From the Heart

Posted in Making Magic on June 14, 2010

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.

Welcome to Arch Enemy Week! I'm not sure why we're dedicating an entire week to talking about Mark Gottlieb, but ... oh, it's Archenemy Week. We're dedicating the week to talk about our latest product release, Archenemy, a multiplayer format where many players take on one. That makes a lot more sense. Well, I guess I'll have to leave the shocking stories and incriminating photos for another column.

My first idea when I heard it was Archenemy Week was to take a column talking about my archenemies. Who are the villains of Magic's Head Designer? I was planning to write that column (and thus used last week's teaser) but I realized that perhaps for Archenemy Week I should actually talk about the release coming out. So, this week will be Archenemy Week and next week will be Arch Enemy Week here on Making Magic. Sound good?

How exactly was Archenemy designed? I'll tell you. It all started ... What? Dave Guskin is telling the behind-the-scenes story of Archenemy's design in the feature article? Maybe I'll pull back a bit and talk about why we're doing products like Archenemy. There has been a big philosophical shift in Ramp;D that I haven't really talked about, so perhaps this is the perfect opportunity.

    Together We Shall Be Unstoppable

Before I do any of that though, I have a fine tradition to uphold. With each set I like introduce the design team, so without further ado, I'd like you to meet the Archenemy design team:

    Ken Nagle (Lead)

Four years ago, we ran a little event known as The Great Designer Search where we had an Apprentice-like competition to find a Magic intern. We ended up giving out two internships (and hiring two others plus giving out a development internship). One of those interns was Ken Nagle. I've told this story a dozen times, but here's the part you might not know.

We had over one thousand applicants so we had to do a series of challenges to cut them down to a manageable number. There were essays and a multiple-choice test. Eventually, we gave the remaining applicants a card design test. The assignment was to design six cards to a bunch of specific requirements. The applicants were told they had to hand it in anytime during the following day. The first entry was turned in exactly at midnight. The next entry to be handed in didn't come in until over twelve hours later. Who turned in their assignment the very minute they could even though they had an additional twenty-four hours to work on it? Why Ken Nagle, of course.

I remember the entry very clearly because that day when I came into the office, I checked to see if anyone had turned in their card submissions. Only one person had. I recognized Ken's name because Ken had a habit of writing emails to me. He would send me long letters outlining problems he felt we had and he would always list a solution or two to solve that problem. So when I saw the one entry with Ken's name on it, I had some context.

A lot of people (in fact, everyone else in this example) would have taken as much time as they could to make sure their submission was the best it could be. Ken, on the other hand, was confident in what he had and wanted to demonstrate that he didn't need the extra time. I'm happy to say that four years later, Ken continues to stand out from the pack. Archenemy was a very complicated design because we were asking him for something that not only didn't exist but there was nothing in Magic's history to model it after. Ken and his team pulled this feat off marvelously.

    Kelly Digges

Ken and Kelly had worked together on the Worldwake design team. Ken had enjoyed working with Kelly and was looking for designers with multiplayer experience. Kelly fit the bill and was put on the team. I wish there was more to the story than that but most often the reasons for getting on a design team are that straight forward. As there's not too much story there, let me tell a different story about Kelly.

I often get requests from people outside of Wizards to do lunch. People write me very nice letters explaining they are going to be in town and they would love to buy me lunch. While I'm very touched by all the requests, I decided long ago that I needed to draw a line and that I didn't want to arbitrarily have lunch with some and not others. The one exception I've made is if I believe the person I'm meeting with has potential to come and work for Wizards. Usually this comes about because they have done something for us—usually in a freelance capacity—that demonstrates what they are capable of. (There was, of course, the one guy who managed to impress me solely through packages he sent me. Here's my side and his side of that story.) How'd I meet Kelly? He asked me to lunch.

Kelly had done a lot of freelance work for Pro Tour coverage and I had heard good things about him so when he asked me to lunch I said okay. The lunch went very well and I came back recommending we hire him. (I wasn't alone in this—so his getting hired is the result of multiple people recommending him.) Several things impressed me at the lunch. First, Kelly was smart and articulate. Second, he had a good set of skills that at the time Magic desperately needed. Third, and most importantly to me, he had a passion for Magic. It was clear that he had as much interest in making Magic as awesome as it could be as he did in getting a job. Working for Wizards wasn't just about getting a paycheck for Kelly, it was about being part of something that he admired.

I've seen Kelly move through several jobs and that passion has never waivered. Kelly still loves Magic and it's fun seeing him do design because he brings such excitement to the job. This was particularly valuable for a set as over the top as Archenemy.

    Dave Guskin

Aaron Forsythe was hired to run Brian Tinsman started in Market Research. Even I was hired to be a developer not a designer. Other than the interns from The Great Designer Search, Magic designers tend not to be hired as designers. They tend to get hired for Wizards doing something else and then find ways to demonstrate their ability to do design. Dave Guskin is another example of this happening.

