When I first became head designer many years ago, I decided to take a page from the president of the United States and spend a column each year talking about the state of Magic design. I use this column to look back at the previous year's design and talk about what went right and what went wrong. I also talk about what our goals are for the year's design to come. This is my eighth State of Design column. Here are my previous seven: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, and 2011.
I begin every year by answering the same question: How was the last year for Magic design? I'll be blunt. It was good. For the fourth time in a row, Magic had the best year it's ever had in its nineteen-year lifespan. More people are playing Magic than ever before. The sets have been all well received and they are selling like hotcakes. (I still don't understand how pancakes became the go-to item to express how well something sells. Is IHOP really raking in the dough?)
This is not to say things were perfect, because they weren't, and I will be getting to some areas with room for improvement in a bit, but all in all, it was a pretty high-mark year. This leads to the next all-important question—why?
While it's wonderful to have so many great years back to back, it is also a little unnerving at the same time. I've been making Magic for almost seventeen years. Why have the last four been so different from the thirteen that preceded it? I've actually spent a lot of time thinking about it and these are the conclusion I've come to:
#1) We've Finally Started to Crack Magic's Greatest Flaw—Barrier to Entry
One of the most important questions for any business is "What is the worst thing about your product?" People spend so much time trying to figure out what the best things are about a product to market them that they often gloss over the weaknesses of what they are making. But the key to improving is not making your best things better but making your worst things better.
The reason is simple. You should always strive to improve your strengths, because growth is important, but if you're doing something well, odds are that there isn't that much space to grow. Your weaknesses, on the other hand, usually have much greater room for improvement.
As such, I spent many years trying to understand Magic's weaknesses, and it became clear that the game's greatest flaw was its barrier to entry. (I spent a whole article talking about it here.) In the simplest terms, Magic is very hard to learn. Not just because there are a lot of rules but because it creates a very intimidating presence. Players who play Magic play it. They are adamant about it and they let their friends know their strong feelings. I have numerous friends who told me they didn't get into Magic for a while because my passion for the game intimidated them. They weren't ready for something that seemed to require so much attention.
We tried all sorts of things to help players learn Magic. We tried unique products (the Arc system, Portal, the Starter series, etc.). We tried innovative rules. We tried different intro decks. We encouraged players to teach their friends. We tried bringing Magic to new venues. We experimented with a whole bunch of things. Eventually, we tried Duels of the Planeswalkers. Finally, we found one that worked.
Why was Duels so successful in this regard? It did several things very right:
One, the design was simple and clean and fun. R&D worked closely with Stainless Games (the company that produces Duels of the Planeswalkers) to bring Magic to the video game platform in a way that met every expectation and then some.
Two, the game has a low financial barrier. All the versions of it have a way to test it out for free and the complete upgrade is less than the cost of dinner out at a local restaurant. This allows new players a very low investment to get their feet wet.
Three, the game allows someone to play in isolation. While Magic is something to be enjoyed socially, it can be very intimidating to learn when surrounded by people who know more than you. Playing solo means you can make as many mistakes as you need to learn without feeling bad about it.
Four, the game helps you out. While there isn't a person around, the game itself does get to guide you. The design of Duels does a great job of doing everything possible to give the new players the information they need in a straightforward way while also being very proactive in allowing the players to get help when they need it.
Five, the game does a great job (and it's getting better with each new iteration) of letting the new player discover the world of Magic. One of the game's strengths is its creative and Duels lets that shine.
Six, the game also does a wonderful job of getting out of the way and letting the player play Magic. Barrier to entry might be Magic's greatest weakness, but being an awesome game is its greatest strength. Once everything else is out of the way and a player can focus on playing Magic, it's a lot of fun!
#2) We've Embraced Resonance
You think for the amount of time I talk about giving players what they expect that we would have figured this one out years ago, but it was Aaron Forsythe, with his re-envisioning of the core set, who really changed how we approach making the game. We no longer make things you've never seen before. Instead, we make things you have seen but through a new lens. The horror genre isn't new, but Magic's take on it is.
