The Whys and Hows of Reprints

Posted in Latest Developments on July 20, 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.

Man! A themeless week!

It feels like I've been previewing some kind of card or mechanic for like a month now. It's good to get a breather. I hope y'all have had a chance to play with Magic 2013 now that it's on sale, and I hope you've had good experiences. I'm eager to see what kinds of decks y'all brew up for Standard, and I'm crossing my fingers that some of the Easter eggs we tried to sprinkle into the set for Limited end up getting unearthed.

Akroma's Memorial | Art by Dan Scott

Something I get asked about a lot with regard to M13—and in general, really—is how we go about selecting reprints. In a core set, of course, reprints stand out because they compose like 3/5 of the set, so they occupy more of the spotlight. But we try to slot reprints in every release nowadays, and it's no easy task to hand-pick the exact right card from the ~12,500 or so unique designs Magic currently boasts.

So, it's worth asking: How do we do that?

Recycle, Reduce, Reuse

I suppose an even broader question to consider before we get into how we select reprints is why we would want to select reprints in the first place. Or, put more straightforwardly: Is there any benefit to using existing cards when you could design something new instead?

By virtue of the fact that I'm writing about it, I'm sure you're intuiting that the answer is "Yes."

Smart cookies, y'all are.

Mmm, cookies.

So, easily the best feature of my apartment complex is that every morning in the lobby they freshly bake Otis Spunkmeyer cookies and put them out on a tray for the taking. I write my column in the next room over, meaning the scent of (say) white chocolate macadamia nut with a touch of cranberry wafts over like a kind of ghost and descends upon me like an obsession. I am literally envisioning each semi-sweet chocolate morsel individually melting in my mouth as I type these words, which precipitates a digression of the kind you're seeing here, and it's sort of torturous. I am going to go sate my hunger now. BRB.

You didn't think I'd eat just one, did you?

Were we talking about card design?

Aah, yes.

So, working on a game like Magic is unique in that, by virtue of the fact that it's already been around for almost two decades, it sort of forces you to embrace the long view at all times. That is, thinking about the game's long-term growth and vision isn't an abstraction. You look around the Pit and you see people who have been working on Magic for ten, fifteen, twenty years, and you realize that its longevity is tangible. It's not some sort of hypothetical problem that you can confront down the line. As such, every decision we make is couched in the context of, "Why do this now?"

Wind Drake | Art by Steve Prescott

To give you an idea of the enormity of what this means, we plot our block structures almost seven years in advance nowadays. So we're thinking about what certain environments will probably require in the future, and whether certain cards or mechanics or themes would be better fits there rather than in whatever environment we're currently working on. All of this is subject to change, of course, but the point is that there's no reason to make concessions to the urgency of the present moment when the landscape of Magic's evolution is so palpably laid out for you to see.

What does this have to do with reprints?

New designs eat up space. New World Order entails there are only so many different effects you can create at common, and you have to be diligent about the rate at which you consume "newness." We're a long way away from just being out of designs, of course, and it's extremely unlikely we'd ever actually hit the wall, so to speak. But sort of like being environmentally conscious, the one way you ever actually hit that wall for real is to just boldly sally forth as though it doesn't exist.

What this means is that you have to curtail the inclination to do something different for the sake of being different. There's a cost to putting words on cards, and there's a cost to printing "Naturalize, gain 6 life" rather than "Naturalize, gain 3 life" just so you can feel good about yourself for changing numbers. You have to consume new space at a manageable, fixed rate, and this requires enough discipline not to stretch possibility beyond what a set requires to meaningfully feel (and be) new.

All of that composes the responsibility angle of why to reprint cards, which is all very true and very accurate and sort of noble in a purist's sense, but responsibility has never been my strong suit (tee hee) and that answer isn't really the one that resonates the most with me.

The fact is, I'm a game designer. I need to make the best game possible, and that requires me to challenge and revise heuristics constantly, and sometimes it demands that I subvert what feels good to me personally in favor of what really betters the game. What that means is that sometimes, a set just wants Wind Drake. It doesn't want 2/1 flying ETB tap target creature. It doesn't want 2/3 flying. It doesn't want 2/2 flying ETB untap target land. It wants Wind Drake. And when the set wants that, it doesn't want me to be clever or want me to be innovative or want me to be constantly pushing the boundaries of what we can do or anything like that. It doesn't want me to do the kinds of things that I usually pat myself on the back for. Instead, the set requires you to have the discipline to do something understated and straightforward and really kind of boring. If what you believe is that Magic is beautiful because its games play out beautifully, and not because the people who work on it generate new cards by solving combinatorics problems of spiraling complexity, you must embrace the need to occasionally be conservative. You must use what you already have, because what you already have already works.

Product Placement

So that answers (to an extent) why we reprint cards, but we still haven't talked about how we select ten or twenty or a hundred fifty cards to put into a file.

Well, there are a ton of factors that inform our process, but first I want to start with one that certainly does not: "What the lead designer or developer thinks is cool for whatever reason."

