A Magic Set about Magic: The Gathering

Posted in Card Preview on May 23, 2019

By Ethan Fleischer

Ethan Fleischer works for Magic R&D as a designer. He can sing, but not dance, and is an indifferent fencer. He lives near Seattle with his wife, three sons, and mother-in-law.

Time Spiral was a disaster for Wizards of the Coast. That overly complex set heralded a sales downturn that wasn't arrested until the introduction of New World Order, our set of game design standards for controlling complexity, in Shards of Alara.

Time Spiral was high art. That meta-commentary on the game of Magic, in the form of a Magic set, was almost totally without precedent in our game. Only the Un- sets came close.

Time Spiral rewarded Magic's most enfranchised players, while being actively hostile to lightly enfranchised and newer players.

Time Spiral was my favorite Magic set when I started working at Wizards. It's still in my top three, along with Dominaria and Conspiracy. As someone who's been playing since Limited Edition (Alpha), I felt like Time Spiral was made specifically with me in mind. And I wasn't alone. Lots of people loved Time Spiral. But lots of people weren't enough.

The problem wasn't Time Spiral qua Time Spiral. The problem was Time Spiral (and Planar Chaos, and Future Sight) as the primary expressions of Magic: The Gathering with which every player of the game had to engage. Magic thrives when it is resonant and accessible. Time Spiral block is self-referential and impenetrable.

But not to the appropriate audience. To the appropriate audience, Time Spiral is playful. Every card is an in-joke, and if you're in the in-crowd, Time Spiral digs you in the ribs with an elbow and winks, "Get it?" Time Spiral rewards you for your investment in playing Magic for all these years.

The success of sets like Conspiracy and Unstable led me to ask, "Could we make a set like Time Spiral, a set that rewards our most enfranchised players for their involvement in Magic? But instead of making it the primary expression of what Magic should be for three months, we could make it an ancillary product?"

The Hackathon

Every year or two, we run an intensive design jam called the hackathon, where a bunch of designers drop what they're doing for a week and work on inventing new products. My team (Mark Rosewater, Alli Medwin, and Nat Moes) and I explored the "Time Spiral 2" concept. We needed to deliver a playable prototype and a document describing our product to Mark Globus, who had organized the hackathon, by the end of the week. For most product pitches, the playable prototype was a vertical slice, a subset of the final version of the product that demonstrates its depth without doing the work to create its breadth, if that makes any sense.

It turned out that, for our team, the easiest way to demonstrate what we were going for was to just design an entire large set in four days, draft it, and play with it. So we did.

The set was extremely rough-hewn, totally unbalanced, and the power level was all over the place. Nevertheless, the basics of what you'll experience drafting Modern Horizons were there. It was a rich, decadent dessert of a set. When Mark Globus couldn't stop cackling during the demo draft, I knew we had a winner on our hands.

Vision Design

We decided to go ahead and make the set, and we had a pretty aggressive schedule for bringing it to print. We immediately jumped in and started vision design. We also decided that this set would do something unprecedented: it would feed directly into the Modern format, without being Standard-legal first. We knew that, as Modern continued to grow, Standard sets would have less and less impact on the format. We wanted to make some cards that would be exciting for Modern players without having to worry about unbalancing Standard.

The vision design process for Modern Horizons was a bit unusual. I co-lead the set with Mark Globus. I handled the typical tasks a design team lead is responsible for, such as leading meetings, guiding the mechanical themes, creating a Limited format, evaluating and perfecting card designs, and so on. Mark tackled the myriad special problems that making a Modern-legal-but-not-Standard-legal set created. He worked with the Play Design team to identify promising space for Constructed cards, communicated with the rest of the company to prepare them for this unusual situation, helped set goals for how the set should impact Modern, and generally trailblazed new processes to account for the unique nature of the product.

By the end of the vision design process, we had a good idea of what the set should be.

Modern Horizons Design Goals

Rich, Complex Limited Play

If a core set is simple, rudimentary food, and a marquee Standard-legal set is fancy cuisine, Modern Horizons is a rich, decadent dessert. Magic players love complexity, and Modern Horizons pushes the boundaries of how many mechanics we include in sets and how many words we put on cards.

Reward Players' Engagement and Enfranchisement in Magic

This set is intended for experienced Magic players only. It features many references to older cards, older settings, and older characters.

Within that broad category of "enfranchised players," we made cards to appeal to a variety of types of players. We wanted to make Mel and Vorthos smile. We wanted Timmy, Jenny, and Spike to all find plenty of cards for themselves. We wanted to make cards for Commander players, Vintage and Legacy players, Cube players, and especially Modern players.

