What's Your Design?
But first, as tradition dictates, it's time to introduce the Shards of Alara design team.
Bill Rose (design lead)
Only two people in the world have lead more design teams than Bill Rose. (Mike Elliott and me, for the trivia buffs out there.) Having also led the design of Invasion, Bill has the distinction of being the only designer to ever lead two traditional multicolor (a.k.a. "gold") themed blocks. Bill and I started working at Wizards of the Coast just weeks apart (in October of 1995), so we've both been involved with Magic, and Magic design in particular, for a long time. In his spare time when he is not designing sets, Bill is the Vice President of R&D, that is, my boss Aaron Forsythe's boss. Bill was very eager to lead the design for Shards of Alara (codenamed "Rock"—aah, now the title's starting to make more sense), and as we will see he took the opportunity to do something a little different.
As long as my boss's boss is involved, why not my boss as well? Aaron has been on numerous design teams and was the design lead for Dissension and Lorwyn. His current duties don't allow him to design as much, but I still like to get him on a design teams whenever I can.
Devin is another multi-faceted person capable of developing and designing. I also love having Devin on a design team because he brings so many interesting ideas to the table.
With this many bigwigs, how could I not get involved? Plus, I have to keep the streak alive.
Mark is an awesome designer. How do I know? Because he annoys the heck out of the Rules Manager with his card designs. That's always an excellent sign of quality. Seriously, Mark is an asset to any design team he is on, and I was happy to have him on Shards of Alara.
Brian is yet another Magic designer with some experience leading large sets (Champions of Kamigawa and Time Spiral). Plus, Brian tends to find design ideas in places I would never think to look. Adding Brian to a team guarantees some interesting (and I'm talking about the good kind of "interesting") designs.
While it's obviously good to have designers on a design team, I always like to have a developer or two to help look at the big picture. Matt is an excellent choice, as he has great "big picture" skills.
Mike is another solid development voice to help flesh out a team.
As is Erik. His nickname is, honest to goodness, "The Mad Genius." What design team doesn't want someone on it nicknamed "The Mad Genius"?
Yes, it's the winner of The Great Designer Search. While Alexis is not in R&D, we get her to help out with design (and sometimes development) whenever we can.
Ken, another GDS alum, is our newest designer, so we put him on as many design teams as possible.
Wait, we're not done with GDS alums. At the time, Mark was working in the Digital Games department, and we borrowed a little of his time for some design. (Just recently, by the way, he moved to Magic R&D.)
What I said about the other GDS folks is ditto for Graeme. Wow, four GDS finalists on one design team, is that a record?
No, because the record is five. This set occurred during Noah's Magic development internship, and we let him sneak in some design.
Finally, we have a Magic editor getting his feet wet as a designer.
That's it? No more members of the Shards of Alara design team? We stopped at a mere fifteen?
Let me explain what is going on as obviously, fifteen members is three to four times larger than the average design team. Bill decided that he wanted to try something a little different. Rather than one single team that worked straight through the process, Bill created a system where the team kept changing, bringing in whatever skills were needed for that portion of the design. This list represents everyone who was part of a design and or development team at some point. Even the distinction of design and development gets a little fuzzy, as Bill would intersperse more developmentally focused teams in the middle of more traditional design teams.
Why a need for so many teams? As you are about to see, it was part of the necessity that came with designing so many worlds.
There's Gold in That Thar Set
When Shards of Alara design began, only one thing was known about the set: it was going to have a traditional multicolor (a.k.a. "gold") theme. But wait, wasn't Ravnica just three years ago? Why return to the theme so quickly? I attribute it to two things. First, gold is by far the most popular block theme we do. In addition, it's one of the most flexible block themes we do. As such, it is a theme we plan on revisiting more frequently than other themes. Two, we recognized that we'd been getting into a bit of a pattern on our theme releases and we wanted to shake things up a little. How could we surprise the players? That's when Bill suggested that we could bring it back faster than the players would expect.
We've clearly set a pace for how often we return to gold. What if we shifted the pace to trip up expectations? Almost no one (with all the crazy theories tossed out there's always someone guessing correctly) on any of the rumor sites had Shards of Alara pegged as a gold set until we started putting out clues.
