Unraveling the Mystery Booster

Posted in Feature on November 14, 2019

By Gavin Verhey

When Gavin Verhey was eleven, he dreamt of a job making Magic cards—and now as a Magic designer, he's living his dream! Gavin has been writing about Magic since 2005.

The mystery is out!

Last weekend at MagicFest Richmond, players finally got to take a peek inside Mystery Booster: Convention Edition and see exactly what was happening.

And . . . it was a huge hit!

Firing off a whopping 261 drafts (about three times what a new set might usually do at a MagicFest) and some sealed flights over 300 people (not to mention the 400-plus person premiere event!), people certainly enjoyed the experience.

Mystery Booster is essentially Chaos Draft in a set. By far the largest set we've ever made, clocking in at 1,815 cards per version, you can play it many, many times and never quite have the same experience.

So . . . how did everything come to be? What are the differences between the versions? And what exactly are those playtest cards anyways?

Let's dive in today.

This article has two parts. The first is how this set came to be. The second, toward the end, is just the details of what this thing is. If that's what you care about most, you can scroll down—but I hope you'll enjoy the story of this set along the way.

Amidst the Chaos

Chaos Draft has always been one of my favorite formats in all of Magic.

If you're not familiar, the way it works is that you do a booster draft, except the packs aren't all the same. Maybe you have Return to Ravnica, Magic 2013, and War of the Spark. The person to your left has Theros, Fate Reforged, and Kaladesh. And so on: it's a truly wild mix.

I draft this with my friends. I draft it at Grands Prix. I draft this whenever I have the opportunity. It's a blast to find synergies you didn't think possible across sets, and it truly means you have to play around anything.

That's not to say it's perfect. For example, a lot of Chaos Draft decks end up underpowered because there's no synergistic support for a lot of the themed cards; combine that with the normal late-pack picks, and you end up with decks scraping for playables sometimes.

So, for years, I've wanted to do a set that felt kind of like Chaos Draft, but a bit more curated, where the set was tremendously huge—more than a typical person could reasonably expect to explore—but your decks could hum a little bit more.

However, there was never really an opportunity for it. That kind of undertaking would be tremendously difficult to pull off—it would mean so many cards in one set. It would take a really unusual confluence of events to make that happen.

Enter: Mystery Booster.

Mysterious Beginnings

Believe it or not, Mystery Booster began life as a convention-exclusive product entirely. Organized Play wanted a special product that would be a special attraction just for conventions, so they came to us with the request. As the person on the Product Design team who tends to take anything unusual and wonky (along with all the Commander sets!), it fit right into my wheelhouse.

My first idea was immediately Chaos Draft in a booster set. But I wanted to do my due diligence and brainstorm with others rather than just bring my pet idea to life. As a designer, that's the proper procedure to go down . . . right?

So, imagine my surprise when that was the same idea everybody else had!

I riffed on a few ideas with people and ran a brainstorm, but ultimately everybody kept coming back to Chaos Draft. It was something popular at conventions already, and we could do something cool with it here.

To my excitement, the Chaos Draft set was a go!

At this point in time, I started running back through my mental index of other ideas I've been holding onto for ages and been wanting to do.

And that's when I remembered Black Box.

Black Box

Magic isn't the only game we make here at Wizards of the Coast. You might know about Dungeons & Dragons, Transformers, or some of our board game titles like Betrayal at the House on the Hill. But one that many of you may not be familiar with is Duel Masters.

This is a Japanese-only game we actually create here in the States, and then translate and release in Japan where it's one of the biggest card games out there!

They have a propensity for doing truly wild things. Those who have been around for a while might remember reading how that game did double-faced cards first and Magic used that idea for Innistrad's werewolves.

They've done many other things that are out there: triple-sided cards, curry-scented cards, cards that start on the battlefield before you even shuffle up, and plenty of other things that haven't quite hit Magic—yet, anyways.

But one that captured my imagination from the moment I heard of it years ago was a set called Black Box. What was it? Nobody really knew until it was released. It really was a Black Box!

