Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Ankh-Theb: The Fertile Land

HV: This pitch is by Nich Grayson.  Here are the pitches from rounds onetwo, and three.

Which set are you pitching?


What is the name of your pitch?

The Fertile Land

What are the major mechanical themes in the set according to your vision?

1.) Ankh is a supertype that is referenced in the set by spells and effects. Each color uses it differently.  It’s most unique feature in this set is that effects count even in the graveyard. That should give it a sufficient afterlife feel.
2.) Eternal Servitude’s flavor is lesser souls of the Plane returning after death to serve the more powerful. It uses the rules created by Morph (minus the ability to flip face up).
3.) Retrace is the returning mechanic. It’ll have a fortune-telling hieroglyph flavor this go around. The twist is that it’ll also be on permanents.
4.) Enemy color theme. Dictated by the flavor of the setting, I see strong reasons to include multicolor enemy colors.

Present a booster pack (10 commons, 3 uncommons, and 1 rare or mythic rare) that shows off the set as well as possible.  These cards need not be original designs; previous challenges and other people's ideas are fair game.

Afterlife Seer 3B (Common)
Creature — Human Cleric 3/2
When Afterlife Seer enters the battlefield, target creature gains
eternal servitude until end of turn. (When it dies face up, return it
to the battlefield face down as a 2/2 creature.)

Court Servant 1W (Common)
Creature — Thrull 2/2
Eternal servitude (When this creature dies face up, return it to the
battlefield face down as a 2/2 creature.)

Foretold Victory 1R (Common)
Creatures you control get +1/+0 and gain haste until end of turn.
Retrace (You may cast this card from your graveyard by discarding a
land card in addition to paying its other costs.)

Public Knowledge U (Common)
Each player draws a card.
Retrace (You may cast this card from your graveyard by discarding a
land card in addition to paying its other costs.)

Addercoil Staff 2 (Common)
Artifact – Equipment
Equipped creature gets +0/+2.
1, Sacrifice Addercoil Staff: Equipped creature gets +2/+2 until end of turn.
Equip 2

Descendant from Greatness W (Common)
Enchantment — Aura
Enchant creature
Enchanted creature gets +1/+1.
Retrace (You may cast this card from your graveyard by discarding a
land card in addition to paying its other costs.)

Wheatfield Mummy 1WB (Common)
Ankh Creature — Zombie 2/3
Retrace (You may cast this card from your graveyard by discarding a
land card in addition to paying its other costs.)

Reedbraid Cranes 1UU (Common)
Ankh Sorcery
Put a 2/2 blue Bird creature token with flying onto the battlefield.
Retrace (You may cast this card from your graveyard by discarding a
land card in addition to paying its other costs.)

Shadowfeed B (Common)(Reprint)
Exile target card from a graveyard. You gain 3 life.

Taskmaster’s Tomb (Common)
2, T, Sacrifice Taskmaster’s Tomb: Search your library for a basic
land card and put it onto the battlefield tapped. Then shuffle your
Eternal servitude (When this permanent is put into a graveyard from
the battlefield face up, return it the battlefield face down as a 2/2

Irrigation Arch (Uncommon)
Irrigation Arch enters the battlefield tapped.
T: Add 1 to your mana pool.
Return Irrigation Arch to its owner’s hand: Add U or R to your mana pool.

Serpent God’s Prayer 5G (Uncommon)
Ankh Sorcery
Put a 1/1 green Snake creature token onto the battlefield for each
ankh permanent you control and each ankh card in your graveyard.

Caravan Harrier 1RR (Uncommon)
Ankh Creature – Viashino Warrior 1/1
When Caravan Harrier enters the battlefield, target creature gets
+X/+0 until end of turn, where X equals the number of ankh permanents
you control plus the number of ankh cards in your graveyard.
At the beginning of the end step, return Caravan Harrier to its owner’s hand.

