Taming the Beast

Posted in Feature on December 5, 2011

By Michael G. Ryan

This article originally appeared in Duelist #21 in January 1998.

Magic: The Gathering is a lot like life: the only constant is change, and change is what keeps things challenging. Just when you thought you'd mastered the basic set, Ice Age introduced cantrips and cumulative upkeep. After your deck design caught up to those innovations, Mirage added flanking and phasing. And, now that you've gotten every ounce out of those new wrinkles, you have to figure out Tempest's shadow, slivers, licids, and buyback.

Ice Age, Mirage, and Tempest are three large expansions designed to stand on their own in the Magic universe, and three huge beasts that changed the nature of the game. These standalone expansions tested the mettle of Magic's designers in their pursuit of the ideal Magic environment. Let's take a look behind the scenes at how these beasts were tamed.

The three Magic standalone expansions cover a lot of ground, according to lead designers Skaff Elias (Ice Age), Bill Rose (Mirage), and Mark Rosewater (Tempest). And each time around, these expansions added something new to the greater Magic experience.

"The original purpose of a standalone has sort of gone by the wayside," Elias conceded. "It was so people who didn't want to collect everything—or people who couldn't collect it all—would have a constructed environment with a limited number of cards to keep track of."

Blood Frenzy | Art by Paolo Parente

If players thought of Ice Age this way when it was released, that thought was quickly overshadowed by the unique play experience the set had to offer. Rose pointed out that players had nothing to compare it to, and that when Mirage came out, players didn't expect the environment to be different.

"When you mix all the cards together," said Rose, "there are aspects of a standalone that you simply won't play with because they're weaker than some of the other concepts in Magic. Only the strongest cards rise to the top in an open environment.

"The standalones allow us to create different environments—the Ice Age environment was very light on flying while Mirage was very heavy on flying. When you choose your decks, you play them differently. But when you combine the sets, that Ice Age experience of 'light on flying' goes away."

Elias gave particular emphasis to the design variants that a standalone environment offers. Ice Age, he said, didn't begin life as a standalone. Instead, it began as what the design team thought Magic should have been. However, once the concept of standalones came into being, "we wanted a very specific environment," he said, "one low on creatures, light on flying, and low on direct damage. We wanted to see what would happen with these changes."

This experimental approach continues through Tempest, according to Rosewater. Tempest's creatures with shadow add a third front of play. "Not only do players have to worry about the ground and air, but now they have to worry about the shadows," he said. "And in some ways I think Tempest was designed to create a sealed environment in which you don't have as many stalled games. By adding creatures with shadow, we've made breaking through in combat more likely... and by adding buyback, we've made certain key spells more available to players."


The Past as Prologue

For all the changes the designers experiment with while preparing a standalone expansion, one truism remains: certain cards from the past keep the environment balanced.

"You need to make sure a standalone plays well all by itself," Elias said. "Creating just a single expansion set is so much easier because, unless you really screw up, it's hard for it not to play okay with the rest of the environment."

Standalone expansions, however, are a completely different story, and all three designers admit that years of trial and error have led to better and better sets.

"Legends was supposed to be a standalone at one point," Elias noted, "but it didn't really benefit from the years that went into Ice Age and Mirage. It didn't really have enough of the basics, like creature killing."

Rosewater couldn't agree more. "I've played in a sealed Legends environment," he said, "and you very quickly realize that if you have an enchantment in play, unless it's an enchant world, there's no way to get rid of it in that environment! The set doesn't have a lot of those necessary key pieces."

And just what are those key pieces? Rose said there are a few spells that the designers include in every standalone simply because there are no good alternatives for them. Disenchant is one of these cards. But any other "repeat" cards from the past are determined by the environment and how well those repeated cards blend in.

