Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Spotlight Challenge 4 Initial Review—Czynski

Here's the challenge Czynski is taking lead on:

Design a cycle of each color's iconic creature—Angel, Sphinx, Demon, Dragon, and Hydra—for a specific plane. You may choose or invent a plane if you like, otherwise design for Tesla/Kaladesh. Also design a sixth card—a common or uncommon—that mentions one or more of these creature types in an organic way.

Cancer Demon features an undefined keyword, skulk. As a mythic rare, we can assume the rest of the set is littered with reminder text for skulk, and as a group of Magic experts, it's not hard to guess that skulk is Skulking Ghost's "When ~ becomes the target of a spell or ability, sacrifice it"—though if this ability were to be keyworded, I imagine they'd choose a word more meaningful to people who weren't playing during Mirage.

So far, we've got a 5/5 non-flying demon with a downside ability for seven mana. That block of text better be something special…

Well, it's cool. Or it would be, if I thought I could ever get my Demon through. But it's always better for my opponent to block than let it through, and I can't even give it evasion because it'll die if I try.

I'm forced to conclude that skulk isn't what I thought it was, and that it's actually an upside evasion ability. But what? And why would Czynski leave us guessing?

Most of you have been shouting at me, so I'm happy to relieve you: I decided to check and see if skulk was a spoiled mechanic for the upcoming set, and it is. Turns out it's a reference to Skarrgan Pit-Skulk, but reversed. (Or a simplified version of Mistmeadow Skulk.) Okay. Fair enough. If it were Pit-Skulk's ability, I could see that being useful here, but "can't be blocked by bigger creatures" is mighty weak evasion on a big creature, especially one that specifically rewards chump-blocking.

This seven-mana mythic needs to be scarier: Bigger, cheaper, and/or harder to block.

It's kind of a shame the 4 doesn't line up with the 2, 5, or 7 that appear elsewhere on the card, but apart from the minor aesthetic quibble, Heart Dragon seems like a solid variation on Bogardan Hellkite. Too slow for Constructed—unlike Inferno Titan—the larger potential upside should appeal to Timmy. It's a bit of a shame our mythic doesn't do anything that hasn't been done before.

Marrow Angel is like an Aegis Angel, but it's protection continues after it dies (and requires connecting with your opponent's face). For a seven-mana 4/4 mythic, I'd like a bit more. Haste would help, if this were part-red.

Ultimately, all of these damage-triggers fail the removal test that the Titans aced so hard; I pay seven mana to get this rarer-than-rare creature, and then you Murder it and I've got nothing to show for it. Expensive rares really want to either have value (a death trigger works as well ETB) if they die immediately, or some resistance to dying immediately.

Sinew Hydra's pretty sweet. You get more power than you paid, can use it twice per round, and not only does it get bigger, but it embiggens your entire team. It's got no special resistance (beyond 8 toughness), but the upside of connecting is finally worth the risk.

Spinal Sphinx is a Limited bomb (along with the Dragon and Hydra) but not quite resilient enough for Standard. If it had flash to help it get in once, or if it's trigger were even bigger, that would be enough to tip it over.

One thing that stands out to me about this cycle—and it is a very clear cycle with it's 5CC cost, keyword + combat trigger template, and laddered p/t—is that the best one benefits your whole team. While all of these abilities are useful, Sinew Hydra has the most potential, and that's the key to compelling mythics. You want players eyes to go wide at their potential. (There are exceptions, and those tend to be the must-play Spike cards, which are fine too, but hard to come by at seven mana.)

The ability to get a seven-mana dragon or angel out on turn five is nothing to sneeze at, and the danger of mana rituals is mitigated by this costing four, by it not working the turn you play it, by it being a vulnerable creature, and by only applying toward (specific) creatures spells.

Blood Singer also has a purpose in decks without r/w rares because you can get a discount on another creature when it dies, allowing you to attack with psuedo-evasion. The most you can save is {2}, though, and it's not acceleration, it's just efficiency, and it requires you to have a creature that costs four in your hand at the time.

