Monday, June 18, 2012

M13 Designer Diary I

With our M13 completed and Wizards' version being spoiled, I'd like to go over the cards, cycles and mechanics of the set but not just to share funny stories and point out quirks and parallels, but to focus on the lessons we learned working on the set together. I guarantee I won't cover them all, because they were literally innumerable, but hopefully what I do cover will help convey what an amazing exercise this has been.

White Commons

Soldier Spirit is an upgraded
Suntail Hawk or a smaller Courier Hawk. This card had been in the file as a 1/1 lifelink for a very long time (with the same name), but Chah wanted something more relevant. Relevance is hard to achieve on a common one-drop, but with Kird Ape in the file we'd raised the bar for ourselves. Lifelink is evergreen and very white, but not as core set common for white as flying or vigilance, so the swap made sense as long as the plains bond keyword wasn't lifelink.

The lifelink Soldier Spirit had also been filling the role of one-drop-that-gains-you-life, so when we gave it flying (primarily as a defense against
Rishadan Air Ship and Mistral Vampire), we needed to refill that hole. Soul's Attendant was the newest of the pair, but Jules pointed out R&D reversed its decision on optional triggers, so Soul Warden got the slot.

We went through so many different permutations of power, curves, reprints, creature types, vanilla and keyword counts I couldn't possibly list them all. In the end
Glory Seeker was printed because it fit the curve, was a playable vanilla that didn't step on the toes of other vanillas in the set and had the Soldier type.

I was sad to see
Youthful Knight go because it was a strong but unbroken reprint that put the core flavor of knights front and center. We'd mostly solved the problem of having too much common first strike clogging up the board (by wiping out all other common first strike creatures), but it just didn't fit a subset of cards that best achieved all our goals. That's just how fickle a card's inclusion in a set can be.

Stormfront Pegasus was in and out several times, mostly dependent on the fluctuating size of Windborne Pterons. If it hadn't been the right card for us, we would have made Griffin Steed a pegasus for sure.

Shining Paladin is the result of a desire to make a less efficient Gideon's Lawkeeper. We love the effect in white but it's been operating at or near maximum ability for a long time and since it can be frustrating to play against, we decided to make it more expensive for a year. We considered a strictly-worse version for a while, but this versatile bear had been in the aether and finally got acceptance from its opponent's when the paladin flavor and WW cost were proposed and seemed to fuse it into a single cohesive idea.

If you've been following the project since its start, you know that I'd proposed a white removal card, Judge Soul, with "Exile target nonwhite creature." I eventually removed it from the set for being too similar to Oblivion Ring which we definitely wanted more. A few of us (including myself) were relieved about that since the card raises questions about what kinds and quality of removal white should have that are debatable if not controversial, but I was sad to see the "nonwhite" qualifier go because I remain convinced "non-self" is more white than any other color. Shining Paladin rescued that phrase and in a pretty flavorful way. Not every idea is best used the way you think it should be.

Kor Hookmaster is our gift to white tempo decks and our answer to MaRo's statement that Excommunicate will no longer be white. We debated whether it was ideal to use this effect in white with one flavor and in blue on Frost Breath with another, but the set wanted both cards and it's not all that unusual for the same mechanic to express two different flavors, even in the same set.

For every high-level argument we had about the nature of the game, we were also drawn into a discussion of tiny details about very marginal choices like the Frost Breath vs Hookmaster one. It might seem like a waste of time (and we certainly had to prioritize such talks below bigger issues when time was crunched), but I know R&D thinks about the little stuff too and I believe considerations like these are the last level of polish that helps keep Magic head and shoulders above the competition.

Beast Tamer of Thune is the final evolution of Mastodon Calf. Most of the team was happy with the 2/3 for four that becomes an undercosted Siege Mastodon when you have a Forest, but our lead developer Chah hated executions of bond that made it look solely like a cost reduction mechanic and pushed us to find space that actually felt unique. I'm glad he did because it's one of the brilliant things he did that pulled bond from "neat in a sterile way" to "interesting in a fun way."

