It's that time again. Each summer, I like to take a column to reflect on the Magic year gone by. This column, modeled after the U.S. president's State of the Union speech, is my chance to let all of you know how I, as Head Designer, feel Magic design is currently doing. This is my fourth State of Design column (following those in 2005, 2006 & 2007).
Let's start with the big question and we'll work our way from there. How was the last year for Magic design? In my far from humble opinion, I think last year was some of the best design seen under my reign as Head Designer. Was there room for improvement? Of course, there's always a way to make things better. As such, before I get to last year's goals, I want to touch upon the three things I thought we did best and the three things that show, let's call it, "room for growth."
Highlights of 2008
The Mega-Block. The boldest design choice of the last year was the slaying of a very old, very sacred cow: the big set / little set / little set triumvirate. Trying out new things is hard. Not doing something that you always do is a lot harder. As with most of the design choices I'm proudest of, the decision to do the mega-block block structure was a risky one, but one I feel paid off great dividends. Plenty of players were nervous when I first announced the decision to have two mini-blocks in place of the traditional three expansion set-up. Cut to a year later, though, and the mega-block structure has proven popular with the players—so much so that I'm now getting letters asking us to change to this model.
The mega-block model was also important because it taught us the lesson that how a block is composed is not something carved in stone. This isn't to say that we're abandoning our classic model (Shards of Alara block, for example, returns to big-small-small), but rather that we've learned that we can deviate in the future when a design calls for it.
The other part of the mega-block design that I was very happy with was our ability to craft two blocks each with their own identity, themes and mechanics that were able to interact so nicely with one another. The two sets, each having their own feel, definitely clicked together. We've never done anything remotely like this before, so the fact that we did such a good job makes me extra proud.
The Planeswalkers. I'll admit, I was nervous when we decided that we needed to bring planeswalkers to the game as their own card type. I agreed it was the right decision, but creating a whole new card type that acted differently from anything we'd done before yet still flowed seamlessly into the game was a daunting task. Remember, we originally were planning to introduce planewalkers in Future Sight, but we couldn't crack the puzzle fast enough. We were told, "Take your time; do it right." And I feel we did.
My favorite part of the planeswalker design is how much they have the feel we wanted. You haven't summoned yet another creature. You've convinced a planeswalker to come aid you. When they come into play, they have a presence and your opponent is forced to deal with them. The planeswalkers are flavorful, they impact the game, and they are unlike anything else in Magic. Add that to the overwhelming positive response they received, and I definitely think of them as a design home run.
Hybrid Mana as a Block Theme. When I first announced that I was planning to build an entire block around hybrid, there were some doubters in R&D. (Although unlike many of my stories, it wasn't me against the world; hybrid had plenty of R&D supporters with total faith in its ability to carry a block.) Everyone felt that the mechanic worked wonderfully as a little add-on used to spice things up as it did in Ravnica block, but some worried that it didn't have the breadth of design needed to function as a utility mechanic to serve as the backbone of a block design. The success of Shadowmoor demonstrates that it did.
More than that, hybrid proved that we could come up with something new to build a block around that excited players as much as gold (a.k.a. traditional multicolor). In the Ravnica surveys, hybrid beat out gold in popularity. At the time, we chalked it up to the newness of the hybrid mechanic. Now, we're thinking maybe gold has some new competition. My point here is that Shadowmoor block was hybrid's coming-out party, and it was a rousing success—so much so, that the question isn't if you'll see another hybrid block, but when.
Lessons of 2008
There Is Such a Thing as Too Much. Looking back on the year, I see so many wonderful mechanics. My big question is: did we need all of them? What if Lorwyn didn't have clash and hideaway? What if Shadowmoor didn't have conspire? (I chose these mechanics, by the way, because they were the ones that scored lowest in our research.) Yes, they were good mechanics and they were woven into the set, but were we overstuffing? I'm leaning towards yes. The designs of both Morningtide and Eventide were pinched because we had more things we wanted to do than we had space to do them. I'm interested in letting sets have a little more room to breathe.
Design Has to Be Cautious of Swerving Too Much within a Block. Morningtide and Eventide both share an interesting dilemma. They are chock-full of cards that do neat things that don't quite line up with the focus of the large set that preceded it (class-based tribal and enemy hybrid, I'm looking at you). I like how each pushes you to make new kinds of decks, but we have to be careful to allow enough cards that build upon the decks that already exist. On the plus side, this gives the set legs as it lengthens the set's discovery time. On the minus side, it makes the sets feel as if there aren't as many good cards when it first gets released. There's an important balance to be had, and I believe both Lorwyn and Shadowmoor blocks swerved slightly more than they should. (For the record I feel this way more about class-based tribal than I do about enemy hybrid.)
Lots of Little Things Do Add Up to a Big Thing. This problem can best be seen in Lorwyn / Morningtide Limited formats. There are so many different things you can care about and so many tiny nuances on so many different cards that there are board states where your brain melts trying to keep track of all the things that could happen. Design has to track not just what little things are being done but what the environment feels like when you combine all those little things together. The Lorwyn/Morningtide limited environment was a sign to me that we have to be careful not to go too far.
