Thursday, August 6, 2015

Zeffrikommons, Part 3: Cyclical Behavior

In the Modern Orthodox Jewish synagogues I attend, during Rosh Hashanah prayers, someone stands next to the person leading the prayers and, at specific times during the services, sounds a shofar. A shofar is a hollowed-out ram's horn akin to a single-note trumpet. It is used briefly at various points during the primary services on Rosh Hashanah, but at the end of the services, a long series of note-patterns is sounded, roughly equal in length to all the other times the shofar was sounded earlier in the services.

I've been filling out my master common pool for Zeffrikar sporadically over the past several weeks, and I've filled out my minimum 20 creatures and 15 spells for each color, plus the necessary numbers colorless cards I came up with. I have been saving certain things for when I would have time to discuss them here more publicly. Particularly certain cards I'm picturing as cycles, as well as cards that aren't cycles, but that are being designed in cycles, I've wanted to discuss a little more in-depth than my bullet-point designs I've been gradually revealing. I've made designs for about 200 commons so far. And now, in this final shofar-sounding before doing the first official Zeffrikar design skeleton, I'm going to make about 30-40 more.

All of my designs for this project have been pretty rough, but I'll be making these cards as I'm writing this piece, so be prepared for some extra-coarseness.

Part 1: Incomplete Cycles

While I was doing my major card pool, there were a couple of items where I came up with a card and noted I wanted to cycle it out. Instead of making sure I did that for every color (or going back to colors I had already completed), I save that exercise for now. Here's the first cycle:

  • {W} Aura - When ~ enters the battlefield, excavate 1. Enchanted creature has vigilance and "Whenever you excavate, this creature gets +1/+1 until end of turn."
  • {B} Aura - When ~ enters the battlefield, excavate 1. Whenever you excavate, enchanted creature gets +1/+1 and gains menace until end of turn.
  • {R} Aura - When ~ enters the battlefield, excavate 1. Whenever you excavate, enchanted creature gets +1/+1 and gains first strike until end of turn.
(Mana symbols used only to show color - they are not related to eventual mana cost)

As you can see I (inadvertently) designed this cycle two different ways when I remembered to include a card for it. The purpose of the cycle is to be an excavate enabler, but it's not meant to be particularly good or aggressive. Interestingly, Blue and Green, the colors I skipped, are the colors that would probably get the most mileage out of the cycle with their build a hard-to-kill monster draft strategy. I think the White execution is superior here, as it always does something. Here's the revised and completed cycle:
  • {W} Aura - When ~ enters the battlefield, excavate 1. Enchanted creature has vigilance and "Whenever you excavate, this creature gets +1/+1 until end of turn."
  • {U} Aura - When ~ enters the battlefield, excavate 1. Enchanted creature has flying and "Whenever you excavate, this creature gets +1/+1 until end of turn."
  • {B} Aura - When ~ enters the battlefield, excavate 1. Enchanted creature has menace and "Whenever you excavate, this creature gets +1/+1 until end of turn."
  • {R} Aura - When ~ enters the battlefield, excavate 1. Enchanted creature has first strike and "Whenever you excavate, this creature gets +1/+1 until end of turn."
  • {G} Aura - When ~ enters the battlefield, excavate 1. Enchanted creature has hexproof and "Whenever you excavate, this creature gets +1/+1 until end of turn."

The next cycle I didn't complete is one that cares about landtypes. It's not an uncommon basis for a cycle (although when it shows up it generally does so at uncommon), but I figured it might play nice with whatever level of land-matters I'm granting to the set. 

