Odds & Ends: Eldritch Moon, Part 2

Posted in Making Magic on August 1, 2016

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.

Last week I started another "Odds & Ends" column, this time answering questions about Eldritch Moon. This week I continue to answer questions.

Here's one of the trickiest things about this job: when we make a set, we miss things. We don't do things that players wanted that we just didn't properly anticipate. When that happens, we get a lot of feedback from all of you about how you were upset thing A or thing B didn't happen. We listen to that feedback and look for future opportunities to do those things.

The hard part is that what players want and what they tell us are not one and the same. For instance, in this case, the strong message was that players wanted a legendary Werewolf. Why? Because we had made a legendary creature (or creatures) for all the other tribes on Innistrad, but we hadn't done one for Werewolves. It was presented as a lack of completion.

We heard the message loud and clear, but there wasn't much we could do until we returned to Innistrad. We don't do Werewolves very often and we seldom do double-faced cards. If we wanted to make a legendary double-faced Werewolf (which is what we believed players wanted), we had to wait.

When the time finally came, we knew we needed a legendary Werewolf, but we had to figure out what exactly that meant. Here's the things we felt we knew:

  • It needed to be double-faced—Our thought was that what made Werewolves special was the fact that they had two distinct states, so we wanted to make sure our legendary Werewolf had that quality.
  • It needed to be red-green—Werewolves are in red and green on Innistrad, and we knew that a legendary Werewolf needed to hit both colors.
  • It needed to be playable in multiplayer—While requests for legendary creatures come from many sources, one of the bigger sources is Commander players. That meant we wanted to make sure this card worked in multiplayer.

What we didn't pick up on was that for some players, the reason they wanted it was to use it to specifically play a tribal Werewolf deck. We made sure the card played well in a Werewolf deck, but we were trying to go broader and make sure that the card had more flexibility. In addition, we tend to make "lords" (things that improve other creatures of a certain tribe or tribes) non-legendary so that players can play with four in their deck and occasionally get multiples out at once.

And that is why our Werewolf legendary creature doesn't specifically call out Werewolves. The frustrating part is that for the people asking, they knew why they wanted the card—so when we didn't deliver what they wanted, they felt like we weren't listening. Magic has a lot of moving parts and our attention is drawn so many different places, but we are very much listening and we try to deliver what we think you all want. Things that seem so obvious to you aren't always that obvious to us.

It really came down to Tamiyo. She played a big enough role in the story that we felt players would be unhappy for her not to have a planeswalker card, but she didn't have a big enough role to justify not including certain other Planeswalkers who had a bigger role in the story.

We actually spent some time trying to figure out if we could do Jace, Sorin, Nahiri, Liliana, and Tamiyo and cover all five colors. I actually had one conversation where I tried to convince everyone why maybe Sorin could be black-green, Tamiyo green-blue, and Liliana black-red. But in the end, there just wasn't any way to do it that satisfied the color balance and properly matched the characters.

Whenever I mention the five-planeswalkers-per-block rule, I always use the word "default." That's because Magic is a game that breaks its own rules, and we're allowed to shake things up from time to time. That's basically what happened this time. Five was problematic, so we found a way to do six.

Whenever we make a new set, someone will always look back at Future Sight to see if there are any future-shifted cards that make sense. I don't know exactly what kept Grave Scrabbler from making the cut. My best guess is that it was a developmental choice, that it was a little too strong for Standard, but that's just a guess on my part. I don't know that it's true.

Here's the challenge that we're faced with: there's a spectrum of player involvement with the story. Imagine it's a scale from 1 to 10, with 1 being players who do nothing to go out of their way to learn about the story, and 10 being players who gobble up every last ounce of story information from wherever they can find it.

For years we've been catering to the upper end of the spectrum. We even avoided letting you know what happened in the story on cards so as to not spoil novels and such. What was the result? Only a tiny percentage of the audience knew anything about the story. One of the big changes we've made recently is to try and make the less-invested players more aware of the story, because what we find is once they're exposed to it, many of them enjoy it and start caring more about it.

If we had designed the mystery such that it genuinely surprised the upper end of the spectrum, the lower end would have no idea what happened. So we're trying something a little different. We've decided to focus the upper spectrum material in the details. We want everyone to know the basics of the story. The heavily invested players get to know all the details about why and how and who and where. The what, the basics of the story, is something we want everyone to know.

Shadows over Innistrad was a mystery about the denizens of the world going mad. What was causing it? For the less-invested player, we wanted them to know it was Emrakul. For the highly invested player, we wanted them to know it was Nahiri who summoned Emrakul and we wanted them to understand all of her motivations for doing so, including her very involved past with Sorin.

The story has to have some bluntness and some subtlety. We want the blunt part to be the basic plot, so that the audience—all of the audience—can follow it. We want the subtle part to be the nuance behind why each of the characters did what they did and the history that led up to it.

