Making_Magic

You Had Me At Helvault

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The letter I!t's Helvault Week, so we're going to be talking all about a big hunk of silver and what it's going to mean to the world of Innistrad. Some are going to be talking about this:


Helvault | Art by Jaime Jones

Others will talk about this:

For Helvault Week, I’m going to be talking about this:


What goes into making a card like the Helvault? I'm going to walk you through a tour of some of the past designs that had to solve similar problems to help illuminate many of the issues they bring up.

Spiking the Ball

Once upon a time, Magic sets each lived in their own bubble. The cards in the set were about that set. Each set was selling its own little peek into the Multiverse. Then along came the concept of blocks and all of a sudden sets had to start being aware of other sets around them. It was just the other two sets in the block, but it still required a self-awareness that Magic sets really hadn't had up to that point. (And yes, there were a few examples of interconnectivity before blocks were introduced, such as things like the characters Urza and Mishra.)

Spike Feeder | Art by Heather Hudson

To give the block a cohesion, all the sets in the block had to be aware of one another. This awareness, though, was mostly backwards. Each new set acknowledged what came before it but seldom what came after it. The idea at the time was that things would evolve and that the mere existence of mechanics would get the players to imagine how they could evolve. Buyback with only mana costs in Tempest made players imagine buyback with other costs, something that got realized a set later in Stronghold.

I bring up Tempest because that set tried something new. During Tempest design (Richard Garfield, Mike Elliott, Charlie Catino, and myself), I came up with a mechanic that would later be known as the "Spike mechanic." The most famous card to use that mechanic was a card called Spike Feeder (nicknamed "Peaches" because the art looked like a peach).


Spikes were 0/0 creatures that came into play with a certain number of +1/+1 counters. For two generic mana, you could move a +1/+1 counter from a Spike onto another creature. The Spikes were created in Tempest design but we ended up having more than we could use (it was a strong design team and for two of us, Mike Elliott and myself, it was our very first Magic design team) so we pushed back the Spike mechanic to Stronghold, the second set in the Tempest block.

But then we got a silly idea. What if we gave a little preview of the Spikes in Tempest? Not a big card. In fact, the opposite: the smallest, least impressive card of the bunch—a 1/1 for Green Mana called Spike Drone.


The Spikes didn't have a keyword mechanic, which meant Spike Drone wouldn't draw attention to itself. It would just be a cute little common. The idea was that it was a stealth preview card. No one would know it was teasing the next set until Stronghold came out. There was some debate about it. The other side was worried we'd be lessening the impact of Spikes by giving away the mechanic in Tempest. In the end though, we went with the preview.

So what does this have to do with the Helvault? Remember, it's Helvault Week. Well, Spike Drone was the first little step down a very interesting path. Sets weren't silos that closed themselves off from one another. No, Magic was a living, breathing game and the sets had to convey a sense of continuity. Flavor would take up the burden of this task, but the designers also had to find a way to bring it into the mechanics of the game itself.

Shields Up

Spike Drone seems very innocuous, but in its day it sparked a lot of debates within R&D. The next fight I remember (note that my list today is not comprehensive but more of what I remember when I look back through R&D history) happened during Mirrodin design. The design team (Tyler Bielman, Mike Elliott, Brian Tinsman, and myself) came up with the idea of doing a three-card cycle that would run through all three sets of the block. After much discussion, we settled on the idea of three legendary pieces of Equipment that would all belong to some mighty warrior. If you ever managed to get all three pieces of Equipment onto the battlefield at the same time, something awesome would happen. Here are the three cards that resulted:


We knew we wanted each set to have one of these cards at rare (mythic rare didn't exist yet but these would clearly have been mythic rare if it did). The question was: in what order do we release them? We decided to start with the one that stood alone the easiest, which was the sword. We also knew we wanted the one that clicked them all together to show up in the last set, Fifth Dawn. Interestingly, the controversy rested in the middle card, Shield of Kaldra. Look at it up above and see if you can find the cause of many hours of debate.

Shield of Kaldra, among other things, makes all three pieces of the trio indestructible. In order to do this, it had to name the cards in question. This meant that a card was published with the name of a Magic card written on it that would not be appearing for three months. We had had cards reference other cards before, but usually in the same set. The few other examples were always referencing a card from the past that already existed.

