Working with Other Teams

Posted in Latest Developments on March 11, 2016

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.

In this column, I talk a lot about the various interactions between design and development, so I wanted to take some time to look at some of the other teams both within Magic R&D and throughout the building that development interacts with, and give you an idea of what those relationships accomplish.

Working with Story and Art

Design is the group that works most closely with art and story in the worldbuilding process, though development has some check-ins. We like to look at what the sets around a given world are, and make sure that we are setting ourselves up to have the correct amount of overlap. For example, going into Innistrad, we wanted to make sure there were some number of Spirits, Humans, Zombies, and Vampires in Standard. If, for whatever reason, the worlds before Innistrad contained none of those, that would be a problem—and one development would recommend some changes for.

As the set gets into development, it's our job to make sure the cards showing pivotal events are doing so effectively, and to start telling the story team which cards are the best to concept. Art usually happens in two waves, and when development gets the set, there is a bit of a scramble to "lock down" half of the set. Of course, the locking down is not truly finished, but we need to work with the actual art once it has been commissioned. The first wave, therefore, includes the dual and basic lands (if there are any), legends, planeswalkers, and any other cards where the art and the mechanics are not heavily connected. We then look for things like burn spells (since we can generally vary the exact mana cost and damage dealt easily), counterspells, and creatures we are pretty confident in. This gives the story and art teams the best ability to spend the time they need on the cards without us changing them later.

The development lead of a set generally sits in on what are known as "top-lining" meetings with members of the story team, to help begin with the concepts on cards. Creative reads a sticker card (the cards used by R&D for playtesting, a la Look at Me, I'm R&D), tries to figure out what would make the coolest card creatively, and then jots down the basic gist of what the art will be so they can write out a better description later. The development lead is very helpful here, giving any notes about cards that might be top-down designs or trying to steer the creative team into a concept that has the flexibility needed for further development. As an example, if we like the text box on a creature a lot, but aren't sure if it will go on a 2/2 or a 3/3, we might ask for a creature type that could support either size. When working with spells that do a specific number of things, we need to let creative know when that number is up for change, so they don't write a concept around the number three, making it hard for development to change the number to two.

Often things will change later, due to the needs of Limited or the Future Future League, but those changes are discussed between development and the set's creative representative to come up with something that everyone can live with. Ideally, development can make changes to the right cards—those that have flexible concepts—as much as possible, and we won't have to recommission any art. There is some amount of time and room for a few pieces of art late in the cycle, though, that are generally used for FFL concerns. For instance, we may realize that we need a sideboard card to fight a card we missed in a recently released set, or one that has not been released but can't be changed. We can kick some other card out of the set, and put in a new card that is designed to fit that need. One of the most famous examples of this was Grafdigger's Cage, which kicked out a card in Dark Ascension that later became Masterwork of Ingenuity in Commander (2014 Edition).

Working with Editing/Rules

As much as I would like to believe that I am infallible, and very very smart, I can't tell you how many times I have written "comes into play" or "until of turn" on a card for a playtest, or just ended up with a sentence that makes absolutely no sense. For example, "Search your library for an instant or sorcery, and put that card. If you do, shuffle your library." This is why we have an editing team, which takes the things that design and development write on cards and the text for various products and makes them make sense.

Also within the realm of editing is the rules team, who are tasked with making sure that our cards can work within the existing rules, or at least that we can write rules to make them work. Bestow, for example, didn't technically work within the rules when we were making Theros, so we changed how Auras worked slightly to allow them to enter the battlefield if the creature they were targeting was removed in response. It was a very high desire for development, so they made sure that functionality worked. At the same time, the rules team is there to push back when we try to do things that are really dumb, or that would require massive reworks of our entire rules set to accomplish a single card.

