What More Can I Tell You?

Posted in Feature on December 22, 2008

By Sean Fletcher

Hello, and welcome to "Best Of" Week, 2008 edition, here on magicthegathering.com. Wizards of the Coast offices are closed for the holidays, so this week and next week we'll be bringing you some of the best that this year had to offer.

First on the docket is this excellent Shadowmoor design article by Sean Fletcher. Sean doesn't work in R&D but managed to land a spot on the design team anyway—not unprecedented, but certainly unusual. This article, then, isn't just a look at the story of Shadowmoor; it's also a strange (and, yes, hybrid) look at Magic design from the inside and the outside at the same time. What more can I tell you?
–Kelly Digges, magicthegathering.com editor

Over Thanksgiving weekend back in 2006, a friend of mine from Portland, Oregon was in town to visit some family for the holiday. Dan and I have known each other for a couple of years through the forums at StarCityGames.com, and ever since I moved to the Seattle area he and I have gotten together every few months to cram in a marathon day of Magic games and deck building. At that point, Time Spiral and its array of new takes on old mechanics was still fresh, and speculation was running high as to what the next set would bring.

Dan was fairly certain that hybrid mana would be back in Planar Chaos.

He explained his logic, based on the past-present-future theme of Time Spiral block, and it was fairly sound. After all, general consensus was that hybrid mana had easily been the coolest mechanical aspect of Ravnica block, and nothing was more "present" than Ravnica block—not counting Time Spiral.

Of course, "100% certain" beats "fairly certain," and I was 100% certain he was wrong. I just couldn't tell him. I couldn't have even told him why I was 100% certain.

See, Dan knew quite a bit about me and my Magic hobby. He knew I'd been playing the game for years, reading all sorts of online rumor-and-speculation sites, and participating in the forum debates. He knew all about the fan-set I had designed over the previous spring, and how several of the mechanics popped up in real Magic sets soon after (all of which was absolutely coincidental). He knew about how one year before, I'd managed to finagle myself lunch with Mark Rosewater and a brief tour of the Wizards of the Coast offices. He knew I'd tried several times to get a job working on Magic with no solid success. He didn't know that the last item there was a bit of a lie.

Dan didn't know that I was, at that time, a contractor for Wizards of the Coast, working as a freelance designer for "Jelly" (now known to all of you as Shadowmoor). He didn't know that for the last five months I'd been in on secrets; that "Peanut" / "Butter" / "Jelly" block had a "Sandwich" as well (later to be re-dubbed "Doughnut"); that "Jelly" would be all about the hybrid cards; that Mark Rosewater had brought in an outside guy—an "average fan" at that—to work on a Magic set; that the outside guy was at that moment five feet away, calling to place a Chinese take-out order, and needed to know if Dan wanted the soup with his #19.

Reflecting_PoolYou want to know a secret? Being a freelance designer on a Magic set is quite possibly both the most exciting and aggravating thing I've ever done. As a fan, it was incredible to be a part of the process, submitting card concepts and debating what the fundamental goals of the set's design were. As a player, it was surreal to sit down in the heart of Magic R&D and playtest a set that was over a year away from public view with guys who do this so regularly it was an everyday occurrence. As an average guy with friends and family who wanted to know how life was treating me, it was agonizing to not be able to tell them I'd won my own personal lottery.

If Mark Rosewater and Mark Gottlieb have a constant superhero-versus-supervillain thing going on, then for me, joining up with the Shadowmoor design team was like having to hide a secret identity from the world. The only person I shared my news about my Shadowmoor involvement with was my wife. Aside from Heather, none of my friends or family knew that there was a "secret project" to ask about. It was never made public that an outsider had been put on a Magic design team; at the time, there was plenty of buzz surrounding the Great Designer Search, but there was no reason for anyone to believe there was already a "new guy" involved on any design projects. I was right in the middle of the sort of thing thousands of fans chatted about every day, but couldn't mention it to a soul. And frankly, that's just tough.

