Conspiring a Conspiracy

Posted in Making Magic on May 20, 2014

By Shawn Main

Shawn Main is a designer for Magic: The Gathering. He joined Wizards of the Coast from the Great Designer Search 2 after years of directing theater, training medical students, and playing multiplayer Magic.

Conspiracy is a multiplayer draft format all about subtlety, diplomacy, backstabbing, nuance, and betrayal. Well, mostly. Multiplayer can be about a lot of things. Sometimes, it's just about having the biggest hammer and smashing faces. It's just like the old saying goes: "The best defense is an anarchist dragon throwing open the gates to the smiling courtiers and leading a rabble army to inevitable regicide, upheaval, and revolution."

Meet Scourge of the Throne.

Conspiracy is a little different from anything we've ever done before. It's a booster release, but it's intended for free-for-all games, ideally of four players each. It's best when drafted, full of cards that shape that experience in completely new ways. And it's all set in Dack Fayden's home world of Fiora in the High City of Paliano.

But maybe I'm getting ahead of myself. Let me back up and tell you how we came to such a unique format.

Origin Story

In fact, let's go all the way back. Back before I came to Wizards. Back before the Great Designer Search 2 brought me here. Back to when that first kernel of an idea was planted.

I'm fourteen, living in Egypt (my father was the head of biology at the American University in Cairo). My friends and I play Magic, but cards can be hard to come by, so often we each pick a color and build decks on the spot from Andy's sizable collection to battle in a five-player Star game. Games are intense and political. There's furious negotiation because someone has Pestilence and how are we NOT ALL JUST GOING TO DIE? And I fall in love with multiplayer and Limited.

Fast forward a few years, I'm back in the USA, college has come and gone (Hampshire, theatre major), and I find myself with a group of friends who are all interested in Magic, but who are of wildly differing skill levels and for whom games are mostly an excuse to hang out. So I build a multiplayer Cube, later layering in Planechase. Games are goofy and fun. Someone casts Eye of the Storm and we all lean in to figure out what chaos is erupting around us. And, through iteration, I learn and refine my ability to make a good Limited multiplayer format.

Eye of the Storm

Fast forward a few more years. Great Designer Search 2 lands me an internship with Wizards of the Coast and I'm sharing my multiplayer Cube with new friends. I invite Aaron Forsythe and Mark Globus to a game and ask, "Is there a product here?" They tell me it's fun and there happens to be an open slot in the summer of 2014, but is there a form where this would be printable?

So I take my learnings and, instead of typical Cube booster packs, make a multiplayer set with commons and uncommons in addition to crazy rares and mythic rares. I throw in a couple quirky new ideas to try out, like an object that states, "You are the first player." We play again. They nod. A formal proposal gets carried up the chain. Then. suddenly. my project is given a code name ("Hydra") and a team. And like that I'm off, leading my first design team on a project that's intensely personal.

Where to Begin

Mark Rosewater likes introducing design teams, but I'm going to do it again briefly so I can set the stage for things to come:

  • Ken Nagle. Ken's role was to be an experienced designer I could turn to. Plus, he led the design on the original Commander and Archenemy and is generally the world's biggest Commander fan.
  • Dan Helland, husband of Jenna Helland, admin, and my choice when I was asked who I wanted from outside R&D, since he has experience with his own multiplayer Limited format, Big Box.
  • Dave Humpherys. We always have a developer on each design team, but Dave likes to take that role himself when he'll be leading the development.
  • Matt Tabak, resident rules manager. He joined us a few weeks in, really pushing us to explore the drafting-matters aspect of the set.

Normally, the first step is the hardest, but I got to walk into our first design meeting carrying a rough first draft of the set for everyone to play. I could say, "We're going to build something a little bit like this."

Which isn't to say I wasn't nervous, especially about Dave's reaction. The others at least were multiplayer fans, but I didn't know what Dave was going to think. We got to the end of our first game and he said, "That was more fun than I expected." And I breathed a huge sigh of relief.

From there, I laid out some principles about where I wanted to aim our design.

Guiding Multiplayer Principles

  1. Cards should encourage attacking to keep the game moving
  2. Cards should create moments for the whole table (for example, Warp World)
  3. Multiplayer needs mana sinks—games will go long and we want to keep players involved

There were a few other thoughts, but they were mostly practicalities to keep in mind (spot removal is card disadvantage; lifegain/defense is more powerful, but boring).

