Welcome back to the best of 2009! As you read this, the Magic web team is busy sharing the holidays with family, friends, and probably more than a few games of Magic. But we couldn't just leave you hanging, so we've selected our favorite articles from 2009 to repeat for those who may have missed them, or those who want to read them again.
This second "Best Of" feature article was a toughie. I've traditionally chosen one set design feature to rerun, because they consistently offer interesting inside information about how various releases came to be. There's Ken Nagle's dizzyingly information-packed Conflux Design Feature Article, Alexis Janson's elegantly crafted Alara Reborn – But Is It Art?, and Aaron Forsythe's forthright and insightful Magic 2010, the New Player, and You. That's not to mention Patrick Buckland's articles about Duels of the Planeswalkers—The Magic Engine and All About AI—which give a glimpse inside the digital design process behind the Xbox LIVE Arcade game that I, at least, found fascinating.
Ultimately, though, I couldn't help going with Dave Guskin's "Talk the Talk, 'Walk the 'Walk." Dave's a fun, breezy writer, and Planechase is my favorite release of 2009, so I'm quite pleased to give you this chance to read, or reread, Dave's inside scoop about the design of Planechase, from the 60-card decks to the mechanics of planeswalking to the planes themselves.
We'll be planeswalking back with all-new chaos on Monday, January 4. See you then!
Daily MTG Editor
This article originally ran on August 31, 2009.
This is the only surviving record of the journey of four Wizards of the Coast and their travels through the multiverse, searching for the most ridiculous, fun, exciting and interesting planes while continually reworking their own tools and spell repertoires. The last time these intrepid travelers were seen was near Tazeem, in the wondrous, dangerous plane of Zendikar ....
Our development team was quite a diverse combination of player types, an all-star mix of casual and competitive mentalities along with a great group atmosphere. This in turn gave us a great back-and-forth while talking about Planechase and how to make it more fun.
- Peter Knudson, R&D Intern, with a fresh outside-looking-in viewpoint
- Mark Purvis, Brand, with a focus on marketability and his more casual, more multiplayer group
- Mike Turian, Pro Tour Hall of Famer, with the skills to pay the bills and an always-cheery attitude
- and me, a former PTQ circuit player and lapsed deck designer
Unlike a normal expansion's milestone-driven development, Planechase had both a shorter cycle and a more open nature to it that lent itself to a more casual, holistic approach. This approach in turn led us to jump around among the balancing of the decks, the planes themselves, and the nature of the multiplayer format.
Barely any of our meetings were to go over the files; we had a few, to troubleshoot some of the really annoying planes, but primarily our meetings were "play Planechase!" I can't remember a meeting where we left the door closed, and it was common for Brian or Ken to drop by and see how their design was progressing, or for other members of R&D to hear our shouts and moans and come by to see what the heck was going on.
The Blind Eternities
Early in Planechase development, we focused primarily on making sure the core rules—including the planar die and the process of planeswalking—were in the right place.
Two things never changed about planeswalking as it was handed off from design: it was a one in six chance (represented by the roll of a single six-sided die), and everyone got a free roll. This system was passable, but we all grumbled when there was a plane out there that was awful for us, and we wanted to leave but couldn't because we were restricted to one attempt per turn! Mike quickly implemented a "rebuy" system wherein a player could spend one additional mana (cumulative) to roll again.
Lead designer Brian Tinsman and Mike both focused on the balance between planes' static effects and the chaos abilities, trying to find the balance point at which players would want to roll even if they were happy with the current static ability. We wanted the die roll to be almost as exciting as the actual plane flipping over, due to how crazy the chaos effects could be.
For a while, designer Ken Nagle was concerned with allowing players to reroll as many times as they wanted, even with the continually increasing mana payment required. "What if there's an infinite combo, and we provide them a free 'spout' in the plane deck?" he demanded, referring to a combo engine's final piece, a way to leverage the resources into a game win. Mike eventually decided, with many of us backing him, that the simpler rules for "normal" Planechase should win out, and that if a combo deck akin to the type Ken feared became a problem, each individual playgroup could and would find a solution in their own ways.
