Sometimes you just have to throw it all in.
When you are on the hook to make content until the End of Days, as we here in Magic: The Gathering R&D like to imagine we are tasked to, there is a lot of pressure not to burn through ideas too quickly. "Do we really need to make one of those with flying?" the cautious among us may ask. "After all, that's precious design space we may be able to leverage better in the 2037 block."
Art by Phill Simmer
Okay, we're not quite that forward-thinking, but we definitely want sets to contain exactly what they need and little more. That leaves more for later!
With Magic 2015, I decided to throw out a lot of that thinking, and throw in a whole bunch of awesome ideas.
As a designer, it's easy to overstuff a block expansion like Theros or Innistrad. Block expansions get to leverage all sorts of fabulous toys—like new keywords and cohesive creative worldbuilding—that core sets do not, leading to all kinds of card and deck ideas that we want to implement. The danger there is that not only do we burn through ideas quicker than we might need to, but that the set, for all the coolness that's in there, is kind of a complicated mess.
Core sets don't have that problem—just the opposite, in fact. As the "baseline" expression of Magic and the targeted entry point for new players into our wonderful game, the core set typically has to play it close to the vest. The setting is mostly "traditional fantasy" without any overarching creative identity, like Innistrad's Gothic horror or Theros's Greek mythology. The mechanics used are limited to the "evergreen" keywords we want people to learn, plus one returning favorite just to shake things up.
It makes sense not to overwhelm potential new players. Each additional thing new players have to learn when first starting out is one more potential barrier to feeling like they "get it," and it's one less opportunity for us to wow them with that same thing later, once they have the basics down.
At the same time, we've learned over the years that stripping the game down to its simplest parts does not make for a compelling experience. Sure, it's easier to learn, if that's your only goal, but it's a lot harder to love. Eager Cadet versus Grizzly Bears, while elegant, is a pretty bad way to introduce someone to Magic. "So we just look at which number is bigger?" the learner might ask after such an initiation. No, my friend! This game is rich and deep and mind-blowing in ways you could never imagine! Our introductory experiences need to be as tantalizing as they are simple, hinting at depth and possibility and promises of hours—years!—of thought-provoking fun.
Art by Jason Felix
To that end, I wanted to see just how much depth I could get into a core set while still following the accepted guidelines that have served us well over the past few years, so I stepped out of the shadows and into the lead designer role for the first time in four years. Fortunately for me, there had been a lot of good work done on core sets in the interim that I could build off of.
Mark Rosewater did his standard introduction of all the design team members, so I'll keep it brief. Mike Gills was the brand-team representative, and initially the well-connected go-between for us and the myriad external designers we let go crazy in this set. Shawn Main was my heavy-hitter designer—the guy I leaned on to generate vast numbers of card ideas, as well as the heir to the external designer reigns after Gills left Wizards of the Coast for a job with another game company. Jenna Helland was the invaluable creative representative on the team; her dual role was to make sure we were meshing well with the story unfolding in Duels of the Planeswalkers 2015 and to vet some of the more off-the-wall top-down card ideas we (and she) came up with. Max McCall was the development-minded member of the team; his penchant for spicy reprints and deep Limited environments was a great addition.
It was a fun team, and we came up with tons of fun stuff!
The First Batch of What
Back in 2012, long before we had any inkling of what M15 was going to look like, I was looking for more radical ways to potentially differentiate one core set from another. One thing that caught my attention was the number of interactions we were having with other game studios, both around Seattle and throughout the world. Sometimes, we'd send delegations over to play Magic with local videogame makers. Sometimes, we'd ship care packages to offices after a heartfelt request. Sometimes, a friend or ex-coworker would describe a vibrant Magic scene at a studio. It was clear that Magic was the game that other game makers played. Was there a way to show that off? Perhaps get some input from other great gaming minds into making a set?
