#959: Playtest Cards
In this podcast, I go through the history of playtest cards from Richard's first playtest through modern day.
Posted in Making Magic on August 22, 2022
Last week, I introduced the Vision Design team, told (most of) their story of making Dominaria United, and showed off some cool preview cards. Today, I'm doing the same thing but with stories from set design.
As always, before I tell you the story of Dominaria United's set design, I wanted to let Ian Duke, the co-lead set designer for Dominaria United, introduce himself and his team.
When last we left off, the Dominaria United Vision Design team had carried over a lot of material from Dominaria (Sagas, a higher number of legendary creatures, "legendary matters," a focus on multicolor, lots of throwbacks, and historic), all of which made it into the final product except historic, but there were a number of other things they also included that didn't make it to print:
Creature — Treefolk
Unite 3U – 1 blue Faerie (If this creature isn't a Faerie, put a +1/+1 counter on it and it's also a blue Faerie.)
When you unite CARDNAME, draw a card.
The denizens of Dominaria banding together to stop the invading Phyrexians is a key part of the story, so the Vision Design team found a mechanic to represent the team-up of different creatures. The set wanted a mana sink, and monstrosity has proven to be a popular mechanic that plays well.
Vision Design handed over the set for set design. Erik Lauer was the lead set designer for the first part of Dominaria United. As is normally the case, Erik always starts with the set as it was handed over and begins tweaking. As I explained last week, they removed historic very early in set design because it was going to cause problems with balancing The Brothers' War. You see, if historic was in Dominaria United, we'd have to lock down costs and power level before The Brothers' War had a full handle on its artifact theme. If we're off on cards in Dominaria United (and the nature of play design is that there's some variance in how powerful cards end up in the metagame), that potentially could put The Brothers' War in a bad place, where it couldn't do what it wanted because of preexisting restraints. We don't want a set to be unable to do what it needs to make itself awesome because it would unbalance Standard, so we tend to be extra careful with themes we know upcoming sets are playing in. The Vision Design team put historic in the set to play nicely with The Brothers' War. But it ended up playing a little too nicely.
Erik fiddled with unite, but found that the key new elements of it, changing color and creature type, didn't have enough mechanical relevance to the rest of the set. He considered adding it, but it didn't synergize enough with what else the set was doing, so he pulled it (even though he's a fan of monstrosity, in general). He also pulled sift after further playtesting showed it wasn't carrying its weight. When they removed the common legendary cycle, grandeur went with it. With several things leaving the set, Erik was interested in what he could add. It was at this point that Erik started thinking about what this set was supposed to reflect. Dominaria had done a lot to capture the essence of Alpha, but many other sets took place on Dominaria. Erik was interested to see if this visit to Dominaria could pay homage to a different expansion from the plane's past.
It didn't take long for Erik to find his inspiration. Dominaria United's story is about the plane defending itself from the Phyrexians. This isn't the first time a Dominarian set had this theme. Invasion block was about the Phyrexians invading (it was the end of the Weatherlight Saga). It also had a mechanical theme of playing lots of colors that Erik was interested to explore. This led him to bringing back kicker (which is probably Erik's favorite mechanic as many of his sets use it) and domain, both of which premiered in Invasion. Kicker could provide the mana sink the set needed (now that unite and sift were gone) and help push toward additional colors through off-color kickers. This, by the way, brings us to my two preview cards for today, as they both make use of off-color kicker.
The other addition, domain, which cares about playing lots of different basic lands, would provide the motivation to push toward playing more colors. Domain was created by Barry Reich, the person who played the first-ever game of Magic with Richard Garfield. Barry made a set called Spectral Chaos that never got produced, but parts of it were used in Invasion, domain being the biggest inclusion. Domain wasn't named the first time it appeared, but it got an ability word when it returned in Conflux.
The final named mechanic wasn't added by Erik but later by Ian in set design. Erik had removed unite from the file, but the flavor it represented—Dominarians teaming up to fight Phyrexians—was still in the set. Ian also recognized that nothing in the set was interacting with combat, so he and his team set out to find a mechanic to fill this space.
Just as Erik had been inspired by the nostalgia of an old Dominarian set, Ian got his inspiration from an old Dominarian mechanic, banding. This resulted in the Set Design team making the mechanic enlist (As this creature attacks, you may tap a nonattacking creature you control without summoning sickness. When you do, add its power to this creature's until end of turn.). Banding had appeared in Alpha and mechanically conveyed the idea of creatures working together. It was an evergreen mechanic for many years, but finally got removed due to its complexity. Enlist allows you to add another creature's power to the creature with enlist to capture the feel of cooperation, although in a means significantly simpler than banding. Enlist shows up in white, red, and green.
