Zone Change

Posted in Latest Developments on December 2, 2011

By Tom LaPille

Tom LaPille makes things. Some of the things he makes are card sets, like Dark Ascension and Born of the Gods. Sometimes he makes stories, too. Sometimes he makes unexpected things, like 16th-century Japanese clothing. He's probably making something right now.

I started working at Wizards in June of 2008. It is now December in 2011. Two weeks ago, I said in this space that I was moving from Magic Ramp;D to Dungeons amp; Dragons Ramp;D. That is still true, and today will be my last Latest Developments article.

If I have learned one thing during my time working on Magic, it is that things change when someone brings higher standards to something than have been brought to it before. My favorite example of this from technology comes from Steve Jobs's Stanford Commencement address, in which he said that the earliest Macintosh computers were the first computers to have beautiful typography. While I can't prove his assertion, I used a lot of pre-Macintosh computers that had crude typography, and the Macintosh I used at my dad's high school was the first computer I had seen that had fonts that were nice to read, and most computers since then have had them as well. No matter how much credit you choose to give Steve for this, computer typefaces have been different forever since the first Macintosh.

I worked on Magic for three and a half years. In that time, lots of important things have happened thanks to raised standards. Duels of the Planeswalkers—the result of someone deciding that Magic should have a really good digital introductory product—created lots of new Magic players and brought many lapsed players back into the fold. Magic 2010—the result of Aaron Forsythe deciding that core sets entirely made out of reprints with bad flavor are lame—released to great success, ushering in a new era of core sets with good flavor and exciting new cards. Erik Lauer has built a very powerful suite of development tools that simply didn't exist when I started. We have also been much more careful about where we spend individual card complexity, making sure to spend our complexity points in the same places we want players' attention focused, which has sharpened the spotlight on the most important aspects of sets.

Although many of these changes came from my coworkers, a few came directly from me as well. I'm proud of my development work on Masters Edition III and Masters Edition IV, both of which I think are a big step forward in the technology we use to build smaller sets for one-set drafting. I have also been quite strident when an individual card does not tell a coherent story. Mark Rosewater said to several people in my hearing that I was the core developer who cared most about flavor, and I like to think that we make fewer cards like Cloudchaser Kestrel or Windwright Mage these days than we used to partially because of me.

We have higher standards for Magic sets now than we ever have before. Innistrad is a perfect example of this. We've never made a non-core set with mechanics and flavor this integrated before. There are classic horror tropes all over the place, with faithful expressions of those tropes in text boxes. The feel of each allied color pair's tribe is an attempt to express the way that creatures of that type act when they appear in the source material. Our standards were just as high on the development side. The draft environment is intricate, balanced, and awesome. The Standard environment is still morphing by the day, despite two months of Grand Prix, large third-party tournaments, and a World Championships.

Of course, people change over time just as much as games do. When I walked in the door at Wizards three and a half years ago, I was coming off four years of college during which about a third of my weekends contained long-distance travel to Magic tournaments. Somewhere during the past three and a half years, though, my gaming time shifted from card games to roleplaying games, and this year I found myself making as many trips to conventions to play roleplaying games as I used to make to play Magic.

While it's been fun to discover something new, I am also no longer the best person to keep standards for Magic high. Happily, Wizards also makes a well-known roleplaying game, and jumping over to work on Damp;D was a surprisingly easy transition to accomplish. I already feel that in my new role my level of standards is causing us to challenge the way we have done things in the past, and that tells me that I am doing the right work.

Magic has changed my life for the better in millions of ways both big and small. In grade school, it is how I learned that there really are people who are better than other people at things, and that in the real world this does matter. In high school, it's how I learned to make friends with people outside my obvious peer groups. In college, it took me on eye-opening journeys to places like Vancouver, Honolulu, and Barcelona that showed me I could handle myself outside my home country and continent. During my professional life, it has helped me learn about how to both create great things and get work done inside a corporate hierarchy. While you will not likely learn the same things at the same time as I did, I hope that your experience with Magic provides you with a similar list of worthwhile experiences.

Today isn't the last you'll hear from me. I was the lead developer of Dark Ascension, and I'm sure I'll pop up again at least once or twice as that set gets closer to release. But until then, I leave you with Zac.



My bad. Full-moon type of situation. I get carried away sometimes. Impulse control etc. Not my strong point.

Deep breaths.

Hi! I'm Zac. I'll be taking over this column from Tom as he transitions to the Damp;D side of the business. Today, I'll be talking about how Development tried to help double-faced cards convey the "transformations" that the horror genre—and thusly Innistrad—is all about. Given that Werewolves have already had their own theme week (how lucky!) I'd like to tell a few stories about some of my favorite non-Werewolf transform cards. After all, the Werewolves already had their day in the sun... er... moon... er....

    Civilized Scholar

Aah, such a demure gent. This guy was slotted into the file as "Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde," and kept its theme all the way to print. The idea was that you had this nice, intelligent, blue-feeling utility creature that kept about his research, only to go craaaaaaaaaaazy every once in awhile and crash into the red zone.

