#859: Replies with Rachel #6
From time to time, I sit down and answer reader questions with my eldest daughter Rachel.
Posted in Making Magic on August 16, 2021
When I became the head designer back in 2003, I decided that I wanted to write an article each August (at the end of the Magic "year") where I talked about the state of Magic design. This series is loosely based on a talk the US president gives once a year about the state of the union. My first column appeared in 2005, as that was the year that the first full "Magic year" of sets I oversaw were released.
Here are the links to the last sixteen columns:
For those unfamiliar, this is how I structure this series: I begin by examining last year's Magic design in its entirety, talking about both the highlights and the lessons of the year. I then examine each booster release (with new content), in order, talking about highlights and lessons for each. I should note that I'm talking more about big picture design rather than the execution of any one individual card.
As always, I begin with the same question: how was the last year of Magic design?
I think very good. Each set had a strong mechanical identity that reflected the world in which it was set. The audience seemed happy with both the new mechanics as well as the old mechanics we chose to bring back. Various cards from this year got played in a wide variety of formats. While the players had a lot of feedback on a range of game-related issues, in general, they seemed mostly pleased with the game design.
I have plenty to talk about today, but I want to start with an important note about Magic at large. In the spring of 2020, we had to make a financial prediction for the rest of the year knowing that we were in the middle of a global pandemic that showed no sign of going away any time soon. We predicted a downturn in play and sales. After all, much of Magic play is in person. To our pleasant surprise, the last year of Magic broke records. More Magic was played and purchased than ever before in its 28-year history, and not just digitally, but physical cards as well. This last year has been a rough one for the world, but it seems Magic helped a lot of people get through it.
One of the things I'm proudest about in this last year's design is how well of a job it did mechanically capturing the resonance of the worlds we visited. Adventure world, Norse mythology world, magical school world, The Forgotten Realms—each set found the sweet spot of mechanics and themes that brought that world to life through the gameplay. This is hard to do well, so I'm very proud of the design teams for doing such a good job with it.
This was also the year we introduced Set Boosters, and they were a huge hit. It's a sign that we're not resting on our laurels when we can question things we've done for all of Magic's life and find new ways to allow the audience to experience the game in the way they choose.
I will add one lesson to this highlight. As we get more types of booster packs, we have to get better at predicting audience demand. Strixhaven got shorted on Draft Boosters early in its release because of this (plus some COVID-related production issues), and we're taking steps to make sure that doesn't happen again.
While visiting more worlds per year helps keep Magic from feeling stale, we've run into the opposite problem. Players get excited about mechanical themes in individual sets, but then feel as if that theme is abandoned as we move on to do new things in other settings. We need to get better at figuring out how to let each world shine on its own but come together to create something larger.
One way I tried to extend our mechanical themes between sets this year was to introduce a mechanic (MDFCs) that ran through every premier set not in someone else's property (i.e., not the D&D set). While the MDFCs were mostly liked as a mechanic, I don't feel they did a good job of giving the "year" a sense of cohesion. Probably the biggest issue is that MDFCs are very modular in that having one doesn't beget having more, so there was little mechanical cohesion having them in successive sets. Also, because each set used them so differently, they didn't flavorfully feel cohesive either.
I wasn't sure if I should list this lesson, as it's neither an area I oversee nor the source of the problem from this year's design; however, it was the number-one piece of criticism I got about last year's design. Throne of Eldraine's power level kept many of this year's fun mechanical themes from seeing as much play as they normally would in an average year. The audience enjoyed this year's mechanics and themes, they just wished they could have played them a little more in Standard events.
The modal double-faced cards were relatively popular, but none more so than the ones with the lands on the back. Their utility, along with the ease of tracking both sides, made these the top-rated mechanic in Zendikar Rising.
Landfall is one of the more popular mechanics of all time. That, along with its connection to Zendikar and the return to more aggressive costing on the landfall cards, made most of you very happy to see the mechanic return. We also played around with some new tweaks, which I got a lot of positive comments about.