When we look back at the last year's success, I think a lot of it rests on the fact that we played on something our audience already knew. Yes, we piggybacked. (See last week's column if you don't know what I'm talking about.) We took something the players have spent their lifetimes learning and tapped into it with Magic's spin on it. We didn't create the wave of interest of the horror genre, but we definitely surfed it.
#3) We Found New World Order
First, go read this if you don't know what New World Order means (in relation to Magic). If I had to pick the thing that has had the biggest impact on Magic design during the last five years, it's been this quest to figure out how to both make the game approachable for new players while also keeping Magic a compelling game for advanced players.
Innistrad seems to be the crown jewel of this quest and I'll talk about this very soon. The importance here is that we've started to think of how each element of the game, in this case design and development, can do its part to reduce barrier to entry.
#4) We've Promoted Casual Play
Wizards has always talked a good game when it came to casual play. We've encouraged it, but in these last few years, we've begun putting our money where our mouth is. Instead of just saying we supported it, we started actually supporting it by making products that allowed players to play the game of Magic in all sorts of fun, more casual, more multiplayer ways. Planechase, Archenemy, Commander—we've created product after product that has sent a clear message that Magic is not just about winning in tournaments.
Bring all these things together and you can see the barrier to entry shrinking. Magic's numbers have exploded and I strongly believe it's the result of many years of hard work by every section of the company (and a few outside the company) with the same goal of making Magic as accessible as possible.
Now that I've explained why I think things are working well, let's look at the last year.
Highlights of 2011/2012
Here are the three things that I feel stand out in the design of the last year:
I've been involved in many of Magic's past successes, but I don't know if I've ever seen a home run like this set. Innistrad was beloved for just about every reason one could like a set. The Limited was a huge hit, with some top-level pros calling it the best Limited environment ever. It had an impact on Constructed in multiple formats. There were many cards for Commander. Timmy, Johnny, and Spike were all happy. The set had lots of cool cards for trading. All my interaction from the community was hugely positive. It was top-to-bottom a huge hit.
Be aware that while I'm very happy with the design of this set (it's quite possibly the single best design I've ever been in charge of), a giant part of the set's success was that everyone involved was on their A game. The development, led by Erik Lauer, was spot on and did a lot to fine tune design's vision, as well as make a set that was meaningful in so many different formats. The creative team, with concepting by Jenna Helland, created a fascinating world with a compelling story and amazing art.
The set was my first true top-down design (more on this below) and I was very happy with how we were able to bring to life the horror genre. In particular, I was proud of how we were able to use the mechanics themselves to create so much of the set's flavor.
I don't normally gush this much in my State of Design columns, but I'm just a proud papa when it comes to Innistrad. It's definitely become the touchstone that I'm comparing all my future designs to.
The number one complaint I received after Innistrad previews: Why did we have to include double-faced cards?
The number one complaint I received after Avacyn Restored previews: Why didn't we include double-faced cards?
One of the challenges of designing Magic is figuring out when and where to break taboos. We don't want to do it often and we want to be smart about how we do it. Double-faced cards felt right to me in the design. Tom LaPille had suggested them to solve our werewolf problem (how to portray a creature that was sometimes human and sometimes werewolf), as they had been a hit in Duel Masters, and things evolved from there.
I was very happy with how we did the double-faced cards. Although we were inspired by Duel Masters, our mechanical take on them was radically different. I love how they worked to define dark transformation and hit a lot of the tropes we wanted for the set.
I don't believe in doing gimmicks solely for the sake of doing gimmicks, but I also don't shy away from doing something out of the box when it serves an important purpose. In general, Innistrad's design had very little controversy. The only vocal sticking point was that some members of R&D felt strongly that double-faced cards should be removed.
With a year of hindsight, I'm glad I stuck to my guns. I believe double-faced cards did everything we set out for them to do. Yes, they shocked people and created a buzz, but as long as the item in question lives up to the scrutiny of the players in actual play, that's positive in my book. I love how the double-faced cards helped bring focus to the set and did a lot to highlight the dark transformation theme.
