Playing With Blocks

Posted in Making Magic on December 7, 2009

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.

One of the tricks to writing a column week in and week out is having a lot of tricks. There are a number of different techniques I use both to generate content and to keep you all coming back. One such trick is known as the "throw forward." When I know I have plans to write about something in the future, I'll work in, months (and sometimes years) ahead of time, a spot to say, "One day, I'll tell you about Topic X." Then months (or years) later, I get to write the "follow through" column where I touch upon the thing I promised many columns ago. Today is one such column.

On August 24th of this year in my annual State of Design column, I wrote the following:

What I'm getting to is that the Zendikar block is going to be our second block where we fiddle with the block convention. (Lorwyn / Shadowmoor block being our first.) It is not going to be the large / small / small template that Shards of Alara and many previous blocks were. Instead, here is how it's going to work:

  • Zendikar is a normal-sized large set with the same number of cards as Shards of Alara (229 cards plus 20 full art lands).
  • Worldwake is a normal-sized small set with the same number of cards as Conflux (145 cards). It is an extension of Zendikar's mechanics—with a few new twists, of course.
  • "Prosper," the third set in the block, is a large set (228 cards plus 20 lands) taking place on the plane of Zendikar. A major event happens (the reason I'm not giving the name of the set yet is that it gives a big clue about what this event is) that forces the plane to fundamentally shift and leads to a new large set with brand new mechanics. Yes, "Prosper," while part of the Zendikar block creatively, will be distinctly unique mechanically and is designed to be drafted on its own. Brian Tinsman was the lead designer for "Prosper," and the set lives up to Brian's rep as a designer who loves breaking conventions. As I cannot get into details yet, it is hard for me to explain why we are doing this, but I promise that as we get closer to the release of "Prosper" I will talk about the method behind our madness.

Well, we've "gotten closer" to the release of "Prosper," so yes, it is time to talk about the method behind our madness. What exactly are we up to in the Zendikar block, and what led us to make the decisions we did? All this and more is yours for the taking if you keep on reading.

Mental Blocks

Before I begin talking about this block, I am going to start by digging a little into the history of Magic and the formation of blocks. To understand what we're playing with, I want to establish what exactly came before. Let me begin with a sneaky trivia question. What large set was the lead-off of the first intended block of Magic?

Did you say Mirage? Well, that was the first of what I call the "modern-day block"—that is, the first block that functioned like we think of blocks functioning today, with a large fall set and then two expansions in the winter and spring. Unfortunately, that's not the answer.

Did you say Ice Age? That was the first large set to have a follow-up expansion, so it is considered the start of the first block in Magic. But I didn't ask what the lead-off of the first block was. I asked what the lead-off for the first intended block. (I said the question was sneaky right before I asked it.)

Did you say Legends? Then you failed pretty completely as I don't know how to even justify it as a "possible yet wrong" answer.

So what was the first large set to be the lead-off of the first intended block of Magic? A set officially called Limited Edition, which you all might know better as Alpha (and Beta). Say what? Wait, I'll blow your mind a little more. What was the first intended block going to be called? The Gathering. Yes, Magic was called Magic: The Gathering because it was Richard's intent that the first block, and the start of the story, was going to be called The Gathering.

The idea at the time was that Magic would keep reinventing itself and come out every year or so with a new large set that would be called Magic: [fill in the blank]. For example, the second large set, which would replace Magic: The Gathering, was Magic: Ice Age. But the logo is on the back of the card. How was that going to work? Originally, it was intended that every expansion have its own unique back. Remember, without the last-minute save by former R&D member/Magic Brand Manager Skaff Elias, Arabian Nights would have had this back:

Does The Gathering really count as a block, though? Well, Richard wanted to have Magic built around one name for a limited length of time before it was reintroduced with a new name. While it's not exactly how blocks ended up working, it definitely is the mindset that led to the block structure. So from a historical perspective, I believe it is where the idea of a block started.

Ice, Ice Baby (or, A Walk Around the Block)

The next block innovation came in Alliances. It was the first expansion to ever be set in the same place as another expansion. It was even marketed as an Ice Age expansion. That said, I have an important piece of information about Alliances. (Remember, Alliances was the first set I worked on after coming to work in R&D, on the crazy 13-person development team—yes, if you were in R&D at the time, you were on this team.) While it was sold as an Ice Age expansion, it wasn't really designed as such. The vast majority of the mechanical tie-ins were actually added in development. Don't get me wrong, Alliances (designed by Skaff Elias, Jim Lin, Dave Pettey, and Chris Page) was, in my opinion, one of the most innovative designs of all time. I'm just saying that the continuation of Ice Age was nowhere near the focus of the design. The most important part of Alliances when it was done, though, was that it showed that we could have continuity between sets. It paved the way for what was to come.

