While I have designed a lot of sets, I haven't had my hand in the design of all that many worlds. I was very involved in the creation of the plane Rath (from Tempest) and had a hand in the idea of a merchant world which turned into Mercadian Masques (although I had no input on the actual construction of that world). Other than that, the only world that I had a hand in building was Mirrodin. How did that happen? Well, luckily I have a whole column to talk about it.
A quick aside before I do though. I have become somewhat of a cheerleader for the Phyrexians. That's mostly because they allowed me to finally bring poison back in a big way, and also because I'm a sucker for nostalgia and the Phyrexians have always been, for me, Magic's "big bad." From this a lot of people assume that I don't like the Mirrans. Not at all the case. I was the lead designer of Mirrodin, and as you will see today, I was very involved in the creation of the Mirrodin world. I have a soft spot in my heart for Mirrodin. I picked a side because I needed to pick a side for Pick a Side Week, but it wasn't an easy decision and I am quite sympathetic to the other side. Just something I wanted to get off my chest.
Putting the Pedal to the Metal
To tell this story I am going to use a format most often seen in movies. It is known as a "title plate structure" where each section of the story starts with a title plate (movie talk for a screen with just words on it, most often black with white writing). The most popular version of a title plate structure is to list characters and advance the story by following that character. This is how I want to tell the story of the creation of the world of Mirrodin.
I was hired by Wizards of the Coast to be a game developer. At the time I was hired, I said to then-VP of R&D Mike Davis that my strengths lay not in development but in design. He replied that R&D didn't need a designer; they had Richard Garfield. What R&D needed was a developer. Understanding the value of getting one's foot in the door, I said okay.
I spent my early years serving as a developer on every Magic set. Back then Magic R&D was comprised of me, Bill Rose, Mike Elliott, William Jockusch, and shortly thereafter Henry Stern (who, by the way, just got married—Congratulations, Henry and Melissa!), so it was common practice for all of us to be on the development of every set.
While at Wizards, I quickly became good friends with a man named Michael Ryan who was one of Magic's editors. Back then, the editors were very involved in names and flavor text, so Michael and I got a chance to do a lot of creative work together. Michael and I often went to lunch together, and during one of our chats we realized what Magic was missing: a major storyline. The end result of this realization was a pitch that Michael and I made to the Magic Brand Team (and for more on how to do a good pitch, check out last week's article) which resulted in what all of you might know as the Weatherlight Saga.
Michael and I pitched a three-year story arc, but, due to factors I won't get into today (although maybe in another column if there's interest), we were only involved with the story through Stronghold. The Weatherlight Saga ended up lasting four years but it deviated significantly from our original pitch. Luckily, during that time I convinced the powers that be to let me try out my hand at designing. My first set was Tempest, which was well received, so I began my journey as a Magic designer and stepped back from my role as a Magic storyteller. It was an itch though that I was still eager to scratch.
Tyler started out as a freelancer making ads for Magic. In fact, the first time I ever met him he was pitching an ad for The Duelist (before DailyMTG.com, Wizards used to print an actual magazine dedicated to Magic called The Duelist; for a good chunk of its existence I was the editor-in-chief), which I hated and told him to his face that I didn't like it. (Tyler's partner, interestingly enough was a man named Mark Jessup, who is now in charge of Magic marketing). Tyler soon thereafter got a job at Wizards as a copywriter and I was convinced he hated me.
The copywriter job turned into a marketing manager position (for Dungeons & Dragons) and eventually led to a job on the Magic brand team. It was in this position that I got to know Tyler and we became friends. Eventually, Tyler moved on from the brand team and became the creative director, overseeing the creative team (the position Brady Dommermuth now holds—more on him very soon). It was during this time that our story picks up.
Tyler and I talked a lot about what kind of stories a trading card game could tell best. The Weatherlight Saga had shown that showing intricate plot was very difficult. The hypothesis I made to Tyler was that perhaps we should be telling stories of environments as much as stories about people. What if we came up with another three-year storyline, but this one was a conglomeration of three distinctive worlds? In fact, the idea we liked a lot was that you didn't even know that block 1 and block 2 were connected until block 3.
