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Building a Better Monster

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The letter W!elcome to Monstrosity Week. This week, we're going to be talking about the new Theros mechanic, monstrosity. Here's the complete origin of the mechanic:


We needed a monster mechanic, so I asked the team to come up with some suggestions. The next week, the whole team came in with sample cards showing off their mechanics. One of Ken Nagle's ideas was an activation that could be used once a game. I thought it showed promise and said, "Okay, let's use that one."

Yeah, that's not going to fill up 3,000 words. So, I thought today I would take the topic a little broader and talk about the art of designing a monster in Magic. What exactly does that entail? What mechanical things does it require? What roles do monsters play in the game? All this and more will be answered today as I go into the belly of the beast to investigate Magic's monsters. Hopefully, we'll all survive to tell the tale. Join me.

Nemesis of Mortals | Art by Mathias Kollros

Monster High

One of the things I like to do when examining as aspect of the game is to go back to the very beginning. Why, when Richard Garfield made the game, did he include monsters? The answer is pretty straightforward. Monsters are a big part of fantasy. Why? Because the heroes need a threat to face, and while monsters aren't the only antagonists in fantasy (other humans often fill the bill, for instance) they are probably the sexiest.

It is no surprise, for example, that whenever we poll the audience about favorite creature types that Dragon always ends up on top. In my mind, dragons are the poster child for fantasy monsters. They're huge, powerful, often times intelligent. In other words, they make an awesome threat.

Now, combine this with the needs of the game. Magic is a combat-centric game with creatures as a core component. The nature of the mana system wants players to ramp up from cheap small creatures to expensive giant creatures. The game has a specific need for exactly the role that monsters want to fill.

I guess this begets the next question. What exactly does a monster need to have? Let's examine the criteria.

Threatening

First and foremost, monsters are scary. Yes, yes, modern storytelling has created a slew of kid-friendly nice monsters (see what you started, Sesame Street), but when monsters live up to their image, they are things you want to run away from. They tend to represent humanity's fears.

What this means mechanically is that something about the creature has to be fearsome. If your opponent gets it into play, you probably should be worried. Creatively, we have the intimidate keyword to represent that a creature is threatening. I'll talk about a few of the other ways you can accomplish this below.

Large

One of the easiest ways to be threatening is to be huge. Now, not every monster is giant, but at the core of monster identity is size. The hero fighting a monster many, many times his or her size is a classic portrait of a fantasy battle.

Shipbreaker Kraken | Art by Jack Wang

In Magic, this can be represented mechanically very easy. Monsters are big. In Theros, the smallest monsters were 3 power (okay, we do have a Gorgon that can destroy every non-Gorgon on the battlefield at 2/5) and the vast majority were 4 power or higher. Note that all of these stats were before the monstrosity ability was used to make them even bigger.

It's also important to note that Theros had a slightly higher monster count as the Monsters were one of the three big thematic themes (along with Gods and Heroes ). The monsters of a normal set tend to be fewer in number but skew even bigger.

Lethal

Why are monsters so scary? Because they tend to kill, often eating, lots of innocent people. The hero going up against the monster is a brave feat because most people facing the monster die. In fact, in traditional fantasy storytelling, by the time the hero goes to face the monster, many others have tried, failed, and died.

Mechanically, what this means is one of two things, monsters can be lethal because they quickly kill the opponent or they can be lethal because they easily kill a lot of creatures—sometimes both. The simplest way to do this is just to lean back on the last trait. A big creature will both kill players and creatures. Sometimes, though, this is conveyed not through size but through other means. The keyword deathtouch, for example, conveys lethal well.

Some monsters, such as Hythonia the Cruel, who I mentioned above, have abilities that destroy creatures. A few, like Phage the Untouchable, have abilities that can destroy (although not technically... yet) players. Strong combat abilities like first strike, especially on larger-powered creatures, can feel lethal. Things like firebreathing and power pumping can feel lethal. Usually, the key is creating the feeling that when this creature enters the battlefield, barring a spell, it's going to take the lives of a few creatures to stop the monster.


Hard to Kill

A monster's offense is important, but so too is its defense. Another key quality to monsters is that they simply don't make it easy for the hero to defeat them. They're threatening, they're large, they're lethal, but they're also very, very tough. The hero never takes down the monster with a single blow. No, the fight is a long and prolonged one because the monster is hard to kill.

