Say When

Posted in Making Magic on December 8, 2014

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.

Back in 2010, I started a mega-series I call the "Question Mark Mailbags." For each one, I ask my Twitter followers for questions starting with a particular word. First, it was "how" ("Know How," Part 1 & Part 2). Next, it was "why" ("Why? Because We Like You"). Today is the third in the series and the word is "when."

Here's the tweet I posted:

(For those who can't see embedded tweets, it says: I'm writing a mailbag column today and I need your help. Please send me a question that's a single tweet that starts with "When.")

I got a tremendous response and I'm going to try and answer as many questions as I can. Here are a few reasons I might not get to your question, though:

  • I have an allotted word count, as my article has to get translated into many languages, and I've learned it's good to be nice to your editors and translators. With so many questions, I just didn't have room to answer them all.
  • Someone else might have asked the same question. I tried as much as possible to answer the first person who asked the question.
  • The reason I am starting each of these mailbags with different words is to try and generate different styles of questions. Some people asked "when" questions that weren't really "when" questions and I skipped them.
  • Some questions had answers that I either didn't know or were outside of my expertise and I didn't feel qualified to properly answer them.
  • There are some topics I am not allowed to talk about and those questions were skipped.

With that said, let's answer some questions!

Don Wiggins (‏‪@TheSundry): When will we see full art basic lands again?

Nothing's definitive until it sees print, but I have a lot of confidence they will see the light of day again.

Silver Oak (‏‪@Silverline_OOC): When will we see another Un-set, if ever?

I do believe it's a question of "when" we will see it and not "if." Have faith Un-fans, I have not given up the fight. I will say, though, that if you are a fan of the Un-sets and would like to see another one, let Wizards people (who aren't me; no need to preach to the choir) know you are interested. Part of getting it made is convincing the powers that be that there is enough demand for it.

Mitch (‏‪@MeLlamoEsMoto): When is appropriate to break the color pie?

Never. When is it okay to bend the color pie? When the environment is leaning in a certain direction and you want to make sure all colors have some access to the theme. For example, normally black and green (and white a little) are the graveyard colors, but get to a set with a strong graveyard theme or subtheme and it's important that blue and red have things they can do. These things should not undo weaknesses the colors are supposed to have, but rather play into areas that are close to what the colors normally do. Bending the color pie allows us the ability to craft environments and lets us occasionally offer colors effects they normally do not get.

Breaking the color pie is when you give a color something it's not supposed to have by design. An important part of the game's balance is that each color has strengths and weaknesses, which forces players to sometimes go into other colors. If every color could handle every problem, then there would be no reason to ever play multicolor decks. The mana system already punishes you for playing more than one color, so it's important the color pie pushes in the opposite direction.

Dave Glass (‏‪@daveglass74): When did you realize the game would last more than a few years?

I believed when I first saw Magic (back in Alpha) that it was a major game changer for gaming and it had great potential to become a classic living a long, long time. When I took my job at Wizards I expected I would be working here for a while. Okay, maybe I didn't know it would be the rest of my life at the time, but it would be many years at least.

Abbott Veldhuizen (‏‪@Silmerion): When after a set is released does R&D get a full picture of how well that set was received?

We get a good sense of the public's reaction relatively quickly. Note that the first phase is when you all see it and the second phase is once you all have gotten a chance to play with it. I would say by a month after the set has gone on sale we have a very good sense of player reaction. Now, understanding the health of Standard or how long players will enjoy a draft format before growing tired of it takes a bit longer.

Dave Weiss (‏‪@RealDaveWeiss): When will we get another nostalgia set?

That depends what you think of as a nostalgia set. If you're imagining Time Spiral, Part 2, you're in for a long wait. If you're thinking about things like Return to Ravnica or Scars of Mirrodin, where we revisit a world and play up elements players enjoyed from that world, the wait won't be nearly as long. What we've learned is that some nostalgia is good, but only done in a way that doesn't make newer players feel as if they're missing the reference.

Joseph AlKhazraji (‏‪@darthqueeg): When will we see a Return to Arabian Nights?

Arabian Nights does something we don't do anymore. It wasn't a world inspired by a real-world source, it was a world exactly duplicating a real-world source. While we enjoy doing worlds and even characters that make nods to real-world sources (such as the Innistrad and Theros blocks), we want the world of Magic to be our own and not someone else's.