Upon release, people started opening packs. They found plenty of reprints, but also things that were much wackier. Things you might find in this product line include calendar cards representing the months of the year, cards with a picture of a designer's dog, and even Jace, the Mind Sculptor!

Duel Masters Jace, the Mind Sculptor

For years, I've wanted to do a similar set for Magic: one where it seemed like truly anything could show up.

One thing you get used to when working on Magic design is waiting for the right opportunity. We all have a lot of cool ideas for sets or cards, but there needs to be the right time and place for them. So I've kept the Black Box set in my back pocket, waiting for the perfect opportunity.

And it was in this moment I realized I finally had one.

A Chaos Draft product, full of cards from across Magic's history, already felt like anything could appear. Its convention-only nature meant that it could actually surprise people the first time it was played and potentially dip into more unusual territory.

So I worked on a few ways this could manifest. Talked with other designers. What kind of cool things could show up in the packs?

We had a lot of ideas. But our definite favorite was this: "What if you could find R&D playtest cards in the packs?"

It totally captured our imaginations. I pitched it as Future Sight-esque cards that weren't quite silver-bordered but definitely pushed the boundaries of what Magic could do. Some could be nods at Magic players, and others could be things that we may actually do someday and wanted feedback on.

And, so, work on Mystery Booster—aka project "Whirlpool"—began.

Building the Mystery

How does one go about choosing the size—or the cards—for a Chaos Draft set?

I was Architecting the set, and Mark Globus was chosen as the designer. So Mark and I split up the responsibility: Mark would design the regular card set, and I would design the playtest cards.

So I asked Mark how many cards he would want for the set. Originally, I had pitched 500 or so. And he went back and did some math, thought about it a bit, and came back to me with a very specific, but likely impossible, number.

"I'd like 1,694 reprints."

"What?"

"No, that's right. 1,694. Exactly."

Magic cards are usually printed on sheets of 121 cards. What Mark had done, the mad genius he is, is realize that every slot in the booster pack could have its own sheet of entirely unique cards. This would maximize variety. And if you take 14 times 121, you end up with 1,694.

That is a huge set. It would certainly be amazing. But there's no way that would be possible—right?

But, intrigued as I was, I looked into it.

Solving for Chaos

Even before Mark asked me for that gargantuan number, I knew we were going to want to reprint a lot of cards for this product.

But there was a problem, and a reason why we hadn't done a set this size before: it would be a near-impossible amount of work to fit into our normal cadence.

Though it's not as talked about as the Game Design portion of Magic, just as crucial are the teams behind editing, typesetting, and generally making sure Magic cards get made. Every time we make a set, they do a ton of work to make sure all of the cards are laid out in the card frame right, templated, and ready for print.

This takes a ton of time. It's a full-time job! Several, even. And the majority of this happens on a team we call Delta and another team we call Operations.

This happens no matter how new or old the cards are. For example, when we do a product like Commander Anthology, although Game Design does nothing but select the decks, for that team, it's sort of like creating the same number of cards as an entire Commander release!

If we were going to do a Chaos Draft set, we needed to solve for that. The set literally could not get made if the set had to go through the normal process.

So, I had talked to them about it. And we came to a realization: if we printed the cards "exactly" as they originally appeared, that wouldn't take any additional work. We already had those card files made and ready to go!

And thanks to the efforts of a man named Jefferson Dunlap, a good chunk of the files going back to Mirage were well preserved and available to use. We could go back much further than we ever thought!

How would you know the difference between the original and the Mystery Booster version? Strong feedback I had received early on was that it was important there was still a way to identify these cards from the originals, to help collectors feel like they could know the difference between one of these and the copy they had collected back in the day. I asked if we could still find a way to show the difference between the two, and was told we could find a way. (This eventually turned into the small Planeswalker symbol that appears in the bottom-left corner of these cards.)

So, when I came to them asking for 1,694 cards, I expected a look of terror and a quick no.