I believe most of the critics (not all; I know we didn't win over everyone) eventually conceded that the awkwardness in drafting was not as big a deal as they first thought and even added a unique element to Innistrad drafting. (I do admit that this awkwardness was the biggest strike against the mechanic—I just don't believe it was as big a negative as early naysayers were touting.)
On top of everything else, double-faced cards have a lot of design space, so their success will mean cool things for Magic's future (not that they're coming back anytime soon). All in all, I feel double-faced cards were one of the year's big successes.
I'm guessing this third one's going to raise a few eyebrows. Some of you might be expecting to see Avacyn Restored in the Lessons section, not the Highlights one. Well, I know a few things some of you do not. The most important thing is this: Avacyn Restored was a giant success. By what metric? People buying packs. A lot—a LOT—of Avacyn Restored has been sold. So much so that R&D had a meeting to discuss all the things we did right in the set. (We also had a meeting for all the things we did wrong—results of that discussion coming up.)
Why was Avacyn Restored so popular? I have a bunch of guesses. I know the Angel theme was popular. I think soulbond, while somewhat misunderstood, was well liked. I believe miracles, despite some online grumbling, was a huge success. And I feel much of the audience just enjoyed the good guys winning after a number of years with the bad guys victorious.
My job as head designer is to figure out what works and what doesn't. I do this by not just paying attention to what people say but by watching what people do. Yes, Avacyn Restored had its flaws (and I'm getting to some of them momentarily) but it also had its virtues. The biggest of which is it made players—and once again, a lot of players—smile.
Lessons of 2011/2012
I've talked the highs, so let's get to the lows. What did I learn from the last year?
We Have to Meet the Bar Set by Innistrad's Limited Play
Avacyn Restored's popularity doesn't mean it did everything correctly. Probably its biggest miss was its Limited game. The cards had too big a variance in power level at common. There wasn't enough removal. The colors weren't as balanced as we'd like. In short, Avacyn Restored did not live up to Innistrad, which had worked hard to bring up Magic's Limited game. R&D has spent a lot of time talking about the mistakes that were made and, hopefully, Avacyn Restored will be a good teaching tool in helping build a better Limited game.
A lot of what I'm talking about, though, are developmental issues. What about the design itself contributed to this problem? The first is what I call the "keeping the piranha out of the goldfish tank" problem. We knew we wanted to create a feeling of the good guys coming together, so we chose a mechanic that played this up—soulbond. To help soulbond shine, the design team weakened the things that would work well against soulbond, the biggest of which was creature removal. Well, we managed to get soulbond to matter, but we did so in a way that made it harder for players to come back from a disadvantageous position. In other words, we messed with an important part of the game and in doing so lessened the give-and-take of the Limited environment.
The second problem was the decision to make the bad guys go the opposite direction of the good guys. Since the good guys team up, the bad guys had a loner theme. I think we pushed the loner theme a little too hard, which made it hard to play black. This partially resulted in the imbalance of the colors I talked about above.
The third problem is that we pushed synergy a little too hard. I'm a big fan of synergy, but you have to be careful that you don't make combinations of cards so strong that it makes the games too swingy. Some swing is good, but it's important for the game to have tempo, with each player taking control of the game.
The big lesson for me was that design has to be very careful in what we're asking for. Development can make players do what we ask by putting the power of the set in the proper place, but we have to be careful that we don't ask for something that's fundamentally going to shift the game away from its core.
Block Continuity Is Important
The previous block to have the Large/Small/Large breakdown was Zendikar/Worldwake/Rise of the Eldrazi. In my State of Design article for that year, one of my lessons was:
Give the Players More Continuity Within Your Block (Even if Everything Changes)
It was our intent to do just that, and Avacyn Restored had more continuity with the rest of its block than did Rise of the Eldrazi, but, it appears, it wasn't enough. Our plan was to make sure that Avacyn Restored provided cards for most of the decks players had built with Innistrad and Dark Ascension. We also made sure to carry over a mechanic (undying). It's clear now, listening to all the feedback, that it wasn't enough.
