On the Rise, Part III

Posted in Feature on April 12, 2010

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

Previously on Making Magic:

A desire to keep the "lands matters" theme to two sets and a substantial third act shift pushed R&D to make the final expansion of the Zendikar block a large set with a mechanical reboot. The task was given to Brian Tinsman and his design team (Aaron Forsythe, Graeme Hopkins, Devin Low, Gregory Marques, and Bill McQuillan). Their task was clear: make a set that imagines a world in which the monstrous Eldrazi have broken free of their prison inside Zendikar. To do this, the team figured out how to make the Eldrazi, imagining them into giant colorless creatures. The next step was to craft an environment where the Eldrazi could be played. The key to doing this was twofold: slow the environment down and help players speed up their ability to cast larger spells.

Quite a Nice Spread

One of the difficulties about writing about design is that writing tends to be linear. (I mean that in the English sense of the word and not the Magic definition—check here if you don't know the Magic definition.) That is, you have to write about things in a specific order. Thing A happens, then Thing B happens, then Thing C and so on. Here's the problem: That's not how design works.

Design has an evolution that I call "spread." Here's how it happens. You start with Thing A. You explore what Thing A offers to the set. Thing A will lead you to Thing B. As you start thinking about Thing B, you don't stop thinking about Thing A. Thing A is still being processed in your head. All you've done is realize the need to also start thinking about Thing B. Thing A or B—or A and B—will beget Thing C. Eventually you'll get a Thing D and a Thing E. But the creation of each new concern for the set doesn't shut off the previous concerns. Each idea continues to spread.

What does this mean for design? It means that ideas are working in several directions at once. The things that most get your notice, though, are when two different things start intermixing. When you stumble upon something that works for Thing A and Thing B you sit up and take notice. In fact, that is the goal of design spread: to let your ideas interconnect. Why is this so important? Because the conservation of space necessary to make a good Magic set (you have to fit a lot more into a set than there are cards in that set) requires cards serving dual purposes—and by "dual" I really mean multiple purposes, as many cards serve far more than just two masters.

Why am I bringing up the concept of spread in Part III (rather than Part I or Part II)? Because as I got to this part of the story, I realized the linear storytelling I'd been using was going to fall short of the final piece of the story. The design didn't evolve so much as it spread, and today's column is about explaining that spread. I'm going to be talking about how the spread of the set interwove all the various pieces into a cohesive whole. Be aware that this is going to be hard to write, as things didn't quite happen sequentially. They happen in conjunction with one another simultaneously—which is very organic and good design, but troublesome fodder to write about. Nonetheless, I'm stepping up to the challenge. Today is the final piece of the Rise puzzle where I talk about how they all spread to create something wonderful.

Here's the Thing A

Parts I and II clearly spelled out what Thing A was—the Eldrazi. When your set is all about the "big bad" breaking free, that's where the design has to start. (It's not an accident that the set is called Rise of the Eldrazi; that's the focus of the set.) Obviously the team took a lot of time trying to figure out how to represent the Eldrazi. They ended up with the idea of making them colorless giant creatures. Last week I talked about how that shaped their environment.

The thing is that the idea spread in many directions. Here's a different but important result of the push towards colorless giant creatures. Those who have followed Brian's design work (he's led design on Judgment, Scourge, Champions of Kamigawa, Saviors of Kamigawa, Time Spiral, and Rise of the Eldrazi) know that Brian is a fan of big creatures and big spells. When the team talked about what the Eldrazi needed to be, talk turned to other games where it is common strategy to "turtle up" and build up your forces waiting, until each side has established substantial armies before any fighting begins. The team liked the idea of bringing this style of play to Magic. They dubbed this style of play "battlecruiser Magic."

So slowing down the environment wasn't solely about playing the Eldrazi, but also about shifting the paradigm about how Magic is played. The idea was that Rise of the Eldrazi was a large set played in isolation (a.k.a. no expansions). If ever we were going to try something this different, Rise was the set.

The reason understanding this vantage point of the design is important is that it puts other aspects of the set in a new light. Levelers and totem armor auras both started not as a means to slow down the game (which they do), but as a means to create more ways to build the big giant monsters. If Rise of the Eldrazi was going to be "battlecruiser Magic" it needed multiple ways to create the "battlecruisers."

