First Impressions

Posted in Feature on January 30, 2012

By Dave Humpherys

Dave Humpherys has been managing the development team for Magic R&D since 2010. He led development for the Avacyn Restored and Gatecrash sets. He was inducted into the Magic Pro Tour Hall of Fame in 2006.

Hopefully, many of you had the chance to partake in a Dark Ascension Prerelease over the weekend. We're curious to hear your stories about the event and to know what has you most excited.

We're also eager to find out what you thought of the mini-game of monsters turning Humans into their respective factions. Did people use the stickers? Was it fun? Did it better immerse you into the flavor of the event? This is a nibble of things to come from us to make a Prerelease feel more like a special event tied into the storyline of the set it unveils.

Werewolf Ransacker | Art by David Palumbo

Beyond flavorful elements like this mini-game, or more ambitious undertakings like the Mirrodin Besieged faction packs, much of our design and development work is geared toward making your first experiences playing with a new set is enjoyable. Knowing a good percentage of the Sealed Deck format takes place at Prereleases, we spend a significant amount of our work testing and balancing the format. The vast majority of playtesting that takes place during design itself uses the Sealed format.

The Sealed pool comprises an appropriately sized batch of cards to hand players and ask them some key questions. What did they think the set was conveying thematically? Was the text on the cards helpful in guiding them in which cards to play together? And once they've played, the most important question: Was it fun?

Sealed is not only a great entry point to the set for our players at these Prereleases but it is also a valuable place to start calibrating a number of things for development. Sealed is a good place to sort out the relative strengths of the colors in a set. While we now take care to ensure that each color at each rarity has some "great," "good," and "maybe" cards for Limited, iterating through a great number of playtests reveals a lot about which colors are too strong and which are too weak. That doesn't mean it is always easy figuring out what to fix—that can be any number of issues, including more appealing mechanics, more appealing rares, synergies to set themes, or synergies across colors. This is also a part of the fun of developing sets!

Speaking of first impressions, I'm a relative newcomer to the halls of Wizards of the Coast. I am also, however, in the unique position of having been on all of the development teams for each of the Innistrad block sets. I'm lucky to have managed two fine fellows—Erik Lauer and Tom LaPille—who have led the development of Innistrad and Dark Ascension, respectively. I learned a lot from their work on these two sets. What follows are my own personal first impressions and insights during my first year of work here, focusing primarily on Dark Ascension.

Standing the Test of Time

In working on these sets, and on Magic 2012 before it, I began to appreciate just how challenging it is to fit the right balance of cards that point toward the major mechanical themes of the set and those that don't. It is very natural to design toward the major themes. Even as things proceed into development, it is very exciting when you find new designs or old reprints that mesh well with new mechanics or themes. One of the first cards I designed here was the simple Goblin Fireslinger in Magic 2012, since it so easily pointed toward bloodthirst.

Goblin Fireslinger
Blood Ogre

Cards like these can be very good tour guides for the set. They highlight and enable ways to make sure the new mechanics are rewarding rather than frustrating. In that sense, some number of such cards are super important at improving initial impressions of a set. They do, however come with great challenges from a developer's perspective.

At some point we, as developers, start to run the risk of creating a Limited environment where the only viable things to do are following these obvious synergies and handholds we've put in place. For example, in Innistrad block, if there are too many cards centered around graveyards, a player might feel compelled to buy into that angle to be competitive. While that might still prove to be a very rewarding experience for a handful of Limited events, we are now at the point where we want to make sure our players can keep discovering strategies and combos for a greater number of times of sitting down to enjoy the set.

Fortunately, we are aware of this issue and strive to make sure there are plenty of different viable options with sets from the Innistrad block. One great part of helping to keep our eyes on this was by continually thinking about what various color pairs should be doing and what types of cards would enable them to do so. I feel that Innistrad Limited is seeing such great success and longevity as a popular Draft format because there are so many varied approaches to take toward the format.

I know Erik instilled in me a great sense of ensuring you, the player, can always open an exciting card—one that stands on its own merits, independent of the context of the set—and be happy to first-pick the card, knowing you can chart your own path. We want you to be able operate in a sandbox—a play area where you can try new things, explore, and have a good chance of being rewarded for doing so.

