Seven years ago I took over as the Head Designer of Magic. Among the things I decided I wanted to do was to use my column to have a yearly update where I talked about my feelings on how the current design of the game was going. As this yearly speech was modeled after the U.S. President's annual State of the Union speech, I titled my articles State of Design. This is my sixth State of Design column. You can read the first five here: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008 & 2009.
I always begin by answering one basic question: How was the last year for Magic design? My short answer is good, bordering on very good. The longer answer is that this was a year with a lot of risks design-wise and I feel, with only a few small exceptions, this last year was one of the best design years in the history of the game. I don't believe it's a coincidence that this last year was the game's most successful year ever in its seventeen-year history.
The way this column works is that I start by talking about the three biggest successes of the year followed by the three biggest lessons (a.k.a. the things that didn't go quite as well). Then I will examine how we performed against the three goals set by me last year. Finally, I will introduce the goals for this upcoming year perhaps giving a hint or two of things to come in Scars block.
Highlights of 2009/2010
Here are the three things that I feel standout in what I believe was a strong design year:
The Land Theme
I've written numerous columns about how when I first pitched my theme for Zendikar, it was received coolly. The idea of centering a block mechanically around land seemed a little out there. And to be fair, it was. Until something is a proven commodity it's unproven and the ball was in my court to show that what I wanted to do could actually work.
The Zendikar design team members (myself, Doug Beyer, Graeme Hopkins, Ken Nagle, and Matt Place) really gave the idea all they had, and I'm quite happy with the results. According to our market research, so too are the majority of you. The "land block" went from an experimental design to a theme that I'm confident we'll be exploring many times again. This isn't to say we got everything perfect, (we didn't, more on that below) but we got enough right that Zendikar was successfully received.
I have many responsibilities as Head Designer but the one that's probably the most important for me is my ability (and that of my design teams) to keep discovering new areas to explore. It's great that we've hit upon themes that all of you enjoy that we can return to, but if the game is going to continue to grow, we need to make sure that we're constantly uncovering new areas of game play. We can't, and shouldn't, do this every year, but any year we do and are successful is a mighty good year for the long-term health of Magic.
Rise of the Eldrazi
Rise of The Eldrazi was a daunting design challenge. Shadowmoor paved the way for a mid-year large set mechanical reboot, but what Rise was trying to accomplish was a bit more complicated. For starters, Rise only got one large set to do its thing. Shadowmoor got Eventide. Rise was the first and last set to accomplish its goals. Second, Rise had to be part of the Zendikar block creatively while disconnecting mechanically. Third, the set needed to explore a theme that fit into a single large set, something that Magic's never had to do since the creation of the block.
Brian and his design team (Aaron Forsythe, Graeme Hopkins, Gregory Marques, Bill McQuillan, and Devin Low) took all the above challenges and then added one more. They set out to create an environment never seen before. Dubbed "battleship Magic" by the design team, Rise's design didn't just break the mold, it smashed it with a ball peen hammer and stuck it in a Cuisinart.
Brian is known for liking to play outside the box and Rise was, in my opinion, his best design yet. I have heard nothing but raves about its Limited play and I feel the team accomplished every goal put before them. On top of all that, they dramatically introduced a new villain to the Magic multiverse that I'm sure we'll hear from again.
The three people doing the most Magic design right now are myself, Brian Tinsman, and Ken Nagle. The last two blurbs hit the major accomplishment of the first two, so let's talk about Ken. While Worldwake was a fine design, I feel that Archenemy was the more revolutionary of Ken's designs this year. One of the things that design has done over the last few years is stretch what Magic can be. Yes, its roots will always be in one on one competitive play, but Magic's branches keep growing.
Archenemy did two impressive things for design: One, it showed that the potential future design is much more expansive than most players think. And two, it really showed that a new way to play can have its own identity. Archenemy cards are like nothing that has ever come before and from a design standpoint that's quite exciting.
I know there is some concern that in our desire to pave new ground that Archenemy and Planechase are going to get lost in the shuffle as we keep creating new ways to play. Rest assured that we are using the first few years to introduce some new formats and then we are, in fact, planning to return to these formats with new designs and new innovations. If you are a fan of Archenemy or Planechase, fear not—you will be seeing them again.
Lessons of 2009/2010
Those were the shining moments of the last year's design. What happened at the other end of the extreme that design should learn from to improve in future years?
Give the Players More Continuity Within Your Block (Even If Everything Changes)
I believe Rise of the Eldrazi is a wonderful design but it isn't without flaws. The one that concerned me the most, and the one that I've heard the most about from players, was a dissatisfaction that Rise didn't spend a little more energy to feel connected to Zendikar and Worldwake. Yes, there was a strong creative connection but the complete cut of mechanical ties is, in my opinion, a mistake.
I'm not saying that I wanted all the Zendikar keywords to show up in Rise but I do think we could have done a little more to cement, mechanically, the feeling that all three sets took place on the same world. The best example is that I wish we had used the creature type Ally in Rise. Those cards didn't necessarily have to have the Ally text from Zendikar, just the creature type. That way we would have given Ally decks a little more to work with even if those cards only triggered the Zendikar and Worldwake Allies.
