elcome to Elf Week! For those that were paying attention
, you knew this day would come. For the rest of you, surprise. This week we'll be exploring a race that can be traced back to the very beginning of Magic
(and many would argue long before that). Since I've used up my allotment of "cutesy" articles this last month and a half, I thought I'd use today's column as a chance to tell stories about some Magic
elves. Don't worry, the vast majority of them are about design.
Civic Wayfinder (Ravnica)
As a designer I always find great joy in realizing that a simple straight-forward card has somehow not been made yet. Such was the case with this card. The earliest version of the file had "repeat" marked in the database comments field because I was sure this card must have already been made.
Defiant Elf (Legions)
One of the fun parts of card design is the ability to occasionally make a card that creates a first impression of "huh?"—that is, cards that at first glance without any thought as to how they fit into the ecosystem produce a puzzled expression. A 1/1 creature with trample is one such card. My favorite story about this card is how it got created. The idea of a 1/1 trampler for
tickled my fancy. So whenever the chance would come up to submit it in a meeting, I would. You have to also understand that one of the pastimes of Magic
R&D (okay all of R&D) is to try and tell a ridiculous story with as straight a face as possible. To the best of my recollection (with a dash of dramatic license), here's how Defiant Elf
's inclusion in Legions
Them: We have a hole for a small green card.
Me: I got it. G, 1/1, Trample. It's short, it's simple, it's very elegant.
Them: Why would a 1/1 have trample?
Me: Picture this. He's a little elf but he has spunk. He has passion. No one is going to stand in his way.
Them: Except, you know, a creature with toughness 1 or greater.
Me: That's what makes him so memorable. He has all the heart and just not enough brawn.
Them: What's the value of putting trample on a 1/1?
Me: Other than flavor?
Them: Yes, other than flavor.
Me: For starters, you don't have to pay much for it. You practically get it for free. And who doesn't love free?
Them: Fine, you can make a 1/1 trampler for G. Why would you want to?
Me: Why do people climb Mount Everest? Because it's a challenge. Because saying you've done it gets the other guy to make an impressive non-verbal nod.
Me: Have you ever gotten someone else to make an impressive non-verbal nod? I have, and it is, in fact, impressive.
Them: You climbed Mount Everest?
Me: I don't enjoy climbing stairs.
Them: Then what impressive thing did you do?
Me: I got you to print a 1/1 trampler for G.
Them: (making an impressive non-verbal head nod) Touché.
I believe this card owes its existence to the fact that I found it entertaining to try and get this card into a set. And trust me, this is far from the only one.
Deranged Hermit (Urza's Legacy)
design, Mike Elliott turned in some cards he had made that had a built-in additional cost. You got a permanent for much cheaper, but you had to pay the same cost the next upkeep to keep it. Unfortunately for this mechanic, Tempest
was filled to the brim with new ideas. (Tempest
was the first design team for Mike Elliott and myself, who would end up being two of the most prolific Magic
designers. In addition, the team included Richard Garfield who hadn't designed a Magic
card since Arabian Nights
. Finally was Charlie Catino, who cut his teeth on the design team of Mirage
.) There was so much that we weren't able to fit everything into the set that was turned in. Thus echo was pushed off for a future set which would be Urza's Saga
block a year later.
My big contribution to echo was the addition of "comes into play" effects. I liked the idea that an echo creature with a "comes into play" effect acted like a card that was half-spell / half-creature. It varied on whether or not you chose to pay the echo cost. We held back on "comes into play" effects on echo cards until Urza's Legacy. For Urza's Legacy design (the team being myself, Henry Stern and Mike Elliott as the lead), we went hog-wild.
Meanwhile, I had another agenda at hand. I was a giant fan of Squirrels. I was very eager to find a way to make a Squirrel lord. The problem was that my perceived need for a creature that gave +1/+1 to Squirrels was not exactly a unanimous one. (I know it seems as if I'm constantly at odds with the rest of R&D. I'm not, but the times I am always make for the best stories. I should point out that I had plenty of allies in the Squirrel push, but not even all of them felt the necessity of a Squirrel lord.) In order to make it, I had to find a way to hide it somehow.
