It's Not Like That

Posted in Feature on February 8, 2010

By Kelly Digges

Kelly Digges has had many roles at Wizards over the years, including creative text writer, R&D editor, website copyeditor, lead website editor, Serious Fun column author, and design/development team member on multiple sets.

When I was a kid, Magic design was my dream job. I scribbled ideas for cards and keywords in notebooks and on napkins. I made elaborate predictions of varying accuracy about upcoming sets based on clues in current ones. Later, I read Mark Rosewater's articles religiously, and carefully noted his design advice.

Years later, when I finally got a job at Wizards, it was as an editor rather than a designer, and my official role is editor of Daily MTG. I was still close enough to the process to submit cards to fill holes in sets. I always knew that getting onto a design team was a possibility, but even from inside the building, it seemed like a distant one.

Still, I made it clear to Mark Rosewater that I was interested in design, and he said he would look for a slot. When I was tapped to be on the design team for Worldwake, then called "Long," the timing wasn't the greatest—I was writing a weekly column at the time—but come on. Was I going to say no? Not likely!

Great Expectations

Here's the thing about Magic design: It's not what you think it is. I don't say this to be an elitist or a know-it-all—it's not what I thought it was, either. I'd read most of Mark Rosewater's articles (and edited my fair share of them). I'd seen designs in progress. I'd even sat in on a design meeting or two. I'd spent I don't know how many hours of my life contemplating this very process, and my participation in it.

It didn't prepare me. It doesn't help. Whatever you think Magic design is .... It's not like that.

Today I'll try to walk you through some of the ways being on the Worldwake design team surprised, amused, frustrated, and enlightened me. Along the way, I'll tell you about some of the thoughts and processes that made the set what it is, but my main focus will be on the experience itself. That way, if you're ever lucky enough to be on a design team, you can be prepared ... to face an entirely different set of surprises, of course.

Stuck in the Middle

Way back when, when I imagined the design of a Magic set, I pictured it as one continuous process: First you have to choose a set theme. Then maybe there's some creative work to flesh out a world that supports that set theme, which could inspire some "top-down" design later on. After that, it's time to make some mechanics and cards that support that theme. In my head, I was R&D director, head designer, lead designer, and creative team all in one.

Actually designing a Magic set is nothing like that—especially when you're starting with the second set, a possibility that had never occurred to me.

When the Worldwake design team—design lead Kenneth "Ken" Nagle, Mark Rosewater, Mark Globus, Matt Place, and myself—met for the first time, the "lands matter" theme and "adventure world" flavor of what would become Zendikar were already well established. Zendikar itself had already been passed from design to development, with its major mechanics largely in place. Landfall, Equipment, Kor, Vampires, kicker, and multikicker (yep, in Zendikar) were all in the set in forms you would recognize. Traps, quests, and Allies hadn't settled down yet, but it was clear that something like each of them would be in the finished set.

Lands that turn into creatures are a natural place for the "land matters" set to go, but land animation was conspicuously absent from Zendikar—instead, the block plan had saved that as a major set theme, and the primary evolution of the "lands matter" block theme, in Worldwake.

So by the time my first Worldwake design meeting started, we had a block theme, a set theme, a well-developed setting, and the major block mechanics. In other words, we had pretty much skipped the entirety of what I had imagined as the Magic design process. This left ... everything else, the stuff that I had breezed past in my imagination—the stuff that most of Magic design is made of.

Quantum Mechanics

Let me take a moment here to explain my use of the word "mechanic" in this article. By the time the set gets to you out in the real world, it's been developed, crafted, and templated into something that actually reads like a Magic set. Here in the present, we know that of the major mechanics of Zendikar, landfall ended up as an ability word, the Vampires' 10-life-or-less "bloodied" mechanic didn't, Ally is a creature type, Trap is a spell type, and "quest" is actually a type of counter that we use as shorthand to refer to the enchantments that use those counters.

During design, none of these things mattered. "Teamwork," "kicker," and "landfall" were all just "mechanics" to us. I'm mostly using final terminology to keep this article from being too confusing, but bear in mind that during this process, a lot of these mechanics were switching between ability word, keyword, type line, and unadorned rules text with surprising frequency, and also changing names occasionally.

