August 17, 2015

Original Spin


It's just about time to wind down the Magic Origins talk—but before I do, I wanted to quickly get in a column of card-by-card design stories and discussions. I have a lot to say and only one column to say it in, so let's get started.

Alhammarret, High Arbiter

SPOILER: If you haven't yet read Jace's origin story, please do so because I'm going to be giving away some relevant information about it below.

Alhammarret was Jace's mentor and eventually his foe. The sphinx had strong mind magic which he used invasively, so we wanted to make sure that the design captured that feel. The big question I've been getting on this card is "isn't the ability white and not blue?" In general, yes, preemptive countering has traditionally been more of a white thing, but blue—as king of the counterspells—does essentially cover similar territory.

There is a way to template the ability so that it technically reads a little more blue (for example, instead of preventing the casting, it could allow it and then counter it) but it would just have been significantly wordier and would have had the same basic effect. As a general rule, those differences are important to help keep colors distinct but when faced with wordiness on a card that's already wordy, we'll err towards the cleaner answer even if it's slightly less "in color."

Call of the Full Moon

One of the cool things about Magic Origins and its exploration of many worlds we've seen before was that we were able to make a number of cards that were mechanical throwbacks to the set we were revisiting. Call of the Full Moon is a great example. The flavor of the card is that the enchanted creature is becoming a werewolf, but eventually daylight will come and the creature will turn back. The design doesn't use just any trigger, it uses the trigger from Innistrad block that turned Werewolves back into Humans: the casting of two cards on any one turn by the same player.

This card is also an example of one other thing done in the design. I explained during the Magic Origins preview weeks that the ten worlds were split up into ten two-color archetypes for drafting. What I didn't explain though was that visits to that world were not restricted to those two-color pairs. For example, Innistrad archetypically was in blue and black because those were the Zombie colors in Innistrad block and Liliana is the one visiting it. But Call of the Full Moon is a red card. In order to make a Werewolf connection, the card was done in one of the colors that Werewolves were found in Innistrad block. As you look through Magic Origins, you will find many other examples of visits to worlds outside of the two-color pairs I originally listed.

Chandra's Ignition

One of the fun things about doing a design based upon a story is that you get to have cool moments where the game mechanics used in a game can actually reflect the story. Chandra's Ignition is a wonderful example. In Chandra's story, things have gone horribly for Chandra and her family. Chandra is about to be executed when she has a giant flare-up (obviously quite literally in this case) as she vents all her emotions. It is in this moment that she sparks and disappears as she makes her first planeswalk. Let's take a look at Chandra's legendary creature representing her before her spark.

Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh is a double-faced card. If Chandra has dealt 3 or more damage this turn, you get to transform her and have her become Chandra, Roaring Flame, a planeswalker. Chandra's Ignition doesn't do damage itself, it has the creature deal the damage. This means that Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh would deal two damage because she is a 2/2. She can then tap to do the third point of damage, which would subsequently transform her. The fact that this all works together wasn't a happy coincidence, it was carefully planned by the design and development teams.

Consul's Lieutenant

Renown is a mechanic similar to monstrous from Theros, in that it requires you to do something, marks the change with some number of +1/+1 counters, and then sometimes references whether or not the creature has been changed. Monstrous required mana, while renown requires successfully attacking. The design team was trying hard to pick mechanics that showed a sense of growth and progression to match with the origin-story theme of the set. Just as we watch the characters grow and improve, so too can you do the same mechanically with your creatures (with renown) and spells (with spell mastery).

Renown has three areas you can play around with in design. First was the renown number. How much bigger will the creature get? With one exception at rare, all the renown numbers in Magic Origins are 1 or 2. Nearly all of the commons are renown 1 (the exception being Rhox Maulers). The second area for design is abilities on the creature. These abilities can help you be able to get through and/or make the creature better when it gets bigger. Consul's Lieutenant, for example, has first strike—which does both. First strike makes the creature harder to block, allowing it to reach renown, and then makes the upgrade more valuable because first strike's value is closely tied to the creature's power. The third ability, usually used on renown creatures at higher rarities, is a bonus for being renowned. On Consul's Lieutenant, this ability makes your other attackers stronger and tougher.