What could we have done?
Use Double-Faced Cards
This new innovation so defined Innistrad and Dark Ascension that players seemed dismayed the last set in the block didn't use them. Their absence was supposed to show that darkness was losing its hold, as the double-faced cards earlier in the block were used to show dark transformation. I'm not sure how we would have made the switch, but we should have looked for a way to use double-faced technology to help continue the block's most defining mechanic.
Make Single-Sided Werewolves
I talked about how I felt the Werewolves in Innistrad were going to make or break the set. The Werewolves ended up being one of the most popular races (beaten in popularity only by the Zombies). Avacyn Restored had the Wolfir, but they were not creature-type Werewolf and there were only two of them. Looking back, I wish we had made one-sided Werewolves (perhaps Werewolves trapped in Werewolf form) to allow the tribe to get one last set of cards to help its deck. Werewolves aren't something we do often, so it's a shame we didn't support them a bit more in the final set.
Use a Second Mechanic From Earlier in the Block
I'm glad we used undying in Avacyn Restored, but perhaps we should have allowed ourselves access to a second mechanic. We toyed with flashback, but we felt it didn't make sense to make the graveyard relevant for a few cards when the rest of the set didn't support it. Maybe that was the wrong call. I really don't think morbid or fateful hour make flavor sense (although perhaps the monsters find themselves with their own fateful hour). We probably could have found a way to make flashback have a different feel in the set while still using it.
The big lesson here is that we had the right idea but didn't go far enough. Players want blocks to have more continuity (even if everything changes). I'm sure we'll get a chance to try this again.
Supply What Was Expected
One of the themes I hit again and again in this column is the importance of setting and then meeting expectations. While Innistrad block did many things right, I feel there were some misses on player expectation. Here are a few of the bigger examples:
A Legendary Werewolf
The Innistrad design team created a powerful mythic rare for each of the five tribes (Humans, Spirits, Vampires, Werewolves, and Zombies). Development then tweaked the file, resulting in there being a legendary creature for four out of the five tribes. Yes, there were some logistical issues to solve with a legendary Werewolf, but we should have cracked the puzzle. Commander has become a very popular format and not giving it a Werewolf commander was a big letdown for a lot of players.
A Human "Captain"
Dark Ascension had a four-card, two-color cycle of tribal lords (Drogskol Captain, Diregraf Captain, Stromkirk Captain, and Immerwolf). Each creature boosted its respective creature type and then gave a second ability that was very useful for the tribe. A Human captain was left out (of this and a few other cycles) because we were trying to play up the plight of the humans. Players understood this, but many expected when the humans turned the tide in Avacyn Restored that the Human captain would show up. I liked the exclusion in Dark Ascension but I agree that it would have been neat and flavorful to round out the cycle in Avacyn Restored. We simply didn't think of it.
A Green Curse
This one was my mistake, not because I didn't design a green curse—because I did—but because I didn't do a good job of making Erik Lauer (Innistrad's lead developer) understand that the curses were specifically in every color but white in Innistrad on purpose. In this case, I did finish off the cycle in Dark Ascension with a white curse (Curse of Exhaustion), but my failure to communicate the cycle in the first place kept it from actually happening correctly in Innistrad. It was a good lesson about the importance of design explaining everything it's done to development.
These mistakes are the roughest for me because I know better as a designer. They are also some of the most vocal complaints because, thanks to this column, all of you know them too.
The Goal Enchilada
We've had the highs and lows, let's get to how we did with last year's goals.
As I explain every year, the purpose of these goals are not, "Did we attempt to meet them?"—because obviously, when I announced the goals I already knew what we were up to in the coming year. These goals are being checked against the reaction of the players. Did the players like what we did? Were we successful in meeting our goals as measured by the players' reactions?