Let's take a step back to look at the spread in action. The plot twist of the block required the design team to care about the Eldrazi (Thing A). The Eldrazi wanting to be big giant creatures inspired the design team to create a world where "battlecuiser Magic" could work (Thing B). The Eldrazi also forced the set to craft an environment where they could be played (Thing C). But the spread was just getting started.

Thing B is looking for ways to create giant monsters. Some begin that way (the Eldrazi). Others can slowly evolve themselves (levelers). Certain tools can be used to turn ordinary creatures into giant monsters (totem armor Auras).

Thing C wants to slow the game down. It is looking for ways to gum up the battlefield (defenders / Walls). Creatures that can build up a defense (levelers). Ways to keep your creatures alive (totem armor Auras).

That B and C overlap in two different areas shows that there is synergy between the goals. It is this synergy that draws the design to itself. This is why the levelers and totem armor Auras thrived. Each allows you to slowly piece together your "battleship" while also creating a defense to hold off your opponent's forces.

(As a quick aside, this is why cards like Glory Seeker are lower powered in Rise Limited than in the average Limited environment. When the cards that come down on turns one and two can evolve into larger creatures, they quickly overshadow the early drops that never change.)

While all this was happening, another piece of the design was spreading in its own direction. While the Eldrazi were slowing down the environment, they were also speeding up mana production. The designers wanted the players to be able to cast their giant monsters, so they needed to come up with some ways to do this. This is the avenue that led to the Eldrazi Spawn creature tokens (0/1 colorless creatures that can sacrifice themselves to add to your mana pool). This desire to speed up mana is Thing D.

As the board starts getting bogged down in defense, a new need arises. Evasion, which is always important in Limited, took on an even greater importance. If the environment by its very nature grinds the creatures into a stalemate, then the ability to break that stalemate becomes vital. To meet this demand, the designers started putting cards in the set specifically because they help break through the stalemate. My personal favorite draft strategy, for example, revolves around a deck type that instead of trying to stall, finds ways to break through the opponent's defenses. This need to break through is Thing E.

Sometimes the spread affects things by what it is and something it does so by what it isn't. Eldrazi, levelers, totem armor Auras, Eldrazi Spawn token creatures, evasion creatures—do you see anything missing here? Yes, instants and sorceries. Everything we've been talking about revolves around permanents, but the game needs to have its spells. Design doesn't have the luxury of not making use of a subset of cards. (Remind me to write a conservation of space article one of these days.) Instants and sorceries needed to be used to advance the agenda of the rest of the set. Making them matter became Thing F.

As you can see, the design keeps spreading. The problem with spread though is that the design has a Limited amount of space. Ideas, unchecked, will spread indefinitely. This means it's the designers' job to rein in the ideas at a point so they start spreading to one another rather than continue to generate yet other things to care about.

Layer It On

But wait, there's more. While all this is going on there is another force at hand. I've talked about layering before, but let me quickly get you up to speed. The idea of layering in design is that you have to create different elements for different players. If too much of your set is doing the same thing, you risk losing part of your audience. (Remember that the goal of Magic design is to make each set, as much as possible, appeal to every player.) This was especially an issue with Rise because the core concept of the set revolved around playing in a particular way, and a somewhat foreign way at that. As the set spreads in a certain direction, the design team has to be very conscious of what different avenues the set allows the players to explore.

What this means is that themes and mechanics have to serve a purpose beyond what they do to serve the set. They also have to serve themselves. Each piece of the larger pie has to have its own agenda. If players want to focus on that aspect of the game, they have to be able to do something with it, apart from all the other stuff it was created with. It turns out there are a couple ways to do this (some of which you can already see in the Visual Spoiler in the Rise of the Eldrazi product section.

"Blah" matters – The first way to make a subset of cards work unto themselves is to create cards that reward you for having a lot of them. It forces the players to view the mechanic not just by its pieces, but by what it constitutes as a whole. This theme can be seen used with defenders and to a lesser extent with totem armor Auras.

In each case, there are cards that push you to want to commit to the theme in larger numbers. This is especially important in draft because getting one of these cards early can push you in a direction very distinct from other drafts.

Manipulate "blah" – The next thing you can do is to make cards that specifically allow you to manipulate the subset of cards in question. A good example of this in Rise is the levelers. To tempt players to want to play numerous levelers at once, the design team created cards that helped players manipulate level counters. A player who sees a card like this early in a draft is more inclined to pick up as many levelers as he or she can. (What cards? None have been previewed yet, but you'll see some of them soon.)

