Sunday, April 15, 2012

M13 Trajectories: Brain-Eating Zombies

Welcome to M13 Trajectories, where I pick a card from Goblin Artisans' fan M13 design files and discuss how it changed over the course of design.

Oftentimes, card designs go through many twists and turns until they become something different in the end. Today, I'd like to talk about two cards whose flavor changed through the design process for one reason or another. The first one is:

(Click on image to enlarge)

This card was submitted by Nich.

Everybody liked the top-down concept of a brain-eating Zombie, although there was some discussion about the power level of the card as a common. Black isn't even allowed to have 3B 3/3 creatures at Common because Black is too good at killing large creatures that get in its way. Even as a 6-drop, is it ok for Black to get a 4/4 Common creature with upside?

I was originally against it, but maybe it's ok as 6 drop!

Later on, there was an idea to have Class lords such as a Rogue lord or a Warrior lord for each color at Rare. Many of the Commons were changed to work with the class Lords, and the Brain-eating Zombies turned into this:

(Click on image to enlarge)

We later abandoned the class lords direction so that we could focus more on the Bond mechanic (a named version of the type of ability that Kird Ape or Sejiri Merfolk has). Although class lords were meant to be a very minor theme, it was still a type of theme that impacted how we design a large number of Commons across colors. We found that it's hard to support such a theme in addition to our main theme — Bond and an emphasis on basic land types.

It might sound innocuous to support tribal subthemes by merely changing the creature types of existing designs, since the main land theme cares about other aspects of the game. However, doing so can actually cause the themes to fight over card slots and detract from each other. Our design file from that time was full of requests like "can we make this a Soldier?" or "can we put a Warrior in this slot?" The next card prompted some discussion:

This card looks fine as a core set vanilla, but it's actually detracting from our ability to do the other things we want to do with the set. A core set usually consists of around 50% reprints and 50% new cards. By using up a non-reprint slot to make this a Rogue creature (rather than just reprint Barony Vampire), we would be kicking out another more interesting new design elsewhere in the set.

Flavor issues can affect the design itself, especially when modern card design is so concerned with resonance and each card's effect really needs to tie in with the flavor. An example of that from a real life set is the story of Black Cat being cut to make room for Manor Skeleton in Innistrad. The switch was good for covering all of the Gothic horror tropes like Skeletons, but bad for realizing the vision of a slow Zombie recursion deck with cards like Ghoulraiser, Ghoulcaller's Chant, and Endless Ranks of the Dead — in other words it was a trade-off.

In the case of Black Cat, the trade-off* was done for the central goal of the set (creating a Gothic horror world), but in our case we had no reason to make trade-offs to support what was only a minor subtheme.

*It's possible that at that stage Black Cat wasn't even a Zombie Cat but just a regular Cat, in which case it wasn't even a trade-off.

While we cut the Rogue lord and dialed back some of the changes made to support the class lords, the Rogue flavor for this particular card remained since its ability actually makes more sense as a Rogue than a Zombie. Rogues tend to steal or sabotage, which is reasonably represented by a discard effect upon entering the battlefield. A brain-eating Zombie on the other hand doesn't just sneakily eat your brains from a distance — it has to overpower you first. Or, in Magic terms, it should at least be required to hit you in combat before starting to feast on your grey matter.

So while we loved the concept of a brain-eating zombie, we had to say goodbye.

Now, for another card whose flavor changed over time:

(Click on image to enlarge)

I designed this because I felt that the file could use more cards that cared about what else is in the deck.

As you can see, Megrim and Liliana's Caress were the inspiration for the card. One of our designers, Pasteur, pointed out that he likes it because it's like a cross between Liliana's Caress and Ajani's Pridemate, something I hadn't thought of.

Cards like Megrim and Liliana's Caress have traditionally been hard to build around in Limited. If your deck devotes many slots to discard spells like Mind Rot, you want to fill the rest of your deck with threats and board control so you can abuse your opponent's lack of cards, rather than more cards that don't affect the board like Liliana's Caress. Having a lot of Mind Rots and Liliana's Caresses can result in a very swingy deck that's win-more at times, vulnerable at others.

So I thought it would be fun to put this effect on a creature. It's still swingy, but when it works it becomes a much bigger problem for the opponent than a one-shot damage effect.

The enchantment Liliana's Caress does have more Johnny combo potential for pure combo decks with effects like Wheel of Fortune or Mindslicer, while most creature versions of Liliana's Caress would be too fragile to rely on as the backbone of a constructed deck just by being a creature. But since the enchantment version already exists, it should be fine to have a draft-centric creature version for a while.

