Flashback to the Future

Posted in Feature on December 12, 2011

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.

Finally, we get to Flashback Week. I had this whole column all prepared. I was going to rerun my column from the original Flashback Week and then add in a whole article's worth of comments about the article. What could be more fun than flashbacking my own flashback column? Turns out there was one problem with the idea, one I didn't realize until I sat down to write it: I never wrote a flashback column.

See, MagicTheGathering.com started in January of 2002 (yes, we're coming up on our tenth anniversary—the first Monday after the break, I'll have a column dedicated to it) which coincided with the release of Torment. Flashback, of course, premiered in Odyssey, the set before Torment, so no Flashback Week when it premiered. Flashback came back in Time Spiral (nothing says the past like flashback), but there were so many mechanics that flashback never got its own theme week.

Memory's Journey | Art by Slawomir Maniak

Which brings us to now: the first-ever Flashback Week. I guess that means I have to write the article I thought I'd already written but never have: my article about the design of flashback. The good news is that when we finally do our second Flashback Week years from now, I already know what to do.

Flashback in Time

To set up the origin of flashback, I have to explain a few things about the Pro Tour specifically the Feature Match area. Before I came to Wizards, I was a freelancer. As part of my freelance work (writing for The Duelist – a magazine dedicated to Magic that Wizards once put out) I was given access to what was in upcoming sets. A side effect of having this privilege was that I wasn't allowed to compete in sanctioned tournaments. Since I was a fan of Magic competition, I ended up becoming a judge.

Shortly after I arrived at Wizards I learned that Skaff Elias was busy putting together what would eventually be known as the Pro Tour (for a short while it was known as the Black Lotus Pro Tour). Having a background in running tournaments, I asked if I could be the liaison between Magic R&D and the Pro Tour. Skaff said yes.

I was very involved helping Skaff figure out how to put everything together, so of course, I went to the first event in New York City. (To hear about the craziness of the first event, listen to the audio commentary by Henry Stern and myself on the PT New York I video. Seriously, it's really worth a listen. Also read about my time with the Pro Tour in my column on it, On Tour: Part 1, Part 2.) When I wasn't helping get shots for the video, I was standing around watching matches. I was amazed how often two name players faced off. (Nationals, Worlds, and a few one-of events had already produced some celebrity Magic players.) It gave me an idea.

For the first Pro Tour Los Angeles, the second-ever Pro Tour, I convinced the powers that be that we should highlight matches each round for players to watch. It was dubbed "Rosewater's Picks" (not by me), and a board was made for the Pro Tour. Each round, the board would list the numbers of what tables to watch. (Spectators were allowed to wander from table to table in the early Pro Tours.) Next, I was able to talk them into moving the players to the spectators rather than vice versa. Also, I convinced them that "feature matches" sounded much better than "Rosewater's Picks." And thus, the feature match area was born.

I wanted to attend all the Pro Tours, so I'd been looking for a job to call my own. The feature match area ended up being my thing (along with the video coverage of the finals, where I began doing commentary but soon pulled back to the role of producer). As I was a judge (at one point I was a Level 4 judge—but that's a story for a different column), I was put in charge of not only picking the feature matches but also running the judging of the feature match area. It was away from the rest of the tables and had a number of issues unique to it. Usually, I was given one or two judges to help me oversee it.

What does this all have to do with flashback? I'm getting there.

So I spent two days every Pro Tour standing and watching the best of the best play Magic head to head. The games were exciting when close, but not every Magic game is close. When one player was clearly ahead of the other, to make the match more interesting to watch, I would, in my head, give an advantage to the player in the worse condition. What do I mean by that? I mean that I would grant them a secret power that they could use. Then I would figure out how best they could use the power I gave them.

All of the secret powers were really just Vanguard-ish abilities that allowed the players to do special things in the game. The losing player maybe got an extra turn or had boosted creatures or had discounted spells. They were usually things I could figure out from what I could see. Once again, I should stress that this was all in my head.

