Posted in Feature on April 20, 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 the second, and last, Alara Reborn Preview Week. Last week I talked about the difficulties of an all-gold design (once again let me stress that by "gold" I am referring to traditional multicolor cards requiring two or more different colored mana to cast). This week I am going to explain how the team solved these problems. And somewhere in the middle of me doing this, I'll show off a preview card. Sound good? Then let's get to it.


One quick note before I jump into the thick of things. I am planning on using cards for the Alara Reborn Visual Spoiler to make points. I will hide all cards, forcing you to hit a link to reveal them. If you do not want to see any of the cards, please don't hit the links.

Let's begin by walking through each of the problems I laid out last week.

Simple Designs Are Hard to Do

This problem in a nutshell is that multicolor cards have problems doing simple effects because the need to make the card feel relevant to both colors forces extra abilities and thus more text. As I explained last week, you can't just make a Counterspell. It has to be a Counterspell with some rider that explains why its not mono-blue.

The Alara Reborn design team solved this problem using several different methods:

#1 – Find Overlap

One way to create simple gold cards is to find basic effects that overlap two different colors and make a multicolor card that does that basic effect requiring both colors. The benefit for doing this is that you get to cost the effect lower than either color would get it.

An example:

As you can see, this card does something that each color can essentially do. Yes, not at this cost, but given enough mana either color could basically do this effect. These cards feel pretty good as gold cards because they convey the flavor of "use both colors that do this effect and get it even cheaper".

The downside of this technique is that many basic effects don't fit neatly into two different colors. Also, certain color combinations have a much easier time than others. Green/white and black/red for example have lots of overlap while blue/red and blue/black do not.

#2 – Find subtle riders

We in R&D refer to multicolor cards that have two effects, one from each color, as Chinese menu cards ("select one from column A and one from column B"). Many Chinese menu cards seem clunky, yet others have a very natural flow. The key to making simple cards is finding a way to make one of the two pieces very subtle.

An example:

The trick here is that the card found a way to put the second thing somewhere other than the text box. This way Bant and Esper both get represented without requiring more than one ability on the card. Another popular trick is to use the power and toughness to reflect the second color. Certain combinations feel unnatural within certain colors (black, for example, tends not to have low-power, high-toughness commons), allowing power/toughness combinations to carry a feel of a certain color. A third way to do this is to find two abilities that seem to have a natural flow to them, giving the card the feel as if it's doing one thing.

The advantage of this technique is that you can cram a lot into a little space. The downside is that there is limited design space available.

#3 – Design Holistically, Not One to One

There are two different ways to approach multicolor design. One way is to find direct mechanical links between each color and the mechanics on the card. Here's the red thing and here's the green thing. This approach produces many designs but it does have one gaping flaw. It's an effect I refer to as "painting by numbers." When you look at a card designed in this matter, it's extremely hard not to see the design. To put it in another way—it lacks elegance.

Yes, there is the capability of designing something new through the combination of parts. My personal favorite multicolor design is the card Recoil.


What I loved about this design is that while it combines two parts, one from each color, they combine in such a way that the overall card does something that neither color can do by itself. On top of everything else, the card is also quite simple. But cards like these lure designers down a dangerous path. Sure, the potential for elegance exists through this design path, but it's extremely hard to do. I call this problem "paint by numbers" because it is equally hard to paint a painting through painting by the numbers and capture the look of a traditional painting, You can see the underlying structure a little too easily.

There is a second way to approach multicolor, and Alara Reborn made good use of it. The second way is what I call the holistic approach. The idea behind these types of design is that the overall card has to feel right for the color combinations but it doesn't need to assign things on a one for one basis. The classic example from Alara block actually comes from Conflux.


This card has raised a few eyebrows because of its first ability. Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker can destroy any noncreature permanent. This translates to artifacts, enchantments, lands, and planeswalkers. Remember that the card is blue-black-red. Destroying artifacts seems fine. Red can do that. Lands too, as both black and red have land destruction in their slices of the color pie. Planeswalkers are acceptable if you think of direct damage as a means of destroying planeswalkers, and red, and to a lesser extent black, can do that. But that leaves us with enchantments. Blue, black, and red all lack enchantment destruction in the color pie. Only white and green can do that, neither of which shows up in Bolas's mana cost. So how does Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker do that?

The answer is that you're looking at the card in the wrong way. Here's the holistic approach. Does the design feel like Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker? It does. What colors is Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker? If you're familiar with the character, base black with a little blue and red is dead on. The abilities feel like the character and the character matches his cost. By the transitive property—voila. (Ooh, using math to nefarious ends.)

