The trouble of putting themes into Magic (Part 1) sets

Let’s talk about a difficult topic today. One I have, in this case, ended up mostly copping out of in the end, though I can assure you that when I still thought I had all the time in the world it was an aspect of design I did put quite a bit of thought into: the question of whether I wanted to put a theme of some kind into all my colors/colour combinations.

Wizards stance of this is quite clear: they want to have strong incentives to draft certain kinds of decks in all of their sets. This is for various reasons, though the most important of these reasons is probably to give newer players a much easier entry into drafting than they would have had 15 years ago. That’s a reason I can certainly respect, but it wasn’t terribly helpful for me, who was designing a crazy set for people who had all presumably drafted at least a few hundred drafts each in their lives.

Personally, I do like themes, both those of flavour and those of synergy. But, and this is a big but, I really hate being dictated to draft a certain way if I’m going to be in a colour-pair. I want the theme to be a gentle suggestion. Something open to me, that I can make work in a few cards, or not at all, if I choose to do so. Sets like Modern Master take things way too far for my tastes, where most of the cards sucked big time, when you weren’t drafting exactly what the Wizards design team envisioned. It makes me feel like Wizards is treating me like dumb little kid who couldn’t possibly come up with any ideas of my own, and it does make a format get quite tiresome very quickly. Because why would I want to play the same matchups over and over again? And even if I wanted to – why would I not simply pick up any constructed deck and at least play a deck I have some say over creating?

But themes do help to structure a set to a certain degree – they make it feel a little less erratic. So, ideally, some minor themes it would be.

In the end, I did of course, run out of time to make them really work / not be too obtrusive. But let’s take a look of what my vague plans were, and what came of them.

UW – Enchantment

I like enchantments. Not sure exactly why, but I do. Maybe it’s just because they tend to get a bit underrepresented (and oftentimes suck), making me cheer for the underdog. But generally, making enchantments work as a theme has kind of lurked in the back of my mind ever since I first tried drafting Mesa Enchantresses in my very first drafts so long ago.

Blue and White always have a bunch of enchantments, so making some cards that could synergize with them is obvious – and something Wizards usually does as well.

In my case, I underdid it, I’m afraid. I allowed myself to put way more enchantments than strictly necessary into the set because I thought “It’ll be fine. There’s an enchantment theme after all!”, and then went and forgot to make the synergy cards. Not that I think I should have made very many, but I guess a common and an uncommon in each colour? As it is, the only common that really helps along enchantments in blue or white is this guy:

Imaginative Painter

He’s pretty good though. What I like about Imaginative Painter is that you don’t need to obsessively hoard enchantments for this to be a sweet card – you can just pay 5 and look for any of these old classics:

or even this overly powerful pumpspell / anthem / whatever

True Devotion

While I don’t necessarily begrudge this card all those different abilities (and it is kind of flavourful!), I guess the numbers could (read: should) be different. This card is objectively too powerful. Oh well, back to Van Gogh!

Point is, he’s good in a normal deck. Or maybe if you search out Engineered Explosives / Pernicious Deed wannabe fusions (that are still insanel powerful)

Tardis Explosion

but it becomes slightly better if you have a few more enchantments than normal in your deck. And that is the kind of synergy card I was trying to create.

Now, if had made maybe two more of those in blue and white, I think it would have been a cool theme. Maybe even just one more. As things are, the only blue card that gains anything from playing enchantments is a rare:

Dreamscape

For a while I debated making it just three mana. It would have fit with my philosophy of making decent cards that get better with more enchantments, but it did feel a bit too powerful, considering how many enchantments there were in blue already. Even my carddraw was an enchantment after all.

Transdimensional Gap

I’ll be honest and say, that I love this card. It’s a carddraw, so I guess that was slightly obvious? But in many ways, it’s such an interesting card draw spell. It’s slow, and it isn’t overly efficient. It’s not very powerful in fact, but it is different. And different is something I have a childish fascination with.