From there, we set about experimenting with mechanics.

Scourge of the Throne | Art by Michael Komarck


Want to see Scourge of the Throne's great granddaddy?

Echoing Snarler
Creature – Cat Beast
Whenever CARDNAME attacks the player with the most life, put a 4/4 colorless Cat Beast creature token on the battlefield tapped and attacking that player. You may then remove CARDNAME from combat.

This was Dan Helland's card from an initial request that my team bombard me with ideas, and it had a gem inside it: "Whenever this attacks the player with the most life...."

I loved it immediately, since it was doing a bunch of amazing things:

  • It encouraged moving the game along by requiring creatures to attack to get their bonus (#1 on our Guiding Multiplayer Principles list).
  • It encouraged going after the person who might be in the best position, or at least the most defensive position. (Scroll Thief encourages attacking, but often encourages picking on the person in the worst position.)
  • It offered a path that cut through complex choices. Multiplayer naturally gives every player more options because the questions of combat are multiplied by the number of opponents. This mechanic offered you a nudge: "Hey, maybe you should think about that person over there with all that life?"
  • It felt natural. There's a constant need to check life totals and many players, ready to go on the offensive, will naturally turn their creatures at the person with the most life.
  • It gave red, historically the dog in multiplayer, something to do (later, we would try to put it secondarily into black and, when that failed, put it into blue).

So, we had our first mechanic! A mechanic for revolutionaries, anarchists, and those who would exploit the powerful.

But there was a problem—we didn't know what our new mechanic (then dubbed kingkiller) should actually do. We wanted to reward you for attacking the player with the most life, but we didn't know what that reward was supposed to be. We spent a long time on this problem—trying unique bonuses on every card (as with Echoing Snarler), a flat +2/+2 for attacking the king, and big rewards if you successfully damaged that opponent, but none of them stuck.

The problem was that, when kingkiller was working, you'd attack the person with the most life turn after turn, and eventually you'd be the one with the most life. And at that point, your creatures would suddenly be bad at attacking and bad at blocking. We considered giving the reward only for attacking the opponent with the most life (you would never be the king), but that made the game too difficult to track, since there wasn't one definitive monarch to take down.

Dave Humpherys came upon the solution very late in design to give +1/+1 counters. It was one of those solutions that felt so natural it seemed obvious in retrospect. Offer the nudge to attack the player in the lead, but give a long-term advantage for doing so. Now, if your revolutionaries, having toppled a monarch, suddenly find themselves on the side of the new king, they might be strong enough to keep that lead.

Rock the Vote

Want to guess who made will of the council? (Note: This is a trick question.) Give up? It was Mark Rosewater. Well, kinda. It was Mark Gottlieb via Rosewater via an early incarnation of the first Commander product via the never-printed Unglued 2.

Let me unravel this.

Unglued 2 (not Unhinged) was a product that was designed but never printed. One of its mechanics was voting. "Bedlam" was the codename for the product that went on to become the original Commander. Bedlam began its life with a focus similar to Conspiracy: it was going to be a multiplayer booster release. Mark Gottlieb, during Bedlam design, looked back at Unglued 2 and made a card where everyone votes on a permanent to exile. When Conspiracy began design, I looked back at Bedlam's original file and came across the card. It seemed interesting, so I put a few voting cards into Conspiracy.

And damn did it work—playing into the politics of multiplayer without diverging too far from the game-play of Magic. We debated a few forms of voting, but eventually decided it would be face up and each person would vote in turn. This had some functional consequences, but my favorite part was the way the spotlight moved from person to person as they cast their votes and declared their allegiances (#2 on my list of guiding principles).

I loved watching different groups playtest Conspiracy. Some players would carefully calculate and negotiate before ever casting the spell to initiate the vote. But we designed the majority of the cards to always benefit the caster. If you're like me and are more the Scourge of the Throne–type of player, you'll run out your Tyrant's Choice blindly and cackle like a supervillain, "YOU tell ME how I'm going to ruin your day!"

Card Party

We had kingkiller to encourage forward momentum and to direct people's attention. We had voting cards that created great spotlight moments. But there was an important thing we were missing.

Multiplayer games tend to run much longer than duels, so multiplayer formats typically offer players additional options, usually something to do with extra mana. Commander lets you forever cast your commander, Planechase lets you spend mana to roll the planar die for effect, etc. We designed Conspiracy to be more aggressive than those formats (particularly important because we didn't want games to come down to decking), but we needed something to do when games ran a little long. Initially, we layered in reprint mechanics like landcycling and multikicker, but we needed more.