Here's another way to think of it:


This is a beloved top-down design card. In fact, I would call it the poster child for top-down design. One of the mechanics is Moat (you cannot attack me with nonfliers). Moat is nowhere near the red part of the color pie. Red does not stop things from attacking—blocking, sure, but not attacking. How is this allowable? Because Moat is a key part of the overall "you've turned yourself into a dragon" flavor. What color should get "you've turned yourself into a dragon" flavor? Red, obviously, as red is the iconic color of dragons.

My point here is that design sometimes has to be able to paint in broader brushes. The Alara Reborn design team understood this and used holistic design to their advantage.

The wrap-up of this category is that the design team used as many design tricks they could. Alara Reborn may look slightly clunkier than other small sets from a design aesthetic, but as it was done to gain an overall aesthetic (all-gold), I feel a few liberties were acceptable. When you're painting a giant canvas you are allowed to make a few of the details a little fuzzier than if you were painting a life-size portrait.

You Can't Have One-Drops

Apparently, you can.

See what I mean.


The lesson here is that if designers get creative they can find all sorts of creative work-arounds. The key in this set was finding work-arounds that felt like they played within the parameters and didn't cheat around them. I'm sure one day Tom will tell the story of this cycle's development because it went through numerous iterations through development.

Even with the five borderposts, the Alara Reborn design team had to recognize the fact that the set was going to have far fewer one-drops than normal. You will see that they were aggressive with their two-drops, making sure that the environment had some cards that would make the early game exciting.

No Lands

The biggest problem caused by the lack of lands is that an all-gold set requires you to play a lot of colors of mana. The set needs mana fixing, a job usually solved by lands. The team addressed this problem with two common cycles, the one I just showed you above and one I'm about to. Note that only two cards of the cycle have been made public, but I trust you can extrapolate how the cycle will work.

See the example.


One of the reasons Bill added cycling to the block is that it had a lot of synergy with things he wanted to do. This cycle is just one example of that synergy. When you add the two cycles along with an eleventh card (hint, it's got green in it), you end up with 18% of the commons helping color fixing. Not too shabby for a set that didn't have the luxury of lands.

Hard to Feel Part of the Block

The key to this problem was to carve out a portion of the block evolution to save for Alara Reborn. As the shards are the center of the block design, this meant that the set had to do something new with the shards. How could all-gold reinforce the block evolution? The answer rested in looking at what creative wanted to do with the shards.

In one of my writing classes, the professor told us the following: "Story is about change. It's about progression. Figure out where you want to end your story and then get as far as way from there as you can. That's where you begin."

Does your protagonist become a hero? Then get him as far away from heroics as you can. (Apparently, that's farming.) Does your protagonist suffer a great loss? Then give her everything so she has it all to lose. Does your character grow and learn a lesson? Then have him be as guilty of violating that lesson as you can. (This is why a lot of protagonists start the story as such jerks.)

What does this mean for Shards of Alara? Let's work backwards. If the creative team started with the five words completely isolated from one another, where is the story going to end up? If you said smashed together, ding, ding ding! What could all-gold signify? The complete remerging of the five shards.

The mechanical identity this gave to Alara Reborn was that this was the first time that designers could mix and match two different shards.

As an example:

Wait a minute, this card isn't part of the Visual Spoiler (yet). Yes, this is my preview card. For armadillo lovers everywhere, I present Armadillo Cloak in equipment form. The relevant issue to my point shows up in the mana cost. See the green mana symbol? That's not part of Esper, but here in Alara Reborn, the shards have started colliding, so you get things like Equipment with green and red in their cost. (Okay, this was also a way to get more artifacts into a set that was all-gold, but I feel this work-around was well earned.)

The condensing of the shards turned out to be a perfect reason for the all-gold set, and it gave the designers some more tools to work with to allow them to make some gold cards that couldn't have appeared in one of the earlier sets.

All Gold: A Theme But Not a Theme

The above section also applies to this one. The condensing of the shards is as much Alara Reborn's theme as is the all-gold theme. The fact that the two blend so nicely together helps make the whole block click together with the set's gimmick.

There was one other theme that the team played with: the theme of caring for multicolor cards.

Three examples:

Okay, one of them you saw last week when I first talked about this theme. I just wanted to point out that the Alara Reborn design team did work in some other themes beyond every card being gold. The other thing that I assume caught your eye was that one of the cards had a hybrid symbol in its mana cost. What's up with that? An excellent question—one I'll be discussing next week.

If I'm talking about next week's column, that must mean I'm wrapping up this one. Well, I am. I hope I've given you a little insight into how the Alara Reborn design team tackled many of the issues I brought up last week. I heartily urge you to make it to the Prerelease this weekend and see for yourself what an all-gold set feels and plays like. I'd love to hear any first impressions that players have from the Prerelease.

Until then, may you find work-arounds in your own life that don't require cheating.

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