Avacyn City, Part 1

Posted in Making Magic on April 9, 2012

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.

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I took a writing class many years ago that asked the question, "How do you start your story?" The answer seemed to be that you start with the boldest, most exciting aspect of your story. Grab your readers by the lapels and never let them go. Today is the first week of Avacyn Restored previews, so that means during the next three weeks I'm going to be telling the design story of the new set.

There are lots of great stories to tell, but after taking my writing teacher's advice to heart, I thought I'd start with something to grab you by the lapels. Also, taking something else I learned from that same writing teacher, I'm going to play around a little bit with how I tell today's story. (If you like Annie Hall or Pulp Fiction you'll be in for a treat.)

What you have just witnessed is a miracle, both in name of the mechanic and what I consider to be its printing on a Magic card. You see, miracles have a long and strange history getting to the printed card. Today's column will be about that journey, as I give you the first piece of the design of Avacyn Restored.

    All I Need Is A Miracle

Where do I start the story of the design of miracles and today's preview card? Should I start with the design of Alpha? The design of Tempest? The design of Champions of Kamigawa? The design of Avacyn Restored? They all matter to this story. No, I'm going to start my story in December 2008, in Memphis, Tennessee.

It was the Magic World Championships being held in Elvis's backyard (not literally, although the player dinner was at Graceland). Among the people brought in to spellsling (a.k.a. play against people at the event) was Richard Garfield and myself. Before the event began, Richard told me he had designed a deck for spellslinging. All the cards in the deck were brand new and designed by himself. He asked if I would go through the deck and help him tweak some of the cards. I gladly obliged. Working with Richard designing Magic cards is insanely enjoyable. Richard went in an interesting direction with his cards and his ideas sparked some ideas of my own. He and I spent the weekend talking about some of the directions we could take the germ of his design.

At the end of the weekend, I had a cool idea for a new mechanic based upon Richard's work on his spellslinging deck. I put the idea into my pocket, knowing that someday I'd find a set that could use it.

The day the topic first came up that I'd be willing to move to Seattle and work for Wizards of the Coast in Ramp;D, I was told that the available slot was for a developer. I explained to the then-Vice President of Ramp;D, Mike Davis (who Jayemdae Tome was named after—full name J. Michael Davis—a.k.a. J.M.D.) that I felt my skills lay in design, not development. He told me they had Richard to do design. They needed developers.

I took the job as a developer but I kept looking for a chance to design. That chance came with the set Tempest. I had convinced Richard to be on the design team (Richard hadn't designed a Magic set at that time since Arabian Nights years before) and that was enough to convince the Powers That Be to give me a chance. The fact that it was a large fall set is kind of crazy in retrospect, but I wasn't about to be scared away from the chance to prove that I was really a designer.

Among all my ideas, my favorite was the idea of draw triggers. That is, imagine cards that just did things when you drew them. Some might be positive effects on cards that were weak overall otherwise. Some could be negative effects on cards that were undercosted. The idea was that it added an entirely whole new element to deck building and it made draws very exciting.

Here's an example of one of the cards:

Blast Away
CARDNAME deals 5 damage to target creature or player.
Draw trigger—When you draw CARDNAME, it deals 3 damage to you.

Now that I think about it, if Mike Davis couldn't understand I was a designer and not a developer, I should have just showed him this card. Cool and out of the box and bah—roken.

The draw trigger mechanic had a bunch of problems, the biggest one being: How do you know when your opponent draws one of these cards? With Blast Away, for example, there was a strong incentive to not show you the card in the places where the trigger would matter most. Yes, you wouldn't be able to cast the card without your opponent knowing but not being able to cast it is better than dying upon drawing it.

The Tempest design team (Richard, Mike Elliott, Charlie Catino, and myself) wracked our brains on it. In the end, I came up with what I thought was the best answer—change the back of the cards of draw triggers so it would be obvious you were drawing them. (Remember, card sleeves really weren't a thing yet back in 1996.) My solution was dubbed a little too radical, so we kept looking. (Hmm, Mark trying to mechanically use the back of the Magic card in 1996. —Hmm, Mark talking about himself in the third person.)

Brian Tinsman joined Ramp;D to be its business manager. He had joined Wizards of the Coast in the market research division (back when market research had its own division at Wizards) while completing his final semester of business classes to get his MBA. Brian got to know Bill Rose and convinced Bill to make a new Ramp;D business manager position for him.

Like me, what Brian really wanted to do was design. He had often joked how he had spent much of his time in business class lectures designing Magic cards. With his foot in the door of Ramp;D, Brian started submitting card designs to Bill Rose, then the head designer for Magic. (Bill spent a number of years as both VP and Magic head designer.) Brian submitted not just cards but entire sets to Bill. Bill would mark them up with his red pen and give them back to Brian.

Brian's work eventually paid off when Bill put him on the Judgment design team (along with himself, Richard, and me). Bill, Richard, and I were all very busy on other projects, so part way in, Brian was made the lead designer of the set. In reality, the title was mostly in name only, as Bill was calling the shots but Brian was in charge of keeping up the file. And as Brian likes to say, "I got the title."

