My story began on Thursday, February 24th with an email from Noah Shwartz, in which he enlisted my help tuning a deck for the DC open.
My inner voice raged.
“Noah! You’ve been playing elves for infinite in a hostile metagame, and now that it might be an astute call because Caw Blade is tier one, you want to switch?”
I didn’t say that, of course. Friends don’t let friends play Elves, and if he was considering something different then I wanted in.
Bant, he told me. Bant with Stoneforge Mystics and possibly Hero of Bladehold. I sketched up a rough draft of my take on the deck, passed the idea along to a few other friends who enjoy casting Lotus Cobra, and busied myself in procrastination.
Later that night I showed up at my friend Jack’s place to run some sick drafts and test extended for the upcoming PTQ. Well, we drafted, anyway.
Mostly due to lack of sleep, I don’t remember most of Friday, but my friends tell me I was brewing all night long, which is how I must’ve settled on the terrible Pestermite/Stoneforge Mystic hybrid in my deckbox. Part of me must’ve trusted my delirious self, because, while I ran my usual Pestermite Control, I left in a miser’s Stoneforge and a miser’s Sword of Feast and Famine maindeck with a board of triple Stoneforge, an extra Sword, and a set of Squadron Hawks, which would give me the edge I wanted for the control mirrors.
The tournament started out fine, though I picked up an early loss to mono red. In round four, I was paired against my first Faerie match of the day. Jesus is a Chicago local and a dangerous opponent, but I was just happy to be playing against Faeries, a deck I’ve ground countless games against in tournament and out.
It was halfway through my first game before I noticed something was different. Jesus wasn’t overvalueing his Bitterblossoms, but rather knew to remove them early before they became a liability. I thought this was strange, as most Faerie players will try and milk the Blossom for value. It had gotten to the point where, when they went for a turn two Bitterblossom while I had a Spell Pierce in hand, I would let it resolve. Not just because I always had a Volcanic Fallout, but because it changed how they played the match drastically. They were on their plan A, and I didn’t care how good their plan A was, because I was prepared to beat it. Their plan B, now, that involved playing draw go, and was much more difficult to beat without their self-imposed clock. Eventually, they’d build up enough mana, counters, and Cliques to put me away.
So what had changed? Perhaps Jesus had tested the matchup enough to know the correct line (doubtful, since I was playing a fringe deck.) More likely is that the addition of Sword of Feast and Famine in the Faeries lists has made the players less reliant, less likely to mulligan for Bitterblossom, and less single minded.
The addition of two cards not only added an incredible tool to their deck, but also coaxed them into fresh, dangerous lines of play. How awkward.
So, while my latest PTQ went poorly, I certainly learned something about the format. While I wish I could keep promoting the Pestermite Control deck, it’s no longer the correct way to handle the metagame. Before, casting as many Volcanic Fallouts as possible was my plan against most of the field, including Bant, Naya, Faeries, Elves, and so on. Now, that plan loses a lot of value against Faeries, which is arguably the most important matchup for a PTQ grinder.
With that in mind, what is the correct metagame call? Naya and mono red should be pushed back by the UW control deck, and what’s going to take their place? Jund? Not with everyone shoving as many pro-black, pro-green equipments into their deck as they possibly can. At the moment, it’s hard to recommend anything that isn’t a brew, UW, or Faeries.
Speaking of which, while I was busy scrubbing out of my local Chicago PTQ, my friend Mani Davoudi was busy crushing his with Faeries. He is my second modo-ringer friend to win an invite with the deck, the other being Chris Mascioli in Roanoke, which makes me wonder why I’ve been fighting the tide. Here is his list:
He asked my advice the night before the PTQ, and I convinced him that the number of big Jace should be either one or two and that the number of little Jace should probably be zero. I also sold him on the single Mindlock Orb, but, aside from those two cards, I spent the conversation telling him how sweet his list looked.
My mind was a little blown to see LSV’s md, which he wrote about in his “Sword of Good” article this week, was only a few cards different, with -1 Mana Leak and +1 Spellstutter Sprite and -1 Disfigure and +1 Go for the Throat. In fact, I wouldn’t be sharing this list if it weren’t for one key area: the sideboard. I agree with LSV’s logic concerning Vampire Nighthawk. He is correct in that the card is going to lose a lot of value in the mirror now that everyone is running a pro-black sword. However, I also agree with Mani’s case for the card, which has nothing to do with the mirror.
