Achieving Zendikar, Part III

Posted in Feature on September 21, 2009

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

If you're interested in working for Wizards of the Coast, make sure you check out the end of this article.

Welcome to the third week of Zendikar previews and part III of my tale of Zendikar design. If you haven't read part I or part II, I suggest you do so as today's column assumes you have. So where were we in our tale? My design team (myself, Doug Beyer, Graeme Hopkins, Ken Nagle and Matt Place) had explored the design space of land-based mechanics ending up creating the landfall mechanic and numerous lands that produced spell-like effects.

We then worked with the creative team to come up with a world that made sense with the land emphasis. We ended up with an "adventure world" concept, where the land took on special qualities that made it both valuable and dangerous. With this world in mind, the team designed three more mechanics for the set: quests, Traps and Allies. In addition, we made flavorful Equipment and a few other individual cards that created the "adventure world" feel that we wanted. But there was a third piece that had also been interwoven in.

The Third Piece

Once upon a time, mechanics were seen as a disposable item. This philosophy can most tangibly be seen on the Reserved List. Each year for quite some time, we were allowed to save a small percentage of cards that we would be able to reprint; the rest went on the list. Did we ever save cards with keyword mechanics (other than evergreen ones)? We didn't, because those were not thought of as repeatable.

During Onslaught design we were trying desperately to find a mechanic that filled a gap we had. Our goal was to find something cycling-esque. After many problems finding what we needed, one day I just said, "I think I have our answer. You know what's just like cycling? Cycling."

With a few suggested twists, I convinced the others to repeat cycling. When the repeat of cycling in Onslaught went over well with the players, it really made us rethink how we use mechanics. Rather than being disposable, we began thinking of our mechanics as tools that could be reused when the need called for it.

Gatekeeper of Malakir

Then during Shards of Alara design, cycling would again be the mechanic that made us question how we used old mechanics. Bill Rose (VP of R&D) felt that cycling would help him achieve the design he wanted for the block. Moreover, Bill had come to the conclusion that repeating mechanics wasn't something we should merely be able to do, it was something we should actively seek out. While Magic design is deep, it is finite. One of the ways to help preserve it is to make the active choice to bring back mechanics more often.

When Zendikar design started, Bill asked me to be on the lookout for a mechanic we could repeat. He wasn't asking me to force anything in, but he said that I should be keeping an eye out for an old mechanic that played nicely with what we were doing.

As we worked on land design, I was very conscious about thinking what kinds of mechanics played well with it. One day, it hit me. The answer was simple. Land mechanics made you want to play land, a lot of land. For example, while playing Zendikar Sealed, I found I was often playing more basic lands that normal. When hitting your land drops wins you games, you start shifting your land ratio. So what mechanics did Zendikar like? Things that let you spend a lot of mana.

I came up with a mechanic that I thought fit this well. My team pointed out that I had just made a variant of kicker. Trying to meet the goals that Bill had set down, I suggested that we add kicker to the set and do both kicker and the kicker variant I had created. Both mechanics were turned over to development. In the end, it was decided that we should save the kicker variant for Worldwake and just do kicker in the first set.

With that in mind, we set out to make some memorable cards with kicker. At rare, we designed a cycle that had one strong effect that turned into a giant effect if you paid the somewhat costly kicker. As an example, let me show you my preview card.

Rite of Replication

Note that the kicker is more than the converted mana cost of the spell. You don't get this effect until you have nine mana, but wow is it a large effect. We costed the cards so that you might still play them without kicking them, especially if you have need of them earlier in the game. This, by the way, is the general philosophy to most kicker designs: you want both halves of the spell to be useful.

Kicker was added to the set during the tail end of the initial land design, before we integrated the "adventure world" feel.

Land Ho

During Part I, I talked a lot about how we created landfall, but there was another vein of land design that also led to material that would end up in Zendikar, albeit not as a keyword. Interestingly enough, though, it did start with a keyword. We called it manabond, and here's how it worked. A spell with manabond could be exiled from your hand in exchange for a land token that could tap to produce a colorless mana. Essentially, any manabond card doubled as a land that produced colorless mana.

The idea was that we were essentially creating split cards in which half of the card was a land and the other was a spell. We tried a number of incarnations, including the wacky split card I just talked about. That didn't work because having instants and sorceries on the battlefield would cause the space/time continuum to collapse according to Mark Gottlieb (Magic rules manager). Another version we tried had you able to play the card face down on the battlefield as a colorless-producing land. That didn't work, as the game already defines a face down card in play as a colorless 2/2 creature thanks to morph.

