Let's Talk Set Design for Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate

Posted in Feature on June 10, 2022

By Wizards of the Coast

We recently welcomed our first guest, Wizards of the Coast Game Designer Corey Bowen, to the Magic: The Gathering Discord channel for the first of a three-part Office Hours series aimed at answering your questions about the upcoming Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate release. In case you missed the conversation, we've got you covered with a recap below:

Athena (WotC Moderator): Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining us. We are joined today by Wizards of the Coast Game Designer Corey Bowen. Welcome, and thank you for being here!

  • Corey: Hello, everyone! o/

Athena: Hi, Corey! To start us off before I begin sharing community questions, what do you do at Wizards?

  • Corey: I'm a game designer for Magic: The Gathering. I work particularly in card design, which may have been obvious! I focus on Commander content but work on the occasional draft set. Before Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate, I was the lead set designer for a lot of the Commander preconstructed decks you've seen since C20 [Commander (2020 Edition)]. This is my first draft set, and it's a big one, so I'm excited to talk about it!

Athena: What did you consider when trying to make sure this set was "accurate" to D&D?

  • Corey: There's a lot to consider when being "accurate" to D&D. I took a very literal approach at first. There are dungeons, there are dragons. "Backgrounds" as a mechanic also had a lot of influence from the D&D 5e mechanic. The whole feeling of creating and customizing your character was a big goal to achieve the feel of D&D in this set. We had Baldur's Gate subject matter experts do a lot of research to make sure we were depicting characters "accurately" as well. Of course, we also developed a lot of new content that isn't familiar to D&D yet. There's a balance between "strictly accurate" and "new" content. Many characters match to their Baldur's Gate incarnations pretty well, but many of them in the games also had pretty malleable power suites, and we chose to emphasize certain aspects of them to make better Magic cards.

Athena: What aspects of D&D were difficult to channel into a Magic set? Did any individual cards challenge or delight you in an unexpected way?

  • Corey: Dragons were difficult. In Magic, they're classically large flying creatures. To support a Dragon creature theme in this set, we needed to make smaller Dragons, so we took advantage of dragonborn concepts, which worked pretty well. That said, while canonically they exist throughout the Forgotten Realms, there wasn't much Baldur's Gate content featuring dragonborn characters, so we created some! Developing the dungeon was also difficult for many game designer-y reasons and individual characters are always challenging when there are so many. Lots of companions from the games could've gone any way since they often don't have very specific power suites. Overall, though, I think translating classic D&D elements to Magic went pretty smoothly, if not for the occasional sacrifice of flavor for functionality. It's always difficult to fully match a set of Dragons to the five colors, too. There's never a perfect answer.

Athena: Why did you land on Baldur's Gate?

  • Corey: There are many D&D settings that we could've pulled from. Baldur's Gate has a political element to the setting that fits well in a game of multiplayer Magic. There was also a wealth of characters from the games that players could fondly recall fighting alongside. Baldur's Gate 3 coming up ahead was another great point of synergy to try and combine waves of hype for Baldur's Gate in general!

Athena: What was your biggest inspiration for getting into card design for Commander?

  • Corey: Playing Commander. I studied game design in school and taught all my friends Magic. I prefer social games over high-tension tournaments, so it was only natural for me.

Athena: What makes this set different from AFR [Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms]?

  • Corey: While both sets are Dungeons & Dragons themed, Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate is much more centered around the social Commander format. Commander Draft and Standard Draft are incredibly different. AFR did a lot of work figuring out exactly what D&D elements could make a great Magic set, and CLB [Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate] got to really build on top of that to figure out how to combine it with a Commander Legends set. The draft archetypes aren't that similar, but the flavor of what colors you'll find certain D&D classes are similar.

Athena: It seems like this set was less about Dungeons & Dragons and more about Baldur's Gate 3, while more of the iconic D&D characters were in AFR. This feels limiting in a way.

  • Corey: Just as much as Ravnica or Kamigawa are part of Magic, Baldur's Gate is part of D&D, and that's the space we were able to explore this set. And besides, it's not just from Baldur's Gate 3. There is plenty of content from Baldur's Gate 1, Baldur's Gate 2, the DLCs for those, and even the Descent into Avernus 5e campaign. Actually, there is even some stuff from completely unrelated D&D places! Ravenloft characters exist! Modrons are here! The Chardalyn Dragon is something I thought was cool from a recent D&D book that we included! And even besides that, I tried to also have a lot of world-agnostic D&D flavor in the set that is present in all campaigns. Campfire and Split the Spoils are examples of cards that play in the spirit of every D&D campaign, and not just ones centered in Baldur's Gate.