Magic sets are always about something: graveyard interactions, Greek mythology, inventing. Modern Horizons is a Magic set about Magic: The Gathering. Fortunately, the one thing all experienced Magic players have in common is a love for Magic: The Gathering!

Make a Splash in Modern

Modern Horizons is the first set to introduce cards into the Modern format without going through Standard. Plenty of Modern Horizons cards will make their way into Modern, but it is important to us that we make the format more fun for the people who enjoy it.

Riffs

Modern Horizons contains many playful references to older Magic cards. In general, the cards referenced are prominent and recognizable to a reasonable number of Magic players. Sometimes we riffed off a less prominent card for gameplay purposes. As the notability of the card referenced goes down, it more and more behooves the new card to be able to stand on its own as an appealing game piece.

Riffs fall into several categories:

Scaled-up or Scaled-down

A smaller or larger version of a prominent card. We've got some examples of scaled-up cards coming soon but haven't revealed any yet. However, an example of a scaled-down card is my first preview card today. We took one of the most powerful Equipment cards ever printed, Umezawa's Jitte, and turned it into a common instant.

Umezawa's Charm

Mash-Ups

Combining two cards that have an unexpected element in common created some amusing cards. Sometimes this involved combining specific cards together, as with Serra the Benevolent, which combines Serra Aviary, Serra Angel, and Worship—all being cards with creative ties to Serra—into a single card.

Serra the Benevolent

Other mash-ups, such as my second preview card, involve keywords or non-keyword mechanical themes. Splicer's Skill is a sort of pun in Magic-card form, playing off the fact that in New Phyrexia there are creatures called Splicers, all of which create a Golem token when they enter the battlefield. These cards share the word "splice" with the splice onto arcane mechanic from Kamigawa block.

Splicer's Skill

Unlike the cards from Kamigawa, Splicer's Skill can splice onto any instant or sorcery. This can lead to some extremely powerful interactions (with the storm mechanic, for example).

Colorshifts

Colorshifts are exact copies of existing Magic cards, but the colored mana symbols are changed. It's also fine for color words, creature types, and basic land types to change appropriately. It was important that the final result comply with the color pie. Cards like Harmonize and Riptide Pilferer aren't appropriate here.

My third preview card is an example of a colorshifted card. We took a card that was a color pie violation, Beast Within, and moved it into a more appropriate color.

Generous Gift

Cycle Extensions

Some five-card cycles from Magic's history were extended in Modern Horizons. While not quite fitting the definition of a five-card cycle, the five enemy color Horizon Canopy lands Paulo Vitor Damo da Rosa previewed earlier this week fit into this category too.

Some other cycle extensions will be previewed later on, so keep your eyes open.

Add a Keyword

We took existing Magic cards and added a keyword for additional functionality. One of my favorite moments in Magic design was a little thing. In Magic 2012, we printed Tormented Spirit as a card to enable the bloodthirst mechanic. The following year, we reprinted Tormented Spirit in Magic 2013, but this time, it was to enable the exalted mechanic! My Mel brain was delighted by the same part performing such different functions! When it came time to enable Ninjas in Modern Horizons, I went back to Tormented Soul as an example of a simple creature we could change by giving it the changeling keyword. Which brings us to my fourth preview card, Changeling Outcast.

Changeling Outcast

Creative Solutions

Vanilla and French vanilla creatures and other simple cards rely more on names, flavor text, and art to make them adorable. Bringing back recurring characters, flavor text gags, and factions helps to make even the simplest cards rewarding to longtime players.

Design Space We Avoided

Modern Horizons borrows several themes from Time Spiral block. However, the Vision Design team identified several elements from Time Spiral block that weren't suitable for Modern Horizons:

  • Futureshifted cards: Modern Horizons is backward-looking. It contains no new keyword mechanics and avoided extremely novel designs.
  • Color pie violations: All cards, whether new or reprinted, have the same degree of compliance with the modern color pie as a Standard-legal set.
  • Confusing references to unnotable cards: Stormcloud Djinn is an example of a card that doesn't make sense without context, nor is the revelation of the cards it's riffing off of (Electric Eel and Cloud Djinn) a cool Easter egg. It's merely weird.
  • Upcoming Standard-legal design space: We avoided space that future Standard releases will need.
  • Alternate frames: Time Spiral block made extensive use of alternate frames. The old frame is simply misleading for Modern Horizons, as all cards in the set will be Modern-legal. Many players found the planeshifted frame to be confusing in Planar Chaos. We didn't design futureshifted-style cards for Modern Horizons, so the futureshifted frame wasn't appropriate.

Complexity

Our usual New World Order standards don't all apply to Modern Horizons. Some of them are inconsistent with the goal of creating a decadent wallow in complex interactions. Other NWO standards should be maintained so that games don't drag on too long.

