#757: Brian Hacker
In this podcast, I talk with Brian Hacker about his time on the Pro Tour and how he and other Magic pros ended up on MTV.
Posted in Making Magic on July 20, 2020
Welcome to the first week of Double Masters previews. I'm going to talk about how the set got designed and show off not one but two preview cards (it is Double Masters after all). Let's get to it.
Back in November of 2018, we announced Ultimate Masters, and in that article, we said the following: "we're shelving the Masters series for the foreseeable future." It's now July of 2020, eighteen months later, and we're previewing a new Masters set. Aren't we a little early for the "foreseeable future"? Don't you guys work years ahead? Did you know that this was being made when you announced Ultimate Masters?
It is. We do (although the length of making an all-reprint product is significantly shorter than one where we're making new cards and need to create and update an accompanying world). We did not. Honestly, we did not. In fact, let me tell you the story of what happened.
Every year, we make what we call an innovative product, something that pushes in a new direction. Past examples were the first Commander decks, the Un- sets, Conspiracy, Battlebond, Archenemy, and Planechase. In 2013, our innovative product was Modern Masters. It was an all-reprint product using cards from the Modern format crafted to make a fun, yet more advanced, drafting environment. It was so successful that two years later we released Modern Masters 2015 in the innovative product slot. Again, the product was a huge hit.
We realized that the Masters structure was something that could become its own thing (much as the Commander decks had done previously). In 2016, we released Eternal Masters, which took the same structure, but applied it to a different format. It was also a hit.
From this point, we started leaning on the Masters series a little more. Rather than once a year, in 2017 and 2018, we released two Masters sets. 2017 had Modern Masters 2017 and Iconic Masters. 2018 had Masters 25 and Ultimate Masters.
As we began doing more of them, we realized that we had to start giving them a thematic focus, both to give them an identity for players to associate with and to help craft different mechanical experiences. Also, we realized we were running into a resource issue. As a general rule, we try not to reprint the same card in multiple products in the same year (and yes, there are exceptions to this, especially in introductory products). We want each product to have its own identity, so we're careful not to have them duplicate efforts. This desire, along with the need to have mechanical focuses, was causing a reprint-shortage issue—or at least a shortage of reprints people were excited about. While Magic has made a lot of cards over the years, what players want is more focused on the cards that see play in the various formats. It was a resource we were using at too fast a pace for the output with which we were trying to keep up (see Redemption, Tree of).
The audience was showing fatigue. We had issues making them at the speed we were making them. It was clear to us that we couldn't continue as we had. Then we had a Hackathon where the idea for Modern Horizons first popped up. It was a set for mostly the same audience that leaned much heavier on new content, and even the reprints were more about bringing cards to Modern than printing powerhouse cards from other formats. Maybe the Masters sets could take a breather.
Once we decided that, we made Ultimate Masters as a splashy send-off. When they were writing the article announcing the product, they asked us when we expected the next Masters set to happen. At the time, we had no plans to make one, and said so. However, saying we'll "never" do a formerly successful product again, no matter what our plans at the time were, is a recipe for eventually being wrong. So, they wrote "for the foreseeable future."
Flash forward about six months. I don't want to get too in the weeds, but we have a product schedule that is subject to change for a variety of reasons. At one point, Commander Legends was supposed to come out where Double Masters is being released. For reasons that I don't even know, Commander Legends needed to be moved from August to later in the year. That left a hole in the product schedule.
The first thing we do when we get a hole is to ask if there's another product already in the works that we can move to fill the hole. Often there's a product scheduled to come out later that we can move to earlier in the schedule. Sometimes, we have products being worked on that don't have a release date specifically so we can drop them in where needed. If you remember me talking about how Unsanctioned was called "Parachute" as it was originally designed for just this purpose, filling an unexpected hole in the schedule. There wasn't a product we could pull up, and we'd already pulled the cord on "Parachute." This meant we'd need to create a new product.
Once we know we need to make a new product, we look at the timeline and figure out what's possible. Creating new cards has a longer timeline, as does making and updating worlds. We didn't have time for either of those. That meant this product needed to be created solely from reprints. The timeline also told us that while we could have some new art, the set couldn't have all new art.
When we know we need a new product, the product architects will provide what we call "the specs" to a series of designers. The specs are basically an outline of what a potential product can and can't have along with any requirements the set might need to fill. The specs also take into account what other sets are doing around it to make sure the new product isn't stepping on the toes of any other releases. It's trying to make an accurate description of what tools and limitations we have to make the set in question. The designers can then pitch ideas that match the specs.
Bryan Hawley, who would go on to be the lead designer of Double Masters (because of the timeline, the set had a single lead rather than a distinct vision design lead, and then a set design lead) pitched an idea he called "Cornucopia." It was a mega-booster (something much bigger than a normal booster) that came with four rares/mythic rares. Upper management liked the idea but decided we could scale back a bit. Instead of four rares/mythic rares, how about two? And instead of a giant booster, how about a normal-size booster? (Building product that uses abnormal booster sizes or booster boxes also wasn't available in the given timeline.)
A quick aside. One of the things that happens a lot in design is the creation of things that are "over the top." That is, they do something more than we've ever done before. Because we make a game where we're constantly creating new content, we need to be careful about how much we exceed what's been done before. For example, Alpha's biggest creature was an 8/8 (Force of Nature). The first creature to exceed that was Colossus of Sardia, a 9/9. Next was Leviathan, a 10/10. Then came Polar Kraken, an 11/11, and Phyrexian Dreadnought, a 12/12. The first card to best Force of Nature could have been a 16/16 Impervious Greatwurm.