This card was designed as a Pirate because even though we had abandoned the idea of having a class Lord for each color, we did keep Pirates as a minor subtheme in the vein of M10's Soldiers or M12's Illusions. A Pirate theme could mesh with the land type theme for a "Let's explore Dominaria!" kind of vibe.

It seemed that Pirates might be given a "looting" theme (the effect of drawing a card, then discarding a card), so I made this card trigger off of any player's discard, including your own. However, concerns were voiced that it may be too strong that way, so the trigger condition was changed to only trigger off of opponents discarding cards.

I originally made it a Common so that you can draft enough copies to make it worth building around it. After all, you can't go out of your way to prioritize discard spells over stronger cards if you only have one copy of Slum Scavengers to justify those picks; in many of the games you won't even draw the Scavengers.

However, Jules made a good point that discard is not a fun archetype to battle frequently, so we changed it to Uncommon to be more of an infrequent gimmick.

There was some discussion about the Rat flavor, but overall the flavor of scavenging Ratfolk who pick through people's discarded trash to feed or arm themselves seemed pretty good. Eventually though, Ian (@Kirblar024), who was one of the people we had asked to look over the set, suggested a flavor that makes even more sense — a Zombie that eats brains. And that's how it came full circle.

(Click on image to enlarge)

This example shows that an idea that was discarded earlier is not necessarily wasted and can come back from the grave in another form.

After the flavor change, there has been discussion as to whether this should be a 2B 2/2 creature to feel more like a Zombie. The fact that it looks so bad as a 1/1 can actually be an blessing since it means the player who is looking to build around it might be able to collect multiple copies of it while other players pass them on. However, that may also be true of a 2B 2/2, which is still an unimpressive size.

It does curve into a Mind Rot better as a 2-drop rather than a 3-drop. Who knows, it might even be balanced as a 1-drop with the same text and stats so that it can work with cards like Wrench Mind and Duress.

I hoped you enjoyed this article. As I stated last week, I will continue this series every Monday and Friday until our fan M13 set is released at the end of May. Join me on Friday, when I talk about a multicolor card that found a better fit as a monocolor card in another color.


  1. Zombies, feed thy self!

    Brain-Eaters 3B
    Creature- Zombie (U)
    Whenever Brain-Eaters deals damage to a opponent, that player discards a card.
    Whenever an opponent discards a card, put a +1/+1 counter on Brain-Eaters.

    What kind of lazy Zombie expects me to get all their brains for them? This isn't an brain buffet you know. I mean, sure, Ajani's Pridemates are expected to eat Ajani's scraps, but they're cats. Being really lazy is part of their trope. They probably hate Mondays, too.

    1. That feels way more resonant.

    2. Why does this version get counters from Mind Rot?

      Whenever Brain-Eaters deals damage to an opponent, that player discards a card and you put a +1/+1 counter on Brain-Eaters.

      That's pretty awesome, but now it's a Specter and doesn't fulfill the build-around purpose of the original.

    3. Well, Zombies aren't exactly picky. I mean, if their master is going to rot some delicious brains you aren't going to fault a Zombie for gobbling them up. Zombie mothers are quick to scold that there are Zombies starving on Grixis, donchaknow.

    4. Specter-Slith is pretty far from Pridemate-Megrim as far as deckbuilding goes, right?

      I think there's more fun to be had for players if they can play Zombies turn two and a Specter on turn three than if both abilities are on the same card.

      For quite some time, we had a common creature in the set with
      3B 2/2
      When ~ attacks, target player discards a card.

    5. I think this is a case where the bonus fuels the next bonus and it feels intoxicating.

      At first you have trouble attacking, but then you cast Mindrot to give the Zombie +2/+2. It attacks, causes another discard, then it gets another +1/+1, and after that the opponent has to consider chump blocking every turn. The bonus feeds the bonus. (By the way, I think it should be a 3B 2/2 in that case.)

      It could be too oppressive when it works, though, especially when it means the opponent is down on cards to handle this guy with.

      I'm not sure which version is better, but at least I'm pretty sure there is no problem at all with the Zombie gaining counters from discard of any type, just like Drogskol Reaver doesn't care if lifegain was caused by its lifelink or not. It's just picking up brain matter from the floor.

  2. The damage to an opponent is not good. at 1/1 or even 2/2 at (3)(B) you could only attack on turn 5. Its too small to deal the damage and its later in the game so you will probably wont have any discard spells in your hand, since you wanna hit them early on to screw up their late game. Also, uncommons rarely have abilities that fuel a second ability. That is more rare or mythic.

  3. Oh, a 1/1 Zombie probably shouldn't be plural. Brain-Eating Zombie, with no 's', right?