Meet the Confluxians (Or Is That Confluxites?)
Let me start by introducing you to the Conflux design team.
Bill Rose (lead)
I'm running out of things to say about Bill. If you listed the top ten most influential people on Magic of all time, Bill easily makes the list (actually he easily makes the top five). Bill started as one of the original playtesters, meaning that Bill has been playing Magic longer than the game has been out. (I, for contrast, merely started with Alpha.) Bill lead his first design team, Mirage, before he even came to work for Wizards. Only eight people in the building have been working for Wizards longer than Bill. (I'm at the #10 slot right behind him—Bill started two weeks before I did.) Bill has lead the design for numerous sets (Visions, Portal, Invasion, Torment, Darksteel, and Shards of Alara) and spent many years as the combination Head Designer and Head Developer (it used to be one job back in the day) and then Director of Magic before becoming the Vice President of R&D. In short, there are few people on this planet more qualified to run a design team than Bill.
It is amazing to watch Ken thrive as a designer. Since making his way to Magic R&D through The Great Designer Search (GDS), Ken has been doing as much Magic design as we would let him (and that, by the way, is a lot). Right after completing this team, Ken was given his first design lead job. He is overseeing the design of "Long", the first small expansion to "Live" this year's large fall expansion. (Yes, "Prosper" comes next.) As far as new designers go, Ken is the up-and-comer.
It seems we can't run a design team without a GDS alum. Well, Conflux had two. Mark got cut in the top five (and yes, this means two years later four of the top five finishers in the GDS now have full-time jobs at Wizards of the Coast), but we liked what we saw, and he ended up being offered a job in our Digital Games department. Cut to a year and a half later, and Mark changed jobs to become the Producer on the Magic R&D team (a new job that oversees all the many moving parts of design and development to make sure that everyone is aware of what everyone else is doing). Mark loves designing and we love having him design, so it all works out well.
I like to think that Mark has a split personality. As a designer, he's creative, imaginative, flexible, witty and prolific. As the Rules Manager, he's, well, the devil. He is both a Head Designer's dream team member and bitter nemesis. I've decided to keep him close and get as many card designs out of him as I can. Will this ultimately be my downfall? Stay tuned. That said, we were glad to have Mark on the Conflux team. By the way, Mark had to bow out of the Conflux team half way through to join the Alara Reborn team (that's the set after Conflux if you missed the Arcana).
Before this section I'll answer the one last question I'm sure some of you have—where am I? Aren't I on every design team? Well the streak is over. After two and half years, my workload forced me into taking a break, and by break I mean only lead designing a large expansion ("Live", out this fall—and I hate that I have to wait almost eight months before I can talk about it). At the time this was going on, I had just finished leading the back to back designs of Shadowmoor / Eventide. The week after I finished Eventide I had to start on "Live," and Bill, being the kind person that he is, said that he could handle Conflux and let me have a breather.
And there you have the Conflux design team.
Five by Five
Now we can get to the design itself. As with most small sets, the design really starts with the large one, in this case Shards of Alara. Shards started solely with the idea of a multicolor block theme that played around with spells of more colors than just two (as Ravnica, the last "gold" block, was all about two-color guilds). The Shards design team started playing around with three-color combinations, which led the creative team to come up with the idea of the plane of Alara.
At one point, Alara was a single world with the normal five colors of mana, but then some event caused Alara to splinter into five pieces (what one might call shards). The neat twist was that each world only had three of the five colors of mana. This allowed us to take a peek into what the absence of two colors would do to a world. Without its enemies, each color was allowed to thrive and make a world very much in its image. The splintering of the worlds, though, was just the beginning.
The true thrust of the story is that the process that split the shards is reversed shortly after our story begins, forcing these five distinctively different worlds (and remember, a great amount of time has passed since Alara was whole, meaning that the inhabitants of each world don't know have any knowledge of the other four worlds) back together. To tap my inner writer: that's the conflict of the story. What happens when each world gets to meet the other four?
In the earliest stages, the plan was to have the story open with the re-convergence of the five worlds. But a few of us, myself included, felt strongly that before we could care about the worlds coming into conflict with one another, we had to understand what each of the five worlds was about. We fought for the conflux of the worlds (dictionary.com: "conflux, n. a coming together of people or things") to hold off until the first expansion. Let's use the large set we said to meet the five worlds. Then we get to use the first expansion to see what happens when we bring them all in conflict.
There are two reasons why we felt so strongly, so let me take a moment to explain them. The first had to do with story and the second with design.
Let's begin with the story reason. When telling a conflict story, there are two basic ways to do this. One is to tell the story from one side's view and make the enemy only known as it is known through the side you are following. The second way is to have a conflict in which the story shows you both sides of the conflict. While the first way is interesting and obviously can lead to compelling stories, the constraints of a trading card game and the need of us to support the color wheel forces us to show both sides. As such, we need to tell the second type of story. Note, by the way, that in my language I'm talking about a two-sided conflict, as that is by far the most common type of conflict used in stories. Conflict stories are able, though, to have more than two sides fighting which clearly is important here as we have not two but five sides.
