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The story of Lorwyn's splashy rare spells

Your Wish Is My Command

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Wizards of the Coast is out of the office for the Thanksgiving holiday and will return with new articles beginning Monday, November 26. In case you missed it (and even if you didn't), what follows is the article that ran in this slot last week. Have a great weekend, happy Thanksgiving vacation to our United Statesian audience, and we'll see all of you Monday!

Kelly Digges, editor of magicthegathering.com


An elf and a goblin walk into a bar.

The elf says, "What happened to Devin?"

The goblin says, "He's writing next week's Feature Article, so we get Forsythe again."

The letter H!ello, again! I have been enjoying three things since I last occupied this post: reading Devin's articles, not writing articles myself, and Lorwyn. Sadly, numbers one and two aren't options this week, but I'll try to make the best of it. To make this experience as enjoyable as possible for myself, I'm going to talk about my favorite cycle in Lorwyn, the Commands.

As a designer, I really enjoy it when sets contain rare cycles of spells that aren't really in-theme with the rest of what's going on, for two reasons. One, they give the set another "hook" for players to talk about without adding additional complex layers to the set's gameplay, and two, they allow us to make things that might excite players that would otherwise not enjoy that set's particular theme. (Yes, believe it or not, there are players out there that don't like tribal! No, I don't want email explaining why you are one of them! I bet you hate circuses and ice cream, too!)

Cunning Wish, Beacon of Destruction, and Shining ShoalThree standout cycles of this ilk are the Wishes from Judgment, the Beacons from Fifth Dawn, and the Shoals from Betrayers of Kamigawa. They were hyped to varying degrees—Judgment was basically marketed on the backs of the Wishes, whereas the Beacons were much "quieter" in Fifth Dawn. Each is a solid, splashy cycle that had impact on the tournament scene, but wasn't beholden to their sets' respective themes of green-white matters, five-color artifacts, and Spirits and Ninjas. They were just great Magic cards in a vacuum.

When I was anointed the lead designer of Lorwyn, I made sure to carve out slots for such a cycle. I knew that this set in particular was going to be very creature-focused and that I wanted something that would wow the Spikier crowd—you know, those guys that like to Wrath away creatures as opposed to play them.

The idea for the Command cycle—called the "Choose-Two" cycle in design and development—came from a card I designed as a potential hole-filler for Dissension. It was a black-red uncommon called "Rakdos Choose-Two Charm" and it was similar in structure to the cycle in Lorwyn—a modal card in which you chose two of four. I'm glad the card wasn't selected to be used in Dissension as that would have precluded the Lorwyn cycle from existing.

In general, I love the gameplay of modal cards in Magic (although I will admit that many of them add up to hodge-podge spells that are essentially flavorless, which means we shouldn't do them all that often). Modal cards allow you to put cards into your deck with effects that you wouldn't normally include. I know I'd probably never put an instant into a deck that did nothing but make a creature lose flying, but some percentage of the times I played Emerald Charm—usually included in my decks for its ability to destroy global enchantments—I used it to take flying away from something at a key moment.

So my goal was to make cards that were both utility and splashy. I was sure I could do it, but unsure of how the rest of the design team would react to them, so I did a bit of "vigilante design," making them myself and putting them into the file just before the handoff to development. Here's what I handed off:

White Choose-Two
4WW
Sorcery
Choose two - Destroy all creatures; or destroy all lands; or destroy all artifacts and enchantments; or each player discards his or her hand.
Blue Choose-Two
1UUU
Instant
Choose two - Counter target spell; or return target permanent to its owner's hand; or tap all creatures you don't control; or draw a card.
Black Choose-Two
XBB
Sorcery
Choose two - Target player loses X life; or target creature gets -X/-X; or return target creature card with converted mana cost X or less in a graveyard to play under your control; or you gain X life.
Red Choose-Two
3RR
Instant
Choose two - CARDNAME deals 2 damage to each creature and player; or CARDNAME deals 4 damage to target creature or player; or destroy target land; or choose new targets for target instant or sorcery spell.
Green Choose-Two
4GG
Instant
Choose two - Put a 4/4 green Elemental creature token into play; or put four 1/1 green Elf Warrior creature tokens into play; or gain 8 life; or CARDNAME deals 4 damage to each creature with flying.

From here, development went to work.

Austere Command

White Choose-Two
4WW
Sorcery
Choose two - Destroy all creatures; or destroy all lands; or destroy all artifacts and enchantments; or each player discards his or her hand.

