Like many other players, my first interaction with Magic was in middle school, when one of my friends brought it back from the Boy Scouts after the summer break. This was the fall of 1994, and Revised had just been released. I still remember the two rares in my first starter deck (they did only have two rares back then)—Shivan Dragon and Birds of Paradise. Those, along with the Taiga I opened up in an early pack, set me on the path to ramping into Dragons, something I am enjoying to this very day with Dragonlord Atarka.
I talk to a lot of other players who also began in Revised, which I have a theory about. It was the first set that could be said to be readily available for any reasonable amount of time, and I believe a ton of people who learned the game over the summer returned to school and found new opponents. Many of the people who started here may not have become serious players for long, or may have even come back to the game years or a decade-plus later, I think for people in their early 30s and onwards, Revised was a huge starting point.
It's been over 20 years now, but I still feel like my first year of Magic heavily influences many of the decisions I make in making Magic. That's because I want to create something as great as the game I first discovered. One of the challenges that both design and development face is balancing the needs of the 20-year player and the 20-day player. When discussing mechanics, we can quickly fall into discussions about how a new suggestion is derivative of something from the mid-90s. But, realistically, how many of our current players were playing back then? We can't just keep adding complexity. At some point we do need to double back on things and try out new mechanics that may just be improved versions of old ones.
The Importance of Discovery
Looking back at it, I think the discovery process was the thing that both drew me into Magic the most, and also kept me with it for such a long time. It's hard to imagine that when I was starting that there were under a thousand cards, but it seemed like more than one person could ever even figure out, let alone acquire. Every trip to a flea market or the local comic book store could result in coming home with a card that neither I nor any of my friends had seen before.
In most of my experience with games before Magic, mostly of the Nintendo variety, there was a lot to discover, but I feel like it was more about tribal knowledge. I could learn how to jump over the last pipe in world 1-2 to get to the warp zone, but it was nothing that I would probably ever have found by myself. There really isn't much of a way to discover it unless somebody tells you about it.
What was great about Magic was that, unlike my video games, there were a seemingly unlimited number of things to discover In the early days of Magic, there was very little Internet to speak of, and the quality of the various magazines focused on Magic was…well, not stellar. While I could read about Channel/Fireball/Black Lotus, or Juggernaut/Invisibility, it wasn't something that I could perform. I had to sort of make do with the cards I had, and read through them until I found two that added up to something big.
Two of the first combos I discovered on my own were Fungusaur + Rod of Ruin, and Lord of Atlantis + Illusionary Terrain. Those may not seem like much, but for me, they were eye-opening. Taking two cards that had seemingly nothing to do with each other, and making something that was greater than the sum of the parts was revelatory.
Both design and development understand the importance of discovery. I think that for many of us, we are trying to recreate the same sorts of feelings in our players that we had when we started playing the game. That means both putting things in place to be discovered, and leaving the trail of breadcrumbs so players can find them. A lot of the interactions are ones we don't really plan, they come naturally out of designing a lot of cards. But often we will tweak two cards that don't interact so they'll have a satisfying overlap. This helps guide players down the path where they can find numerous different things to do, and feel clever when they find something that they have never seen before.
Looking back on it, the tools we have to teach Magic today—such as Duels of the Planeswalkers—are just leagues better than what existed in 1994. I remember trying to read the rule books, getting confused, and inevitably going with the guidance of the person who was the most sure. Templating on cards was spotty at best, and this led to a lot of my earliest Magic games only vaguely resembling the way the designers intended Magic be played.
Frozen Shade, for example, didn't mention the whole 'until end of turn thing' in Revised, unlike Giant Growth. So we assumed that it was permanent. At the same time, it seemed strange that you could play it and the next turn have a giant creature, so we decided that you could only do it once per turn. It made for a card that is very different from the one that actually existed. In a similar vein, Instill Energy didn't make a ton of sense, so we decided the untapping was so that the creature with it on it could attack twice in the same turn. It was very powerful with Force of Nature. But, for some reason, never took that logic to the next step and kill our opponent with a Serra Angel and five attacks in one turn. When, eventually, we did learn exactly how the rules worked, it was a huge revelation. And one that ultimately changed a lot of how we view the game.
It's easy to say that we're beyond that point now, and there is no point in doing things for players if they can just do it right after they've learned the rules. Well, I would disagree—I think that while there is some cost, it's important that everyone is on the same page as games evolve, and that everyone's experience is as close to the designers' intention as possible. If two groups play by very different rules, it is pretty hard for them to come together at a later date.
This means we spend a lot of time in meetings, discussing the nuances of certain rules interactions, trying to figure out what the best ways are for them to resolve in the game, and the best way to word both cards and mechanics to remove ambiguity. As an example, I mentioned in Dragons of Tarkir's M-Files (part 1 and part 2) that we changed Reduce in Stature from -5/0 (at a lower cost) to making the creature a 0/2. The reason was that we realized that it was confusing with formidable, and it felt like something that would be easy to confuse while playing. In fact, not everyone was totally sure what the answer was in certain situations. We conferred with rules manager Matt Tabak, and quickly looked for a different template for the card.
I received messages from multiple people confused about what the difficulty was with the interaction, with some of them also not realizing that putting -5/-0 on a 2/2 would effectively put your power (for formidable calculation) at -3. That isn't meant to slight people for not knowing the rules, it's exactly the kind of thing we try to avoid when we can; because it is not 100% intuitive, and our goal is to make sure that (as much as possible) things play out in a logical way.
Working for the Future
One of the core values for Magic R&D is that we are stewards of Magic. That is important. We don't do what we do just for a paycheck, we do what we do because we care deeply about the game. We want to make the game better for ourselves, our friends, and for every other person who loves the game. That means being passionate, and making hard decisions that we believe are better for the long-term health of the game. Our goal is, as much as possible, to leave the game in a better spot when we eventually do leave Magic R&D or Wizards, whether that be next week or in 20 years. We want Magic to be there for us at that point.
That's it for this week. Join me next week when I look back at the Khans block for a sort of retrospective on the set from a development perspective.
Until next time,