Being Inspired, Part 2

Posted in Making Magic on February 17, 2014

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.

Last week was Inspiration Week, but instead of talking about the inspired mechanic (which I already had) I chose instead to talk about the inspiration for each and every block in Magic's history, starting with Theros block and moving backwards. I got as far as Ravnica block (the original one), so today we're going to start with Champions of Kamigawa block.

    Champions of Kamigawa Block

When Richard Garfield designed Arabian Nights, his goal was to make a set that captured an existing world. Homelands, a year or so later, would try to make a set built around the flavor not of an existing world but of one that the designers had made up, heavily influenced by popular elements of early Magic like Serra Angel and Sengir Vampire. Champions of Kamigawa block was the first attempt to try this approach, what we refer to as "top-down" design, as the inspiration for an entire block. (Here, by the way, is my article from Top-Down Week, if you'd like more information on what it entails.)

Forlorn Pseudamma | Art by Winona Nelson

Bill Rose, who at the time was both VP of Ramp;D and head designer (I would take over in the middle of Champions block as head designer), had been exploring different ways to approach blocks and had come to the conclusion that it was time for us to try a flavor-based, top-down design. Bill was very interested in using a real-world culture as the jumping-off point for this block. He examined a number of options and decided that Japan and Japanese mythology would be the best fit. A little trivia. What was the runner-up? What was Bill's second choice for this block? The answer is Egypt and Egyptian mythology.

In the end, we made a bunch of mistakes on the design of this block, all of which helped us learn how to better approach a top-down design when we tried again many years later with Innistrad. The two biggest mistakes, design-wise, were:

Locking in flavor before mechanics: Bill's strategy was to have the creative team build a world before figuring out any of the mechanics. This strategy backfired because it turns out mechanics are much less flexible than flavor. This resulted in the mechanics being a bit forced and created a very parasitic design. (A parasitic design is one in which the mechanics force players to play with, and only with, cards from the set of the cards in question.)

Focusing on accuracy over resonance: The creative team did a great job of capturing Japanese mythology. The problem was that it focused on numerous aspects that were unknown to much of the audience. While some education is good, you want that in smaller numbers at higher rarities. (Theros did this well I felt. Hundred-Handed One, as an example, wanted to be rare and not common.) It's important when using real-world inspiration to meet a significant amount of expectation.

I like to feel that mistakes are learning opportunities, so, looking back, while this block was not a great success, it did help us learn how to make blocks like Innistrad and Theros.

    Mirrodin Block

This block's inspiration was as pure as it comes. We had just done a multicolor block, a graveyard block, and a tribal block. It was time for an artifact block!

Before coming to Wizards, my favorite set had been Antiquities. I was pumped by the idea of dedicating a whole block to artifacts, so I let Bill know that I wanted to do an artifact block. Although we had less market research at the time than we do now, we had enough that it was clear that players liked artifacts, so Bill gave me the thumbs up.

Note that I wanted to go all in. I didn't just want a block withartifacts, I wanted a block about artifacts. In fact, I wanted a world about artifacts. The head of the creative team at the time was Tyler Bielman. He and I got the idea of a metal world and started planning.

Tyler and I were planning to completely rework how artifacts worked. We came up with five subtypes for artifacts and were planning to make a stark divide between what artifacts and enchantments could do to mechanically separate them. We had very lofty goals, but in the end, all our work did lead to a world made of metal. (Note that a lot of where Mirrodin ended up came from Brady Dommermuth and then-art director Jeremy Cranford.)

    Onslaught Block

As we get further back, I start to become less involved in the early planning of some of the blocks. Onslaught is a good example. I was not on the design team for Onslaught, so I do not know exactly what the impetus for the set was. What I do know, though, is that neither the heavy tribal theme nor morph was present during the early part of the design. How do I know that? Because I was involved in getting both of those two things into the block.

Felhide Spiritbinder | Art by Mathias Kollros

Onslaught is probably the poster child for a block that started in one place and through the course of design ended somewhere very different. The set's lead designer, Mike Elliott, was playing around with some mechanics he had made, and while they were interesting, they weren't quite gelling together. At the time, Bill was both the VP of Ramp;D and the head designer, so he was getting swamped with responsibilities. I didn't realize this at the time, but looking back, I now realize that Bill was grooming me to take over for him as head designer, so he brought me in to help Mike with the set.

As I looked through the file, I noticed there was a very subtle tribal theme. My major note to Mike was that I felt that of everything in the set the tribal component had the best potential to hook everything together and suggested he up the volume of it. Mike and I went back and forth for a while, where my note kept being "No, more." I then suggested that morph, a mechanic that the rules team had made up to answer the cards Illusionary Mask and Camouflage, might be an interesting fit, as part of the mystery of the creature could be what creature type is it.

Anyway, Onslaught is an interesting case where the major theme of the block actually started out as a minor one.