But in doing that, we would have missed the opportunity for all the cards in between. Why have one "the biggest creature ever made" moment when you could have many? The same philosophy was held to Bryan's "Cornucopia" idea. Why jump to four when two would be exciting?
After looking at the various options pitched by numerous designers, we chose to go with a reprint product with double rares/mythic rares as its hook. This forced us to ask the next question—weren't we basically making a Masters product? We examined the idea of changing it a little bit to make it feel less like a Masters set but decided the Masters version was going to be the better product. It also would help in marketing it, as the established audience already knew what a Masters set was. There were numerous jokes made about the "foreseeable future," but we decided it was better to make the right product than a tweaked version simply to avoid a little ridicule online.
Another factor that got this product chosen was that we had gone from multiple all-reprint sets a year to none, and we heard a lot of feedback that we had pulled back too far on the reprint spigot. This product, especially with its two rare/mythic rare slots, would help address this. As for the second elephant in the room, fetch lands, that's a story for another time (that we will tell).
When Bryan and his design team (Reggie Valk, Adam Prosak, Jadine Klomparens, Max McCall, and Michael Hinderaker) started to design Double Masters, the first thing they did was look back at work they had done a year or so earlier. You see, design was started on the next Masters set (by Bryan) before we knew we were taking a break. It was planned to be something like "Artifact Masters." As time was of the essence, it allowed the design team to get a leg up on the design.
Powerful rare and mythic rare artifacts can be problematic in Limited because most of them tend to be bombs and, as they usually have generic mana costs, can be put into any deck. The solution is to have main-deck artifact destruction be a thing, but that only works if there are enough artifacts to justify players running it. This was why an artifact-themed Masters set was planned (that and the fact that there are a lot of artifact reprints players want). Double Masters's structure, especially in Limited, is focused on this artifact theme.
The other big influence on the design was the two rares/mythic rares per pack. A common slot was removed to make room for the extra rare or mythic rare. This resulted in the rarities being shifted around. For example, normally in a large set, there are 100 (and sometimes 101) commons. Double Masters, because of the loss of a common slot, drops down to 91 commons. Uncommon stays the same at 80. The number for rares and mythic rares had to change because we didn't want any one individual rare/mythic rare showing up at a higher frequency than normal. In order to accomplish this, we ended up slightly more than doubling the rares and mythic rares. Rare is usually 53. It goes up to 121. Mythic rare is normally 15. It goes up to 40.
The biggest impact of this change was that it altered the role of rares and mythic rares in Limited. Showing up at twice the normal amount allowed them to have a more predictable impact. This meant that the design team was able to have them play a role similar to what uncommons play in normal Limited. For example, in a normal set, uncommon has a cycle of two-color cards that represent the Draft archetypes. In Double Masters, there are two 10-card two-color cycles filling this role (it is Double Masters after all), but they sit at rare. (I should note that because the set is limited to reprints, the cards aren't all as loud about the Draft archetype as traditional uncommon multicolor cards are in a normal set.)
Another big change of doubling the rares and mythic rares is that it increased the density of them in Limited play. Rares and mythic rares tend to be a bit more powerful (especially the kinds we reprint), so it tends to take the power level of the Limited games up a level. One of the things you'll find when you play this format is that you can draft decks that are reminiscent of actual decks played in Modern.
The third big change came about in Draft. It didn't take many playtests to recognize that it was unfun to open two amazing rares/mythic rares and have to pass one away, so the design team altered drafting with Double Masters to have you choose two cards on the first pick after opening a booster. While this might seem like a small thing, it has a big impact on the draft, not just because you can take both your rares/mythic rares, but also because it lets you take two synergistic cards which can often help steer how the rest of your draft goes.
As we're talking about doubling and rares, I think it's time to show off my two preview cards, both of which double.
These two cards were part of a doubling enchantment cycle that we made in Shadowmoor. (You all know my love of doubling things.) This cycle came about because we were trying to find a rare enchantment cycle aimed at Timmy and Tammy. My experience with Doubling Season had shown that many Timmys and Tammys shared my love of doubling, so we made a cycle of enchantments that doubled things. In the case of white and blue, life gain and card draw respectively. These cards were added to the Double Masters file because there weren't a lot of individual cards that played into the doubling theme. (As I say above, the Limited gameplay is more about artifacts than doubling.)
Speaking of the doubling theme, let me touch upon one other aspect of the set before I wrap up for today. We were looking into one other place to apply the doubling theme in the set, and we found it with the box toppers. Started in Eighth Edition, box toppers were individual Magic cards included with the booster box. The Eighth Edition ones were oversized, but Ultimate Masters introduced normal box toppers. There were 40 cards, also found in the set, that were printed as extended-art cards (aka the art goes all the way to the border on the left and right sides) and were all in foil. Double Masters is doing something similar with four changes. First, as its Double Masters, there's two of them. Second, they're not foil. Third, 39 of the 40 have new art. And fourth, they are borderless rather than extended art (meaning the art goes to the edge on all the edges of the card).
That's all the time I have for today. I hope you enjoyed my peek into Double Masters. As always, I'm eager for any feedback about this column or the Double Masters set. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok) and let me know what you think.
Join me next week when I talk more about Double Masters.
Until then, may you double your excitement thinking about this set.
In this podcast, I talk with Brian Hacker about his time on the Pro Tour and how he and other Magic pros ended up on MTV.
Doug just celebrated his 20th year at Wizards, so I had him on the podcast to talk all about his work on the Creative team.