Size Matters

Posted in Latest Developments on April 27, 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.

Yo guys!"


"Did you hear about Avacyn?"

"What about her?"

"She's, like, been restored, and stuff."


Look, I don't know. It just came to me. The stuff of inspiration. Cut a friggin' bone etc. etc.

::composes self::

Welcome to Avacyn Restored Week, Latest Developments-style.

Break the Seals, April 28th and 29th

By now I'm guessing all of you have had plenty of time to pore over the sortable spoiler, and in just a few short hours a lot of you will be well on your way to opening a Helvault at your nearest Avacyn Restored Prerelease event. What I want to talk about today, though, doesn't have very much to do with what's written in the rules text of the actual cards you'll be opening in booster packs. Instead it has to do with how many of them there are.

Why is Avacyn Restored a large set in the first place?

A Long, Long Time Ago

I can still remember when, like clockwork, Magic releases worked this way: Large, Small, Small. It was such a given that people didn't even question it. Onslaught, Legions, Scourge. Mirrodin, Darksteel, Fifth Dawn. Champions, Betrayers, Saviors. Et cetera. The idea was that your October large-set was the debutante ball, the grand unveiling, the red-carpet rollout where your mechanics could hog the spotlight. Then two subsequent small sets would take the mechanics introduced in the first and riff on them, evolve them a little, stretch them out, and take them in new directions.

Descent into Madness | Art by Anthony Francisco

A straightforward formula. Pretty simple, right?

For four of the last five years, though, the third set has had more cards in it than usual. Only Alara Reborn failed to maintain this pattern, and all of Shadowmoor, Rise of the Eldrazi, and Avacyn Restored have been full-fledged straight-up large sets, on par with our October releases. New Phyrexia, meanwhile, earned twenty extra Uncommons, largely to accommodate "Phyrexian mana."

But why?

Glad you asked.

Why You Gotta Go and Make Things So Complicated?

It's no secret that Magic is doing well right now. We've spent a lot of time trying to figure out why that is. Obviously, it's a nuanced question, and any attempt to isolate a particular variable ignores to some degree the valuable work performed by every one of our departments. But one thing stands out any way you slice the pie, and it's the thing we talk about so much that I'm sure you're sick of hearing it:

Mass Appeal | Art by Christopher Moeller

Magic is healthier when it's simpler.

We've bent over backwards to reduce complexity, remove barriers to entry, make Magic more intuitive, and let cool cards take center stage. This isn't just for new players, either. We firmly believe that Magic is such a dynamic, robust game that you'd have to try very, very hard to eliminate the interactiveness that makes it fun. People can make arguments—and have made them—that this "dumbs down the game," makes Magic all about casting creatures and mindlessly attacking with them, or whatever, but the problem with that argument is that the game's best players are consistently placing extremely highly at competitive events. I have had more conversations about whether a certain Top 8 lineup is "one of the best in history" since I started working at Wizards than I have at any point over my eleven-year involvement with the Pro Tour. So if anything, I believe Magic's trend toward emergent rather than surface complexity rewards the players who understand how to take advantage of those kinds of edges.

What does this have to do with small sets?

What typically happened over the course of a block for most of Magic's history was that the first set would introduce an environment, the second set would riff on it and add a mechanic or two, and the third set would take those developments even further while also doing something of its own. The problem with that model is that by necessity it ensures your third set is just much more complex than your first two. It has to pack more material in less space. Moreover, because the first couple sets tend to eat up the most elegant designs, whether or not they are even trying to do so, your complexity level on a card-by-card basis is frequently higher in a third set as well. So you're trying to fight a fire that's blazing on two fronts, at least.

We've tried to solve that problem in various ways. A nice feature of Legions was that because it featured a million creatures, it didn't eat up spell-design space from Scourge. Most of the time, though, when you do this you just create more problems. Sunburst gives you more design space, but it fights against the game play of the rest of the block. Alara Reborn's gold theme ensures you're designing to a different target than you were in the first two sets, but it makes opening a booster pack completely baffling (especially when you're trying to figure out what to pick in Draft).