Patrick Rollens (‏‪‏‪@PatrickRollens): When did design and/or R&D have the conversation that resulted in "better" creatures in the modern era of MTG?

Even when I first started back in 1995, R&D was well aware that the early sets made spells too strong and creatures too weak. It did take us many years to realize how strong we could make creatures and still have a fun play environment. We took many years making creatures "just a little bit better."

Joshman (‏‪@PatriotTurtle): When did R&D decide it was okay to make non-red dragons?

It's a gentle dance. Dragons are red's iconic creature but also the most popular creature type in the game (according to a lot of market research). Our compromise, which goes all the way back to Mirage in 1996, is to occasionally, although infrequently, make full cycles of dragons.

Stephen (‏‪@StephenKonefal): When did Wizards decide to stop doing large, overarching storytelling (i.e. the Weatherlight saga)? Great movie material. ;-)

After the Weatherlight Saga, we went through a phase where we kept our stories a bit more self-contained (and mostly outside of being told on the cards themselves). We're slowly shifting back in the other direction. Different events that happen in one block are starting to have an impact on other blocks. The Khans of Tarkir block story, for example, will have an impact on the future story.

Jet Set Vulpine (‏‪‏‪@lejmatthews): When was the last time you played in a sanctioned Magic event?

As a Wizards employee, I am not allowed to play in most sanctioned events.

As a freelancer before I worked full time at Wizards, I was not allowed to play in sanctioned play, as I had advanced knowledge of the sets.

So, that means it's been a long, long time. Probably over twenty years. Also, the gap when sanctioned play existed and I was allowed to play in it was very small.

MTG Color Pie (‏‪@mtgcolorpie): When is it ok to give up on a mechanic in playtesting vs trying to continue to make it work?

It's a feel thing. If the mechanic is vital to the larger overall structure you spend a lot more time trying different versions before abandoning it. If it's less intertwined, you cut it much faster if it's not working.

Andrew Burbine (‏‪@vrazix): When will we see a new cardtype?

New card types have to be something we're very careful with as each one adds a lot of complexity to the game. That's not to say we'll never add another one, but I don't feel it's going to be any time soon. Unless you're talking about supplemental products, and then it happens all the time.

Alex Balhatchet (‏‪‏‪@kaokun): When will we learn more about the Magic movie?

Wizards cares very much about the movie and there is a team of four people (Doug Beyer and I are two of them) whose job it is to make sure that the movie captures the essence of Magic, but it is not our project so it's not up to us to determine when news will be shared. I do promise you that as there is news to share that I will share it with all of you (through my social media).

For those who might not know anything about the Magic movie, here's the little that's public. Fox Studios optioned a Magic movie in conjunction with a production studio called Genre Films. A writer named Bryan Cogman (one of the writers on Game of Thrones) was hired to write it. That's all that's public so far.

AdventMtG (‏‪‏‪@AdventMtG): When is the next GDS? :)

Here's the good news. Magic is getting more and more successful. That means there is growing demand for more designers. That increases the chances of the next Great Designer Search starting. I am very confident that it will happen, the question is just when.

Anthony Barker (‏‪‏‪@hobosamurai27): When do you decide to do a block top down or bottom up?

For those unaware of the terms, "top-down" refers to design where you start with the flavor and build mechanics to match, while "bottom-up" starts with mechanics and finds flavor to match. The decision of which to use is tied to what the block is about. If we start by trying to capture a particular real-world source, that tends to be top-down. If we start trying to realize some mechanical goal, that tends to be bottom-up. It's just a matter of what exactly is the thing driving the design. Note that design and creative are so intertwined these days that it might not always be clear from the end product how it started.

Jake Stiles (‏‪@JakeStilesMTG): When do you know it's time to give up on a card in a design file?

The moment it's not contributing toward the success of the set as a whole.

Funk Jesus (‏‪@RadioshackRaid): When did the idea for Planeswalker cards occur?

Time Spiral block had an event called The Mending, which was a big conversion for how Planeswalkers worked. Before, they had the power of gods and were very hard for players to connect with through stories. After the Mending, the Planeswalkers were far less powerful. Yes, they could still walk between planes but they were mortal people who had mortal-people problems.

