Changing Planes

Posted in Making Magic on May 21, 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.

Welcome to Planechase 2012 Preview Week. This week we'll be talking about the new Planechase set. Our feature today by Mark Gottlieb is going to be talking about how the set got put together, so I thought I'd take a different tack with my column today. I'm going to explore why Magic as a game needs so many different worlds. Don't worry, I'm still going to introduce the design team and get in a few preview cards before I'm through.

    A Whole New World

So let's start at the very beginning. When making a game, (in this case I'm talking specifically about a physical game as opposed to a video game), what do most game makers do? They build one world. Why? Because part of what you want to do when creating a game is to build a home for it. I often talk about how flavor is key to making your design sing, because flavor helps anchor what you're doing.

The Maelstrom | Art by James Paick

In communication school (Boston University's College of Communication, to be exact), I learned an important lesson about communication. People don't really absorb a new piece of information until they find a way to connect it to their own personal life. It's why news shows always talk about the local person involved in the world event. It's why magazines take pictures of "real" people for the photos in the story. It's why writers use metaphors.

Flavor is so key because game mechanics don't have any internal meaning. Part of making your game connect with your audience is helping it have meaning. Resonance is powerful because it makes people go, "Oh, I know that." This is why games want to have a known and recognizable world. It helps the players bond with the mechanics.

As an example, let's take a granddaddy of games: Monopoly. Monopoly is a game about acquiring resources. In a vacuum, though, it's pretty dry. To help give it meaning, the game designer, Charles Darrow (the game actually has a murky history and Darrow borrowed many elements of the game from some earlier, similar games), decided he wanted the players to be real estate tycoons. You weren't just acquiring things, you were buying properties.

The reason other players had to give you money was that they had to pay rent. You expanded upon your properties by building on them, be it a house or a hotel. By creating context, the game now has resonance. To further build on this, Darrow didn't just put this game anywhere in some vague setting, he had you playing in Atlantic City and named the properties after real places.

Monopoly invested in Atlantic City as its setting. While the game has branched out to allow other interests to be the creative center, the core game has never budged. If you want to play traditional Monopoly, you're going to be playing in Atlantic City.

This is true of most games. Once the game has carved out its own world, it wants to build on that world and invest in it. Games want to create continuity because, as I often talk about, humans crave comfort. (If you want to tie this all together, the reason people need to connect things to absorb them is to create a sense of comfort around the new information.) They like to return to what they know. Playing a game means returning to a world the player has built equity in.

Now, Magic seems to throw this caution to the wind. Most years, we go to a brand new world. Why does Magic seem to fly in the face of the conventional wisdom of what works for most other games? The answer is because Magic, at its core, is about something different from most games—exploration.

    Seeing the Worlds

Magic is an ever-changing game. Why is that? Because when you're about exploration, the only way to keep that going is to force players to constantly explore. We do that mechanically by shifting what the key mechanics are. Last year, infect and metalcraft were core to the game. Earlier in this block, the game was about double-faced cards, tribal interactions, and the graveyard. Avacyn Restored has shifted the game again to care about miracles and soulbond.

Panopticon | Art by John Avon

The problem is that shifting mechanics doesn't lend itself well to always being in the same world. Yes, a world can make small shifts, but fundamentally, if you are going to tie the mechanics of the world to the creative and you constantly reinvent the mechanics, you have to be able to start anew.

The reason the world has to shift every year is because the game shifts every year, but the issue is more complex than that. The mechanics don't just make the world, the world also makes the mechanics.

    Around the World in Eighty-Plus Cards

I think the best example to explain this is Zendikar. Zendikar block started because I was interested in exploring what we could do mechanically with land. What happened if we created a block where you cared more about lands than normal. I didn't know what that meant other than I felt that mechanics revolving around land was a design space we hadn't tapped as deeply as others.

Minamo | Art by Charles Urbach

The design team began by exploring what land could do. That eventually led us to landfall, which led us to bringing back kicker. At that point, I went to the creative team and said, "Here's where my team is mechanically. This is what we want to do. What kind of a world does this make sense in?"

