review week brings the same feelings to me every time. Before I worked at Wizards I would log on each day trying to find the card that would make me build a new deck, or make my existing deck better.
I think that feeling of exploration, of the unknown, is what makes new sets so exciting for me. Right before I open my first packs of a new set, I think, "Today is the day that I will solve Magic and become its master."
Packed into the car with my sister, my mom, and my dad, we drove across the country the summer of my sophomore year, seeing all America had to offer. They wanted to see Mount Rushmore, Yellowstone National Park, and the Pacific Ocean. I wanted to discover treasures also. I had a dream. I wanted to discover the undiscovered card shop. All of Magic's treasures were possible.
"Why, hello, card shop owner. Do you sell any Magic: The Gathering?"
"Umm... I think we might have some," he would say, shuffling his feet around the dark corners of the store, then: "Is this what you mean?" holding out a box of Beta.
Oh, what I would open in that box. Black Lotus, Moxen, Serra Angels, and Hypnotic Specters. I would have a Magic collection to show off, and the cards I needed to teach all my friends a lesson.
Working at Wizards has some awesome perks. Such as cards to build any deck you can dream of (provided that everyone else didn't already dream of that same deck and use all of the available cards). We have three awesome looking Beta sheets hanging from the walls, and early pre-releases to try out the new cards that we work so hard on.
Brand Manager Helene Bergeot asked Ken Nagle and I to put together planeswalker decks for gunslinging at the Penny Arcade Expo (PAX). I riffled through our card library, grabbing four of each planeswalker, building decks like this one:
Liliana Vess Gunslinging Deck
Building a deck for gunslinging is a hybrid of building a deck for a tournament and building a deck for a casual game. The deck needs to be good enough to compete with the players who come for the tournaments but fun enough to offer the casual Magic fan a good game. While the decks Ken and I brought were Standard legal, I would let my opponent play whatever deck they had brought to PAX to play.
Matt Place returned from gunslinging at U.S. Nationals, telling the story of how people would play versus Richard Garfield. Imagine yourself sitting across from a great game designer, and using Strip Mine on him every turn of the game thanks to Crucible of Worlds. Someone did this to Richard!
Gunslinging at non-Magic-centered conventions is like playing Magic in a time machine. It would alternate between playing versus a player there to compete in Friday Night Magic and playing someone who was playing a blue deck.
By a blue deck, of course, I mean playing the blue cards that they own. I was not defeated by the Wandering Ones, but it was played against me. I did award the player a pack for sportsmanship. I was Strip Mined turn one in a number of games, as players whose last purchase of Magic was around Revised showed up to the gunslinging booth.
A Disembodied Spirit
One player started by playing a Dark Ritual and then a Hypnotic Specter. His friend slapped him on the back in glee, congratulating him.
My opponent looked at my Mountain, and sighed, "He is playing red. The Specter always dies." The Specter didn't die that turn, but after he missed taking my Murderous Redcap in two tries, another Hypnotic Specter went to the graveyard.
If he had only had this Specter from Shards of Alara.
From the concepting of the card:
Location: Grixis sky
Action: Show a faceless hooded ghost in tattered black robes riding an enormous skeletal owl.
Focus: the specter and its "steed"
Mood: Straight out of your nightmares
Doug Beyer described Grixis like this:
Grixis – uBr
Grixis is a hellscape of decay and madness, where necromancers command swarms of undead and demons walk the earth. Humanity is nearly extinct here; the survivors cower in hermitages, defending their life essence from rampaging horrors. Rampant death magic and demonic influence make Grixis an abominable destination best avoided by most.
Grixis represents the blue, black, and red combination in Shards of Alara. With black as its central focus, the shard is filled with Demons, Horrors, and the undead. Unearth, the signature mechanic of Grixis, was designed by Brian Tinsman, Devin Low, and Erik Lauer.
The great thing about unearth is that even when Sedraxis Specter dies for the first time, it will get to come back once more for its last hasty walk among the living. Sedraxis Specter will be able to take its revenge on the person who killed it, attacking for one final card and 3 damage before removing itself from the game.
Every creature with unearth has the ability to come back from the dead. It will only get one swing, but it will often pack a punch with that last hit. Unearth creatures put your opponent in a hard spot by coming back temporarily. Then your opponent will often need to either take the damage (and pay the consequences, like discarding from the Specter) or waste a precious card dealing with your unearthed creature.
Sedraxis Specter doesn't need to die from play to take its final revenge, if you just happen to discard it, or mill yourself, and the Specter ends up in your graveyard that way, then it will still take a swing at your opponent. Magic has many cards that take advantage of that feature of the Sedraxis Specter as well.
From Humble Beginnings
Sedraxis Specter didn't start out as awesome as it ended up. It began life as a 2/2 with unearth . Its ability let you draw every time it forced an opponent to discard.
Quickly, it turned into a creature with the same ability. Early on in Shards of Alara development, the team tried to figure out its color cycles. During that process, cards shift around within colors frequently. For the Specter, this took a card that felt solidly blue-black and left it a strange fit for blue-black-red. Drawing a card is typically blue, and discarding is very black, but what part of the Specter was red?
Development took away the Chinese menu feel (one from column A, one from column B) and instead moved the card all the way into black by making it the simpler, 2/2 with unearth , and the discard ability.