A lot of people have asked about the peculiar wording on the card. Why does Homicidal Brute tap itself at the end of the turn, for example?

We realized early on that we liked the card transforming upon discarding a creature—during his research, he comes across something that triggers his animal impulses, and things get out of hand from there. Initially the "Brute" side was simply worded with "must attack," but what kept happening in testing was that people would "loot" during their second main phase, transform the card, wait until the end step, transform it back to the Scholar, and get an extra activation on the opponent's turn! Clearly that's not the intention of the card, so we had the Brute tap itself to solve that problem.

    Screeching Bat

To me, this card exemplifies how much design space the double-faced mechanic opens up. It's a classic trope—the vampire who can turn into a bat, and back again. The illustration and concept are nice and clean, the game play is totally awesome, and it's super easy to "grok" what the card is supposed to represent. But previous implementations of this trope have been clumsy, overly mechanical, complicated, and in general have failed (I would argue) to viscerally convey what is going on with the card.

Take Sengir Nosferatu, for example. I very much admire what the design team was trying to do, don't get me wrong. You can kind of understand what's supposed to be going on: when the Nosferatu is in danger, he turns into a bat and flies away. But you have to take a lot of liberties with your interpretation of the actual words on the card in order to arrive at this understanding. He's supposed to be saving himself, but you have to "exile" him in order to use the ability. What does that mean? Then the token he creates somehow rips him back into the Multiverse when it itself is "sacrificed." Finally, from a game-mechanical perspective, you're spawning onto the battlefield this little bead or piece of lint or penny or paperclip or whatever that possesses five lines of imaginary text, plus its power and toughness. That's hardly elegant design!

    Delver of Secrets

This little guy has been tearing up Legacy as of late, and made a decent name for itself last week at the World Championships as well. Its stats are certainly generous: you get a full three mana off your Moon Heron if all goes right, and can start attacking as soon as the second turn. Cards like Brainstorm and Ponder allow you to manipulate the top card of your library and flip this guy much more frequently than would ordinarily be the case. So how did we allow this to see print?

What we found was that in Limited it tended to flip so infrequently that oftentimes including it in your deck was actually a liability. After all, no one is scrambling to cram Fugitive Wizard in their 40-card decks. Occasionally it'd come out early and turn the game around, but when that happens rarely enough it's a fun moment. What you don't want is for the format to start revolving around a random effect like that. Later on in the game the Delver is such a poor topdeck that we felt like printing it with these stats added texture to the Limited environment.

In Standard, although it's correspondingly easier to transform Delver of Secrets into Insectile Aberration than in an average Limited game, it's also far easier for opposing decks to recover from the tempo advantage an early 3/2 flier provides. Enough decks have to be concerned with killing early creatures that the size advantage relative to other creatures of comparable cost becomes a mild upside, not a back-breaking game-changer.

In older formats like Legacy and Modern, creature removal spells are proportionally less powerful because the diversity of viable strategies in these formats renders removal more of a liability in creature-light matchups. It therefore becomes easier for a card like Insectile Aberration to take over a game—particularly when there are so many efficient ways to protect it, and when cards like Brainstorm virtually guarantee an early transformation. Fortunately, these formats tend to be robust enough to adapt to a creature that, for all its power, simply attacks and blocks.

    Ludevic's Test Subject

A lot of people have remarked about this card's similarity to the leveler mechanic from Rise of the Eldrazi. The comparison makes sense: after all, in both cases, you pay a given amount of mana a given number of times, and when you do, your creature gets a whole lot bigger. So why is this a double-faced card?

For me, it's all about the mystery: you see the egg, and you want to know what's in it. You're told there's a test, and you want to see the results. A major drawback to the leveler mechanic, in my opinion, is that you never get to see the payoff for all your hard work. The game abstracts it to you in the form of its mechanics, of course, but it's not the same. I'll believe you if you tell me my Halimar Wavewatch is a 6/6 or my Null Champion is a 7/3, but what I'm looking at is the same little dude doing the same little thing. It feels like I'm manipulating game pieces on a board—like I'm being told, rather than shown, what they represent. I experience very little visceral feeling. But I think games, at their core, are about those kinds of feelings. We should take advantage of the opportunity to create them when we can.

    Turning Over Stones

As Tom mentioned, this is his last Latest Developments column, though he'll be returning at least once next year to tell you a little bit about Dark Ascension, a set he led through Development. As the new guy, I've got some pretty big shoes to fill—Tom, of course, as well as head developer Devin Low and Ramp;D directors Randy Buehler and Aaron Forsythe. So I'll be trying some different stuff out these first few weeks to see what you guys like. The easiest way to communicate that, though, is to let me know! We read your comments in the forums, of course, and you can always reach me via this article's feedback link or on twitter @zdch.

I look forward to a good run.

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