With the Battle for Zendikar officially under way, I got a chance to pick the brain of Mark Rosewater, lead designer of the set (and head designer for all of Magic), on some of the trials, tribulations, and triumphs behind its design. Check out the interview below!
Name: Mark Rosewater
Job at Wizards: Head Designer for Magic: The Gathering
Role on Battle for Zendikar: Lead Designer
Favorite Magic card: Maro
If you could have any superpower, what would it be? Telekinesis
Yichao: You mentioned in a recent article that one of the big challenges of working on Battle for Zendikar was the initial need to keep complexity down while solving very complex challenges. Would you say this need to minimize complexity was the biggest challenge in the BFZ process? What lessons did you draw from the difficulties?
Mark: The biggest challenge was indeed the complexity, but it stemmed from a larger issue. Battle for Zendikar is mechanically more like revisiting two worlds, as Zendikar and Worldwake had a completely different suite of mechanics and feel than Rise of the Eldrazi. Finding the correct way to elegantly mix them together was the biggest challenge.
BFZ is one of the first sets after the transition to a heavier emphasis on storytelling. What challenges and happy surprises came from this shift? How does design approach creating cards around key story moments?
Battle for Zendikar is the introduction of what we are calling "pivotal events." These are five cards each set that show off key, pivotal moments of the story. We're working with the creative team to design cards that properly capture mechanically what the pivotal event is showing flavor-wise. When we design from a vantage point we don't normally start from, we get interesting designs.
Did you have any pet cards or favorites that made it into the set?
Desolation Twin started as a green sorcery called Double Trouble that made two 10/10 Eldrazi creature tokens. Development changed it to a 10/10 Eldrazi that brings along a 10/10 Eldrazi token creature when cast. I love doubling things, so I was happy to make a card that doubled an Eldrazi.
What cards changed the most/least from their initial designs?
A lot of things changed substantially from their original design. Early in design of the Eldrazi, for example, we had a mechanic called "hedronize" where every time it triggered you rolled an eight-sided hedron die to see what effect it produced. We also went through a period where the Eldrazi mechanically loved odd-numbered things but hated even things. Void Winnower is the one card left from that swath of cards.
Can you share any cards you really liked that didn't make it through design?
Back when we had the "odd matters" theme, we had a card that said "All your even numbers are considered odd." Whenever a new person read the card in play testing, they'd say "what?!" I like occasionally making a card that actually shocks people in its strangeness.
Which aspects of leading a design team were the most fun? The most challenging?
Probably the most fun for me was getting to go back to Zendikar. I had fought very hard to make original Zendikar even happen, so having a chance to return was a real treat. The biggest challenge was we had left Zendikar with a big cliffhanger, and I felt we needed to finish off the story. That meant we needed to create a world with a dominant Eldrazi that we could capture mechanically, and that was tricky.
How was it decided that Eldrazi wouldn't be in white?
All five colors originally had devoid cards. I believe it was the creative team who asked if we could pull back the Eldrazi from white because they make the least sense in that color.
What are timelines like for creating a set? Do you always feel the time crunch and pressure of deadlines, or are there ever periods of phases of design where you feel like you have more room and space?
One of the luxuries on working on a game as successful as Magic is that we have a lot of time to work. We get six months of exploratory design and then a full year of main design. And that's all before development starts working on it. Having this much time allows us to really give the design room to breathe and lets us figure out the best execution of each mechanic and card.
What is the process for deciding which legendary creatures return? It's fun to see Omnath and Drana come back; are they chosen for story reasons then designed top-down, or are they designed by your team and then fitted to the legends that creative wants to see come back?
The characters are chosen almost exclusively by the creative team. The design team (and later the development team) then works to create designs that match the flavor of the characters. If it's a returning character, we will look at the older version(s) to make sure there is a mechanical through-line.
Finally, the most important question: What is a Gnarlid? We've only seen them on Zendikar so far—will we see more Gnarlids? And what makes them so cute?
Every world has its beasts, and the Gnarlid is one of the beasts of Zendikar. I don't know if Gnarlids exist on other planes, but if I'm told they do, we'll design more. I'm not sure who originally designed them, but they are cute . . . from a distance.
Thanks to Mark for taking time to answer these burning questions. Be sure to check out the Battle for Zendikar homepage to browse the full card list, catch up on the story, and more!