Interestingly, one of the biggest criticisms I get about this mechanic matches one I also got with monstrous. The way you know a creature has renown is the +1/+1 counter(s) on it, but in Magic (although not too much in Magic Origins) there are other ways to put +1/+1 counters on creatures. Some have suggested that the creatures' abilities should care about having a +1/+1 counter rather than being renowned, but the problem there is it adds value to the card in a way that can't easily be seen, making us cost the creatures for more. It would mostly just make the mechanic look weaker, as most players wouldn't even see the advantage. My general philosophy is that mechanics like renown and monstrous will be clear the vast majority of the time—and in the few cases where something else is going on, you can find a way to mark it to remember.

Dark Petition

One of the ongoing themes you'll see this week is questions about color pie. As this isn't a set I was on the design team for, I have fewer behind-the-scenes stories—so I thought I'd examine why we occasionally bend the color pie. Dark Petition is a fine example. To understand the issue, I must first talk about the spell mastery mechanic.

Certain mechanics are what I call "rider mechanics," in that what they do is add a conditional rider to cards. Every spell mastery card, as an example, has to have an effect and then a secondary effect somehow tied to the first if spell mastery is in effect. Dark Petition wanted to be a tutor. All right, what ability in black can you do that would be useful with a tutor? At first blush, there's no easy answer. You want to interact with the spell you just got, but there's not tons of ways to do that in black.

The solution was to dip into something black used to do: creating mana. Now, we could have just made the spell cheaper; it's something black can do, but it was harder to word and less flavorful. The question was, black's rituals got moved off to red—but was it something black could do infrequently? The big question that always gets asked when you are trying to figure out if something is a bend or break of the color pie is "does this effect undermine the weakness of the color?" The answer here was no. Black does have ways to access mana, usually at some additional cost, meaning this ritual wouldn't be giving black access to something it wasn't supposed to get. Plus it had strong flavor, so the ritual was given a thumbs up.

Demonic Pact

This card was originally turned in for You Make the Card 4 by James Clarke. The card was a black enchantment, and we asked the public to make rules text for it. Of all the ideas submitted, eight were chosen for a giant vote off. Demonic Pact (then called Consuming Contract) was one of the final eight ideas chosen. It advanced from the quarterfinal round to the semifinal round, but it lost there to the card that would go on to lose in the finals to the card that would ultimately be printed as Waste Not in Magic 2015.

Consuming Contract might have lost, but we thought that the core of the design—you get to choose four things, three powerful effects and the fourth "lose the game"—was great. Also, in Magic Origins, we were telling the story of Liliana—who makes a deal with four demons. This card would be a perfect fit. The trick was figuring out what the three other effects should be. The original card had "you draw two cards and lose two life", "destroy target creature," and "cast a spell without paying its mana cost." The last ability was both too powerful and not really black (black could cast a spell out of a graveyard). Even in You Make the Card, we removed that ability and said the players would get to vote on the missing one if the card text won.

After looking at all the options, it was decided not to do a creature kill option because it could be blanked if there was no creature in play. All three abilities should work regardless of board state. They kept the draw two, and added draining the opponent for 4 and forcing them to discard two cards. The life rider for card drawing was dropped, because the card already had an inherent risk, and it helped make the effect feel more different from the drain (and was less wordy). Finally, the name was changed because we wanted to reflect Liliana's story. And yes, for those who are unsure, that is Liliana in the art getting her "contract" (the full-body tattoos).

Enthralling Victor

Every once in a while we hit upon a card that just captures some little goofy thing that we know players are going to fall in love with. How do we know? Because R&D falls in love with it first! The first time I heard about Enthralling Victor was from Sam Stoddard, the set's lead developer. I was the advisor for Magic Origins (more on that in some future week), and so Sam and I would meet periodically to talk about the set. One day Sam said, "You have to see this," and he showed me the art for Enthralling Victor that had just come in.

Enthralling Victor | Art by Winona Nelson

There was some talk during late design to change the card's name because it always resulted in much giggling, but Sam understood that the response was wonderful and campaigned hard to keep the name. (I don't know the full story, but I believe members of the creative team were also fans of the whole package and also pushed to keep the name.) I had no doubt that the card would get the same response when previewed, and it took mere minutes for it to be clear it would. I believe the card was a meme within an hour of the public seeing it.

Ghirapur Gearcrafter

This card has a led to a lot of questions on my social media accounts. Red historically has always been bad at flying, especially on small creatures. Yes, red gets Dragons and Phoenixes—but outside of those exceptions, red has traditionally had very few other fliers. In the Kaladesh parts of red (as well as on the blue cards), there is a whole lot of Thopter making. Thopters are 1/1 flying artifact creatures. What's going on? Why is red doing this?