You could theoretically sacrifice marrow singer for a discount on a dragon or angel and use that discount to pay to repurpose another smaller creature, but only when you've got enough mana to hard-cast your big flying thing, and so you're really just replacing Blood Singer with some other four-drop.

I don't know. I like more than one thing about this, but it doesn't seem to quite be getting there. I think if repurpose was stronger, the rest of the card would click.

The quickest upgrade for this cycle is to move it to rare. Most of the cards simply aren't living up to mythic expectations, but would be pretty close at rare. The best upgrade might be to make them splashier and/or more resilient. Either would do.

I applaud how tight you made this cycle, as that can be frustrating, and you did it pretty well. I will offer that you can afford to loosen up one axis of the cycle in order to help make each of these creatures feel special.

Based purely on the cards, I'd guess the plane was a super gory, necrotic plane, where every color is focused on bodily death. I think I scanned over an idea for a plane that is entirely living, and I can see how these creatures might fit that plane, but more through the card names than anything else. I won't ask you to make a keyword that embodies your plane because that could be a challenge entirely on its own, but I'd like to see something tie these cards together mechanically in a way that demonstrates the nature of the plane. If you do keep a plane that hasn't been printed by Wizards or here, submit a 100-200 word intro for that plane with your final design.

You've got until 3/14 for your final submission, Czynski and team.


  1. I'm guessing that skulk is the ability featured in Shadows over Innistrad.

    1. Yes, I'm treating it as evergreen and didn't want four fliers and one not. Also, the demon seemed extremely powerful so the minimal benefit was intentional.

  2. I think you misread the demon, as these trigger on any combat damage (even when blocked), not just damaging a player.
    I think these (with no immediate value) need to cost <=5 to be interesting. At that price, they can also require a little work to get going; say a low toughness on one with a powerful ability

    1. I completely misread that.
      That makes them all much better.
      It's also a mistake you can count on players making too. Maybe it's worth it. Maybe there's a way to clarify this trigger isn't the same one we see all the time.

    2. It makes Sinew Hydra even stronger too.

      But it also raises a lot of room for rules mistakes. I think players will handle the extra damage from the dragon correctly, but will they know the added toughness and indestructible from the hydra and angel won't save their creatures from otherwise lethal combat damage? Will they know they can't sacrifice a creature with lethal damage to the demon?

      There's a reason saboteur abilities trigger against players, and it's not thematic. If we're going to buck that, we have to address the issues it solved.

    3. I agree; if you misread it, so will most players. And that was sufficiently central that I'm pretty much scrapping these designs.

    4. Maybe Nich's attack trigger solves it? IDK.

  3. OK, I like the idea a lot now I've seen some of it.

    Random suggestions.

    Could cancer demon make copies of itself when opponent sacs instead of making 2/2 tokens? That would obv need to be balanced with a smaller size, but would fit the flavour and be awesome.

    I applaud the way there's one creature of each size, but I don't think it adds much to player experience. If it fits the creature better, I'd use a pair of same sizes and a three, or two pairs and a lone. And bringing down the cost would also be reasonable, although I know, we don't want creatures as dominating as the Titans.

    Would "when this attacks or blocks" be easier than "when this deals combat damage"? Though it might be a problem that happens before blocks.

    Spinal Sphinx is ok, but could we have something even more nerve-y brain-y. Myelin Sphinx? Dendrite Sphinx?

    I think they're ok as a cycle as-is, but a mechanical link would be useful, as would some resilience; like the Titans' "when ETB or attack" or the Souls' "From the graveyard". The "when they deal combat damage" does that a bit but maybe not enough. Go for five organs, and have each of them make a pair like Broodmate Dragon? Have each of them key off a number (eg. they all do three something, or X something where X is the number of creatures, or something for each point of power they dealt, etc).

    I agree the Hydra is most interesting, if the others could model themselves after that it would be good.