Qasali Pridemage
Angelic Benediction

I said the final executions don't matter, but that's not precisely true. For example, when we were talking about the teamwork keyword rather than the Ally creature type, it made sense that one of the twists we were exploring for teamwork was putting it on enchantments—much the same way that exalted found its way onto enchantments like Angelic Benediction in Shards of Alara block. Once Ally became a creature type, we could still have gotten it onto enchantments, but it no longer felt like a natural evolution to us.

Invention and Inheritance

As Zendikar changed over the course of its development, those of us on the Worldwake team had to adjust accordingly, as the above example illustrates. After all, one of our jobs as the second set design team was to deliver twists, expansions, and follow-throughs for Zendikar's major mechanics. Matt Place was also on the Zendikar development team, so he was able to bring us day-by-day updates as things changed.

This meant that we spent some of our early design time pursuing angles that wouldn't make it into the final set. We tried out new twists on kicker, multikicker, landfall, and "teamwork," in addition to several new keywords, early in the design process. (I can't tell you what most of these twists and mechanics were, because they still might be printed someday.)

It was around this time that multikicker entered our story. It was already in the Zendikar file as a new twist on kicker, and for a long time the two keywords coexisted. But as Zendikar was pared down to the sleek set you know it as, it became clear that kicker and multikicker were fighting for the same design space, using up too much mind space, and generally getting in each other's way.

Meanwhile, the Worldwake team wasn't finding anything on the new mechanics front that really seemed to mesh well with the set. We had just rolled up our metaphorical sleeves to pound out some new options when we (or at least I) got the news: Zendikar was kicking out multikicker and shipping it to us.

We had our new keyword—gone were the keywords we'd been working on. We had our twist on kicker—gone were the other twists we'd been planning, and in fact, gone was kicker from our set entirely. We even inherited some cards that no longer made sense in the Zendikar file. Among them were Comet Storm, which everyone agreed was cool enough to keep, and Rumbling Aftershocks, which would need to be worded to account for multikicker and would thus give us away early if we printed it in Zendikar.

The lesson here is that sometimes the best innovation is the one you've already made. And this doesn't mean that the time we spent designing those twists was wasted. There was no way to know in advance that our work on landfall spells would make it, while our work on other ways to use kicker wouldn't. The right solution isn't to sit on your hands while other decisions are being made, but to explore every avenue so that you've got what you need when you need it.

Playtest, Playtest, Playtest

Even inside the building, it's tempting to think of playtesting as something only developers do—something practical, more like a craft than an art. Designing cards must be some more rarefied task, undertaken by pampered philosophers in fine robes and golden laurels, contemplating the perfect sculpture that lurks within the stone while leaving all that messy carving to the stoneworkers. (Or maybe that's just me.)

The point is, it's easy to make the mistake of thinking that Magic design consists primarily of sitting around thinking when in fact, the early stages of a Magic design mostly involve playtesting. You have to do some of that set-up work first—otherwise they're won't be any cards to playtest with—but the first playtests come very early.

By our second or third design meeting, we had populated the Worldwake file with some very, very speculative card designs, printed them out, stickered them (a job which, as an R&D outsider, I managed to dodge), and got down to the important business of playing Magic.

Mark Rosewater has talked before about how essential playtesting is to the design process, and I can attest to that. After all, the true test of a Magic set isn't how it reads—it's how it plays. Among other things, playtesting can jog your brain about things that aren't in the set but could be—or in other words, what do you wish you could draw right now?

I believe it was during one of my early Zendikar catch-up playtests that I designed a card exactly this way. I had several creatures out who pumped up or gained evasion on landfall, and it occurred to me that all I needed to do to win the game was draw only lands for the rest of the game.

"Huh," I thought. "That would be pretty neat—Spell Severance!" That weird, Zendikar-appropriate riff on the much older Mana Severance was my first card in the Worldwake file. It made it all the way to print exactly the way I designed it, albeit with a real name, a safer cost, and some sweet art featuring Jace.

When the time came, I was quite happy to hand Selective Memory to Noel deCordova for an excellent preview article showcasing some of the weird stuff the card can do.

Mine, Mine, Mine!

When I say that a card like Selective Memory is "my" card—or even that I designed it—I'm glossing over a reality that's much more complicated. People sometimes ask why we don't print the names of card designers alongside the artist credits, and the answer is that we simply can't. The question of who designed a card is much more complicated than the question of who painted a piece of art. There are a few reasons for this.

1) Design is collaborative.

