Jonathon strived to become a great designer. Motivated by previous failure, he trained day and night to beat the devious Rosewater’s second tournament. After slogging through the essays and narrowly escaping the multiple choice test, only one trial remained before Jonathon would see the land of eight…
The First Design Challenge
Roughly 100 contestants remained, and we had a task: create a world and the 10 preview cards for dailymtg.com. Obviously I spent a lot of time working on this, but I’m going to go out of my way to say it: I spent a lot of time working on this. When I wasn’t sitting in front of my computer making cards, my brain was constantly thinking about the challenge. (This will be a common theme in weeks to come. Spoiler alert: it doesn’t take long for me to break.)
The full critique of my design test can be found here. I recommend you read the bit I wrote about my world, but I’ll walk you through the mechanics. Before we get to the cards, I’ll provide a quick description of my world.
Welcome to Underland. (What’s that, the name Underland is already taken? Oops! That will have to change for next time.) The struggle of light against darkness in the blackest place there is: deep, deep underground.
Long ago something bad happened on the surface. (The disaster, as well as the surface itself, is a mystery left for set three.) The races of this world were forced to delve deep (really deep) underground to find salvation. Each race adapted to the underground world in their own way, but all had to make a choice: light or dark.
I started with one core idea: Magic hasn’t gone underground yet. A world that’s completely underground seems pretty cool to me – I was surprised Magic hadn’t gone there yet. What did it mean to be underground? Darkness. Light becomes a precious resource, unless you give up light entirely. With that concept in mind, I fleshed out my world and began to create cards. I created a lot of cards (even before the challenge itself was posted) so I could get a better handle on where my world was going.
Mechanically, I knew I wanted to use morph to represent darkness. I thought that twist on morph was pretty cool, and it gave me something solid to hold onto while I created my set’s mechanics.
1. Feature Article
Liliana of Shadow (Mythic)
Planeswalker – Liliana
+1: Each player sacrifices a creature.
-2: Sacrifice a creature. If you do, return target creature card from your graveyard to the battlefield.
-7: You get an emblem with “Pay 1 life: Draw a card.”
I currently live in Canada. One of the reasons Canada feels so strange is that it’s ultimately very similar. Their money feels so weird because otherwise I feel like I’m home. Everyday conversations sound the same until somebody drops a “hoose” out of nowhere. The unfamiliar isn’t so strange when everything is unfamiliar – that’s why I created an unfamiliar new world, and stuffed it with things you were already familiar with. I didn’t want to create any new races, because this set was about how the races you know cope with a world you don’t – at least in set one. The same was true of planeswalkers – I knew I wanted a familiar celebrity.
Mechanically, Liliana began with the second ability. I absolutely LOVE the idea of Recurring Nightmare on a planeswalker. It feels so natural to me. Recurring reanimation is fun, but loyalty counters serve as a good restriction. Straight-up reanimating a guy, however, overshadows the planeswalker. I wanted you to have to do a little extra work. Recurring Nightmare on a planeswalker just feels right.
From there, I searched for a sweet ultimate by using The Gatherer. I looked at all black cards, sorted by community rating. It didn’t take long for me to hit Necropotence, and I knew I had my ultimate. The ability “pay 1 life: draw a card” often comes with heavy restrictions of skipping your draw step or delaying and clumping your draws. Again, the planeswalker template serves as a great restriction, allowing the player access to a sweet ability that feels un-tethered.
Given infinite time I would have come up with a first ability that gained life, the primary critique of Liliana. It was really hard to make a simple enough ability that wasn’t fighting Sorin Markov. However, with the first and second ability paired Liliana had an awesome “sacrifice for the greater good” flavor going on. I’m terrified of making Chainer’s Edict on a planeswalker since that seems awfully depressing to play against, but innocent blood should be manageable.
The first two abilities had synergy enough for me to submit – one is good when you have a creature, one is good when you have no creatures, and the first ability can fuel the second. The critiques of this card are completely reasonable, however, as given more time this planeswalker would certainly feel more whole.