Imagine my complete shock when what I got was a shrug and a, "If they're already ready-to-print card files that we have, it's not a problem."

I went back and told Mark. He was shocked too! But this is an important product design lesson: if you don't ask, you definitely aren't getting it. Doing a bit of research doesn't hurt—and in this case it worked out!

As absurd as it sounded when I told everybody else, we were good to go for the 1,694-card reprint set.

Designing the Playtest Cards

While Mark Globus was busy working on creating the entire reprint set, I was in charge of the playtest cards.

Future Sight is my favorite set of all time, and my inspiration for making these. (In fact, I looked through the Future Sight card list many times while making them.)

When I told Mark Rosewater I was making a whole set of Future Sight-like cards, he gave me a caution: "As the person who designed Future Sight, making these cards is very, very hard."

Turns out: he was right.

We all agreed these wouldn't be legal in any Constructed formats because they weren't going to get playtesting, plus we wouldn't want to create a tournament-playable card you could only get at conventions. But even removing the restriction of having to work in a Magic format like Legacy, it was still quite hard!

Finding that careful line beyond normal Magic without quite hitting Un- set territory is very difficult. And so I pulled in cards from everywhere I could.

We ran a hole-filling exercise in Wizards where anybody in the company could submit designs. I had people pitch me their ideas. I looked for fun references to playtest cards we had made. And, mostly, I came up with a ton of wacky ideas on my own; the vast majority of designs came from my head. It took a while, but eventually I had 121 I was happy with. (And some favorites that were left on the cutting room floor, perhaps for another day.) It feels like building the timeshifted sheet, but all from sets that don't exist yet.

I won't go into how all of them came to be. But I will mention three very important ones to me.

The first are the cards Bucket List, Bombardment, Pick Your Poison, Graveyard Dig, Wizened Arbiter, and Zymm, Mesmeric Lord. These are cards from the competitors of the Great Designer Search 3 that they submitted during the process. While they didn't get hired, I thought it would be a great nod to their hard work and dedication to get each of them a card printed. Congratulations on getting them through!

The second is Xyru Specter. What's up with this card? Well, when working on Dominaria, Richard Garfield sent me all of his designs and then I put the ones we chose into the file. But the most charming part of the whole thing is that they were all written like old-school Magic cards.

I kept all of Richard's designs. When working on Mystery Booster, I looked through them again. This is, completely verbatim, a card Richard submitted for Dominaria. I thought it would be a neat nod to Magic's creator, and a mechanic he came up with that we didn't ultimately use.

Finally, Barry's Land. I remember reading about this in the early 2000s. This became part of Magic lore and was referenced several times over. With the printing of Wastes, it was basically obviated. But as a famous playtest card, I was glad to finally get it into this set.

I spent a ton of time working on all of these. If you have any questions or want the story behind one in particular, ask me sometime (on Twitter or otherwise), and I'd be happy to tell you more!

Going Wider

As I mentioned earlier, originally this was just going to be for conventions. That's where the request came from. But as the product evolved, it was clearly getting bigger than that. The set was larger. We were pulling from more sets. Cards people wanted were in there. It was a different story.

Ken Troop, a director of the Studio that makes tabletop Magic and a very wise man, took me aside one day. He posited that if we thought this was going to be great for conventions, we should release it in stores, too.

And looking at the scope of this project, he was definitely right: if we were putting this much work into things, and we thought Chaos Draft as a format was something players would be excited about at conventions, they would no doubt be excited in stores as well. We could make a version of this product for stores that players would love!

So we had a chat with Aaron Forsythe and some others. Organized Play still wanted an exclusive piece of the product for conventions, and there were some great points made for keeping the playtest cards at conventions as a special thing there. They weren't real Magic cards, we weren't playtesting them for Constructed, and so giving them a wide release in places where any Magic player goes to get Magic cards to put into their decks did not feel as appropriate as having them at MagicFests, which tend to be for more of a Magic player in the know. Instead, we wanted to make sure the wide release had something that anybody could be happy to own.

