Odds & Ends: Kaladesh, Part 2

Posted in Making Magic on October 17, 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 my "Odds & Ends" column for Kaladesh, where I began answering questions you all had about the set. I had so many questions that I decided to make it a three-parter. Today is part two.

One of the greatest tensions in designing a trading card game is that you want an ongoing sense of continuity, while at the same time creating a sense of change. Each new world wants to present something new and different while supporting the themes from the worlds that surround its release. We've experimented a lot over the last 23 years, and what we've found is that you tend to want the elements drawing attention to be the focuses of change, and the elements doing the primary structural work to reflect continuity.

Let's take Kaladesh as an example. It's important for us to establish Kaladesh as a brand new world. That means we put extra emphasis on making the creative side show a wide swing from where we were. Innistrad was dark and gloomy, Kaladesh is bright and sunny. Innistrad was pessimistic, Kaladesh is optimistic. Innistrad was epic in scope, Kaladesh is more personal.

Last week I talked about some of the ways we built in structural bridges between the blocks. Notice how those were almost all mechanical in nature. Innistrad creates Clues, which thematically make sense in the mystery story of that world but work synergistically with the "artifact matters" theme of Kaladesh. That synergy is less in-your-face. We want it to be there as you explore building your deck, but it doesn't need to be loud.

Creature types, meanwhile, do overlap creative and mechanics, but they tend to lean more toward the creative side, so we made the choice to use the creature types as a means to show the contrast from the previous world. Innistrad's black-aligned creatures, for instance, were focused on the undead. Kaladesh's black-aligned creatures, in contrast, represent the byproduct of an aetherpunk world. Why no "monsters" in Kaladesh? Because it would undercut the sharp contrast we were trying to create and wouldn't allow us to have the strong shift in feel between the two worlds.

We encounter worlds in pretty much the same order that all of you do. The big difference is that we tend to experience it a couple years before you because of how far ahead we work. When I started working on Kaladesh's design, for example, I had just finished working on Shadows over Innistrad. There is one big difference though: when I began Kaladesh's exploratory design, I had just finished working on Battle for Zendikar. And while I was working on Kaladesh's design, I was doing exploratory design work on Amonkhet. Because of our schedules, we're always working on more than one product at a time.

In addition to that, remember that many sets are all going on at once in various stages of the process. When we handed off Kaladesh to development, for example, Dragons of Tarkir had just been released—so all of Battle for Zendikar and Shadow over Innistrad blocks were in various stages of development, Amonkhet and Ham were both in design, and Spaghetti was in exploratory design. And that's not even talking about future sets I was doing advanced planning on. As head designer, I have to poke my nose into all of these to make sure I know where things are.

Probably the thing that most influenced me in Kaladesh's design was that Battle for Zendikar and Shadows over Innistrad both ended up a bit more complex than I was happy with (all due to decisions I had made about the blocks early in design), and I was interested in seeing if we could make Kaladesh work with fewer moving pieces. At one point in early Kaladesh design, we had five mechanics, and I consciously made the choice to cut it down to three.

Don't let the zero cost fool you—Ornithopters are difficult to design. However, I'm sure if the Kaladeshi inventors put their mind to it, they could make a pretty cool Ornithopter.

I think of the Assembly-Worker creature type more as a nod to Magic's past than Mishra in particular. Artifacts have always been a crucial part of the game and served as the game's first mechanical theme for a set (in Antiquities, the second-ever expansion). We like to stick in Easter eggs for the old-time players every once in a while, and Self-Assembler was just us doing that. Could we ever see Assembly-Workers again? Sure.

We tried to make a Mox. In fact, we spent a decent amount of time trying to make a Mox. Here's the problem—a Mox has certain ground rules (based on expectations set up by previous Moxen):

  • It's an artifact.
  • It has a converted mana cost of 0.
  • It produces some kind of mana.

Meeting all three criteria while also making a card that isn't going to cause developmental issues is difficult. We kept making cards and then finding ways to break them, because getting repeatable mana for a zero cost is very easy to break. To make up for the value, we were required to put severe drawbacks on the card. The end results were cards that looked horrible yet were still a little scary to print. In the end, we decided that printing a Mox most players would dislike that would still be a huge development risk just wasn't worth it, and we gave up trying to make a new Mox.

Kaladesh was not a top-down India-inspired plane. It was a bottom-up, artifact-focused, "feel like an inventor"–themed set with Magic's take on steampunk (or as we've been calling it, aetherpunk). We used an Indian aesthetic to help give the world a feel, much like how we used Eastern Europe while making original Ravnica. Creative (and mechanical) choices were made to prioritize the aetherpunk feel. In addition, as we were referencing something that was a living culture, as opposed to Theros that focused more on an ancient civilization, we were extra cautious not to make choices that might offend.