New Phyrexia sought to avoid the "more material in less space" problem by creating more space with its twenty extra uncommons, which sort of works but is really more of a hack than anything else. By creating a second large set, we dodge this problem entirely. Yes, we need to debut more mechanics, but we get to eliminate most of the residue of the previous two sets. Moreover, we get to use designs that might not support an entire block, but function extremely well for one single set (you can imagine, for example, that your sixth Ulamog-esque design grows a little tiresome). Essentially, the early-year-large-set model allows you to moderate your complexity and prevent it from getting out of hand.

Turn and Face the Strange

One of the central sources of Magic's appeal is that it manages to change just enough to keep things interesting while remaining fundamentally the same. This involves a lot of balancing acts. Clearly, you can't just release Alpha over and over again, nor can you release a set where black's core mechanic is countering spells while putting 7/7 Unicorn tokens with trample onto the battlefield.

Outwit | Art by Erica Yang

For a time, the Large-Small-Small model allowed us to do this just fine. Magic Online wasn't a thing, so people got together to draft every week or so and the set rotated frequently enough that formats didn't get too stale. We live in a different world now, though. There are more Magic players than ever before, which means it's easier and easier to get people together and fire a draft. Magic Online means thousands upon thousands of users will have drafted the same format thirty or forty times. Inside that reality, are a couple of incremental changes per year enough to keep things interesting?

We've realized we needed to lean slightly in the direction of more meaningful changes to draft. For starters, we began to draft more recent sets first. This freshens the experience at the outset of the draft, and lets us seed more "build-arounds" in the second set that can spawn entirely new archetypes. Still, though, a format can grow old come May. Creating an entirely new large set and an entirely new draft environment avoids that problem.

Altering the draft structure also allows us to attack a different issue, which has to do with card availability. Believe it or not, we want people to have access to the cards they want to play. Large-Small-Small gets in the way of that, though. A huge percentage of all booster packs are opened in Limited games, particularly on Magic Online. This means these cards exist out in the open for players who are interested in playing Constructed to come and find. The problem is that over the course of a regular block's lifespan, you've had one environment that looks like this:

Large/Large/Large that looks like this:


...and one that looks like this:


As you can see, this means that the third set, under normal conditions, is opened only one-sixth as frequently as the large set, and the second set only one-third as frequently. This creates a glut of large-set cards while choke-pointing the latter two. Under the Avacyn Restored model, you get




...which is a step in the right direction along several axes, even though the small set still gets the short end of the stick. It's not perfect, but we're working on that. Bear in mind that the numbers are a lot more complicated than they appear to be at first glance, since the lifespan of a draft environment plays a role, as does the total number of cards that appear in a set.

Shake It Up, Baby!

As you have probably noticed, Magic's structure renders it such that, in many of our third acts, a cataclysmic event fundamentally alters the landscape of a world. Sometimes it alters that world for good (Avacyn's back!), and sometimes it doesn't (Phyrexia's back!), but we like to do the whole "large-scale transformation" shtick. And it's a lot easier to execute on this plan when something actually transforms.

Avacyn, Angel of Hope | Art by Jason Chan

Moreover, just as I was talking earlier about draft identity, elements such as visual and creative identity are important for a set's appeal as well. And just as it's true that the third riff on "Kill a guy (yawn) with kicker" gets old, so too does "Show a werewolf (yawn) in a tree at dusk."

It's not that you can't display a fundamental transformation without adding cards to a set. It's just that doing so makes it feel a lot more like an afterthought, rather than a wholly-realized evolution. And with that transformation comes a revitalization of a lot more than the game mechanics: new environments, narratives, characters, flavor, and style. It keeps the game fresher for longer.

Diff'rent Strokes

So that's in essence why we're doing the whole "May large set" thing. Am I saying that the Large/Small/Small model is going away entirely? Absolutely not. It's very important to us, for example, to keep the number of Standard-legal cards at a manageable level. What I'm talking about is simply one variable among many. What you can take away from this discussion, though, is that we've become a lot more willing to consider the needs of an individual block when coming up with the structure for that block.

Can you expect us to be playing with Large/Small/Small more in the future?

Well, I guess you'll have to wait and see... :)

Zac (@zdch)

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