The Mighty Core

Posted in Making Magic on July 18, 2011

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 Core Set Week! This week we'll be talking about core sets both in specific and in general. Three weeks ago I talked about the challenges of designing a core set, and two weeks ago I shared with you some stories of core sets from days gone by. Today I thought I'd go a little broader and talk about what exactly a core set is supposed to do. After a few weeks of sharing stories, I decided today was time for some down and dirty philosophical design talk. If that sounds good, keep reading. If not, I'll see you next week for my top ten Magic T-shirt countdown.

Getting to the Core

One of the creative thinking exercises I learned long ago was to take something that is a given and then reexamine it. Imagine what would happen if you just started over. For example, let's say you had the task of creating silverware. You are under no obligation to do anything similar to modern silverware; you are just trying to create the best tools to eat food with.

The first question you'd probably ask yourself is "What exactly do eating tools have to do?" Well, they need to allow you to get food from a plate to your mouth. (Note that I'm trying to replace the function of modern silverware; there are solutions that don't involve getting food from the plate to your mouth but getting the plate to your mouth.) To do that, they would need to be able to pick up the food in some manner. To solve this problem you then have to examine what kinds of food there are. The biggest category break would be solids and liquids. Each has different qualities that silverware would have to address.

Another major function of silverware is to prepare your food so that it is ready for you to transport it to your mouth. This is where the ability to break down your food into smaller chunks comes into play. You also will run across the limitation that people, in general, have two hands, meaning that at most two tools could be used at one time. The reason I bring this all up is that once you start to examine what the needs of silverware are, you begin to have respect for how modern silverware came to be.

The idea behind this exercise is that it is very easy to take things for granted without understanding their purpose. Today, I am going to run this exercise with the core set. In many ways, interestingly, this is what Aaron Forsythe did with Magic 2010 when he fundamentally shifted how a core set was created.

The Core, the Merrier

We'll begin this exercise by asking the key starting question: what does a core set have to do? Let's walk through the answers:

Be an Introduction to Magic

For some players this answer is controversial. Does the core set really have to be an introduction? Haven't we said multiple times that one of the things we've learned is that players tend to start all over the place? Perhaps this is a false assumption.

Let's take a step back. Magic's greatest strength, in my not so humble opinion, is its game play. It's a very fun game. Its greatest weakness? It's got a tough learning curve. It's hard to start. What this means is that once we get the players over the initial "lean to play" hump, things are good. This means we have to do everything in our power to help people overcome that hump.

There are numerous ways to do this, and I'm a huge fan of things like Duels of the Planeswalkers that help teach the game. Regardless, though, there has to be a clean entry point through the card sets. Note that in addition we are doing a lot to help make any entry point easier no matter what set you start with.

Why then the emphasis on the core set as a starting point? Because the easiest way to help someone learn to play is through human contact. Ideally players learn because someone they know takes the time to hold them by the hand and guide them through the rocky beginning. Here's the key to this. The average player does not necessarily know the best way to teach the game. In fact, having watched numerous focus groups where we see one person teach another, it's my belief that teaching Magic is quite difficult. (I give a number of tips on how to teach new players in this column.)

As such, we, being Wizards, have to do everything we can to create tools to help players teach new people. One of the key ways to do this is to create a product that we can educate existing players is the best one to help them teach new players.

What makes the core set the best one to do this? A number of things:

1) The core set isn't trying to tell a story or create a new environment.

Expert expansions have a lot more going on than just making new cards. Scars of Mirrodin, for example, had to reintroduce the plane of Mirrodin and the Phyrexians. Then it had to explain that the Phyrexians are slowly corrupting Mirrodin. That's a lot of ground to cover. This dedication to crafting the environment is wonderful for existing players but makes it harder for us to make individual cards that resonate all on their own.

2) The core set has less complexity.

Expert expansions introduce new mechanics, most often numerous new mechanics. The core set doesn't. Yes, we've started bringing back a keyword mechanic in each core set, but those have been chosen specifically because they are flavorful and have proven easy to understand. In addition, expert expansions tend to warp the environment in some new way, forcing us to make cards that don't always make perfect sense in a vacuum.

3) The core set is less cohesive.