Now we bounce back to Urza Legacy's "comes into play" echo designs. I liked the idea of a creature that came into play and made creature tokens. The problem was that if the tokens themselves were the bulk of what you got, why would anyone ever pay the echo cost? Deranged Hermit was the card where everything came together. By making the creature a lord, it had value to keep around. This also allowed us to do one of my favorite things, which is make token producers that create tokens bigger than you first realize because the same card also buffs them. Yeah, yeah, I just did that trick in Eventide.
Once I had the card, I knew I had my Squirrel lord. The card wanted to affect a creature type that wasn't too common so that most often the creature was only buffing its own creatures. But wait, wouldn't the creative team halt all my fun? There was no inherent reason that the creature type had to be Squirrels. That meant that it was the creative team's call. More accurately, it was the call of the person in charge of card concepting. That is, someone had to figure what each card was, and back then, also write the art description for the card. But I had an ace in the hole. Who did the card concepting for Urza's Legacy? Why I did.
The creative team was in the middle of reorganizing and there was no one available to do card concepting. It turned out, though, that there was one person in the company who had already done card concepting on a set: me. I had done the card concepting for Unglued because all the pieces were so intertwined that it was just easiest for me to do it.
So Urza's Legacy had a card that the designer part of me wanted to be a Squirrel lord, and the creative side of me was okay with it, thus was born Deranged Hermit.
I didn't stop there, by the way. Check out one other card concept from Urza's Legacy.
Elf Replica (Mirrodin)
My favorite story about this card's design is this. I knew that I wanted to create some artifact creatures with connections to a specific color. To help hammer this home, I liked the idea of the creatures having creature types traditionally associated with the color they were connected to. For the green-aligned creature, I chose to have it be an elf. The card's original playtest name, by the way, was Robo-Elf. Here was the problem. Have you seen the elves of Mirrodin?
These are the non-artifact elves. The creative team was worried that it would be hard to create an artifact creature elf than stood apart from the normal elves. Multiple times members of the creative team would come up to me and say, "Really, an elf? It has to be an elf?"
My answer was always that I'd like it to be an elf but I understood if they needed to change it. No, no, they said. I want an elf, I'll get an elf. The solution rested in making artificial creatures that felt like they tried to copy the essence without actually having any natural elements. Thus, we ended up with Robo-Elf.
Elves of Deep Shadow (The Dark)
For those that might not have been around when The Dark came out, this was a surprisingly popular card. Why? My best guess was that it wasn't the mechanic of the card. We reprinted it in Ravnica to not much fanfare. My belief is that the excitement was tied into the art. For some reason, a lot of players found "her" to be very cute. Few Magic cards have had the art resonate so strongly entirely separate from mechanical appeal.
The one other piece of trivia about this card is that the card design, name, art, and flavor text were all created by the same person. The only other card I know to accomplish this feat was Look at Me, I'm the DCI. There is some chance that Matt Cavotta might have accomplished this feat, but I don't specifically know of a card.
Elvish Archers (Alpha)
I wasn't too impressed the first time I saw this card. The reason? Well, let me show you the Alpha version of the card:
I remember thinking, why would you make a 1/2 first striker? Then when Beta came out:
I was like, "Oh! That's better." The interesting thing about this card is that it shows an avenue in design that Richard Garfield took they we have since shied away from. In Alpha, Richard had several rare cards that had abilities not found in that color. In fact, what made these rare cards rare was specifically the fact that these ability were "off-color." Equivalent versions in the proper colors show up in the set at lower rarities.
The main reason we've shifted away from this is the realization that rarity was not the barrier than Richard initially envisioned. When Richard created Alpha, he assumed that players would spend at max $40 on the game. Players would never acquire many of the cards with "off-color" abilities, much as they wouldn't be able to acquire many of the power rares, because supply would keep them actually rare. As we all know, it didn't quite work out that way. We very much shy away from using rarity as a means to show something is out of color, because a tournament-viable rare will be acquired and thus become the poster child of the color.
