Homelands: The Making of a Magic Expansion

Posted in Feature on August 22, 2011

By Christopher Ferris

In 1995, Wizards of the Coast released Homelands, an expansion that took place on the world of Ulgrotha. But the design of Homelands goes back even further than that, as this article recounts—all the way to April of 1994, less than a year after the game came out. It all started with two Wizards employees (and huge Magic fans) who wanted to explore a different way of making a Magic set, with the story and the cards deeply intertwined.

Were they successful? Well, time has not been kind to Homelands, which went down in history as a bit, shall we say, timid. But did the set paint a rich and compelling picture of a world filled with interesting and unique characters? It absolutely did, showcasing a broad set of cultures and locations and headlined by more legendary creatures per capita than any other set between Legends and Champions of Kamigawa. Card design and development have come an astronomical distance since this set was made. The idea of building a set around a world and a feel, though, is as relevant as ever. In fact, as Mark Rosewater notes in his article for today, Innistrad is a set that was based around a creative feel (and then, happily, subjected to modern standards of design and development).

Now, please note that—and you can quote me on this—Innistrad is not Ulgrotha, a few superficial similarities notwithstanding. And the process that Innistrad went through to see print was, of course, vastly different from that of Homelands. What makes this article from The Duelist #7 way back in 1995 interesting to me is seeing just how different that process was. Magic was young, and nobody knew just what these "expansion sets" were supposed to look like. This article follows Homelands from inkling to ink, with some fascinating insights into the wild and woolly world of early Magic design.

So enjoy this tale of two designers with a vision, and watch out for antiquated terminology (for example, "Dominia" instead of "the multiverse," "The Gathering" rather than "Alpha," and a reference to something called "film").

We'll see you back next week for the beginning of Innistrad previews on Monday, August 29!

Kelly Digges
Daily MTG Editor

This article originally appeared in Duelist #7 in 1995.

In April 1994, Scott Hungerford and Kyle Namvar sat together in Kyle's house, sorting through the new shipment of Antiquities. Kyle, head of the Customer Service Team at Wizards of the Coast, was collecting card sets to use as reference for rules questions. It would only be a short time until Scott would join the CST; he had been a Magic player from the beginning.

At that time, expansion sets were a relatively new addition to Magic. Kyle, looking at the game mechanics of the set, was convinced that Antiquities could have been stronger. But Scott felt that Antiquities set a strong precedent, because it had a coherent theme that each card developed. It introduced characters that had substance and history, and suggested tales that lent depth to the entire set. Their conversation turned away from Antiquities itself toward what could be built from the hints in the existing flavor text and card titles.

Hours later, the foundation of Homelands had been laid, but the course which it would take through development—through the hands of the Research and Development team into the realm of artists and editors—was one Kyle and Scott could not predict.

The Early Designs

From the outset, the two designers had very distinct visions which contributed to the formation of the expansion. Kyle wanted to create a new level of play in which subtlety and skill would become the mark of an experienced Magic player. Scott was bent on the creation of a world so rich in history that the storytelling element of Magic would be as powerful as the strategy. Both of them, however, were intrigued by the possibilities that the basic set and the early expansions had opened up. The Gathering sketched out a world, but left many details unanswered. Who or what were "Sengir" and "Serra"? Where did the Merfolk come from? The two were determined to create an expansion which would answer some of those questions.

Scott had read an article in the May 1994 Duelist Supplement titled "The Brothers' War: A History of Antiquities." This article was a gold mine of historical information about Dominia; from it arose an initial timeline and a cast of important characters for the expansion.

To establish an identity for each different kind of magic, the designers tried to develop logical cultures, two levels to each color. In their original vision, red, for example, revolved around the Minotaur culture, a people that relied on community to provide their power; adjacent to the Minotaur tribes were the rogues, a group of humans who developed the chaotic environment which red tends to encourage.

Each culture was developed by a host of cards supporting that color. As the designers explained, "The cards are organized as an army and its resources. Each color had a central figure who represents the leadership of that color, and is the dominant figure in that sphere (Hazduhr the Abbot for white; Reveka, Wizard Savant for blue; Baron Sengir for black; Eron the Relentless for red; and Autumn Willow for green). Beneath these primary characters are their lieutenants and creatures who compose the real force behind the color.