What I mean by this is that a core set has the luxury of making whatever cards it wants. It would be hard, for example to make an expert expansion that has a zombie pharaoh, a djinn, and an illusion lord all in the same set. The core set though feels more like a "best of" collection allowing the designers more freedom to make compelling cards for beginners.

To sum up the logic: Magic needs an introductory set and the core set is the one best equipped to handle the task.

Be a Place to Put Cool Resonant Things

Once upon a time (before Magic 2010), if we wanted a card for a core set, we had to first introduce it into an expert expansion. At the time, the core set consisted of only repeats, which meant all new card creation was done in other sets. What this ended up doing was making us either make cards not quite in the version we wanted (Vengeful Pharaoh, for example, wouldn't have been a pharaoh, because that begs a set with an Egyptian flavor) or we had to wait a long time to make it.

One of the big discoveries that Aaron made which led to Magic 2010 (and thus to Magic 2012) is that Magic needs to have a place where we can put cool card designs that don't easily fit anywhere else. Vengeful Pharaoh should be able to exist without waiting for Magic to visit an Egyptian-themed world (don't worry, I'm sure we'll get there one day). If we want to maximize Magic's ability to make cool, resonant cards, then there has to be a place to put them. The core set is that place.

Vengeful Pharaoh

Be a Place for the Simplest Version of Things

This need is in many ways a blending of the last two needs. If Magic is going to lessen the curve for learning it has to be able to present the simplest versions of cards. So just as there needs to be a place for cool designs, so too does there need to be a place for simple designs.

Expert expansions are always looking for simple designs too but they are much more at the mercy of simple designs that work within the context of their set. The core set has more freedom to find room for simple designs, whatever they may be.

Introduce basic concepts

Many years ago I was asked which fifteen cards I would select for a Magic booster pack to be put into a time capsule to be opened many years in the future. My answer is that I would try and select fifteen cards from which a future civilization could figure out how to play the game of Magic. I don't remember my exact selection, but I made sure it introduced as many of the basic concepts of the game as I could. (If my thread wants to play around with this thought exercise, it was a lot of fun last time we did it.)

My point here is that if the core set is going to be the introductory set, it also has the responsibility of conveying a lot of the essence of what the game is. For example, here are some things it needs to convey, although this is far from an exhaustive list:

The color wheel: As I've stated numerous times, I believe the color wheel to be at the very center of the game. As such, I think it's crucial that the core set lay down the groundwork for what the new player needs to know about the color wheel.

First up, what do each of the five colors represent philosophically. (Click here for a link to a collection of all my articles on color philosophy.) This is a job that all the cards have to work together to provide. One card will give you an aspect of black, but all the black cards, when put together, should give you the overall feel.

Second, what do each of the colors represent mechanically? This is where my personal pet peeve about post-Magic 2010 core sets comes into play. While I really like the embracing of more resonance, I dislike that there are cards in Magic that are not representative of the color pie mechanically and show up in exactly one place: the core set. I feel the core set is supposed to be the teaching tool to show you what colors do. Being the exception hurts the core set's ability to teach. I want new players to learn that trample is primarily a green thing because it shows up in the largest number and lowest rarity in green.

Third, how do the colors feel about one another? What is the relationship between them? The color wheel is on the back of every Magic card but players don't get the ally/enemy connection until cards specifically call it out.

The card types

It's very easy to forget when you're teaching that the beginner has no inherent knowledge coming into the game (other than knowledge that anyone would get from familiarity with real-life concepts or fantasy imagery). The core set has to make sure that it delivers cards of each card type that do a good job of explaining themselves. Enchantments need to feel like enchantments and artifacts have to feel like artifacts. Instants and sorceries have to have a clean divide where the players get why both need to exist.

The evergreen mechanics

By evergreen I mean the mechanics that show up in every (or just about every) set. The majority of these mechanics have the advantage of being very self-explanatory. They tend to tap into basic flavor that helps explain what they do. The first time, for instance, that I explain flying, I always get a nod from the person learning because the concept of flying means something to them and the mechanic does exactly what you think it would do.


R&D has gone back and forth on how many of these mechanics are supposed to show up in the core set versus being exclusive to the expert expansions. The pendulum has swung back a bit and we are more willing to do slightly more complicated mechanics at higher rarities. That said, there is not a feeling that every evergreen keyword has to show up in every core set.