Elvish House Party (Unhinged)
One of the great joys of designing Un-cards is that you get to stretch your design muscles. While restrictions do breed creativity, it's fun every once in a while to just do things you're not normally allowed to do. This card came about because I was looking for items to base a variable power and toughness on. I think the idea for this card came from a fictional card game called Dragon Poker from the Myth Adventure series by Robert Asprin (who recently passed away—may he rest in peace). The joke of Dragon Poker was that it was so complex that the protagonist would never have a chance of actually understanding it. One of the rules they talked about was that card values could change based on what day it was.
Realizing that hours made more sense than days of the week, I decided to connect power and toughness directly to the hour. The card, interestingly enough, was balanced for the middle, meaning that if it's 7:00 or later you're getting a real bargain. Just be careful against stallers when you're attacking with your 12/12.
Elvish Piper (Urza's Destiny)
With all the talk of Barren Glory making the transition from silver-bordered to black, many people don't seem to realize that it's been done before. Okay, Elvish Piper isn't exactly Timmy, Power Gamer...
...but they are both 1/1 green creatures for four mana that can activate to put creatures from your hand into play. It's funny that the black-bordered version is the stronger one. I guess it might have something to do with the complete lack of an Unglued development team.
Essence Warden (Planar Chaos)
When we were working on the "alternate reality" timeshifted cards for Planar Chaos, occasionally we'd come up with a card that seemed odd to not be in the shifted color. Green is the creature color (and thus the color that most benefits off of having creatures) and has life gain. This is definitely one of those cards that might someday break into actual reality.
Gaea's Skyfolk (Apocalypse)
A common question about this card is "What is the green part of it mechanically?" The answer is the creature beef. Blue isn't generally supposed to have a two mana 2/2 (yes, Lord of Atlantis I'm looking at you). Green is. But green has to pay through the nose for flying because it's the worst color at it (red probably would be if Dragons didn't fit red so well). Combine the two colors and you are able to make something neither could on its own. And really, isn't that what gold cards are supposed to do?
Next question, why does it fly if nether merfolk or elves fly? Um, we're out of time. I mean, that's not a design question. I mean, moving on....
Gamekeeper (Urza's Destiny)
Just to put into context the power level of creatures during the time of Urza's Saga block, look at these two cards side by side:
Glissa Sunseeker (Mirrodin)
I already explained the story behind this design during my column Loose Ends.
Here's what I said:
Okay, here's the story. During Mirrodin development (We had already handed off the design file), I was asked to design a card to match Glissa Sunseeker, the hero of the story. The two key parts of the character was that she was good at destroying artifacts and she had synergy with mana. I had the challenge of finding a way to combine the two elements.
The most obvious answer was that she had an activated ability that cost mana that could be used to destroy artifacts. Yawn. Then I thought about an ability that destroyed artifacts and created mana. But we had already done that on the cards Deconstruct and Turn to Dust. How else could I use mana in a way to destroy artifacts? Then it dawned on me. What if I used mana in a different way? What if mana sitting in a pool was used as a means to set a number? After that thought, the mechanic came spilling out.
Heart Warden (Urza's Destiny)
This is one of the Urza Destiny "cycling from play" cards I talked about in my recent ability word column (Ability Word To Your Mother) This card's design came about because I was trying to think of cards that you would eventually no longer have a need for. What cards would you be happy in mid to late game to trade in for a new card? One of the obvious answers was a mana elf. Early game it is very valuable, but once you have enough mana, it becomes far less important.
Hunter of Eyeblights (Lorwyn)
One of the things I enjoy as a designer is to put cards in a set that will grow in value as future sets come out. In a vacuum, Hunter of Eyeblights is a card capable of killing another creature with a little inherent risk. If your opponent can deal with the Hunter before it does its thing, you have buffed one of your opponent's creatures. But in the context of Morningtide and its +1/+1 counter theme (and especially the reinforce mechanic that puts +1/+1 counters on creatures), Hunter of Eyeblights powers up.
Llanowar Elves (Alpha)
Originally when I heard it was Elf Week, I thought about writing an article about the Top 20 best designed Elf cards of all time. I started it but it became clear that Elves weren't the best topic as so many of the best ones hit similar areas. I bring this up because this was my pick for #1. Richard got it right out of the gate and while I feel we've done some excellent elf designs nothing, in my mind, eclipses the original elf.
