elcome to Week 2 of Shards of Alara Previews. This week I'm going to spend a bit more time talking about Bill Rose's unconventional design strategy for Shards of Alara. I'll examine how the whole thing worked through the lens of one of the new mechanics from the set. And since I need some way to explain what that new mechanic is, I guess I'll have to show you a preview card. Twist my arm.
The mechanic I'm about to show you has already been spoiled by the French magazine Lotus Noir and thus appears in the Shards of Alara Visual Spoiler. (WARNING—If you don't want to see cards from Shards of Alara, A) leave now and come back in three weeks once the set is on sale, and b) definitely don't go to the Visual Spoiler.) The mechanic in question is called devour. To begin, let me show you the card already spoiled.
Why am I showing off another card before I show today's card? Because I believe the card I'm going to show you is even cooler. I'm not dissing the Hellion, which I do like quite a bit, but what I'm about to show you is my personal favorite devour card. From past preview columns I've learned not to over-hype my cards, so I'll just let you see it.
For all of design and most of development, by the way, this card had devour 1, but late in development the team decided that they liked this card enough that they wanted to push it a little more. The result? Devour 2. (P.S. Play Mycoloth with Doubling Season for tons of fun.)
So why I did I start today's column by showing you the preview card? Because today's column is going to follow the evolution of the devour mechanic and I felt it was a much better story if you knew how it ended. (For those that care, this is why many stories start at the end of the story and are then told through flashback.) Anyway, this is where devour ends; let's jump in our WABAC Machine and see how it started.
Painting the Shard Red
As I explained last week, Bill approached Shards of Alara with some very unconventional design ideas. Normally, a design team is constant during the duration of the design. Bill continually shifted the Shards of Alara team. (Fifteen people floated in and out during the length of design.) Even more untraditionally, for the crux of the design, Bill split the design team into five sub-teams each working on a different part of the set.
Let me take a moment to explain why what Bill did was so out there. Normally on a design, the entire team is working side by side to piece together the set. But the team does this with full knowledge of what's going on. During the Shards of Alara "shard design," each design team of three worked in isolation. Okay, that's not completely true. Bill set it up so most designers were on multiple teams. This meant that each team had some glimpse into the other teams. Nonetheless, the teams were working with much less knowledge than a team normally has. In fact, Bill instructed each team when we began to focus on its own shard and make its design as good as it could be. Later in the process, the pieces would be fit together.
The Jund team (Jund is the red-centered shard with black and green) was led by Bill and also included Mark Globus (of Great Designer Search fame) and Mike Turian (of Pro Tour Hall of Fame fame). They were responsible for fleshing the following world: (taken from Doug Beyer's feature article on Shards of Alara)
Jund is a plane-spanning web of predation crowned by dragons. Nature is in its rawest, most treacherous state here, devouring all not prepared for its dangers. Whether you face Jund's human warrior tribes, its packs of viashino hunters, its mighty dragons, or simply its carnivorous flora, your survival skills will be tested to their fullest. It's saying something that feisty goblins, who cling desperately to the bottom of Jund's food chain, are the safest foes you'll face there.
So Jund is a dog-eat-dog-world, or more accurately a dragon-eat-goblin-world. The red-centered shard is a land of predators. The Jund design team had to figure out how to mechanically reflect this flavor. Remember that Shards of Alara design was different in that a lot of the world-building happened before the shard design portion happened. The Jund team walked in on day one roughly knowing the world they had to capture in the design. (I say roughly because there was some give and take once design elements were figured out; that said, this design definitely had more creative work done before the major mechanic push than most sets' designs.)
So where did devour come from? The mind of Ken Nagle. Wait, I didn't say Ken was on the Jund design team. He wasn't, but Ken had read the material on all five shards (Ken was leading the Naya shard design team and was on the Bant shard design team) and one day while walking home he was thinking about Jund. (Yes, Ken most often walks to and from work—little factoid.) The idea he was playing around with on his walk was how to represent predators. How exactly does one creature eat another creature in Magic?
One of the ideas he came up with was a mechanic where your creature ate another of your creatures when it came into play. Here's the card Ken came up with on his walk:
Creature – Bird
When CARDNAME comes into play, you may sacrifice a creature you control. If you do, CARDNAME comes into play with a +1/+1 counter.
You'll notice that in its initial incarnation, devour only let you eat one other creature and was locked into a single +1/+1 counter. Also there's a part I've censored because it's something we didn't choose to do until Conflux. When Conflux rolls around, I'll let you see it.
Ken liked this idea enough that he sent it to Bill, the lead of the Jund design team. Bill keyworded the mechanic as "prey" and added a number after it such that different cards could grow by different amounts when they ate their "food." Bill took the idea to the Jund team, and they liked it. They began designing cards with devour. End of story? Not by a long shot.
Into the Grixis
Time to cut away to a different shard design team: Grixis. The Grixis design team was led by Devin Low and included Erik Lauer and Brian Tinsman. (For those that feel I only ever tell design stories involving myself, I'll point out that this story involves the only two shard design teams I wasn't on.) Here's the lowdown on Grixis (again from Doug's feature):
Grixis is a hellscape of decay and madness, where necromancers command swarms of undead and demons walk the earth. Humanity is nearly extinct here; the survivors cower in hermitages, defending their life essence from rampaging horrors. Rampant death magic and demonic influence make Grixis an abominable destination best avoided by most.
As the team explored Grixis they kept coming back to one concept: death. Grixis was a world very centered on death. What if, they thought, they built their keyword around death. After various attempts, the team's favorite death-centered mechanic was something they called carnage. What was carnage's text? "Whenever a creature is put into a graveyard from play, [do something]." The team had keyworded a death trigger. Now, death triggers had been around a long time. One of the most famous...
