Magic Goes To Eleven

Posted in Making Magic on June 28, 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 the first week (of two) of Magic 2011 Previews. This week and next, I'll give you a little insight into how the latest core set was whipped into shape. And if you're extra nice, I might even throw in a preview card or two. Sound good? Well then, let's get going.

Don't miss the end of today's column where I'll tell you about a job opportunity on the Magic Brand team.

    En-Core Set

As always, I want to begin by introducing you to the design team behind Magic 2011's design:

Aaron Forsythe (Lead): One of the problems with introducing design teams is that I talk about certain people a lot. As such, it becomes harder and harder to say something I haven't already said. Aaron is one of those people. As I did with the Archenemy design team introduction, I'm going to try and tell you something about each person that you might not know.

Aaron is my boss. For many years, I was Aaron's boss. In fact, I was the person responsible for bringing Aaron to Wizards (to be the editor-in-chief of when we first started it). During the time I was Aaron's boss, my main goal was to train Aaron to be my replacement. Not that I was going anywhere, it's just important to make sure that any skill set is shared by multiple people so that Magic doesn't grind to a halt if any one particular person gets hit by a bus (or if some Mana Drain-loving individual tries to take out Ramp;D all at once).

So what happened? While Aaron showed design skills, he also showed development skills. When Brian Schneider left as Head Developer, a slot opened up and Aaron decided to throw his hat in. Then less than six months later, Randy Buehler got promoted and left the Director of Magic Ramp;D position vacant. Aaron's design and development skills proved valuable and Aaron got promoted again.

I bring all of this up because while Aaron is the Director of Magic Ramp;D, he also has plenty of design and development skills that he likes to flex from time to time. Aaron was the lead designer of Magic 2010 where he completely re-envisioned what the core set should be. (Check out my preview column from Magic 2010 last year to see what I'm talking about). Aaron knew that Magic 2010 was going to be a hard act to follow, so he chose to repeat the role as lead designer for Magic 2011. (He's also currently the lead developer for "Action", the 2011 spring set for those curious of him exercising his development skills.) After the success of Magic 2010, there is no one I, as Head Designer, would want to lead Magic 2011 design more than Aaron. Luckily, Aaron wanted to do it.

Doug Beyer: Most of you know Doug as the Savor the Flavor columnist or possibly as the "names and flavor text guy". What you don't know is that he is one of the most sought after people to be on development teams. Doug brings both a very unique perspective and a good technical set of skills, so he has proven very valuable as a development team member. The problem Doug has is one of time.

I'm not sure if all of you have any idea the scope of what the creative team does year in and year out, but it is an insane amount of work for what is a rather small team. As a result, as much as everyone wants Doug on their development team and as much as Doug wants to be on every development team, there simply aren't the hours in the day needed for Doug to do it all. Because of this, Doug has been very particular about what development teams he joins and as Magic 2011 was following in the footsteps of Magic 2010, its strong emphasis on resonance made Doug a good fit for the team.

One last trivia tidbit that you might not all know: Doug built the initial Gatherer in his spare time because he thought it was something really wanted to have. Before Doug joined the creative team, he was a programmer at Wizards.

Mark Globus: If you had told me during the Great Designer Search that four of the fifteen finalists would be full time employees at Wizards four years later, I would have been skeptical. I've spent a great deal of time talking about Ken Nagle, but Ken is not the only one of the four to be in Magic Ramp;D. Mark Globus is the other. Mark was hired by our digital department but has transitioned to become Magic's Producer in Ramp;D. What that means is that he is in charge of, well, a whole bunch of things. Magic Ramp;D has many moving parts and Mark's job is to keep all those parts in motion. It is part product management, part time management and part people management.

Mark didn't make it to the #4 slot (okay, tied for the #4 slot with Ryan Sutherland) without having some Magic design skills of his own. As such, I make use of him on design teams whenever he can fit it into his schedule. While I am confident that Mark held his own in Magic 2011, I am most excited to show you some of the stuff he did for Scars of Mirrodin, which I'm hoping they'll actually let me talk about one of these days. Suffice to say, I'm never unhappy sticking Mark on a design team.

Tom LaPille: This is Tom's first time on a design team. If you don't know Tom you should start showing up on Fridays to read his weekly column, Latest Developments. Tom is one of our developers and he, as such, spends most of his time developing Magic, but we like to put developers on our design teams as they add an important perspective. Also, they are often put on the design team to provide a link between the two teams.

