Saturday, January 28, 2023

Lead MTG Designer Explains Missing Iconic Set Mechanics

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As the name suggests, in Phyrexia: All Will Be One, Magic’s heroes are fighting back against the Phyrexians. Or, more accurately, in the set, Magic’s heroes are losing to Elesh Norn, Mother of Machines, and their Phyrexian army. Regardless of how well the battle is going, however, there’s no question that Phyrexians are one of the most iconic villains in Magic. Having terraformed a once gorgeous plane, these horrific creatures present a threat to both MTG’s story and its gameplay. Boasting some of the most powerful MTG mechanics ever printed, Phyrexians are certainly quite the opponent. In their latest outing, however, a number of the iconic Phyrexian mechanics are miraculously missing. That, however, might not actually be a bad thing. 

Powerful Precedent

Glistener Elf | New Phyrexia

Upon first officially appearing in Scars of Mirrodin, it’s safe to say the Phyrexians had quite the impact on MTG. Featuring the newfangled Infect mechanic, these cards would quickly come to dominate a variety of formats. Once it was created in 2011, for instance, Infect decks would run wild in Modern, eliminating opponents in two to three turns. Effectively reducing an opponent’s life points to just 10, even seemingly weak common cards became threatening. For instance, the unassuming Glistener Elf was a core combo piece in Infect decks, despite its diminutive size. Alongside enabling lightning-fast kills, Infect creatures also dealt damage to creatures in the form of -1/-1 counters. While not as deadly as Poison Counters, these counters were a menace and seriously un-fun to play against

As if Infect wasn’t enough on its own to warp formats, Phyrexians implanted another devastating mechanic in New Phyrexia. Aptly known as Phyrexian Mana, this mechanic allowed colored mana costs to be paid with life rather than traditional mana. Similarly to Infect, this mechanic was absolutely devastating, especially on cards such as Gitaxian Probe. Costing only two life to play, cards like Gitaxian Probe and Mental Misstep had effectively no downside, especially in the early game. Better still, any deck could play these cards since the 2-life cost doesn’t care if you’re a blue player. 

With these powerful MTG mechanics being core to the Scars of Mirrodin block, Phyrexian mechanics earned quite the reputation. This is no surprise, considering that, for the longest time, there was simply no beating them. Now that Phyrexians have returned after a 12-year hiatus, their mechanics are finally coming back too. This time, however, it appears that Wizards of the Coast have learned their lesson. 

What We Got

Ajani, Sleeper Agent
Ajani, Sleeper Agent | Dominaria United

When Phyrexian forces reappeared in Dominaria United, Poison Counters were almost nowhere to be found. Only appearing on Ajani, Sleeper Agent, the format-ruining powerhouse of Infect, had seen quite the downgrade. Ajani, Sleeper Agent was arguably worse than Fynn, the Fangbearer, after all. Alongside the downgrade to Poison Counters, Ajani, Sleeper Agent also featured Phyrexin Mana, albeit in a similarly nerfed state. Thankfully, while Dominaria United was a letdown in this regard, it was only the start of the Phyrexian Arc. 

Now that Phyrexia: All Will Be One has been almost entirely spoiled, thanks to a plethora of leaks, we’ve finally seen Phyrexian mechanics return in force. For better or worse, however, even in this return trip to the Phyrexian homeworld, the iconic Phyrexian mechanics are missing. In their place are twists on the old classics that hopefully shouldn’t upend formats as we’ve seen before. Given the strength of Infect and Phyrexian Mana, the reasoning behind these new MTG mechanics replacing the Phyrexian classics isn’t all too surprising. Nevertheless, recently, MTG’s Lead Designer, Mark Rosewater, has given players a peek behind the curtain while explaining Wizards’ decision-making. 

Rather than simply reeling off why each old Phyrexian mechanic was too powerful, in their recent article, Mark Rosewater discussed the Vision Design team’s rationale behind making the new MTG mechanics. The decision to create Toxic rather than reuse Future Sight’s Poisonous, for instance, was a result of multiple factors.

