Putting On a Core Set

Posted in Making Magic on June 27, 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 Magic 2012 Core Set previews! This week I'll be talking about the design of the latest core set. I'll introduce you to the design team. I'll explain how a core set gets designed I'll even show off a brand-new card. So sit right back and let's get this column started.

    There Was No I in Team

As Head Designer I tend to be on the vast majority of design teams. Other than Magic 2010, which created the current core set mold, I've chosen to bow out from the core set design teams. The major reason is a time management one. I just don't have the hours to be on every design team, and the core set design team has less moving pieces than most designs. In addition, core sets are not as mechanically intertwined with other sets as expansions are, making it easier for me to bow out. The end result of not being on the core set design teams is that I always want to make sure that the design team has a strong mix of designers capable of producing an awesome set. Magic 2012 was no exception.

Mark Globus (lead)

One of my favorite stats from 2011 is this. Every design in 2011 (all five of them) was lead by a Ken or a Mark. Ken Nagle led the design of New Phyrexia and Magic: The Gathering Commander. (More on him below.) Mark Gottlieb led the design of Mirrodin Besieged. I led the design of Innistrad. (Must resist... desire to give away... amazing details...) Magic 2012 was lead by the third and final Mark: Mark Globus.

Mark's day job is the Senior Producer for Magic in Ramp;D. What that means is that it's his job to wrangle all the chaos that's involved in the design and development of Magic (the answer for how much chaos is "a lot more than you might think") and make sure that everything that's suppose to get done actually gets done. With the number of products and teams that Ramp;D has responsibility for, this is a mighty difficult task. So why exactly is the organization guy leading a Magic design?

For starters, Mark's introduction to Wizards of the Coast was the original Great Designer Search. Mark just barely missed the final three, tying for fourth. That near miss got him a plane ticket (it was cheaper to buy the tickets the final five than it was to wait until we knew the final three), and the staffing up for the Gleemax project (Wizards' big digital initiative) got him a fulltime job overseeing programmers.

Mark's job had nothing to do with Magic but it allowed him to do two key things: 1) it demonstrated his strength at managing people and processes and 2) it helped him get to know the various members of Ramp;D. This led to a series of events the ended with Mark landing the Magic Producer job.

During all that time, Mark was a regular member of various design and development teams. You don't come in fourth in the GDS without having some design chops, so we put them to good use. The years rolled by, and Mark was doing excellent work on both design and development teams. One day, Aaron brought up the idea of letting Magic 2012 be Mark's first attempt to try his hand as a lead designer. I agreed Mark had earned the slot and gave my blessing.

As it turned out, Aaron's suggestion was right on the money. Mark did an exceptional job. While I have no desire for him to leave his day job because that's something else he also does quite well, I am happy to let him continue to stretch his design muscles. I hope once all of you can see Magic 2012 in its entirety you'll see why I was so happy with his work.

Doug Beyer

While all sets these days incorporate flavor, few do so at the level of a core set. The reason for this is simple. Expert expansions are building a world. To do this the flavor of each card has to work together to build something larger. The core set, on the other hand, has more freedom to just make cool, stand-alone flavorful cards. As such, there's more top-down design than in the average expert expansion. You can see why having a member of the creative team on design is so valuable.

Besides bringing his creative team skills to the table, Doug brings one other thing: he's good at designing cards. I've had the pleasure of having Doug on my design team, and he's no slacker. Doug has a very interesting insight into making cards because he's been so involved on cards from the creative side. Doug tends to create cards that are interesting mechanically but also make sense flavorfully. He has a natural sense of how the two fit together.

Doug delivered yet again for Magic 2012, so much so that there just might be some more design work in his near future.

Aaron Forsythe

Aaron has done so many good things for Magic. (For those who somehow aren't in the loop, Aaron is the current director of Magic Ramp;D, a.k.a. my boss) If I was forced to pick the one that I feel is his greatest contribution, I would say Magic 2010. Aaron revolutionized the core set and turned it from being an afterthought to being something that drove Magic into its current form. It brought back a Magic that had drifted away since Alpha and reinvigorated the brand.