Quirion Dryad | Art by Todd Lockwood

You absolutely, positively, cannot ever start just picking things you think are neat or boss or baller and go putting them into sets all willy-nilly. This is a bad, bad, bad way to do business. The reasons, of course, have to do with what we were talking about earlier: We are going to make a lot of Magic sets. If you reprint some card you think is just the illest thing since the common cold, that means you're diminishing the impact it will have if ever you were to reprint it again. Things are just less cool the third or fourth time you see them (which is one of the unfortunate aspects of needing to reprint the Glacial Fortress cycle yet again in Magic 2013). So if you bring back, you know, Call to the Grave, you probably want to make sure you're doing it in an environment with a lot of Zombies (as it was!). If you're bringing back Quirion Dryad, you probably want to make sure you're doing it in an environment sandwiched between a bunch of powerful cantrips and multicolored spells (yay!). What you don't want to do is say, "Hurrrrr, I just loved my awesome Coalition Victory deck from back in the day," and throw it into a set two years before the color-matters block debuts.

This entire discussion should hint strongly at what does go into reprint selection, which boils down to: context, context, context!

What kinds of context, exactly?

In general, we're typically excited to reprint a card if it becomes particularly relevant in the context of its Limited environment, if it enables or attacks certain strategies in Constructed, or if it functions particularly well with a certain card or class of cards.


Elvish Visionary
Ravenous Rats

Oftentimes, reprints intended for Limited aren't exactly going to be your flagship marquee cards of the set, but they open up game play possibilities that wouldn't emerge in other contexts. The M13 card that embodies this principle for me the most is probably Arms Dealer, an obscure Mercadian Masques uncommon best known for hard-locking people in concert with Haunted Crossroads. The card is a complete and unreal ass-kicking in M13 Limited, to be sure—although hopefully not as obnoxious as it was the first time around—but does particularly cool stuff in concert with Krenko and his band of goons. Other Goblins were deliberately selected for the environment to allow you to draft a kind of red control deck that's rarely possible in the context of core set Limited. There's a ton of other stuff like this, too—from Fog Bank and Elixir of Immortality putting a damper on exalted and mill strategies, to Elvish Visionary and Ravenous Rats enabling a Rock-style black-green value deck with Roaring Primadox, to Tormented Soul transforming from a bloodthirst enabler into an exalted enabler, to a whole lot of other stuff I hope y'all have fun discovering. The point is that all of these cards could go into virtually any set, but play particularly well in the context of M13 specifically. If a card doesn't make sense in terms of its interactions with the cards around it, it doesn't yet need to come back.

In terms of Constructed, I've already mentioned cards like Call to the Grave that are kind of asking to be played with other obvious cards in the environment, but even more broadly speaking we try to seed reprints that give existing archetypes a bit of a boost. Rancor is M13's most obvious example, practically begging to be slapped onto a Glistener Elf. That's just the tip of the iceberg, though. From Clock of Omens and whatever Scars of Mirrodin block insanity it enables, to Gilded Lotus paving the way for all of Return to Ravnica block's golden goodness, to something as innocuous-looking at Bloodthrone Vampire taking advantage of all these Zombies just chomping at the bit to die—we try to deploy our reprints judiciously to nudge the Standard environment in intriguing ways. Sometimes, of course, we try to juice up a format with a bit of Haterade, too, as we did with the return of (say) Tormod's Crypt right after a dedicated graveyard block. You gotta have the tools, yo.


Clock of Omens

It's not just about the broad archetypes available in an environment, though. Reprints don't just interact with themes; oftentimes they function very well in concert with very specific cards. In Magic 2012, Solemn Simulacrum just begged to ramp straight into Titans and Grim Lavamancer just screamed to be played with every Arid Mesa and Scalding Tarn you could get your hands on. For Magic 2013, I am sure you can imagine what direction Mutilate, Farseek, and Arbor Elf are pointing you in, and it's not accidental how Stuffy Doll and Blasphemous Act are legal at the same time. We've buried quite a few gems in there for you to find, and others will surface, I'm sure, that we never even dreamed about. The idea is to continually cast even Magic's most entrenched staples in different, new, exciting lights. That's one of Magic's core, defining qualities, and something that has made the game invigorating for the last two decades—it's always changing. Always.

By The Way(side).

Some cards, sadly, can't come back because power levels have shifted since they first debuted. It's amazing, sometimes, to playtest cards I remember being completely fair only to have them play out totally bananas in their current context (Future Sight for example, wasn't bad with miracle...) Sometimes, you have to kill your darlings. Sometimes, you have to throw stuff out. Generally, though, bringing old favorites and solid role-players back for a second or third or fourth hurrah adds rather than subtracts longevity and value to the game. It highlights how Magic is a game for the ages rather than a passing trend, a flash in the pan. It uses old memories to create new ones.

And that's awesome.

What about you guys, though? What are some of your favorite reprints in Magic 2013, or in other recent sets? What do you wish had come back but didn't? What did come back that doesn't make any sense? Fire away!

Zac (@zdch)

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