#781: Ken Nagle
In this podcast, I interview Ken Nagle, runner-up of the first Great Designer Search and longtime R&D member.
Posted in Making Magic on October 12, 2020
Starting last year, I began posting the documents that I hand off at the end of vision design to let the Set Design team know the vision for the set (Throne of Eldraine, Part 1 and Part 2, Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, and Zendikar Rising), and they've proven very popular. It dawned on me that I have a lot of these documents sitting on my computer and that it might be fun to look at some from the past. As we're in the middle of a return to Zendikar, I thought it might be fun to go to the original Zendikar and see what that document looked like.
A few caveats before we begin:
"Live" design can essentially be broken down into three parts: a land component, a mana component, and a flavor component. I will explain what I mean by each part.
Land component – The set started its design by tapping into what we felt was one the most open veins of design—land mechanics. The team spent a great deal of time examining different mechanics and ended up with what we thought was the cream of the crop.
Mana component – One of the side effects of making players care about land is that you start to encourage them to play with more land. To take advantage of that and to help make sure that playing lots of land was good for the environment, we decided to add a mix of cards that let you spend all the extra mana you have available.
Flavor component – Once we had defined the land as the mechanical heart of the block, we went to the Creative team to explain what kind of world would beget such a thing. Creative liked the idea of a world where the land has extra qualities that made it more powerful and different than other lands. As such, it would attract Planeswalkers and others who sought the special mana. This led to a world that starts defending itself (maybe naturally, possibly through an outside force). This led to the idea we've called High Adventure World, filled with big prizes, grand adventurers, and great dangers. Numerous mechanics were created to flesh out the High Adventure World feel.
I am going to walk through each section in order, explaining what is in the set and why we've included it. In addition, I'll add any lessons we've learned along the way. Finally, "Live" is the first set to fully incorporate New World Order into the design. This had a huge influence, so I'm going to point out the impact whenever I can. I will be abbreviating New World Order as NWO.
The land component breaks into several parts:
All our playtesting showed that two land mechanics stood heads above the rest. The first was what we refer to as landfall. Landfall is an unnamed trigger mechanic. It is "whenever a land comes into play under your control." We tried keywording it, but it seemed unnecessary and made the cards more confusing rather than less, so we took off the keyword.
The reason landfall has worked so well is that it makes lands a resource, but in a way that encourages players to do something they are already doing. We messed around with mechanics that rewarded you for not playing a land (called landshort), and it resulted in players often having to do things they would normally prefer not to do. Landfall also had the huge advantage that a single card worked fine with it in any deck, as all decks play land.
The reason the mechanic is so weighted toward common is that it is the thing that most defines the feel of the environment and is the one new thing we chose under New World Order to put into common. (One of the ways to maintain NWO is to have less new things to track at common; the current philosophy is to have less things but to make use of them more. Landfall is the only "new" triggered thing—aka something you have to keep track of happening—at common.)
Here's what exists in the set:
Creatures with landfall that enhance others in their cycle – These cards are designed such that the thing you gain makes sense when lands can be played. Green is the only color to have an ability that can be reactive, it was allowed this because green is the color that can easiest get lands into play at other times. Note that part of meeting NWO is that these cards only affect themselves and thus create much less board complication.
Cycle of "battlewand" creatures that get +1/+1 until end of turn with landfall – We chose to make one cycle with the exact same effect to help simplify landfall at common. Also, these cards play nicely together and give low-level players an easy deck to build.
Cycle of visionary creatures (currently all 2/2 for 2C) using landfall to produce an effect – These cards were originally common but moved to uncommon, both because they break NWO protocol and common is not supposed to be careful about both repeatable effects and cards that affect other permanents. The cycle is currently very tight—2/2 for 2C—but this part is not crucial to their design.
Three "coffee card" enchantments – At landfall, these cards can add a counter and then can choose whether to sacrifice to get an effect based on the number of counters. This used to be a full cycle, but we didn't like the white and black ones, so we just dropped it down to three. It could easily be turned into a cycle again if the development team wanted it to. Note that the cards can only be sacrificed at landfall. There is no cost to sac the cards, but there could be (although no cost is much cleaner).
Three other random landfall effects – We decided to fill out uncommon so that every color had at least two uncommon landfall cards. Green ended up getting three, which we felt was okay because green seemed the most attuned to land. These cards have landfall with bigger effects that we thought were exciting but that we didn't want at common.
Rare/Mythic Rare (3)
Few miscellaneous landfall cards – These cards have no connection other than having landfall.
The other big land innovation is lands that come with spells attached. We are saving lands that double as permanents for "Long" so there are no lands that turn into creatures or have activations that feel like spells that are repeatable turn after turn. (The rare mega-lands grant comes-into-play effects on other cards, so we felt they were more like spells.) Also note that we decided to link up the land negatives such that all the lands come into play tapped (yes, exceptions do exist at rare) and all the cycles below have basic land types. While this might need to be changed for power reasons (especially on the rare cycle), we do feel that the basic land-ness on the nonbasic lands is one of the signatures of the set.
