What a perfect world. Tarkir is sky-full of dragons, the best creature type in Magic, and mythology/history. Hello, my name is Simon Hoffiz and from today on, I will be your humble guide and columnist as we delve deeper into the world of Magic design. I’m 24 years old, an architect in training (I hold a Master’s degree in architectural design), and a Magic player. Recently, I decided to start a blog called thinkingMAGIC, which focuses in analyzing Magic’s design. That blog got me into this column.
For my first article for mtgUK, I wanted to do something big, exciting and iconic. What’s more iconic than a dragon? I know, a whole bunch of dragons, so that’s exactly what we are talking about today. We are analyzing various dragons’ design, individually and collectively. We’ll try to understand the design implications of both flavor and mechanical dimensions, and explore what new things this set offers in a dragon’s design.
Let’s get started!
Expecting a Dragon
The first thing one has to know before designing or analyzing a dragon card, is what is expected of a dragon. Dragons are both hard and easy to design. Easy – because there is so much cultural reference to what a dragon is, that you really don’t have to dwell too much on it. Dragons appear everywhere: movies, games, and literature. Thanks to this, we all have a similar dragon concept. Think about it… ask anyone in the street what is a dragon. A large number, if not all, will be able to correctly explain it to you. Now, ask what are nymphs, and the number of knowledgeable people about the concept decreases.
This cultural reference of dragons also makes it hard to design a dragon, because people already have expectations of what a dragon should be like. So the job turns to find out what people are expecting of the dragon concept to be able to deliver. The problem does not end there. Human nature looks for stability and a sense of safety in everything they do. Once that goal is accomplished humans get bored inside those parameters, so change has to occur within the known and controlled environment to make them happy again.
What is a dragon?
Imagine that we have a new dragon card coming up. You are so excited wandering, how will it look like? What would it do? In what colors is it going to be in? When you finally see it, the dragon card is a measly 1/1 blue creature without any abilities, and the dragon art has no wings. You would be disappointed with this design, because even though you were lost pondering on what and how the card would be, you already had a list of things that it had to align with to match your concept of dragon. Once it didn’t, you were let down and unexcited about the card.
A concise and accurate word to define a dragon would be powerful, because of all the references we have of dragons in our culture. When a dragon appears in a story (be it a movie, game, literature), it usually is a very important and impactful element for the development of the plot. Dragons tend to be on the antagonistic dimension of stories: knights that have to slay dragons to save the village, hobbits and dwarves that have to retrieve some kind of treasure from the guarding dragon, etc. But lately, dragons have been appearing on the protagonistic side, where dragons are important allies or companions that help save the world. Either protagonists or antagonists, dragons are always presented the same way: strong, mighty, big, intimidating, admirable, cunning, intelligent. In general, a powerful force.
In light of this, we see that just as the culture has a definition of a dragon that involves specific characteristics, Magic has also established features in dragon cards that align with those of the cultural concept of dragons. For example, every dragon in Magic has flying, high stats, also appears in the color Red (or requires Red mana to cast), and fills rare or mythic rare slots. (I know Dragons of Tarkir altered this formula a bit, I’ll address it in a moment.) In this way, Magic has started to define and construct its own definition of what a dragon should be through the interaction of these rules.
If we refer to the example above (Blueflame Dragon), we realize that 1/1 stat doesn’t match up with your expectations. In your mind, dragons are powerful, thus you would expect them to be represented as so in the game, maybe a 5/5. In this way the stats help represent the size and potential impact that the creature will have on the game.
Let’s continue using Blueflame Dragon as an example, but this time let’s focus on its art. “Wait, a dragon that doesn’t fly? Oh no, you are mistaken. That is not a dragon, it’s just a big lizard that breaths fire” (at least that would be my answer). Why is a dragon card without flying weird? Well this explanation has two parts: concept of a dragon and art reference.
Every dragon has wings. If it doesn’t, it’s not a dragon. If there are anatomical differences form the classical dragon model, for example having no front legs and only wings, it is called a wyvern. This again rests on our cultural reference, in which dragons have wings and that’s it. Wings are part of the definition of a dragon. Flying is a powerful and rare ability for big creatures, and the dragon’s majesty derives partly from its ability to fly and not being bound to the limits and gravity of earth.