Funny thing about the Great Designer Search: several of my friends asked me at the time if I was entering myself into the competition. Truth was, I couldn't; my contractor status made me ineligible. Once again, I had to shrug off questions as to whether I'd try to get a job in R&D—and couldn't admit that it was because I already had one at the time. But if you look back at the video coverage of the December "Finish Line" event capping off the Great Designer Search, my wife and I were there. Wait, what's that? How'd we get tickets for that party? Why were we in the footage? Uhhh, well, if I told any of you we'd recieved "random local lottery invitations," last winter, please forgive me.

So what's to tell about actually being on a design team? When you're the rookie, it's a lot like a college course in design theory. And I mean that as a good thing. Despite what my parents might have told you back in the day, I really enjoyed school. Think of it this way: if you could choose any subject to take as an elective, and then hand-pick your professor or professors, what class would you take, and who would teach it? For me, my list would have included Refining the Imperfectly Perfect Knuckleball as taught by Tim Wakefield, Contemporary Serialized Fiction instructed by Brian K. Vaughan, and Application of Design Theory in Magic with Mark Rosewater, or in a bind, Mark Gottlieb.

Lucky me, my class was run by both Marks. And, while I honestly didn't know too much about Devin Low or Ken Troop before I started, I realized pretty quickly that I was riding shotgun with a Dream Team of Magic design. These days, in addition to being a human database of Magic trivia, Devin is the Head Developer for Magic, and Ken is running point for the creative development on a whole bunch of other projects at Wizards. These guys know their stuff. I had a lot to learn.

Deepchannel_MentorLesson number one: don't ask for the secret formula. You go in and figure, "Okay, they do this every day, there must be a linear process to follow. Step one, know your theme and what your design goals are. Step two, make cards that fit your themes and goals. Step three, test cards and make tweaks. Declare set 'perfect,' woohoo, everybody wins." Problem is, this is all wrong. There is no formula. Much of what goes on behind the closed doors or in the pit is based on instinct, gut reactions, and creativity, but more than I ever expected, trial and error.

At one point, I mentioned this realization to Mark Gottlieb. He told me about his first day on another job a while back, when he was working with the editors of Games Magazine. He was impressed with their ability to create complex crossword puzzles with phenomenal regularity, and asked what the secret was. He too was surprised to hear something akin to "plug words in and see what works." Eventually you learn to spot patterns that you can build bigger things around, and sometimes you have other goals along the way that work like benchmarks to help guide you, but a lot of it is just experimentation until you hit on something you like, something that works.

In other words, this is not scientific. This is a bit of an art form. And to a guy who spent four years studying graphic design in an art school, that sounded pretty good. Logic and analytical thinking are excellent skills to bring to the table, but at the end of the day, there's no mathematical formula or spreadsheet that says "plug card idea in Column A into theme from List B and extrapolate well-designed, well-balanced Set XYZ." This is about making it up as you go, so creativity counts for a lot. No wonder that if you look across the make-up of the crew in the pit, you see a lot of engineer types, but also a lot of writers.

The absolute very first thing I learned about Shadowmoor was the concept of the four-set block design. I was sitting in the living room of my apartment in Jaffrey, New Hampshire, and I had Mark Rosewater, Head Designer of Magic, calling in secrets of a set-yet-to-be by phone. With the difference in time zones, it was about seven in the evening, and on any other night I'd have been engrossed in a baseball game on TV, but this was one of those few things you turn the game off for (it should be noted that even as I write this, I've got the Sox and Yankees on ESPN Sunday Night Baseball, my guys winning).

"So there's 'Jelly,' which is our set, and 'Sandwich,' which comes out later that summer, and they sort of reflect against what went on in 'Peanut' and 'Butter,'" Mark explained. He talked about how, generally speaking, "Peanut" block cared about creature types, while "Jelly" would be about color. And then he hit me with the big one: "Jelly" was going to be the "hybrid cards" block. And then I learned the color breakdowns for tribes in "Jelly," and the plan to make -1/-1 counters important in the set.

And then came an assignment to come up with ideas for a hundred or so common cards that would work in that kind of world.