Pools of Becoming
As we hammered out the nature of the Planechase rules and each individual plane's implications, we involved Magic rules manager Mark Gottlieb. He prepared a one-sheet with potential rules for us to look over and on which we could give feedback, but since we were all itching to play, we jumped right into it. One of the plane cards that we 'walked to was Pools of Becoming. Gottlieb took one look at it and got that little twitch that indicates he is about to have a rules hemorrhage. At the time, the chaos ability on Pools of Becoming was:
Whenever you roll [chaos], each other player reveals the top card of his or her planar deck. Each of the revealed cards' [chaos] abilities triggers. Then put the revealed cards on the bottom of their owners' planar decks.
He and Nagle then launched into a hypothetical scenario of 10 players wherein each other player had a planar deck with Pools of Becoming in order (meaning the first other player had it on top, the second other player second from the top, and so on). When the first chaos trigger resolves, each subsequent reveal would trigger another Pools of Becoming until the planar decks had all cycled back to the first player's Pools. Crazy infinite chaos triggers would ensue!
Around the same time, Aaron Forsythe and Mike Turian became concerned with the form of play where there's only one stack of plane cards, a "shared" planar deck. Aaron put his concerns in an email to the Planechase team:
I've been hearing a lot from people that they prefer to play [Planechase] by just shuffling all the planes together and playing off one pile. [...] I think we should support playing like that in the rules somewhere. [...] That shouldn't be "wrong".
Luckily, Gottlieb suggested a change to Pools of Becoming that both made the planar deck-building options more interesting: let the Pools trigger the chaos abilities of only your own plane cards ... which, as a pleasant side effect, helped enable this single-stack mode of play.
One of our first playtests definitely drove home the wackiness of the Planechase format compared to other more typical ones. We started this playtest game with Wildfire's Naar Isle—a dangerous plane card, especially in the early game. I was at 16 before my first land drop! Despite everyone attempting to planeswalk away, no one was able to hit the elusive planeswalker symbol. By the time I had dropped my third land, Mike and Mark were about to die to 11 and 12 damage on their upkeeps, respectively. I hit one lucky chaos to put Peter down to just low enough that he would die to his own plane, and came out victorious.
We had a long discussion about the craziness factor involved with these extremely swingy plane cards. It was definitely apparent when one of them was the first plane out, but overall we all came to the conclusion that this format wanted that risk to make each plane flip exciting. After all, the infamous Naar Isle game burned everyone out rather quickly (about three turns around the table), and then we had no problem starting again.
This difference between the fun-balance of Planechase and the competitive balancing we do for duel-oriented formats, especially Standard, became a point of discussion that we returned to frequently. It's no big surprise; with potential early-turn Mana Flares, Fastbonds, Medallions and Radiates, tons of explosive starts were possible. Over time, we began to prefer the solution of adding cards to the 60-card decks that could recoup from early game tempo like this, or even modifying some planes to do the re-equilibrating for us.
After tweaking some of the rules and individual planes, Mike asked each developer to take a deck to rework and make more exciting and interesting in multiplayer.
I took the Metallic Dreams deck to tinker with after the design handoff, since I am a big fan of blue and artifact cards in general. It was handed over as a five-color deck with an emphasis on sunburst. During my initial revisions I put in more active combo elements (some tutoring, more trinket targets, even some of the Fifth Dawn stations) but designer Ken Nagle and I discussed it and decided we didn't need to go overboard on these aspects of the deck. Seeding it was almost as good, and allowed intrepid casual players to revise the deck on their own to focus on comboing out their kitchen table if they wanted to do so.
Two of the changes I made to the deck deserve some explanation: focusing more on the Myr element (with Suntouched Myr, Myr Matrix, and even Sarcomite Myr joining the party) and adding Door to Nothingness. With all kinds of Elementals romping around in the red-green Elemental Thunder deck, I liked the idea of focusing on a quirky tribal element to draw newer casual players in. Since it was enjoyable to play with and against throughout the course of development, it stuck.
The first few times we played with the Metallic Dreams deck, the two Genesis Chambers in it posed an interesting problem: they were fun (nobody complained about the quickly-amassing army of 1/1s everywhere), but they were too much like the plane cards themselves! We decided it would be much more interesting to reduce that static combo element, and replace it with something a bit more build-around. Lo and behold, after some Gatherer searching and playtesting, I found Door to Nothingness as an exciting step toward this goal. Here's what I had to say to the team about the Door in my email recommending its inclusion (which accompanied the removal of Gilded Lotus for Gemstone Array):
I think Gemstone Array is a way better fit than Gilded Lotus since sunburst is a theme in here; that freed up a rare slot which I gave to the splash and sort-of-interesting-in-multiplayer Door to Nothingness (it's an excellent rattlesnake card, even if it is far less powerful in a multi-opponent situation).
