Shards of Alara Block
During design playtesting, I work hard to try as many different colors and strategies as possible because I'm trying to wrap my head around the set. Once the set goes to development, my strategy in playtesting shifts, especially in draft. Because I'm no longer responsible for keeping the holistic view of the set, I shift my goals to trying to help out development by choosing a strategy and focusing on it. I've learned that the best way for me to be a good drafter is to pick one deck type and then hyper-focus on understanding it the best I can.
What this means is that I get a reputation for being a steadfast drafter who forces the draft strategy I'm interested in. One of the classic R&D stories (it's not about Shards of Alara but it's worth the aside) happened during a Scars of Mirrodin draft. Erik Lauer was sitting to my right (meaning that he passed to me in the first and third packs). At the end of the draft, Erik was upset because I was in his colors (black-green). He said, "Didn't you see the signals? I went into black-green in pack one." I replied, "Didn't you see my signals? I started drafting infect six drafts ago."
Anyway, in Shards of Alara draft, I had chosen Esper as the focus for all my drafts. I had led the Esper shard design team and I've always had a strong affinity for artifacts. (Remember that besides the Esper shard, I also led the design on Mirrodin, Fifth Dawn, and Scars of Mirrodin.) Before I came to Wizards, my favorite set had been Antiquities. I was a huge fan of artifacts and I really enjoyed how we had set up Esper.
So draft after draft, I steadfastly drafted Esper. The other R&D members tended to get out of my way because they knew nothing would lure me away from my set strategy, so I both got good at drafting Esper and tended to get very solid decks. I even gave notes about how development could help the Esper strategy by tweaking certain cards.
Flash forward to a year later when the set finally came out. I did a draft with some players and I was excited because I felt I really understood my draft strategy. But it never came. I looked and looked and cards that I used to get as later picks never showed. At the end of the draft, I learned my problem. It turned out that, in the real world, Esper was very popular to draft. I got burned because I had helped make Esper a little too attractive.
This story came back to me as I was playtesting Modern Masters because whenever I would see an Etherium Sculptor, I would get the urge to draft it (although I had to overcome it because my Modern Masters strategy was Thallids).
I've talked quite a bit about how the "lands set" was a hard sell within the company. Today's story is a little sub-story about that struggle.
There are a lot of misconceptions, I believe, about the design process. One is that we get ideas whole form. That is, I'm just walking around one day when the solution to my design problem pops in my head. I write it down and problem solved. That's not actually how it works. Most design progress comes from getting an idea and working with it and then slowly changing it over time until it ends up where you need it. Part of this process is that a lot of things—cards, mechanics, themes—have to get chucked along the way. While some of the time it's because they don't work well, often it's because they don't work well in that set.
This means I have a lot of cool ideas with potential but they need the right environment. Be aware that what makes Magic design so hard is that there are a lot of things that can work in Magic but not always a lot of things that work well in the design space you're playing around in. Whenever we get a cool idea that just doesn't fit, I store it away in my head. If you cracked my head open, there's probably a lifetime of set ideas in there from all the leftovers from sets I've done.
Every once in a while, I hit a threshold for some subset of ideas and my brain goes "Ding! Potential block idea." One of these was that I had collected a lot of interesting ideas for land mechanics. I wasn't sure which ones were going to pan out but I knew there were enough that we'd get something good. So, in my head I had an idea for a "land block."
That idea sat there for several years until, one day, Randy Buehler promoted me to head designer and asked me to come up with a five-year plan. I had so many ideas that I ended up coming up with a six-year plan. Year Five of that plan was what I had simply dubbed "the land block." Randy, like everyone else who heard the idea, was skeptical, but he had enough faith in me that he was willing to let me take some time to test the idea out. On the five-year plan, by the way, Randy wrote "Experimental Block" and sold it to Bill Rose by explaining that every once in a while we had to let design try something new and untested because where else would we find new tent pole ideas. (A tent pole is a theme robust enough that you can build a block around it not once, but many, many times. Multicolor is an example of a very strong tent pole.)
