September 18, 2015

Developing New Mechanics in a Returning World

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Last week on Latest Developments, I talked a lot about what it was like to return to an existing world and also mentioned our returning mechanics like landfall, but this week I want to focus more on the new mechanics in Battle for Zendikar.

The thing about these new mechanics is that while some of them came from design, a lot of them were a combination of both the design and development teams trying to flesh the set out with the kinds of things that we needed in order to tell the entire story of the battle between the Eldrazi and the Zendikari.

Devoid

To call devoid a mechanic may seem a little off, but it is one for sure—the colorless nature of the Eldrazi is central to their role as entities and to the storyline. It is what defines them, and it let us do a lot to push cards that interact with colorless permanents. This was a way of allowing a form of "Eldrazi tribal" without getting caught up in using the actual word "Eldrazi." There were a lot of great artifact creatures from Magic Origins that could act as seeds for Battle for Zendikar, as long as we kept this "colorless matters" nature of the design handoff intact.

Luckily, we knew that colorlessness was a huge part of the Eldrazi's nature, so we put cards like Ghostfire Blade in Khans of Tarkir to seed the BFZ block with cards that we might be able to overlap without having all of the support cards for an Eldrazi deck only appear in Battle for Zendikar. It also let us do so without having much foreknowledge of the set, which was good because we were only just beginning design of BFZ when we needed to be commissioning art for cards in Khans.

As a side note, there was a surprising amount of work done by development, editing, and the art team to come up with a way to ensure that devoid was readable on the cards—so that they could not just function in Constructed, but also allow quick play in Limited. I can say for myself, I found the earliest playtests with devoid to be frustrating to say the least. The problem comes from the way we create cards in R&D: We take old cards and sticker them with playtest stickers. But the devoid cards all went on colorless cards, which meant that while drafting, I had to spend a lot more time, a lot later in the draft than I like, focusing on each card. One of the great parts about drafting is that once you are heavily established in two colors, you can usually not put a ton of mental energy into the cards that are not of your color—but this was just not the case with trying to read through Battle for Zendikar packs in the early development period. It was easy to miss that the card you passed over because of the artifact border was, in fact, a black card.

To make the final version work, the art team and then-new-hire Liz Leo spent a ton of time mocking up cards with development's seemingly impossible task: Make it obvious on the cards that they have a certain mana cost when they are in your hand, but they are colorless cards on the battlefield; that way we don't miss all of the interactions with the cards that care about having colorless cards. I can't even begin to say how much the final product surpassed my wildest expectations of how the cards would look. I think the cards do a great job of accomplishing the goal, as well as providing a wonderful texture that adds even more flavor to the Eldrazi.

Digest/Process

Defining what the Eldrazi were, other than colorless, was difficult. Battle for Zendikar got an entire year of predesign, as well as a year of design, and it took a very long time to settle on a way to make the Eldrazi feel like a cohesive and invasive force in a way other than them all being 8/8s and using annihilator. The idea of the Eldrazi using the exile zone came up in predesign, but it was mostly using your own exiled card as a resource. The tipping point, I believe, for making the mechanic work was realizing that we couldn't have players use their own exile pile as a resource—since delve and even cards like Serum Powder would make that far too easy to break. By forcing you to exile your opponent's things, we got to a point where the Eldrazi suddenly gained an identity; they were eating your opponent's cards as a resource and getting stronger as cards were exiled.

Early versions of digest didn't "process" the cards exactly, they just counted the number of cards in exile to generate an effect. For instance, the first version of Ulamog only exiled one card upon casting, but had an attack trigger that forced the opponent to choose and exile a number of cards equal to the amount currently exiled. While this was an interesting rate of build-up for Ulamog alone, in a deck dedicated to digesting, it was clear that the first attack would always get the opponent's whole board. At the same time, even for Limited, we were having a very hard time finding fun effects that could scale in a way that would remain fun. Giving a single creature -X/-X is pretty innocuous, because while the difference between -5/-5 and -20/-20 is not meaningless, that doesn't come up a lot. This just isn't true for positive effects like life gain, card draw, having cards that got +X/+X bonuses, or direct damage. In short, the design space on this implementation of the mechanic was small and would have led to all of the cards reading very weak, and likely being more powerful than we would've liked.