Harvester Anubis 2GG (Rare)
Ankh Creature — Hound Shaman 3/3
Other creatures you control get +1/+1 and have eternal servitude.
(When a creature with eternal servitude dies face-up, return it to the
battlefield face down as a 2/2 creature.)
G, Tap an untapped face down creature you control: Harvester Anubis
gets +3/+3 until end of turn.

This pitch contained my favorite mechanic: Eternal Servitude.  It's more than just an unusual spin on Persist/Undying; even without Morph in the set, there are myriad uses for face down creatures.  I can see lots of potentially cool cards in the vein of Break Open, Backslide, Ixidron, etc.  I'd change the name of the keyword to "Mummify", since it's more direct and opens up card names like "Unwrap" and "Embalm".  Harvester Anubis is a nice splashy rare that shows off the mechanic well.

The judges were less happy with Ankh, which was just too close to Arcane for our comfort.  Parasitic mechanics are not always bad, but I find it problematic that Ankh does nothing by itself.  Snow and Arcane were not well-loved mechanics because they did nothing meaningful out of their own context.  This version of Ankh seems quite similar to me.

Retrace definitely has some design space left, but putting it on creatures raises alarm bells in my head.  Mechanics like Undying and Unearth are designed specifically so that each creature only gets two uses.  The ability to bring back the same creature once for each land you pitch seems more likely to lead to repetitive board states.  (Then again, Cenn's Enlistment wasn't bad.  Still, I can see a major psychological difference between fighting through an army of tokens and killing the same creature over and over again, even if the practical difference is minor.)  It does feel somewhat Egyptian, but it also might not belong in the same set with Eternal Servitude.

We were very interested in the enemy color theme, since it seemed appropriate for an Egyptian set.  Unfortunately, this pack didn't really contain a demonstration of how it would work.

On individual cards, I particularly liked the flavor of Addercoil Staff and Taskmaster's Tomb.  Irrigation Arch is almost certainly busted in Pyromancer's Ascension and other "one big turn" combo decks that don't care about losing the land.

Overall, this pitch showed lots of ambition and creativity, as well as my favorite mechanic from this round.  There were a few decisions we disagreed with, as well as some slightly rough edges to be sanded down.


  1. I'm glad to see some of my concerns (retrace on permanents, Ankh, nondisplay of the enemy color theme) are echoed, but I disagree that eternal servitude calls for turning shenanigans. The reuse of this aspect of the rules is a great idea, but as soon as we involve turning shenanigans, we are eating through complexity point very very fast.

    1. If Morph is no longer in the picture, then "turning shenanigans" are not so complex after all. Consider the following card:

      Return target creature card from any graveyard to the battlefield face down. (Face down cards are 2/2 creatures.)

      It involves no tough decisions, no repeatable effects, no weird timing, no counters or tokens, and no memory issues other than the fact that a face down card is 2/2. I think it's far more NWO-friendly than either Flashback or DFCs.

    2. I agree with everything the judges said in this case. Retrace on permanents seems the obvious evolution of the mechanic, but would have to be approached carefully (maybe it would be okay on Uncommon or Rare cards, where Limited has less a chance of getting gummed up). I didn't sell Ankh or multicolor enough (although with Ankh, I'm not sure if it's the flavor I undersold, or it's ability to mechanically carry a set.)

      I like Embalm very much. It could also be a white spell that exiles any card from a 'yard. In fact, one reason to avoid spells that would flip things back over might be so that we can do Eternal Servitude effects on non-creature cards. For example:

      Mental Slavery B (Rare)
      Look at target player's hand. Choose a nonland card from it. That player puts the chosen card onto the battlefield face down. (Reminder text.)

      It's like a Pongify Duress! But that only works if we feel safe putting spells into play face down. I'm not sure WotC would do that.

    3. I like Pongify Duress, but it definitely needs to grab permanents only. Sorceries on the battlefield is not a safe rules space to play around in!

