Core Design, Part 2

Posted in Feature on July 16, 2012

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.

Last week, I had a mailbag column where I answered players' questions about Magic 2013. I got so many questions and was having such fun I decided, why stop. Today is part two of that mailbag column.

shaterri @maro254 How has having new cards in the core set changed what you look for in fresh core-set reprints?

We tend to focus new cards on making cards we want but don't have yet. This frees up reprints to be cards that play into the sets' themes and/or are something we think some players would enjoy seeing return. This also means that reprints tend to be a little more complex than they used to be, as their goal is less about finding the most elegant version of a card and is now about adding some spice to the set.

Ajani, Caller of the Pride
Battle of Wits

ToAzT92 @maro254 Are reprints more important to core sets than normal expert sets?

Yes, in that the set is made up of a much greater percentage of them. The core set is very much about reprints while expert expansions have some but it's far from the focus.

marcandrecarle @maro254 How and why the "Titans will not be part of M13" decision was made, and what motivated it.

There was a big discussion for Magic 2012 whether or not to keep the Titans in. They had already had a huge impact on the tournament scene but we weren't sure we wanted to take away mythic rares so soon that players had worked so hard to acquire. The decision was much easier for Magic 2013, because we had already questioned our decision from the year before. The Titans have had their day in the sun; it was time for other cards to shine.

Raging_Lettuce @maro254 How did the success of the Commander product and CMDR as a format influence the design of M13?

Well, for starters, there's a cycle of legendary creatures.


luminumcan @maro254 At what point in design and/or development was it decided to put so much emphasis on showcasing so many different specific planes?


The big change in Magic 2013 is not that the cards are from all across the Multiverse, because that's always been true. I think the difference is that we were more forthright in playing up the creative elements that highlighted the many different planes. I believe the biggest culprit for this is the connection made between Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 and Magic 2013. Duels plays up four planes (Innistrad, Ravnica, Alara, and Shandalar) which are equally played up in Magic 2013.

RobersKirkman @maro254 Are magic rings the new lucky charms? Is this further evidence that Wizards really will listen to players over time?

I don't think the rings cycle was made specifically to replace the lucky charms (although it's quite possible that it was—once again, I wasn't on the design team). I believe the decision was made to remove the lucky charms just to give them a breather, and that allowed a different color-centric artifact cycle to fit. Note that while the rings have a lot of resonance and play well, they are a bit more complicated than the revamped lucky charms.

As for the second half of your question. I believe one of Wizards' strengths is how much we value getting the input of our fans and trying to constantly use that information to improve how we make the game.


Andon_a @maro254 Probably asked a dozen times, but why Serra Avatar?


One of the fun things about getting mail is sometimes trying to figure out what exactly is being asked. I'm assuming Jason is curious why we bothered to reprint Serra Avatar, as in why did this card make the cut? The answer is that this card is very popular.

The reason actually goes to a very interesting observation I made many years ago. It's an effect I call internal optimization (I think the community calls it "Magical Christmasland"). When many players see a card that has variance, they tend to assume the best possible scenario when thinking about it. Cards that have a really high potential get players very excited because that's what many of them see when they look at the card. They want to imagine the card at its best.

Serra Avatar can be a 20/20 for seven mana. It could even be bigger than that in a deck dedicated to make it bigger. This idea is exciting even if that reality doesn't happen very much. As such, R&D is quite conscious of the effect of internal optimization.

joelniddrie @maro254 Why so few robots? With just four why did Phyrexian Hulk make the cut?

By robots, I'm guessing you mean artifact creatures. We make sure to do a range of cards from simple to complex. A vanilla artifact creature can be very exciting, especially to a new player who hasn't seen an artifact creature before. We work hard to keep the sets from getting too complex. That means we have to make use of things that are simple yet can still have an impact such as, believe it or not, an artifact creature.

Serra Avatar
Phyrexian Hulk

Gravesville @maro254 It seems like a lot more Future Sight cards are being reprinted. Is this a new trend? If so, I like it.

