Please Sir, I Want Some Core

Posted in Making Magic on July 4, 2011

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.

Welcome to Week 2 of Magic 2012 Previews. Last week I talked about what the lead designer of a core set has to think about when he or she puts it together. This week I thought I would do what I often do during preview weeks: tell stories about the set's design. The only problem is that I wasn't on this design team so I don't have any stories. Then it dawned on me that I have plenty of stories about core set designs, just not this one. So for today, I thought it would be fun to look back at some of my core set designs from days gone by.

Before I do that, though, I have a preview card to show off. Last April, ran an article I wrote for The Duelist back in 1995. In it I talked about how to build two decks to play against one another. One of these decks was a deck I named "The Grinch." (Quick aside, before I came to Wizards, I was a Johnny deck builder who loved to create odd decks that played interestingly. One of my little quirks is that I would literally name each deck—that is, I would give a name like a person. Usually that name would relate to the feel of the deck.)

The Grinch was a blue-red deck that won by stealing all of your opponent's resources and using them against him or her. Today's preview card would fit right in that deck. In fact, I like to think of this card as a modern interpretation of one of my favorite cards from the Grinch: Aladdin.

Aladdin was from the expansion Arabian Nights (Magic's very first expansion, also designed by Richard Garfield and based on the flavor of the 1001 Arabian Nights tales). As legendary tech—or even the Legend creature type—had not been created yet, the character of Aladdin was just designed as a normal creature. Aladdin was a thief, so the card Richard created mechanically captured that flavor. Today's card is digging into the same archetypal well:

Click here to meet Master Thief.

As we just finished an artifact block, I know Master Thief has plenty of good targets. I hope you all enjoy playing with it.

Let's hop into the WABAC Machine and visit the designs of some core sets from days gone by.

    Fifth Edition

In October of 1995, I came to work at Wizards of the Coast. Shortly thereafter, I was asked to be a developer on Fifth Edition. (The set would come out in 1997.) The development team would have just three members. Remember that back then there were a lot fewer people in Magic Ramp;D, so a team of three was not abnormal.

Let me introduce you to my two co-developers. First is Skaff Elias.

The above picture is for those of you who can remember my "choose your own adventure" column from back in February of 2003. This is a picture of Skaff. Skaff was one of Magic's original playtesters back in Philadelphia and is part of the group known as "the East Coast playtesters." This same group of four (Skaff, Jim Lin, Dave Petty, and Chris Page) designed Antiquities, Fallen Empires, Ice Age, and Alliances. Skaff came to Wizards shortly after Magic began, and by the time I got there he was a Vice President, although still in Ramp;D. (Skaff filled a very unique role.)

Skaff might be best known for creating the Pro Tour, but he also served time as Magic Brand Manager and had his hand in numerous Wizards products including Magic. Back in the day, Skaff was famous for spending almost all his time at work, going so far as to sleep in a sleeping bag under his desk. Skaff is hard to explain in words; he is a character larger than life. For example, I will forever have in my mind the image of Skaff walking to the site of the very first Pro Tour, in shorts... in the middle of a blizzard, one so strong it shut down the airport.

It's easy to make Skaff sound eccentric, but he was much more than just a quirky character. Skaff had more passion than anyone I've ever seen in Ramp;D. Skaff didn't just care, he CARED. When Skaff got involved he gave it his all. And he came at any problem with a perspective very much his own. I had a blast working with Skaff over the years and I admit it brings a smile to my face just writing about him. I'm not sure how exactly Skaff ended up on the team. My best guess is that Skaff wanted to be on the team, and it was foolhardy to get in Skaff's way.

The other developer was Robert Gutschera. There was a period of time where the majority of the Ramp;D members were from math programs. Robert had been a professor in mathematics. He had always loved games, and through some series of events he managed to get a letter into Richard Garfield's hands. Richard talked with Robert and recommended to the powers that be that Robert be hired.

Robert didn't work much on Magic, but I had the opportunity to work with Robert on a bunch of non-Magic games. (Once upon a time 100% of my time wasn't dedicated to Magic design.) While Robert was quite intelligent—really a prerequisite for Ramp;D—the quality I tended to remember him by is that he was insightful. Robert had a knack of examining a problem and quickly identifying what issues needed to be addressed.

Whenever I was stuck on something, I loved to use Robert as a sounding board. Really, I just loved talking about anything with Robert. On top of that, of the ten-plus years Robert worked in Ramp;D, he lost his temper exactly once. (And I missed it—I heard it was awesome, though.) Everyone liked Robert because he was just so easy to work with and always added so much to the process.

