Modern Tales, Part 1

Posted in Making Magic on June 17, 2013

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 Modern Week. This week, we're going to be talking all about the Modern format. I thought about various articles I could write about the Modern format but I didn't hit upon anything that really made sense for a design column. Then it dawned on me that Modern is as much about the blocks as it is about the format. And as I was intimately involved in every block in some capacity, I thought today (and next week) would be a good time to tell some stories.

So here's what I'm going to do. It turns out there are currently ten blocks in Modern. I am going to tell a story from each of the ten blocks. My goal is to choose stories that to the best of my knowledge I haven't told in my column before. Also, for variety sake, I tried to mix it up and tell a bunch of different kinds of stories. All of them, though, are about the making of each block. Hopefully, these two articles will help give you a little more behind-the-scenes history of the current ten blocks of Modern.

Mirrodin Block

Mirrodin block first came about because I really wanted to do an artifact block. Invasion had done multicolor, Odyssey had done graveyard, Onslaught had done tribal—it was clear that one of the biggest themes we hadn't done yet was artifacts. I've talked about this story several times, but I've never told a different story about how Tyler Bielman, then head of the creative team and Mirrodin design team member, and I first sold Mirrodin as part of a three-block meta-story.

The Weatherlight Saga had wound up in Invasion block and while that didn't quite go the way I wanted (a man named Michael Ryan and I were the ones who originally pitched the Weatherlight Saga—but that's a story for another time), I was eager to try and tell another large multi-block story. Tyler shared my passion for larger story arcs and he and I came up with a plan three blocks in the making.

Block One was to be an artificial world of metal made by a Planeswalker who we called the Zookeeper. The Zookeeper had populated the world with mechanical creatures of his creation. He then used a device to pluck creatures from other planes and trap them on the metal world. The newly acquired inhabitants would have to fight the metal creatures to survive. The main character of the story would be a champion plucked from another world who figures out that the world is artificial. She fights her way to the home of the Zookeeper, intent on putting an end to this mad experiment. When she meets the Zookeeper, he tells her, "I was wondering which one of you would make it here first. Come, we have much to do," and then they both disappear.

Block Two was set on an underground prison world. (Note that this was many years before Scot Van Essen would propose that idea for his world in the Great Designer Search 2.) Besides the prisoners, there are numerous creatures native to this underground world who are also enslaved. The warden (who we called the Warden) is a harsh man who forces all the prisoners to fight one another in arena-style combat. The main character of this story is wrongfully imprisoned. While trying to escape, he comes to learn that many of the prisoners are likewise wrongly imprisoned and he realizes that the Warden is up to something. The protagonist ends up having to fight in the arena. When he wins the competition, he finally comes face to face with the Warden. He tells the Warden that he knows something is going on. The Warden replies that he's just scratched the surface.

Block Three is a violent storm world. It is the neutral plane for a giant conflict between the forces of the Zookeeper from the first block and the Warden (who we also learn is a Planeswalker) from the second block. This block is an all-out battle between the metal creatures and kidnapped creatures from the first block against the prisoners and underground creatures from the second block. The winner of this epic battle would win some cosmic prize that would go on to threaten the Multiverse in the future. (We hadn't decided exactly what it was.)

You'll note that pieces of the setting for the first block remained. It was still an artificially made artifact world and it did trap creatures from other planes, but Brady Dommermuth, the man in charge of worldbuilding for Mirrodin, chose to advance the story such that the creatures from other planes had adapted over time and become part of the metal plane's ecosystem. Gone was the "survive the elements of metal world" from our story.

So what happened? Well, the Weatherlight Saga had not gone as well as anyone had hoped and everyone was a bit gun shy of making a commitment to another multi-block story. What if one year in we learned players didn't like it? We'd be stuck having to make blocks that might not be wanted.

That is the tale of the three-block story that never happened and the one world from that story that went on to become one of the most popular settings for Magic.

Champions of Kamigawa Block

I often use this column to discuss my successes, but this story is one of my bigger failures. Interestingly, it happened during the only block of the ten in Modern that I wasn't on any of the design teams. (Note that because I ended up designing a bunch of things in the block that got used, splice being the biggest contribution, I did get credit but I wasn't actually on any of the design teams.) I was on the development team for Champions of Kamigawa, though, which is where today's story comes from.

