And the Land Played On

Posted in Making Magic on January 18, 2010

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 Worldwake Previews, Week 1. It's time to shake the present that is Worldwake and see what we can deduce. Quite a bit, I hope, as I helped wrap the thing. Mostly what I'm going to do today is walk you through one of Worldwake's major themes (including showing you a preview card) and then talk a bit about the challenges of designing a second set. Actually those are backwards. What I need to do is explain how we design a second set first because that will explain why the major theme we have is the major theme. So if you're at all interested in what Worldwake has to offer (and if you aren't, what are you, made of stone?), stick around.

    They've Got the Whole Worldwake In Their Hands

Before I get to all of that though, I have to first introduce you to the design team that's responsible for the goodies I'm about to talk about.

Kenneth Nagle – During the Great Designer Search (click here if you have no idea what I'm talking about; the short version is that it was a reality show a la The Apprentice on where we gave a Magic player a six-month design internship—we actually ended up giving out more than one), the judges would get together after each challenge and talk about who got the boot. One of the judges wasn't all that impressed with Ken and every time would throw his name on the list for elimination. Each time, I would take his name off—as it was technically a design internship, I had the final say—because I felt Ken had a lot of potential.

In two weeks, you all will get to go to the Worldwake Prerelease and see that potential realized. Worldwake was Ken's first design lead, and he knocked it out of the park. I am very proud of him and of the Worldwake design team. The fun part now is watching Ken wait for the set's release. I have not seen anyone this excited for a set since I had my first design come out (Tempest, for those who don't know). Ken has had his fingers in every possible piece of Worldwake. Ken helped plan the spoiler releases. Ken helped choose the artwork that went on the poster. For all I know Ken helped the people at our printers pack up the sets and load them onto the boat for shipping.

It's awesome to see Ken this excited, and I can't wait until he gets to the best part, seeing the reaction from all of you. (Seriously, it's the best part of the job.)

Mark Rosewater – Zendikar was my baby, so it made a lot of sense for me to stick around and help out with the sole "lands matter" small set. (Remember, Rise of the Eldrazi is a large set that takes a big mechanical turn.) Also, it was Ken's first lead, and in design the first skydive is always tandem. It's comforting for a first-time designer to have someone who's been there before to bounce ideas off of and to let them know if they've missed something obvious. While this set was going on, I was busy leading my own set (the 2010 large fall set codenamed "Lights"—I have many awesome things to say about this set, but not today), so while I was there to help out, Ken had to do all the heavy lifting.

Matt Place – I like putting a developer on each of the design teams because they have a very useful perspective. It's easy sometimes for designers to miss the forest for the trees, and the developers tend to point out fundamental issues that can get lost in the excitement of trying new things. In particular, I love having Matt on a team because he is a big-picture guy like me and he tends to have a vantage point that I find very helpful when trying to get a sense of how everything is going to come together.

Mark Globus – Many people forget that the #1, #2, #3 and #4 finishers from the Great Designer Search all work at Wizards now. Mark was #4. (Alexis Janson – #1, Ken – #2, Graeme Hopkins – #3) He's now the Magic Producer in Ramp;D, and he oversees all the many processes that Magic Ramp;D have to navigate to make Magic. On the side, he does design. (And you don't get to #4 in The Great Designer Search without having some design chops.) I'm always happy to see Mark on one of my teams, and I know Ken felt the same way.

Kelly Digges – Most design teams these days are composed of five people. The fifth slot is always saved for someone who has never done Magic design before but that has expressed interest. As we have a small number of sets per year and a large list of people in Wizards who are interested, it takes some time to land a "fifth slot." Worldwake's fifth slot went to someone near and dear to my heart, my editor Kelly. (Okay, he's not just my editor, he's the editor for all of Daily MTG, but I only interact with him on my columns.) I was very impressed with Kelly on the team. He jumped right in and contributed from day one. At some point during the next month or so, Kelly will write something to tell you about the design team from his perspective. I'll just say that I don't think this is the last you'll see of Kelly Digges, designer.

    Coming In Second

I've spent a number of articles talking about designing blocks, and usually I focus on the work to make the first, large set. While that is the brunt of the work, there still this little issue of one or two small sets that follow the big set. Those sets have to not only be designed, they have to fill a role in the larger overall block structure. What does this mean for a second set? Let me walk you through some of the major concerns.

