Achieving Zendikar, Part I

Posted in Feature on September 7, 2009

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

Welcome to Zendikar previews!

Today is Labor Day here in the States, and ordinarily that means I'd be introducing a reposting of last week's article for you to read while the web team is off having barbecues and enjoying what little sunshine we can get here in Seattle.

But then we thought of all you good little boys and girls sitting at home, frantically refreshing the page, waiting for the very first day of Zendikar spoilers to go live, and we just didn't have the heart to disappoint you. That's why today, you'll find Making Magic and the weekly feature article in their usual spots, each with a preview card. (Card of the Day, Arcana, Deck of the Day, and the Daily Activity are still repeats—we are but men.)


Kelly Digges
Daily MTG Editor,

Welcome to Week 1 of Zendikar Previews! Man, you don't know how long I've waited to say that. People often ask me what the hardest part of my job is. My answer is doing things that I'm proud of and excited about and having to wait a year to tell anyone about it. To make matters worse, now that's it's a year later, my head is all caught up in "Lights" block design and how awesome that is, but I have to wait a year to talk about that.

Let me start by taking a moment to remember back to a year ago. I was just about to hand off the set. My team had taken on a real challenge and I was very happy with what we had accomplished. But wait, I'm getting ahead of myself. That's the end of the story. Let's start at the beginning. (And yes, this story will lead to today's preview card.)

Six years ago, I was asked by the then Director of Magic R&D, Randy Buehler, to come up with a five-year block plan. So, I of course, came up with a six-year plan, mostly because I had six different ideas I really liked. (I should note that these plans were very big picture and did not get into the details that would come when the sets actually got made.) Zendikar, codenamed "Live" (followed by "Long" and "Prosper") was the fifth year of my six-year plan. It was following our return to gold and preceding, well, you'll see. (Seriously, it's torture not talking about what I'm working on while I'm knee-deep in it.) I felt like it was the perfect place to try something different.

Much of Magic design is tapping into things that we already know players like. Sure, we put new spins and twists on old themes and mechanics, but in the end it's us revisiting familiar ground. This isn't a bad thing. I often talk about how design has to meet expectations and there is nothing that does that better than returning to something that is already known and loved. This, for example, is why Hollywood is addicted to sequels, adaptations and re-envisionings. They explore known quantities.

But Magic is all about evolution and change. We can't just keep repeating ourselves. From time to time we have to step up and try something new. When making my six-year plan, I knew Year Five was going to be one of those years (as was Year Two, incidentally, which was Time Spiral block; while Time Spiral used old components, it did it in such a way—through a nostalgia theme—that had never been done before). I got Randy to agree that Year Five should be designated as an experimental year where we use the block to explore a theme we had never used before. The big question was: what was that theme?

I had an idea. While doing designs, you occasionally run across ideas that don't work for your particular set but that have value. You put these away for a future day. Now there are many places to look for block themes. One of those places is mechanics. A good jumping-off point can be finding some mechanical design space that hasn't been tapped yet. (Or hasn't been thoroughly tapped, as almost all design space has been scratched a little in the last sixteen years.) The richest of these areas was land. While land has always been integral to the game, it is the card type that we've used the least from a design standpoint. Yes, we've dipped our toe in the waters, but it's something we've never used as a block theme. I was convinced that the answer to Year Five was a land set. That is, a design where we begin by exploring what we could do mechanically with land.

I remembering pitching the idea of a "land set" to Randy. He wasn't particularly thrilled with the idea. I argued that it held a lot of design potential. Randy said it was my call and that he trusted my judgment.

Quick aside: I often talk about how no one seems to get my ideas at first. This isn't a shortcoming of the rest of R&D. It's my job to find potential in things that might not on the surface seem to have any, and it is their job to be skeptical and question all ideas to make sure they measure up. If I'm going to surprise all of you, I have to dig into areas that might not at first blush sound so interesting. Magic design, like almost all creative ventures, is all about the execution. Many of the best ideas sound thin on paper, but when executed correctly transform into something beautiful. As I continue my story, please focus on this—even though almost no one believed in what I wanted to do, they all let me do it.

Randy wasn't so excited with the idea, so I pitched it to Bill Rose, the VP of R&D. Bill had a little better sense of what I was talking about, but like Randy, he wasn't too optimistic on the idea. I talked with the different developers and one by one they each chimed in with their skepticism of the idea. The one exception—and I bring this up because I love it when there's someone early on who shows faith—was Mike Turian. His comment was, "Yeah, I think it will work."

Everyone, save Mike, seemed to believe that I was chasing a fool's errand, but I had earned enough of their trust that they'd let me give it a shot. The one note from Bill was that I needed to show some results after a few months because if it wasn't working, we needed some time to design to a new theme. At the same time, I came to the realization that words "the land set" just didn't sound that exciting, so I started referring to the block as Landsapalooza. (As I love tossing out small design lessons whenever I can, here's a very important one: Never underestimate the power of words. A designer's job is to get reactions and create impressions, and words do this very well if used correctly.)

