How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Burn

Posted in Feature on November 22, 2010

By Zac Hill

Zac is a former game designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast and was the lead developer for Dragon's Maze. His articles have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Believer, and on Currently he serves as the chief operating officer of The Future Project, a nonprofit education initiative, and holds a position as a research affiliate in the MIT Game Lab.

This is the third article I've written for this here web site since I've been a Wizard of the Coast. The first was a reflection on gaming as a catalyst for personal fulfillment; the second, a discussion of how product design can foster connections between people. Or something like that. I don't really remember. This article deals with the far more substantive subject of setting things on fire.

I like setting things on fire.

Especially if they're Creature – Elves.

But I'm getting ahead of myself.

I want to talk to y'all about why Premium Deck Series: Fire & Lightning is awesome, how it's different from a lot of our other products, and (more generally speaking) how this neatly packaged suite of high-octane red goodness came to be. Along the way, I want to at least touch on the subject of what it means to create something cool inside a game experience—to do stuff that makes us go, "Wow!"

Then I want to Bolt me some Savannah Lions.

Man Versus Nature Is Not a Fair Fight

There's this common myth inside the fantasy-gaming industry that drives me crazy. It goes something like this:

Take as a given that people think it's cool to launch a ball of fire from their hands and send it rocketing furiously towards some monster that is trying to get all up in their business. The reason they think it's cool is because real life is nothing like that. In real life, we don't encounter epic life-threatening monsters. In real life, we can't bring fire into being with our hands. The truth is, in real life we're just sort of average, everyday people going about our average, everyday lives, and we like to project ourselves into perilous conflicts of über-substantial importance as a means to avoid confronting that reality. So the reason people think that (for example) giant, treasure-hoarding, fire-spewing dragons are awesome is because they're so tremendously removed from the mundanities of our day-to-day experiences.

Price of Progress | Art by Richard Kane Ferguson

I think that myth is adorable in a one-dimensional and kind-of-depressing way.

I also think it is kind of wrong.

The truth is, fireballs and dragons and angels and demons and all of those other things are, in fact, really awesome. But it's not because of some bizarre psychological hang-ups of ours, some failure to confront reality or whatever. It's because the idea that we could, you know, call up a thunderstorm on our cell phones and be like "Yo, strike over there, please, thanks" is pretty sweet. And because it's pretty sweet, some human being somewhere thought of it and spun it into a myth, evolved it into a story, and other human beings thought of things like Ancient Hellkite, and taut-fleshed Reiver Demon, and Doom Blades, and Giant Growths and everything else. The collective sum of those awesome ideas stands as a testament to the brilliance, ingenuity, beauty, power, and everlasting eternal vitality of the human imagination.

They are awesome because they speak to our hunger, our visceral and fundamental need, to create things that transcend ourselves. But they don't help us escape ourselves—indeed, they emerge from us!

The reason I'm talking about all of this is because, when Aaron and I set about creating Premium Deck Series: Fire & Lightning, our goal was to create something awesome. To do that, we had to think about what makes things awesome in the first place.

I'm Not Indecisive. I Just Don't Like to Limit My Options

PDS: F&L is the second installment in our Premium Deck Series. The first, PDS: Slivers, was an experiment in designing a unique product around something we knew our players liked. We learned a few things from that product, and we wanted to make sure PDS Part Deux reflected those lessons.

Reverberate | Art by jD

My most important takeaway from Slivers was that, if we were going to follow it up, the next product we created had to be designed as a cohesive experience. That is, every single element of the product—the theme, the deck list, the treatment, the packaging, the game play—needed to be tied together in a way that made sense. Slivers, to me, succeeded in giving people who wanted a Sliver deck a Sliver deck—but I didn't understand why all the cards were premium, or why it was a "Premium Deck" in the first place. I didn't understand what made it compelling.

There were a lot of cards in Slivers that made sense in the deck, and added a good amount of game-play value when you shuffled the cards up and played. When you looked at them next to one another, though, they were sort of confusing. Other cards didn't make much sense independent of context: Why am I looking at a shiny Quick Sliver? What am I supposed to do with an Amoeboid Changeling? The moral of the story was that, taken as a whole, I just didn't get what I was supposed to do when I bought the deck.