After many attempts, we tried the token-producing version. In the end, this didn't really work either, as tokens make for poor lands. It's hard to tell when they're tapped and it's just too hard to tell land tokens from creature tokens. That's when we took a very different approach. Instead of a spell capable of producing a land, what if we made a land capable of producing a spell?

We already had kicker in the set at this point, so we played around with spells that allowed you to play mana when they entered the battlefield to play spell effects. Here's an example of an early card:

Deadly Bog
Land - Swamp
CARDNAME enters the battlefield tapped.
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, you may pay 3B. If you do, destroy target non-black creature.
T: Add B to your mana pool

Deadly Bog was a black kill spell that doubled as a Swamp. (During early design, all the nonbasic lands that produced a color were lands of the appropriate type; this was changed during development due to power concerns) Pretty cool, huh? One small problem with it. While a more experienced player might see it for what it was—a black kill spell with the side effect of getting you out of mana screw—the less experienced players just saw it as a land. As such, when they put land in their deck they counted it as a land. We would then watch playtest after playtest where they would be mana-screwed and not play Deadly Bog. Why? Because they didn't want to waste it. Playing it as only a Swamp that enters tapped seemed like a waste.

Here is a valuable design tip. It doesn't matter how you meant for something to be used. It is how it is used that matters. The card as presented was causing unfun games as players were unconsciously mana-screwing themselves. And to be fair, the issue went beyond skill level. Even when I had Deadly Bog in my hand, played in my deck counting it as mostly a spell so that I was not mana screwed by it, I still felt bad when I had to play it as just a tapped Swamp. Yes, the intellectual side of me found it silly as the land ability was merely a bonus added to the kill spell, but the emotional side of me felt bad doing it. The card created a bad feeling.

Valuable design tip #2: Things that force your players to do something in the game that makes them feel bad are mistakes. This isn't to say you can't have tension or occasionally force your players to make tough decisions, but if the spell routinely causes ill will when they have to play it in a certain way, it is a mistake to print. Our job is to entertain the players and help them have fun. Purposely creating ill will does not advance either agenda.

We liked the lands though, so we decided what we would do was reduce them to just two cycles, one with effects costing one mana (at common) and the other with effects costing two mana (at uncommon). During the tail end of design, Bill Rose suggested that we try a cycle with zero-mana costs, lands that simply had an effect when they entered the battlefield. We changed the common cycle to the free version and the uncommon cycle was then reduced to one mana effects.

During development, it was decided that even the one mana effects at uncommon were causing moments of frustration, so we just left the free common cycle.

Teetering Peaks

One of the reasons the development team felt that the uncommon cycle could go was that we had, in parallel design, created a cycle of lands that also had an "enter the battlefield" effect—the uncommon duals.


Graypelt Refuge Sejiri Refuge

During design, because we had so many lands that had "enter the battlefield" effects, we had numerous cards that allowed you to put lands onto the battlefield. As such, when we were looking for an uncommon dual cycle, we were interested in finding dual lands that could have some small effect. When the idea (proposed by Erik Lauer) came up to have "enters the battlefield tapped" dual lands that gave you life, I stuck them right in the file. We had learned during Invasion that "enters the battlefield tapped" dual lands were slightly on the weak side, so allowing an ETB effect seemed like the perfect choice.

The rare land cycle has its own story.


Emeria, The Sky Ruin Oran-Rief, the Vastwood


Crypt of Agadeem Valakut, the Molten Pinnacle

The earliest version of the cycle had each one creating an effect when the appropriate land was played. As an example:

Burning Volcano
Land - Mountain
CARDNAME enters the battlefield tapped.
Whenever another mountain enters the battlefield, CARDNAME deals 1 damage to target creature or player.

The idea behind these lands was that they grafted a spell effect on each of the appropriate basic lands. After some playtesting, we felt that the rare lands wanted to have bigger effects. To balance the larger effects, we restricted when they could be used.

Burning Volcano
Land - Mountain
CARDNAME enters the battlefield tapped.
Whenever CARDNAME or another mountain enters the battlefield, if you control six or more other lands, CARDNAME deals 5 damage to target creature or player.