Beast Tamer was the hardest member of the cycle to design because +1/+2 carries less flavor than the keywords do and because it's quite hard to find a size that's exciting enough to care about but not game-warpingly good, particularly when the format already has a 2/3 for one. 4/4 for three was way too good, and 4/3 for three (which is also a real push) required a starting size of 3/1 which is highly unusual for white. 3/3 for two is better than Watchwolf (something we didn't want it to be), but it turns out a 3/3 for three is a very nice spot for white and invokes the green side of the equation quite well thanks to its history of 3/3s for three.

It's fascinating how often a questionable idea becomes awesome as soon as you find the right flavor for it. Somehow, considering the smaller size suggested a human as the base creature (the only one of the cycle) and getting bigger near the Forest just begged for some wild animal taming or riding. With that image in mind, the card seemed to click.

Marbleskin Gargoyle made it through all the way from early Design (where it might have been a 1/5 for 3W). It was originally named "Armored Griffin" but was upgraded to being a gargoyle and we never looked back. I questioned it briefly, but Gatherer assures me 13 of Magic's 20 gargoyle's have been white. The card does a lot of work in this set, blocking aggressively ground assaults as well as every common flier. Always nice to find a new french vanilla creature that feels right.

Rhox Spiritcaller is what happens when your developers hate that Auramancer is terrible to play on turn three, your set needs more defensive bodies, and you haven't made a half-man, half-rhino yet. It's got charm, don't you think? Good one, Chah.

Griffin Steed was "Griffin of Burden" in playtest. The new name is much more resonant, but I still love the playtest name. This one also made it through with its original stats, thought it was 4W for a bit. We liked Chasm Drake in M12 but felt it was a bit too strong and would be more interesting in white, both mechanically and thematically.

With Beast Tamer un-elephantized, and with the curve rekajiggered, Pasteur brought back Siege Mastodon and I'm glad he did. While the card is never exciting, it really is a workhorse in the right format and I love the moment when players realize just how bad it isn't.

Windborne Pterons (originally Crested Dodo) was the second trickiest bond design because at 3W it's too good as a 3/3 (white doesn't get common Hill Giants) but too weak at 3/2 (it often gets Assault Griffin). That tells you something interesting about the white color pie, but our aim was to make exciting cards to feature our set's mechanic. We tried it as a 2/2 for 1W in place of Stormfront Pegasus, but it just wasn't a big deal when it turned on. After much iteration, we found 4W as the correct cost and 3/3 first strike as the perfect body, losing to 3/4s and 4/4s, but presenting a serious aerial threat without ever being broken.

I think Narrow Escape was the very last addition to the white commons (which is poetic by itself). We had a vacated spot, needed another life gain spell and were also looking for something to protect your creatures. Ouala! Often you need to make new cards for spots this specific, but you always want to look for reprints first and when you find one this perfect, you know it's meant to be.

Safe Passage is a great card and took the team protection slot from the anemic Holy Mission with very little debate. That the name worked so perfectly with the set's nautical mini-theme was just gravy. Delicious, savory gravy.

Skillful Lunge gave the set common access to first strike without adding to the number of creatures with the ability, preventing the board stall that was so easy to form with a Youthful Knight and Sunblessed Archer.

I was surprised when they printed Zealous Strike in the same block as Skillful Lunge. AVR is part of a different Limited format and neither is relevant to Constructed but it still seems odd... until you consider how odd it would have been to print Skillful Lunge a second time in the same set.

Smite the Monstrous
was another late swap. We really felt white needed another piece of common removal. While I was angling for something targeted against an aggro deck (which testing had shown to be a real concern), we knew Smite would be safe and it could answer Avalanche Wurms as well as anything boosted by Berserker's Rage.

