I am a huge comic book fan. You might know this if you followed me around every Wednesday at lunch. (By the way, you know who you are—stop!) Wednesday, for those not in the know, is new comics day. New movies start on Friday. New videos come out on Tuesday. New comics always come out on Wednesday. The way you can tell I'm hooked is that I'm always there when the comic shop opens on Wednesday to get my comics.
The reason I bring this up is because I have a soft spot in my heart for certain comic conventions (and by that I mean certain things comics always do, not places where comic fans gather together—although truth be told, I like those too). One of the oldest conventions is the rogues' gallery. You see, in order to tell good stories about heroes you have to create drama—which means somebody for them to be pitted against is needed. Those people are called villains. (During Nicol Bolas Week I wrote an entire article about what makes a good villain. Check it out if you haven't read it yet.)
Things get boring if the hero is fighting the same villain week to week not to mention that when the hero puts them in jail, they have to stay there for some length of time. In order to solve this problem, comic book writers realized that any one hero needed multiple villains. Not just a couple villains but a whole heaping helpings worth. This gaggle of villains is known in comics as a rogues' gallery. This facet is so important that many comic writers believe that the thing that most defines the hero in comics is their rogues' gallery.
Since its Archenemy Week (in my mind), I thought it would be fun to share with you the rogues' gallery of Magic's Head Designer, a.k.a. me. One last note before I dive in: This week's column is very tongue in cheek. All of the people I'm about to ridicule are an important part of the process and without them I wouldn't be the designer I am today. I am poking fun, but I do so out of deep respect.
With that out of the way, let's meet the villains who keep Head Designer busy from week to week:
The Rules Manager
"Answer me this, Head Designer—how does your new mechanic interact with comp. rule 104.3f!?"
While heroes have a rogues' gallery, they still have an archnemesis, someone who is their primary foe. The Rules Manager is the Lex Luthor to my Superman. The Joker to my Batman. The Doctor Doom to my Fantastic Four. The Red Skull to my Captain America. The Viltrimites to my Invincible. Sorry, my inner comic geek was acting up. Anyway, every hero has one villain that stands above all others. For the Head Designer that is ... the Rules Manager.
Why is the Rules Manager my archnemesis? Because at their core—our two jobs are somewhat opposed. The Rules Manager's job is to keep the system working. To do that, he wants stability. If something works a certain way, it should always work that way. If, for example, we have a template to do a certain function, then that's the template we need to use. In short, the Rules Manager is constantly on the lookout to see how we can take any new thing and treat it just like we treated some old thing we've already done.
The Head Designer (or really any designer), on the other hand, is trying to find new ways to do things. When I create something original and different I don't want to find ways to sync it up with something we've already done. I'm trying to pave new paths, not repeat old ones.
The classic example of this story is from the design of the card Door to Nothingness from Fifth Dawn.
Aaron Forsythe and I designed the card. The original had slightly different text. Here's how the card was first submitted:
CARDNAME comes into play tapped.
, , Sacrifice CARDNAME: Destroy target creature or player.
Aaron and I were tickled pink by the templating. The card was able to suck the life out of any living thing. Any living thing! The Rules Manager at the time was Mark Gottlieb and Gottlieb stressed that the text we submitted was unacceptable. We had a template for making players lose and it was "Target player loses the game."
I stressed that while the effect of the two cards was identical (well, except for the "destroy creature" part, but that didn't make any sense with the other template), the feel of the card was completely different. The original version was unique and edgy and felt like we were paving new design space. The "fixed" version felt much more like we were hitting a note we'd already hit before. To this day, I believe we printed the wrong card. (Although to be fair, I'm pretty sure Gottlieb would say we printed the correct version.) The completely opposite focus is exactly why the Head Designer and the Rules Manager bash heads so often.
There's one other cause for clashing. My job as Head Designer is to venture outside the realm of the known into the unknown. Magic is a game that constantly reinvents itself and keeps moving to places the audience doesn't expect. What this means is that I'm always figuratively dragging mud into the Rules Manager's tidy house. One of the Rules Manager's main responsibilities is to establish order and I'm chaos incarnate. (hmm, a white/red conflict) Whenever Gottlieb says "the game doesn't do that" I always add in "yet."
