Designing Rise

Posted in Feature on April 26, 2010

By Brian Tinsman

My name is Brian Tinsman, and I'm the Rise of the Eldrazi design team lead. I was also lead designer of Judgment, Scourge, Champions of Kamigawa, Saviors of Kamigawa, and Time Spiral. My job title is Game Design Manager, New Business Development. That means that in addition to designing Magic sets I lead the game design teams of many other products at Wizards. I'm also an author, speaker, and teacher of game design so I have among the highest game design expertise in the company.

Rise of the Eldrazi was the most exciting, most challenging, and highest quality game design work I've ever done. In fact, it challenged the talents of every member of the design team. It was just so different. When we started showing it around to the rest of the company the reactions ranged from "Holy cow!" to "Seriously? Seriously?"

How did we end up with a set like this?

Risk and Reward

I'm a risk-taker at heart. I love innovation. I'm a big picture, long-term person. What implications do these qualities have for a game design?

First of all, when you're a long-term thinker, it pays to take risks. The longer your time horizon, the more you stand to benefit from an innovation and the less you are hurt by a failure. Here's an example.

You make a basic risk/reward decision every time you sit down at a restaurant. Do you want to order the item that's pretty good or take a chance on something new? Say there's a menu item you've had before and you rate it a 7 out of 10. If you order that every time, you'll lock yourself out from ever discovering an 8, 9, or 10 on the menu. Of course when you take a risk you'll also sometimes get something you hate. If you plan on going to that restaurant for a long time, there's enormous upside in discovering a 10. You'll be +3 from your previous position for many future visits. If you don't go there very often, you don't get much benefit from discovering a hidden 10 so you're not willing to risk getting any nasty 2s.

You see this principle at work in investing as well. Financial planners will tell you that the further you are from retirement, the riskier portfolio you should build. You stand to benefit most from the higher highs and have enough time to recover from the lower lows found in risky investments. The longer you are planning to stay in the game the more risks you can (and should) take on.

My view is that Magic is going to be around for a long time. That means I want to take risks. Sometimes those efforts will fizzle; sometimes they will result in a change that raises the quality of the game for the rest of its lifetime.

This is a good spot for a relevant personal story. I have a background in mixed martial arts (MMA) and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. Several years ago I fought in a local MMA event called Rumble in the Ring. Once the match started and I began to grapple with my opponent, I quickly found out that he was both stronger and more skilled than me. Still, I was crafty, and I managed to get to a position that was a solid stalemate. As my opponent struggled for any advantage, his sweat dripping into my eyes, I was very clear-headed. I remember evaluating the risk/reward ratio of my options. If I continued the stalemate, I wouldn't lose, but the crowd was already getting bored and starting to boo. I would probably not be asked to fight again. If I took a risk and let go of the stalemate I would probably lose, but the crowd would be entertained. I took the chance and broke the stalemate. I did lose, but the crowd was cheering for the rest of the match. Even though I lost, I still think taking the risk was the right decision.

So I'm a risk taker. I'm even willing to risk personal danger if I think it may benefit the fans. But I'm not into risk for risk's sake. I want a big potential upside. What are the potential upsides in Magic? What makes a set that people love and remember? I believe it's a set that feels amazing and different to play. The first time I ever jumped out of an airplane I remember thinking "I can't believe I'm doing this!" I had the same thought the first time I played with Mirrodin, or played with Ravnica, or won a game with a 256/256 Chameleon Colossus. To me, that's what fun is all about.

I love breaking rules. I love discovery. I love exploring. Most of us are familiar with the Timmy / Johnny / Spike model of Magic players. There's another, even more famous psychographic classification system for gamers called the Bartle Test. It groups gamers into four categories: Achievers, Explorers, Killers, and Socializers. You can read more about it if you're interested, but without digressing too much, I'm a hardcore explorer.

Explorers love to search every corner of the game world and experiment with what can and can't be done. Explorers are the ones who first learn to exploit game glitches and rules loopholes. Can you imagine what it's like to be an explorer when your world is the entire possible design space of Magic? It's thrilling ... yet excruciating. I feel like I'm straining at my leash to rush to the far corners of the Magic design world. Don't get me wrong. I realize it's a good thing that leash is there. There's a downside from too much innovation. It can lead to a design that feels so foreign that players feel uncomfortable and disoriented.

With Rise of the Eldrazi they let us off the leash for a little while if we promised not to run too far. Oh, did that freedom feel delicious!