Future Sight played around with a lot of design space that we knew we'd one day get around to. This time period is just "one of those days."

Thalugor @maro254 Why no color hoser cycle? (not a complaint, love to see Celestial Purge leaving)

R&D has been doing a lot of thinking about the impact of communicating the ally and enemy relationships of the color wheel. While the structure is very good, we've learned that if we lean too heavily on it we tend to lessen opportunities in the game, and because of this we have begun thinking about how hard we want to push the ally/enemy message.

We don't want to get rid of it (Magic 2013 has the Kird Ape cycle, for example), but it's been making us re-evaluate some things long considered "a given." And yes, dual lands are also part of this conversation.


bweisko @maro254 Is the classic vs. Magic fantasy balance where you want it now? Or will it fluctuate like most things?


Let me not only answer this question but a whole range of possible future questions:

Will [FILL IN THE BLANK WITH SOMETHING ABOUT MAGIC] stay as it is or will it fluctuate?

It will fluctuate. That's just what Magic does. The game's like a shark; it has to keep moving. (And it has two rows of teeth.)

nikareijii @maro254 Why both Serra Angel and Blood Reckoning are uncommon? Their power level is so different!

One of the things that makes trading card games tick is that there is a huge differential allowed in power level. Every card can't be good. (See here if you don't know why.) One of the fun parts of the game is figuring out which cards are best for your deck. Often, you will find cards you might have deemed as bad turn out to be good in the right context.

brunovitsantos @maro254 Wouldn't the first and only multicolour card in a Core Set deserve a reminder text about its colour identity?

There's no space in the text box because the card in question is a Planeswalker. If it were a creature, we would have considered it.

Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker


uselessend @maro254 How much of M13 was designed with RtR in mind as 'the other shoe'? It seems more apparent than with other M sets.


Does it now? Interesting.

brunovitsantos @maro254 Won't having a single multicolor card—a mythic rare—generate a lot of confusion among newcomers? Why not teach them through UCs?

Having Nicol Bolas in the set wasn't about introducing multicolor to the core set. (Obviously it did, but that wasn't the primary motivator.) As such, we were fine to let it be a single mythic rare that the vast majority of new players wouldn't see.

You are correct that if we ever choose to bring multicolor to the core set as a theme, we will introduce it at lower rarities than mythic rare.

travishall456 @maro254 #TheBurningQuestionOnEveryonesMind: Were squirrels ever considered for the core set.

Chatter of the Squirrel
Squirrel Mob

Only in my mind.

nikareijii @maro254 Why Crusader of Odric is white? count/count is a green or red ability.

When the game started in Alpha, the "power/toughness equal to number of your creatures" ability was a red one on the card Keldon Warlord. Eventually, we decided that green, being the "creature color," should have the Keldon Warlord effect. Several years back we worked hard to make a better separation between white and green. We decided that both were creature colors but that white was defined by the large amount of small creatures that join together as an army while green was more about ramping up its mana and getting out its giant fatties.

With this philosophy, we've been making changes over the years. One of the biggest changes was deciding that white got more creatures than green because sheer number is an important part of white's identity. White gets more creatures but green gets the biggest (especially at common). Another thing this led to was the realization that the Keldon Warlord ability was more about having a lot of creatures than it was about being a big creature, so in a meeting last year (what we call "Card Crafting," where we make key decisions about things like how the mechanics fit into the color pie) we decided to move the Keldon Warlord ability from green to white.

Ffarqhuar @maro254 Why Thragtusk's second trigger is "leaves play," rather than dies (besides the obvious cross set synergy with AVR)?

My best guess is that the designers wanted to allow some other synergies with other cards in the set.

Crusader of Odric

acadapt @maro254 I understand the cost of Omniscience is high, but isn't that card just a step in the way wrong direction? Free spells, etc.