Which brings us to Mirage block. As I've explained numerous times before Ice Age and Mirage were both designed by different playtest groups that worked with Richard before Magic was released. Mirage (designed by Bill Rose, Joel Mick, Charlie Catino, Don Felice, Howard Kahlenberg, and Elliott Segal) was then known as "Menagerie" and was designed with a small set to accompany it. These two sets are what you all know as Mirage and Visions. Having seen the potential of Ice Age, the decision was reached to try and sell a full year's worth of sets as belonging to a single entity. The "year" started in October because that was when it was decided the large set should be. The "block," as we called it, should always begin with a large set.

Weatherlight (designed by Dan Cervilli, Joel Mick and Mike Elliott) was designed completely independently from the group that designed Mirage and Visions, but it was decided for coherency to use elements of the earlier two sets to make the third set feel like part of the block. If you look back on it, you'll see that it was only partially successful, as the Weatheright design team embraced a theme that had nothing really to do with Weatherlight. (That theme, by the way, was the graveyard; Weatherlight is the first set where the graveyard is strongly mechanically relevant.) In addition, Weatherlight was used as the prologue to the Weatherlight Saga, a sweeping story that took place over the following four blocks.

Tempest block would be the first block where all three sets were planned together in design from the get-go. Built around the storyline of the Weatherlight Saga, the Tempest block storyline follows the crew of the Weatherlight through their journey on the plane of Rath, the setting for the block.

A Chip Off the Old Block

The reason I'm trying to lay out the history is this: The block structure we used today wasn't so much planned as naturally evolved. We knew we wanted to introduce new mechanics. It didn't make sense to use them for just one set, so we had to pick some amount of time to use them. A year seemed like a natural fit, as it was the plan to release a large set each year. The large-small-small structure came about because that is what we felt was the right amount of cards to put out in a year. And to be fair, the large / small / small model has worked out pretty well. But—you knew there was a "but" coming—it's not the only way to design a year's worth of Magic.

This all leads us back to my film school for another important lesson from one of my professors. The class in question was a screenwriting class. Screenwriting was my concentration in my broadcast and film major at the communication school I attended (Boston Univeristy's College of Communication, for anyone looking for a good communication school). On the first day of class, we learned that we had but one assignment for the entire semester: write a screenplay. I raised my hand and my professor and I had the following conversation:

Me: How long does the screenplay need to be?
Professor: As long as the story.
Me: I thought it was next to impossible to sell a first-time screenplay that's shorter than ninety minutes or longer than two hours.
Professor: It is.
Me: So shouldn't we making our screenplays between ninety and one hundred twenty minutes long?
Professor: You're working backwards. The story you want to tell is the length of the story you want to tell. However long it takes to tell, that's how long it is.
Me: How do I write a commercially viable story?
Professor: By learning how to find stories that are the length you need them to be.

The lesson was a very important one: Creative ideas are the size that they are. Trying to make an idea bigger or smaller than it needs to be is detrimental to the idea. Sure, ideas have some flexibility, but if you try to squeeze or stretch any idea too far, you end up damaging it. That brings us back to block design. Large / small / small is a fine template and many ideas fit this template without a problem, but not all of them. In fact, there are quite a number of ideas that simply don't fill up the space of the large / small / small structure (one could argue that we might have used one or two in past block designs) and even some that are too big for it.

Lorwyn / Shadowmoor mega-block was a big eye opener for me. We stumbled upon the design because we were exploring the idea of a four-set block. Instead of a four-set block, we ended up with two two-set blocks. Designing the blocks was very liberating, because we had different restrictions on us than we do in all other block designs. As such, we created something that never could have existed in a traditional large / small / small format.

One interpretation of the Pandora myth (in which a girl gets a box and is told not to open it because unnamed bad things will happen; her curiosity gets the best of her and she releases evil into the world) is that Pandora released knowledge into the world. Once something is known, it can never be unknown again. Lorwyn / Shadowmoor block released new knowledge into the world of design. There's no going back.

Upon this discovery, I thought back to my screenwriting professor and I realized that we had hit upon his lesson from that first day. Block designs are the size that they are. Some are large / small / small designs, but others are large / small designs or simply large designs or a host of other possibilities. If design is going to explore new possibilities, it means that we have to be willing to redefine blocks as the need becomes apparent. This all, of course, brings us to Zendikar block.

Rock around the Block

Everything about the block started with me being excited about a "land set." Early on, though, I knew there was a big creative challenge. This block centers on land. What does that mean for this block's world? Why is land important? Why is land casting spells or causing things to happen? To answer this question, Creative came up with the idea of a world where the land was so valuable that it was sought after by planeswalkers from all over the multiverse. The land itself was imbued with a unique signature of energy that gave it magic-like qualities. This raised an obvious question: What was causing this to happen?