Here was our idea:
Block 1 – We travel to an artificially made metal world. Here the builder of the world has been trapping creatures from other worlds and bringing them together. He throws many obstacles in their way for some reason that we don't know. This world came from brainstorming what a world full of artifacts would look like. I had been a huge fan of Antiquities back in the day and felt strongly that artifacts were a theme the players would get excited about.
Block 2 – This was a prison world (although not underground like the prison world from Scott Van Essen's Great Designer Search 2 entries). It was run by a vicious warden who made all the prisoners fight one another. His reasons would be unknown. We didn't know the specific mechanics, but the idea was that the block would be very combat oriented.
Block 3 – This was a storm world. I've been very fond of the idea of a world where the weather has gone haywire, but this idea has never really picked up any traction. Anyway, we would learn that this is the place where the Contest was going to happen. We learn the creator from world 1 and the warden for world 2 were each searching for a champion who would fight for them in this Contest, the winner getting some key prize. This world was the first place that I pitched the idea of a land-based block.
Tyler and I wrote up our idea and pitched it to the creative team, which Tyler at the time oversaw. The three-year story didn't really raise much interest, but everyone was intrigued by the idea of a metal world. Also, Bill Rose, who at the time was the head designer (my job now) had signed off on an artifact block, so while block 2 and 3 were up in the air, it was decided to start work on block 1.
Once upon a time Brady was an editor at the National Council for Teachers of English (NCTE) in Champaign, Illinois. It was a job that paid the bills but not the kind of job that you wake up every morning excited to go to. The job would prove to be important, though, because it was there that he met someone who would change his life: Michael Ryan.
Yes, my co-conspirator of the Weatherlight Saga left NCTE to become an editor at Wizards of the Coast. Michael had written an unsolicited letter to the then Head Editor, Beverly Marshall-Saling, and surprisingly got a response. A few editing tests later, Michael was a full-time editor on Magic: the Gathering. A year or so into his time at Wizards, Michael was asked by Beverly if he knew of any other editors that might want a job. Michael referred Beverly to Brady and, well, Brady was willing to leave the exciting world of technical textbook editing to work on Magic.
Brady was an editor for numerous years. Then one day he mentioned to Bill Rose that R&D really needed a technical writer. Bill said, "Okay, you can do it."
The tech writing position led to a short stint as interim rules manager and then led to him being the manager of a writing team. (Magic, it turned out, had a lot of need for writers.) Brady eventually transitioned to becoming a world designer in charge of creating worlds for the game. It was at this time that Brady reported to Tyler who was the creative director and oversaw the creative team.
Brady was the person who was given the write-up Tyler and I had made and told to turn it into a world. Brady liked elements of our idea, but there were a lot of things that didn't make sense. For starters, if this was going to be an artifact block with a lot of artifacts, weren't a decent amount of them going to have to be artifact creatures? In Tyler and my pitch, all the creatures were organic beings plucked from other worlds. Where were the artifact creatures coming from?
Brady's first idea was to have the creator of the world (who, interestingly, Brady named Soren, the Memnarch) create not just a place but an entire ecosystem. Not every creature was brought here. Some were built here. Down the road, this decision would lead to things like the Myr.
While this added some creatures to the mix it didn't really solve the larger problem. Brady was tasked with making a metal world, but so many of the components just weren't made of metal. Was there any way to take the essence of the world and infuse the creatures with it? It wasn't enough to bring the creatures to the metal. We had to bring the metal to the creatures.
This led to Brady's second big change. If we want to allow the environment to have an impact on the creatures brought here, we had to give evolution time to work. Brady pitched the idea that the creator made the world and brought creatures to it several generations ago. The creatures in this set weren't the ones brought here. They were, mostly, the ancestors of those people.
A quick offshoot of solving this problem was Brady having to come up with a reason for evolution to happen more quickly than normal, which led him to the mycosynth which led him to the idea that the Phyrexians had their hand in this world's evolution, something that was purposely stuck in the background for possible future use.