“Nighthawk is just better against the matchups where you’d want it, like mono red and elves, which are both actual contenders in the format, unlike Wurmcoil, which is only REALLY good vs jund.”
He did, however, admit that the Wurm got better with Sword since it’s something to do with all that extra mana.
Still, with the Jund matchup being helped a little by the pro black, pro green Sword, as well as the archetypes current decline, and the incline of Elves and popularity of mono red (which has won its fair share of PTQs), I think we can take the focus off.
After the tournament, the main change Mani could get behind was the addition of the second maindeck Jace, but with the cutting of a Go for the Throat, not a Disfigure. The addition of a four drop that’s sweet against Valakut frees up the Mindlock Orb slot in the board, which he would replace with another Sower of Temptation.
The black Zeniths looked strange to me at first, since the more tempo-y Infest is in the format, but with Elves being stuffed with lords the choice make sense. Also, while the card is slower at hitting Bloodbraid Elf and Qasali Pridemage, it is much better at clearing out Woolly Thoctars.
Sometime after I got home, I found that Noah hadn’t made it to DC due to a freak baking accident involving a lemon zester. Naturally, I took this as a sign and set aside the Bant deck, as the list would surely curse all who laid eyes on it.
Just so you know what a cursed list looks like, I included it here:
You didn’t look, did you?
This list started as an almost straight port of RUG, and I’ve been tweaking from there.
Fitting in two Tectonic Edges alongside two Sun Titans is the next logical step. The Edge recursion is quite good against all the other control decks, definitely better than Acidic Slime, and the Titan’s ability to get back destroyed Swords is also relevant. Currently, I value the Slime a little higher because of its versatility. The card is great at shutting Vamps off of a color, better against Valakut, and a fine answer to opposing Sword of Feast and Famines.
A few notes on porting a shell:
It’s impossible for a port to be perfect, and that isn’t what you’re looking for, or you’d just run the same deck.
The first step is the mana. Something that we all do when constructing a manabase in Limited is build from decks we have previously seen. On one end, a master might realize his list needs something beyond the norm and end up with a twenty land Limited deck. More common is the 7-7-3 (two main colors and a splash) configuration that is used most often in core set Limited. Once you’re familiar with a manabase for a Limited archetype, your brain uses that information every time you build.
When it comes to Constructed decks, I’m not one for reinventing the wheel when known theory can take its place, and I used very basic tools for shaping the above list. The mana shell, for example, is not exactly a 7-7-3, but it’s as close as I could make it. Starting with a stock BUG and RUG shells, I ended up with this count:
Off color: 11
Off color: 13
Off color: 12
Similarly, you can make a list for curve, threats, and so on. If you ever need to find the shell of an obscure deck, www.deckcheck.de is a wonderful source.
Here, I was hindered by not having a second on-color fetch, but helped by having tons of dual lands to choose from.
Next, I moved on to the disruption package. Something that startled me was what a difference that the switch from Lightning Bolt to Oust made. Part of it is that the cards function so differently. While Oust can’t hit a manland or a planeswalker, it is notably better than Bolt against any one or two drop creatures, and aggressive matches play out drastically differently because of it.
The other part of my surprise came from how often I saw the new cards. Any minor change to the deck is amplified due to the amount of cantrips and draw. In Vintage, the change of a single card can shift entire matchups, since so many cards are seen per game. Tinkering with the RUG shell feels like that, and in that context Oust gave me some subtle maneuverability. With RUG, I always felt compelled to hold up Lightning Bolt as a trick, which cluttered my hand and at times forced me to choose between holding up removal or countermagic. Sometimes, my Jace would die, and I would have to wait for the powerful card on top while the Bolt languished in my hand. With Oust, I can store my removal on top of my library.
But enough about Oust. The real reason to splash white here is Stoneforge Mystic, and so I figured I would list off the reasons the card helps the deck.
1-It fills slots on the two, three, five, and seven drops in the curve, making it a great play at any stage of the game, Cobra or no Cobra.
2-It allows the deck to pull even further ahead in mana development, thanks to the Sword’s untap ability.
3-Protection from black is very relevant against RB Vampires, a historical enemy of the RUG deck.
4-It gives a powerful two drop that lets us play a more instant speed game.
