In this podcast, I talk about my time as editor-in-chief of Duelist, the Magic-themed magazine Wizards used to produce.
Posted in Making Magic on May 7, 2018
Often, when I do a design article about a set, I try to talk about all the aspects of the set. To do so, I usually hit the highlights of the design for any one particular mechanic, giving you all a condensed overview of what happened. Every once in a while, though, there's a mechanic that went through enough changes that it warrants a whole article. Sagas are one such mechanic. Today, I'm going to start from the very beginning and walk you through each phase of evolution as it happened, not just in vision design but all the way through set design and up until print.
Sagas didn't even start as a mechanic, but as a thematic element. We were beginning to center on the idea of Dominaria as a world of history, and I kept coming back to the idea that, in a world where the past so defined the present, stories had to be important. While Magic has tried to convey story within cards (story spotlights are the latest incarnation), the attempt to convey the concept of a story through mechanical means is pretty new.
I went back and looked to see how much we'd talked about stories and storytelling in card design. We had a lot of books and tomes, but I was more focused on the stories themselves. We'd had some storytellers: Nomad Mythmaker (Judgment), Teller of Tales (Champions of Kamigawa), Reki, the History of Kamigawa (Saviors of Kamigawa), Heartwood Storyteller (Future Sight), and Sage of Fables (Morningtide). We'd had places or objects that inspired stories, such as Tree of Tales (Mirrodin) and Font of Mythos (Conflux). And we'd had a handful of cards that referenced stories: Story Circle (Mercadian Masques), Fact or Fiction (Invasion), Truth or Tale (Time Spiral), Spin into Myth (Future Sight), Fable of Wolf and Owl (Eventide), Overbeing of Myth (Eventide), and Myth Realized (Dragons of Tarkir). But none of these cards really conveys the idea of being a story; they don't mechanically capture a story being told.
In fact, the only time I can remember us doing anything anywhere in the ballpark was in Urza's Saga block with two cycles of enchantments, one uncommon and one rare.
Each of these ten cards puts a counter on itself every upkeep. You can then later sacrifice it (which sometimes requires a mana cost) to generate an effect that scales based on how many counters it has. We chose to flavor the cards as songs. The idea was that the longer you sang the song, the more you built up your magic. A song is not exactly a story, but it did convey a sense of an effect happening over time as something was being told/sung.
What this investigation told me was that the idea of mechanically capturing a story was pretty open space. Just as I felt Innistrad had the opportunity to mechanically define what a Werewolf was, Dominaria was going to be able to do the same with a story.
The first place we went, interestingly, was to the flashback mechanic.
Now, flashback isn't flavored as telling a story, but it could be. "Here's a story. Now let me tell it again." What if flashback was our returning mechanic and we flavored all those cards as stories being told? And then we remembered that Amonkhet, which would be in Standard with Dominaria, had aftermath, which is a flashback variant.
Kindle cards get stronger for each copy you play. What if every time you told the story, the magic connected to it got more powerful? But Amonkhet (and Shadows over Innistrad two blocks before that) had played heavily into the graveyard space. Was there a way to convey story on the battlefield rather than in the graveyard? That meant looking at permanents.
There are five permanent types, but you can eliminate most of them pretty quickly. Planeswalkers and creatures have a clear flavor to them, and at best, conveying story through them is making them storytellers and not stories. Artifacts have a problem similar to that of creatures, in that putting stories on them made them feel more like the receptacles (books and such) than the stories themselves. Lands having no mana cost and needing to provide mana made it difficult to use them for any kind of sequential effect. That left enchantments.
At this point, we decided to try a different approach. What exactly defined a story? What qualities did it have to have? Identifying this would allow us to figure out what exactly we were trying to mechanically capture. After some discussion, we settled on the following:
There was some sequentiality – What makes a story a story is that something happens, and then something else happens that's predicated on the first thing happening. Then there are a series of happenings that build to a resolution. What that meant mechanically was that a card representing a story would have to generate more than one effect.
It took place over time – Another important quality of a story is that it takes time to tell. If we were going to capture the essence of a story, it couldn't just be a single effect, but a series of effects that took place over time. Mechanically, that meant we probably wanted an enchantment that did something for some number of turns.
The elements related to one another – The pieces of a story come together to create something larger than the sum of its parts. A card representing a story didn't just have to have multiple effects and take place over time; the effects had to relate to one another. Mechanically, they had to have synergy.
