Here's a Story
Anyway, our story today begins when my design team was faced with returning to the plane of Mirrodin. This is easier than it sounds because eight years ago when we first visited Mirrodin, the creative team snuck in the seeds for the story when we came back. The clues were subtle, but all the groundwork was laid for the Phyrexians' return. For those that might not be so up on Magic's story, the Phyrexians were Magic's first villains. Well, perhaps you could say Mishra was Magic's first villain but he was a villain because of the influence of the Phyrexians, so I'm willing to just call the Phyrexians Magic's first villains.
The Phyrexians had their hand in much of Magic's early story. They were also the "big bad" for the Weatherlight Saga, which ended in the destruction of their home plane Phyrexia. Yes, the Weatherlight Saga ended with what appeared to be the end of Magic's most famous bad boys. But do great villains ever really die? No, they do not.
The Phyrexian's return was planned back when Mirrodin was first put together. It was interwoven subtly so that hardcore Magic-story fans would get a hint that something was wrong without quite knowing what that thing was. (The mycosynth wasn't a red herring after all.) Then when we returned to Mirrodin we could tell the story I'm about to talk about.
The Phyrexian oil (the source of all the evil that is Phyrexia) found its way to the plane of Mirrodin. (I'll let Doug fill you in on how that all happened.) The oil started corrupting the plane, slowly infecting it. Now remember as I said last week, the M.O. of the Phyrexians is that they come in and spread their infection, slowly turning things into them. With each conquest, the Phyrexians turn one of you into one of them.
So, here's where the start of our design story begins. We have Mirrodin, which we are revisiting and we have the Phyrexians that have continued in their quest to infect all of Mirrodin. The design had to find a way mechanically to make each side come alive.
"Houston, We Have a Problem ..."
Last week, I talked about my desire to make poison viable, but that was just one of several issues lain before the Scars of Mirrodin design team.
Quick aside, my excitement over my desire to make poison a key point of a block had an unintended side effect last week. While poison does play an important role, I falsely gave the impression that the whole block was solely about poison. No, the block is about returning to Mirrodin and rediscovering it and seeing what has changed and evolved since last we were here. Layered on top of that is an infection by the Phyrexians—who are slowly taking over Mirrodin without the Mirrans currently being aware. If you like poison, trust me, it's going to play a role in the block. If you don't, there is a whole lot else going on too. The Phyrexians are only twenty percent of Scars of Mirrodin and only a subset of that are cards that have the word infect on them.
Back to the matter at hand, creating the infrastructure for Scars of Mirrodin's design. To make things clearer, I'll divide our problems into two parts, the Mirran problems and the Phyrexian problems.
The Mirran problems:
#1 It Has to Feel Like Mirrodin. This problem is, as they say, a curse and a blessing. Mirrodin is the best-selling Magic set of all time. The block, though, is also what Erik Lauer has called "development's biggest mistake." (I'd personally argue Urza's Saga block, but suffice to say things went awry.) Magic has had some ups and downs, but Mirrodin block is one of our biggest downs development-wise. The environment broke and caused some number of players to leave the game.
Part of the expectation of returning to a place is that it will have enough of a feel that it will seem like we're actually going back. But if it's too much of a return we risk repeating a bad thing. How do we evoke Mirrodin block without, you know, evoking Mirrodin block?
#2 It Has to Have Something New. Not only does the block have to recapture the past, but it has to do so while still delivering on something that every Magic set has to deliver on: providing something new. The return to Mirrodin doesn't just have to capture the past; it has to pave the future. One of the biggest challenges facing the design team was getting this balancing act just right.
#3 It Has to Be an Artifact Set. I don't believe it's possible to revisit Mirrodin without revisiting the fundamental theme of the Mirrodin block. Artifacts weren't just a feature of the block; they were at the heart of the block's identity. But a part of the problems the Mirrodin block faced was directly tied into the problems that a heavy artifact block faces. In short, to return to Mirrodin meant to tackle the problem of how to make an artifact block work without leading to degeneracy.