For 2 mana you get to cantrip – a turn later. Once you shell out three mana over two turns, you get to build yourself a slowpoke divination. For five you get three cards, and then for 8 you get to actually live the dream of casting an opportunity – kind of. The worlds slowest Opportunity. This is exactly the powerlevel I like my card draw spells to be – nobody likes people who just play end of turn opportunities or Sphinx’s Revalations to effectively end the game. No, if you’re going to cheat on cards you’re going to have to pay for it!

The only other enchantment card that I want to mention is one of the very first I made:

Might of the Storyteller

I really like this card too – it’s flavourful, and it’s kind of cool. It’s the kind of card that would really shine brightly if there had been a bit more of an enchantment theme to speak of. As it is, Might of the Storyteller doesn’t really do too much. It’s still cool, and when I made it, I didn’t expect it to do too much – but I wish it were a little more desirable to have. Maybe I could have made it turn both artifacts and enchantments into illusions? But I guess, then it would have been TOO powerful. I’m still really unsure about this card.

 

Five-colour Green

This is probably the theme that is most visual, and yet not aggressively in your face. So, I suppose it’s a success?🙂

I was still seriously lacking any kind of theme for green at all, and then I rewatched Planet of the Ood, and decided to make this card:

Ood

I can’t help it – I love this card. Initially it was actually going to be just the blue effect (though of course it wasn’t going to make things 2/2), but I really really couldn’t afford another blue non-creature, so I thought: what better theme to put into green, than give payoffs to having other colours available. And so, this is a card you might play in a blue deck if you’re really desperate for removal, and one you can easily play in any kind of green deck – but that really shines in a green deck that also has access to blue mana, though you need that blue mana only much later in the game.

It was also perfect, because I had already established UG as the options colour pair with this beautiful rare:

Time Beetle

Yeah, I know, I seem to all of a sudden love every single card I made, but damn, this thing is beautiful. Time Bug may just be my favourite card of the set. It’s a bit more powerful than I usually like my cards to be, but that is easily offset by just how interesting and SWEET this card is.

The first thing that is very important to note, is that it does not in fact give the creature it enchants +3/+3. Wizards has never used this design space, but by putting it on each of the individual cards – and not as a part of bestow – they have left themselves this option. I took this open design space as an invitation and whole-heartedly seized it.

So, this is a 3/3 flash guy. OR it is a cancel that will give a creature shroud and at some point in the future leave a 3/3. But it does put some demands on mana. Perhaps it could have been just 3/2, to make it a bit less overpowered. Apart from this I am very happy, and I doubt you will be able to ruin this card for me even with the harshest criticism❤

Back to green.

From the both insanely flavourful, powerful but interesting and just allround fairly elegant card that was Ood, I decided there was just going to be a cycle of green cards that would get better from having access to other colours of mana – but could also be played in only the other colour. The next one I made was Hunting Slitheen:

Hunting Slitheen

This card is fine too. I still needed an aggressive RG card anyway, and it is elegant enough if maybe a bit on the powerful side. Still, this is no Elite Scaleguard and as such, I guess I like it.

It is certainly a much more elegant design than the Slitheen deserve. Dear god, the Slitheen. Who ever came up with them is almost as deplorable as the person who decided they had to come back constantly. I guess that would be the Russel T for both of those counts, but just because he basically made the new Doctor Who show, doesn’t mean he gets a free pass on bullshit like this. Just like Moffat doesn’t get a free pass for his shitty season finals, despite being maybe my favourite screenwriter in the world (and having written probably my favourite show ever, which is obviously Jekyll. Pure genius!).

The Slitheen are dumb, silly, boring and disgusting all at once. They scare the living daylights out of my three-year old brother to the point he is terrified of watching a Doctor Who episode on his own, because he’s constantly worrying they may come back. And he adores Doctor Who. He’s scared of Cybermen too, but, understandably not as much as of the monsters that wear dead peoples skin to disguise themselves. His fear of the Cybermen is a good fear. The terror the Slitheen invoke not so much. Why do I bring this up? Because the Slitheen are a villain designed specifically for small children (what with their constant farting humour and what not). Everyone above the age of 9 hates them. And everyone below the age of 6 seems to have horrific nightmares of them. That’s a very narrow window of target audience. It’s just bad design.