  4. Now that you mention these creatures go off as blockers too, I am going to repeat that the triggers should be either "Whenever NAME attacks" or "At the beginning of combat on your turn." You don't want to incentivize players to turtle up behind a big creature. Making them attack for an effect helps games end. Anyway, all of them, except the Sphinx, would directly benefit from an attack trigger. Making a creature indestructible, or making an opponent sacrifice a potential blocker, or breathing fire on a blocker, or putting counters on your whole team are all great before combat damage. If you do the trigger "At the beginning of combat on your turn" you can even address the resiliency comment. Because you can cast them before combat to get at least one use from them. And try to find a new effect for the sphinx that lines up with what the others are doing.

    1. These are less interesting and less fun with attack triggers. Large creatures that help you stabilize are just fine; there's a place for effects that push the game to end, but this is not really one of them.

    2. okay. Just make sure you don't design for new players then. Choose a different demographic and stick with it.

    3. New players love this kind of thing. I think you're just flat wrong about this.

  5. Random idea. It looks like the Repurpose mechanic was meant to display the theme of the plane, so what if you used that to tie the cycle together? Playing another creature from your hand for free is pretty underwhelming for seven mana, of course, but maybe it could work like cascade-on-death or something along on those lines instead.

    1. Maybe repurpose could be limited in cost by the number of lands you control rather than anything about the card. That would make it sexier without making it impossible to develop or adding a second number to the keyword. (Avoiding the Suspend keyword format at all costs seems worthwhile to me.)

    2. At that point, I'd put "repurpose M" on the whole cycle and otherwise make the cycle loose.

    3. A couple other options that I think might also work:

      Aggregate {cost?} (When this creature dies, you may {pay cost to?} exile it augmenting target creature.)
      Augmenting creatures would probably grant effects similar to bestow.

      Scavenge, perhaps with some cards granting extra bonuses beyond +1/+1 counters to the creatures they benefit.

      Recascade (When this creature dies, exile the top card of your library until you exile a creature card that costs less. You may put that card onto the battlefield. Put the exiled cards on the bottom of your library at random.)
      A bit wordy, but less so than the original cascade, and I think with better flavor.

  6. If we're considering starting over, maybe strong death triggers are what we need. Points in favor:

    - It preserves the value of playing a big creature. You will get some of your cards worth anytime you successfully cast it.

    - A death trigger will take off some of the pressure to make each card have a huge presence on the board, which will give your more room in your designs. Think about Primeval Titan, no one's saying a 6/6 is small, but Green has millions of them and almost none see play even in limited. Simple shell, amazing card, the only people who don't love it are people who are sick to death of losing to it.

    - It fits with the idea of their bodies being part of the plane itself. When a cell dies, it doesn't just fall out of you, the proteins, nutrients, and energy are reabsorbed into your body. It also ties the big-kids to the Repurposing uncommon.

    - It's a flavor win since they are all named after organic systems. If you cut down a dragon with fire for blood, of course it's gonna burn you! If you zank an angel made of bone, what's left behind would make exceptional armor!

    1. Good thoughts. I'm going to think a bit more about fleshing out the world, but this seems promising.

    2. Late-night idea: what if they die into global enchantments? Anthem effects or similar. I think it gets the feel across well.

    3. I like it.

      Some examples using existing cards -

      Angel = When ~ dies, [Darksteel Armor]
      Sphinx = When ~ dies, [Mirari]
      Demon = When ~ dies, [Fevered Convulsions]
      Dragon = When ~ dies, [Sulfuric Vortex]
      Hydra = When ~ dies, [Centaur Glade]

      Obviously the designs don't need to be references to old cards, these are just neat permanents I'd enjoy winning with in limited.

    4. I think I like the global benefits to creatures angle better, but these are good thoughts. Except Darksteel Armor, because there is no card by that name and I'm not sure which would you do mean.

    5. Oh, sorry, it's called Darksteel Plate.

      I hope not all of them are creature centric though, since giant expensive finishers shouldn't be bad in low-creature count control builds.

    6. I really like the idea of leaving behind equipment, but you could sub in [Urza's Armor] or [Forcefield], which would be simpler.