Another Zendikar Rising mechanical theme that got a lot of positive feedback was the snap-on Equipment. Numerous people have asked me to do this more often.
I got a lot of positive feedback about how party was tackling a tribal theme in a very different way than we've done tribal themes in the past. Players also enjoyed how we gave each of the four party tribes a strong mechanical identity that let you play either mono-tribe or with party, and it was possible to combine the two. In general, party in Limited and casual Constructed was well received. But
Party had a lot more problems when it was brought to Constructed formats, especially Standard. The audience wanted more seeding pre- and post-Zendikar Rising of the four relevant class creature types and wanted us to position some individual cards to be more potent to make the theme work in Constructed. I do know this feedback will be taken to heart the next time we do a larger tribal theme.
As this was the third trip to Zendikar (and the sixth set to take place there), there was a lot of sadness that certain elements weren't in the set. The biggest complaint was the lack of Allies. They played a major role on both the first two visits, and while party hit similar flavor space, their absence was a source of disappointment. I similarly got complaints about various mechanical elements—the most mentioned ones being traps, quests, and creature lands. Another big absence for some was the Eldrazi, which had played such a major role on the second visit. Beyond their absence, many commented they wished the set did a better job of showing the impact the Eldrazi had on the world. This is always going to be an issue on returning to worlds for the third-plus time. One other solution might be to do a little more one-off nods without dedicating a whole mechanic or theme to it.
Another common complaint I got was this visit didn't show us much of anything new. Often when we return to a world, we'll add in a new aspect never seen before, and some felt this was not true of Zendikar Rising. Looking back, we might have been able to solve both the last two problems by taking an old aspect and finding a cool new twist on it that might have helped convey some change to the world. Interestingly, design did come up with a new type of trap, but we ended up cutting it for space.
Commander has always been a Constructed format, so a lot of players liked that we found a way to bring it to Limited. I got a lot of positive comments on how we adapted the format for Draft, especially the use of the multicolor uncommon and monocolor partner legendary creatures as a means to make the draft work.
The set needed to have a lot of legendary creatures to make drafting work (and it was a Commander-focused product). I got much feedback about how excited players were that we used a lot of that space to highlight characters from Magic's past.
In addition to the flavor, I got many comments about how unique and fun many of the legendary creature designs were. I was sent endless posts and emails about how the product inspired brand-new Commander decks.
I also got a lot of positive feedback about the various reprints that we put in the set.
While many players were excited that we'd found a way to make Commander draftable, there were a lot of comments about how it was executed. There was much discussion about what we could change if we did this product again, from ways we could separate Commander Draft from normal Constructed Commander to ways we could bring them closer together. If we do this product again, I know we'll look at all the various ideas proposed. Another design note tied to this comment was that some players felt the set needed more game-ending bombs at high rarities to help keep the Limited format from dragging.
While the set had many innovative and fun designs, there were a few that made players feel it was a net negative to Constructed Commander. I got a lot of feedback about what types of cards should and shouldn't be created when we make more legendary creatures. I know the design team that works on Commander products tracks all this feedback, so they can iterate on new Commander designs.
One of the ongoing issues R&D has had with Commander is trying to balance the color wheel inside the format. The color having the biggest struggle has been white, and there were numerous cards many in the community wished had been printed as a white card. The Council of Colors has been spending a lot of time on this issue, so I hope the upcoming year will help ease this issue some.
Of all the mechanics in the set, I got the most positive feedback about foretell. It felt new and fresh, was flavorful for the world, and it played great. Players were also happy to see multicolor Sagas and snow returning (although, see below, there was also a lesson).
We tried to have each set have their own take on MDFCs, and the Gods were well liked (although not quite as much as the lands). Players enjoyed that they helped offset the drawback of being legendary (since if you had one, you could play the other side) and added quirky new commanders to Commander.