In the other hand, the art should also represent our concept of dragon, and not only that, it should represent its abilities when they are apparent in the art itself. For example, in our general concept of a dragon, we know they all have wings, thus, when we think of a dragon card, we expect it to have flying. But if you encounter a card, which art is a dragon (with wings), but the card itself does not have flying, there is a dissonance between what the players sees and expects the card to do, on basis of the art and what the card really does rules-wise.
Dragons are usually more than just powerful, more than just flying creatures. They are intelligent creatures, with their own personalities and abilities. So having a vanilla dragon card (vanilla cards are creature cards with no abilities) is not as intuitive, as you would expect the dragon to be as impactful as possible. Magic has also done different abilities that represent different aspects of dragons, for example, firebreathing in the form of an ability and different destructive-like effects. There are abilities that represent the impact when a dragon dies, and effects that represent the dragon’s volition or personalities that match our cultural references, like treasure guarding.
Through Magic’s definition of each color, dragons are best represented in the color Red and in return a dragon defines the color Red. When you are seeking for new dragon cards in Magic, to what color do you hurriedly scroll down to in the image gallery? Red. That is why having a Blue dragon, like the Blueflame Dragon in the example above, seems queer. Besides this, Magic also manages to make exemptions to this in order to align with the flavor of the game. This exemption of the rule is called “color bleed”, and Tarkir is a prime example of that. In a world of dragons like Tarkir, it would be only logical to have a dragon representing each color.
The last thing that Magic has defined a dragon by is its rarity slot. Magic tends to make dragons at rare or mythic rare, because the rarity value communicates how unusual a dragon is in the context of the set. Flavorfully, a creature is rare because there are only a few of them in existence, or because a few of them have been in contact with humans/humanoids, therefore have great value and are of great interest to us. Add to this that usually mythic rare creatures in fantasy stories tend to have a powerful, unique roll in their environment, guarding an important treasure, or helping to keep the world’s balance in a mystical way. So, all these are reasons why, in Magic’s past sets, dragons fit at rare slots in the game.
Dragons in Tarkir
Before Tarkir, Magic has made dragons in each rarity slot as follows: 1 common, 10 uncommon, 83 rare and 23 mythic rare. In Fate Reforged, Magic has made 11 dragons, the highest dragon count in any set until now (we know that Dragons of Tarkir surpasses that). For Fate Reforged, Magic made five dragons at rare, five at uncommon, and one dragon at common (having so many dragons in one set is so exciting, almost euphoric). The key of maintaining the majesty, power and awe of each dragon for each rarity slot without breaking the metagame, rests on their power balance and drawbacks, the key-element in these dragon cards designs.
Why does Magic have a rarity system? You have a booster pack with 15 “random cards”, including 11 common, 3 uncommon and 1 rare cards, with a 1 in 8 of a chance of that rare being replaced with a mythic rare. This is one of the fundamental economical engines of trading card games.
You have a fixed number of cards that are being interchanged randomly in each rarity slot. The most impactful cards are in the rare slot, and those are the cards that players usually want, because they are designed to be good in the game or valuable to collect. In a conventional way, you would have to buy a lot of booster packs to try to find the exact rare that you wish for. Now in Magic, you usually want the same card four times (a playset). Imagine trying to acquire four copies of a specific rare card by relying on opening booster packs only. How many packs would you have to buy? A lot. The non-conventional way of acquiring the cards is to buy singles and invest your money right were you need it. Luckily, a way around this exists: trading.
The good thing is that Magic has developed this necessary economical tactic to be more relevant for us, the players. For example, Sealed and Draft are formats that exist because of this rarity system. Their metagame is formed around the commons and uncommon of each set only to be sporadically affected by its rare cards.
The rarity system, apart from being an economical engine or the structure of different formats, it is also a tool for communicating what the world is about in each block. Does having a planeswalker in common feel right? No, it doesn’t, because in Magic’s storyline, planeswalkers are a rare phenomena of the multiverse, therefore having them at the mythic rare slot helps communicate their rarity and their value. Dragons have the same implications. They are rare and powerful creatures, so the rare and mythic rare slots help to communicate this, while the common and uncommon communicate the exact opposite: they are a mundane every day creature.