The Zendikar design team (Doug Beyer, Ken Nagle, Matt Place, Graeme Hopkins, and myself) started plugging away on the design, intent on finding interesting land mechanics. I realized that people were still talking derisively about "the land block" so I made the call to start referring to Zendikar as Landsapolooza. I thought it would make it sound a little more festive.
A few weeks later, Bill Rose, the VP of R&D, pulled me into his office. "Mark," he said, "I have faith in you and your team but we're having a little bit of an internal PR problem. People don't have faith in 'the land block' and calling it that seems to be making matters worse."
"I've been calling it Landsapalooza," I replied.
"It still has the word 'land' in it," Bill answered. "We need to call it something that doesn't reference land. You and your team shouldn't change anything you're doing. I just need to have something different to call it. You're the word guy so I figured you could solve this problem."
I thought for a second. "Okay," I said, "I'd like to start calling it the money block."
Bill smiled. "I like it," he said.
We started calling it the "money block" and stopped getting complaints. (Once the creative kicked in, we started calling it "Adventure World," which was also well received.)
Scars of Mirrodin Block
I often talk about how things went well in design but I seldom talk about times when things went wrong. My tale for Scars of Mirrodin is about a time I almost lost control over one of my sets. To understand this story, let me remind you about some of the backstory of Scars of Mirrodin design. Back in Mirrodin, Brady Dommermuth came up with a clever idea of how to bring back the Phyrexians. They had previously been wiped out during their invasion of Dominaria in Invasion (the final part of the Weatherlight Saga). Brady's idea was to have Karn Liberated inadvertently expose Mirrodin to the Phyrexian oil. This would allow us to return many years later to what would become New Phyrexia. At the end of the block, we would do the big reveal that the world was actually... Mirrodin!
What this meant was that when I started design on the first set of the block I was working on New Phyrexia. While I made some headway in finding a mechanical identity for the Phyrexians, I was stuck with what story we were trying to tell. Everyone had a different opinion and I was scrambling to find something that everyone liked. I struggled so much that Bill Rose stepped in. He said the file wasn't working. I had to fix it or he was going to have an outside team come in and make changes.
My team was changed and I was given six weeks to prove that I had a solution to the problem. Note this is the only time in my career at Wizards that this ever happened. I spent the next three weeks working with my new team but things weren't gelling. I wasn't solving my problem.
That's when Bill called me into his office. He said he wanted to talk to me. He told me I was a good designer, one of the best Magic has ever had, but he could tell I was lost. "I think I understand your problem," he said. "You've been trying to please everyone else. You're not making the set you want; you're making the set you think everyone else wants. That's not you. Stop worrying about anyone else. Make the set that you believe you're supposed to make. Make something you're passionate about. That is how you shine."
The speech was the proverbial slap I needed. I realized that I and my team had wanted to do something different for months but I kept moving away from it because it wasn't what I was supposed to be doing. I spent a long weekend thinking and the next Monday I walked into Bill's office.
"We're telling the wrong story," I said. "We're starting at the end. We've skipped over the coolest part, which is watching Mirrodin fall to the Phyrexians." That conversation led to Bill giving me the thumbs up to revamp the block story and Bill even came up with the idea of the two possible third sets that we wouldn't reveal until close to the third set being released (i.e., New Phyrexia and Mirrodin Pure).
I only had three weeks left, but I now had focus and I had my passion back. We fine-tuned infect. We came up with proliferate and started building an identity for Mirrodin (we started by bringing back affinity but that didn't last). At the end of the three weeks, I turned the file into Bill, who replied, "Now that's what I'm talking about!"
One of the important things to remember when playtesting is that any one playtest can be a huge deviation from the norm of the set. As an example, let's say you make a set where there is a little Ooze tribal (one can dream). Imagine you have one common card with Ooze tribal, one uncommon, and one rare—what we call a vertical cycle.
The actual as-fan for such a vertical cycle is pretty small. Especially in a large set. Now let's imagine you play Sealed with six packs of the set and get four common Oozes, two uncommon ones, and one rare. You then put together a fun Ooze deck. Now, statistically, what happened is very unlikely. Nonetheless, you will have a playtest where the set is very much about Ooze tribal. As a designer, you have to understand to take individual anecdotal evidence with a grain of salt. Otherwise, you can make decisions based on something that basically isn't true.
