#464: Old Formats
In this podcast, I look back at some of the different formats from the early days of Magic including things likes Grand Melee and Emperor.
Posted in Making Magic on August 28, 2017
When I became head designer, I decided that once each year I wanted to write a column where I looked back at the previous year and analyzed how I felt the design went. I called it the State of Design, as it's modeled after the US president's State of the Union address. This is my thirteenth "State of Design" column. (Note while I became head designer in 2003, I didn't begin writing the column until 2005 when the work I had overseen started coming out.) Here are links to the first twelve columns below:
This column is broken into three parts. I'll give an overview of the whole year and then talk about each of the two blocks of the last year (Kaladesh and Amonkhet). In each section, I'll talk about the highlights and lessons learned.
As always, I want to start out with a few caveats. First, this column is about the state of design, the thing that I oversee. There are a lot of other people in other departments doing great work, and Magic wouldn't be Magic without them, but I'm critiquing the work that my team and I do. (Note that there's lots of overlap between design and development, so I'll cover the gray areas in between.) Second, we make a lot of Magic product every year. While I have a hand in some of it (and once in a blue moon I lead a specific design team, such as with this year's Unstable), most of my focus is on the four Standard-legal sets, so that's what I'm going to talk about today.
With that out of the way, let's start with the question I ask every year: How was the last year of Magic design?
I think it was a year of us stretching and trying new things, some of which were successful and others not as much. I think it was a bold year and a year that I'm proud of as head designer, but also a year with mistakes—some of which we should have foreseen. With that said, let's dive into last year's design.
One of the things that's important to me is that my designers and I keep pushing boundaries. Part of what helps the game stay fresh after so much time is that we're finding new ways to design it. Note that this doesn't always have to be over-the-top mind-melting discoveries, but a constant push to innovate at every level. Are we finding ways to put together blocks that are different models than what we've done before? Are we searching out new veins for themes and card mechanics? Are we challenging ourselves to make cool new cards that aren't easily comparable to things that we've done before?
When I look back at this last year, I'm happy I can say that we did. Kaladesh block was a completely new way to approach a design. Amonkhet tackled top-down in a way we'd never done before. From energy to Vehicles to embalm to aftermath, we printed new mechanics that required you think about the game differently. And we made a lot of really cool cards.
It's my belief that the flavor isn't limited to the art, name, and flavor text. Gameplay is as much an important part of setting mood and tone as the creative elements. This is another area where this year shined. Kaladesh and Amonkhet both set out to create a distinctive feel through their gameplay, and I feel strongly they achieved that goal. From the higher synergy of Kaladesh to the dissonance of Amonkhet, the gameplay did a great job of making the game feel as if it occurred within its setting.
One of the questions I always ask myself when I look back at the last year is "Did players have fun?" Did we create worlds and themes and mechanics and individual cards that inspired players to incorporate them into old decks or build new ones? Did players want to do the things we allowed them to do? I believe the answer for the last year was mostly yes. Players got to do a lot of fun things that they wanted to do. (Note I say "mostly," as I realize it wasn't always true for Standard, but that starts getting outside my area of expertise and, thus, isn't the focus of this column.)
This is the lesson that I'm most concerned about, partly because it's a lesson I already learned last year (and many other years before that), and partly because complexity is the one force most able to kill the game. We did take a few steps to try and rein in complexity (things like Kaladesh only having three mechanics), but it just wasn't enough, and as you'll see below, I feel in this area we took one step forward and two steps back.
Whenever I bring up complexity being high, I seem to scare some players who are worried we're going to "dumb down the game." Our main goal is not to have fewer interesting strategic decisions (especially ones that are invisible to newer players). It's to make players spend less time having to process huge amounts of information that mostly don't matter.
We don't want players unable to understand what their cards do or how they interact. We want the focus to be on the fun decisions that make for an interesting and dynamic game. This year didn't push this issue in the right direction.
My biggest frustration between last year and this one is how many of our lessons were the same ones. The big difference from the complexity issue though was that we got a little better in this area—just not enough. Both Aether Revolt and Hour of Devastation would have been improved if we had added less new stuff and carried over and tweaked more things from the large set. For example, if I had the year to do over again, I wouldn't have done either the revolt or afflict mechanics and instead would have used that space to build more upon what the larger sets had done. More on this below.
