a series of interesting choices thoughts on game design from paul sottosanti

29May/111

designing magic: betrayers & jitte

You can find Part One here, which covers how I got to Wizards of the Coast, playing in the Future Future League, and Champions of Kamigawa.

More Kamigawa Tidbits

"There's no shortage of ass in this set."

I saved this quote at the top of one of my text files from the Kamigawa era, with no attribution or context. At first glance you might think the unnamed developer was reveling in the saturation of bad cards we'd managed to fit into a single set. However, the actual meaning might be different. Around R&D creatures with high toughness are lovingly referred to as having a "big butt", so I think this was actually might be a comment about Kami of Old Stone in Champions or a reference to creatures like Moonlit Strider and Soratami Mindsweeper in Betrayers. Then again, it may well have been a reaction to the number of terrible cards that existed at that exact point in time. Hard to say, but I was amused regardless, both then and now.

Here's another tidbit from that file: apparently Waking Nightmare used to be called Hyakki Yako. Try saying that five times fast. There was definitely some back and forth with the creative team about the naming in these sets. Japanese words tended to be hard to remember, spell and prounounce for the Western audience, so it ended up being ratcheted back a decent amount. Names are actually a hugely important part of a Magic set. One of my friends at Wizards was once lectured for allowing both Quick Sliver and Clickslither to exist in the same set, because the similar pronounciations caused a bunch of unnecessary confusion.

Betrayers of Kamigawa

This was my first official appointment to a Magic set, so I was understandably excited. The team was led by Henry Stern, a rocket scientist, long-time Magic developer, and NPC in World of Warcraft. This was the first time that I realized just how much thought goes into every little decision made by a Magic development team. Every change to the file is discussed at length in a meeting beforehand.

Because of that process, many of the cards that emerge from development aren't designed by one specific person, but rather are created into a meeting to fill a specific hole, or are the result of a designer's card that has been tweaked heavily enough to be almost unrecognizable. There are three cards that I "designed" in Betrayers though:

Unchecked Growth

This one was relatively straightforward. There was a hole filling request for an uncommon "arcane giant growth variant". I submitted:

Spirit Helping Growth

Instant - Arcane
Target creature gains +4/+4. If it is a Spirit, it also gains Trample.

A Little Boost

Instant - Arcane
Target creature gets three +1/+1 counters. At end of turn, remove those counters unless it is a Spirit.

As you can see, the first one made it into the set after my six templating errors were cleaned up. I was still learning!

Patron of the Kitsune

Often when working on a set, you get to a point where the team has hit on a great idea for a cycle, and you've got one or two cards that are perfect for it, but the rest of them are less than ideal. For this reason it's not uncommon for hole-filling requests to go out for specific cards in a cycle. Honestly, I can't really take a lot of credit for this one as I don't believe I designed the Offering mechanic. I simply was a huge fan of Righteous Cause during Onslaught because it was an underappreciated card that could completely swing races when you played it. It was just such a fun card to have in play, and it incentivized attacking, which kept the game moving in a nice way. So I submitted that text as an option for the white Patron, and it made it in.

Patron of the Orochi

Here we wanted something that would synergize with green's mana creatures and activated abilities. I don't remember much about this one except that it was a bit tricky to settle on the correct clause to prevent infinite recursion of the untap ability. "Activate this ability only once per turn" does the job, although it's a bit clunky. These days R&D tends to hate putting tap abilities on giant creatures, since you really want to just swing with them, but at least you could use your Forests and activated abilities, then tap the Patron pre-combat to untap everything, and then attack. All in all, not my favorite card in the world.

And then there are a few other cards that I didn't design but that stood out during development for one reason or another:

Baku Altar

Early on in this card's life, I think it looked something like this:

Shrine to the Zasshu

Artifact
Whenever you cast a Spirit or Arcane spell, you may put a counter on CARDNAME.
, Remove X counters from CARDNAME: Put an X/X colorless Spirit creature token onto the battlefield.

The card was extremely flexible, in that you could make a free 1/1 off of any of your Arcane spells, or you could build up and threaten to unleash a huge creature at any point. For me, it was love at first sight. Unfortunately, it didn't take long until people reacted negatively both to the power level of the card and the difficulty of keeping track of the size of the various tokens. I continually defended the card in meetings and even wrote up a document with eight bullet points about why I thought we should keep it, but the tide inexorably turned. When you're on a team and everyone's against you have to be willing to give up. For posterity here's an abridged version of my list:

