A Modern Sensibility

Posted in Making Magic on October 31, 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 Modern Week! This is one of those theme weeks where the columnists are given a theme with enough leeway that we could go several different directions. Unsure of what I should write, I asked aloud in the Pit, "What am I supposed to do for Modern Week?"

The first response I got was: "Talk about modern Magic design."

"What does that mean?"

"You don't design like you used to, right?"


"So talk about how modern design is different from way back when."

(short pause as I think about this suggestion)

"Okay. Thank you very much."

As of tonight, or yesterday depending on when you read this column (October 30, specifically), I have now been a Wizards of the Coast employee for sixteen years. Yes, my stint at Wizards is now old enough to drive. When I talk about now and then, understand that there's a bit of a gap. So, what exactly has changed about design in the last sixteen years? It turns out, quite a bit.

Conservation of Design Space

One of the biggest differences between designing for a two-year-old game and an eighteen-year-old game is that design has to be much more conscious of design resources. In the beginning, there were endless untapped veins of design and the future was unknown, so there was little need to worry about the amount of design space left. Sixteen years later, though, design resources have become a major concern.

Be aware that the design resource issue isn't as much about the present as it is about the future. Magic has proven itself, meaning there's every reason to believe that Magic will outlive us all. If that's true, the greatest threat to Magic's long-term existence is running out of material. To help ease this problem, design is now much more conscious of how much design resource we use each year. The goal is "just enough." We want to make fun, compelling sets, but we need to it in a way that helps preserve our resources.

The biggest impact in this change of design mindset is that we're much more conscious of what we can do with any particular mechanic. Let's take double-faced cards as an example. There are a lot of different design possibilities once you allow a card to use both sides. When we decided to include double-faced cards in Innistrad block, I was very careful to define what segment of double-faced cards we were going to use.

Innistrad uses double-faced cards to show transformation, so the card always comes to the battlefield A side (a.k.a. the sunny side) face up and then is able to transform through some means to side B (a.k.a. the moony side). That space played up our transformation theme but left plenty of future design for double-faced cards if we chose to use them again. (Early reports, by the way, say their return is looking pretty good—although not for a number of years.) How else can double-faced cards be used? Well, that's for future sets to show you.

Reuse of Design Inventory

This next category leads directly from the last. Another way to conserve design resources is to reuse design material from previous sets. This is a big shift from early design, where we tended to think of mechanics as disposable. Actually, that's not quite correct. Back in the day, mechanics were either advanced to evergreen status (meaning that any set could use them and would do so with some regularity) or tossed onto the trash heap.

Eventually we started opening up to the idea of bringing back old mechanics, but for some reason we felt more comfortable bringing back unnamed mechanics rather than ones that were keyworded. That's the reason pitch cards (cards with alternative costs, first seen in Alliances) were brought back in Mercadian Masques, but cycling didn't return until several years later in Onslaught.

In the early days we did bring back old cards, but we tended to use them in one of two limited ways. First, reprinted cards were most often brought back in core sets. The role of core sets back then was, in fact, to serve as a vehicle to repeat earlier printed Magic cards. (Remember that before Magic 2010, core sets didn't have new cards in them.) The second use for reprints was as a way to get staple effects into expansions. The card Stone Rain, for instance, showed up in large sets for numerous years in a row. (Yes, back then R&D was also comfortable with land destruction being a bit more powerful.)

Nowadays, design is constantly looking out for cards and mechanics that can return. The key is to find things that naturally fit into the set in question. In Innistrad design, for example, I asked my design team to scour Magic's past to find cards that just felt at home in a horror set. I've already talked about how Blazing Torch felt so at home that people failed to realize it appeared in Zendikar first. These are the kinds of repeats design loves to use. Flashback was chosen as the returning mechanic because of the natural synergy it had with Innistrad's graveyard component. (Design now tries to include one returning mechanic each block.)

An interesting thing about this shift is that we came to realize that vast majority of the players actually enjoy having material come back. One of the most common questions I get about Innistrad, for instance, is: Why didn't (fill in the blank) come back? Nostalgia has proven to be a very potent force for design, one that R&D has learned to tap.

Caring About Complexity

To demonstrate this next point, let me start by showing you a card from Ice Age:

Balduvian Shaman

Let's walk through what this card does. The card is a 1/1 creature with a activation. So far, so good. The card has the ability to target enchantments. I'm sorry, white enchantments. I mean white enchantments you control. That's not quite right—white enchantments you control that don't have cumulative upkeep. That's what you can target. Now what does it do to them? The card will take any color word (that is, "white," "blue," "black," "red," or "green") and turn it into any other color word. Wait, there's more. It does this and also grants that enchantment cumulative upkeep .

The best part: Balduvian Shaman is a common card. In modern Magic, not only wouldn't this card get printed at common, it probably wouldn't get printed at all. It's way too narrow and, more importantly, it's needlessly complicated. My test for this is simple: Give the card to a player and have them read it over a few times. Let them take their time. Then take the card away and ask them to tell you what it does. If the player is unable to do so, you have a problem card on your hands. (That's not to say we'd never print a card that flunks this test, but it has to have a lot going for it and be at a higher rarity, most likely rare.)

The point of this demonstration is to illustrate another key shift in design over the years: the importance of simplicity. Magic is a complex game with many moving pieces and a rulebook that makes unabridged dictionaries seem skinny. On top of that, it's a game with a voluminous amount of decisions and numerous facets.

I have been asked what single thing has the greatest chance of killing Magic, and my answer is always runaway complexity. (Running out of design resources is the long-term threat.) A trading card game's inertia pushes towards new elements being constantly created. By its very nature, Magic is going to grow (mechanics-wise) year over year. R&D fights this complexity creep by being ever vigilant about what gets added to the game and by keeping the elements we do have as streamlined as possible.