One of the highlights of last year was that we got better integration between the story and the card design. It seems we carried a good thing a bit too far. The story mattering in the game is good, but the game warping itself to highlight the story is not. Also, one of Magic's best qualities is that it's constantly changing. Having the same characters too often taking up planeswalker slots wasn't allowing us to bring back other favorites or introduce cool new characters. I want to note that we're not giving up incorporating the story; we just need to get a better sense of when and how to execute it through the cards.
Kaladesh was unlike any set that came before it. That's a hard thing to say almost 25 years in for a game that produces as much content as Magic does. It was a novel and off-beat approach to making an artifact block. And it did so in a way that was organic to its world, so much so that you don't know whether the mechanics inspired the world or the world inspired the mechanics.
I'm as proud of Kaladesh as I am of anything I've made in my almost 22 years at Wizards. That doesn't mean it doesn't have its flaws (which I'll get to soon enough), but it managed to do something that few sets do: surprise me, the man who (co-)made it.
The set introduced five new mechanics, four of which were well received. Let's talk about them:
Energy – This was the most popular mechanic of the block. It played well and was very flavorful. Of all the mechanics of this last year, it's the one I'm most asked about when it's returning.
Vehicles – This was a huge flavor win and mostly a mechanical one. There was a steep learning curve to making them, and we made a bunch of mistakes along the way. I do believe though Vehicles were popular enough for us to bring back and I have faith that future attempts will be a little less problematic.
Fabricate – This was what we call a work-horse mechanic, in that it makes the game play well without being super splashy. The mechanic was popular and its biggest shortcoming was that its design space was a bit more limited than it seemed at first blush.
Improvise – This was the most popular of the Aether Revolt mechanics and the only mechanic in the block to specifically care about artifacts.
Kaladesh was always designed as a more Jenny-ish block. Part of feeling like an inventor was having the ability to mix and match cards to create things that felt uniquely their own. I knew that was going to be a tall order when we set out to design a block that "made you feel like an inventor," but looking back with 20/20 hindsight, I'm pretty happy with how it turned out.
The internet loves reminding me that the blocks that have led to the most bans were Urza's Saga block, Mirrodin block, and Kaladesh block, all blocks with powerful artifact components. The reason I consider this as much a design issue as a development one is that at its core it's a problem with how artifact sets are designed. Kaladesh, like the artifact blocks before it, chose to increase the percentage (and as-fan) of artifacts to both make them more visible and allow the set to care about them mechanically.
We did make the conscious choice to not have any "artifact matters" mechanics in the first set, but the mere nature of having a set where artifacts are the focus gets us into what I call the "blob problem." Normally when we make a set, we're able to spread the powerful cards over many different colors. Yes, there might be a powerful white card, a powerful blue card, and a powerful black card, but it's hard to play them all in the same deck because the mana system discourages it. Artifacts, though, tend to be colorless, meaning that any deck that wants them can run them without the game providing any interference. The good artifacts can glom together and make a "blob monster" that's hard to stop because chopping off one piece of it is often not enough to stop it.
Players like artifacts in general, and thematically they lend themselves to a lot of worlds. One of our challenges moving forward is figuring out how to incorporate artifacts in a way that will allow us to use them without the degeneracy that comes when they appear in larger numbers. That problem was clearly not solved with Kaladesh block.
There are a lot of different ways to look at a set. One way is to examine how much the set allowed you to enhance decks you already had rather than force you to build new ones. Kaladesh does poorly in this category. R&D has a term, "parasitic," which describes a mechanic that requires you to play with more cards from the same set because the thing it wants isn't anywhere but that one set.
A classic example of a parasitic mechanic is energy. Energy wants you to have other cards that both gain you energy and allow you to spend it, neither of which exists outside of Kaladesh block. We tried to build energy cards that could stand on their own, but no matter what we did, they always got better if you played them with other energy cards.
We had hoped Vehicles could be something players splashed into other decks, but the best way to use them ended up being a deck that supported Vehicles along with a lot of Vehicles. This theme wove its way through the entire design. Yeah, the cards could be played with other cards, but not nearly as efficiently as with the cards from Kaladesh. I believe this parasitism is the biggest strike against the block.
Above I said four out of five of the block's mechanics were popular. The one that wasn't was revolt. Revolt suffered from three things:
When we started Amonkhet's design, my assumption was that we were going to just follow in the footsteps of Theros. It was another top-down design influenced by a real-world mythology. Along the way though, we learned something very important: most people (especially the pool we draw the majority of Magic players from) don't know Egyptian mythology anywhere near as well as they know Greek mythology. We couldn't rely on stories and character archetypes to carry the design as we had with Theros. We were going to have to find a different way. In the end, we leaned more on cultural and historical knowledge and applied it to swaths of cards rather than singular designs.