Playtesting showed that the "comes into play" lands wanted to have low costs to use for two reasons. One, it increased your ability to play the effect. We liked this because not getting your effect the majority of the time felt bad. Second, small costs meant small effects, and the cards played better with small effects.
Here's what the set has:
"Comes into play" lands – these are lands that have a comes-into-play effect. Some of them require an optional mana payment to get that effect. These lands all come into play tapped, have a basic land type, and tap for the appropriate color. At common there are two cycles:
Bigger "comes into play" lands – There is another cycle at uncommon:
Dual lands – This is a cycle of five lands. Each comes into play tapped and gains you 1 life. Each land has two allied basic land types and thus taps for two different colors of mana. I've included this cycle here because the life gain acts as a small spell effect. This dual land cycle was designed specifically for this set and fits very well in multiple ways ("comes into play" effect, basic land types, comes into play tapped, etc.)
Mega-lands – This is a cycle of lands that come into play tapped, have a basic land type, and tap for the appropriate color. In addition, each land creates an effect when they or any other basic land of their kind comes into play if there are seven other lands in play. (The current cards need some templating help by the way.) These effects are rather big and splashy but are unable to go off until late game. I am not sure whether they want the basic land types or need to be legendary. As both are development power concerns, I left the cards in their most open (and probably most powerful) version.
These land spells are to me very much the heart of the design. These exist in the number that they do (ten at common, ten at uncommon, and five at rare) because their volume very much shapes the environment. Part of the dynamic of the block is to get players to reevaluate how they use their lands and how they think about lands in general. A big part of that (in "Live") is that the lands take up some of the role that spells normally do. Among other things, this allows smaller spells that normally don't see play into decks and the restriction of when you can play lands means that you have to reevaluate when you do things. (As an example, you often want to play the landfall card before you play your land for the turn.)
I feel the combination of landfall and the spell lands are the foundation of the "new feel" of the set. Without existing in substantial volume, they cannot create enough volume to shift the block's feel. That is why there are ten landfall cards and ten spell lands at common, and eleven landfall cards and ten spell lands at uncommon. I believe strongly that their volume is an important part of this block's feel.
In addition to landfall and spell lands, there are a few other elements of the set that interact with lands.
Count basics – There is a cycle of cards spread between common and uncommon that count basic land types. (Red for some reason ended up with two, but it only needs one.) These exist partly because we wanted monocolor builds to be possible, following on the heels of Shards of Alara's three-color block and partly because we wanted more spells that feel like they care about land.
Explorers – This is a creature cycle at uncommon. When the creatures are put into the graveyard from play, they allow you to get a basic land of the appropriate type (and thus interact with all the basic land types on nonbasic lands) and put it either into play tapped or into your hand. The choice started as a tool to figure out which way we wanted the mechanic to go, but playing with it made us decide to keep it as is. The reason was that it was intriguing how the decision went both ways and often made for a cool decision as to what to get. It also gives the cycle a very unique feel that the design team really liked.
Interact with land themes – Because the colors all share the same tools (often we will color separate mechanics, but this set's mechanics didn't lend themselves to it), the design team wanted to add some themes to each color that would allow them to interact with land differently. To help hide this (and take the word "land" off some cards) a lot of the themes were broadened to allow them to do their thing to cards other than just lands. Also note that we worked hard to find cards that would have this function yet feel very natural in any set.
Here are the color themes. Each card has two commons and one uncommon in theme:
White = Bounce lands – Deployed Soldier, Saving Throw, and Veteran Hang Glider
Blue = Discard lands – Human Looter, Study, and Sneaky Swimmer
Black = Use or return lands from graveyard – Dig Up, Zombie Horde, and Graveplot Horror
Red = Turn lands into things – Rock Eating Orc, Rocky Time, and Magma Infusion
Green = Sacrifice lands – Harrow, Feral Chicken, and Earth Monster
These cards were also designed to create fun interactions. ("I block with this enchanted land so that I can get it into the graveyard to allow my other creature to live for another turn.") Note that there are a few cards that subtly do things above in colors other than what is listed (blue has a bounce spell, or black can cause itself to discard.)
These cards are important because they both create identity for the colors, allowing decks to be built around them, and they allow exciting moments of discovery where players get to feel good about themselves for finding the interactions.
That's all the time I have for today. Next week, I'll get into the mana and flavor component parts of the document. As always, I'm eager to hear your feedback through email, or you can contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week for Part 2.
Until then, may your ideas spur whole new (metaphorical) worlds.
In this podcast, I interview Ken Nagle, runner-up of the first Great Designer Search and longtime R&D member.
This is the ninth podcast in my two-color philosophy series. I talk all about red and white.