"Battlecruiser Magic"

We knew we had to do something with the Eldrazi. The Eldrazi couldn't be creatures, since they were too huge and weird. As creatures they wouldn't fit into any color and they would be too big to be playable. Maybe they should be unseen entities using new mechanics to ... *record scratch sound effect*.

Wait a minute. What if they were actually huge creatures? What if you could play them despite their size? And what if the inhabitants of Zendikar could get just as big and powerful to match them? Could we engineer incredible, memorable battles between fatties? Could we solve the equation to maximize drama? How far would we have to warp the environment for this to work? It was truly a radical suggestion.

The idea came into focus after a discussion with fellow designer Ken Nagle. He had been watching some YouTube games of world-class real-time strategy players and noticed that their games looked nothing like the games he played. High-level players optimize every movement, micromanage their resources, and know in less than 10 minutes who's going to win or lose. When Ken played the same game, he and his friends would turtle up, ignore each other, and start working on battlecruisers—the biggest, most awesome units in the game. Then they would all send their battlecruisers to the center and watch the epic spectacle. Look at those high-level games again and you'll see close to zero battlecruisers. So if high-level players never use them, why are they in the game? Who are they for? They're for people who care more about having fun than being the best.

It got us thinking about the difference between casual and competitive Magic play. What if we did a set that was about outrageous, epic clashes between huge creatures? One where the optimal play is to turtle up, build your mana to unprecedented levels, and have a clash of the titans?

The idea became known as "battlecruiser Magic." Magic has a few themes that we call tentpoles. They are themes that players are almost always excited to see come back. They include themes like multicolor, artifacts, and sometimes tribal. Could "battlecruiser Magic" be a new tentpole? We decided to take a risk and find out.

Clash of the Titans

What does it take to make enormous creatures play well? There are two requirements that have to be carefully balanced. First, you need to generally lock up the ground from turn three until turn seven or so. If you get this part wrong, half your set is useless because players have no chance to get out the big guns.

Ways to lock up the ground:

  • 4- and 5-toughness defenders
  • High-toughness commons
  • Eldrazi Spawn for chump blocking
  • Good small creature removal
  • Reduced number of aggressive two-drops
  • Low-cost life gain
Overgrown Battlement
Halimar Wavewatch

The second requirement is the ability to bust through these defenses midgame. If you get this part wrong, the set plays terribly because games go on forever. A 6-power creature should generally be able to get through. That means you need to give all colors fatties and finishers, even at common. How to do this?

Ways to bash through defenses:

  • Eldrazi
  • Levelers
  • Other fatties
  • Auras
  • Evasion
  • Invokers
Kabira Vindicator
Ulamog, the Infinite Gyre

Throughout design the term "battlecruisers" referred not only to the Eldrazi, but also to fully leveled up levelers, creatures wearing big totem armor, and the numerous expensive rare and uncommon creatures. Most of these giant creatures were in the six- and seven-mana cost range. We knew that would be no problem for players to reach. However, we also needed a way to ensure players would be able to play their expensive creatures with regularity.

One early idea was called "mana crystals." We were looking for some kind of mana acceleration that would get players from around six mana to around nine. It had to work in multiple colors and not lead to overwhelming advantage right away. Mana crystals were colorless mana that didn't clear from mana pools. We tracked this mana with clear glass beads, and I liked to visualize them as crystals of condensed energy.

Duels of the Planeswalkers producer Jay Schneider suggested we turn them into 0/1 creatures. At first I discounted this idea. I felt they would be too fragile as creatures, too susceptible to removal. However, I did like the idea of little drones skittering about gathering mana then sacrificing themselves to bring forth their mighty masters. Once you saw these critters it was a sign that something huge was about to arrive.

It only took one playtest for us to realize that Jay's idea was brilliant. We loved them as creatures. Eldrazi Spawn were flavorful, could chump-block beautifully, and we even had some outrageous games where they picked up Equipment and started bashing heads. We nicknamed them "manabots," a play on the term "nanobots," although we knew they were organic, not mechanical.

The Eldrazi themselves were huge and colorless, but we wanted something to tie them together and help convey that they were all of one kind—a kind that was here to harvest the life of the world like a ripe juicy peach. Aaron Forsythe's very first idea was annihilator, and it was perfect, name and all. It was devastating to be annihilated, yet it still gave the annihilatee a chance to chump-block for a few turns while hoping to draw removal. When someone would draw a solution with only a few permanents left on the board, now that was a dramatic moment.