Mechanically, this can be done several ways. The simplest is, of course, a high toughness. Sometimes it's through a defensive ability like regeneration. Sometimes a monster grows as the fight progresses. Sometimes you can kill the monster but it comes back. (Undying from Dark Ascension did this trope particularly well.) Another popular trick in this category is resistance to magic, whether by hexproof or protection or by an activated ability that makes dealing damage harder than normal.

The key is that a monster usually takes a number of resources to take down.

A Gimmick

Another trope of monsters is that each one has a special unique weapon. Gorgons turn you to stone when you look at them. Dragons breathe fire. Hydras grow two heads for each one you cut off. Part of the challenge for the hero is that a monster isn't just run of the mill. There is something special about it.

In design, this means that monsters tend to have at least one ability over and above any creature keywords. (Sometimes this is replaced with a slew of creature keywords—Akroma is a classic example.) This ability can be activated or triggered. Sometimes it's an "enters the battlefield" effect that happens once, sometimes it's an ability that gets used turn after turn.


The important part of this quality is that we have to work to make sure each creature has a unique design. Monsters, as a general commodity, are all over the game. If we want a new monster to have a presence, we have to look for a design that will allow it to stand out from the pack.

In Theros, this meant we made sure that all of the creatures with monstrosity, uncommon and up (commons just gained +1/+1 counters to keep it simple), had a unique effect or ability when they became monstrous.

Once you take all those qualities and add them together, you start to get a sense how monsters have to be designed. The key takeaway is that monsters have to have a certain presence. In fantasy, they fill a role as the foil to the hero. In the game, they fill the role of the top of the curve. The Planeswalker is summoning larger and larger threats, the biggest of which are the monsters.

For those who know their Magic history, R&D actually played a game for a little while. In Alpha, Richard had included Lord of the Pit, which was a 7/7 Demon, and Force of Nature, which was an 8/8 Elemental (well, it was originally a "Force" and later correctly turned into an Elemental). Then, two sets later, in Antiquities, the East Coast Playtesters (Skaff Elias, Jim Lin, Dave Petty, and Chris Page) made Colossus of Sardia, a 9/9 artifact creature.


Then in The Dark, Jesper Myrfors made Leviathan, a 10/10 creature. The East Coast Playtesters answered back in Ice Age with Polar Kraken, an 11/11 creature. I, of course, took up the gauntlet during Mirage development and designed Phyrexian Dreadnought to fill a hole. (Bill said he would put a 12/12 in the file only if I made an interesting enough card.) Two years later, I made B.F.M. in Unglued, a 99/99 monster (originally a 100/100, interestingly, but Bill made me change it to a 99/99) and we stopped with the arms race. (Okay—Legions introduced Krosan Cloudscraper, a 13/13 Beast Mutant, and Rise of the Eldrazi created Emrakul, the Aeons Torn, a 15/15 Eldrazi.)


Monster Jobs

Monsters have such an important role in the game that R&D has spent a lot of time giving each color an iconic monster. Note that I use the term "monster" liberally here, and that some of the iconics, while filling most of the descriptions I've given above, might not be what in traditionally story terms is dubbed a "monster."

Also, I am using the term "iconic" to mean something representational of the color. Iconic creatures tend to show up every set (except in the cases where they don't make sense within the world of the block) but only in small numbers and in higher rarities. Creatures that show up on smaller humanoid creatures in common, such as Goblins in red or Elves in green, are what I call "characteristic creatures" and are not the topic of today's column.

Rather than go in traditional color order, I'm going to go in the order that Magic locked in the monster as the iconic creature for the color.

Red—Dragons


If you wandered the streets and asked random people to name things from fantasy, dragons are going to be high on their list. Dragons and fantasy very much go hand in hand. As such, Richard made Shivan Dragon one of the most high-profile cards in Alpha. Richard chose to put Shivan Dragon in red, I assume, because he wanted it to breathe fire. Interestingly, flying is supposed to be one of the things red is bad at (along with green—being the enemy of the color that best represents flying—blue) but a special exception was made for Dragons and, later, Phoenixes. Dragons also fit well in red because they were able to embody red's desire for freedom. Dragons do what they want when they want and hate being caged.

