Designer Fun – M13 Design Review (Part 2)

Welcome to the second (and final) installment of M13 Design Reviews! Mostly covering red, green, and colorless cards.

[draft]Ring of Evos Isle
Ring of Kalonia
Ring of Thune
Ring of Valkas
Ring of Xathrid[/draft]
The Five Rings
(by request of @somnovore)

I think these rings are a great replacement (temporary or permanent) for the [card]Dragon’s Claw[/card] cycle. To understand why, let me first talk about the lucky charms, and what they do for the core set.

A card like [card]Demon’s Horn[/card] tells you about a thing you can do (cast a black spell) and gives you a reward for doing that (1 life). It’s a very simple thing, and the benefit is something attractive. A 2-cost artifact, you can play it early enough to start accumulating the benefit right away. Because they give life, the thing on which victory or defeat hangs, and because they are so straightforward, new players love them. The only problem they have is that they are “you’re dumb” cards. If an experienced player sees you playing one, they’ll tell you that you are dumb because these cards are relatively weak.

The Rings are definitely more complicated, which is an immediate point against them. The Rings do give you a simple mission—to put them on a creature of the matching color. They provide a simple reward too, and, like the lucky charms, one that accumulates over turns. The Rings are better in that you don’t need to have a purely one-color deck to feel like you’re maximizing them. So long as you have a creature of the right color, you’re getting all you can from the Ring. Also nice is that you can use them for something even when you don’t fulfill the quest (the activated ability gains). Perhaps most importantly, they are much stronger than the lucky charms. You’re not going to be made fun of for playing them in Limited.

Core sets repeat a lot of cards year-to-year, which can be a little boring for the long-time players. I think it’s great that we’d seen the lucky charms just enough times that we had no doubt they’d appear again, and suddenly they’re gone. Even in this cycle which is mainly aimed at new players, the change from one set of cards in this slot to a new set can be something for the veteran.

[draft]Bladetusk Boar[/draft]
Bladetusk Boar

I love seeing [card]Bladetusk Boar[/card] here. Intimidate does wonderful things for red—giving it reach (via evasion) and mid-game (being a 3/2) at the same time. When designing common evasive creatures, it’s better to give them lower toughness when you can. Their evasion means they are less likely to need to survive combat, and you want to maximize the % of the set’s answers that can kill them so that more games are interactive.

[draft]Arms Dealer[/draft]
Arms Dealer

To me, this looks like an incredible sideboard card for Goblin decks. (I’m not saying there is or isn’t a tier 1 Standard deck of Goblins—I mean in general, for any Goblin deck, this looks like a card to consider). When you design a card “for a certain deck” do you need to make sure that deck is tier 1? No. That’s not the point of designing a card for a deck. You design a card to make a certain deck possible, or to make a certain deck interesting to try and build. Then you let re-design (development) work out what decks will be the strongest. Even development is not trying to build a specific deck for players. They want to let the players see all these enticing combinations of cards and figure out for themselves what the best use for them might be. As a designer, you can’t push your personal agenda for one deck or another. You design a card for a deck (and that isolated experience can be personal for you), but then you step back and look at the big picture, and find the next gap where a new card might encourage a specific deck or spark the imaginations of players and dive back down to design a card for it.

[draft]Chandra, the Firebrand
Garruk, Primal Hunter[/draft]
Chandra, the Firebrand & Garruk, Primal Hunter

What makes you repeat one planeswalker card and create another one anew for a core set? Well, you don’t want five new ones in a core set, it’s far too much. Too much value—yes. Too much crazy new mythics for a core set—also yes. I understand that you, the player, want everything new new new, especially in your mythic value cards, but that’s not what the business wants, and it’s also not really what you want. You also want to be able to get four copies of these planeswalkers without selling the rest of your collection, right? Reprinting these dropped their price on the secondary market, and put a lot more of them into the hands of players. They have both seen some play in Constructed formats, and are two of the more fun planeswalker designs. All of these things factor in, as does the shaping of the Standard environment for the next year.

