Achieving Zendikar, Part II

Posted in Making Magic on September 14, 2009

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

Welcome to Zendikar Previews, Week 2! This week we're continuing our peek into the new fall set. My column is the second part of a three-part column about Zendikar's design. I'm assuming you've read last week's article, so if you haven't, you might want to read it first. Note that I am going to be liberally referencing cards from the Zendikar visual spoiler. If you don't want to know what's in the set—more power to you—please come back in two weeks after the Prerelease and read this column.

When we left off last week, the Zendikar design team (myself, Doug Beyer, Graeme Hopkins, Ken Nagle, and Matt Place) had spent several months exploring the design space surrounding lands. After much trial and error, we came up with a number of cool things we could do with land.

Such as this:

Click here.

We made the landfall mechanic, which rewards you for doing something you already do.

And this:

Click here.

We finally made a cycle of duals lands that players have wanted for many, many years. I should point out that design actually put in a different dual land cycle that people had also been asking for, but once we realized the synergy between the enemy fetch lands and landfall, it seemed too awesome an opportunity to pass up.

And this:

Click here.

We made a cycle of rare lands that would allow lands to have spell-like effects.

And this:

Click here.

We made a common cycle of lands that would allow lands to have spell-like effects. And yes, this card is part of a five-card cycle. Each one enters the battlefield tapped, taps for an appropriate colored mana, and then has a one mana spell effect in that color as an "enters the battlefield" trigger.

And this:

Click here.

This is an awesome uncommon dual land cycle that we haven't shown off yet. I think you guys will like it once you've seen it.

And this:

Click here.

These are just miscellaneous cards, but I wanted to get the point across that the land theme shows up in many of the set's nooks and crannies.

And, of course, this:

Click here.

Part of making a theme work is figuring out as many different ways to put the focus on it as possible. The full-art basic lands (a la the Un-sets) are just another facet of our theme.

I should point out that not all of the cool stuff above was discovered by this point in the design (later design and development get props) but we had figured out landfall and were well on our way to driving the "land matters" theme home. But we had one huge problem. While the team was getting very pumped on the land theme, it wasn't going over well in the rest of the company. And by "rest of the company," I'm including most of Ramp;D outside the set's design team.

Let me take a moment (and by moment I mean a bunch of paragraphs) to address a comment that came up a few times in my thread last week. To quote dragonmudd:

I seriously have a hard time believing that everyone always goes on saying that idea X will not work. Magic is so versatile, as long as the idea isn't ridiculously narrow, it's possible to make any idea successful. I'm also totally tired of hearing every one of Mark's "I had this idea and they said it couldn't be done but I said 'watch me' and did it and look how awesome it is" stories. Either he's exaggerating how much hate he receives, or everyone else there just doesn't realize how versatile magic is. I definitely doubt the latter is true.

A lot of people seem to find it unbelievable that so many things I've pitched have had such a bad first impression (split cards, hybrid mana, tribal as a block theme, the 4-3-3 block breakdown of Ravnica, etc.) when each went on to be so well received by the public. Here's my response:

I don't lie in my column. Yes, I will occasionally exaggerate a little for dramatic effect, but the core of what I'm saying is always true to the best of my knowledge. The reason I keep telling the same story over and over is because it keeps happening. You want to know the nature of design? Well, it entails finding and defending the unknown. It's about selling something that people have never experienced. It's about making people take a scary leap. Maybe you all can't believe that so many different ideas were rejected initially, but truth is, as they say, stranger than fiction. My job as the design columnist is to bring you the world of design, no matter how odd it may be.

Not all my ideas are good. Yes, I highlight my successes. I'm proud of them, and I have a column to talk about Magic design every week. I also have my share of failures. I designed Odyssey which was hated by a portion of our audience. I came up with the crazy past / present / future block plan for Time Spiral that turned a lot of people off. I made the free mechanic from Urza's Saga, and Champion ofKamigawa's splice onto arcane. I designed Carnival of Souls and Mudhole. I have designed more banned and restricted cards than any other designer in the history of the game, including Richard "Power Nine" Garfield. Not everything I touch is golden. Plus there are tons and tons and tons of ideas I have that never see the light of day—way more than my successes. These are hard to talk about in my column because the optimist in me believes with time I can fix many of them and use them in the future. My point here is that my "look how I took an idea no one believed in and got it made" stories are not meant to imply that I succeed at everything I do. Because I don't.

It's hard to see potential. You all get to judge our ideas based on the final printed cards. Of course, "land matters" looks good to most of you. You can see how we executed it with full design and development resources. But development had to start with a proverbial drawing on a napkin. ("You know. For kids.") Design is all about seeing potential so yes, I'm much better at it than most of Ramp;D. It's my job. It's why I'm a designer. The fact that I keep coming up with things that don't on the surface sound exciting just means that I'm doing what I'm paid to do.

