elcome to Spirit Week! With the new focus on Spirits in Champions of Kamigawa, we've decided to dedicate a week to this age-old creature type. And as I have the design column, it seems only natural to talk about the design of a number of spirits and hopefully give you some more insight into the design process along the way.
Angelic Curator (Urza's Legacy)
Let me begin with a trivia question. What was the first set to have protection from artifacts? Many players will answer Antiquities
. And they'd be wrong. (Well, unless you count retroactive Oracle text.) The rest of you probably looked at the header of this section and said, “Uh, Urza's Legacy
Yes, protection from artifacts did not officially exist until Urza's Legacy was released (Angelic Curator and Yavimaya Scion both had it). How did such a simple concept take five years to see the light of day? It did and it didn't. The designers of Antiquities wanted to create protection from artifacts but they didn't have the tools at the time. This is a very important part of design – technology.
I'm not sure how many of you played “back in the day” but early Magic was a bit chaotic on the rules front. Protection, for example, was in constant flux. In the very earliest days, Black Knight (with protection from white) was immune to both Wrath of God and Circle of Protection: Black. At the time of Antiquities, the rules of protection were still up in the air (Revised was the set that really established the basic fundamentals of modern day protection), so the Antiquities design team (Skaff Elias, Jim Lin, Joel Mick, Chris Page and Dave Pettey) decided to make cards that had an ability like protection from artifacts.
One of the jobs of Magic design is to keep on top of rules technology. (Note that I'm talking more about how the rules can be used to represent mechanics than how the rules work.) As the rules evolve, the designers have the ability to do things in elegant ways that they couldn't before. In fact, I believe it's one of the responsibilities of the designers to push the rules to create more elegant cards. Angelic Curator is just one example of this dynamic.
Entropic Specter (Exodus)
This demonstrates another interesting aspect of card design, synergy versus anti-synergy. Whenever you put more than one ability on a card, you want to examine how the two interact. Ideally, you want the abilities to do one of two things. You want them to play nicely together or you want them to fight one another. The former allows you to create cards that exceed the sum of their parts. The second allows you to create cards that make interesting play decisions as helping one part of the card hurts the other. Entropic Specter
is an example of this second type.
During Mirage development, I created the card Maro. (see my column “There's Always Two Maro” if you want the full story). It was a fun mechanic and I was always on the lookout for other ways to use the mechanic. One obvious choice was a creature whose power and toughness was dependent on the size of your opponent's hand. But I wanted a twist. Something else to give the card a little oomph.
So I began thinking about what abilities went with an anti-Maro. I thought about giving the creature the ability to make the opponent draw cards. While cute, it didn't seem all that effective. Giving your opponent a card didn't quite seem worth getting a temporary point of power and toughness. You don't want to give your opponent cards, you want to make them discard. And that got me thinking about the doing the opposite. What about an anti-Maro that forced the opponent to discard? It would cause itself to shrink. That seemed cool.
I decided to make it a specter so that meant I had to give it flying. And, of course, make it black. We even gave the art to Ron Spencer, the granddaddy of specter illustrators. So what is it doing in a column on spirits? I don't know. It's clearly a specter. Heck, it even has specter in its name. The art shows a specter and the card has the “specter” ability. Maybe we knew that some day spirit would be meaningful and we wanted to add this card to the list of spirits that would improve when that set came out. Or perhaps we just screwed up. You decide. Anyway, that, my faithful readers, is how Entropic Specter came to be.
Furnace Spirit (Stronghold)
This is what I call a “mix and match” card. The idea is simple. Take two abilities found in a color and put them together on a card. During multi-color blocks, we make “mix and match” cards by taking an ability from each of the two colors and sticking them together. The problem with mono-color mix and match cards is that we quickly run out of them. There's only so many abilities per color and over time we've just mixed and matched them all.
This is why I'm always excited when I get to do a new, simple mix and match card. Furnace Spirit was one such card. Red has haste and red has firebreathing. They even have some synergy together. So when during Stronghold design I realized that the two had never been combined (by themselves that is), I was very excited. I chose to make the card a 1/1 because I wanted to maximize the card's ability to swing for a lot of damage out of nowhere.