Divine Favor
deserved a second go, along with its counterpart Dark Favor. While the core set wants to find nostalgic reprints from older sets, it also needs to offer some continuity from the last core set. In the same way we want to established players to feel comfortable by bringing back cards they remember from when they started, it's also important to do the same for the ones who have only been playing for a year or two. Since the core sets are now yearly, repeating cards at least once also gives people as much chance to play with them as other cards in Standard.

Solemn Offering
does good work as a non-green Naturalize.

For the longest time, Elspeth's Charge was two cards: one which granted just lifelink and one which boosted your team (or just a pair of your guys), but both felt anemic and uninspired. Stapling together two cards just to save space often produces awkward results, but sometimes the whole feels greater than sum of the parts and I think this one tells a better story than its parents did.

One of the goals of M13 was to be more different than M12 and M11 had been in terms of the same kinds getting reprinted year-in and year-out. We quickly learned that some cards just can't be replaced in a core set without hurting the product. Naturalize was irreplaceable in this way. Pacifism came very very close. I don't think Parole was a slam dunk and wouldn't give it Pacifism's slot in successive core sets, but it does a decent job of playing a very similar role and reading simply while playing a bit differently. If you hadn't noticed, Parole and Rhox Spiritcaller are like chocolate and some peanut butter that gets you your chocolate back after casting it. Err... moving on.

New White Uncommons, Rares & Mythics

Not a stated goal, but something the team largely fell into that we liked while designing was a movement to avoid uncommon bombs while still keeping uncommon strong and noticeably better than common. We originally made the power spectrum too flat, but seeing the need to give players a few obvious best picks led to cards like Angel of Succor which isn't quite Serra Angel, but still clearly better than any common fliers.

Angels were particularly hard to make following in the wake of AVR which nailed all the key Angel tropes and also took much of the simplest and splashiest Angel designs. We probably designed and scrapped 20 Angels before finding something thematic and simpled enough for the core set.

Elspeth's Guidance was common very briefly, but testing immediately showed it should be uncommon, if not for its strength then for the way it feels.

Sunblessed Tactician made it from the original suggestion of a landfall cycle untouched to print. It plays like Goldnight Commander but supports our land theme and sends a clearer message to new players.

Champion of Purity and Champion of Depravity are the only non-common bond cards in the set. We didn't really need more bond cards to demonstrate our mechanic after we had ten at common, but it also turned out to be quite challenging to designed rare cards that used one or more of the five existing bond abilities and still felt both rare and core. So we didn't force it. As often as design is about making choices and executing ideas, it's also about seeing what life the game has taken of its own, nurturing the strengths you never planned for, and trimming the things you expected to work that just don't serve the game.

Tactical Captain replaced Beknighting King (a knight lord who turned your creatures into knights after they succeeded in combat) when we brainstormed class lords (which never worked out because it was too weird for core). He originally had a soldier-specific Nomads en-Kor ability, but we had no illusions that was reasonable for a core set, even at rare. Letting one soldier tap to add its power to another's let you chain in a dangerous way so we went with the simpler +2/+2, though I still suspect +1/+1 for each tapped Soldier is plenty.

Peregrine Stallion is one of my pet designs that I had to fight to keep in the set. A little out of place at rare, he was originally uncommon but we had a rare hole and an uncommon surplus so we shifted one of the cards over. Ideally, we would have made it a bit more awesome to accommodate, but we just ran out of time. Speaking of time, I made plenty of mistakes leading this set's design but the biggest by far was waiting too long to pass it off for development. Much of that was borne of technical issues behind how we could even playtest the set remotely, but I'd by lying if I said I didn't underestimate the importance of that hand-off.

We designed with different demographics in mind. We asked ourselves whether each rare was for Spike, Timmy or Johnny, and we also considered new players needs and interests versus those of established players. We could have done more. I think the set leans more toward Spike and experienced players because of our biases, and I hope that the next set I work on has more team members of different perspectives to even things out and does more playtesting with casual players. Soothing Minstrel is one card that stands out as an exception to our primary bias, small proof that we didn't completely forget our responsibilities to a larger audience.