The designers also focused on bringing the personalities of these chief characters. Black, for example, was the realm of the Baron Sengir and his "family." The Baron's character had been strongly fixed in the designers' minds since the first days of the set. (See "Baron Sengir: The Evolution of A Magic Card," p. 12.)

From Pipe Dream to Proposal

After their initial brainstorm, Kyle and Scott soon began writing down ideas for individual cards, and the first version of Homelands began to take shape. But as they tackled the challenge of developing this world, they knew an even bigger challenge lay ahead: convincing Wizards of the Coast to accept their expansion for publication. Scott recalls weeks of intense labor and late nights, as he and Kyle struggled to assemble the first presentable version of the set for the Magic Research and Development team. In retrospect, Scott felt that the original version was a very weak set, but Glenn Elliot, then head of R&D, had a different opinion. The set was a little underpowered, Glenn observed—the result of Kyle's first look at Legends, which would be released within a few months. In response to the raw power of Legends, Kyle set about creating a set that relied on strategy. Glenn agreed that Homelands couldn't be released in its original version, but he thought the set had a lot of potential. Scott and Kyle's expansion proposal was accepted, and it was tentatively put into the queue behind The Dark.

But changes in the expansion development process prompted the company to revise its original schedule. "The new process gave the expansion's designers a much larger role in the polishing of their expansion," Glenn remembers. "We wanted to give Homelands a chance to be the first to use that process... but we realized that it would not be possible put Homelands through the process and still get it out by Christmas."

R&D decided to design a separate expansion, Fallen Empires, for release in the fall and to slide Homelands into the next available slot. Ice Age was already scheduled for spring 1995, so Homelands was slated for a summer 1995 release. Kyle and Scott were given until January of that year to develop a new draft of the set.

A Month of Desperate Reconstruction

Though the release date was still months away, tremendous work remained to be done; new developments were constantly producing changes in the set. The release of Legends in June 1994 had a particularly dramatic effect on the course of the new expansion. The set introduced a new type of card, the legend, whose characteristics were particularly suited to Baron Sengir and the other characters central to Homelands. Legends also sparked a few key card ideas; in response to Serpent Generator and Pit Scorpion, for example, Scott and Kyle added an anti-poison card to the set—one of what would turn out to be a series of cards meant to help counteract various deck strategies. Finally, the confusion over the new rules which Legends brought to the game confirmed Scott's conviction that they should strive for simplicity and clarity in the cards.

In the next few months, Scott and Kyle came back to the set again and again, changing storylines to keep the set consistent with new expansions and changing card values to keep in touch with the developments in tournament play. The design was developing well, until a casual observation caused a major shake-up in the set.

In November, the latest version of Homelands and twenty pages of backstory were sent to the "East Coast playtesters," the group of University of Pennsylvania graduate students who had helped Richard Garfield develop the original card set for Magic and who had designed Antiquities. Early in December, Skaff Elias wrote back to the Homelands designers with a question about one of the characters from Antiquities that appeared in the new set: Wasn't Tocasia a woman?

Scott fell into a panic when he realized that the article he had read in the Duelists' Supplement actually had two more pages to it! He was horrified as he turned the page and discovered information that completely undermined the continuity of the set he and Kyle had created.

December was a month of desperate reconstruction. The combination of the contradictory Antiquities evidence and the new elements that Ice Age would undoubtedly bring to the picture of Dominia forced Scott and Kyle to rethink their whole approach. How could they create a set that explored new facets of the Magic Multiverse while remaining consistent with the game's existing world? In a flash, they envisioned a plane that had been trapped or sealed off from the rest of the planes of Dominia. In that way, Homelands would have been spared the repercussions of the violent war between Urza and Mishra, and would be free from the fallout of all that followed in the centuries of aftermath. The world of Homelands suddenly gained a powerful new identity. One of the lesser characters, then called Ferazhe, suddenly grew in importance, and everything about the character's history was dramatically changed.

The Homelands Team

After several major overhauls, Kyle and Scott's final design was submitted to Wizards of the Coast. The remaining work on the set would be done by an experienced team of developers who would carry out the designers' vision, from the final playtesting of the expansion to the creation of its unique look. Magic Project coordinator Ron Richardson had been following the progress of Kyle and Scott's creation and stepped forward to coordinate the project.