2. Making Magic
Wingbright Angel (Rare)
Creature – Angel
When Wingbright Angel enters the battlefield, illuminate. (To illuminate, look at the top card of a library, or look at a face-down creature, or choose an opponent and look at a card in their hand of their choice.)
Whenever you illuminate a card, you may put it on the bottom of its owner’s library.
Let’s talk about illuminate. (Well, this version of illuminate – you’ll see in the coming weeks how these things evolve.) An idea I embraced early in creating these ten cards was that light and dark would have their own unique feel to them. Loosely, darkness was about hidden information and unseen traps, while light was about discovery and using knowledge. Not only did revealing cards fit this goal, but it was a natural thing for light to do.
I knew if my set was going to have a decent amount of revealing, I wanted the action to be more standardized. I wanted people to know what they were getting into with their reveal effects, so I would give them a simple choice: card on deck, card on table, or card in hand? I wanted the action to be as quick and simple as possible, yet still have some meaningful choice.
I also had a theory about morphs, though it has yet to be actually proven. It’s just a hunch I have. When playing against morphs a big part of the game is predicting what a morph could be, and acting accordingly. If you don’t, a morph can easily crush you. However, when most players sit down to play with the new set, they haven’t memorized the morphs. Many haven’t seen the spoiler. The morphs really are just random creatures to them, and sometimes they just get blown out. At least, that’s my theory – I have yet to prove it. Add in the fact that I wanted to do “trap” morphs (we’ll get there) and I sensed a problem. I designed illuminate knowing I wanted an easy way for players to check out a morph without having to walk into it.
Illuminate was never designed to take the mystery out of morphs. Instead, it was designed as a tool that was there for the players that wanted it. Illuminate wouldn’t be in high enough numbers that Spike knew every morph on the table at all times. Instead, illuminate would be there for new players to grab onto so they didn’t feel so lost in the new environment.
I thought this was a noble goal, but I recognized it wasn’t very exciting. If I was going to show this mechanic off in a preview week, I would need a way to make illuminate sexy. So there I am, telling all of this to Gavin Verhey. Help me make illuminate sexy! “Why don’t you just kill the illuminated card?” Run Gavin, as fast as you can, and post that card on my wiki! And so he ran.
Looking back, I wish I had kept illuminate on for one more round, just so I could get the mechanic in the judges’ hands. I had a feeling the mechanic would play well, especially if some of the weird pieces were ironed out. I didn’t like that if I chose to see a card in my opponent’s hand, then they had to make a sub-choice, slowing down the illuminate action considerably. For the record, I wasn’t at all concerned that your opponent could keep showing you the same card in their hand: look at something else! I hated showing you a random card from your opponent’s hand, since not only is that action very annoying to do repeatedly, and illuminate was already memory intensive enough.
Why does the card go on the bottom of the library? Suffuse, of course! We’ll get there.
3. Serious Fun
Heart of Darkness (Mythic)
Legendary Creature – Demon
When Heart of Darkness enters the battlefield, put each card in your hand onto the battlefield face down. (They are 2/2 creatures.)
To quote one Ken Nagle: “RAWR!!”
This is easily my favorite card in the set. To toot my own horn a bit, I just love the design. It’s a perfect demon! You lose your hand, a scary deal to make with the devil, but it gets you a direct benefit. My favorite part of Heart of Darkness, though, is what happens when you actually put a morph into play with the ability – surprise!
That’s just an awesome moment, and that’s why I felt justified in attacking the “only morphs face down” rule. The first issue with random face down cards is cheating. People told me this card literally couldn’t work because of the cheating issue, but the way the morph rules are set up players are required to keep track of the qualities of their morphs, which would include whether a face down card was cast as a morph or not. As far as actual cheaters, I didn’t feel like it was a big enough issue to let them get in the way this early in the process.
The other issue with random face down cards is that you can find yourself with an instant or sorcery in play thanks to Skirk Alarmist and friends, at which point the world explodes. BOOM! We’re all dead. I didn’t think it was too outrageous to imagine that as an instant or sorcery is flipped face up, you just put it into the graveyard. The other intuitive action is to put them on the stack, but that’s just crazy talk. Put them in the graveyard, and let’s move on. Sure, it’s not as clear-cut as that, but I have faith in the MTG rules team. As Mark said, “design does have to pave the way for new rules and the rule about no nonpermanents on the battlefield is more of a lack of rule than a rule.”