At the time, I argued that it would create a sense of excitement because it would hint at something cool to come. The argument against it was that it put focus on a card the players couldn't get their hands on. Why make people clamor for something three months before they could have it? I countered that once players saw the legendary Sword of Kaldra in Mirrodin and then a legendary Shield of Kaldra in Darksteel, we were all but saying that there was a third piece in Fifth Dawn. Naming the card just put a face on the speculation. It created something for players to build buzz around.

A Sight For Sore Eyes

The next big evolution of hinting at the future pushed the envelope like no set before it. We were designing Time Spiral when I came up with the idea of making the block plan the past, the present, and the future. The past set was filled to the gills with nostalgia, including an entire sheet of reprinted cards. The alternate-reality present set reworked how Magic's color pie intertwined with mechanics. But the biggest stretch of all was the final set, Future Sight. Instead of peeking into the past, Future Sight was going to give the audience glimpses into the future.

One of the conventions of the set was that we would be looking at many possible futures, some of which would come to pass but many of which wouldn't. To capture this mechanically, I did several things. First, I wrote down all the things I knew about upcoming sets. We always plan ahead, so I had knowledge of what was coming. Then I looked through ideas I knew I wanted to use someday. While I didn't know when, I felt confidence in hinting at them, especially because there was no promise that any individual card or mechanic would ever see the light of day. While design was doing that, the creative team was likewise doing the same thing, only with worlds they either knew we were going to or had strong belief we'd visit someday.

Two cards, though, stood out as being the ones that most seemed to promise something coming sooner rather than later. The first was this card:


Goldmeadow Lookout made Goldmeadow Harrier tokens. While its odd that the tokens had a name, what really drew attention to this card was the five other cards in the cycle.


You see, all the cards in the rest of the cycle also made named tokens, but in each case those named tokens were previously released Magic cards. Goldmeadow Lookout was set up to draw attention to itself. The pattern was created by the cycle and then broken conspicuously on Goldmeadow Lookout. We felt this created a pretty clear expectation that Goldmeadow Harrier would show up soon. And it did, a set later, in Lorwyn.


Note that Goldmeadow Lookout also premiered the Kithkin creature type that would be blown out a set later in Lorwyn.

Goldmeadow Lookout was actually the tamer future-hinting card. The more radical one went on to be the breakout card of the set (not for the future-hinting quality but for power level).


Tarmogoyf has gone down in history as one of—if not the—best two-mana creatures in Magic's history. What tends to get glossed over is that the card only existed in the first place not because of its rules text, but because of its reminder text.


During Future Sight design, I was trying to figure out different ways to tease the future. One of the ideas I had was it might be fun to give away something subtly. Rather than have it hitting you in the rules text, we could hide it away in the reminder text that many players gloss over. To do that, though, we'd have to use a piece of reminder text that seemed mundane enough that players would think they'd already read it. With that in mind, I quickly got to the idea of a card that listed the card types in Magic. It's something we do from time to time that I thought would be easy to ignore. The big question was, "What new card type could we create?"

And then something funny happened. Matt Cavotta, at the time the creative team member in charge of names and flavor text and a member of the Future Sight design team (along with Devin Low, Mark Gottlieb, Ryan Miller, Zvi Mowshowitz, and myself), pitched to me the idea of making a new card type out of Planeswalkers. (For the full story, you can read here and here.) We embraced the challenge and tried to design the new planeswalker card type to premiere in Future Sight. We even removed Tarmogoyf to make room for the new green planeswalker.

Playtest Planeswalker Card

The planeswalker design proved more challenging than we expected and we decided to push them off to a future set. Knowing they were going to happen eventually allowed us to put Tarmogoyf back into the set, now with a card type that was actually going to be introduced in the future. Before Future Sight got printed, we realized that tribal was also going to be a card type, so we added it into the reminder text as well.

Future Sight is full of glimpses of the future but Goldmeadow Lookout and Tarmogoyf were the two cards where we planted something we knew the audience would assume was hinting at a known future rather than a potential one.