Staying Power

One of the most challenging and fulfilling parts of development is in figuring out which directions to take the new mechanics. When they come from design, there are usually ways to improve them—either tweak the wording of the mechanic itself or shift the card designs to highlight play patterns we want. In the case of Dark Ascension, the wording of the mechanics design handed off are very similar to the final usage.

Undying Evil | Art by Kev Walker

Individual card designs, on the other hand, changed significantly to create a good environment for these mechanics when viewed from either side of the table. Undying, we felt, read beautifully and powerfully, but we ran the risk with these cards of players bringing games to a standoff—or worse, a standstill—sitting behind a wall of creatures that could keep trading off two-for-one with anybody wanting to make headway with attacking creatures. Thematically, too, we were hoping undying would represent tenacity and the trope of the monster that just keeps coming after you. You finish it off—or so you think—only to hear it over your shoulder prowling toward you again. How do we encourage cards mimicking this image as opposed to sitting back on defense?

Well, we tweaked a lot of design to really reward attacking. In case you hadn't noticed, most undying creatures have been purposefully been given abilities that don't make them ideal blockers. This is true of Strangleroot Geist, and even so, it is still a decent blocker. It started out with trample. That's aggressive, right? Yes, but we thought we could do better than that, so we gave it haste instead. Yes, it is still a very respectable blocker, but you aren't getting the most out of the card with that play pattern.

Strangleroot Geist
Geralf's Messenger

The same is true of Geralf's Messenger. He picked up some text often seen before on his gravebornbretheren letting you know he's a bit slow. Then again, he also puts a dent in your opponent's life total to give you a hint as which direction he's supposed to head: Over there! Not to mention that entering the battlefield tapped let us enhance his numbers ever so slightly on the overall balance of the card.

What about Vorapede? He's got vigilance! Did he miss the message? Vigilance makes him great at blocking, true, but he's also excellent at attacking. And once we are talking about five-mana creatures we are significantly less concerned about thwarting rush decks. Additionally, by that stage of the game, there are many good options for flying over him.


We are left then, we hope, with some powerful and versatile cards that find good homes in a good many decks. As Zac alluded to in his last article, one of the significant considerations with the undying mechanic was making sure it didn't add too much to our Birthing Pod decks, which were already faring well in our FFL. Given the tweaks we made to these cards, we also hoped that Birthing Pod decks would come in many more varieties less inclined to simply use these as more fodder, like Viridian Emissary.

On a side note, we intentionally didn't have Humans with undying for thematic reasons, so it was largely fortuitous that all of the benefits for sacrificing Humans didn't specifically align with empowering undying itself.

Quite unlike my examples above, of having too many cards pointing at undying, the mechanic came about late enough in design that there wasn't an overabundance of cards boosting it up. In this block, we've specifically spent more effort on building themed Constructed decks to ensure there are enough natural fits for what we think people will want to do. I was personally focused on undying. It is not as if the mechanic needs all that much to work with it, since it is rather, "generous," as we say, on its own. I remember suggesting Fling as a reprint for the Dark Ascension set. While not as cool as when discovering an oldie-but-goodie that hasn't seen play in Standard in some time, I felt satisfied in finding something that would really shine with undying and tie in very well with the set's themes. Grim Backwoods was another design we saw fitting in nicely with undying-themed decks. Vorapede was a force to be reckoned with through all of our testing. Toying around with these types of decks led to a lot of redesign work on what eventually became Feed the Pack and Flayer of the Hatebound.

Grim backwoods
Flayer of the Hatebound

Do or Die

Fateful hour was another flavor hit for the set. It does well in conveying desperate times. Your life is waning. You've slipped perilously low. The fateful hour text is becoming relevant because you've taken yet more damage. Obviously, you haven't stabilized and there's a decent chance you haven't turned the tide yet.

Faith's Shield | Art by Svetlin Velinov

Much of the development of these cards revolved around finding what you were looking for in these scenarios. We didn't want these cards to simply be a matter of delaying the inevitable, only to perish turns later.

These cards help your team rally more support and become more fierce and resilient. It's time for you to fight back while protecting yourself and to find ways to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

We were looking for these cards to create more tension and excitement, not to end that drama. For example, I personally fought long against a fateful hour card that gained you a bunch of life. My personal take was that these cards made for a much more compelling story if the game continued to be in jeopardy. Furthermore, we had so many cards making your team better at these low life totals it seemed people would be ambivalent at best with turning off all of these enhanced abilities by gaining a lot of life.

