July 10, 2015

Developing Double-Sided Planeswalkers

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About halfway through the design process of Magic Origins, I heard what the team had come up with to highlight the origin stories of the five Planeswalkers: double-faced cards that started off as legendary creatures, then transformed into Planeswalkers. I was skeptical. Planeswalkers are usually the most reliable way to make appealing cards in the core set, and the idea of using something totally untested seemed crazy to me. That being said—it was incredibly exciting. I knew that if we could get them right, they would be the most exciting cards in the set, but it was hard for me to figure out if we could get them to that point. When Shawn Main showed me the first versions, though, I was far more optimistic.

Magic Origins is different from what we usually produce in core sets. This set has two new mechanics instead of a returning mechanics, includes gold cards at uncommon, and goes as far as introducing an entirely new way to play your Planeswalkers. It revises the suite of evergreen mechanics, and attempting to tell not just one cohesive story on the cards…but five. The set was ambitious, and I knew a lot of getting it to work would hinge on the individual Planeswalker designs. That meant we needed to get the cards to the right power level, which wasn't going to be easy.

Tuning Knobs

When making cards, we refer to the individual parts of the card that affect the power level to be the knobs. The idea is that if something is a little weak, we can find a knob on the card and turn it up a bit. For instance, a 2G 2/3 could either move to GG 3/3 or gain a little bit of text. These are all individual parts of the card we can tweak.

The proposal for double-sided creatures that became Planeswalkers put more knobs on individual cards than we have ever had before. For starters, the creature side had knobs for casting cost, power and toughness, flip condition, and whatever other abilities the creature had. To add to that, the flip-side had to then be balanced. Every tweak on either side could turn the card from being nearly worthless, to being far too strong. It was a real balancing act.

To be sure, the cards were very difficult to get to the right level. We generally attempted to get the Planeswalker side to the point where you were almost always happy to transform the card—and that meant making the value of the Planeswalker one or two mana more than the creature you played—depending on just how hard the card was to transform.

Fortunately for me, Shawn Main turned the Planeswalkers—and the set as a whole—over in very good shape, which gave me the time I needed to keep to keep iterating on the individual designs to find the version that was fun, balanced, and exciting.

Now, let's take a little time to look at the individual cards, and a few stories from their development.


Gideon Jura

Gideon's—or should I say Kytheon's—story began on Akros, where he was a powerful warrior whose hubris got his friends killed. When trying to get the feeling for the card right, the very first versions of this card had the pseudo-battalion trigger to transform him, and prevented combat damage to himself. He began life as a 2WW 3/3, but quickly moved to a 4/3 to be more effective in combat.

When the art came in, I was taken aback. It was not the not the adult Kytheon I was picturing, but his younger self, around twelve years old. Kytheon may have been a powerful child, but 4/3 seemed out of proportion with the returned picture. 4/3 was suddenly out of the question—which is when I had an idea. What if he was a one-drop? We'd never made a one-drop Planeswalker, and that would go a long way to making the creature something that you would easily find room to include in a white weenie deck.

This was one of those happy accidents, though. I would have never started Gideon off as a one-mana creature, but once the art was in I felt compelled to try it…and it just worked. Not only that, but it emboldened us to take more risks with the stats of the rest of the Planeswalker lineup.


Jace Beleren

Probably the biggest difficulty we had with Jace was finding the right combination of transform triggers and Planeswalker-side abilities. The first version of the card milled your opponent, then transformed into an ever larger mill-effect. The problem with trying to get powerful mill-cards to work in Constructed is that the numbers you need to put on them tends to make Limited pretty un-fun, and yet still puts them at a point where they aren't strong enough in Commander. That's just what the library's changing side in each format does to the card.

For a long time, we had Merfolk Looter in the set, and he was doing great work—but I also realized that Jace could exist in basically the same space as Merfolk Looter and be a more successful card. One that didn't require a dedicated mill deck to function.

After trying a few different transform triggers, like looking at the name of the card discarded, or the type of the card discarded, we decided to go with number of cards in your graveyard both to represent his transformation in the storyline of reading enough minds to turn into a Planeswalker, and so that he would be difficult—but not impossible—to transform on turn three in a Constructed game. If you wanted to do that, you would have to put some work into it, which made it a lot more fun than requiring no effort whatsoever.