4. Limited Information
Boring Drill (Common)
Artifact – Equipment
Equipped creature gets +4/+0.
Dig 2 (2, Discard this card: Reveal cards from the top of your library until you reveal a land card. Put that card into your hand and the rest on the bottom of your library in a random order.)
Dig. The journey this mechanic went through is one the rest of my mechanics should have probably learned from. Dig started as a cycle of cards, without a keyword, that just dug through the top cards of your library until they found the thing they were looking for. This was eventually keywording into “Dig for (card type)”, when I realized that digging for a land would be a good limited smoothing mechanic. The fact that it didn’t directly fix your colors of mana was helped out by morph being colorless.
I ran into a problem, though, in that I couldn’t have the mechanic both of the ways I wanted it. 1) I wanted to emulate the Absorb Vis cycle by making expensive spells that you could discard to find a land. 2) I wanted to have cards that, for example, dug for an instant as part of its effect. However, option 1 is usually done by a keyword with the activated ability in the reminder text (like cycling and friends). Option 2 is done with the action word (like scry), or is not keyworded at all. Sure, I could make a Lava Axe with “2, Discard this card: Dig for a land,” but that goes against what we’ve seen out of R&D recently, and it looks weird on a card. I’ve been taught to pick my battles, and I’d rather fight for morph rules than weird templating. So I boiled dig down to its most basic and important element, and moved on.
As for the design of Boring Drill, I made a few mistakes. First, in my mind this spell costs eight mana, because that’s how I look at equipment. It’s also narrow because, again, that’s how I look at equipment – I love being able to trade in my equipment when I have no creatures. However, as Alexis pointed out, landcycling abilities tend to be on expensive or narrow spells, and to many other people Boring Drill is neither expensive nor narrow. It’s a case of me designing too much for myself.
My second mistake was making a common equipment with this much of a power boost. Somehow I had it in my mind that Ogre Cleaver was a common, which is what I modeled this equipment after. I just never questioned this card’s commonality. Oops!
Mark also had gripes with the dig mechanic’s place in the conflict of my world, but I’ll have plenty more opportunities to talk about dig in upcoming articles.
5. Savor the Flavor
Irongut, the Smelter (Rare)
Legendary Creature – Dwarf Miner
R, T, Sacrifice a Mountain: Put an Equipment artifact token onto the battlefield with “Equipped creature gets +1/+1” and “Equip: 1.”
It’s a trap! I fell for the equipment token trap, and here’s how it happened.
I knew my world wanted dwarves, as it would be a crime to leave them behind in the underground world. I had also decided that my planeswalker was going to be in the feature article. This left me looking at Savor the Flavor, and I needed a red card anyway – legendary dwarf it is!
This was also a great opportunity to mine the wiki, so I pleaded for legendary dwarves. I wanted something that felt like a dwarf, but also did something pretty unique. When Magic goes underground, the dwarf legend better be pretty cool. Eventually Noah posted this guy, and I was sold on equipment tokens. I debated on the mountain sacrifice, as losing your lands isn’t really the most fun thing to do, but the flavor of it all worked too well for me to abandon.
Ultimately, while cool on the surface (to me, at least) equipment tokens aren’t actually that great in practice. If I could do it again, I’d go for something like Ken suggested. “Why not smelt diamond counters onto your Equipment and “Equipment with Diamond counters on them have ‘Equipped creature gets +3/+0.”‘? That would be sufficiently weird.” Agreed.
6. Building on a Budget
Pit of Shadow (Rare)
Pit of Shadow enters the battlefield tapped.
T: Add B to your mana pool.
T: Add BB to your mana pool. Spend this mana only to cast face down creature spells or to pay morph costs.
I don’t know how I got the wiki to deliver something this perfect, but they did. I needed a land: check. I needed a card for building on a budget: check. BUT I didn’t want to just use a dual land: check. Also, I needed the land to be flavorful: check! The original just tapped for colorless mana, but I liked the flavorful and mechanical punch of blank mana. Black mana made the card feel like a dark place, and it also helped to show that black was morph-aligned mechanically by making the black morphs easier to flip.