Athena: Did you play Baldur's Gate games or have D&D sessions on company time to get a feeling for the setting? Did you read some lore books?

  • Corey: I play a lot of D&D. I played some of the Baldur's Gate games to get a feel of the core fun of the setting and games, but I didn't play them all the way through. The set took a lot of work, so I needed to spend my time designing 360 cards and not completing all the games, haha. After I got a good idea of what made them special, I worked with creative designers who were a lot more familiar with the material to figure out what we should prioritize from the games. I've read a lot of lore about the companions.

Athena: What Easter eggs are in the set for D&D players? Are there previews in the set for Baldur's Gate 3 that fans don't see and designers do?

  • Corey: We wouldn't want to ruin all the fun, but what we can say is that we want this set to resonate with Magic fans, D&D fans, and Baldur's Gate fans alike. For D&D fans particularly, you can look forward to playing as some of your favorite characters, such as Minsc & Boo, Tasha, and Baba Lysaga, and wielding some of D&D's most iconic spells, including Lightning Bolt and Fireball! We also think the Background mechanic is a fun nod to well-known D&D elements. The rulebook card treatment almost feels like an Easter egg, too! Some of the reprints are nods to D&D monsters. Gate Colossus or Geode Golem (I forget which) is a Shield guardian, for example. There's a cycle of adventurers in the set that also directly tie into classic D&D dungeons.

Athena: What are the highlights for this set for a fan who has little/no interest in D&D?

  • Corey: This is still a Commander set at heart, and we expect Magic players will be excited to see the new commanders and inclusion of powerful and cool new cards such as Dragons and planeswalkers. We also think the Battlebond land reprints and other sweet reprints stand out as cards that non-D&D fans can still enjoy. D&D is also a pretty broad "fantasy" setting, so I hope there are cards here with a creative concept that isn't too alienated from your existing decks!

Athena: Every released product has cards that are relevant and desired by commander players, leaving commander to be probably the format with the highest amount of relevant cards being released each year. What made Wizards and the development team think that a new dedicated set full of new cards was a better choice than an all-reprints set or a set made of a majority of reprints?

  • Corey: We view it as why not both? In CLB, we are releasing four Commander decks with reprints. We're acutely aware of reprinting cards, and there are more reprints each year than the year before. We know that fans want even more access to cards that see a lot of play in Commander, and we were excited to make CLB its own thing and celebrate it for what it is. The overall ecosystem of where we put what reprints across all the sets is outside the scope of my role. The reprints that are in the set I think work really well for the set's fun and flavor.

Athena: How did the decision to implement this set into MTG Arena come about? Was it first approached from a power-level approach, or was the set made and then it was decided that the power level would be appropriate to add to Alchemy and Historic?

  • Corey: Nothing to do with power level. CLB is an exciting set, and the partnership with D&D is something a lot of players love. We wanted to make sure MTG Arena players had the opportunity to play with some of the cool elements in this set, in formats that currently exist on MTG Arena. Stay tuned for more about how CLB was implemented in MTG Arena closer to the release! Also, shout out to the design team who oversaw translating all of CLB's themes and mechanics to MTG Arena. It was not an easy task, and their set ended up really sweet and unique!

Athena: Here's a fun one we got from the community—why is Bronze Walrus a Walrus, as opposed to any other card concept?

  • Corey: Because it's cute and fun! We were looking for more concepts to play with for artifact creatures. I like to play artificers from time to time, so I was suggesting some "artificer animal companion" concepts. We landed on walrus because we thought it was visually distinct from the other creatures and had a lot of charm.

Athena: Ok, back to seriousness. A lot of Magic players feel as though EDH [Elder Dragon Highlander] is primarily dominated by five-color value piles. Was this kept in mind when designing Baldur's Gate? What steps, if any, did you take to make sure more restrictive decks shine?

  • Corey: I don't see any five-color commanders in this set. ;) Seriously, though, a lot of my philosophy in three-color versus two-color is evident in the set. In Draft, it's really strong to be three-color rather than two-color, so I balanced that out by having the three-color legends be a lot more niche and difficult to play, with focused themes (most of the time). The two-color commanders in the set have a lot more flexibility and open synergies. This idea of "the more colors you have, the more specific and niche you should be" is a philosophy I like to carry forward outside just this set as well. Every designer is different, but I would say this philosophy is somewhat consistent among our group. There's a future Office Hours regarding the Commander format at large if you'd like to tune in to that!

Athena: How did some of the top-down card cycles—for example, 1d20 on combat damage ancient Dragons, initiative on the dungeon adventurers, etc.—get developed? How much did the iterative process change them?

