Multi… Multi… Multicolor!
Flash forward three years. It is December of 2003. I have just been promoted to Head Magic Designer. (By the way, I've gotten quite a bit of mail noting that I barely ever mention my title in my column – but don't worry, I did a quick poll of my columns this year and the words “Head Designer” are actually ahead of “Roseanne”, “restrictions breed creativity”, “Elegance” and “I designed that”; it is still losing badly though to “I”, “me” and references to myself in the third person.) While I was going to oversee the designs of Betrayers of Kamigawa and Saviors of Kamigawa the teams had already been selected by Bill. Control (Ravnica's codename, from Control-Alt-Delete) would be the first design team where I had final say on the team's composition.
I knew Control was going to be a challenge. It would be the first time we repeated a block theme (and yes, I know we have blocks that repeated themes of old individual sets). And not just any theme. The one that our market research showed was the most popular block of all time. On top of that, I felt it was imperative as it was our first repeat block theme that we go out of our way to not be like Invasion. So we had to do everything I just listed while not doing all the obvious things that Invasion did. A challenge like this required a top-notch team. So I got myself one:
Mark Rosewater (Lead) – When Mark talked above about referring to himself in the third person, did you say "Hey, Mark doesn't do that"? Well it appears Mark does on occasion. Anyway, Mark chose Mark… I can't take it anymore. Must… talk… in first person. Need to… rack up more I's. So why did I choose myself to run the team? Because I knew I'd have to be looking over the shoulder of whoever led the design and it seemed easier for my first time out to look over my own shoulder (wait, is that even physically possible?) Plus this was a design with more restrictions than I'd ever seen on any previous set. I was drawn like a moth to a complex block design.
Next I had to compile my team. I knew that this was the wrong set to try out new designers on. I needed veterans that had worked on previous design teams I had run.
Mike Elliott – Mike and I first worked together on Tempest. We were two thirds of the team behind Invasion. And Mike was by my side during Mirrodin design. I knew what he was capable of – producing an insane number of cards. Give Mike an idea and he'll break down every extrapolation of that idea. Every set needs a few powerhouse designers and Mike would be that for Control.
Aaron Forsythe – Aaron's first design team was Fifth Dawn (which I lead). I was very impressed not just with the volume of his work but by the subtlety of his design. I saw from that first set that Aaron was going to become a major player in Magic design. When I put my team together for Control, Aaron was at the top of my list.
Tyler Bielman – Tyler had been on the Mirrodin design team and I was always impressed how much flavor he worked into his designs. I knew flavor was going to be vital for Control and liked the idea of having a designer that would approach the cards from that vantage point.
Richard Garfield – Every couple years Richard comes to me and says that he's interested in working with me on a Magic design team. I always, of course, put him on the very next team I run. (Richard and I had previously worked together on Tempest, Odyssey, and Judgment.)
The raw design skills of the team I just listed is as potent as it gets. If this team couldn't solve the problem then there just wasn't an answer.
The Same But Different
We started by trying to figure out what exactly Invasion was. What was the set about? Because if we didn't understand what Invasion was there would be no chance of Control being what Invasion wasn't. So what was Invasion? Here were some of our observations:
- Invasion pushed the players to play as many colors as they could. With all the mana and color fixing, Invasion allowed players to correctly play four and five-color decks.
- Invasion cared about color. This meant that not only were there more cards that cared about color but there were a higher percentage of cards that used color (that is why things like protection show up a lot).
- While Invasion block addressed all the two-color combinations, it kept the hierarchy between ally and enemy colors. Even with Apocalypse being fully dedicated to enemy color cards, the allied cards still outnumbered the enemy color combinations three to one in the block.
The next step seemed obvious. Take the things that defined Invasion and flip them on their head. If Invasion was about five color decks, then Control would be about finding some way to make players play color combinations in smaller numbers. Invasion cared about color. Control wouldn't. (Well, almost wouldn't). Most importantly, if Invasion treated the color combination unequally then Control would treat all ten pairs the same.
When we first met with the Creative Team (I encouraged joint meetings between the two teams) during the first week of design, we stressed that the world was going to be a world with no distinction between ally and enemy. All color combinations would show up both in quantity and quality in equal numbers. In addition, Control was going to focus on making players play two particular colors. Invasion pushed towards five. Control would push towards two.
Half a Mind
Before we can move forward with our story we first have to move backwards. Before I was ever on the team, I started thinking about how to make Control different from Invasion. The challenge of the whole thing intrigued me. As a thought experiment, I took a step back and decided to look at multicolor cards anew. What exactly are they? What counts as multi-color? Dual lands, for example, feel multi-color enabling yet aren't technically multicolor. Still, the way the lands present the two colors is very intriguing. Let me explain.
