Thank You Sir, May I Have Another

Posted in Making Magic on August 30, 2010

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

Welcome to Sequel Week! This is a follow-up to ... I guess every other theme week we've ever done. This week's theme is all about going back and revisiting things players loved the first time around. (Okay, they didn't always love it, but more often than not they did.) Today I'm going to be talking about a number of times we've done that as well as explain why it is that sequels are so pervasive. Also, before this article is done, I am going to be making a major announcement that's going to excite a number of people reading right now (I know because you all keep writing me about it). So perhaps you should keep reading.

    Second Time Around

Sequels are everywhere—movies, television, books, comics, video games ... the list goes on and on. Let me start by answering the big question—why? The reason is the answer behind many design questions—it plays into basic human nature. We are hard wired to seek out the same thing. Humans are creatures of habit. Why? I think it boils down to our brain's master plan to keep us alive.

The unknown is dangerous, much more so than the known. For example, I ate some berries and didn't die. My brain now knows that those berries are good for me. (Good, as in provide nutrition and don't kill us—the brain has a low bar of quality.) My brain has a vested interest in us eating those berries rather than some unknown berries. The known berries won't kill us while unknown berries could. To increase the chance of us not killing ourselves, the brain pushes us towards the old, known berries.

The end result of all this survival instinct is that our brains push us to feel comfortable with things we already know. I've talked often about how much of communication theory is based upon humans' behavior to find routine and stick to it. Sequels play right into this desire.

But wait, there's a second force at play here. Someone has to make the creative endeavors. Usually there is some force at play that is invested in that item selling as well as it can. It's much easier to sell the idea of returning to a popular thing. A very interesting statistic I heard recently had to do with Inception. (Yeah, yeah—I really like the movie.) It was only the fourth non-animated film in history to break $100 million without being based on a previous property—another movie, a television show, a book, a comic, etc. (As a quick aside, this greatly saddens me as a writer.) It's a lot easier to sell the idea of a sequel because it makes a very simple sales pitch: let's do the thing that's already proven to work.

Sequels exist because they work. People like going back to something they enjoyed before. On an unrelated note, are you all excited for the release of Scars of Mirrodin?

Today's column is going to be a look at some of the sequels that Magic: the Gathering has done. I understand that one could easily argue that every expansion is a sequel in that each one builds off of things that came before (be they mechanics or flavor). For today I am going to be focusing more on products that specifically are trying to follow in the footsteps of another particular product. Also, I am not going to count later expansions in the same block as those are entities that were created to be put out together, not a revisiting.

Without further ado, let's talk Magic sequels:

    Portal Second Age

In 1997, we released a product known as Portal. Portal was designed as an entry-level version of Magic with much of the more complicated elements removed. For example, Portal only had land, creatures and sorceries (although a few instants were snuck in and just called sorceries). Portal wasn't quite the success that Wizards had hoped but we liked the idea enough that we decided to give it a second try.

That second try was known as Portal Second Age. (My name of Portal 2: Electric Bugaloo was rejected.) Portal Second Age was a little smaller than Portal and did a few things to clean up some of the issues that Portal had. (Blocking, for example, was back to being called "blocking" rather than "intercepting.") The other big change was that Portal Second Age had a creative continuity, meaning that a story was worked in. This made all the cards have some relevance to one another in the larger environment.

Portal creative is also known for famously (or infamously depending on your vantage point) being the only set in the history of Magic to have guns in the illustrations.

Portal Second Age repeated some cards but had plenty of new ones. If Portal had become a yearly product perhaps I would see this as a series rather than a sequel (as I see the core set), but as this was the only other normal Portal (I'll get to the one non-normal Portal in a moment) I count it as a sequel. Portal Second Age followed in Portal's footsteps with a lackluster response that ended with us discontinuing the Portal line.

    Portal Three Kingdoms

That brings us to the other Portal, Portal Three Kingdoms. As the set has the word three in its title, a lot of players falsely believe this was the third Portal set (it was the chronologically third set with Portal in its name to be released, it just wasn't the third in the series) but it in fact was us trying to bring the Portal concept to a different market, the Asian market to be specific. Portal Three Kingdoms was based on an old Chinese tale known as the Romance of the Three Kingdoms.

