March 31, 2015

Prose and Khans, Part 2

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Last week, I started telling card-by-card design stories. I didn't finish, so today is the second and final installment.





Meandering Towershell


This card came about because we were trying to make something old. Not just a little old—very, very old. What kind of creature lives the longest? Well, tortoises are known for having long lives. What if we made a tortoise? But not just any tortoise, a giant tortoise? Something huge. Tortoises are also known for being very slow, so we top-down designed a giant, slow-moving, very old tortoise. (A turtle, technically, by creature type.) We named it Turtle McDurtle.


To capture how slow it was, we made it take two whole turns to attack. We did this by having the creature exile itself when attacking only showing up during the attack the following turn. When we made this card, we didn't know if the top-down flavor was going to make it all the way to print, so we were quite happy at the slideshow when we realized it was official. Turtle McDurtle had made it to print.




Murderous Cut


Let's cut to the chase and answer the question everyone wants to know. Why isn't this Death Rattle? Death Rattle is a futureshifted card from Future Sight showing a glimpse of a possible future. We try when we can to bring back futureshifted cards. Delve was coming back so this seemed like a perfect opportunity. For those who might not remember, Future Sight had three delve cards. Here they are:





In Future Sight design, Death Rattle was originally "Destroy target nonblack creature," but green was hurting (in Constructed, I'm guessing, as the most broken Limited card in the set was green) so Mike Turian, lead developer of Future Sight, changed the "nonblack" to "nongreen." The change helped give the card a slightly different feel. It was from the future, so apparently black didn't like killing green cards there.


The "nongreen" clause might not even seem like a problem, as green is one of the three colors in the Sultai clan. It would be easy to explain away the mechanic with flavor. Design and development both felt, though, that what delve really wanted was a nice clean kill spell—one that didn't have any restrictions. That would allow us to raise the mana cost, making the delve even more important on the card.


Okay, Death Rattle was out. We still had two more options for a future reprint. Logic Knot then went into the file. We knew we wanted a counterspell with delve and Logic Knot fit the bill. Eventually we realized, though, that what we really wanted was just the cleaned-up Counterspell-with-delve version. Okay, that just meant taking out Logic Knot and putting Tombstalker in the set. Players liked Tombstalker. They'd be happy to see it return.


Tombstalker was handed off from design to development, and development was willing to print it when we ran into our next problem. Tarkir (at the time) didn't have demons. Tombstalker is a demon. When we put demons into the set we didn't go back and revisit why we excluded Tombstalker. That meant it wouldn't work either. Development looked back at Death Rattle and Logic Knot, but in the end it was decided that we shouldn't put in a suboptimal card just for the gimmick of bringing back a futureshifted card. "Introducing" delve, a futureshifted keyword, would have to be enough.




Narset, Enlightened Master


We wanted the Jeskai khan to play well with the Jeskai mechanic, prowess. How exactly does a creature do that? The solution was to give Narset an ability which allowed her to play noncreature spells for free. Narset did have prowess at one time, but it ended up being too synergistic, so it was removed. The idea became play her with prowess creatures rather than her just being a one-card combo.




Sandsteppe Citadel/Mystic Monastery/Opulent Palace/Nomad Outpost/Frontier Bivouac


In the first article, I claimed that the moment we knew we were doing wedge the first thing that popped to mind was that we had to do charms. Well, the second thing that popped into my head was that we also had to do tri-lands. Shards of Alara had introduced the "comes into play tapped" lands that tap for one of three colors



They were the perfect power level, they were as elegant as dual lands could be, and players would be expecting them. The problem was that "wedge world" had a lot of expectations to meet when it came to including lands, so the tri-lands had to fit into the larger picture of what lands the set had. There was some talk of leaving them out, but I was insistent that it was one of the cycles that players wouldn't just want but expect be in the set.


I also felt strongly that the cycle would be expected at uncommon, as that's where it sat in Shards of Alara. This is one of those stories where there was a lot of discussion and, in the end, the cycle ended up exactly where it started because we all knew it's what the players wanted.




Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker


Here was the challenge: We had to make a kickass Sarkhan Planeswalker card. Sarkhan has always been defined by his connection with dragons, except he was now home in Tarkir, a world without dragons. What was a designer to do? What if instead of summoning dragons, Sarkhan just became a dragon? Ooh, that solved our problem. Design fiddled with it. Development fiddled a whole bunch more and voilà, we ended up with a pretty cool Sarkhan card.




Sidisi, Brood Tyrant


Sidisi was designed to go into a deck that enables graveyard shenanigans, as that is what her clan likes to do. We had tried her with some abilities that enabled delve, but later decided we liked it better if she worked well in a deck that used delve without her directly helping delve (which didn't really need her help). I do like that she ties to zombies, as that is a big part of her clan, so it's nice to capture it on her card.




