On the Rise, Part I

Posted in Feature on March 29, 2010

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.

Welcome to Rise of the Eldrazi Previews, Week One (of three, large sets get three preview weeks). The plane of Zendikar is going through some major upheaval, and so too is the block. Rise of the Eldrazi is the first time we've rebooted the mechanics without rebooting the creative. Why did we do this? How did we do this? Who did this? All will be explained today. (Well, technically over the next three weeks.) Hang on to your hats because some serious stuff is going on. And yes, before the article is done, I have a spiffy new preview card to show you.

If They Build It

Before I jump into how Rise of the Eldrazi was designed, let me start with the fine tradition of explaining who designed it. Without further ado, the Rise of Eldrazi design team:

Brian Tinsman (lead) – In the history of Magic, how many designers have lead the design for three or more large sets? Four. Myself obviously (Tempest, Odyssey, Mirrodin, Ravnica, Shadowmoor, Zendikar, Scars of Mirrodin, and the 2011 large fall set codenamed "Shake"), Bill Rose (Mirage, Portal, Invasion, and Shards of Alara), Mike Elliott (Urza's Saga, Mercadian Masques and Onslaught) and Brian Tinsman (Champions of Kamigawa, Time Spiral, and Rise of the Eldrazi). Brian's only one set away from tying for second. (And while I can't tell you which one that will be yet, I already have a large set picked out for him to lead.) My point here is that Brian's not an up-and-coming Magic designer. He's a veteran. He's been doing this longer than anyone currently working on Magic design other than Bill and myself. As you will see today, Brian was given a daunting challenge with Rise's design, and he stepped up to meet it. Brian's reputation as a Magic designer is that he loves exploring places that design has not yet gone. No set better exemplifies this desire than Rise of the Eldrazi. In fact, as the preview weeks go by I'm going to spend some time explaining how different Rise is. It is my hope that I'll strengthen what I call the Brain Tinsman brand. When players see that he is lead designing a set I hope it gets them excited, because they know they're about to board a roller coaster of an experience. A Tinsman set is never boring and will definitely make you rethink things you thought you knew. Rise of the Eldrazi is no exception.

Aaron Forsythe – Here are a few little known facts. (Well, little known if you've never read Aaron's three-part article about how he came to work at Wizards.) When we were first setting up magicthegathering.com, I'm the one who suggested we hire Aaron to be the editor-in-chief. I had followed his writing (and editing) and just had a gut feeling that he'd be right for the job. I had no idea that I was hiring my future boss. Aaron's first design team was Fifth Dawn. We included him on the team because we thought it would make for a compelling article, a chance for an outsider to report on Magic design from the inside. And then Aaron blew our socks off. I was looking desperately for designers, and Aaron was a natural. We brought him into R&D with the intent that I was going to train him to be a Magic designer. Somewhere along the way he instead became the head developer, and then through another series of events ended up the director of Magic R&D. Aaron is someone who was in training to become a future head designer, became a head developer instead, and currently runs Magic R&D. So when I say a team is blessed to have Aaron on it, I am in no way exaggerating. My biggest regret as the guy who oversees design is that I have so little of Aaron's time. But Aaron was excited by the premise of Rise of the Eldrazi and chose to make this design one of those he would work on. The set was better for that decision.

Graeme Hopkins – Graeme came in third in the Great Designer Search. (Check out the Great Designer Search page if you have no idea what I'm talking about.) During his interview for the final portion of the GDS (we brought the three finalists to the Wizards offices for the last challenge), Graeme had such a good interview that before the weekend was over, he was offered a job in the digital department, where he still works today. Luckily, they let us borrow him from time to time to do design. I am never unhappy to have Graeme on one of my design teams. He always delivers in spades. Rise of the Eldrazi was no exception. (And I can't wait to show off some of his cool stuff for "Shake" next year.)

Devin Low – This was Devin's last design team. He has gone on to do design for another company. While Devin was the Head Developer before he left, we made plenty of use of him on design teams. In fact, one of my regrets is that I never got him to lead a design team. (He almost led the design for Eventide, but circumstances didn't work out.) Both Devin and Aaron are what we call cross-hitters in that they are capable of leading either a design or development team. Cross-hitters are few and far between. I miss working with Devin. It's kind of bittersweet to me that this was his final design team. Luckily, it does him proud.

Gregory Marques – Like Devin, Greg has gone on to design elsewhere. Like Aaron, Greg got his start on the Fifth Dawn design team. The biggest difference was that Greg didn't even work for Wizards at the time. (You can read all about it from Greg in this article.) Interestingly, Greg ended up getting hired at Wizards, but not through Magic. While his day job was designing new games, he had a little time for Magic design. Rise of the Eldrazi made good use of his design skills.