Jump right in. Start up a list of cards that you think people will enjoy playing with for the duration of the game. We'll check back in with you in a few weeks. Welcome to the team, and good luck.

Yet another aside...

I already had a little bit of experience with the shotgun design approach; I suspect that one of the things that helped me land the freelance gig in the first place was my rather ambitious attempt at designing my own Magic fan-expansion set a few months earlier. I didn't have a formula of my own then either, so it was all a matter of trying anything and seeing what worked. Was it any good? Well, it was practice. And it didn't hurt that it had coincidentally included its own flavors of hellbent and snow mana (called "desperation" and "riftborne mana," respectively). So, all things considered, persistence and the willingness to undertake a ponderous solo-effort 300-card exercise in design did get me somewhere.

Not too long after that, my wife and I decided to move from the Granite State to Seattle and the Evergreen State. Among other very significant reasons, it made the meetings with the design team a whole lot easier.

By September, I was sitting in with the team twice a week, learning the ways by which cards and sets happen. We spent several weeks just trying to figure out what hybrid cards let us do that "normal" mono-color or multi-color cards didn't. We went over how the idea of "color matters" was affected by the hybrid model. We questioned whether access to hybrid mana and cards made us want to design mono-color themes or multi-color themes—something I started seeing as a fundamental design question of density vs. diversity (which made me ponder a Mark Rothko vs. Jackson Pollock artist cage match). Then we debated the value of -1/-1 counters and how to best use them. After that, we tangled with the mess of how to handle the complications of potentially drafting in a four-set environment. (The final verdict? Don't.)

Day by day, we worked our way toward playtesting, and I got to see some of my cards printed up as official test cards.

Lesson number two: Simple is good. In a team effort, you stand a pretty good chance of getting your cards printed if they're so obvious that everyone goes right to them. I think all five of us submitted the following card, but as the rookie, I'm still going to count it in my "win" column:

"Lacerate" - C
Put a -1/-1 counter on target creature.

Yes, that's Scar. Word for word. Groundbreaking in its originality? Not one bit. But it's got that thing you keep hearing about called "elegance," and in my case, it's the first card I submitted that went through wire-to-wire with only a single piece of information changed: the name.


Another example of "simple" carrying things a long way would be my "Artisan" cycle.

Ivory Artisan - C
Creature - Kithkin Wizard
Whenever a player plays a white spell, you may pay 1. If you do, gain 1 life.

As submitted, each was a throwback to Ivory Cup old-school players would recognize. At the time, I knew almost nothing of Time Spiral, so it hadn't even occurred to me that these cards would probably been better, as-is, in that block. Mark Rosewater liked the way the homage to some of the earliest "color matters" cards fit into Shadowmoor, though, so with a little bit of tweaking, the "Initiate" cycle had its roots. Mark proposed giving each Initiate a different ability based on the traditional tricks from each color, and five of my submissions landed in the "keep" pile.

Apothecary Initiate
Smolder Initiate

Sometimes simple is the basis that's necessary for something deeper to be built on. Consider this one I submitted:

"Misguided Charge" - C
Put target attacking creature on the top of its controller's library.

When I offered it up, it felt like a simple way of blending two abilities in different colors that wouldn't normally cross color-pie lines, done so that they still made sense in a hybrid environment. I wasn't even thinking that it might be something that could be repurposed for something more exciting. But with some minor surface tweaks and the addition of conspire—which came well after my involvement had ended, so my compliments to whomever added it—it becomes Aethertow.


Other times, simplicity was good, but it was sheer novelty that kept my submissions moving. One of my earliest concepts was a card made just for my wife. Before we moved away from New Hampshire, we had a chipmunk that lived in a hole in our lawn. Every few days, Heather would spot the chipmunk running around or ducking back underground, and it made her grin. So as I ground out lists of card concepts for Shadowmoor, Heather asked goofily if I'd make a happy little chipmunk card for her. And I did.

"Heather's Chipmunk" - C
Creature - Chipmunk
Whenever CARDNAME comes into play or is put into a graveyard from play, gain 1 life.

