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Inside Planechase

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The letter T!he Multiverse can be a vast and confusing place to navigate. More than one Planeswalker has gotten lost in the Blind Eternities, and if you're afraid to stop and ask the nearest Eldrazi for directions, you can be stranded for eons! Not to worry. Planechase gives you everything you need to wage an epic multiplayer war against your friends across a multitude of innocent planes, leaving nothing but devastation and chaos in your wake. Chances are, you're originally from the Multiverse, as it happens to encompass all of existence, so it's impossible for you to be from anywhere else. But do you ever really stop to explore it? With a Planechase box in your hands, you'll be ready to roll. Literally.


Welcome back to Planechase! If you're a fan of the original, you're definitely in for a treat. If you missed the first releases back in 2009, you're also in for a treat! I just hope you like treats. My name is Mark Gottlieb, and I was the lead developer for this edition of Planechase. I have a whopping three preview cards sprinkled throughout this article, so let's get to it.

Planewhaaaa?

Chaos Symbol

If you're reading this, there's a good chance you know what Planechase is. But you might not. So let's start there. (If you're already up to speed, you can jump to the next section.)

Planechase is a casual multiplayer format in which the game is affected by planar cards. These are oversized cards that have global effects on the game. Many are positive effects, some are negative effects, and a few are just goofy. There will be exactly one face-up plane at any given time (um... usually... but I'll get to that later). On your turn, you can roll a planar die to attempt to planeswalk—that is, to change to a different face-up planar card. Each time you roll, you have a 1-in-6 chance of planeswalking and a 1-in-6 chance of rolling the chaos symbol, which causes an ability on the planar card to trigger and do... something. Your first die roll on your turn is free; each subsequent roll costs you one more mana than the last one.


Okay, so there's a face-up planar card doing a thing. Beyond that, you're just playing Magic. Typically, it's a free-for-all multiplayer game. But you can layer planar cards onto any kind of game you want, one popular combination is adding them to games of Commander.

In the 2012 edition (just as in the 2009 edition), there are four different boxes available. Each one comes with a normal sixty-card deck, a ten-card planar deck, and a planar die. The ten cards in each planar deck are unique to its box; they're not randomized. Get all four boxes and you'll get all forty planar cards. You can play right out of the box, or you can match the planes with any of your favorite Magic decks. Each player can have his or her own planar deck, or the game's host can plop down a big ol' pile of planes in the middle of the table for everyone to share. Best of all, these new planes are completely compatible and mixable with the original ones!

New & Improved & New

Here's where it gets really interesting. The first edition of Planechase was awesome. But we spent months in intense brainstorming sessions asking ourselves one crucial question: Could it be even more awesome?

Yes. Yes it can.

There are four primary ways in which we've outawesomed ourselves.

Outawesome Maneuver #1: Phenomena

Planechase traces its roots back to a casual format known as "Chaos Magic." There were never any formal rules for Chaos Magic; different play groups would each do their own thing according to their own house rules. But, essentially, you'd have a stack of Magic cards that formed a chaos deck. At certain intervals (due to a die roll, or whose turn it was, or how much time had elapsed, or whatever), the top card would be flipped over. Sometimes this card was an enchantment (like Caverns of Despair) that would continually have its effect on the game. Sometimes it was a sorcery (like Wrath of God) that would shake up the game and then go away.


In the original edition of Planechase, every card in your planar deck was, fittingly, a plane. "Plane" was a new card type created for this format. These were modeled after the enchantments that would pop up in Chaos Magic, with a couple of crucial differences. One, the abilities on these cards were specifically designed for Planechase, as opposed to being repurposed enchantments designed for duels. And two, they had chaos abilities on them.

This edition of Planechase introduces another new card type: phenomenon. These are modeled after the idea of sorceries interspersed into a chaos deck. They are transient events that bend the game sideways in the midst of a planeswalk. We've already previewed Time Distortion, for example.


Planeswalker Symbol

Let's say you just rolled the Planeswalker symbol on the planar die. The plane that was face-up is tucked on the bottom of the planar deck it came from. You reveal the next planar card, and it's Time Distortion! It has its effect on the game (in this case, reversing the turn order, so after your turn is over, the player who took the turn before you will take the next turn after you, and play will proceed in that new order). Then you keep planeswalking. Tuck Time Distortion away, and reveal the next planar card. If it's another phenomenon, repeat the procedure; you'll keep going until you find a new plane to land on.

Not all phenomena do a bizarre thing that changes the fundamental nature of the game. Some act more like actual sorceries you're familiar with. But yeah, there are some other crazy phenomena too.


After you encounter Spatial Merging, you will wind up on two face-up planes simultaneously. (The way Spatial Merging is written, you'll ignore any phenomena you run into while looking for the next two planes. Trust me, it's much more sensible this way. This is the only phenomenon that works like that.) Having one face-up plane is interesting. Having two face-up planes can be bonkers. All their abilities work. If you roll chaos, both triggered abilities happen. If you planeswalk away, you'll wind up on just one plane. (In other words, Spatial Merging's ability applies just once; it doesn't continue to warp the rest of the game.)