A design meeting isn't just going over lists of cards each of us designed separately and deciding which ones go in. It's a discussion—sometimes an argument—about the direction the set or some particular part of it should take, and it can be very difficult to sort out later who thought of what.

For example, in my early notes, I wrote down ideas for a cycle of uncommon creatures with multikicker "enters the battlefield" abilities. For each color, I listed some options—for example, the black member of the cycle could involve making an opponent discard cards, giving some number of creatures intimidate, returning that many creature cards from your graveyard to your hand, or drawing that many cards and losing that much life.

These are all basic black effects, and I have no idea who thought of which one or how we decided which one to use. Of the final cycle—Lightkeeper of Emeria, Voyager Drake, Bloodhusk Ritualist, Deathforge Shaman, and Wolfbriar Elemental, the last of which later got promoted to rare—four of the five abilities are listed in my notes in some form. That doesn't necessarily mean I designed them, and it doesn't necessarily mean I decided or helped decide which ones would make it—it means I was taking notes during a brainstorm, and it's difficult to say anything beyond that.

2) Design is spontaneous.

As I said, a lot of design happens in design meetings, not at your desk with a word processer open. That means that rather than being a crafted labor of love, a lot of designs start out as something that popped into a designer's head when a problem needed to be solved.

At one point, when we needed to fill an uncommon red creature slot, I blurted out, "2R 0/1 haste Tim"—that is to say, a Prodigal Pyromancer–type creature that cost , was 0/1, and had haste. It's clean. It's appealing. I designed it—that's quite clear in both my memory and my notes—but it wasn't exactly a labor of love or a major philosophical choice. Craft and philosophy kept it in the set during the design and development process—I think you'll find your Plated Geopedes slightly less durable now—but it was my momentary impulse that brought it to life in the first place.

Cunning Sparkmage

3) Design is repeatable.

Let me tell you about a card called Cone of Tokens, or, as it's known today, Bestial Menace. I designed Bestial Menace, and I put it in the file, like so:

Cone of Tokens
Put a 1/1 green [Elf] creature token, a 2/2 green [Bear] creature token, and a 3/3 green [Elephant] creature token onto the battlefield.

(The creature types are in brackets because I wasn't sure which types the creative team had chosen for the block; this is pretty standard.)

It's a neat card, and it was my card, and I was proud of it. So you can imagine how I felt when Mark Rosewater saw it in the file at the next design meeting and said, "Oh good—I've been trying to get that printed for years."

It took me a while to realize that me saying "I designed this card" and Mark saying "I've been trying to get this printed for years" are not at all mutually exclusive. I did design the card. Mark has been trying to get it printed for years. As he mentioned in his first post-Prerelease article, he assumed that I had seen it in a previous design and decided to give it another shot, when in fact I had no idea that I was walking well-trodden ground.

So who designed Bestial Menace? I did. And Mark did. But not together. It might not be entirely satisfying, but it's true.

Bestial Menace

(Not) The End of the Line

Just as the beginning of the design process wasn't what I thought, the end turned out differently than I expected as well.

My involvement in Worldwake design didn't come to a sudden stop. Rather, it ended in a gradual trickle of final touches, as the development team called on the design team for additional tweaks and ideas. The real end of the process for me wasn't the handoff from design to development, or from development to editing. Nor was it at the Worldwake slideshow, when all of R&D gathered to look over the set as a whole with final templates, art, names, and flavor text.

But the real end of the process—and the true test of any design—came when all of you got your hands on the set at the Prerelease. That weekend, more Bestial Menaces were cast than in the set's entire design and development process combined. More Abyssal Persecutors were frantically sacrificed to end games than I can guess. And I'm guessing at least a couple of libraries got the Selective Memory treatment.

That's the real end of the design process. That's the payoff. In the end, that's the point of the whole process—surprising, confusing, exhilarating, weird, and wonderful—and seeing "my" cards on people's favorites lists is an amazing feeling I feel privileged to have.

That part wasn't so surprising after all.

Latest Feature Articles


May 18, 2022

Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate Mechanics by, Jess Dunks

The beloved adventure of Dungeons & Dragons returns to Magic once more in Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate. This set visits one of D&D's most iconic settings, introduce...

Learn More


May 17, 2022

Collecting Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate by, Max McCall

Editor's Note: We wanted to provide a clarification that the card Faceless One does not come in the foil-etched or traditional foil treatments. Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gat...

Learn More



Feature Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All