Trees of Cheem

And so is this. I mean, there are certainly worse cards. It’s hard to make a Nettle Swine with some dubiously relevant text too horrific a card… but all in all, it just doesn’t fit. It makes no sense flavourwise, it doesn’t really synergize too much with what white actually does, and it should have been an ally if I was already making it syngerize with the one tokenmaking uncommon sorcery I had. There is nothing appealing about this card, and for just a vanilla thing it’s too wordy.

Trees of Cheem is an inelegant design that doesn’t really know what it wants to do. But at least white got a card at all – black was not so lucky.

In my first post, I mentioned, that there was a white rare that got shifted to Green / Black uncommon and then back up to rare, right? So yeah, for a while that was the fourth card in the cycle.

Ashildr

When she was uncommon, she had different numbers of course. I Think, she was 1/2, cost 4 mana to activate and was a 3/2 on the night side. Powerlevel wise I think it would be ok for an uncommon – there are better uncommons in every new set we get – but it just doesn’t feel like an uncommon. Because even if you rename the day side Viking Girl, the night side will always be legendary. And legendary means rare if there isn’t a very good reason not to (which there certainly isn’t in this case).

Did I mention how much I hated Face the Raven? I know I did, but damn, I hated Face the Raven. What an awful episode. I took time out of designing to watch it – because I hoped for new ideas – and then ended up losing a card and all desire to keep working on a Doctor Who set.

Making a double episode with a star like Maisie Williams isn’t a bad idea. And I do enjoy watching her for the most part – she seems like a very confident, no-nonsense young woman and I like the way she takes possessions of the scenes she is in. But the character is already tiresome in the Woman who Lived, and bringing her back again? Worst. Idea. Ever. And then this woman, who is now almost a millenium old, is just so STUPID. She feels like a cruel, bumbling idiot in this episode. And what the fuck kind of way was that to kill Clara? If something puny like that would be able to make the Doctor completely powerless, wouldn’t he have died like 2 millenia ago? Seriously. What. the. Fuck.

Initially Ashildrs night side actually prevented damage to companions you controlled and had the quote “I’ll be the patron saint of the Doctor’s leftovers” as a flavour text. Of course then the next time she appears, she just casually kills the Doctors companion. Which is something neither of my siblings who already knew the whole season pointed out to me, when they saw the card. So, then I thought she could, instead of preventing damage to them, just sacrifice companions. But of course in Green / Black there are no  companions, so it became just creatures, but only with active delirium.

Well. Enough of her. I did make a rare to fit this five colour green theme as well, and I do for the most part like it:

Wonders of the Universe

It is a giant wall of text, but with alternative win conditions that is sometimes hard to avoid. And I did want to make an alternative win-condition for the set, though I wasn’t going to force it if I just didn’t get a cool idea.

But then I sort of did. This card is supposed to convey just how wondrous the universe is, and how much the Doctor enjoys showing off to his companions. It has a breathtaking artwork and I think it’s hard but far from impossible to actually get to 25 counters. I’ve seen it happen a lot – and perhaps that means this card was a bit too powerful – but I think it’s not this card that was at fault (if indeed there was any fault to be found), but rather the supporting cards that pushed it over the top. My little sister had a deck with what felt like 35 rares, with this as a primary win condition. Those rares included two Ashildrs, a Wolf359, and this admittedly completely broken card:

Abigail the Soothing Voice

I know, she already looks completely broken. And I wasn’t entirely blind to it. But I needed her to have Fading 8 for flavour reasons, and the effect seemed to be exactly what she did for flavour reasons too. She was so darn flavourful and I ignored my better judgment.

If I had to fix her, I think I’d change the ability to: “G, Remove a fade counter from Abigail the Soothing Voice: Prevent all combat damage a creature of your choice would deal to you this turn.”. She would still be a powerful life gain card, but she’d be a little (or rather a lot) less oppressive.

And then I needed a way to actually find those lands to make five colour green work out.

Potential for Discovery

The name is a little silly, the artwork portrays a classic Who episode, and yeah, that is not exactly how Imprint is supposed to work – but overall, I think it is cool enough of a Magic card. You get to search out up to four lands – which is powerful – and even to ramp, but you do have to pay a lot of mana for it, you don’t get to use those lands for anything but playing them, plus you need to be interested in at least four different types of basic lands for it to live up to its potential.