This was a pretty potent team. The only drawback was that the team was composed of three of not only the most stubborn people to ever work in Ramp;D (and trust me that's saying something), but also the most verbose. This team would spend hours talking about a point. Today's story is about just one single card in the set.

What card you ask? This one.

This card is Desert Twister from Arabian Nights, Magic's very first expansion. Magic's early sets were dripping with flavor, so much so the color pie was a bit stretched all over the place. The top-down designs often led to colors doing things that they weren't supposed to. Once example was Desert Twister.

Richard loved the idea of a wild desert storm destroying whatever it was pointed at. Flavor said the card was an attack of nature, so Richard made the card in green. The problem was that green was supposed to be the color without direct creature kill. (Note that green does have some ability to deal with creatures, but the mantra is that green "fights creatures with creatures.")

Anyway, Desert Twister was not only flavorful, it was a nice simple functional card. So despite the color pie abuse, the card got reprinted in Revised (a.k.a. Third Edition).

And then again in Fourth Edition.

I had always forgiven Desert Twister in Arabian Nights much like I forgave my two-year-old daughter when she broke my cell phone. They were young; they didn't know any better. The card rubbed me the wrong way in Revised, and I was actively upset about it in Fourth Edition. The card just sent the wrong message about what green was supposed to do. When I got put on the Fifth Edition development team, Desert Twister was already in the file. (For the old-style reprint-only core sets, the design team put together their pass on the file and then development gave it a second look.) I knew I had a least one agenda: get Desert Twister out of the set.

The one advantage of a three-person team was that the goal needed to win an argument was clear: you needed to have a majority, which meant you had to get one of the other two developers to vote with you. I started my quest by talking to Skaff.

Me: Quick question, Skaff.
Skaff: Okay.
Me: What do you think about the card Desert Twister?
Skaff: I like it.
Me: Do you like it in green?
Skaff: I like it. It's in green, so yes, I like it in green.
Me: I mean, doesn't it seem odd that green's killing creatures with a spell?
Skaff: A little odd, sure.
Me: Maybe it shouldn't be in the set?
Skaff: Oh no, I want it in the set. It's a good card. Simple, flavorful, useful.
Me: Thanks for your time.

Okay, that was a dead end. Next I went to talk to Robert.

Me: Quick question, Robert.
Robert: Yes?
Me: What do you think about the card Desert Twister?
Robert: I don't know. I guess I like it.
Me: Does it seem odd that green's using a spell to kill a creature?
Robert: A little.
Me: So would you mind removing it from the set?
Robert: Well, it is a nice simple card with a splashy but unique effect. Is there something else to stick in its place?
Robert: No. No. No. Maybe. Nah, no. No. No. Ummmm... No. No. No. No. No. No. And no. Doesn't look good.

Skaff liked the card, and Robert didn't see any better replacement. I tried and tried and tried to get it removed. I begged. I pleaded. I bargained. I called in chips. I tried to sway others not on the development team to sway the members on the development team. All to no avail.

My last chance was a meeting with all the Magic Ramp;D members (besides our team, that was Bill Rose, Mike Elliott, William Jockusch, Henry Stern, Joel Mick, and Jim Lin). Everyone had gotten together to give the file one final pass. For the last time I brought up my issue. After looking at all the evidence, it was decided that Desert Twister had to stay because there wasn't any better choice, but I was told that Ramp;D would officially not consider the card to be a precedent.

Yeah, that didn't work out so well. For years after, I kept fighting green cards doing things green wasn't supposed to do, and Desert Twister kept coming up. The lesson of this story to me is the danger of the slippery slope. If you believe something is wrong it's important to cut it off at the pass, because inertia is a hard force to stop.

Also, I often tell stories of my fight to make something happened where I am victorious. I wanted to show that I don't win every fight. Sometimes even when you believe wholeheartedly in your cause, you still have to live with not getting your way.

Oh, and while all that was going on, the team put Necropotence in the set. Maybe I put my energies in the wrong place.

    Sixth Edition

My next story happens two years later, while Ramp;D was working on the design for Sixth Edition. For those who know their history, Sixth Edition was a pretty pivotal core set, not because of its card mix but rather because of the rules it introduced to the game. Now known as the Sixth Edition Rules Change, it was the most important rules overhaul the game has ever had.

Unlike Fifth Edition, I was not on the Sixth Edition design or development team, but the rules change was so big that Bill Rose, the person spearheading the rules change, was interested in hearing from all of Magic Ramp;D. Bill's question was simple: what did each of us believe needed to change to make the game better?