Note that this version didn't care if the other lands were Mountains just if they were lands. Only Mountains, though, would trigger the effect. Some of these lands worked better than others. During development, it was decided that they wanted each land to reward playing a lot of that basic land, but those rewards would be less synced up. The red land was reduced from needing six other lands to only needing five, but they all had to be mountains. The damage was reduced down to 3 as 5 was, well, just a little too much.

There were a bunch of other fun things we did with land during Zendikar design, but part of any block design is figuring out how to pace the block. While "Prosper" isn't continuing with the "land matters" theme, Worldwake is, so we wanted to save a few fun things for that set. If there's something that seems obvious yet we didn't touch upon it, perhaps you need only wait a set.

E Laine! E Laine!

When last we left, I explained that the Magic Brand team (led by Elaine Chase) was lukewarm on the set initially. How can that be when we had all the pieces in place? We didn't exactly. What we had were all the pieces in the process of being completed. Last week I talked about quests, Traps and Allies. While all of them were in design, each of the three went through substantial rejiggering while in development. The flavor was coming together, but at this point there was no art or flavor text and many of the names were place holders.

The best analogy I can give is that of a house under construction. Imagine the buyer (the Magic brand team) walking in while all the work is being completed. As the person overseeing all the work (the general contractor in this analogy), I have a pretty good sense of how the house is coming together, plus I'm the person who made sure all the different builders communicated so that they worked together. The buyer has a huge investment in the outcome but may not see where the overall vision is going. It can be very disconcerting. Brand was invested in R&D building a beautiful house. At the time, it was a little scary because so many of the pieces were still coming together.

The first thing we did was get the brand team to play the set. One of our goals during all the land-themed playtesting was to get land based mechanics that felt good when you played them. This paid off in the first playtest with the brand team. While they admitted they were still nervous, they said their apprehension was reduced. As the pieces slowly came together, we kept them in the loop. We'd show off cool art as it came in, or we'd let them join us in playtests as we fine tuned different mechanics.

Another thing that happened over time was that we kept coming up with new ways to reinforce our theme. During one Tuesday Magic meeting (a group meeting we have once a week for everyone in R&D who works on Magic), for example, Brady Dommermuth pitched the idea of doing Un-set-style extended-art basic lands. "If the land matters in this set," he said, "Let's really make it matter."


Mountain Island

Aaron Forsythe (director of Magic R&D) pushed the idea of bringing back the enemy fetch lands. We knew players had been asking about them for a long time, and they fit perfectly with the landfall mechanic. With each improvement, the set got better and better. It was my job as the lead designer (and then Henry Stern's job as lead developer) to keep "walking the brand team through the house" so they could see as the different elements started taking on their final form.


Misty Rainforest Marsh Flats

At the end of the design and development process, we use a Tuesday meeting to have a slide show with the completed cards where we show off what we've done. At the end of this, Elaine came up to me and said, "Okay, now I like it."

"I Love It when a Plan Comes Together"

Every design has its challenges. Zendikar design seems to have been defined by the fact that it had a vision that was hard to articulate. The set had a lot of moving pieces that had to all work in harmony to create the effect we needed. I am happy to report that at the end of the day, I think we managed to create the thing I wanted when I first thought up the idea. The set took many twists and turns that I could not have foreseen and it was improved immensely by the work of all of R&D, from the design team to the development team to the creative team. What you see now is the net result of a lot of hard work by a lot of individuals all trying to create something memorable.

I believe we have succeeded, but I am eager to hear from all of you. After you attend this week's Prerelease (hint, hint) and play with the set, drop me a line—in the thread, in my email, at my Twitter feed (@maro254)—and let me know how you feel the set turned out, both mechanically and creatively. Do you like the individual mechanics? What do you think of the world of Zendikar? Was it fun to play with? Success, failure, something somewhere in between? I'd like to know.

That's all I got for today. Join me next week when I explore the last one hundred columns with grades and everything.

Until then, may you know the joy of seeing your vision become a reality.

Brand New Day

A little over a month ago, I ran a blurb at the end of my column about an open position on the Magic brand team. For those who applied, or missed applying, that position is no longer open. So why are you reading this? Because another position has opened up.

You remember Mark Purvis. He read a blurb much like this one, clicked the link, and eventually became a Magic brand manager.

The Magic brand team is looking for someone who understands both Magic and business. If you have knowledge and experience in both those areas, then what are you waiting for? Click on this link to check out what this job entails. You can also click on this link if you want to see what other offerings Wizards currently has.

Mark took the plunge, and now he has his dream job. You could be next.

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