By Mark Rosewater
Welcome to Worldbuilding Week! This week, we’re taking a look at the things that go into building a cohesive world in Magic: The Gathering.
I think the best way to illustrate what I mean is by sharing a conversation I had during the development of Shards of Alara with designer and all-around good guy Devin Low.
MR: You know, Shards of Alara is about worlds that are each a fifth of a normal world.
DL: That’s right. I think the separation of colors illustrates that nicely.
MR: What if we could illustrate it another way? Consider this. Each shard is less than a whole world.
MR: So then, what if the cards of these worlds reflected that?
DL: Go on.
MR: What if there were cards that were less than a normal card?
DL: Cards … that are less than normal cards.
DL: I like it.
MR: You take ordinary cards.
MR: And you print cards that are worse than them!
And that’s how Shards of Alara’s “Strictly Worse” mechanic was born.
Of course, “Strictly Worse” is just a nickname. It doesn’t appear on the cards. In fact, it wasn’t even the first nickname — the first nickname we had as designers was turdic.
MR: We need a turdic mana source.
DL: Dude. Darksteel Ingot, but make it crappy.
I took Devin’s suggestion, applied the Strictly Worse mechanic to Darksteel Ingot, and here’s the result.
Notice how many cards Obelisk of Bant is worse than! I’m sure you can think of more. While in a normal Magic world, three mana should get you an artifact that taps for any color of mana, in Shards of Alara, you have no choice but to get a worse card. Just as Bant is the fragmented remnant of a mage-sundered landscape, its obelisk is a miscellaneous scrap of detritus.
Shards of Alara’s creatures are affected by this theme as well. Some of the creatures in these fractional worlds are but sickly, weak and puny versions of cards past.
Notice that Druid of the Anima taps for any of green, red or white. Skyshroud Elf, with the same power, toughness and mana cost, taps for green but can turn that or any other mana to red or white instantly. Druid of the Anima, therefore, is inferior, and you will feel trapped in a world of inferiority when you play the card. Which is exactly what we wanted.
DL: I think something went wrong with Spell Snip.
MR: What do you mean? It’s terrible.
DL: Well, yes, but it’s not strictly worse than Complicate.
MR: Isn’t it?
DL: No. Complicate cycles for three mana. You could say that if you desperately needed to cycle Spell Snip and you only had two mana, it would be better in that circumstance.
MR: Well, OK, but that’s so narrow.
DL: Also, the art isn’t worse.
MR: It isn’t, is it.
DL: No! Hahahahaha, the art on Complicate was some of the worst ever!
Well, I couldn’t get everything that I wanted. In some cases, I had to give you a card that was mostly worse.
- Oct. 16, 2008