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Putting the epic spells through the wringer

Epic Developments

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The letter D!uring the Saviors of Kamigawa previews here on the site, Mark Rosewater showed off Enduring Ideal and discussed the design challenges associated with the cycle of “Epic” spells from that set. Below—cut and pasted from Mark's “Epic Struggle” article—is the list of constraints that each card in this cycle had to follow—quite a daunting list indeed.

  • the spell had to have an interesting effect; something this grandiose couldn't just do some bland effect that gets done every set
  • the spell had to have play value; that is, it needed to do something that created interesting game situations turn after turn
  • the spell had to allow the caster to win without guaranteeing victory; this is a very gentle balance; the team had to make effects that would lead to winning but not instantly win
  • the spell had to be worth its cost; not being able to play spells is a huge drawback; the spell's effects had to measure up
  • the spell had to allow the player ways to interact with it; just because you're done playing spells doesn't mean there's nothing left to do; there's activated abilities, creatures that can attack and possibly even new keywords that get around the restriction

The design team certainly nailed the spirit of the cycle with what they handed off, but it was up to the developers to actually put each card through the wringer and make sure that they followed in practice what they were designed for in theory.

The cycle's design name? The “All-Ins.” Yes, poker terminology has invaded R&D full-bore. We've even started calling Blinding Angel “Big Blind.”

Enduring Ideal

Search your library for an enchantment card and put it into play. Then shuffle your library.

Although the current ability on this card was not the first one that the design team came up with, it was the one handed off. And it was the one that underwent the least changes of all of them between design and seeing print. Even its mana cost remained the same.

I love the way this card is set up. Putting cards from your library into play for free is always exciting (as fans of the cards Tinker and Natural Order will attest), but the beauty of the card is that using it to win the game requires some imagination. If you got to put a creature into play every turn, winning wouldn't be that tough. Sorcery every turn for free? Piece of cake. But enchantments? It requires some effort, but the payoff is lots of fun.

In development, the people I faced that most often used this card were Devin Low (who I believe designed it) and Worth Wollpert. Both decks were wacky—lots of colors, a toolbox of powerful enchantments, and a whole lot of inevitability (you'd better win fast against them). What I enjoyed was their choices for “win conditions”—one opted for fully-charged red and green Hondens, whereas the other favored the unexpected Genju of the Realm!

As the white card in any given cycle tends to be the one seen first by everyone as they go through a card file, the comments on this card often deal with how the cycle as a whole should be handled. The big argument late in development was if they should be Arcane or not. While there were good points on both sides, the team eventually settled on “no.” The reason was that the epic spell created copies of itself that were played, and whenever an Arcane spell is played, cards can be spliced onto it. What is the point of not being able to play any more spells for the rest of the game if you can simply splice two Glacial Rays and a Wear Away onto the epic one each turn? While that would have been more powerful, it felt cheesy and “too easy.” The team felt that with Channel cards and “man-lands” like Blinkmoth Nexus in the environment, there were still nifty things to be done when you were “epic-locked”; there was no need to open the splice floodgates as well.

Eternal Dominion

The blue card turned in from design was one whopper of an epic Millstone:

Target player puts the top two cards of his or her library into his or her graveyard. If one of them has the same name as another card in that graveyard, repeat this process.

I believe it existed in the file at 4 ManaBlue ManaBlue Mana at first. Comments from playtester Mons Johnson, developer Randy Buehler, and designer Devin Low:

MJ 4/26: I like the effect a LOT, but i worry that it will feel too passive in constructed play...
RB 4/28: This can be cheaper, right? Seems like the real cost is the all-in part ... the effect has no impact on the game until the game is over.
DAL 5/10: This is probably the kind of card that looks weaker at 2UU than it does at 5UU? That said, it certainly could be less.

Randy's point was an interesting one. A cheap cost on this card might tempt people to play it earlier in the game, which would most likely be wrong. Not only would it lead to a very passive game (as Mons noted), wherein all you'd be hoping for were enough matches early to give you a chance to win, but it would make the effect look weaker when placed alongside the other four (expensive) cards in the cycle.

I remember playing against Paul Sottosanti, who was wielding a deck built around winning with this card. His entire game involved slowing you down—Wraths, counters, life gain—and milling you just a little here and there, mostly with Dampen Thought (a card Paul designed… we all love playing with our own cards). Then, just as he was running low on control elements, he'd unleash this epic monster, and your graveyard was so full at that point that he often won immediately.

I found it particularly excruciating.

AF 7/1: Maybe the build-up of playing with this card is fun, but the result of casting it certainly is not.
ps 7/6: i had fun. :)

(We constantly have this argument internally—should we make really annoying cards? Do people enjoy annoying one another to death? Sounds like a poll question.)

At this time, the team was growing unhappy with the black epic card (see below) and decided to kill it. Randy suggested moving the millstone one from blue to black, citing cards like Cranial Extraction as proof that black can attack the library. A new ability was given to the blue one:

Search target opponent's library for an artifact, creature, enchantment, or land card. Put that card into play under your control. Then that player shuffles his or her library.