The phases and steps of the game

Once again, the new player doesn't have to learn everything but they have to at least get the basics: when you untap; when you draw a card; when you attack; when your creatures heal. The core game has to introduce what I call the basic flow of the game.

Basic fantasy flavor

Each person walks in with some level of knowledge of fantasy. Odds are they've heard of a dragon and get what a giant is, but there are many layers and the core game needs to lay out all the layers to help the new player understand it. In addition, Magic uses different elements in fantasy in its own way. In Magic, for example, goblins are comic relief, angels are holy warriors, and vampires are commonplace.

As I stressed in my article I linked to above about teaching new players, the goal is not to teach them everything possible to teach. The goal is getting them interested so that they want to explore the game and learn about all of the above. Magic is a very rich game with much to absorb. The core set needs to whet the appetite of the new player and then provide enough examples that it allows the discovery process to take place. For instance, I don't feel that a first-time player has to walk away understanding the five colors perfectly, but should have a tiny sense of where each one is headed.

Interest the existing player

For a long time, the thought about the core set was that it wasn't for the experienced player. Sure, it would impact what was playable in Standard, so experienced players had to at least know what was in it, but the set wasn't made with any intention of them acquiring it. There are numerous flaws to this way of thinking, but the biggest, in terms of what we're talking about today, is that it diminished how players thought about the set. This matters because if we want new players to be funneled through the core set, we have to make sure that the existing players are excited about it.

New players might not know the game, but they can recognize enthusiasm. What should you start with, the set that your friend, the experienced Magic player, is excited about, or the one that he or she seems to care less about? If we want new players getting excited about the core set, we have to get everyone excited about the core set.

The other big thing that this shift did is it made us rethink how we built the core sets for drafting. Once upon a time, the thought was that no one was drafting core sets, because beginners tend not to draft and experienced players didn't play with the core set. If we want the experienced players to care about the core set, we had to make the drafting experience something memorable. Magic 2010 shifted the way we thought about what the core set had to deliver.

This in turn impacts how much flux goes into each core set. Once upon a time, the thought process was that we were moving towards some perfect core set state, making each set one step closer. Now with a focus on drafting, we want to make sure the core set has enough shake-up that the drafting experience changes year to year. Note we don't want too much change because of the many reasons listed above, but we want enough that the drafting experience varies from year to year.

Create excitement

This last requirement is an extension of the previous one. The core set is no longer filler. We want every Magic set to excite our players, and the core set is no exception. Part of making a core set now is making sure that there are things in it to get players talking.

Note that the core set does not have many of the tools of the expert expansion. It cannot introduce new mechanics or bend too far away from the default of the flavor. In addition, the core set has to fill around half of its slots with preexisting cards (although reprints have turned the corner, I believe, to having the ability to often be a selling point of the set).

Magic has to be thought-provoking and flavorful, but it also has to be fun. No set, not even the core set, can lose sight of that.

The Fantastic Core

Once you've isolated what the core set has to do, you will start to see the key decisions that guide the set. How can we make the set as simple as possible but also as resonant as possible? How can me make the drafting experience unique but also convey the same things that every core set has to teach?

Part of this is the need for a stable of what I'll call "core cards." These are cards hand made to do one or more of the jobs listed above. Instead of just having one set of core cards though we need to have more than would fit in any one set. The idea behind this is that we need flux but also enough stability to make sure the core set does what it always has to do.

The idea behind the core cards is that the set doesn't need any one particular card but does need a certain number of overall core cards. Giant Growth will probably exist in most core sets but Magic 2012 was able to exist without it. Its absence will help define the Limited feel of this set because it is something different from the default.

Another role of the core cards is that they, taken together, help define the essence of the game from the color pie to the key mechanics but leave room for extra cards, usually at higher rarities, that will add flavor without necessarily carrying the major burden of simplicity or messaging.

I hope you enjoyed the thought exercise of the day and perhaps you might be able to see the core set in a different light. I'm curious to any feedback to today's column either in my email through the link at the bottom of the page, on my Twitter page (@maro254), or in this column's thread.

Join me next week when I bring the shirt. (And for those of you that might not have liked Part 1, I'm going to be mixing up Part 2 a little, so please check it out.)

Until then, may you find joy in the simplest of things.

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