I don't feel Goblins would have filled the role just as well. Goblins are humanoid and thus are attributed with qualities much closer to humans, while Gremlins are able to function more like animals. This makes Gremlins a better fit for the feel the creative team was going for. The Gremlins are part of the ecosystem that releases aether back into the environment.

The second issue is that Magic has crafted a relationship between Goblins and artifacts over the years but it's a very different relationship than what the artificers on Kaladesh have. Goblins don't carefully construct artifacts as if they're pieces of art. Goblins slap things together through experimentation and brute force. Goblin artifacts are dangerous and unreliable. At any moment, one could blow up in your face. I could see a future artifact-themed world where we might do something like this and the Goblins would be at home there, but that's a far cry from Kaladesh.

Third, there are players out there who have been asking us to do Gremlins for many years (Antiquities played around with Gremlins a little bit way back in 1994, but Magic hasn't touched them since then), and it's nice to be able to have new Magic takes on classic fantasy creatures.

Magic Origins had a strange relationship with Kaladesh. It was the first look at Kaladesh, so we had to make sure that the design of the world in the block wasn't inconsistent with how it was portrayed in Magic Origins, but, and this is the big catch, the design for Kaladesh (the first large set as opposed to the whole block) was handed over to development before the release of Magic Origins. This means that we didn't have the luxury of seeing how the audience responded before deciding how to design Kaladesh. The answer to your question is that the reception of Kaladesh in Magic Origins provided zero lessons for the design of Kaladesh, because it happened too late.

Possibly. Here's the issue: energy is a mechanic that needs a decent amount of space in a design to function. You can't just throw five energy cards in a set and call it a day. It was originally kicked out of Mirrodin for exactly this reason. It just required more space to do its thing than the set had available.

What this means is that energy will never be a small player in a set. If a set has energy, it's going to be a focal point. Does that mean we can only use it in blocks set on Kaladesh? Not necessarily. The flavor of energy (and note we kept the name rather generic for this reason) can be applied to many different types of worlds. Also, the mechanic has a lot of design space, so there's definitely room to try different things with it.

The big questions are how popular is the plane of Kaladesh and how iconic will energy be to it? If the answers are "very popular" and "very iconic," there's a chance that Magic visits Kaladesh on some regular interval and energy is the one constant to the world. I do believe we will see more energy in the future, but I'm not sure yet how often the world it appears on will be Kaladesh.

Let's start with energy. Original Mirrodin came out in October 2003. That means I probably turned over the design to development in July 2002 and started the design in August 2001 (start and stop times of designs have shifted a bit over the years—I'm using my memory of old time dates), so depending on when exactly we came up with the mechanic during design, the mechanic is between fourteen and fifteen years old.

Vehicles are a little harder to place. Players have been asking for Vehicles and mounts (think Vehicles where the Vehicle is a creature, such as a horse) for a long time. There was talk way back in the Weatherlight Saga around whether there was a way to make the Weatherlight function more like an actual flying ship. So, Vehicles in concept predate energy, but it wasn't something we attempted to do for many years. Usually how designs played out was that designers made individual designs for cards that represented a Vehicle rather than trying to create a new mechanic (or subtype). For instance, in Theros, Ethan Fleischer tried hard to get some boat cards made that had a Vehicle feel.

I guess the answer is that each has been something we've been conscious of for over a decade and a half. Energy had more serious attempts to get into a set as a mechanic, but Vehicles were responsible for more individual card designs.

For those unaware, we're doing something new starting with Kaladesh called Story Spotlights.

These cards show beats of the story in the art and usually have some flavor text to reinforce the story point. If you put the Story Spotlight cards in order, they will give you a rough outline of the basic plot in the set. We started putting more story elements on cards beginning with Magic Origins, but the Story Spotlight is the latest step to make the story more accessible from the cards.

Remember that this is our first attempt with them. It's tricky because we don't limit seeing elements of the story (be it characters, locations, objects or even story moments) to the Story Spotlight cards. So what exactly is supposed to count and what's not is still fuzzy. Yes, Chandra being reunited with her mother Pia is a big story moment, and maybe it should have been a Story Spotlight. Give us a little time to get used to the new system and I promise we'll figure it out.

It's the result of a number of factors. There's only so much space for Vehicles. Vehicles are complicated, so we need to be careful how many common ones we have. We have a certain as-fan (percentage in an average booster) we aim for and if we make too many commons, it means we get less overall Vehicles. Also design-wise, most Vehicles lend themselves to higher rarities.

