Developing Origins

Posted in Latest Developments on July 3, 2015

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.

Welcome to the second week of Magic Origins previews! I don't actually have a card for you today, but fret not, because you can look at the entire Card Image Gallery here.

Instead, I'm going to talk about the members of the team, and some of the issues that came up when developing the set.

Sam Stoddard (Lead)

That's me!

David Humpherys

Dave is the development manager, so one of his roles is to oversee what each of the members of the development team are doing on a weekly basis, and I made sure we all have the resources to get our jobs done.

Beyond just being my manager, Dave has led the development of five sets—Avacyn Restored, Gatecrash, Journey into Nyx, Fate Reforged, and Dragons of Tarkir—and was an amazing resource for finding my way through the card challenges of a set, as well as the challenges of working with all of the other departments in the building.

Ian Duke

You may know Ian as one of the Magic Pro Tour's commentators, but he's also a great developer. Ian was the developer of Commander (2014 Edition), Vintage Masters, and Tempest Remastered, and has recently completed work on his yet-to-be-announced main Magic set.

Ian was the development representative on the design team, and therefore a big part of his job was to inform the rest of the development about what had been tried in design (so we didn't repeat ideas that didn't work). He also made sure that we were living up to the design vision for the set.

Dan Emmons

Dan left Wizards for other opportunities about halfway through development, but I was glad to have the chance to work with him for a while. He was an incredibly enthusiastic member of the team, and focused mostly on both creating a ton of cards and making sure that development was meeting up with the overarching philosophies of the design team at large.

Dan had a number of responsibilities, maybe the most important of which was being the keeper of the Planeswalkers' identities. After Liliana of the Dark Realms, it was obvious to us that we really needed to give each Planeswalker a stronger identity, and Dan was the one who led that charge.

Ethan Fleischer

You may know Ethan as the lead designer of Commander (2014 Edition) and Journey into Nyx. With Dan off of the team, we needed a member of the design team to come on and ensure that the principles of design were being upheld. For this, Ethan gracious stepped in and did a bang-up job of making sure that Magic Origins was the proper reflection of what we want Magic's color pie and Planeswalkers to be like.

Ari Levitch

Ari is a creative designer, and had a huge role in Magic Origins. He was the creative rep on the design team and was also doing a ton of the work getting the story organized for the Duels: Origins campaign mode—which meant he was really plugged into the set.

One of the things I most appreciated about Ari being on the team was that while I was constantly thinking about the cards, he was constantly thinking about the story. We were able to work together to make sure that we were meeting the difficult task of trying to tell five stories in one set. Several times he came to me with either important story moments that weren't being captured, or art that had come in that should really get put on a card. I believe it went a long way to making the final product work.

With the team all in place, I want to talk about some of the top line goals for the set, and how they are different from Core sets in the past.

Redefining Core

Magic Origins didn't start out as the last core set. It didn't even start out as Magic Origins—it actually began as a core set focused around a roster of villains, leading up to next year's core set, which would feature all of the current crop of Planeswalkers. At some point during (I think around half way through) design, the decision came down to move to the two-block model. That left this as the final core set, and required design to abandon a huge swath of their original file. I can't begin to express how well lead designer Shawn Main rolled with that, and quickly turned the set into something really amazing.

Even before the decision to move to the two-block model was reached, we realized the model of having a core set with one returning mechanic was getting pretty tired. The biggest problem was that even though we theoretically had a long list of returning mechanics we would've loved to put in core sets, in practice we found that the ideal list was much narrower. Some mechanics were too complex, some didn't have much design space left, and many of the best mechanics were better suited as the keystone of a new block instead of a few card in a core set. This led us to the idea of making new, simple mechanics for core sets.

Getting the mechanics right was more difficult. I was super happy with both of the ones the design team came up with. These mechanics told the story of "leveling up" well, but they needed quite a bit of finesse to get to the right spot for balance. For renowned, the challenge was to balance it so the counters matter on creatures, but the format wasn't totally driven by being on the play or draw. For spell mastery, it meant figuring out how to balance the mechanic so it was interesting in both Limited and Constructed, where the number of instants and sorceries you have varies quite wildly. In the end, I am pretty happy where both the mechanics ended up, and I hope to talk more about them in the coming weeks.

Story Matters

The other big change that we tried to accomplish with this set, other than mechanics, was to tell a story. When looking at the data for why players were just less excited about core sets a whole, the lack of a story was something that stood out loud and clear. I believe that when Magic 2010 came out, the use of "universal resonant fantasy" was a new world in some sense, and something we hadn't done in a long time. It let us print a ton of simple cards that just made sense to people, and went a long way toward reinvigorating Magic. But, four core sets later, that flavor was no longer exciting people. At the same time, we had made huge strides with our regular expansions in story, and people were showing us that the storytelling we were doing for our blocks was working.

Chandra, Fire of Kaladesh | Art by Eric Deschamps

Magic 2015 made some attempts at telling Garruk's story, and when put in concert with Duels of the Planeswalkers, I believe that we succeeded. But at the card level,  it was underwhelming. In the end, there were only a few pieces of art that really showed Garruk's path—it was a missed opportunity. When we started work on Origins, story was made a focus by all the various R&D groups. This set was going to be incredibly important to set our characters up for stories that we wanted to tell, and we needed star-building along with a single place to make all of their origin stories visible to the public..

Design had a lot of the elements needed to make this work, but as the development lead, I wanted to ensure that those remained through the development process. To make sure that the creative department was given the room necessary to do their work, so when players experience Magic Origins, the story can come through. During devign on the set, I came up with an idea that I realized would help to tie much of the set together. The mechanic, spell mastery, had been created to show mages becoming more powerful—including our main Planeswalkers. I had the idea of trying to use the mechanic to actually tell the stories—each card with spell mastery would show our characters at different points in their stories. The commons would show all of our characters on their starting plane, the uncommons would show them on the plane they traveled to, and the rares would show them at the height of their current power. It was a subtle thing, but it gave me a great focal point to start building the set around.

That wasn't the only cycle intended to show these Planeswalkers stories. Each Planeswalker in the set got an important rare or mythic rare depicting the big story moment for their narrative arc in Origins, a legendary creature that was important to their story, and a cycle of uncommon build-around enchantments that represent the character's home plane. Putting all of these cards together gave the creative department the room to do a lot of work and tell all five stories on the cards.

As we get into Prerelease week next week, I hope that you take some time to explore the set, and to play Duels: Origins to learn even more about our characters. I think we have some really great stories here, and I look forward to our sets keeping your all informed of where they are going.

Next week, I'll be back talking about some of the nuances about developing double-faced Planeswalkers, and stories of how they evolved over their lifespan in R&D.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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