    4. At first I really like Eternal Servitude, it captures a lot of the wrapped-up/no-abilities flavor I was going for with my version of Mummify. However, there's a real memory concern that we have to think about. When a creature with Eternal Servitude comes back, both players know what it is, but from then on, only it's controller can peek at it. This matters for things like bounce spells and kill spells. If you have a bunch of face-down creatures, I have to remember all of them. If I don't, I might accidentally cast Murder on the strongest creature card, which you can raise dead and recast. Morph didn't have this particular problem because only the caster knew what it was when it was played face-down.

    5. Definitely something to keep in mind.

  2. Doesn't the harrier want to be sacrificed at your end step and be castable from the graveyard?

  3. I'm on the fence about Eternal Servitude. It's really clever and creative, but the appeal is strictly a Melvin kind of appeal. Strategically, Eternal Servitude will have very similar game play to Persist and Undying.

    I feel that a Mummy or Afterlife mechanic is a very important place in an Egyptian set to nail with a mechanic that makes the game play in a unique way.

    Maybe its worth depends on how many other cool things you can do with turning a card face down. But I suspect that unless the info on the card is going to matter in some way later, those same things can also be done by exiling the card and using 2/2 tokens. And I'm not sure the card info should matter later, because that would make the game memory-intensive.

    But maybe the simple logistics of flipping a card over without having to go fetch a token card allows this mechanic to be used more frequently than 2/2 tokens? Maybe an effect like "Target player discards a card, that player puts a 2/2" into play makes the effects feel more intuitively connected, if it's the same card, face down? Or maybe the feeling that you're transforming something can be emotionally satisfying, especially when you take an opponent's card with a Pongify/Duress effect and turn it into something boring?

    By the way, do Mummies feel like less character-less versions of their former selves, because they're wrapped in bandage? I tend to think of them as high-level undead, as opposed to lowly ones like Zombies and Skeletons. Pharoah Mummies should especially be Lich-like in power. So this doesn't particularly match my concept of Mummies. But maybe it does for others, in which case I'm ok with the flavor aspect of it.

    1. That makes sense, but I quite like it thematically: it feels different to end up with a board full of 2/2s rather than start that way (as with morph), and in many ways it seems even simpler than persist.

      I like the name "mummify" or something like it, but either way, I think the idea of sacrificing servants which, whatever they were like in life, become significant but undifferentiated threats in the afterlife is a standard trope. I think of mummies as powerful, but not really individualised. (I agree 2/2 isn't very powerful, but it's a nasty shock if you think "It doesn't matter what creature he plays, I have a kill spell".)

    2. The issue with eternal servitude is it's limited to creating vanilla 2/2 which are fairly unexciting, and only work to gain a little bit of value off, which is fine for common grizzlies such as Court Servant but not really good enough for larger, rarer creatures. The trouble is whereas undying and persist were sexy mechanics because they could offer a chance to get your creatures back when they die with a slight modification, a large creature wouldn't have much use for eternal servitude. If Vorapede was reprinted with eternal servitude instead of undying than opponents would not hesitate throw a doom blade their way. Plus we don't get the repeated ETB effects which cards such as Kitchen Finks and Geralf's Messenger so exciting to play. The real challenge with this mechanism is finding a similar style of card which could become a marque card of the set. Ankh Theb still needs a strong mechanic or two if it's to move forward.

  4. I like Retrace on permanents, especially weak Auras. I wonder if they could feel like magical hieroglyphs?

    1. Good idea. It feels more retrace-y than on creatures.

    2. I could go for this; Moldervine Cloak was pretty fun.

  5. Eternal Servitude is definitely interesting design. Once a player gets over the hump of what face-down permanents mean and how they work, it's very simple to play with usually. "These are my bears. My colorless, typeless, nameless, 0 CMC bears." In contrast with Mummify (When ~ dies, return it to the battlefield with a mummy counter and no abilities), which requires only one tricksy rule (that Mummify is itself an ability lost when it's used) but will contribute to more complex game states by comparison. I honestly don't know which is better and intend to try both if we go with Ankh-Theb.