And so I was tasked with coming up with something for stores that was still exciting.

We wanted to make sure that stores had a product that was unique and desirable as well: it was important that they both felt cool, not with one outdoing the other. So I looked for things that the Convention Edition wasn't doing and ended up with a clear answer: foils!

The Convention Edition doesn't have any foils in it. These would be complex to print, plus many of the cards never existed in foil and, since we were picking cards up entirely and printing them as they once were, they needed to be foils already. But if we chose a specific list . . . we could do a special foil sheet, just for stores!

Additionally, we didn't know how the playtest cards were going to be received. The reaction could be anywhere from "why are you giving me unplayable cards" to "I love these!" While appropriate for a convention product, this guarantees something any Magic player would like: cards that can go in decks.

This foil sheet of 121 cards are cards that don't appear anywhere else in the rest of the set—so even if you've played the Convention Edition some, you are going to get something new and different here. And given that they are all foil, I aimed many of them toward cards players want to own in foil, especially for Commander.

The sheet has a ton of rares on it, and so a solid amount of the time you're getting a bonus foil rare in your booster.

This means, by the way, that a reasonable chunk of packs will have three rares: your normal stamped rare, a pre-M15 frame rare, and a foil rare. That's pretty eye-opening! (And definitely leads to a wild Chaos Draft experience.)

There's a lot of goodness on there—and I'm excited for you to all see it as we get closer.

Mystery Recap

So, that's a lot of backstory. If you're just interested in the raw details of how this whole thing works, here's the section for you!

Each version of the product contains 1,815 unique cards. In the Convention Edition, 121 of those are playtest cards which aren't legal for Constructed play. In the in-store version, 121 of them are foils that don't appear in the set otherwise.

Every slot in the pack has its own 121 card sheet that it pulls from. So, every pack will break down like this:

  • 2 White commons or uncommons
  • 2 Blue commons or uncommons
  • 2 Black commons or uncommons
  • 2 Red commons or uncommons
  • 2 Green commons or uncommons
  • 1 Multicolored common or uncommon
  • 1 Artifact/land common or uncommon
  • 1 Pre-M15 card
  • 1 Post-M15 rare or mythic
  • 1 Playtest card (if Convention Edition) or foil (if Store Edition)

Now, to explain a few of these slots.

Each of the dedicated color slots, multicolored, and artifact/land slots has a long list of possible common or uncommon options. (This includes, by the way, cards that may have been upgraded in the future—for example, Demonic Tutor is on a black common/uncommon sheet!) For example, there are 242 black commons/uncommons. Each appears once on its own sheet. In every pack, one card off each sheet is dropped into the pack. This is the most straightforward.

Next up is the pre-M15 slot. This is a card in a card frame before M15, printed exactly like you saw it back then. Yes: this includes cards in the original Magic card frame! Many of these are rares, and even some that aren't are exciting throwbacks like Lotus Petal.

Next is the post-M15 rare or mythic. These are security-stamped rares from M15 forward. But they can be from anywhere—so Commander decks, Battlebond, and so on, are all fair game.

And finally, we get to the last slot. Those past 14 cards are all identical between Convention and Store Editions. We talked about the differences above, but to reiterate—the Convention booster has playtest cards, while the Store Edition has a completely separate foil sheet of 121 cards.

All of these cards look exactly like they did when they were originally printed—frame and all. This is the big way we managed to get this many cards in the set! The one difference, of course, being the Planeswalker symbol in the bottom corner.

Now, what exactly do these sheets look like? Well, you can go look at the card list to see everything in the set. But I know what the big questions on your minds are: what are the rares, mythics, and pre-M15 frame cards I can open? Well, here's all of this in one place for you.