The Powerstone token I talked about up above stayed in the file for most of set design at a larger volume, but it kept shrinking as the design continued. Finally, Ian went to have a talk with Yoni Skolnik, the lead set designer for The Brothers' War, and the two decided that Dominaria United didn't need a big "throw forward" (R&D's nickname for a mechanical element that's previewed in a set before the set that features it), so it ended up on just two cards (Karn, Living Legacy and a Dominaria United Commander card).
Erik, Ian, and the Set Design team spent a lot of time fine-tuning numerous things that the Vision Design team had handed over:
"Read Ahead" Sagas – Set design liked the structure of Sagas that you could start at any chapter but found that the design space was a lot more limited than they initial thought. The key to making a compelling "read ahead" Saga is choosing effects that are situational, meaning that players will make different choices at different times. This is nowhere as easy as it sounds. Some of the Sagas were also designed to work differently in different archetypes. Vision design had suggested that the "read ahead" Sagas could be mixed with normal Sagas, but the Set Design team was able to find ten designs they liked and ended up just using the "read ahead" version.
Legendary Creatures – The Set Design team ended up pulling the legendary creatures out of common but kept the larger overall theme, including the one-per-pack element that had been in Dominaria. The big addition in set design was the creation of two ten-card cycles of uncommon gold signpost legendary creatures. For each two-color theme, they designed two different creatures that played into that theme in different ways. They also talked with the Commander designers to make sure the rare legendary creatures, especially the three-color ones, were something that would function well as commanders.
"Legendary Matters" – While the theme stayed in the set, it ended up being cut down a bit as they needed space for all the kicker and domain cards.
Throwback Cards – When the Set Design team focused on Invasion as an inspiration, they also chose to focus a lot of the throwback cards on Invasion block, but there are a bunch of other nods to different sets. One of the fun things about returning to Dominaria is the ability to put tons of Easter eggs in the set. One new cycle the Set Design team added was a cycle of monocolor lords (creatures that boost a certain creature type), each caring about a creature type that goes all the way back to Alpha.
Another thing Erik, Ian, and the Set Design team spent a lot of time working on was the mana. While Invasion provided a lot of inspiration for the set, its biggest weakness was its mana fixing. The Set Design team was interested in using modern tools to make sure players had access to the colors they needed. They added two dual land cycles, one at common and one at rare.
Dominarian United was designed in such a way that players can draft anything from a two-color deck to a five-color deck, with the main default being two colors plus a splash. This multicolor theme added some complexity to creating draft archetypes, so Erik and Ian decided that they would focus on strong monocolor themes that would then get mixed and matched as people played various colors. Here are those themes:
White – White is the color with the most creatures, so its main theme involves going wide, that is, playing a lot of small creatures and then attacking with the horde. Part of its go-wide strategy is making use of tokens.
Blue – Blue is the color that has the highest percentages of spells, so its main theme revolves around caring about instants and sorceries, both in that it plays a lot of them and has cards that mechanically care about them being played.
Black – Black is the color of death, so it focuses on three main areas: killing creatures, sacrificing creatures, and interacting with the graveyard.
Red – Red is the color of aggression, so it's most focused on winning through a combination of aggro creatures and direct-damage spells.
Green – Green is the color that most focuses on mana, so it has the tools to ramp and has the most access to domain.
When you combine these five themes, you get the ten two-color archetypes:
White-blue – This is the combination of go-wide with instants and sorceries, so it's focused on generating a lot of tokens, protecting them, and then boosting them. Go wide strategies aren't traditionally done in white-blue, so this is pushing into novel space.
Blue-black – This is the combination of instants and sorceries and death. The end result is a control deck that uses card advantage to slowly eke out a victory.
Black-red – This is the combination of death and aggression. This results in aggressive creature strategy where you're rewarded for having your creatures die.
Red-green – This is the combination of aggression and ramp, so it's a mid-range creature deck that makes use of some domain cards.
Green-white – This is the combination of domain and go wide. This deck splashes extra colors to use domain as a tool to reinforce your attacking army.
White-black – This is go-wide plus death, which means it's a deck about creating a lot of small creatures that you then sacrifice for value. This ends up being a slower controlling deck than most go-wide strategies.
Blue-red – This combines instants and sorceries with aggression. That leads to a tempo-based spell deck.
Black-green – This combines death and ramp. This results in a mid-range deck that makes use of the graveyard.
Red-white – This combines aggression with go-wide that results in a typical aggro creature-based strategy, red-white's bread and butter.
Green-blue – This combines ramp/domain with instants and sorceries. It results in a base green-blue deck that splashes two to three colors and makes use of big domain effects.
The result of all this work is a set that feels like a healthy cross between old and new, exactly what the plane of Dominaria feels like.
I hope you enjoyed my peek at Dominaria United set design. As always, I'm eager for any feedback on today's article or on Dominaria United. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week as I start telling card-by-card stories from Dominaria United.
Until then, may you enjoy your time on Dominaria.
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