White—Angels


The reason I listed white second, even though Alpha had an Angel—Serra Angel, obviously—is because it wasn't originally done with being an iconic in mind. To be fair, the whole idea of iconics for colors wasn't something that was even thought of in the early days. Richard just tried to find cool creatures to put in each color. Having a rare creature that epitomized the ethos of the color philosophy that got used set to set was an idea that would gel over many years. The reason I say that Serra Angel wasn't trying to be an iconic, by modern definition, is simply that it was stuck at uncommon and not rare.

With all that said, Serra Angel quickly became one of the most iconic cards in the game, and when the creative team at the time was looking for a creature to represent white, it was clear that the choice was an Angel. Angels do a great job of matching white's desire for peace and they tend to serve as protectors, usually having abilities that are helpful to the player's team.

Black—Demons


Alpha also had Demons, Lord of the Pit being the more iconic, and they were at rare. So why did I put this third? Because for many years black had a unique problem—it had two different candidates for its iconic, Demons and Vampires. Both matched black's ethos of a quest for power and were fine candidates to be the iconic creature. In the end, we decided to push Vampires down as a characteristic race (where, interestingly, it fights for that role to this day with Zombies—oh, black, so many goodies) and go with Demons as the iconic. (Also, for those who enjoy your history, you can read this article , where I explain why we removed demons from Magic for a number of years.)

Blue—Sphinxes


Now we get to the two colors that have caused us a lot of headaches over the years. The first giant blue rare creature to get attention was Mahamoti Djinn. The Djinn both flew and was intelligent, two requirements to be blue's iconic creature, but the creative team felt that djinns just didn't fit into most worlds. We looked at Serpents but they neither flew nor were smart, and they sometimes showed up at common.

I don't remember how we stumbled upon Sphinxes but we realized that they did a nice job of balancing being a big flying creature while still matching blue's desire for information. Our fear originally wasn't that the Sphinx didn't fit blue but that players wouldn't be excited by Sphinxes. The real test was to start using them and give blue some high-profile, powerful Sphinxes to see how the audience responded. Luckily, for all involved, Sphinxes were well accepted by the player base.

Green—Hydras


Now we get to the true trouble child of iconic creatures—green. In the beginning, we messed around with Wurms. In the end, the players never got that attached. They were dragons without wings and red already had dragons with wings, so it just seemed like green got a worse version of something red had. Then, over time, Wurms in Magic started migrating from wingless dragons to giant worms. (It personally bugs me, as I like the traditional wurms, and "wurm" and "worm" are different words, but hey, the players seem to like the giant worms—I mean wurms.) Even in giant worm form, Wurms weren't doing the necessary job.

We looked at Beast but it was too much of a catch-all. We needed the iconic to be something you would recognize from set to set, and that meant a certain consistency. In addition, it had a few other requirements. First off, the iconics have to be creatures people know. That's why a made-up creature serves poorly as an iconic. Second, it needs to embody green, which meant it had to encompass green's desire for growth.

We had given up hope on solving the problem when someone had a great idea (I would give credit if I remembered who it was): What if we took a card associated with another color and moved it to green? The first Hydra showed up in Alpha, but Richard had put it in red. The hydra, though, was the perfect embodiment of growth. It was a wild creature. It seemed like it could be at home living in the forest.

Now, as with the Sphinx, the key whether could we get the audience on board. We were having less success, but mostly because we hadn't made any really good Hydra. Luckily, our savior was on the horizon—a block inspired by Greek mythology. If any block wanted awesome Hydras, it was Theros block.

Of the five iconics, green is the one that I don't feel is completely solidified, but I do think is on its way. Theros block is definitely helping.


Monster Mash

That's all I have for today. It seems we've survived. I hope you enjoyed my look at monsters and how we design them. As always, I would love any feedback, either through my email link, in the thread to this column, or on my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+).

Join me next week for another article from what I have dubbed the Rosewater Files (where my personal history interweaves with design lessons).

Until then, may you know the joy of watching your opponent's face as you put a monster onto the battlefield.




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Mark Rosewater
Mark Rosewater
@maro254
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Working for Magic R&D since October, 1995, Mark Rosewater is currently the head designer. His hobbies include spending time with his family, talking about Magic on every known medium (including a daily blog and a weekly podcast), and writing about himself in the third person.

 
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