...dates back to Magic's first expansion (Arabian Nights). The more the team played with carnage, the more they enjoyed it. When the Grixis shard design was handed off, Grixis's mechanic was carnage. What about unearth, the mechanic actually printed in Grixis? It didn't exist at the time of the shard handoff. Following the trend of people not on a shard's design team designing its mechanic, I created unearth (but that's a story for another column).
Once each shard design team was done, all the designs were handed back to Bill. Then Bill put together a small design team to connect the work of the five shard design teams. That team was Bill, Devin and myself. We liked what each team had done, but there was some overlap and it was clear that there was still some work to be done.
One of the first problems to pop up involved Jund and Grixis. Jund had devour. Grixis had carnage. Both wanted to eat their own creatures; Jund to fulfill the flavor of predator/prey, and Grixis to set off the death triggers. The two were doing things so intertwined with one another that it made them blend together more than we wanted. Note that while we were looking for synergies between the shards, we wanted each one to stand on its own. If two shards were more interconnected than any other two shards, we felt it would pull the focus we wanted on five distinct worlds and make the overall environment feel off-balance.
After some discussion, we came to the conclusion that carnage would be better served in a shard with devour, so we moved carnage to Jund. This left a void in Grixis, which would soon be filled by the unearth mechanic. (Check out the visual spoiler if you want to see what unearth does.) This meant that carnage and devour could be friends, which worked out great as the two mechanics were so well suited to one another.
Everything was rosy until the design team saw a new problem. Bant had one keyword (exalted—see my column last week for more). Grixis had one keyword (unearth). Esper had no keywords but had a very defining trait (all the creatures are colored artifacts) and a strong artifact theme. Naya also had a theme (rewarding and enabling big creatures and big spells) but no keyword per se. Jund having two keywords felt odd. One had to go.
The design team at the time (I'm not sure exactly who made up this particular team, I just know I was on it) decided that carnage had much more design space than devour, so devour was removed from the set. But not completely. You see, the design team liked devour so we kept a few around but without the keyword.
During development (the team was lead by Devin Low and consisted of himself, Matt Place, Mike Turian, Mike Mikaelian, and myself) we came to the conclusion that carnage, as a keyword that is, had some problems. First, it was odd to keyword something that we do all the time. Second, having Jund's keyword be something we always do felt like Jund didn't get any innovation. Third, keywording triggers is tricky business. Four, devour was rearing its head again.
What happened was that since we had left a few devour cards in the set, they were getting templated, and the templating team was having problems making the text concise. Eventually they realized it would be much easier if they were allowed to occasionally reference the creatures that had been eaten. By using the keyword "devour," they could refer to the eaten creatures as "devoured."
Not wanting to have two keywords in a single shard and having reasons to both lose carnage as a keyword (note that we didn't remove it; the "thing formerly known as carnage" is alive and kicking in the set; it just doesn't have a label) and add devour, we did just that.
My point today is that Shards of Alara has a very different feel from most other sets because of the nature of how it was put together. The five pieces weren't carefully handcrafted from infancy. Each section naturally grew into the space it wanted and not the space allocated for it. This gives the set sort of a rough feel as things are not as lined up as they are in many sets. The shards each feel more organic, as they grew based upon their own needs more so than the needs of the larger plan. Yes, there was some pruning and a little maneuvering, but in the end Shards of Alara has an extra layer that gives it a cool but different feel.
I am often asked why we have so many different people leading designs. Shouldn't we just get the best handful of people and have them design everything? No, we shouldn't. Why? Because one of the best ways to get the diversity that Magic so strongly craves is to imbue it into the very design process itself. I like that Bill decided to approach the design differently. I like that he questioned established protocols. I like that he took the design in a different direction. Shards of Alara is not the set that I would have designed, and that is a wonderful thing. (Another line destined to be quoted out of context.) You know why? Because I already have a designer that makes sets like me. Me. It's the same reason I was so excited to get Ken as a full-time designer. Ken does not think the way I do. Thank goodness. I love that Ken attacks design problems from vantage points that I never would.
As I often say, Magic is at its heart a game of discovery. I want my designers to each be paving his or her own path. Shards of Alara is unlike any other set because Bill chose to do things unlike what we have done before. Bravo, Bill. Bravo.
Next week, I'll give you an insight into the part of Shards of Alara that I had the most input on, the shard of Esper.
Until then, may you occasionally take the path less chosen.
Bonus: Devour Rules
Devour is an ability that allows the most vicious creatures to grow in size by preying upon other creatures.
The official rules for devour are as follows:
502.82a Devour is a static ability. "Devour N" means "As this object comes into play, you may sacrifice any number of creatures. This permanent comes into play with N +1/+1 counters on it for each creature sacrificed this way."
502.82b Some objects have abilities that refer to the number of creatures the permanent devoured. "It devoured" means "sacrificed as a result of its devour ability as it came into play."
* Devour appears only on creature cards.
* A creature with devour can devour other creatures no matter how it comes into play.
* You may choose to not sacrifice any creatures.
* If you play a creature with devour as a spell, you choose how many and which creatures to devour as part of the resolution of that spell. (It can't be countered at this point.) The same is true of a spell or ability that lets you put a creature with devour into play.
* You may sacrifice only creatures that are already in play. If a creature with devour and another creature are coming into play under your control at the same time, the creature with devour can't devour that other creature. The creature with devour also can't devour itself.
* If multiple creatures with devour are coming into play under your control at the same time, you may use each one's devour ability. A creature you already control can be devoured by only one of them, however. (In other words, you can't sacrifice the same creature to satisfy multiple devour abilities.) All creatures devoured this way are sacrificed at the same time.