  • Corey:
    • Ancient Dragons: I wanted something really splashy and epic at mythic that felt like an embodiment of D&D. Huge dragons that rolled a d20 and keyed off of the exact number rolled was a great starting point. It took a few brainstorming sessions and iterations to find abilities that felt right for the numbers rolled, but I think we got to something that has a real sense of wonder.
    • Dungeon adventurers: These were first most designed as "initiative taker rare creatures that gave you a bonus for completing a dungeon." I wanted them to be really cool with initiative, but also work with previous dungeon decks (like the [Sefris of the Hidden Ways] Commander deck in AFR Commander!) The creative treatment of having them all be adventurers throughout classic dungeons was from the concepting team, and I really loved that direction to give them some visual unity and sweet callbacks. Their abilities had some iteration, but none of them were too much. The blue one was copying spells with some different condition for a while. I remember the black one having a lot of iteration trying to find something that could fit in the text box (while keeping the hit counters to work with Assassin commanders).

Athena: Another funny one. Ever think of reprinting Chub Toad in the next core set?

  • Corey: I'll try my best, just for you. ;)

Athena: What are you most excited about with this set?

  • Corey: I'm excited about a LOT of things. It's my first draft set! How could I not be excited?! The response so far has been super uplifting and positive, so I've been pretty happy overall. I'm really excited to see people's responses after drafting the set and playing/building with the cards. Personally, I'm a fan of the initiative, myriad, and the Background commanders. I'm looking forward to building some sort of dungeon deck with the Backgrounds.

Athena: Will new Bane design be featured in the Baldur's Gate 3 game?

  • Corey: That's a great question for the BG3 social team @baldursgate3.

Athena: Does the team see the impact that being designed for Limited causes (color restrictions, the need to follow archetypes, ensuring that things run smoothly during Limited games, rarities, and other things) as a good thing for Commander as a Constructed format? Or would it be better for Commander as a format if the design team were free from worrying about Limited?

  • Corey: The purpose of the set is first and foremost: Commander Draft. We set out to accomplish the clear goal of a draftable Commander format. The secondary goal was definitely Commander as a Constructed format. Restriction breeds creativity, and I think we came up with some cool designs for this set for both Limited and Constructed. There are a ton of cards in this set that I think will be great for Constructed play. Not just the plethora of new commanders, but many ground-level cards like Cut a Deal or some of the mana rocks have a lot of reach outside Limited. There are infinite cards we could design for Constructed, so I don't think the Limited nature of the set constrained the Constructed applicability too much at all!

Athena: What was your favorite Limited archetype in this format?

  • Corey: I really enjoy drafting blue-black dungeon-based decks or red-white myriad-based decks in this format. I'm always very eager to chase the Gate train when I see Baldur's Gate or Nine-Fingers as well.

Athena: What combination of Background commanders and Backgrounds did you find yourself most excited to draft in playtesting?

  • Corey: Dungeon Delver, Raised by Giants, and Inspiring Leader are my favorites. Also Agent of the Iron Throne for my artifact decks.

Athena: How similar was the design process to that of the original Commander Legends?

  • Corey: It was similar and not similar. The structure of this set mirrors a lot of what the first set figured out. They set a lot of groundwork to figure out how we could structurally make a draft that felt and played like Commander. A lot of their development time was spent engineering the blueprints for the format. So CLB got to add on to that work and spend a lot more time connecting it to D&D and trying to solve some problems that CMR [Commander Legends] has. So CLB has a lot of structural similarities to CMR, but not because the development was the same. Mostly because CLB design was more like a continuation of the work CMR did, as well as a continuation of work that AFR did.

Athena: Regarding Barroom Brawl. There is concern regarding the rulings of this card. Was this part of the design of the card?

Athena: What would you tell someone listening in right now who's interested in trying out Magic but doesn't know where to begin?

  • Corey: If you have friends who know how to play, picking up a Commander precon and having them help you through your first game could work well. If you don't know any other players, finding a local game store and picking up some Starter Kits from them could help. They might have in-store events (maybe featuring CLB!) as well. MTG Arena has a great tutorial to get you started with the rules. There are a bunch of big Magic events called CommandFests coming up as well, which is full of Magic players whom you can ask for help! Commander is a very social format, so don't be afraid to ask for help in your games!

Athena: Alrighty, everyone! Our time here is coming to an end. I would like to thank everyone who joined us and submitted questions. And a special thank you to Corey for taking the time to talk with us all!

  • Corey: Goodbye, all o/

Athena: You can follow Corey on Twitter @coreyjbowen. Also, don't forget to check out our second Office Hours panel—Crash Course in Commander.

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