The only real problem with free spells is the danger they create power-wise. Players love them, partly because they tend to be powerful and partly because free is always attractive, regardless of the setting, and they add excitement.

I like to say that the greatest risk to Magic is R&D never taking risks so, yes, we are playing a bit with fire here, but a little fire-playing goes with the job.

CastInResponse @maro254 Do you feel like this is more of a supplementary set than a standalone? Great job on the design by the way.

I believe core sets in general feel that way.

Thank you for your kind words. The Magic 2013 design and development teams worked very hard on this set and I agree that it shows.

zombielynx21 @maro254 What was the thinking behind reprinting Ground Seal?

I wasn't involved in the process but I'm guessing it's something like this: "The previous block has a huge graveyard component. Just in case it gets out of hand, let's put a sideboard card in the following core set."

My problem with Ground Seal is that whenever I hear the name I feel I'm at some Eskimo fast-food restaurant where I'm being told what's in the burgers. See, now you won't be able to shake that thought either.

Ground Seal
Courtly Provocateur

luminumcan @maro254 Are effects like Courtly Provocateur's that force attacking and/or blocking considered secondary/tertiary in blue?

Must attack and must block are secondary in blue. Must attack is primary in red and must block is primary in green (it's also secondary in red).

Mugaaz @maro254 Why does landwalking continue to show up in core set, but only a few cards? How is it worth the complexity to newcomers in core set?

Mostly because the ability is flavorful, beginners seem to grasp it easily, and it helps Limited games end.

Bass_Wakil @maro254 Please stop making me feel sorry for cards. Every time I don't draft one I feel like I'm turning down a guy desperate for a job.

What about that card's spouse and children? Who's going to feed them?

bmemike @maro254 Why isn't Battle of Wits a mythic rare due to how poorly it plays in Limited?

Mythic rare rarity isn't a place to put things we don't want anywhere else. Mythic rares are cards that we believe will excite some subsection of our players. Note that there are many rares that don't play well in Limited. We make sure that commons and uncommons play well in Limited (not power-wise, as not all cards can be strong, but in that they are actually playable) but neither rare nor mythic rare are held to that standard.

We tend not to make our Johnny build-around rares mythic rare because they don't tend to create the awe that we like our mythic rares to engender.

Battle of Wits | Art by Jason Chan

MagusOfTheMoon @maro254 When will Siege-Gang Commander get reprinted?

Apparently in Magic 2010.

bjpaper @maro254 Why doesn't exalted work with blocking? It seems to miss the "two champions sally forth, each cheered on by their armies" theme.

Because down deep under it all, flavor is secondary to good game play. I've talked numerous times that you want your mechanics to push toward the game ending, rather than encourage stalemates. If exalted worked on blocking it would lead to players not doing anything. By working only on attacking, it encourages aggression and leads toward an end state.

Cathedral of War
Sublime Archangel

CapsizeBuyback @maro254 How do you miss the perfect opportunity to reprint Noble Hierarch you'll ever get? If you want modern live, do reprints as promised

The design team wanted to restrict exalted to the two colors that have a strong "religious" component. Because this vision didn't allow for cards outside of white and black, it wasn't possible to print Noble Hierarch. We are going to look for opportunities to reprint popular Modern cards but we are not going to override design vision to do it.

samdavisboyhero @maro254 #SeriousQuestion Why no Lightning Bolt with exalted? #M13

Exalted can only go on permanents.

Burn1MyLight @maro254 Why are Red Planeswalkers so hard to design? Two good ones in about seven attempts

I think you are conflating design with power level. Change the numbers on some of those cards and all of a sudden, by your standards, they're "good design." That's in quotes because power level is actually not design's responsibility, it's development's; nor is it the marker of what defines "good" cards, just "powerful."

The biggest design challenge red Planeswalkers do have is that red currently has the smallest amount of effects in its share of the color pie, giving us less to draw from when making distinct red Planeswalkers.

Chandra, the Firebrand
Tibalt, the Fiend-Blooded

KnightDelSol @maro254 Why is there a new Merfolk lord at UU, but not a new Goblin lord at RR?

