Chronicling War of the Spark Set Design

Posted in Card Preview on April 17, 2019

By Dave Humpherys

Dave Humpherys has been managing the development team for Magic R&D since 2010. He led development for the Avacyn Restored and Gatecrash sets. He was inducted into the Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame in 2006.

About a year ago, I was telling you about my first set design lead with Dominaria. In that case, I jumped on as the set lead a couple of months into set design, taking over for Erik Lauer. This time, with War of the Spark, I needed to sort out all the details from the onset of set design. Mark Rosewater has covered the events of vision design leading up to the beginning of set design. Fortunately, I'd been along for that six-month ride in vision design. This would almost assuredly be the most time I'd ever spent working on a single set.

Since keeping things in temporal order has been a theme of sorts for War of the Spark, let's look through the chronology of the set design process for War of the Spark with a focus on some of the unique situations and turning points that arose. There was obviously a lot more process going on; these are simply some of the stories I'm choosing to highlight. There was always a lot of iterations every month, but sometimes there weren't clear through lines for me to capture or recall where a lot of the focus was on a certain issue.

Month 0

At handoff, I felt largely good about the tools we had. Amass was just recently changed in a direction that Ian Duke, as the Play Design technical lead, and I had both independently wanted to see it move. But the mechanic had just barely been tested. The planeswalkers were in various stages of evolution. The uncommons had just one ability, be it a static or a loyalty ability. The rare planeswalkers mostly had two abilities, but some were still works in progress. I felt good about proliferate.

I'd been encouraging us to pursue one planeswalker per pack. Before we embarked on that path, there needed to be a reality check.

After Vision Design finished meetings, but before Set Design started meetings, Play Design set out to explore what we were signing up for with a planeswalker-filled set. Melissa DeTora and Pete Ingram took a handful of Dominaria Future Future League decks and added in War of the Spark planeswalker designs, battled, and gave feedback to Ian. Their advice coming out of that process was that our current plan seemed like a reasonable path forward, but we'd want to be careful to try to keep strong decks to five to eight planeswalkers as once decks reached ten or more planeswalker, complexity and tracking became onerous. Toward that end, we agreed that we wanted to create planeswalkers that were mostly build-around so that we wouldn't typically wind up with too many planeswalkers in the same Constructed deck. For the most part, we didn't want planeswalkers encouraging you to play other planeswalkers.

That said, we wanted there to be some tools for "Superfriends" style decks to incorporate many planeswalkers together. We didn't want War of the Spark to lead to that style of a deck as a primary play pattern, though. We would create tools to deal with planeswalkers if we overshot, and we wanted good answers to planeswalkers in this set rather than waiting for those answers in later sets. All colors ideally would get access to some of these answers. We'd create answers to board stalls and/or lean toward creature stats that didn't create stalls. We'd create less card flow other than on planeswalkers so they could occupy that space and so that there wouldn't be too many decisions to combine and sequence on a given turn.

Month 1

A typical set might have a handful of story moments. This set was really our first stab at an event-based set. This meant that Doug Beyer, the creative lead for War of the Spark, had already put a lot of thought into how the story would unfold here. He had a sense of what would happen scene by scene and what emotions each scene should invoke. This set wanted to be about the story more than any other set had been. This was the culmination of a long story arc with our most iconic characters waging war.

Doug gave me a list of 49 story points and/or legendary characters he'd like to see, not even including the planeswalkers! Normally as we work on a set, we grow attached to our designs and their role within the set. We were so early on that I had very little attachment to any given card yet. Since Doug is no slouch at card design himself, he had included a sentence about possible mechanical design direction for each. With the help of my team, I probably designed more cards that week than I ever had in any one-week period prior. It was a blast to be able to come up with designs for such a cohesive packaging of concepts and characters. I hope that it comes through that there are so many cards that were designed to match concepts and characters rather than concepts made to match mechanical designs.

