Designing the Masters

Posted in Feature on January 3, 2011

By Erik Lauer

Erik Lauer is a senior game designer who works on final game design and development. Recently, he has led the Return to Ravnica, Modern Masters, and Theros development teams.

The original Masters Edition was designed to bring some important pre-Mirage cards to Magic Online, but it left plenty of room for later releases. In early 2007 I had an idea of how to design the next three Masters Edition sets. They would break the release of pre-Mirage Magic sets into release periods. The three intervals that seemed to work were:

  1. Limited Edition Beta, Arabian Nights, Antiquities
  2. Legends, The Dark
  3. Fallen Empires, Ice Age, Homelands, Alliances

I thought a bit and decided this would work better in reverse order. So my initial plan was:

Masters Edition II: Fallen Empires, Ice Age, Homelands, Alliances
Masters Edition III: Legends, The Dark
Masters Edition IV: Limited Edition Beta, Arabian Nights, Antiquities

Looking for some limited themes, initially I came up with:

Masters Edition II: Snow
Masters Edition III: Gold and Legends
Masters Edition IV: Artifacts

However, I thought there was room for some modest tribal themes. I found these tribes:

White: Bird, Soldier
Blue: Soldier
Black: Zombie
Red: Goblin, Kobold, Minotaur, Orc
Green: Elephant, Faerie, Fungus

Fallen Empires had Fungus, Orcs, and Soldiers. That put those tribes in Master Edition II.
Kobolds are clearly a Masters Edition III tribe. Since there are fewer Minotaurs than Goblins, it made sense to put Minotaurs with the Kobolds in Masters Edition III. I decided to put Faeries as the green answer to horsemanship in Masters Edition III. That left Birds, Zombies, Goblins, and Elephants for Masters Edition IV.

Masters Edition II: Fungus, Orc, Soldier
Masters Edition III: Faerie, Kobold, Minotaur
Masters Edition IV: Elephant, Goblin, Bird, Zombie

Once the tribes were chosen, the creatures of those tribes were generally reserved for the corresponding Masters Edition set, regardless of the original set. Some exceptions were made, such as Goblin Ski Patrol. That card would only make sense in a set with snow, so it had to be placed in Masters Edition II.

With that, the basic structure of the Masters Edition sets was in place.

Personal Growth

Masters Edition II design was my first lead of a set. I made a fair amount of mistakes, and tried my best to learn from them.

After Masters Edition II was released, I read some of the forums to see what people thought of it. By and large, it wasn't a fan favorite. It was more liked than the first Masters Edition, but that's about it. A few posts had a message that I had to work to understand. They went something like this:

I drafted this set five times. All my decks were fine, but I never won a match. The format is totally random.

The people who wrote those messages were not treated well in the forum; right away they got hit with, "If you won half the time maybe it is random, but if you always lose you just aren't good at it." Perhaps the language on the web was a tad more negative. But what did they mean? Surely they knew that people on the web could be critical; what am I supposed to pick up from this?

Some people included their deck lists, and it hit me. There were things to learn, but none of the lessons were visible to these players. It reminded me of learning chess as a boy. I won a lot, and felt that I was good at the game. I could look ahead more moves than my opponents, and the tactics went my way. Then I played against someone who played a slow positional game. Looking ahead five turns wouldn't help me at all, and I was lost. I couldn't figure out whether my moves were improving or worsening my position. It wasn't just that I lost; I couldn't figure out what I was supposed to be thinking about. After the game, I asked my opponent what I was supposed to do, and he gave me the name of a chess book.

Masters Edition II was a slow strategic format, where game players pulled ahead with moves such as creating 0/1 blue tokens with a Wall of Kelp. Part of the problem was a lack of web articles showing people how to draft. But the other part was that relative lack of tempo created board states where the stronger players won every time; much like the positional chess game I lost. Many weaker players played hopeless games, where they could not learn what they did wrong, again like the positional chess game. To them it felt random. My lesson was to think about what players will learn the first few times they play the set. I need to make sure there is something that makes sense to people the first time they build a deck—and if what people try the first time isn't so good, they should be able to figure out something better they should try next time.

I made more than enough mistakes in that set to fill this article, and those are just the ones I can think of now! Frankly, there are plenty of mistakes in every set I have worked on, though I am learning from each set.

The next set I led was Magic 2010 where I applied some of the lessons I learned, and did a better job as the lead. Of course the Magic 2010 design file I was handed was much better than the likes of Homelands. However it would not have turned out nearly as well had I not already led a set. As it turned out, this was a return to some of the flavor of older cards. I had looked at lots of old cards, and had a good sense of what made them awesome, and what made current sets better. While I did not realize it at the time, it led to some good designs when we were developing Magic 2010. Design handed off a great set, but some of the cards weren't very fun to play. As always, development tries its best to find replacements for those cards. One of those was Djinn of Wishes, and as it happens I designed the final card. Mark Rosewater didn't get that message, and used it as his example of the type of top-down design the design team was striving for. Sometimes development pulls the wool over the eyes of even the head Magic designer.