It is very wordy for a common, but I think it’s cool. A payoff card for manycolored decks, but one that you might still play in a 2 colour + small splash deck.

 

I’m out of time for today, I’m afraid. I’ll finish up with the other colours / colourcombinations tomorrow. If there is anything specific you would like to read about after that, I’m open for suggestions😉

Thanks, as always, for reading.

The Lands of undoctored

Today I am a bit tight on time, so no endless babbling about the lack of merits of certain Doctors. Instead let’s take a look at the arguably most interesting part of any Magic set: the lands.

Damn, making lands is hard. That is something I always suspected, but you only really appreciate just how difficult it is, when you are sitting there trying to come up with an interesting common cycle of dual lands.

From the very beginning, I knew I wanted to have good fixing – and as such needed a common cycle of dual lands. Easy said. Much less easy done. My first train of thought actually ended up becoming these lands:

Yeah, I honestly don’t know how that happened myself anymore.

I’m guessing it started, when I stumbled over this picture on deviantart

doctor_in_morrowind_by_kissyushka-d4rfwxp

Unsurprisingly I immediately fell madly in love with it. Morrowind isn’t just a game from my childhood – it very much is my childhood. Morrowind is the only game besides Magic Online I have played more than 2000 hours of in my life – and I still occasionally try out some mods I don’t know yet. It’s how I learned English, and if my teacher found it weird that I knew 8 different words for wizard, but not what a pumpkin or a cucumber was, well, she never let it stop her from being impressed by my vocabulary.

So the idea of not using this brilliant picture in my set was discarded as ludicrous. Which meant, I’d maneuvered myself into the awkward spot of having to come up with a full cycle of lands that would crossover into different fandoms.

That in itself of course didn’t mean I had come off the correct path of making a cycle of common duals. It just meant it was going to be enemy colored instead of allied colored as I had initially thought I’d like, since if the Bitter Coast could only be either UG or BG (it’s a swampy forest at the coast of a sea).

I think the true transformation of my common fixing lands into powerful rare utility lands came with the development of Wolf359, though I’m not entirely sure how exactly it came to pass.

When thinking about other fandoms to include, Star Trek was an easy choice – it’s the other thing I learned English from after all, and watching the 29 seasons and (at the time) 10 movies of it (several times for the most part) did take up quite a large chunk of my TV time as a child. I had already begun to think about the possibility of maybe making a cycle of uncommon utility lands with cool activated abilities in addition to a common pure fixing cycle at the time. And as the control player I am, I just kind of fell in love with the idea of making a land that could sacrifice creatures for fogs. Because that is exactly what happens at Wolf359 – they sacrifice their whole fleet for a little bit of time. And it’s worth it. It’s worth it in Magic too, but because it is worth it it is very easy to break.

My initial design had you paying four mana and sacrificing 2 creatures, but the more I toyed with the idea, the more it became clear that I couldn’t make a land like this on uncommon at all. So instead of trying to get back on course, I shifted the cycle to rare, made them one-colored once and for all and let them come into play untapped. Then I decided they needed some strict restrictions on when you would be able to use those abilities – and since I still had all these keywords to utilize, it worked out ok.

In the end, it’s an awkward cycle, just because making lands that don’t come into play untapped – so for limited purposes just pure upside basics – is pretty dangerous. It’s hard to hit a powerlevel, where they are sweet, and you’re genuinely excited to be able to put them into your deck, but they don’t feel unfair and broken for your opponent. I didn’t get to play much against or with these lands, so I’m not entirely sure how I did on that front. I do know that I have never hated Pidgey as much as when I was assaulted by an endless stream of them.

Bird

From a flavour perspective, I love each and every one of them. I mean, of course you can’t catch a Pidgey if you don’t have a Pokemon (aka creature), and it is always the first you catch, because there really isn’t any reason to otherwise.

The card is powerful, but needing to have exactly one creature does make it a little tricky to keep going, and I think the diligence you need both when running it, and when playing against it make up for the potentially crippling power level.

But ah, what the hell are ingredients, you might (quite rightfully) ask. You moron forgot to give us this information! Ooopsie. I did. My bad.

