Creating Global Series: Jiang Yanggu & Mu Yanling

Posted in Feature on June 7, 2018

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

Magic is a global game.

We say this all the time at Wizards. When we do something, we have to make sure it fits not just where we live—the United States—but everywhere.

If we're wondering how much rules text can fit on a card, not only are we sure to think about how that looks in English but also the many other languages Magic is printed in. If we are going to run a special new event or promotion, we look at how that can be implemented around the world and what each area's needs are.

To help with this, we have regional teams around the world. For example, we have an Australian team in Sydney and a Japanese team in Tokyo. These smaller local offices stay on top of what is and isn't working in that area, how we should modify events and programs to fit needs, and so on. And when you see things like, for example, Japanese manga featuring our storyline, that's why: they know that it would be a fun and exciting thing to do for their area, so they make it possible.

These regional teams have been an integral part of making worldwide Magic tick. And while you may not hear about them as often, especially if you live in the United States, they are quietly ensuring the game can be enjoyed by players across the globe.

This really makes a huge difference. I travel a lot (a life goal of mine is to visit every country in the world—71 down so far!), and it always amazes me how nearly everywhere I go has Magic players. I always try to visit Magic stores when I travel, and from Costa Rica to Cape Town, Beijing to Barcelona, there are always game stores to visit and people playing Magic. It is truly amazing how far the game reaches!

And it's in this vein that we're rolling out something brand new this year. This is our first attempt at something that really takes this to a whole new level.

The Global Series.

This is exciting new territory: a collaboration between our Chinese team and our US team to release a product together.

Sure, we've made sets that take inspiration from the real world plenty of times. We've made Theros, inspired by Greek myths. We've made Amonkhet, inspired by Egyptian history. But this is something truly different.

So, what is the Global Series, and how did it come to be? Let's dig in.

A Welcome Invitation

After years of research and analysis, we've found that a key to getting people into Magic is . . . getting them to try Magic!

Okay, okay. So maybe it's not quite a revolutionary idea. But while it's perhaps obvious-seeming, it is crucial to always keep in mind.

And so, for us, we do an incredible amount of work on introductory products. It's easy to glance past these if you've been playing Magic for ages, but they are a tremendous piece of what makes Magic work. Bringing in new players is very important to Magic's long-term growth and health.

Overall, this works great. And tons of people come into Magic because they are attracted to some element about the game, and then they stay because they enjoy playing. In fact, we've found a key sign that somebody is going to be a Magic player is if they play a second game. If they get through the first game and want to play their second, that's a really good sign!

Often what brings people in is the flavor. And Magic has some of the best flavor around! Our artists do amazing work, and the Creative team really knocks it out of the park with worldbuilding, names, and flavor text.

In general, this greatly works in our favor. People can latch onto things they know: a love of Greek myths, ancient Egypt, or even their favorite horror movies.

However, there is a huge hole for us here. And that's with people who didn't grow up with these tropes and kinds of worlds. It's really hard for this flavor to resonate with you if you don't know the context for it. And, as a global game, that means we are going to miss a huge swath of people.

And that's where the Global Series came in.

The Chinese team really felt there was a huge opportunity for Magic in China, far larger than it is right now. After all, gaming is booming in China. I remember when I visited Shanghai, there were plenty of arcades, people playing on their phones, and, yes, gaming stores and cafes. Games are huge!

So, what if we made a product to bring Chinese players into Magic? To give them that initial taste that gets them interested in the game? While we don't have an entire expansion set dedicated to it (yet), remember—we just need to get players started. An introductory product would be perfect.

And if we were going to do this, we were going to do it right. We were going to need to learn from the mistakes of the past.

After all, we did try something similar once before. Perhaps you remember Portal Three Kingdoms.

This was a set released back in 1999, meant to be an introductory product for players across Asia. At its heart, it had similar goals to the Global Series. However, it has a few big knocks against it.

First, it was not part of the Magic canon. In a game where flavor is important, this was clearly a retelling of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms story and not a part of Magic lore. It's not even clear that retelling this story was what the target audience wanted!

Second, it used the Portal model. This meant that all the cards were incredibly simplified, used wording that actual Magic cards didn't use. For example, the game didn't have instants, just sorceries you could play at different times if the card told you to, like Champion's Victory. There were no tap abilities, just cards that told you they could be tapped for effects. It didn't feel like real Magic.

