As I mentioned last week, I used to do improvisational comedy in college. That's where you ask an audience for suggestions and create spontaneous skits incorporating those suggestions. One day back in January 2006, I decided it might be interesting to bring some improvisational fun to my column, so I created something I dubbed "Topical Blend."
The way it works is I ask the audience to send in suggestions for both Magic topics and non-Magic topics. (This year I used my Twitter and Tumblr to collect suggestions.) I then let the audience vote on a number of the suggestions (this year sixteen for each category, more on this below), taking the winning Magic topic and non-Magic topic and blending them together in a column.
Today is my sixth Topical Blend. To gather the topics, I went to social media (Twitter and Tumblr specifically) and gathered suggestions. I then picked sixteen choices for each category and turned them into a series of Twitter polls. Each poll had four choices and then the winning choices faced off against one another. Click below to see how the voting played out.
After the voting, we ended up with the Magic topic "When to Break Rules" and the non-Magic topic "Marvel Cinematic Universe."
SPOILER ALERT: I'm going to be discussing plot points of movies from the Marvel Cinematic Universe, so please be forewarned. If you haven't seen Iron Man, Avengers: Age of Ultron, or Doctor Strange yet and don't want something spoiled, you might want to skip this week's article.
I believe I was six years old when my dad got me my first comic book. Thanks to television and movies, I was already aware of superheroes, but I'd never experienced them in their original form. Even at six I was a ravenous reader, so I quickly took to comic books and began a love that lasts to this day.
For those unfamiliar with comic books, the two biggest companies that make them are DC and Marvel. DC's stable of superheroes includes Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, the Flash, Green Lantern, Aquaman, Green Arrow, and many others. Marvel's stable of superheroes includes Spider-Man, Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, Thor, the X-Men, the Fantastic Four, and others. In my youth I was a huge DC fan, but as I hit adolescence I started reading Marvel comics. I'd read the occasional Spider-Man comic as a kid, but as a teen I discovered the X-Men and from then on my attention turned more toward Marvel. I still read comics by other comic companies, but Marvel has been my major focus ever since I was a teen.
Back in the day, Marvel Comics made movies by licensing out their characters to different studios. Sony Pictures, for instance, made the Spider-Man movies while Fox had the rights to the X-Men and Fantastic Four. This meant that there were Marvel movies but each was done in its own little bubble. You see, in the comics, all the characters interact so you have plenty of opportunities to watch characters from one area of the Marvel universe interact with characters from another. This just didn't happen much in the movies.
Then in 2008 (with the release of Iron Man), that all changed. Marvel decided to stop licensing out their characters to other studios and instead start making their own movies with their own studio. By making the films themselves, they would be able to create a larger interconnected movie universe (what is now called the Marvel Cinematic Universe or MCU) where characters and events could intermingle. Something you saw in one film would impact things that happen in another. And with time, that wouldn't even be limited to film as television would later join in on the fun.
What does any of this have to do with Magic? Interestingly, quite a bit, because many of the decisions Marvel must make when adapting their comic universe to their cinematic universe parallel a lot of decisions we make when creating new sets. In particular, it requires altering from decisions made in the past, taking rules that have existed for years and breaking them. In today's column, I'm going examine both the MCU and Magic and talk about when and why Marvel and Wizards chose to break our own rules.
Reason #1: You Need to Innovate
One of the important things about the creative process is that you need room to allow things to happen. Great art is often created when you let the work itself lead you in new directions, often to places that you've never explored before. When working with material that dates back many years, that can often cause discontinuity where the new thing doesn't line up cleanly with the preexisting material.
When this happens, the most important thing is to make sure that the new thing is consistent with the feel of what came before. In the case of the MCU, is the character or object or event consistent tonally with how it was presented in the comics? Would a comics fan seeing it in a movie feel like it captures the essence of what made it work in the comics? For Magic, does the new card or mechanic or theme capture the essence of the gameplay of similar things in past sets? It's okay to have new elements as long as those elements come together to create something reminiscent of the thing that inspired it. Let me give you a few examples.
While writing Avengers: Age of Ultron, writer/director Joss Whedon had an interesting idea. What if one of the Avengers had a secret? What if they were a normal person that was more connected to the world than the Avengers traditionally are? This idea led to Joss giving Hawkeye a family that he'd kept secret from the others. He had a normal wife and kids hidden away on a remote farm.
