Magic 2010, the New Player, and You

Posted in NEWS on July 27, 2009

By Aaron Forsythe

Magic 2010 is out on the street and it sure feels good! It has been almost two years since former co-worker Jake Theis and I first discussed the idea of revamping the core set so that we could make it a yearly occurrence, and after many meetings, playtests, and pitches, I'm so happy for it to be a reality. Adding to my good feelings, all initial indicators are that you, the community, have embraced it. There is still much to learn as we head into the first-ever core set Limited Grand Prix season, but so far I couldn't be happier with how things are going.

My plan with this article was to answer questions about the set from readers that I solicited on Twitter, but first I want to lay out my top-line philosophy for Magic 2010 in a way that I couldn't properly articulate until I had to do so for the 2011 core set design team—a year after I started work on M10!

I wanted Magic 2010 (and ideally all future core sets) to meet fantasy fans—those that hadn't played Magic before—halfway. Those people, those fans of traditional fantasy from sources as disparate as the Lord of the Rings franchise and Harry Potter to the Brothers Grimm and Shakespeare to Dragonology and our own Dungeons & Dragons, all have some preconceived ideas about what fantasy is and how it is represented: what a dragon or an elf or a magic item stands for, what it is capable of, what its relative strength and power is, and whether it is friendly or evil. Magic, on the other hand, has a ton of baggage that potential players are required to assume if they want to experience the game fully—and not just rules, terminology, and strategy, but also set structure, color differentiation, history, and cosmology. I wanted to meet them in the middle.

To do that, we had to loosen up some of our own rules regarding concepts, color pie, power, and elegance, as the way Magic is set up these days is not quite a match to people's expectations.


On the concept front, we made sure to include some creatures that aren't really part of current Magic world building, like Djinns, Unicorns, and Sirens, because we expected them to be familiar to most fantasy fans; don't expect to see those creature types used very often outside the Core Set going forward unless we end up on a very high-concept world that would call for them. But we also made progress on some problems we'd been wanting to solve for a while that should pay off in perpetuity, like coming up with a Merfolk concept that actually works when showing them battling on land, firmly establishing Hydras as green creatures, and experimenting with a sentient race for black that can be used on several commons (as opposed to the un-sentient, unmotivated Zombie tribe).

The hot topic regarding our reimagining of concepts has to be "functional reprints." Doug Beyer did a great job explaining them all here, but I don’t want Doug to take the bullets for all of those changes. Yes, the creative team asked for many of the changes that resulted in cards with the same (or nearly the same) rules text as prior cards, but design did as well, as did development. (I personally disliked the name "Persuasion"; it sounds like something a car salesman—not a planeswalker—does.) There were a lot of judgment calls, and I stand by them all—but I also understand that other people would have made different choices.

Where I do see that we messed up, however, was in our messaging. The "50% new cards" tagline was a bit too literal in hindsight, and we'll be more careful explaining the set makeup of core sets going forward in a way that doesn't ultimately lead to disappointment.

Color Pie

As for the color pie, Entangling Vines is not an indicator that we are moving "Dehydration" effects into green; we simply wanted something for the color that felt like the druidic "entangle" spells that appear in so many fantasy roleplaying games. And does Alluring Siren mean that making creatures attack is going to be blue from now on? Probably not, but the flavor was a great fit for a siren, which, by nature of its sea-dwelling, is most certainly blue. But again, we moved the game forward with some changes introduced in this set, by cementing Planar Chaos's reimagining of the Skulking Ghost mechanic as a blue ability (first on Gossamer Phantasm and now as the perfectly flavored Illusionary Servant) and "enchantress" as a white ability (on Mesa Enchantress).


