Drop and Give Me 2010

Posted in Feature on July 6, 2009

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.

Welcome to Magic 2010 Previews, Week Two. Today I'm going to explain how the design process for Magic 2010 differed from every other design I've ever worked on (after almost fourteen years, that's a lot of sets). I'll tell a few stories. And, as always, I have another shiny new preview card to show you. In fact, let's get that out of the way right now.

This card really doesn't need any set-up other than I think it does an excellent job of demonstrating the shift we've made in our approach to the core set (and beyond).

Let me give a few random thoughts on Baneslayer Angel before we get to the meat of today's article.


  • The aesthetic in me loves the fact that she's a five mana 5/5 with five abilities.
  • We've come a long way since Serra Angel was removed from the core set for being too good.
  • If this was an Un card, the creature would clearly have protection from dungeons rather than demons.
  • Didn't I once say I wouldn't put "protection from dragons" on a card? Why yes I did in my article Design Language. Here's what I said:

The tricky part of designing for Vorthos is that R&D has shifted over the years away from mechanical aspects that don't have any application. Yes, it's flavorful if a knight has protection from dragons, but if the line never comes up in play, R&D has generally decided not to put it on the card. This is a blow to Vorthos, because to him "protection from dragons" adds value to the card.

Two comments on this. One, a lot of what I've been talking about during our previews is that R&D is reconsidering the need to have flavorful yet not always mechanically relevant text on cards. Advantage, Vorthos. And two, protection from Dragons makes a lot more mechanical sense on a flier, being that every Dragon, with only one exception I can think of, flies, and that one could at least jump. (I'll add the obvious caveat that I don't mean Mistform Ultimus or creatures with changeling.)

Now that we've seen a glimpse of the results of our new attitude, let's talk about how we designed the set in the first place.

Starting from Scratch

Last week I explained how Director of Magic R&D Aaron Forsythe put together a super-awesome, high-octane mega-team to design Magic 2010 (Aaron, myself, then–Head Developer Devin Low, Creative Director Brady Dommermuth, top Magic design Brain Tinsman and Vice President of R&D Bill Rose). In addition, Aaron approached the design with a very distinctive vision. On day one, we all came and sat down. Aaron welcomed us and explained that this team was going to approach the design in a way unlike any other core set save Alpha. Here were the rules:


  1. No card was guaranteed in or out of the set (okay, the basic lands had a free pass). Each card had to earn its way in not keep from being forced out.
  2. New designs were allowed, meaning that we didn't have to settle for the best card that's been printed. If the thing we wanted didn't exist, we were free to make it.
  3. We could question the color pie. If something made philosophical sense in a color, we could talk about including it even if that was not how the color pie was currently arranged. I should note that the card in question did have to make sense philosophically, so this was not a means to put cards in colors where they didn't belong.
  4. Each card had to represent its color, as we wanted the new player (and the established player) to see it.
  5. We were not locked into existing rarities. If we liked a card but believed it was in the wrong spot, we could move it, with the caveat that we weren't allowed to change too many rarities en masse.
  6. Flavor mattered. Cards weren't judged solely on their mechanics but rather on how their mechanics and flavor worked together.
  7. We could bring back old cards but change their flavor (name, art, and card concept).
  8. Powerful cards were fair game for design. If something was very flavorful but had power issues, design was free to consider it. Yes, it would have to get through development to see print, but design wasn't limited by perceived power level. (Those of you who have visited the Magic 2010 visual spoiler know that there is one returnee that many thought would never come back into print.)
  9. We were free to entertain the idea of putting in mechanical elements that hadn't ever been in a core set before. (The biggest example of this is the planeswalkers.)
  10. Cards that carried positive historical and emotional baggage were a plus. This set was going to be very much about evoking an emotional response.

With these rules in mind, here's how we started. We came up with every fantasy archetype we could. If you went out to our target demographic and asked them to name things from fantasy, what would they name? Once we had an extensive list, we then went to each color and added what we felt was the most iconic things that represented the philosophies of each color. Note that we weren't just talking about creatures. We were also talking about objects, spells, places, types of stories—anything that we felt cried out "fantasy."

Then came the homework. Aaron picked a color, and each design team member had to go off and design their version of common and uncommon for that color. (And yes, we also did a pass on artifacts.) We were given the number of slots to fill. Each slot had to be filled with a card although it didn't have to be a repeat. If we wanted something that didn't exist, we could make it. If we liked a card but something about it was off, we could just change it (and give it a new name).

Once each designer had his version of commons and uncommons for a color, we would all meet and compare notes. If a card showed up in five or six of the sets (remember, there were six designers), that was a strong sign that the card should be included. If a card showed up in just one file, then the designer who included would explain their reasoning. Quite often, you would see something someone else included and go, "How did I forget that?"

Using this process as a guide the team put together the first draft of the commons and uncommon for each color. What was most fascinating to me was how each designer had his own agenda that subtly pushed their version in a certain direction. For example, I was very color pie–based. While picking cards I was very conscious about making sure that all the relevant elements of the color pie showed up in appropriate amounts. Brady, in contrast, was very focused in making sure there were compelling visuals for each color. Devin was very much about balance of game play, making a mix of cards that would play well. Brian leaned towards top-down design. Aaron was a mix between Devin and Brian. Bill tended to weigh history heavily trying to make sure that every color had iconic cards that helped define the flavor of each color. The end result was that the team represented many different vantage points ensuring that the finished product met multiple desires.

Rare, Yet Well Done

So that's how we handled the commons and uncommons. How about the rares and mythic rares? These were approached a little differently. We started working on the rares and mythic rares by figuring out what we felt each color should have. What were the iconic creatures? What were the iconic spells? Were there things we wanted to see that only made sense at higher rarities? We weren't trying to fill up all the slots, but rather just making sure that we knew what each color wanted.