Instead, we went with the model that you know today, where creatures with ingest can chip away at your opponent's library and get cards into exile, then your Processors can use this as fuel. From a development perspective, this is great—it lets us create some really exciting cards like Ulamog's Nullifier that have a good balancing point. Being able to put very strong enters-the-battlefield effects on creatures while eating up a resource is one of the better spots that development can occupy for creating a fun mechanic that has the opportunity to succeed in decks that are attempting to "do" the thing, but also has a natural point where you can't run every card.

Rally

So, this is only kind of a new mechanic. There were cards in the original Zendikar block that featured this mechanic, so we decided to actually give the mechanic a real name this time—both because there are a number of Allies in this block that don't have the mechanic, and because it takes some of the pressure off of players to make sure that each of the creatures with rally acts like the other creatures with rally. The net result is more words than we would have had without the ability word, but it makes the whole thing easier to understand.

What we tried to do differently with the Allies in Battle for Zendikar was to make their rally triggers less about permanent +1/+1 counters, as they had been in the original Zendikar block. As much as possible, we wanted for players to have really powerful game-enders like Tajaru Warcaller, but when the game just comes down to playing Allies on turns one through five and each time permanently boosting them, basically asking your opponent to have a Wrath or not, we found that the gameplay was very repetitive no matter which combination of Allies you chose to put in your deck.

Converge

Converge, or more accurately domain, was something that was talked about in early predesign as the "secret weapon of the Zendikari" that we could deploy in the third set of the Battle for Zendikar block, hiding the fixers in plain sight to make the Allies work. But we abandoned the idea as we moved from Battle being a three-set block to the new two-block structure. The idea didn't totally leave us, though, and it resurfaced during development.

When looking at how the Zendikari could defeat the Eldrazi, the subject of multicolor came up to combat the "no color" of the Eldrazi. This also fit with the Allies being in all five colors and working together against the Eldrazi. But we were just coming off of a multicolor block, and we had no real desire to go from a wedge world to a five-color world, and instead decided to create a mechanic that was a bit more modular in how it was used. Enter converge. The idea of converge was to naturally limit just how many colors you needed to get the full bonus. Some cards only require three colors to get the full benefit, while others can use all five colors.

Converge also let us create a lot of ways to have spells that highlighted the Allies doing their thing rather than all of the Allies just being creatures. The Eldrazi got to use devoid to create spells that felt and played as though they were a part of the Eldrazi onslaught, and it was great that we could create similar cards for the Allies and the Zendikari that showcased their struggles to work together.

Awaken

When the file was handed over from design, awaken didn't have different numbers of counters—each one was a 3/3 with no counters. In many ways, this made the mechanic simpler, but it also provided a huge challenge for development in that form. Development likes as many knobs as possible to balance cards, and when we are forced to make tokens of one size, it really limits the possibilities of cards. This is an instance where we needed to trade one kind of complexity for another, in the form of memorizing which lands were animated, versus using counters to show that the lands were larger. Of course, once the lands were using counters, it was easy to imagine them being sizes other than just 3/3.

By adding these knobs, development got to do things like make commons with lower awaken costs that could make smaller creatures, prevent them from all being either sorceries or powerful combat tricks, and create much larger awaken costs on high-rarity cards that produce very large creatures. It also let us take advantage of using counters to create the opportunity for smaller awaken costs on instants to act as combat tricks when used on a land that had already been awakened. While we don't want the first awaken instant you cast to just eat a 2/2, I believe the fact that the second can end up eating a 3/3 lends a lot of play to the mechanic.

That's it for this week. Join me next week when I go through the history of Battle for Zendikar and open up The M-Files.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)



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