From Kuala Lumpur to Planeshift, the making of a Magic card
With this season's Magic Invitational mere days away, this seems like a good time to update everyone on the card proposed by Chris Pikula, last year's winner. The prize for winning the Invitational-Magic's All-Star Game-is the right to design a Magic card. Pikula's card is going to appear in the Planeshift set, which will be released in February. Just about everything that can happen to a card between its initial design and the press happened to Pikula's card...
When Chris Pikula pulled off what he described as "the impossible dream"-beating Jon Finkel in the finals of last season's Magic Invitational-he submitted the following card to R&D:
When The Meddler comes into play, name a spell.
Sacrifice The Meddler: Counter the named spell.
His self-stated goal was to make a card that could shut down those hated combo decks. In particular, he wanted to make a card that could be played main deck in Extended.
For the first time, R&D actually made an Invitational winner's card better than the card that was submitted ... a lot better. Darwin Kastle and Mike Long each submitted cards that R&D felt were too good, so they were weakened a bit (Kastle's original Avalanche Riders didn't have echo and Long's Rootwater Thief didn't cost any mana to activate the "Jester's Cap" ability). I was on the Planeshift development team in charge of Pikula's card. One of the first things we decided was that we really wanted it to be a good card-that is, a card that would get played in Constructed. I built a "Future Future League" deck with The Meddler and quickly discovered that it really wasn't that good. Even if you succeeded in guessing a spell that your opponent actually had in hand, you had to sacrifice your guy to actually counter the spell. That's really only worth playing against a combo deck, and there aren't any good ones in Standard anymore.
We talked about changing The Meddler into a 2/3 creature for 1UU. That would make it better, but that's just because blue doesn't normally get a 3-mana 2/3 creature with an ability. Turning Pikula's card into a big brawling creature seemed both out of flavor for blue and contrary to the spirit of Pikula's submission.
That's when it hit us. I think it was William Jockusch who made the suggestion: What if we changed the ability to "the named spell cannot be played"? We turned it into a one-way Null Chamber! Since you'd no longer need to sacrifice it, the card would cancel out all copies of the card you named and you'd still get a 2/2 creature. It followed immediately that the card should be blue/white. While Pikula (and the rest of the world) didn't know way back in April that Invasion and Planeshift would be full of gold cards, we obviously did. Connecting this high-profile card into one of the major themes of the set was certainly seen as desirable. Most importantly, though, Null Chamber was white and white has a history of other effects that preemptively stop players from playing their spells (Presence of the Master, Ivory Mask, etc.).
The last real decision we had to make was how aggressively to cost the new Meddler. Since we'd already agreed that we wanted it to be a factor in Constructed, we started out ultra-aggressive: WU for a 2/2. We often try out cards at mana costs that might be a little bit too good just to see what effect they will have on our Future League. The Meddler proved to be really, really good at WU, but we didn't think he was broken. In addition, we kind of liked the effect that it had on deck construction. People actually had to think about whether they wanted to put four copies of all their key spells in their decks. Our blue/white control deck, for example, actually wound up playing a mixture of Wrath of God and Rout just so a second turn "Pikula, naming Wrath" wouldn't single-handedly destroy the deck's chances.
After a few months of playtesting we concluded that "Pikula" might be the best card in Planeshift, but we were OK with that for a number of reasons. It doesn't work in the typical blue/white deck: Old School Control. Instead it could lead to the rise of a (more or less) new style of deck-blue/white beatdown. In addition, any card that leads people to think about diversifying their spells during deckbuilding such that they don't play four of everything is new, different, and interesting. Finally, "Pikula" is a skill-testing card. It rewards players who can figure out quickly what decks their opponents are playing, how they work, and which spells are critical in the match-up. We were a little worried about the way the card encourages players to scout their potential future opponents and also a little worried about the memory issues inherent with any card that asks players to name something and then remember it for the rest of the game. On balance though, we felt the good vastly outweighed the bad with this card so we went with it.
That may sound like the end of the story, but there were still a few other issues that came up with respect to this card. First of all, we had to name it. I suggested "Alukip, the Meddler" (that's Pikula backwards) but this name failed for two reasons. First of all, we don't use "Name, the Something" constructions for anything but Legends, which this was not. In addition, we reserve anagrams of names of real-world people for Magic game designers. "The Meddler" was no good either since we don't like to start card names with "The." (We learned this mistake when people felt obligated to refer to cards like "The Fallen" as "the The Fallen.") I don't remember who suggested Meddling Mage-probably Daneen McDermott or Scott McGough from the continuity department-but it was both a good name and really close to the name Pikula suggested, so it stuck.
Getting the art for Pikula's card was fairly straight-forward. We got some pictures of Chris from Sideboard coverage of various events and sent them to Christopher Moeller, the artist, to use as a model. Of course, anyone who knows Chris knows that he ALWAYS wears a baseball cap. There aren't any baseball caps in Dominaria (something about not having baseball) so we decided to give him a robe with a hood.
Once the R&D development team for a set has decided how we want the cards to work, we then turn the set over to a templating team composed of rules experts and representatives from both editing and R&D. They decide precisely how to word each card in the set. They pointed out a functional difference between two possible wordings of this card and bounced the issue back to R&D so we could decide which one we wanted. Should it read, "When Meddling Mage comes into play, name a spell," or "As Meddling Mage comes into play, name a spell"? The first wording matches the original card design, but the effect would go on the stack after the creature comes into play, so your opponent can respond to it. We thought it would be really dumb if you played a Meddling Mage, named "Shock," and then your opponent responded by destroying it with a Shock, so we decided to go with the "as comes into play" wording. It's a little bit confusing because it forces players to choose a card in the ill-understood window in Magic time after the spell resolves but before the creature comes into play. However, that gave us the functionality we wanted so we went with it.
Meddling Mage also had room for flavor text. Pikula is one of the most famous Pro Tour personalities and his storytelling abilities in particular are legendary. Between rounds at a tournament, you'll often find Pikula at the center of a large circle of people listening to him loudly relate the events of recent rounds. Scott McGough saw an opportunity here to come up with flavor text that would fit into the Magic storyline, but also pay homage to Chris. The idea was that people who knew Chris would love the flavor text because they got the joke, but the flavor text would still make sense to people who didn't know the connection. My first suggestion was "I would have gotten away with it, too, if it hadn't been for those meddling mages!" but Continuity did not feel that Scooby Doo references were consistent with our world. We wound up going with McGough's first suggestion: "Meddling mages chant so loudly that no one else can get a spell in edgewise."
Once Planeshift typesetting started and editing got the first proofs back, Magic Lead Editor Bill McQuillan noticed that the flavor text just barely spilled onto a third line so it didn't look very good on the card. He decided to trim the word "else" from the flavor text since it wasn't really necessary and then the flavor text would be exactly two lines long.
Finally, a day before the cards went to film, acting rules-manager Brady Dommermuth was trying to figure out exactly how Meddling Mage works with the split cards from Invasion when he realized that the wording on the card doesn't actually work. The word "spell" is defined in such a way that you can only "name a spell" that's currently on the stack! That's obviously not the intention so we changed the wording to "name a card." Thirty minutes later we looked at a new proof of the card and realized it needed one last tweak: "As Meddling Mage comes into play, name a card" is BAH-roken because you can say "Mountain." Thus we had to add "nonland" and that was that. Chris Pikula's Invitational card went off to the printer looking like this:
Creature - Wizard
As Meddling Mage comes into play, name a nonland card.
The named card can't be played.
Meddling mages chant so loudly that no one can get a spell in edgewise.