[draft]Cleaver Riot[/draft]
Cleaver Riot

A comparison to [card]Rage Reflection[/card] might prove interesting. Why is that rare and this uncommon? They both give all of your creatures double strike, and do nothing else, so it must be the difference between “always” and just one turn that pushes one of them to rare, right? Certainly a global enchantment has a lot more long-term impact that can justify the rarity change, but that would require the text to be close to rare to begin with. Double strike was newer then (well, not that new, as it first appeared in Legions, I think). It hadn’t been used as much, and the card felt impressive and novel. Such text had never before appeared on a card. These factors combined to ensure the card felt rare.

We’ve had a lot more double strike since then (20+ cards, about half of the double strike cards are before and half after [card]Rage Reflection[/card]), including another rare that grants it (and lifelink) to all your creatures: [card]True Conviction[/card]. So the shine has worn off. This is an important and often overlooked design note about rarity. Rarity can change over time, especially as something becomes a well-known part of Magic.

If you made a list of rules of Magic design, you’d find many of them are more like guidelines really. It takes experience to build up judgment about many aspects of card design, including “what rarity is this?” When you’re new at Magic design, stay within the rules. Yes, you’re going to see the pros breaking some of those rules, but please stay within the lines until you’ve gotten enough experience. Once you’ve colored inside the lines for years you’ll have an instinctual understanding of where they are, and can draw freehand, without lines on either side.


Hilariously, this example (compare to [card]Burst of Speed[/card]) follows immediately. [card]Fervor[/card] first came out in Weatherlight, providing a less clunky [card]Concordant Crossroads[/card] (the enchant world rules are awkward). Many years later, [card]Burst of Speed[/card] could be a common.

Well, double strike and haste are nowhere near the same, hence the large cost differences in the spells. Perhaps it’s obvious, but the mana needed to grant a keyword depends heavily on what keyword you’re granting.

[draft]Firewing Phoenix[/draft]
Firewing Phoenix

The Phoenix (like the Hydra) has seen a lot of different attempts in recent years. My favorite was [card]Magma Pheonix[/card] until [card chandra’s phoenix]Chandra’s[/card] made an appearance. Firewing here is simple, and appears to be a more Standard-worthy version of [card]Magma Phoenix[/card]. 4-power, 4-mana to cast, and 4-mana to return to your hand. I have to wonder if players get a little burnt out from seeing so many different attempts at hitting a quintessential core set fantasy concept. I simply don’t know—personally I’m a little tired of these Phoenixes, but I don’t get tired of seeing yet another Angel or Dragon. Perhaps because I’ve decided (in my world) that there are lots of Angels but only one Phoenix? Not even sure that makes sense.

Magic has to keep redesigning these year after year to keep the sets interesting. It can be tough to design a new Hydra when you already feel the last one was “perfect” or “the ultimate expression of a Hydra in Magic.” This is one place (of many) that it helps to have other designers to assist you. Get someone else to do it! You get more “best ideas” if you have more top people on the job. It’s much harder to design a card set alone.

[draft]Flames of the Firebrand[/draft]
Flames of the Firebrand

Why not reprint [card]Arc Lightning[/card]? Well, because it’s lightning. The creative team (I believe, I don’t speak for them) wants to focus on fire, especially for Chandra, who doesn’t do lightning. For a rare there is some consideration that, “players who have the old version can dust them off,” but for an uncommon it’s not going to make a difference. Just come up with a new name!

[draft]Mindclaw Shaman[/draft]
Mindclaw Shaman

Wow! I love having the ability to do this in red, and I admit I’m a little surprised that this is not rare. As I talked about earlier, something brand new often comes in at rare. (Yeah, yeah [card]Word of Command[/card], but this isn’t totally that.) Stealing a spell from an opponent’s hand feels rare, and the recent [card]Zealous Conscripts[/card] do what appears to be a very similar thing for the same cost, and that card is rare. What are the key differences? Taking the spell is a hard two-for-one, unlike the permanent [card]Zealous Conscripts[/card] takes, they never get it back. That would make me think Mindclaw is rare but… you can miss.

When you cast this you have no idea if they even have a spell to take, or if their only spell has no legal targets right now. Conscripts is larger, and has haste—which, while small differences, do push it up in power level and hence rarity. It can also take a planeswalker, and that feels very rare indeed. Finally, [card]Zealous Conscripts[/card] is much more likely to kill the turn it is cast. It clears a blocker and adds two attackers—a three-creature swing in favor of ending the game immediately.