The white one was certainly the most ambitious from a design standpoint, not just because of its power but because of what abilities it was trying to give to white. Wrath of God is white, Purify is white, Armageddon is potentially still white, but Mind Twist all players? Does that make any sense? It does to me, as it is a form of "balancing" or mass destruction. "Destroy all _____" is white, and to me, "destroying" all the cards in players' hands is a logical extension of that. I'm not sure anyone else bought that argument or if it came off the card just because of how absurdly powerful it was. (Imagine: "I have bigger creatures than you, so I'll destroy all lands and we'll both discard our hands. Good luck!")

The ability that initially replaced the mass Mind Twist was Morningtide (the card, not the set), meaning "Remove all cards in graveyards from the game," another mass removal effect of sorts. From there, "Wrath-ageddon" was still to potent a card, and the land-destroying part was removed, and destroying artifacts and destroying enchantments were split out into their own abilities. The problem there was that the card now had essentially one powerful mode (Wrath) and three situational ones. To remedy that, the development team ditched the anti-graveyard clause and split the Wrath ability into a half that destroyed cheap creatures and a half that destroyed expensive ones. Suddenly the card was offering interesting play decisions, as it was possible to destroy all your opponents key permanents and none of your own—Austere Command is a terrific Wrath variant.

Cryptic Command

Blue Choose-Two
1UUU
Instant
Choose two - Counter target spell; or return target permanent to its owner's hand; or tap all creatures you don't control; or draw a card.

The Blue Choose-Two should look familiar—it was printed in a state almost identical to the one submitted ("tap all creatures you don't control" became "tap all creatures opponents control" to be friendlier in team games). But that doesn't mean it didn't undergo a few changes along the way. Our initial impressions after playing with it were that it was too good, although the abilities were reasonable. To solve that, its mana cost was increased to 3 ManaBlue ManaBlue Mana where it stayed for a good chunk of development. Unfortunately, at 3 ManaBlue ManaBlue Mana the card wasn't played much in the FFL. To make it more appealing, the last ability was altered to become "draw two cards"—a change that made the card certainly playable, but much less interesting as every time it was played "draw two cards" was chosen as one of the modes. So it was reverted to draw one again and stayed at five mana.

Toward the end of development, we had a change of heart about the four-mana version being "too good" and decided that it was simply "very good," thus it went back to 1 ManaBlue ManaBlue ManaBlue Mana. A powerful card, to be sure, but I was happy to see it come back as players' favorite card in the set as a result of our online surveys.

Profane Command

Black Choose-Two
XBB
Sorcery
Choose two - Target player loses X life; or target creature gets -X/-X; or return target creature card with converted mana cost X or less in a graveyard to play under your control; or you gain X life.

The Black Choose-Two was always an X-spell; I guess I designed one that way because I could, and black was the best choice because as a color it has access to the widest variety of scaling effects. Like the first two, the submitted version felt too powerful initially, mainly because of the life gain element; often times a race was lost because of a four- or five-point increase in life essentially for free on a removal / burn / reanimation spell. All told, the card was strictly better than Consume Spirit by a mile, and that really bugged development as Consume Spirit is a fine constructed card in its own right. To compensate, the first ability was changed to "Each player loses X life" and later the mana cost was increased to X ManaBlack ManaBlack ManaBlack Mana.

With these changes, the card drifted out of Constructed play. As it sat on the sidelines, complaints started coming in that "gain X life" as a mode felt very out of flavor for black. My argument for including it in the first place was that it allowed you to "build" a Consume Spirit on either a creature or player, much as the blue one let you "build" Dismiss and the white one let you "build" Akroma's Vengeance (initially). But considering the number of people that didn't like it and didn't see it as fitting, it was a wrong choice. Once the life gain was removed and replaced with the "up to X target creatures gain fear" ability (Mind Twist was a contender for, oh, about an hour), the rest of the card was restored to its original functionality, including making a single player lose X life for X ManaBlack ManaBlack Mana.

Incendiary Command

Red Choose-Two
3RR
Instant
Choose two - CARDNAME deals 2 damage to each creature and player; or CARDNAME deals 4 damage to target creature or player; or destroy target land; or choose new targets for target instant or sorcery spell.

Like the white one, the Red Choose-Two was an ambitiously insane design from a power standpoint. End-of-turn Stone Rain + Steam Blast was absurd versus most tribe decks, and the ability to kill larger creatures with the "deal 4" option often meant your opponent was going to be losing lots of permanents every time this was played. And in a pinch, it was a six-damage burn spell to the opponent's dome for five mana.