The cycle thus far:
  • {W} Sorcery - Gain life equal to the number of Plains you control.
  • {B} Sorcery - Exile the top X cards of target player's library, where X is the number of swamps you control.
  • {G} Instant - Target creature gets +X/+X until end of turn where X is equal to the number of forests you control.
I actually did a red one as well, but I moved the design I came up with to uncommon. I'm satisfied with the current designs, with one caveat. It's clear that this cycle wants to be instants/sorceries. However, R&D frowns upon looser cycles where four cards do something one way and the fifth does it another way. I can mix and match instants and sorceries in this cycle, but only if at least two cards fall into either card type. I would consider doing this one as all sorceries (that giant growth effect works as a sorcery if I give it trample as well), but let's see what I come up with first.
  • {W} Sorcery - Gain life equal to the number of plains you control.
  • {U} Instant - Return target creature with power less than or equal to the number of Islands you control to its owner’s hand.
  • {B} Sorcery - Exile the top X cards of target player's library, where X is the number of swamps you control.
  • {R} Sorcery - Up to X target creatures can't block this turn, where X is equal to the number of mountains you control.
  • {G} Instant - Target creature gets +X/+X until end of turn where X is equal to the number of forests you control.

After considering the options for blue (which were relatively narrow if this cycle is to be considered at common) I decided to keep the cycle split between instants and sorceries. 

Part 2: Deferred Cycles

There were a few cycles I knew I wanted to do for which I specifically avoided making any cards at all up until now. I'll be making these cycles from scratch. The first is actually an extension of the last cycle. R&D usually includes a cycle of common creatures with off-color activated abilities, giving commons a helping hand with pushing certain draft strategies (there's also usually a cycle of gold cards at uncommon that does the same thing). In Zeffrikar, instead of off-color activateds, I'll be toying with allied-color's land-type matters. 

I know I only want 5 creature cards for this cycle, and that I want it to go either clockwise or counterclockwise around the color wheel, but I haven't decided which direction yet. So I'll be doing two five card cycles and adding both to my master pool, and seeing which one fits better in the final skeleton.

  • Clockwise
    • {W} ~ gets +1/+1 and has prowess as long as you control an Island.
    • {U} ~ gets +1/+1 and has menace as long as you control a Swamp.
    • {B} ~ gets +1/+1 as long as you control a Mountain. When ~ dies, if you control a Mountain, it deals 2 damage to target player.
    • {R} ~ gets +1/+1 and has reach as long as you control a Forest.
    • {G} ~ gets +1/+1 and has vigilance as long as you control a Plains.

I want these cards to service their respective draft archetypes. I know that I've been looking for a white common creature with prowess for my WU spellcraft/trap archetype, but since prowess is meant to be tertiary in White, making it contingent on being in a WU deck seemed like a good way to cheat it in at common. 

The UB archetype is milling, so no keyword immediately worked with that. I threw menace on, but deathtouch might be a more worthwhile mechanic for the pairing.

The BR archetype is an attrition deck. Again, no red keyword really seemed to jump out at me, so I went without a keyword, thinking I might veer the cycle away from evergreen keywords. This ended up not being the case. 

RG is Eldrazi-Ramp, and again the available evergreens didn't really play into that archetype particularly well. Since this deck might have some issues against flyers, I gave it a defensive card to sit on while setting up the ramp aspects.

GW is a weenie/aggro deck, so I gave it vigilance to encourage attacking.

Since I finished the cycle using four evergreen keywords, I'm going to go back and revise the {B} card to fall in line with the rest of the cycle. While trample makes the most sense for the archetype, it's only secondary in red and tertiary in black, so it might be a little strange at common. I'll give it haste and see how it playtests. I'm also updating the {U} card to have deathtouch, since that will play better for the deck than menace.

    • {U} ~ gets +1/+1 and has deathtouch as long as you control a Swamp.
    • {B} ~ gets +1/+1 and has trample as long as you control a Mountain.

  • Counterclockwise
    • {W} ~ gets +1/+1 as long as you control a Forest. When ~ enters the battlefield, if you control a Forest, put a green 1/1 Elf token onto the battlefield.
    • {U} ~ gets +1/+1 as long as you control a Plains. When ~ enters the battlefield, if you control a Plains, target creature can't be blocked by creatures with power higher than 4 until end of turn. (low CMC)
    • {B} ~ gets +1/+1 as long as you control an Island. When ~ enters the battlefield, if you control an Island, draw a card.
    • {R} ~ gets +1/+1 as long as you control a Swamp. When ~ enters the battlefield, if you control a Swamp, target opponent discards a card.
    • {G} ~ gets +1/+1 as long as you control a Mountain. When ~ enters the battlefield, if you control a Mountain, add RR to your mana pool.

