You’re a Designer, Harry! #13 – A Vanilla Lot, Eh?

Welcome to another installment of You’re a Designer, Harry!. I know last week that I said I was going to explore designs for legendary creatures (Read: four-color commanders) and planeswalkers. Even though I know it’s a good idea to get the mechanical identity along with most, if not all, of the mechanics designed before individual card designing began; I still wanted a fun break from the usual aspects of the set we were focusing on. Despite the possibility of time waste as well as having more difficulty designing without that mechanical backbone there, I believed that we could at least gain something from the effort, even if it’s not the most efficient way to go about designing the set in it’s current position.

So, it all sounded good in theory to go down this refreshing, not-so-efficient path; but once I got down to try to design some legendary creatures to fit into their respective factions, it felt wrong to decide on some set of abilities and for that to feel correct within the context of the whole set. Especially when I’m trying to determine what a legendary creature from a faction all about vanilla creatures would be like. And I’m not even sure which faction should be the vanilla creatures one (actually, I’m only a tiny bit not sure. Oh, right. Read on to learn what in tarnation’s going on here dealing with the “vanilla faction” thing I’m talking about).

Originally, I had the idea to do a vanilla faction because I was trying to figure out the mechanical identity of the colorless faction. I was thinking how a faction, with the idea that a colorless faction would be all about taking all things in moderation (as in the Buddhist ways, kinda), can just do without abilities at all. That way, since it’s difficult for an ability to not be classified as belonging to a particular color or two, whatever cards are designed can safely be considered colorless.

However, when designing a vanilla creature, it’s even more difficult to not cross over color boundaries. That’s because a card without color should not be better at anything that the color worst at doing that same thing would be able to do. For example, you can’t design a 2/2 for 2 (with no other abilities or other modifications). Even though both green and white get 2/2s for 1G and 1W, respectively; blue, black, and red don’t get them. Therefore, we’d have to have vanilla creatures worst than every other colored vanilla creature with the same converted mana cost. That’s not so good.

As an aside, with this principle in mind, artifact creatures can get away with being a bit more powerful than they seem like they should be as vanillas because of the fact that they have the card type “artifact.” It means that they’re more vulnerable to your opponents’ cards because cards like Shatter and Doom Blade can both destroy them. It’s a built-in drawback (as well as bonus) that doesn’t need to touch the text box at all. And when you combine ability drawbacks with card type drawbacks, you can get some decently powerful artifact creatures.

On another tiny, note-like aside (or aside-like) note, legendary creatures are designed to be a bit more powerful because of the fact that they have an inherent drawback in the form of the “legend rule.” Thank goodness for that because then we can make legendary creatures be more awesome like players might expect them to be, based on their story significance.

As an extra aside, I think that sometimes the artifact drawback is taken too far in actual Magic: The Gathering sets. One example I like to use is Wurmcoil Engine. Blue has no business having access to 6/6s with deathtouch and lifelink and a nifty Symbiotic creature-like ability for six mana. Yet, here was the Wurm, handing out color pie violations en masse for all blue decks to take advantage of, just because it has that artifact “drawback.” In fact, it’s more of a boon because blue is the best at having a mutually-beneficial relationship with artifacts. Anyway…

So, it was clear that, if I’m going to design a faction around vanilla creatures, it would have to be one of the five factions. It also helped that Jay Treat commented on my last article on how it would be a clever way to deliver the required proportion of vanillas for the set. And I agree. Actually, there’s two strong reasons for why there should be a vanilla set.

The first reason is that if there’s ever going to be a time when there’s a specific grouping of cards to be based around vanilla, four colors would be the best way to go about it. That way, the vanillas can be spread out as much as possible across the colors while still being considered as belonging to just one specific group. And it’s normal for sets, besides core sets, to be missing a vanilla from a color. In fact, an expert-level set would be lucky to have one vanilla for each color in it.

The second reason is that going with vanillas and a four-color theme is great synergy. Bringing it into color means that we can use color density in mana costs (more colored mana symbols and less generic mana symbols). More color density means the creature can be more powerful. And making the creature a vanilla means that power is translated to the power and toughness. And this is further supported when multicolored is involved. More different colors in a vanilla’s mana cost means even more power and toughness. See Fusion Elemental for what “having all five colors at five mana” can do for you.

