The Future of Magic

Posted in Making Magic on July 6, 2020

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

I have many responsibilities as Head Designer, but one of my most important ones is looking to the future. Magic is going to keep evolving, so I have to stay on top of where the game can evolve. I thought it might be fun today to talk about what areas show the most promise for the future. Note that I'm not going to give away anything we might be doing, but rather I want to talk in bigger terms about the most robust areas of future design.

The following categories aren't in order of importance or size. It's just the order that came to me as I was writing this.

Expansion of Existing Mechanics

The first place I look to find the future is the past. Magic is 27 years old, and it has created a lot of mechanics. Obviously, we can reprint old mechanics, but I'm interested here in looking for ways to take old mechanics and expand what they can do. A great example is cycling. When it started in Urza's Saga, it was just a simple mechanic that let you trade in a card in your hand for a new card for two mana. As we brought it back over the years, we've looked for ways to expand upon what cycling can do. We allowed different cycling costs. We created cycling cards that had an additional ability when you cycled them. We made cards care about cycling, encouraging you to play a whole bunch of cycling cards together.

A different way to do this is to create an environment where the mechanic can function the same but leads to radically different gameplay. A good example of this is proliferate. When it first appeared in Scars of Mirrodin block, it was paired with -1/-1 counters and poison counters, making it a destructive mechanic. When it returned in War of the Spark, it was paired with planeswalkers and amass (a mechanic that made use of +1/+1 counters), making it a constructive mechanics that built up instead of tearing down.

This means that whenever I'm designing a new set, I'm always looking at old mechanics to see if I can use them and if there is room for expansion. I should note that when we make new mechanics now, we think about what they can do and save potential expansion ideas for the future. A good example was that we were aware very early that we could use static abilities on planeswalkers, but we held back for years to save it for someplace it would be splashy and impactful (which ended up being War of the Spark).

Rehabilitation of Failed Mechanics

Another place to look when examining old mechanics is to find things that showed potential but didn't work out. The classic example here is chroma. Aaron Forsythe designed a card with the mechanic as a one-of card in Fifth Dawn, but I recognized it was actually a cool mechanic and saved it for a future set that could use it well. We teased it on a future-shifted card in Future Sight and finally used it in Eventide. The response from the audience was "bleh."

Years later, I'm working on original Theros, and we're looking for a repeat mechanic to help tie elements of the set together. One of my design team members, Zac Hill, suggests chroma. I felt if reworked and reskinned, it was a perfect fit for the set. That rejiggering became devotion, which went on to become a beloved mechanic.

This means I'm always on the lookout for mechanics that showed potential that was never realized. I'll be honest, these are hard to find, but we're always looking.

New Frames

Another robust area for potential design is things requiring new frames. Over the years, we've become more and more comfortable with creating new frames, especially ones that help us do something mechanically that we couldn't easily do with a traditional frame. Unglued was the first set to play in this space and would eventually inspire split cards, which were the first black-border cards to create a mechanic that very much wanted a new frame. In the case of split cards, it wasn't that we couldn't do them in a normal frame, but it made them much harder to understand. The new layout allowed their function to be intuitive.

Over the years, our tolerance of new frames in black border has gone up. We consider it a tool in our toolbox. From a mechanics standpoint, new frames are interesting because they can allow us to spread into new design space. They do so in three ways:

  1. They help the player better understand how the card works or serve as a reminder in play that something mechanical is true about them. A good example of this would be the enchantment creatures from original Theros block and Theros Beyond Death. Not only does the frame allow us to add a touch of the world to the cards through the Nyx frame, but it also makes them easier to recognize, as enchantments are something all Theros sets care about.
  2. They can allow us to fit things on the cards we can't normally fit. A good example here was the Saga cards from Dominaria (and later Theros Beyond Death). The chapter technology, especially the ability to use it for multiple chapters, allowed us to fit the text on the card that wouldn't have fit on a traditional card. This was also helped because the idea of the chapters allowed us to convey a lot of how the cards work without needing significant extra text.
  3. They can allow us to make cards where the card itself can serve as a means to help track what's going on. A good example of this would be The Fallen Apart from Unhinged. Whenever the creature is dealt damage, it loses an arm or a leg, and that can have mechanical ramifications. The card gives you a means to mark on the card what limb was lost. Because memory issues can be a big barrier, frames that can help in tracking things are very important. It's also possible to have frames that help in other ways besides tracking, but we haven't made any . . . yet.

