#965: DMU Vision Design with Ethan Fleischer
In this podcast, I sit down with Ethan Fleischer, the lead vision designer of Dominaria United, to talk about the set's vision design.
Posted in Making Magic on September 12, 2022
Welcome to previews for Magic: The Gathering's Universes Beyond Warhammer 40,000 Commander decks. Ethan Fleischer was the lead designer for the four Magic x Warhammer 40,000 Commander decks, and his article telling the design story of the product will be available to readers next Monday, September 19, so I've decided to take a step back and talk about the larger issues of designing for a Universes Beyond product. I'll be using Magic x Warhammer 40,000 for many of my examples, and I will touch on some of the issues that Ethan will be going more in depth on. Also, I have a cool Magic x Warhammer 40,000 preview card to show off.
Universes Beyond takes Magic to other intellectual properties (IPs). This creates several huge advantages but also a list of challenges. I want to use my article today to talk about these.
I'll start with the advantages:
Advantage #1 – It introduces Magic to a new audience.
If you ask me to name what Magic's biggest hurdle to overcome is as a game, I'd say it is its high barrier to entry. For me, Magic is the best game in the world, but it comes with a lot of complexity. Learning to play can be quite intimidating. The game has over 20,000 pieces. The comprehensive rulebook is many inches thick. The metagame is constantly changing. And there's a huge number of ways to play. It's a lot. This means the key to drawing people into the game is finding something that excites them enough to overcome the initial hesitation. A great way to do this is with an IP they love. One of the reasons, for example, we're excited to have the Magic x Warhammer 40,000 Commander decks is that there are a lot of Warhammer 40,000 fans that might also enjoy Magic. (And, likewise, there might be a lot of Magic fans who would enjoy Warhammer 40,000.)
Advantage #2 – Top-down designs can lead to new design discoveries.
I often talk about how we try to start each Magic design from a new vantage point. The key to being creative is finding new ways to approach design, so we end up with cards, mechanics, and themes we've never made before. New IPs are a great way to do this. It gives the designer a clear target to hit, and finding out how to adapt to Magic mechanics will often lead to brand-new designs. For example, Ethan and his design team made a brand-new mechanic called squad (in the Imperium deck) that I could see us using in the future. (For those unaware, squad is a creature mechanic that lets you pay an additional amount of mana, any number of times, to make token copies of the creature.)
Advantage #3 – It gives us access to a lot of resonance.
As I often talk about in this column, resonance is an important resource for Magic design (any game design, really). If you want players to emotionally bond with your game, you want to be making components that speak to them. One of the easiest ways to do this is to tap into things they already care about. Obviously, fans of the IP will bond with that IP, but even players unfamiliar with the IP will recognize a lot of tropes used in that IP. This tends to make Universes Beyond sets very rich in resonance.
Advantage #4 – It pushes Magic's boundaries.
One of the truisms I've found working on Magic for such a long time is that the game is capable of so much more than you realize. Part of what makes the game special is that it keeps evolving and changing, always pushing toward new boundaries, redefining what the game can be. Universes Beyond pushes the game in a new type of direction, one which I think will bring a lot of joy to a lot of players.
Now that I've talked about the advantages, let's talk about the design challenges of doing a Universes Beyond product.
Challenge #1 – Colors don't always balance.
To me, the color pie is the core of Magic. It's the thing from which both the mechanics and the creative elements of the game emerge. There's no topic I've spent more time writing or talking about. (And here's an article listing all those times.) I also have a speech about the color pie that I've given many times internally, often to partners who are working with Magic for the first time. The speech is called "The Secret Sauce of Magic." I've written many times about the Golden Trifecta, the three genius ideas I believe Richard Garfield had when he created Magic, one of which is the color pie (the other two being the trading card game genre and the mana system). I can't stress how important I feel it is to the game.
We even have a whole group, the Council of Colors, dedicated to making sure we're managing it correctly. Suffice to say, any Magic set that doesn't place the color pie central to what it's doing is making a mistake.
