254
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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.

 
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