  7. I backed off from the dying to enchantment idea but kept the basic concept for these designs. (Though dying into returning transformed - with the back face an enchantment - would be interesting, I'm not sure I like transforming for this world, aesthetically.) I liked Devin's idea of death triggers as representing what happens when an organ-creature is repurposed, but a persistent effect felt more interesting and makes a clearer cycle.

    Costing is very rough.

    Marrow Angel {4}{W}{W}

    Flying, Vigilance

    When Marrow Angel dies, put a bone counter on each creature you control. Those creatures gain indestructible.


    Synapse Sphinx {4}{U}{U}

    Flying, Hexproof

    When Synapse Sphinx dies, put a nerve counter on each creature you control. When one of those creatures deals combat damage to a player, you may draw a card.


    Cancer Demon {3}{B}{B}

    Deathtouch, Skulk (This can't be blocked by creatures with greater power.)

    When Cancer Demon dies, put a tumor counter on each creature you control. Those creatures gain deathtouch and "When this creature dies, each opponent sacrifices a creature."


    Heart Dragon {4}{R}{R}

    Flying, Haste
    When Heart Dragon dies, put a blood counter on each creature you control. Those creatures get +2/+0 and gain first strike.


    Sinew Hydra {3}{G}{G}

    Vigilance, Trample

    When Sinew Hydra dies, put a muscle counter on each creature you control. Those creatures gain "This creature gets +X/+X, where X is its base power."


    1. I said this above, but then I read you were walking away from the dies-to-noncreature-permanent plan, so I'll say it here for clarities sake.

      These are cool designs, and I'm really glad you brought the casting costs down, but unless your goal is to create a cycle of finishers that don't work in a control deck with very few creatures, then I think it's a mistake to have them all be anthems.

    2. They're supposed to be interesting Timmy and/or Johnny mythics, and I honestly don't care whether they have a role in a competitive archetype.

    3. Hey, that's legit. Although to be clear I was not saying that they need to be tuned for something competitive, by which I assume you mean constructed?

      The problem I see is that expensive cards have are good when they do at least two of the following three things:

      - Win if you're ahead
      - Impact the board the turn you cast them
      - Catch you up if you're behind

      I'm sure you know all this, I'm just being very thorough because I don't think I was clear before.

      Anyway, most of these don't outright win if you're ahead, but they close the door pretty quickly, which is a great spot to be from an interactivity standpoint.

      However, they aren't unusually good the turn you play them, and none of them catch you up if you're behind, and that's a shame. In particular I'd want the Blue or Black ones to do something as topdecks because of how big Blue and Black creatures are such a natural fit for control shells.

      Unrelated thought:

      The Sphinx is immune to spot removal and should rarely die in combat. So usually the only way it will die is if your opponent double-blocks it. Then, if you have other creatures, they gain an ability that will only trigger if they make a successful attack and after all of that the reward is a card, which you need to cast. That's a lot of stuff to go through before the ability has any direct impact on the game. I would expect Synapse Sphinx to be one of those rares where people don't even know what the second ability says, because they just use it as a 5/4 hexproof finisher.

    4. I think of most mythics mainly in contexts where 5/4 isn't that big, and will probably stall against bigger blockers; EDH and casual kitchen-table multiplayer, which is likewise slow as hell. Though the Sphinx specifically should probably be a little smaller. 3UU for a 4/3 would be sufficiently Sphinxy.

      Similarly, six mana creatures in this kind of world aren't finishers, they're haymakers. Before you hit five mana you're still developing your board. EDH is different from casual multiplayer mostly only for this actually being a viable deckbuilding strategy.

    5. I like the Sphinx as a 4/3. There are bound to be a few three-power fliers in the set and maaaaybe even a way of dealing 3 damage a la Slagstorm.

  8. The world-spanning body of an enormous super-organism, everything is re-used and adapted in Equilor. The skin of the body’s surface hedges out strange energies a short step removed from the Blind Eternities, strange infections materialize and are combated, and the creatures that have grown from the cells and lesser organs of the body pursue their own agendas in the inner cavities of Equilor’s enormous frame.