This becomes a big challenge when working with other IPs. Why? Well, because the color pie is so important to the game, we design the Magic IP around it. There are an equal number of white, blue, black, red, and green cards in every set because we build planes to make that possible. Other IPs aren't designed with that being a consideration, so when you take another IP and put each card into its appropriate color, you'll often find an inherent color imbalance. For example, the nature of Warhammer 40,000 makes it so that more concepts want to be in black and less want to be in green. Their priorities are just different because their number-one goal is making the best Warhammer 40,000 game possible. This does mean, though, that when adapting another IP to Magic, there can be some challenges. The Magic x Warhammer 40,000 Commander decks, for instance, do hit all five colors, but they're not equally represented. Blue and black are in three decks, red is in two decks, and white and green are only in a single deck. Unless you get very lucky, other IPs are just not going to be color balanced.
This happens some even within Magic! Innistrad is a plane that leans more toward black, for example. But because it's something we're building, we can adjust as we make the set. Sure, we might want Werewolves to be black and/or green in a vacuum, but we can find reasons why they'll be red and/or green instead. We can even bake things into the plane such that that choice seems like the only choice. Because we shape the Magic IP, we can adjust it to our needs. We don't have that freedom with other IPs.
However, we can be careful with what we pick to put into the Universes Beyond game. Warhammer 40,000, for example, had less green overall, but it's a giant IP with a huge amount of material to work with, so we were able to choose which aspects to include in the product, and green got plenty of representation.
I should stress that we don't have total control when working with a partner because they have their own priorities to which we must be sensitive. Our partner is the expert of their IP, and they have the best sense of what makes the IP tick and what fans of the IP would want to see. (More of this below in challenge eight.)
Challenge #2 – The other IP's concepts don't always line up with Magic's color pie.
This is a related issue to the last one. Most of the time, Magic designs its IP so it clearly maps to the colors. If we want a creature to be red, we can make sure that it doesn't have qualities that feel more appropriate in another color. With another IP, though, we don't have that luxury. The qualities of a character or creature in another IP might mix and match things Magic specifically keeps apart from one another. When that happens, we have some tools. We can use multicolor cards or off-color activations to give the card the feel of more than one color, but those tools don't always work. For instance, the Magic x Warhammer 40,000 Tyranid deck is green-blue-red. If a certain quality fits best in black-green, the deck doesn't have access to that color pairing.
A similar problem can be figuring out what colors exactly a character is supposed to be. A well-written character can exhibit a lot of different qualities, and that can make distilling them into just one or two colors difficult. Yes, we do get some that are three or more colors, but that's the minority, because we want the popular characters to work in as many decks as possible and fit in whatever product we're making. This can result in a lot of tough calls when choosing colors for existing characters and ends with decisions that won't always result in a choice everyone agrees on. On my blog, players ask me to identify what colors various characters from other IPs are, and it's obvious that there's often more than one possible answer.
A third problem can occur when a concept clearly aligns with a certain color but doesn't line up with the colors of the things it connects to in the IP. For example, a character might fit one combination of colors, while a character or object connected to them might fit in different colors. When we're making Commander decks locked to certain colors, that can cause issues where things that go together in the IP can't easily go together in the same deck.
Challenge #3 – The right mix of creatures doesn't always exist.
A related problem to the color problem is what we call the "creature grid problem." Whenever we're making a new Magic plane, the Creative team fills out a chart, called the creature grid, that covers all the colors from small to large. Every Magic set is going to need each color in each size, so when building Magic planes, that's baked into the creative process. As with color, that's just not a priority necessarily for other IPs, so it's not always something they do. In fact, for a lot of IPs, having a lot of creatures at all isn't something they're concerned with. Many IPs are focused on a handful of humans, so having enough creatures to fill out a product can be a challenge. Luckily, with Warhammer 40,000, we didn't have this problem. Because it's a game and has a need for a wide variety of creatures to suit its own purposes, it's a great fit for Magic.
Challenge #4 – It's missing a mechanical necessity.
Magic, as a game, has certain elements that must exist in every set. I've talked numerous times about the design skeleton we use to make sure that those components have a place in each file. Not every IP has those elements. The best example of this problem is evasion. Magic is very creature based. Without any help, the game will end up in a creature stall where neither player can attack the other. To deal with this issue, every set has evasion so that creatures can break through any creature stall. The most used form of evasion is flying.
Well, some IP's don't have a lot of flying creatures in it. For an upcoming release where this is true, it is a challenge to design a set with enough flying creatures. Yes, there are other kinds of evasion to lean on, but it's symptomatic of the kind of challenge that other IPs can present.