The solution came from the Commander (2013 Edition) team. That team was toying with a mechanic called card party, where everyone revealed the top card of his or her library and you added up the total converted mana cost of cards revealed. It generated a huge variable and then, almost as an afterthought, everyone put the revealed card into his or her hand.

The mechanic got me thinking about ways we could naturally generate extra cards through game play. I was looking for something different, but it turned out the Commander team didn't need card party. That team cut it from a mechanic down to a single card, then cut that card, too. So I moved in.

Conspiracy wouldn't want that wide of a swing, but I liked that the effect scaled with the number of players. So we tried a version where each card revealed either hit or missed. It played well. Overt randomness tends to create good story moments (I'm sure you've heard legends of five bonus turns off of Ral Zarek's ultimate or cried as your Riddle of Lightning scrys three lands to the bottom of your library then reveals a fourth) and letting everyone draw a card plays into Group Hug multiplayer dynamics.

Draft Matters

Remember back at the beginning of the story when I mentioned this card?

You are the first player.

I threw it into an early playtest on a whim—maybe it'll be fun to ask players how much they value that first turn and make it into a minigame instead of rolling dice. (Mark Globus snatched it up, by the way.)

Well, guess what?

Turned out the question was pretty fun. We decided that since this product was intended to be for drafting, maybe we should emphasize that fact and do something unique. I was excited, but initially I thought this was going to be a small part of the set—maybe four cards would care about drafting in some fashion.

Want to see my favorite card in the set? (This is a very designery favorite, by the way.)

The card's playtest name was Jeweled Puppy as a wink at Jeweled Bird. And it did something unexpected and fun as soon as we tried it out.

Jeweled Puppy needed to be face-up so your opponents knew when you were using it. This was purely functional, but, as soon as the first drafter set it on the table, everyone leaned in and started paying attention, to Jeweled Puppy, and then to each other. And when everyone started paying attention to each other, they began to communicate. Not in a problematic way, but in a we're-all-playing-this-game-together kind of way. In a isn't-this-perfect-for-the-inherently-social-experience-of-multiplayer kind of way. Suddenly, instead of holding my cards in front of my face like a shield, I was aware that I was playing a game with other humans. People talked, laughed, and the game felt like a shared experience.

So we decided to run with it.

Matt Tabak encouraged us to up the focus more on the draft-matters content. He'd been pitching an idea for a set of supplemental cards that you add to booster packs as a wrinkle to reinvigorate an old format. (Turns out this is a fun idea—try taking twenty-four cards with the conspiracy seal and adding one to each booster pack as you draft Theros block. It'll be a very new experience!)

Dave Humpherys came up with hidden agenda as cards that don't just care about the act of drafting, but actually change the meaning of your other picks. These were especially fun because they encouraged you collect cards no one else would want. Lizard Warrior might look pretty mediocre on its own, but how would you feel about a 5/3 hasty Lizard Warrior that finds you some buddies? Development ran with this idea and seeded in cards to allow a whole strategy around hidden agendas.


There's one last thing to say about Conspiracy, and that's how it actually got its identity. When we created it, it was codenamed Hydra, and we dealt with it in an overwhelmingly mechanical way. The conspiracy card type was originally named "draft action," which was functional, but didn't paint a world. Kingkiller implied something, so did voting, but card party, while fun to say, definitely didn't imply a setting. We weren't offering creative much direction.

Adam Lee was the concepter and was trying to wrap his head around how to approach the design. He started by suggesting some kind of grand melee/battle royale arena setting. I told him I didn't think that was the right metaphor, but wasn't sure what would be, and invited him to a playtest.

Adam watched a game for less than an hour and left. When I saw him the next day, he launched into the pitch, "Well, obviously, it's all political intrigue. Think of a Renaissance Game of Thrones or Medici and Borgia political scheming in a world with a steampunk edge. Hmmm... maybe this is Dack Fayden's home world and we could build some legends to give faces to the different mechanics and sides in the political struggles."

"Okay," I said. "Yup. That sounds absolutely perfect."

And he was off, constructing a world guide, where the players' intrigues and plotting echoed in the inhabitants of Fiora. Suddenly, our black-and-white words on playtest cards had a colorful home. One that felt so natural, you might have thought Conspiracy was a top-down design.

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