Brian's Ramp;D path began steering toward design and before you know it, Brian was in charge of leading the design of his first large set, Champions of Kamigawa. I wasn't on the design but Brian and I by this time had become good friends, so we would talk Magic design all the time. One day, Brian came to me with an awesome idea he had—what did I think of cards that had effects when you drew them?

When the "Roll" design team was first put together (Innistrad was codenamed "Shake" and Dark Ascension was codenamed "Rattle") here's what we knew:

  • The set was going to be the third set in the Innistrad block. (This wasn't always true, but more on that next week.)
  • The set was going to be a large expansion with its own set of mechanics that would restart the Draft environment.

And that's it. That's all we knew.

The design team was:

Brian Tinsman (Lead)—Here's a fun stat. When Avacyn Restored is released, Brian and I together will have led the design for half of all large expert expansion Magic sets in existence (a.k.a. no core sets). Brian is one of the all-time greats of Magic design. He's known as being the designer who most likes pushing the envelope and Avacyn Restored in no exception (we are talking about miracles today, after all). Avacyn Restored was Brian's last design, and last lead design. He has since left Wizards for other game design opportunities. I wish him the best and miss having him around the office.

Mark Gottlieb—Recently, Mark took on the role of Magic design manager. That means he is responsible for overseeing the management of all of Magic's designers save myself (Ken Nagle, Ethan Fleischer, and Shawn Main). This was done to free me up to spend more time on Magic design. I love having Mark on design teams because, to be blunt, he's really good at design. He's been doing Magic design longer than any of the other designers save myself and he definitely has found his rhythm. Mark and I did the very first co-design lead in a long time for an upcoming set next year. It turned out that Gottlieb's time was short-lived on the Avacyn Restored team due to other responsibilities, but even having him around for just the beginning of design proved valuable.

Dave Guskin—Dave started at Wizards as a programmer but managed to get his foot in the door of Ramp;D. By day, he works on Magic digital products, but we like to throw him on Magic design and development teams when we can. In fact, Dave is the lead developer for an upcoming Magic set. Dave joined the team to replace Gottlieb, who had to bow out to other commitments. Dave was an awesome addition. We always like to have someone on the design team with more of a development perspective and Dave managed to do that while also designing a lot of cool cards.

Ken Nagle—Ken is a designing machine. (And no, I'm not talking about Phyrexian Ken—that's something completely different.) Having Ken on your design team is like having access to a design spigot. Turn it on and get all sorts of design goodies. Avacyn Restored was no exception.

Bill Rose—Most of the time in this column, I talk about Bill as the vice president of Ramp;D, but Bill is also a longtime designer tied with Brian for second place in the most large set lead designs. Bill was busy doing VP stuff so he came to meetings when he was able, but even a little of Bill's time is valuable to any design. Bill was one of the biggest fans of this set having a strong angel theme and definitely helped push us in that direction.

Mark Rosewater—These days, I'm on the design team for all the expansions. This set was harder than most as it spent a great deal of time figuring out what it was. (More on this next week.) Brian is famous for looking outside the box, so I like to think I was the one always suggesting things inside the box that could also work.

During the first meeting of the design team, Brian explained that it was our job to try and figure out how we could build a large set that mechanically stood on its own but felt like a natural extension of the Innistrad block. The idea we were working off of had come from the creative team, which had an idea for this angel named Avacyn. Somehow, her disappearance had been the start of the downfall of the humans of Innistrad. If they were going to be saved, somehow they had to figure out where she was.

The Pandora's Box idea morphed into the Helvault. Avacyn was trapped inside and something was going to release her along with a horde of demons. If we were going to capture that flavor, we needed to find a mechanic that reflected the creatures that had been released. That's when I brought up the idea for the mechanic inspired by Richard's deck at the Worlds many years before. I dubbed the mechanic "forbidden."

We spent months and months tweaking forbidden. It was a strange mechanic that presented all types of odd problems. Development was very skeptical about forbidden, worried that the mechanic might be inherently broken. Brian pressed on, though, as he really liked the mechanic.

Eventually, it became clear that forbidden wasn't going to work. Development sat down with the design team and shared its reservations. Brian realized there wasn't support for forbidden outside of the design team, so he did something he rarely ever did—he killed the mechanic.

Usually in my columns, the killing of a mechanic is only a precursor to it later coming back. Not this time, though. The forbidden mechanic was killed to never see the light of day again. I can't tell you what it was only because I have faith that I can still find a way to do it correctly, but when I say the mechanic died in design, this time I actually mean it.

The first step to solving draw triggers in Tempest was figuring out what the problems were. The biggest one was this: If there was a benefit to not revealing what you've drawn, we could never guarantee that the player who drew it would reveal it. It's much easier to cheat when no one but you knows what you did. This meant that negative draw triggers couldn't work.