Now, I can't spoil any plane cards (except the one coming up later), so I can't show you what this might do with the new crop of planes. But we can look at original Planechase planes! It's cool when two disparate planes have their effects simultaneously, because we all know that more is always better. But sometimes you hit two planes that combo together, and that's when you need to install new numbers on your insan-o-meter. Imagine what happens when you Spatially Merge Immersturm and Stronghold Furnace , or Academy at Tolaria West and Sea of Sand. The combinations are endless! [Note: The combinations are not mathematically endless.]



Each of the four new Planechase boxes contains a ten-card planar deck. Eight of these cards are new planes. Two of them are phenomena. Be sure to look both ways before crossing the Blind Eternities, kids.

Outawesome Maneuver #2: Revisiting Cool Keywords

The original Planechase decks were built around traditional theme deck themes: Zombies, artifacts, Elementals, and red-white aggression. The new decks take a more unusual angle. They each revisit a keyword.

Night of the Ninja

This is a blue-black deck filled with... wait for it... Ninjas! (Surprised, right?) To support that theme, it contains small evasive creatures that can get through your opponents' defenses and get upgraded to Ninja-hood. It's also got some card-drawing and control elements.

Chaos Reigns

This is a five-color deck (although it's mostly blue, red, and green) built around cascade. As such, it embraces randomness and chaos. Some of the cards you cascade into are, perhaps, not what you'd expect (or what your opponents will expect!)

Primordial Hunger

This is a red-green deck focused on devour. This might seem like a terrible plan for multiplayer: Sacrifice your own resources to create one huge threat that can get bounced or killed? But it ain't like that. This deck is filled with creatures that love to die, often giving you replacement creatures in the process. Yummy tokens abound. Plus there are a few... back-up plans in place.

Savage Auras

A green-white deck that brings back totem armor within a larger Aura theme. Suit up your creatures into nigh-unkillable monstrosities while also gaining bonuses along the way. The deck has creatures that want to become enchanted, creatures that do things while they're enchanted, and cards that provide benefits when you cast enchantments.

Outawesome Maneuver #3: Brand-New Cards

In the original Planechase edition, the sixty-card Magic decks were made entirely of reprinted cards. But not this time!

In last year's Magic: The Gathering Commander decks, we created brand-new cards specifically for a non-booster-pack product for the first time. These cards are legal in Eternal formats (Legacy and Vintage), but more importantly, they are legal in—and designed for—casual multiplayer games. We got to make cards that just wouldn't fit into a normal expansion. And it was a huge success! Why would we stop?


Each sixty-card Planechase deck contains six brand-new cards:

  • A mythic rare multicolored legendary creature that serves as the deck's catalyst... and is also perfect for building a new Commander deck around.
  • Two rare cards that each appear once.
  • Two uncommon cards that each appear twice.
  • A common card that appears once in each Planechase deck.

Some of the new cards were designed to be cool in multiplayer games. But more frequently, the new cards were designed to serve their deck themes. Does that mean there are brand-new Ninjas? YES. Does that mean there are brand-new cards with cascade? YES. New token-making cards that juice devour decks (among other things)? YES. New ridiculous tools for enchantment-based decks? YES.

Fractured Powerstone | Art by Rob Alexander

And what about that one common card? This is the only place we specifically mentioned Planechase mechanics on a traditional Magic card. Unlike all the other new cards, it's not that useful anywhere else. But if you're cruising between planes, this is a handy little subway token!

* In non-Planechase games, Fractured Powerstone's second ability will have no effect.

* Rolling the planar die this way doesn't count when determining the cost of the special action of rolling the planar die. For example, if you roll the planar die twice in a turn, then activate Fractured Powerstone to roll it a third time, rolling the planar die again that turn will cost {2}.


Outawesome Maneuver #4: New Tech

Naturally, it can be said that the heart of Planechase is the planes themselves. That's what sets the format apart from anything else within Magic. The planes add the sizzle, the pizzazz, the razzle-dazzle. What I'm saying is that they're filled with Zs. But they're also fun/different/weird/interesting/goofy/chaotic, and that's the appeal. The first batch of planes were done so well that we designers and developers definitely had our work cut out for us this time around. And we didn't take the job lightly. In fact, different groups have been working on making new planes for years. Whenever there was an opportunity—a window of time—a group of people would see what planes we could go to next.

Most excitingly, the plane designs came about in multiple different ways, because each methodology would yield something a little different and a lot exciting.

  • We started with locations. We would pick a setting we wanted to explore, such as a region of Innistrad, an area of Ravnica, a place visited in the webcomics, or a site from the Magic novels, and make top-down designs based on that place.
  • We started with art. A select group of artists were tapped to create unique, fascinating visual landscapes. Many of these were labeled as "Artist's Playground." Then we would design abilities based on the art.
  • We started with mechanics. When we need specific cards for a set (usually rares and mythic rares, although not always), we enlist a number of creative individuals to fill "holes." A couple of years ago, we tapped a group of these hole-fillers to create planes. We had a stockpile of planes that were already designed before Planechase design started!
  • We started with decks. For example, the Savage Auras deck really wanted a plane that interacted with Auras in a cool way, so we designed one to pair with it. This happened a few times.