2012 Goal #1: Establish That Fifth-Stage Design Works Beyond Scars of Mirrodin Block
The key idea behind Fifth-Stage design is using themes not as the canvas of a block but rather as the paints. Let me explain using Innistrad. Once upon a time, we made a block with a graveyard theme (Odyssey). We also made two blocks with tribal themes (Onslaught and Lorwyn). Innistrad had a graveyard component and had a tribal component but neither of these defined the block. Innistrad was about matching the horror genre and each of those themes helped fill in the set but they didn't define it.
I believe Innistrad is exactly what Fifth-Age design is about. We made use of our themes and combined them to create a mix that was uniquely Innistrad. The reason this is so important is that there are only a limited number of major themes. "Magic does tribal for the eighth time" is not compelling. In order for design to keep reinventing the game, we need to have the ability to create mechanical environments that are not just rehashes of what we've done before.
To use a different metaphor, block design is like making a recipe. We have to be able to take popular flavors from the past and mix them together to make a dish no one has tasted before. I believe Innistrad did this well based not just on our execution, but on all of your responses to our execution, so I'm giving us a clear thumbs up for this goal.
2012 Goal #2: Show That Top-Down Design Can be the Core of a Set
While the word "resonance" is thrown around a lot by R&D members these days, let me remind you that Innistrad was the first top-down set I've ever designed. (Innistrad was the fourteenth set I've led the design for.) My goal was very straightforward. The structure was built around a simple premise: make the game and the game play match the horror genre as best I could. All my design decisions were led by this desire to capture the feel of my source material.
While plenty of sets have had elements of resonance (Zendikar had traps, quests, and allies to capture adventurer world, for example), only one previous block was based on a top-down design—Champions of Kamigawa. From a design standpoint, that block is considered a letdown, so Innistrad was blazing virgin territory.
I am very happy with how the design turned out. I feel it did exactly what I set out to do. Innistrad proved to everyone—including all of you, I believe—that a top-down design can work. So much so that I know there are going to be more top-down designs in Magic's future. Another big thumbs up.
2012 Goal #3: Prove Double-Faced Cards Work
This was the goal I was dodgy about last year as the double-faced cards were a week from being made public. Being that I listed double-faced cards as one of the successes last year (and this article is getting long), I'll just cut to the chase and say another thumbs up.
That's three for three. A very good year. Let's take a look at next year's goals:
2013 Goal #1: Show That We Can Improve Upon What Ravnica Did
We've returned to planes before, but I feel Return to Ravnica is a little different in an important way. In each of our previous returns, we tended to do drastic things to the world we returned to. Dominaria went through multiple wars as well as an Armageddon. Mirrodin not only faced an invasion but got completely remade. Our return to Ravnica is not so radical.
We're going back to the world we left, the one you all fell in love with. Things have changed but they aren't on the epic scale of our other returns. Return to Ravnica is truly revisiting Ravnica. One of the big questions about the block is whether we are able to recapture the magic (and Magic) while still serving up something new and different. Will the set be both comforting and novel?
2013 Goal #2: Prove Large/Large/Small Works
Probably the biggest gamble of the year is trying a brand-new block structure that brings with it a brand-new drafting structure. Never before have players stopped using a set and then restarted using it. Never before has a large set gone on sale in the winter. We've also completely shaken up how we introduce the guilds, forgoing the successful 4/3/3 mix for a 5/5/10. Will back-to-back large sets work? The block is different, but is it good? There are many questions to answer.
2013 Goal #3: Execute Properly On "Sinker"
Both Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash have a clear goal: reintroduce five Ravnica guilds. "Sinker" (the final set in the block) has a much harder task—revisit all ten guilds while also setting up a brand-new draft environment that does something neither of the large sets do: mix all ten guilds together. And it has to do all this while juggling the baggage that comes with each guild, including ten keywords. Can "Sinker" pull this off?
Those are the big three challenges for the year ahead. I'll be back next year to see how we do.
Design Up Ahead
That's all the time I have for today. I'm interested to hear what you have to say about what I had to say about the last year of design. Please let me know through my email, this column's thread, or any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+) how you feel about the comments I made today.
Join me next week when I finally get to start talking about Return to Ravnica.
Until then, may you have a chance to look back at your own last year to see how you've done.