Presidents, Kings, Role of the Leads

Posted in Latest Developments on February 20, 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.

For this week's article, I want to discuss something that we talk about a lot, but don't necessarily really explain—the role of the development lead. There is a big difference between being on a set and leading a set, in terms of both the number of hours and responsibilities. Developing Magic sets is not a democracy—the lead gets to make the final decision, which I think is important for making them feel different from each other. Much like sets led by Mark Rosewater and Ken Nagle in design have certain things that feel different about them, it's possible to see characteristics of each lead developer in the sets they release.

On the outside, it may seem like the development team is mostly about making up the numbers that go on the cards, but it is much more than that. I liken the split to something akin to "design writes the novel and development turns it into a movie." The essence of the set remains from design, and a lot of important individual card designs stay, but there are a lot of changes needed to make the set work for both Limited and Standard. To give you some perspective on some of the important characteristics of a lead, I want to talk about a few of the many roles that a set's lead developer takes on during the course of the set's development.

Be a Vision Holder

I believe that this is the most important part for the development lead of a set—to be the person who puts the hard thinking into a set and is ultimately responsible for most of what is on the printed cards. When a set gets handed over from design and development, the lead designer has already put a lot of time into the set, and he or she has had to make a lot of the same tradeoffs that the lead developer will. In general, the lead designer has different things he or she is happy with in varying degrees—such as the mechanics, Limited archetypes, and individual card designs. The lead designer has a limited amount of time to do his or her job, so the lead designer tackles the tasks he or she finds most important and the ones he or she is best at—mainly setting the stage for the set and getting the right feeling across.

The development lead's goal is to then work with the lead designer to formulate his or her own vision of the set, taking into account all of the things the design team found important, and figure out how to turn that into a finished product. For Khans of Tarkir, the lead needed to figure out how important it was to get the legendary characters correct, how important it was to make the different clans both play well and feel different, how much work needed to be done to make the cards more exciting for Standard, and how much time needed to be spent balancing Limited. There is only so much time to get all of the tasks done, and ultimately many of the goals will end up conflicting.

Beyond just that, there are a lot of little things that sets can get to make them cooler, like the watermarks on the foil versions of Crux of Fate and the five Sieges in Fate Reforged. That's the exact kind of thing the set's lead might think up, or have someone suggest, and he or she needs to shepherd it through the whole process and convince people that it is worth doing.

Now, that doesn't mean if I'm the person leading the set I get to do whatever I want. No matter how much I want to put Skullclamp into my set, I'm going to get overruled by Erik Lauer as the head of the Future Future League (FFL), and Aaron Forsythe as the director of Magic R&D. A lead can't just reprint a ton of cards he or she likes that would impact Modern or Standard negatively, or ones that creative would have issues with, but the lead certainly has the ability to shepherd a few pet cards through the process.

Be a Leader

Development teams tend to have five people on them, but Wizards of the Coast is much larger than just that and full of very passionate people, all of whom are looking out for the best for the game. Of course, the game means different things for different people, and it's important that the leads of sets listen to the people around them and decide which feedback to take and which to ignore. Part of being a lead is allowing people to change your mind, but also sticking up for the things that you find important.

Looking back at Innistrad, for example, there was a lot of discussion internally about double-faced cards. Erik Lauer had Mark Rosewater and a number of passionate people saying that the mechanic was great, and a number of other equally passionate people who felt it was going too far, or not worth the complexity or tournament issues. The lead could have cut it from the set—which wouldn't have been easy, but possible—but ultimately decided that keeping it was important to the design vision, and that the mechanic could be made to work.

Beyond just interpersonal relationships, it's also important the leads figure out how to best use the resources given to them in the form of team members. Some people are best when given tasks like designing cards, others might specialize in balancing Limited, and others might be really good at attempting to incorporation flavor elements into the cards. While it's possible for a lead to lock him- or herself in a room and do almost all of the work alone, it would be far less efficient or fruitful than figuring out how to assign tasks and get the most out of each team member. After all, part of being on development teams, at least for the other developers, is learning how to lead a set themselves.