Liliana Vess

Speaking of Planeswalkers that required quite a bit of effort, Liliana's version from design was the favorite of our rare poll—an internal evaluation of the card in a new set to determine what's working and what isn't. Her story was complicated to get on a card because of how different her story was from our other Planeswalkers—due somewhat to her nature as being a pre-mending Planeswalker. Jace was a mind mage, Chandra was fire mage, Nissa was a nature mage, and Gideon was a law mage. Liliana was a healer who became a necromancer. In fact, one of the most difficult parts for us was finding ways to show Liliana as a healer throughout the set.

Our attempt to tell her story worked, though, and we got a card that told the story very well, but suffered from being disjointed. Her flip condition was:

B, T: Choose another target creature. When that creature dies this turn, put a 2/2 black Zombie creature token onto the battlefield, then exile CARDNAME and return it to the battlefield transformed.

This told Liliana's story pretty well, but didn't really make for a card that we could get to be playable in Standard. We struggled with this line of text for a while due to a constraint that I gave my team—that none of these Planeswalkers should transform the turn they entered the battlefield.

What we found with more testing was that the restriction was a little more than we really needed. While it was good that most of the Planeswalkers didn't easily flip the turn they entered the battlefield, it was okay if a few of them did…if you had to jump through a hoop. The hoop in this case was that you needed either a creature to sacrifice, or some other way for one of your creatures to die the turn Liliana enters the battlefield, which turned out to be a worthy restriction.

In the end, I think her card is one of the ones that best shows off the differences between her pre-ignited spark self, and her post-ignited spark self, and gave us the opportunity to really show off what the double-sided Planeswalkers were able to accomplish for both story and game play.


Chandra Nalaar

Chandra was the Planeswalker who changed the least from design to development—probably because she was the one that most clearly sold me on the mechanic. She moved from a 1/1 to a 2/2, and retained all of her other abilities.

Early versions of Chandra only counted the damage that she dealt using her ability to flip, but when talking with creative, they told me that she used to be a bit of a scrapper as a youth, so I expanded it to count any damage. It meant that if you could sneak Chandra through your opponent's defenses, she was could easily transform after casting one spell instead of two.

The flip side of Chandra required a little work, but after trying out different abilities in an attempt to get you to play more spells. We tried out a few different ultimates before coming up with the one where she lights all of her opponents on fire, which just felt very Chandra. While looking for more abilities that might work thematically, I eventually became amused by having all of Chandra's abilities deal damage, leading her to be the single card in Magic with the most instances of the word "damage." A record I don't anticipate being beaten any time soon.


Nissa Revane

For much of Nissa's life, she cost one more mana, but came with a 2/2 legendary Elemental instead of a land. Her Planeswalker side summoned a 4/4 version of the same creature. The idea was to show off Nissa as an elementalist, but we were unable to make that quite as complete as we hopped. The goal for all of these cards was to find places where they could compete in Standard, and that design just wasn't finding a home.

What we found while developing her was that the decks that wanted to play Nissa didn't need any more four-drops—what they could use was a three-drop. We quickly found that there really wasn't a good place for her to create that Elemental at three mana, so we went with her current version of text. Along with that, her condition for transforming used be to search for a land, and then transform her if you had seven or more lands. But we found that she was just too slow, and that by the time you got to four mana you could cast much larger creatures than Nissa. Instead, we reduced her starting cost and made the trigger to transform based off of a land entering the battlefield.

Nissa is still an elementalist at heart—she summons a friend on her Planeswalker side—but her front side sells her more as the Joraga Scout, searching for new land when she happens upon Emrakul in the Akoum mountains, and transforms into a Planeswalker.


From Our Table to Yours

So, those are a few of the stories that came out of developing the Planeswalkers. It was a lot of work to get cards that not only showed off the story, but also be good enough to show up in Standard, and maybe even other formats. I hope that you enjoy playing with these cards as much as we enjoyed creating them.

Until next week

Sam (@samstod)



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