With that said, designers are Human, so we fall prey to the same sway of anecdotal evidence, especially when there is a lot of emotion at play. Case in point, I believe the day/night mechanic (one of the options we looked at to represent the dark transformations that would later be represented with the double-faced cards) lasted a few weeks longer than it did in playtest because of a single match I played with Richard Garfield. For the first time, today I'm going to share with you one of my favorite matches of Innistrad, even though very few of the mechanics in question made it to print.
Early in design, Richard had pitched a mechanic for Zombies. I don't remember all the specifics, but it was flavorful and a little complex. As such, Richard was very eager to test out Zombies. Meanwhile, I was trying to wrap my head around the day/night mechanic so I ended up playing a heavy Werewolf deck.
For those of you who might not remember the day/night mechanic (I talked about it in my article on the design of double-faced cards, "Every Two Sides Has a Story") it worked as such: When the first card that cared about day/night entered the battlefield, you went and got a double-sided day/night card, day side up. The card informed you how it worked. Basically, with each spell cast by any player, the marker advanced. After three spells, day turned to night. Then, with each three new spells, day/night would toggle back and forth. The cards that cared would change based on the state of day/night. In our initial design, things only changed in the night side, as we were trying to capture the horror genre.
So, in the match in question, I was playing Werewolves while Richard was playing Zombies. The tension was very interesting because the Zombies slowly built up over time while the Werewolves kept going back and forth between their Human side and their Werewolf side. For those of you who have never had the honor of playing a game of Magic with Richard, you should know he likes to do a little trash talking. I'm one to hold my own, so our game was filled with wall-to-wall commentary.
Game 1, Richard got out his Zombies. I got out my Werewolves. Well, I actually got out what Richard referred to as "my puny Humans." I told him to just wait. "Zombies aren't good at waiting," he said. "They just keep attacking."
I started playing any spell I could to advance day/night to night. I finally succeeded and my puny Humans weren't so puny any more. I then got the initiative and started attacking. Richard was forced to play defense. Then he was casting whatever he could. As he cast his third spell, he said, "Oh look, daylight. Now I can see my Zombies attacking you more clearly. Day, night, they don't care."
This play went back and forth, with the state of day/night being a constant focus for our game. The Zombies marched on in the day but got outclassed in the night. Meanwhile, with every daylight downtime, Richard's Zombie mob had a chance to grow in size. During night, I would plow through the Zombie horde, hoping to break through before the sun rose once again.
This dynamic played out in each of the three games and I had a blast. The Zombies really felt like Zombies and the Werewolves really felt like Werewolves. The day/night was crucial and the game play was tremendously fun. I remember saying when I ended the match how happy I was with the day/night mechanic in the match, in that it acted exactly how I wanted it to.
In the end, that match was the exception and not the rule, so the day/night mechanic never made it, but I believe the awesomeness of that match probably pushed back the decision by weeks, if not a month. That's one of the joys of designing Magic—getting the chance to be part of snippets of the game that never make it to print. I'll always remember that match warmly. It probably helped that I won 2–1.
Return to Ravnica Block
During the first preview week for Return to Ravnica, I explained that for a while the large set that would go on to become Avacyn Restored was scheduled to be a precursor to Return to Ravnica. (Innistrad would have been just be a two-set block.) I explained that Brian Tinsman eventually came up with the idea of a 4/4/2/10 four-set block starting with the large third set after Dark Ascension. That idea would change to 6/4/10 and then, with my suggestion of making the winter set large, 5/5/10.
The 4/4/2/10 suggestion was not the first that Brian and I had. No, we brainstormed a bunch of other ideas. For the first time ever, I'm going to share some of these ideas with all if you.
The Fourth Set of Ravnica Block: Back when we were trying to figure out what Coldsnap was supposed to be (it was a small summer set directly after the original Ravnica block), Brady Dommermuth pitched the idea of a fourth Ravnica set that allowed us to revisit the ten guilds. I believe it was this idea that would later fuel Brian with his 4/4/2/10 plan.