Ever since Hearthstone is a thing, there have always been those of us, who, when they get mana screwed, have loudly complained that we aren’t playing paper Hearthstone. I wanted to grant them their wish. Because I’m so nice! Ok, I’ll admit, that wasn’t exactly my line of thought initially. I just couldn’t come up with a cool idea for the Bitter Coast region, and I said to my little sister exasperatedly: geez, the only thing I ever did there was run around picking up various mushrooms. But I can’t well put that on a Magic card, can I?

Of course I can’t. But of course I did. Because I have never let myself be stopped by reason. So, here are your ingredients. And Potions. What else did you think we were going to do with our ingredients?

The dispel potion is worded in a way that isn’t a Magic card, and I’m not entirely sure I could have worded it better. But the way it’s supposed to work, is that it removes every effect on the card permanently. So if you give it to a creature, while there is a Humility on the board, it will unhumble that creature. Forever. Or rather, until the next humility hits the board. I’m guessing with current comprehensive rules it doesn’t really work, but if there is a way to word it in a way that would be compatible with the comprehensive rules, please to let me know.

Pretty much all of these effects aren’t green. But then again everything about this card breaks what it means to be a Magic card by so much, that the damage to the color pie is probably not the biggest concern you have with it. And while I admit that it might not have been the most efficient use of my time to spend several hours trying to translate Morrowind fungi into Magic effects – I do like the card. It’s different enough from real Magic cards to be recognizable Hearthstone, it captures that interesting “oh, I want to see what I can find”, that I enjoyed so much at first, and it still kind of works from a Magic perspective.

Serenity is possibly the one I least like. I mean, they are thieves. And they do steal stuff whenever they’re broke. So flavourwise it works. But it’s also the least interesting and swingiest of the lands. Because sometimes you will be taking control of monsters like this:

The Swarm

And most of the time it will just be a fancy Mountain. It’s a bad design, but unfortunately I couldn’t think of anything better.

I think the X-Mansion is the card that is most realistic and at the best spot powerlevel wise, even if I forgot to photoshop a TARDIS in there. Looting is a powerful effect if you get it free on a land, so letting you only later in the game is fair, and as is paying 4 mana for it. It’s a powerful card still, but it isn’t the kind of card that you would be angry or frustrated playing against.

Before we get to my second – and ultimately successful – attempt at making a cycle of common fixing lands, let’s talk about making a powerful and different mythic rare land.

Because damn, I still have no idea how to do it.

Initially I really wanted to make a land that could level. It seemed like such a sweet idea, and time travel should have been the perfect way to show the evolution of a planet, so it had to have been done, right? Well.

The two scenes I did consider were the newest christmas special with the Singing Towers, and Heaven Sent, with the ever-increasing number of skulls. While I did give myself a headache trying to figure out exactly what kinds of special properties these places gained over time (and effort), another, more pressing problem became immediately obvious, once I started toying around with a mock-up:

Singing Towers

If you have to put the ability to add mana onto each level of the card (or even just one of them), it just doesn’t work out spatially. It looks stupid and becomes hard to read. And looking stupid is one of those things a mythic cannot afford to do.

So if I was going to make a level land, there were two options. One of them was to just give it a basic land type. In this case, probably mountain. What I didn’t like about this solution was, that it would not really be a colorless mythic anymore – it would just have been an additional red mythic at that point, and making colored mana would have restricted the powerlevel of the effects I put on it unduly…

But Iris, why didn’t you just make it a Waste? That is a basic land that makes colorless mana, right?

Well, honestly, I didn’t think about it until just now. I barely played any Battle for Zendikar (or Oath for that matter), and it just kind of didn’t register as a basic land type to me. Which it actually isn’t.

183

It’s just a Basic Land. Not a Basic Land – Waste. So, I guess, it wouldn’t have worked anyway. Maybe I could have fudged the truth here a bit in order to make my level land. But I didn’t, and so I guess that’s that.

The other option is of course to make a land that just doesn’t make mana. Something I was, at the time, shying away from as well. Ironic really, as once I discarded my lengthily contemplated idea of a levelling land, I ended up making this card, that, incidentally, doesn’t make mana and has the same problems with space.