I wanted to take a different approach with this version of the cycle, so I went with ETB abilities to play into the archetypes. I think the power variance here is a lot higher, which may or may not be a good thing. I also made a note to myself for the {U} card that that archetype is going to want the cmc for the creature to be pretty low to capitalize on the tempo the deck wants. Unless the base stats are 0/1, I think the lowest reasonable CMC for that card is 2U, so that might be killed from the cycle simply for being unplayable in the deck that wants it.

This is still a very early draft. Assuming I want this cycle to survive (and I do want the core of ally-land-type matters to appear at common in some form or another), it will probably be iterated several times based on the needs of the skeleton and the lessons we pick up from playtesting.

The second cycle I was considering was a cycle of common auras as a throwback to the umbras in Rise. I'm not including totem armor in the set as a keyword, but I like auras that include a mechanic to help negate the high risk of card disadvantage. The return to owner's hand mechanic that was used in the Urza's block fills that role nicely. It was last used on an uncommon cycle in Time Spiral, and at rare on Glistening Oil in New Phyrexia. It's a solid mechanic that raises some NWO concerns at common, but I'll hold off on that judgment until a later pass at the cardfile.

  • {W} 1W Brilliant Halo - Enchantment - Aura - Enchant creature. Enchanted creature gets +1/+2. When ~ is put into the graveyard from the battlefield, return ~ to its owner's hand.
  • {U} Aura - Whenever enchanted creature attacks, you may tap target creature defending player controls. When ~ is put into the graveyard from the battlefield, return ~ to its owner's hand.
  • {B} Aura - Whenever another creature you control dies, enchanted creature gets +2/+2 until end of turn. When ~ is put into the graveyard from the battlefield, return ~ to its owner's hand.
  • {R} Aura - Enchanted creature gets +2/+0 and has trample, haste, and "At the beginning of the end step, sacrifice this creature." When ~ is put into the graveyard from the battlefield, return ~ to its owner's hand.
  • {G} Aura - Enchanted creature gets +2/+2 and has "2G: This creature gains indestructible until end of turn." When ~ is put into the graveyard from the battlefield, return ~ to its owner's hand.
Not one of the white archetypes really wants to have an aura. WU is more focused on instants, WR on artifacts, WG on large numbers of creatures, and WB the creatures aren't going to stick around long enough to warrant using an enchantment. Making the white one a straightforward reprint with some good general utility but none specific for any particular archetype is just a signal to he cycle's inspiration.

The blue aura is a non-keyword evasion piece meant to help out the GU deck, although the UR and WU will probably find it helpful sometimes as well.

The black one will help out the WB and BR decks, both of which will involve a lot of creatures hitting the graveyard.

The red one is very questionable for a common, but as a "fixed" rancor makes for a nice callback. Probably won't survive a round of NWO checks.

The green one helps out the UG and WG archetypes. As a side note, I'm replacing all regeneration in this set with "gains indestructible until end of turn," because regeneration is a dumb relic the game clings on to for reasons that elude me.

Part 3: Noncycles

The last batch of cards are ones that are not cycles, but I wanted to design as cycles. I specifically left vanillas and french vanillas out of my lists, even though I knew that the skeleton is going to need them. I wanted to wait until I had a better sense of the mechanical space I was tapping and how it interacted with the various archetypes. Now that that's done, I'm making a small pool of vanillas and french vanillas to draw from alongside all the other cards I've come up with. The Vanillas I generate here will be the first cards to officially make it to the design skeleton, since, unlike the other cards, I'll be giving them costs and stats.