Champions of Kamigawa was the first top-down designed expansion (well, large set; I guess Arabian Nights was the first truly top-down designed Magic expansion). The idea behind it was we wanted to make a set to capture the flavor of Japan and Japanese mythology. The story revolved around a conflict between the humans and the kami, the spirits of the world.

During the various development meetings, I brought up that I felt the set lacked focus. It had elements inspired by Japanese mythology. It had a war between the humans and the spirits. It had a bit of a legendary theme. The set, I argued, was doing a lot of things but it felt all over the board. We needed to pick one aspect and make that the major push of the set. I stressed that I didn't care which aspect we picked but we had to choose something.

After much discussion, the development team chose to focus on the legendary aspect. "Okay," I said, "if you're going to do that then we need to make sure it's big enough that it feels like a focus." To accomplish this, I suggested several things. I said we had to make some uncommon legendary creatures, we had to stretch a little with our legendary designs (I made Isamaru as proof that we could make a vanilla legendary creature) and we had to turn the dial up at rare. That's when I said we should make every rare creature legendary.

In the end, it was a horrible decision. We took something that was beloved by some and forced ourselves into a place where we had to make a lot of subpar legendary creatures. Every rare creature couldn't be good or splashy so we end up by necessity having to make some less-than-stellar legendary creatures, lowering their equity.

In addition, turning the dial up at rare had very little impact on the overall feel. As I explained last week, the importance of a theme has to be seen in the as-fan (defined in last week's article), which was incredibly low because so many of the legendary creatures were rare. This, by the way, is the set where my dictum "If your theme isn't at common, it isn't your theme" comes from.

The all-legendary rare decision was a big mistake, although one that provide to be an invaluable teaching lesson.

Ravnica Block

Whenever I talk about Ravnica block, I always refer to it as Ravnica, but that's not actually its full name. The official name of the Ravnica expansion is Ravnica: City of Guilds. Have you ever wondered why the set has a subtitle when so few of our sets do? Good, because I'm about to tell you.

Our story starts in the middle of the design of Ravnica. One of my main goals was "don't be Invasion" (the only prior multicolor block), so instead of a block that pushed you toward playing as many colors as you could, I decided to make a block that made you play as few colors as possible while still being multicolor. I also decided to push all ten two-color combinations because Invasion pushed ally combinations more than enemy combinations, and I thought it would be neat to have an environment where ally and enemy had far less weight. This idea spurred Brady Dommermuth to come up with the idea of the guilds.

I liked the guilds so much that I decided to build the block plan around them (well, after I chucked hybrid from the set—read "City Planning, Part 1," Part 2, and Part 3 for the full story). This led to my 4/3/3 plan, where the first, large set would have four of the guilds, and only those four; the middle, small set would have three more; and the third, small set would have the last three. My plan was pretty radical (guilds showed up in one set and not in the other two) and it wasn't an easy sell inside R&D.

With the support of my design team (Tyler Bielman, Mike Elliott, Aaron Forsythe, and Richard Garfield) and the then-director of Magic R&D, Randy Buehler, I managed to keep my vision, but there were skeptics. One of the big arguments was that people wouldn't get the guild structure. Sure, the 4/3/3 method made sense once you got it, but what if you never did?

Brady and I both argued that creative would do the lion's share of the job of hammering home the guilds identities. People were still worried. The idea of watermarks came up and I argued that they would do a good job of helping separate out the different guilds. I also argued that the multicolored cards themselves—especially as we had made numerous cycles, such as the Guildmages, to demonstrate the contrasts—would also get the job done.

My allies and I had managed to smooth things over, that is until we got back the feedback from one of our playtest groups. They liked the individual cards and mechanics but they didn't get what was going on. Why were there color combinations missing? Did they not get the entire set to playtest?

This set off the whole powder keg once again. The critics kept going, "See? See?" We argued that stickers on cards had almost none of the creative and zero watermarks, very little to help spell out the guilds. Let the creative team do their thing. They would be able to sell the concept of the guilds.

Then Brady and I independently went on vacation. When we returned, we learned that the name of the set had been changed. It was now Ravnica: City of Guilds. Using the set's name to convey the guilds had been the compromise. Brady and I both argued it wasn't necessary, but as a compromise, we both agreed to it (although somewhat begrudgingly).