Development killed the land destruction part first, replacing it with a spell-copying mode, a la Fork or Twincast. That change inadvertently created a two-card combo kill: Red Choose-Two and Twincast (or Reiterate). All you had to do was wait for an opponent to play an instant or sorcery (or get enough mana to play another one yourself), the play the Choose-Two, choosing to deal 4 to the opponent and copy the instant/sorcery on the stack. From there, you Twincast the Choose-Two, dealing 4 again and copying the Twincast (you have to choose the same modes when copying). As the Twincast never actually gets a change to leave the stack, this combo could kill any number of players from any life total, all at end of turn having done nothing else the entire game. As is typical with such combos, our rogue deckbuilder extraordinaire Steve Warner unleashed this monstrosity on the FFL, and we're grateful he found it.

To solve that problem, the Fork and Shunt modes were stripped off and made into their own card, Wild Ricochet. Land destruction was reinstated, this time hitting only nonbasics, and the "Winds of Change" option was created. (I love this mode; in the true spirit of modal spells, it comes up more often than you'd think when playing the card). The Pyroclasm effect was altered to no longer damage players and "instant" became "sorcery" for balance.

That said, the card was still pretty ridiculous as a removal spell and was continuing to blow out our creature decks. Using the same logic that killed Shard Phoenix from Tenth Edition—we didn't want to crush tribe decks before they ever got off the ground—the "deal 4" option was changed to hit just players. Sadly, this change left the card as the worst of the cycle in the end, but something had to end up with that title.

Primal Command

Green Choose-Two
4GG
Instant
Choose two - Put a 4/4 green Elemental creature token into play; or put four 1/1 green Elf Warrior creature tokens into play; or gain 8 life; or CARDNAME deals 4 damage to each creature with flying.

The Green Choose-Two was the only one that was scrapped in its entirety by development. The reasons were twofold: One, green had tons of fat creatures and very few spells at rare, and a spell that made a fat creature wasn't what the set needed. Two—and much funnier—the card Guardian of Cloverdell already did a lot of what the Choose-Two was doing, including giving you one big creature, a bunch of smaller ones, and some life gain. The card was totally devastating, an instant entwined One Dozen Eyes that demolished opponents that were foolish enough to attack into someone with six mana untapped.

Mark Gottlieb and I came up with a suite of new abilities for the card one day:

Choose two - You gain 10 life; or put a +1/+1 counter on each creature you control; or put target noncreature permanent on top of its owner's library; or search your library for a creature card, reveal it, put it into your hand, and shuffle your library.

Development didn't like that this version didn't let you "build" any kind of known spell with the modes, so they chopped out the +1 counter option and added a mode that shuffled a graveyard into a library, and then ordered the abilities so that you could "combo" the modes in two ways. Either you could shuffle your own graveyard in and then tutor, allowing you to essentially get something that was in your graveyard, or you could put an opponent's permanent on top of his or her library and then force them to shuffle it in. For balance reasons, 10 life was dropped to 7, and the card went from a six-mana instant to a five-mana sorcery.

I believe this card is currently being underrated; it gives green a decent answer to planeswalkers or graveyard shenanigans like Haakon, Stromgald Scourge in a pinch, and the life gain + tutor modes swing many creature fights. Plus the tutor option lets you include single copies of cards like Riftsweeper or Viridian Shaman.

Laundry Coleman won Louisiana States this year with a deck featuring Primal Command; I'm sure he used it to tutor up Crovax quite a few times.


And those are the Lorwyn Commands. I'm thrilled with how they turned out—their art is mysterious and beautiful, their power-level is spot-on for high-level play, and their list of options all include a few surprises that can bail you out of oddball situations.

We now return you to your regularly-scheduled Devin Low.

Last Week's Poll

Before reading this sentence, did you realize that you can champion the enchantment Militia's Pride with Thoughtweft Trio?
Yes 6110 70.2%
No 2589 29.8%
Total 8699 100.0%

The ability to champion noncreatures was instituted quite late in development. We figured that tribal cards were meant to be equivalent to creatures in as many zones as possible, and that included their ability to be championed, even if the flavor of how that works isn't obvious. I hope that for those of you that selected "no," that moment of discovery was a positive one!

This Week's Poll

Which are your favorite splashy rare spell cycles? Choose two

The Winds from Prophecy
The Wishes from Judgment
The Decrees from Scourge
The Pulses from Darksteel
The Beacons from Fifth Dawn
The Shoals from Betrayers of Kamigawa
The epic spells from Saviors of Kamigawa
The Pacts from Future Sight
The Commands from Lorwyn
Some other splashy cycle of rare instants and/or sorceries

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