I have since gotten a chance to work with Tom on the design of "Shake", the fall 2011 set and I have greatly enjoyed his insight. I'm not sure how much I can tell you about Tom that you don't know—he writes all about himself weekly. However, here's something that Tom won't tell you. One of my Pit hobbies (I believe I picked up the habit from Richard Garfield) is to say outrageous things with a straight face to see if I can get someone to believe me for a minute or two. It never lasts much longer than that because at some point I tend to laugh.

Here's an example:

Someone: There was an artist once who translated a Napoleonic speech into runes and put them into art. (True story: The artist was Drew Tucker.)
Me: That's nothing. We once had an artist translate a Satanic nursery rhyme into Morse code and used it for the border of the art. Magic was banned in five Asian countries including Bangladesh, where it's still illegal to sell the cards.

Tom is probably my favorite person to play this "game" with because he'll believe about anything for thirty seconds before common sense kicks in. Every time I do it, Tom yells at himself for falling for it again. I see years of entertainment ahead.

Gregory Marques: Greg might be best known in Magic circles as the guy that I put on the Fifth Dawn design team from out of nowhere. The team had one other guy that had never been on a design team before—some guy named Aaron Forsythe—and he worked out okay. Greg was hired many years later to do design on new games for Wizards. As any designer in the Pit (who knows Magic) is fair game for a Magic design assignment, I put Greg on numerous design teams and he never disappointed.

Greg has since moved on to other design opportunities (and winning the U.S. Nationals Qualifier in Washington), but I'm happy that we still have a chance to show off some of his designs. Greg is a very talented game designer and it was my pleasure to work with him.

    Eleven Can('t) Wait

There are a lot of challenges in design. One of them is following up a success. When a set goes over as well as Magic 2010 did, it raises the bar for what follows. Magic 2011 had an additional problem—Magic 2010 reinvented what a core set was. Magic 2011 was going to follow in the path paved by Magic 2010. By their very nature, path followers don't attract the attention of path pavers. How could Magic 2011 live up to the memory of Magic 2010 while staying true to the advancements it made? That was the biggest challenge for Aaron's team. How did they do it? Let me count the ways:

    #1. Don't Reinvent the Wheel

The biggest reason behind Magic 2010's success, in my opinion, was it's re-embracing of the resonance of early Magic. Creatures and spells represented things that the players were familiar with. Cards mechanically did what the flavor would lead you to believe that they did. In short, the cards made flavorful sense. Aaron understood this and made it clear to everyone that Magic 2011 was following the same credo as Magic 2010: make spells that resonate with the players.

In addition, Aaron felt that Magic 2010 had the right mix of elements—of new cards vs. old, of cards in the previous core set vs. cards that weren't, of cards with new art vs. cards with old art. While the numbers were tweaked slightly, the general percentages stayed similar. Magic 2011 had to create its own identity but the numbers that we used to do that matched what had gone on in Magic 2010.

Magic 2011 was also designed very similarly to Magic 2010. The design team mix had a little less upper management in it (remember that the design team for Magic 2010 was the director of Magic Ramp;D, the VP of Ramp;D, the Head Designer, the Head Developer, the Creative Director, and the Head Designer for New Games), but they followed a similar pattern in how the set was created. There was a creative team member on the design team to work on creating the card concept organically alongside the mechanical design. The team looked over each color making sure that each represented its philosophy by the choice of its cards. The holistic whole of the set was always being examined.

Magic 2011 would have elements all its own, but the basic structure of its design was very much a continuation of what Magic 2010 had established.

    #2. Bring Back Some of the Bang

Another of the reasons for Magic 2010's success was its card selection. Yes, Magic 2011 needed some new cards, but it also needed to bring back some of what made Magic 2010 successful. When design began, the original plan was to bring back either Lightning Bolt or Baneslayer Angel. These two cards had been outstanding performers in Magic 2010 and the thought was that we should let one sit the set out to let other cards shine.

At first Lightning Bolt was removed, but there were fans in the Pit that lobbied for its return. Then Baneslayer Angel was removed but there were concerns that it was wrong to take a card that's valuable in so many decks and only allow it in Standard for a single year (okay, fifteen months). In the end, the development team decided that both had their reasons to return and kept them both.

The design team (and the development team after that) thought long and hard about what should come back. They wanted to revisit some of the thrill of Magic 2010 while allowing some room for new ideas to flourish.