The answer is that sometimes, for the sake of a set's themes, you bend the color pie a little. It's not that red can never have small fliers, it just doesn't have them often. It was important in blue and red to create a Kaladesh feel, and that involved artifacts. Blue and red have both had positive relationships with artifacts mechanically in the past (in addition to red's ability to destroy them). The Thopter theme felt like a good fit for the blue/red feel, and the idea was that while it was a little of a stretch for red, it wasn't fundamentally breaking anything. Red can fly. Red likes artifacts at times. It was thus decided that it was an acceptable bend for this set. Note that this is not meant as a big, ongoing change for red—just an acceptable bend to make this set work.

Gilt-Leaf Winnower

This is one of my favorite designs, because mechanical design often has trouble with subtle concepts. But this card manages, through its design, to convey hypocrisy. That's pretty impressive. You see, the elves of Lorwyn are a little obsessed with perfection. To them, an imperfect creature is an abomination. But what exactly dictates "imperfection"? The card design itself does, establishing it as any creature not having the same power and toughness (not having what we in R&D called "square stats"). But, and this is the cool part, Gilt-Leaf Winnower doesn't have square stats. Technically, the Gilt-Leaf Winnower can't destroy itself because it's an Elf and the card only hits non-Elf creatures, but it's cool that the card defines imperfection in a way that it (almost) fits. Hats off to the design and development team for making this card.

Hangarback Walker

As a Magic design historian, I'm always fascinated by odd outliers. For example, how many artifacts in Magic's history have a mana cost of XX? The answer is two:

Chalice of the Void from Mirrodin and Orochi Hatchery from Champions of Kamigawa. Hangarback Walker does something, though, that neither of those cards did—it's a creature. Now I know a card being the first creature with a casting cost of XX may not excite all of you, but it makes me smile. As it's an artifact creature, that meant it wanted to be set on Kaladesh, the one world in the set with an artifact theme. XX for an X/X creature is on the weak side, so that meant there was some room to add something cool. The dying into X Thopters helped cement the card in Kaladesh and also add a neat twist. What are you more afraid of, my 5/5 or the threat of me having five 1/1 fliers?

Hixus, Prison Warden

As I've explained before, there are two ways to end up with a legendary creature design. The first is you make a cool design and either turn it into a character or happen to find a character that's a great fit for it. The second is to start with the character and top-down design a card to match. Hixus was the latter. The design team knew he was a prison warden and that he was white. They also knew that he was a good guy and a mentor to Gideon (called Kytheon at that point in his story).

Hixus, Prison Warden | Art by Chris Rallis

The question was how do you make a white warden? Well, you start with the obvious. What does a warden do? He locks away prisoners. Is there anything white does that locks things away? Why there is—what many call the "Oblivion Ring" ability which was based upon an Arabian Nights card called Oubliette.

An Oubliette is a prison, so this ability lined up pretty nicely. The next question surrounded how the ability could be used. It could either be a one-time effect or a repeatable effect. Removing a creature is pretty potent, so the design team decided to make it a one-time thing and turned it into an "enter the battlefield" trigger. The problem, though, was that this was a good man. He didn't just jail anyone. He jailed criminals. How could that be captured?

The solution ended up being restricting who he could exile. That creature had to first damage you. They had to "commit a crime" (and isn't damaging you a crime?). This plays into other white effects that punish creatures that have harmed you. The design team then added flash, because the effect would need to be used on the opponent's turn. White is not one of the main flash colors, but all colors have access to it if they need it mechanically (usually because they have an "enter the battlefield" trigger that needs to happen on the opponent's turn). They made him 4/4 because he was supposed to be a good fighter, and just like that they had their warden.

Pia and Kiran Nalaar

We couldn't tell Chandra's story without meeting her parents. And we couldn't just have one of them as a legendary character, so we get another legendary pair. The card was a top-down design, trying to capture the flavor of Pia and Kiran. (For those unaware, Pia is Chandra's Mom and Kiran is her dad.) They were inventors, but ones with a rebellious streak. The Thopter making plays up their inventor-ness, while the activated ability demonstrates that they have a little bite to them. In addition to the top-down-ness of the design, Pia and Kiran were also made to be the lynchpin in a Thopter deck. Making Thopters is cool and all, but they don't necessary solve problems. Add Pia and Kiran to the mix, and now they do. Another nice touch is the goggles on Kiran's head.