[draft]Ugin, the Spirit Dragon
Sarkhan, the Dragonspeaker[/draft]
But wait, isn’t that what this set is about? Tarkir is a world full of dragons, how can Magic communicate this feeling of being a world of dragons, when dragons only appear in the rare and mythic rare slots? Easy, putting dragon cards in the common and uncommon slots so that they appear more in Sealed and Draft formats, and just raise the dragon count in the set. What is so great about that if we already have dragons at those slots? AJA! Indeed there are, but they’re wimpy. These cards portray newborn dragons or weak dragons, and Tarkir dragons are everything but that. Remember, Tarkir dragons are born of the Tempest, they are fully grown, and a fully-grown dragon is powerful, even more here on Tarkir.
Power Balance in each Slot
As mentioned before, dragons have to be powerful, impactful when casted. This leads to the next question: how is a dragon in common going to do that? Magic has a system where certain abilities, complexity and power-level can appear in each slot. This is done for various reasons. Since there are more commons in a set, and they appear in more numbers in a booster pack, newer players have more interaction with the common cards than the rare cards. In this way having simple rules and game interactions on these slots help them get to understand the game more efficiently. This concept is known as New World Order. This in turn has the effect of pushing more complex, thus most of the time impactful and relevant game ending effects to the rare slots. The rare slots are where the dragons tend to be, and it is a perfect fit, since complex and impactful effects best portray what a dragon can do.
Yet, Magic has to communicate the power of dragons in the common slots to be able to communicate that Tarkir is truly a dragon world. How can they do that if all game interactions that fit and are permitted for a powerful dragon card are in the rare slots? Here flavorfully, dragons are allowed to appear in the common slots because in Tarkir you see dragons everywhere, is a world of dragons. Mechanically though it is not that easy to bend the past models. Fortunately for us, Magic did find a way to put dragon cards that communicate the impact of a dragon in the common slots by designing drawbacks and carefully honing power-level.
Let’s start with the big guys: the five leader dragons. These cards represent the rare slots for dragons. There are no drawbacks on the cards in exchange for their power-level, since at this slot, rules-wise, it is permitted to do everything necessary to represent the power of the dragons.
[draft]Dromoka, the Eternal
Ojutai, Soul of Winter
Silumgar, the Drifting Death
Kolaghan, the Storm’s Fury
Atarka, World Render[/draft]
I like that each dragons has two mechanics (flying plus another mechanic) and an ability. This shows the different ways a dragon can be impactful and relevant. I would’ve loved to see this cycle of dragons with each of their color’s characteristic mechanic. Kolaghan has dash, Dromoka has bolster, but the rest don’t have their color’s mechanic. I understand and agree that putting other keyword on Atarka, Silumgar and Ojutai was the best call, since we are in Fate Reforged, the pivot point where the mechanics are changing. Fate Reforged introduced two new mechanics: dash and bolster, while it maintained delve, prowess, and ferocious from Khans of Tarkir. We couldn’t have any of these dragons having mechanics such as exploit, rebound, or formidable (from Dragons of Tarkir), because they don’t belong to this time. Also, having dragons with delve, prowess, and ferocious wouldn’t fit well into Dragons of Tarkir, since they are mechanics from another timeline. But still, it would have been nice to have a complete, symmetrical cycle.
Each dragon card has a subtheme that I really like: ‘Whenever a dragon you control attacks…’ Each effect is powerful on its own strategy and it does hint us that dragons are very important in this set, not just flavorfully but also mechanically, since the abilities depend on whenever a dragon attacks and multiplies that effect for each one.
In the uncommon dragon cycle of Fate Reforged, we have a nice power balance and symmetrical designs. R&D achieved to communicate, through the abilities of the cards, the impact of a dragon in the game, whether it dies, attacks or deals combat damage appropriately and in harmony with the uncommon slots limitations. Casting a 4/4 flying creature for six mana is not that great, but the abilities on each card really makes them shine and worth the full six mana.