We worked on what each color would be adding to such a war for some inspiration. We landed on: Tactics (white), Planning (blue), Attrition (black), Aggression (red), and Big Units (green). We looked for ways to hit these notes mechanically and as color-pair schemes.

We created an initial strategy for each color pair that mostly stayed intact for all of set design. We tried to guess the speed of each color pair. We looked for themes that would interact with the guild mechanics from the previous two sets (Guilds of Ravnica and Ravnica Allegiance). Only black-green changed significantly. Here's how I'd describe each color pair in the final set. Things here are more open-ended than for most sets, and there's a bit more room to explore to find synergies with the planeswalkers.

Color Pair

Theme

White-Blue

Stall and Evasion

Blue-Black

Building Up Amass

Black-Red

Sacrifice Amass

Red-Green

Power Brutes

Green-White

Go-Wide Proliferate

White-Black

Small Utility Creatures

Blue-Green

Go-Tall +1/+1 Counters

Black-Green

Multicolor

Blue-Red

Spells-Matter Amass

Red-White

Aggro Tricks

We were still trying to figure out if there was any mechanical significance to the cards that tied into the Planeswalkers by name. Vision Design had explored using "signature" as a tag that might be referenced on other cards. We decided we didn't need signature to mean anything in the game and proceeded with a focus on making flavorful cards that directly tied into each Planeswalker. In this exploration, I thought it would be fun to do a reverse of the Defeat cycle from Hour of Devastation that would reward you for including specific planeswalkers, as opposed to hoping you run up against one.

Only one of our early mythic rare planeswalker designs stuck almost unchanged, and that was Gideon Blackblade. His static ability making him a creature on your turn just felt so appropriate. He would serve the role of a resilient threat. I won't say much more here, although you should look around the web today for more content about his role in the story. Let's take a look at him in at the end of the process:

Gideon Blackblade

Month 2

In the second month, the set focus moved back again more toward the planeswalkers. There was a concern that uncommon planeswalkers would diminish the coolness of the card type. At handoff, the planeswalkers were too much like either enchantments that could be attacked or planeswalkers that just ticked themselves off the battlefield. It was no surprise that I wasn't the only one who found these simple versions unsatisfying. I was confident these needed to do more, but many in R&D were worried about complexity levels. I decided I wanted all the uncommons to have both a static/triggered ability and a tick-down ability. We then also set up the numbers on these such that most would usually stay on the battlefield if unchecked, and that would hopefully matter for their non-loyalty ability. Meanwhile, the rare planeswalkers were also in flux, and we decided that these should all have a plus ability to go along with the minus and the static/triggered ability.

At this stage, I also asked Doug Beyer for his advice on what rarity and colors he most wanted to see each planeswalker at and who wouldn't make it into the set. I set up the skeleton of the planeswalkers and rarities exactly as he requested. This left us with four unknown slots: two white commons, one blue uncommon, and one black uncommon. I explored what I thought would be fun, new mechanical space for these characters and put placeholders into the file.

One other challenge was that proliferate was proving more snowball-y in nature than desired. The ratio of strength of the mechanic in +1/+1 counters to loyalty counters was imbalanced and higher than desired. Our solution to this was to reduce the number of cards that could easily start with a +1/+1 counter and to put quests for getting a first counter on more cards.

Makeshift BattalionRising Populace

I also decided that it would be fun to have some iconic war-related Vehicles of a sub, tank, and plane, the latter of which became a full-blown aircraft carrier of sorts, to round out a cycle of rare colored artifacts along with Bolas's Citadel and Vivien's Arkbow.

Mizzium TankSilent SubmersibleParhelion II

As a side note, this was around the time we felt confident enough in proliferate to change the design of Sagas to use counters in Dominaria and embrace that interaction. I'm curious how that decision will play out.

This is also when Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God gained his final minus ability.

Month 3

Month three was mostly about iteration, especially on the planeswalker designs.