Now it became time to pick my team.

Mark Rosewater

Mark Rosewater (lead)

When you have an idea that no one but you seems to get, the choice of a design lead is pretty easy. If you don't have any idea who I am, I have an entire archive for you to acquaint yourself with me. (By the way, last week was the four hundreth week of Making Magic; "Four Hundred and Counting" will be right after the Zendikar preview weeks are over. I've written over one million words just in Making Magic.) The short version is this: I've led a few sets and designed a few cards. Oh yes, and I'm apparently trying to kill Magic—something I'm obviously not that good at, as Magic is going strong sixteen years later.

Doug BeyerDoug Beyer


Doug is a member of the creative team, responsible for names and flavor text. I asked him to join this design team as I knew it was going to have a strong flavor component (sets built on a mechanical heart need to be intertwined with Creative early to make the justification for the mechanics organic to the world) and I wanted someone on the team helping to make sure we got the flavor right. What I hadn't realized was how good a card designer Doug was going to turn out to be. Yes, he excelled at helping keep the reins on flavor, but he proved to be a valuable help in shaping the mechanics as well.

Graeme Hopkins

Graeme Hopkins

From time to time, I say that I expect one day we'll do another Great Designer Search. Why do I believe that? Because we have four designers that Magic uses constantly who work at Wizards solely because they entered the GDS. Graeme is one of the four. (The other three are Ken Nagle, Alexis Janson, and Mark Globus.) I am always happy to have Graeme on my design team because he always approaches the design from a unique vantage point. I know the cards I get from him are not going to be the same things I get from anyone else. In addition, Graeme is a card-designing machine. When I give him an assignment, I know I'll have many options to choose from.

Kenneth Nagle

Kenneth Nagle

Here's how much design Ken is doing these days—I just wrote his bio for a design team in last week's column. R&D has few people that are solely designers—that is, people whose sole responsibility is to do design (it has a lot of people that design on the side, though). Ken is one of these people, so he is constantly jumping from design team to design team. (Unlike me, Ken actually has the time to work on the designs of some of our other games.) While all our designers are excellent, I dub Ken the "up and comer." You'll be seeing his name on a lot of upcoming Magic sets, including Worldwake, Ken's first set as lead designer.

Matt Place

Matt Place

I feel it's always important to have a developer on a design team to help give a development perspective. I enjoy having Matt on my design teams, which is evident if you look back, as I keep doing it. A lot of this design revolved around finding the right mix of elements. Matt's expertise in this area proved very helpful.

One if by Land

The very first day of design, I sat my team down and told them that we were going to start by examining the design space for land. They were free to try anything and everything. The one rule was that the mechanics/cards had to care about land in some way. They could care about something lands did, they could take advantage of things only lands had, they could appear exclusively on lands—it was all fair game.

The team went away and came back two weeks later with over forty different ideas for mechanics. For each mechanic we had a few cards. We put them all together and played some Sealed Deck. Why did we do it this way? Because if we took each of the mechanics and tried to play it by itself, we would have taken months just to see everything. This way, all the mechanics got seen right away.

Remember that the role of early design playtesting isn't to perfect things, but to get a sense of what shows potential. After each playtest, we had a better sense of which mechanics showed promise and which ones seemed like clunkers. Then between each playtest, I did one of four things with each mechanic:


  1. I kept it as is. Some things were working. Part of good design is letting things that work have some space to breathe. Changing things too quickly could easily snuff the thing that made them special in the first place.
  2. I tweaked it. Some mechanics showed potential but weren't playing as well as we hoped. These mechanics were changed, usually slightly, to get a sense if we had the right area but were off a little on the specifics.
  3. I combined mechanics. Sometimes playtesting shows that two or more things are fighting for the same space. The best thing to do there is to take the pieces that are working best and save them. Often this requires combining elements from different designs.
  4. I killed it. Part of the creative process is destruction. Not every idea is good. When something isn't working and there's no obvious way to tweak it, it's time for it to go. Killing your own ideas is one of the hardest parts of any creative endeavor, but it is also one of the most crucial.

We spent about two months playing and refining our mechanics. While I don't have time to walk you through them all, I thought I'd pick the one thread that led to my preview card today. There are many facets unique to land. One if them is known as the "land drop." Lands are the only cards in the game that don't get cast as spells. Instead of being restricted by how much mana you have, lands are free to play but are restricted by how many you can play. (Obviously, one per turn.) That resource has been dubbed the "land drop."

When we started messing around with land designs, my team all gravitated towards the same question: what would happen if you could use the "land drop" resource in another way? The first obvious place to go was to make it an additional cost. For example:

Land Drop Goblin
Creature – Goblin
Landshort - You must spend your land drop to play CARDNAME.