The two most basic effects for multicolor cards are the following:
Combination – These are cards that have two or more different effects, at least one from each color, that combine to do something neither color can do by itself. Recoil from Invasion is a perfect example of this. Neither black nor blue is able to destroy a particular permanent yet mix together discard and bounce and all of a sudden it possibly can.
Overlap – These are cards that do something both colors do but at a discount for having to play both colors of mana. Heroes' Reunion from Invasion is a good example of this category.
The reason this distinction is important is because it stresses an interesting point. Multicolor is not just about “and”. It can also be about “or”. Magic has shown time and time again that there is great power in flexibility. With this idea in mind, a simple idea hit me. What if we made multicolor cards that didn't cost two colors of mana. Rather it would accept two colors of mana, either of which could be used to play the spell. The more I thought about the idea the more excited I became. I had just created a multicolor card that was unlike any other multicolor card. It didn't even need to be played in a deck with both colors.
At this point some of you are going – huh? – so why don't I take the opportunity to show you what I'm talking about.
That new mana symbol on the card means that each colored mana must be paid by using either green or white. (I dubbed them Half and Half cards. The name would later change to Hybrid.)
The hybrid mechanic was very intriguing to me for several reasons. First, it tackled multi-color in a way that had never been done before. Yet the idea itself was so simple that it seemed odd that we hadn't done it yet. Second, it pushed towards two-color play in a very cool way. The natural state of the game pushes players towards mono-color play as it ensures the most consistent mana base. But the hybrid cards solved that problem. A card that is a green or white hybrid isn't hurt by being in a green and white deck. It's as if it was a mono-color card in a mono-color deck. Except that by having two colors you have access to the abilities in both colors. This point is kind of subtle but it is crucial to the value of hybrid cards. And third, as you will see in a moment, it helped solved a natural problem in multi-color sealed play.
In the end, hybrid proved to be a very different way of thinking about multicolor. Exactly what Control was begging for.
When we first came up with the idea of creating a set with an equal number of each of the ten color combinations, we made a list of multicolor cards, some old and some new. The building experience alone showed us the error of our ways. With a substantial mix of multicolor cards (and how does the multicolor block not have a substantial mix) it was impossible to build a two-color deck. And very, very hard to build a three-color deck.
The easiest way to think of this is to imagine the pure multicolor mix where one tenth of the cards are each color combination. Let's say you get seventy-five cards in your limited mix of cards (a normal allotment). That means you have 7.5 cards from each combination. Even if you play three colors, you still only have 22.5 cards. Just barely enough to play a forty-card deck; and you'd have to play every card you got regardless of its power level. Obviously in a real mix you'd have some mono-colored cards to help spread out deck options, but the overall issue of card choice was problematic.
That's when I remembered my Half and Half (aka Hybrid) idea. Hybrid cards, while being multicolor, actually help give colors more options for their decks. A green/white hybrid card can actually go into seven of the ten possible two-color combinations! So we added in the ten hybrid variations and played again. Now R&D is made up of players that are, in general, very good Magic players. Many of us, for instance, come from the Pro Tour and a number of us have even won a Pro Tour (note that by “us” I mean “them”). And this playtest baffled us when we tried to sort our card pools into something that allowed us to see which cards we had in which color combinations. As Henry Stern put it, “There are twenty-five piles. Twenty-five! Just the concept is painful.”
Creative To The Rescue
As all of the above was happening, Brady Dommermuth (one of the guys from the Creative Team) came back with an intriguing idea. What if we represented each of the color combinations with its own identity? We knew from past market research that players liked the color wheel. What if Control had ten colors instead of five? Brady referred to this idea as the guild model.
As soon as I heard the idea from Brady I knew that this was the direction the set was going to take. I felt that the color interactions were interesting enough to wrap the block's creative around. The key though was going to be finding ways to imbue each guild into its cards.
And if that wasn't enough of a challenge, our playtests had demonstrated time and time again that twenty-five piles (10 for two-color cards, 10 for hybrids, and 1 for each color on its own) was just too much. Traditional multicolor and hybrid were causing too much confusion between them. One of them had to go. And being that this was the multicolor set, the decision was pretty easy. Bye bye Hybrid. Worst of all, these events happened in the middle of design. We had spent a good amount of time fleshing out the hybrid cards. Tossing them out with only half the time remaining for design meant we were in many ways starting over in a very compromised position.
But the team really liked the guild model. The problem was we just didn't know what to do with it. And time was quickly running out. How could we salvage the set?
TO BE CONTINUED
Well, I'll have to tell you next week. Hey, I did warn you up front this was going to happen.
Join me next week when I continue the tale of Ravnica's design challenges (hint: it turns out really well).
Until then, may you know the joy of flexibility.