Now, if I wanted to make [card]Mindclaw Shaman[/card] a rare, I would increase its stats (3/3 or 4/2) and allow it to choose a card from the hand or graveyard—giving you a solid guarantee of getting something. Not saying that I want to do that, just that if I was going to that’s where I’d start, as a thought exercise.

[draft]Rummaging Goblin[/draft]
Rummaging Goblin

This is exactly what I expected to see for red looting. Simply by putting the discard as part of the cost we get a much more red feeling ability. Naturally, this is also weaker than blue’s looting, because blue is always the most powerful at everything. (Kidding!) Really, it’s just that this feels right in red. It also reduces decision time because you have less things to choose between during the discarding part. Unfortunately, it also has lower overall fun than regular looting, because sometimes you will feel bad when you discard a mediocre card and get garbage. For regular looting the “correct” decision is to loot 95% of the time (or more, ask your nearest pro for guidance) which is nice for medium players. A simple rule to follow—and once you “know” that’s what pros do you can try to puzzle out why a pro player looted with a great hand. When you realize why, you might level-up your understanding of the game. Maybe red looting can still do that? When you have a good card, but will lose the game unless you get a better card for your current situation, of course you have to rummage. Are there other cases where, despite having an okay card, you should discard it because, overall, you chances to win go up?

[draft]Slumbering Dragon[/draft]
Slumbering Dragon

Here’s an easy quiz for you: is this top-down design?

Ready? Yes, of course it is! You might say that it’s silly for me to ask, but perhaps for a few readers this is the first time they’ve heard the words “top-down design.”* Some time was your first time hearing them, and now look how easy it is to recognize it when it’s as obvious as it is on this card. Previous “sleeping giant” style cards asked for damage to be dealt to them to wake them up, but that just never happened unless you did it yourself. On this card it’s easy to imagine the opponent trying to race it, to kill you before they wake up an 8/8 flier. Naturally you’ll be ready to burn out their attackers (after putting your counters on) to turn the game in your favor. Quick! Break out the [card]Volt Charge[/card]s before they rotate out!

In making a card like this, once you’ve got the concept and your trigger based on attacks instead of damage, you still have to work out the details. Aiming for 1 or 2 mana to cast is best. Players need to get this out before they are attacked, especially by a weenie deck which will have lots of attackers to rack up the triggers fast. The other two factors are how many triggers is a fair number for this effect and how big should it be when you get it. There’s a minimum reward size of 5/5, I would think, and ideally at least a 6/6. Working out the fair number of triggers might take some playtesting, but clearly everything lined up favorably for [card]Slumbering Dragon[/card]. We got five triggers, which doesn’t seem unreasonable to either player. It’s important that the trigger count isn’t too low, or else getting the first few would be hard. If the opponent is too afraid of adding just the first counter to your [card]Slumbering Dragon[/card] the card won’t be any fun to play with. Too many, and you’ll feel like you can never get there, and the card will never get played. Luckily, the 1-mana and huge reward both worked out, netting us a saucy 8/8.

* Top-down design: starting with a concept and designing a card that fits that concept perfectly. “A sleeping dragon that you don’t want to wake up,” for example.

[draft]Wild Guess[/draft]
Wild Guess

This is sort of like super-cycling. It cycles itself and another card. I could even imagine that as a future mechanic: “Supercycling,” but it may be too much subtle advantage/draw-fixing to print on a dozen cards in the same set.

In general, red card-draw is going to look weaker than blue’s. I think this is, in large part, due to the enormous advantage an aggressive red deck gets with efficient card-draw. Such a deck is often looking for just a little extra burn to finish the game. Such a deck just wants the ideal draw, and smoothing that out can be very powerful. A red (aggro) deck’s 5th and 6th lands are often total garbage, where a blue (control) deck needs 7, 8 or more lands to really dominate. It’s nice (for design) that these constraints also fit nicely with the personalities of the colors. Red is happy to throw away the long term (discarding a couple of lands and a narrow card) for immediate power (a new burn spell or two).