Flashing back to the start of Shards of Alara design, Bill had a singular focus. How could we design a gold block that did everything players expected from a gold block but did so in a different manner? Put another way, how could we capture much of the success of a gold block without simply retreading what had previously been done? Bill started playing around with different ideas. One of the simplest was this: instead of defining factions by what two colors they were, what if we defined them by what two colors they weren't?
Creative took this idea and came up with a setting. Imagine a world, they said, that broke apart. It shattered into five shards, each of which then evolved to become its own world. The catch is that this disaster splintered the mana of the world. Each of the five shards only kept three colors of mana. The five shards would be the five three-color arcs (that is, the five three color combinations in which it is each color and its allies—the other five, by the way, are known in R&D as "wedges"). Each shard would be defined both creatively and mechanically by the two colors it lacked. Grixis, for example, is the black-based shard with black, blue and red. It is missing white and green, the two colors of life, thus Grixis is a world devoid of life magic and overrun with death. How is a world shaped with that kind of parameter?
Once Bill realized that we needed to design five different shards, he created five design teams, each responsible for a different shard. The teams were purposefully built to have overlapping design members, to allow the different teams a sense of what was going on in the other shards.
One Rule to Ring Them All
Each of the five shard design teams was going to have a significant amount of autonomy to figure out their own shard. The one rule we had to follow was this: each shard could not know of the four other shards, meaning that everything from that shard had to make sense in that shard. Shards weren't allowed to create spells that would be specifically effective against things from a different shard, because they don't know of that shard's existence. Each shard believes that only three colors of mana even exist. Things not in the color pie of a shard's three colors are unknown to that world. This was an important part of the block plan. Shards of Alara was to introduce the five shards, just not to each other.
So each shard team went off and figured out how to best represent their world. Outside of those meetings the designers talked so we had a sense what the others were up to, but we stayed focused. The idea Bill had was that he wanted each shard to flourish independently, just as the shards would in the story.
Another change was that the creative team did much of their work on concepting the shards before the shard design teams met. The shards were not created to match the designs, but rather the designs were created to match the shards. This isn't to say that the shard designs didn't affect the creative for the shards, but much of what the shard design teams did was very much shaped by the work the creative team did in crafting the environments of each world.
Bill hand-selected each of the five shard design teams. He decided to make each team a bit smaller than the average design team—three rather than four or five. He overlapped the designers to allow some flow between designs, and he assigned a lead for each shard that he felt had some affinity for the world they would be working on. Here are the teams:
Brian Tinsman – lead
Mark Rosewater – lead
(yes, the first ever all-Mark design team—okay, the first one in which I wasn't the whole team)
Devin Low – lead
Bill Rose – Red
Ken Nagle – lead
Where, by the way, are the remaining seven designers? There was much design work done before and after these teams and they showed up on some of those teams.
I'm not going to get too much into any of the shard design teams (well, except one as we get closer to the preview card), but I promise that ground will be covered in future weeks (and not all in this column).
Once the shard design teams finished with their portion, all the material was handed off to Bill who, as the lead designer of the set, started meshing everything together. What Bill found was with each team looking out for only their own shard there was a lot of taxing of similar design resources. For example, all three shards involving blue had a Merfolk Looter (a creature that taps to draw and discard cards). Each created a looter that best fit their shard, but the set as a whole could only have one looter. This meant that Bill had to look at all the overlaps and figure out which shard most needed each piece.
The net result of all this work is that Shards of Alara has a very unique feel. Each world is very distinctive and has a strong mechanical and creative identity. Jund is very different from Naya which is different from Bant and so on.
Compared to previous sets where colors or sets of colors represented factions of people within a single world, Shards of Alara is much more focused on the environment of the five shards. What kind of world is created when there is no instinct or impulse? How about a world that knows no rational thought or structure? What mechanics grow out of these kinds of worlds? Also, unlike Ravnica, there are no unaligned cards. Every card comes from one of the five worlds, no exception.
Last week I talked about finding more ways to integrate design in creative and vice versa. Shards of Alara pushed design in a new direction. The focus of the design was making sense of environments. Luckily, the color pie is so well defined that it allowed the design and creative teams to craft very definitive worlds for each shard.
Enough big picture. Let me give you an example of how this all played out by showing you the design of one of the worlds—or, more accurately, by showing you a piece of one of the designs. Yes, it's time for the preview card. Before I show it to you, though, I want to explain a little about the design of its shard, Bant. Bant is the white-centered shard with green and blue.
