Learning from the Masters

Posted in Latest Developments on May 27, 2016

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.

I'll admit that Modern Masters (2015 Edition) Limited didn't live up to the standards we set for Modern Masters's Limited. The set was a little too on-rails, there were too many cards that were zeros-to-heroes in just one deck, and there just generally weren't enough sideways and quirky things to do. Now, we didn't know all of that coming out of Modern Masters (2015 Edition) development—if we did, we would've reworked some stuff. Instead, we took a lot of that feedback to heart when working on Eternal Masters. There were a lot of good things in the format, but there was also a lot that could've been improved. We're not going to hit every one out of the park, try as we might, but we do attempt to take the lessons from sets like this and learn from them, to make better sets in the future.

Lessons from Vintage Masters

It should probably not be a surprise that a lot of this set was inspired by Vintage Masters—the Magic Online–only set that introduced a number of cards to Magic Online for the first time. Vintage Masters had an interesting restriction—it could only include cards that were not legal in Modern.

As we worked on Vintage Masters, we realized this was difficult. Very, very difficult. It turns out that many colors were just very imbalanced in early Magic, and we often found ourselves struggling in colors like green and red to have creatures we were happy with. When we made Vintage Masters, we didn't exactly leave ourselves a lot of options.

Enter: Modern-legal cards. This was a huge step forward for Eternal Masters. While we definitely wanted it to feel different than Modern Masters, we knew that having access to only the same pool of cards from Vintage Masters would have inevitably led us to creating a set that played very much like Vintage Masters. We wanted to do something new.

Cube Inspired

When Eternal Masters was handed off from design, it followed the pattern of how we usually do sets—ten color pairs, lots of seed cards for all them, and not a ton of sideways stuff. One of the challenges of doing a set based so heavily on older Magic was that we just didn't do the ten-color-pair stuff early on, and we had to find ways to make it work over a lot of sets. Many color pairs had a ton of things we could do, while others were almost nonexistent, other than the "good cards" strategy. Part of making Eternal Masters feel like a hyper-version of early Magic was finding ways to make the set work without having people play color-pair strategies that felt inauthentic.

When working on the set, we wanted it to live up to the idea of Eternal Masters and to try to avoid color-pair strategies that didn't line up with what people would expect out of some of the strongest cards in Magic's history. For example, the white-black deck was Clerics in the handoff, which was a fine deck, but I don't think it inspired people. Even moving something like Gangrenous Goliath to common to help the deck would go a long way to making it competitive, but it didn't feel like you were drafting the strongest cards in Magic's history.

Instead, the direction we went for most of the color pairs was to make sure that you were doing things that felt epically powerful, even if they were less well-defined. White-black, for example, became a recursion deck with enter-the-battlefield effects based on both blink cards and raise-dead effects. This overlapped well with the blue-black graveyard theme, and made a deck that felt natural, if less obvious. Luckily, though, Eternal Masters is not meant to be an easy format. It, like Modern Masters before it, is a Draft format for the most enfranchised players, and I think having a few things that are deeper, but harder to get into, is good for that audience.

The general hope of how Eternal Masters plays is somewhere between Modern Masters and a Cube draft. The thing that works so well about Cube, and I think leads to a lot of its replayability, is that there is just a lot to do. The individual power level of cards and decks is very high, and the synergy tends to revolve around two-card combos. There are a lot of these two-card combos in Eternal Masters, but we also tried to have some decks that were linear and powerful, such as Elves.

Cards That Make You Go :)

For example, the Honden cycle was included in Eternal Masters not because they fit into the larger context of some color pairs, but because they were cards that took up only a little bit of set real estate, yet gave people something cool and sideways to draft, and (most importantly) were cards that people remembered fondly. We added the Hondens as kind of a lark, and during every playtest, somebody who hadn't drafted before would open up a pack, see one, and take it—often saying something like "I really hope you aren't tricking me!" Don't worry, no tricks—all five are in there.

One of the important things to the team working on Eternal Masters was to, above all, make sure the format was a lot of fun. We decided to do it by filling the set full of cards that people just enjoy drafting. Squadron Hawk, Merfolk Looter, Fact or Fiction, Young Pyromancer, Werebear, Lys Alana Huntmaster, Wee Dragonauts, the list goes on. The general thought was, we can get to the point that any card is positioned to be powerful—but we might as well make them the kinds of cards that people remember fondly from the past. We often like to find cards that never quite worked and reprint them in a way that they shine now. That has its place—Conspiracy does a particularly good job of it—but here we wanted to focus on making a "best-of" playlist.

The other great thing about Eternal Masters is that a number of the cards we wanted to reprint, how should I put this, were more than due for an art overhaul. Many people complained about Modern Masters (2015 Edition) not having enough new art, and we heard loud and clear. With access to over 20 years of cards, we had plenty of opportunities to create facelifts and give people the opportunity to get new versions of their favorite cards—some of them in foil for the first time.

Exciting Rares

Beyond just having charming commons and uncommons, we wanted to make sure that the rares were pulling their weight as exciting cards that you wouldn't see every draft, but that would also lead you to building a powerful deck with direction. There are plenty of strong generic cards—the Mana Crypts, Jace, the Mind Sculptors, and Rorix Bladewings of the world—but we tried to keep the number of cards that are basically "blank" in Limited to about zero. Some cards are stronger than others, for sure, but nothing should be unplayable.

One of the challenges of selecting rares and mythic rares for a set like this is that you want a lot of them to be the cards people want to open in packs, but you also want them to work out in Limited. Sure, you get some number of blanks—every set has cards like The Great Aurora, Harness the Storm, or Call the Gatewatch. There are cards that exist for reasons outside of Limited, but for a set like this, we wanted to at least give you the opportunity to make the cards work.

Take Worldgorger Dragon, for example. Yes, it is a big flying rare, but it also comes with a pretty big downside. In Eternal Masters, however, you get to combo it with Animate Dead to create the infinite loop that was such a force in Vintage for such a long time. Argothian Enchantress exists, not in the way that Daybreak Coronet existed in MM2, but instead as a one of the best rares you can open for the Green-White Enchantment deck.

A Draft Worth Remembering

All and all, I am very happy with that we did with Eternal Masters. Personally, I really enjoyed every draft I played with the format. It's certainly different than both Modern Masters sets, but I think it succeeds in a very different way. I hope that you all have the opportunity to play a few drafts of Eternal Masters in either physical or online form.

Now, I know that I am probably the target audience for a set like this. I've played a few dozen drafts or more of every Limited format since triple Mirage, but I hope that the format is still accessible to players who may have played for a few years less than me. We'll be looking at how it goes, and seeing how people react to the format to influence how we make reprint sets in the future.

That's it for this week. Next week, I'll be back talking about Modern.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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