Horobi, Death's Wail (Champions of Kamigawa)
A big part of Magic
design comes from the inspiration of older cards. The key is finding something you liked from the past and figuring out how to use it in a new way. Horobi, Death's Wail
was the result of such an exercise. You see, ever since I first laid eyes on Skulking Ghost
, I've been a fan. In fact, he's the star of one of my favorite Magic
I was visiting my old stomping grounds in Costa Mesa down in Southern California. Mirage had just come out so I was playing a game of Mirage sealed. I got my opponent down to 6 life when the ground stalemated. And then what did I draw? Yes, a Skulking Ghost. (Okay, that wasn't so hard to figure out.) The problem was that my opponent had a Dwarven Nomad in play (aka Dwarven Warriors). If I played the Skulking Ghost, he could simply give it unblockablity with the Nomad and destroy it.
As I played the next few turns, I came to an interesting conclusion: My opponent wasn't going to catch that he could destroy my Skulking Ghost with his Dwarven Nomad. So I played my Ghost. My opponent did nothing. I attacked for two. Nothing. Next turn, for two more. Nothing. Finally, I attacked for two and won the game. There is a lot of talk of being able to play not just against the opponent's cards but against the opponent. I was proud that I was able to see this very delicate road to victory.
But let's get back to designing Horobi. So, I wanted to find a way to use the “skulking” ability. I thought of new creatures that could have the ability. But then I thought about using it offensively rather than being a drawback. What if, I thought, I gave the ability to others? Then I came up with the idea of a skulking creature that granted the skulking ability onto all other creatures. And voila, Horobi, Death's Wail was born.
Kami of the Painted Road (Champions of Kamigawa)
During Champions of Kamigawa
development (although the credits fail to acknowledge this, I was actually on the Champions
development team), I was tasked with creating more “arcane & spirit triggers” (referred to as “spiritcraft” cards). One card I created was the following:
Creature – Spirit
Whenever a mystic spell is played, CARDNAME gets protection from the color of your choice until end of turn.
became . 2/1 became 3/3. And Flying became “ “ (this represents the emptiness of words).
I've included this card because I wanted to point out that often the heart of design is ripped off a card and reattached to another card. My version of the card was a small evasion creature while the printed version is a medium-sized ground pounder. Why is this done? Because development has the additional concern of making sure each color is balanced. Whether that be color or size or abilities, the development team has to worry that each element of the set is rounded out. White had enough fliers. What it needed was a larger ground creature. This ability worked on both sized creatures, thus the change was made.
This card's design is an example of the evolution of set design. During Tempest
design, I came up with the spikes. For those unfamiliar with Tempest
block, the spikes are primarily green creatures that come into play with +1/+1 counters. All spikes have the ability to move their +1/+1 counters to other creatures. Most spikes have a second ability to sacrifice a +1/+1 counter for some effect. Tempest
had more mechanics than it needed so a number of mechanics were pushed off to future sets. (Although spikes are special in that they got a special “preview” card in Spike Drone
.) This is how the spikes ended up in Stronghold
Once we knew the spikes were going to be in the set, we wanted to find ways to make the spikes more interactive. We joked that we should repeat Triskelion in the set. And then it hit me - what if the set had cards other than spikes that could sacrifice +1/+1 counters for effects? This way, the spikes moving +1/+1 counters onto them would be powering them up in a way beyond just making them bigger. With this in mind I started looking at different effects for each of the colors. For black, discard seemed obvious.
A lot of players seem to think that design is all about making a bunch of cards and sticking them together. The truth is that design is much more about one card leading to the next. Designs don't come together as much as they evolve. Mindwarper is one such evolution.
Nether Spirit (Mercadian Masques)
Sometimes technology helps you and sometimes it hurts. In Alpha, there was a card called Nether Shadow
(also a spirit, by the way). Nether Shadow
had haste. At the beginning of your upkeep, if there were three cards above it, it would return to play. It was a very fun card. Unfortunately during the Tempest
block (more towards the Exodus
end) R&D decided to stop making graveyard order matter. The reasoning was this. Having graveyard order matter meant that players could never rearrange their graveyard. And by nature, players liked rearranging their graveyard. We felt the design loss wasn't too big and thus we made the decision to stop making cards that cared about graveyard order.