We put the set together and tried it. It blew us away. Giant, epic monsters were crashing into each other sending carnage everywhere. 7/7s were gang-blocking 9/9s. Leveled-up creatures with multiple Auras were winning games. There had never been an environment like this before, and it was insanely fun.

Unfortunately, we soon discovered that it wasn't fun for everyone.

Blocky the Troll

For most of the set's design and development we had a common called Blocky the Troll. It was a 2/2 that could regenerate for . If you're familiar with Rise of the Eldrazi you can see that its role was to block 3/3s until you could cast your eight-mana 8/8 annihilator creatures. We even gave it the playtest name "Blocky" as a hint. It regenerates with colorless mana so you can even use your Eldrazi Spawn to save it when you're tapped out. However, it's not a win condition. It's a means to reach your finishers.

When playtesters outside the design team looked at Blocky, they saw it as an aggressive attacker. They filled their decks with Blocky and its 2-power friends and left the eight-drops in the sideboard thinking they were unplayable.

Blocky is utterly nullified by countless commons in Rise of the Eldrazi. These players had built their decks using normal Magic deckbuilding models instead of building decks for a battlecruiser world. They had no way to break through the ground stall and sat helplessly as either their opponent pummeled them with fatties or, if they both had weak decks, they ran out of cards. It was an awful experience. It wasn't easy for them to learn the solution either. Even after repeatedly seeing five-mana Auras and giant monsters winning games, those players couldn't unlearn their old deckbuilding habits. They squirmed with frustration.

I have to admit I was secretly delighted to see the callow Timmies and casual playtesters have no hesitation about playing eight-mana creatures and then slapping around the more experienced players who were "too smart" to run those giant fatties. Nevertheless, those experienced players are also important to us. They need to have fun too. We decided to go easier on them.

Matt Place and his development team selectively powered-down a number of attractive-looking but frequently misplayed cards. Poor little Blocky the Troll wasn't a bad card. It just led people to the wrong conclusions about deckbuilding and resulted in lots of unfun experiences. We changed it to the 2/2 deathtouch Daggerback Basilisk, and it became much less tempting.

Daggerback Basilisk

We also made the cycle of five common Invokers more aggressive since they are great for breaking stalls. I find it hilarious that many people play the green Wildheart Invoker for completely the wrong reason. Its eight-mana activated ability is by far its most important quality. Yet time and again we see experienced players include it in their decks thinking a four-mana 4/3 attacker seems good despite his useless ability.

I spent a little time lurking on the forums of the various Magic sites, and it was interesting to see some of the same phenomena playing out there too. Some experienced players scoffed at the spoiled cards. Other players were able to stretch their imaginations more and see how the environment works. Most players find it extremely tough to evaluate the power level of cards in this set without playing them. I think that's because card power level is always measured relative to a current and changing environment. This environment is pretty different from ones we've seen recently, so I don't blame anyone for feeling a little puzzled. It's that kind of discovery that makes Magic so interesting to us explorers and Johnnies.

I spent a lot of time in this article discussing the Limited environment, but this same dynamic played out in Constructed too. It took developers longer than usual to adjust to the new cards in the set and find decks that could use them optimally. Again, I love that the challenge of this set is a little meatier than usual, and I hope it provides greater rewards to deck builders who are willing to explore, experiment, and take risks.

A World of Excitement

In the end, I wanted to make a set that was as fun as your first week of Magic. The point was to recapture that sense of wonder. I've seen a lot of discussion about power level, and I know that's really important to a lot of players. But I hope this set can reopen your eyes to the world of excitement you felt when you first started to play. Think of the first time you won a Magic game with a giant fatty. Now that was fun. You may be older and smarter now, but I hope you're not too smart to have some fun.

I've also spent a lot of time discussing my personal preferences and my own role. I need to point out that the entire design team was critical to making this set what it is. Aaron, Graeme, Devin, Greg, Quill—you guys are fantastic. Special thanks to lead developer Matt Place for his ability to see the set's strengths and make them better. All of the development team too.

I also want to thank all of you for giving your best work to this set. I'm starting to sound like the Ultimate Fighting Championship fighter who thanks his coach and trainers for his big win. Maybe it's a bit early for that. I feel that I fought my best fight ever. I'll leave it up to you to decide whether it's a big win.

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