Here are all of the post-M15 rares and mythic rares you can open in your booster (one per booster):

Click here to see post-M15 cards

Adorned Pouncer

Aetherflux Reservoir

Akroan Horse

Alesha, Who Smiles at Death

Alhammarret's Archive

All Is Dust

Aminatou's Augury

Angel of the Dire Hour

Anger of the Gods

Animar, Soul of Elements

Approach of the Second Sun

Arch of Orazca

Basilisk Collar

Beacon of Immortality

Beastmaster Ascension

Birds of Paradise

Black Market

Boompile

Boros Reckoner

Caged Sun

Cauldron of Souls

Champion of the Parish

Chaos Warp

Chasm Skulker

Chromatic Lantern

Coat of Arms

Collective Brutality

Commit // Memory

Courser of Kruphix

Coveted Jewel

Daretti, Scrap Savant

Deadly Tempest

Debtors' Knell

Decree of Justice

Deepglow Skate

Desolation Twin

Dictate of Heliod

Djinn of Wishes

Dragonlord Ojutai

Drana, Kalastria Bloodchief

Eldrazi Monument

Eldritch Evolution

Elesh Norn, Grand Cenobite

Evra, Halcyon Witness

Expropriate

Fblthp, the Lost

Felidar Sovereign

Gideon Jura

Goblin Charbelcher

Goblin Piledriver

Gonti, Lord of Luxury

Grasp of Fate

Grave Titan

Gravecrawler

Greenbelt Rampager

Hornet Nest

Kiki-Jiki, Mirror Breaker

Kolaghan's Command

Krenko, Mob Boss

Liliana, Death's Majesty

Living Death

Mana Crypt

Meandering Towershell

Memory Erosion

Meren of Clan Nel Toth

Mimic Vat

Mind Shatter

Mind Spring

Mirran Crusader

Mirror Entity

Misdirection

Mizzix's Mastery

Mycoloth

Mystic Confluence

Nighthowler

Nin, the Pain Artist

Nissa, Voice of Zendikar

Odric, Lunarch Marshal

Phyrexian Arena

Phyrexian Plaguelord

Precursor Golem

Preyseizer Dragon

Queen Marchesa

Reality Scramble

Recruiter of the Guard

Release the Gremlins

Revel in Riches

Rune-Scarred Demon

Savage Knuckleblade

Selvala, Heart of the Wilds

Serendib Efreet

Sewer Nemesis

Shamanic Revelation

Sliver Hivelord

Solemn Simulacrum

Spawning Grounds

Star of Extinction

Steamflogger Boss

Stunt Double

Sudden Demise

Supreme Verdict

Sword of the Animist

Talrand, Sky Summoner

Taurean Mauler

Teferi, Temporal Archmage

Teferi's Protection

Temporal Mastery

Tempt with Discovery

Thalia's Lancers

The Gitrog Monster

The Mirari Conjecture

Tireless Tracker

Torment of Hailfire

Trading Post

Two-Headed Giant

Urza's Rage

Vigor

Wheel of Fate

Whelming Wave

Whir of Invention

Yuriko, the Tiger's Shadow

And here are all the pre-M15 cards you can open up (one per booster):