Gallifrey at Peace

From a design perspective there is no advantage to making a flip land over a levelling land. They have exactly the same problems. And I think, if I’m being entirely honest with myself, it wasn’t the Magic aspect that eventually turned me off the level idea for good. It was the fact, that there simply couldn’t be a legendary land in a Doctor Who set, that isn’t Gallifrey. And Gallifrey doesn’t level. For most of the revived series of Doctor Who it is time locked. And Time Lords are certainly too proud and too arrogant to develop their capital further. Gallifrey has two modes: the one, where you are smugly arrogant, insured in your own superiority, benignly helping out some people here or there. And one, where you are panicked and arrogant – dishing out destruction left and right in a usually self-destructive way.

And so, this is what I tried to convey – Gallifrey is always on the wrong side. When you still have bunch of life, it helps you and your creatures live (a devastatingly powerful effect, I will admit. But not quite as powerful early as continuous shocks). And once you really need that life-preserving effect, it turns around and starts shooting things.

I’m not sure, any design along these lines could ever have worked out, but one thing is certain: even for a mythic rare, this land is too crippling. It also isn’t very interesting if I’m being honest. I kind of wish, I had stayed with the level idea. Making a land have cool effects once you dump a bunch of mana in them is a much safer design space – giving you many more viable options. It’s the better, more interesting idea by a mountainside. And who really cares if the one Legendary Land ends up being random place 300, if it’s a wonderful Magic card?

We’ve talked about this pearl already

Architectural Reconfiguration System

but I’m sure, you’re all wondering about the Tardis landtype. What’s up with all these fancy landtypes?

Well, I’ll freely admit I ended up underutilizing them. The only card that references and of them is our dear Clara, who has Tardiswalk, since she’s the only character in the revived show who ever took a long walk through the tardis.

Clara Impossible Girl

She is by, the way, one of my favourite cards of the set. She’s just so very flavourful, and a pretty cool card to boot. With everyone running at least a couple tardis lands, Tardiswalk is certainly a very relevant keyword. Maybe she should have had Ripple 5, because hitting another one really is difficult, but on the other hand I absolutely didn’t want it to be normal to get three claras on turn three. It’s a difficult keyword to balance just right – but it fits Clara so darn well.

Anyway, let’s discover the Tardis!

Back in the day, the various rooms the TARDIS contains (which are, of course, infinite), where oftentimes not only mentioned, but actively explored. In the new series, this was no longer the case. Sometimes we got hints that the tardis was very much bigger than just the control room – they would always magic some appropriate costumes from somewhere after all, and apparently Melody was conceived there without the Doctors knowledge, so it was always clear there would have to be sleeping rooms somewhere around – but we never got to see it for ourselves. Never got to see the library in the middle of the swimming pool the 11th Doctor was rambling about shortly after his regeneration. Until Journey to the Middle of the Tardis.

The only room I have above that isn’t from the new show since 2005, is the GW one. But in just one episode it is not the easiest to explore a multitude of places, and most of them were in some capacity blue. This one worked as a GW land, and so I took that liberty.

You really don’t want to know how hard it was to come up with such a simple cycle of dual lands. So many hours of my life I am never getting back. But I got several appreciative remarks about how cool they were specifically, so it was definitely worth it.

I wanted to have a cycle that would be equally desirable to two colored decks as it was to three colored decks. Because if you do pick up a land in your colours, you deserve to get rewarded! And I wanted it to be better (and more interesting) than Guildgates, but not on the level of bouncelands. So, I guess giving it this kind of cycling would be obvious. It wasn’t to me, though. It really wasn’t. I loved them once I did think of it, but it took me a long long time. I don’t even remember most of my other ideas – they must have been stupid indeed.

 

Lands are probably the most difficult to design cards by a large margin. But they’re also the coolest card type in my opinion. So spending a lot of time on getting them just right is worth it. I didn’t in this set – because I did not have that amount of time – but I am very happy with my common cycle at least. And that is worth a lot. I hope you like them as much as do🙂 I unfortunately don’t have the time to double check grammar and spelling. Here’s hoping it’s not too bad!