Here's the problem. In the comics, Hawkeye's never had a family. (Okay, for the comic nerds, he did technically have a family in the Ultimate universe, but they died two seconds after they were introduced.) He's been married, but that was to another superhero (Mockingbird—yes, Bobbi Morse from Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.) and it ended badly. Giving him a family was not following any kind of continuity.
But it was true to the character. Hawkeye had always been a superhero more connected to humanity. He doesn't have any super powers; he's more relatable to the average reader. Him having a family, while inconsistent with the comics, wasn't inconsistent with his character.
For Magic, my example is the card Form of the Dragon from Scourge:
One of the abilities of the card is "Creatures without flying can't attack you." This ability was made famous by the Legends card Moat, a mono-white enchantment. It's not at all a red ability, so what's it doing on this card? Scourge lead designer Brian Tinsman created Form of the Dragon as a top-down design. You, the spellcaster, have turned yourself into a Dragon. The reason you can only be attacked by fliers is because you're flying—as you're a Dragon!
The flavor of the overall card was very red, so Brian was willing to allow a non-red ability on it. It's important to note that the ability didn't undercut any weakness in red. As a color, red is more than capable of dealing with ground-based creatures, so this break wasn't messing with the color pie in a dangerous way.
In both cases, the break was done because it allowed the creator to make something that reinforced the essence of the character or color even if it did so in an unorthodox manner. Hawkeye was still very much Hawkeye and red was very much red.
Reason #2: You Need to Reinforce New Themes
An important part of any creative endeavor is recognizing what your major theme is and then making sure that theme is expressed throughout your work. This can often force you to break from the past when the new theme is something that you either haven't explored before or haven't explored in the current context.
A good example of this from the MCU is in the Doctor Strange movie that opened last month. In the movie, Stephen Strange befriends another student of the Ancient One named Karl Mordo. The two fight on the same side for most of the movie, with Mordo turning against Doctor Strange only at the very end of the film. Usually known as Baron Mordo in the comics, Mordo was never a friend of Doctor Strange. He appeared in the second comic ever to feature the Doctor and the two were bitter enemies from the start.
The writers and director of the film were interested in creating a more complex relationship between Strange and Mordo. By making Mordo represent a student with a very strict moral code, they could play it against Doctor Strange's willingness to explore morally gray areas. It also allowed the two of them to create a bond that would give greater context and pathos to their relationship in later films. In short, to craft new themes into the work, they were willing to restructure a key character from the comics.
The example in Magic comes from the New Phyrexia expansion. The Scars of Mirrodin block was about a war between the Mirrans and the Phyrexians, with the last set revealing the outcome of the war. The audience didn't even know in advance who would win because we released two different possible names for the third set in the block.
When designing the set, we wanted to make sure it conveyed how much the world had changed when the Phyrexians conquered it. To do that, we explored mechanics that created a sense of how toxic the world had become. One thing we tried was having riders on spells where the opponent lost life. Normally, we only allow life loss to players in black (with red doing damage directly to players). It wasn't something white, blue, or green traditionally did, but it allowed us to capture the feel we wanted with few words.
As with Form of the Dragon, we made sure we weren't undercutting the weakness of any color. We decided that damage was pretty universal and that if we kept the life loss to small amounts we could create the right feel without hurting anything long term. We were clearly doing something we didn't normally do, but it was done carefully to give the set as a whole a distinctive feel.
With both examples, a change was made from the past to reinforce the major theme of the work. In both cases, it was done carefully and with an eye toward what making the change would mean for the future of the property.
Reason #3: The Past Is Convoluted
There are a lot of benefits that come from being part of system with history. Marvel Comics, as most people know it, started in 1961 with the release of its comic The Fantastic Four #1. Magic began back in 1993. Anyone working in either system has years and years of material to draw from. Mostly this is a good thing, but sometimes the past gets too convoluted and the artist is forced to make changes to address it.
For the MCU example, I'll return to Avengers: Age of Ultron. The second Avengers film introduced Ultron, a supervillain robot piloted by an artificial intelligence gone bad intent on remaking the world in its image. In the comics, Ultron was the creation of the scientist Hank Pym, best known as the superhero Ant-Man, one of the founders of the Avengers. The problem though was that at the time Hank Pym had not yet appeared in the MCU. (He would later show up played by Michael Douglas in the movie Ant-Man.) There was no easy way to make him Ultron's inventor.