Magic is not about everybody getting the same thing. In fact, one of the key things that makes Magic tick is that different colors purposefully get different things. That doesn't mean we'll never make a Goblin lord for but it does mean that getting a Merfolk lord for does not increase its chances.

wdb4th @maro254 Why is the discard from Wild Guess NOT random?

For a long time, we made many of red's effects random. Hey, it's the color of chaos. What's more chaotic than random? What we found over time, though, was that randomness made it hard for us to make consistent red cards. Also, a large amount of players don't want most of their spells to be random, so we have dialed back red's use of randomness. It's not gone, mind you, just lessened.

FictionalHippo @maro254 Why wasn't Unicorn Zebra put into the set? I am very disappointed and may buy less M13 boosters because of it.

We put Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker in the set (a multicolor Planeswalker and the first multicolor card to ever exist in a core set), so at least we are moving in the direction of Zebra Unicorn being in a core set. But that can only happen if players keep buying boosters of core sets. Wouldn't it be horrible if we were planning to put Zebra Unicorn in Magic 2014 but lack of sales of Magic 2013 made us cancel it? (And now a thread starts on a rumor mill: "Maro Says Zebra Unicorn is in Magic 2014".)

Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker | Art by D. Alexander Gregory

jseakle @maro254 How far ahead of real life is core set design? I assume M14 is almost done? Do you know the returning mechanic for M16?

About the same as all the other designs. Well, a little less because we don't do pre-design on core sets. (Pre-design? What's that? I'll explain it once we get to a set that used it. You have over a year to wait.) Magic 2014 is currently in development and Magic 2015 is in design.

Finally, no, we do not yet know the returning mechanic for Magic 2016. I do, though, know the block theme for the fall of 2017. (No, I won't tell you.)

timetwister7 @maro254 Are you concerned that the printing of Erase in M13 makes Erase (Not the Urza's Legacy One) more ambiguous?

Are you suggesting we errata the Unhinged card to Erase (Not the Urza's Legacy or Magic 2013 One)?

AlonewithAS @maro254 Why was Torch Fiend moved to uncommon? #m13

There are fewer artifacts in a core set than most expert expansion sets (including Dark Ascension, where Torch Fiend was first printed) and they tend to appear at slightly higher rarities. As such, we shifted up the rarity of some of our artifact destruction.

Also, cards that sit on the board that can sacrifice themselves for spell effects add some board complexity and we try to be extra vigilant about New World Order in core sets.

Torch Fiend


Pimpcane5000 @maro254 I was really hoping M13 was going to bring us a Goblin Planeswalker. Did that idea ever even bounce around?


I designed one once but it ended up not being a good fit for the set I was working on . (I don't remember which set otherwise I'd tell you which one.) I believe that it's only a matter of time before we finally get a goblin Planeswalker. Note that I, a guy who has very little input of the creative of Planeswalkers, am the one saying this, not anyone on the creative team, so take it with a grain of salt.

foolishDM @maro254 How happy are you that there is another goat lover pushing goats in R&D?

I'm always happy when other people in R&D push themes I love. Using a Phyrexian metaphor (and really these aren't used enough), I like to think I infected them.

ProT3ch @maro254 Why cards like Omniscience created? They are constructed unplayable or bah-roken.

There are many more Magic players than just those who play in tournaments. I believe Omniscience will see plenty of play around the kitchen tables of the world.



"That's All The Mail For Today"


I hope you enjoyed this two-part mailbag column. If you did, be aware that I basically do this every day on my Tumblr account. I don't have time to answer all the question asked of me, but I answer a lot. Also, I post my "Tales from the Pit" comic there every weekday as well, so if you've never checked out my Tumblr, come give it a try.

Thanks to everyone who sent in questions.

Join me next week when I attack the design of a mechanic all by myself.

Until then, may you have as much fun as I do answering players' questions.

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