  • Comprehension complexity: This mostly has to do with reading the card and understanding what it does. Comprehension complexity is high in Modern Horizons. We use a metric called "common word count" to approximately quantify comprehension complexity. A set's common word count is the average number of words that appear in the rules text of a common card from that set. Modern Horizons has a common word count of about 25.9. This is very similar to Time Spiral's common word count of 26.5. For reference, Core Set 2019 weighed in at 11.1 and War of the Spark at 16.8.
  • Onboard complexity: We experimented with higher-than-normal onboard complexity. This led to mixed results from the playtesters. We decided that NWO standards should be maintained with regard to onboard complexity, though there's a little more leeway than usual. Too much onboard complexity can lead to games slowing down a lot as players have trouble deciding whether it's safe to attack or block.
  • Choice complexity: Mechanics like cycling, cards that are active in the graveyard, modal cards, activated abilities, and so on all proliferate the number of choices players need to make. This sort of thing is very fun for experienced players and was encouraged. However, we kept an eye on how much time people spent in the tank and reduced the number of choice-intensive cards when games slowed down too much due to people mulling over their choices.
  • Strategic complexity: We increased strategic complexity somewhat, but not at the expense of traditional strategies. We didn't want an environment like Rise of the Eldrazi, where two-mana 2/2s were unplayably weak, for instance.
  • Card advantage: As per our usual best practices, we avoided excessive card advantage at common. We didn't want too many games to focus on attrition. Some combos that produce card advantage are fun, but an environment defined by straightforward one-for-one removal plus card draw wasn't an interesting direction for Modern Horizons.

My Cross to Bear

While I lead Core Set 2019 design, we made a cycle of five rare monocolor legendary creatures that played into the themes of the set. The green one encouraged players to make a deck with lots of creatures with power 4 or greater. James Wyatt concepted this legendary creature as a Bear, referencing the Temur clan from Khans of Tarkir, who had a "4 or more power matters" theme and had a symbiotic relationship with Bears. As soon as the first sketch came in, I felt a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. This Bear was very cool, and a totally appropriate concept for the mechanic, but the card design wasn't what some people would be looking for in Magic's first legendary Bear card. I was one of those people, and I'll tell you why.

I love jank.

There, I said it.

There's something incredibly satisfying to me about kludging together a win out of terrible Magic cards. While it's possible to (and I've done it) make randomly generated decks, I find that going deep on a theme is generally a more satisfying way of going about it.

There was something weirdly fascinating to me about the humble Bear in Magic. Due to a strange quirk of fate, there are no fewer than five 2/2 Bear creatures with no abilities for two mana.

  • Grizzly Bears
  • Balduvian Bears
  • Bear Cub
  • Forest Bear
  • Runeclaw Bear

This theme is so prevalent that it has become a common piece of Magic slang to refer to any two-mana 2/2 as a "bear."

It was inevitable that I would try to make a Bear tribal deck for Commander. Using Surrak Dragonclaw as my commander, I included not only every Bear in his color identity, but every card with a bear in the art! Here's my decklist, because every Magic article should have a decklist.

Ethan's Bear Tribal

COMMANDER: Surrak Dragonclaw

As we explored directions for decks to promote in Modern, one piece of very low-hanging fruit was tribal decks. We could put some cool tribal rewards in Modern Horizons for a variety of different tribes. Including a bunch of tribal rewards implied that we should have a bunch of creatures with changeling at lower rarities, so players could put a variety of lords and changelings together into a Limited deck. All those changelings implied that we could have some . . . more unusual . . . tribal lords in the set. Just, y'know, for funsies.

So yeah, I hope you all will forgive my little bit of extreme self-indulgence (in what is by far the most self-indulgent Magic set I've ever worked on). I present to you my final preview card: Ayula, Queen Among Bears!

Ayula, Queen Among Bears

Long may she reign! She's not the first legendary Bear in Magic, but I think she'll satisfy everyone who was looking for a Bear tribal reward in a legendary creature.

Lest you think I'm totally irresponsible, we conduct internal polling to measure how people feel about every rare and mythic rare card in the products we make. Ayula handily won the Modern Horizons rare poll, beating every single other card in the set.

Ayula isn't the only card from Modern Horizons that will find its way into my Bear deck. Keep your eyes peeled for more ursine goodness during preview season.

I wish I could go on and on about Modern Horizons. I really feel like I got away with something in making this set! It was a labor of love for me; I even wrote some names and flavor text for the cards! But I've blown well past my word count as it is. Follow me on Twitter @EthanFleischer, where I might share some more stories about Modern Horizons cards.

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