For Burn, then, I gave myself four goals:

1. The deck had to function as a deck. That is, I ought to be able to shuffle it up and have fun playing against lists from a variety of different formats.

2. The individual cards had to make sense both inside and outside the context of the deck. I needed to "get" why Jackal Pup was in my opening hand, for example. I also needed to understand, just by looking at the deck list, what the cards were going for and why they should excite me. To that end, I wanted to load the product up with cards that evoked memories—that had some kind of meaning across Magic's history. More specifically, I wanted it to be cool to own the cards in the deck for their own sake.

3. I wanted the deck to do something awesome. To a lot of Magic players, Slivers are cool—but most people have no idea what a Sliver is. "One-appendaged hooked-arm insect-things? Sign me up, that's sweet!" By contrast, I don't have to sit down and convince someone too hard that it's cool to rain cavalcades of fire down upon my enemies and their minion hordes. If we were calling something a "Premium Deck," that meant it needed to evoke a premium concept. Everything about it needed to be special.

4. I wanted playing the deck to be an experience in and of itself. Here at Magic R&D, we play with most of the cards a year or more ahead of you guys in the wild. Nevertheless, whenever a set is first released, every single one of us is like a kid at Christmas. That's because the experience of playing with actual Magic cards is radically different from staring at a bunch of playtest stickers called "Context-Independent All-Upside Fatty" or "Spirit Who Has Been Through A Lot". Similarly, then, I wanted there to be something special about sleeving up a deck of sixty premium-treatment foil cards. I am only going to get so excited about a sweet-looking, I don't know, Saprazzan Legate. Give me a deck chock-full of gasoline, though, and all of a sudden I feel like I'm doing something I've never done before.

Most Wizards Consider a Thunderbolt to Be a Proper Retort

PDS: Fire & Lightning wasn't always PDS: Fire & Lightning, of course. But deciding to go that route solved a lot of our problems right off the bat. Aaron Forsythe is a man who loves his burn spells, and fortunately there have been a lot of them printed over the course of Magic's history. This meant that we had a lot of options to draw from when it came to selecting our final sixty cards, and it meant that (in general) we wouldn't have to compromise the quality of the overall experience due to lack of card selection.

Thunderbolt | Art by Dylan Martens

It was also Aaron who insisted that whatever burn deck we designed needed to contain four Lightning Bolts. To his line of thinking, it didn't make a lot of sense to just put in a bunch of cards that are way worse than the spell that, in the minds of many Magic players, defines the very essence of burn. This single decision influenced the direction of the entire product, because it meant that we weren't pulling any punches. We weren't going to put a single Bolt in the list along with twenty other cards that dreamed of being Bolt when they grew up. Instead, it would set a benchmark for the other cards in the product: What is card X doing that Bolt simply couldn't?

(Well, except for Chain Lightning that, I suppose, is "strictly worse" than Bolt. But we felt like people would forgive us for that particular trespass, in the long run.)

This led to a number of interesting realizations along the way. For example: Isn't Spark Elemental just a way-worse Bolt that can't kill creatures and doesn't always hit for 3? Nope, not when Mogg Flunkies needs to attack. Aren't you just drawing dead to a Baneslayer Angel? Nope, not when they attack and, instead of gaining 5 life, you Flames of the Blood Hand them for 4 and swing back for the win.

All of which is to say: Each card in PDS: F&L is in the deck because it fulfills a specific function, not because it has got to hit some kind of quota or is constrained by an irritating set of rules. This allows the deck to feel like a cohesive whole.

They'll Attack Whatever's in Front of Them, as Long as You Tell Them Where that Is.

