#825: Strixhaven with Ari Nieh
I sit down with Magic designer Ari Nieh to talk about the design of Strixhaven.
Posted in Making Magic on April 19, 2021
For each set, when vision design is complete, we create what we call a vision design handoff document to give to the Set Design team to explain the overall vision of the set and walk through what themes and mechanics we created during vision design. In the past, I've shown off the vision design handoff document for Throne of Eldraine, Part 1 and Part 2, Ikoria, Zendikar Rising, and original Zendikar, Part 1 and Part 2. Today, I'm going to show you the handoff document from Strixhaven.
Before I start, I should give my normal intro for vision design handoff documents. Everything you see below is the text of the actual document I handed off a year and a half ago. Any comments I've made will be in boxes to the right of the vision design text. The text outside of the boxes is the actual document. Things always change during set design, so I will explain how things in the document turned into the things that ended up in the set. I hope you enjoy this peek behind the curtain.
Vision Design team
Here are the four main parameters for "Fencing." These four parameters define the set:
We're trying to find more worlds with genre-rich trope clusters. While a magic school has plenty of its own tropes, it also lets us tap into school tropes, which are universal and plentiful (especially in pop culture). A lot of the resonance of this set is going to come from hitting as many of these school and/or magic school tropes as we can on cards.
While we do enemy color gold cards from time to time, the last expansion to have it specifically as a theme was Apocalypse—eighteen years ago! (The last set to even have enemy colors as its main theme was Eventide—eleven years ago.) "Fencing" should make sure to have several desired enemy color cycles (a few are listed later in this document) and legendary creatures (as it's something Commander players ask for all the time).
One of the biggest experiments of "Fencing" is trying to demonstrate that we can have two-color factions sets that have their own identity apart from Ravnica. As such, one of the main objectives of "Fencing" was to create five unique factions, called schools, that were flavorful and thematic yet still let the colors be true to themselves. The factions having new identities is a feature, not a bug of the design. Also, the fact that the factions are built around their internal conflict rather than their area of overlap is a unique distinction of the schools.
While we've used instants and sorceries as a small subtheme in the past, "Fencing" is making it a major theme of the set, thematically playing into the wizarding school motif. This focus has had a huge impact on what mechanics we've chosen and how we've executed certain elements of the set. Also, as the following set is returning to Innistrad, having a greater focus on spells will make a good contrast to "Golf," which will be more focused on creatures.
We began the vision design by defining the five factions. Each school was chosen a subject matter of study (including a number of classes within that study), a few student archetypes, a token type, and a style of gameplay. All the names are placeholders.
Field of Study: Rhetoric (persuasive speech and writing)
Classes: Literature, Writing, Speech, Psychology, Ethics, Foreign Languages, Communications, Marketing/Advertising, Journalism
Style of Magic: Spoken word and runic
Philosophical Conflict: Are we to inspire the world of what it could be (white) or inform the world of what it really is (black)?
Student Archetype: ROTC, "mean girls," jocks, privileged kids, overachievers
Token Type: 2/1 flier (Gargoyle)
Style of Gameplay: Aggro
Shadix is the school of words. It teaches various classes that center on the use of words (literature, writing, public speaking, foreign languages, communications, etc.). It teaches spoken and runic magic. Spoken word is the fastest form of spellcasting and thus is the magic of ritualized combat. Because of this, Shadix is the school that teaches magical fighting. All the schools teach you how to use magic to do different things, but Shadix teaches you how to fight with it. As such, it's the school with the magic that's cheapest and easiest to cast in a pinch. This leads Shadix to having a very aggressive magical style, using its spells to try and beat the opponent as quickly as possible.
Field of Study: Art
Classes: Painting, Drawing, Music, Dance, Theater, Fashion Design, Sculpture, Interior Design
Style of Magic: Gestures and the arts
Philosophical Conflict: Is art supposed to make people think (blue) or feel (red)?
Student Archetype: Visionaries, intellectuals, creative types
Token Type: 3/3 (Elemental)
Style of Gameplay: Big spells
Mithren is the school of art. It teaches various classes that center on expression (painting, music, dance, theater, etc.). It teaches gesture and artistic magic. Because it's the school most about putting on a show, Mithren teaches large, showy magic. This leads Mithren to focus on building up to larger, splashier spells. (Because Izzet is focused on spells, we took extra effort to make Mithren play in a different space, wanting to cast one larger spell rather than a lot of little ones.)