"We knew that shadow in Tempest was very strong," Rosewater pointed out, "and we tried to find ways to keep it balanced. So when we looked for repeats, we based some of them on that part of the environment. We picked Gaseous Form, for example, as a card that worked well because you used it to stop a creature but then gave your opponent a blocker. In the shadow world, though, if your opponent has a creature with shadow and you don't, Gaseous Form can simply eliminate that creature threat."

Gaseous Form

Of course, not every card that proves useful in a given environment is simply lifted wholesale from the past and placed in the standalone expansion. Some cards are tweaked or adjusted for the new set. "The Mirage counterspell Dissipate is not as good as Counterspell," Rose said. "We know that when some cards go head-to-head in the unlimited environment the original will win out—Dissipate is made more for the sealed players and the Mirage players. We also put twists on some of the cards. Mirage doesn't have Giant Growth, for example; it has Armor of Thorns, which uses the mechanic of that standalone. The mechanic blends well with that particular core card."

Armor of Thorns

This works even better with buyback spells in Tempest, Rosewater noted. "Instead of making the old, generic, basic effects, we made buyback versions of them. It makes them fit the environment better and makes them fresh again."

The Art of the Design

Standalone expansions have also served as the testing ground for new mechanics. Of course, these sets all provide a rulebook (vital for explaining the new mechanics to players), but as Rose indicated, there's a more important reason to save new mechanics for the standalones: the size of the set allows designers to fully explore a mechanic through a large number of cards using simple versions of each mechanic. After that, it's possible for the designers to extend the mechanic into follow-up sets by complicating the way the mechanic works.

"Once players understand the play implications [of a given mechanic], they'll need to figure out what they're supposed to do with those cards," Rose said. "Then we can start to do some wacky stuff without overloading players the first time they see the mechanic."

While this plan for introducing and exploring a mechanic extends to Tempest as well (buybacks, according to Rosewater, will appear in the next two sets), Ice Age's mechanics suffered slightly from the initial design plan.

"There was a follow-up set intended," said Elias, "but that never happened for various reasons. And so Homelands came next, and by the time Alliances came around, it had been a long time since the initial standalone. Alliances was hurt because it had to do a lot of things differently than it would have otherwise."

"We sort of made Alliances blend," Rose agreed. During final development, the designers added snow-covered lands and cumulative upkeep to retrofit the set with Ice Age, since the two sets weren't as connected as the designers wanted them to be. While the basic concepts of Ice Age were carried over into Alliances, according to Elias, incorporating these concepts into Alliances required a little extra labor.

"When Mirage and Visions came along," Rose continued, "Visions was always meant to be part of the set—a lot of the Visions cards were designed at the same time as Mirage. And two of the Weatherlight designers were two of the main designers on Mirage, but we weren't initially connecting Weatherlight to the other two sets. Once we had the concept of a cycle—much earlier in the process than Alliances but still after the initial design—we went back and decided that Weatherlight was part of the Mirage cycle with phasing and flanking. Since sets now move in and out of Standard (Type II) as a complete cycle, it became clear that Tempest would be the first set of the newest cycle."

Rosewater noted, too, that the flavor of the sets is equally significant in tying the cycles together. "If you look at a card, between the name and the art, you have a good sense of which set that card comes from."

Pete Venters, continuity manager at Wizards of the Coast, oversees connecting the flavor of a standalone expansion with its follow-up sets. "The first thing that gets asked about a standalone," he explained, "is, 'What's the setting, and what can we do different from last time?' In the case of Mirage it was obvious [in retrospect] to try a lush tropical environment after the Ice Age set. Mirage was also fueled by my desire to increase the amount of racial diversity in Magic, which was starting to settle into a very Eurocentric medievalism.

Mountain Valley | Art by Kari Johnson

"In the case of Tempest, we felt it was high time to really plumb the depths and take a look at the darker side of Magic, and with the conceptual designs of Mark Tedin, Anthony Waters, and Anson Maddocks, we were well on our way."