5-It acts as a shuffle effect for both Jace and Halimar Depths. You can even do the Squadron Hawk trick of brainstorming with Jace, putting a Sword on top, and then casting your extra Stoneforge to tutor it back up. Allowing early drops to cantrip in the late game is good, I hear.
A switch I made in testing was to move Gideon from the sideboard to the main, which acts as both removal (clearing the way for Sword) and a sweet, Titan-esque card to ramp into. My decision was made easier due to a glowing endorsement from the Wescoe:
“Gideon is sooo good right now and was the only five drop I wanted more than Slime when I was running BUG.”
He also mentioned the idea of a different build, cutting the Avenger package for more Gideon and cutting Explores for Birds of Paradise. I ended up with the Birds eventually, but mostly to help curve out with Sword and give me another evasive creature besides the manlands. The more Cunning Sparkmages or Arc Trails you expect in a given tournament, the more appealing the fourth Explore looks.
While I was busy tuning the above list and testing it against the metagame, one of my friends that I had shipped the idea to, Larry “Krazykirby4“ Swasey, was busy throwing his list up against a different sort of gauntlet: Magic Online. He swept his first daily before running it back to 3-1 the second. This is his current list:
“The loosest slots are the four Ratchet Bombs in the board. I’ve found that Valakut is a coin-flip and the Boros match-up suffers from me still not knowing how to board, or having a proper sideboard for them. The deck needs an answer to Fauna Shaman, though, so I might try Journey to Nowhere. Elves can be rough. I wish this list also had Frost Titan, as he’s very good vs Valakut.”
The deck has all the makings of a shrewd metagame call, especially with all of the Caw Blade decks flying around. As for the Boros and Elves matchups, shaving a few Ratchet Bombs and cutting the Condemns for a set of Oust and a couple Journey to Nowhere sounds like a good start.
The Ornithopter, it turns out, is relevant in keeping opposing Squadron Hawks from connecting with a Sword.
Hrm, these Vengevines remind me of something, a certain subject I meant to write about… ah right, Legacy!
Ever since the banning of Survival of the Fittest, players have stopped me at tournaments to ask if Madness was still playable. At first I was just glad they weren’t all cursing me on sight, as those that truly loved playing with Survival tended to do, but I grew tired of telling everyone that I didn’t have a list on hand.
The more self-sufficient players started up a thread on The Source on the deck. Still, in the interest of keeping exuberant Legacy players off my lawn, here’s my take:
The goal is to maximize the number of broken starts with some fast madness outlets and/or Intuition, but balanced with a solid backup plan of Dark Confidant, Umezawas Jitte, and Cabal Therapy, which also make the madness creatures, lackluster on their own, into reasonable draws. I think my favorite play in the deck is tutoring up a pile of Cabal Therapies with an active Bloodghast in play.
The sideboard is still rough. I like the split between Jace, Sower, and Edict because I maximize the utility of the singletons while also having a sweet Intuition package against a Show and Tell. If Zoo becomes more prominent, and it has been slowly regaining popularity, then Submerge starts to look good out of the board.
Force of Will, while not for this build, is still an option for those looking for a slower Brainstorm deck. This list can’t run it because its blue cards are all gas, and there are already several sources of card disadvantage that gain tempo and fit the deck’s synergy better than Force.
Another notable exclusion is the lack of Fauna Shaman and Quirion Ranger. I could see a Fauna Shaman build being good, better than an Entomb build, but I like how Bob draws into fodder for Careful Study, creatures for Vengevine, and lands for Bloodghast. If I did run with Fauna Shaman, I would definitely work in a maindeck Wonder.
Bonus section! The rest of the article talks about magic design with, in the spirit of my column, an eternal bent.
(Gleam)Axeing Some Questions
So far, the Scars of Mirrodin block has been one of the best for Eternal in quite some time, and powerful new cards have already made their waves on the metagame. Some, like Steel Sabotage, act as pure hosers. Others, like Phyrexian Revoker, offer creature decks a lot of utility. Others still, such as Mox Opal or Blightsteel Colossus, address the eternal formats on terms of raw power, but without being too broken.
When five mana 3/5s like Kuldotha Forgemaster start making the finals of Legacy opens, the design team is doing something right.
Considering this, and with design on everyone’s mind thanks to the Great Designer Search 2, I found it appropriate to interview one of the would-be designers, a man who, like myself, missed on the multiple choice cutoff. While I busied myself to get over the pangs of disappointment, playing tournaments and writing articles, he took to the forums with his infamous GleamAxe persona (his take on Mark Rosewater’s GleamAx from GDS1) to satiate his interest in design.