Now it's time to turn our attention to last year's goals:
#1. Go Back To Our Roots
So we went a little Outer Limits on Time Spiral block. The last set in the block (a.k.a. Future Sight), for example, almost had more mechanics in it than existed in Magic during the thirteen years before it. Yes, it was a fun romp for those who were nostalgic (and thus already knew) the slew of old mechanics we brought back, but for the newer players it was a bit rough. This goal said that we wanted to return to a simpler time. We were after straightforward, clean design. To quote myself from last year's column: "Can we innovate and wow without having to resort to complex mechanics and ideas?"
I think the answer was yes. Nothing we did during this last year comes close to the daunting text length of suspend. In fact, the nice thing about this last year was that each of the two blocks revolved around something that required almost no words: creature types and mana symbols. If there were any complexity issues, they were more from having an excess of ideas than having any individually hard to understand mechanic, but that's just me being nit-picky. I'm giving us a thumbs-up for this goal.
#2. Find Innovation That Doesn't Shock
I feel excellent about this goal. Both the mega-block and the hybrid block theme were highly innovative without much of any shock. I also am proud that we were able to approach a theme like tribal and bring to it a freshness that made it play in ways unlike former tribal environments. In addition, I was happy that we were able to craft a block around a concept as simple as hybrid. When you can make interesting vanilla and French vanilla cards (that is, cards with no text or just basic keywords ) in theme, you know the block has a simplicity to it. Even the most complex new thing this year, planeswalkers, didn't seem to throw too many players. I chalk it up to the strength flavor has in making players understand mechanics. Once again, I give us a thumbs-up for this goal.
#3. Be All-Inclusive
I promised the themes for this year would be universal, and I feel confident to say we delivered. The thing I did enjoy, though, was how much we were able to take our simple themes and build dynamic interactions. We used a process that I call layering to great effect. The short idea behind layering is much like haircutting, that the best overall presentation comes from crafting various pieces differently so that they work together as a holistic whole. I'll be writing a design column about layering one of these days. Another thumbs-up.
Three for three, definitely the sign of a good year. Let's take a peek into what I need to achieve for next year's goals.
Goal #1: Give Things More Time and Space to Breathe
I want to take one of my big lessons from this year and apply it to next year. Our design teams are doing excellent work. Our biggest area for growth, in my opinion, is to do a little less and spend more time developing what remains. For the next year, I want us to give ourselves the ability to spend more time on each mechanic we do rather than constantly run off to the next thing. Also, I want to slow the pace a little bit so that we can see what a new mechanic can do before we start twisting and turning it. For example, I feel evoke was a great mechanic with all sorts of cool space for interesting cards, but we never got the chance because we evolved it right away in Morningtide. For this next year, I want to rush less and linger a little more.
Goal #2: Embrace Flavor
As the years go by, I become more and more entrenched in the idea that design and flavor are not separate entities. Yes, we have different teams working on each part, but the key to making a block shine is to have a design that begets flavor and a flavor that begets design. The reason Ravnica block shone so brightly, I believe, is because the design and flavor were so interconnected. While Lorwyn and Shadowmoor definitely had a nice fusion of design and flavor, I want to set the bar even higher. I want mechanics defining flavor, and I want flavor defining mechanics. I feel this is the greatest advancement in design during my reign and I want to see how much better we can improve upon it.
Goal #3: Don't Be Afraid To Diversify
I always talk about how Magic design is about constantly pushing the pendulum in a new direction. Last year's themes were very singular. The tribal block was very focused on tribal. The hybrid block was very focused on hybrid cards. For this next year, I want to widen the block theme a little. I don't want all the ducks lined up in the same direction. I want a cohesiveness and a vision, but I want the ability to loosen up the design and allow it to be a little less about one singular thing. This will result in a more modular feel and a more wide-open field for deck-builders.
Design on the Dotted Line
If it isn't clear from my tone (well, and my words), I'm pretty happy about the current state of design. I like what we've been doing and I'm exciting for the things that lie ahead. The biggest recent advancement in design is a revived interest in the craft of design. As we get a better sense of the big picture, I find myself re-examining the basics. What can we do to tweak how we work? What tools can we introduce to better enable design? Can we find ways to do what we're doing now, but even better and more efficiently? The most exciting thing I'm finding as I dig into it is that the answer appears to be a clear cut "yes".
Not wanting to leave you without a metaphor, let me compare my reign as Head Designer to a marathon (yes, I plan on sticking around for a while). I feel like this was a year where we are starting to hit our stride—where we were getting a good sense of our performance and what we have to do to prepare for the road ahead. Let me be clear that I'm not claiming that the road isn't bumpy in spots. There are always new challenges, and we need to constantly strive to do better, but all in all, I'm enjoying the run.
It wouldn't be a State of Design address if I didn't end by stressing how important feedback is from all of you. Whether it's an email directly to me or a post on the thread, this is your chance to let me know how you feel this last year has been. What did you think of Lorwyn block? Shadowmoor block? Were you as positive as me? Were you a little more negative? A lot more negative? Did something stick in your craw? Was something just awesome and you want to let us know so we'll do it again? I don't know until you tell me. And trust me, feedback directly from the players is a potent force. So, if you have an opinion—tell me!
That's all I got for today. Join me next week when I start dipping my toes in the waters of Shards of Alara.
Until then, may you know the satisfaction of a job well done.