Finally, and most of all, these cards weren't legal to play with in tournaments. (They weren't even made legal in Vintage and Legacy until 2005, six years later!) This really made them feel unlike real Magic, and it made for a very poor transition: you would start playing with these cards and then couldn't use them if you wanted to go play at your local store!

To top it all off, despite primarily being for a Chinese and Japanese audience, this card set was still designed by Wizards in North America. While Chinese artists were used and there was plenty of consultation, Portal Three Kingdoms was still far from being a fully authentic experience.

The Global Series would need to tackle all of these problems.

Finding the Flavor

If we were going to do something new with the Global Series, we were going to be sure to do it right.

One of the first things we decided was that we would need to work closely with our Chinese team and partners to help this succeed. David Pei, a senior brand manager on our Chinese team, was crucial for this, and we brought him into the design process for the product. He worked with his team (Jim Li, Zero Wu, Yaqi Huang, and Alex Zhou), running ideas by them and making sure that what was happening would be appealing to a Chinese audience. From the Wizards-in-North-America end, Dawn Murin, Drew Nolosco, Mel Li, and Michael Yichao were the main collaborators on the project. (Eventually, Mark Heggen, a fellow product architect, came to architect it as well.)

And so, it began.

The first major issue to look at was the flavor. How were we going to capture the flavor we were hoping for without veering into Portal Three Kingdoms territory?

We wanted something that was traditionally Chinese, and made sense in that world, but wasn't as prescriptive as Portal Three Kingdoms. Instead of retelling a story, we wanted to do what we do so well with our top-down, flavorful worlds of Magic: find inspiration and then make a new world with it.

After much research and discussion between people and offices, the source which really stuck out to us was the Classic of Mountains and Seas.

This ancient Chinese text dating back thousands of years is a sort of travelogue; a list of various creatures, myths, and geographical locations of China. Rather than have a narrative, it tells you about a world. Not unlike a Dungeons & Dragons Monster Manual or setting book, it was a guide to how we could build up our world.

This was perfect.

We could use the well-known myths, locations, and creatures from this world to inspire a new one, filled with Magic's takes on these creatures. And indeed, many of the art pieces in the final product are directly reminiscent of creatures described in the classic: a snake with two bodies, a crane with one leg, and so on.

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Feiyi Snake | Art by: Qiu De En

It is a full-on world we can call our own—a plane in the Multiverse we could even visit someday.

We wanted to make sure the entire Global Series set had an authentically Chinese hand, and the main characters are no exception! The art direction for the two planeswalkers was created by our partners in China, and then several options were presented for us to choose between.

Here are some of the turnarounds of the characters we ended up going with (cosplayers, rejoice!):

All the art descriptions were given to Chinese artists, chosen with the help of our Chinese team. Some of them are actually quite big names!

On the naming front, thanks to major assistance from Michael Yichao, all the names were written in Chinese and then translated into English—not the other way around. Colorful Feiyi Sparrow may be a mouthful in English, but I assure you it sounds gorgeous in Chinese.

Even the lands were given close scrutiny. They're all based on locations, stories, and/or traditional Chinese representations of these land types. And they're absolutely gorgeous. Take a look!

Thanks to hours of careful work and discussion, this world feels holistically Chinese through and through. From names to art, to the feel of the characters and the world—a stunning job was done, which brought several teams together for one unified goal. I know I, for one, am going to be looking for some of those basic lands! (And perhaps someday, if this is successful enough, we'll see what Swamps on this world look like.)

And, importantly, it isn't some "fake" side world that doesn't exist. This unnamed world, and the characters in the set, are all real parts of Magic lore. And considering the main characters are Planeswalkers, well . . . let's just say you can expect to see them again.

Going for Gameplay

We had made the flavor excellent, but that was just part of the puzzle. While the flavor is what often draws people into Magic, the gameplay needed to be good to keep them there! And, like flavor, we had a few issues to tackle.

The first was that major concern of an authentic Magic experience. Fortunately, this one was a lot easier to work toward. We've learned a lot about what makes for a good starting experience since 1999!

Rather than change rules to simplify the game (as it's not even clear what Portal Three Kingdoms simplified rules accomplished given how many words it added to cards!), we want to provide the full Magic experience and just put appropriate cards into the decks. And given that this was a new world, we had carte blanche to make whatever cards we wanted!