Everyone else is supposed to be skeptical.Magic would not be a better product if Ramp;D just green-lighted every idea I have. As #2 points out, I miss more than I hit. My success rate seems good because I have development around to keep all but my best ideas from seeing print.

My job is to tell a compelling story. I keep telling this story because it's true and because it makes for a strong narrative. There was a point in Zendikar's history where almost everyone said it couldn't be done. Where should I start my story? The part after I managed to turn them all around? My column is about the trials and tribulations of being a Magic card designer. A big part of that is paving virgin trails, of exploring the unknown. If you think that others go gently down those paths, well then, my column is here to teach you otherwise. That said, Zendikar goes to show that a good idea will win out. Part of being a designer is demonstrating what you mean in a way that people can understand. In Magic design, that most often means make some cool cards. "Land matters" made it not because I thought it was a good idea but because my team managed to prove that it was a good idea with actual cards and mechanics.

Let me end my long aside by stressing that Making Magic is about letting you in behind the scenes of Magic design. I don't know why so many of my ideas were rejected at first. It probably has as much to do with my inability to sell the ideas as it has to do with the ideas themselves. But it happened and so, I'm telling you about it. It's a big part of the Zendikar design story because this need to prove the theme very much shaped how the designed happened. That said, back to the story.

    World Building

So we're a few months into design. My design team has started cracking the land design issue. We show off landfall and get some of our earliest positive comments. Still, it has been brought to my attention that the set needs to be much more than "land matters." I agree, which leads us to the next part of our story.

At some point early in design of a large set, the design lead has to sit down with Brady Dommermuth (Magic's creative director) and decide what the world for the set is going to be. Sometimes that starts with the world, but more often than not the discussion begins with design starting with an element of the mechanical heart of the set. Ravnica started with the idea that we wanted all ten color pairs represented. Lorwyn started with the discussion of what tribes we wanted to support.

Zendikar began with the idea that we were focusing on "land matters" mechanics. The land mattered in this set. What implications did that have for the world? Why is the land so important? This was this nugget that the creative team used as their jumping-off point. The idea they brought back to us was that of an Adventure World where the land held priceless riches yet was also trying to kill the inhabitants. The design team thought of it as sort of an Indiana Jones-type world with the dial set to 11. Remember the opening sequence to "Raiders of the Lost Ark"? What if the whole world was like the opening?

Once we had a sense of the world, I then brought it back to the design team. I said, "If this is an Adventure World, what would players expect to see on it? That's what we have to now add to the set."

After our first pass we came up with three things that felt like solid things to build around, what we called Maps, Traps, and Chaps. The idea of Maps was a mechanic that would lead you on your treasure hunt. Adventurers always start by being tempted by the thing that they "have to get." Zendikar needed this as well. The idea of Traps was just that we wanted the world to try to kill the players, just as the world tries to kill the adventurers. The idea of Chaps (not the best name, but it rhymed—what could we do?) was that we wanted something representing the adventurers. Sure, most of the cards would be the things of the world trying to kill the adventurers but we still wanted a feeling of an adventure party banding together.

But wait, what about kicker? When did kicker get added? It actually came in earlier in design, but the reasons for its existence are a whole different story, so you'll have to wait for part III to learn how kicker entered the picture.

Here is how each of the three mechanics came to be:

    Maps (a.k.a. Quests)

Maps began as quite literally that, maps. They were artifacts that required you to have three things before you were able to sacrifice them to get some effect. An example:

Map to the Scary Graveyard
T, Sacrifice CARDNAME: Put a 4/4 Zombie token into play. You may only activate CARDNAME if you have an equipment, a zombie, and a cleric in play.

The idea was that each map had a series of tasks you had to fulfill, and once you did it would lead you to your "treasure"—a spell effect that was much cheaper than it should be. This idea had three problems. One, the creative team felt very strongly that to get across the idea of Adventure World that we needed a number of explorer's style equipment. This raised the overall level of artifacts and started to pull the focus a little too much towards artifacts. Second, while the above card might seem clever, it was wordy and required the audience to piece a lot of flavor together. When Map to the Scary Graveyard had actual art, would you get that the equipment represented a shovel? Even if you had a grappling hook or a torch? Third, by putting the mechanics in artifacts it limited certain effects, because color pie forces us to keep some abilities out of colorless things.

The idea then came up to move the mechanic to enchantments. It would cut down on the artifacts and help out the color pie problem. All that remained was getting the "treasure hunt" feel. The first change was a name change. If these were enchantments, then maps made no sense. They instead became quests. (Hmm ... quests, rigged chests, and people in vests?)