And that is why the set was called Ravnica: City of Guilds. For those who might not have been around when the original Ravnica came out—the audience did very much "get" the guilds.

Time Spiral Block

Time Spiral started out as a "temporal chaos" block where we were playing around with mechanics that conveyed using time as a resource. You could get spells cheaper with suspend if you had to spend turns to get them. You could cast split second cards that warped time such that players couldn't respond to them. Along the way, though, we stumbled upon the power of nostalgia. I had divided the three sets into past, present, and future, and while looking for ways to show the past we found ourselves getting very nostalgic.

One of our favorite kinds of design was the one where we would take two different Magic cards from throughout history and blend them together. For example, we took the card Killer Bees from Legends andmixed it with Unyaro Bee Sting from Mirage. The result was the card Unyaro Bees.

The Time Spiral block is filled with cards like these, but not all of them made it into the set. The reasons for their exclusion were all over the map. Some broke rules we'd changed and didn't want to change back just for this block, some were a poor fit creatively, some just lost out to numbers as they got crowded out of the file.

Be aware that every set has a card or two that I really liked that didn't make it. Sometimes I'm able to reuse the card later (there are a handful of cards that took me years and many attempts to finally get into sets—perhaps I'll do an article one day) but today's example was one that only made sense in Time Spiral. So without further ado, here's the card I'm saddest that we didn't find a home for:


Aaron also felt bad about us having to cut it so as a little tribute he put both Ghost Ship and Pirate Ship onto the Time Spiral timeshifted sheet.


Lorwyn/Shadowmoor Block

For my final story today I'm going to explain one I touched upon but never told in any detail. That story is about how I ended up the lead designer of Eventide. To give a little context, let me back up to the beginning of Lorwyn design. Currently, I have a design staff of six designers. That wasn't always the case. Back during the time of Lorwyn/Shadowmoor design, I had only two fulltime designers, myself and Aaron Forsythe. Yes, once upon a time, Aaron was my disciple I was training to be the next big Magic designer.

R&D had other designers but all of them had their first priority allocated to another of our games. It was difficult for me to use many of them as a lead designer because they didn't have the time (leading a Magic set can take upwards of fifty percent of one's time). I had wanted Aaron to lead a large set for quite some time so I gave him the lead for Lorwyn. During this time, interestingly, Aaron would be offered the job of head developer (the equivalent of my job but for development), which he took, leaving me with just one fulltime designer—myself.

This meant I had no choice but to give the design lead of Shadowmoor to myself because I had no one (save Bill Rose, who was busy as the VP of R&D, and Brian Tinsman, who was busy as the head designer for new business) in R&D who had ever led a large Magic set. In fact, I didn't even have anyone available who had already led a small set design team before.

I ended up giving the lead of Morningtide to a designer named Paul Sottosanti, who had done good work on previous Magic design teams as well as other Wizards games. For Eventide, I chose someone who had also done a lot of design on teams but had never led a design. For anonymity reasons, I'm going to call this person Designer X.

Designer X had a good track record on design teams and I felt Designer X had what it took to lead a design team. As usual, we start a new design lead with a small set (or nowadays with a supplemental product) so I offered the lead design of Eventide to him. He accepted and all was good.

As we got closer to the start of Eventide, Designer X started getting nervous. He began having doubts about whether he could do a good job leading Eventide's design. I tried to calm his concerns but ultimately he decided that he wasn't ready. Note that this is the one and only time in my ten years as head designer that someone turned down a design lead.

Having no other options available, I ended up leading the design myself. It's interesting looking back that Eventide is the design of the sixteen I did that I feel the least happy with (it was seeded 16th in the Rosewater Rumble, for example). Designer X was probably right in that it was a very hard assignment. In retrospect, he made a smart decision. And that is how I ended up leading both sets in a single mini-block.

Modern Times

That's all the time I have for today. I hope you enjoyed the stories and come back next week for Part 2, when I tell stories about the blocks Shards of Alara, Zendikar, Scars of Mirrodin, Innistrad,and Return to Ravnica.

Until then, may you enjoy spinning your own yarn.

Drive to Work #38—Unglued 2

Not every set I've led the design for has seen the light of day. Today's podcast is about a set, Unglued 2 (not to be confused with Unhinged), that was fully designed but never produced.

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