So, vanilla faction, right? How the heck are we going to make this faction do anything at all? That’s where the noncreature card slots come in. The enchantments, sorceries, instants, and artifacts/lands will pull the weight in making vanilla creatures matter since the vanilla creatures themselves can’t have any abilities. I believe this will be O.K. since, as Jay Treat brought up in that same comment I referenced earlier, you can do a lot with the noncreature cards by using the “with(out) abilities” text in the card effects. “Destroy target creature with abilities.” “Gain 1 life for each creature you control without abilities.” etc.

Next, what faction should be the one about vanillas? I’m proposing the nonblue faction. Originally, the faction was concepted as having its civilization located on an ever-whirling-around-a-whirlpool gigantic spherical land mass. As such, its denizens learned to be constantly adapting. So they could survive. Initially, I thought that this could translate to a mechanic that made the game feel like it was constantly shifting. However, upon closer inspection, that was basing it upon the nature of their environment and not on the individuals living in this faction world themselves (even though the individuals’ uniqueness is a result of having lived in the environment. They environment and the living beings are related but separate). Every other faction was different.

The nonwhite faction focuses on how the people are blind, not on the fact that there’s underground involved (O.K., so this one might not be entirely true). The nonblack faction focuses on the citizens working together, not on the fact that there’s a castled kingdom. The nonred faction focuses on the planning nature of the civilization, not on the mountainous valley they live in. And the nongreen faction focuses on the flying ability that the people in the clouds developed (or evolved to have) as a response to, well, living in the clouds.

The nonblue faction can make sense to be the host for vanillas, flavorwise, in two ways. There’s the fact that they constantly are moving about to survive. Gaining survival instincts and whatnot. As such, they become stronger-than-normal creatures. This translates gameplay-wise to the high power and toughness stats of vanilla creatures. The other way this can makes sense for the nonblue faction is that shunning blue means not doing what blue does. Blue learns and progresses with knowledge. This red-green-as-its-central-colors faction are shunning gaining knowledge. So, they don’t really progress (they also only escape from the blue-aligned whirlpool barrier by pure chance – the spherical land mass within that eternal vortex had all the variables lined up correctly to spin out of the imprisonment). No progress means a loose translation of no abilities. They evolve only in brawn, being more fit to survive (You may make a case of flying being an ability to evolve, so they could just fly off the spherical land mass. I could then make a case that it’s more of an intelligent progression to gain flying to escape the blue barrier. The adapting to survive on the land mass is the opposite. But, hey, either way could be argued).

O.K., so I’m proposing the BRGW faction as the vanilla faction. Another issue to work out is: how many vanilla creatures in the set? We don’t want to do too many vanilla creatures. We also want to identify just how much percentage of the set contain cards that go into a particular grouping. Normally, sets are divided up by five colors. However, when you build a deck, you can easily go two colors without needing mana-fixing help. This leads me to believe that building a deck normally draws upon 40% of the divided groups pool (non-color-aligned artifacts and lands are outside of this pool).

A look at common cards from the Shards of Alara set that could go into a Bant deck show that number to be exactly 50 commons. A large set (typically releasing in the fall) comes with 101 commons, then when you discount the 11 common artifacts/lands in Shards of Alara, you get 50/90 colored commons. Over half the available commons need to be able to fit into a vanilla faction set (But, don’t worry. Enchantments/sorceries/intants/artifacts and tricks with abilities for creatures will fill up the slots other than the vanilla creatures themselves).

Invasion had 95 out of its 110 cards monocolored. There were ten multicolored cards. Shards of Alara had 75/101 cards monocolored. So, fifteen multicolored cards. I think those extra artifacts in Shards of Alara that Invasion doesn’t have may be a factor. Or because olden times Invasion was not designed using modern Magic design principles. …Besides the fact that multicolor was not something to sneeze at back then.

So, let’s see… Shards of Alara included just one three-color card for each shard at common. We can mimic that with one four-color card for each faction at common. That makes five.