Medicine Runner (Shadowmoor)
Originally this card removed a -1/-1 counter, but in a desire to both interact better with the Lorwyn block as well as the past in general, we decided that letting it remove any type of counter just made it a better card.
Primal Forcemage (Time Spiral)
This card's design came about because I was trying to twist a convention on its ear. We often have cards that improve or net you a bonus when other things are played or come into play (I hate that "play" means two different things in the same sentence). Not often, though, do cards help the thing that is being played / coming into play. Also, the Johnny in me liked the idea of finding ways to benefit off the fact that all your creatures come into play extra big.
Quirion Ranger (Visions)
Stasis was causing us some problems, so I made a card that would give Stasis fits. Not only did the card let you get land back so you could play it again untapped, it also untapped a creature that Stasis has locked down. Looking back, I feel like I made a Swiss army knife because we had a bottle=opening problem. This card is in my list of the Top Ten Cards I'm Proudest of Having Designed.
Rofellos, Llanowar Emissary (Urza's Destiny)
When Michael Ryan and I first came up with the Weatherlight Saga
, we tried hard to get as many Magic
iconic creatures into the story as we could. One such iconic was the Llanowar elf. The crew already had its "green character" in Mirri. That's when we decided to start searching the past. What important role could a Llanowar elf have held?
As fate would have it, the backstory needed a character to die. You see, when the story starts up, Gerrard has turned his back on the Weatherlight and his destiny. Why? Because he suffered a great loss the shook him to his core. What was the great loss? Well, as my many writing teachers have taught me, to turn a character, you need to take away from them something they value. That thing of value has to be lost because of the actions of your character.
After much discussion, Michael and I hit upon the idea that Gerrard was at first enthusiastic about joining the crew. Our take was that in the beginning he embraced his destiny, so much so that he dragged his friends along for the ride. They didn't want to come but did so out of a loyalty to Gerrard. Then when one of them dies, Gerrard feels responsible and picks up an old theme that his destiny kills all of those he cares about. Gerrard's friend's death is on his head. What if that friend was the Llanowar elf? And thus Rofellos was born.
When designing Urza's Destiny, I knew I needed to make a potent Rofellos card because I wanted the audience to care as much about Rofellos as Gerrard did. Since they wouldn't have the luxury of spending time with him the way Gerrard did, I knew I needed an awesome card design. My jumping-off point was to make him a super-duper Llanowar Elves. Once I knew I wanted him to make a lot of mana, it was pretty easy to find the most flavorful way to do it. Llanowar Elves live in the forest after all.
Safehold Elite (Shadowmoor)
This card was turned over from design as a vanilla 2/2. To paraphrase Monty Python: It got better.
Scarred Vinebreeder (Lorwyn)
As a designer I'm always striving to find different resources we could use. Once Elves were settled in black and green I liked the idea of having a black Elf or two feed off of dead Elves.
Tel-Jilad Chosen (Mirrodin)
There's a theory in psychology that an adult's interests depend very much on things that influenced them in their youth. Part of adulthood seems to be embracing things that provided you comfort during your formative years. I believe the same is true of Magic design. Before I became a Wizards employee I was a Johnny who enjoyed making off-beat decks to entertain my friends. When you played with or against one of my decks, you never quite knew what was in store for you.
Often when I look at my designs, I realize how much they've been influenced by the cards that most impacted me in my Magic "youth." My love of Gauntlet of Might led to Mirari's Wake. My love of Transmute Artifact led to Tinker. My love of Gauntlets of Chaos and Juxtapose led to Donate (Hmm, I'm seeing a pattern here.) This card is just me trying to recapture the hours and hours I spent playing with Antiquities' Argothian Pixies.
Wilt-Leaf Cavaliers (Shadowmoor)
I keep getting people asking about how green gets vigilance. The short answer is because we put it there. Yes, green now has access to vigilance, secondarily that is. The long answer? Click here.
That's all the random rambling I have for today. Join me next week for my annual State of Design column.
Until then, may you learn to love your elf.