Monday, July 2, 2012

M13 Designer Diary III

Today I look at the black cards from M13 and the lessons we learned choosing/designing them. Here's part two. Here's a directory with all the card links from the final set. And here's the text spoiler Chah posted.

Black Commons

The Design team included Muck Rats in their final file, but Development deemed vanilla one-drops at common too marginal. I think we used that argument too many times and that increased the overall power level of the set a bit higher than ideal. Vampire Bats is by no means overpowered, but when you consider how relevant an Ornithopter can be when you have Dark Favor and equipment boosting your creatures efficiently, cheap fliers are relevant regardless of how low their power is.

The biggest repeated mistake Design made that Development caught and fixed was giving too many creatures a body that warranted its cost. We had a lot of two-power two-drops and similar, which skewed the set heavily toward aggro. Every set (even a fast one like Zendikar) has a nix mixture of sizes and costs with the 1C utility 1/1 being the perfect example (think Merfolk Looter or Goblin Tunneler). Stalking Nosferatu does a good job filling this role while being a nicely resonant and simple vampire. This is the kind of card developers get excited about even though players don't.

Scourge of the Seas is the only new card proposed when we decided to consider a pirate subtheme to remain untouched through the final design. We knew it was fair because it's almost identical to Nezumi Cutthroat. Why not reprint the lovable old rat man? Fear has been replaced with Intimidate, so it needed reconcepting anyhow. Have you noticed how Harbor Bandit is half-way between Dark Cove Pirates and Scourge of the Seas (but with a lamer type line)?

As the three worst creature colors, blue, black and red had some similar space to fight over for their vanilla creatures. Blue wasn't a problem since it's so much more defensive, but black and red had some serious overlap. Trying not to make two cards too similar across these colors while also finding two vanillas within the color itself wasn't trivial. Various 3/2s for 2B went in and out the set fairly often, but Barony Vampire sunk its teeth in the end to help fill our vampire quota.

Few core sets omit the inevitable black swampwalking creature and we weren't about to do so in our land-matters core set. Not wanting something ad brutal as Bog Wraith, Bog Raiders did the job nicely.

We stuck with Jules' original Vaportrail Imp for quite a long time because it illustrated bond quite well. A vanilla 3/1 is a bit weak for 2B, but a 3/1 flier is unheard of at common. Letting black's expert flying ally, blue, enable such a card made perfect sense and also gave us a card that was transformed significantly by bond. Why change it?

Chah's vision for bond was a mechanic that didn't just give you something you could get otherwise for a mana less, but something that you couldn't have gotten without the allied color at all. You don't see a lot of three-power common fliers in black so we could have warranted the Imp, but Chah had an idea that felt more special. What if Child of Night could sprout wings? That Mistral Vampire fulfilled the roles two cards were filling previously in a single card was gravy on top of the added resonance. I will miss Vaportail Imp, but I don't regret replacing it for a moment.

We tried replacing the ubiquitous Gravedigger with Cadaver Imp, but the difference of three mana versus four proved surprisingly important, because it affects whether you can cast the returned creature the same or not by more than a turn. We liked the 1/1 flying body on the Imp, but couldn't justify the lower cost. That swap, btw, is how we settled on Vampire Bats in the 1cc slot.

Blazing Legion felt the effect of Chah's vision more than Mistral Vampire. It had been a 2/2 for 2B that gained +2/+0 with a Mountain. That was a solid card and had nice flavor (Here're some zombies. Here're some zombies on fire) but definitely felt like something you could just pay another mana for if it were always on. Chah also wanted more exciting moments, which is why he pushed for mountain bond to grant haste (rather than first strike or something similar). Getting to crack in for an extra 4 because your opponent didn't prepare for a hastey attacker can be a nice feeling.

It took Chah a lot of time and effort to convince me and the team to make this change because we had decided against bond effects that weren't relevant if they turned on after you had already cast the creature. Ultimately it was the feeling-different argument that swayed me. Keeping the mountain bond cards at CMC 4+ alleviated our concern a little bit, but I think the disadvantage of this choice is outweighed by the novelty of Lightning Elemental-esque creatures in black and green, courtesy of red.

Mass of Ghouls rounded out our vanilla quota for black nicely, feeling different enough from Barony Vampire and not costing 6 like one of our more ambitious proposals. I was tempted to print all the common vanilla creatures in M13 as textless cards (like the original Future Sight version of this card), but opted not to just because a different card frame might be confusing to new players.