Sorin, Solemn Visitor


Sorin plays a much smaller role in the story than Sarkhan, but that doesn't mean his Planeswalker card needs to be any less awesome. The key to this card's design is to both create a vampire feel and also make sure the card feels both white and black.


Sometimes, two-color Planeswalkers capture both colors by having one ability in one color and another in the second. Sorin instead tries to make each of his abilities feel white and black. His first ability boosts the team's power and grants them lifelink. That's something white and black can do.


His second ability makes 2/2 flying Vampires. The 2/2 flying token leans toward white but the vampireness leans toward black. Only his final ability—forcing the opponent to sacrifice creatures—feels one color (black, obviously) and not the other.


All in all, I enjoy how the abilities all synergize and help Sorin feel as if he's controlling a vampire army.




Savage Punch


I remember the first time I saw the art for Savage Punch. I didn't even realize that it was Surrak Dragonclaw, the khan of the Temur, doing the punching. It didn't even matter. During the slideshow when it was shown, it got a similar response from the audience. We included it in the San Diego Comic-Con panel because we expected the same would hold true for the players. And it did. I saw more talk about bear punching than any other single attribute we showed off at the panel.


So how exactly did this art come to be? Was the card called Bear Punch in design? I wish my team could take responsibility, but this all happened during the card conception done by Doug Beyer. It's possible someone else came up with the "Surrak single-handedly beating a bear with his fists" concept and Doug found a place to fit it in. Nonetheless, this is a magical moment that I'm very happy got forever captured on a Khans of Tarkir card.




Secret Plans


As I explained last week, design and development having been spending more time making sure each two-color combination has a draft strategy. In Khans of Tarkir, Erik spent extra time on the enemy-color pairings, as they play well with drafting wedges. Green-blue has an emphasis on morph. Because morph is bigger than the clans, it shows up in all five clans and in all five colors, but the stronger cards (for Limited) were concentrated in green and blue.


Secret Plans plays into another recent addition of design and development, the addition of a cycle of two-color uncommons that help reinforce those color combination's draft strategy. Green and blue are about morph, so their uncommon multicolor card encourages playing lots of morph creatures.




Singing Bell Strike


Often, you put answers on other cards, but sometimes you just build them into the threat itself. Case in point: Singing Bell Strike. We want Jeskai to be one of the faster clans, but we needed to make sure that in the late game, the slower clans would grow in strength while Jeskai would weaken. One of the ways of doing this was to create its common removal card such that it would be good early-game but less efficient in the later game.


The tactic was simple. Put a buyout clause on the lockdown card. Early on, the opponent won't be able to pay the cost, but later in the game he or she will. This allowed the card to function best where Jeskai most want it and then weaken if the game gets to the later portion where the control decks are starting to gain momentum.


The untap cost also allows one other quirky use, where it is used late game on your own creature with a tap effect to allow you to get extra use out of it.



Tranquil Cove, Scoured Barrens, Dismal Backwater, Swiftwater Cliffs, Bloodfell Caves, Jungle Hollow, Rugged Highlands, Wind-Scarred Crag, Blossoming Sands, Thornwood Falls


One of the tricks of doing multicolor blocks is making sure you have the mana to support the format in both Limited and Constructed. In fact, Erik Lauer felt that the biggest mistake of the last three-color block, Shards of Alara, was that it didn't have a good enough mana base to support the three-color theme. To correct this, Erik added the same amount of color fixing even though Khans of Tarkir had less than half as many multicolor cards that Shards of Alara did.


This meant that the set needed some common dual lands. The tri-lands were at uncommon, so Erik needed to find something that would fit at common. After a little thought, Erik realized exactly what he needed—the Refuges from Zendikar.




Sejiri Refuge, Jwar Isle Refuge, Akoum Refuge, Kazandu Refuge, Graypelt Refuge

Only one problem. Take a look at the names. Sejiri, Jwar Isle, Akoum, Kazandu, Graypelt—these are all places on Zendikar. You see, when the land cycle was made, no one thought we'd be reprinting them, so they were given world-specific names. This meant that the creative team would have to create a new cycle, this time with names that could be used no matter what world wanted them. I should note that one of the big lessons has been to name dual lands generically, because there is limited amount of design space and we're just going to use them again.



Treasure Cruise


Here's a little game design and development play. We try to take a famous broken card from the game's past and then make a card that can do what that card can do...well, if you jump through a few hoops. For example, Treasure Cruise can draw you three cards for a single blue mana just like Ancestral Recall.


You do need to have seven cards in your graveyard, but hey how hard can that be? To show you how powerful Ancestral Recall is, notice that even if you jump through all the hoops, the card is still a sorcery and not an instant.