This, in turn, led the creative team to come up with the idea of an adventure world, a place where the world was so wild that it attracted Planeswalkers from across the Multiverse to try and extract the treasure from within it. This sense of an adventure world helped define the plane for design and it led us to create traps, allies, and quests. The definition of the world led us to discovering new mechanics.

    Enchanting Worlds

I talked about the design of Planechase when the first set came out, but let me retrace that story a little as it applies to what I'm talking about. The initial idea behind Planechase was recreating something we called Enchant World tournaments, where in the middle of game play the environment of the whole tournament would change by adding enchantment-like effects to all the matches.

Vela the Night-Clad | Art by Allen Williams

This concept was borrowed, and named, after a mechanic that first showed up in the Legends expansion way back in 1994, the second year of Magic's existence. The idea behind enchant worlds—now called World Enchantments—was that occasionally during a magical duel, the location of the duel would change. As the Planeswalkers were pulled to a new plane, it would have a mechanical impact on the game.

That general sense is a pretty resonant idea. Part of the allure of being able to walk between the planes is that each brings along with it new and different things to affect the magical duel. A new world doesn't just have new creatures and artifacts, it has new kinds of magic. A Planeswalker is encouraged to travel the Multiverse because doing so allows him or her to learn how to do things he or she could never do before.

    Apparently You Can Go Home Again

If we have to go to a new world each year, how is it we revisited Mirrodin last year and Ravnica this fall? The answer is that Magic shares some desires with traditional games in that we do want to build some equity in our worlds. The way we've chosen to accomplish this is to use each year as a testing ground for the new worlds. When players like a world, we can add it to our arsenal of worlds we can deploy to make future blocks.

Time Distortion | Art by RK Post

The trick is trying to create a balance between the novelty of new worlds and the familiarity of old ones. The entire Planechase product line is actually taking advantage of the concept of the Multiverse. The planes get to both show off where we've been and provide a chance to hint at where we might go.

It's also the best product we have to really get a sense of what it means to be a Planeswalker. Normal expert expansions help define the individual worlds but they do little to show the contrast between the worlds. Planechase, though, hammers this point home through the very conceit of the game's main mechanic (hopping from plane to plane).

    "De Plane, De Plane"

My main point of today's column is to try and get you all to take a step back and understand why Magic has a Multiverse and why we make the choice to change the plane we visit every year. In fact, when you take a broad look at the game you'll realize that the ability to move between planes is at the very core of what makes a Planeswalker—it's the sole defining quality of what makes someone a Planeswalker.

Krond the Dawn-Clad | Art by Zoltan Boros

I'm very proud of all the work we do each year, but one of the things that makes me proudest is the fact that year in and year out, we're able to keep producing such interesting worlds from their flavor all the way down to their mechanics. As you look through Planechase 2012, I hope you can get a glimpse of all that hard work.

    The "I"s in Team

Before I wrap it up for today, I wanted to take two moments. First to introduce you to the design team behind the set, and then to the set itself (well, at least a couple of cards). Without further ado, here's who's behind Planechase 2012:

Mark Globus (lead)

The current roster of Magic designers includes Ken Nagle, Ethan Fleischer, and Shawn Main—all three from one of the two Great Designer Searches. But that's not the only Great Designer Search alum leading designs. Alexis Janson led the design for next year's Sinkerset (the codename for the last Return to Ravnica set). Finally, Planechase 2012 is Mark Globus's second design lead (his first was Magic 2012).

By day, Mark is the Senior Producer for Magic Ramp;D, which means he oversees all the structure (basically schedules, processes, and personnel) that allows Ramp;D to make Magic. Most of my meetings with Mark involve talking about deadlines and resources, but Mark moonlights as a pretty awesome Magic designer. I've always enjoyed having him on my design teams, and it's been fun to watch him start to run his own.

The challenge of Planechase 2012 was following up on the success of Planechase. Mark and his team had to deliver something that followed up the first set, yet still had elements to make it its own thing. As you will see this week, Mark and his team succeeded.

Kelly Digges

For a long time, Kelly was the editor-in-chief on I interacted with him frequently, but it was always about my column or strategies about what to preview or which theme week to run next. In Hollywood, there's a running joke that what every person in the town really wants to do is direct. Well, what Kelly really wanted to do was make Magic cards.

