Tinkering with Magic: Creature Feature

Imagine if Magic had no creatures. It would be an incredibly boring game. Mill, burn, and combo would be the only viable strategies. The game would lose the dynamics of attacking and blocking, combat tricks, and a great deal of its interactivity. While it is possible to create a creatureless deck, and some creatureless decks have even found great tournament success, creatures are the meat and potatoes of Magic. The majority of Magic cards have "creature" in their type line – 4452 out of 8828, or 50.4% as of the release of Future Sight. The token mechanic, as of Future Sight, is reserved for creatures with only one exception. From the lowliest Hill Giant to the tournament powerhouse that is Teferi, Mage of Zhalfir, creatures are what makes Magic fun, at least in my humble designer's opinion.

For those of us used to an environment where creatures like Teferi, Keiga, the Tide Star, Arc-Slogger, Psychatog, or Exalted Angel dominate the red zone as much as the Indianapolis Colts do (except when they're playing the Tennessee Titans, of course), it wasn't always this way. Those of you new to the whole Magic: the Gathering thing may want to ask your grandfathers about high-stake matches of yore, when creatures considered pedestrian in modern times such as Serra Angel and Ernham Djinn dominated the tournament scene. Serra Angel was removed from two core sets because it was considered overpowered. Yes, Gregory Green, Serra Angel was once considered overpowered.

Creatures are the lifeblood of a set. Players like playing with powerful creatures, and they will gravitate toward the most powerful creatures in their eyes (Timmies will go to the biggest, Spike will go to the best, and Johnny will go to the most combolicious). Players don't like it when the creatures aren't powerful enough, and will poorly receive sets that have crummy creatures.

Tough Guys Only Need Two Abilities

The most basic aspect of creature design is the design of vanilla creatures. Vanilla creatures aren't very appreciated by the average player. To them, vanilla creatures are usually found in core sets, blocks with below-average power level, or just as an excuse to remove text boxes from certain cards. Unlike other permanent types, creatures don't need their abilities to betray certain nuances of the color pie. Power and toughness vs. mana cost does well enough alone. You can either compare vanilla creatures vs. vanilla creatures (Fresh Volunteers and Grizzly Bears vs. Goblin Piker) or vanilla creatures vs. creatures with drawbacks (Nessian Courser vs. Serpent Warrior). From these examples, you can tell that Green and White have stronger creatures than Blue, and that Green has stronger creatures than Black.

Deeper than it appears to be.
Vanilla creatures are useful in another way: They set benchmarks within a color. Nessian Courser's printing was met with little fanfare to most players, but to design mavens, it spelled the end of days for Trained Armodon, the veteran of four consecutive core sets (from Sixth to Ninth), although his end was foreshadowed when Gnarled Mass was printed with the same mana cost and power/toughness, but with a "better" creature type. Although Nessian Courser wasn't reprinted in Tenth Edition (Mass of Ghouls was the only one to be reprinted out of the five), neither was Trained Armodon or Gnarled Mass. In this case, Wizards examined their old benchmark creature, Trained Armodon, and decided that it didn't live up to today's standards. They created a new benchmark, Nessian Courser, and printed it. It isn't making any tournament shockwaves, but it is an excellent Limited body.

Believe or not, some vanilla creatures are a form of calculated risk. Two examples of this are Blade of the Sixth Pride and Elvish Warrior (For the rest of this paragraph, please disregard such cards as Watchwolf and Streetbreaker Wurm. Multicolored vanillas are only printed because they are so far over the curve that they have to see play. Streetbreaker Wurm fails in this regard, although it's a great Limited creature, but Watchwolf has seen much tournament play, and can be considered a success.) Blade of the Sixth Pride is the first monocolored creature to have three power at two mana without having a drawback. Even though I thought it was risky to print, it has been proven to be very safe. Sulfur Elemental checks the Blade's power in Constructed, and although it can be powerful in Limited, it doesn't warp the format. This is since, despite its three power, its one toughness makes it trade with most one- and two-mana creatures, making it an even mana trade. Its real benefit is on defense; it being able to trade with three- to five-mana creatures. Elvish Warrior is a risk because its 3 toughness makes it tough to remove for two mana's worth of creatures, the same amount as its cost. It hasn't seen any Constructed play, but it is a very potent Limited body.

A word of warning, though, before we move on: Just because something can be done doesn't mean that it should be done. I've always conjectured that a 4/4 for 3G is acceptable. However, a 4/4 creature for 4 mana would be too strong for common, and a vanilla monocolored creature that doesn't strongly push the envelope won't be very well-received by players.