I'll be honest that I'm not sure what the right mix is, but I feel Rise hit a little short. To be fair to us, we hadn't done it before so we were learning along with everyone else, but now that we have hindsight I would approach a similar block set-up a little differently.
Limited Can Be Too Fast
The very first set I ever designed was Tempest. Among other things, Tempest has the reputation for being the fastest Limited environment in Magic's history. While I'm not sure Zendikar took away the crown, it at least gave Tempest a run for its money. While I like to push the pendulum in all areas of the game including the speed of the Limited environment, I believe Zendikar pushed the pendulum farther than it should have.
Worldwake helped this problem by slowing things down a bit. I just wish we could have caught it in Zendikar. The nature of landfall is going to speed up a Limited environment, so no matter what this block (well, the first two sets anyway) was going to be on the fast end of the spectrum. Tempest was a long time ago and from a very different era of design, so Zendikar taught me that it was possible to push too much on the speed end of the spectrum.
Let The Players Interact
This point is connected to the last one but it's such an important one that I felt it deserved its own lesson. Magic is a two- (or more) player game. At its core, it's about the interaction between the players. Whenever the environment shifts to a place where players only concentrate on their side of the board and ignore their opponent, something has gone wrong.
While this only happened a minority of the time in Zendikar Limited, design still needs to be wary. Noninteraction is such a bad thing for the game that design has to take a zero-tolerance policy. If players wanted to play solitaire, they'd take up another game.
I feel like we walked away from a minor fender bender that gave us a glimpse of a much bigger potential accident. This is a lesson that R&D must take to heart.
Third and Goal
Now that I've looked at the highs and lows of the year in design, let's take a look at how we performed at the goals I set for us last year.
A quick aside before I talk about the goals. Every year I set goals for our upcoming set and every year I hear from players that my goals seem unfair. We've already designed the sets. Isn't it cheating to make goals after the set is complete? My answer is twofold. First, when measuring the goals, I am not looking at what we did, I am looking at how the audience responded to what we did. Sure we could have set out to do something, but if the audience didn't like it then we failed. Meeting the goal means that we succeeded in doing it in a way that our player base enjoyed.
Second, the goals I am talking about are the goals we set for ourselves—when we started the design. Sure, you're hearing about them now because now is what is relevant for you. Everything design does has to be put into a time capsule and saved for when it's relevant to the world. All my columns are essentially talking about work I did a year to two years ago.
That said, let's talk goals:
2010 Goal #1: Explore Some New Areas of Design
Obviously with the land theme, Zendikar set out to explore a new area of design to base a block around. Yes, Magic had touched upon this vein of design but nowhere near the depth that Zendikar did. So, how'd we do? Based on our surveys, the most popular mechanic? Landfall. The most popular overall aspect of the set? The extended-art basic lands. Many of the individual lands scored really well and the "lands matter" theme was given high marks. All in all, we tried something new and you liked it, so a full thumbs up for this goal.
A quick little story on the point where I knew the theme had succeeded. Bill Rose is the VP of R&D. Bill and I go way back—he and I started working the same month in R&D (October 1995 for the trivia buffs). As such, Bill and I tend to speak our minds to one another. I was very excited by the lands theme while Bill initially was not. He respected my opinion enough that he let me commit to a block theme that he had doubts about. If I couldn't prove the viability of the theme in the first few months of design, we would have been asked to try something different.
Flash forward to a day two years later where we were talking about future plans and Bill said, "The next time we do a land block." I said, "Wait, wait, wait. The next time?" Bill smiled and said, "You did a good job, Mark." That was the moment I knew my design team had succeeded.
2010 Goal #2: Bring More Resonance to the Game
One of Aaron's big goals with Magic 2010's reboot of the core set was to bring more resonance to the game. By resonance Aaron meant that he wanted more things on cards that the player approaches already knowing something about. Magic does and should have things unique to itself but Aaron felt strongly that what would grab players was when we took things they knew and turned them into Magic cards.
One of the goals given to me by Aaron for Zendikar block was to bring out more resonance. Sure that worked in a core set that could handpick its cards without any worry of overall connectivity. Expert expansions, though, have a lot more requirements they have to deal with. In addition, the land theme is not, in a vacuum, all that resonant. The key to making this work was to find an overall resonant theme that made sense for a land set.
This problem was solved by Doug Beyer (who, aside from being on the Zendikar design team, is also on the creative team—and writes a spiffy Wednesday column). He came up with the idea of an adventure world, a plane where the world itself was the antagonist. Land led to the adventure theme and then the adventure theme led to many of the other mechanics in the set: traps, quests and Allies.
The success of the resonance is harder to gauge. The look and feel got high marks from the respondents on the surveys. The mechanics tied to them did okay but not spectacularly. The overall year was a high water mark and, anecdotally, I got a lot of compliments on "adventure world." Players clearly liked Zendikar block. The block was very resonant. I think it's fair to give this goal a thumbs up, although I admit it's a harder one to quantify.