Aaron followed up his design lead of Magic 2010 with a design lead for Magic 2011. When Magic2012's design approached, Aaron knew it was time to pass the torch and allow someone else to create a vision of the core set. That said, Aaron was definitely planning to keep his toe in, so he made sure he was on the design team.

Aaron + core set = amazing, so the success of his involvement on this team really shouldn't be a shock to anyone.

Ken Nagle

Recently Brian Tinsman left Wizards to pursue his passion for game design elsewhere. The day after he left, I realized that, save for myself, Ken had become my most senior designer. How did that happen? How did the scrappy GDS candidate end up as a premier Magic designer? (You have to now imagine the song "Sunrise, Sunset" from Fiddler on the Roof playing as a montage of images of Ken doing design work flash by.)

Ken has been here for over four years (longer than every current developer save Erik Lauer, who beat Ken by just a few weeks I believe). He has led the designs for Worldwake, New Phyrexia, Archenemy, and Magic: The Gathering Commander and is currently leading his first large set, "Hook" (the fall set of 2012)—in addition to the infinite number of design teams he's served on.

Yes, Ken has become a design veteran, someone to teach new GDS2 intern Ethan Fleischer a thing or two about Magic design. Did he rock the Magic 2012 design team? Of course. Did he make awesome cards that he'll tell you all about as soon as someone puts a video camera on him? Of course. Do I have to stop now before I get verklempt? (That's fighting back tears.) Of course.

    No One's Rotten to the Core

So Mark Globus had a stellar design team. What exactly did he have to do? Well, core sets are a little different than expansions. For starters, the lead designer of a core set starts with a series of questions to answer. (The lead of a large expansion set, in contrast, usually has a lovely blank piece of paper.) Today's column I'm going to be examining those questions and telling you how Mark and his team answered them.

Note that the order of these question are just the order they came to me and don't represent the order by which they were answered. In fact, I guess I should stress that all these questions were answered simultaneously during the course of this design. To use a metaphor (and when do I pass that opportunity up?), design is like juggling where you have to keep your attention on many balls all constantly flying by. With all that out of the way, let's get to the questions:

What cards are going to leave? What cards are going to stay?

Here's the first big challenge of designing a core set. The set has to be enough like the last set to create continuity and feel like a core set, but it has to be different enough to feel like its own set. There are a number of ways to accomplish this, but one of the first things the lead designer and design team have to face is what's staying and what's going.

Note that these lists are in constant flux. For example, there was a lot of talk about whether or not the Titans should stay for Magic 2012. The cards had been introduced in Magic 2011, so some in Ramp;D felt the players might be upset if we took the powerful creatures out so quickly. Others felt like the Titans had proven themselves and it was time to let other cards shine. Likewise there was much discussion about Lightning Bolt and Baneslayer Angel.

In general, the powerful cards all create the following dilemma: if they are removed, players are upset that they are leaving Standard; if they stay, the set has one less spot where it can create a new powerful card. There needs to be a balance where you have some continuity of power, but not a complete one, as it's crucial for the set to be able to carve out new areas to shine.

Before I continue, let me take a moment to talk about Giant Spider and Giant Growth. These two cards were the final two competitors in something we referred to as Core Set Survivor. (Here's my column that started it all.) Going into design, everyone in Ramp;D knew that only one of these two cards was going to make it in. The most interesting thing about this story is that no one knew which one it was going to be. For most of design Giant Growth was in the set, but shortly before handoff, the design team realized they had a good reason—not yet revealed—to swap out Giant Growth for Giant Spider, which they did. Development explored swapping it back but it was clear that this mix of cards wanted Giant Spider more than Giant Growth. Don't fret for Giant Growth, though—it'll be back.

What is the returning mechanic?

While Magic 2010 created the mold, Magic 2011 added a few things to the new formula. One of the biggest was the addition of a returning mechanic. Magic 2011 reintroduced scry. Magic 2012 was on the hook to find its own mechanic to return.

