Know Everything

Posted in Latest Developments on June 29, 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.

Basically any attempt at build-up or exposition would have taken away from the impact of this card, so I might as well just showcase it and let it speak for itself.

I devoted a borderline obsessive amount of attention to Magic 2013 as the set's lead developer. It's a little unfair, though, because unlike the rest of my team I get to sit at the helm of this column and exaggerate my own involvement to my heart's content. Yet so many of the cards that make this set awesome—like Omniscience—were the result of a lot of intense, collective brainstorming that couldn't have happened without everyone pouring in an insane amount of time and effort. I'll go into detail about everyone's role on the team in a later article, but right now I just want to give a shout out to Tom LaPille, Ethan Fleischer, Max McCall, Ryan Miller, and Mark Gottlieb. Their efforts made the set what it is.

I bring this up right now because I remember the exact moment Omniscience was created. We were sitting in a room brainstorming high-impact concepts for blue mythic rares. Because Magic 2013 was a core set, we wanted to cram as much top-down resonance and visceral impact into the cards as possible. We realized that while core sets tended to be awesome at delivering sweet Angels, Dragons, Demons, and the like, there was a lot of untapped space for archetypal fantasy concepts that hadn't been played around with much at all. I forget who exactly wrote this card down on the whiteboard, but it sprang forth, fully formed like Athena or something, from that meeting directly into booster packs—name, cost, ability, everything. We even had the piece of art already. Yet the further you dive into the card, the more axes along which it works—to me, at least. It's a resonant top-down design that satisfies fundamental player desires while balancing naturally with Magic's core mechanics.

"You Know Our Motto: 'We Deliver'"

Core set mythic rares, to me, should be about one thing: inspiration. In expansion sets, you have a lot more room to play around with environmental considerations, dynamic interactions, storyline plot-points, and everything else, but in a core set, when you open a mythic rare it should take your breath away. It should promise you something. There should be no doubt in your mind that the card boasts an orange-red expansion symbol. How exactly you choose to go about doing this can vary, naturally, but a player opening a core set mythic rare in a booster pack should be experiencing a lot more than rules text. The card should stoke the fires of that player's imagination.

To me, that's exactly what Omniscience is about. You read the card and the name of that card meshes with its mechanic and you start to explore: What if the normal boundaries didn't apply to me? What if I knew everything? What if I could subvert the mana-gathering and power-pooling and the diving into the recesses of my own consciousness, invoking the memory of runes or rituals to hearken a spell to life? What if all that occurred in a flash, without my having to even think about it? What havoc could I wreak? What realms could I create? What visions could I share? What beings could I summon? What grand experiment could I unleash upon the world?

Omniscience | Art by Jason Chan

You hear those promises, and that spark ignites, and you're excited to venture forth and explore.

A card like this isn't for everyone, of course. It costs a zillion mana and doesn't win the game by itself. It requires some effort to get it to work. It's not a tournament staple and you're not going to jam it into every deck that plays Islands, but that's not the point. To me, a lot of the value you get from a Magic card comes well before you sleeve it up. Again, it's about possibility. I think a good core set mythic rare should kickstart a process in your mind, a pattern of discovery that goes somewhere. It should suggest something to you, stoke your imagination. It should help to create meaning from experience. And it should do that by appealing to something you already recognize, a trope or a facet of culture that means something to you—something your heart can understand before your mind even starts to churn. That means when you do build the deck that really maximizes a card like this, you feel like you've accomplished something substantial.

You May Think You're Cool and Collected, Obeying All the Rules

I am highly embarrassed by the reference in that heading, but that's neither here nor there.

So on one level, we're going for a kind of visceral impact with a card like Omniscience that hits you in your gut. But that doesn't matter a whole lot if, immediately after that, you can't take it anywhere as a game piece. If the concept is appealing but the mechanic—even if it ties into that concept—is dull, you leave feeling disappointed. A truism about basically every game, though, is that those games establish rules—and human beings really like to break rules. The whole reason the concept of Omniscience is appealing is that it represents the ability to break free from a restriction that all of us struggle with every day: no matter how much we would like it not to be true, none of us can ever know everything. We're constrained by our access to information. We're constrained by the capacities of our brains, by the limits of our consciousness, by the pinnacles of our ability to understand. Even the smartest person on the planet harnesses only a tiny, tiny, tiny fraction of what could conceivably be known. It's a rule we can't avoid, can't escape, can't transcend.

