Thursday, June 28, 2012

M13 Designer Diary II

Today I look at the blue cards from M13 and the lessons we learned choosing/designing them. Here's part one.

Here's a directory with all the card links from the final set

And here's the text spoiler Chah posted

Blue Commons
We always intended to enable an alternate win condition through deck exhaustion and when we adopted the new terminology 'forget' that became all the more important. Jace's Mesmerist is the final version of the common creature for this deck, but it went through numerous changes as we shuffled around our vanillas and searched for the right power level for the Forget deck.

It was also interesting considering possible bodies for this creature, because you don't want a body so small it's meaningless as a creature, but if you make a reasonably-costed creature all players will draft it, preventing it from coming back to the forget players. You also don't want to split the focus on too many common cards. Let it be good at one thing, sending a clear message to players so they can quickly decide whether they care about it or not.

Coral Merfolk got the vanilla slot very late in development over Maritime Guard in order to make Explorer of the High Seas more maindeckable. It's funny how many people hate Goblin Piker but don't mind Coral Merfolk. That shows how much easier it is for people to accept blue as as a bad creature-color than red (and how we get tired of seeing the same weak cards over and over again). The Explorer was a 1/1 and I liked it at that size because it's a card that looks unplayable at first but turns out to be entirely relevant in the environment. Bringing it to 1/3 will allow more players to discover its utility since they'll be playing him anyhow. I don't love how its ability to block excludes its ability to change lands, but every change has a cost.

Flittering Faerie was originally a 2/2 for 3U, but we wanted it to start smaller so that boosting it wouldn't make it too big to deal with. While the team never made a conscious decision to replace hexproof with this ability, I'm happy to defend the way it worked out. While losing a card to Fry your opponent's Faerie isn't great, it's better than not being able to target their Aven Fleetwing at all. At the same time, it feels pretty amazing to Giant Growth your Faerie and get a card out of the deal, yet you can't be certain your fey will survive. That there are card-advantage-neutral answers like Goblin Arsonist and Runebrand gives me confidence this card won't ruin too many days. Should this ability replace hexproof permanently? Surely not. But I'd be happy to see it for a year or two.

Rishadan Airship is the pirate reprint of Skywinder Drake. A worse choice for every core set except this one, with its nautical subtheme. One of my favorite things about Magic is how sometimes the worst is the best.

I quite like Royal Navy because it marries bond with pirates at the same time as being an unassuming roleplayer. 2/3 vigilance doesn't sound like much, but it's pretty nice when your opponent has an army of 2/2s or equivalent. We found this size early on, but it took a lot of debate and testing to verify that it hit the sweet spot.

The Navy's mortal enemy Dark Cove Pirates is a curious card, and that's part of the appeal. You don't see intimidate on a lot of 2/4s, but it turned out to be very strong in Limited because you could block with it early and then finish the game with it once you stabilized. We considered swapping size+cost between the Navy and the Pirates, but the difference between three mana and four proved to make the Pirates too dangerous.

Merfolk Looter has gone between common and uncommon enough that we wanted to try a different route. Putting the ability on a creature that has to attack to use it makes it more interactive, and making it fly gives it a fighting chance (since blue isn't going to be overpowering anybody). Raven Messenger was a 1/1 for 1U until we swapped bodies with Flittering Faerie. I'm happy with the change as it feels pretty unique and plays both fun and fair.

A card worse than Siege Mastodon isn't going to turn any heads, but Armored Cancrix' five toughness is trumped by only one common creature in the set and doesn't die to red's best common removal spell. The slot was Giant Octopus for a long time, which several of us were excited about because it was both ridiculous and defensible, but the curve demanded a new vanilla sea creature.

Pasteur proposed Tidal Serpent as a single card to fulfill the roles of two cards we had in the set, Harbor Serpent and Amphin Banisher (a 3/2 tapless Surrakar Banisher). It was good to be rid of the old serpent because it counts lands in a way that's different from bond, and the combined creature had the added benefit of great flavor. Final art would show a sea serpent either pushing a victim away from the beach with a great wave, or perhaps dragging them into a dark riptide. Stapling cards together is bad—except when it's great.

We were on the fence with Frost Breath. There were some pros and cons regarding flavor and power, but when I remembered it's only been printed once before, giving it a second year seemed like right thing to do.

Shimmering Mirage saw a good bit of debate. On the one hand, it's not very strong. On the other hand, it's a reprint that cantrips and plays with the set's primary mechanic. As the only common effect that can turn bond off at instant speed, it sometimes plays as a combat trick, a piece of hidden depth that should delight most blue mages.

I have no idea why we chose Disperse over Unsummon, but it was never questioned in the card comments and there are no regrets about it. As many hard decisions as there are in a set, I guess you get one or two free passes.

Divination is one of the always-reprinted cards we originally sought to replace, but eventually agreed it was the only appropriate choice. Compulsive Research might have been an interesting replacement that interacts with the land theme, but it just didn't feel right. By the way, Amass the Components is ridiculous.