Dwarves were originally put in red because they're creatures of the earth that live in mountains. A lot of how Dwarves function as a tribe though is more white in nature. They have a tight society where they all work together building things. Dwarves also have had problems fighting with Goblins for space in red, whereas white has never really nailed down a characteristic tribe the same way the other four colors have. All of this led the creative team to try something new while looking for the main white tribe of Kaladesh. White's focus on Kaladesh was building, so creative wanted to find a tribe that could fill that role. Dwarves quickly came to mind, and the creative team decided to try to see if possibly Dwarves could work in white. Note that this is an experiment, so we'll need to see how it works out.

I talked earlier about the tension between doing old things and doing new things. We want Magic to be comfortable and reliable and still feel like Magic, but we also want it to evolve and surprise you. Design is always walking this tightrope. At the same time, we have to manage our design resources. There isn't an endless amount of truly shocking new mechanics. A lot of the work my design team and I do centers around finding ways to take existing elements and tweak them ever so slightly to create gameplay that feels new without being alienating. At the same time, we also want to make sure that from time to time we can still shock, that we can do things that the players didn't see coming.

Meld is definitely on the "shocking" end of the spectrum. That's not the kind of thing we should be doing constantly, but I love that it's something we get to do every once in a while. Kaladesh is a little more middle of the road. We're tackling new mechanics, but they're ones that feel new yet still somewhat familiar. Yes, energy is a new resource, but it's a resource not too dissimilar from mana, and that means that there are a lot of elements to it that you already understand.

My plan for the future is to keep changing up how much we innovate from block to block. I admit, the pendulum has swung a little into the more aggressive side of design, and the pendulum will swing back, but I hope future blocks will continue to keep you entertained as my design team keeps you on your toes trying to figure out what we'll do next.

One of the biggest complaints I've gotten about Kaladesh is that many of the Commander players were expecting a blue-red legendary creature that cares mechanically about artifacts. Somehow in 23 years, we've never made this card. (Yes, it's kind of shocking—the first response many have is to go search Gatherer because surely everyone must have missed one.) Kaladesh is an artifact-themed world and Magic Origins' sneak peek into the world was focused on blue and red, the two colors most often mechanically tied to artifacts. Kaladesh seemed the inevitable world for the blue-red legendary artificer to finally see print.

One small problem. Kaladesh does have a blue-red artificer character who's actually pretty important to the story, but it's a planeswalker (Saheeli Rai, for those that haven't pieced this together yet). The set didn't have room mechanically (there's one blue-red slot) or flavorfully (we don't tend to double up on color combination characters) for both Saheeli and a legendary blue-red artificer. So this question is asking why couldn't we have made Saheeli a legendary creature instead of a planeswalker.

There are a number of reasons. First, Saheeli was the face of the set (aka the main character you see in advertising and on the box). We prefer the face of the set be a planeswalker rather than a legendary creature. Planeswalkers have more cachet, they're more central to the game, and players, in general, are more excited by them. Second, increasing representation among our Planeswalkers is an important goal for us. Saheeli is a wonderful addition to our Planeswalker roster. Third, her role in the story worked better if she was a Planeswalker rather than just another character on Kaladesh. Fourth, making her a Planeswalker would allow us more freedom in using her later in the story. A legendary character can only be seen again when we revisit a plane, but Planeswalkers have the ability to travel to other planes. Fifth, we had a planeswalker design we liked. It's not easy making flavorful planeswalker designs, so when we find one that works well, we're encouraged to use it.

The larger issue here is that we are constantly juggling lots of requests from lots of different types of players. It's very easy when you're focused on the thing you want to assume that we should be prioritizing decisions which would lead to us creating the cards you're interested in, but we can't always do that. One day, I promise we will make the legendary blue-red artificer. It's on our radar. That day just might not be during Kaladesh block. Other priorities kept it from happening this time.

Two down, One to Go

Once again, I've run out of time. You guys have been providing so many great questions that it's taking me a number of columns to answer them all. As always, I am eager to hear your feedback on this column, on my answers to today's questions and to Kaladesh in general. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week for Commander (2016 Edition) previews. The third and final "Odds & Ends: Kaladesh" installment will follow the week after.


"Drive to Work #374—Discontinued Rules"

In this podcast, I talk about many of the rules that Magic has abandoned over the years—everything from mana burn to artifacts turning off when tapped. Join me for a trip through history as I explain many rules you might not have known ever existed (or have played with if you're an old-timer).

"Drive to Work #375—20 Lessons: Details Matter"

This is my eighth podcast in my "20 Lessons, 20 Podcasts" series where I go in depth on each of the twenty lessons I talk about in my "Twenty Years, Twenty Lessons" speech I gave at this year's Game Developers Conference. I also covered the same topic in a three-part column earlier this year. In this podcast, I explore why details are important and how they can help your players fall in love with your game.

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