Know How, Part 1

Posted in Making Magic on July 12, 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.

From time to time I like to do letter columns where I answer questions sent to me. Today I've decided to do something in this area but a little different. I've chosen to do a letter style column but one that was themed. Today's theme is "how." I am going to answer questions about how we do things in design and in Ramp;D.

To get my questions I went to my Twitter feed (@maro254) and wrote the following:

maro254 I need your help for a new Twitter (answer) column. I'm looking for single tweet questions starting with "How"

I got a lot of wonderful questions (so many, in fact, that I'm stretching this to a two-parter to answer as many as I can), but there are some I am not answering. Here's why your question might not be answered:

  • First and foremost, I am limited by space constraints even with a two-parter. There are a lot of excellent questions that I simply couldn't get to.
  • It wasn't really a how question. If the question was a why question dressed with "how" wording (e.g. "How come?"), I skipped it. I promise I'll do a "why" column one day.
  • It was about something design doesn't do. I don't want to speak for other parts of Ramp;D let alone the company so if the area asked about wasn't in my domain I skipped it.
  • There are some questions I can't answer. There are numerous reasons why this could be so.

Now that my disclaimers are out of the way, on with the questions (and answers):

dangerawesome @maro254 how many cards do you initially design for each set before you trim down to 249/149 odd?

The ratio of cards designed to cards that see print is 100:1 if I'm being generous. The vast, vast majority of cards designed never see the light of day. In fact, I believe the majority of cards never even see playtest. Why is this so? Because the act of making a design involves trying out a lot of different things. When I lead a design team, I have all my designers send in their ideas and I handpick the ones that I feel will work best in the file. It is odd for me to take more than half of what is submitted.

ThatDamnAussie @maro254 How often do your ideas get flat out rejected and shelved?

My ideas get rejected constantly. The biggest difference between now and many years ago is that now I'm the one rejecting most of my ideas. As the design gatekeeper, I have to make sure to only let the best of designs through even when the work in question is my own. When I have an idea I believe in, I fight for it. Having the position I do with the track record I have means I'm able to get most of those ideas through the system. That isn't to say there isn't resistance to some of them. (Frequent readers of my column should know that.) The thing that gets rejected most is not the idea but a certain execution of the idea. One of the main elements of Scars of Mirrodin, for example, was shot down numerous times until my team found the correct way to do it. Once we discovered that, it was much easier getting the rest of Ramp;D on board.

Chosler88 @maro254 How are people chosen to lead sets? Who makes that call?

Ultimately as Head Designer I make the call. I consult with Aaron and the other managers of Magic Ramp;D to make sure that they all agree but in the end as the person in charge of Magic design it's up to me to make sure that we are happy with who we have leading each set.

rtassicker @maro254 how often does the design team meet when working on a new set?

It's up to the lead designer. I tend to like to have two two-hour meetings a week. Be aware that design teams come with homework. The majority of the card design is done outside the meetings by individuals on their own time. Yes, we will do some group design but it's usually only a tiny portion. Occasionally a set will fall behind and then I'll schedule extra meetings to help us catch up.

torerotutor @maro254 How is card design delegated to the team? Each person gets a color? or a cycle? or a type? or is the entire set a team effort?

Each lead designer is allowed to lead his or her team however they wish. I tend to focus design on some aspect of the set and then ask all my designers to turn in cards for the same thing. I've worked on sets though where the lead designer will divvy up assignments by color. Some of Magic 2010 design, for instance, was done that way.

fmota @maro254 How do you determine the mechanics for sets/blocks? (Including non-keyword mechanics.) How do you decide to make cycles?

While there are many ways mechanics can be discovered, I'll run you through how it is most often done in my designs. Early in design we find some area of design to explore. For example, with Zendikar I was interested in looking at the design space surrounding land and cards and mechanics that could make having or playing lands matter. My team spent a few months coming up with as many ideas as they could think of. We went to playtest with over forty different ideas. Some ideas proved to play poorly and were removed. Others played well and stayed. Yet others weren't quite right but showed potential. My team kept fine tuning these ideas until we settled on the one we liked most—landfall. If I had to attribute mechanic design to anything it would be trial and error with lots of feedback and adjustment. I tend to add cycles when they help me reinforce something I want to show up in the environment in enough numbers. Cycles are also great for showing contrast. (For more on designing cycles check out my column from Cycle Week.)

the_stybs @maro254 How do you determine how much cross-block synergy is needed? How do you plan it into a particular set design?

