Igniting the Spark

Posted in Feature on June 23, 2015

By Shawn Main

Shawn Main is a designer for Magic: The Gathering. He joined Wizards of the Coast from the Great Designer Search 2 after years of directing theater, training medical students, and playing multiplayer Magic.


It began with villains.

My team was working on "Magic 2016," and we were looking for a hook. Past core sets had minor themes, but we were looking for something different, something bold and meaty that we could build around. In an early meeting, someone (I wish I could remember who) suggested eschewing our normal Planeswalkers to focus on villains of the Multiverse; this got me excited. It was an exciting theme and seemed like one that might be especially appropriate for a core set. It would let us tell stories across multiple planes and let us show glimpses of many characters disconnected from each other. It also opened up many questions around which particular villains we should focus on, and lead us toward a novel realization: Past core sets had reprinted simple-to-understand mechanics. What if we made new ones that better reflected the flavor we were going for?

Then something happened.

In a flash, some quiet musings turned into loud conversations; "what if" became "how."

I was away at Gen Con when I got a text from my fellow Great Designer Search 2 alum, Ethan Fleischer. In my memory, it just says "Everything is changing." I'm sure his words weren't so dramatic, but the sensation they gave me certainly was.

It definitely felt as though everything was changing. Our block structure was getting overhauled, our storytelling was shifting its focus, even our Standard rotation was being re-examined. The earth was shifting under our feet. This set was going to be the pivot point between the old world and the new. In that moment, our humble core set transformed. We found ourselves in a brand new environment, staring at a blank page.

But we had a very clear mission: tell great stories.

And not just any stories. With our reinvigorated interest in storytelling, we had to reintroduce our cast. These would be the stories of our most important Planeswalkers. It would need to tell how they found their sparks, how they became who they are today, and how they began their journeys. Magic Origins was going to need to tell five very individual stories, crossing ten different worlds, while filling in some details that had only been hinted at and some that had been kept entirely secret until now.


This was no small challenge. Magic sets often tell environmental stories—worlds in conflict, civilizations rising and crumbling—but we don't usually pull the camera in tight on individual characters. Now we were doing it not once, but five times.

It was a tricky proposition for a fairly new lead designer and his team of enthusiastic fresh faces. Conspiracy was my only other lead at that point, and Mark Gottlieb was the only veteran designer onboard. How could we show characters as they changed over time? How could we meaningfully depict our Planeswalkers across rarities? How much story could we tell with the cards themselves? What themes could actually make up Limited?

The Planeswalkers were one of the first things we figured out. It started as an offhand joke, something so big and spectacular that surely it would never work. Then we all looked around the table and realized that actually it was a really good idea. Double-faced cards are great at telling stories and particularly great for showing transitions. What better way to depict Liliana's story than for the player to experience it every time she hits the battlefield?

Common Problems

It turns out that story moments translate really well into rares and mythic rares. In addition to the Planeswalkers, we added a cycle of legendary creatures—important allies or enemies the character met along the way. And we turned critical story moments into spells. But we still needed to figure out the rest of the set. We were going to need to make commons and uncommons—small white fliers, big green creatures, and some combat tricks. How could those cards support the theme?

The trick to figuring out low-rarity cards is to recognize how they're supposed to feel. What's an origin story actually about? What emotion is playing through Chandra's story supposed to evoke?

Once we started asking the right questions, we realized the answers were obvious. Origin stories, at their most elemental, are about characters leveling up, growing in power, and honing their skills through trial and challenge. Fortunately, that's a perfect theme for design.

Preview Time

I know I'm talking about how we figured things out for commons, but it's preview week and I want to show you something cool. So let me introduce you to the renown mechanic.

Honored Hierarch begins life as a humble 1/1 for 1 mana. But if he can connect and deal damage to an opponent, he's the swollest Birds of Paradise out there.

The renown mechanic was an idea I had been sitting on for a very long time. When I first came to Wizards, Ethan Fleischer and I were tasked with figuring out what the Tarkir block was going to look like (at that point code-named Huey). We pitched a number of basic premises before figuring out the time travel structure. The very first world I pitched contained a mechanic I called veteran. The world didn't work out, but I loved how veteran played, so I put it in my pocket to use in the future.

Once we had our themes figured out, I shared the mechanic with my team and they latched onto it immediately. The quest to power up your creature is so simple, but often becomes a fun puzzle for both players—your opponent desperately trying to stop your creature, while you use tricks and creative plays to break through your opponent's defenses.

Renown worked great as an expression of the theme, but we set our sights even higher: What could we do to make players feel like they were leveling up their own skill at magic?

We went through many attempts at trying to track experience before we settled on using your graveyard to represent your history. As you cast a spell, the game would ask "have you done this before?" And if you had, the spell could become more powerful because of that experience.

It's not often for designers and developers to get a card right on the first try. We usually iterate and experiment before landing on the final card. Dark Petition makes me smile because it's one of those uncanny exceptions where we got it immediately.

It's that moment where Liliana meets her demons and bargains for power. It's a nice moment to be experienced, and the story reminded me of two cards from Alpha. Demonic Tutor is more powerful than we print these days, but what if we let you cheat with spell mastery? That would be quite the bargain.

Spell mastery also gave us more opportunities to depict our Planeswalkers throughout the set. The mechanic appears across all colors, with cycles at common, uncommon, and rare depicting each Planeswalker learning and growing as you accumulate that experience in game.

New Stories

Magic Origins is a radical attempt at infusing our game with flavor—at having the cards reflect the narrative. For me personally, it felt very much like an origin story as a designer. And I know Sam Stoddard and Ari Levitch felt the same as developer and storyteller, respectively.

It represents a new beginning for Magic; not just as we visit more worlds each year, but as we focus on these five Planeswalkers and their stories throughout the Multiverse. Magic Origins offers us insights into their pasts. So when we see them in the coming years, we'll know them. We'll know where they came from, and we'll know who they are.

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