Click here to see pre-M15 cards

Avalanche Riders

Belbe's Portal

Black Knight

Dauthi Mindripper

Knight of Dawn

Maelstrom Archangel

Mana Tithe

Oracle of Nectars

Perish

Pestilence

Tower of Eons

Ana Sanctuary

Ancient Den

Ancient Ziggurat

Angelic Destiny

Archangel

Asceticism

Assemble the Legion

Athreos, God of Passage

Aura Shards

Bear Cub

Bloom Tender

Bonesplitter

Bow of Nylea

Brimstone Dragon

Brimstone Mage

Cairn Wanderer

Carpet of Flowers

Centaur Glade

Chancellor of the Annex

Chatter of the Squirrel

Chromatic Star

Contagion Clasp

Corrupted Conscience

Cragganwick Cremator

Crenellated Wall

Crystal Shard

Darksteel Garrison

Defense of the Heart

Dictate of Erebos

Dolmen Gate

Dominus of Fealty

Doomgape

Draco

Dragon Broodmother

Dragon Mask

Dungrove Elder

Eater of Days

Elixir of Immortality

Empyrial Armor

Enchanted Evening

Energy Field

Exsanguinate

Flameshot

Floodgate

Font of Mythos

Ghitu War Cry

Gilt-Leaf Palace

Goblin Game

Greater Gargadon

Guided Passage

Haakon, Stromgald Scourge

Hedron Crab

Helm of Awakening

Hunter of Eyeblights

Hurricane

Hypnotic Specter

Impending Disaster

Jushi Apprentice

Kaervek's Torch

Kargan Dragonlord

Knollspine Dragon

Kor Chant

Kruphix, God of Horizons

Lashknife Barrier

Lotus Petal

Magus of the Moat

Manamorphose

Martyr's Bond

Martyr's Cause

Master Transmuter

Meddling Mage

Mistform Shrieker

Nemesis of Reason

Pathrazer of Ulamog

Phantasmal Dragon

Phantom Centaur

Phyrexian Metamorph

Phyrexian Soulgorger

Purphoros, God of the Forge

Questing Phelddagrif

Rage Reflection

Recoup

Release the Ants

Rhys the Redeemed

Rhystic Study

Rishadan Footpad

Rith, the Awakener

River Boa

Sadistic Hypnotist

Sakashima the Impostor

Sapphire Charm

Shrouded Lore

Soothsaying

Sorin Markov

Squirrel Wrangler

Thieving Magpie

Thrun, the Last Troll

Time Sieve

Timely Reinforcements

Tinker

Toxin Sliver

Triumph of the Hordes

Umbral Mantle

Viashino Sandstalker

Violent Ultimatum

Volunteer Reserves

Wargate

Weathered Wayfarer

Wild Nacatl

Yavimaya's Embrace

Mysterious Art

One more thing I wanted to cover!

Originally, my plan was for the playtest cards to have no art. But, although it's accurate that ours usually don't, Aaron Forsythe commented that we probably didn't need to subject people to the horror that is playing cards without art. (Seriously, it's hard!) So he suggested people inside Wizards do fun sketches for them, to really play up the lighthearted, playtest nature of the cards. A little doodle to give the card personality.

These turned out to be a lot of fun and really give the cards character.

There was a lot of discussion with various teams, but we ultimately decided to not put the doodler's name on the cards. A big reason for this is that getting your name on a Magic card is a tremendous honor and important part of being a normal Magic artist. We didn't want to cheapen the meaning of artist credit for actual Magic artists by giving those who did a quick sketch in two minutes the same treatment that our top professional artists get.

That said, we still wanted to make sure they're all credited. We couldn't have done it without you, and the set has a lot more personality for it!

Playing the Mystery

Well, that's a lot on Mystery Booster. It's a product idea I've had in my head for ages, and I'm so excited to finally share it with you.

You can expect to see it at nearly all MagicFests worldwide between now and the end of 2020—so look forward to it coming to you soon! Out at MagicFest Richmond, ChannelFireball was charging $25 for a draft (for reference, one of ChannelFireball's Throne of Eldraine drafts is $20) for you to come and experience the fun yourself.

You'll also be able to see it at a ton of conventions. Coming up quick is PAX Unplugged next month—if you're headed to Philadelphia for that event, come and check it out! I'll be there, too, and am excited to draft with you.

And even if you can't make it out to a show, you'll have a chance to check out the special, WPN-exclusive version for stores that comes out on March 13.

In the meantime, if you have any thoughts to share, I'd love to hear from you. I'm always happy to have you reach out by sending a tweet, messaging me on Instagram, asking a question on my Tumblr, or even emailing me. See below for the addresses.

One of the most popular sentences I heard people say all weekend? "Wait . . . THAT'S in the set?!? No way!" I hope you get a chance to try out the set and say that yourself, too.

Have fun, and talk with you soon!

—Gavin
Email: BeyondBasicsMagic@gmail.com
Instagram: GavinVerhey
Tumblr: GavInsight
Twitter: @GavinVerhey

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