During the design of Future Sight (the third set in the Time Spiral block), Matt Cavotta came to me (he was on the creative team at the time) and said that if we wanted players to embrace Planeswalkers, we had to include them in the game. We needed to make Planeswalker a new card type. I agreed with him and the team started working on it with the intent that Planeswalkers would be a few of the futureshifted cards showing weird cards from the future. This would let us test them in the real world and if players hated them, hey, they were from a future we might never see.

While creating them we realized we had something cool on our hands. We hadn't quite figured it out by the time Future Sight development had to be handed off, so we took them out so we could work on them some more. The plan was we would put them in whatever set happened after we were done. That set turned out to be the very next expansion, Lorwyn.

Chris Ingersoll (‏‪@Vyolynce): When will "milling" become an official keyword action?

It's something we talk about in R&D from time to time. The biggest thing holding us back is we've never gotten a word that we felt was intuitively clear. "Mill" comes from Antiquities's Millstone, the first card to do this effect, but the word in isolation doesn't convey what the effect is. We've tried numerous other words but all the words that convey putting cards from a library into a graveyard also sound as if they could mean making a player discard.

Reyn (‏‪@quillypen): When did you first know you wanted to be Magic's lead designer?

From the moment I decided I wanted to work at Wizards of the Coast. Remember that I was hired in R&D not as a designer but as a developer.

Patrick Rollens (‏‪@PatrickRollens): When was the latest time in a production cycle that R&D has had to push the big red emergency button & replace a card?

Basically, we have until editing hands over the file to production. If it was a big enough emergency, there's a little time to change things in production, but it increases the chance of mistakes getting introduced into the product.

Jimmy Wong (‏‪@jfwong): When players lambast R&D for making a card they disagree with, what's one thing you wish they understood more about the process?

I think the biggest thing a lot of players don't realize is there are many players unlike them who want completely different things out of the game. We also have to make Magic for those players as well.

JUD with 1 D (@GUDoug): When will we get an Ooze Lord?

One of these days. I should have made one in Gatecrash. That was a big missed opportunity.

Tyler Bienlein (‏@ToAzT92): When is it okay to give the players what they want and when to ignore them?

The key is whether or not what the players want will in the end make them happy. Players ask for things all the time that if we actually gave them would make the game less enjoyable for them. We do spend a lot of time trying to understand what they players want, though, because when we are able to give players things they want, we do.

Nicholas Koehler (‏‪@Friece_Diety): When will mechanics stop being tied to specific colors?

Um, never. The separation of the abilities between the colors is a crucial part of what makes the whole game tick.

Matthew Klundt (‏‪@mattfox12): When will you be lead designer on a supplemental set again?

With the new Two-Block Paradigm, I'm busier than I've ever been before. That said, if a third Un-set ever gets the go ahead, I will make time to lead the design for it.

Mark Schmit (‏‪@blargster): When did WotC come around to publishing full set spoilers *before* the Prerelease? Did you?

It happened because it was going to happen whether or not we got involved, and we decided we'd rather the preview lists be accurate. I'm not ecstatic about it, but I do understand the way the world works and accept it.

Reginald Oxtizalcotl (‏‪@Redoxite): When will we see dinosaurs?

A prehistoric world is on what I call our "short list," which is a not-so-short list of different worlds players most frequently ask about. My best guess is that we will get to it one day.

T3h Matt (‏‪‏‪@kiorasfollower): When are you planning on retiring? Not that I want you to, just curious on how long I can count on you.

Not for a long while. The key to a dream job is you stick with it.

T2 Brews (‏‏‪@T2_Brew): When do you realize a single card might have the space to be a mechanic?

Usually it only takes one playtest to realize that a card has more potential than just one card.

nickerton (‏‪@preshtildeath): When will we see Karn again?

I assume when he becomes involved in a current story. I know the creative team likes Karn, so it's a matter of "when," not "if."

Bob Mungovan (‏‪‏‪@bobmungovan): When will we return to Dominaria?

It's another thing on our short list. I have every faith we'll eventually get back to the plane where Magic started.

bahamuto (‏‪@bahamuto): When are you going to be on a development team?