(Named thusly purely at my wife's request for a "cute chipmunk", as she's been putting up with my cardboard habit for near twelve years. Change name or delete as you see fit)

The goal was a chipmunk-sized one-drop that made its controller smile a little whether it was coming or going. Totally playable early, not entirely worthless later in the game. Believe it or not, this guy is still in the set, but you may not recognize him right away. At my first official playtest, I was amazed to see that Heather's Chipmunk was now a 2/2 for two mana that gained 2 life when coming or going. He was also now—cryptically—an Elf, but still had the name "Heather's Chipmunk." A few weeks later, Heather's Chipmunk was a 3/3 for three mana with 3 life points at both ends. Still an Elf, still named after my wife. The thing is, not everyone in R&D knew who this "Heather" was, which went on to either really confuse other people in the pit, or to amuse those with their minds in the gutter.

Gottlieb particularly loved that thing... said it was an auto-include in anything white or green. And trounced me with it several times. Heather's Chipmunk was a certified beating. Months later, after design had been handed off and my work was done, I ran into Aaron Forsythe at a prerelease. "Hey," he says, "We're still playing around with your wife's Chipmunk." I got some very odd looks from people that day.

Eventually I caught word from MaRo that Shadowmoor was incorporating a mechanic called "persist." I believe the concept started with something Devin had proposed, and was tweaked to make the -1/-1 counter theme in the set run a little deeper. Heather's Chipmunk, with the life gain ability that triggered twice, was a prime candidate for becoming a persistent creature. Instead of gaining life when it came into play and when it died, it now only needed the first half, since that half would almost always happen twice.

Kitchen Finks

Swans of Bryn Argoll
Just a few weeks ago, I got an email from my friend Ben, back in NYC. "Kitchen Finks! The second I saw that card name, I knew it was something you'd designed!"

Interestingly, he got the right card for the wrong reason. Was it one of my cards? Sure, Kitchen Finks is the direct descendant of Heather's Chipmunk. But the new name was created for the card months after my contract term was over. I had nothing to do with the name, and yet people who know me peg it as something I'd have put on a card.

Similar goes for Swans of Bryn Argoll; friends of mine in New Hampshire emailed me to say they saw it as a likely Sean-contribution. Why? The last deck I'd regularly played against them was a janky—but oddly reliable—blue-red Niv-Mizzet, the Firemind and Mindmoil monstrosity that killed by doing little more than countering and drawing cards once the combo was set. The Swans would fit into the deck brilliantly. And yes, as it turns out, I had concepted something that tied damage prevention to card drawing, but it wasn't the Swans as you see them. To be perfectly honest, Miz-Moil wasn't even on my mind when I wrote the card idea down. Wish it had been; I'd have secretly tried out the deck already. Go figure.

One of the things that surprised me about the process of designing and testing new mechanics was the funny balance between the way "design" and "rules" interact. I can only imagine that this feeds the perception that MaRo and MaGo are arch-enemies. From what I saw firsthand though, the two of them actually have a system that allows both of them to get what they need and make cards and sets all the better for it. It goes something like this: If it looks like a fun idea but the rules don't allow for it, screw the rules and test it out the way it feels like it should work. Technicalities can be ironed out later if the idea is fun enough.

Which gets us to lesson number three: Things get messier before they get cleaner. Take wither for example.

Sickle_RipperI'll keep this brief, because while it illustrates my point well, I know Mark Rosewater already covered it quite a bit. When we started working on the concept for the mechanic, it seemed like a pretty straightforward idea from a flavor perspective. It was called curse, and it was a scalable sort of effect; some creatures were more cursed than others. The way we first played it, it was sort of a bundle of triggered effects. I attack with a guy with curse 1. You block. Curse says my guy won't deal combat damage now that he's blocked, but at the end of combat, your blocker will get a -1/-1 counter because he touched the cursed guy. If your guy had touched something with curse 3, he'd be getting three -1/-1 counters, and so on. From a flavor perspective, it was fun and made sense. As long as we avoided thinking about rules, triggers, layers and whatnot and just played it the way it felt right, everyone was happy. The mechanic was fun enough to run with.