Another important thing to understand is that while the design team was limited to six members, the design of Magic 2010 was not. There are a lot of people at Wizards who love designing individual cards (the majority are in R&D, but they're located throughout the company). These are the people that do hole-filling during the development part of the cycle. Aaron wanted them involved because his vision of Magic 2010 had a lot of flavorful, top-down cards. As I explained several weeks back, good top-down designs are hard to come by. This meant in order to get the desired amount, Aaron was going to have to have more submissions than normal.

As Magic 2010 was trying new things in its design, Aaron wanted to try new things in how we approached the design itself. One way he did this was by holding a weekly design contest. Aaron would come up with some card idea he wanted, such as a djinn (genie) of the lamp. He would then mail out to everyone interested the design challenge of the week. Next he mocked up each submission to look like a Magic card and put all of them on the bulletin board outside his office. Anyone walking by the Pit could vote on what card they liked. The winner was put into the set. This, for example, is where Djinn of Wishes came from (and interestingly, multiple designers submitted similar cards).

Another thing we did with the rares and mythic rares was to figure out what things to bring back. The core set, besides being a jumping-off point for new players, is also a collection of the game's past for the established players.

Quick aside: I know whenever we talk about the core set recently we keep bringing up the new player. The reason we do this is that we've spent a lot of time rethinking how we need to do things to maximize our ability to attract and keep new players. Unfortunately, I think we've created the impression that we haven't spent any time rethinking how to better meet the demands of our established players. We have. Much of what we were doing in Magic 2010 was not just to make the core set easier for new players, but also to make it more relevant and exciting for established players. In fact, far more time was spent trying to create a core set that would meet the demands of established players (building a great draft experience, finding repeats that would be exciting, picking cards that would shake up Standard, etc.). I apologize if our excitement in talking about some of the newer things we've been doing overshadowed all the hard work and energy we've spent making our established player base as happy as they could be with Magic 2010.

Back to our attempt to pick exciting reprints. Part of the fun of each core set for the established players is seeing what favorites from the past we brought back. Each year, the design team of the core set makes sure to repeat some cards that haven't been seen for a while, including a few that the players don't see coming.

Let me make one more quick aside about the repeat that we knew would be the biggest surprise.

If you want to be surprised by what's in Magic 2010, please leave now and read the rest of this article after the set is out. What I'm about to reveal is one of the set's biggest surprises. If you're still up for this reveal (or you already know what it is).

Yes, if you haven't been keeping up with the visual spoiler, here's a returning card that might make your eyes pop. So what's up? Wasn't Lightning Bolt removed from the game for being too powerful? Isn't Shock the "fixed" Lightning Bolt? Yes and yes. The reason Lightning Bolt is back is twofold.

First, creatures have changed a bit since Lightning Bolt was king. Early Magic pushed the spells a little too aggressively while not pushing the creatures enough. For instance, there are numerous noncreature cards in Alpha that we would never reprint for power reasons. I don't believe there is a single creature in the set that couldn't come back for power reasons. (There are creatures that can't return for lots of other reasons—reserved list, complexity/confusion, rules issues, etc.) Since that time, R&D has been much more aggressive with creatures and, as such, this means that Lightning Bolt returns slightly weaker in contrast than it was when it left.

Second, and this is the more important one, Magic has a baseline for power. This is where the game needs to sit at in default. But as with any aspect of the game, the pendulum is allowed to swing. Lightning Bolt is not the new norm for one mana direct damage. Shock is the baseline, but the game is capable of having Lightning Bolt exist. R&D brought it back because they thought it would be nice to shake things up by pushing cheap direct damage for a little while.

The message we want it to send is this. There are many cards that are over the baseline but are acceptable to exist if controlled carefully by R&D. One of the things we want to play with in future core sets is what other seemingly verboten card can we bring back. Just remember that each of the things is temporary. Lightning Boltbeing back is not (necessarily) a new staple. It's a variance that development carefully tested and is allowing for a limited duration. Enjoy!

Back to rares and mythic rares. So the design team spent many meetings talking about what rares could and should return. An important part of this discussion had to do with what cards had the feeling that Aaron was trying to create with the set. What are the cards from Magic's past that evoked the feeling we were after? In addition, what cards represent Magic's all-stars, things that help define the game.

For mythic rares we had a bit of a bigger challenge. As mythic rares had only begun a year before Magic 2010 was going to be released, we really didn't have any candidates that had previously been mythic rare. Our decision was to upgrade a few iconic rares and then design new ones to fill the rest of the slots. Five of those cards are obviously the planeswalkers from Lorwyn (Aaron already outed them in his first article on Magic 2010). As all current planeswalkers are now mythic rare, it felt right to upgrade the originals. Hopefully, each of the mythic rares in the set will feel like cards you're excited to pull out of the booster.

Aaron then combined the list of possible reprints with new cards submitted by the design team, as well as by other designers, to create the list of rares and mythic rares. With rares and mythic rares completed, the design team had finished its initial pass.

Design then had numerous iterations of playtests where we kept tweaking the file. Eventually, we handed over the file to the development team and they put it through their paces. (I'll leave it to Tom to tell you those stories.) And that is how Magic 2010 was designed. It was a very different experience, but an enjoyable one, and one that led to a set I'm very proud of. I hope all of you that are able can make it to the Prerelease event to see first hand what we've done. I think Magic 2010 is going to go down in the books as the core set that really changed how R&D sees and designs core sets.

That's all I got for you today. Join me next week when I explore the design of Magic 2010 from a different vantage point.

Until then, may you find the time to reexamine something you've long taken for granted.

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