The next problem was solving the "What do you have to do to accomplish the quest?" issue. We liked the idea of cards you couldn't use until you had done something. Rather than have each quest require three different things, we instead made you have to do one thing multiple times. That allowed us to vary the number of times per task allowing easier tasks to be balanced with harder tasks.

To get a sense of what we came up with click here.

And yes, Quest for the Gravelord was the eventual successor of Map to the Scary Graveyard.


Last week, Tom talked about the changes traps went through in development. That is nothing compared to what they went through in design. The earliest designs involved you playing the trap face down in the exile zone. You set the trap, and then when your opponent triggered it, it went off. We tried a variety of different things for months. When we handed off the set to development, we tried flash artifacts that you could play cheaply that had triggers on them, the idea being that you would flash them into play right before the trigger event could happen.

The advantage of that design was that they could be artifacts, and thus be the actual mechanical traps that players would expect them to be. In the end, we kept that flavor even though we went back to them being instants. The one common thread that stayed through all design, though, was this basic flavor: If your opponent did something that they weren't supposed to do, then the trap went off and punished them for the thing they did. The effect that happened always had to tie into the trigger itself.

Here's an example of what we ended up with. Click here.

You'll notice that we used trap as a subtype as there are cards in the block (and in this set) that care that a card is a trap.

Chaps (a.k.a. Allies)

In its earliest form, allies had the keyword adventurer. A sample creature with adventurer looked like this:

Human Thief
Creature – Human Rogue
CARDNAME gets +1/+1 and has intimidate if you control another adventurer.

The idea was that adventurers were better in a party. This execution had a bunch of problems. First, what exactly did the keyword mean? What did the adventurer mechanic do for the creature? Nothing, it was just a marker—much like the now-defunct keyword substance. Second, the mechanic made on-board math very complicated. If I block and kill the other creature with adventurer in play, I could block Human Thief with a 1/1 (a black or artifact 1/1 obviously) and kill it, because it would shrink after the other one was destroyed.

We tried solving these problems by making a creature with adventurer put a +1/+1 counter on all other adventurers when it came into play. Now adventurer did something—a little too much something it turned out. If all the adventurers did this, it became a little crazy. But we liked it in limited quantities. We called these cards the "fighters" because they strengthened themselves. Other cards were called the "wizards" because they created an effect whose size was based upon how many adventurers you had. The third group was the "clerics" that buffed the team by giving them all abilities when it came into play. (Note that these terms didn't apply one-for-one for the actual Creative used—we did want thieves, for example.) The one overriding factor was that each effect wanted to be powerful the more adventurers you had, and it happened every time an adventurer you controlled entered the battlefield.

This approach had many wonderful effects. First, because the effects all happened upon entering the battlefield, it cut down on board complexity. When you attacked, for example, everyone knew the size and abilities of your creatures. Second, the variety allowed us to design a lot of different style of cards to give the mechanic depth. Third, the mechanic played well. In many ways, that third reason trumps one and two. Fourth, the mechanic now felt thematically closer to landfall and helped tie together two distinct aspects of the set.

The last big change was moving adventurer out of the rules text and onto the type line. Rules Manager (and arch-nemesis) Mark Gottlieb explained that it would both save us text space and avoid some rules muckiness. "Ally" was chosen over "adventurer" mainly because it was shorter, and the type lines were getting pretty tight for the allies.

For an example of each kind, click here.

The reason Kazuul Warlord is labeled a "cleric" rather than a "fighter" is that he puts a +1/+1 counter on all allies rather than just himself. Okay, if you want to get technical, I guess Kazuul Warlord is a "fighter/cleric." Want to see a "fighter/wizard"? Good, because that's my preview card for today.

Click here.

Turntimber Ranger

This card originally just put a 2/2 Wolf token into play whenever one of your Allies entered the battlefield. This broke our unwritten rule that all "wizard" effects scaled based on the number of Allies. Unfortunately, getting X Wolf tokens was crazy broken. Our solution (made in development) was to also make him a fighter. This way he follows the rules of a fighter, and his "wizard"-ish effect could break the mold as the card as a whole still stayed in line.

    But Wait There's More

We had all of our land mechanics. We had quests, Traps, Allies, and Equipment (although not in their final forms, as many key changes happened during development.) We even had kicker at this point. Was everything good to go? Not exactly. Little by little, we had roped in most of the Magic Ramp;D, but to the rest of the company, it was still "the land set." Elaine Chase, the Magic Brand Manager at the time (now Magic brand director—trust me, it's positive movement), said to me, "Mark, I don't know. I'll be honest, I'm not that optimistic." (To be fair, she hadn't yet played the set; she had just heard about what we were doing.)

Join me next week for Part III when we go from Elaine with a frown to Elaine with a big smile on her face. Oh yeah, and I'll tell you how kicker made its way into the set.

Until then, may you trust your own ideas even when others don't.

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