In true comic book form, our roles depend upon one another. What each one of us does defines the other's job, so no matter what, both positions are here to stay.
"I believe we've met before."
The next villain of the Head Designer is Déjà vu. His major weapon is the familiarity of the past. As Head Designer, I have the task of keeping the game fresh, of constantly reinventing it. One of the biggest obstacles in my way is everything I and all the other designers have done before. Whenever I come up with an idea, Déjà Vu is there to whisper in my ear, "Didn't you already do that? Isn't that just a tiny tweak on that thing you did once? Isn't this space you've already explored?"
While Magic design space is large, it is finite. More so, there are few areas of design space that the designers haven't ever touched upon. We've created over eleven thousand unique cards. That's a lot of ideas we've fiddled with. Magic design today is less about finding the completely unknown and more about reexamining areas with unfulfilled potential. We're still on the lookout for the untouched design space but we know that finding it will be more the exception than the rule.
The biggest shift that's happened during my reign as Head Designer has been a push to redefine what a block is. We've not only played around with size and scope but my team and I have tried to challenge conventions. Ravnica block, for example, was a big design leap not in the mechanics but in the overall block structure. The idea of doing a set in a multicolor block where certain two-color card combinations just didn't appear in certain sets was quite radical when the set was designed. There were many debates about whether the audience would accept it and whether things like Booster Draft would even work. Now, five years later, it is the block we model current blocks against.
Another place Déjà Vu rears his head is in public forums. When analyzing a set, many players define new sets by the only metric they have, old sets. New mechanics are described as a "riff on mechanic X" or a "tweaked version of mechanic Y." Themes are talked about as a redo of whatever was the last block to have a similar theme. I've often talked about my dislike of the mechanic kicker because it was too broadly defined in Invasion, and thus it makes many other mechanics feel like just an extension of it rather than something new.I call it a 'Saturday.'
The way I would like for people to look at modern blocks is much the same way that recipes are done in a kitchen. The vast majority of the time, we are going to use ingredients you've heard of. The mastery is not the unknown new spice, but the way the ingredients are used to create some dish that you've never tasted before. Yes, we're going to use spices that have proven popular and cheeses or meats that tested well the last time we used them, but the dish will be something that you are not as familiar with even though it has traces of things you know you like.
Déjà Vu is a tricky villain to defeat, but I, as Head Designer, have a few tricks he doesn't yet know about.
"I come from the Future Future League and you can take it from me—there's going to be trouble."
This imp pops up when you least expect him. Just when a design is coming together, he shows up and explains why some piece just has to go. He'll ramble on about deck lists or deck match-ups or about how some card or mechanic is causing issues and then—poof—part of my set just disappears.
This problem tends to rear its head the most on the two small sets of the block. Usually by then, development has gotten a handle on what exactly is going on with the large set. Unfortunately, they don't always figure it out in time to change the large set so the small sets have to compensate. The classic example of this was the set Fifth Dawn.
One of the biggest criticisms of Fifth Dawn is that it seems to make a pretty hard right turn: "Artifacts matter. Think about artifacts. This block is about artifacts. Artifacts! Artifacts! Artifacts! Try to play all five colors." What most people don't realize is why we made this hard right turn. The answer is that it was around the time of Fifth Dawn's design that development really understood how Mirrodin and Darksteel affected Standard.
As such, development informed me that I couldn't be aggressive with most of the dominant themes of the block. Yes, I could have a few affinity cards but they'd all be low power level. I could have some "artifact matters" cards but they'd be tier two. (Okay, we did print Cranial Plating so that one somehow got through.) Fifth Dawn took such a wild turn because we had to go somewhere else. That is why the block didn't feel like it set up Fifth Dawn, because we didn't know ahead of time that was where we were going.
I should point out that my example was a more extreme one. Most often the area development is concerned about is smaller in scale—affecting an individual card or two rather than an entire mechanic or theme.
The hardest part about Mr. Metagame is he is unpredictable—his impact doesn't come from within the set being designed. Oh yeah, and getting him to say "Emagatem" is really hard. (Warning: that last sentence is a geeky comic joke. If you are not comicly inclined, please step away.)