    While the combination between Afterlife Seer or Harvester Anubis and any decent morph creature is straight-up absurd, it's probably fine because it won't happen outside of the evergreen formats where absurd isn't always good enough.

    Ankh has not just the problems of snow, but also of threshold, compounded since we now need to count specific types of permanents in play, and care about our graveyard, but only part of it, and count that too. All for an ability that has no discernible flavor.

    I love your use of retrace on permanents, Nich. It's the perfect way to bring back an old mechanic: with a twist that's interesting but still simple. People are right to be concerned about repetitive gameplay, but Wheatfield Mummy is much less repetitive than Cenn's Enlistment because you can only recast it after it dies, and we can be careful to only put retrace on creatures that won't break the game when they come back four times in a row.

    I would like you to elaborate on point 4 for us. I probably don't disagree, but with exactly zero justification, it's hard to argue the merit of enemy color pairs for this set.

  6. Thoughts on the Ankh supertype.

    First some history.

    The original Ice Age only had Snow-Covered lands, so all the cards that referenced Snow cared about lands you or the opponent controlled. If a spell cared about your opponent's snow-covered lands, is was usually for a thing like landwalk, where the question was just a "yes or no," not "how many?" And when you had cared about your snow-covered lands, it was usually more is better. Deck building and playing was easier as a result. The burden on both players was low.

    Coldsnap was trickier because it included a bunch on nonland snow permanents. The rule R&D mostly stuck to was a thing would be Snow if it had an activation that used S mana. (Ohran Viper, the most famous Snow Creature in the set breaks that rule for some reason.) Cards in the set cared about your snow or your opponent's snow cards for numerous reasons, so both player's had to pay a lot of attention to what was Snow and what wasn't. At least there weren't Snow Instants or Sorceries.

    Champions of Kamigawa block had Arcane Instants and Sorcery and a mechanics that cared about them. First was Splice onto Arcane, which let you you combine another spell to the Arcane spell. It was the casters job to manage Splice, so the board complexity was uneffected. But it also had "spiritcraft" which was a recurring mechanic on permanents that would trigger whenever you played a Spirit or Arcane spell. Every player had to pay attention to what was on the board as a result of it.

    Learning from the above lessons then, with Ankh, I would try to put all the burden on the player using the cards whenever possible. At a higher level of play, this will be impossible, "he has five ankh cards, so he could cast that for five Snakes." But otherwise avoid stuff that makes you look across like "gain control of an ankh permanent" or "deals damage equal to the number of ankh cards that player has on the battlefield and in his or her graveyard." I'd try to come up with a cohesive rule on why a spell or permanent has ankh (only red and blue have ankh instants/sorceries, etc.) I'd try to avoid the spiritcraft version of it, that gets excessively complex. And most importantly, I'd consider a card frame treatment (like the Miracle frame, or original gravestone from Odyssey) that makes them easer to call out in play or in the yard. The reason I made ankh count cards in the 'yard too was that it's a public zone, so you can easily see them, it's an active zone in a set with Retrace, and flavorfully, as I said, it enforces the reaching effects of the afterlife in the set.

    1. All these measures could prevent some of the complexity issues surrounding Ankh. However, my main concern is that it's too parasitic. Cards like Serpent God's Prayer and Caravan Harrier send the message, "We're for people who want to play with cards from THIS SET. Everyone else can ignore us."

      The other major problem is that Ankh itself doesn't do anything. This is a branding weakness:

      A: Hey, what's the new set mechanic?
      B: It's called Ankh.
      A: What does it do?
      B: Well, some cards have Ankh, and other cards count how many cards with Ankh you have in the battlefield or graveyard.