Negate is a perfect counterspell for the core set. Simple, very blue, 'nuff said.

Does every set need a one mana blue draw spell? Not sure, but safe bet is basically, yes. Avertable Future is clearly less amazing than Ponder or Preordain and that's for the best. I love the flavor here, though in retrospect maybe the name should be verbier. Avert the Future?

Reject's card entry sports volumes of comments—primarily between Chah and myself. We both think Cancel is a well-costed simpled counterspell that should be printed in core sets for years to come. I'm of the opinion that it's not the only one and I like how this cheaper Frazzle plays, but I'm particularly fond how the flavor expresses blue's color philosophy. Chah disagrees and I think we both now have a better idea why The Pit has so many arguments. We players should be grateful for the disparate opinions of the R&D's passionate thinkers. They are the source of so much positive change (and maybe a little negative change, but hey).

Forgetful Sleep is the other common card for the forget deck. I love that it looks like really bad removal at first and then becomes amazing as your devious plan unfurls.

We needed a beneficial blue aura and Gatherer found me Cloak of Mists. I like it as a follow-up to Ghostform and while it's rarely great, it enables some unusual plays and decks for the U, Ux and Xu player.

Sirensong Rapture is much better than it looks. Really. I know you're thinking I'm clearly just a bad player, but I promise you, we had to nerf it from -3/-0 because it was just too damn good. That I can say that about a flavorful common blue removal spell is pretty special. (Or would be if Claustrophobia weren't still so fresh in our minds.)

New Blue Uncommons, Rares & Mythics

Frigid Captor was the end result of our blog discussion about replacing Mind Control in blue. While we did end up including a rare Control Magic variant, I'm quite happy with how Frigid Captor turned out and we were all tickled when the very similar Dungeon Geists was printed in Dark Ascension. The two-for-one isn't nearly as bad when it's as reversible as simply killing a medium-small creature.

Streamtide Philosopher is part of the uncommon landfall cycle. It's not as exciting as the rest, but very practical and plenty blue. We might have given it a forget ability, but this way you can pair it with Jace's Mesmerist or Spy Base to mill your opponent faster (which feels cleverer than just being handed another mill card) or you can use it to tap your opponent's creatures down in an aggro deck.

Spy Base is straightforward in function but is one of two auras that support the land theme by enchanting lands. That makes it vulnerable to land destruction, but keeps it from consuming one of your creatures (the card originally made one of your creatures a Vedalken Entrancer) and combos with Arbor Elf.

Originally our uncommons were all just good but Chah convinced us that we need a few obviously better creatures for new players to grasp onto.
Neri Sage could have been Sage Owl meets Air Elemental, but no one likes putting four useless cards back on top so we gave it the Ponder effect (but not the cantrip). The playtest name was "Ponderous Sphinx," which is clear and a nice reference, but doesn't tell a story. Who are the Neri and when will we see more of them?

Chah wrote an entire article about Temporal Glitch.

We made a number of passes at different pirate lords. At one point, most of the pirates had a thematic attack trigger and so did Raiding Pirate. "
Whenever CARDNAME attacks, defending player draws a card and discards a card. If he or she discards a land card this way, put it onto the battlefield under your control." While it was neat to blackmail your opponent for land, the card was weirder than it was piratey. We eliminated all but one of the pirate cards with the attack trigger and when we lost the black pirate lord, we reworked this one. It's very conditional. A 3/3 for five with no upside if it can't push through is pretty underwhelming, but a swarm of pirates can be absolutely devastating. Sounds about right to me.

Mindshaping Sphinx always had a mind game attached, but the nature of it changed wildly depending on a few words. At various points, this card might draw you cards for naming correctly or cause your opponent to discard and both of you to draw, but in the end Vendillion Clique's ability was just the most intuitive and least obnoxious option.

Predictive Emulation could originally steal any spell, but we wanted to avoid the feel-bad that Bribery causes when it steals one of your best creatures. Stealing non-permanents is very different and not nearly as hard to swallow. This card is fun because you don't know what you're going to get, but it just might save you and then some. Judging by the poll on Ertai's Lament, players really do like this card.

Hypnotic Trance is a version of Mind Control I'm happy to print. The upside is even better, harking back to Control Magic power levels, but the built-in kill switch gives it a serious liability that many players will be able to flip. Rare probably isn't necessary, but there are fewer repeated-targeting permanents in M13 than recent core sets featuring the skulking ability. Whether you're happy with its power level or not, it's hard to argue with the flavor.

Dream Duel is one of those cards that turns the game on its head. Another quirky rare that supports the mill deck (and turbo-fog).

We wanted to ensure that blue got an epic non-permanent spell for mythic. Reverse the Flow of Time is our answer. We loved the simplicity of the effect compared to how much it really did, but had to cost it quite high considering it will you the game if your opponent's hand is empty.

