Solid Gold

Posted in Feature on April 13, 2009

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.

Welcome to Week One of Alara Reborn Previews! This week we'll begin dishing out the goods on the newest set. If you haven't heard yet, Alara Reborn has what we in the gaming biz call "a hook." All 145 cards are multicolor, and traditional multicolor at that (traditional multicolor means a card with a least two different colored mana symbols in its mana cost; these cards have a gold frame and I will refer to them as "gold cards"). Why did we do such a thing? How did we do such a thing? Who, what, where, and when did we do such a thing? Stick around and perhaps I'll talk about it. I might even throw in a preview card. You know, if the mood hits me.

Gold Diggers of 2009

Before I dive into the swimming pool of gold, let me start by introducing you to the design team responsible for this set. I was busy working away on Zendikar (this fall's large expansion—which I really, really want to talk about, but I can't—not yet, but someday), so this is the second design team in a row that I was not on. Luckily, it was in very capable hands:

Aaron Forsythe (lead)

While Aaron loves being the Director of Magic, one of his biggest regrets is that he doesn't get to spend the time on design and development teams like he used to—"getting his hands dirty," as he likes to say. That said, he does try to find time to be on the occasional team. When Aaron heard that Alara Reborn was going to be the all-gold set, he cleared some things off his calendar and said, "Mine!" (To paraphrase Mel Brooks: "It's good to be the director.")

Only eight people in the history of R&D have led the design for both a large set and a small set. Aaron is on this short list. This set in particular was quite a challenge (I'll get to why in a moment), so I was happy to see an experienced designer helming the design. I feel Aaron did a wonderful job stepping up to this challenge.

Brian Tinsman

Brain is one of the other eight people on the list. (Bill Rose and I round out the four that still work at Wizards). Brian has a reputation of being a designer who thinks far outside of the box. Aaron knew that an all-gold set would have to break some conventions so why not bring the king of the convention breakers onto the team?

I have enjoyed watching Brian mature as a designer and I feel he just keeps getting better and better. In fact, I believe the upcoming set he led the design for ("Prosper" of "Live," "Long," and "Prosper"—the Spring set of 2010) is his best work to date. Alara Reborn is no exception to the trend and Brian delivered his A game.

Mark Gottlieb

Don't tell anyone I told you this, but Mark is an awesome designer. (This just stays between us, right?) I would not be surprised if several years down the road, Mark is adding his name to the list above. Here's the thing that I find most interesting about Mark as a designer: The role of the Rules Manager (Mark is the Rules Manager and thus my nemesis, for those unaware of this) is to find ways to do everything as we've already done it. The goal of a designer is to find ways to do things that we haven't already done. Basically, this means that a designer and Rules Manager think in opposite directions. Nonetheless, Mark is excellent at both. I don't know what this means about his mental processes, but I'm impressed.

Mark was originally on the Conflux design team and begged to switch over to Alara Reborn as he was so excited by the idea of designing an all-gold set. Aaron knows, as I do, that Mark adds a lot to any design team he's on, so he was happy to have Mark join Alara Reborn. And as with Brian, the results were what you would expect: lots of good stuff. By the way, if he asks what I said about him, just say I said, "Eh, he was okay." Complimenting your nemesis is considered bad form.

Alexis Janson

In December of 2006, Alexis Janson was crowned the winner of the first Great Designer Search (I say "first" because if I have my way, one day we will do another). It's a little over two years later. What's Alexis up to? She has a full-time job at Wizards coding cards for Magic Online and I believe since the first day of her design internship she has been on a design or development team continually. One of those teams would be Alara Reborn. Like Mark, Alexis was very excited to work on the all-gold design. Also like Mark (and Brian) Aaron knew she was someone who could deliver a slew of interesting designs, which she did.

Alara Reborn was a design team of heavy hitters. Each of the four designers above is someone any lead designer would love to have on their team. Why so much design power on a single team? Because this was no ordinary design. As I will explain, this team had taken on a monumental challenge.