Mini-aside: I’m leaning toward including all five factions in the first set because of the vanillas faction being there to lessen complexity and to not take up one of the keyword/ability word mechanic slots. Mini-aside out.

Are we going to do three-color cards at common? No. That’s too confusing for translating the theme of the set (“four colors matters”) and it adds too much to the set when there are already four-color cards, two-color cards, and monocolor cards. Why are two colors O.K.? Because each four-color faction has a dominant central color pair (red and green in the BRGW faction’s case), and because two two-color pairs can make up four colors.

So, what about two-color cards? In Invasion, there were just two cards per two-color ally pairing (to be fair, Apocalypse, the third set in the Invasion block, contained all the enemy color pairings). In Shards of Alara, there were also two cards per ally pairing. This was in addition to the one card per trifecta of colors. There weren’t enemy pairings at common in Shards, but there were at uncommon. It’s probably because there’s only one shard that an enemy pairing could go into. For example, a Jhessian Infiltrator can only go into a Bant deck.

However, in this set, that same card can go into two different factions, the RGWU and GWUB factions. With that said, enemy color pairings still go into a less number of factions than an ally color pairing. (Three versus two) So, my solution to this is to have more ally pairs than enemy pairs at common but still have enemy pairs at common. So, at least these amounts: ten ally pairs, five enemy pairs, and five four-color cards.

That makes twenty. Invasion had ten common multicolor cards. Shards of Alara had fifteen. Seems only fitting that this set will be the next step in this seemingly-progressive series (Well, this is really just making a pattern out of something that wasn’t really a pattern, but it all works out).

With all the groundwork laid out now, we’re out of time. I feel like the vanilla faction is a good choice for this set, and there’s a lot of untapped resources devoted to vanillas (so many different mana costs with so many different color combinations that don’t have a vanilla creature for it, yet!). So, what do you think, and what kind of vanillas do you want to see? How about any reprints? Etc.

Thanks for reading, and I’ll catch ya next time or on Twitter! (@bradleyrose)

About Bradley Rose

I'm a Timmy/Johnny Melthos red/white/blue kind of guy. And, no, that combination doesn't have anything to do with an affinity for the United States. Here's how I got into Magic: Once upon a time (let's say the year 2000), I bought my first Magic: The Gathering product in the form of a starter of ...Starter 2000. And that's when Trained Orgg's eyes and mine met for the first time. It was true love. Until I traded most of my Magic cards away for Pokemon ones. Whoops. O.K, so once upon a time (This time, 2001), I got into Magic: The Gathering with a shiny new One-Two Punch theme deck of the Odyssey set. And, surprisingly enough, I didn't trade away my ol' Trained Orgg, so in the deck it went, and we fell in love all over again. Flash-forward nearly a decade, and I've won the / Wizards of the Coast "Design Your Own Card" contest. That was neat, but then, a few months later, the Great Designer Search 2 happened. I managed to make it to the top 101 of the 1000 applicants. So, after years of reading Mark Rosewater's Making Magic column along with a rising interest in game design, I managed to prove that (while not the best) I'm more of a Magic designer than the average bear. I'll keep working on putting more ranks in my Magic design skill, and the design articles I write here will help me do just that. Hopefully, any of my readers with a serious interest in Magic design would feel inclined to pursue their interest as well, either by participating in my collaborative design articles or working on making Magic on their own. This effort toward improving my Magic design capabilities correlates somewhat with a single goal I would like to accomplish before I die: Have lunch with Mark Rosewater. Also, I still have that Trained Orgg, and we're still madly in love with each other.

Posted on August 5, 2011, in You're a Designer Harry! and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink. 4 Comments.

  1. This is great. A set with multiple faction themes, as well as a set with multicolor costs really is the best place for working with a vanilla theme.

    Beastmind Tribe RG
    Creature – Human Warrior
    Whenever a creature with no abilities enters the battlefield, you may return ~ from your graveyard to the battlefield.

    Wavesmasher Ogre 2RG
    Creature – Ogre Warrior

    Walking Landmass BRGW
    Creature – Elemental Beast

    Terrifying Lizard BRGW
    Creature – Lizard

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