To understand my answer to Bill, we have to go back a year to the very first Magic Invitational, then called the Duelist Invitational. I had been asked by the publisher of The Duelist (a magazine put out by Wizards of the Coast many years ago dedicated to Magic), a woman named Wendy Noritake, to come up with a promotional event we could do to promote The Duelist. I suggested creating an all-star game. We didn't have all that big a budget, so we planned to have the first event in San Diego. (For more on the origins of the Invitational, check out this article.)

Meanwhile, Wizards was trying to start up the Grand Prix system and had selected the first city to host a Grand Prix: Hong Kong. If you know your Magic Grand Prix history, you'll know that the very first Grand Prix was actually held in Amsterdam. Yes, things fell through, and it turned out that Hong Kong wasn't going to be able to host a Grand Prix. But they really wanted to run something high profile. They were going to have a tournament where the winner got a car, but they needed something a little splashier as the centerpiece.

One day, Skaff pulled me into a room to talk to me. He explained the predicament in Hong Kong and asked "Would you guys be willing to run the Invitational in Hong Kong?" The event team was going to pick up the extra tab, so we were in.

The very first Invitational ended with Mike Long squaring off against Olle Rade. Rade defeated Long, although Long would win his Invitational two years later in Barcelona. But there was a little incident a few rounds earlier. The Invitational was always a round robin tournament with fifteen rounds and five formats. (The first year was actually six formats, with the Limited events only being held two rounds each.) One of the formats for the first Invitational was Standard. While Standard is played a lot at premier events these days, back then it wasn't played very often so I wanted to use the Invitational as a chance to seed the real world with some Standard decks.

To shake things up, I allowed the player to play with the Visions expansion even though it was not yet available for tournament play. (Once upon a time, there was a much longer lag between release and legality in Standard.) One of the players was a man named Thomas Andersson. Thomas was Swedish, and he had made Top 8 at the very first Pro Tour, held in New York City. Thomas built a deck around this card:

This is Sands of Time from Visions. While it might look like an innocent goofy card, it was not. The reason being of a little rule that Richard had put into Alpha. Let's take a look:

A quick aside, if you've never had the pleasure of reading the Alpha rulebook, I urge you to give it a glance.

See the highlighted section? That's where the rulebook tells you this important rule: continuous artifacts turn off when tapped. I don't want to go too deep down this rabbit hole, but a "continuous artifact" is essentially one that has an ongoing global effect.

Anyway, it turns out Sands of Time plus the "turns off when tapped" rule equals a very unfair deck. Thomas went 3-0, wrecking dreams in his wake. Matt Place (later Ramp;D developer extraordinaire) was knocked out in the Top 2 by Thomas and his Sands of Time deck. All the players were complaining about the deck, but there was nothing I could do. This was the first time I'd ever seen it, and the rules about how Sands of Time worked hadn't even been released yet as the Standard-legal date hadn't occurred yet. The Invitational was playing in virgin space and the Standard portion of the tournament got burned because of it. I believe several weeks later we released errata for Sands of Time.

So the day Bill asked me if there was any rule I wanted to change, I spoke up:

Me: Yes, Bill, there is. Could we please get rid of the stupid "tapped artifacts turn off" rule? It just keeps burning us again and again because it's really hard to design interesting artifacts with neat effects when there's just a way to turn it off whenever it's convenient. If there's a few cards like Howling Mine or Winter Orb that want the effect, then just put it on those individual cards. Just end the pain, Bill. End the pain!

And that was my contribution to Sixth Edition rules. Well, that and I kept mana burn from getting removed (but that was a story for another article).

    Four Core and Seven Years Ago

I honestly thought when I started writing this that I'd have time for more stories, but I guess two was the number that fit. If you like these kinds of stories from the past, let me know. If you don't like them, let me know as well. I hope this little trip through memory lane was fun.

Magic 2012 hopefully will be just as memory filled for all of you. I'm curious to hear what you all think of it once you get to play. You can write to me at the link below or on Twitter (@maro254) or in the thread.

Join me next week when I reveal a personal secret.

Until then, may you look back on decisions you made many years ago and see what ripples they've created.

Latest Making Magic Articles


June 27, 2022

A Double Take, Part 2 by, Mark Rosewater

Last week, I started telling some card-by-card design stories about cards reprinted in Double Masters 2022, but there were a lot of stories to tell, so I'm continuing today. Body Double ...

Learn More


June 20, 2022

A Double Take, Part 1 by, Mark Rosewater

Before the release of Double Masters 2022, I thought it would be fun to look back at how some of the cards were made. This set has cards from all over Magic's history, so over the next tw...

Learn More



Making Magic Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All