Deadly Designs: Put a Ring On It

Markus Leben • February 13, 2019

All right folks, it’s time to talk about bottom-up design. MaRo talks a lot about top-down design but less frequently about bottom-up. Top-down design starts with flavor and chooses how to represent it mechanically. Bottom-up design starts with mechanics and figures out flavor to layer onto the cards. Top-down tends to get the bigger showing because it's newer, a bit more accessible, and it’s less the ‘default’ design methodology. Mentally, these designs stand out in part because of the familiarity. Delver of Secrets riffs on The Fly so we recognize it easily, but Mox Opal's flavor makes sense only in the context of the game's history. Outside of the lore of moxen, it's just a fancy looking piece of jewelry.

Personally, I love bottom-up design. Using Magic to capture a certain style of world or spell is really cool, but for me the sort of low-level, mechanical functionality of the game has a beauty that’s hard to pass up. Also I think some of the coolest innovations in Magic come from a bottom-up perspective. When you consider the basic machinery of the game by asking yourself “What can I do with this?” it unlocks very interesting possibilities. Cards like Reliquary Tower and Mirror Gallery only exist because someone took a fine-toothed comb to the rules of the game and asked which ones could be pushed. We have Recoil and Lightning Helix because people realized a bottom-up perspective, combined with Magic's color constraints, make for gold cards with meaningful interplay between several monocolored effects.

A lot of these designs begin with what I’m going to call open questions in Magic design. During Invasion people asked themselves "How do we make gold cards that really feel gold?" and answered that question with design. Nowadays, most of the questions are smaller. Instead "How do we make gold cards?" the designers of Guilds of Ravnica asked "How do we make worthwhile gold uncommons in a multicolor set with good mana without everyone splashing them in four color jumbles?".

And we get cards like Crackling Drake.

Today, I want to take you on a journey through a pretty narrow open question. It’s been mostly fixed, but I believe gaps in the fix leave some room to try and design something better. Moreso than my other articles have been, this is going to be about design doodling, and we’re going to get some unfinished cards that might need either mental or real-world playtesting. But I'm getting ahead of myself. First let's talk about the card in question, everyone's second favorite ring in Magic:


For those not in the know, the O-Ring bug is a strange sort of glitch in older wordings of cards with temporary exile effects. It let you permanently exile by exploiting the stack. Here's how it works:

If O-Ring leaves the battlefield before its first ability resolves, the leaves-the-battlefield ability resolves before the enters-the-battlefield ability. That means there's nothing to return from exile, which means that the thing in exile is stuck there forever. The most common form of this is using something like Viscera Seer to upgrade Fiend Hunter into painless, sorcery speed Anguished Unmaking. It's a cool emergent effect if you're so much of a Spike that brain-bending rules minutiae excites you (i.e. if you're me). The problem is that for less enfranchised players that interaction sounds like bullshit.

Nothing sucks worse than losing to a bug, and this is the Magic: the Gathering equivalent of your opponent using MissingNo in a PvP Pokemon game. Worse, when you Naturalize opposing O-Rings with the trigger on the stack the same problem happens, so there's an extra little gotcha that most players will at some point in their lifetime will screw up at least once.


With all that said, it makes sense that they switched to the Banishing Light style wording they use now. Simple, short, readable, and bug-free. The open problem I care about is that it doesn't work for cards that want to exile something from anywhere other than the battlefield. When Spell Queller quells spells, sometimes it quells them permanently. This introduced a six mana repeatable lockout in Standard using Eldrazi Displacer to double blink Queller and bug an opposing spell into permanent exile.

So, the bottom-up question is this: how do we fix O-ring when we want to do weird O-rings, and what sort of weird O-rings can we do once we have a good wording? The basic problem is that you need a way to be sure the triggered ability from the O-ring not being around resolves after the trigger for entering.

The brute-force way to fix this is to just time delay it:


This does some kinda sucky things to the interplay of these effects. One of the interesting drawbacks of O-ring effects has always been the blowout risk of your ring getting removed at just the wrong time. When it's time delayed like this, you don't get things like pseudo-flash on an exiled Baneslayer Angel or a domino effect of dead Spell Quellers that were exiling removal spells. In this case, safety isn't fun, because the danger of playing around what your opponent might have creates a fun back-and-forth for Spike and momentous blowouts for Timmy. That's important, and giving it up in the name of bug fixing is a tad depressing. Let's try something else.


This is a bit rougher around the edges. Being perfectly technical, you would have to say something like "the source of the ability that exiled this card" instead of "the permanent that exiled this card", but I think this change in wording is much more legible and worth committing to the rules statement "A permanent has exiled another card if it was the source of an ability that exiled that card."

More critically though, there's a bit of a who's on first sort of pronoun game going on in this wording. Your card gives an ability to a second card, which goes back around and cares about your card again. All while having to find ways to call out each of those cards without referring to it by name. Let's see what we can do about that.


This is more legible, but at the expense of again adding in an emergent trait. Now, this O-ring will keep on truckin' as long as at least one copy of it is on the battlefield. That fixes some other weirdness that rarely comes up, but mostly it just makes you want to run as many copies as possible. Linear cards are somewhat not great, and self-linear cards are mostly horrible. Be highly skeptical of any push towards a card having self-linearity. For the moment, I lean towards variations of New Ring 1 as my default text for Oblivion Ring variants.

So, now let's see what sort of ideas hit us.


Honestly the idea of an unsummon Journey to Nowhere is what made me focus on trying to make a new O-ring template in the first place. I'd love this in Pauper, but I doubt this sort of thing would be printed as anything other than a signpost common in a gold set. Interestingly, the exile happens whether or not this card is still on the battlefield, which can be kinda relevant for some other effects you can do with this.


This card stands out to me as a highlight case for the sort of thing that a new piece of technology can unlock. A cheaper sorcery speed Utter End that can be answered when exiling a recursive threat or when the opposing deck cares about things being in exile versus on the battlefield is interesting. Being able to attach a graveyard hate mode is just gravy from what this wording lets you do pretty easily.


This is mostly a proof of concept for a 'fixed' Spell Queller. That last clause is there to prevent something like Thalia, Guardian of Thraben from causing a game-ending loop. It's possible that using when instead of whenever and stopping the triggered ability from being a state-triggered ability would fix this as well. I'm not certain.


Riffing on the theme some more, we can actually get into what other things can be done with this. This is essentially a more pushed Unsubstantiate that plays weird with exile matters, letting you do things like put a spell or creature in the bank when you'd discard to maximum hand size, save a Snapcaster Mage spell from getting Remanded, or get more Lingering Souls. This probably wouldn't see print in a Standard legal set unless there was an exile matters theme. It also leans a little hard on that "granted ability in exile" thing, because it's possible a player won't realize that it loses that ability when you cast it. This might be a case of reminder text coming to the rescue.

Wrapping Up

Effects where we have yet to see their fully realized wording are a dime a dozen. Hellbent was worked into Heckbent. Cascade transitioned into the Baral's Expertise mechanic. Even current keywords like Surveil, Jump-Start, and Afterlife are all revisions and responses to previous play patterns. I'd encourage anyone who wants to to go ahead and make some O-rings (or Fiend Hunters) that take advantage of the templating I did here, but I'd also strongly advise you to think about cards with which you've had similar issues.

Most great ideas come at least in part from understanding what went wrong with previous ideas, so a good first step is finding problems that you're passionate about.