Of course, the planes (and the phenomena, and the unique cards, and the decks) went through the development process. Some planes were awesome right off the bat and never changed. Others led to unfun gameplay, or bad play patterns, or didn't really have any impact on the game, and needed to be changed or killed. As we were going through this process, we realized we had some pretty neat tools on our workbench that we didn't use the first time around. We came up with some new planar technology. We didn't overuse it, and it can be subtle, but it was exciting to discover. To show this process in action, I'm going to walk through the development of today's last preview card.

Idol Hands

This card was an art-first design, and you'll be able to see why. It's simply outstanding. As the art was created by Philip Straub, this card began its life with the name Straubland.

Art by Philip Straub

This is clearly a place of vile death. Note to self: Do not invest in a timeshare here. Fittingly, the original design went straight for the corpses.

At the end of your turn, sacrifice a creature.
Whenever you roll [chaos], all other players sacrifice a creature.

While the card hit the nail squarely on the head, it didn't play well. It disincentivized players from casting creature spells, since those creatures would be immediately eaten by the black-smoke-belching spiky volcano-chimney of doom. Sometimes it would lead to interesting decisions (Do I cast an expendable creature to keep my existing creature alive? Do I just stay here so the next player feels the pain too?), but usually you rolled as much as possible to get out of here immediately. It was underwhelming, and it was changed.

At the beginning of your upkeep, sacrifice a creature.
Whenever you roll [chaos], return target creature from your graveyard to the battlefield that went to the graveyard this turn.

The sacrifice was moved to the beginning of the turn, not the end, so any creatures you cast would at least live though the turn. Plus, the card gained a positive chaos ability to balance out the negative upkeep trigger. And the playtest name was changed to Nightgrasp, on the plane of Azgol.

Further playtesting showed that it still wasn't in a good spot, though. For one thing, I didn't like the new chaos ability. That's a lot of words, and a big hoop, just to get back to where you were before your turn started. I wound up killing it in development.

As for the sacrifice ability, it now often meant the game would stagnate as no one rolled, because if you were forced to sacrifice a creature, you can bet you want the player after you to sacrifice a creature too. Once the board was bereft of life, planeswalking meant that your opponents could get a jump on you in their repopulation efforts, so you probably had no interest in leaving anytime soon. Ugh. This is where the new tech came into play.

At the beginning of your upkeep, sacrifice a creature. If you can't, planeswalk.
Whenever you roll [chaos], HOLE.

Those are words we've never written on a card before. I realized there's no reason planeswalking has to be limited to just the planar die! A resolving ability can have you planeswalk just as well. Now, if you can't appease the hungry pit dwellers, they boot you off their plane and force the game to move forward.

We still needed a new chaos ability. The old chaos ability gave you a creature to balance out the first ability killing a creature. We liked that death/rebirth dichotomy within the card, just not the execution of it. We started toying with Zombie tokens, which felt very appropriate for this Plane of Death. Oddly, we wound up in a place very similar to a 2009 plane: The Fourth Sphere.


Despite the overt similarities, the subtle differences make a world of difference. For one thing, the word "nonblack" is huge here. The Fourth Sphere appeared in the same box as the mono-black Zombie Empire deck. So what the first ability really said was that each of your opponents sacrifices a creature during each of their upkeeps, but you're immune. That meant you never wanted to roll, but your opponents always wanted to roll. That pattern holds true for any deck with black creatures in it. Nightgrasp gave you no such outs; it was fair, and thus less intriguing in its play patterns.

Unless... unless we made it more intriguing in its play patterns. The Fourth Sphere's chaos ability gave you a Zombie token. Maybe that meant we should avoid tokens on the new plane, or avoid Zombies. But creating Zombies felt so, so, so right. Was there a way to make this a more political multiplayer card? Was there a way to wrest more control over the mandatory planeswalk we had added to the first ability? Was there a way to separate it even further from The Fourth Sphere into its own unique niche, thus justifying the existence of both cards side-by-side?

Yes. Yes there was.

At the beginning of your upkeep, sacrifice a creature. If you can't, planeswalk.
Whenever you roll [chaos], any number of target players each put a 2/2 black Zombie creature token onto the battlefield under his or her control.

This played beautifully. Its name ultimately became the mysterious and enticing Lair of the Ashen Idol. Here's the final card.


How this card compares with The Fourth Sphere is a fitting metaphor for how the 2012 edition of Planechase compares to the 2009 edition: Similar... but heightened. The kinds of innovations we implemented on this card were tremendously fun and satisfying to come up with, and you'll see them on multiple different planes. I suppose you could say that the whole experience of creating a new Planechase experience was... wait for it... phenomenal!

But I wouldn't say that. That's too cheesy even for me.

I can't wait to play some Planechase games with the real oversized cards and the real awesome art (rather than with playtest stickers) once it's released into the world. I hope you do too!

Until next time, keep on rolling.

Mark



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