  1. It's a limited bomb in a category of cards that hasn't often been a limited bomb in the past (token generators).
  2. It's not an "I pay seven mana and drop this giant creature, now I can't possibly lose" bomb, which we often do (especially in this block), but more of a drop me early and use me over time to gain a slow advantage.
  3. It's a constructed card unlike any before it (except for small similarities to Squirrel Nest and Kjeldoran Outpost), so it won't feel like some other dominant card that people grew to hate.
  4. It will make the format a little more kind to artifact removal so it isn't just "If I don't play against a Mirrodin block deck, my oxidizes are useless." Most of the other artifacts in Kamigawa block are weak.
  5. It goes in a lot of different decks, both aggro and control.
  6. It's not an annoying effect. I've heard people compare it to Rishadan Port because of its ubiquitousness but it's not an unfun card. It doesn't lock anyone down or interfere with your opponent's fun. The only problem is the chump blocking, but there's already a ton of that in the format.
  7. There's a lot of skill in using it.
  8. It's not immediately obvious to most people how good it is.

I can see now that this isn't the most compelling argument I've ever made. Oh well! The only sad thing, in hindsight, is that I don't think Spirit and Arcane cards ever made much of a splash in Standard (with the exception of Ghost Dad), and a strong support card like this might have helped.

Sway of the Stars

This card was originally called Betrayer's Plan, which earned it the apt nickname of "Plan B" as it would get you out of pretty much any terrible situation. It also was passed off from design at a cost of four mana. Having played with Upheaval during Odyssey, I knew immediately that this was an absurd cost for the effect, because you could float mana and then cast a couple creatures afterwards. Even better, your opponent was now at 7 life. The card was quickly proven to be broken at four mana, and then six mana, and then seven mana. At eight it was questionable, but Mons Johnson and I stubbornly continued playing decks designed around it and it was finally pushed to ten mana to be really sure that it wouldn't spawn a tournament viable deck.

Here's an example Betrayer's Plan deck that I played, probably from when it was at eight mana:

4 Rampant Snake (Sakura Tribe-Elder)
4 Hands of Kodama (Kodama's Reach)
4 Eternal Witness
3 Pentad Prism
4 Condescend
2 Mana Leak
2 Annul
4 Hinder
3 Vedalken Shackles
2 Betrayer's Plan (Sway of the Stars)
3 Bribery
1 Spirit of Islands (Genju of the Falls)
1 Spirit of Forests (Genju of the Cedars)
13 Forest
10 Island

The Shoals

We played Shining Shoal extensively in R&D, to the point where we were actually a little worried about the power level by the time the set hit store shelves. I seem to remember that much of the reason for giving White that effect was that there was a feeling in R&D that White often got shafted in cycles, with something lame like lifegain or maybe damage prevention while other colors got removal or card drawing. Pretty much every White Weenie and White control deck in the FFL played at least a couple copies. In the end the concerns largely turned out to be unfounded and the card was around the perfect power level, strong enough where you had to respect the possibility but not strong enough to be ubiquitous.

I talked about Disrupting Shoal in Part One. We debated at length about adding another quality free counterspell to the game, but in the end decided that we couldn't pull the trigger. With the new Spell Blast version, we liked how it got far better the more blue cards you included, because you had a higher chance of matching up with the spell you wanted to counter. It also made you think twice about the mana cost of each card you included in your deck. The card was definitely way worse after the change but we thought it was a better card for Magic overall.

Sickening Shoal was both extremely strong and a nice card to have in the environment to ensure that creature based combo decks didn't get out of hand. The other nice thing about powerful Shoals was that they encouraged decks to include Arcane cards, which gave deckbuilders a reason to think about including Spiritcraft cards that would benefit from the triggers.

Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker

4 Mistmaster (Teardrop Kami, when he could target any permanent)
4 Grave Despoiler (Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker)
4 -1/-1 World (Night of Souls' Betrayal)
4 Chromatic Sphere
4 Sage of Lat-Nam
4 Myr Retriever
4 Glasscaster Kami (Kira, Great Glass-Spinner, probably wasn't a legend yet)
4 Wasting Spiritwave (Sickening Shoal)
3 Thirst for Knowledge
2 Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni
4 Vault of Whispers
4 Seat of the Synod
8 Island
7 Swamp

All about the interaction of Despoiler and –1/-1 World. That got killed so this deck is no more, although there’s still potential to put the two of them together in a deck with Eternal Witnesses as well. This deck did some crazy things but had trouble actually winning.

Grave Despoiler eventually became Shirei, but at the time his textbox was something like:

"Whenever a creature with power 1 or less is put into a graveyard from play, you may return that card to play under your control at the beginning of the next end step."