Nickolas Reynolds is highly critical, sharper than a Sword of Feast and Famine, and the designer of this column’s name (Legacy Weapon – in case you forgot.) As a player, writer, and would-be R&D team member, how could I not give my fullest attention?
What are some good/bad examples of eternal design from the current GDS2? If these new designers are having trouble with eternal, what do they need to do to get better?
I feel their general aptitude for game design was lacking. For example, a designer needs to grasp whether or not a two drop should end the game, and what makes a mythic mythic, and a common common. Once the fundamentals are firmly in place, the challenge is to interweave interesting combinations of mechanics that result in coherent flavor and unique gameplay without being too narrow. But without a basic understanding it’s hard to accidentally cobble together a card that’s both meaningful in the context of a set and has the potential to be relevant to Eternal players – much less do it on purpose. Unsurprisingly, the GDS2 competitors didn’t come up with much that would interest thoughtful fans of any format.
Interested readers can refer to http://community.wizards.com/magicthegathering/wiki/Labs:/gds/gds2/GleamAxe, where I address the GDS2 from the perspective of general design. While answering the next question, though, I will provide examples specific to Eternal.
What goes into good eternal design? Use examples from recent sets, as well as your own designs.
Cards that exhibit good Eternal design fall into one (or both) of these two categories:
1) They do something new or unusual.
2) They are more efficient than existing cards.
The former is the most difficult (but also most exciting) to achieve, while the latter is trivial, but hard to pull off without running afoul of blatant power creep. Such simple generalizations, however, belie the myriad methods an attentive designer truly has at his or her disposal when making cards – if not strictly for Eternal – with Eternal firmly in mind:
1.1) Do something essentially new
When most people think of “something new” they usually imagine single cards with bizarre interactions that enable game-ending combos, such as the card Necrotic Ooze. Grafting activated abilities is a rarely visited area of design, first seen on Mirrodin’s Quicksilver Elemental, which Wizards has patiently built upon with just four other cards: Experiment Kraj, Skill Borrower, Necrotic Ooze, and Myr Welder. The open-endedness of Necrotic Ooze’s ability, combined with the ease of stacking one’s graveyard, finally led to interactions both feasible and degenerate enough to see play in competitive decks, with Survival Ooze being the most successful example. Even in the wake of Survival’s banning, I would be surprised if players don’t continue trying to find a niche for Necrotic Ooze in Legacy. [And indeed they have, as I saw a number of players attempting to run a Buried Alive version in Kansas City. -Caleb]
Curiosities like Necrotic Ooze are generally what amateur designers aim for when making new cards. While playing, they dream up ideas to take advantage of specific and unusual situations that arise. The real magic happens, though, when new set-wide mechanics subvert the normal game processes so wholly that they result in novel archetypes, the way dredge did with the draw step, affinity did with mana cost, or infect did with damage and life. One reason the first two design challenges in the GDS2 focused on commons was to force the contestents to design a cohesive (and hopefully unique and fun) experience, not just “cool cards.” In my mind, none of them really succeeded at either, but their mistakes are still valuable as sources of inspiration and instruction.
For example, Channel Fireball writer Jonathon Loucks proposed a mechanic called “illuminate” which after several iterations he ultimately defined as “To illuminate, exile the top card of your library face up with ‘Whenever you would draw a card, you may put this card into your hand from exile instead.’” It’s hard to say for sure what Jonathon’s intentions were for illuminate, but the only cards he showed us that interacted with it used a straightforward threshold mechanic, like this one:
Illuminate the top card of your library. (To illuminate a card, exile it with a light counter on it. For as long as it has a light counter, it has “If you would draw a card, you may instead put this card into your hand.”) Piercing Beam deals 2 damage to target creature or player. If you own an illuminated red card, Piercing Beam deals 4 damage to that creature or player instead.
Beyond templating errors in both versions, illuminate highlights a mistake frequently committed by budding designers, namely making a mechanic too conventional and inflexible. Formulated as a pure draw-smoothing mechanic, illuminate doesn’t play much differently from scry, and as the GDS2 judges pointed out, adds complexity to every draw step with no upside. And though few readers are likely to be bothered by complexity, they probably want new cards to have upside, as there needs to be potential for abuse.