Bill "Quill" McQuillian – While it's important to have design veterans on every set, we also like to occasionally get other people onto designs, partly because it's good to have fresh blood in Magic, partly because it's a nice reward to the many people who help out on Magic in various ways. Quill has been at Wizards for a long time. Long ago (before current senior editor Del Laugel), Quill was actually the lead Magic editor. Nowadays his primary responsibility in R&D is overseeing the Avalon Hill brand. (When Wizards was bought by Hasbro, they gave the line to us as we're the company that oversees what we call "core gamers," people who take their gaming seriously as a hobby.) It is always interesting to get a person with a completely different vantage point on a design team, as they make comments that no one else will. Now if only we could convince Quill that an Eldrazi board game makes perfect sense as an Avalon Hill product ....

Escape from Zendikar

As I said above, Rise of the Eldrazi has the distinction of being the first set to reboot mechanically while staying in the same place creatively. How did that come about? It was the result of two forces colliding together:

The "lands matter" theme of Zendikar – It was a radical idea without any track record of success. Many people were, reasonably under the circumstances, nervous. Rather than over commit to an untested theme, it was thought it best to try out the new idea in a smaller space. One large set and one small set felt right.

The Eldrazi – The creative team had to figure out why the land was so crazy on Zendikar. Eventually they came to the idea that beings—giant, powerful, ancient beings—were trapped within the plane. And when a story starts with giant, powerful beings trapped somewhere, odds are at the end of act two (all stories have three acts, at least according to one model of story construction) they're going to escape.

Mechanically we wanted to reboot, and creatively something big was scheduled to happen at the end of the second act. It became pretty clear that the answer was to have the rise of the Eldrazi be such a significant event that it changed the world. As the new world was mechanically different and we would want players to draft it separately, past lessons (what you might refer to as Coldsnap) had taught us that we wanted a large set.

When Rise of the Eldrazi design started here's what Brian and his team had to go on:

  • It was a large set.
  • The set was going to reboot mechanically, with a completely new set of mechanics.
  • The Eldrazi have managed to get out of their imprisonment. The new set had to show the world once this key event had happened.
  • The world was still the plane of Zendikar, but it had radically changed.

That's it. That's what the design team had.

Give 'Em Eldrazi

It was crystal clear to Brian that this set was all about the Eldrazi. Everything revolved around them. Magic was getting a new set of villains, and Brian had to introduce them to the world. This meant that the design team had to start by figuring out who the Eldrazi were and how the game was going to represent them.

In Hollywood, there is a thing known as a three-beat. When you pitch your new idea, you have to couch in terms the executive already knows. On a three-beat it is always "[popular example of media you're pitching] meets [another popular example of media you're pitching]." For example, if I was pitching a television series, I might say my show is "Glee meets Lost." ("There's an ongoing mystery with a tightly woven mythology that the main characters unravel .... through song.") If I was pitching a movie, it might be "Avatar meets Iron Man." ("Robots versus aliens, what's not to love?") I bring this up because I'm about to give you the three-beat for the Eldrazi:

Cthulhu meets Galactus.

For those unfamiliar with awesome stories, here's the rundown in a Wikipedia-ish nutshell:

Cthulhu is a malevolent being of alien origin buried deep within the Earth. It is the creation of horror author H. P. Lovecraft. Cthulhu and other beings like it are members of a powerful and ancient race awaiting the day they escape their prison to enslave the planet. Cthulhu is so horrible that people who merely get a sense of what it truly is are driven insane.

Galactus, from the Marvel Comics universe, is a godlike being that feeds on planets. He was created by Stan Lee and Jack Kirby to be a villain on a grander scale than had ever been seen before. He treated the heroes like a human would treat insects, something far beneath his attention.

Luckily, Brian is quite knowledgeable about Cthulhu.

Actual picture of Brian Tinsman. Seriously.

He didn't know quite as much about Galactus, but I filled him in. (Man, that guy goes through heralds like nobody's business.)

If the set was going to be about the Eldrazi, Brian felt strongly that they had to be an integral part of the design. It wasn't enough to merely reference them in the creative—the Eldrazi had to be represented by cards. It became quickly apparent that the only existing card type that made sense was creature. The Eldrazi, though, were no ordinary creatures. The set would have to find a way to give them a distinct identity.

The first thing Brian and his team latched onto was their size. Much as Stan Lee and Jack Kirby were trying to distance Galactus from a normal villain, so too did the Rise design team want to separate the Eldrazi from normal creatures. This meant they had to be big. Not just a little big—really big. Brian joked about how they should have a common Eldrazi that was as big as a normal Timmy rare. That was merely the Eldrazi Scout ... you know, the smallest of the Eldrazi.

Quick aside. The creative team will fill you in on who and what exactly the Eldrazi are. For this meeting all you have to know is that there are three main Eldrazi, all of which are mythic and legendary. In fact, one of them has already been previewed.