It had a beginning, middle, and end – Stories have a duration. Any mechanical representation needed to start, do stuff over a series of turns, and then end. An ongoing effect with no end wasn't a story. The cards would need a duration.
I tend to tell stories about sets as if they live in a vacuum. But the reality is that making Magic is about trial and error, and that means that a lot of good ideas, ones that didn't quite work in the situation where they were first created, get left along the way. Oftentimes when we're looking for a solution to a problem, we look back to see if something we made, but never used, might be a solution.
This is the point where the original planeswalker design got brought up. As I explained in my Dominaria design article, we had tried an early version of planeswalkers that generated a preprogrammed order of effects. One effect happened each turn, always in the same order, forever cycling through the effects. It was rejected because it made the planeswalkers feel as if they didn't have any agency. The planeswalkers felt like preprogrammed robots that did what they were instructed to do even if it didn't make any sense given the nature of what was happening in the game. (For instance, Garruk would waste a turn making all Wolves bigger even when there weren't any Wolves on the battlefield.) But stories don't need agency and do want a locked series of events. Maybe there was something there.
It was at this point I went to the Vision Design team and asked for them to create some designs that played into this feel of a story evolving over time. My only requirements were the things I listed above. Everyone came back with designs, but Richard Garfield was the one who evolved the idea the furthest.
Richard was intrigued by the idea of something that felt like a board game, where there was a path that you would advance on over time. He overcame the obstacle of excessive words by taking advantage of icons. A wolf print meant "make a 2/2 green Wolf creature token." Two wolf prints meant "make two Wolf creature tokens." The card would then have a legend at the bottom that defined what the icons meant in game terms. As the icons could be doubled or tripled, we could create different effects without adding any extra words.
Richard didn't just stop there, though. He explored the idea of locked paths, of things that were required before you could advance to the next space. He also played around with branching paths where you had to make a choice that would dictate what would happen. And he played with the amount of spaces. Some stories were short (three or four spaces) and some were long (up to eight spaces, I believe).
The other thing Richard hit strongly was how to convey a story. Each of his designs was clearly about something happening, and the effects came together to tell a cohesive tale. While I knew there was a lot of execution to figure out, Richard's designs made me confident that we were traveling down a path that would lead to something awesome.
For the first playtest, we tried to dial things back a little to see if we could limit how much text we were using. Note that we were using "Story" rather than Saga at this point, and the first incarnation experimented with it being a new card type. Note also that we had a little track that we drew in the art box.
Here's a sample:
Story of Phyrexian War
(start – space – space – end)
At the beginning of your upkeep or whenever a creature dies, advance the story.
Completion – Sacrifice CARDNAME and destroy target creature an opponent controls.
The idea of this early version was that the story was going to move toward its conclusion, but you could do something thematic that would speed it up. Then, once you had reached the end, you could sacrifice the Story for a thematic effect. But playing with them showed they just didn't feel enough like stories, so we explored more of what Richard had been up to.
Story of Saproling Revolt
(start – space [*] – space [**] – space [***] – end [!])
Legendary Enchantment — Story
Advance the story at the beginning of your upkeep or by paying 3, as a sorcery.
* Create a 1/1 green Saproling creature token.
! Creatures you control get +2/+2 and gain trample until end of turn.
In case it's unclear, here's what happens with this card. The turn you play the card, nothing happens. On the second turn, you get a 1/1 green Saproling creature token. On the third turn, you get two Saprolings. On the fourth turn, you get three Saprolings. Then on the fifth and final turn, all your creatures get +2/+2 and gain trample until the end of the turn. The Story is then put into the graveyard.
This version made a few changes. First, it was now a legendary enchantment rather than a new card type. Story became an enchantment subtype. We started using Richard's icon technology along with a legend in the text box telling you what happens. We also experimented with longer tracks. Finally, we gave the player a secondary way to advance the Story: they could use mana to progress it. At this point, the cost was three.
This playtest went better, so the next incarnation changed less.
Saga of the Pit Club
(start – space [*] – space [*] – space [*] – space [!])
Legendary Enchantment — Saga
(Advance the story at the beginning of your upkeep or by paying 4, as a sorcery)
* Create a 1/1 black Human creature token.
! Create a 7/7 black Demon creature token with flying and trample. It has "At the beginning of your upkeep, sacrifice a Human. If you can't, this deals 7 damage to you."