Emrakul being on Innistrad was the blunt part. It was the part we wanted everyone to get. So yes, that meant that the invested players were going to figure that part out way quicker, but remember that the more players there are who are invested in the story, the better it is for the story, because it gives us more resources to do bigger and cooler things.

There's more freedom in a couple of ways:

  • Mechanics have to get stretched less. This opens up what's available to use.
  • It's a little easier to take risks, because mistakes stick around for less time.
  • The faster pace of switching forces us to find more new space to avoid repeating themes.

So yes, I do think the two-set model is helping create a little more freedom. That said, I think you might be putting the cart before the horse. I believe the bigger reason behind us having more freedom is the change in attitude that allowed us to even consider moving from the three-set block to the two-set block in the first place. As Magic grows and evolves, design and development have to keep pace and find new and different ways to keep the game fresh, and it's that force that is resulting in what I think you're seeing.

It was discussed, but it had a few strikes against it. The biggest was that Liliana plays a major role in the story as a necromancer. Reprinting a card all about her destructive side didn't reinforce the story we were telling. Second, the card would warp Standard and I don't think the developers were interested in having to deal with the ramifications of what that warping would do. Third, Liliana is the face of the set (she's the one who appears in the marketing and on the box), and we tend to want to use that focus to show off something new rather than something old.

Worlds rebound. A fire can burn down a forest, but a new one will grow in its wake. Next time we revisit a world, we'll always show some nod toward things that happened there previously, but the world will always regress back to its main conceit. Yes, there are exceptions like New Phyrexia, but part of us building worlds is getting the audience to fall in love with a core element of it that we will keep returning to. As I've said, I believe our biggest problem returning to Zendikar was we didn't focus enough on the core of what makes it a lovable world (being an adventure world).

I believe what you're asking for will happen in short stories in the official Magic Story. You'll definitely get to see intimate moments that show small things happening, but the sets are, metaphorically, our blockbuster movies. Avengers 3 is not going to be about the day the team has a barbecue and plays charades. This doesn't mean every threat will be plane-endangering, but it will be epic in scale. We will be telling bigger environmental stories where the actions of the characters get to radiate to many of the cards in the set. I don't anticipate a block being "the world where Jace gets some coffee."

Nahiri is not just motivated by her own self-interests. She feels her world was put in great danger by Sorin. Her actions are at least partially motivated by her doing what she thinks is best for the Multiverse as a whole. Also, the means by which she brought her plan to fruition is very much white by design. She carefully organized and planned. She didn't just do the first thing that popped into her mind, she carefully worked through what needed to be done.

It depends what exactly you're asking for. Are we talking about double-faced cards with the "Werewolf mechanic" that transforms them back and forth? We've mined a good amount of that space. There's not much simple, elegant design space left, especially for the kinds of things we'd do at common. If you're asking for designs for a one-faced Werewolf that does Werewolf-y things, there's a lot more space because that isn't an area we've done much with.

My stories about making Tamiyo demonstrate the tension. We're trying to make our stories more Planeswalker-centric, which means we have more Planeswalkers in our stories than we have planeswalker card slots. This means that being in the story is not a guarantee that you'll get a card. So yes, it is causing a lot of hard decisions to be made. Also, the need to color balance means our first choice of lineup often doesn't work out and we have to go back to the drawing board.

As I explained in my preview article that introduced meld, the earliest origin of the mechanic was B.F.M. from Unglued. When I made Unglued 2, I messed around with having more cards link together because I knew B.F.M. had been the most popular card(s) from Unglued. I actually played around with a Voltron-esque creature that was made up of six different cards: a torso, a head, and each of the arms and legs. They could exist apart, but if you got the torso in play, the head, arms, and legs could be attached to it.

Playtesting showed that it just didn't happen very often. I think one time I got the torso with a head and a leg, but that was it, so I moved away from the idea. When we started playing around with meld, we talked about having more than two pieces and I relayed my experience from Unglued 2. Even then, I think Ken did mess around a little with a three-piece meld creature. It never worked out, and Ken quickly moved on.

Meld can only exist in a world with double-faced cards, so no matter what world we used it in, we'd run into this problem. But why couldn't we just have a block where all the double-faced cards have meld? We experimented with having a lot more meld cards, and what we found was it just didn't work well in Limited—meaning we would never want to have much common meld.

Two Down, One to Go

Whew, you all asked a lot of questions. So many that I still haven't gotten through them all, but enough to call it quits for today. As always, I'm eager to hear your feedback on today's column as well as on Eldritch Moon. You can write to me through my email or any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week for the third and final "Odds & Ends: Eldritch Moon" column.

Until then, may you continue seeking answers.


"Drive to Work #352—Vocabulary"

For my last drive with my daughter Rachel (for this school year anyway), I try an experiment where I test what Magic vocabulary makes sense to someone who doesn't know Magic well.

"Drive to Work #353—2014"

This podcast is another in my "20 Years in 20 Podcasts" series. This time I talk all about 2014.

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