Branding Play

Posted in Latest Developments on April 6, 2012

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.

Hope you've been enjoying Helvault Week!

There are unfortunately only so many things I can say about a three-mana artifact that kills stuff every turn. I mean, it has pretty sweet-looking art, and there are some really scary creepers lurking in there, but that's hardly an article...

What I instead want to talk to y'all about is this Helvault:

More specifically, I want to talk about the circumstances that led to this Helvault's creation—and why, in general, we're starting to do Prereleases a little bit differently from how we've done them for the last ≈15 years.

Doing vs. Having

Every year or so there emerge trends in the world that are sort of irksome to me. They nag at me in the back of my mind like some kind of gnat or gadfly and I can never wrench my focus from them entirely.

In 2009—and this might have been a consequence of my having recently returned from overseas—it was the tendency for every single dessert to be described as "decadent" or "indulgent," as though by virtue of eating ice cream you were, you know, reclining on a couch plopping grapes into your mouth being fanned by servants as right before your eyes criminals were being fed to lions, or whatever. The next year it was the discomfiting tendency of flight attendants to emphatically say, "Thank you!" when you handed them your trash, the implications of which get more and more eerie the more you think about it.

Talisman of Indulgence | Art by Mike Dringenberg

Recently, it's been the realization of marketing departments everywhere that, according to swaths of happiness research, people tend to enjoy their lives more when they spend their money on experiences rather than products. This is grounded in something real and genuine and true, which is that you tend to get more value out of things you do than things you have, because your focus centers on appreciating the meaning of the present moment. But it leads to gargantuan incongruities and truly obscene turns of phrase, such as "The (insert generic retailer here) Shopping Experience," which of course simply tries to transmogrify a product into an experience by doing nothing more than calling it something else.

So it was with keen awareness of this phenomenon, and no small amount of skepticism, that I left a meeting a couple years back where we resolved to try and deliver more products in the form of experiences.

Delivering on a Promise

One of the great things about working at a company like Wizards, though, is that I know we're not going to half-heartedly pursue a goal we don't believe in. We're not going to invent a problem because of some stated corporate trend. And this particular meeting was rooted in a genuine concern: We market our Prereleases to players as unique, one-of-a-kind events. But were they, really, when you got down to it?

Ad Nauseam | Art by Jeremy Jarvis

I've attended every Prerelease since Urza's Destiny in some capacity or another. I can probably tell you a story about every single one. Since I've been in R&D, I have flown out to Prerelease events around the US to meet players and talk to tournament organizers. So I'll start out by saying I definitely appreciate the value of the way we have always done our Prereleases.

That said, the model has some problems.

1)At the end of the day, you're just playing in a Sealed Deck tournament or (maybe) a Booster Draft.

Now, don't get me wrong: It's very cool to play with cards for the first time. You're discovering interactions almost constantly. But you're going to play in more drafts, and you're going to play more Sealed Deck. The only special thing about the Prerelease itself is that it's first—which means it's not the event itself that's special! Rather, it's the circumstances behind the event. That's not bad, but it's not hard to see how it could be improved upon.

2) A lot of people just aren't down with Sealed Deck tournaments.

Look, I feel you: Tournaments aren't for everyone. Only a minority of players want to compete in a zero-sum environment against other people. I'll take myself as an example: For most of my Magic career, I treated Prereleases as an efficient way to win a lot of packs early in a set's lifespan by preying upon fields of less-experienced players who weren't used to tournament environments. I feel very stupid when I look back on how frequently I did that, because I was missing the point entirely. These events are supposed to be fun, low-intensity introductions to a new set of cards. They're supposed to unveil the set to all players, not just Spikes who like to battle one another in tournaments. And the point really ought to be to enjoy the experience, not to grind out pack after pack of prizes. There are plenty of other events for that.

Mikaeus, the Lunarch | Art by Steven Belledin

3) The "Prerelease"-ness of the event is all-downside.

In a lot of ways, the existing Prerelease model reminds me of a) the legend rule and b) gold cards. Legends and gold cards are supposed to be awesome, right? But they're actually both drawback mechanics. You can only have one legend in play at a given time, and your gold cards are a lot harder to cast. Yet those two mechanics are some of the most popular mechanics of all time, because the risks are paid off in the form of extra awesomeness. Prereleases are kind of similar. For most of their history, Prereleases have been exactly like any other tournament, except that if you really like the cards you're playing with, you can't actually buy any more of them. So there needs to be a little more octane present to make up for that.