All That Glitters

Before we get to the challenges of Alara Reborn design, let me take a few paragraphs to talk about how the set ended up as an all-gold set in the first place. One of the most common questions I've gotten about Alara Reborn was when during the block design we realized that the last set was going to be all gold. My answer is that the question makes a false assumption. The block did not beget the all-gold set; the all-gold set begat the block. Huh?

In less confusing terms, the idea for the all-gold set was what Bill Rose started with when he set out to design the Shards of Alara block. Bill knew that we were going to have a gold-themed block. With only that knowledge at hand, Bill started to think about what cool new things we could do with gold. An idea that tickled him was a set of nothing but gold cards. Bill quickly realized, though, that such a thing required a lot of set-up. Bill thought a lot about the logistics and came to the conclusion that the best way to do it was as the third set in the block.

The quick reasoning: the first set is both too big and too dependent on staple, base effects to be all-gold. This meant we had to choose one of the small sets. By making it the third set, you had the entire block to build up to it plus it's always best to end on a bang rather than have it in the middle of everything.

Once Bill cemented the idea of having an all-gold third set, he worked backwards to build a block that would set it up. This, by the way, is an awesome topic for a future article, but it is not the topic of today's column. Today's column is about the design of Alara Reborn. I just wanted to stress that the design team walked in the design fully aware that they were about to design a set with nothing but gold cards. (And even then, what that meant was up to some debate.)

The Gold Standard

One day, Aaron called me into his office and said that because he knew that I couldn't lead the design for Alara Reborn (as I was knee deep in Zendikar), he was interested in doing it. He said that the idea of doing an all-gold set really intrigued him and that he was going to carve time out of his schedule to do it. I told him that I felt he was a good choice to lead the team and that I had one piece of advice: "This set is going to be a lot harder to design than you think."

Why did I say that? Because in my time I've designed a lot of multicolored cards. While they are fun to design, they have a whole slew of design complications and limitations. Having a set with nothing but gold cards, I knew, was going to present problems because it was going to cut off the design team from a lot of tools that they are used to having. What do I mean? Let's walk through some of the issues.

Simple Designs Become a Lot Harder To Do

One of the things you learn early in game design is that people have a breaking point. There's just so much they can think about before it overwhelms them and they give up. For Magic, we tend to think about this issue with something we call "complexity points." I should note that we don't have actual points that we assign but that we use this concept as a way to think about the overall concept. The idea is that any set can only have so many complexity points because once you exceed them you start burning people out. (This issue leads into a whole host of issues, but we'll save the topic of "complexity and Magic" for another column.)

Because we have a limited number of complexity points, that means that we have to make some portion of the cards as simple as we can. These simple designs ease play and help put the focus to the cards that carry more of the set's messaging. (And yes, I am saying that the more complex cards should be the ones that are pushing the themes of the set and/or block.)

Here's the problem with gold cards: they're hard to make simple. Why? For starters, gold cards have to feel gold. Here's an example: say you want a common Counterspell. Permission is something that exists in every Magic set. But you can't just write "Counter target spell" on a multicolor card. By itself, it just feels mono-blue. You have to add something to it to give it the feel of the second color.

The net result of all this is that cards that feel gold tend to have more words on average than their monocolored counterparts. This means that an all-gold design has less access to simple clean designs. The designers are going to have to solve a lot of problems without their basic tools that they get to use each set. From a design perspective, this is a big, big deal.

You Can't Have One-Drops

Here's a problem that might not be obvious at first blush. Since multicolored cards, by definition, have to have two different color mana symbols, it means that every card must cost, at minimum, two mana. How much does that matter? Well, let's take a look at a bunch of recent small sets and see how many cards they have with a converted mana cost of 1:

Conflux – 19 (counting the spell Banefire)
Eventide – 17
Morningtide – 12
Future Sight – 11
Planar Chaos – 22 (counting spells Timecrafting and Venarian Glimmer)
Coldsnap – 17 (counting spell Balduvian Rage)

At the low ebb, the number is still in double digits. The average is just above 16. Suffice to say, that's a lot of cards to be unable to do. It messes with the mana curve. It restricts small effects. It's yet another thing that designers have learned to rely on that they can't for this set.