One power I granted was the ability to cast cards out of your graveyard. I called it gravecast. I tended to grant this power when the game had gone along for a while before one player gained momentum and got way ahead. Of all the powers I would grant, the gravecast ability was one of my favorites.

I vividly remember one day as I'm watching a match where I'd mentally granted one of the players the gravecast ability, I said to myself, "This is fun. We should do this one day."

Flashback in the High Life Again

Cut to the design of Odyssey. Can anyone name the original mechanical theme of Odyssey? The graveyard? No, that was the theme that ended up by the end of design. Where did we begin? We began with a part of the game I've always enjoyed and design for even now: zone changes. Yes, early Odyssey design began with me mapping out every possible zone change.

Crush of Wurms | Art by Christopher Moeller

Quick aside before I show my chart: What follows is me trying to capture my mind state from ten years ago. While I'm still very right-brained, I was even more so back then, and I tended to think of things the way they made sense to me. My listing of the zones were the ones that I felt at the time were zones. I didn't perceive the stack as a zone, but rather as a path that spells took to get from the hand to the battlefield (and I thought of spells as going off "on the battlefield" which is also not true). I didn't talk about the exile zone because I thought (and mostly still do) that it's only a zone for things to go to, not from. What I'm saying is that if you're looking for technical accuracy in what I'm about to write you're not going to find it. What you will see was the general sense of how I saw the zones. You have been warned.

  • Battlefield to Graveyard: death
  • Battlefield to Hand: bounce
  • Battlefield to Library: "super bounce" and "shuffle in"
  • Graveyard to Battlefield: reanimation and flashback
  • Graveyard to Hand: Regrowth
  • Graveyard to Library: delayed Regrowth, "shuffle in" and "Restocking"
  • Hand to Battlefield: casting
  • Hand to Graveyard: discard
  • Hand to Library: "repressed memory" and "shuffle in"
  • Library to Battlefield: "super summoning"
  • Library to Graveyard: milling
  • Library to Hand: card drawing and tutoring

What I discovered as I examined all the possible zone changes was that the ones that had the least amount of exploration were the graveyard and the library. In the early design, both milling and "restocking" (putting cards from a graveyard on the bottom of their owner's library) were major themes.

One area that I was especially interested in was getting cards from the graveyard to battlefield and/or the stack. That's when gravecast popped into my head. What if I had a mechanic that just let you cast cards out of your graveyard? It became quickly apparent that the mechanic was broken without restraints. Casting the same card again and again was already done with buyback, and it had proven to need a lot of mana to control it. (And even then it got pretty annoying in some cases. Capsize, I'm looking at you.)

I had always assumed when allowing feature match players to cast gravecast that they would only do it once per card. This proved to be easy to do with instants and sorceries, as you could just exile them after they resolved, but permanents had a memory issue. A creature, for example, couldn't be exiled when it resolved as it had to go onto the battlefield, but the only logical time to exile it was when it died. This would often happen turns later, and other cards with the same name could have entered the battlefield. Would players have to track where each creature came from?

It was obviously a can of worms. I then made the simple realization that the game already had the ability to get permanents from the graveyard to the battlefield through reanimation (see list above). Gravecast really only needed to work on instants and sorceries, so that's what we ended up restricting it to. I also figured out early on that there was a way to make gravecast creatures: tokens. We were a little limited in how many creatures we could make because token rules force us to make simpler creatures, but it was enough to matter.

When it came time to name it, I decided not to go with gravecast. Why? My love for puns. You see, buyback had gone over really well in Tempest (Capsize notwithstanding), and I thought it might be cute to make a reference to it. Flashback's biggest draw, I felt, was the fact that you could cast the same spell more than once. I also really enjoyed the idea that instead of "buying" it back, it was a memory that came back to you. You know, a flashback. The design name kind of stuck and it never changed.

Flashback in the Saddle

One of the challenges of writing an article ten years after the events in question is that sometimes you don't always remember exactly why you did what you did. Case in point: Were you aware that while flashback shows up in all five colors in Odyssey, it's focused in two colors, red and green? Why is that? A fine question, one I didn't actually know off of the top of my head.

