#931: NCC with Chris Mooney
I sit down with Chris Mooney, lead set designer of the Streets of New Capenna Commander decks, to talk about their design.
Posted in Making Magic on May 17, 2022
Welcome to Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate previews. Today, I'm going to tell you the story of the set's design, introduce you to the Vision Design and Set Design team members, and show off a cool new preview card. That's a lot, so let's dive in.
Before I get to the story of the set's design, I want to first introduce you to all the designers who made it. As always, I like having the set's lead do the bios as they're the ones who worked with these people. The following bios were written by Corey Bowen who led set design and was on the Vision Design team.
Click below to meet the Vision Design and Set Design teams of Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate (CLB).
I talk about a lot in this column. Magic is a game in flux that keeps adapting, both in how its audience uses it and where R&D steers it in anticipation of new space we believe the audience would enjoy. Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate is the meeting of two different recent forces, together for the first time in one set. Interestingly, both forces stem from the same source, the meteoric rise of casual play.
The first force is the push toward the Commander format. Back in 2011, we recognized that the format was gaining popularity and decided to dedicate that year's innovation product slot to it. The Commander decks were so popular that it spawned an annual product. This in turn would lead to our preconstructed Planeswalker decks turning into Commander decks for most of our randomized booster products. A different offshoot of this popularity was a desire to find a way to bring Draft, another popular format, to Commander. This desire was what created Commander Legends, which released in 2020. The product was popular enough that we decided we wanted to do it again.
The second force is the push toward bringing other intellectual properties to the game. Aaron Forsythe noticed on social media that the fans enjoyed discussing how other properties might be expressed in Magic mechanics and realized that this would be a good way to create a product that current players would enjoy and allow the game to reach new audiences. This idea would eventually become Universes Beyond. Our first test into these waters was with Dungeons & Dragons. It was a good fit for two reasons—one, its traditional high-fantasy setting was a good match for Magic, and two, the game was also made by Wizards of the Coast, which simplified the licensing issues. Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realm came out in the summer of 2021 and was a big hit. We had such optimism for the product that we were interested in doing a second D&D set before the first one even came out.
I'm not sure when the "chocolate peanut butter cup moment" happened (i.e., "What if we combine chocolate with peanut butter?"), but someone somewhere suggested the idea that our second Commander Legends set and our second D&D set be the same product. Both products leaned into a more casual, social, multiplayer friendly crowd, so the marriage of the two things seemed like a perfect fit. Everyone got on board quickly. We talked with the D&D team to get their official thumbs up (it's still a licensed product), and I believe it was that meeting that it was suggested that the product be set in Baldur's Gate. This means vision design basically started with three known things: 1) it was Commander Legends, 2) it was using D&D flavor, and 3) it was set in Baldur's Gate. Here's how we handled each of those issues:
What does it mean to be a Commander Legends product? The core identity of Commander Legends is that it's a draftable Commander experience. Okay, what does that entail? First, it needs a lot of legendary creatures because your deck has to have a commander. (Both Commander Legends sets have a card you can always use as your commander if you don't draft one you want to use.)
Second, it must have enough cards that players aren't seeing too many copies of the same card. (Unlike Constructed Commander, Limited Commander does allow you to play duplicates.) Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate has the same number of cards, 361, as original Commander Legends. Remember that Commander Legends had 20-card boosters and that you draft two cards per booster when drafting.
Third, it leans into Commander-style play. This means the set should have mechanics that shine in multiplayer play. This, for example, is why both goad and myriad return. The former encourages aggression in a way that helps the game end and has become the first multiplayer evergreen ability. The latter was added to Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate in set design because Corey is a huge fan of the mechanic and it played well with many of the themes of the set (tokens, sacrifice, attack all players, etc.). The Vision Design team did add a new multiplayer mechanic, but I'll talk about it in the next section.
Fourth, and this is the big one, it needed to have a mechanic that allowed for drafters to add a color as the draft continued. In normal Draft, you can start in one color and branch out into an additional color, or colors, because the mana system allows you to adjust to having additional colors in your deck. If you decide to draft a powerful red card after you've been drafting green cards for the start of the draft, for example, you can add in as many mountains as you see fit.
The challenge with Commander Legends is that your commander defines your colors. Once you draft that, you're locked into colors. It doesn't allow the flexibility that leads to a better drafting experience. Original Commander Legends solved this problem with the partner mechanic. Every monocolor legendary creature could partner up with any other monocolor legendary creature to allow you to add a second color later in the draft. (There were two-color and three-color legendary creatures without partner, but they gave you more colors up front to care about.)
Partner first appeared in Commander (2016 Edition) to enable four-color commanders that didn't require four-color cards. It was brought back in Commander Legends. It became apparent during the play design of Commander Legends that the partner mechanic had a limitation. Every partner you add to the game powers up every existing creature with partner, and there just comes a limit where the mechanic will break (aka be too powerful where many cards with partner would need to be banned). Battlebond created a workaround with the "partner with" mechanic. Those cards can partner, but only specifically with one other creature. Secret Lair x Stranger Things tried a different take on partner with a mechanic called friends forever. This allowed any legendary creature in that subset to partner with any other legendary creature also in the subset.
The Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate team explored non-partner answers but found the partner answers more robust. They realized the original unlimited partner was off limits but were curious if there was some variant like partner with or friends forever that they could use. Ideally, they wanted something a little more flexible than either of those as they wanted it to enable drafting. After some exploration, they came up with the idea of Backgrounds, legendary enchantments that referenced the backstory of the character. This felt flavorful for D&D and was a new take on partner. All the monocolor legendary creatures in the set have "choose a Background," an ability that lets them partner with Backgrounds. Backgrounds are enchantments that enhance your commander, granting it an extra ability. Like the original Commander Legends, the set has some multicolor legendary creatures that don't partner or choose a Background. For those curious of the numbers, the set has 85 total legendary permanents, 27 of them being monocolor legendary creatures with choose a Background, 25 of them being Backgrounds, and 33 of them being multicolor creatures or planeswalkers (which can be your commander).
As with Commander Legends, the Vision Design team (and later the Set Design team, since Adventures in the Forgotten Realms came out as Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate was being made) looked at what Adventures in the Forgotten Realms had done that they might want to repeat. There ended up being five things.
First, they wanted to continue with the flavor words (aka italicized words that come before the rules text that help give it flavor context). Magic's creative is designed specifically to work well with how the game is presented. Other properties weren't built as such, so it's sometimes hard to get the words you want on a card. Flavor words have proven a valuable tool to help with this problem, and I expect them to be a staple tool for many Universes Beyond sets (which, yes, Adventures in the Forgotten Realms was not technically, but a precursor to). In conjunction with flavor words, Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate also uses them as anchor words to describe modes on a card. This allows more cards that introduce an event one might expect in a D&D roleplaying session along with multiple choices of what you can do.
Second, they wanted to bring back dice rolling and dice charts. Rolling twenty-sided dice is so iconic to D&D that we created cards for Adventures in the Forgotten Realms with the mechanic "roll a d20" and a chart to show the outcome based on your roll. Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate repeated what Adventures in the Forgotten Realms did and then added their own new twists. There are charts impacted by more than just the die roll, cards that roll more than once, and a cycle of mythic rare creatures that use a d20 without a chart.
Third, the teams included a huge amount of top-down card designs based on popular elements from D&D. (The Set Design team did, by the way, pay attention to what fans were unhappy didn't show up in Adventures in the Forgotten Realms.) It turns out my preview card is a fun top-down design, so I thought I'd share it with all of you.
Tasha, the Witch Queen is the adopted child of Baba Yaga and a very powerful magic user. So much so, that in this set, she's a planeswalker.
Fourth, they wanted to find a way to interact with the dungeons from Adventures in the Forgotten Realms. That set had introduced a new keyword action called "venture into the dungeon," which allowed you to go into one of three dungeons.
Interestingly, the Vision Design team was trying to accomplish a separate goal. They wanted to make a new multiplayer mechanic, which would end up smashing into their goal of making a new dungeon. Monarch was a mechanic that was first introduced in Conspiracy: Take the Crown. It was an object that one player could create that then all the players in the game fought over. The mechanic was popular enough that it was brought back twice, once in the original Commander Legends and once in the Commander decks for Adventures in the Forgotten Realms.
The reason you want to have the Monarch is that it allows you to draw a card at the beginning of your end step. You steal the Monarch by dealing combat damage to the player who has it. The Vision Design team knew that the card drawing of the Monarch was a little strong, so they were looking for a different effect they could use. This was the second "chocolate peanut butter cup moment" of the design where they realized that the effect could be venturing into a dungeon.
It turned out that it couldn't be exactly venture into the dungeon because, like partner, venture into the dungeon was a mechanic that would break if you added too many dungeons to it. They came up with an interesting workaround that still let it interact with venture into the dungeon but in a way that could be properly balanced. Here's how it works. The Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate version of the Monarch, called initiative, a term from D&D, allows you to venture into the Undercity whenever you take the initiative or the beginning of your upkeep. If you aren't in a dungeon (you can only be in one dungeon at any time), you are forced to venture into the Undercity dungeon. If you're already in a dungeon because of cards from Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, you venture further into that dungeon. Cards in either set that care about you completing a dungeon will count you getting through any of the three dungeons from Adventures in the Forgotten Realms or the Undercity from Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate.
There was one other thing related to D&D that the design team was interested in. Were there any existing mechanics in Magic that felt like they were a perfect fit in a D&D set? After talking to many people in the building, they came up with two frontrunners: Adventure cards from Throne of Eldraine and the party mechanic from Zendikar Rising.
They spent a bunch of time trying to make the party mechanic work, but there were two strikes against it. One, in D&D, there are twelve classes, not four. Two, the set wanted so many top-down designs that it didn't lend itself well to a mechanic that required a high as-fan of certain creature types. The compromise was using it in one of the Commander decks.
Adventures, in contrast, proved to be a perfect fit. They could be flavored as adventures that you, the player, would go on, and then the permanent you cast would be flavored as something you found on that quest, be it a monster or a cool new magic item. Because of the latter, Adventures would need to have artifacts for the first time rather than creatures as their permanent half.
For the most part, the setting determined what the cards depicted, from characters and objects to spells and places. A lot of top-down designs ended up with a host of very charming and flavorful cards. There was one element of Baldur's Gate that did result in a mechanical representation, though. In the world of Baldur's Gate, there are nine gates. Magic, thanks to Ravnica, has a land subtype called Gate. Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate takes advantage of this by making exactly nine Gates (seven common, one uncommon, and one rare). The set has a number of Gate rewards which you can draft around or combine with Ravnica Gates to make a "Gates matter" Constructed deck.
That's all the time I have for today's article. I hope you enjoyed the story of the design (and the preview card). As always, I'm eager to hear your feedback. Let me know your thoughts on the column, the preview card, or any other aspect of Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week for some card-by-card design stories from Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate.
Until then, may you have many grand adventures as you explore Baldur's Gate.
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