Trapmaker's Snare
Jund Hackblade

Why do I keep talking about these themes in terms of Draft? One, Draft is one of the key ways many players play. And two, Draft does a good job at showing low-level themes. If a player can draft the theme on the fly, a casual player (defined as someone not playing in tournaments) should be able to build a deck around that theme.

(As a second quick aside, there has been a lot of debate about how good the levelers are. While there are a few Constructed ones, almost all of them (save a few narrow rares) are very good in Limited, so much so that I strongly advise you to play with any levers in colors you are playing.)

Make "blah" matter in a different way – The best example of this category is the Eldrazi Spawn. The Spawn were created as a means of helping players get extra mana to cast their Eldrazi and other expensive spells. As with the levelers, I can't stress enough the value of Eldrazi Spawn tokens in Limited. Even if you aren't planning to play Eldrazi, casting any spell faster is good.

When design was looking for ways to make Eldrazi Spawn matter even without Eldrazi in your deck, they realized that the trick was to make cards that cared not only that they were mana sources but that they were creatures. To demonstrate, let me show you a card, one you haven't seen. A preview if you will.

This card was designed such that if you opened it in pack one of a draft that you would be very motivated to pick up every Eldrazi spawn-making card even if you never pick up any Eldrazi. (Although drafting Eldrazi Spawn does make Eldrazi more attractive to draft.) Turning your seven 0/1s into 2/2s can pack a pretty good wallop.

Weave the theme into a mechanic – I talked above about there was a void of relevance in instants and sorceries. The set had to have them, but they weren't as integrated into the sets themes as design wanted. The trick to solving this problem was finding a way to make instants and sorceries matter. It was easy to make cards that care about instants and sorceries (see the first category above) but hard to make those cards have the impact design wanted, as players (especially in Limited) don't tend to play that many instants and sorceries in their decks.

Meanwhile, the team was on the lookout for a final mechanic. The set felt like it was missing something. One day, the chocolate hit the peanut butter, and the team realized that the two problems had a single solution: make a mechanic that not only went on instants and sorceries but that helped make them more relevant. The answer was to create a mechanic that allowed more instants and sorceries to exist, thus making the cards that cared about them matter more. The mechanic they came up with is called rebound.

Rebound is essentially instants and sorceries that "go off" twice, once this turn and once at the beginning of your next upkeep. The existence was the perfect fit for the hole that was created. I call the "negative design" in that sometimes you design for what isn't there. Rebound allowed the design team to add numerous cards that made instants and sorceries matter.

My favorite example of a card that loves rebound isn't public yet, but I'll talk about it next week when I walk through some of my favorite stories about Rise design and development (I was on the development team and not the design team for Rise—more on that next week).

In each of the above cases, the design team was able to make cards that gave that subset of the set its own focus—not one that will always come up, but rather one that occasionally could.

Spread 'Em

One of the analogies I use about designing a set is that it is like building a house of cards. A key moment of that comes at the very start. You have to begin by taking two cards that are not balanced and balance them against each other. Each needs the other to stand and the card house builder has to have a gentle touch to get each to balance at exactly the same time against the other. A lot of design is like that moment. Each piece balances against other pieces that in turn are balancing on them.


Design spread is a process where you are hunting down what those elements are and it can lead designers to very interesting (and sometimes scary) places. Rise of the Eldrazi was this type of design. It is hard to explain what leads to what because so many of the elements lean against each other for support. Hopefully, my article has given you a little glimpse in how it worked for this set.

I hope many of you are able to make it out to a Prerelease this weekend. Join me next week when I'll be sharing some of my favorite design and development stories about individual Rise cards.

Until then, may what you want to matter matter.

Latest Feature Articles


September 20, 2022

(Almost) Everything to Know About Unfinity Boosters! by, Mike Turian and Adam Styborski

Welcome to the lights and excitement of Unfinity! Magic's latest Un- set release is packed with attractions (and Attractions) to delight players—from the fresh-faced thrill seekers ready ...

Learn More


September 20, 2022

Unfinity Mechanics by, Matt Tabak

Welcome to Myra the Magnificent's Intergalactic Astrotorium of Fun! It's the galaxy's most awesome entertainment complex. For just a few credits, or whatever currency your planet uses, th...

Learn More



Feature Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All