Designing Modern Masters 2017

Posted in Latest Developments on March 3, 2017

By Sam Stoddard

Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.

It's easy to look at the task of leading design on Modern Masters 2017 Edition and say, "Hey, that looks easy. All the cards are reprints; what even needs to get done?" Well, yes—nothing new needs to be created for the set, but the important tasks the design lead of the set starts out with are deciding what reprints to put in the set and how to craft a Limited environment is something. While the development lead has final say in everything, the goal for the design lead is to set up a strong foundation for the development lead to iterate on. Much like how design sets the vision, my goal was to create the scaffolding for the set and create something that Adam Prosak, as the development lead, would be able to successfully flesh out.

The original Modern Masters had a lot of advantages—we had no idea when we were making it how successful either it or Modern would be as formats in the long haul, so it might be the only one we ever did. It got to do Changelings along with tribal, kicker, vivid lands, suspend, storm, and more. That meant it didn't need to leave a lot in the reserve—so it took all of the most fun Limited mechanics in its time and made a set out of them. It was slightly scatterbrained, in a Time Spiral way, but it was a hard act to follow. I believe Modern Masters 2015 Edition's Limited ultimately failed because it tried to repeat that act, but it didn't have the same level of fun mechanics, and it tried too hard to shoehorn in its themes. It traded in a lot of individual fun mechanics or cards in the original Modern Masters for a more on-rails experience. It was closer to a core set as opposed to what we'd want out of a Modern Masters set.

When returning to Modern Masters again, we were determined not to fall into that trap. While we did add some fun things to the Modern Masters pool in 2017 with both Innistrad and Return to Ravnica blocks, I didn't want this set to just be a "best of" with those two sets. I wanted it to have a tighter theme that felt more cohesive and really stood out as its own rather than just an update to the previous Modern Masters set with new cards. That led to two obvious versions—it could be a set that focused on the graveyard stuff from Innistrad sets or the gold stuff from Ravnica sets. Considering we just went back to Innistrad, it didn't feel like the right time to rehash that theme, which is how I got on the idea to make Modern Masters 2017 a gold set. That would let us create something that was a step removed from the other Masters sets while retaining a lot of design space for future Masters sets. After all, if we are going to keep doing these sets, we want each one to stand on its own and have the opportunity to make the most fun with the cards it has, as opposed to settling for whatever fun cards are left that we haven't done recently.

Different Construction

The (somewhat) radical change to how this set was put together as opposed to other Masters sets opened up some doors. For example, we decided not to just do the standard ten-color pairs that most sets do nowadays because when we tried it in a real gold set, it was just too much. I took a cue from Khans of Tarkir and focused on making the set more about allied two-color decks and wedge-decks. If you look at the gold card distribution here, it is quite similar to how Khans did it. If it's not broken, don't fix it.

A real struggle for each Masters set is how we make it something that has straightforward drafting strategies (since most people won't get to draft it for the twentieth time to explore some of the more nook-and-cranny aspects of the set) while still allowing the level of depth and complexity that you would expect from a Masters set. For this set, this was accomplished by letting the two-color strategies be very straightforward and for the more complicated drafting to come out of adding a third color. Green-white populate tells you quickly what to do—but if you open up a Wing Splicer, do you splash into trying to make that deck work or stay the course with more traditional cards like Call of the Conclave?

I believe a lot of what this adds to Modern Masters 2017 is a very robust Draft environment that rewards players for knowing when to stay open and keep taking good-stuff cards and when to focus in on a more singular deck and go for high synergy. Because it is a gold set and there are plenty of strong individual cards and mana fixing, playing a good-stuff strategy is a totally open option, but not necessarily the strongest thing to do. While we believe there's even more room to explore the format, I believe it is going to be a lot of fun, and I look forward to drafting quite a lot of it on Magic Online.

We spent the first few weeks of Modern Masters 2017 design laying out the structure of the set—mostly starting with gold cards and working backwards—and filling out a file. One of the challenges for a full-reprint set is that you often get to a point where small things can block you—it might be that two of your themes end up having a curve that is too close or that you can't get enough strong cards with one mechanic to make the set actually work. After a lot of Gatherer work to find all the cards we could use and fit them into the set, we got into playtesting. While the first playtest had some big problems (mostly a lack of definition from too many gold cards), it was clear that there was a really fun base there. I got some feedback from Adam Prosak, since he would be leading the set in the end, and used that to steer the direction of the set in the amount of time we had left. After about two months of meetings, the set was in about the right spot to move from the design team to the developers for a second pair of eyes and brains to finish it.

The Handoff to Development

For development, the handoff of the set is just the full set. For design, it is a bit different. While each designer does it slightly differently, the ultimate goal is to give the development lead a playable set whereas the design team has iterated on some ideas and can say what they believe is working and what is not. Compared to a regular set, the length of the design and development for a Masters set is pretty short, and that means that we need to get things pretty solid by the time the set is handed off.

At the handoff, I presented the following color-pair archetypes to Adam Prosak to start with:

White-Blue Blink
Blue-Black Ninjas/Enters the Battlefield
Black-Red Unearth/Sacrifice
Red-Green Bloodrush
Green-White Populate
Esper Blink/Ninjas
Jund Death/Graveyard Rewards
Grixis Graveyard Spells
Naya Token Beatdown
Bant Blink Enters-the-Battlefield Tokens
White-Black Enters the Battlefield
Blue-Red Spells
Black-Green Graveyard
Red-White Speed Aggro
Green-Blue Five-Color (where green-blue accelerates into five colors)

I noted what the possible two-color enemy decks would be, with the note that I didn't expect them to happen very frequently. Higher than the rate that a two-color non-guild deck happened in Return to Ravnica or Gatecrash, but probably only one person every other draft or so. In the handoff, I also noted that I felt white-blue and blue-black were not really working. We have tried to do Ninjas many times, but I don't know if we will ever get it into a Masters set until we somehow figure out how to print more. There are a few fun ones, most notably Ninja of the Deep Hours, but they are pretty shallow, and the Planechase ones don't add much for Limited—at least not enough to be a theme.

Adam was very happy with the handoff and did a great job of figuring out both how to replace blue-black and how to get the blink color pairs to work. The final set's color pair archetypes are this:

White-Blue Blink
Blue-Black Instant Control
Black-Red Unearth/Sacrifice
Red-Green Token Go-Wide
Green-White Populate
Esper Control (with Creatures)
Grixis Graveyard
Jund Sacrifice
Naya Token Aggro
Bant Splicers

I believe the secret to getting white-blue to work was to focus more on the Splicers as the things you were blinking as opposed to more generic token makers.

Modern Masters 2017 comes out in two weeks, and I can't wait for you all to draft it. We will be looking for feedback and trying to figure out if the changes in strategies for how we made this set versus how the first two (and to a lesser extent Eternal Masters) were made and use that to influence how we move forward in development of future Masters sets.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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