Design's job is about making sure such synergies exist and development's job is to set levels. When planning out blocks, I am always conscious of what we've just done and have a general idea of where we're planning to go the following year. Obviously it's much easier to react to the known existing set than the unknown nonexistent set, so more synergy is created backwards than forwards. We have tried over the last few years though to get better about setting up synergies. We like having cards that seem innocuous at first but go on to be an important part of the following block's themes.

AdamClare @maro254 How do you look at old cards when making new ones? Are they an inspiration or a limitation? How do you balance potential combos?

One of the most important design tools I use is Gatherer. It's very important when you're designing in a space to see what has been done before. Sometimes the old cards inspire you. Other times they help shape what not to do if you're trying to find something new. So yes, they are both inspiration and limitation. As far as combos go, design doesn't worry about whether any two certain cards go together. We just try to make as many cards as open-ended as we can to ensure that they will play nicely with cards of the past.

walkingecho @maro254 How do you determine when design space for a given mechanic is ''full'' in a stand-alone set?

When nothing else will fit. As I explained in my design skeleton article, an important part of design is figuring out what pieces your set needs. When you are having trouble fitting things in, that is the first sign that you are a little over capacity. Sets, in general, want a little breathing room (not everything should have to be key to the structure) so when you are too tight to fit things in, it's a sign you need to pull back slightly. With experience you get a feel for "how full is the right amount?" with a set.

Twinblaze2 @maro254 How do you decide whether it's worth moving away from precedents to allow for an out-of-the-box design?

Here's my belief on "out-of-the-box" design. You go out of the box only when it provides you something that cannot be done "in the box." Sometimes that is a design element and sometimes it is an overall aesthetic. Split cards could have been written as normal Magic cards but they just felt better in their current incarnation. The form helped explain the function in a very natural way. One of the biggest flaws of new designers is to try to do "out of the box" design solely to be "out of the box" rather than from some necessity of the design.

joshuaknox @maro254 How are decisions about set flavor made: is it attempting to seize Zeitgeist or something else?

One of my themes today is that there is no one way design is done. The same is held for the creative. Some sets start with the creative as a jumping off point (as Scars of Mirrodin did) while others discover the flavor as the mechanics start to solidify (as Zendikar block did).

Jethro_Harrup @maro254 How do you make bad cards? Is it deliberate or do you make cards intending them to be good so they end up bad when players don't use?

It is a rarity that we set out to make a bad card. Sure, One with Nothings exist but that is the exception to the rule and can still have uses. Most bad cards come about because we try things during design and some things just gel or play better than others. When development chooses what to push (design doesn't make these types of decisions) they tend to focus on the things that play the best or make the most sense in the set and block. The remaining cards usually get weakened as development needs to keep an overall balance on the set's power.

metaknightmare @maro254 How often are cards "stolen" by sets in development from other sets in development? I think you talked about Might of the Masses in Rise of the Eldrazi ...

Sets steal cards from each other all the time although most often with the willingness of the team giving up the card. Here's how priority for cards works. If a card is fundamental to a set's theme, that set gets it. If the card is not key to the set though, earlier sets are allowed to steal from later sets with the idea that the later set has more time to replace it. The general philosophy is this: we're trying to make Magic the best game we can. Cards are a tool to do this. Whatever set can best use that tool should have access to it.

dlaugel @maro254 How does Stone-Tongue Basilisk close its mouth?

Very carefully.

nick_at_nite @maro254 How do you decide when to make a functional reprint as opposed to an actual reprint, e.g. Evolving Wilds?

There are two main factors. First, is having access to more than four of the card in any format a problem? If so, we cannot reprint it with a new name. If not, we might want a new name to enable more copies. Second, is the creative team okay with the name and card concept in the current world. Often the card's name is changed because the answer is no. Evolving Wilds name was changed because we thought it would be neat to allow players access to eight of the card.

AdamClare @maro254 How do you not explode from not being able to talk about what you're working on for years?

It's actually one of the hardest parts about my job. In order for me to do my best work, I have to be very intimate with my design. To do my best work I need passion and that comes from enjoying what I am working on. For example, I just turned in my design for "Shake", the fall 2011 large set. By the time it gets released, I'll be working on the design for the 2013 fall set. I just have to tuck my excitement away and wait for sixteen months until I can talk all I want about it. Luckily I have a column where I get to say whatever I want every week. It's hard though. I so badly, for example, want to talk about Scars of Mirrodin. I've seen the printed cards and it's so awesome to see the thing I worked on for so long finally see print. I keep saying to myself, "Just a few more months. Just a few more months."