Faith's Shield
Thraben Doomsayer

Fateful hour was also very fun to play with, since it was conveniently timed as following Phyrexian mana. There are many amusing and reliable ways to put yourself in danger's way. We hope you'll find a bunch of enjoyment exploring these cross-block interactions as well.

With that, I hope I've whetted your appetite for what's to come on this site in the upcoming months about the evolution of the undying and fateful hour in the future

Predicting the Future

In my first year here, I realized our work in the Future Future League is an amazing challenge. The topic has been covered at length but it really is quite remarkable how our FFL can seem so close to, and yet so far from, what we eventually see in the real world. We generally have approximations of most of the top decks, although sometimes we miss big improvements and sometimes we are aiming for a very different metagame. We have some very good deck builders under our roof, but it is very difficult to refine to the extent the real world does when our cards are changing out from underneath us as we go. It is hard to find the best deck when we are constantly trying to weaken what we perceive as the best deck if that deck isn't particularly fun to play with or against. It is even harder to have a sense of how those best decks will evolve over time to respond to the real-world metagame.

Thalia, Guardian of Thraben | Art by Jana Schirmer & Johannes Voss

As a former pro, it is fascinating now to see what we overestimate and underestimate. As you might imagine, most cards seeing a ton of play are often outperforming our expectations, even if we realized they were quite good. And based on most recent results, it looks like Delver of Secrets was a card we underappreciated. Then again, so did the rest of the world for awhile. On the whole, though, there still seems to be plenty of successful innovation going on with decks in recent major tournaments.

During Dark Ascension FFL, I remember playing a lot of white weenie. This followed on the heels of playing a lot of Tempered Steel/Angelic Destiny Infect prior to that, which was obviously not a real-world fad. At any rate, there was some degree of concern with having checks on what is now being dubbed Solar Flare (White-Blue-Black Reanimator) and straight up Blue-Black Control—in addition to Birthing Pod decks, as we've alluded to—in light of the introduction of undying. Having played a lot of small white creatures, and becoming a bit tired of mana-hungry decks replaying cards out of their graveyard, I'd go into our FFL meetings for several weeks on end suggesting the text for Thalia, Guardian of Thraben. There are certainly many other equally (or more) impactful cards in the set, but she is one I had a bunch of personal investment in and I'm curious to see whether she'll have a desirable effect on the metagame.

Thalia, Guardian of Thraben

Knowing the Future

A big part of the process on these sets for me was learning the ropes in Magic R&D and learning the story the cards were telling, leading into my set lead for Avacyn Restored. I was trying to gather the best appreciation I could for what remained to be told and of what was becoming overly played out. I was also trying to be very sensitive for what were the most important elements to carry over to the next set without taking away from what it was trying to do.

Knowing where I wanted to go with the next set, I could offer suggestions on what cards would be better preserved for it and offer ideas that would help serve as a contrast for leading into the next.

It also poised me well to steal cards from this set and to offer some in return.

All told, Dark Ascension does a great job transitioning into the next chapter.

Living on the Edge

Another lesson I've learned through these sets is that we continue to take calculated risks in R&D. I was certainly wary of double-faced cards when they were first presented to me, and I wasn't the only one. It seemed unnecessarily risky given how well things had been going for the brand. Eventually, though, after hearing feedback and seeing the excitement from all sorts of people in various parts of the company it all started to make sense. Along with this came the realization that challenging ourselves and our players is the best route to keep the game moving forward in exciting ways.

That's not to say we will burn through content and mechanics too quickly to get onto the next big thing. If you are looking for the best view, though, arguably the place to find it is by approaching the edge. On this note, we will continue to push the boundaries while making sure the game still truly remains Magic.

Until We Meet Again...

Getting here has been a long path for me. I've played in a great number of Pro Tours. I've developed many TCG sets elsewhere. And yet, there's still a ton to learn here. I continue to be impressed by the process and the people here. Everyone I work with is super passionate about improving the game, not to mention that nearly everyone I work with seems to possess a super power when it comes to making games.

I'm super excited about what's next, and I look forward to bringing you some tales about my first set lead, Avacyn Restored, in a few months. In the meantime, watch your step!

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