We Spoke With The Magic: The Gathering Set Designer Behind Ikoria

Tabletop article by Giaco Furino on Thursday, April 30, 2020 - 12:00
Interview
Topic(s):

Giant monsters, cycling, and companions

On April 16th, a brand new set of Magic: The Gathering cards stomped its way across digital tabletops on MTG Arena and Magic Online. The new set, Ikoria, features giant monsters, brand new mechanics, the return of cycling, and a few other big surprises. We wanted to learn more about the design and development of the set, so we spoke to Ikoria’s lead designer Dave Humphreys about what went into making this monstrous mutating Magic expansion.

A Card from the new Ikoria set of Magic: The Gathering, courtesy Wizards of the Coast
A Card from the new Ikoria set of Magic: The Gathering, courtesy Wizards of the Coast

“The idea of a Monster Island of sorts that would draw inspiration from big monster movies was the original inspiration for Ikoria,” Humphreys explains. But you can’t just fill a new set of Magic cards with huge monsters and call it a day. “Many folks internally also wanted to strike a balance to that with more lighthearted, quirky smaller monsters,” says Humphries, “It is very challenging to make a set just about big monsters and still maintain good game play. While we made a number of big creatures, we also tried to put a lot of the value in building up creatures in ways other than just power and toughness.”

A Card from the new Ikoria set of Magic: The Gathering, courtesy Wizards of the Coast
A Card from the new Ikoria set of Magic: The Gathering, courtesy Wizards of the Coast

That concept of adding value and building up creatures in ways beyond their base power and toughness was core to the creation of the brand new “mutate” mechanic. “Mutate was designed to show off monsters gaining new abilities and evolving in new and surprising ways,” says Humphries. With mutate, players can essentially merge specific monster cards with other monster cards, and the process is rather fluid. 

A Card from the new Ikoria set of Magic: The Gathering, courtesy Wizards of the Coast
A Card from the new Ikoria set of Magic: The Gathering, courtesy Wizards of the Coast

Humpries shed some light on the early design process of the mechanic, “Initially you could only mutate over a creature that shared a creature type or a keyword to try to be as thematic as possible and you only kept any keywords in the form of keyword counters. First, we decided you’d be able to keep all rules text. Then we decided it was more fun just to be able to mutate over any non-Human and that would be thematic enough... Finally, we let you mutate under instead of just over so you didn’t have to fret sequencing your mutations in the correct sequence and would always have the best stats or other card characteristics you wanted on top.”

A Card from the new Ikoria set of Magic: The Gathering, courtesy Wizards of the Coast
A Card from the new Ikoria set of Magic: The Gathering, courtesy Wizards of the Coast

Another mechanic that features heavily in Ikoria is the classic “cycling” mechanic, which made its debut back in 1998 with the Magic card set Urza’s Saga. Humphries explains why Magic's cycling was a good fit for Ikoria. Cycling, where you can cast a card or pay a smaller cost and discard it to draw a new card, is great for a set that encourages players to play big, mana-expensive spells. “You can play more of them and not be punished nearly as much if you stall out on lands since you can turn them into new cards," says Humphries. "And sometimes into more lands to help you play your other big cards. Cycling opens up some reanimation strategies [author’s note: reanimation strategies refers to the strat of placing creatures in your discard purposefully, with the hope of pulling them out for free later in the game] as well which becomes another way to get big creatures into play.”

A Card from the new Ikoria set of Magic: The Gathering, courtesy Wizards of the Coast
A Card from the new Ikoria set of Magic: The Gathering, courtesy Wizards of the Coast

The final major, new mechanic in Ikoria is the “companion” mechanic. Some creatures are marked as companions, and if players follow the strict deckbuilding rules they present, they can cast the creature once outside of the deck (commander players’ ears should prick up at this). “I love the way that companions make you think about formats and deckbuilding in new ways,” Humphries explains. “I like the originality it has inspired in many decks already out there in terms of mitigating the restrictions. I like some of the new decks it’s created. It’s still early to know how it will impact all the various formats and how lasting that impact will be. It is certainly inspiring a lot of decks trying to break it now. We understand it is a very polarizing mechanic in the community and we’ll keep an eye on how it is affecting the health of our various formats.” These cards do mess with the natural flow of deckbuilding in ways both interesting and dangerous, as one companion card was banned from the brawl format before it was released, for instance.

A Card from the new Ikoria set of Magic: The Gathering, courtesy Wizards of the Coast
A Card from the new Ikoria set of Magic: The Gathering, courtesy Wizards of the Coast

And because it’s so heavy on our minds right now, and has even impacted the shipment of the physical release of Ikoria (now hitting shelves in the States on May 15th), we wanted to check in on how the Coronavirus pandemic affected Humphries and his team. “It has forced us to adapt a lot in how we interact and playtest,” he explains, “We’re learning as we go. I think each design lead is finding ways that work best for them. On the whole, things are going better than I’d have expected and we’re learning some new tricks for the future along the way.”

A Card from the new Ikoria set of Magic: The Gathering, courtesy Wizards of the Coast
A Card from the new Ikoria set of Magic: The Gathering, courtesy Wizards of the Coast

Finally, we asked Humphries to tell us about a few of his favorite cards from Ikoria. “It’s so hard to choose favorites. Some cards I had a lot of input on the design for that I love are: Fiend Artisan; Winota, Joiner of Forces; and Emergent Ultimatum. I’m generally happy with all the mechanics… I’ve been enjoying seeing all the ways people are trying to make different decks work with: Colossification, Song of Creation, Shark Typhoon, The Ozolith, and others.

What are some of your favorite cards from the new Magic set? And what do you think of Ikoria overall? Let us know in the comments below.

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Giaco Furino

Staff Writer

Giaco Furino is a screenwriter, writer, and editor living and working in Brooklyn, NY.