If you’re going to explore a mechanic that does something unusual (in this case, with cards in exile), why limit oneself? For example, Jonathon should have allowed any card to be illuminated, not just the top card of someone’s library. That opens the door for illuminate versions of [card]Excommunicate[/card], tutors, and more. A threshold mechanic like the one used in Piercing Beam is a fine idea, but by only counting cards exiled specifically with illuminate, Jonathon drastically reduced the scope of its utility. And by locking his thinking about illuminate into “only illuminate will care about illuminate, and illuminate will care about nothing else,” Jonathon prevented himself from coming up with cards that work well with illuminate without being unduly focused on it. For example:
You may cast Shooting Star from exile.
Shooting Star deals 3 damage to target creature or player.
Shooting Star is obviously right at home in an illuminate set, but is also quite interesting in other contexts. For example, it would give Doomsday decks a frightening amount of reach, and its combo with Planar Void is downright stupid. As another example:
Knight of Spann Ith
Creature – Knight
When Knight of Spann Ith enters the battlefield, exile the top card of target player’s library.
Nonland cards with the same name as an exiled card can’t be cast.
Nobody expected the Spann Ith inquisition.
1.2) Give something old to a new color or archetype
This is a powerful design tool that often has as much impact on Constructed formats as coming up with something brand new. Constructed decks are so specialized (and naturally limited by color) that the range of efficient cards a particular archetype can choose from is fairly small, which limits the abilities available to that archetype.
It’s important to note I’m not talking about, say, the outright shifting of an old effect to a new color, which happens from time to time. Rather, I refer to those instances where an ability is subtly revealed to have existed where it was never known before, by way of a clever and appropriate modification. Admittedly, the distance between the two is not always large.
For example, Mark Rosewater mentioned that a few of the essays submitted during the initial stages of the GDS2 suggested that looting (draw a card, then discard a card) should be shifted from blue to red. If that were to happen, it would just be an instance of moving an ability wholesale from one color to another. If you reverse the normal order of the actions in looting, however, it becomes “discard a card, then draw a card”, and you get “hellbent looting”, so called because you get a bonus when you have no cards in hand. Red is one of the two hellbent colors, so hellbent looting is naturally at home in red, despite normal looting being a largely blue mechanic.
The easiest way to achieve the equivalent of hellbent looting is to take a “top-down” approach to design. That is, you start with a specific goal in mind, and construct a path that gets you there. Pick a card or ability and ask yourself, “How would another color, tribe, or archetype do this?” With the mechanical and creative aspects of Magic becoming ever more intertwined, more and more cards are designed with this approach. Knight of the White Orchid (“How would white do Rampant Growth?”) and Nightcreep (“How would black do Silence?”), for instance, are likely candidates. Two personal examples (and the reasoning that led to them) follow:
How would white do an unblockable creature?
Harbinger of the Apocalypse
Creature – Angel
Whenever Harbinger of the Apocalypse attacks, exile all other permanents. Return them to the battlefield under their owners’ control at the beginning of the next end step.
Harbinger of the Apocalypse shows how color-appropriate answers to unusual questions can have many unintended and intriguing consequences. For example, not only is Harbinger of the Apocalypse unblockable, attacking with it untaps all of your lands.
Until end of turn, whenever a permanent becomes tapped, destroy it.
Now that’s just dirty.
1.3) Do something old in a new way in a familiar color
This is similar in spirit to the previous category, but in my experience, concocting new twists on old abilities in familiar colors is often guided by a different creative process. I’ve found that cards in this category also follow a top-down approach, but instead of starting with a mechanical goal in mind, they start with a conceptual one.
During one of the later rounds of the competition, Jonathon Loucks (who I’m apparently picking on) submitted this card:
Enchantment – Aura
Enchanted creature can’t attack or block.
As long as enchanted creature is colorless, Brightcuffs has shroud.
Jonathon’s set takes place in a world whose most important feature is that it is underground. Brightcuffs made me ask, “What would it mean if a creature that normally lived in darkness was suddenly made to glow brightly?” I decided that such a creature would be unable to hunt, or attack, not because it lacked the physical capability, but because everything else would be able to see it coming and avoid it.
Enchantment – Aura
You and creatures you control have protection from enchanted creature.