4) Traditionally, every Prerelease is like every other Prerelease.

Clearly, we want players to play in more of our events. The problem is that you can only bill something as "unique" a finite number of times before you start becoming intellectually dishonest. As an example, I've probably played in more Prereleases than any other single type of tournament, and for most of history they've all functioned basically the same. That ceases to become "special" very quickly—which is unfortunate, because they're also the events that bring players out of the woodwork, and are the occasions where we at Wizards should really be on our "A-Game." Now, there's some value to knowing you're going to show up and get what you like, to be sure, which is why we don't want to totally undermine the way we've always run our Prereleases. But a little added value to make the event "pop," to allow it to stand out, helps cement each Prerelease as an occasion to remember.

So it's with these problems in mind that we began to innovate—with the knowledge that, for the most part, things were working, and it was important not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Choose Your Side

Enter Mirrodin Besieged.

We knew across the entire development cycle of Scars of Mirrodin block that we were going to fail if our only plan was simply to rehash Mirrodin a second time around. That's why we went to such lengths to emphasize the war—the parties involved; the personalities; the conflict; and, of course, the triumphant return of Magic's classic villains, the Phyrexians. But rather than simply tell the story to players—rather than broadcast content at an audience—could we instead draw in the players and allow them to become participants in the experience?

Phyrexian Obliterator | Art by Todd Lockwood

That's where the idea of faction packs came from—the idea that you could fight for one side or another. The Prerelease, we decided, wouldn't simply be a tournament. It would be a battle for control, for domination of an entire plane. And rather than each individual competing in his or her own solipsistic, self-contained world, everyone would be working toward a unified goal. It wasn't just about playing a game of Magic anymore. It was a struggle to survive—or a struggle to compleat.

The plan worked beautifully—and I can say that because I didn't have a whole lot to do with its execution, other than playtesting the format to ensure that for the most part the "faction packs" were balanced (the most prominent R&D "liaison" was in fact Erik Lauer, the set's lead developer). The Mirrodin Besieged Prerelease went on to be the most successful such event of all time, which was doubly remarkable given that Besieged itself was a small set. Videos went up. Swag was sported. We received letters that people even got tattoos in support of their favored side (now that's some dedication!). People clearly felt they were becoming involved in something meaningful. That's a big step up from turning in a match slip and walking away.

The Next Steps

We didn't, of course, know at the time that the Besieged event would be successful. We were taking a big risk. Eventually, though, faction allegiance was split almost exactly 50/50 down the middle and (as I mentioned) attendance was through the roof. So we started brewing other ways to inspire similar emotional investment from players.

Olivia Voldaren | Art by Eric Deschamps

By the time we had results from Besieged, we were working on the Dark Ascension Prerelease. As the most important element of the "message" was that the monsters were ravaging the entire plane, it was Ethan Fleischer who realized that a very common monster trope was that, like some kind of virus, they gradually assimilated unsuspecting humans over onto their side. Zombies, werewolves, vampires—they all could "infect" you, and the ghosts got to you after you died! We incorporated that into the very structure of the Prerelease, as a kind of opt-in feature, and our biggest piece of feedback was that stores that implemented this recommendation wildly outperformed those that did not.

As we were working on Dark Ascension, though, we knew Avacyn Restored (as a large set) would be the most natural point to debut another massive event on the scale of Mirrodin Besieged. Furthermore, we realized that central to the success of these kinds of events was an integration of the Prerelease experience with the actual storyline. So what was the central storyline element to Avacyn Restored?

Breaking open the Helvault, of course!

I can't provide very many details of how the event is going to work, and I haven't even been told what the contents of these Helvaults actually are. I can explain, however, the structure of the setup:

Each Helvault, true to form, is going to come equipped with a series of "seals" that bind its treasures inside. Completing different challenges will allow players to work together to open each of these seals. Eventually, if enough of these challenges are completed, players will be able to disrupt the magic that sanctifies the 'Vault and unleash whatever lurks within.

That's not going to get in the way of the tried-and-true pattern of play that has been a staple of Prerelease events for years, of course. You're still going to build decks out of exclusively new cards, and still have a chance to battle them against other players before those cards go on sale to the public. Our hope, though, is that the event will stand out as more than just another tournament. Our hope is that we'll create an experience in the most sincere sense of the world—a set of fond memories that stick with you.

And who knows? Maybe you'll walk away with some remnant of the Helvault itself, some small token that helps enliven those memories for a long time...

Zac (@zdch)

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