Designing a vanilla is relatively easy. Pick two single-digit integers, put a slash between them and give it a reasonable casting cost. The real trick to designing vanillas is to designing them towards two or more of your draft archetypes, so they serve some purpose to the set beyond lowering complexity.

My white archetypes are WU spellcraft tempo, WB weenie sacrifice, RW equipment matters, and GW weenie aggro. All but WU are best served with a small efficient creature. I don't think that a bear is unreasonable here.

  • 1W - 2/2
The blue archetypes are WU Spellcraft tempo, UB mill, UR colorless matters, and GU voltron. WU and UB are served by medium defensive creatures, and GU by larger. Since Blue's larger common creatures tend to be serpent-like with some sort of mechanical drawback, I'll let green get the beefier part of this cycle.

  • 2U - 1/4
The black archetypes are WB weenie sacrifice, UB mill, BR attrition/control, and BG playing with lands. WB and UB already got a vanilla to help them out of this cycle, and designing the black common for BR would overlap a lot with the white common I already came up with. BG is going to have a lot of lands, so let's give it an outlet:

  • 3BB 4/6
Red archetypes: UR colorless matters, BR attrition/control, RG edlrazi ramp, and RW equipment matters. UR is almost irrelevant to our consideration here. BR and RW want something cheap and disposable, while RG wants something large and pricey. Since I suspect green will fill the large and pricey role, red does red:

  • 1R 3/1
Green archetypes have all been covered above. GW wants something small, but all the other green pairings want something larger. Since ramp will be prevalent in two pairings, let's give it something really big:

  • 5GG 7/7

That's almost enough to fight an Eldrazi.

I wanted to do a cycle of french vanillas as well. These will be designed to help at least one color pairing that wasn't served by the color's corresponding vanilla.

  • {W} Flying (medium)
    • This fills the gap for a WU creature, giving the tempo color something heavy to land with when the time is right.
  • {U} Prowess (small)
    • This helps out both WU and UR, the color pairings most likely to play instants and sorceries.

  • {B} Deathtouch (small)
    • BR wants something it can get a good trade out of, WB wants something disposable, and UB wants something to keep it from dying while it plays an entirely differnt game of magic than everyone else. 
  • {R} Trample (medium)
    • Prowess is the only evergreen that's really going to be directly relevant to UR's primary strategy of playing colorless cards, and that one went to the blue card in this cycle. RG wants something it can ramp into early before it ramps into something bigger, and RW won't complain about a large trampler holding some of its equipment.
  • {G} 1G: ~ gains indestructible until end of turn. (medium)
    • GW and GU both get a lot from a regenerator. GW wants it small and GU wants it to be large, so I split the baby and hope one of them can find enough interest in this card.

And that's a wrap. I'm just about ready to do the first pass at the design skeleton. I could do another exercise aiming at top down adventure designs, but I want to get the first skeleton done so I can do some type of playtest before previews officially begin.

Homework: Take a look at the mono-white cards from Zendikar block. Bearing in mind that kicker, totem armor, and level up aren't in the set, and that landfall doesn't appear in White at common, which of these cards would you want to see reprinted at common? Which would you want to see reprinted at higher rarities? I'll absolutely entertain justified rarity shifting. Let me know in the comments.


  1. Is Dreadwaters a potential reprint for your common basic lands matter set? I mean the card did just end up seeing play in the limited section of the Pro Tour.

    1. Not a reprint. Zeffrikar is taking place hypothetically right after origins, so it would be odds to reprint from there. Plus the cycles are looking for specific land types for now.

    2. Ahhh I forgot that Dreadwaters was any land rather than Islands

  2. Your land-type counting cycle is the poster child for wide power bands in cycles.
    The blue one is strictly worse than Unsummon, while the red one is the best "can't block this turn" spell ever.

    1. I think designers, caring so much about aesthetics, are overly drawn to cycles, which I think tends to make the sets that contain them worse. We need to learn to be okay with two and three color mini-cycles.