With the help of Mike Gills, a member of our brand team who was incredibly well-connected in the greater gaming world, I came up with the plan for letting game designers and other prominent members of the gaming community put the mark on M15. You can read Shawn Main's upcoming in-depth look at that process and the cards it generated next week, but suffice to say I'm thrilled with the level of quirkiness that experiment added to the set.
Art by David Palumbo
Deck Building for Magic 2015—Duels of the Planeswalkers
The other big ingredient that was destined to shape M15 was the change to the play model of Duels of the Planeswalkers. No longer would you be handed a series of unconnected decks for which you could unlock specific additional cards, but instead you were going to be building a proper collection from which you could assemble whatever you wanted. Because Magic 2015—Duels of the Planeswalkers wanted to contain a high number of cards from the core set, it was on us to make a core set that could deliver a wide range of deck ideas, even from just the commons and uncommons that you'd acquire as the game progressed. My team set out to craft an environment that could take you down a bunch of different paths, but also allowed you to come up with your own ways to combine the cards.
This type of design paid dividends not just for Magic 2015—Duels of the Planeswalkers, but also for products like Intro Packs and the Deck Builder's Toolkit—which both try to communicate thematic deck building, but also for the M15 Limited environment. Each color pair has some play style or deck theme it is focused on, but many of the parts are interchangeable, making for a very rich and replayable Limited.
As for the execution, the deck themes roughly break into two camps. The allied color pairs are slightly more subtle, playing into normal Magic play patterns (except green-white, which I'll get to later.) Red-green, for instance, is about ramping into large creatures, and white-blue is about tempo and evasion. The enemy color pairs have a bit more character, and focus more around specific card combinations or overt build-arounds. Blue-red, for instance, focuses on artifacts and cards like Shrapnel Blast that need artifacts around to work correctly. Black-green is centered on the graveyard and rewards you for having lots of stuff die.
The Second Batch of What
Once we had our big drivers for how to start making the set, we set out to craft specific ingredients.
Like M11, M12, and M13, we wanted to include a returning keyword to give the set some further texture and identity. After a bunch of debate, we settled on convoke from the original Ravnica: City of Guilds set. Much like in Ravnica, we focused the mechanic mainly in its natural homes of green and white, making it the centerpiece of the green-white Draft archetype. But we didn't stop there, letting it branch out into the other colors a bit: in black, it feels like ritualistic group spellcasting, and in red it feels like battle magic that your creatures can engage in. There's even a blue card that uses the mechanic in a new way!
The Garruk Story
Early in design, we identified what the story was we wanted to tell in Magic 2015—Duels of the Planeswalkers —that of the corrupted Garruk Wildspeaker hunting Planeswalkers—and decided to echo it in Magic 2015 Core Set by highlighting the key characters and locations you'd encounter in the story campaign.
Art by Jung Park
We added a cycle of legendary creatures, many of which are key players in the story (including some familiar faces). There haven't been legendary creatures in the core set since M13's very successful cycle—which included Krenko, Mob Boss and Talrand, Sky Summoner—and I'm excited to see this year's batch in Standard, Commander, and wherever else you decide to try them.
For extra story-filled goodness, we've also included a certain legendary mythic rare artifact that has had a role in making Garruk the man he is today. Stay tuned to Uncharted Realms for that one.
Another key invention of Doug Beyer's M13 design team was the cycle of uncommon creatures that powered up off of different land types, most notably Flinthoof Boar. We called them the "Kird Ape" cycle internally, as a nod to the famous Arabian Nights creature they were based on, and for M15 we decided to bring them back, going the other way around the wheel (so the red one powers up off of Forests, etc.). These powerhouses make for great rewards in Limited and reward "splashing" in very satisfying ways.
As if ten different two-color deck-building themes weren't enough, I also wanted rewards for trying to play a one-colored deck. To that end, we made an uncommon cycle called the "Paragons" that tempt you to do just that!
The work Mark Globus did on M14 design highlighted for me the power of simple-to-achieve missions in deck building, and these lords do an admirable job of setting you on such a mission. Whether you're drafting or playing casual Constructed, the Paragons are sure to give your monocolored decks a serious shot in the arm!