#1) It Has to Feel Like It Follows the Big Set – Small sets don't start with a blank slate. Players come into them with expectation set by the first set of the block. The second set is already in a known world with known themes and known mechanics. There is expectation that this set will be "more of the first." As I often explain, a lot of design's role is meeting expectations (and helping set up expectations so that you can later meet them). If players expect something, you'd better have a good reason for not supplying what they expect. What this means is that the small set comes to the table with a lot of pre-existing demands which the design team must meet.

#2) It Has to Have Its Own Identity – One of the realities of making a game (as a business as opposed to a hobby) is that you have to encourage people to buy the game. When the small set comes out, we have to convince all of you that it's something you want to buy. To do this, we have to be able to talk about the set in a way that sets it apart from all other sets. Why should you buy this set? This means that each set has to have an identity that we can use to explain what the set is about.

#3) There Has to Be Something New – "More of the same" is not enough for a new set. Yes, it can be a significant portion of the design, but it needs to have something that wasn't available before. This new thing could be a new mechanic, a significant twist on an established mechanic, a new way to approach the block's theme, or anything else that takes the experience of the block and adds something new to the mix.

#4) You Have to Find Space That Wasn't Already Explored in the Big Set – Not only do you need to have something new, you need to have new discoveries in the space that the large set explored. You have to allow the players the ability to discover things. Why is this so important? Because there's a lot of power in first exposure. The human brain loves discovering things. The reason we have curiosity is that the need to explore and discover is hard wired into our brains. Also, to reinforce this, our brain gives us bursts of pleasure when we learn of things for the first time. As the saying goes, "You always remember your first." This means that you have to have some firsts even in your second set.

#5) Everything Has to Fit – This is a huge design challenge for the second set because some part of the large set's design is loved by someone, you want to continue it into the second set. You also want to add something new (see above). The problem is that the small set is significantly smaller than the large set, yet you kind of want more things in it than the large set. That causes some problems with design space.

What all that means is this: the first set of the block has the major issue of figuring out what the block is going to be about and then delivering an experience that maximizes on the block's theme. The second set is about building onto what the first set has established but doing so in a way that gives the second set its own identity. Once upon a time, Ramp;D accomplished this task set to set. The large set would be designed, and then when work on the second set was started, the team would ask itself "What hasn't been done yet?"

With the shift of focus to block planning, the needs of the second set are now examined during the design of the first set. When my team was designing Zendikar, I had to keep asking the question, "What is Worldwake going to do?" Whatever the answer was, it meant that it was something Zendikar couldn't do.

Modern block planning means that we have to make sure upon the creation of the block that each set plays an important enough role in the overall plan. The second (and third) set(s) cannot be afterthoughts, but must be pieces of the block plan. The assembly of the block requires the creation of each set's identity. To make this happen, the discussion about what the second (and third set) will do is decided much earlier in the process.

    I've Got the Whole Worldwake in My Hands

So during Zendikar block design, we had to answer each of the concerns above about Worldwake:

#1) It Has to Feel Like It Follows the Big Set – This was the easiest to address. Worldwake would continue the "lands matter" theme. It would have more landfall cards, more Allies, Vampires, and Kor, more Traps and quests. Everything that was beloved in Zendikar (by someone—as I always say, Magic is many things to many people) returns in Worldwake.

#2) It Has to Have Its Own Identity – This is the first place where the block plan becomes important. In order for Worldwake to have its own identity, we had to save it something; something that wouldn't go into Zendikar. As the block's core theme was "lands matter," it was crucial that Worldwake's identity be land-centric. This begets the question: (man, I don't get much chance to use "beget" all that often): what piece of the "lands matter" pie do we save for Worldwake? It had to be something significant, but not so important that Zendikar couldn't function without it.

How did we figure this out? We started in early Zendikar design by using every mechanic related to land that we could think up. In addition, we designed cards that made use of lands in unorthodox ways. We took all these cards and we played them. And played them. And played them. What we ended up with fell into three buckets: good, good but complicated, and bad. Good but complicated is an excellent resource for second sets. You see, some ideas are very simple and can be understood easily. Others are more disorienting until you come to grips with the environment you are playing in. You want the players to experience this subset of cards after they have a handle on what the environment is.

The biggest category that fell into the "good but complicated" bucket involved lands that sat on the battlefield and did something. Here's why: the last seventeen years of Magic have taught players to basically ignore lands on the battlefield. Yes, you look from time to time when you need to figure out whether a player can do something or to have more knowledge to guess what might come next, but all in all, players are taught that the lands on the battlefield don't need to occupy much mental space. From time to time, we've created powerful lands that do something on the battlefield besides produce mana, but those have been few and far in between, and seldom do multiple of these lands coexist in games.