With each set, I try to determine who isn't having fun in playtests, and why. I started to see an unusual pattern with this set. People who'd played with the set a lot loved it. People first experiencing the set loved it, except when they played against people experienced with the set. It wasn't just about overall experience with the game, it was specifically about experience with this set. This gave me an appreciation for the learning curve in this set regarding a player's understanding of how to protect and attack planeswalkers. It's hard to simplify some of the tactical approaches we took on how to lessen this effect, but in general, we tried to dial back early-game aggression and make late-game aggression easier, which seemed to alleviate some of the aspects of the game with which those less experienced in the set were struggling. These changes generally also felt like good gameplay as we incremented on them.

We also refined the cycle of cards that showed two guilds working together. There had been a common cycle as well, but that wasn't pulling its weight, so we took our best efforts and focused on the uncommon cycle.

Bond of DisciplineBond of Revival

We also picked up some leftover cards from the previous two sets, such as Ravnica at War.

Month 4

In month four, we tackled some of the mythic rare slots. Ian suggested the x spell cycle with a bonus if x was large enough. As a big fan of x spells, I immediately fell in love with these designs even though some proved challenging to make feel like effects new to Standard.

Finale of Revelation

Speaking of big mana spends, we also fleshed out the common designs that would be the mana sinks for War of the Spark Limited formats.

Vivien's GrizzlyChainwhip Cyclops

I also began adding in more designs that were representative of other Planes because that felt somehow appropriate with Planeswalkers converging on Ravnica from everywhere.

Evolution Sage

Month 5

We found there were enough players reluctant to put all their eggs into one basket with Army that we created more ways to protect a big Army or other creature you'd put a lot of investment into via proliferate, which led to the designs of Lazotep Plating and Bolt Bend.

Lazotep PlatingBolt Bend

Month 6

The Creative team had done a lot of exploration of new Planeswalker looks and ability suites, in part based on some of our earlier designs. We agreed we had a good match for the existing mechanics we'd put into the file with three of the possible Planeswalkers. There was a fourth that we were all excited about, which we took as inspiration to come up with a completely new card design. That was The Wanderer.

The Wanderer

Month 7

An enjoyable implementation of the Gods had eluded us up until this point. First, they'd had no mechanical link. Then they all died to hand like the Hour of Devastation Gods. We felt like people had soured a fair bit on the executions in Amonkhet block. We were worried about trying something that looked weaker than that implementation, but we thought we'd give a shot to designs that would come back a little later if your opponent dealt with them. Given that a major weakness of the Gods had always been exiling removal, I thought that letting them be resilient to that form of removal too would give them an exciting angle previous Gods were lacking. In general, we found this was a satisfying solution to both play with and against. We wavered back and forth on whether the Boar God should also get this treatment or whether this was unique to the God-Eternals.

God-Eternal RhonasIlharg, the Raze-Boar

While we'd been in search of the correct implementation for the Gods, we'd also been trying to get in a couple extra answers to the Gods.

Kasmina's Transmutation

It was at this point I focused on creating some exciting new colorless lands. Although we weren't interested in introducing more dual lands to improve Constructed mana fixing, I wanted to make sure there were other options for the 20-plus land slots in our players' decks.

Mobilized District

Month 8

Colored mana costs started moving around a lot. We found people strongly associated MMNN mana costs (meaning two of each color of a card's identity) on legends with guild leaders, so we moved to MMN on legends in particular. Elsewhere, we also used colored mana from here on out as a frequent knob, usually by adding in colored mana, for us to be more generous with abilities or stats while narrowing the decks the cards fit into.

Months 9 and 10

These were largely unremarkable months. We argued about such things as whether blue should get a 3/2 vanilla common or not. Creative started concepting out cards for art commissions.