Furyborn Hellkite | Illustration by Brad Rigney

Here are the criteria for the mechanic:

#1 – The mechanic has to be returning. While the core set now has new cards, everyone feels strongly that it is not the place to introduce new mechanics. As such, this mechanic is always a returning one.

#2 – The mechanic cannot be too complex. The core set has a lower bar for complexity than an expert expansion. The reason for this is that the core set is designed as being the best entry point. (Yes, time has shown us that players enter the game through all the products, but we feel strongly that we want to have a product that retailers in the know can steer new players to.)

#3 – The mechanic has to have simple design space available. Not all mechanics are created equal. Some have the ability to be put on a lot of cards while some only have enough depth to go on a handful of cards. The returning mechanic has to be one that has plenty of simple, elegant design space left. In general, we aren't interested in evolving the mechanic, just finding straight-forward versions that haven't been made yet.

#4 – The mechanic has to be able to be done as it was the first time. Expert expansions tend to evolve mechanics when they reuse them. The core set does not have this luxury, meaning that however a mechanic was used the first time out, that is how the core set will reuse it.

#5 –The mechanic has to have some flavor to it. The core set is very much about finding resonant images and tropes to build cards around. This desire to make the set approachable and familiar drips down to the mechanic.

#6 – The mechanic has to have been popular. Whenever we do a new mechanic, we always gather data on it to see what the players think. We are willing to revisit unpopular mechanics if we feel there is some tweak we can do to correct whatever issues caused their unpopularity in the first place. That requires significantly changing the mechanic, however, which breaks rule #4.

Mark and his team examined a number of different mechanics, but in the end it was bloodthirst that ended up the returning mechanic.

What are our cool reprints?

One of the things that predates Magic 2010 is the use of the core set to showcase cool reprints. One of the questions the design team has to answer is what cool things are you bringing back from Magic's past. While I can't completely answer this question yet, I can say that the design team delivered on this requirement.

How do you make this set feel different from the last core set?

In many ways, this is the trickiest question to answer. An expert expansion has so many more tools to create a unique identity for itself. All the core sets have a baseline they have to meet, as well as stricter caps on complexity. Luckily, there are a few tricks to be had.

First, the inclusion of a returning mechanic that changes each set helps immensely. Magic 2011 had scry, a spell mechanic, while Magic 2012 has bloodthirst, a creature keyword. This one change did quite a bit to shift how the set played, especially in Limited.

The next tool is the use of a subtheme. A subtheme is something that shows up on a handful of cards, usually at lower rarities, that adds some direction for Draft and casual Constructed. In the case of Magic 2012, that subtheme was about enchantments, particularly Auras. The subtheme is not pushed very hard so as to not skew the overall feel of the set.

Mark and his team also played around with multi-card resonant tropes. Magic 2010 and Magic 2011 both did a lot with resonant tropes on individual cards, but Mark was interested in exploring tropes that went over multiple cards rather than just one.

While each of these things was not giant in scope, the combination of them starts giving the set its own identity.

What are the new cards going to be?

I saved the biggest question for last. No matter what you do in your design, once the previews start all the players want the same thing: show us the new cards! Interestingly, this is one of the easiest things for the design team to address, as the needs are very straightforward. Don't get me wrong—making cool new cards is challenging—but knowing you need to make them is pretty much a no-brainer.

Speaking of brand-new cards, how would you like to see one?

Longtime readers might know I'm a big fan of zombies, (as you know if you've never read my column I cc: Dead People) so I'm happy to show off a pretty cool zombie from Magic 2012.

Click here to see it.

Vengeful Pharoah | Illustration by Igor Kieryluk

This card's design was very simple: "Top-down design a mummy." I'm very happy with how it turned out.

    Core Competency

As you can see, core sets come with a lot of design issues. I hope today's column gave you a little insight into what kind of questions the design team has to answer.

Join me next week when I introduce you to someone who'll steal your heart (or possibly just your favorite knick knack).

Until then, may you answer the following question: where can I play Magic 2012?

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