Gavin Verhey, lead designer on the new MTG set Battlebond, took the time to sit down and talk about the set ahead of its June 8 release with Twinfinite’s Yami. She’s a complete newbie, and we thank him for his patience.
Yami from Twinfinite: To kind of tell you, I went on Reddit and I went on Facebook and I asked MTG fans for questions. ‘Cause I didn’t want to just be a complete newb. And I wanted to ask questions the audience would want to know answers for.
Gavin Verhey, Senior Magic the Gathering Designer & Lead Designer for Battlebond: I saw your Reddit thread.
Yami: Yeah, yeah, I saw your comment. So can we jump right in then?
Verhey: Yeah, go for it.
Yami: Okay, I’m sorry if I pronounce anything incorrectly, first and foremost.
Verhey: Totally okay.
Yami: Okay, first off, who’s the most important Gavin on your team?
Verhey: I would say it’s me. But I’m also, by definition, the least important Gavin.
Yami: So, about Battlebond, what sets can you compare it to?
Verhey: So, what we started doing a couple of years back was release a set called Conspiracy. Conspiracy was sort of our first try at something new. It was a set that contained brand new Magic cards with a draftable experience. We make all our sets with drafting in mind, but in Conspiracy it had a bunch of very unusual mechanics that were for drafts and it went over really, really well. And so what we decided to do was, every year as part of our product lineup, we would do what we call a draft innovation set. This was a set that specifically wanted to be unusual or different for booster drafting than something we would normally do. So we released Conspiracy and a second Conspiracy called Conspiracy Take the Crown. And then last year we released a set called Unstable.
And then for this year, our draft innovation set is Battlebond. And the different thing about Battlebond – what makes it so interesting and unique – is that you draft in this 2HG format. So instead of you just sitting there by yourself, and often when you’re playing Magic, it’s kind of a solitary experience because it’s you versus everyone else at the table, it’s maybe you versus another player or you versus two different players… in 2HG you actually have to have a friend sitting next to you playing. So you can draft with your friend, picking cards as you go. And then you will play against someone else with the decks that you created as two people.
So normally when you’re playing Magic you’re not talking about your strategy a lot or kind of having to figure all that on your own, but in 2HG it’s a really great opportunity to bring someone else in and you can actually talk with them while they play. So it’s especially great is if you are maybe newer to the game or coming back into the game because you can talk through all your plays with someone else. There’s a great, team-building camaraderie that goes along with it and I find it a blast.
Yami: That sounds awesome.
Verhey: Yeah, it is. In design we actually have a really different metric, we design cards that we call cards that would create “high five moments.” With the idea being that you would do something and your teammate would do something, and you would kind of high five each other because you just made a really cool play together. And that’s the kind of thing that you don’t normally get in a game of Magic that you can here.
Yami: That’s really, really cool. It kind of goes into another question that people want to know; why Two-Headed Giant?
Verhey: So Magic has a staple of different formats that people play. For example, Commander is an extremely popular format and we make a Commander set every single year that has a bunch of cool Commander cards in it. They’re these pre-constructed decks that come out, usually in either the summer or later in the year, that are ready to play Commander decks for this format. We started making them because we heard from players they really, really liked this Commander format. And 2HG is a format that’s been around in Magic for a really, really, really long time. We run it a little bit at our prerelease events, which are the events where you can play the cards before anybody else. Usually they happen about a week before the set comes out. We run these 2HG events where people can come get the brand new cards and play 2HG with their friends. We’ve kind of run them there for years and it’s been pretty fun – people have enjoyed it – but we haven’t done a lot more with it. Just, “Hey come play at your prerelease, you can do this.” And then a few sets of experiments where we would run 2HG on a larger scale. A very long time ago, in like 2006, 2007, or so, we had a 2HG pro tour. So the best players of Magic tried playing 2HG. But it really didn’t start getting us on the path to Battlebond until we reached a set called Oath of the Gatewatch a couple of years back.
Oath of the Gatewatch was a normal Magic set we would make – Standard Legal and everything – with the unusual aspect that it had a little bit of 2HG support and synergy inside of it. So you were able to still play 2HG and we pushed that a little more at prereleases and asked people to play 2HG to try it out. That went over really well. So all of our data was pointing towards, “Players are really enjoying this 2HG format.” And so we thought, “Okay, well, we have the innovation thing that we’re doing every year and players are really enjoying 2HG, so if we try making a set that really, really built around 2HG from the onset…” And Oath of the Gatewatch, it had some 2HG synergy, its mechanics for example let you put counters on anybody’s creature. So you could target your teammate when you’re playing along side them. But it still had to adhere to a lot of stuff that Standard Magic sets have to adhere to. Whereas with Battlebond, we’re really able to let go of those shackles and make really cool cards that can work just in 2HG or are especially awesome in 2HG. That’s one of the most exciting things about the set to me, it’s the cool things you don’t see anywhere else in Magic.
Yami: That’s really cool, as a player that doesn’t really know much about MTG but is very curious and loves the whole team aspect of it, I’m really excited for this whole new way to play. So, someone wanted to know, is there less pressure when you’re working on sets like these, knowing they don’t pose any risks to Standard?