The biggest changes for this next playtest were that we changed "Story" to "Saga" (as "story cards" was already a shorthand for the story spotlight cards) and the cost of advancing a Saga with mana changed from three to four.
It was at this point that we started to talk with people about the layout of the card. That meant going to talk to James Arnold, R&D's graphic artist. We still liked the idea of a track, but it became clear that it would require too many frames to have lots of different tracks, so we settled on two sizes: four and six. The idea was that most Sagas would have four "chapters," but a few longer, more grandiose ones would have six. This was roughly where we were when we handed off the Dominaria file to Set Design.
When Dominaria was handed over, Erik Lauer was the lead of the Set Design team. After extensive playtesting, the first thing Erik did was to remove the mana ability. He found that it wasn't being used enough to warrant the amount of space it took up in the text box. The second thing he did was drop the Sagas from four chapters to three. Erik's concern was that things weren't happening fast enough. Some of our designs had spaces where nothing happened. Erik changed it so something happened during every chapter. This was aided, of course, by his dropping from four chapters to three. The six-chapter Sagas just went away.
Erik also worked closely with Kelly Digges, the person in charge of story for Dominaria, to start figuring out what stories needed to be told. Vision Design had made a bunch of Saga designs as proofs of concept, but the intention was always that the Sagas would be designed to match the relevant Dominarian stories. Kelly started fleshing out what stories those would be, so Set Design could build Sagas that mechanically fit the story that wanted to be told.
Meanwhile, James was still trying to solve the puzzle of what these frames were supposed to look like. He had experimented with having a track, but it caused layout and art issues, so he tried going a different direction. The biggest limitation was the desire to save space by having multiple turns have the same effect. Instead of using icons for the effects, James tried using icons for the chapters. This allowed the card to have a rules text box, in which you could then move the chapter icons to show when the same effect happened twice. The only restriction was that it would be hard to show the same effect happening on the first and third turn but not the second one. None of the designs needed that flexibility, though, so it worked out well. This idea is what led to the vertical text and art boxes.
A quick aside on the art box for Sagas. When we were putting together the set in vision design, we spent a bunch of time talking about how we would want to convey history in the set. One idea we came up with was using in-world art as a means to show how the people of Dominaria felt about their past. Kelly and Mark liked the idea so much, they chose to use it on the Sagas. Each of the fourteen different Sagas has a different kind of art, and the art chosen was designed to match the flavor of the people who would most likely tell the story. For example, the story of Benalia, a society built around its churches, is told through stained glass. I'm very happy with how all the art for the Sagas turned out.
The set was then handed off from Erik to Dave Humpherys when Erik moved on to put his attention toward Spaghetti and Meatballs. Dave was in charge of the set when I came to him with a desire to change historic from referencing two things to referencing three. By referencing Sagas specifically, Dave was able to change them away from being legendary, something he'd been wanting to do.
Dave was able to make a few other minor but important changes to Sagas. He changed made all the effects triggered (I believe the vast majority already were). Once the chapters existed instead of the track, he made the move to using counters to remind the player what chapter they were on. (This also opened up the Sagas to cards that interact with counters, something that might matter in Modern.) Finally, Dave moved the triggering of the chapters from the beginning of the turn to after the draw step. He did this because he wanted players to have the information of what they drew before committing to using the Sagas. (The reason it was after the draw step rather than the beginning of the precombat main phase had to do with which was shorter to write out on the card, as functionally they're very similar.)
The one last change had to do with how the Sagas were templated. We had a decision to make: whether to try and write down all the rules on the card for Sagas or have the subtype carry some rules baggage. We chose the latter for several reasons. One, I'm pretty sure not all the text would have fit in the rules text box. Two, the new frame did a lot to convey what was going on, and we didn't feel a need to write down things that the frame conveyed. Three, it allowed us to have friendlier language because the rules for reminder text are more lax than those for normal rules text.
And that is how Sagas went from a blip of an idea to a new enchantment subtype. I'm super excited about how they turned out, and I hope you all enjoy them as much as I do. As always, I'm eager to hear feedback from all of you. It could be about this column, Sagas, or any aspect of Dominaria. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).
Join me next week when I answer your questions about Dominaria.
Until then, may you enjoy some good stories.
In this podcast, I talk about my time as editor-in-chief of Duelist, the Magic-themed magazine Wizards used to produce.