Whenever we design a new set, we're always aware that frames might be something that can either improve a design, making it easier to understand and appreciate, or it can allow us to make cards that otherwise we couldn't make. Frames come with a lot of baggage, so we have a limit on how often we can make use of them. This means we need to prioritize what having new frames will do for a mechanic, theme, or cycle. Often, we'll design a new frame and a normal frame version so we can see how each path affects the design.

Double-Faced Cards

This is another vein of design that's turned out to be rather deep. Double-faced cards, like frames, can be used in several ways:

  1. Magic loves transformation. There are just a lot of cards and abilities that magically change something from one form to another. We've always struggled with these types of cards in the art, because it's unclear what to show. If you show the before version, you don't get a sense of the after version, but the opposite is also true. If you try to show the creature in transition, you often get an image that doesn't do a great job of clearly conveying before or after. Double-faced cards are a perfect answer for this problem as it allows each side to have its own art.
  2. When both sides of a transition have to live on the same side of a card, it limits how much text we can use to mechanically convey each side. Use a double-faced card, and suddenly, you doubled the text space allowed. This means that there are numerous double-faced cards that we couldn't do as single-faced cards.
  3. Transitioning cards is a wonderful use for double-faced cards, but it is far from the only use. One of the most exciting things about double-faced cards to me is the potential they have to do all sorts of other interesting things. Of every mechanic (and I use that term loosely with double-faced cards) I've helped bring to print, none has more design space than double-faced cards. There are all sorts of exciting things I believe we're going to be able to do with them.

Double-faced cards come with even more baggage than new frames, so it's not something we can do quite as often. I am excited, though, with the opportunities it's going to provide us to wow you all in the future.

Punch-Out Technology

Another area that shows a lot of promise is punch-out cards. First seen in Amonkhet block, these are cards, the same size as normal Magic cards, that have elements you can punch out of them and use as gameplay components. Like new frames and double-faced cards, the design potential for punch-out technology is pretty huge. As we're printing them, they have a lot of flexibility in what they can represent, how big they can be, and what can be written on them. One of the biggest restrictions on new design space is the limitation of the audience to follow what's going on. If things provide too many memory issues, we can't print it. Punch-out technology helps with this because it gives the players tools to help them remember. It also has potential to provide a lot of flavor. Finally, it fits inside a booster pack, meaning we can ensure that players get their hands on them.

There are a number of ways that we can use punch-out technology:

  1. It can be an enhancement to permanents on the battlefield. The keyword counters from Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths are a good example of this. How do you permanently grant flying to a creature without requiring a card—use a flying counter.
  2. It can be used to help track advancement (or decline). The brick counters from Amonkhet are a good example of this category. The brick counters were simple enough than plain counters could have handled it (brick counters were on the punch-out sheet not because they were necessary but because they were helpful and we had space for them), but there can be more advanced things we track that simple counters would have a harder time with.
  3. We can have punch-out components that are themselves permanents. For example, you could imagine punch-out counters representing certain types of tokens if the set required a lot of tokens. Maybe it could represent something never seen before that doesn't work well on cards. There is a lot of potential to do exciting things.
  4. Finally, they could be used as outside components. Things that affect the game without technically being on the battlefield. This is another area we've talked about but has yet to come to fruition.

Cards That Can't Go in Your Deck

This category is about things that are cards but are not allowed into your deck when you first build it. The best example of this was a mechanic we didn't use in Avacyn Restored called forbidden. There were cards you put into your deck that allowed you to shuffle forbidden cards into your deck. Because this was such a large hoop, the forbidden cards were allowed to be crazy-powerful.

This technology is something we keep coming back to because it represents an interesting vein of design. There are many ways we can use it:

  1. Like forbidden, these are powerful, splashy cards that require cards in the deck to access them, whether they go to the deck or onto the battlefield.
  2. These can be cards that aren't powerful but instead are very narrow. They allow cards in the deck that access them to have a "utility belt" feel, R&D slang for a mechanic that gives you access to a lot of narrow options to choose from.
  3. These cards can be cards that play an element in what another card does. Take the idea of creating creature tokens and just take it wider. It could allow you to make much more complex tokens.
  4. These could be powerful reprints that need a hoop to jump through. This is similar to number 1, but the feel of it is very different.