One of the biggest compliments I got about Kaldheim was how evocative the world was and how each realm had its own distinct elements. The tribal component, in particular, was often called out as a player favorite. That said, it did have one big negative
The number one piece of feedback I got about Kaldheim was that there was too much in it. Trying to fit ten realms into one set just didn't leave any breathing room, and as a result, players felt they missed a lot of cool stuff in the world. The common consensus was this should have been two sets. This is a note we'll take to heart. We're still trying to understand when a world wants to be bigger than just one set.
Players were excited to see snow return but disliked that there was little incentive to play normal basic lands over snow basic lands. The set needed to have more snow hate in it than it did. Modern Horizons 2 helped with this some, but Kaldheim should have done more. I know we're trying to be better about giving answers to a set's mechanics and themes in that set.
Another common piece of feedback was that we stuck a little too close to the source material. Almost all the Gods, for example, matched one-to-one with an existing Norse god. The players don't mind when we do some top-down cards from the source material but also enjoy when we take our spin on the material. My big takeaway (and this is something I know the Creative team has talked a lot about) is we need to be more willing to twist things inspired by a real-world source.
This bonus sheet was a hit on every vector. Players loved the access to reprints. They loved the impact it had on Draft, shaking things up. They loved the various Booster Fun variants. The big takeaway is that bonus sheets are a potent tool that we need to be making more use of.
"Spells matter" has been a theme players have requested for years. We hadn't done it, because it's very hard to execute, but Strixhaven seemed to figure it out, and the players enjoyed it. It's possible we can use our lessons from the set to see if there are ways to use the theme, even if in smaller doses, in other sets.
One of Magic's strengths is its ability to shift in tone between sets. Strixhaven experimented with a tone lighter than we normally do, and many players adored it. I think this teaches us that we can stretch our tone more often and that it's okay to have more whimsical sets from time to time.
Faction sets have always been popular, and this was us trying to do one a little differently. First, we didn't give each faction its own mechanic, instead picking broader mechanics that could be flavored for each faction. In addition, we tried to create two-color factions that felt different from previous takes on the two-color pairings. Mostly we succeeded. Lorehold got a lot of positive feedback for being so different than our normal red-white archetypes, but
Quandrix got a lot of positive nods for its flavor (many players adored that we had a math faction) but got knocked for being too mechanically similar to Simic. A common request, mostly from more enfranchised players, was they wished we had shaken up every school as much as Lorehold. I'm a little skeptical that would have worked for the non-enfranchised players, but I recognize that we can push more in our next take on factions.
The land MDFCs and the God MDFCs were well liked, but Strixhaven's take seemed to push the mechanic a little too far. The biggest strike against them was that they were too wordy. They also lacked the thematic cohesion that the previous two sets had (all lands or all Gods). I do believe we'll bring MDFCs back one day, but I think we have to be careful about how much text goes on the backside of the card. Players should be able to know what their card does from just looking at the front side.
Another interesting piece of feedback came from many non-American players. Because this setting played upon real-world resonance, it shone a light on the fact that there's a lot of differences between how schools function in different countries. Interestingly, some of the things we used were not based on American schools, but British schools, because the magical school trope has its origin in British schooling. Nonetheless, there's an important lesson here to keep in mind that we're a global brand and that we have to be careful how ethnocentric we are when exploring real-world tropes.
Modern Horizons 2 is basically a love letter to Magic with lots and lots of callbacks, both in flavor and in mechanics. The audience for the set, mostly enfranchised players, absolutely adored it and was impressed with the quality and quantity of the callbacks.
Magic has made a lot of mechanics over the years, but only so many get to return in premier sets. Modern Horizons 2 allowed us the opportunity to bring back mechanics on just a handful of cards, and this made a lot of players happy. Having access in supplemental sets to sample mechanics in smaller doses is definitely a tool we're going to want to use more of in the future.