Pyromancer's Goggles

Okay, trivia time. Whose goggles are these? They're legendary, so they're not just anyone's goggles but a specific person's.

Pyromancer’s Goggles | Art by James Paick

If you said Chandra, you're wrong. They're not Chandra's goggles. They're Jaya Ballard's goggles!

It turns out that the monastery on Regatha that Chandra ends up at was founded by none other than Jaya Ballard, a pyromancer of old-time Magic fame. Another quick little piece of trivia: Where did Jaya get her last name? It's a neighborhood in Seattle. I believe one of the members of the creative team (long ago) lived there and used the name when creating the character.

So why are these Jaya's goggles and not Chandra's goggles? The answer was originally these were going to be Chandra's goggles, but there was a problem. Artifacts in Magic have a magical quality to them, and there is nothing magical about Chandra's goggles. They are just everyday ordinary goggles. It turns out though that Chandra is not the only famous pyromancer to have traveled to Regatha. Jaya Ballard also had goggles, and hers were magical. So if Magic Origins wanted pyromancer goggles, there was a solution to the problem.


Starfield of Nyx

Another fun thing with having a set throwback to old worlds we've visited was that we got to make cards to enhance themes from that world. Theros obviously had an enchantment theme. Starfield of Nyx was created as a build-around card that would allow people to use all their Theros cards to make a new but thematically connected deck. The design took me back, because many years ago, I made this card:

Although many factors hid it, Urza's Saga block had an enchantment theme, and I was eager to create a card that let you do something new with enchantments. I had always loved the card Titania's Song from Antiquities that turned noncreature artifacts into creatures. The card did the same thing with non-Aura enchantments, turning them into creatures—although I decided to skip the whole "turn off their effects" thing, because I thought there would be fun Johnny/Jenny-ish stuff to do. Opalesence and Humility would go on to cause a few headaches for the Rules people.

The design of Starfield of Nyx takes the design a step further by adding a triggered ability that gets enchantments back from the graveyard, and then adding a threshold limit to turn on the static ability. I'm very excited to see what people do with it. Luckily, there's no Humility around this time (well, in newer formats).

Tainted Remedy

SPOILER: If you haven't read Liliana's origin story yet, either read it now, skip this section or know that spoiler information is coming.

Sometimes top-down cards are easy, and sometimes they're a pain in the neck. In Liliana's story, she gives her brother medicine that she thinks is going to heal him, but instead it turns him into an undead monster. Black makes undead monsters for breakfast, but what made this card a little more difficult was needing to imply that Liliana was trying to help. Her goal wasn't to create the result she got. How could the design team capture that?

The trick was to pull back a bit. Liliana's intentions were good, but the Raven Man's—the person who convinced her to make the tainted remedy—were not. What if the card reflected that act rather than Liliana's? She was not the perpetrator of the card but the victim. What if the card took something someone was doing for good and turned it bad? The cleanest example of this was turning life gain into life loss.

The Great Aurora

This is another card I've been getting a lot of color pie questions about. What's going on here? For starters, during Nissa's visit to Lorwyn after her first planeswalk, she witnessed Lorwyn changing into Shadowmoor through something known as The Great Aurora. Being such a crucial event in the story, it was decided that the event needed its own card. Thematically, the card wanted to be green. The change was a natural one, something that has been happening cyclically on the plane for many, many years. The big question was how to capture the flavor in a green card.

The Great Aurora | Art by Sam Burley

The first task was figuring out what we wanted the card to do, mechanically. The idea was that The Great Aurora happens and everything changes. It was too complicated to change every card on the battlefield, so the idea was to recreate the change through a rotation of permanents. Having permanents turn from one thing into another is something we've played around with in blue and red, but never in green. Was there a slightly different way to handle this?

Well, green has always been good with mana. What if the change swapped what cards you had access to and then gave you a lot of mana so that you could quickly play things? This felt more green. Sam and I had a few talks about this card, because it definitely bends what green can do, but when I pulled back and looked at the card in a big picture way, I felt that it was justified—much like when we did Form of the Dragon. Some individual pieces might be a touch off, but the overall feel and effect of the card felt very in-color.

The End of the Beginning

I hope you enjoyed my jaunt through the various card design stories of Magic Origins. As always, I'm curious for feedback on today's column. You can write me through email or any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week for this year's State of Design column, where I will talk all about how I felt the last year of design went.

Until then, may you enjoy Magic Origins and buckle in for the start of an amazing ride.

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