This is one of those areas that hasn't come to fruition yet, but we keep circling it. (Kaladesh design, for example, played in this space, but the mechanic in question didn't make it to the final set.) It's just a matter of time before it sees print.

Card Components Outside the Deck

These are elements that aren't necessarily cards but are things that can be brought into the game. The one we use with regularity are emblems for Planeswalkers. A better example of this element pushed a little more is the monarch mechanic from Conspiracy: Take the Crown where cards would produce a monarch "card" that had gameplay function. Another example of us pushing in this space would be us creating tokens that carry the weight of what they do. Throne of Eldraine cards merely mention "food tokens," and the food tokens say what they do. This can be extrapolated into much more complex external elements.

Additional "Decks"

Contraptions from Unstable play in this area where a second deck is brought into the game. This is similar to the last category but involves more pieces put together in a deck which usually allows randomization of those pieces. The upside of a second deck is that the item created can have a lot of personality. With contraptions, for example, you were building a machine. The cards represented pieces of that machine. The downside is that it represents a lot of additional elements and adds a significant amount of complexity and logistics. For example, it just takes up more gameplay space. My best guess is that if we go down this path in black border, you'd see very small secondary decks of just a handful of cards.

Minigames

These are things that make you stop what you're doing and play a small, separate game. Usually the outcome of that game has an impact on the main game. Unhinged had an entire cycle of minigame cards. All the Un- sets also have cards forcing you to play subgames where you stop your normal game to play another game of Magic. Minigames usually want to be very quick and need to thematically connect to the larger game. I believe black border could one day get here provided we find the right kind of minigame.

There is a subset of the minigames that function a little differently. Rather than stop the game to play the subgame, you play the subgame while you're playing your normal game. Hangman from Unstable is a good sample of this type of subgame. You're essentially playing a game of Hangman where the controller of the Hangman is trying to make a creature as large as possible before the other player can solve the Hangman game. This is happening as the game progresses, and the size of the Hangman is always relevant in combat.

War of the Spark played around with a mechanic called skirmish where how you succeeded in combat impacted how a separate minigame was playing out. This is a good example of how the external component and the minigame can intersect.

Affecting Deck Construction

Another area is creating cards that directly impact deck construction. The companions from Ikoria are the best example of cards playing in this space. These cards can work in one of two ways. Either they can only be allowed in a deck if certain criteria are met, that is, they create restrictions that impact how you build your deck.

The second category is something we messed around with in Time Spiral where the inclusion of a card allows you to have access to deck-construction elements you wouldn't normally. In the case of Time Spiral, we had cards that let you make a small subsets of cards Standard-legal (for example, one of them let you play artifacts that cost 6) if you included particular cards in your deck.

These types of cards can be very splashy and definitely play into a style of play that many players enjoy in other formats but have big impacts in tournament play and can reduce variance in gameplay. The trick is finding ways to tap into what makes them popular without producing the downsides in tournament play.

Top-Down Designs

This final category consists of designs where you take your theme and push it to an extreme, breaking some set rules for the game. This one is harder to quantify, but it is something I always look out for when we're figuring out a new theme. I like to ask, what would this theme like to do and see if it's pushing somewhere we've never pushed before. This isn't a category that we've printed any cards with yet. But as I look to the future, it's definitely an area that I think could produce truly amazing things.

Future Shock

What I've talked about today are not the only areas for potential growth, just the ones we've spent the most time thinking about. I always like to think back to when I started working on Magic and ask myself what I would have thought of many of the advancements we've made. So much of what we've done would have seemed completely crazy to me, which means that as Magic grows and adapts, so too must its designers. As I always say, I think Magic is going to outlive me, and I don't expect for it ever to stop adapting and growing, so today's column is just a tiny peek into the many places the game could go.

I hope you enjoyed this glance into the future and, as always, I'm eager to hear your thoughts on it. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).

Join me next week for a repeat article to which I felt compelled to return.

Until then, may you dream of where you want the game to go.

 
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