I'm sure we'll preview another one any day now. What? You want to see it right now in the middle of my aside—the first ever aside preview? Could I do such a thing? It's never even been attempted before. Still, it would be kind of cool to show you another legendary Eldrazi. Okay, damn the consequences—I'll do it! 

Once you've picked your jaw off the floor, I'll continue with my aside. The legendary Eldrazi are the main bad guys, but they've created an entire subclass of servants that do what they tell them. The most powerful ones are colorless. Some others are colored. Anyway, when I talk about the Eldrazi, be aware that there are Eldrazi other than the "big three," such as the two at common. You heard me. Two at common.

Didn't you guys know that? I told you all about it.

Quick aside in the aside. Okay, this last aside isn't turning out to be so quick, but I promise this aside inside the aside will be brief. In my article The Revenge of Mons last December, I told you all exactly what to expect in Rise of the Eldrazi, although I might have change a word or two to "goblin." Here's was my explicit Rise of the Eldrazi teaser as it appeared:

Goblin of the Goblins is going to be a goblin built around the Goblin goblins, all of which have no goblin and are goblin. For example, there are two Goblins at goblin, the goblin of which is 7/7. All of the Goblins have a new goblin called goblin. Goblins with goblin have a goblin; whenever a goblin with goblin goblins, the goblin goblin must goblin that many goblins. The Goblins are very goblin but there are goblins that can create 0/1 goblins called Goblin Goblin that can be goblin to goblin one goblin goblin to your goblin goblin and will help you be able to goblin the Goblins. In addition, the goblin has a new goblin called goblin goblin. You may spend goblin on goblin with goblin goblin to improve their goblins and goblins. This Limited goblin is much goblin than the one in Goblin.

As it's Rise of the Eldrazi previews, I thought I'd show you the non-goblin version:

Rise of the Eldrazi is going to be a set built around the Eldrazi creatures, all of which have no color and are giant. For example, there are two Eldrazi at common, the smaller of which is 7/7. All of the Eldrazi have a new keyword called annihilator. Creatures with annihilator have a number; whenever a creature with annihilator attacks, the defending player must sacrifice that many permanents. The Eldrazi are very expensive but there are cards that can create 0/1 tokens called Eldrazi Spawn that can be sacrificed to add one colorless mana to your mana pool and will help you be able to cast the Eldrazi. In addition, the set has a new ability called level up. You may spend mana on creatures with level up to improve their stats and abilities. This Limited environment is much slower than the one in Zendikar.

So when I talk about the Eldrazi, be aware that there are more than just the main three. Also note that there are two types of Eldrazi subclass, the colorless and the colored. The colorless are what I'm talking about today. There are also colored Eldrazi that do things like provide Eldrazi spawn creature tokens.

Before the asides, I was talking about how the team had been joking that the best way to show how giant the Eldrazi were was to have a scout (the smallest of the colorless Eldrazi) show up at common the size of normal rare or mythic rare monsters. Over time, the joke turned from a joke to a reality. It was decided, to make sure that the impact of the Eldrazi was felt in Limited and that the sheer size of them was communicated, that two of the smallest of the giant colorless Eldrazi would appear in common. Here's one of them:

Size wasn't enough for Brian, though. Size communicated their giant, well, size, but it didn't communicate other important aspects about them, such as their age. These were ancient, otherworldly beings. What if they were so ancient and strange, thought Brian, that they existed outside the colors of Magic? For years the ideas of doing colorless spells has popped up in design. Each time I've killed the idea because it seemed like a gimmick and not something integral to the set. When I heard Brian propose the idea of the Eldrazi being a colorless (and specifically not artifact) race, I told him it was the first time that the colorlessness felt like it meant something.

So the Eldrazi were giant colorless creatures, but Brian and his team weren't done yet. The reason the Eldrazi were locked away was the untold damage they'd do if allowed to remain free. That "untold damage," Brian felt, needed to be conveyed on the cards. Brian knew he wanted a keyword mechanic to go on the Eldrazi, and only the Eldrazi, to convey this sense of great destruction. The answer to this problem was, of course, the annihilator mechanic.

The legendary Eldrazi were then given one more bit of oomph. All three of them have "when you cast" triggers for a big effect, as R&D felt that you shouldn't earn the bonus unless you actually summoned them properly. Also, the "shuffle into library" text was added to prevent easy reanimation and make the Eldrazi difficult to permanently kill.

So the Eldrazi were giant colorless creatures with the annihilator ability, and the legendary ones also had awesome effects when cast as well as a new tweak on the anti-reanimation clause of other big creatures like Darksteel Colossus. The team was done, right? Just one tiny thing left to do: design the entire set around the Eldrazi so they could both be played and be meaningful. That task took a little longer.

Join me next week when I begin to explain how they did it.

Until then, may you know the joy of hardcasting an incredibly expensive creature.

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