Magic is constantly breaking it’s own rules and pushing the boundaries of what it can do. That said, we don’t often see cards that redefine elements of the game in an introductory product. Core sets and intro decks serve their role as a stepping stone for new players getting into the game, not as vectors for groundbreaking new mechanics. As such, their legacy is typically very fleeting.
That’s why Tezzeret, Cruel Machinist is as surprising as it is. Not only does this planeswalker redefine a longstanding element of the game, but it was the face card of a Planeswalker Deck, the newest version of Intro Packs. Tezzeret’s abilities are simple enough to understand for new players, but despite that, this card could potentially revolutionize future Magic sets.
Let’s look at what his planeswalker abilities do:
+1: Draw a Card
0: Until your next turn, target artifact you control becomes a 5/5 creature in addition to its other types.
-7: Put any number of cards from your hand onto the battlefield face down. They’re 5/5 artifact creatures.
So what’s so special? Well, his first two abilities are pretty run of the mill, but his ultimate…. well, now that’s something unique. But before we get to exactly how special that “-7” ability is, we have to go all the way back to the beginning, to Alpha, and a card called Illusionary Mask.
The Mask allows its controller to put cards onto the battlefield face down to disguise what the creature really is. While face down it is treated as a 2/2 colorless creature with no abilities. For the longest time this was the only card that could put cards in play face down, so any face-down card was defined by it: they were all generic 2/2 creatures. If a card was face down, it was a 2/2, simple as that. It came up rarely, since Illusionary Mask was only one card, but that changed once Onslaught introduced Morph cards.
For those who are unfamiliar with Morph, cards with the ability can be cast face down for 3 mana. If cast this way they enter the battlefield as that same sort of colorless 2/2 creature as the Illusionary Mask cards. Unlike the Mask creautres, however, the controller of a Morph card can turn the card face up at any time by paying the card’s Morph cost. Morph reappeared on several cards in the Time Spiral block, and it featured prominently again in the Tarkir block. Dragons of Tarkir even added a twist on the mechanic with “Megamorph,” a mechanic which was basically the same as Morph, but added a +1/+1 counter on the permanent when it turned face up.
Because all face-down cards were treated the same up to this point, it made it easier for players familiar with one mechanic to learn new ones. This allowed R&D to design some more exotic cards like Ixidron and Obscuring Aether, which turned permanents face down. These cards might never have been made without the groundwork established by Morph cards and Illusionary Mask, and by keeping in line with these mechanics they were fairly straightforward to understand. This groundwork also opened the doors for the Manifest mechanic in Fate Reforged, which put any card onto the battlefield face down, regardless of whether it had Morph or not. A Manifested card was a colorless 2/2, just like all of the other face-down cards, and this consistency made an otherwise very complicated mechanic easier for players to comprehend.
Because these cards all functioned in a very similar way, players could mix and match Morph, Megamorph or Manifest cards from various sets easily. Learning each mechanic would be quick once a player knew how one of them worked, too. Masters 25 played around with this by including Morph cards from several sets, and it worked to good effect. With all that said, all those Morph sets were limited mechanically, especially for Limited play, like Draft. If face-down cards were going to be included in a set it would mean that there would be a disproportionate number of 2/2 creatures in play at any given time. While this didn’t mean that Onslaught, Khans of Tarkir, Masters 25 and the rest of the Morph sets all felt the same, it did mean that each of these sets’ designs had to shape themselves around these 2/2’s, rather than being free to explore new options.
Tezzeret, Cruel Machinist, turns this design space on its head. Because of the precedent this planeswalker set, face-down cards can now be defined as whatever a card or set needs them to be, rather than requiring it be a generic 2/2. This opens up all sorts of possibilities, and gives R&D a lot of creative freedom to do cool things with face-down cards in the future.
Journeying into the Upside Down
Looking at Tezzeret, he actually doesn’t deviate too far from the original 2/2 creature template: his face-down cards are still colorless creatures, even if they are a bit bigger and more metallic than usual. Still, it’s the first time we’ve seen a card do this, so any small changes are significant. In time we could see all manner of face-down nonsense. Just imagine designing one of these future sets, where you have some creative leeway regarding how we want to approach face-down cards. For this set we might want to try something radically different by treating our face-down cards as something other than creatures. We could, for instance, take inspiration from the old World of Warcraft Trading Card Game, which used face-down cards as resources, much like lands. What if Magic did something similar? A card from that set might look a little like this:
Put the top card of your library onto the battlefield face down and tapped. It is a Forest land.
A card like this would, under most circumstances, function almost exactly like Rampant Growth. The advantage here, however, would be that it would greatly reduce the amount of shuffling players would have to do. Anyone who has watched coverage of a Modern tournament will understand just how long shuffling can take each game, so an elegant way of cutting that time down would be great. “Land tokens” have been suggested a few times, but Mark Rosewater has commented on his blog that these are problematic. Either players shuffle them into their library at the end of a game, or they use non-card tokens, like beads or dice, that are difficult to tell if they are tapped or not. This “land-manifest” mechanic would get around all of these problems while speeding up matches. It would also open up interesting deck building choices in older formats, where Morph creatures could interact favorably with the new mechanic. Apparently R&D considered a mechanic like this back in Zendikar design, but dismissed it at the time because face-down cards were “defined already — as 2/2 colorless creatures.” With the new Tezzeret breaking that mould, they might be more open to concept now than they were back then.
Using face-down cards as lands is only one possibility, of course. Using them as simple auras, or as equipment that give +1/+1 could also be interesting. I would be especially intrigued if R&D could find some way of making a black-bordered S.N.O.T. mechanic, where multiple face-down cards could be attached together to form one large creature. Perhaps it would work similarly to Meld or Bestow, or maybe these creatures would be put together as a pile of cards, like a miniature Animated Library. These ideas are far crazier than just using face-down cards as lands or creatures, but you never know; we might see some truly bizzare mechanics with face-down cards in the years to come. They have been untethered from their 2/2 trappings and are now blank slates, free to be whatever future designers require them to be.
Of course, this card could just be a one-off fluke. New sets might just explore more Morph territory instead. I might be a little disappointed if that’s the case, but if it’s not… Well, if we do see something vastly different we’ll have Tezzeret, Cruel Machinist to thank for taking that first step. This humble planeswalker card, from an introductory product, could be a significant stepping stone on the way to a totally new future for face-down cards.
I’m looking forward to it.