What? Weren't Slivers M14's thing? Yes, they were, but I didn't want people who made Sliver decks in M14 to never get any new toys to play with. Because Slivers don't reside on Theros, M15 was the only other chance we had to get new Slivers into Standard alongside Galerider Sliver, Predatory Sliver, and the rest of the M14 crew. There is a cycle of five uncommons, many of which play well on their own and are devastating in combination, as well as a new mythic rare Sliver that every Sliver aficionado has been waiting for.
Mythic Rare Souls
Speaking of mythic rares, we hadn't tried a cycle of tightly statted mythic rare creatures since the second go-around of the Titans in M12. Titans were awesome for sure, but they didn't do their job terribly well, making many Constructed matches about racing to get them into play, and causing us to print even more absurd six-drops like Wurmcoil Engine and Consecrated Sphinx just to compete with them. What would slightly more appropriately powered Titans look like?
Art by Raymond Swanland
It was Shawn Main's idea during design to make a cycle of creatures that embodied the various planes of existence in Magic. Seeing as the five campaign nodes in Magic 2015—Duels of the Planeswalkers were each set on a different plane, even our newest players should be familiar with the varied locales in the multiverse. The colors even mapped out pretty well—Zendikar was green, Innistrad was black, Theros was white. Ravnica could go anywhere, but blue seemed the most natural due to Jace's recent ascendance to the Living Guildpact. We even threw in a sixth member of the cycle—an artifact that represents the twisted world of New Phyrexia—but red was proving problematic.
We had a couple choices for red. The tempting one was the forthcoming Tarkir, as it is a very red-feeling place and the hint at the future could be very cool. But in the end, we went with Shandalar, the traditional fantasy plane on which most of the familiar "core set" locations—Xathrid, Kalonia, Thune, and others—are found. Shandalar is a critical location in Magic 2015—Duels of the Planeswalkers, and maintaining that creative link was more important to us than showing off a world that wouldn't be relevant for several months.
That is one brutal card.
It took design and development a long, long time to ultimately finalize the way this cycle was supposed to work—I'm sure Sam Stoddard can get a Latest Developments article out of the various iterations. In the end, the thing that was most important to me—that a "Soul" be relevant somehow after it dies—was captured nicely in this execution.
They're all 6/6 for six mana with a keyword and an activated ability that can be used one more time from your graveyard. Each one encapsulates the feel of its color and its world, and is sure to wreak havoc on your opponents, even after the Souls are dead.
The Third Batch of What
Beyond the actual design of the set, M15 has a bunch of other things going for it as well:
You Make the Card
Once we had the external designer promotion in flight, it made sense to tap into another batch of gaming's greatest thinkers—you! The creation of Waste Not happened on this very website last year, and you can enjoy opening and playing that card in M15.
Updated Card Face
I talked about the change in the card face debuting with M15 earlier this year. I've had some time to play with them, and they feel like second nature to me now. And those holofoil stamps sure look sweet!
Never before have we layered an activity on top of a core set Prerelease, but the Garruk story was so compelling that we had to bring it to life. I'm sure this will be covered in detail elsewhere, but suffice it to say that Garruk is a tough customer and you'll need to be on top of your game to beat him!
Check out more about the Prerelease activity in today's Arcana.
Art by Brad Rigney
It's hard to imagine, but we've never actually run a Pro Tour associated with a core set! Finally, that injustice has been righted, and I'm greatly looking forward to the best and brightest battling it out under the lights using this set.
Pro Tour Magic 2015 is in Portland, Oregon, August 1–3, and you can tune in to watch all the action on twitch.tv/magic!
That's All of It
It took a lot of time and work and a whole mess of ingredients, but Magic 2015 is the most exciting core set we've ever done. (Yes, I'm biased.) There's story, cool decks to build, guest stars, amazing reprints, a Pro Tour, and a cool Prerelease activity. What else could you want?
It's all in there!