The Russian playwright Anton Chekhov said, "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired. Otherwise don't put it there." This idea is known as "Chekhov’s Gun," and what it means is that stories have a momentum to them. Once you introduce certain elements, they pull themselves into the story. The idea is that they have such emotional weight with the audience that there is an expectation that they will have importance. (See, writers have the same issue of having to follow expectations of the audience that card designers do.) Introducing the gun gives it an importance that dictates that it gets used. If you're not planning to fire it, then as a writer you have to take it out of your story. Otherwise you are fighting the nature of your audience. (Remember my rule: When you fight human nature you are destined to lose.)

What does this have to do with Zendikar block? Everything. You see, the unique mana of Zendikar is the gun. The second we accepted that as our premise, it was pretty clear that it would have to be paid off in a big way in act 3, a.k.a. the third set. (As a quick aside, this is one of the most compelling parts of having three sets per block; all stories have three acts.)

The Rise of the Eldrazi story will fundamentally change the plane of Zendikar. To properly reflect that, we really needed to create a set that stood on its own mechanically. How do we show the world is completely changed? We completely change it. Since this set would thus need to be drafted by itself, it really wanted to be a large set.

Meanwhile, on the other side of town, I was having my battle to convince R&D that lands were worthy as the foundation of a block design. From a block perspective, I had to convince them that there was enough substance that we could get three sets out of it. With time, though, I came to realize that forcing the block to three sets was stretching something that didn't want to be stretched. Let me explain.

Experience has taught me that new ideas work best in smaller portions. For example, the original plan to introduce hybrid was in a set such as Shadowmoor, but we ended up introducing it in Ravnica where it was a minor but splashy mechanic. Doing it first in smaller quantities allowed the public to get used to it and allowed us to come back and use it in larger ways later. I think such a system improved hybrid's reception in both sets.

"Lands matter" turned out to be the same thing. Yes, there was a lot we could do with it, but rather than overwhelm the audience with it, we decided to focus it into a smaller space and start with the most solid execution. This is why "lands matter" takes up a smaller portion of the set than other block themes have. It's not that we couldn't make land matter more, but that it made sense out of the gate doing something new to start with the smaller, tighter version. This meant both shrinking the "lands matter" ratio in the set and biting off less in the overall block plan.

In short, what I'm saying is that introducing the "lands matter" theme in its first block wanted to take up less space, and thus the idea of doing a large / small design was very attractive. If the block is successful (hint, hint), we'll bring the theme back in a future block where we can expand the design space if we so desire (there might be one or more Head Designers with such desire).

So we had a theme that wanted large / small and another theme that wanted large. What to do, what to do? How about shake things up with large / small / large block set in a singular world—but one that completely reset for the third expansion as a major story element changed the world?

This brings up the question: Hey, didn't you guys shrink the set sizes to produce less cards? We did. But we did something I didn't tell you about as well. We shrunk the sets a little smaller than we needed to so we'd have room to grow when a design called for it. Even with the addition of the extra cards, the Standard environment when Rise of the Eldrazi comes out will be significantly smaller than it was at the height of the craziness in Time Spiral / Lorwyn / Shadowmoor Standard. How much smaller? When Rise of the Eldrazi comes out, the Standard environment will have 1,355 unique cards in the environment (I'm counting the five basic lands, for those out there doing the math). How much smaller is that than the Time Spiral / Lorwyn / Shadowmoor Standard environment? Well, we could add a large set, then add a small set, and then add another small set, and then add another large set and then add a third small set to the environment and still have fewer cards. (Time Spiral / Lorwyn / Shadowmoor Standard had 2,263 unique cards, for those who care.) We are not returning to the scale of years past with the Rise of the Eldrazi change.

Rise of the Eldrazi had its work cut out for it. We had never designed a single stand-alone large expansion, and we needed to show the fundamental change that overtakes Zendikar. It was a daunting task for Lead Designer Brian Tinsman and his team, and when Rise of the Eldrazi previews begin, I'll tell you all about it. Today's column, though, was all about the why rather than the how.

I hope this gives you an insight into our thought process and provides a slight tease of what is coming in act 3. Before that happens though, we have a pretty awesome act 2 in Worldwake, previews for which will start shortly after the winter break. (The Best of 2009, when we spend two weeks showing off the best of this year allowing our dedicated staff a little time off, starts in two weeks.)

Next week join me as we revisit a theme that created one of my favorite columns the first time around.

Until then, may act 1 guns always be fired.

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