The Phyrexian problems:
#1 It Has to Feel Like the Phyrexians. Often when we design something, what we are creating is unknown. That is, design has the luxury of defining the mechanics however they want because the flavor will follow suit, the Creative Team will "make it work". That system doesn't work as well when you're designing a known quantity. The Phyrexians are the "big bad" of Magic. They have been well spelled out over many years. Design couldn't lead, we had to follow. We had to design something that followed what had already been established. Plus, the Phyrexians are the gold standard of Magic villains. We didn't just have to match it, we had to nail it.
#2 We Had To Make Poison Work. Last week's column was about all the ways poison hasn't worked in the past. To sell poison to R&D (and please remember, even as Head Designer I don't just get things rubber-stamped—the only way to get a thumbs up is to prove that it's good) I had to solve all the problems it's had in the past. As I will spell out when I get to this section—these problems were quite a challenge.
#3 There Had to Be More Than Just Poison. I've focused a lot on how much of a perfect fit I felt poison was for the Phyrexians. Even if my team managed to get R&D buyoff on poison, there was still much design work to be done. Poison could be an element but it wasn't the be-all, end-all of making the Phyrexians work. The design team had to discover all the pieces to the Phyrexian jigsaw puzzle.
Let's walk through each of these issues and explain how the design team cracked them.
#1 It Has To Feel Like Mirrodin
The first thing the design team did when we talked about returning to Mirrodin was to figure out what we could bring back. Every set has repeats but this set could use those repeats much more directly than normal. What better evokes Mirrodin than cards from Mirrodin? Thus I began by asking my design team to list every repeat they thought we should talk about.
Some cards from this list made it into the set:
While others did not:
Others didn't make it in exactly the same form but morphed along the way:
The next thing we talked about was what mechanic should return. Several years back, VP of R&D Bill Rose set a rule that we should try to bring back at least one mechanic per block. The idea behind his decision was that designs are a resource that we needn't waste and time has shown that players enjoy the return of popular mechanics from the past.
As we were returning to Mirrodin, it seemed pretty straightforward to use as our repeat mechanic something from the Mirrodin block. Here were our options:
Equipment and indestructible have both become evergreen mechanics that we use every year so they get cut from the list. Scry was just brought back in Magic 2011 so that was also not in contention. Finally, it was looking very much like the Phyrexian side wanted to use -1/-1 counters, so both modular and sunburst were removed.
Quick aside—there was a lot of speculation, especially after infect was previewed, that the Mirrans would use +1/+1 counters to contrast with their enemy, the Phyrexians, and their use of -1/-1 counters. While the reflection of the two counter types is nice from an aesthetic vantage point, intermixing +1/+1 counters and -1/-1 counters fails miserably in actual play. The reason we limit ourselves in each block to only one of those counter types is that having more than one makes it impossible to look at the board state and know what's going on. As game play is king in Magic, the idea of intermixing +1/+1 counters and -1/-1 counters was never seriously considered.
After the dust settled, the list now looked like this:
So, of course, the design team decided to explore the most obvious choice—affinity.
While this choice might seem shocking at first glance, it's actually pretty logical when you take a step back. Mirrodin was an artifact-heavy block. Any return to Mirrodin would also require a strong artifact theme. Of the three choices, affinity was the only mechanic that stressed this key identity of Mirrodin. (Okay, imprint only appeared on artifacts.) In addition, affinity is clearly the most iconic mechanic of Mirrodin block. If you asked people to make the list of the mechanics of Mirrodin block from memory, odds are a few of the mechanics would get missed. The one that wouldn't? Affinity. Why? Because it's hard to think about Mirrodin block without it coming up.
Sure, affinity was broken in Mirrodin block, but I was pretty sure the mechanic itself wasn't broken. I've said in this very column before that I expect to bring back affinity one day as the mechanic has a lot of untapped design potential. I even talked to some of the developers asking, "Are we capable of developing affinity to be usable but fair?" All of them said they believed we could do it.