Freedom Vanilla

Creatures that would otherwise be vanilla save for one evergreen keyword ability are called "French vanilla." I have never heard of any etymology for this term, but [insert French joke here]. Evergreen keywords are as follows: Lifelink, vigilance, flying, fear, haste, reach, trample, flash, regeneration, shroud, defender, deathtouch, first strike, double strike, landwalk, and protection. Only one of these, defender, is a drawback, and thus can't be used too frequently. Other than flash, protection, regeneration, and shroud, these keywords are the exclusive domain of creatures, and even those exceptions rarely appear on noncreatures.

There isn't too much to be said for French vanillas, however. Most French vanillas don't have direct analogues in other colors to compare to. The only comparison I can think of for French vanillas is Mistral Charger vs. Goblin Sky Raider. White gets a 2/1 for 2 mana, but red can only get a 1/2 for 3 mana.

Blame the color pie for this
card's power level
Creating a French vanilla creature is extremely easy. Take a regular vanilla creature, add a mana cost or reduce a power or toughness or two, and tack on some keywords. There are a few exceptions, however. The vanilla benchmarks for 2/2 green and white creatures don't accurately represent how much a 2/2 creature actually costs in these colors. The reason for this is because a 2/2 green or white creature costs about 1.5 mana. Obviously you can't spend half a mana (unless you traipse into silver-bordered land), so the game is stuck with Grizzly Bears and Fresh Volunteers. However, creatures strictly better than Grizzly Bears and Fresh Volunteers are often designed (Ashcoat Bear comes to mind). There is one caveat, however: A great number of easy-to-cast two power for two mana creatures hastens Limited. If you do not want a quick Limited format, err towards a dearth of these creatures.

French vanillas are a great way to pad out sets, but there are only so many of them you can make.

Those of you who actually enjoy writing complete sentences of rules text on your cards can now rejoice, for we are leaving Vanillaville!

The Good Stuff

You may not think about it often, but creatures and global enchantments can have plenty in common. Those crazy people who call creatures such as Dark Confidant, Teferi, and True Believer "enchantments with legs" are actually onto something. While in play, those cards behave similar to enchantments (True Believer is actually a knockoff of an enchantment, Ivory Mask). The only difference is that creatures are much more easily removable than enchantments. Enchantment removal is limited to green and white, creature removal is limited to whoever has a kill spell or a trick that can kill that creature. To take this philosophy into action, design an enchantment. Then take that enchantment and see if you can form it into a creature. Taking one form of a card and reshaping it into another is a great way to be versatile enough to fill whatever holes you need to fill within a set.

Should be called Teferi, Prime
Scourge of Block and Standard
Creatures may also resemble an instant (if it has flash) or sorcery. Gravedigger is a very prolific example of a creature resembling a sorcery. It is a veteran of five core sets (Sixth through Tenth), two expansions (Tempest and Odyssey), and Portal. Taking an instant or sorcery and porting it to a creature is another way to get more mileage out of your designs.

Some creature abilities can only be played when the creature isn't in play. Abilities that modify how the creature can be played, such as Imperiosaur's ability, and abilities that allow a dead creature to return to play (Ichorid) are two examples of these types of abilities.

These are the exceptions to the rule, though. Most creature abilities make sense only on creatures in play. Firebreathing (R: CARDNAME gets +1/+0 until end of turn.) and shading (B: CARDNAME gets +1/+1 until end of turn.) are two creature abilities that don't fit on any other card type. Generally, abilities that are useful in combat or do something to power and toughness are abilities that are creature-exclusive. Most sacrifice and tap abilities are found on creatures, although they can find themselves on other permanent types.

Creatures can be made by combining a keyword ability with another non-keyword ability. For example, combining "All creatures must block this creature if able" and deathtouch is a great combo, even if it would be a takeoff on Stone-Tongue Basilisk. Another good combo is evasion (any ability that makes it less likely for that creature to be able to be blocked) and an ability that works on not being blocked or doing damage.

There is no hard and fast rule for costing creatures with non-keyword abilities. Obviously, beneficial abilities increase mana cost and drawbacks decrease mana cost. If you don't want an ability to be splashable into other colors, you jack up the colored cost of the creature (like Teferi's triple-blue cost). If the ability is extremely powerful, the creature has an extremely high mana cost and may even have an ability that prevents or reduces the effectiveness of reanimation or other methods of bypassing the mana cost (Serra Avatar, Darksteel Colossus, Hypnox).

The Finish Line

Creatures comprise more than half of Magic: the Gathering. It is important to design them well so that the cards dealing with them can fit into place, and when a creatureless deck or set (gasp!) comes about, it feels much more special. Creatures symbolize the interactivity of Magic as there is tremendous skill involved in whether to let a creature hit you or trade with a creature you control, or attacking with a weaker creature into an opponent with a stronger creature and seeing if he'll block, even if you don't have a trick. Next month, in Tinkering With Magic, I'll show you how to design the explosives with which to blow up your shiny new creatures that you've spent so long working on.


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