The stretching of boundaries on power began with a single card: Lightning Bolt. Even as the idea of a revamped Core Set with renewed emphasis on flavor was forming in my head, I knew Lightning Bolt had to be a part of it. The card is just perfect for what I was trying to do. When I first entered the card into Multiverse, I posed the following questions:

Lightning Bolt

AF 6/30: What lengths should we go to to deliver "baseline fantasy" and fulfill expectation? WoW has a "lightning bolt" spell, as does D&D, as does Titan Quest, Yu-Gi-Oh!, Guild Wars, EverQuest, Warcraft III, Ultima IX, Mabinogi, Ragnarok Online, Heroes of Might and Magic III, the MapleStory MMO, and tons more. It is an almost expected part of the genre. It can be part of our game as well, if we're willing to make a card this good. Can we? Should we? I imagine old-schoolers will love it.

My biggest ally was head developer Erik Lauer, who had a good sense of just how powerful the card would be in the current environment; he told me to "just put it in the file and I'll protect it." Were there a lot of fights over the card? Not many; mainly there was grousing from designers that it was going to be hard to design other burn spells in a world that contained Lightning Bolt, which is a fair concern. We tested the heck out of it and deemed it safe ... enough. The inclusion of this card in Magic 2010 is one of my favorite things about the set, as it clearly sends a message to all the enfranchised players that we're doing things differently, while at the same time hitting all the necessary "resonant" notes for new players.


Lastly I'll touch on elegance, and the poster child for our reevaluating of that characteristic of cards is another old-school burn spell, Fireball. I'll quote former R&D intern and author Noah Weil from his article Why I Play: "First off, of course the fantasy stuff was cool. God knows what Fireball did, but Fireball! Whatever it made happen, other wizards surely wanted no part of it." Is Fireball the simplest burn spell we could have chosen? No, that would be Blaze. But is it the one you want to show a new player first? Maybe. Maybe just the fact that it's called "Fireball" makes them excited to slog through that awkward rules text and, ideally, when they're done, they say, "Oh, I get it." I feel extra text can be worth it on cards if the payoff is there, and that the simplest idea is not necessarily the best one.

Meeting Halfway

We challenged ourselves on those four areas—concept, color pie, power, and elegance—and were willing to bend just a little on all of them to meet potential new players half way; there are plenty more examples of these subtle shifts throughout the set if you care to scrutinize it. And what do we want these new player to meet us halfway on? Well, besides needing to fill their heads with terminology, rules, and strategy, we hope they end up thinking that Magic's color division makes inherent sense and is full of possibility. We hope they think our unique fantasy creatures—rhox, viashino, baloth—are awesome and worthy of further exploration. We hope that the visually striking planeswalker cards excite them enough to want to learn all the intricacies of how they work in the game ... and who they are outside of it. But most of all, we want them to grow to love Magic the way each of us has.

The big success for us, though, was to make all these adjustments in a way that our current diehard players—those who already have done all we could have hoped to grow and espouse and breathe this awesome game—would accept and embrace. We really wanted to do it all—to have our cake and eat it, too. While it's not perfect, I think Magic 2010 got there. I hope you agree; from the looks of things from where I sit, it appears that you do. For that, I thank you all.

On to Twitter, which I have found to be an enjoyable way to interact with friends, fans, and critics across the web; follow me at @mtgaaron (I've even been known to give away some spoiler cards from time to time).

I asked if anyone had any outstanding questions about M10, and got a bunch of replies in no time. Here are answers to five of them:

Accolade83 @mtgaaron Some people I play with seem to think priority passes after 1st strike dmg but before reg dmg. Is this right? I think not but...

First, a rules question—one that I've heard multiple times since M10 released. Yes, you can cast instants and activate abilities after first strike damage happens but before regular damage. That has not changed. I believe the problem stems from the Duels of the Planeswalker Xbox game; the default setting there is that you can't do things during that substep (there is, I believe, a setting you can change to enable that window of time). You certainly can cast instants and activate abilities in between first-strike and regular damage.

Hoojo @mtgaaron why not enemy colored duals? And why is m10 so awesome to draft?