No Lands

For an all-gold set in any previous block, this would read "No Artifacts or Lands," but luckily the world of Alara gave us a nice tool to get artifacts into the set (thank you, colored artifacts). Nonetheless, the inability to do lands is a beating to design. Remember this is a multicolor block that needs to enable playing lots of colors. What cards do that job the best? Lands, of course.

This brings up an interesting question: why couldn't the set have lands? The answer is that the design team spent a lot of time trying to figure out what the expectations of an all-gold set were. Could the set have colorless cards (such as artifacts and lands) as long as it didn't have any monocolored cards? Could the set have straight up hybrid cards? After much discussion, the team came to the conclusion that what made an all-gold set cool was the "all" part (well mixed with the "gold" part). Almost all-gold lacks the punch of "all-gold." Being all-gold meant that the set couldn't have any cards that did not have a gold frame.

The above agreement led to the next cheat. What if you had lands that were colored. We've had lands that were artifacts and creatures. Why not lands that just have a color, or in the case of this set, colors. Technically, those lands would require a gold border. Why didn't the Alara Reborn design team do this? Because it would be lame. It would have just read, the team felt, as a cheat. It would signify that the team wasn't able to solve the problem without breaking its own rules. So they didn't cheat.

Hard to Feel Like Part of the Block

All-gold is splashy and splashy is good, but splashy does have its drawbacks. The biggest problem for this set was that the all-gold theme tended to pull focus from any other theme. Remember that one of the goals of any small set is to feel like it is part of the block it shows up in. Imagine that one cheerleader showed up in a unique all-gold sequin uniform. Yes, she (or he) would get noticed but it would do so at the cohesion of the whole squad. The all-gold set had similar issues.

The Alara block is about the five shards. The all-gold theme doesn't intrinsically have anything to do with that theme. This meant that the design team had to solve that problem. They had to design the set in such a way that it felt like it was finishing what the other two sets had started.

All Gold: A Theme but Not a Theme

Which leads us to the related issue—all-gold is a theme in one way (what the set is about) but not so much in the other way (how does the set feel?). I often talk about how I like theme weeks here on because the restrictions make it easier to come up with ideas for columns. (Time to repeat my mantra: restrictions breed creativity.) That said, some theme weeks are kinder than others. Themes about something (e.g. Cycling Week) dictate my subject. Themes about the structure (e.g. Top Ten Lists Week) don't beget column topics as easily.

All-gold did an excellent job of telling the design team what restrictions they had to adhere to (obviously, they were designing gold cards), but it didn't dictate any content or context. The team had to come up with that on their own.

One such theme (the set has more than one), played into the idea of rewarding gold cards for being gold cards. Design had touched upon this idea in Dissension, but the Alara Reborn team felt there was more area to explore. Which leads us to today's preview card. Instead of setting it up, I'm just going to show it to you.

The point of this card (you know, other than just being cool) is to tempt players into trying to build a deck of all gold cards. Sure, not all your creatures have to be multicolored but it sure feels great if you can pull it off.

Pot of Gold

The point of today's column is that I want you to understand, when you see the awesome set that is Alara Reborn, that its cool hook made the design much harder to create. Each category I listed above is a big deal. For most of these issues, Alara Reborn was the first set ever in the game's history to have to deal with these problems. The fact that the set shines is a testament to how hard the design team worked. That's all I wanted to say.

Join me next week when I talk some more about Alara Reborn's design and show off another preview card.

Until then, may you take a moment to appreciate not what is but what needed to be done to make it so.

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