    #3. Introduce Some New Power Hitters

Magic 2011 wanted to capture the magic of Magic 2010 but it didn't want to be Magic 2010. In order to do this, this meant that they had to introduce some new cards. If you haven't visited the Visual Spoiler yet, there you'll find many of the new goodies coming your way. (If you're trying to not know what's in the set before the prerelease, do not click the link.) The two most exciting new things are a rare and mythic rare cycle that you'll be learning about pretty soon, but the set has plenty of cool individual cards such as my preview card for today. There's not much I can say to set this card up that seeing the card won't do better, so just click here to see my preview card.

I chose this card for my preview for several reasons. First, it's a pretty awesome card. Second, it uses a mechanic that was one of the first things I ever designed—"can't be countered". For those that have been around awhile, you might remember this card from the first set I had the pleasure of designing:

Here's a quick write-up about the card from Tempest Week in 2002.

Scragnoth—I created this card years before I came to Wizards. It always bothered me that every card had a foil except for counterspells. How do you fight a spell that can stop any spell? The answer was obvious: Make the spell uncounterable. Once I had this idea, I tried to figure out what kind of spell would give blue a headache if it got into play. Blue has problems with permanents. The only way for blue to deal with a permanent that has come into play is to bounce it with some form of boomerang. That meant a permanent that had protection from blue and had some way to end the game would cause blue fits. Because one of blue's enemies is green, and green is the creature color, and creatures have a built-in clock (meaning they make the game end in a finite number of turns), everything came together beautifully to make Scragnoth.

Third, I'm a sucker for shroud and shroud-like tweaks. Just as I felt Counterspell should have an answer, so too should Terror. Gaea's Revenge's version has a lot of flavor to it while making something a little different than you've ever seen. Fourth, I wanted to talk a second about green haste.

Art by Kekai Kotaki

I'm a huge fan of haste. I was one of the people that fought to get it a keyword back in the day. (Trivia: before it got an actual name, Ramp;D's internal nickname for it was celerity. It's a fancy word for speedy.) I also fought to get the ability added to black because I knew that black was shy in evergreen keyword mechanics. Development loves haste in green because it plays so well in Constructed. Because Magic is best when keywords are restricted to a few colors (there are many reasons, but the top two, from a design perspective, are color identity and play variety), I made a compromise with the developers. We put haste tertiary in green, meaning that it shows up infrequently and always in higher rarities. This allowed the developers to put it on Constructed cards that needed it without feeling like haste defined green in Limited. The one side effect is that haste feels "the best" in green because when it appears it's very, very good. Gaea's Revenge is only going to further this impression.

    #4. Introduce Something That's Never Been In A Core Set

It's very easy to miss what I consider the most radical thing about Magic 2011. It has an expert set keyword—scry. In the past, we've used keywords from expansions but only when we turned them into evergreen keywords. That's not what's happening with scry. Scry isn't going to start showing up in every set. In fact, I'll let you in on a secret, it's not appearing in Magic 2012. That's going to have a different keyword.

I often talk about how we see mechanics as a resource. Just as the Magic 2010 team questioned the idea of new cards appearing in a core set, so did the Magic 2011 team question the idea of using expert set keywords. Why couldn't the core set bring back a mechanic like it did a card?

The rules set up were straightforward. The keyword mechanic had to be simple. It had to fit on a card and be easy for the players to understand. The keyword had to lend itself to flavorful designs. The keyword had to play well, especially in Limited. The keyword had to be something we didn't have any plans for in upcoming blocks. (Remember, design now tries to bring back one old mechanic each block.) For the first time out scry was chosen.

    "Please Sir, Can I Have Some Core"

I have more to say but I've hit my word count and I have a whole other theme week to fill up, so I'm going to call it a column for today. Join me next week when I'll further explore Magic 2011's design.

Until then, may you get a little revenge for Gaea.

    So You Want To Work At Wizards?

As a little extra bonus for today, I'm going to answer my most popular question: "How can I get a job at Wizards?" (Okay, the question is more often "How can I get a job in Ramp;D?"—but really, isn't being paid to work on Magic good enough?) The best way to get a job at Wizards is to pay attention to the Wizards Job Postings.

There, in addition to other things, you'll learn that the Magic Brand Team is looking for an Associate Brand Manager, someone with a passion for both Magic and marketing. Mark Purvis, current Magic Brand Manager (who clicked a link after reading about the position in this very column) has been on both design and development teams in addition to daily deciding the fate of Magic (well, along with a bunch of other people). If you have training in marketing (we'll assume you know Magic since you're reading this column), this could be your chance. Maybe next time I write a blurb, I'll use you as an example. So, get to it!

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