Devin suggested removing “enchantment” to create a weird mirror with the white one—the white one would get enchantments from your deck, and the blue one would get everything else from your opponent's deck—but the team decided to leave the blue one alone as a clean “Bribery anything.” A hefty mana cost was slapped on it, as this effect is not one we think people would appreciate being top-tier tournament worthy, mostly because the act of tutoring from an opponent's library every turn is pretty distasteful (for instance, I can deduce what you drew each turn by noting what was missing from your deck—very time consuming and frustrating, not to mention potentially rough on your cards). Of course, we had to test it anyway.

Mons made a deck that used all manner of mana acceleration to power this thing out as fast as possible, but his version couldn't stand up to top Standard decks (it was pretty easy to counter the ten-mana spell once you figured out his plan), and the card was deemed safe. Maybe there's something about this card we missed—I'm eager to see if it shows up anywhere.

Neverending Torment

The black epic was a tough nut to crack, and went through several designs. Here are a few the design team tossed around:

Name two cards. Search through target player's deck, graveyard, and hand for all copies of these cards and remove them from the game. That player loses 1 life for each card removed from the game this way.

Target player loses 2 life for each tapped permanent he or she controls. You gain that much life.

Target player loses 1 life for each permanent he or she controls. You gain that much life.

Target player loses half of his or her life, rounded up. You gain that much life.

Each of those was met with some measure of resistance, and the development team tried to solve the problem by moving the epic Millstone ability from blue to black. That change was also met with resistance—I distinctly remember the Tuesday department meeting wherein we argued how much “anti-library” stuff black was allowed to have. The consensus boiled down to “Milling is blue; Capping is black,” meaning black got to remove specific cards from libraries, but blue got to do the random indiscriminate diminishing. So no-go on the epic Millstone in black.

The next suggestion stuck:

Search target player's library for X cards, where X is the number of cards in your hand, and remove them from the game. Then that player shuffles his or her library.

This was a good fit, as it now attacked the library in a “black” way, but it also incorporated the “wisdom” mechanic that is very much a part of Saviors.

Whatever testing of this card was done didn't involve me; sorry, I have no anecdotes!

Undying Flames

The first attempt at this card was the following:

Destroy two target lands, then CARDNAME deals one damage to target player for each land card in his or her graveyard.

That ability is both heavy-handed and incredibly mean, so the design team took the road less traveled and came up with this wacky little number:

Add RRRRRRRR to your mana pool.

Now that is out-of-the-box thinking. You get a ton of mana every turn, but without the ability to play spells, what could you possibly do with it? Some players see cards like this as a supreme challenge. But many others—including most of the developers—didn't think we'd get much “bang” out of a card that was this difficult to use. A comment from Paul Sottosanti:

ps 5/6: so if i cast this extravagant spell that is so powerful that it sucks up all my concentration for the rest of the duel, i earn the right to mana burn myself to death? sign me up.

I chipped in with similar snarky disdain:

AF 7/1: An all-in that makes you lose the game instead of win it. Interesting.

The card did have its supporters, however, and various changes to accommodate it were suggested—everything from having it add the mana to target player's pool (allowing you to mana burn your opponents to death) to upping the number of cards in the set that would allow you to repeatedly use eight mana during your upkeep. In the end, though, the team opted for something far more normal.

Remove cards from the top of your library from the game until you remove a nonland card. Undying Flames deals damage to target creature or player equal to that card's converted mana cost.

Brian Schneider made some vicious decks with this sucker back when it cost just five mana. He'd Seething Song it out on turn three, then use Sensei's Divining Top to ensure he'd flip over big spells (and draw the small ones). Jiwari and Ghost-Lit Raider played big parts in keeping the board clear, as did Quicksand (from the upcoming Ninth Edition set). His deck was the main reason the cost went up from five to six at the end of development.

Endless Swarm

I'm sure the inspiration for the first stab at this card came from the Invasion Dragon Rith, the Awakener:

Put a 1/1 green Snake creature token into play for each permanent you control.

Sound powerful? You're right. You essentially kept doubling and doubling the number of creatures you had, as each new resolution created more and more permanents to be counted. I can vaguely remember playing against this version and being flabbergasted.

Lead designed Brian Tinsman quickly changed it to count just the number of lands you had in play as opposed to all permanents. That was close to correct, although it was still making just a few more tokens per turn than the developers were comfortable with.

As with the black one, the fix came from looking at the rest of the set. So many cards in Saviors care about the number of cards in your hand… why shouldn't this? So the epic Snake-maker became a “wisdom” card.

This card did well in testing, so much so that it had to go to eight mana from seven. The development team was hesitant to cost many of the epic spells too aggressively, for once they begin opponents are often powerless to stop them.

Will any of these five powerhouses creep into the Block or Standard environments? Have you been able to make them work online or at your local tournaments? I'd be curious to read about your experiences with these cards on the message boards.

Last Week's Poll:

What aspect of the new Pro Tour schedule excites you the most?
None of it.253536.7%
Plane tickets as PTQ prizes.172525.0%
The advent of Team Constructed.125418.2%
An event in Honolulu and/or a Standard Pro Tour.96213.9%
Something else.3394.9%
Reorganization from five events to four.831.2%
Total6898100.0%

If I was still playing in PTQs, the plane ticket change would have made me jump for joy.

This Week's Poll:

 Are there cards that you absolutely cannot stand losing to? 
Yes
No

If you clicked “yes,” post what those cards are in our forums, or drop me an email using the link below. I'd love to hear what they are.

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