This mechanic was very versatile and could go onto a lot of cards. The mechanic had two problems. First, while the idea of a "land drop" as a thing makes sense when we're talking about Magic, the rules don't actually define it as such. This means technically there is no "land drop." As far as the rules are concerned, no such thing exists. Thus, using it as a resource is problematic. Second, using it means not playing lands, which creates unfun tension. In order to play your creature, you have to slow down your mana development. Yes, a little of it is fine (and Zendikar does have a smattering), but in the volume a keyword would need, the mechanic wasn't fun to play.

So we tried the opposite. What if you could only play the spell on the turn you played a land?

Landfall Goblin
Creature – Goblin
Landfall - You may only play CARDNAME if you played a land this turn.

The problem with this incarnation is that playing a land is a much lower cost than not playing a land. You didn't really get that much savings on the card. In addition, the cards weren't playing all that fun. We liked rewarding players for playing land, though. One, it was something that happens in every game (okay, okay, almost every game—Magic does allow some wacky decks), and two, it felt good, as playing a land just doesn't feel like that much of a cost.

This led us to the idea of using landfall to reward players every time a land was played rather than restrict when spells could be cast. Playtesting quickly showed that it felt great to get rewarded for something that you were already motivated to do. Our metaphor for the mechanic was that you'd get a free candy bar, but you'd have to eat your lunch. Your response is "Awesome—I was going to eat lunch anyway."

This led us to our next incarnation:

Landfall Goblin 2.0
Creature – Bear
Landfall – Whenever a land comes into play under your control, CARDNAME gets +1/+1 until end of turn.

Now this mechanic felt good. So good, that I dubbed it the winner of the land mechanic-off and it became our land-based keyword. This is very relevant to today's preview card, because it is a landfall card, and a pretty awesome one at that. Before I overtalk its awesomeness, let me just show it to you.

Landfall in all its glory.

Ob Nixilis, the Fallen

I often talk about how in a design there is a moment when you realize that you have done something that will define the environment. Early in landfall playtesting, I had a moment where the game hinged on me drawing a land. I didn't want a spell. I needed a land, any land. I sat there talking to my deck saying, "Just give me a land. I know this is the time where I normally say 'Don't give me a land,' but things are different. A land wins me the game. Please, please, please, be a land."

That's when I knew we had our moment. When the game gets turned on its ear and you're hoping for the exact opposite thing from what you normally do, I know we've managed to shift the game to someplace pretty interesting. Trust me, when you play Zendikar, you will often find yourself praying to draw land. (You may even find yourself sometimes upping your land count in Limited. Never played with eighteen or nineteen or twenty lands in Limited? You will.)

I want to stress that during our land design exploration we discovered a number of different cool things. Landfall is the only land-based keyword mechanic that made it, but we did manage to make use of a number of land-based things from our playtesting. We also made a concerted effort to make sure the land in this set was also memorable. Zendikar has quantity going for it, as there are more lands than normal but more importantly it has quality going for it as well. Part of what will make this the "land set" (sorry I mean "Landsapalooza") is that so many of the lands are so memorable. Sometimes that's because they do the things lands always do but do it well. Sometimes its because they do things lands normally don't do. Sometimes its just because it's a cycle of lands that players have been asking us to print for so, so very long.

What got teased this last weekend at PAX (Penny Arcade Expo).

Arid Mesa

Yes, enemy fetch lands are finally here. We were looking for a cool rare cycle of dual lands that played well with landfall, and wouldn't you know, these fit the bill perfectly.

The full-art basic lands (suggested by Brady Dommermuth for those who are interested) were also done to keep in the land theme. Yes, this does mean that the full-art basic land is a land-themed thing, only showing up in the two sets that have the theme, Zendikar and Worldwake. "Prosper" is going off in another, non-land-based direction, so basic lands will go back to their normal layout starting with "Prosper." Why are we taking away something that the players to seem to love so much? For the same reason that we take away the other beloved things: Magic works best when the pendulum swings having things go in and out of sets. While I don't talk much about it, splash inflation is something R&D has to be vigilant about. If we keep having to be bigger and splashier every set than the set before, Magic will spiral out of control. For cool things to enter, other cool things must exit.

Okay, so we spent the first few months of design figuring out the meatiest area of land design. What next? Two things. First, we had to figure out what other mechanics made sense with what we were doing with land. And second, we had to figure out what sort of world came naturally out of what we were trying to do mechanically. Essentially, Zendikar design started by exploring one aspect of the design (the land aspect), and then once we found it, we had to figure out what the rest of the set had to do to support it and make it feel like a natural extension.

So we did, and it's a pretty cool story—but a story for another column. (Come on, the title said "Part I.") Join me next week when we figure out what kind of world makes sense doing the things we wanted to do with land, and how the flavor of that world shaped the design of the set. Remember, we're only about three months into the design. There's a lot of story left.

Until then, may you stick to your guns on an idea you believe in.

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