One iteration of PDS: F&L featured something like thirty burn spells and a smattering of Ball Lightnings and Viashino Sandstalkers. We quickly realized, however, that the deck really wanted to have a lot of creatures in order to be any fun at all. It gets very old very quickly to point spells at your opponent's face and ask, "What are you at?" Instead, a smattering of aggressive guys allows you to point burn at your opponent's board without having to feel guilty about it—because you feel like you're going to "run out" of damage—while also allowing us the opportunity to feature some of Magic's cooler aggressive creatures. Some of the choices were no-brainers: "Wow, Mogg Fanatic is a cheap red creature that also sacrifices to deal damage? I think it should go in the deck!" Others, however, proved more of a challenge. After all, when does the deck stop being Premium Deck Series: Fire & Lightning and start being Premium Deck Series: Smorgasboard of Critters?

In the end, we decided to go mostly by feel. If it made sense in a burn deck—or had appeared in a prominent burn deck in the past—we decided it would be legit to include it. Jaya Ballard, Task Mage, after all, didn't just get famous for talking about Incinerate, Pyroclasm, and Inferno—sooner or later, girlfriend slung herself some spells. Meanwhile, we tried to keep the "tribal" count for things like Mogg Flunkies and the (cutting-room-floor'd) Siege-Gang Commander to a minimum, so as to avoid seeming like a PDS: Goblins in disguise.

However, fan of precious adorable animals that I am, I did make sure to include a certain Jackal Pup.

Jackal Pup | Art by Kev Walker

"Some People Say it's Better to Think Before You Act. While Those People are Considering all the Options, that's Usually when I Kill Them." --Dravus, Lava Mage

Earlier, I alluded to the fact that there were so many burn spells out there, it would be crazy for us to be constrained by card availability. That's true, but it leads to another problem: How do you cut them all?

A lot of it, of course, was playtesting. If I got sick and tired of drawing a particular card, I would get rid of it. But in the end, what mattered most—and we keep coming back to this particular theme—was what felt most awesome.

Sudden Impact | Art by Wayne Reynolds

To that end, I erred on the side of including the cards that generated stories. If you've ever Reverberated a Price of Progress to roast your opponent clear out of the game from twenty—yeah, it feels pretty good, let me tell you. Reverberating a Fireblast with a Fire Servant on the table isn't too bad, either. Neither is watching your opponent squirm over what to choose with a Browbeat, or seeing them sweat as they cross their fingers vainly hoping you won't peel the sixth land to level up your Figure of Destiny all the way.

Of course, there are other kinds of stories, too. Many of them involve casting a Pup into a Keldon Marauders into a Boggart Ram-Gang, and watching your opponent sit on their thumbs as you pulverize them into a crisp. Others still involve the immortal "Mountain, Bolt you, your turn" as you stare at a grip of 20 damage and just know your opponent thinks he or she has clinched the match. And at least one of mine involves a certain Magic Hall of Fame member sighing in relief as he dropped a Crumbling Sanctuary only to have me Pillage it right into the ground.

Just to name a few.

In many ways, the point of the entire playtesting process, for me, was to de-intellectualize the entire endeavor (fitting, I know, for such a thoroughly red deck of cards). If you had to sit down and think about why you ought to be having fun, then, in my mind, I wasn't doing my job. If you had to take a step back from the game you were playing to muse on and appreciate the multivariate connection between the product's fourteen scalable red instants (or whatever), I ought to be slapped for making it so hard to see. Instead, my goal was to make sure you could take the deck out of the package, shuffle up, and have fun. There would be awesome lands with new foil treatment sitting on the board looking cool. There would be sweet creatures to cast and turn sideways. And there'd be ways—many, many, many, many ways—to take that annoying smug perennial omnipresent fatty-loving Llanowar Elves and send it rushing to the bin before you could say, "Take 3, brah."

So, I guess what I'm saying is: go pick up a copy of Fire & Lightning. If you're a player who's taken a step back from the game in recent years, I promise you'll find something there you remember, that takes you back to a memory of something cool. If you're a player who's just starting out, I promise you'll wind up doing something you never thought a Magic card would let you do. And if you're someone who's been with us for the long haul—well, maybe it's time to sit back, crack your knuckles, and turn up the heat.

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