The "view each side" type of conflict story requires the audience to have an understanding of what each side wants. Usually this is done by showing the different sides before the conflict begins so we can get a sense of what each side is like and what they value. This allows us, as the audience, to understand the desires and motivations of each side. Thus as a writer, I fought for holding back the conflict because I knew it would be more compelling if we allowed the players to first get to know each shard.
Now let's talk about the design reason. Block planning is all about designing on a level higher than the set. With a block plan, you are figuring out how each set will have its own identity yet fit into a larger context. An important part of doing this is making sure that each set does something that is distinct from the other sets. One of the ways to think of it is this: Let's say you pick a random card from a block. I like it when the block plan is distinctive enough that a player has a good sense of which set that card comes from. Another way to think of it is this: I love when blocks have constraints such that designers sometimes think of a card and have to say to themselves, "Oh, that doesn't go in this set. It needs to go in that set."
Pushing back the rejoining of the worlds does this. Esper, for example, couldn't have the keyword fear. It didn't make any sense. Why would a world have an evasion ability that didn't work against 100% of its inhabitants? Often in Shards of Alara design we would create cards that simply didn't make any sense in a particular shard. In fact, when Conflux started we had a bunch of cards waiting for it because we couldn't use them in Shards.
The other cool thing from a design standpoint was that in Shards we could focus on what each world did for itself. For Conflux we were able to start looking at what each world could do to hurt the other worlds. In fact, one of the fun parts about building each shard was allowing weaknesses that came from the color not knowing its enemies existed. Another example from Esper—when the people were trying to improve themselves they chose to evolve into something that to them was the most indestructible thing they could be: artifacts. In a white-blue-black world, there isn't much artifact destruction. Come Conflux, they get to learn about red and green. It turns out these two colors are really good at destroying artifacts. Oops.
For all these reasons, the Conflux design team had one big shift to play with. The worlds were coming together for the first time, and each of the worlds was meeting the other four. Go!
The Times They Are A-Changin'
The converging of the shards was the first force at work in the design. Here's the second. Besides introducing new conflicts and dynamics, The Conflux team had to keep in mind is how the themes of the block were going to evolve for this set. Shards had clearly set up what this world was about theme-wise: three-color shards. The role of the first small set is to build upon the large set's themes while finding some new space to expand into. Much focus is put on the new things in a set, but equally important from a design sense is what is being maintained and how those themes are evolved to keep the environment consistent yet allow the set to have its own identity.
For starters, this means exploring all the mechanics of the first set. Each shard gets new toys to play with and new twists on its base mechanics. If you want to do nothing but "pimp your shard," Conflux has plenty of cool stuff to do so. All the shard keywords are back. Colored artifact creatures are still here. Naya's "power 5 or greater" theme continues. In many ways, Conflux is a big continuation of Shards of Alara. (For the story fans, or just lovers of awesome planeswalkers, the villain behind the scenes is revealed complete with a jaw-dropping card. Check out today's feature if you haven't had the joy of seeing it yet).
But Conflux doesn't get to stop there. Players have greater expectations from the first expansion than just more of the same. As I said above, the themes have to be expanded upon. A popular way to do this is to look at cards you liked from the first set that you feel had potential to be expanded upon. The card that I feel best exemplifies this in Shards of Alara is this card:
Wild Nacatl is interesting in that it's a three-color card without actually being a three-color card. To optimize it, you want to play the proper three colors yet the card still can find a home in decks that aren't centered on that particular shard. The Conflux team was very interested in exploring this.
The big question though was whether to care about the allies' basic land types (as Wild Nacatl did) or to care about the allies' colors. The advantage of the second was that it tied into our themes of the previous Shadowmoor block. That block had a strong color theme which would play nicely into cards that also cared about color. For example, imagine a card that got better if it had permanents of its allies' colors in play. Heck, why imagine it. Let's just look at one.
Let me start by saying that I am a longtime fan of oozes. I think it stems from my love of The Blob as a kid, or maybe it was the gruesome death in my very first D&D game from a gelatinous cube. Whatever the cause, I've always been a fan of the creature that just keeps growing and growing. Bloodhall Ooze was one of the first cards to play around with this mechanic and I loved it the first time I saw it. (I believe it was an ooze even in playtest.) If you think Wild Nacatl can get big, you haven't seen anything yet.
As you can see, the color contingent won out. This wasn't as easy a decision as it might seem as there are other elements of the set (that I'll get to next week) that very much care about basic lands. The thing I like about the path that was chosen is that it creates a lot of very cool interactions / combos (wait, didn't Eventide have a one-drop black-green creature?) Also, just as hybrid plays nicely with this mechanic, so too do traditional "gold" cards, of which this block has plenty.
In fact, the more the Conflux team started diving into the intermixing of the colors the deeper down the rabbit's hole they were drawn. But that's for Part II, as we're out of time for today.
Join me next week when I show how cards like Bloodhall Ooze led to all sorts of cool decisions in Conflux's design.
Until then, may your ooze grow to epic proportions.