OpForceRich @maro254 How do you go about cracking a pack of Magic? :)

I tend to grip the pack and pull on the back seam until it pops open at top.

misterorange @maro254 How difficult is it to kill a card in design/development? (e.g. one designer doesn't like it, the head designer doesn't, etc)

It depends who it is that wants to kill the card. In design, the lead designer has total control of the file so no card can be killed without his say so. But then the file goes to development where the lead developer takes the red pen. The lead developer will listen to the lead designer but in the end it is the lead developer that has final say whether or not a card survives. The only person with the ultimate authority to kill a card is Aaron Forsythe and he has to be careful to use that power judiciously. While I have influence, I can't stop a card that the group or Aaron really wants. Proof in point is Hornet Sting. Colors are defined more by what they can't do than what they can. Green isn't supposed to be able to kill creatures. But I was in the minority and Magic creation is a product of consensus so now you can kill Lotus Cobra with your mono-green deck. Note, while I disagree with the decision to print this card, I will defend the process to my death. The consensus part of design and development is a fundamental element of why Magic is the game it is.

mtgcolorpie @maro254 How are Design and Development different (I don't think it's been explained. I imagine something like director/producer in movies)?

Since you chose movies I'll use that as my metaphor for the difference between design and development. Design is the director up through the end of principal photography. He's the guy who has the vision for what the movie is. He writes the script. He casts the movie. He shoots the movie the way he sees it. Development is the director for the rest of the time. He oversees post-production. He's in charge of taking what was done and making it all work. He's in charge of editing. He has the ability to reshoot parts of the movie. He can even pull out whole chunks of the original movie and throw it away. Design creates the vision, development upholds that vision even if it has to make some changes to get it there. The design/development split is a very important facet to Wizards Ramp;D. It ensures that each set has two different set of eyes overlooking each decision to make sure that what we end up with is the best the set can be.

JonLoucks @maro254 How do you keep the magic alive? (i.e. how do Wizards employees prevent burnout?)

I can't speak for other people so I'll give you my secret. Magic isn't really one game. It's a whole bunch of different games crunched into one. I keep from being burned out by constantly designing different games. Ssh, don't tell anyone.

warpgames @maro254 How do other card games (and other types of games, for that matter) effect Magic design?

All of Magic's designers are gamers—meaning we all play other games. Our design aesthetics and tools very much come from our personal background in gaming. Another way to say this is that every game designer is the product of the games he's played. If something speaks to you in another game, you internalize it and ask if it could be applied to your game. How you apply the knowledge varies from designer to designer but I know there are pieces of Magic inspired by other games. The only one I feel I can tell you about is Mood Swings, my own never produced mass market TCG, as I don't think I can get in trouble stealing from myself.

scott_bowling @maro254 How did Magic get its groove back?

We had a steamy romance with a young Jamaican. Wait, that's not right. The real answer is that we spent a number of years really rethinking the essence of Magic. It wasn't one big thing we did right, so much as much as ten little things. Oh yeah, and Duels of the Planeswalkers helped quite a bit too.

jsnlxndrlv @maro254 How do you keep track of everything you've written? Even with Google, I have a hard time finding articles I remember you writing.

All (or I should say almost all) of my Making Magic columns are in my archive. My magazine articles (Duelist, Topdeck, Sideboard) can all be found in the original magazine they were published in (from time to time we'll reprint some of them online—check out "The 10 Mental Locks of Magic" for one of my earliest writings) My Sideboard Online material is hidden deep in the bowels of The biggest problem with Google is that my name shows up all over the place the majority of which aren't even my articles. For those that might want to see what I wrote way back in the day, check out old Usenet posts. Some of them are even from before I worked at Wizards.

    How Now Brown Cow

That's all the time I have for today. I'll be back in two weeks to answer more of your questions. As a little teaser here are a few I'll be answering:

juzamjedi @maro254 how many future blocks are already planned out right now?

thepchapin @maro254 how much of Magic design is art vs science? How about development?

honupo @maro254 How is a card selected to be in a mythic slot?

Join me next week when I let everyone play.

Until then, may you take time to think about how you do the things you do.

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