Do you remember?
Do you remember those ancient stirrings, things in the vast, the great shadows cast along us?
Do you remember what it was like to look at the rolling ocean, and recognise your own smallness? The way that the strongest person you knew was probably still nothing compared to the ferocious power of storms and nature and the horrors of our own fears?
Warning: Wizards employees, this post contains unsolicited designs of custom magic cards.
The theme of September was twenty one.
Eh, see, now that’s a little more odd than the other months, isn’t it?
Every card in this month’s collection in some way references or creates the number 21. There are a lot of ways to do that; 2/1 creatures do it, things that grant +2/+1, those are obvious. And if you know that hint, then it’s easy to look at cards that straight up just mention 21; making a creature a 21/21, milling twenty one cards, that kinda thing. But also, if you want to get to 21, you can get there with multiplying 7 by 3 (hence 7/3 creatures, or dealing 7 damage to three targets).
There’s this idea in Man Play & Games of reasons people play, and it gets expanded later by Astrid Ensslin to include the idea of rhythmos: That sometimes, people play games because the intricate, smooth interaction of rules themselves is inherently interesting. I really like that and I think it forms a big part of how these cards got designed; like there’s my Thalia style card designs, where a ‘fair’ 2-mana artifact or land can be a 2/1 legendary creature in a ‘fair’ world (and there are three of those in this month!). But there are other cards as well, which are about me considering specific wording options, like the way we have the tech ‘whenever a player attacks you,’ and how that leaves a hole open for ‘planeswalkers you control.’ These are all things that I find interesting and that means this particular month of designs is just stuff I find intriguing.
And now, this far through the year, a bunch of things that have been introduced are paying off, or you’re seeing names in the flavour text that you’ve already seen before now, right? Like hey, get a load of that – remember Altansarnai? She had a Command!
And well, let’s talk about Altansarnai! Because of all the factional groupings in the setting, there’s no clear ‘green white’ grouping; green white is just people who have some memories of the forests, some connection to the land, but some other connection holding them together. While the Barren Crawlers crept the Scourged lands and tried to find people who were enraged at the Palace boats, on every level, they could find people who wanted restoration more than they wanted justice.
And those are the people who Altansarnai is caring for.
There’s a belief, especially amongst the refugees, in the memory of what they had. There’s a vision that the forests can be restored, that maybe the vast, spilling hydras bursting up out of the ground are a sign that something is wrong, not that nature heals through destruction. And they’re not entirely wrong. Altansarnai is a Satyr, who seeing the devotion that the Barrens people had to this idea, was struck by the story shaped around a knight. And so, the easiest way to tell a story was to live it. A reckless, joyful satyr took up a sword, and told those around her that she had learned a lesson from the moon – because that’s a good story.
It is entirely made up, but that doesn’t matter. It doesn’t have to be true to be real.
Ganbaatar is the hatred of the Palace itself, given a frame, as it seeks to find some way, any way to rid itself of Gansukh. There’s something wrong, a burr in the eye of the nature of death in this world, and with the Usurper in place, that irritation has formed a pearl. Is Ganbaatar there to become the new attendant when Gansukh is destroyed? Perhaps. But maybe they’re a side effect, something created out of that drive, and without Gansukh, it might just… dissolve.
Finally, there’s Eloi. Eloi is a researcher who went to the Ice Palace – you know, that city sized building carved in an iceberg that sprung up out of the water – who wants to delve into why the ice is so magically strange, and also why all the wizards and artists who come to the iceberg wind up turning all a little weird in the head. You can’t go live in the Ice Palace just by being interested, though, so you have to have some art you contribute; Eloi’s contribution is attenuated lenses, which they do with bright, shining crystals that they just happen to also be able to use to look closely at things.
This was a month where a lot of cards wound up landing because they represented effects I decided in the set skeleton I wanted, like utility effects, ‘draftable’ commons and niche effects that you should try to fit in a set to make sure you can represent mechanics you don’t necessarily think of off the top of your head. Like, you know, recurrent rare-level life gain:
There’s always a concern when you design game items that you’re designing them for entirely cute reasons. This is definitely a game item I think of as cute because its primary job is to express the number 21 in a way that is a reasonable amount of life to gain on a one-mana spell. This card, if you cast it naturally every time you draw it, gains you 1+2+3+4+5+6 life, and if you’re the kind of dork who knows stories about how Gauss annoyed his teachers, you’ll realise that’s 3*7 again, or 21.
In a 20 life, 60-card 4-ofs deck, Yet Hope Endures does present a weird thing, though, where every card after the first is just one mana for 6 life with no recursion (and the recursion is one of the reasons to want it). Compare to Chaplain's Blessing.
And if you know that the sum of all numbers up to 6 is 21, you’ll probably notice that 21 can also be made out of a 6, a 7 and an 8. That means this card, which is absolutely big dumb splashy effects, a secret 21 card.
Oh and it’s also one of those ‘hey, look, the Vast is a terrifying place‘ cards!
The Usurper’s Palace (USP) is a collection of Custom Magic cards made with the general structure of a commander draft set. The cards are posted, one per day with different themes every month, to the Custom Magic subreddit, on my Mastodon and Cohost. Follow along for more!