We needed a shade and we needed another 'eh' flier: Nightwing Shade.

Since I'd made a conscious choice not to reprint Doom Blade or Terror, we needed the black removal we did have to exhibit some important traits. Diabolic Edict is an efficient instant that can kill absolutely anything, provided it's all alone (except Sigarda, Host of Herons, but that card was definitely a mistake to print).

Disfigure is our dirt-cheap removal spell.

Blood in the Water is harder to use, but the card advantage makes it entirely worthwhile. I love the flavor of the card, and that we could tie in to the pirate subtheme gives me a little pride.

Dessicate is our kill-anything-anywhere-anyhow card, with the very black limitation that it can't deal with enchantments / enchanted creatures. It's strictly worse than the recently revealed Murder, and I'm happy about that. While Murder fixes the "nonblack" problem I had with Doom Blade, it exacerbates the too-good removal problem. Murder won't break any formats in an observable way, but it will contribute to the bomb/unfun-answers spiral.

Disentomb is a no-brainer. It's too simple, appealing and resonant not to print in every core set, even with Gravedigger doing similar work.

Wyeth's Interrogation went through numerous iterations and is arguably a combination of another card (an alternative to Mind Rot). That isn't to say it's a Frankenstein mess of a card, in fact, just the opposite. A lot of thought went into finding just the right way to express what we were going for. I'm happy with the result—it plays well and communicates Wyeth's love of putting his enemies in tight spots.

We considered quite a few alternatives to Mind Rot, but most were too strong, too conditional or too wordy. Having an uncommon build-around that makes it even better justifies keeping the simplest execution.

Blood Tithe is a clean card that demonstrates how black can steal your life essence from you. It's also relatively weak and does some good work counteracting M13's too-much-good-stuff problem.

Evil Presence
is usually even less playable, but it has some potential applications in M13: You can turn on or off bond with it, you can make your Bog Raiders unblockable and you can answer an otherwise game-winning "invoker land."

New Black Uncommons, Rares and Mythics

Mourning Banshee was designed at the last minute along with Neri Sage and Angel of Succor to make sure there were clear best uncommons in each color and, in this case, to make sure there were uncommon fliers that could trump fully-bonded Windborne Pterons. I like how it mirrors the angel mechanically, but remains true to the banshee theme.

Brain-Eating Zombies is my favorite build-around in the set. The name originally belonged to a 5B 4/4 common creature that made you discard a card when it ETB, but the creature/effect had been in the file (at -1 size/cost) just as long. When we realized we needed to ditch that common, but couldn't stomach losing the brain-eating name, moving it to this card made perfect sense and that's when we made it match the classic 2B 2/2 zombie size.

Cursed Tomb was part of an attempt to add more defenders to the set. This was the only result that was awesome enough to preserve. I love that the flavor of some unknown evil entity being awakened when you disturb its resting place matches the newest implementation of graveyard recursion from Innistrad and allows the card to be as cheap as it is.

The only thing that changed about Bogcurse Schemer since he was originally proposed for the landfall cycle was his type. An uncommon 2/3 Lich just didn't seem lichy enough, y'know.

Champion of Depravity was mighty impressive when mountain bond gave +2/+0. Changing that to give haste definitely weakened this knight: it no longer trumps 5/5 creatures without first strike and doesn't even trade with Champion of Purity (I mean if either could block the other—which they can't). Even so, this is still a cool card and will certainly bash some heads in Limited. We would never have thought to make this knight a vampire if we hadn't noticed the white version's 4/5 was way too big for a human and made it a Loxodon. I don't expect everyone to agree, but to me, Vampire Knigh and Loxodon Knight are both awesome.

Ghostly Mentor is the obvious best pick for Spike. Why did we want multiple 'best' uncommons? Because new players won't see the insane value that this card represents, and having a best pick for each psychographic (you could argue Brain-Eating Zombies is the Johnny best pick) lets players play their way more often and feel powerful while doing so. Is Mentor too good? Maybe, but at least he's not 4/2 like he was for most of his time in the card file.