Developers Dave Pettey and Jim Lin led the team's work on the game mechanics for the set. Their primary interest was to make certain that casting costs were commensurate with the abilities of cards; likewise, they were careful to ensure that cards' abilities were appropriate for the colors they represented.

Once R&D had gone through the set and adjusted each card where necessary, they set out mock-up versions of the cards to several groups of playtesters. These groups were challenged to find broken combinations and degenerate cards, and were also requested to comment on their overall opinion of the set.

The playtesters' responses were mixed—an encouraging sign, recalled Scott. "If it had all been a good response, it wouldn't have been as good as if there had been some controversy. If it's a good set, some people will love it and others will hate it."

While the playtest groups were busy creating decks and strategies with the new cards, Kyle and Scott put together the list of cards and card titles for Sandra (Everingham) Garavito, art director for Magic A Magic artist herself, Sandra worked with the designers to prepare a package for the artists that would explain the history and context of the cards they would be representing. Guidelines on how the actual image should appear, however, were kept to a minimum. In keeping with the original diverse spirit of Magic, Sandra worked to make sure that the artists' vision wasn't compromised by too much artistic direction.

Sandra worked with the designers to make a few specific requests of the artists. "We wanted each group of related cards to be represented by one artist who style complemented the characters," notes Scott. Artists Pete Venters and Christopher Rush were singled out early on by the designers for particular concepts. Pete was asked to portray the royal family of Sengir, and Chris was also given a choice of several other cards and immediately chose Eron the Relentless, one of the chief figures among the red cards, and Rashka the Slayer, a Vampire hunter. "I wanted the Baron Sengir but he was taken, so I took the character that wanted to kill him," recalls Chris.

As the artists received their card titles and the histories, the final reports from the playtesters began to arrive. By mid-April, all the results had been gathered, and the R&D team set to work considering the opinions and concerns of the playtesters. Most cards required minor adjustments to statistics or casting cost; others were completely re-written. Since the artists had already begun creating the pictures according to the titles and descriptions sent to them weeks earlier, the developers attempted to keep the new powers in line with the artwork in progress.

by the end of April, R&D was ready to send the set into editing. Darla Willis, the lead Magic editor, coordinated the enormous task of rewording the cards. Working closely with the Magic R&D team, she developed wording for each card that was succinct and accurate, and made sure that both the content and style of cards were consistent with existing sets. Often, the new card powers required that new templates be developed or rules text be trimmed to fit; the cards were reworded numerous times before R&D and Editing were satisfied.

Darla also worked closely with John Tynes, then the coordinator for continuity within the Magic Multiverse, on the challenging task of bringing the vast story of Homelands into the tiny allotment of space on the cards. John recalls the care they took in creating the flavor text for the cards: "The material is a balance between what the flavor text says, and who says it. Both carry equal weight for most cards. The fact that it's the leader of the Death Speakers who criticizes the Aysen Bureaucrats, for example, suggests a lot about the way the Death Speakers view the Bureaucrats—as much as the specific words he uses."

In May, Sandra began to receive the finished paintings from the artists. Every time another package arrived in the mail, she took the new painting to Kyle and Scott for final approval. Both the designers were stunned to see the visions that their project had influenced. According to Scott, "Seeing the story we had worked on for so long come to life in the artwork was incredible—it was perfect!"

As the art continued to arrive, the process of putting the actual cards together began. The art was scanned onto computer and placed in the familiar Magic card borders. The cards then entered typesetting, during with the card text, art, and borders were assembled into complete cards. Meanwhile, R&D worked out where each card should appear on the press sheets, large grids which would be printed, cut into individual cards, and sorted into boosters.

But Homelands was not done. The first expansion to have a simultaneous worldwide release, Homelands was going to be a global event. As the films for the English version were being sent, the international department was already translating the cards into French, Spanish, German, Portuguese, and Italian. Just weeks after the English cards had been sent, the printer received films for the international versions.

After over a year and a half of work, the final package was sent to Carta Mundi in Belgium. For the designers, it was a tremendous moment. "Knowing that our ideas were going to be a reality made the last twenty months worthwhile," said Scott.

