Origins Talk with Shawn Main

Posted in Arcana on August 25, 2015

By Michael Yichao

Yichao is a writer of words for plays, television, theme parks, and—most recently—Magic: The Gathering. He loves Cube Draft and corgis.

With Battle for Zendikar just around the corner, I had a chance to sit down with Shawn Main and grill him on some burning questions about Magic Origins before we all face potential annihilation at the hands (tentacles?) of nightmare elder horrors. Check out the interview below as we discuss design, playtesting, and most importantly, the cutest card in all of Origins.

Name: Shawn Main

Job at Wizards: Senior Game Designer

Role with Magic Origins: Lead Designer

Favorite Magic Card: I have the most warm, fuzzy feelings about Pestilence. In high school, we played a lot of five-player star games, and the card often controlled the table and created intense stories of negotiation, alliance, and betrayal. Of the cards I've worked on, Cogwork Librarian is my favorite.

Favorite Magic Format: Planechase! Oh, or maybe Two-Headed Giant Cube Draft.

If You Could Have Any Superpower: It would be the power to puff up like Brushwagg.

Which cards made it through the card file for Magic Origins with the fewest changes?

Displacement Wave, Dark Petition, and Chandra's Ignition all stuck mechanically from design. Throwing Knife is the only card to go completely unchanged—name and all. That's relatively rare; most cards go through radical revisions during development.

Are there any cards in the set that have seen levels of success you didn't expect in tournaments?

I knew Alhammarret's Archive was going to be a fun Commander card, but I had absolutely no idea it was going to show up in Pro Tour decks.

What is your favorite archetype in drafting Origins? Seeing the set played, are there any changes or tweaks to any archetypes that you'd want to make? Is anything stronger or weaker than you expected?

I love drafting blue-red artifacts (especially because the Kaladesh art is so gorgeous) and anything where I get to use combat tricks to help creatures become renowned.

There are always going to be little things about a Draft environment that become obvious after enough iteration. I think the slower decks could generally use another card or two to help against the faster decks, but overall I'm happy with the set's Limited design, and I can mostly turn off my designer/developer brain to enjoy the set as a player.

What was your favorite card during design and playtesting?

Firefiend Elemental had the playtest name "Man of Impeccable Timing." Besides being fun to say, I loved the way a hasty renown creature could take advantage of an opponent's shields-down moment.

Firefiend Elemental | Art by Torstein Nordstrand

Can you share any cards you really liked that got killed from the file?

Peasant's Death, which said "Destroy target nonlegendary creature." There's a tension we experience internally that the public doesn't generally seem to share—the word "legendary" gets used to denote our most important characters, but it's downside text, limiting the power of a card outside Commander. I wanted to find some opportunities to turn that word into upside.

I also tried really hard to make Gideon's sural into a card.

We know parents don't pick favorites, but if you had to pick a favorite Planeswalker design, which would it be? (We won't tell the other ones.)

Chandra. (You don't need to tell Jace, he already knows.)

Which guidelines or restrictions for Origins did you find most challenging? Which restrictions did you find most exciting to encourage innovation?

I think about restrictions a little bit differently. Design begins with a blank page, and design's most important task is actually to create restrictions for itself (and eventually guidelines for development). Restrictions are really just structure, and you need to find a way to create that structure.

Early in Origins design, we set ourselves up with two important restrictions: We needed cards that would provide opportunities to show important moments from the Planeswalkers' stories (these became all the top-down designs throughout the set), and we needed to figure out themes that would let us make cards and mechanics that weren't directly part of those stories. For this, we realized origin stories had the common theme of leveling up, which lead to both the renown mechanic and the spell mastery mechanic.

Which aspect of leading a design team was the most fun? The most challenging?

My background is directing theater, and I love how much working on a design team is exactly like working on a play. You get a group of extremely creative people constantly tossing ideas back and forth. You brainstorm, you play, you test, you see what works, and you keep doing it until it's ready to get more eyes on it. That's easily my favorite part of my job.

The most challenging part is always letting go. Releasing a set to development is like seeing a child go off to college. You're proud, but it's hard—and you find yourself excited and scared and wondering what kinds of ideas it's going to be filled with when you see it again.

What's the next set we'll see that you worked on?

I was on the Battle for Zendikar development team, and I led two sets that will be coming out next year.

Most important question: What is the cutest card in Magic Origins?

There's a correct answer to this question.

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