Hydrosurge | Art by Steve Prescott

So to capture that experience in a game-mechanical sense, we'd have to figure out how to transcend a rule. And a rule that you just can't escape in a game of Magic is that everything has a cost. It might be cheap, it might be expensive, but before you can do anything you've got to pay the man his money Teddy KGB-style on the front end. Omniscience, though, offers you a way to say "no thanks, man I'm good." I don't have to go through the rigmarole of tapping lands and drawing power—nah, dawg, I know that stuff already. I know all the rest of you chumps need to hearken back to the meadows you frolicked in as a kid or the trees you climbed that one time the Thragtusk was chasing you 'cause you lost your spare spear—but I think I'll just hum a nice jazz tune and sip lemonade while you're bothering with all that, because for me, it's all inside this skull right here.

In Magic, we don't offer you that many ways to circumvent the game's core mechanics. When we do, we hope, it's kind of exciting. We don't just slam ten-mana price tags on everything—but just how much is boundless possibility worth to you, anyway?

You Want It All, and You Can Have It

Seven You You You. I'm not going to tell you that's cheap. But, on the other hand, you aren't going to have to pay for anything ever again. What'dya say we have a deal?

Here in Magic R&D, we're a big fan of costs. We use costs an awful lot to balance cards (revolutionary stuff I'm telling you, I know!). So when we go off and make a card that says, "Yeeeeeeeeah, about that whole 'paying for it' stuff..." we kind of have to take it very seriously.

Griselbrand | Art by Igor Kieryluk

Fortunately, the natural structure of Magic allows us to predict with decent accuracy exactly what you've got to do to get a card like this onto the battlefield.

So say you draw your opening hand of seven, and you're on the play. You play your land, putting you at six cards, and say "go." Next turn you draw—seven cards now—play a land (six), and cast a guy (five). Every turn after that, if you draw a land and play a spell once per turn, your hand size is depreciating by one on every iteration. This means you're out of gas by turn seven on the play and turn eight on the draw.

Obviously, all or even most games aren't going to play out like this. But the general play pattern means we have a model that allows us to visualize what happens if, say, you miss a three-drop or use your second turn to cast Rampant Growth. This allows you to arrive at a lot of important conclusions, such as how different a flashback cost of eight is from one of nine (since so much of flashback's value is giving you something to do instead of nothing, and eight is the land where you would naturally run out of gas).

Because there are only a finite number of cards in Standard that produce more than one mana per card—some of which you've seen as of this article and some of which you haven't, although I will note that Omniscience contains three mana of one single color in its mana cost—we can reason how likely it is that you'll still have cards in your grip when you cast it, and what those cards have got to be for Omniscience to win you the game when it hits. We can appreciate that in order to increase that number, you'd have to spend certain fundamental turns ramping or drawing cards, which allows the opponent to apply more pressure to you. And this allows us, finally, to arrive at an initial ballpark cost that is right on the peak of possibility, requiring some effort to achieve but not being so high that it's just never ever, ever likely to happen.

Crush of Wurms

Having playtested a number of Omniscience decks, I can say it's a lot of work to get to ten—but if the environment's right, the payoff can definitely be worth it.

That's only Standard, of course. Legacy decks should have a good time dropping this off Show and Tell—although admittedly Griselbrand might be a better choice—and all kinds of casual formats think very little of accelerating right into ten. Remember, though, that Omniscience only lets you freeroll off cards in your hand, so you're still going to have to work a little for that Yawgmoth's Will, Snapcaster Mage, or flashed back Crush of Wurms. I mean, you're already getting everything for free—you've gotta do some work!

Ron and Steve are the "Know It Alls"

I hope y'all dig this card. I realize in many ways this article can be awkward if I'm all like, "Here is this card I think is awesome, and here are these reasons why I think it's awesome and these axes along which we've designed it deliberately to try and make it awesome," because it's sort of like having to explain to somebody why a joke is funny, e.g., "See! This is why you should like it!"

That's the danger of peeking too far behind the curtain, of course. What's more important to me than Omniscience specifically, though, is a far broader point: I believe M13 represents our renewed commitment to using mythic rares to both represent and create experiences. This is hard to quantify, but so is a lot of our job. I feel very strongly that when you open a card like this in a pack, it should feel awesome and rewarding and imbued with possibility, and it should do a thing that's exciting to try and do.

I guess what I'm saying is this: a mythic rare is more than just a card. It represents a roll at superlative experience, the pinnacle of the emotional rewards you can attain by playing a game. Other commonality slots are where you derive a lot of the richness and interaction that makes Magic great, but the mythic rare slot in a core set should be high-impact and self-contained. It should make sense in a vacuum. You should feel it.

Do you? Let me know.


Zac (@zdch)

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