My mantra (well, one among many) is "less is more." Whenever we explore new design space (be it new cards, new mechanics, or new themes), I'm always eager to find the simplest way to present it. If things can be cut, we should cut them. If things can be simplified we should simplify them. Our goal is to make the game the best we can using the smallest amount of complexity possible. (You'll notice an overall conservation theme running through this column.)

Whenever I discuss R&D's focus on complexity, I often get responses from players worried that we are hurting the game. ("Dumbing it down" is a popular phrase.) Let me be crystal clear on this point. Metaphorically, complexity is a five-alarm fire burning down the building. R&D works feverishly to keep the fire under control. There's no danger of us putting it out. Magic is and will always be a very complex game. Our efforts are not to make it into something it is not, but to keep the gap between new players and experienced players from getting any wider.

Limited Matters

Limited is such a huge part of Magic's identity that it's easy to forget that this wasn't always the case. The first set to really even consider limited in its design in any large capacity was Mirage. And even that seems very antiquated compared to modern design. Nowadays, every set is designed with limited very much in mind. Yes, we still want to make sure that there are all the tools needed for various Constructed formats, but the Limited environment is ever present in the designers' (and developers') minds.

The easiest way to see this is to watch the earliest part of design. As you've seen from my Nuts & Bolts columns (here, here, and here), design starts by creating the commons. The commons not only build the foundation of the set but also establish the environment for Limited. As I like to say, "If your theme isn't at common, it isn't your theme." Common cards define what your set is about and give the players the consistency to play your themes in Limited (and casual Constructed—the technical term for "kitchen table Magic").

Weave Flavor into the Mechanics

This next category is interesting in that in some ways it has returned to how design used to work in the beginning, yet in other ways it's radically different. The move of the last few years to what R&D calls "resonance" (we design things with flavors you already know, such as the horror genre) is very much us trying to recapture something Richard Garfield did in Alpha. Magic's first set was filled with cards whose mechanics were created to match their flavor. The nonblack restriction on black kill cards, for example, stems back to the card Terror, which had the restriction because it didn't feel right for a black spell to scare to death other black creatures.

During the design of Magic 2010, Aaron Forsythe came to the conclusion that Magic design had been a little too much head and not enough heart (or in my vocabulary, too much Melvin and not enough Vorthos). Ever since then, design has been much more conscious of trying to create top-down designs that use their mechanics to capture the essence of the card's flavor.

Rise from the Grave
Master of the Wild Hunt

The area that is quite different is how design interacts with creative. In the early, early days, design did the creative but once Wizards hired a continuity team (what the creative team was called long ago), the process of adding creative became something that happened after design was done. It was not uncommon for the creative team to wait until they saw the completed design to figure out what exactly the story and environment were going to be.

Olivia Voldaren

In modern Magic design, we work very closely with the creative team. Let's take Innistrad as an example. Before the set's design even began, Brady Dommermuth (the head of the creative team) and I spent a lot of time talking about what we wanted the world to be like. Then I spent the first few weeks with my design team defining what flavor we wanted to capture and how we would tie it into the set mechanically. Once we had it figured out, we sat down with the creative team to make sure that they were okay with the choices we made. We used their input to change what we had and further our design. This back and forth went on throughout design.

I have been very happy with the design of the last few years, and I believe the biggest reason is that we have gotten to a place where the design is part of the creative. Zombies don't feel like zombies merely because of the art, names and flavor text. How they play is just as flavorful. This has come about because of this shift of focus in design and creative.

Looking at the Big Picture

Several weeks ago, I had a day where I did work on five different blocks. On a related note, earlier this year, Aaron had me put together a seven-year schedule (he asked for five, but I had enough for seven), meaning that I have a rough outline for the block that comes out in the fall of 2017! Back in the old days, we never worked this far ahead. The classic example is the removal of all the core tribal creature types (Elf, Goblin, etc.) in Odyssey block. People always asked why we did that when Onslaught, the first ever major tribal block, followed it. The answer is when I made that choice for Odyssey, we didn't know that Onslaught was going to have a tribal theme.

Why are we working so far ahead? Because part of modern Magic design is thinking big. Back in the day, we designed cards for the set at hand. Maybe we had an inkling of how certain things could evolve later in the block (and even that wasn't until we started making blocks). Nowadays we think not just about how the cards affect this set, but this block and last block and next block. We try to make sure the pendulum is swinging in different directions so that the feel of the game is shifting, but we also watch our block themes to make sure that they have synergy with the sets before and after. We try to avoid the "block monster" problem where cards only play within their own block.

Once upon a time, if a card was cool it went into the set where it was first designed. Now we are very careful to use the cool cards in the right set. I've personally made cards that I've squirreled away for years (some of them are even Squirrel cards) waiting for the right time to deploy them. This big-picture take on design is very much how modern Magic works.

Modern Times

In some ways Magic design is the same now as it was sixteen years ago. I still take one of the set's mechanics each year and figure out if I can make a direct damage spell or Giant Growth out of it. But in so many other ways, Magic design has matured. The advantage of being eighteen years old is that you have time to learn from your mistakes, to explore new areas and make new discoveries, to stand on the shoulders of the giants that came before you.

I could go on and on about all the different ways that Magic design has changed. Today's column was just a sampler. I hope though it gave you some insight into how design technology keeps incrementing and improving to bring you a better and better game.

Join me next week when I finish my lecture to my daughter's fifth grade class.

Until then, may you appreciate the Model T but also your brand new car.

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