Verhey: I don’t know if there’s necessarily less pressure because we still want to make the set really good and in fact there’s a lot of unusual pressure on this set because we have to make it really appealing in its own right. With a Standard set, players play Standard and there’s tons and tons of them. So the thing for me as a designer that’s most exciting about these sets though is that we can make kind of wild, crazy cards that we can’t normally make in Standard. Not necessarily on power level, but just cards for example that are really focused for Commander. With this set, we were able to make a lot more cards for Commander and even took shots at older formats like Legacy because we also didn’t have to make sure we weren’t impacting the Standard format as much. So we were able to make more cards. And for me, as a designer, that’s like really exciting and different and a little freeing in a sense. There’s still a lot of pressure on the set, but it’s pressure in a different way that’s new and challenging.
Yami: What’s the most unique card, in your opinion?
Verhey: In the entire set?
Verhey: Well, there’s a few ones that are quite unique, but one of my favorites is this card called Stunning Reversal. And this is a card I was trying to figure out a black mythic rare that would do something crazy. So all our sets are kind of built around a theme, for example Innistrad is a Victorian horror setting so there’s vampires and werewolves and zombies and so on. We were just in Amonkhet which was an Egypt inspired setting and it had pyramids and zombies and all that kind of stuff. Ixalan was kind of Mesoamerican themed with dinosaurs, vampires, merfolk, pirates, etc. So the theme for Kylem is sports and esports. So there’s a lot of tributes to the set for both sports and esports, as well. Cards that kind of nod subtly at games or things that happen in actual sports.
There’s a card called Fumble, a card called Play of the Game. A card called The Crowd Goes Wild. So a lot of stuff like that, it’s really fun. And there’s this one card called Stunning Reversal. Imagine you’re playing like either a video game, it’s like a fighting game, you get knocked off a ledge, you barely come back, that’s what this card is. It’s a four mana instant, three and a black mana, and it says, “Next time you would lose the game this turn, instead, your life total becomes one and you draw seven cards.” So your opponent attacks you for the kill and you put this instant down and you’re like, “I’ve got one more turn, I’m hanging on, I’ve got one life. I draw seven new cards, this is the turn I kind of get to come back and it’s now or never. If I don’t win this turn I’m probably not going to win. But I barely was able to survive.” And that’s a really unique card and we haven’t seen anything quite like that before. And it’s a design I’m really proud of and raises a lot of eyebrows. I quite enjoy that card.
Another one I’ll mention that’s really, really unique is called Grothama, All-Devouring, it’s a Legendary green Creature. It has a really unique line of text where it grants every creature in play, “whenever this creature attacks, you may have it fight Grothama, All-Devouring.” Meaning it will deal its damage to Grothama and Grothama deals its damage to that creature. But then, when Grothama dies, the players that dealt damage to it draw cards. So it’s kind of a mini-game on the table, you put it down and players can kind of attack this creature to try and get its reward. In the same way there’d be some games where monsters show up and when you defeat them, your whole team gets a bonus. It’s a fun way to nod at esports a bit.
Anyway, those are really unique cards in the set. There’s tons and tons that – especially at Rare and Mythic Rare – do some crazy things, but those are two of my favorites.
Yami: I want to see Play of the Game because of Overwatch.
Verhey: It is awesome. We thought that’d be a cool reference. And what the card does is it exiles all non-land permanents. So after the game you really will be like, “Wow that was the Play of the Game, everything got reset.”
Yami: I love destruction of the entire board.
Verhey: You and me both. Especially when it’s not my board.
Yami: Was Brawl or Pauper considered for Battlebond as well?
Verhey: Brawl and Pauper are two kinds of modes for playing Magic and one of the things about those modes is that you can make cards that are good for them. So Pauper is a format that allows for only commons to be played. And Brawl is actually a brand new format that’s a variant on Commander.
Yami: It’s like faster Commander, right?
Verhey: Something like that, yeah. Brawl is focused on Standard and these cards are not Standard Legal and we did talk for awhile on if Battlebond should be Standard Legal in Brawl but we wanted to make cards that would be different than what you would find in Standard. And another great thing about Brawl is you can take your Brawl deck and, for the most part, go play in a Standard event with it. There’s a few different banned cards, but we didn’t want it to get too far away from Standard. Otherwise the decks start to look quite different and there’s a lot of power level consideration there as well.
As far as Pauper goes, it allows for any common to be played and there are definitely some brand new commons in Battlebond. Yeah, there’s a few outside shots at Pauper decks. I play Pauper myself on Magic Online and there’s a couple cards I think could potentially make it. Especially if you want to play Pauper 2HG with a friend, you’ll get some really fun synergies going there.
Yami: When will Yargle get his spark?
Verhey: You know, we made that card knowing players would probably enjoy it and the mileage we got out of it is incredible. People love it, you know? They want Yargle t-shirts, we’re making a Yargle playmat for upcoming events, all kinds of really cool stuff. Will he ever get his spark? Well, I’ll say this much, we’re going to come back to Dominaria someday eventually and who knows what might be there.
Yami: I played Magic in teams with my fellow MTG newbie. We played Commander in teams and then the second time we played Free For All. And I, personally, just… I like not having everyone target me immediately.
Verhey: Yeah, and in multiplayer, some people really like that kind of politics where you can try and not get attacked and things like that. But some players don’t enjoy that as much. And one great thing I love about Battlebond is you take all the fun of multiplayer Magic, but if you don’t like politics, that’s totally okay. It’s really clear; it’s you and your friend working against your enemies. There’s no, like, “Who should I attack?” You always know who you’re attacking. So I think it’s totally up your alley and you will have a blast with it.
I’m super proud of it and it kind of feels like a baby to me in some sense. I mean, I was woken up at night many times with ideas for the set. So it’s not unlike having a child, I bet. It was a blast to work on.