One of the fallouts of this decision is that it prevented us from reprinting several cards; Nether Shadow being one of them. This meant that we needed to find a new way to make a Nether Shadow-like creature. After toying with a number ways to duplicate Nether Shadow's ability, I finally decided to try something different. Nether Shadow wanted a lot of creatures going to the graveyard. How about a card that wanted the opposite? A returning creature that didn't want to share the graveyard with other creatures. This thought process led to Nether Spirit.
Raging Spirit (Mirage)
I keep saying the theme of this column is Magic
design, but secretly the real theme is “things Mark wants to talk about”. Thus, I'm not going to apologize for the following story that has zero design relevance. Okay, maybe one or two percent.
Before I came to Wizards I was best known as “the guy that makes the puzzles for The Duelist”. The feature was so popular that Wizards decided to put out a book based on Magic: the Puzzling (the name of my puzzle column). I was asked for fifty puzzles. But at the last minute, it was decided to break it up into two books, each with twenty-five puzzles. The first book sold out (although to be fair it only had a 10,000 book printing), and then book publishing had a shake-up and the second book was cancelled. This meant that I had twenty-five extra puzzles in my back pocket.
Because I didn't want the extra puzzles to go to waste, I started using them in The Duelist. The problem though was that they were all based around older cards. One puzzle was being used right after Mirage's release. To try to make the puzzle seem the tiniest bit relevant, I changed a Hill Giant in the puzzle to a Raging Spirit. They were the same card (except for the Raging Spirit's colorless making ability), so the swap seemed easy. Guess what? It broke the puzzle. Giving the opponent the ability to sink mana made winning impossible.
What is the two percent design relevance? The following lesson: never underestimate any ability. Even the smallest ability can situationally be a powerhouse.
The first time I ever looked at Lhurgoyf I had the following thoughts:
- That's a cool card.
- That's really funny flavor text.
- How the hell do I pronounce this?
- Why isn't this card black?
The card wasn't completely out of flavor for green as it does have a growth theme that makes many a */* creature. I think it was the idea that the creature grew as others died that made it feel black. During Stronghold design, I decided to remake the card in what I thought was the proper color. I added flying to make it feel a little different. But then to make sure that everyone knew where the inspiration came from I wrote flavor text that referenced Lhurgoyf. I knew that it didn't make any sense in the larger picture, but I felt that every once in a while it's okay to just have a little fun.
The point of this card is that design often mines the past looking for cards that can be shifted into other colors. Sometimes this is due to a color pie shift. Other times it's just a matter of wanting some variety. I wonder when we'll hear from Hans again. (Hint: Not too long.)
Sire of the Storm (Champions of Kamigawa)
One of the fun parts of writing these design columns is that I get to dig back into my files and find old versions of cards. Here is the earliest version of Sire of the Storm
Blue Spirit #5
Creature - Spirit
Whenever a mystic spell is played, you may pay 1U to draw a card.
For starters, I called this Blue Spirit #5 because there were four Blue Spirits submitted before it. My version cost a little less but made you pay for the card draws. Development decided to not have mana costs associated with spiritcraft triggers so this was changed from four mana to six. At some point the 2/4 became a 3/3, I suppose to make it a little better.
Not much else to say about this one.
Sky Spirit (Tempest)
This card was created to solve an interesting problem. The Legends designers created a wonderful little gem called Thunder Spirit (also a Spirit) that was for a 2/2 creature with flying and first strike. Design-wise, it was a perfect card. Unfortunately, it was made a rare and as such ended up on the Reserved List (a list of cards made by Wizards that we've promised never to reprint.) What's a designer to do?
The answer is finding a way to make a card equally as elegant. And in Tempest, we did. What if we could print the exact same card with one tiny change? A white mana symbol became a blue mana symbol. Simple and elegant, yet a fundamental change. A design coup, if I do say so myself.
The Spirit of Magic Past
I hope you enjoy columns like today. While low on focus, columns like this do a good job of giving you all glimpses of the design process. And I believe it's the little details like these that are the most fundamental part of design.
Join me next week when I write my shortest column ever.
Until then may you recognize the nuance in your own day-to-day activity.