This freed us up to use the set in a different way. We embraced the Bolas part of the world and created a set that contrasted what the creative was showing you with what the gameplay was telling you. We used dissonance to set the mood. This, combined with all the Egyptian iconography, created a very distinct tone—one that allowed us to create a world where things felt "off."
This aspect of a set might not be as splashy as other things we do, but it's the kind of thing that gives a block a distinctive feel.
Here's what players liked:
Cycling – No surprise that the players loved the return of a fan favorite.
Exert – This combat-oriented mechanic was pretty simple, strategically interesting, and had a lot of design space. After energy, it's the mechanic from this year I'm most often asked to bring back.
Embalm – Players love casting things twice, so why not creatures? The biggest criticism of this mechanic was that a number of player wanted it to be a double-faced mechanic as that would clean up a lot of the wonkiness of using a clone token.
Aftermath – Players had a love-hate relationship with this mechanic. They loved the "flashback but with different cards" aspect. See below for what they hated.
Gods – I'm not sure this exactly counts as a mechanic, but players were happy to see Gods return. There was initially some unhappiness that these Gods were so different from their Theros equivalents, but players have warmed up over time. The three nameless Gods from Hour of Devastation were particularly popular.
Another big hit for the block was all the tribal love. Let's discuss each one:
Zombies – Players wanted mummies and love Zombies, so this was a popular inclusion. Players also liked seeing Zombies in white and enjoyed the cross synergy between Amonkhet and Shadows over Innistrad.
Cats – I was able to get some Cat tribal in the file because I knew from our research that the ancient Egyptians revered Cats. The response to the Cat tribal has been hugely positive and actually has us rethinking how often we might want to do Cat tribal.
Horses – There's only one card, but it's a doozy. So much so, I'm getting bugged for more Horse tribal cards.
Sphinxes – Players have been asking for a Sphinx lord for a long time. What better place than an Egyptian-inspired world?
Minotaurs – This was another surprise, but a pleasant one as Minotaurs have many fans.
Amonkhet block was a top-down Egyptian-inspired set with six keywords (afflict, aftermath, cycling, embalm, eternalize, and exert) and a whole host of themes (Gods, Deserts, Monuments, mummies, Trials, and others). It's not that any one mechanic or theme was a problem: there were simply too many—especially for Hour of Devastation, which tried to cram in most of Amonkhet's mechanics and themes along with a host of new ones.
I'm a huge fan of cycling. What exactly was it doing in this block? It smoothed out draws, as it always does, but it didn't really mechanically tie into anything. Likewise, exert and embalm each are flavorful unto themselves, but they didn't have any mechanical overlap. Even embalm and aftermath, which both work out of the graveyard, don't really interact with one together. I should note that this was on purpose to swing the pendulum away from the high synergies of Kaladesh block. I just think we swung it a little too far.
Not every mechanic was a hit:
Afflict – This mechanic was meant to suggest the inevitability of the fearsome Eternals, but ended up making them feel more mundane than special. Players also questioned why it was necessary, as eternalize also represented the Eternals.
Aftermath – Players loved how this mechanic played, but they hated how it looked.
Eternalize – This mechanic was a bit more divisive. Some liked it as a tweak on embalm to represent the Eternals, but others felt that it wasn't distinct enough from embalm to be its own mechanic.
This was an odd year, one in which I am both proud of the work we did and embarrassed by some of the mistakes we made. It was a year of highs and lows. We stretched and tried a bunch of new things, but not everything panned out as we'd hoped.
The good news moving forward is I think we're starting to get a handle on the complexity issue and the move to the Three-and-One Model guarantees that we're not going to have a lot of small-set problems down the road. We do have to work on how to make mechanics less parasitic (or at least how to blend them in so the whole set doesn't end up parasitic), and we have to solve the artifact issue before making the next artifact block, but those are things we'll have some time to work on.
All in all, this was a good year, but not a great one.
As always with my State of Design columns, I'm eager to hear from all of you both about my criticisms and your thoughts on the blocks in question. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).
Join me next week for the beginning of Ixalan previews.
Until then, may you enjoy the aspects of Magic that brought you joy in the last year.
In this podcast, I look back at some of the different formats from the early days of Magic including things likes Grand Melee and Emperor.
We have to make a lot of Magic sets, and while we always make new things, a lot of our job is taking the staple things we do all the time and finding small ways to make them feel different. In today's podcast, I talk about how we do that.