Reckless Charge | Art by Scott M. Fischer

Why the ability is focused in two colors, I do know. One of the key parts to making Magic work is the color wheel. The reason behind this is simple. Magic is better when you can't just put everything you want into a single deck. The color wheel solves this by spreading the different facets of the game to different colors keeping any one deck from doing everything. (For more on why the color wheel is so important, you could read my column on it, The Value of Pie.) The same philosophy holds true for set design. Part of making a set work is spreading out what the set has to offer so that a single deck can't do everything. Also, by focusing your mechanics in different colors you make the drafting experience richer because various color combinations play differently.

But why red and green? My best guess is that we knew we wanted to focus the ability in two colors and red and green had the two effects we most wanted in volume in flashback: direct damage and making creature tokens. In both cases, half of the flashback cards in the two colors use those respective abilities. The funny thing is that this style of the cart leading the horse is a bit different from how we do things nowadays. Case in point: flashback in Innistrad.


Seize the Day
Call of the Herd

Flashback in Innistrad was also focused in two colors, blue and red. The reason for this was that blue and red are the two colors that have the largest number of noncreature spells and it felt right to push the blue-red decks towards a spell-centered theme. (I should point out that the design handoff also had a lot of black flashback spells, but the vast majority of them made Zombie tokens as opposed to casting "spells." Design used flashback as another way to reinforce the growing Zombie horde feel. Erik and his development dialed back the black flashback Zombie-making cards both to lessen black's card advantage and to help bring focus to blue and red being the flashback colors.)


Cackling Counterpart
Desperate Ravings

The other thing I believe was going on in Odyssey was that the early design split up the zone changing into different colors. Black and blue got milling (putting cards directly from the library into the graveyard), so I'm pretty sure I wanted the spells that got spells out of the graveyard to be in different colors than the ones that got them into the graveyard.

One of the things I remember most about designing flashback was the team's interest in exploring the many different knobs the mechanic had. Some flashback spells were cheap to cast and very expensive to flashback, while others were expensive up front but very cheap once you got them in your graveyard. We decided to mix them up as we felt that each had good game play. As often happens with card advantage-y mechanics with extra costs, design seriously undercosted them. Development, though, quickly saw this error and adjusted the costs.

Odyssey block also played around with alternate flashback costs, but as we often do, we waited for later in the block to evolve the mechanic. Torment had a cycle of cards that had life payment in their flashback cost. Judgment then did more exploring by having a number of individual cards that used nonmana payments, including some that didn't require any mana at all.

Flashback to Back

Odyssey block wasn't received that well overall in our market research (it was super-Spikey so it had a loyal but smaller fan base), but flashback scored phenomenally. At the time, it was the second highest rated mechanic ever, losing out only to Tempest's buyback. (From this we deduced that players either really liked casting spells a second time or loved mechanics with the word "back" in them.) Also at the time, we weren't repeating keyword mechanics, but a year later we broke that barrier when cycling got put into Onslaught block.

Dread Return | Art by Kev Walker

Once cycling got reused, I knew flashback would see the light of day again. It was both popular with the players and well liked by R&D. That opportunity ended up happening in Time Spiral. Not only was flashback a great old mechanic to bring back, but flavorwise it perfectly captured the "past" flavor of Time Spiral.

As I talked about during Innistrad previews, I was initially reluctant to use flashback in Innistrad because I was afraid that it would feel too close to Odyssey, the last block we did with a strong graveyard theme. In the end, though, nothing could fight the momentum of flashback's return.

Flashback to Square One

And that is the story of how flashback came to be. I'd love to hear from all of you what you think of the mechanic. One of Magic's classic keywords, or just a so-so mechanic? I'd love to hear.

Note that the next two weeks are going to be our annual "Best Of" Weeks where all the columnists pick their favorite columns of the year (a.k.a. two weeks of repeats with no new content). I'll be back in three weeks to celebrate the tenth anniversary of the website and tell you how it all came together.

Until then, may you find ways to bring the things you entertain yourself with to those around you.

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