    2. I'm a new enough player to have never experienced Coldsnap or Champions of Kamigawa but it still feels like Ankh cards don't fit in with the way people want to play. For starters the frequency of Ankh cards appears to increasing up each level of rarity, so it looks as though Ankh will be on lots of rares and few commons which will make it feel expensive to play. While we shouldn't concern ourselves on the money side, since this set won't be sold, it could mean limited decks struggle to get a lot of use out of Ankh as a mechanic. I'm not sure people would want to consider whether a card is or isn't Ankh when drafting and would simply take a Serpent God prayer and see whether there's enough Ankh cards to main deck it when they get to deck construction. Even if we count the graveyard as well, its going to take a lot of cards for me get my 6 mana fill of snakes. How about instead of Anlkh we consider something like this:

      Serpent God’s Prayer 5G (Uncommon)
      Put a 1/1 green Snake creature token onto the battlefield for each green permanent you control and each green spell in your graveyard.

      It still captures an important element of your ideas (namely that cards in the graveyard are just as important as cards on the battlefield - which i do think is a really good idea, particularly for a set like this) and will make decisions easier and more natural when constructing decks. It's merely an idea and there are lots of other variations, as long as we get a biblical level plague of snakes for the battlefield.

  7. Thoughts on the Enemy Color theme

    The idea to do enemy color interactions in the set rather than ally color might be hard to justify beyond it feeling right thematically. I see merits to it, so let me try.

    I guess the first thing I'd say is that the heavy empahsis on life and death, and a religon founded on the belief that the king is also god seems to favor BG and WB. It's an ancient society, so I imagined shamen and magicians who concentrated on the four elements of earth, air, water and fire, which overlaps UR. And it has a strong military protecting it from invaders, so I could easily imagine a RW base for that. And it's all situated in a fertile river basin which GU seems very appropriate for. In those broad strokes I had an easy time justifying enemy color overlaps. Finding flavor overlaps for the ally colors isn't as easy for the setting. It's not an egalitarian society where GW makes sense, for example.

    Also, there are mechanical overlaps that work in enemy color combinations. Retrace works really nicely on UR spells. Eternal Servitude fits in the WBG wedge. Even creature types I wanted to see fit better in enemy colors than ally. Crocodiles in Magic have been GUB. Think about Mummies too. WotC has errated them to be Zombies. They are too important to leave in a single color, so which color do you splash them in? RB Mummies didn't feel right, UB was okay from a long term arcane-studies angle, but WB felt really right.

    Maybe there doesn't need to be a splash of gold at all, but if there is one, enemy colors fit best with the flavor of the setting.

    1. These are all good points, but I never had a problem with enemy colored factions. My question is why we have gold cards floating around at common. For instance, Innistrad had strongly connected ally pairs, but no common multicolored spells, and one cycle at uncommon in the second set.

      I think these factions are less pronounced, and as such wouldn't want any multicolored cards below rare unless they tied in mechanically or added a lot to the feel of the set. At present I remain unconvinced.

    2. Yeah, that's fine. Oh, question, would you also be okay with a mono White Zombie? Mummies have to be at common for As-Fan and I think in more than one color, (Black).

      How many final submissions were there, btw?

    3. There must be quite a few more, I submitted 3 (one for each set, that way whatever selected I'm guaranteed to have had pitched a few card designs for it) and I saw a few others in the pitches in progress forum. It's going to be difficult working out which set to take forward.

    4. I believe there were 8 final submissions.

      Jules makes me realize that even though Nich made an excellent justification for enemy color pairs representing different factions, there hasn't been much discussion whether we need multicolored cards or whether we can simply put River Civ cards in both blue and green, for example.

      It's possible that gold (or hybrid) is exactly what this set needs to make it pop, as a mechanical heart has been it's weakness all along. That said, I wouldn't want to go gold just because we need something more and gold is awesome; Is there some way we can make gold particularly egyptian?

    5. There were seven. I typed "eight" in an earlier e-mail because I can't count.