The set was designed by Henry Stern and was intended to be an entry-level product for Asian markets (including Australia which is why a small portion of it was printed in English). Henry worked hard to adapt Magic to the story of the Three Kingdoms. The two biggest changes were that Henry swapped flying for horsemanship and introduced the concept of legendary characters—as so many of the cards referred to specific people in the story.

The set is now famous for being one of the most under-printed sets of all time (especially the part printed in English).

    Vanguard, Sets 3 and 4

Back in 1997, Ramp;D came up with the idea of a new add-on for Magic. This product was called Vanguard and was given away as part of a now defunct program called Arena (kind of the precursor to Friday Night Magic that promoted more causal play in stores).

The idea of Vanguard was simple. You played with an oversized Vanguard card that accompanied your deck. The card altered your starting hand and life totals. It also gave you an ability that you could use anytime during the game. (Some later Vanguard cards gave you a stronger ability you could use once per game.) Series 1 and 2 were designed together and were released consecutively.

I consider Vanguard Series 3 and 4 the sequels, as this was what we created when we went back and did it again. The original Vanguard cards used characters from the Weatherlight Saga, a multilayered story that lasted for five years. For the second two series we ended up using some more obscure characters from the Weatherlight Saga, as well as digging back into characters from the original Brothers' War story (elements found in Alpha with most of the story hinted at in the flavor text of Antiquities).

Click to see all the Vanguard cards.

    Vanguard on Magic Online

I'm not quite sure if this counts as a sequel but it was picking up on the Vanguard concept. Magic Online was looking for something to do mechanically with the avatars and Vanguard seemed like a good fit so lets call it a spiritual sequel.


Once upon a time there was a little set known as Unglued. (You can read all about its design here.) It was a set dedicated to taking Magic a little less seriously. The set was humorous with a lot of parody. The cards often did things that wouldn't quite work in the real rules of Magic, but were hand-waved because they made enough sense that you could play with them. The set had a very mixed response but its fans were very passionate about it.

Six years later, Wizards decided to go back to the well. In many ways, Unhinged is the closest thing to a sequel of all the things I've discussed so far. Numerous cards actually made reference to jokes and cards made in the first set.

Unhinged was very much created as a follow-up to Unglued. Interestingly, there was actually an Unglued 2 that was originally going to come out the year after Unglued, but the set got killed shortly before it was completed. I'll be talking a bit more about Unglued 2 when I get to my poison article next week during the first week of Scars of Mirrodin previews.

Quick aside—did I just say poison? In case you missed the sneaky preview a few weeks ago, here's the first mechanic from Scars of Mirrodin that we've released.

Click here to see it. (Warning: Spoiler)

A few of the cards (and even more of the art) were salvaged from Unglued 2 for Unhinged. Perhaps I'll do a column one day showing off all the things from Unglued 2 that never made it to print.


We had a slot for a small summer expansion and I came up with the brilliant idea of having a lost Magic set. Often in television, they find some episode of an old show that had somehow been misplaced and thus wasn't widely seen. They hype it as a "lost episode" and show it. My idea was to do Magic's version of this.

We made up a story about the set being found in Richard Garfield's old file cabinet. It was the missing Ice Age block expansion (originally there was just Ice Age and Alliances). The entire thing was meant to be tongue in cheek, but the tone wasn't really conveyed as well as we thought so numerous players took us seriously. Then many of them got mad that we had deceived them. (Really, why would we deceive our players?) In the end, the set didn't quite live up to the concept I had in my mind.

The best mechanics from Ice Age had already been mined and the idea of creating a small set to be drafted just among itself didn't quite pan out. All in all, I consider Coldsnap to be the biggest design-miss during my tenure as Head Designer. Is this truly a sequel? It wouldn't have been if it came out during the Ice Age block year. Coming out so many years after the fact nudged it into the sequel camp, in my opinion.

    Scars of Mirrodin

We've had sequel cards, sequel products, sequel sets, but this is the year that we introduce the very first ever sequel block. Yes, I feel the Scars of Mirrodin block is actually a sequel to the Mirrodin block. Not just because we're going back—we've been back to Dominaria many times (and I guess technically Rath as well)—but because we're continuing a story that started in Mirrodin.