There are a couple reasons why there aren't enemy-pair dual lands in M10. One, I feel we've been a little too flippant lately about giving all ten color pairs dual lands. Allied colors are supposed to work better together than enemy colors, and giving all pairs the same level of support washes most of that away. Second, we didn't want to make 10 of the 53 rares in the set essentially variations on the same card. A lot of packs would have contained one of these lands, and we like a bit more diversity than that. Going forward, we're going to have to be creative to find ways to make ten-card land cycles. Will the enemy duals ever exist? Possibly.

As to why the set is fun to draft, I give all kudos to Erik Lauer and his team. I don't think the designers did a single draft while we were putting the set together; all the work on the limited format—solidifying themes and curves and interplay between the colors—was done in development. I, too, enjoy drafting it.

Fenaris @mtgaaron What was the setup behind upgrades from Uncommon to Rare/Mythic creatures, like Air Elemental to Djinn & Serra to Baneslayer?

This topic has come up a lot on forums, so I suppose I should talk about it. Historically, core sets have been home to pairs or groups of cards of which one is "strictly better" than another. Tenth Edition contained Scathe Zombies / Nantuko Husk, Hill Giant / Lavaborn Muse, and Goblin Piker / Rage Weaver. The trend goes all the way back to Alpha, with Mons's Goblin Raiders / Goblin Balloon Brigade and the four-card chain of Gray Ogre / Uthden Troll / Granite Gargoyle / Sedge Troll.

It's all about giving novice players that easy leap to improvement. When most players start, they can't tell if one card is better than another. Craw Wurm and Llanowar Elves and Cudgel Troll and Wurm's Tooth and Regenerate all look good to them—they all seem useful and they all do beneficial things. In fact, the new player may identify Craw Wurm as the best simply because it's bigger. It takes a long, long time for a player to understand tempo and mana curve and utility and all the other things that go into whether a card is good or not, and most attempts to explain it early on go in one ear and out the other. We want to provide one or two in-your-face easy improvements for that player to feel like he or she is getting somewhere.

We typically don't do such obvious apples-to-apples better cards in the same set outside of the core set, but I do believe it makes sense there. And the thing is, Air Elemental and Serra Angel are still fine cards capable of winning games on their own in Limited and casual play. We wanted them in the set because they're simple and appealing. But in the competitive arena, they just aren't good enough, and we didn't feel the need to be held to not making better cards in a similar space. I really like Baneslayer Angel, and I think it sends a good message when one of the best cards in the set is something a newer player can appreciate—an Angel—as opposed to a dual land or a mana artifact or a card-drawing spell or a one-mana piece of removal.

desmarais_c @mtgaaron what's the current vision on how much rotation will happen on the core set each year? Is BSangel here for a year then gone 4ever?

Cards will stay in the new core sets for different lengths of time, just as they did in prior core sets. Giant Growth has been around since the beginning, Pacifism since Sixth Edition, Traumatize since Ninth, and Siege-Gang Commander since Tenth. Counterspell was in seven core sets before leaving; Treetop Village only one. Many of the new cards debuted in M10 will continue on to M11 and beyond, some will go away and come back later, and others will never be seen again. I'd love to see Baneslayer Angel back again in M11, for whatever that's worth.

MikeXIV @mtgaaron Everyone weeps for control, but at least 'counter target spell' is in the set. What happened to 'destroy target [non-basic] land'?

I do think "destroy target land" is a wonderful line of text and I'd like to get it into a core set again soon. But this time we took a break from it, as we knew a lot of good mana fixing was going to rotate out with Lorwyn and Shadowmoor soon but we wanted people to still be able to cast their Shards of Alara block cards. Some sort of decent land destruction spell will be in a core set again, I promise. But this time, it didn't make the cut. And control isn't dead; it won two of the three National Championships the weekend before last!

Keep writing and tweeting about M10. Your feedback will help make M11, M12, and all subsequent installments of our revamped core sets the best they can be.