In addition, Joss Whedon wanted Ultron tied directly to the Avengers. It's just better drama if the villain has a connection to one or more of the heroes. To accomplish this, he chose to change Ultron into a creation of Tony Stark's instead of Hank Pym. Tony Stark is an inventor prone to acting impulsively, making the switch very believable from a narrative standpoint. It was a clear break from the comics, but one done to make a cleaner, simpler story.
My Magic example goes back quite a ways. In early Magic, every color but blue had artifact destruction spells (although black only had one and it was pretty weak). The most efficient though was this card:
Disenchant was, at the time, the most efficient way to destroy artifacts and enchantments. Flash forward a few years and I had undertaken a major project to examine the color pie in depth as it related to mechanics. One of the things I explored was the various conflicts between the enemy colors. (I talked about some of the color conflicts last month.) When I looked at the green-blue conflict, I realized that one of the core conflicts between the colors was the conflict between artifice and nature. Blue loved artifice, the ability to craft things that you needed. Green, in contrast, valued natural things that weren't formed by humans.
The more I studied this conflict, the more I realized that it defined blue and green's relationship with artifacts. Blue loves artifacts and should be the color that has the most affinity with them. Green, in contrast, hates artifacts (there are a few natural ones it likes) and should be the color that has the easiest time destroying them. Add into this the illusion vs. reality conflict of blue-green and you can see green should be the color focused on destroying unnatural things—not just artifacts but also enchantments.
I had always felt that artifact destruction had been stretched a bit too far, but my exploration of the color pie made me realize that the core artifact and enchantment destruction spell had been put in the wrong color. The ability to most efficiently destroy artifacts and enchantments should be centered not in white but in green. I chose to break the status quo and make green primary in artifact destruction, red secondary (red does love smashing artifacts), and white tertiary. That required us dialing back the efficiency of artifact destruction in white (both in rarity and mana cost).
In each case, planning for what made the most sense going forward required looking backward and rethinking older decisions. Sometimes you need to break the rules because upon closer examination you realize that the rules were not set up correctly.
Reason #4: The Old System Is Outdated
Another by-product of having an older system is that sometimes you realize that things have changed and older decisions no longer function the way they once did.
My MCU example takes us to the first Iron Man film. The start of the film is the origin story of how Tony Stark first builds the Iron Man armor. He's captured on foreign soil and builds the armor as a means to escape his captors. In the original comics, back in the '60s, Tony is captured in Vietnam during the Vietnam War. The new movie though wanted to be set in the modern day (2008), so the Vietnam War didn't work out timewise. The movie instead decided to set the origin story in Afghanistan. This change didn't alter the core concept of the story, but it did make it more relevant for modern audiences.
My Magic example takes us back to the early days of the game. To play up the allies and enemies of the color pie, early sets heavily encouraged playing ally colors together while making very few cards that encouraged playing enemy colors together. This philosophy started seeping into dual lands, and it wasn't long before ally dual lands greatly outnumbered enemy dual lands.
This philosophy stayed true for many years until I made the set Ravnica. Trying to give it a strong identity, I chose to play up the ten two-color pairs, making the decision that all ten would be treated equally, including mana fixing and dual lands. Seeing the popularity of how that block played out, R&D looked back on our dual land philosophy and decided we'd made a mistake. The ally/enemy relationships of the color pie were important, but less so than enabling a wide variety of deck types. The decision was made to abandon the "ally colors are stronger" philosophy and start producing dual lands at an equal rate.
When working on a product that has a long history, you have to be willing to recognize the needs of the present and rework things and adapt even if that means breaking decisions of the past.
Taking a Break
It's interesting that I have both a fondness for Marvel's comics and its movies even though the two have very different needs. I'm actually fascinated when I see a new movie (or television show—I didn't talk about them much today but Marvel is also doing great work there as well) to see what decisions they make when adapting the comics. It inspires me to take the same attitude when I'm making a new set, to think about how I'm adapting what's come before as I pave Magic's future. I never want to break rules just to break them, but I also want to feel free to break them when doing so is in the best interest of the product.
That wraps up this Topical Blend. This one was a little different from my previous ones, so I'm interested in hearing your feedback on it. You can drop me an email or talk to me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).
Join me next week when I take a look at evergreen mechanics in a different light.
Until then, may you break a rule for the right reasons.
This is part two of a four-part series on the design of Urza's Destiny.
This is part three of a four-part series on the design of Urza's Destiny.