Month 11

This month was a turning point for War of the Spark. Aaron Forsythe delivered an impassioned speech to the R&D troops about things we work further on to generate excitement with our cards. While I don't have space to get into all of that here, much of that discussion led to re-examining a great many things. It also led to refinement of our core R&D goals as F.I.R.E.: Fun, Inviting, Replayable, Exciting.

A major repercussion of this is experimenting more with more exciting (and powerful) commons than we've done in the past. It's not that we weren't trying to make exciting commons in the past; this became more about the process of getting there and not constraining ourselves. To be clear, this isn't just a change because of some peculiarities of a planeswalker set or what not, it is a change in philosophy moving forward with other sets too. We've spent a lot of time discussing what examples of this new breed of cards at common are fun and color appropriate.

Ob Nixilis's CrueltyBloom Hulk

This discussion transcends just commons, although the delta there is perhaps the easiest to see. Some of this is a matter of more risk-taking and iteration now that we have further Play Design resources and experience on that team, having seen their work enter the real world. It's a matter of erring on the side of excitement over matching some of the metrics we've set up for ourselves (and that's a whole other article's worth of content).

This is also when the set became the focus of FFL playtesting in Play Design!

We played around with Army. The Zombie token lords at the time only buffed Armies. We wanted to see if we could be more backward-compatible and let them buff all Zombies. That experiment was a much bigger buff to Zombies, especially in Limited, than we wanted and would mean we'd need to nerf what they'd actually be able to do to support the Armies. Instead, I then changed them to buff only Zombie tokens as a compromise to working with older cards, and that felt good compared to where we'd been before. It also meant some extra interactions with Liliana, Dreadhorde General and God-Eternal Oketra in the set.

Eternal SkylordVizier of the Scorpion

Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God moved down to five mana, lost hybrid mana, and gained his plus ability that was later upgraded to exiling those cards.

Month 12

We went over miscellaneous issues. For example, we decided against the instant and sorcery count-me cards caring about cards in exile like they did for Guilds of Ravnica.

Yoni Skolnik pitched me an idea for the Bolas static ability. I said back to him, "Wow, 'Bolas has the abilities of all planeswalkers in play' sounds awesome." He informed me that's not what he just said, and I misunderstood him. And thus, one of my favorite lines of text in the set was created, amusingly enough.

Months 13 and 14

I finally designed a Bolas ultimate ability that I was happy with.

Nicol Bolas, Dragon-God

Month 15

Rekindling Phoenix was being a pest to our planeswalkers, so we converted our green anti-flier variant into Forced Landing.

Forced Landing

Month 16

Doug Beyer suggested we do our internal slideshow in story order. As someone who often wished our slideshows were in external preview order, I noted that we should try to do this for previews. Doug put in the work to make this happen for the slideshow, and Blake Rasmussen and Chris Gleeson made it happen for this preview season.

Month 17

After pouring over Limited data for years and noticing several patterns, we made some late adjustment to color strengths so we hopefully don't keep repeating those trends. We put our pens down (mostly)!


Many thanks to those who spent any time on my Set Design team, and thanks to countless others involved inside Wizards of the Coast. To Ian Duke, who was the only other person on the Set Design team the whole way through, and Andrew Brown for lots of ideas and iteration to get these cards into F.I.R.E. shape. Thanks to Ken Nagle, Jules Robins, Yoni Skolnik, and Gavin Verhey for submitting many cool card designs and challenging my own designs. Thanks to Mark Rosewater and the rest of Vision Design team for setting us up for success, and to Play Design for leveling up to the point where we could push these boundaries. Thanks to Taylor Ingvarsson and Dawn Murin as art directors for the set. Thanks for Mark Heggen as the Product Design lead for some of the surprises, and yes, there may still be some more. And, as I mentioned many times in here, thanks to Doug Beyer for having a strong creative vision for War of the Spark.

I hope you enjoy the set. I believe it will be a memorable one. Thanks for all the feedback across social media the past few weeks. And thanks to you for reading this!

—Dave Humpherys

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