    Odyssey Block

This was the first block I led during what I call the Third Stage of Design. For those unfamiliar with the stages of design (this is the most recent time I talk about them), the Third Stage was all about blocks having themes. When I started Odyssey, I was very interested in exploring the graveyard and figuring out what mechanical space we either hadn't explored there or could bring back and expand.

I started design knowing I wanted to explore flashback. As I've explained in this column before, I had come up with the idea for flashback while watching games as I was judging the feature matches at the Pro Tour. To make lopsided games interesting, I would grant powers to the players behind and the ability to cast spells out of the graveyard was one of those abilities. Now, I'm not sure which came first—whether I wanted to put flashback into a block and thus decided a graveyard theme would allow me to do that or I wanted to do a graveyard theme and then I realized flashback would work well.

Like Mirrodin block, this was another block where I was tapping into one of my personal favorites of the game. I have always enjoyed graveyard interactions, going all the way back to Animate Dead in Alpha,which I put in far too many of my decks. In fact, if you chart out all of Magic you will see that I am responsible for a significant amount of graveyard-matters cards, including creating the mechanics flashback, unearth, delve, Gravestorm, retrace, the "kindle" mechanic, and dredge.

    Invasion Block

This block had two different inspirations that merged together and I'm not 100% sure which one came first. Bill, Mike, and I had been talking for a while that we wanted to do a block that had a lot of multicolor cards in it. Note that we weren't necessarily thinking of it as a theme, because at the time, that wasn't how we thought of blocks. Invasion, in fact, would be the thing that changed that mindset and started us down the Third Stage of Design.

Arbiter of the Ideal | Art by Svetlin Velinov

When Magic was first taking off, Richard Garfield knew there was going to be a need for more content, so he tasked different playtest groups with creating new expansions. One group from the University of Pennsylvania, now referred to as the East Coast Playtesters (Skaff Elias, Jim Lin, Dave Petty, and Chris Page), started work on Ice Age. Another group that Richard knew from bridge (Bill Rose, Joel Mick, Charlie Catino, and others), started work on Menagerie, which would later get printed as Mirage. The third set, created by a single individual named Barry Reich, was called Spectral Chaos.

Barry, a good friend of Richard, had the honor of playing the first-ever game of Magic with Richard. Barry had the idea for a multicolor-focused set, which he worked on solo. At the time of Invasion design, Ramp;D had never done anything with Spectral Chaos and Bill felt we needed to go through it to see if there was anything we could use.

I don't know whether Bill's desire to look through Spectral Chaos pushed the desire to do multicolor or whether the desire to do multicolor reminded Bill of Spectral Chaos, but we started design inspired by both the theme and the set.

    Mercadian Masques Block

Before we built our blocks around themes, we built them around mechanics. When presenting a set internally, a very common question would be, "What are your two mechanics?" For those asking why only two, it was a combination of us not keywording/ability wording all our mechanics and tending to opt for bigger mechanics that could go on more cards.

Mercadian Masques was originally built around Rebels/Mercenaries and Spellshapers. It's interesting to note that neither was named, making many players feel as if the set had no new mechanics. It was this overwhelming response that made Ramp;D rethink how we treated keywords and made us much more willing to put a name on a mechanic so the audience could easily identify it.

As this was part of the Weatherlight Saga, some may ask if the world of Mercadia or the adventures of the Weatherlight crew played any role in inspiring the design. The answer was no. At the time, there was a bit of disconnect between Ramp;D and the people in charge of the creative, so while we did things like make Squee, Goblin Nabob]a Squee card[/autocard], the mechanical identity had very little to do with the plot of the story.

    Urza's Saga Block

This was another block that started off by figuring out its two main mechanics, which in this case were echo and cycling. Interestingly, both mechanics, the first made by Mike Elliott (who was also lead designer of this set) and the second by Richard Garfield, were both originally in Tempest design. Mike's echo mechanic hadn't started there, though. Mike had made it in a personal set called Astral Ways he had designed before being hired at Wizards. That same set also had the Sliver mechanic.

Servant of Tymaret | Art by Karl Kopinski

Urza's Saga also had a strong enchantment theme and numerous cards in the set were dedicated to exploring that design space. Interestingly, in the end, the brand team chose to play up the story and call the block the Artifact Cycle (as it focused on Urza, an artificer), which flew in the face of the block's actual enchantment theme. To make matters worse, many of the broken cards in the block were artifacts or revolved around them.

This is yet another case where Ramp;D and the creative team were very disconnected. The Urza's story in no way reflected the mechanics and the mechanics in no substantial way reflected Urza's story. (I believe the desire of the public to find a connection was yet another thing that made the artifacts feel higher profile.)