In comics, there is something known as retconning. (The word comes from "retroactive continuity.") In it, a writer rewrites an event from the past, changing how it happened. What we thought had happened didn't actually happen that way. The retcon tells us we weren't privy at the time to what actually happened. The harsher retcons don't even bother to explain away the past. They just change it and don't bother to dwell on the fact that in the past a different story was told.

I bring up retconning because Scars of Mirrodin isn't creating a story from Mirrodin that wasn't there. Everything that is about to happen (well the major parts anyway) was set up in Mirrodin. As I've tweeted a few times (@maro254), if you want to understand what's going to happen in Scars of Mirrodin block, look for the clues in the Mirrodin block. It's all there because we were setting up the story we're about to tell you.

Another reason that this block is a sequel is that it is very much paying homage to the block it follows (story-wise not chronologically). If you enjoyed the plane of Mirrodin, you are about to be in for a treat because many of the creative elements (and even some of the mechanical ones—Scars block has a returning mechanic from Mirrodin block—and it just might not involve +1/+1 counters) are straight from Mirrodin.

If you're eager to hear more about Scars of Mirrodin, I urge you to keep your eyes and ears open. A bunch of pretty cool stuff will be coming your way not too long from now.

But wait, didn't I promise you a big announcement? Why, yes I did. Before I tell you what it is, give me a paragraph or two to set it up. I often talk about how I get a lot of mail. One of the topics I get is people asking me to bring back something we've done before that they really enjoyed. Today I'm going to tell you that we're bringing back a popular item from the past.

What is it? Patience, let me set this up. Of all the letters I get, there is one thing that more people have asked me to bring back than any other. It's something I'm very closely associated with. So without further ado, I am happy to announce the return of ...

Click here.

Wait, a minute. That's not it. Let's try this again.

Before I do this, one quick thing. Some of you might be thinking I'm about to announce the next Un-set. While it would be awesome if I was, I'm not. I'm still working on it and I have every belief that it will eventually happen, but today is not the day I get to announce it.

With that out of the way, I'm happy to announce ...

Click here.

Yes, we are returning one of our most requested features ever done on

For those that might not know what I'm talking about, let me explain. Four years ago, in my State of Design address (this year's is next week, by the way), I announced that, for the first time ever, I had gotten permission to hire a Magic design intern. Not one to do things in a normal matter, I came up with an offbeat idea. What if I turned the intern search into a reality show a la The Apprentice or Project Runway?

Anyone who was interested (and fit the criteria—I'll talk about this in a second) could apply. A series of essays and tests narrowed the field from over one thousand applicants down to a final fifteen. From there we had five challenges that tested the applicants' Magic design skills. Each challenge was judged by a series of judges, including myself, and at the end I would eliminate one or more of the applicants. At the end of five challenges we were down to three candidates, all of whom were flown out to the Wizards of the Coast offices in lovely Renton, Washington for a series of interviews and one final test.

The winner was Alexis Janson, who won a six-month internship. The top three remaining finalists (Ken Nagle, Graeme Hopkins and Mark Globus) were also offered internships or jobs. When the dust settled, all four found fulltime work at Wizards and are still here today. In addition, all four also still work directly on Magic design and development. Ken Nagle has even had the chance to lead the design of several sets (Worldwake and Archenemy plus two Magic sets you haven't seen yet). To learn more about the first Great Designer Search, check out this page.

On Wednesday, September 29 we're going to post the start of GDS2, including the complete rules on how to enter. The reason the beginning of GDS2 is three weeks away is that we wanted to correct a mistake from the first GDS where the announcement and the first test happened too quickly. Many people interested in entering didn't hear about the event until it was already too late to enter. I am asking anyone reading this to please help spread the word. If you are interested in entering GDS2, come to this site on the update for Wednesday, September 29.

That's all the exiting news I have for today. Join me next week for the start of Scars of Mirrodin previews.

Until then, may you enjoy everything the second time around. Oh yeah, and come back on September 29. It's going to be quite an event!

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