Affinity was the most iconic, most memorable mechanic of Mirrodin block and R&D believed we could fix the problems of last time. Why wouldn't we include affinity?
So my design team set out to rework affinity. To help even things out we explored other types of affinity, aside from affinity for artifacts, such that we could spread out our affinity. Sure, some affinity for artifacts would have to appear, but we could isolate it in a few colors and allow other colors access to a different type of affinity. (Testing showed that we didn't want too many different types.)
So what happened? Did it not play well? No, it actually played very well. Was development unable to balance it? We didn't get far enough to find out, but in talks with developers most everyone thought development capable of the task. What did affinity in? Let's call it risk management.
Affinity blew up in our faces during Mirrodin block. And yes, I do understand that the real culprit wasn't really affinity. But the broken deck was called the "affinity deck," so for good or bad the mechanic took it on the chin as the culprit of Mirrodin block's woes. Bringing it back brought a lot of risk, more risk than most of R&D thought was necessary.
We were capable of creating another mechanic that had a similar feel without having the emotional baggage affinity did. R&D loves revisiting past mistakes to show how we've learned since their creation, but just because we can do something is not reason enough to do it.
I often talk in this column about being on the right side (or at least winning side) of many of R&D's arguments. This time I fell on the "let's use affinity" camp and fought pretty hard to try and keep it in the design. I'm not sure if I was falling victim to what I talked about above or that I honestly was more fascinated by the accuracy of the return than weighing the reaction the decision would create. Looking back, I believe we made the right decision even though I fought hard against it at the time.
With affinity out of the running that left us with:
From this list, the choice was easy. While entwine is a cool mechanic, there is very little Mirrodin about it. Imprint, on the other hand, only went on artifacts and was much more iconic from the first time it was used. I also believed that imprint had plenty of design space left and that it would be fun to play around with. While it turned out to have a little less design space than I assumed, we did find some neat nooks and crannies to fiddle with.
How did we replace affinity? That answer comes in with our next problem.
Before I get to that issue though I want to bring up that making the set feel mechanically like Mirrodin had a lot more to it than just repeating things from Mirrodin block. The set also needed to re-envision things that players knew from the Mirrodin block but with new mechanical twists. Both the spellbombs and the replica cycles are back, but this time with a slightly more modern design sensibility. The replicas, interestingly, turned into an opportunity to push in areas we were now able to because of the removal of damage on the stack. Now that you had to choose between dealing damage and getting the effect, we could be much more aggressive in what they did.
We also took full advantage of the creative from the Mirrodin block. The best example is that we embraced the Myr full throttle, even enabling a Myr deck for those dying to build one. When I get around to my card-by-card article I'll fill you in on some of the fun we had.
#2 It Has to Have Something New
With affinity out, we had to find something new for the Mirrans to do. Yes, they'd have imprint but that is a complex mechanic that doesn't show up in common and was best on a handful of cards. Also, as we were trying to stay true to its use in Mirrodin it had to stay on just artifacts.
This meant we needed an affinity replacement. After talking it over with my team, we decided that the new mechanic also wanted to have an "artifacts matter" feel. That is, it wanted you to play a deck with a lot of artifacts. This feel, while different, would give some cohesion to the Mirran side, making it feel like it did in its first block.
The team threw around a whole bunch of ideas but none of them were clicking. The answer ended up coming from outside of our design team. Well, it was designed by a member of our design team, just not for this design. Mark Globus came in fourth in the first Great Designer Search and parlayed it into a job in Wizards digital department. Years later he segued that into a role as R&D's Magic producer. While his job wasn't directly about design and development, he clearly was interested in working on both, and in R&D we never push away willing and useful bodies.
To sharpen his design skills, Mark decided to work on a set on his own time to try and get a better sense of what decisions went into making a set. I can't give too much away because there's a chance that what Mark was working on will actually get used. I can tell you, though, about one mechanic in it, something called presence. Presence was a mechanic much like threshold that turned on if you controlled nine or more permanents.