For two months Sedraxis Specter was playtested happily at . When the Shards of Alara development team played Limited, the Specter was always a solid inclusion.
At the start of December, two things changed for Sedraxis Specter: its casting cost and its toughness. With Shards of Alara coming along so well, the Future Future league started playing it. With the FFL playing, while some cards get worse, many more get better. We look for holes that need to be filled, and try to address them with pushes within the file... such as this one, in a Multiverse exchange between Devin Low and Aaron Forsythe:
DAL 12/22: This could be 1BB...and would be constructed for sure. Sounds super-powerful.
AF 2/5: Interesting idea...
Just like that, a fine Limited card became an awesome Constructed powerhouse. Devin made the change to a 2/1 with unearth . Changes this dramatic cause new decks to be formed for FFL play within minutes.
Del 2/19: Note that EVE has Needle Specter at 1BB.
I love Needle Specter. The potential to hit my opponent for every card in his or her hand with a Giant Growth spell is an exciting combo. During Eventide testing, both Needle Specter and Cold-Eyed Selkie were being played with Giant Growth combos. Bant's mechanic, exalted, works great with both the Needle Specter and the Cold-Eyed Selkie.
Often two cards collide in files. It is a reflection of good ideas being used in different ways. Then the lead developers of the two sets sit down and decide which card gets to stay, and which card needs to change. Since Needle Specter was on his way into booster packs, Sedraxis Specter needed to change.
At , 2/1 Sedraxis Specter was an awesome creature. We wanted to maintain that level of awesomeness while staying true to Shards of Alara. The answer came by going back to an older version of the Sedraxis Specter. By making it the card seen here, we accomplished our goals. No longer did the Specter allow you to draw a card, but instead it was a fierce attacking 3/2 creature. Now it would serve the role of a threat in an aggressive deck while being a strong creature (trading with FFL staples like Wren's Run Vanquisher) in control-based strategies.
Building Decks with Sedraxis Specter
While Sedraxis Specter is quite powerful, its mana cost makes him more of a challenge to get into play. The uncommon and common lands previewed yesterday in Building on a Budget are just one way we are trying to make mana more accessible for every deck builder. Combined with the Lorwyn Vivid lands and Shadowmoor / Eventide hybrid lands, reliably playing Sedraxis Specter on turn three is easier than you might think.
I want to introduce the Shards of Alara development team. Together the team spent thousands of hours making Shards of Alara a fantastic set.
Devin Low (lead) – Devin was lead developer of Planar Chaos and Lorwyn before Shards of Alara. He fine-tuned every aspect of Shards of Alara, and was a major player in the design of the Grixis shard. When you begin to experience the awesomeness of Shards of Alara, you're seeing the results of the love and effort Devin put into making the set.
Mike Turian – Were you one of those kids who had a last name beginning with Z, or W, or T? Then you know how it sucks to always be listed last. The only thing worse is when a teacher would do things by first name, and you ended up in a row filled with Mike's. So I'm listing myself first after the lead!
Anyhow, I've been the lead developer for Future Sight, Morningtide, and Conflux (the follow up to Shards of Alara). I did some early design of Shards of Alara, along with working on the Jund and Naya shards. If you are headed to Pro Tour–Berlin, I will be there with Shards of Alara Standard decks. My favorite shard is Naya.
Mark Rosewater – Well, if you don't know Mark Rosewater by now, then welcome to the site, first-time visitor! Besides designing for every Magic set since Alliances, Mark has been on more development teams than the average player would guess. Often Mark will act as the design representative on a development team. For Shards of Alara, he was a true developer. His favorite shard is Esper.
Matt Place – Matt was lead developer of Dissension and Eventide. He is also currently leading the third set of the Shards of Alara block, codenamed "Scissors." Matt is constantly on the lookout for the cards that casual players love, and always pushes Magic in the right direction.
Mike Mikaelian – Traditionally, Mike has done more work with editing, but with Shards of Alara he contributed as a designer and developer. At Wizards we like to diversify our teams to make sure that each set gets many different views coming together to make each set special.
What should next week’s poll question be?
Standard vs. Vintage
Before I go, I have one more gunslinging tale. My opponent asked me if it was okay that he was playing Vintage. I said sure and brought out the Chandra standard deck. Here is the deck list.
Chandra Nalaar Gunslinging Deck
I went first and played a turn-two Mogg War Marshal. He played a Time Twister into a Tinker for Darksteel Colossus. I had to draw two specific cards to have any chance versus the indestrutible 11/11. Can you figure them out?
Off the Time Twister, I didn't have either Unwilling Recruit or Greater Gargadon in my hand. But over the next two turns I chump-blocked with my Goblins, leaving me at 1 life.
I managed to rip the Gargadon in the meantime, followed by the Unwilling Recruit. With Darksteel Colossus as my Unwilling Recruit, I smashed my opponent for 11 damage and then sacrificed the Colossus to Greater Gargadon.
My Chandra deck's dream of beating a real Vintage deck ended when my opponent drew and played Tendrils of Agony on me for the final point of damage.
So close! If only I had the perfect cards at the perfect moment.
Visit the Shards of Alara product section for information about the five shards, an up-to-date visual spoiler of the cards revealed so far, product information, and more!