(For an explanation of what I meant by "rattlesnake card," check out Anthony Alongi's animal types at the bottom of this article.)
Izzet Steam Maze
Mark Purvis took a different approach with a different deck: the Blue-Black Mill deck, which was a bit of an oddity. Unfortunately, the other three decks played quite well on the normal creatures-smash axis. The Milling concoction just wasn't as interactive, and certainly wasn't winning against the combined board presence of the other three. Purvis took his reputation as "the Magic Brand Manager with a heart as black as night" and ran with it, finding a novel solution: braaaaaiiiinnnnsss! I mean, Zombies. He reworked the deck to be mono-black and focus much more on the tribal synergy along with a minor -X/-X theme.
Peter worried that Mark's change would leave blue the odd-color-out, since now only the Metallic Dreams deck had any blue in it (and it was more of a 5-color artifacts deck at that point). I recommended we could tilt it into a "five-color blue" deck while maintaining the artifacts focus, and after that change, everything fell into place like so many puzzle pieces. We continued to tweak the decks, switching things around to better embody a diverse multiplayer experience, but the core of each deck remained fairly constant after that.
In our first playtest with the new Zombies deck, we started with Izzet Steam Maze as our first plane—referred to colloquially as "Fork World" in playtesting. No one could get anything awesome started on the first turn... except for Mark and his Dark Ritual. His became , and down came turn-one Helldozer. All of us were left stunned in the face of his merciless cackling. He won that game pretty handily. Nobody had expected to find such necromancy in the heart of Izzet territory!
The Æther Flues
You might be surprised to note that one of the most complex plane abilities—the Polymorph effect of the Æther Flues—is actually a simpler version of what design handed over. Here's what the file started with:
Whenever CARDNAME is revealed or at the beginning of each player's upkeep, put target creature on the bottom of its owner's library. Reveal cards from that player's library until a creature is revealed. Put that creature into play under owner's control and all others on the bottom of his or her library.
[Chaos] – Each player chooses five creatures he or she controls. For each chosen creature its controller puts it on the bottom of its owner's library, then reveals cards from his or her library until a creature is revealed. Put that creature into play under owner's control and all others on the bottom of his or her library.
Mike Turian rightly suspected this card's text would not fit, even on the oversized plane cards. As we played more with it as written, trying to figure out what part fit the best, we found ourselves just always using it as Polymorph. Mike, being the excellent developer he is, identified immediately that we should just be using that line of text instead. The chaos ability ended up being a bit too crazy, even for Planechase, so it got a makeover into the quite straightforward Elvish Piper ability.
As a brief aside, not all of the upkeep-trigger planes had this novel "Whenever CARDNAME is revealed or at the beginning of [...] upkeep" wording at first. As I often ran Metallic Dreams, which has a few of these plane cards, I often complained about 'walking to one but failing to partake in the benefits. Mike agreed and lined up all of the templates so that the 'walking player would benefit from the reveal just as much as everyone else.
The Eon Fog and Eloren Wilds
Of course, in some cases, it turns out no one is benefiting—everyone is "griefed" by some ridiculous effect instead. Equilor's Eon Fog and its Stasis ability became the poster child for this effect, but it was one of the few such "griefer" planes in the initial file. Ken Nagle and Aaron Forsythe came into our email conversation demanding MORE such planes ... enough to build a deck with!
There don't seem to be many narrow planes (Green creatures are indestructible). That seems like fertile territory [...] Most of the upside ones in there now try to be party-time upside for everyone, which doesn't feel to me like it will be enabling different decks. Anything you do will be turbo-blaster kill everyone. Conscious decision? I think more narrow/mundane ones will make for more happiness when Howling Mine World is flipped up: YAAAAAYYY!!!
I think the number of griefer planes should be just under 10. That way someone can really make a grief-filled stack. I like The Abyss, Stasis, Armageddon Clock. What's the group opinion on frequency of griefer planes?