Then we actually started thinking about it. The following comes from some of my own correspondence with the team, regarding odd—and often not fun—interactions between curse and other common creature abilities:

Curse and protection from X: This is, on the surface, one of the strangest interactions I've seen with Curse. I understand it and can't argue with why it happens, but I cannot argue that it is in any way "intuitive". If my black 1/1 creature with curse 3 attacks and you block with Paladin en-Vec (2/2, first strike, protection from black, protection from red), the results are thus (simplified, but still): Curse goes on the stack. First strike damage goes on the stack. My black 1/1 takes a lethal hit from the Paladin and dies. Normal combat damage goes on the stack. Paladin's still fine, since my guy is too dead to deal damage, too small to deal 2 damage and, as a black source, wouldn't have dealt damage to the protected-from-black Paladin anyway. Move to end of combat step... Paladin gets 3 -1/-1 counters from a black source, despite having protection from that source. Paladin keels over crying "WT@%&?" and is then very much dead. Yes, I understand curse is not a targeted ability, and that a black basilisk (pre-deathtouch rules) would have done the same thing. It's just going to take some getting used to. At the casual level, I can see this becoming really confusing.

Down the line, Mark Gottlieb solved the whole issue by making wither a special form of damage that puts -1/-1 counters on creatures. Still, sometimes you have to start with the mess you like and worry about making it "elegant" later on.

In February of this year, I was talking to a friend who had just recently started playing Magic again after a long hiatus. He'd missed lots of great stuff in his time away, and was fascinated by all of the themes and mechanics that he was seeing looking back through my card collection. After grilling me for the little information I could share with him about my time on Shadowmoor, he was curious as to why more of the people in R&D didn't still play competitively.

I explained to him that many of the Magic staffers did come from competitive tournament backgrounds, but that they had to give up playing in order to work on the game—that having two years' worth of knowledge ahead of time would give them an unfair advantage on the tournament scene.

"But you still play," he says.

"It's not quite the same thing," I answered. "For one, I've never been a Pro Tour–caliber player, and never will be. I stick to small Friday Night Magic type stuff, and mostly Limited format at that, so whatever edge I might have gleaned is effectively wasted on a me. Second, I only worked on the set for the first six months of its two-year process. What I saw over a year ago has all been reworked many times over by now. Third, even having been in the pit, my access was so tightly controlled that anything I knew about the other sets surrounding Shadowmoor was based on bare minimum 'need to know' loose concept stuff and guesswork."

"But still," my friend went on, "you got to work in the pit as a designer and you also get to continue playing the game among the general public as a fan. That's pretty cool."

"Oh, yeah, definitely. Best of both worlds there."

"So that sort of makes you," —pause to appreciate the fact that nothing was publicly known about this aspect of the set at the time and he had no idea what he was saying— "a hybrid designer / player."

Cauldron_of_SoulsLesson number four: All good things come to an end. Make the most of it.

Nearly every fan of the game, at some point, wishes that they'd have the chance to work on the game. Not all of us are shoo-ins. While it would be a great fairytale ending to tell you that Shadowmoor was my big break and that I've been working happily in Wizards R&D ever since, that's just not the case. I served my six months, and as it ended, I went back to working my day job and playing the game as just another regular guy.

Yes, there have still been some great perks. Heather and I made some fantastic friends through the Wizards network. Mike Turian and his fiancée turned out to be great people, and having built new friendships so quickly after we moved out here made the coast-to-coast transition that much easier. We've also spent numerous holidays hanging out with the friends and family of the Rosewater clan. I've done Reject Rare Drafting at Gottlieb's annual birthday bash, and killed hours at Prereleases gunslinging and shooting the breeze with the rest of the R&D crew.

At the Morningtide event, one player at the gunslinging table asked Nate Heiss how to get a job in R&D. Nate laughed, and pointed the kid in my direction. "Ask him!" he said.

What's the answer? I'm still trying to figure that one out.

What more can I tell you?

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