When Mark came to me (among others) to review his set, I remarked that one of my favorite things about it was presence. Flash forward a few months and the Scars of Mirrodin design team was trying to crack the "artifact matters" Scars of Mirrodin mechanic. Remembering the mechanic, I noted that if we adapted it, changing permanents to artifacts, perhaps it could be the mechanic we were looking for.
At first we talked about setting the number required to four artifacts, but after some discussion we believed four was too many so we played with three. Development fiddled as well but came to the same conclusion design had reached—that three was the right number. It was clear from the very first playtest that we had our mechanic. It was different from affinity (in many good ways) but it had a similar feel. It felt like something the Mirrans would use.
Which brings me to my preview today. At San Diego Comic-Con this year I ran a Magic panel (along with Aaron Forsythe, Brian Tinsman, Paul Levy, and Christopher Moeller). In the panel I showed off some art from Scars of Mirrodin. One of the illustrations was this:
During the panel I said that we were bringing back a mechanic from Mirrodin block (imprint, if you haven't been paying attention). Unaware to me, but not unaware to the three hundred people in the audience, I said it, loud and clear, when this piece of art appeared on the screen. As this card's visual is tied to Etched Oracle, the most famous sunburst card from Fifth Dawn, everyone assumed I was saying, "Sunburst is coming back. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge."
It obviously wasn't, but my clue was so exact that everyone just assumed it to be the truth. Anyway, this card is my preview card for today.
It doesn't have sunburst, but it does reference all five colors, and creative was looking for ways to visually reference iconic Mirrodin block images. Matt Cavotta (who, by the way, is back at Wizards, yeah!) did an awesome job on the illustration. Plus, it doesn't exactly suck. The Phyrexians might be a big threat, but the Mirrans aren't pushovers. I'm very eager for you all to see where this goes.
#3 It Has to Be an Artifact Set
Of all the problems we had to tackle this might have been the thorniest. Whenever something goes awry, R&D spends hours upon hours analyzing what happened, trying to understand what mistakes we made and what we could do to fix them in the future. This is a very interesting issue and I do plan on talking about it. Unfortunately, to do so properly I need to be able to talk about the block in its entirety and as Mirrodin Besieged and "Action" are not public yet, I'm going to have to table this discussion for another column.
The one thing I can say is that we didn't shy away from having a lot of artifacts. One of the reasons I believe Mirrodin sold so well was that the artifact theme is beloved by many. The goal with Scars of Mirrodin was to embrace the artifact block and find a way to do it without the degeneracy that happened the last time. The end result is that Scars of Mirrodin has almost as high a percentage of artifacts as Mirrodin. It's a few percentage points lower but within spitting distance, as I like to say.
Now let's talk about the Phyrexian side of things.
#1 It Has to Feel Like the Phyrexians
While the puzzle of solving the Mirrodin side of things was fun, my heart was definitely on the Phyrexian side. You see ...
What? I'm at my word count already? But I have so much cool stuff left to talk about. Oh, there's a Part 3? Okay.
That's all I have room for today but join me next week and I'll explain the other half of Scars of Mirrodin's design.
Until then, may you always have three artifacts on the battlefield.
One More Thing
I wanted to drop a quick reminder that the Great Designer Search 2 will start on Wednesday, September 29. While we are still working out all the details, I wanted to let you in on a few things. First, the entry requirements, while not finalized just yet, are going to be very similar to those used the first time around. Second, the GDS will again begin with an essay test of Magic design questions. I'm telling you all this so you can do any advance preparations you need. The essay test will again lead into a multiple-choice test.
Also, there is a major new component to the GDS2 that will allow people who are not in contention for the internship to play a large role. I will explain all that on Septmeber 29—so whether or not you want to enter, please drop by on Wednesday, September 29 to learn all about how the GDS2 is going to work.