Now, to properly set expectations: these are essentially special Planeswalker Decks for a Chinese audience. Despite the fact that they are packaged together, I would suggest thinking of them as Planeswalker Decks, not Duel Decks.

But one question remained—legality.

We wanted to release this set in China, for the Chinese audience, and make it very accessible to play in the same way that Planeswalker Decks were. As mentioned above, one of the major mistakes Portal Three Kingdoms (and the other Portal sets) made was that you couldn't use the cards if you went to play in a sanctioned event. That makes for a really poor experience if you're new and want to go try out Friday Night Magic, and have a couple cards from your starter set in your deck that you already can't play with.

However, on the other hand, this product would be much harder to get outside of China. And, outside of China, we didn't expect people to learn using this product. So, we needed to come up with a solution.

After much discussion, we settled on something unusual: these cards would be legal for Standard play in mainland China events. They will also be legal in Vintage and Legacy everywhere. They will never be Modern legal, because once they rotate out of Standard, the reason they were Standard legal no longer applies.

However, one very, very important element to us was not to fracture the competitive scene. Having Chinese Standard and European or North American Standard look very different would not be good for the game, because it creates discordant information and doesn't allow information and decklists from one place to transfer over to the other. And that's not even factoring in pieces like Magic Online!

So, Play Design was very careful to make sure that the cards were balanced so that none of them were cards for Constructed. We're always careful with Planeswalker Decks, but especially here we wanted to be even more careful than normal.

After all, the most important aspect of these decks is that they teach you how to play. And if it's clear that cards you get in your booster packs are often stronger than these cards, that's actually okay: it's a great pathway to upgrade your deck when you're new. In fact, we've found that when most new players put cards into their deck they actually tend to weaken their deck because they are still learning about deck building! Having some cards that you can obviously take out can be very helpful.

Even though technically the Standard card pools between China and elsewhere will be different, it should be nearly unnoticeable at the competitive level. We know this is important to players, and we were very careful with how we handled the cards in this set. If, for some reason, an interaction breaks that sets Chinese Standard on a different course than the rest of the world, then we will talk about if any action needs to be taken—but we have very high confidence that should not be the case.

I definitely want to give a shout out to Adam Prosak, who designed the decks with input from many others. I think these are among some of our best teaching decks of all time, precisely because we got to make whatever cards would be most useful for learning the game instead of being beholden to a surrounding set. I have very high hopes for the impact in China; perhaps a whole new generation of players will use these to join the game!

Around the Globe

One final thing worth noting: you will see this sold differently in different places.

This was always intended to be a teaching tool for China. And the gaming landscape is a little different there. Since we geared every aspect of this experience to be best for the Chinese audience, this is no different. In China, this will be sold online, and come packaged a lot differently than in the US.

However, we didn't want to leave Magic players at large out of the opportunity to get these cards. One thing that happened with Portal Three Kingdoms was that it has a very limited release, but lots of players, especially collectors, wanted access to the cards. And, as I mentioned before, Magic is a global game. And that works both ways!

Plus, the product—and those lands—turned out pretty sweet, too!

So, in other parts of the world, you'll be able to find Global Series: Jiang Yanggu & Mu Yanling in stores on June 22, and packaged like this.

And, of course, the cards are all translated into English from Chinese.

Curious what's in there? You can go check out all the cards in the Card Image Gallery.

A New Series

That is how Global Series: Jiang Yanggu & Mu Yanling came to be and what it's hoping to do.

Now, the big question I'm sure you're all wondering: will we be doing more of these? And the answer is very much "We'll see." As I mentioned a few weeks ago, we are very much in the feedback era. We wanted to launch this, see how it does, and then take the lessons from there to either do more just like this, do releases in a similar vein but with a different spin, or stop it here.

So, what do you think? Tell us!

I would love to hear from you! Please feel free to send me a tweet, ask me a question on my Tumblr, or email me at BeyondBasicsMagic@gmail.com, and I'll be sure to see whatever you say. What do you think of this product? Would you like us to revisit this world and its characters? What countries would you want us to build settings around next? Let me know!

Many hours of hard work and discussion went into this first iteration of the Global Series, and I hope you'll enjoy this slightly different, yet plenty magical, take on the game we all love. Enjoy!

Gavin
@GavinVerhey
GavInsight

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