In most circumstances, Enlighten does the exact same thing as Pacifism. Barring an opposing planeswalker, it can’t profitably attack, and certainly can’t block. But, since Enlighten accomplishes Pacifism’s goals so obtusely, it has unexpected synergies, a phrase that should be music to any Eternal player’s ears. If Enlighten existed, would we see a Junk deck running it with Crypt Rats? Or perhaps red-white Goblins with Skirk Fire Marshal? The possibilities aren’t quite endless, but are hopefully sufficient to demonstrate the vibrancy this kind of conceptual design can bring to the game.
1.4) Increase the density of viable cards with an unusual effect
Two words: Fauna Shaman.
2.1) Plain old power creep
An interesting idea put forth by Mark Rosewater in a recent interview is that the power levels of various components in Magic wax and wane in stages, creating an “Escher stairway”-like illusion of continually rising power levels, because people notice when things get stronger, but not when they get weaker.
I’m not entirely convinced, though, that Magic cards aren’t just increasing in power overall. Twelve years ago, for example, Squadron Hawk was Welkin Hawk. Another explanation I’ve heard is that all the card types have gradually been catching up in power level with the most powerful historical cards (excluding those that are restricted or banned.) So, for example, if the best creatures aren’t yet at parity (in some abstract sense) with, say, Lightning Bolt or dual lands, we can expect creatures to continue improving until they are.
Whatever the real reason (or combination of reasons) for power creep, intentionally invoking it as Mark implies is an effective tool for influencing Limited and Standard. Want people to play with your set’s new mechanic? Then make the cards with the mechanic unusually strong and efficient. But if you encourage a particular behavior forcefully enough, then, Escher illusions or no, you’re likely make a card that is in some ways more powerful than any that have come before it. And now you’re talking Eternal. For example, Blightsteel Colossus for the first time gives Sneak Attack decks a creature that can kill in a single hit. Coralhelm Commander gives Merfolk decks a frighteningly powerful “6 CMC” creature that can be flashed into play with an Aether Vial on 2. And then there’s Jace.
2.2) Alternate costs
Give people a way of playing a card without spending mana, and someone will find a means of exploiting your largesse. Some of the most powerful and influential cards in history are cards with alternate casting methods, like Vengevine, Narcomoeba, Force of Will, and Gush.
Two of the GDS2 finalists, Ethan Fleischer and Scott van Essen, suggested “you may remove some number of +1/+1 counters from a creature you control rather than pay this card’s mana cost” as an alternate casting cost mechanic. Though their sets may have had a high enough proportion of creatures with +1/+1 counters to make such a mechanic relevant (if not interesting), it’s a good example of how to design cards almost guaranteed to be underwhelming in Legacy and Vintage.
Even though there are plenty of existing creatures that put +1/+1 counters on themselves and each other, it’s still rare enough that a mechanic that manipulates +1/+1 counters would be too specific to its own set, which severely reduces the mechanic’s potential. Consider splice onto arcane from Kamigawa block. In general form, it’s a great mechanic, but limiting it to interacting with arcane spells ensured it would be meaningless outside of Kamigawa. If splicing had been good enough for Eternal, then it would have been overwhelmingly powerful within Kamigawa block itself. To prevent that, the power level of splicing onto arcane was kept low, and as a result I can count on zero hands the number of times you’ve seen someone splice in a competitive Eternal game. [My counterpoint would be the (dated) use of Arcbound Ravager and Triskelion in Vintage Stax. However, the modular mechanic could be considered “overwhelmingly powerful” for its block, as Nick mentions. -Caleb]
Similarly, “countercast”, as Scott called it, is too narrow to allow cards powerful enough for Legacy or Vintage. The lesson to learn here is that whenever and wherever possible, err on the side of increasing interactivity between new cards, new mechanics, and old ones. For example, if countercast were switched around to “you may put some number of -1/-1 counters on a creature you control rather than pay this card’s mana cost,” there wouldn’t be nearly so much to complain about. Of the 6,031 creatures currently in Magic, that works with 6,029 of them.
One of my favorite pseudo alternate cost abilities (on what is probably my favorite card) is Narcomoeba’s “when this is put into your graveyard from your library, you may put it onto the battlefield,” and is an integral component of a set I’m currently working on, the inception of which you may find amusing.