Angel of Blades took a lot of designing to find. Unique angel designs were scarce and finding one that felt rare but kept the game moving rather than slowing it to a halt was not easy. I am happy with the type of gameplay it promotes, but I have no idea if it actually needs to cost 7. What playtesting we were able to fit in was focused almost exclusively on Sealed, which meant our rares got less face time than they deserved and I wouldn't be shocked at all to see this exact card printed at 4WW in a real set.

Deity's Chosen is a good example of a card being designed by more than one person. I believe the original idea was Wobble's, Greg saw it and removed excess stuff, the main design crew refined slightly, and then it got overhauled to hit the same flavor but with more relevant mechanics by Toby and the dev team. This is a type of design I've never seen before and never really understood how it would happen until I saw it for myself.

Rectify was one of Nich's designs that just immediately resonated with us. Why not make a less broken, modernized callback to Balance? It's easier to use, but harder to abuse, shifting it's audience a bit, but it still feels very Mythic and helps us round out the Mythic pool with some non-creature, non-planeswalker spells.

Part II

Join me next week (-ish) for part two (of six?). Let me know if there's something you'd like to hear more or less of as I run through the cards.


  1. One of the key difficulties in sorting out the slot that Angel of Blades ended up in was the recent appearance of every angel trope and iteration in AVR. For this particular card, the design began as this: . While I'm normally very tentative of bleeding hexproof into white, I thought that this was certainly defensible, and filled the slot without taking extra time.

    Narrow Escape and Smite the Monstrous both came in after my last sweep, and I had only noticed the latter on successive lookthroughs. The former is pretty perfect alongside Solemn Offering, and while I probably would've argued the inclusion of Smite, the more I look at it, the less I mind it. The "what is white's removal" discussion isn't dying anytime soon, from the look of it.

    I wish we had a FFL so that we could've tested Deity's Chosen as a 1/1 for W with that ability.

    1. We could still run a contest to see what kinds of Standard decks people could build with this pool in place of the official Magic 2013...

  2. That's really interesting. I love how the common bond creatures ended up; I wasn't sure they would find stats which were interesting but not too strong for common, but I think you did.

  3. Nice article, mystery writer! (Jay?)

    I think having not a single Bond rare was a missed opportunity. And not making any for constructed. Sadly only Kird Ape would have any impact beyond limited and it's the one Bond "reprint." We can get credit for making Bond a solid limited mechanic, but not giving it any constructed credentials is too bad.

    Obviously development was rushed, but I also would have liked more time to design for the rares in general. New Set excitement lives in the Rare slot. But there were so many things up in the air about Common that we didn't have a enough time devoted to higher rarities.

    For the next article, can you post a list of all the color's card names (with or without links) at the top or bottom of the article? I've seen so many versions of this set and the cards, that it's tough to remember what made the final cut.

  4. I'm really happy with how the set turned out, I only wish I hadn't been ludicrously busy right at the end and could have contributed more for that portion of the development.

    It's also a bit unfortunate that we heard about Wizards' policy of not introducing new Planeswalker characters in Core Sets after the fact because if we'd known I think we may well have gone with a new Ajani and a new Liliana, and it would have been really interesting to compare the versions.

    As for some insight to contribute: our discussion about adding Skillful Lunge was pretty short, but the fact that we were able to reprint it at all marks a turning point in red's color pie definition. For a long time red's had very little to do at common, so Skillful Lunge absolutely could not exist in a Core Set alongside the necessary Kindled Fury/Thunder Strike/Slaughter Cry. But with the addition of Looting from on high and our choice to push more red Trample we were able to fill out the common slots just fine.

  5. Wow. I saw today's Limited Information preview cards - - and I laughed out loud, sitting at my desk in the office.

    Congratulations to the team. You had an extremely clever insight with your Bond cards and ended up really quite close to a cycle in the genuine M13! That's a heck of an achievement.

    1. Hahaha! Just saw this too. Great job you guys!

    2. Seriously. I was freaking out a bit just reading it. That's...uncanny.