Let's Do It Again

Posted in Latest Developments on September 3, 2010

By Tom LaPille

Tom LaPille makes things. Some of the things he makes are card sets, like Dark Ascension and Born of the Gods. Sometimes he makes stories, too. Sometimes he makes unexpected things, like 16th-century Japanese clothing. He's probably making something right now.

This week on DailyMTG is sequel week. As Mark Rosewater pointed out on Monday, there is plenty of numerical evidence that consumers like sequels. For example, Inception is only the fourth non-animated film in history to break $100 million without being based on a previous property. This provides a very strong reason why people who create also like sequels: they are easier to sell to consumers, which means they are easier to pitch to the gatekeepers who control what is produced. However, there are plenty more satisfying reasons for creators to like doing sequels. I thought of two. They are:

    1. You Get to Steal Lots of Good Ideas

If you're doing a sequel to something, that probably means that the first thing had many successful parts, and a sequel lets you steal them all and use them again. For example, Alpha did lots of things correctly. It's a well-crafted game that attracted people who like deep games. It has resonant fantasy flavor that spoke to fans of traditional fantasy. It is random enough that individual games of Magic are different from each other, but skill-based enough that players' decisions matter. It is highly customizable so that different people can get different things out of it. I could go on and on, but instead I'll just observe that every Magic product tries to capture the same spark that caused Alpha to be a success. Richard Garfield did tons of things right, and that's a huge head start that every Magic set begins with.

    2. You Already Know the Problems You Have to Solve

Doing a sequel means that you also have access to all the negative feedback about the previous incarnation. In the case of Alpha, the biggest problem I see is that its creators thought that limited card access would define the experience for most Magic players. Rarity, therefore, was a tool that they used to balance the game. They knew that Black Lotus was an "unbalanced" card, but who would have more than one or two of it? To their surprise, people who liked Magic a lot went out of their way to get all the cards they wanted, which led to some degenerate decks. Oops. We still use rarity to sculpt Limited play, but modern Magic sets understand that there are plenty of Magic players who will have all the cards they want, and we balance cards with them in mind so that the game does not break when played that way.

Rather than speak in generality about how this has applied to lots of Magic's sequels, I'll talk about a specific one that happens to be one of my favorite things I've worked on since I got to Wizards: Masters Edition III.

First, some background. The first sets to be released on Magic Online were Invasion and Odyssey, and every set from then forward was released on Magic Online at approximately the same time as it was released in paper. We have since begun to release the sets from Mirage forward on Magic Online as well. This caused us to wonder how we could get important cards from before Mirage onto Magic Online. Unfortunately, those sets are so packed full of cards that are either challenging to code (Word of Command) or unappealing (Arcum's Whistle) that releasing them in their full forms seemed bad. Also, sets before Mirage were not built with Draft in mind, and drafting is one of the most important ways that cards are distributed on Magic Online. However, to get Magic Online to match paper Magic in the long run for formats like Legacy, we needed to get those cards online. What to do?

The solution that Ramp;D came up with was to build entirely new sets out of pre-Mirage cards. These sets would contain all the cards that Magic Online needed to match the real world, and would also be draftable. Masters Edition and Masters Edition II were built on this model before I got to Wizards, and about a year after I started working here I had the opportunity to lead the development of Masters Edition III.

To prepare for this, I learned as much as I could about the first two. I learned that there were plenty of good things about the first two instances of Masters Edition. One is that nostalgia is a very powerful force. Many Magic Online players used to play paper Magic, but for one reason or another—time, kids, location—no longer find it convenient to do so. As you might expect, that means that MagicOnline players have been playing Magic longer on average than paper players. These players, then, may have memories of the "good old days" before modern Magic sets began, and the Masters model captures that appeal by using cards from that era. The other excellent idea that the previous Masters sets captured was that they should be fun to draft. Most Magic Online players like drafting, so the product offers something to them even if they weren't around for Ice Age or Arabian Nights.

There were also three major problems that I learned about while talking with players about the first two Masters Editions. First, creatures were not particularly strong in early Magic. Creatures are the bread and butter of modern Limited formats, but when every creature is a little weaker than it would have been in a modern set, the format slows down and weird things start happening. For example, I have a friend who thought the best common in Masters Edition II was Wall of Kelp, and he would often win games by throwing ten Kelp tokens at his opponent with Skull Catapult. I didn't want that kind of thing to be a consistent strong strategy, so I knew I had to pay attention to creature power.

The second problem was that early Magic's rares were, by and large, quite bad in Limited. Magic's rare slot cards are the cards that you see least often in Limited, so they can add a lot of spice to the play experience and make it fun to draft over and over again. It's important, then, that they be strong enough that you want to put them in your deck. Masters Edition and Masters Edition II used enough rares that were strong in Limited, but that meant there were less available for future Masters Edition sets. I was going to face the hardest rare selection problem anyone had faced yet.