Much of this interaction comes in two phases—one in informal conversations between development and editing/rules where we try to come to agreement on what we want cards to do, the other in formal templating meetings where the more complicated cards in the set are discussed at length and exact functionality is decided. As you may know, there are big, functional changes between things like "target creature" and "target creature you control." What you might not know is that there are dozens of other minor differences in the way we template cards that also slightly change functionality, and those changes have a real rhyme and reason. For instance, we generally let the player order two or three cards that they put on the bottom of their library, but if it is more than that (or a variable) we have them put them there in a random order. It's up to the rules and templating team to make sure that those kinds of rules are applied consistently, unless development has a really good reason for why it shouldn't happen that way.

Working with Digital

In the past few years, design and development have gotten much better at communicating with digital to make sure they know what is coming down the pipeline, so that we can tweak cards so they will work better in both Magic Duels and Magic Online. While we don't make a ton of decisions we think would be much worse for paper to help digital, if there are slight tweaks we can make to functionality (like targeting only opponents instead of any player) that can reduce clicks, we try to make those.

Interesting story: During the time when Born of the Gods went to typesetting and localization, and started getting printed, the Magic Online cardset team came to us with a small problem—Whims of the Fates. The card was the "random weird red rare" that shows up in many sets. It turned out Magic Online didn't have a good way to do separate cards into three piles—as we had previously only ever put cards into two piles. That meant that the majority of the work that needed to go into the set for Magic Online went to redoing how cards were separated into piles to accommodate that one card. What was so unfortunate is that the card didn't mean a lot to us—it was something we thought was cool, but it wasn't load-bearing for the set. If we'd had a better line of communication with digital, we could've made a slight tweak to the card to help them decrease the time needed to program Born of the Gods and let the excess resources go toward something else.

When colorless mana came down the pipeline, we were sure to inform the Magic Online team as soon as possible. It turns out that was a good thing, because colorless mana required a huge update to the mana system to make it work properly. Because of the earlier communication improvements I talked about, they let us know how much work would be needed early enough in the process that we could make an informed decision to keep the mechanic—which we did. It's much better to live in that world than to find out late in the set's development cycle that our mechanic won't have time to be programed.

Working with Brand

Brand, as a group, comprises the people in charge of marketing, advertising, products, the website, and organized play, along with other things.

From a development perspective, especially if you are the lead developer, it's important to communicate the most important parts of a set to brand, so that they can more effectively build the marketing campaign of the set, write things like tag lines, and make up the ad cards. From development's perspective, it's important to let them know what the key selling points of the set are—be they Dragons, wedges, or fetch lands. As much as possible, it's our goal to take the polished experience the set is trying to convey and give brand the ability to market that.

Once the set is finalized, then we sit down to do preview planning. The trick with working on this is to, as much as possible, find cards that internally we can do a great job of promoting, and to give cards to people and outlets in the outside world that we feel they would do the best possible job promoting. For instance, I like to preview cards that can let me tell a good development story, in the same way that Mark Rosewater likes to preview cards that tie into a design story he wants to tell. When looking at external outlets, we try and find cards we think they will like and be excited about. For instance, we always try to find a goofy card that LoadingReadyRun can make a funny video out of—probably best showcased when they previewed Turtle McDurdle itself, Meandering Towershell.

Beyond just the main set work, we work with brand to plan out the themes for ancillary products like Duel Decks and Commander, and to also create new products, such as the first Conspiracy, Theros Challenge Decks, and plenty of new products you will see in the next few years. We also work with them to communicate banned and restricted list updates, and we have representatives who give our opinions on various Organized Play initiatives and tournament details.

It Takes a Village

These are just a few of the areas of the company that development works with in making a Magic set, and what I have written doesn't come even close to covering all the work that these groups do to take the card file that design and development comes up with and translate that to the cards that you all play with. So, next time you open up a booster pack, take some time to think about just how many people had a hand in making those cards.

That's it for this week. Next week on Latest Developments, I'll be previewing a brand new card from Shadows over Innistrad.


Sam Stoddard (@samstod)

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