Ugin's Nexus


If you're going to have a time-travel story, you usually need a means by which your characters are able to travel through time. Ugin's Nexus was designed specifically to be the "time-travel machine" of the story. You have to understand that when we designed it, exactly how the time traveling was going to work wasn't known yet. The creative team was still working out the details. But I knew Sarkhan was going to travel through time through some means, and that means wanted to be a Magic card.


We tried a whole bunch of different designs. I believe this version wasn't the one design handed over, but elements of design's version carried over. I don't want to give away what exactly Ugin's Nexus is, as its key to the next part of the story. I'll just drop the hint that it's important (probably the word "legendary" gave that away).




Utter End


Let's answer the most obvious question. Is Utter End telling us than Vindicate is considered too good for Standard?


That's an easy question to answer. Yes. It turns out that Vindicate has two problems, both of which Utter End fixes. First, we've been moving away from strong land destruction, so Utter End no longer allows you to destroy lands. Second, even overlooking the Stone Rain issue, three mana to destroy a nonland permanent is a little too strong. Utter End gives you all the flexibility (okay, most of the flexibility) of Vindicate but powered down just a little.



Watcher of the Roost/Dragon's Eye Savants/Ruthless Ripper/Horde Ambusher/Temur Charger


When you bring back a mechanic, you have a few responsibilities. One, you have to make sure you capture the essence of what made it popular in its previous incarnation(s). (Usually, if you bring something back, it was popular first time around. Not always though, as chroma/devotion showed.) Two, you need to make new cards in the style of the old cards. And three, you have to try something new with it. Players love having an old friend visit, but they still want that friend to do a new trick or two.


My design team spent some time exploring what morph hadn't done before to look for new areas to explore. One idea we kept coming back to was a morph cost other than mana. This would allow a player with a morph creature to be able to turn it face-up even at times where the player was all tapped out, thus adding a little drama.


The idea we turned to was something we had messed around with a little bit in Lorwyn on a cycle of lands.



This dual-land cycle entered the battlefield tapped unless you revealed a card of a specific creature type from your hand. This cost proved to be very interesting because it both helped restrict how it could be used while also feeling very free. Spending mana or life or cards always feels as if you're giving up something. Revealing a card in your hand gives away a little information but mostly feels like you're not paying much.


The reason I liked revealing as a morph cost was both that it made for interesting game play moments and it traded on the idea that information was a commodity. Normally, showing you a card in my hand doesn't matter too much, unless it's giving away hidden information that would impact the board. But in a world with morph, all sorts of mind games can be played. I could show you a morph card, for example, and then play one on the next turn. Was it what I showed you or did I show it to you to make you think that's what it is?


We added an effect when this cycle gets turned face-up to add a little extra fun. The effects are small and the creatures are also not all that big, but they do lead to some very fun moments.


I was a big fan of these cards, as I loved the idea that you never knew exactly when a card could turn face-up. It added a little more tension to the warlord world. When we hand the design over to development, I always let the lead developer know which cards or cycles I'm most attached to. For Khans of Tarkir, I listed this cycle.


It turns out not all of the developers were as much fans of this cycle as myself and my design team, but luckily Erik (knowing we valued them) made sure to keep them in the set. When you all get a chance to play with them, I hope you'll see why I tried hard to make sure they stuck around.



Zurgo Helmsmasher


Let me start by answering the most common question I've been getting about Zurgo since we premiered him at the San Diego Comic-Con panel: Couldn't this card be made in mono-red? The answer is, "No it could not." Let's walk through why not.




  • Haste: That's clearly red.

  • Zurgo Helmsmasher attacks each combat if able: Okay, also red.

  • Zurgo Helmsmasher has indestructible as long as it's your turn: Not red. This ability is white, maybe green. Those are the two colors that normally get indestructibility.

  • Whenever a creature dealt damage by Zurgo Helmsmasher this turn dies, put a +1/+1 counter on Zurgo Helmsmasher: This ability is also not red. It's black. It's what we call the "Sengir" ability—named after Sengir Vampire, which had it first. But didn't red get +1/+1 counters for dealing combat damage in Innistrad? Yes it did, although even that was a slight bleed because Vampires were being bled into red, but that is a different ability than this one.



So Zurgo does two red things, a white thing, and a black thing. Sounds very Mardu to me.


Kick the Khan


Looks we're out of time to today. Good thing I made it all the way to Z. As always, I'm eager for any feedback on this and last week's column. You can email me or talk to me through any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).


Join me next week when the colors talk to me. (Well, three of them.)




Drive to Work 158 & 159—Block Plans, Parts 1 & 2


Last month, I talked about the introduction of the Two-Block Paradigm. I realized that I had been head designer for ten three-set blocks and as things are about to change over, I thought I'd spend two podcasts looking at what went into each of those ten block designs. Part 1 is Ravnica block through Zendikar block. Part 2 is Scars of Mirrodin block through Khans of Tarkir block.









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