    Tempest Block

For those of you who are unaware, the Weatherlight Saga was my baby (along with a man named Michael Ryan, who once upon a time was one of Magic's main editors). Here is the article where I talk about us putting together the story and pitching it to the Magic brand team. Tempest was not only my first design but also was originally planned as being the first chapter in the Weatherlight Saga. (Because the then-head of the Magic brand team was so psyched to start telling the story, we quickly created a preamble that ended up being the story of Weatherlight—i.e., the gathering of the crew.)

I bring this all up because my inspiration for the Tempest block was the telling of this story, but the design technology of the time forced me to work a little backwards. I had worked with my design team (Richard Garfield, Mike Elliott, and Charlie Catino) to come up with cool mechanics and then I worked with Mike to craft those mechanics into the story. For example, I really liked the Slivers, so Michael and I found a way to interweave the Slivers into the story. Note that, at the time, I wasn't trying to make the feel of the play match the tone of the story—that design technology would not come for many years.

For those wondering how the inspiration for Tempest block could be so closely tied to the story while Urza's Saga and Mercadian Masques blocks were so disconnected, the answer is that Michael Ryan and I were removed as the people in charge of the story during the end of Tempest block (during Exodus, be exact) and that event created a schism between Ramp;D and the creative team for a number of years. (But that story is one for an article all its own.)

Also, it's important to remember that Tempest was the first block design all done in Ramp;D. Before this, as we'll see in a second, designs were done by freelancers who didn't work in the department (although many would later get hired by Wizards).

    Mirage Block

Now we get to sets that were made outside of Wizards. As I explained above, the Mirage block was done by the playtesters who Richard had met at his bridge club. As the set was led by Bill Rose, I decided to go straight to the source. Bill said that the team's main motivation early on was to create a set that would play well in Limited. Bill's group was the one that first experimented with drafting and was much more focused on Limited play than any of the other playtesters.

Sphinx's Disciple | Art by Ryan Alexander Lee

Bill said the goal of his design team was to focus on creatures and make them central to the game play. For instance, the two main mechanics of the set were flanking and phasing, both creature abilities. The Mirage design team was also focused on making sure there was a full mana curve of creatures and that things like evasion were plentiful. This, by the way, was a huge contrast to Ice Age, the other set that was being designed at the same time. For those who have never had the chance to play Ice Age Limited, the set had a lower percentage of creatures that were, on average, smaller and had few evasion abilities.

The set would have a story involving a three-way conflict between dueling wizards and an African-inspired backdrop, but both of those things would happen much later in design. Early on, the focus was clear—make this a fun set to play if you crack open boosters. Mirage is considered the start of the Second Stage of Design and a big part of this was the focus on Limited play (as well as formalizing of the block structure).

    Ice Age Block

This is another set that I have to make guesses at. The original concept that Richard had for Magic was that Magic: The Gathering was going to be the first incarnation of the game. Then a year or so later, a new product called Magic: Ice Age would be released. Magic: Ice Age would have different backs and essentially be a new game with new mechanics but would use the same rules structure that Magic: The Gathering had to make it easier to learn.

Obviously, this idea was abandoned along the way for an expansion model where each new set was an add-on to the overall game. The reason I bring this up is because I believe the original intent of Ice Age was to be the new base set. As such, the East Coast Playtesters were trying to figure out what was essential to a Magic base set and what could change. For example, I believe the East Coast Playtesters felt Alpha had a little too much evasion, so they dialed it down.

I'm not sure when the Ice Age Nordic flavor got added, but my best guess is, like Mirage and its African-inspired flavor, it probably came later in design and was not part of the original inspiration of the set. I do know that the design team was very conscious of thinking about basic things that could be added to the game that were not there originally. I'm pretty confident, for instance, that they had multicolor cards in their set before Steve Conard and his team started designing Legends. With things like cantrips and cumulative upkeep, the East Coast Playtesters were looking for new staples that could be added to the game.

    How Inspiring

Whew! And that is how the first nineteen blocks of Magic got their inspiration. If you are interested in more stories about how some of these designs got made, I recommend listening to selected episodes of my "Drive to Work" podcast. I have recorded numerous episodes, many multiparters, where I walk through how designs got created. If this interests you, I would give some of them a listen.

As always, I am eager to hear what you think about some of the stories I shared this and last week. You can email me, post comments in this article's thread, or contact me through any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week when I pay tribute to, well, tribute.

Until then, may you find your own inspiration.

    "Drive to Work #96—New World Order"

Many years ago, design made a major shift in how we think of and design commons. We called this shift New World Order, and in today's podcast I talk all about how it came to be and what it means to design.

    "Drive to Work #97—Blogatog"

My second podcast today talks all about my Tumblr blog. In just two and a half years, I have answered over 30,000 questions. No, you didn't misread that. I just love answering questions.


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Working for Magic Ramp;D since October, 1995, Mark Rosewater is currently the head designer. His hobbies include spending time with his family, talking about Magic on every known medium (including a daily blog and a weekly podcast), and writing about himself in the third person.

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