I also liked what this card did for constructed. Normally two-mana lands are pretty scary, but with the proper restriction it can be anywhere from Eldrazi Temple to Untaidake, the Cloud Keeper. When morph was created creatures weren’t quite what they are today. While a 2/2 for three is great for limited purposes, it lags way behind in constructed. Pit of Shadow gives the guy who wants to play the morph deck a tool to keep up.
Oddly, I think this card ended up being good for my design test (flavorful, mechanical, grokable) but makes a bad card overall. It’s certainly something I would test, but there’s a good chance Pit of Shadow doesn’t make it through development – and not just for power reasons. As the judges say, in addition to power concerns, this card could put too much stress on the rest of the block’s design, not be fun, and even be hard to code on Magic online.
7. Top Decks
Obscure in Shadow (Rare)
Counter target spell. Instead of putting it into its owner’s graveyard, put it onto the battlefield face down under that player’s control. (It is a 2/2 creature.)
There was a lot of debate over the playability of this card, and I personally couldn’t wrap my head around whether or not this card was playable. Perfect! I’d love to read an article from Mike Flores about this card.
What hooked me on Obscure in Shadow was the action of casting the spell. I like cards that feel physically pleasant. To me, Mulldrifter is a great example. For some reason evoking him just feels better than casting a Divination that goes directly to the graveyard. The fact that sometimes you got to do the Mulldrifter action and leave him on the table was even better. As for Obscure in Shadow, I like the moment when you cast it and counter their spell, but instead of having to scramble for a token (boo!) you put the spell directly onto the battlefield. I love it.
The final nail in the coffin was how Obscure in Shadow fit into the block: it’s bad at countering morphs because it doesn’t actually do anything to them. To me, that’s a lot of hidden flavor.
I’ll also point out a bit of inception on the part of Mark Rosewater. “If you’re going to grab the bull by the horns, you might as well take advantage of it. I feel like you’re playing around in an interesting space with morph. The thing you need to make sure is that you have the other part of the mechanics to support it. Make sure that you have ways to take advantage of all these ‘random’ face-down creatures.”
…take advantage of all these “random” face-down creatures…
This idea would echo in my head throughout the whole competition, and may have ultimately been what caused me to create my own demise.
8. From the Lab
Life from Light (Rare)
Suffuse your graveyard, then put Life from Light on the bottom of your library. (To suffuse 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 from exile.”)
Now we’ve come to it: the mechanic that will cause me much trouble over the coming challenges. For the moment, it looks somewhat innocent. Once I established morph as the dark mechanic, I wanted a light mechanic that felt opposite. I wanted the light player to be manipulating face-up cards, so I came up with suffuse. (Later renamed illuminate, after the old illuminate mechanic was fired.)
I had a ton of ideas about where this mechanic could go, but I needed to find a simple, grokkable execution for my preview card. This card came to me almost immediately after I came up with the mechanic. The change I made before submitting was to add the bottom of library clause. I realized when working with this mechanic that the exile zone would need to be sacred for suffuse to exist. As close to 100% of exiled cards as possible needed to be suffused cards, otherwise the mechanic is really difficult to track. The ripple this caused can be seen in my second card, Wingbright Angel, as well as my future submissions.
Ken said some things I didn’t quite understand, mostly related to Life from Light itself, and not so much about suffuse. Alexis seemed to see what would come, saying “As long as it still plays well once I realize it’s not everything and a slice of pie, I would consider this mechanic a success. This card excites me.” Mark gave me permission to proceed, stating “One of your goals for next week’s challenge is to demonstrate to me what you can do with this mechanic at lower rarities.” The impression I got from the judges here was a raised eyebrow and a request to see more. We’ll see how I did next week.
9. The Week That Was
Twilight Zone (Rare)
Whenever a player casts a white spell, put a +1/+1 counter on Twilight Zone.
Whenever a player casts a black spell, put a -1/-1 counter on Twilight Zone.