Almost since I started playing Magic not too long ago, I’ve been designing cards and rolling around ideas for a set in my head. As soon as the GDS2 was announced I decided to start working on my set in earnest, figuring preparation would render any card design challenges trivial. Little did I know the challenges would actually focus on set design, precisely what I was doing to prepare! But before I settled on a mechanical focus for my set, I voraciously devoured every design and development article ever written by Mark Rosewater or anyone else at Wizards.
Over the course of reading, one thing that struck me was Mark’s simultaneous passion for and palpable distress over the cards, mechanics, or sets that he sees as failures. Splice, the untap symbol, making Time Spiral block too complicated, etc. He and his designers make mistakes, like anyone else, but we know they are learning, because Mark uses his internet column as a forum to air his grievances. So partly as a cold calculation (I wanted to make a set that Mark specifically would enjoy) and partly as a personal challenge, I determined to design a set that was a spiritual successor to one Mark’s “failed” blocks. The one that was most interesting to me was Odyssey.
One of the major problems with Odyssey is that “people don’t like to discard.” A spiritual successor to Odyssey must still be a graveyard focused set, so how can you encourage interaction with the graveyard without rampant discarding? Milling is the most obvious answer. Enter Narcomoeba.
As a preliminary experiment, I decided to make Narcomoeba’s ability one of the mechanical focuses of my set. One of the first things I did was throw together Narcomoeba versions of all the staple spells, and I immediately noticed how awkward the Narc ability is on non permanents:
When Narc Bolt is put into your graveyard from your library, it deals 2 damage to target creature or player.
Narc Bolt deals 2 damage to target creature or player.
Also, even though I didn’t intend on reprinting madness in my set, I felt that a successor to Odyssey should have cards that played well with it, regardless. That led me to this modification:
New Narc Bolt
When New Narc Bolt is put into your graveyard from your hand or library, it deals 2 damage to target creature or player.
New Narc Bolt deals 2 damage to target creature or player.
What I really wanted to do, though, was get rid of the duplicated text and just have the ability say “whenever this is put into your graveyard from anywhere, do something.” But that’s bizarre on instants and sorceries, since when they resolve, they do nothing! (Of course, after they resolve they hit the graveyard, and then trigger, but still.) Eventually I had a key insight. If the ability is only sensible on permanents, then I should turn all of the Narcomoeba instants and sorceries into permanents that immediately die. Most players are comfortable with evoke, so it’s not a radical concept. Finally, by mixing in the essence of both evoke and madness, I had a Narc Bolt that really sent shivers down my spine:
Creature – Insect
When Galvanic Scarab is put into your graveyard from anywhere, it deals 2 damage to target creature or player.
I continued developing my set concurrently with the running of the GDS2, and based on the judges’ comments to the finalists each week I was able to improve my design chops significantly, and it shows in my set. The few people that have seen it laud its polished design, surprising simplicity, diversity of interaction, and original gameplay. I never got that feeling from any of the finalists at any stage of the competition. That reason, and because I was disappointed by the quality of the finalists’ initial design tests, is why I invented (or stole) the GleamAxe persona to begin with.
Anyway, if there is any moral to that long-winded, immodest, and not entirely topical detour, it’s that good designers challenge themselves with difficult goals. Adversity breeds creativity, and forces you to explore every facet of a design in search of the best answers.
2.3) Explicitly bolster or hose a narrow combo or archetype
This is probably the least satisfying method for making Eternal relevant cards, but it’s sometimes necessary. Mindbreak Trap and Ravenous Trap, for example, were clearly designed to hose Storm and Reanimator, respectively. I don’t usually approach Magic design from this perspective, though I did once facetiously invent and proxy a card called Electrocute Wet Things while being forced to play a Standard RG Eldrazi Elves deck against a Legacy Merfolk deck.
I also recall that one of Ethan Fleischer’s GDS2 essays particularly inspired me in this regard. Responding to the prompt, “Name a card currently in Standard that, from a design standpoint, should not have been printed,” Ethan launched into a diatribe against fetchlands, dual lands, and “flexible, stable mana bases.” My laughter so invigorated me that I came up with this card specifically to punish Legacy mana bases:
Enchantment – Aura
Enchant nonbasic land
You control enchanted land.
Enchanted land is a forest.
Once more, your mileage may vary versus Merfolk.
That’s all for this week. As always, feel free to ask any questions in the forums, and I’ll do my best to get back to you. I can also be reached at [email protected] Be sure to let me know if you liked the interview segment, as I can arrange to do more or less of that sort of thing in the future.
Thanks for reading,