Brooding Leviathan started life as a */* Elemental creature that counted your Islands, but it was way too wordy and ultimately the interesting ability was the tidal wave of bounce, so we stuck it on a massive leviathan and there you are. Not sure why it's brooding…

There were a number of U/x decks we were looking to enable. I've mentioned it several times, so you already know about the miling/Forget deck. It's also well poised to pair with white and try to stall the ground and go over the top with an army of flyers. The average blue-black deck is probably going to be more tempo oriented, defending with various shades of removal and pushing damage through with its intimidating blue and black pirates. Mnemonic Wall and a bevy of tricky spells pair nicely with red's arsenal, particularly if you crack an Explosion Elemental. In addition to the standard big-evasive-things deck, pairing blue with green also gives you access to all the best mana fixing and enables four- of five-color deck capitalizing on the better-than-average bond creatures.

By the way, there was some opposition to keywording 'Forget' because not everyone agreed that it sounds like what it is. You could argue that it makes more sense to describe the action of discarding cards from hand. The flavor argument is that your Library represents everything you know (or least have prepared for your current planeswalk) and that forgetting can clearly describe what happens when cards are removed from your Library. Another concern is the verb type. The original suggestion, 'Purge' is something you do to another player. "Purge three cards from target opponent's Library." While 'Forget' is something a player does him- or herself. "Target player forgets the top card of his or her library." The former feels more active—more like a weapon—but it also has the wrong person touching cards and manipulating decks. For my money, 'Forget' sounds more accurate anyhow.


  1. That's pretty awesome, I've learned a lot by watching you all go through the process.

    A couple of random comments:

    I think "forget" is an awesome name for mill (I've some resistance just because I'm used to mill, but I agree that if it's keyworded at all, it needs a new word.) I'm not sure it should be keyworded at all, it seems simpler without, although I remember hearing wizards have considered keywording it, so it must be possible.

    Is Dream Duel really fair? I like it, but it looks like instant win against an aggro deck, especially in constructed (especially if you havea way of circumventing your own decking, but even if you just rely on starting with 40 life rather than 20).

    1. I also was not sure Dream Duel is fair. It's almost like a Delusions of Grandeur without drawback. We didn't have enough time to work with the rares.

      One earlier version said that whenever a player takes 7 or more damage in one turn, Dream Duel is sacrificed. (In terms of flavor, you're "waking up" from the dream due to shock.) Maybe that was more balanced, even if it was wordier.

      Another version I designed made the card into a creature, a Faerie Wizard called "Dream Duelist," so that most decks can have a way to deal with it through removal. That version also had flash so that it could be flash-cast in response to a big alpha strike.

    2. I'm pretty sure Dream Duel is broken in half.

    3. Instead of exiling cards, it used to make the player forget them and—as you point out—it's pretty easy to shuffle your graveyard back into your library. There are much fewer cards that can get numerous cards from exile back into your deck.

      That said, it reads a lot like gain 20 (or more) life so, yeah, there's a good chance this version is broken in half.

    4. You can build and test a deck with Dream Duel at Wizard's Familiar if you'd like to prove just how broken it is.

    5. In retrospect, sorry for being negative: I think the current version is broken, but I think it is a really good card, and I think a variant could be a really awesome build-around (cf. Battle of Wits, etc). I don't have time to brainstorm possibilities, but the things you suggested sound sensible.

  2. Heh. In my set with pirates (in my case it was a steampunk set with sky pirates), I had a card very similar to Raiding Pirate, called Captivating Plunderer. Mine was a mythic, and so it got flying along with the yoinky saboteur ability. I haven't tested it very much yet, but I imagine it's pretty stonkingly good... and yet less good than many mythics that Wizards print.

    Reverse the Flow of Time is an awesome mythic, and interestingly close to Primal Surge.

    It's really interesting hearing your thoughts on this set and seeing the discussions you guys went through.

    1. Captivating Plunderer is pretty sweet and very mythic. Nice. There are stronger mythics, but it's definitely no slouch. Very cool that we settled on such similar abilities for our rare pirates.

  3. Fascinating how Omniscience compares with Reverse the Flow of Time. Both are ten mana and undoubtedly mythic. Both require a little extra effort to actually win you the game, but turn a major game rule on its head in your favor.

    What turns me off about Omniscience is that you have to earn a ten-mana spell before you can break the mana barrier, at which point the ten mana you've already got is now wasted. I'm not about to say Reverse is a better design though, because I hate that you auto-win if the opponent's hand is empty when you cast it. I guess anything this big is going to have an awkward side.

    1. I like Reverse the Flow of Time better because it seems much more like Sway of the Stars and Upheaval than Omniscience does - the symmetry produces interesting effects, and the experience of breaking the symmetry is more fun than "free spells I guess".

      The "auto-win if your opponent's hand is empty" sequence doesn't/didn't bother me, as it's a ten mana spell. No qualms on my end if your Time Stretch happens to win you the game.

    2. I feel very strongly that the biggest problems with Omniscience are that it's really Omnipotence, and feels very green. Reverse the Flow of Time is a better mythic effect for blue, as it (a) deals with the library and (b) needs you to go an extra step or two to win.