The Eyes Have It

The next big peek into the future on a card came in Worldwake. We were on the plane of Zendikar and it was clear that something odd was going on. It turns out the Eldrazi, an ancient race, were trapped within the plane and their release from their prison was going to create the third-act twist that would lead to Rise of the Eldrazi, a large set with a new batch of mechanics. This release came as a result of three Planeswalkers (Chandra, Jace, and Sarkhan) returning to the Eye of Ugin, the very place the Eldrazi were imprisoned many years before.

Eye of Ugin | Art by James Paick

Worldwake wanted to set up this big plot event, so it was decided to put the Eye of Ugin into the middle expansion with a mechanic that would hint at what was about to be released. Our goal for the card was simple. We needed it to work well with the Eldrazi but we wanted it to do so in a way that had some function outside of Rise of the Eldrazi. After all, the card would exist for three months before the third set was released.

Knowing the Eldrazi-related cards were mostly large colorless creatures and spells, it was decided that the card would make colorless Eldrazi spells cheaper. This had the nice side effect of getting to mention the Eldrazi by name to pique curiosity. The second ability was created to have a function outside Rise of the Eldrazi (basically, it worked with artifact creatures) but the high activation cost guaranteed that the most effective use would be with the giant Eldrazi creatures coming in the next set.


Eye of Ugin is interesting historically in that its true power wasn't known at its release. Shield of Kaldra had some unknown qualities but the majority of what the card did was evident when the card first showed up in booster packs.

What the Helvault

All of this brings us to the Helvault. Like Eye of Ugin, we wanted to put the card that hinted at the big third-act turn with a card in the second set. Unlike Eye of Ugin, our goals with the card were a bit different. For starters, we wanted to try a card that thematically made sense but wasn't dependent upon the third set to maximize what it did. The card had to connect more thematically than mechanically.


So here's where we started. We knew that when the Helvault was destroyed, all the creatures trapped inside it—including Avacyn, the savior angel, and Griselbrand, the crafty demon—would be released. That led us down the path of a card that exiled creatures but returned them all to play when the Helvault was destroyed. The version turned in from design had a single cost to exile any creature and had the same death trigger it was printed with.

The big change in development was the separating of the activations for exiling your own creatures versus those of other players. The design version had to be costed as if you were using it on the opponent's creatures, making it too expensive to ever use it to save your own. The separation into two activations solved this problem.

Remember that when the Helvault was first published, the knowledge of it was not yet public. Flavor text hinted at what was to come, but the Helvault's role in Avacyn Restored was not yet known. That meant that one of the big clues of what was going on was Helvault's mechanic itself. I'm very happy with how the card turned out.

Glimpsing the Future

Writing this article has really brought to my attention that this is an area we've barely tapped. Almost every example I gave fulfilled its role as a means to tease the audience, although sometimes more consciously than others. I'm curious to hear your feedback on whether you like this kind of thing, because if we embrace it more there are a lot of interesting design areas for us to explore. As always, use any one of my many social media outlets (my email, this thread, my Twitter, my Tumblr, my Google+ account) to let me know what you think.

Join me next week when we finally get to crack open a Helvault of a different kind as Avacyn Restored previews begin.

Until then, may you enjoy peeking into the future.

But Wait, That's Not All!

One last thing before I leave you for today. I have the results of last week's polls from Zac and my Point/Counterpoint feature:

Should draw be targeted as default?
(From Mark Rosewater's Article)
Yes 6016 49.7%
No 4461 36.9%
I don't know 1626 13.4%
Total 12103 100.0%

Should draw be targeted as default?
(From Zac Hill's Article)
Yes 3498 52.1%
No 2730 40.7%
I don't know 480 7.2%
Total 6708 100.0%

I'll let all of you debate what exactly these results mean. Here are my two takeaways:

  1. This issue is not just a sticky wicket for R&D. All of you seem to be split as well. Hopefully, this series hit home the point that R&D has to dig deep to make Magic and there are many issues that are not as clear cut as you might think at first blush.
  2. Regardless of which side you took, the majority of you communicated loudly that you like the Point/Counterpoint feature, which means it will be back (probably later in the year). Zac and I just have to find something else to disagree on. It shouldn't be hard.


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