"You cannot stop me!"
The Rules Manager can cause problems for the Head Designer, the developers also have this power. This villain though rests in the most insidious place—other designers. You see, while you're busy building your set, they're busy building theirs. As you are working at the same time, odds are the two sets are adjacent to one another, which means you are occasionally fighting to use the same resources.
Let me explain. While Magic has many possibilities, it still uses the same basic components. Any two Magic blocks aren't that far apart from one another. As such, one of the biggest obstacles is overlapping with a nearby set. If the previous or next block is dedicated to theme X, then your set has to tread very lightly around any card connected to theme X.
The classic example was my design for Shadowmoor. I was doing a hybrid set. Almost half the cards were hybrid. One of the things you try to do when you build around a theme that strong is to figure out what plays into your theme. With hybrid, playtests showed that hybrid cards made it very easy to play additional colors. Having a card that has two options for color requirements helps you play additional colors. Hybrid, without any outside influence, pushes the players towards playing many colors. Here was the problem. The next block was Shards of Alara—a multicolor block.
I ended up having to shift my theme away from making you want to play many colors to encouraging players to play a single color. The existence of Shards of Alara fundamentally shifted how Shadowmoor was designed. And once the Jugger-not starts charging, it's impossible to stop him. Nothing Shadowmoor was going to do was going to alter the fact that Shards of Alara was multicolor. So, Shadowmoor got out of the way.
While my example is on the more extreme side (again—I think I just enjoy the extreme examples), the need to get out of other designers' ways is a constant concern. When Action (the third set in the 2010-2011 block) comes out, ask me to tell you the horror stories that Ken Nagle found himself in when both sides started squeezing him out.
"You shall fail, and I shall be the instrument of your failure."
Sometimes the greatest enemy comes from within. Up until now, this column talks about all the exterior threats the Head Designer faces. The final threat, however, is not an outsider. One of the greatest challenges of designing Magic is having confidence in one's own vision. I often talk about how truly groundbreaking ideas take a while to gain a foothold. In order to fight the good fight, you have to believe in your vision. There are numerous reasons why your idea won't work. You have to find the single reason it will.
Before any of those discussions can happen though, you have to first convince yourself of the idea. It is in this moment that Dr. Doubt will strike. You guys only see the finished product. These are the ideas that ran the gauntlet of design and development to make it onto a card. Most ideas don't make it. I am one of the most successful Magic designers of all time with more sets to my credit than anyone in the history of the game and my hit ratio is under ten percent. While I have great ideas I also have mediocre ones. How do I tell them apart?
Dr. Doubt enjoys blurring the distinction; making me second-guess my own judgment. This is especially easy when the first few playtests do poorly. When the Pit doesn't like something, it's easy to lose faith in your idea. Yet history has shown time and again that R&D doesn't always embrace good ideas at first. (Split cards being my favorite example.) An important part of being a lead designer of a set is belief in what you are doing. You have to have faith in your vision. But faith can be tested and Dr. Doubt is always there to administer those tests.
In my articles I tend to focus on the external battles. I talk a lot about what I do to convince others of my designs. The part I skip over is that in most designs, there is a moment or two where I have to convince myself. The classic example of this would be during Zendikar design. It was early in Zendikar design, and the team was experimenting with land mechanics. I firmly believed in the potential of land as a theme and was aggressively pursuing options with my team. But there was a point early on where none of our first takes on land mechanics were working. Things I thought would be fun, played horribly. I spent an entire day questioning my own theme. Was I wrong to put so much faith in the design space for lands? Did I need to call an audible and switch to a different focus for the set? Dr. Doubt was there and for that one day—he was winning.
Luckily, I fought off Dr. Doubt and regrouped with my team. We used our failures to find the first inklings we would follow to find our successes. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Seeking Arkham Asylum
Today was just the tip of the iceberg of my rogues' gallery, I hope it gave you a glimmer of the kinds of foes the Head Designer has to face every day. Luckily, as in the comics, the hero tends to win the day, so everything's been working out just fine.
Join me next week when Magic 2011 previews begin.
Until then, for your own foes may it always be clobberin' time.