An offshoot of this issue is not having anything from the IP that can be used to represent a particular effect on a card. For instance, Giant Growth represents a creature growing in size. Not every IP has that idea built into it, so it can cause problems when trying to concept a Giant Growth card. These problems can usually be solved creatively (maybe Giant Growth represents a burst of strength rather than physically changing size), but it adds another creative challenge to making the set.
Here's an example of an issue from Magic x Warhammer 40,000. The Warhammer 40,000 game is a war game, meaning that each side starts the game with their army of combatants (represented by miniatures). Over time, as the conflict wages on, players lose resources. It's what's known in game design as a game of attrition. You start with all your resources and then lose access to them over time.
Magic, by contrast, is a game in which you gain resources over time. This means it wants lots of concepts of acquiring things. Warhammer 40,000 has some of that, but not being core to the game's needs, it doesn't have as much as Magic would ideally like it to have.
Challenge #5 – Magic can't represent a core concept of the IP.
This problem is a reversal of the last one. Sometimes another IP has a core component that just doesn't make sense as a Magic card. For example, let's say we were going to do a full My Little Pony set (as opposed to the three-card charity set we did a few years back). The core of the My Little Pony IP is friendship, and while friendship is magic, it's not as easy to be Magic. It's a quirky concept to capture in a game based on conflict. Magic has a decent amount of expression, but it's still limited to seven card types and has to make sense in a game where you attack one another. When dealing with other IPs, it's often possible to hit ideas that don't easily express themselves in the way Magic makes cards.
Challenge #6 – Cards get "locked in" earlier.
The key to making a Magic set is creating a card file that changes over time as the designers iterate it. As time goes on, cards start to get what we call "locked in"—that is, something that can't change. A little of this happens in every set. A card represents a major character or object from the story, and the designers are beholden to making sure it matches.
Universes Beyond ratchets this issue way up. A big part of capturing another IP, is making sure you have as many cards as possible that capture key components of that IP. That means a lot more cards get locked in earlier, which greatly decreases the designers' ability to shift as the design evolves.
There's an upside to this, though, in that it's a lot simpler to commit to art earlier because you know what must get represented on the cards, but it comes at a big cost to a design's flexibility to adapt later in set design.
Challenge #7 – Reprinting cards gets trickier.
As Eternal formats like Commander grow in popularity, there's more and more desire to include reprints in products. Universes Beyond adds an extra layer to what can be reprinted because the name must make sense in that IP. We can recontextualize what the words represent, and that can often result in fun reprints, but there are certain cards, especially ones with specific references to the Magic IP, that are difficult to use. This is also true in normal Magic sets (plane-specific references are tricky on other planes), but not at the volume that it's true in Universes Beyond. A good example of this from Warhammer 40,000 was that Ethan and the design team could only find one creature to reprint.
Challenge #8 – Additional concerns need to be addressed.
When interacting with other IPs in Universes Beyond, we have to address both the concerns of Magic and the concerns of the other IP. It's important when handling someone else's IP that we're sensitive to the issues of that IP. We want to be good partners and want that IP to feel as natural to its source as it can. This results in an additional list of concerns the set has to address. This creates more constraints than a normal set, which can often create a new set of problems to solve, but as I like to say, restrictions breed creativity. I also think these constraints help the set feel uniquely its own.
Before I wrap up for today, I have one last thing to do. I have a Magic x Warhammer 40,000 card to preview. This card is from the Tyranid deck.
I hope today has helped illuminate how we in R&D think about Universes Beyond from a design standpoint. There are a lot of cool Universes Beyond products being worked on, many of which we haven't announced yet, so I'm excited for you all to get a chance to see them. As always, I'm eager for any feedback, be it on today's column, on Magic x Warhammer 40,000, or on Universes Beyond in general. You can email me or contact me through my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok) with feedback.
Join me next week when I finally get to talk about the design of Unfinity and previews begin.
Until then, may you have fun exploring the world of Warhammer 40,000.
In this podcast, I sit down with Ethan Fleischer, the lead vision designer of Dominaria United, to talk about the set's vision design.
This is part one of a two-part series talking about the history of blocks.