[draft]Arbor Elf
Arbor Elf (& Farseek)

Hey guys! Omg! Like, what if there were some non-basic Forests in RtR? Do you think we should replace [card]Llanowar Elves[/card] with [card]Arbor Elf[/card] in the preceding core set and [card]Rampant Growth[/card] with [card]Farseek[/card])? Totally… totally I would do that.

[draft]Fungal Sprouting[/draft]
Fungal Sprouting

This is interesting to see. Saprolings don’t often make an appearance unless there is something specific to do with them. Yet I don’t see anything that calls them out in this set. I would have thought that, given the chance, Rosewater might have fought for “Squirrel Army” in this spot—unless there is a fungus among the RtR cards. It’s a bit of wild speculation, sure, but that’s become one of the fun things about the new core sets. You can try to guess if a card like this implies something about the coming year of cards or if it just happens to be this way on a whim. From the design side, you don’t want to do too many red herrings, because they’re only interesting to speculate about when you know they mean something 80% of the time or more.

[draft]Ground Seal
Tormod’s Crypt[/draft]
Ground Seal & Tormod’s Crypt

I’ve discussed in previous articles how cards are put into sets to put pressure on prior mechanics so that the new mechanics can shine brighter. These two are (clearly) such cards, suppressing the graveyard action of Innistrad Block to make room for RtR.

[card]Tormod’s Crypt[/card] already has a Modern-legal printing in Time Spiral, but this appearance of [card]Ground Seal[/card] might throw a wrench at [card]Life From the Loam[/card] decks in that format. I have no idea if this is strong enough to have an effect in Modern, but if it is, then perhaps that is another reason why it is here.

They are of course also subtly different. This is very important for design. When you make answer cards to the same mechanic (or theme), make them work in different ways. It’s not about players putting all of these cards to their decks, it’s about players deciding which one of these cards is the right one for their deck to use against the specific threat they deem most necessary to defend against. Your job is to create interesting choices.

[draft]Prey Upon[/draft]
Prey Upon

I am certain, without looking, that I said, in a previous article, we’d see this in the next core set. Ha! I was right! In your face! What? Oh, you also predicted that? Hehe, well, um, good for both of us then. And good for Magic.

[draft]Quirion Dryad[/draft]
Quirion Dryad

Looks a little out of place, doesn’t it? Well, it does sort of fill the role of a rare card supporting the [card]Flinthoof Boar[/card] cycle—telling you to play more than one color. I think it’s yet another RtR set-up card, in anticipation of a multicolor block where playing G/x and G/x/y is going to be a common occurrence.


[card]Rancor[/card] adds a lot of power to green. It’s very similar to a [card]Bonesplitter[/card] that also gives trample. Yikes! When you add a powerful card like this to a set, you need to be aware that the power has to come from somewhere. There certainly is a “total allowed power” per set, and more or less per color. Certainly below rare (or else Limited formats are unbalanced). It’s tempting to pack all the power in at every level. Even once you know you can’t do that, it’s tempting to say “well just this one won’t hurt”—but it does. Each time you squeeze in one more favorite, you’re getting yourself in trouble if you don’t balance it out somewhere else.

[draft]Timberpack Wolf[/draft]
Timberpack Wolf

It’s entertaining to get five of these in one draft, or to think carefully about taking this over a slightly better but less “rewarding” card in the middle picks. When you design a card that is “a great little decision for the player,” it’s tempting to flood the set with them and feel like you’ve done well. R&D learned the hard way that a set full of collect-me cards can go bad very quickly (Coldsnap). In small quantities (such as one common in a set) they can make for a good ride. It’s better to have a variety of ways to add these little decisions, rather than repeating them the same way over and over.

[draft]Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker[/draft]
Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker

In M11 design we said, “no gold cards in core sets, ever,” but the rules of design change over time, or the ability to make exceptions change. The people change too, as does the information those people have. With all of this, the prevailing opinion on what should and shouldn’t be allowed in core sets also can change.

Also this is just one card. We’re not even seeing a cycle of gold cards, it’s just this one, a very small exception to the rule.

Gold is kept out of core sets, and in general not used every set, because it needs to feel special when it does appear. Magic sets have 0 to 3 gold cards for a couple of years in a row, all rare, and then suddenly an Alara or Ravnica comes along and we get dozens of gold cards reaching all the way down to common. This wouldn’t be exciting and memorable if it was happening all the time.