The designers have been anxious to see the results of their efforts. No one can say for certain, however, just what will happen once these cards become available to millions of players. Over time, the strengths of Homelands will surface in unpredictable ways as it becomes more and more a part of the growing multiverse of Dominia. "We know that this is going to be a controversial set," says Scott. "But we can't wait to see how people respond to it.

Baron Sengir: The Evolution of a Magic Card

Baron Sengir

Bringing the Baron to Life: The Text

Baron Sengir is an excellent example of a card that went through a great deal of transformation, much of it even before the Research and Development team saw the card. The original Baron was designed to be a Vampire Lord who would lead the Sengir Vampires. An early version had a casting cost of and was a 5/5 creature with flying. The card text read:

Tap Baron to regenerate Vampire. Regenerated Vampires lose all counters. Each time Baron kills an opponent, gains a +1/+1 counter.

This version was designed before Legends had been released, and it contained the old "Tap" text configuration, which was later revised, and used "opponent" instead of "creature." The next version increased the Baron's power and toughness to 6/6, and the wording was clarified to indicate which counters the Sengir Vampires would lose. Through these functional changes, the flavor text remained the same:

"He has ruled the Barony of Sengir for a thousand years, and he shall rule it for a thousand more. The Baron is a sick and twisted creature, caring nothing but for the taste of blood and the dying screams of his enemies."
—R.M.'s Traveling Journal

Eventually, the Baron was reduced again to 5/5 and, by the fall of 1994 (after many, many re-visions), became a legend with a casting cost of . Soon afterward, however, came the December continuity catastrophe—and in the ensuing changes, the Baron's rule over the Barony was reduced to two hundred years and the card was returned to an all-black casting cost, though the Baron retained his legendary status.

This was the version that R&D received as part of the submission in January. As R&D worked to refine the casting cost and abilities of the card, they were concerned that the card didn't accurately reflect the power they felt the Baron should possess. Its casting cost was raised to , its counter benefit was raised to +2/+2, and the text was written in the latest templates:

Whenever a creature is put into the graveyard the same turn Baron Sengir damaged it, put a +2/+2 counter on Baron Sengir. T: Regenerate target Vampire.

It was clear that, when combined with rules text, the card's flavor text was too long and would need to be greatly reduced from Scott and Kyle's original suggestion. When John and Darla began their work on the final flavor text, the new version of the text read:

"The source of all my pain, the focus of all my rage. May Sengir one day know half the sorrow he has brought me."
—Ision's Shade

John and Darla then took the names appearing in the flavor text and gave them more of a cultural identity. As a result of these cultural considerations, Ision became "Ihsan," the character whom Baron Sengir turned into his hapless spirit slave. The quote from Ihsan, however, proved to be too long still, and it thus transformed several times again in order to prevent the Baron's card text from being printed in microtext.

"Sengir, the beast. Sengir, the defiler. Sengir, the source of all my pain." —Ihsan's Shade

And finally:

"Beast. Defiler. The source of all my pain." —Ihsan's Shade

Worth a Thousand Words: The Art

Artist Pete Venters spent an equally impressive amount of time working and reworking the image of Baron Sengir. After a painstaking process of developing the costume and other visual aspects of the Baron himself, Pete was then faced with the dilemma of setting. Initially, he tried an image of the Baron's living room, with dramatic side lighting from the fireplace and an overhead perspective that would emphasize an intricate Persian carpet beneath the Baron. Pete noted, however, that the difficulty with an overhead perspective is that through dramatic, it places the viewer in a superior position, which in this case deemphasizes the intimidating and overbearing character he wished to convey.

Fortunately, Pete also had a chance to work with Kyle and Scott in establishing continuity for a couple of weeks when he was visiting the office. In doing so, he helped design the Baron's castle to make it consistent with its location and purpose. This game him the perfect alternative background for the Baron.

"We knew that the castle was in a marsh, on a rock—entry to Castle Sengir was incredibly difficult... as you can only get to it from a boat or by the bridges," Pete says. An observant player will note the night sky visible above Castle Sengir; this same cloudy blue night appears behind the Baron himself, right down to the glow from the full moon.

Baron Sengir | Art by Pete Venters

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