Thursday, 22 April 2021 14:36

Strixhaven: School of Mages - An interview with MTG senior designer Gavin Verhey

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Strixhaven: School of Mages, the 87th expansion for Magic: The Gathering, comes out on Friday, April 23.  When that happens, 275 new cards and 107 special reprints will enter the overall Magic: The Gathering card pool.

Not to be confused with Dominaria's Tolarian Academy, Strixhaven is a school for mages located on the plane of Arcavios.  Unlike the former, which had a heavy focus on blue magic and artrifice, Strixhaven is a school for colored pairs.  While this concept has been explored in depth within the various sets that have taken place on the plane of Ravnica, this time it's different.

"We couldn't just have the only two-colored factions that were meaningful be on Ravnica," comments Magic: The Gathering senior designer Gavin Verhey.  "So this plane's idea was born out of the idea of 'what if we did a set around two-colored factions that wasn't Ravnica."

An example of this given by Verhey is that, while the green-black Golgari of Ravnica is about decay and reanimation, Strixhaven's Witherbloom (also green-black) is about creation and life gain.

But the set isn't just about re-interpreting color pairs.  There is also a story driving it all.

"It's about these five colleges in the school of Strixhaven on the plane of Arcavios...and Rowan and Will show up here and start attending school," summarizes Verhey.  "And, well, all sorts of hijinks show up."

As for the cards themselves, the set sees the return of food tokens (initially introduced in Eldrain, which just so happens to be Rowan and Will's home world), and debuts the magecraft and learn mechanics, as well as the ward keyword ability.

Ward is, more or less, a tax on spells or abilities that target a particular permanent.  If a permanent has "Ward 2," for example, whatever spell or ability that is targeting it would be automatically countered unless the source's caster/activator pays an additional two generic mana.

As for magecraft and learn, "[magecraft] says whenever you cast [or copy] a spell -- an instant or sorcery spell -- do an effect," explains Verhey.  "So it tells you to put out a permanent, then cast some spells."

As for learn and it's related card subtype, lesson, the ability allows its caster to either draw a card upon resolution or snag a learn subtype spell from outside the game (usually one's sideboard) and place it into their hand.  It's a mechanic that Wizards of the Coast has been trying to make work within a set since Kaladesh, which was released in 2016.

"We tried it as this thing called 'invent.'  So, you play a card, invent it, and grab a one-mana-cost artifact from outside the game and put it into your hand, but it ended up being very problematic in Kaladesh," tells Verhey.  "We have been looking for a place to put it ever since and we decided to try it [in Strixhaven]."

Finally including the mechanic, however, wasn't as simple as just implementing what had already been concepted.

"There's a narrow edge you walk," says Verhey.  "If none of the [lesson] cards are any good, no one plays with any of the learn cards.  And if there's one card that's better than all of the others, everybody plays with just that one learn card."

Strixhaven also features a sub-set of sorts called "Mystical Archive," which are cards with a unique frame and stand-out artwork from across all of Magic: The Gathering's 28-year history, as well as some (IMHO) extremely awesome Japanese language variants.  Such cards include Lightning Bolt, Demonic Tutor, Teferi's Protection, Natural Order, and Time Warp.

It should be noted, however, that these cards are not Standard legal unless they already happen to exist in a set that is already legal for the format.  The cards are, however, draft legal.  If you draft it, you can play it!

You can learn more about Strixhaven, its concepting and development, and more about the Mystical Archive cards in our interview below.

Strixhaven: School of Mages, which released a week ago on Magic: The Gathering - Arena, comes out in physical form on Friday, April 23.  In addition to bundles and draft, set, and collectors' boxes and boosters, Wizards of the Coast is also releasing an assortment of Strixhaven pre-constructed commander decks.