Time Travel Ain't Easy

Posted in Latest Developments on January 30, 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.

It's Time Travel Week on DailyMTG.com, and that means it's time to talk about the past, the future, and how we ended up translating that to Magic.

As Mark Rosewater has mentioned many times, this block was based around its unusual draft structure, and you are just now getting a taste of what that will end up meeting—at least part of it. While the current draft format is no different than you would've seen with a normal small set, it wasn't developed that way. It was developed to be part of something large. Just as Fate Reforged is a glimpse of Khans of Tarkir's past, it is also a glimpse into the past of Dragons of Tarkir. Getting that to work was a lot of work, though, as I'll explain today.

Learning from Our Past

While we haven't done a format like this before, we have done an unorthodox draft format before—namely Return to Ravnica block, when we had two large sets, then a third that was meant to draft with them both.

It was a grand experiment, and one I am happy with overall, but it came with some downsides. Magic R&D is a team that is all about iteration and improving from our mistakes, but when we do something new, we can only take our best guess and get as much right as we can. Only after we are done, and people have had the chance to interact with it, can we really figure out what worked, what didn't, and how to improve it in the future. It important for us to keep trying new things—basically every block has something new—but at the same time, it's important for us to not throw everything away. After all, we worked hard on refining our processes to get most of our processes to the point we are at today.

Every set we release, no matter how good or bad, teaches us a lot, and lets us make the next set even better. One of the mistakes we made while working on the Return to Ravnica block was not actually playtesting what just RTR-GTC Draft was like by itself. It's possible that if we had, we would've realized some of the inequities between the two sets in terms of speed, and slowed Gatecrash down a bit. By the time we were working on Dragon's Maze, there was just less that could be done to Gatecrash, and instead we tried to fix all of the problems by just using Dragon's Maze, which ended up feeling inadequate. I think the draft format is pretty good, but it did not work out as well as we had hoped. The general strategy of focusing on going into a Gatecrash guild was just too prevalent.

When looking at Tarkir block, we were risking a similar problem, and one that was equally hard to solve, but one we were looking out for. The goal was to make Khans of Tarkir, Fate Reforged, and Dragons of Tarkir all feel like different sets, but make Fate Reforged play differently with Khans and Dragons. With a normal schedule, by the time we were working on Dragons of Tarkir-Fate Reforged Limited, nothing could be changed with Khans, and little with Fate, so Dragons would need to adjust. Adjusting a large set to line up with a small set is a pretty difficult task.

The solution was to move the schedules for Dragons of Tarkir and Fate Reforged around a bit, and to come up with a better plan on how to handle Fate Reforged's complicated place in Limited.

Time Conflicts

Now comes one of the most fun and interesting parts of developing sets—making schedules! Okay, so it's not very exciting, but it is an important, even if mundane, part of the job. Setting aside the correct amount of time to get the work we actually need to get done at the time when we can actually get it done is vital.

Dig Through Time | Art by Ryan Yee

We release about one set every three months, but it takes a lot longer than three months to work on a set—about two years, when you look at just design and development. Pre-design adds even more time. And all of that work is done about eight months before the set actually hits shelves. Small sets take less time, but we wait until the large set is about to hand off to development to even begin design. The challenge here was that because we couldn't design Fate Reforged independently from either Khans of Tarkir or Dragons of Tarkir —we needed to move the schedule for all of our sets around, so that we could make Fate Reforged into the set it needed to be.

Things were more complicated here than in Ravnica, because we needed the small set in this block to play equally well with two other sets, but it couldn't just find a happy middle between the two. It needed to play differently. Large sets have about a year of design, which meant that Dragons of Tarkir design began well before Khans of Tarkir development had even begun, and even further before the Fate Reforged design had begun.

The final solution was developing Fate Reforged mostly using Khans of Tarkir for its Limited playtests, and at the same time having Dragons of Tarkir play triple-Dragons drafts, even if those won't really exist in the real world. Once Dragons was in a good spot, it went on break for a few months while Fate Reforged started doing drafts with Dragons. After it had some time to adjust to that, Dragons development resumed using one Fate Reforged pack for its Limited environment.

There were some natural bumps in the road—mostly that Dragons began by trying to dodge many of the mana costs and cards that Khans did, only to find out that Fate Reforged had done similar work, necessitating a lot of changes in both Dragons of Tarkir and Fate Reforged to separate their cards from each other. It was a pretty complicated situation to pull off, but as I mentioned: time travel ain't easy. But, sometimes it's worth it for us to take a large risk like this to try something new and to help R&D grow as a department through trial and error.

Borrowing from the Future

Tarkir block is a time-travel story. Drafting AAA, BAA, then CCB was Mark Rosewater's grand idea, but pulling it off was more than just making the sets and seeing if they would work. It required us to take elements from two sets that would never be played together and combine them to get a third set. In some sense, Fate Reforged is borrowing just as much from Dragons of Tarkir as it is from Khans of Tarkir. It's probably not quite half, but it is a ton. All of the allusions and cool "past versions" of cards that you've seen that relate to Khans? Well, there are plenty of nuggets from Dragons too—you just don't know it yet. One thing I can tell you is two of the mechanics in Dragons of Tarkirbolster and dash.

One of the earliest plans for the block was to have all three sets have totally different mechanics—with Fate Reforged having "proto" versions of some of the mechanics. This was eventually thrown out for two reasons—one, we would be using entirely too many keywords in the block, and two—it's pretty hard to get fun mechanics with the goal of "let's show the less cool version of the mechanic!" Instead, the decision was made to feature some of the mechanics from Dragons of Tarkir. It would let us show off the time travel gag, but going with the "things changed in the alternative timeline route" trope, as opposed to the "primordial soup" trope. All in all, I am much happier with this implementation, and I think it will be better for the players as well.

Tormenting Voice | Art by Volkan Baga

Ultimately, a lot of the individual designs from Dragons of Tarkir made their way into the Fate Reforged file—although I'm not sure how many of them were a result of Fate Reforged's lead designer Ken Nagle actually using Dragons of Tarkir as a template, and how much was just parallel evolution with the Dragons of Tarkir design team. It made for an interesting process, and one that ends up with Fate Reforged having a unique texture that you have probably never seen in a small set before. I look forward to being able to come back to you in a few months, when we are preview Dragons, and showing off some of the ways that the alternative timeline plays out.

That's still a while away, though. Next week, I'll be back for Sultai Week, and I'll talk about various graveyard strategies throughout history.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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