Wyeth's Decree was a late addition to the card file, replacing a design that was new to black at the time, but preempted by Unhallowed Pact in AVR. We needed another creature removal card for uncommon and we also wanted a playable land destruction spell. "Destroy target creature or land" was proposed and would have been a simple answer, but the problem with cards like that is the second mode almost never gets used and you feel bad when you have to because the first mode is so much better in a normal game of Magic. Swapping "and" for "or" was an easy answer, but that was too much like Into the Maw of Hell. Having recently removed Assassinate from the file, adding "tapped" seemed like a fine condition to add and I'm glad it's there because players should have a way to play around sick two-for-ones like this sometimes.

I'm happy with Unsightly Gorgon, even though Xathrid Gorgon is pretty clearly the better top-down design. Even so, hitting the exact same trope is still a heartwarming coincidence. For me personally, it's gratifying to see deathtouch on Xathrid, since I had been arguing that made much more sense than intimidate for our version.

Nether Skineater is another card we made at least a half-dozen iterations on, trying to find something that both felt right and played well. Having retired Reassembling Skeleton, we knew we had to hit the thing-that-never-stops-coming-back trope, but it turns out that's hard to do without breaking the game. Switching the application from defensive to aggressive is a nice change of pace and solves several of the design problems we were running into.

I'm tickled that Mutilate is in both M13s.

Conscriptor of Souls came about fairly tangentially. The original proposal, if I recall correctly, was an aura that gave the enchanted creature Grave Titan's attack trigger. That shifted into an aura that lets you cast Gruesome Encore whenever you attack and then we figured, why an aura, when you could just have a big demon enslaving and discarding all these poor souls?

Lich's Pact is my take on the core set Lich card and I'm pretty proud of the result. I believe this card started as a CCDD and a helpful commentor offered the current templating, but I can't find either; The search on this site is almost as bad as on Lich's Pact started at 2BB and we kept bumping it up because we couldn't test it and it made us nervous. At 4BB, I'm thinking Pact is safely out of Spike territory and into Johnny territory, but if you think you can break this card, I'd love to see the decklist.

And finally, that brings us to Wyeth Blackboot, the only new planeswalker in M13. We might have done two, but we ran out of time. Planeswalkers take a lot of work to get right and I'm quite pleased with the work the team did on this one. He's good enough to autoplay in Limited provided you're black or can splash it, but not so good that you run him in every single pool regardless, and niche enough to spawn his own black Standard deck rather than just fill up every black deck in the format.

I'm thrilled with the way he uses three black effects in slightly different ways that all work together as well as independently while also telling a cool story. Wyeth captains a ship full of lost souls, raids, pillages and blackmails without mercy, then turns against you the very men who died fighting for you. He loves putting you in a lose-lose situation and profiting from your loss.


  1. Not really about the article, although this does have to do with a black card... I was looking through the file, and I noticed there's a card called Lichs Pact. It reads "If you would draw cards or lose life, instead draw that many cards and lose that much life" doesn't that just leave you in an infinite loop of drawing cards and losing life?

    1. I believe the precedent/explanation is akin to Thought Reflection and Boon Reflection; or rather, it replaces the original effect with a new simultaneous effect? The *instead* keeps it bounded, from what I remember.

    2. Yep, replacement effects never loop infinitely. Otherwise Furnace of Rath, Sulfuric Vapors, Thought Reflection and any number of other cards would instantly go infinite. The current wording is fine (at least, it's not a broken one-card combo. It might well be a broken two- or three-card combo, which is probably fine for a Johnny mythic.)

  2. I was enchanted to see that wizards' M13 has landbond cards. It's not quite the same, there's a cycle of commons that have +1/+1 if you control a plains, etc, and have an off-colour activation in that colour.

    I infer they are there to play nicely with the presumed lands in Return to Ravnica with two basic land types, since there's a few other basic land type cards and I've heard it speculated.

    Your land bond wasn't based on the RtR lands, right, it was just a good idea for a core set? Which makes it more of a coincidence that it matched quite closely :)

    1. As I recall, bond was chosen specifically because there was widespread speculation/rumours that the set after M13 would be back on Ravnica, and would therefore have a multicolour theme, and therefore the team decided that bond would play well with multicolour concepts while being different enough to avoid stealing the new Ravnica set's thunder. Which seems to be pretty much precisely what the real M13 design team thought too. It is utterly awesome that the Goblin Artisans came up with bond. I wonder what the real M13 designers/devs thought when they saw it? :)