He used his skill set to create a very unique position in Ramp;D—one that is half editor and half developer. If you keep your eye out for Kelly's name, you'll see it popping up on a lot of supplemental products (Duel Decks and such). But part of being in Ramp;D is also participating in design and development teams.

Kelly was on the design teams for Worldwake and Archenemy and gladly jumped back into the fray to create the sequel to Planechase. Kelly has a great casual player sensibility, so he's a wonderful addition to products with a more casual appeal. I think you'll see he was put to good use on Planechase 2012.

Dave Guskin

Continuing our theme of people finding their way to Ramp;D from other sections of the company, we come to Dave Guskin. Dave started out as a programmer for online media. Dave, for example, had his hands on many of the elements of

Nowadays, Dave is a member of the Magic Ramp;D digital team that's responsible for overseeing the many Magic products made for the digital medium. Dave is kept very busy but always finds time for a design or development team or two.

Dave is a great addition to any team because he is as thorough a person as I've ever met. You give him an assignment and he will research it . He always comes prepared. Dave tackles every problem with the same enthusiasm and always gets the job done. It was no surprise that Planechase 2012 thrived with his involvement.

Ryan Miller

Here's a little secret we don't talk about much. Wizards of the Coast produces games other than Magic. (Sh, don't tell anyone.) While most people have heard of our other "little game," Dungeons amp; Dragons, fewer have heard of a game we made called Duel Masters. You see, many years ago, we wanted to get our hands on the next popular trading card game for kids to come out of Japan, so we made our own (I was on the design team, along with Mike Elliott, Charlie Catino, Tyler Bielman, and Andrew Finch).

Duel Masters has recently gone through a transition, creating an American version of the game called Kaijudo. I bring this up because Ryan's day job is being the head designer for Duel Masters and Kaijudo. (And yes, that's the equivalent of what I do for Magic.)

Ryan is a great designer (although interestingly, not a Great Designer) who brings a completely different sensibility to Magic design. Double-faced cards, for instance, were first done in Duel Masters and then adapted by Magic. Having someone who designs trading card games but not Magic brings a different vibe to a Magic design team. Ryan's presence was strongly felt in Planechase 2012.

    Preview to a Thrill

All that's left now is to show a little preview. As Planechase has two different sizes of cards, I thought I'd show you one of each.

Let's start by introducing you to a plane card. This one from a plane most of you are already familiar with—Ravnica. World, I'm proud for you to meet Selesnya Loft Garden.

Selesnya Loft Garden | Art by Martina Pilcerova

Many of you might recognize this mechanic. It's a card I claimed was quite fun (here and here) and also picked as the best design of Ravnica block (here). Yes, this plane is Doubling Season, set, of course, on the very plane the card came from in the first place. What can you do with a Doubling Season plane? As Doubling Season proved, a lot of things.

Here's an idea of what you might be able to do with it in Planechase 2012:

For starters, yes, Planechase 2012 has some new cards with old mechanics—devour, in this case. (Go read Mark Gottlieb's feature article for more about what's in Planechase 2012.) Next, let me explain what many of you are asking right now: "How exactly does this card work?"

Thromok the Insatiable | Art by Terese Nielsen

Let me walk you through what happens. As Thromok the Insatiable enters the battlefield, you will have the opportunity to sacrifice any number of creatures you control. If you sacrifice one creature, you will put one +1/+1 counter on Thromok. If you sacrifice two creatures, you'll get four +1/+1 counters. Three creatures gets you nine and four gets you sixteen. Whatever number you choose, you will get that number squared in +1/+1 counters.

It's when you play Thromok in Selesnya Loft Garden that things start to get crazy. Instead of "X squared," you will now get "X squared times two." Add in some token makers to provide fodder for Thromok and the numbers start getting absolutely insane.

There're many more fun things in store in Planechase 2012, so stay tuned for previews all this week on

Next week, there won't be a new "Making Magic" column as we Yanks are celebrating a holiday called Memorial Day. Join me a week later when...

Until then, may you get some traveling in.

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