When I first met Dave he was working as a web developer for doing any and all programming that needed to be done for it. (An interesting tidbit—a previous person to hold this job—Savor the Flavor's Doug Beyer.) Dave was a Magic player and took advantage of his proximity to the designers and developers. He participated in playtests, played in the FFL and jumped in wherever he could. Eventually this led to a slot on a development team (Magic 2010). That led to another (Planechase). Which led to Dave getting a chance to try his hand at design. Ken included Dave because he saw great potential in him and Dave has definitely lived up to that assessment. You will be seeing some more of Dave's design work in upcoming sets.

    Mons Johnson

I knew of Mons long before I met him. An early Duelist revealed that Richard Garfield named Mons's Goblin Raiders from Alpha after one of his friends, someone with a real love for goblins. (I actually wrote a whole column dedicated to Mons during the first Goblin Week.) So when I met Mons, he was a celebrity to me. I was meeting the Mons. As I got to know Mons from working with him in Ramp;D, I learned of his love of goblins. Not a fickle, puppy love but a full-blown romance bordering on obsession. Mons loved to take any archetype and try to fit goblins into it even with archetypes that had nothing to do with red or creatures.

Mons has an insatiable spirit and it permeates everything he does. Mons was on this design team because he had done of lot of the preliminary work before the final scheme mechanic was chosen. Archenemy went through numerous iterations before getting to the scheme implementation. As Mons had been through most of the earlier iterations he was a very valuable resource for Ken and the team. Mons brings great joy and fun to anything he works on, so it was only apropos that he work on what is definitely the most light-hearted thing we've ever made that didn't have a silver border.

    You Have No Hope of Defeating Me

When did I first hear about the idea of making a Magic product where one player took on multiple players? The year was 1995 and I just started working at Wizards. The idea was from Bill Rose (current vice president of Ramp;D—Bill and I both started at Wizards in the same month, October 1995 for the trivia buffs out there). He called it Power Lunch and the idea was this: It would be a set where the power level of all the cards was on par with Ancestral Recall. The heightened power level would allow two mages to have epic battles or let one player take on multiple players. While we thought the idea was novel we never took any steps to make it. Why? It wasn't the direction we wanted to take the game.

Flash forward fifteen years later. What has changed? To answer this question I'm going to tell you about another presentation to the Game Design Best Practice Team (this was the group that I talked about Dieter Rams' Ten Principles for Good Design to—check out Part 1 and Part 2 if you haven't read it yet), the one delivered by Magic Ramp;D Director Aaron Forsythe. Aaron labeled his presentation "Heart Design vs. Head Design." Aaron borrowed the terms from Richard Garfield in an interview I did with him in The Duelist celebrating Magic's 5th anniversary.

Here's the quote where Richard defines the terms:

Designing with the head is where you make sure cards are balanced, work within the rules, and result in interesting game situations. Designing with the heart is where you care about whether the card looks cool, fits into the story, and develops a situation that is interesting for some reason other than just the rules. When you have difficulty balancing those issues, you end up with cards that are cool but don't work, like Word of Command or Vesuvan Doppelganger, or you end up with cards that are overly technical—like Homarid, with tide counters and all these calculations going on.

Aaron's talk was about how he believed the game of Magic started with heart design and has over time drifted toward head design. Aaron's hypothesis was that Magic thrived when it had a balance and that much of his influence during his tenure as director has been to get heart design back into the game. Magic 2010 and Zendikar block are both Ramp;D trying to put more heart design into the mix.

Which brings us to Vorthos and Melvin. What?

    You Haven't a Chance; I've Captured All But Your Weakest Members

When Aaron pitched his head versus heart design topic, I said oh, I have a name for that. In fact, I wrote a whole article about it ("Melvin and Vorthos"). In the article (which I strongly urge you to read if you haven't), I talk about a spectrum that I dubbed the Vorthos/Melvin spectrum as the two personality types represent the extremes. The point of the spectrum was to explain how players enjoy the game. Note this is not the motivations for why they play (that's the psychographics—a.k.a. Timmy, Johnny and Spike) but rather the lens through which they see the game.

Vorthos is very much heart design as defined by Richard. Here is my definition of Vorthos from the article:

When Vorthos evaluates something, in this case a Magic card, he isn't isolating any piece. Rather he is judging based on how every piece interacts with one another. Yes, the mechanic matters, but in conjunction with what the spell represents. Yes, the art is important, but as how it relates to the whole of the card. The Magic cards that make Vorthos the happiest are the ones that "feel" right. These are the ones where the pieces come together to create something organic and whole, where all the pieces of the card combine in harmony to create something greater than the sum of its parts.

As an example let's take a look at a popular Vorthos card, Form of the Dragon. Up close the card seems a bit messy. The mechanics feel somewhat random and one of the abilities doesn't even make sense in red. But step back a little bit and it all starts to become clear. You've become a dragon. You ... are a dragon! The name is evocative. The art is sweet. The mechanics feel organic to the card's flavor. The whole package is a thing of beauty. The card works for Vorthos (and note that I don't mean for every Vorthos, as there is much subjectivity in how Vorthos looks at cards) because all the pieces are working in conjunction with one another.