    2. Designing for cycles is a good strategy. Keeping a full cycle for the one good design in it is not.

    3. Designers are drawn to cycles more than is ideal, though I don't think drastically so. They do remain a good design challenge, including knowing when to abort.

    4. I imagine (having not done the full exercise), they're a good way to fill out space in a starting design set. It's easy to check relative power level of cards when they're mostly cycles. Then later, if half the designs are no fun, throw them out.

  3. Dawnglare Invoker could return as an uncommon.
    Iona's Judgment was nice clean removal.
    Journey to Nowhere is strong removal. Could be uncommon.
    Kor Hookmaster might be the most iconic white common for Limited from Zendikar, followed by Kor Skyfisher.
    Could do Steppe Lynx at uncommon. I wouldn't miss it.

    1. Mark does not like Iona's Judgment and friends for White removal. I'm pretty sure they are completely gone from White now.

      Dawnglare Invoker is a pretty obnoxious card, I wouldn't be eager for it to return. It definitely did its job the first time, though.

      As to Kor Hookmaster and Kor Skyfisher, I think it is a mistake to honor an old limited format by reprinting all star commons in a revisit. The all star commons are so important in defining a limited environment that it creates pretty substantial identity issues to reprint them.

      The closest they've come to this in my recollection is reprinting the Myr in Scars, which I think was pretty perfect as they were good and iconic but not overly strong. It is worth noting, they invested a ton of effort in trying to not reprint the Myr cycle before they gave in and did it anyway.

      Fledgling Griffin is a very cool card.

    2. @ Tommy re: Iona's judgment - I don't think that it's as absolutely gone from white as you think it is, but it should be.

      I was strongly considering doing steppe lynx at uncommon as the only white landfall card in the set. I worry that it's going to skew the white green deck to being too much like tripple zendikar draft though.

    3. I agree Mark doesn't like Iona's Judgment. And I agree with him. Like Zefferal, I haven't gotten the impression R&D is convinced.

    4. You may be right, although with core sets gone the rest of R&D has lost their major vessel for smuggling things past Mark.

  4. Your clockwise auras need work.
    The blue one is doing a white thing.
    The black one is doing a red thing (but could be fixed by removing 'you control').
    The red one is uncommon at least.
    The green one largely defeats the value of the self-recurring ability.

    1. White's version of that is a subset of blue's ability to twiddle whenever whatever. It's a white implementation, but still a blue mechanic.
      I'm not sure that the black one isn't black. It's red, but I think it's black too.
      Agree with you on red
      Disagree with you re: green. The ability isn't necessarily about added value, it's about avoiding overwhelming card disadvantage, which is still applicable in shields down moments.

    2. The black one is definitely black mechanically, but not philosophically. Fair bleed.

  5. I would love to see Pillarfield Ox, Kraken Hatchling and Vastwood Gorger in the vanilla slots. I think they're iconic Zendikari creatures.

    Pillarfield Ox doesn't serve WU spellcraft, but it doesn't get in its way. It is actively very good with RW equipment matters. It is not synergistic with WB sacrifice or WG weenie aggro, but could be a good curve topper for both.

    Kraken Hatchling is excellent as defense for UB mill, and a body to suit up for GU voltron. It doesn't get in the way of WU spellcraft or UR colorless matters.

    Vastwood Gorger isn't synergistic with GW,
    but it's solid for RG ramp, and GU Voltron. I don't know what BG lands matter is looking for, so not sure there.

    1. All reasonable calls. I don't know that I would want to reprint three vanillas, but maybe one of them. I'd be most interested in the hatchling of the three pitched.

    2. Seeing a different type of Gorger and a Teenage Kraken would be fine flavorful callbacks to do on new cards in the set. Pillarfield Ox is a fun card if it fits your curves, and one I would and do love to see, but it doesn't scream "zendikar!" on its own the way Kor Somethingorother would. That's a question of available space for breadth of flavor, I'd imagine.