The third problem is that early Magic did not contain many combat tricks. One of the features of modern Limited play is that instants often make combat steps go in unexpected directions thanks to cards like Thunder Strike and Diminish. Early Magic had very few cards like that, so it was easy to predict how any given creature combat would go. That level of predictability reduces the amount of times it is fun to play Limited. To my eye, the first two Masters Edition sets chose to use few combat tricks rather than include marginal ones; I resolved to go the other direction.

Erik Lauer was the lead designer for Masters Edition III. His design vision was that the set focused on Legends, The Dark, and Portal Three Kingdoms. He wanted the set's Limited play to allow the bizarre but gigantic legends from Legends to shine, he wanted horsemanship to be the main evasion mechanic, and he wanted to get as many Legacy-relevant cards as possible online from the three sets he chose. It was fortunate for me as the lead developer that this vision contained everything I needed to solve two of my three problems, and had nothing that impeded my ability to solve the third.

I solved the creature-quality problem with two main tools. The first tool was Portal Three Kingdoms, which was developed five years after Legends and The Dark, with fairly modern sensibilities for creature power. For example, Shu Cavalry, Meng Huo's Horde, and Wei Strike Force are the kind of cards you might expect to see as simple commons in a modern set, albeit with different art and names. There are also plenty of cards in Portal Three Kingdoms that, to a modern eye, look reasonable as powerful uncommons, like Lu Meng, Wu General, and Zhang Fei, Fierce Warrior. These cards had strange names, but felt very familiar in play in terms of their power levels.

The other, and more unlikely, tool was the one that Erik gave me: legendary creatures from Legends. His handoff contained every Legends legendary creature that had not yet been printed online, which was no small feat. However, those cards tended to be expensive and inefficient, and were not showing up much in actual Limited games.

To rectify the situation, I did several things. First, I moved two simple legends from each color pair down to common to get more of them into sealed deck pools and draft packs. This led to strange things like common Tobias Andrions and The Lady of the Mountains, but it also got more beefy creatures in play. Second, I ensured that there was plenty of mana acceleration. Fellwar Stone, Astrolabe, Three Visits, and Spoils of Victory all contributed to expensive legends' playability. Finally, I did everything I could to make the monocolored commons weak against big creatures so that those common legends had a chance to win games. No common mono-colored creatures can stand up to Torsten Von Ursus, and of the removal spells only Ghostly Visit can dispose of him cleanly. This is not an accident, and was exactly what it took to make cards like that strong enough to rely on.

The rare quality problem was more difficult. I know that I did not reach the rare quality of a Magic set we would print today, but I think I did a good job with the resources I had. If there was a rare creature in the sets I was working with that could conceivably end a Limited game, it made it in, from Cosmic Horror to Akron Legionnaire to Firestorm Phoenix to Lu Bu, Master-at-Arms.

The final problem was ensuring that there were enough instants to make combat steps interesting. Doing this required that I add some pretty goofy and marginal cards to the set, as well as rely on cards from outside Portal Three Kingdoms, Legends, and The Dark, but I was willing to do that to make sure that there were enough surprises. In the end, every color had at least one instant that could serve as a combat trick. Many of these cards are marginal, but still incentivize you to play them by giving you a free card. White has Heal and Lightning Blow from Ice Age to win fights. Blue has Infuse from Ice Age to create a surprise blocker. Black has Fevered Strength from Alliances and red has Blood Lust, both of which can kill creatures and players out of nowhere. Finally, Green has good old Giant Growth. There is also a smattering of combat-relevant instants at uncommon, including Disharmony, Reincarnation, and Eightfold Maze. Masters Edition III combat steps are not as full of surprises as most Magic sets are, but I think there are enough surprises to be found that outcomes are not always certain.

I don't claim to be a better Magic developer than the people who worked on Masters Edition and Masters Edition II. They had bigger problems to solve than me, and they solved many of them correctly. As the one coming after them, I got to learn from their successes and their mistakes, and combining my efforts with theirs allowed me to create something I'm both personally and professionally proud of. It also gave me even more mistakes and successes to draw from as I led the development of Masters Edition IV, which releases this December. I can't tell you anything more about it now, but I am looking forward to talking about it when I can!

    Last Week's Poll
Have you ever lost a game of Magic due to having ten poison counters?
What are poison counters? 3874.4%

I voted that I had lost to poison counters. Amusingly, this has only happened to me as a result of Virulent Sliver, as I managed to avoid all the Swamp Mosquitoes of the world during my casual Magic career.

    This Week's Poll
Do you currently have one or more Extended-legal deck(s) built? (Core sets from Tenth Edition forward and other sets from Time Spiral forward are legal in Extended.)Yes, but it is also Standard legal.Yes, and it is not Standard legal.No.What is Extended?

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