I just went up from three design teams a year to four, in addition to exploratory design, so my plate's currently kind of full. Perhaps one of these days when the right development team comes along.

Victor Jenny (‏‪‏‪@Grapplingfarang): When will we get a legendary werewolf?

We keep a list of things we missed first time around in case we return to the same plane. Legendary werewolf is on Innistrad's list.

Mark Cogan (‏‪‏‪@marqcogan): When you playtest, how are your sealed pools created?

There's a man named Dan in R&D who takes care of all the playtest stickers (we playtest with our new cards on stickers stickered on top of old Magic cards). You let him know you need a playtest (with a few days' notice) and he makes sure you have whatever you need. Sometimes it's Sealed and sometimes it's Draft. Part of his preparation is making sure that the cards adequately represent the as-fan (i.e., the percentage that something will show up in a particular booster pack) of whatever the set is focusing on. Dan also always makes sure that each rarity is properly represented.

Nutzopalace (‏‪‏‪@nutzopalace): When will we see allied Swords?

The problem is that we've come to the conclusion that the Swords were a bit overpowered. We worry if we make the ally versions and they are significantly worse than the enemy ones (which they would need to be), players will be unhappy with them. So, I'm dubious of them coming to Standard any time soon.

John Wells (‏‪‏‪@jwiley129): When do the mechanics get finalized for a set?

Design hands over our best guess on the final version of the mechanics but then development works on them, tweaking them and even replacing them if it proves necessary. Usually, the final implementation is a combination of the work of design and development.

Chris Delano (‏‪‏‪@ChrisRD19): When did you fall in love with your job?

It was love at first sight.

Mike Linnemann (‏‪@VorthosMike): When will Vorthos get his and her spotlight again?

Vorthos has been getting more and more love over the last few years and the trend is only going to continue.

CMDR Decks (‏‪‏‪@CMDRDecks): When do you have the most fun playing Magic?

My favorite thing is the very first playtest with a new mechanic that I'm excited about. Seeing it work for the first time is quite fun.

Nick Packard (‏‪‏‪@Meowzalot_): When the 2-set block change takes place, will the NWO mindset stay or go away?

New World Order isn't going anywhere. The game will always have new players so we have to keep being vigilant about complexity creep (especially at common, which is what New World Order cares about) and making sure that beginners will still be able to learn how to play.

Zack Levine (‏‪‏‪@metaknightmare): When will your clone take over as Lead Designer?

2005.

Jules Robins (‏‪‏‪@JulesRobins): When do you move from spitballing new ideas to tweaking a stable framework?

As you spitball, you should find some success that you start interweaving to create your structure. At some point, you have enough structure built that you can move on to the next part of the design.

Crypt Rat (‏‪@CryptRat): When is it better to not include that cool second line of text on a card versus keeping it?

That's a tricky question. Usually, if it's a common you lose the second line. At higher rarities, you err on keeping it. The big question is, does the second line work with and enhance the first line? If the answer is no, you really need to question its existence.

Daniel Kirzane (‏‪‏‪@dkirzane): When do creative concerns take precedence over design concerns? And vice versa?

The more the game component is about the story, the more flexible we get to lean in creative's direction. In the end, though, the game has to play well and if story gets in the way of gameplay, we tend to err on the side of gameplay. Usually, though, by working with the creative team, the design team can find compromises that make both teams happy.

"When."

I hope you all enjoyed today's mailbag article. I plan to continue with this mega-series on a slightly more frequent basis. I always enjoy answering questions from all of you. If you enjoyed today's article, be aware that I answer questions every day on my blog on Tumblr called Blogatog. As always, I am interested to hear your feedback, either through my email or any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

The next two weeks are going to be "Best Of" weeks to allow the people who make the website to have some time off for the holidays. Each columnist will be selecting his top two columns of the year. Then, in three weeks, previews for Fate Reforged begins.

Until then, wishing you all happy holidays!

"Drive to Work #180—2005"

This podcast is another in my "20 Years in 20 Podcasts" series. I talk all about the year 2005.

"Drive to Work #181—Legions, Part 1"

This podcast is Part 1 in a four-part series on the design of Legions, Magic's only all-creature expansion.

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