The issue, though, didn't stop at negative draw triggers. Let's say a card had a draw trigger that drew you a card. Most of the time, you would want to draw the card, but what if you only had one card in your library? It's impossible to make effects solely positive or solely negative because the mix of cards in Magic can always make strange things happen. This meant the draw triggers had to be optional. You see, we couldn't catch players who didn't reveal the card, so the only solution was to make the reveal, and thus the trigger, optional.

The final problem was one we weren't able to solve. How exactly do you know a player drew the card he or she did? What was to keep a player from drawing a card and then going "oops," only to show a draw trigger he or she already had? We couldn't figure out a good answer, so after months of trying to make draw triggers work, the Tempest design team let them go.

Brian was so excited by the idea of draw triggers that I didn't have the heart to tell him right away. It appears that all Magic designers stumble upon the idea, and when they do, they see all the amazing possibilities draw triggers have to offer. And to be clear, if Magic was solely played on a computer where these triggers could be monitored by a reliable third party, they would be pretty awesome and open up a neat vein of design. But that's not the reality we live in.

Once Brian was done extolling the virtues of draw triggers, I told him the story of Tempest design. He would say "Did you try blah?" and I would say "Yes." "How about blah?" "Yes." "Blah?" "Yes."

If I haven't made it clear before, Brian is a stubborn man. (It seems to run through Magic designers.) He wasn't about to give up on draw triggers. He tried and tried to make them work, but as had happen during Tempest design, he couldn't do it. Eventually, even Brian gave up on the idea. Very reluctantly, I might add.

Forbidden was dead and it left a gaping hole in the design. We needed something to replace it. We spent some time thinking of other ways to represent the creatures freed from the Helvault, but after spinning our wheels for a few weeks, Brian said he wanted to try a different take on solving the problem.

One of the coolest things about the forbidden mechanic is that it made draws very exciting. Brian had really enjoyed how, when the mechanic was doing its thing, it brought great drama to the game, something not found in all Magic games. Perhaps the trick to replacing forbidden wasn't replacing what it represented storywise, but what it added to the set emotionally. Was there another way to make the draw exciting?

Brian looked at me with a glint in his eye.

As the legend goes, Alexander the Great was visiting Phrygia. In the main courtyard of the capital was an ox wagon that had been attached by ropes that combined to make an intricate knot. The knot had been tied by the former ruler, Gordias, and thus it was referred to as the Gordian Knot. It had been foretold that the man who could untie the knot would rule the kingdom.

Many men had attempted to untie the Gordian Knot. They came from far away to try their hand at doing the impossible and become the new ruler. Each failed in his quest. That is, until the day Alexander the Great came to town.

Alexander studied the knot carefully, for he was determined to be the one who freed the ox cart. After some thought, Alexander removed the sword from his hilt and chopped the knot in half. The knot was ruled untied and Alexander became the ruler of the land.

Brian latched onto draw triggers quickly and made the decree that they would just trigger when you drew them. What of the cheating concerns? Leave that to the floor rules. The rules of the game could handle them and they did what the design wanted. Good enough.

I was a bit shocked by Brian's decree but I admired his moxie. He definitely found a novel way to solve the problem. My big issue was that I wanted to make sure that the mechanic blended smoothly with the flavor of the set. What exactly did the draw triggers have to do with a set filled with angels? I solved the entire problem with one word—I named the mechanic "miracles."

Magic was many months away from being published, but that didn't stop it from being played. Richard had put together a playtesting group made up of gaming friends he had made in Philadelphia. As the playtest progressed, Richard would get constant feedback that he would use to tweak the card set.

One day, one of the playtesters came up to Richard and said, "I think one of the cards is broken."

"What do you mean?" asked Richard.

"Well," the playtester said, "I play this card and my opponent always loses on his or her next turn. That seems very powerful."

Richard asked to see the card. In its text box it read: "Your opponent loses next turn."

Richard laughed at the confusion and changed the card to read: "Take an extra turn after this one."

The card would, of course, be called Time Walk.

The earliest version of miracles had a small optional effect when drawn that comboed with the larger effect of the card. For example, there was a Wrath of God-style card that had a draw trigger to make one of your creatures indestructible for the turn. The original miracles also triggered whenever they were drawn.

During "devign" (the section of time in between design and development), the design team, based on notes from the development team, tried having the miracles reduce their mana cost instead of producing an additional ability. Both versions of the miracles were handed off to development to allow them to pick which one worked better. The one other big change made during development was to limit the miracles to only working on the first draw of the turn.

The key to making miracles was to pick effects that players would be excited to topdeck. When their back was to the wall, players could pray for a miracle and hope something awesome happened. One effect that seemed like a shoo-in was taking an extra turn. Miracles allow players to have the dream of casting an actual Time Walk, an extra turn, for .

And that is how we ended up with today's preview card.

Temporal Mastery | Art by Franz Vohwinkel

Today's story was just about one mechanic. A lot more went on in Avacyn's Restored design. Join me next week for Part 2 as I explain how we went from not knowing exactly what we were doing to creating the set we are previewing today.

Until then, may you never give up on your Gordian Knot.

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