Let's start by talking a little about the creative. What is a world like without black or red mana? It is a world that loves order. A world that values the group. A place where the ruling establishment is noble and righteous. There are still battles held on this shard, but they are battles of noble cause. The fighting isn't just for the sake of fighting, but as a means to find resolution. The Bant design team (Brian Tinsman, Ken Nagle and I) liked the idea that combat in Bant is more ceremonial and less vicious.
That's when we struck upon the idea of a system of combat used to settle differences. When two factions disagreed, they would have a structured combat to resolve the issue. But why risk the health of entire armies? Instead, each group picks one champion and sends him or her as their representative. What are the remaining creatures to do? Add strength to their champion, of course.
It was this idea that led us to create the keyword mechanic native to Bant. (Not every shard, incidentally, has a dedicated keyword, although each shard does have a mechanical identity.) We tried various mechanics to get this feel, but finally we tried an idea of Brian's. We playtested Brian's mechanic, now called exalted, and were amazed by how well it played. In addition, it had a very unique feel, as it required the player to act in a fashion unlike anything that has come before.
Okay, enough of my teasing, let's get to the cards. Yes, cards. I have my preview card plus I am going to be showing you the foil rare from the Bant intro pack. Both of these cards use the exalted mechanic. Let me show them to you, and then I'll talk a bit about exalted.
I guess I'll just start by showing you the rules for exalted:
502.83a Exalted is a triggered ability. "Exalted" means "Whenever a creature you control attacks alone, that creature gets +1/+1 until end of turn."
502.83b A creature "attacks alone" if it's the only creature declared as an attacker in a given combat phase. See rule 306.5.
* If you declare exactly one creature as an attacker, each exalted ability on each permanent you control (including, perhaps, the attacking creature itself) will trigger. The bonuses are given to the attacking creature, not to the permanent with exalted. Ultimately, the attacking creature will wind up with +1/+1 for each of your exalted abilities.
* Some cards with exalted abilities have other abilities that also trigger when a creature you control attacks alone. Each time a creature you control attacks alone, both the exalted ability and the other ability will trigger.
* If you attack with multiple creatures, but then all but one are removed from combat, your exalted abilities won't trigger.
* Some effects put creatures into play attacking. Since those creatures were never declared as attackers, they're ignored by exalted abilities. They won't cause exalted abilities to trigger. If any exalted abilities have already triggered (because exactly one creature was declared as an attacker), those abilities will resolve as normal even though there may now be multiple attackers.
* Exalted abilities will resolve before blockers are declared.
* Exalted bonuses last until end of turn. If an effect creates an additional combat phase during your turn, a creature that attacked alone during the first combat phase will still have its exalted bonuses in that new phase. If a creature attacks alone during the second combat phase, all your exalted abilities will trigger again.
* In a Two-Headed Giant game, a creature "attacks alone" if it's the only creature declared as an attacker by your entire team. If you control that attacking creature, your exalted abilities will trigger but your teammate's exalted abilities won't.
Let me restate the most important thing from the rules above, as it is easy to miss. If you attack with a single creature, it gets the bonus from each creature with exalted. For instance, let's say I control four Sigiled Paladins. If I attack with only one of them, it is a 6/6 first striker—that is, it gets +1/+1 from each of my four exalted creatures. Now let's say I have out two Sigiled Paladins and two Battlegrace Angels. If I attack with one of the angels (because it has flying), it becomes an 8/8 flier with double lifelink (yes, both instances of lifelink trigger separately).
One of the cool side effects of exalted is that you get to attack with a giant creature each turn and still have all your other creatures ready and able to block. And if your giant creature gets cut down, the next turn you attack with another giant creature that's almost as big as the last one. As someone who has drafted his share of exalted decks, let me say it's good times.
There's much more to Bant than just the exalted mechanic, but as I only get two preview cards today I have to stick to the piece I'm able to show. As the previews continue, you should get a much better sense of what each shard has to offer.
It's Shard to Say Goodbye
That's all I've got for today. I hope this gives you a little glimmer of what's to come. I'm very happy about what we were able to do with Shards of Alara, and I'm excited to have you all experience the environments that we spent so long crafting.
Join me next week when I give you a peek into Jund and its new mechanic.
Until then, may you learn the joy of attacking with one really big creature.
Visit the Shards of Alara product section for information about the five shards, an up-to-date visual spoiler of the cards revealed so far, product information, and more!