Brady had a lot of interesting ideas. What he needed was for someone to turn his snippets of ideas into a full-fledged concept.
For a long time Magic had one art director. It was his or her job to interact with artists to make all the artwork needed for Magic be it cards, packaging, ads, whatever art needs the game had. Then one day, the brand team decided that perhaps they were doing it wrong. Having only one art director meant that they were always caught up in the day-to-day art tasks and didn't have the time to sit back and look at Magic's art in its entirety.
While Magic's heart is the trading card game, there are a lot of other avenues where Magic pops up and the brand team, at the time, felt that it would be good to have an art director that oversaw the overall look and feel of Magic's art. They called the position a brand art director. To find this person they looked within Wizards at the various art directors in the company. The person for the job, they decided, was a man named Jeremy Cranford.
Interestingly enough, I had already met Jeremy, because I was putting together my wedding and I needed a graphic designer who could create my wedding invitation. (Yes, the Monopoly board jigsaw puzzle. You can read all about it here if you have no idea what I'm talking about.) I asked around and someone suggested Jeremy. Jeremy was happy for the freelance gig and I was happy to get an awesome-looking wedding invitation.
Cut to a few years later when Tyler and I had come to Brady with an idea about a metal world. At this point, the commissioning art director had left the company and rather than hire a new person to fill the void, Jeremy became responsible for both jobs—the brand look and feel and the day-to-day commissioning. (This would get undone years later with the (re)hiring of Matt Cavotta, but that's a story for another day.)
Tasked with building the metal world, Brady turned to Jeremy. It was Jeremy's idea to infuse the creatures with metal, which in turn led Brady to realize that the clock had to be set several generations forward. Brady was a bit reluctant at first because he didn't want the creatures feeling robotic. Jeremy assured him that there was a way to create a look with metal that felt organic rather than artificial.
To accomplish this, though, Jeremy needed to find someone who could take his ideas and find a way to make them visually dynamic.
Cue flashback. Years earlier, after Michael and I managed to sell the Magic brand team on having a larger story, the then–brand manager Rick Arons decided that if we were going to do it we needed to commit to the idea. To accomplish this, Rick hired an entire team of artists. Among this band of artists are same names you might recognize like Mark Tedin and Anson Maddocks. Also hired was a young man who was not as well known to Magic players, an artist named Matt Wilson.
Matt Wilson ended up being the art director during the early years of the Weatherlight Saga. He also did a number of pieces of card art. Among some of his more famous pieces were Avenging Angel, Dream Halls, Exalted Dragon, Palinchron, Solitary Lancer, and Treachery. Over time Matt realized that he enjoyed doing the art more than he enjoyed wrangling it from others. By the time our story picks up, Matt had become the lead concept illustrator for Magic (similar to the job Richard Whitters holds now).
So when Jeremy needed someone to realize the world he had envisioned, he turned to Matt. Matt's earliest work was on the elves. It really showed how the metal could be weaved into the physiology of the elves in a way that felt as if the elf was part of a metal world rather than just a visitor.
Many people had been skeptical of the idea of a metal world but the concept art by Matt helped deliver the ideas that Brady and Jeremy had worked together to create. Once people could see and understand the elf, everything else started falling into place.
In turn, these concept illustrations inspired me as the lead designer of Mirrodin and the creation of the world Mirrodin had come full circle. I realized what an exciting world the creative team was building and I worked with them to create a card set that showed it off. And that my faithful readers is how a metal world was born.
Testing One's Metal
My goal of today's column was to show you how many different people work together to create a single idea. Mirrodin is not my world nor Tyler's nor Brady's nor Jeremy's nor Matt's. It was a combination of the work all of us did that led to its creation. I hope you all enjoy it as much as we did creating it.
That's all for today. I'm curious to hear any feedback in my email, twitter (@maro254) or the column's thread. Join me next week when we return to Hollywood for Part 2 of my Roseanne tale.
Until then, may you learn the joy of sharing creation with others.