When I designed Masters Edition III, I wanted the big gold legends to be good. I had an idea of putting some removal that killed low-toughness creatures. Then I made sure people would open plenty of creatures with evasion that had low toughness. That would make the removal good, and thus the gold creatures good, without having the fatties as the only strategy. The speed of the format couldn't be too fast, since people needed to get three colors online in time to cast their fatties a reasonable percentage of the games. While the normal flying colors would get horsemanship, green would get a bunch of flyers. I had this worked out well enough to communicate this to the development team, who could then find the problems with the set and fix them, but build on the design instead of accidentally invalidating it.

Masters Edition IV, which comes out on January 10, is mostly made of Limited Edition Beta, Arabian Nights, and Antiquities. The Limited Editions, which were just called "Magic: The Gathering when they were released, were by far the most innovative sets; they started the entire genre of trading card games! However Masters Edition IV isn't that. So the biggest one in terms of a Limited environment has to be Antiquities. There are only so many cards in Antiquities that make artifacts matter, and I was trying to puzzle out how to add a little more depth. Ideally we could come up with something that one person, per draft, could do.

Drafting a lot of artifacts allows one to be greedy and play a three-color deck. Say you draft seventeen artifacts, and six colored cards. On top of that, assume your six colored cards are two cards in each of three colors. Say you only draw one color of mana initially. Then you already have the colors needed for over 82% of the spells in your deck. That will usually be enough to keep the game going long enough to draw into your other colors of mana. Presumably you have some stronger cards by taking the best of three different colors, so this is a reasonable approach if the format isn't very fast, and the cards aren't very color intensive.

However, experience shows that this strategy only appeals to so many players. Also it isn't great to be drafting downwind of the greedy drafter. So I was looking for a reward that didn't involve drafting more colors. I wanted to enable one-color drafts, but I wasn't convinced there were enough reward cards available to me. I am only using pre-Mirage cards. Then it struck me; what if I could draft an "UrzaTron" deck? That would be amazing! When Antiquities came out, lots of people went and built those decks. First there needed to be enough of the appropriate lands in the boosters. I would want three each of Urza's Mine, Urza's Power Plant, and Urza's Tower in my deck. But what if I tried to draft this—would I need to get every one in the whole draft? If so, it wasn't a reliable enough reward. My solution was to replace the basic land slot with one of these in every booster. Also the set would need enough spells, using a lot of colorless mana, for this to work out. I was ready to fill in the design file, and explain my vision to the development team.

When filling in the design file, I hit a snag: the old white rares aren't as exciting as I remembered. Here is what we did with the rares from Limited Edition Beta:

Masters Edition IV has:

Blaze of Glory (at uncommon)
Island Sanctuary
Personal Incarnation
Savannah Lions (at uncommon)
Veteran Bodyguard

Masters Edition I had:

Animate Wall

I thought that instead of Crusade, Masters Edition IV could have Angelic Voices as an uncommon draft-around. You could play it in a mono-white deck (perhaps with the Urza lands), or perhaps in a two-color deck (with no creatures of the second color).

Blessing is a reasonable aura, but didn't seem like a good rare.
Farmstead is a very weak card, and I thought Wood Elemental did a better job of capturing the old set feel of a tremendously weak card.
Northern Paladin is nice, but was in Seventh Edition, and not terrific in a set that emphasized artifacts.
Purelace is another very weak card.
Reverse Damage was in both Seventh and Ninth Edition.
Righteousness was in Magic 2010, at uncommon.
Wrath of God was in a lot of sets.


By comparison, Conversion is rare. I decided the strong color-hate from the past should be bumped up one rarity level. Blue Elemental Blast and Red Elemental Blast are along the lines of Deathmark, and are good to put at uncommon. We don't do so many "lock you out" type cards such as Conversion, but I think it also makes sense to bump these up a level from where they were.

Blue Elemental Blast
Red Elemental Blast

Perhaps the most unusual looking white rare is Leeches. Here is a card that removes all the poison, in a set that has no poison! In fact, it was a rare from Homelands, where there also was no poison. However, you might play it if you were playing against poison cards from other sets. There weren't many good poison cards at the time. Right now, there are plenty of good poison cards one could play in a casual deck, so I think the card makes more sense now than it did when it was printed.


I think this set is a lot of fun. It has a nice nostalgic feel, and some unusual old cards that I enjoyed in casual decks. I put a few cards back with their original art, and the development team did an excellent job of building on that. There are cards for Legacy and Classic tournament players, including another shot at the original dual lands. There are really strange draft combinations available; if you are really lucky you could draft a white-blue deck with Stasis and Kismet, or Island Sanctuary and Mystic Decree. Of course we wouldn't want too many drafts to work that way, so they are rare, but they do come up!

Masters Edition IV releases on Magic Online on January 10, 2011.

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