This meant that, with Shirei in play:

  1. Sickening Shoal on an opponent's creature would almost always steal them to your side, since when the creature died it would likely have zero or negative power.
  2. Teardrop Kami was an Icy Manipulator on steroids (untap or tap, could be used once on each player's turn, free to use).
  3. If Night of Souls' Betrayal was out, Shirei would bring himself back upon dying.
  4. Myr Retrievers would bounce in and out of play, continually returning artifacts from the graveyard. They worked especially well with Sage of Lat-Nam, who was protected by Shirei but could survive Night of Souls' Betrayal.
  5. If Night of Souls' Betrayal and Shirei were out, your opponents couldn't play small creatures with beneficial comes into play effects like Eternal Witness, because they would start bouncing in and out of play on your side.

The interaction between Shirei and Sickening Shoal eventually forced the team to change Shirei so that he only worked for your own creatures, and the interaction with Night of Souls' Betrayal granting him immortality forced the "if Shirei is still in play" text, so this deck slowly drifted into oblivion.

Umezawa's Jitte

Sometime in the middle of Betrayers development, there was an innocuous card in the file that looked like this:

Umezawa's Jitte

Legendary Artifact - Equipment
Whenever equipped creature deals combat damage, put a charge counter on Umezawa's Jitte.
Remove a charge counter from Umezawa's Jitte: Choose one - Equipped creature gets +2/+2 until end of turn; or add to your mana pool; or you gain 2 life.
Equip

We had been told that Toshiro Umezawa and his Jitte were both central to the story, and there was some amount of pressure to make both of them respectable cards. The problem was, the above card sucked. It was practically unplayable. You had to play it, equip it, then get into combat, and after all of that you either got one shot of a Vulshok Morningstar's permanent bonus, or a refund on the equip cost, or a couple of life. It was truly terrible.

So, during some meeting when we were lamenting about the sad state of the card, I uttered these simple words: "Why not just make it give two counters?" Everyone quickly agreed, we playtested it for awhile, and we liked what we saw. Now you were threatening some serious mana acceleration when you managed to connect, your creatures grew fearsome, and the lifegain was meaningful. It was strong in Limited formats but far from broken, and still seemed mostly outclassed in Constructed. Perfect for our purposes.

Fast forward to very late in the development process. The set was essentially out of our hands at this point, but editing had realized that a certain card didn't work within the rules. It turned out that you couldn't have a modal ability where the different choices operate at different speeds. By that I mean, two of the three abilities would go on the stack at instant speed as normal, but the mana ability didn't use the stack at all, and the rules couldn't support that. We had an emergency meeting to come up with a replacement ability. It couldn't provide mana, and ideally it needed to be black-aligned. We tossed around a few ideas that no one liked, and then someone (I honestly can't remember who) suggested that it could give -1/-1 to opposing creatures. I remember considering this, and my (flawed) reasoning went something like "Well, a lot of constructed decks don't even play creatures, and the ones that do usually play sturdy ones, so that seems like it would be fair." Awkward...

Now you might be thinking, "Given that you knew upfront that there was no opportunity to playtest it, wouldn't you want to pick some terrible ability that's guaranteed to be safe?" Yes, you're absolutely right. I like to think that if the designer that I am today were in that meeting, then I would've said something exactly along those lines. But here's the thing: the card had been unplayable in Constructed for months at this point. Once you mentally write off a card, it can be surprisingly difficult to see it as a contender again. The same exact thing happened to the Darksteel developers with Skullclamp one year earlier.

In our defense, Adrian Sullivan in his post pre-release article wrote "When I put Umezawa's Jitte into my sealed deck, I thought it might be neat. Once I'd finished playing it, I couldn't believe how well it had performed. As I drove home, I began to think that this card was so good that I wanted to try it for constructed." We were still at the "it might be neat" stage. Because we knew going in to that meeting that it was a final change, and we all had other obligations and tasks anyway, we just didn't playtest it to make the leap to the further stages.

And that's how I contributed to the creation of one of the more broken cards in recent memory.

Saviors of Kamigawa

I don't have a lot to say about Saviors. I was only slightly involved in the FFL during this period, so most of my experience with the set came just like everyone else: through opening booster packs after release. I think I was mostly focused on other projects at this point. My only contribution to the set came in the design of Undying Flames. Again, this was one of those cycle hole-filling exercises where the mechanic is already set (in this case, Epic) and the team is just looking for a good fit. I had been thinking a lot recently about how fun cards like Erratic Explosion were, because they had this nice risk/reward tension where you decide what to target, and then everyone looks on eagerly as you get the payoff moment of revealing the amount of damage. You even have a slow buildup sometimes as you reveal land after land, and that feeling of relief as you realize you just saved yourself from drawing all of them. And if it's fun once, won't be fun to do it every turn for the rest of the game? (Well, not always, but in this case, yes.)

That's it for this installment. Next time: joining the development team for Ravnica, some of my FFL decks from the Ravnica period, my unwitting contribution to the rise of the Friggorid deck, and the debut of the Online Vanguard format. Check out Part Three here.