"After Ice Age and Mirage," Rosewater added, "we kept wondering how to create something that's good but different from what we've done in the past. One of my happiest memories is of the Tempest cards arriving at Wizards; I thought the setting really felt different. The flavor, the art—it all felt new."

Venters conceded that achieving this feel is challenging, especially given the limiting factor of the game itself when it comes to designing a world.

"The game requires that five colors be represented evenly, and that can make it very difficult to come up with new places where these colors get equal representation," he said. "If we were to do a set based on a water world, then logically blue would be the dominant color and should occupy probably eighty percent of the set. Unfortunately, that can't happen. In Rath [Tempest's setting] we have a damned unpleasant world, but nature still had to be there, so that's why we have the elves and Skyshroud Forest. I'm happy with what we've come up with. Our solution for the standalone in 1998 will be different again."

In the Hands of the Players

Of course, the true test of a standalone expansion is what the players think of it. Each standalone has been carefully constructed to give Magic players the best play experience possible.

"We try to make an environment that's interesting for both sealed and constructed play," Rosewater said. "The sealed environment should feel different than it's ever felt before. And the presence or absence of things like Circles of Protection makes a difference in a standalone constructed environment."

Flavor text, too, has been carefully developed to enhance the environment. "I hope players have liked the flavor text in the last few sets," said Venters. "Since Mirage, a team of creators has worked hard to improve the text, making it more entertaining [like Orcish Settlers or King Cheetah] or just plain beautiful [such as Juju Bubble]. Any given card has had a minimum of two and as many as thirty different attempts at flavor text. Not easy after more than two thousand cards!"

Orcish Settlers
Juju Bubble

The designers agree that even when preparing a standalone for the public, they are focused on the big picture and not on the intricacies of specific card combos—although Elias said with a straight face that Cadaverous Bloom was deliberately designed for its multiple-card deck idea.

Cadaverous Bloom

"But Cadaverous Bloom is an interesting example," Rosewater said. "We knew it was powerful. In playtest, we weakened it. We knew it had a lot of power potential, but we'd have never found a seven-card combo."

Elias pointed to Necropotence. "We expected it to be a power card, but it took a long time to reach that level."


Rose agreed: "A lot of times what will happen is that the set will come out, and a month later a really good concept will appear that we didn't think of. But then there'll be a concept that we thought of and playtested that the players won't find for another month or two. We do this by discovering a card, pricing it at four mana, realizing it's broken at four mana, and then weakening it a little so it's not so obvious. But we still know it's out there."

Rosewater noted that there's one of these subtly broken cards in Tempest—but he wouldn't say which card. Players will just have to find out on their own.

Designers' Picks

Naturally, each designer has a favorite card from the standalone expansion he designed, and those cards may surprise players.

"Jokulhaups," Elias said of Ice Age. "Very simple, elegant, fit the flavor, and was a good card as well."


"For Mirage, Celestial Dawn and Polymorph," Rose said without hesitation. "They're not great cards but I've always liked them. They're fun cards."


For Tempest, the new expansion on the block, Rosewater's favorites are Duplicity and Furnace of Rath. "Duplicity was a card I came up with three years ago," Rosewater said, "I really wanted to find a way to have two hands. I think players will like it." Of Furnace, he said, "Very little text, very simple concept, but with great strategic implications."


The Future

So what does the future hold for standalone expansions? As Elias mentioned, the concept of the standalone (an expansion played all by itself) has changed as much as the expansions themselves have changed the game of Magic. Expect each year to bring a new large expansion that will introduce unexpected game mechanics, drive the backstory, and create an exciting world for players to discover and explore.

The next large expansion, codenamed "Armadillo," is already in design (with, of course, new mechanics), and the environment that will tie the set and the cycle together is being planned by the creative team. Beyond that, there has already been discussion of the setting of the large expansion scheduled for release in the fall of 1999. It's safe to assume these expansions will once again take the Magic world in an entirely new direction. Get your whips ready, because these 300-plus card beasts will be tough to tame.

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