From the creative side, Magic’s big bad guys need to put in appearances now and then so that everyone remembers them. It’s hard for the Eldrazi or Phyrexians to wave from the window, but NB has this card that can show up by itself, hold its own, and not require an entire block be devoted to it.

Plus, this card is awesome. I just want to p1p1 it every time and force it to work.

[draft]Gem of Becoming[/draft]
Gem of Becoming

In order to make the Nicol Bolas dream come true in Limited, a card like [card]Gem of Becoming[/card] is put into the set. This helps you fix exactly the colors he needs, and it has his horns in the art so that you know you’re supposed to put the cards together. Yes, I know you are smart enough to realize it without the art, but you’ve got a lot of experience. New players seeing a crazy huge gold card can’t help but try it, and [card]Gem of Becoming[/card] ensures they’ll be able to actually cast it.

P.S. More land types without the word “basic,” HINT, HINT, WINK, NUDGE!

[draft]Gilded Lotus[/draft]
Gilded Lotus

Go, Nicol, go!
Also, a great Commander card in desperate need of reprinting. Since it’s a rare, it was probably hard to fit into the Commander products where mana-fixing can’t really be given the rare slots needed for the commanders themselves and other flashy big effects. Also convenient to print it right before a multicolor block.

[draft]Trading Post[/draft]
Trading Post

You put this out, then you sac it to draw a card… no, wait, that’s not right. You pay 1 life and make a Goat first. Well, unless you’re really low, then you discard a card to gain 4 life first. That’s troublesome, though, because it’s pretty card-disadvantage-y. Maybe you sac a creature first—but you want to be sac’ing 0/1 Goats and not something better so…

This is what makes this design fun: planning out what you do with it once you cast it. Most of the time, “self-solved” build-arounds—cards that give you all parts of the puzzle—are weaker designs that cards that force you to complete the puzzle yourself. This card is different because the puzzle is mostly in, “what order do I do these in?” The symmetrical 1-mana tap at the beginning of each ability is an important part of this: forcing you to choose only one each turn and not giving you direction as to which is really “first.” Compare now to the much worse design [card]Staff of Domination[/card]. That card appears to give you choices, but the cheap untap undoes all the hard design work of setting up the decision. All you need is a pile of mana, and then you just do everything. Plus there’s no real order or cycle to it, it’s just a pile of powerful effects all on one stick. [card]Trading Post[/card] asks you to make trades. In a series of trades you will eventually profit (gaining 3 extra life then 3 extra goats, and eventually 3 extra cards), but there are likely to be play decisions every turn no matter how long you go on with it.

[draft]Staff of Nin[/draft]
Staff of Nin

I wonder if this is a leftover from the Commander decks. [card]Nin, the Pain Artist[/card] is certainly the owner of this staff. Yet I can’t help but see [card niv-mizzet, the firemind]Niv-Mizzet[/card] in this card. Another quiz: why are the abilities arranged this way and not the other way around? Why not deal 1 damage each upkeep and tap to draw? For a 6-mana artifact you’d get your card back faster (guaranteed) if the draw was on tap. I believe the answer is more about making decisions and what sorts of things should be mandatory. Drawing a card is an action for just you, nobody else is involved, and (with rare exception) there’s no decision to make. You just do it whenever you can. Dealing 1 damage requires a target, so you’ve already got to make a decision. It fits much better on an active line of text (with tap) than on a passive trigger.

There is also the combo situation to consider. If you set up infinite untaps, which is better? Drawing your deck or dealing infinite damage? The damage will end the game right away, but a pile of cards means a slow, annoying death for your opponent(s), and one which you might very well screw up. I’ve got more! The damage can be combined with other sources to kill a larger creature, so it’s better to have it at the ready, rather than force you to line up other things after it. Related to this, dealing one to a 4/4 during your upkeep would mean keeping track of that for the whole turn. It’d be lame for the opponent to forget the damage and block your 3/3. These reasons might be sufficient each on their own, and certainly together they make a strong case for putting the damage after a tap symbol.

The End

Thanks again for reading my column!

@gregorymarques – let me know if there are design topics you’d love to read an article about.

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