This all became apparent during early Zendikar playtests when we had lots of lands that did things on the battlefield. It was obvious fairly quickly that it was significantly ratcheting up the complexity of on-board play. Players were continually forgetting to take into account the appropriate lands. Ramp;D is used to a higher level of complexity than the average player—designing and developing requires we bring in things at a high level of complexity and bring them down—and even we were forgetting left and right. We decided that we should push the majority of these lands out of Zendikar (there are obviously some exceptions at higher rarities, such as the rare land cycle). Since the set only had one small expansion, these cards would go into Worldwake or nowhere.

The meatiest chunk of these cards were lands that turn into creatures—what Ramp;D (and much of the world) calls "man-lands." These are lands that have the ability to be turned into creatures. Lands that turn into creatures have been popular historically, partly because they're pretty cool and partly because they've tended to be tournament-worthy cards. Once we realized that we wanted to push these off, it became pretty clear what Worldwake's land theme was going to be: When Lands Attack.

#3) There Has to Be Something New – This is the topic for next week's column. Suffice to say, the design team did try to add some new things to Worldwake.

#4) You Have to Find Space That Wasn't Already Explored in the Big Set – Lands that attack were a big part of doing this. Zendikar is about lands, but most of them function more like "spell" lands than "creature" lands. Adding lands that have functionality on the board has a profound effect on the game play.

#5) Everything Has to Fit – Ken solved this the way that lead designers of most small sets do: he just crammed in everything he could wherever he could all the while making sure to leave room for simpler and elegant cards. There are a lot of tricks to make this happen, and perhaps one day I'll dedicate a column to these tricks. (Let me know in the thread or my email if you'd like to see such a thing.)

    Talk to the Land

Enough of my yapping, let's get to the part where I show you a cool new card. Before I do that, I thought I'd show off a few cards in this theme that have already been spoiled.

The first card was revealed several weeks ago, because it is the "Buy a Box" promo card, which you get if you, well, buy a box of Worldwake. I want to show it to you, as I want you to get a sense of what kind of lands will be attacking you.

Click here to see Celestial Colonnade.

Celestial Colonnade

So what's going on here? The Worldwake design team spent a lot of time trying to figure out the coolest cycle of animating lands. We tried all sorts of things. We had lands that animated by landfall. We had lands that came into play already animated. We had lands that turned into giant monsters. In the end, though, we liked the idea of having dual man-lands. Zendikar's fetch lands were enemy-color-pair lands, so it seemed like a good place to introduce allied-color duals to the block.

The other thing we tried hard to do was distance ourselves from another famous cycle of lands that turned into creatures.

In our minds, this cycle has become the default in players' perceptions, and while we wanted to capture the goodness they had, we wanted our man-lands to not feel like minor tweaks of them. This is why we chose to have these lands activate for a little more but turn into bigger creatures.

Next, we have a land from our "pool cards"—that is, a group of cards we gave to all the different magazines.

Click here to see Dread Statuary.

Dread Statuary

Since the duals were rare, we decided to toss Limited a bone and make an angry land that anyone who opened it could play.

Which brings us to my preview card of the day. It's another member of the cycle of dual lands.

Click here to see Raging Ravine.

Raging Ravine

Let me quickly address the one rules question that might pop up when you read it: Does the +1/+1 counter fall off when the land is no longer a creature? No. Lands have no problem having +1/+1 counters on them. (I've been told some really like it.) It kindly sits there until the Raging Ravine animates again.

As you can see by comparing Celestial Colonnade to Raging Ravine, we tried to make each member of this cycle different so that they would have a great variety in play. Different color combinations will use their new dual land in different ways.

The next card is another one from the Visual Spoiler.

Click here to see Vastwood Zendikon.

Vastwood Zendikon

The Zendikons are a common cycle and that allow you to turn your lands into creatures. Part of making the theme work was trying to find different ways to animate lands. The Zendikons came about because we were trying to find cards that fit the theme other than just lands. We liked using these at common rather than traditional man-lands as the enchantment helps remind everyone that the land in question is not just a plain old land. Originally, the "return the land to the battlefield" rider wasn't there but the cards too often caused card disadvantage, making people hesitant to play them. These cards should definitely have an impact on Zendikar block Limited.

    Land Now For Something Completely Different

That's all the time I have for today. Hopefully, I've whet your appetite enough to get you to come back next week when I explain how we took kicker to eleven as well as hit upon the areas we chose to innovate in.

Until then, may you imagine the fun of shouting "Land Ho!" before you attack.

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