And here is my definition of Melvin. It very much parallels how Richard describes head design:

When Melvin evaluates something, once again like a Magic card, he tends to break things down into its components and then studies each part. He intellectually dissects whatever it is he is analyzing. Why does he do this? Because how something works is very important to Melvin. He enjoys understanding the rules that govern its creation. For that matter, unlike Vorthos, Melvin is a fan of rules. Rules create structure and allow things to make sense. Cards that excite Melvin are ones where he can admire the intricacy of the design.

For this example lets look at the Time Spiral card Firemaw Kavu. From a distance, the card seems like yet another nostalgia throwback (to Flametongue Kavu). But as you look closer you start to see a lot of careful design interactions. For example, the echo mechanic has proven to play very nicely with both "comes into play" and "leaves play" effects. Further, Firemaw Kavu allows multiple choices of what you want the card to be. It can act as a Shock this turn and then a 4/2 body on future turns. It can act as a Shock this turn and a Lightning Blast next turn. Or, and this is where the intricacy of design comes into play, it can act as a Lightning Blast this turn. How? The creature can Shock itself, and conveniently it has a toughness of 2. This triggers the leaves-play effect. (Note also that the 4 and 2 damage match up with the creature's power and toughness.) A card like this is exciting to Melvin because he enjoys watching how all the pieces can be skillfully woven together.

In my terminology, I feel that Aaron was arguing that Magic started much closer to Vorthos and has drifted over time towards Melvin. Instead of making cards that were resonant and played into things the players already knew and understood, design has been moving toward design where the mechanic played interestingly with one another often at the expense of creativity.

One of Tom LaPille's pet peeves is when we make a card that is cool mechanically but makes no sense creatively. He'll ask "What is it?" and the response is "We'll let Creative figure it out." The idea behind Tom's dislike is that there is a big cost if the game has too many cards that can't make sense conceptually. Sure, the creative team will give some answer but more often than not it results in a sub-standard card. The real homeruns, Tom argues, are the ones that are both cool mechanically and cool creatively.

Why not just tilt back heavily towards Vorthos? You run into some of the problems Magic had early on. Things that are flavorful tend to not make logical sense and if you make every choice based on intuitive feel, you end up with a game without mechanical cohesion. A lot of design advance has come from learning the importance of valuing consistency. Having exceptions is okay in small tiny portions, but early Magic just had too many cards that deviated from the norm.

The answer is, of course, exactly what Aaron talked about in his meeting. Design needed to pull back more towards Vorthos to balance the scales. This means that design (and development) have to be more willing to let cards and mechanics and sets pull closer to Vorthos when it is needed. Which brings us back to Archenemy.

    They'll Love It if I Make Them Love It

2009 was the best year Magic has ever had in its seventeen year history and 2010 looks to be blowing away 2009. Why? There are numerous reasons but one of the important ones is Aaron's push to bring more Vorthos into the game, to bring balance to The Force (okay, maybe a poor analogy as I think that was a bad thing in the Star Wars universe). Archenemy is an example of embracing Vorthos in an entire set.

For example, let's look at some schemes from Archenemy:

This is not your father's Magic expansion. In fact, the only two sets I can think of that embrace the abandon of Archenemy are Unglued and Unhinged, also sets positioned far from center of the game. Archenemy was designed to be fun and flavorful and different from the norm. Ramp;D in the last year has been making a strong effort to bring more balance to the entire game. Yes, we want high-end analytic competitive play, but that is only part of what Magic has to offer.

If you please everyone all the time, in the end you will please no one. What that means is that trying to create a creative endeavor that everyone will like means you make something that no one will love. The very things that excite one group is destined to turn off others. Creating something that makes emotions runs high will make them run high in multiple directions. As an example, one of my personal favorite columns of all time was called "Elegance." I got letters from people talking about how it was their favorite article they had ever read. They didn't mean their favorite Magic article but their favorite article. People linked the article all over the place and I had people reading it that had never even heard of Magic. At the same time, I have never received more hate mail for any article I've ever done in my nine years of writing this column. (Okay, this one came close.)

Ramp;D has embraced the concept that we have to be willing to make things that some of our players will love even if others aren't so fond of it. Archenemy isn't for everyone, but we feel it's a homerun for the people it's designed for. If it's the kind of thing you'd like, I think you're really going to like it. Ken and his team (and Tom and his team—Tom was the lead developer) managed to find the sweet spot between interactive and light-hearted.

If you enjoy the idea of teaming up with your friends to take down your bitter enemy (a.k.a. your friend who's mouthing off to you like he's a James Bond villain), then give Archenemy a try. You'll be glad you did.

    And Now Mr. Bond You Die

Archenemy (and Planechase, and a cool thing next year I can't talk about yet) are part of Ramp;D's attempt to pull the game back towards a better balance between Vorthos and Melvin or heart design and head design or whatever you'd like to call the terms. I feel a lot of this last year's success has been Ramp;D's embracing of Magic's versatility. And if you like what you've seen so far, just wait to see what we have behind the curtain. There is so much awesome stuff waiting in the wings.

Join me next week when I introduce you to my arch enemies.

Until then, may you find a way to escape from the pit of ill tempered, mutated sea bass.

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