Anyway, one of our earliest ideas to set up the return to Ravnica was to have a set that acted as a fourth set of Ravnica right before Return to Ravnica. The plan was that the set would have all ten mechanics from the original Ravnica block and would serve as a reminder of what Ravnica was like last time we visited. We ended up killing this idea because of the lessons of Time Spiral block. Having a large set with ten mechanics feels less daunting when you know all the mechanics, but for the many players who hadn't been playing since original Ravnica block, it would be a large set with ten new keywords—something we would never do.
The Guilds In Neutral State: The next idea we had was to have a large set introducing the ten guilds but without any guild mechanics. This would avoid the ten mechanics problem but also not step on the toes of the new mechanics in Return to Ravnica block. The idea was that this set would just have a bunch of reprints from the original Ravnica block (ones without keywords) and then some new cards that played up the basic feel of each guild.
This idea was killed because we realized that a lot of the excitement of going back to Ravnica was the influx of new two-color gold cards. Creating a bunch in that set only would take the wind out of the sails of the next block's first set. So the idea was scrapped.
The Guildless Ravnica: We then explored the idea that this set would take place between the dissension of the guildpact and its return. To show that this represented the time in between the guilds, the set wouldn't have any multicolor cards. This would keep the set from stepping on the toes of the upcoming block. The problem with this idea was that it just didn't have any identity. There were no keyword mechanics, no gold cards—nothing that showed who the guilds were. In trying not to upstage the upcoming block, we were making a set with nothing remarkable about it. It was like we were making a boring set just to make sure the next block was as exciting as possible.
In the end, we realized that the third set of the previous block being a precursor was a no-win situation. If we showed enough to make it interesting and give some guild feel, we were just taking away equity from the Return to Ravnica block. Brian would go on from here to the idea that the October set was the first set in the block rather than a precursor.
Just So Stories
And that is all the time I have for stories today. If you liked this format (or disliked it), let me know.
Join me next week for Magic 2014 previews.
Until then, may you have the chance to share some of your own lesser-told stories.
Drive to Work #39—Randomness
Today is one of my podcasts focused on an aspect of game design. The topic of today: the role of randomness and why it's so important to a game.
- Episode 39 : Randomness (13.9 MB)
- Episode 38 : Unglued 2 (10.6 MB)
- Episode 37 : Lessons I've Learned, Part 3 (10.5 MB)
- Episode 36 : Tales from the Pit (10.0 MB)
- Episode 35 : Blue (9.9 MB)
So You Want To Work At Wizards?
Every once in a while we get a new job opening on one of the Magic-related teams here at Wizards of the Coast. You all seem to like seeing these job listings in my column and we like to hire Magic players with relevant skills. As long as both of those stay true, I'll continue posting them.
Today, we're looking for a Brand Manager for Magic. The requirements are:
- BA/BS or equivalent experience required, preferably with a concentration in Marketing or related coursework.
- MBA preferred.
- Minimum of 5 years of progressive experience in consumer marketing, preferably supporting a global brand.
- Experience in the video/digital game, hobby game, toy, entertainment, or related field strongly preferred.
- Knowledge of and passion for Magic a huge plus. Please specify any Magic specific experience/knowledge on your resume.
And asks for the following knowledge, skills, and abilities:
- Expertise in developing leading edge consumer marketing campaigns, integrating products, events, organized play activities, social media, web content, promotions, public relations, etc.
- Expertise in transforming a strategy and vision into actionable plans
- Excellent leadership ability within a highly matrixed organization: ability to provide clear and concise direction/feedback to stakeholders and the ability to influence others to adopt his/her recommendations
- Strong project management abilities; capable of prioritizing and handling multiple projects simultaneously, under tight time constraints and within budget parameters
- Well developed, verbal, written and presentation skills
- Proficient with Microsoft Office applications
- Experience working with international partners a plus
- Knowledge of the digital game and/or hobby game industries highly desirable
- Knowledge of and passion for Magic a huge plus. Please specify any Magic specific experience/knowledge on your resume.
If you think that sounds like you, see the full job listing here.