Field of Study: Life Sciences
Classes: Biology, Chemistry, Anatomy, Geology, Medicine, Agriculture, Botany, Food Science, Genetics, Zoology
Style of Magic: Component and biologic
Philosophical Conflict: Is life defined by what creates it (green) or the forces that shape and kill it (black)?
Student Archetype: Goth kids, cool troublemakers, bad influences
Token Type: 1/1 with "gain 1 life" death trigger (Grub)
Style of Gameplay: Midrange
Ravona is the school of life. It teaches all the life sciences (biology, chemistry, medicine, agriculture, etc.). It teaches component and organic magic (where you mix natural components together to create spells). Organic magic is very focused on the cycle of life, making use of both life and death as resources. (To keep Ravona separate from Golgari, we are specifically focusing on life as a resource rather than the graveyard.)
Field of Study: History
Classes: History, Law, Political Science, Philosophy, Finance, Education, Business, Theology, Sociology, Archeology
Style of Magic: Summoning and spirits
Philosophical Conflict: Are civilizations inherently led by chaos (red) or structure (white)?
Student Archetype: Bookish nerds, history hipsters
Token Type: 2/2 (Spirit)
Style of Gameplay: Control
Primald is the school of history. It teaches all the classes centered on society (history, law, political science, philosophy, theology, etc.). It teaches summoning magic, which calls on ancient spirits to perform its spells. Of all the schools, Primald is the most focused on the past and thus looks to graveyard for many of its resources.
Field of Study: Math
Classes: Math, Physics, Engineering, Accounting, Economics, Astronomy, Aviation, Programming (probably spell creation in a fantasy setting)
Style of Magic: Formulaic and geometric (the drawing of shapes, for example)
Philosophical Conflict: Is math a natural system that we've discovered (green) or a product created by us (blue)?
Student Archetype: Weirdos, outsiders, obsessed with numbers
Token Type: 1/1 (Fractal)—often cast in multiples
Style of Gameplay: Go wide
Zymmot is the school of math. It teaches all the classes focused on the hard sciences, the ones that are more based in numbers (math, physics, engineering, economics, etc.). It teaches formula- and geometry-based magic. This is magic that makes use of natural systems, which it often controls using shapes as a means of expression. Geometric magic is mostly based on growth and takes advantage of replication to produce larger systems.
To separate the set from Ravnica, instead of assigning a keyword to each faction, the set has mechanics that stretch across all five factions but are used differently by each school. The set's mechanics are:
Creature — Human Shaman
Spellcraft – Whenever you cast or copy an instant or sorcery spell, CARDNAME deals 1 damage to each creature.
Spellcraft is an ability word that goes on permanents and triggers whenever an instant or sorcery is cast or copied. Here's how each school is using it.
[Shadix] – Spellcraft effects in this school are about small incremental creature boosts and go onto aggressively designed creatures. Instants and sorceries help you keep up your aggressive threats. This school likes when you cast a lot of cheap instants and sorceries on the same turn.
[Mithren] – Spellcraft effects in this school don't stack, so instead of encouraging lots of small instants and sorceries on a single turn, it rewards being more consistent across turns. It also has some effects that reward you for casting larger spells.
[Ravona] – Spellcraft effects in this school often gain you life (to play into the school's "life matters" theme) and allow you to permanently grow your permanents or resources.
[Primald] – Spellcraft effects in this school tend to be more defensive and controlling. At higher rarities, they also play into the school's connection with the graveyard, at times returning things in the graveyard to the player's hand.
[Zymmot] – Spellcraft effects in this school tend to support the school's theme of building up creatures and going wide. It also will have effects that are often stronger the more creatures you have.
We've hit our word count for today. Next week, you'll see the second half of the vision design document where we talk about other elements of the vision design, including several mechanics that didn't make it into the final set. As always, I'm eager to hear your feedback on this document, on this column, or on Strixhaven in general. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week for part two.
Until then, I hope you enjoy this peek behind the curtain.
I sit down with Magic designer Ari Nieh to talk about the design of Strixhaven.
In this podcast, I share some more card-by-card design stories about legendary artifacts.