I guess I'm looking for what the ideal split is between griefer/narrow/all-upside.
Ken gave his vehement agreement and offered quite a few grief plane designs to the email thread for consideration. Thus the chaos ability of Eloren Wilds was born. I will never forget the game that Ken joined with his casual Urza's Hot Tub deck, when he rolled the Shandalar location's chaos ability, got a gleam in his eyes, pointed at me and said "Guskin! No spells for you, mwahahaha!" And all the while, Aaron stood behind him like some Emperor to Nagle's Vader.
Another interesting side effect of this conversation had to do with Aaron's first point: more pigeonholed planes that referenced color(s) and/or deck types. Lead designer Brian Tinsman took this idea and ran with it, reworking a few of the existing planes to include color words. Mike and Brian agreed the color words give players a good hook to start imagining particular decks to build with these planes. I know when I saw the white creature clause on Agyrem, my mind abounded with Enduring Renewal–type combo decks I could build for multiplayer mayhem.
As the above email chain and its fallout indicated, many of the plane card abilities changed significantly over the course of development. Others remained pretty much as turned over: Naya's static ability is a great example of "don't mess with a good thing":
You may play any number of additional lands on each of your turns.
Needless to say, we were all dreading the day that Elemental Thunder started with Naya as the first plane of the game. Midway through playesting, that day arrived. Turian, piloting the red-green deck and having revealed Naya at game start, shrugged it off, unable to play more than two lands on the first turn. Mark Purvis, however, had different plans. He laughed as he played a whopping four lands from his hand, then used his additional mana to planeswalk away immediately! Despite this rather gross advantage, we all ganged up on him and he was unable to seal the deal.
Planechase continued to drive home this central lesson: crazy things were bound to happen, but like all multiplayer games, the combined pressure of multiple players acting against such craziness tended to bring things back to equilibrium.
And, just as quickly as we had entered into playtesting Planechase, we were forced to depart. Mike handed off the file. Sure, there were still many parts left undone that others would finish: the breathtaking artwork wrangled by Jeremy Jarvis, the rules and templating required for these unique new plane cards hammered out by Michael Mikaelian and Mark Gottlieb, and the Organized Play support plan from DCI program manager Scott Larabee and his confederates. Scott assured us that he would continue to play Planechase with his EDH crew long past the end of our development cycle—they were just as hooked as we had become.
Time passed, and Planechase finally made its way to R&D in final product form. Shortly after we received these first actual boxes into the building, Aaron invited visiting rules guru Laurie Cheers to join him and rustle up a group to play Planechase. That group ended up as Laurie, Aaron and two of R&D's numerous Marks (this time, Mark Globus and Mark Gottlieb). Aaron piloted the Elemental Thunder deck, Laurie had Strike Force, Gottlieb had Zombie Empire, and Globus ran with Metallic Dreams.
As they cheered and booed at each new plane arriving, they started to attract a crowd. In fact, by the time I arrived on other business and saw their game going, you'd have been hard pressed to find a person in the Pit doing something other than getting caught up in the Planechase excitement. Here's how the final turn went down, with every player still at relatively reasonable life totals:
Aaron had a horde of Elementals, but Gottlieb matched him with nearly as many (one of which was the Husk-y Phyrexian Ghoul), plus a threatening Grave Pact in case Aaron tried any funny business. Of course, business became quite hilarious as Aaron discovered he had exactly one more creature than Gottlieb and that one creature was Rockslide Elemental. Aaron went all-in attacking Gottlieb, who, realizing he was beat, sacrificed each of his creatures to wipe everyone else's board. The massive 23/23 Rockslide Elemental still pummeled Gottlieb's face in.
Then Aaron played the first of two remaining cards in his hand with a flourish: Reckless Assault! He untapped his giant Elemental and ran it over toward poor Laurie Cheers, who was chuckling all the while. Aaron finally turned his gaze to Globus, and asked the dreaded question: "What are you at?" The answer: one less than Aaron's remaining mana, which sounded good to the final card in Aaron's hand: Blaze. The crowd erupted with cheers (and Cheers) at Aaron's triple kill.
So pick up Planechase, and have a blast with your friends. I hope you have as much fun hopping from plane to plane as we did!