“The major change is poisonous is triggered and toxic is not. This is a big deal for digital play. For example, a while back we changed Deathtouch to not be triggered. Poisonous had only appeared on two cards (both “futureshifted” hints at a possible future), so the team didn’t feel obligated to keep the old template and instead used a template that matched modern standards.”

Mark Rosewater

Alongside nerfing the power of Poison Counters, Wizards also wanted to make them a bit more interesting. Previously, Poison Counter/Infect-focused decks were hardly the most complex things to pilot. Once you saw your opponent play Glistener Elf, you knew what was about to happen. For Phyrexia: All Will Be One, however, Wizards wanted to change this. 

“Vision Design put this [Corrupted] in to help poison have less of an ‘all or nothing’ feel. When your opponent poisons you, now you’re not sure exactly what they’re up to. Also, it allows decks whose main goal is about getting their opponent to three poison counters to occasionally have games where they can win through poison.”

Mark Rosewater

What Could Have Been

Relentless Assault
Relentless Assault | Commander Legends

While the new Toxic and Corrupted mechanics were easy and effective substitutes, Phyrexian Mana wasn’t so easily replaced. After all, as Mark Rosewater explains in their article, “it was one of the most iconic Phyrexian mechanics, and the only one with ‘Phyrexian’ in its name.” Despite these selling points, Phyrexian Mana “caused the most play design issues,” ultimately earning it a nine on the Storm Scale. This ranking meant it would “require a minor miracle,” to return, but obviously, we’ve seen exactly that with the Planeswalker-specific mechanic Compleated. While this is the mechanic we got, during their Making Magic article, Rosewater explained Compleated wasn’t the only option. 

“When the set was in Vision Design, we hadn’t yet finalized how the Phyrexian planeswalkers were going to work. I’d been tasked with pitching several suggestions for how to do it. My favorite was Phyrexian loyalty where you could pay life instead of loyalty counters, but that ended up being too hard to balance, so they settled on a version with Phyrexian mana in its mana cost, which basically cost you loyalty in addition to life, and this allowed Play Design to balance them.”

Mark Rosewater

Unfortunately for Phyrexian Mana fans, Rosewater’s Phyrexian Planeswalker loyalty system wasn’t the only version of the mechanic that proved troublesome. In their article, Rosewater revealed that, during Vision Design, Phyrexian Mana was once used heavily for activation costs. Since they’re used multiple times and don’t break the color pie, activation costs seemed like the perfect home for Phyrexian Mana. Unfortunately, however, this version of the mechanic was severely cut down by the Set Design team. Ultimately, Phyrexian Mana activation costs only appear on seven Phyrexia: All Will Be One cards. These are the five mythic rare Dominus cards, as well as Mite Overseer and Synthesis Pod.

Last but not least, the Vision Design team also proposed that Phyrexian Mana could be used with an unreleased mechanic known as Relentless. With this new mechanic, Phyrexian Mana would have been used for Relentless’ costs, however, the entire mechanic was ultimately cut. Here’s Mark Rosewater’s explanation of why that happened, as well as what Relentless was.

“[Relentless] was a mechanic that went on instants and sorceries. It exiled the spell it was on upon resolution. Then on any turn in which you’ve played a land, you could cast it for its relentless cost from exile. (It would then be put into the graveyard.) All the monocolor mana in relentless costs was Phyrexian mana. Set Design was worried that there was too much going on in the set. Poison is a delicate ecosystem that requires a lot of work to balance, so relentless, and much of the Phyrexian mana in the set was cut.”

Mark Rosewater

What’s To Come

March of the Machine Concept Art
March of the Machine Concept Art

Despite all that got cut throughout Phyrexia: All Will Be One’s development, the set still looks incredible. With long-awaited Commander cards and plenty of bombs to shake up formats, the return to New Phyrexia is far from disappointing. For better or worse, the Phyrexian Arc isn’t even finished yet. With March of the Machine releasing in April, Phyrexian MTG mechanics are due to get even more time in the spotlight. Hopefully, this second wave of Phyrexian cards won’t overwhelm Magic’s myriad formats, but for that, we’ll just have to wait and see.

Read More: New Commander-Exclusive Spoilers Reveal MTG Rules Change!

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