Be a Custodian

Maintaining a clean file may not seem like the most exciting part of leading a set (and it also isn't the most exciting part), but it is very important. This might seem obvious, but there was a time when less focus was put on this, and I think the sets from that time suffered as a result. This would occasionally lead to realizations late in the process that one color had the wrong number of creatures, or even just cards in its colors, which led to a scramble to figure out how to do art swaps to fix the problem. Even in less-catastrophic circumstances, it could lead to problems with mana curve or having two cards that were too similar to each other. Proper set maintenance should keep that from happening.

What the set lead generally does every two weeks or so is go through the set and make sure that the set is numbered correctly, with CW_01 being the common white creature with the lowest converted mana cost (CMC), and CW_20 being the common spell with the highest CMC. Doing that makes it much easier for the other developers doing a file pass to figure out if the curve looks reasonable, or if a set just has the wrong number of cards in it. It sounds crazy, but it has happened before, and that is part of the reason it is on the lead to go through and make sure everything is in order.

To give you a general idea of how sets are made, each color has a different creature as-fan, with white being 60% and blue—being the lowest—at 47%. Walls and really weak creatures can change the numbers a bit, but for a set with twenty commons per color and thirteen uncommons per color, that means white might get thirteen common creatures and six uncommons, or twelve common creatures and eight uncommons. At the same time, blue might get nine common creatures and seven uncommons, or ten commons and five uncommons. Making sure that each color has the right number of creatures is important to both making sure the color pie is adhered to, but also in making sure our sets have a similar enough starting point that they can have some elements that feel the same, while at the same time having other things that can feel different.

Looking over the set constantly also makes sure that the occasional data entry or even database error doesn't accidentally remove a card from the set. It makes sure that all the art that needs to get commissioned does so, and that fewer things slip through the cracks.

Be Judge, Jury, Executioner

One of the hardest parts of any creative job is figuring out when fun, interesting, or beautiful things need to be killed for the greater good of the project as a whole. There is a lot of that when working on a Magic set. It's on the lead to be the one who decides if and when a card needs to get weakened or killed, and up to the lead to figure out how to do it. If green has too many good commons, and it is unbalancing the Limited environment, then something needs to get worse. It's not the most glamorous part of the job, but sometimes those Nessian Coursers need to turn into Runeclaw Bears for the greater good.

The timeline between when you start working on a Magic set and when you hand the file off to typesetting is many months, and a lot of cards just run into problems that are largely out of your control. Sometimes it's an interaction with a card in an earlier set that isn't okay for Standard, and sometimes it's a design that looks too much like a previous set's card—it can even be that the card totally screws up a future set's mechanic. There are a ton of reasons, but they all lead to the same conclusion—the lead needs to either weaken the card or change it. It can be frustrating, but it's all part of the job. The cards in your set are going to end up doing that to somebody else's set; it's just the nature of the game.

Another thing the lead needs to do is manage a set's complexity. We have a pretty standard metric—common word count—that gives us a reasonable baseline. It's very easy in development to keep adding words to cards to get them to the exact right spot for Limited and Constructed, but eventually it becomes too much, and the whole set just gets to be overly ponderous. At that point, it's time for the lead to go through and cut some words.

Complexity comes in two forms—one is how many words a card has, and one is how much on-board complexity the set actually plays. The goal is to keep both of these within a manageable range. It might mean making an activated ability a sorcery, or limiting the targeting to only your opponent's creatures to keep the possible board states from being too complex, or it might mean that twelve-word ability explaining that some subset of creatures can't block needs to goes away.

Ultimately, the goal of reducing complexity is to improve the overall experience for the player by making the games play more smoothly and to keep the decisions that the players are making to be meaningful. The steps to get there can be painful for the lead developer, especially when it means cutting really clever things that seem to do a lot of work, but it's a necessity.

That's it for this week. Join me next week when I will go through our archives of Future Future League decks and give you an idea of what we were thinking about when working on Fate Reforged.

Until next week,

Sam (@samstod)

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