Wardscale Dragon ability communicates how impenetrable it can be rendering useless the spells on your opponent’s hand while it attacks. Mindscour Dragon reflects how this race of dragons cares for knowledge, and attacks that resource by putting 4 cards from your opponent’s library into the graveyard. Noxious Dragon abilities portray how, even though dead, the dragons’ toxic breath can still be lethal, killing a creature with converted mana cost 3 or less. Shockmaw Dragon ability shows how devastating this race of dragons can be, taking care of numerable small threats if it deals combat damage to a player. Finally, Destructor Dragon shows the might and impact that this race of dragons has on their environment, that even when dying, it manages to destroy an important resource, be it an enchantment, artifact, land or planeswalker.
In these dragon cards, we see power-level design, where converted mana cost, creature stats and abilities are all well balanced. This careful balance permits the cards to be relevant both mechanically and flavorfully for the set. In the mechanical sense, these cards are at a good power-level in relation with their rarity slot. Flavorfully they represent the might and power of the dragon races of Tarkir, without being broken or off from their rarity slot limitations. Here we see how the mechanical dimension of the game enhances the flavor dimension, permitting the inclusion of dragons and their powerful abilities references into lower rarity slots – thus helping us understand that dragons are more common here in Tarkir than in other planes, but they are still powerful and should be feared.
Lastly, it is important to mention our lonely Lightning Shrieker at the common slot. Power-wise, this card is very powerful: for five mana you have a 5/5 flying creature. That alone makes it good, but in addition to that, it also has trample and haste. This dragon is not only putting a 5/5 body on the field, but also allowing you to use it immediately with haste. Flying and haste make a really good combination since it is a surprise attacker with evasion, and it also has trample so that, if your opponent somehow manages to block your mighty dragon, some damage is still done. This, to me, is a really good card. The power of the dragon race is well represented in this card.
But wait, with Lightning Shrieker’s power-level, it should be on the rare slot. It should, if it didn’t have the second line of text: ‘At the beginning of the end step, Lightning Shrieker’s owner shuffles it into his or her library.’ That is the price to pay for such a powerful dragon card at common.
Here the design of the drawback is the key for the possible inclusion of a powerful dragon at common, while maintaining mechanical balance in the game. A drawback is a rules’ iteration that relates a ‘good’ effect with a ‘bad’ effect. An optimal effect-drawback relation design is symmetrical: the drawback is only as bad as how good the card is. Lightning Shrieker’s drawback is similar to that of dash, but taken to the next level: instead of returning to your hand, it returns to your library, a bit more epical. I would encourage you to read my article Dash Design as it further analyzes the implications of dash’s drawback design, and how sometimes drawbacks may be your key to winning.
The balance between the effect and the drawback is what permits the cards with drawbacks to see play at least in Sealed and Draft. For example, imagine that to play Lightning Shrieker, instead of shuffling it away to an unknown slot in your deck, it would deal 10 damage to its controller in each upkeep. This drawback flavorfully reflects the volition and unattainability of the dragon, but mechanically no one would risk killing themselves in two turns, thus having the card see no play.
The careful design of a drawback is the key component for this card. If it has a too negative drawback, it won’t see play, but if the drawback is not parallel or well honed to the card’s effect, that produces a broken card, thus throwing the metagame off balance. We don’t want to see any of these two scenarios, rather a balance coexistence between these two sides of the card. To find a mechanical balance between drawbacks and the card power-level is what has permitted the inclusion of a powerful dragon at common, and thus to be able to communicate just how much Tarkir is truly a dragon world.
I strongly believe that Magic is a form of art, because it has the capacity to communicate a message through its different game elements. Some of these elements are stats, abilities and color of the card. In Tarkir, Magic uses these elements to convey the concept of a dragon. We have seen how important the design of the cards drawbacks and power-level have been crucial to Tarkir’s dragon feel, being communicated flavorfully. Also how our cultural context can affect how we design and expect something to be like. Hope you all have enjoyed our journey analyzing the design of dragon cards. If you liked this article, be sure to visit my blog thinkingMAGIC where I write a weekly article about Magic’s design.
See you in two weeks!