2010 Goal #3: Continue to Challenge Expectations
In this column last year, I explained that Rise of the Eldrazi was going to be a large third set. The response was one of pleasant surprise. Players didn't know quite what we were up to but they seemed to enjoy the mystery of it. Archenemy was also a product that kept players guessing for several months.
Looking back I feel that design didn't rest on its laurels. A new block theme, a new block structure, a radically new Limited environment, a new casual play format—there was plenty going on this last year. I think it's fair to say that these last twelve months kept the players on their toes, so I'm giving this goal a thumbs up as well.
That's three for three for the third year in a row. As I said when I started, this has been a pretty good year for design.
Coming Soon To a Booster Pack Near You
Now that I've explained how we did against last year's goals, it's time to pull out this year's goals. Once again, these are goals I made a year ago when putting together Scars of Mirrodin block. Next year, I will explore not if we tried to meet these goals (I'll let you know right now, we tried), but if we managed to succeed using your feedback as the barometer.
That said, on with the goals:
2011 Goal #1: Make the Block an Experience
If you look back at Magic design over the last seventeen years you can see all sorts of advances in design technology. One of the biggest advances has to do with scope. Once upon a time, design was very focused on each individual card. Over time, we have pulled back our scope to care about larger and larger things. The latest focus has been on the block.
Lorwyn/Shadowmoor played around with basic block construction. Zendikar/Rise of the Eldrazi re-examined what defines a block mechanically. Scars of Mirrodin block is tackling block design in a whole new way. There are no tricks in set size. Scars of Mirrodin block is a large fall set followed by small winter and spring sets. What we're doing this year is attacking block cohesion from a very different vantage point.
This year we're telling you a story and taking you along for a ride. I don't mean a traditional narrative story like the Weatherlight Saga. We're not making you line up art and flavor text to piece together a plot. Rather we're telling a story through environment. We have returned to Mirrodin because something big is about to happen. Unbeknownst to the Mirrans, a malevolent force has invaded their plane. It has slowly been corrupting it via a plan of total domination. The block is about what happens to the plane of Mirrodin as the two sides, the Mirrans and the Phyrexians, come into conflict.
This story wasn't weaved into the set after the fact. This story was the impetus for the design. In fact, the design of the block was the telling of this story. Scars block isn't an artifact block. Yes, it has a lot of artifacts and plenty of artifact themes, but that wasn't the heart of what design built the set around. Artifacts were a tool that design used to tell their story. The heart of this block's design was to capture an event and bring it to life through the playing of the game.
We worked very hard with the Creative Team to make something that is wholly organic in its flavor. We don't want you to hear about what happens. We want you to experience it. Our first goal this year is to make the design something you can experience.
2011 Goal #2: Combine Nostalgia with Innovation
Above I talked about resonance, about how Magic tries to make cards about things you already know. While we plan to continue to create resonant cards, there is more to the larger puzzle. Another important factor is what I'll call nostalgia. Not only do we want to create things you know from outside the game, we also want to create things you know from inside the game.
Scars block is a conflict between two giant forces—two forces you already know (or have at least heard about if you haven't been playing long enough to have witnessed them first hand). The design team was challenged with finding designs that played into what we already knew about each side while also bringing some new things to the table.
That's the second challenge of this year. Can we use nostalgia to create new things? Can we reinvent known quantities to bring a fresh take on them? The movies do it all the time. Batman, Sherlock Holmes, James Bond, James Kirk—each has had numerous interpretations that have tried to keep the core of the character while exploring new takes. That is what we wanted to do with the Mirrans and the Phyrexians.
Each side should hopefully still have the essence of what made them great but we've tried to use modern design technology to create something new and different. That is what we are attempting to do with this second goal.
2011 Goal #3: Prove Poison Works
I've spent a lot of time talking about the struggle to get poison into a set as a major mechanical theme. After fourteen years, I've finally done it. The final goal of this year is to prove that poison's carrying its weight. Is this something that is good for Magic? Is it something that players want? Is it something that we should put in our toolbox to use again or should we bury it in a deep, deep hole?
I believed strongly that poison was something that would enhance a set and be beloved by the players (okay, not all of the players, as you can't please all of the people all of the time—Lincoln got it right). It took a long time to get poison into a form that I, and the rest of R&D, believed was worthy of being released to the public. A year from now I'll check back and see how poison did.
Design Up Ahead
The recap for this year is that Magic design is in a good place, but as history has shown, design is ever on the move. If we want to continue our streak of solid design we have to keep upping our game. Luckily, I feel the current Magic design team is up to the challenge.
As always, I like to hear from all of you. What did you think of the last year? Do you agree with my assessment or feel I got it all wrong? Were there mistakes I missed? Were there good things I missed? Let me know. You can write in the thread to this column. You can email me or Twitter me (@maro254). You can even send me an actual letter (they still exist, I saw one). To remind you for the hundredth time, I read each and every thing sent to me, although I do not have time to reply to the majority of them. You want the ear of Magic's Head Designer—you have it if you just take the time to say something.
Join me next week when I put the proliferate ball in the side pocket.
Until then, may you know the joy of handing your opponent the tenth poison counter.