This is basically the same lesson as Strixhaven: School of Mages, but it's significant that we got the same lesson twice in one year. In particular, the return of Squirrels as a draftable theme was much beloved.
Modern Horizons sets allow us to dip our toe in a complexity level we can't use in other products. The audience that enjoys this higher level of complexity is quite happy that this product can provide it. As head designer, the thing I love most about the Modern Horizons sets is that it's allowing us to design cards we couldn't use anywhere else.
While many enjoyed the high complexity and numerous throwbacks, I did get a bunch of feedback about the set just doing too much. This also included the various number of treatments we did for Booster Fun. Finding the right balance of being the highest complexity set we make while being approachable and grokable is important for us to think about. I think future Modern Horizons sets will lean toward being complex, but we can look to avoid unnecessary components that add confusion.
By its nature, Modern usually has its cards first screened through Standard. While there are many players who enjoy our ability to add things straight to the Modern format, it does make others nervous. I think the resources we added to the Modern Horizons 2 Play Design team is something we have to repeat in any future Modern Horizons set design.
Interestingly, I got contradictory feedback on this point. Some players feel since Modern is in the set's name, it's supposed to focus more on Modern. Others feel, since Commander is currently the most played format, that all sets should be more aware of what they could add to Commander. I think the sweet spot of this product is somewhere in the middle.
The biggest compliments I got about this set were how well it managed to capture the feel of Dungeons & Dragons, both in a meta sense and in the top-down execution of particular cards. Some players, especially ones who also play D&D, said this was the most flavorful set they've ever seen.
This set tried something new where we used italicized text before rules text as a way to add extra flavor. I got a lot of requests for us to add this to normal Magic. While it's not necessarily off-limits to expansions set in the Magic Multiverse, I think we plan to use it as a tool more for products set in other properties (i.e., Universes Beyond) as it's a valuable way to capture particular flavor that doesn't easily work as the card's title, something that is much needed in properties that weren't built for Magic.
One of our ongoing projects in the Council of Colors has been finding ways to expand white's part of the color pie to help it in the Commander format. Several new things premiered in Adventures in the Forgotten Realms, and the players seemed very excited by it. I can promise there's more coming.
All my highlights (well, except for white getting new stuff) were also the source of complaints. Some players don't like us making Magic cards set in other properties. Some players were unhappy with which cards we chose or didn't choose to make cards out of. Probably the biggest single complaint in this category was "where's Elminster"? Some didn't like how we executed certain cards. The biggest complaint in this category was The Tarrasque, as they didn't feel we captured its essence. Some didn't like the use of flavor words. Others didn't like the meta-D&D references (such as the "choosing your path" cards). Others didn't like seeing die rolling come to black border (although others very much did enjoy it). While this set was much beloved by many, it was more polarizing than most sets.
Another big complaint was from players who wanted to see more established Magic mechanics with the right flavor being used. The mechanic most referenced in feedback was party, but many other mechanics, like level up or adventure, were mentioned. We pushed into mostly new design space to capture the feel of D&D, but it's a good note that we should be open to using old mechanics when they're a good flavor fit.
Whether or not the players enjoyed the flavor words, a common complaint was that mixing flavor words and ability words (pack tactics was an ability word) was confusing. This was a good note, and I think we're going to be much more careful about this in the future.
And with that, we come to the end of this year's look back. We tried a lot of cool new things, most of which seemed successful but didn't come without some thoughtful feedback from the players. There's a lot to think about as we make Magic's future.
As always, just as I'm eager to hear your thoughts on sets, I'm also eager to hear your thoughts on my thoughts on your thoughts on sets. What did you think of this year's State of Design article and my take on the highlights and lessons? You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week when I show you the design handoff document from original Innistrad.
Until then, may you get feedback that allows you to better yourself.
From time to time, I sit down and answer reader questions with my eldest daughter Rachel.
In this podcast, I explore the history of the popular enchantment subtype Sagas.