(+1/+1 and a -1/-1 counters on the same permanent cancel each other out.)
Sacrifice Twilight Zone: Redistribute its counters among any number of target creatures.
Ok, so maybe I got a little crazy here. Yes, it’s hybrid, and yes, it uses both +1/+1 AND -1/-1 counters. I got a little carried away with the story that this card told, so I kept it in.
I wanted a card that showed the light/dark conflict all by itself. I came up with the idea for a card that was a kind of tug-of-war. You could pull the rope in one direction by yourself, but somebody could grab onto the other end if they wanted to. I messed around with different kinds of counters, until I realized that the +1/+1 and -1/-1 counter rules did exactly what I was looking for due to the cancel-out rule. Mistake 1: that’s not the best rule to make mechanically relevant.
Once I had the counters, I didn’t want an enchantment that just sat there gaining +1/+1 and -1/-1 counters for no reason – I wanted those counters to do their job. Well that’s easy to do – just move them to creatures! I’ll agree with Ken in that the free sacrifice wasn’t really the best implementation. He went the route of adding a mana activation, but if I could go back I would have made it an “at the beginning of your upkeep you may sacrifice and etc.” trigger. This way your opponent has a defined window of opportunity to pull back.
I wanted this card playable in the black or the white deck, not a black and white deck, so I added the hybrid cost. Add in a sweet name that literally means the line between night and day, and I may have fallen in love with a bad idea here. But come on, the card represents the line between night and day, you literally have to choose a side when you cast the spell, and the mana symbols in the casting cost are even light and darkness with a line in the middle!
In my mind, the card told the perfect story, weirdness be damned. This was mostly me testing the waters of the competition, as I wasn’t sure what kinds of things they would be looking for. Sure, I wouldn’t put a random wacky hybrid card in the final version of my set, but I didn’t know where my set was going yet. Was I showing them as close to a final version of my set as possible, or was I showing them a few ideas of where the set could possibly go? This was my litmus test, and Twilight Zone failed pretty miserably. To be honest, I should have known better.
10. Latest Developments
Bane of All (Uncommon)
[Plague Sporecap – http://community.wizards.com/magicthegathering/wiki/Labs_talk:Gds/gds2/loucksj]
Creature – Insect
If two or more creatures have entered the battlefield under an opponent’s control this turn, Bane of All’s morph cost is B.
When Bane of All enters the battlefield or is turned face up, all creatures get -2/-2 until end of turn.
Finally, we come to morph. One mechanic to rule them all.
I knew morph, and the flavor twist of darkness, wouldn’t need much help to be cool in my set. All I needed was one little twist, and that was the trap cost. What makes morphs different in Underland? They’re traps.
The trap morph mechanic was generally accepted, which will be interesting in two weeks. The dual trigger (unmorph and enters the battlefield) was something I didn’t really even think about at the time, it just felt right. I was also thinking of the trap mechanic as another way to make morphs relevant in constructed. Given specific morph conditions, a powerful enough morph could find the right matchup to shine. I could imagine Bane of All being good against the Elf combo deck, or some giant red morph with “if an opponent has gained life this turn, CARD’s unmorph cost is R.” I was always looking for a way to get morphs into constructed, but it’s a hard challenge. Turn thee morph? I’ll shock your Exalted Angel.
Again, Mark planted a seed: “Just be aware that you also need to have common cards some of which want some simple little twists. My one bit of advice to you is to figure out your one or two twists and stick with it.” This made sense. Moving forward I decided to stick with the trap morph cost, something I felt was important for the set, and leave the other twists behind (like dual triggers). We’ll see how that worked out next week.
In the end my set went over well. I made top 8! The judges thought I showed good strength as a designer card-by-card, as well as a strong sense of theme overall. Mark gave me a few things to think about for my next challenge. First, my light side isn’t as fun as my dark side. Second, my set needs something that’s fun just to be fun, and not so thinky. Lastly, I needed to trim down the mechanics. Goals acquired.
I came out of our first design submission ahead, but could I maintain my lead? Tune in next time!
Thanks for reading,
loucksj at gmail
@JonLoucks on twitter
Zygonn on MTGO