Themes Like Old Times

Posted in Making Magic on August 12, 2019

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.

Today, I'm going to talk about a hobby that my wife Lora and I enjoy—throwing parties. I'm going to talk about some of the parties we've thrown and give some tricks to how to throw a party well. What exactly does that have to do with Magic design? Well, it turns out that the key to throwing a good party is the exact same thing that leads to designing a good Magic set—understanding the importance of themes. So, today's column is all about how to get themes to work for you.

Rinse and Repeat

Here's a thing about throwing parties and designing Magic sets: you repeat a lot of the same actions each time you do both. For parties, you're going to have people over to your home. Your home will be decorated. You'll be serving food, ideally a mix of foods to make sure everyone is able to eat something they enjoy. There will be some entertaining activity for the people to participate in or watch. For us, due to our hobbies and the crowd we hang with, that usually means solving puzzles and/or playing games.

For a Magic set, most of the design skeleton (the inner workings of the set) are going to be very similar each time. You're going to have roughly 55% creatures (mapped out across the five colors—white cards will be about 62% creatures, green 59%, black 56%, red 53%, blue 50%, with some number of artifact creatures depending on the set). You're going to have the basic effects in the appropriate colors. Blue's going to have a hard counter (something that counters anything) and a soft counter (something that will work some of the time, but not always) at common. Red's going to have, on average, three direct-damage spells: one that hits anything, one that hits players, and one that hits creatures (we'll mix up the numbers and occasionally add "or planeswalker") at common. Green's going to have a Giant Growth effect, a Naturalize effect, a land-fetching effect, and a Fog effect at common. The nuts and bolts of what makes Magic sets work is a core formula we've iterated on for over two decades. Yes, we constantly tweak it, but the base formula mostly stays the same.

This is why themes are so important. They take what is at its core very similar and make it seem far less so. As an example, let's go back a number of years to when many of our friends were having their first babies. Because Lora and I enjoy throwing parties, we volunteered to throw baby showers (ours were for the mothers and the fathers) for all our friends. Here's the problem—our friends all knew each other. Everyone was tied to Wizards of the Coast, so the overlap of attendance was pretty high.

For those that have never attended a baby shower, here's the crux of what goes on. Everyone brings gifts for the baby (everything from actual clothes for the baby to items to help with the raising of the baby—changing pads, baby toys, strollers, etc.). You spend time doing baby-themed activities and eating food. We were planning three in a one-year window. How exactly were we going to throw a whole bunch of baby showers for most of the same people all in the same year while ensuring each baby shower felt unique?

This brings us to the first lesson.

#1: Pick a Theme

What we did was go to each of the parents and asked for them to pick a theme for their baby shower. The first couple chose a carnival. The second couple chose the movies. The third couple chose summertime.

For the carnival party, we literally set up a carnival in our garage complete with baby-themed carnival games. Each guest earned tickets as they did things like knocking down baby bottles. They could then spend the tickets on baby-themed prizes. The food was modelled after carnival food and the invitations for the party came in popcorn bags.

For the movie party, we made a red carpet that everyone walked on to enter our house, complete with paparazzi taking photos. The games involved baby-themed movie trivia. The food was set up like a concession stand all modeled after things you would get in a theater (although of a higher quality). The invitation for the party was a movie poster and it introduced "Baby Ryan."

For the summer party, we set up a picnic in our family room complete with fake grass. The main game was baby-themed trivia set up like a baseball game with people advancing bases through correct answers. The food was all picnic related and the invitation came in a tiny picnic basket.

We got numerous compliments from people who attended all three parties about how personalized each one felt. Each was a baby shower, but each felt like a unique baby shower.

Magic sets aren't any different. Part of what I try to do at the start of each is figure out what it's about. What is the set's theme? There are a number of different ways to do this. Sometimes we start with a world. For example, Ixalan design started with the world of Ixalan. The Creative team came up with a neat world, and it was my job to figure out how to translate the world into gameplay. Once it was clear we were going to do Pirates and Dinosaurs in a larger volume than we'd ever done before, the tribal theme presented itself.

Sometimes we start with a mechanical bent. Ravnica came about because I wanted to do a world centered on two-color combinations. It was the second time we were doing a multicolor theme (the first being Invasion block), and I was interested in going the opposite direction from a five-color block. I told the Creative team I wanted to focus on all ten two-color pairs equally, and they came back with the idea of the guilds complete with a city world.

Sometimes we start with a mix of ideas. Theros was initially pitched as a Greek mythology-inspired set that would have an enchantment theme. I wasn't sure why exactly those two things went together, but I liked the challenge of figuring out how to make them connect. We made a pantheon of gods and had the enchantments represent their impact on the world.

The key to making each Magic set feel different is to always start from a new vantage point, and that requires locking down a theme very early.

#2: Imbue every aspect with the theme

Part of what makes a theme shine is when it's interwoven into every aspect it can be. For example, a common mistake I'll see in party planning is that the party will incorporate the theme in one aspect, like decorations, and ignore it in others. For example, they'll serve the same food at their parties regardless of what party it is. I think this comes from people seeing a theme as some obligation rather than as an amazing tool to customize the party.

Whenever Lora and I are planning a new party with a theme we haven't done before, the first thing we do is figure out how to apply it to all the different aspects. For instance, Lora is in charge of food. She approaches every party with the attitude of "How can I choose my food such that it reinforces what the party is about?" If it's our annual Big Football Game party, she's thinking about what food you associate with football. Some of it might be things that would be served in a stadium. Other items might be things that can be shaped accordingly. (One of the staples is a cheese log shaped like a football.) Others might be of certain colors that tie into who's playing that year. The key is she always approaches the menu by thinking about the theme. That doesn't mean, by the way, that she isn't also thinking about what will be enjoyable to eat, but it's tempered by thinking through the lens of the theme.

Fire Flower

While Lora is in charge of the food, I'm in charge of the entertainment. One of the staples at our parties are "paper games" (aka theme puzzles for people to solve, often working in groups). The puzzles are always tied to the theme of the party (I have one for you to try at the end of this article) and are connected to a prize wall of themed prizes for those that score the best at the games. If it's one of our bigger parties, I'll also plan a live event. The most famous of these is the live game show I do at our annual holiday cookie party. In it, teams of two enter and each round is a different holiday-themed game or challenge that two teams face off in. You might be playing a drawing game with words related to holiday specials, trying to guess holiday songs barked by dogs, or perhaps be the team that can get more holiday cookies stuffed into your mouths.

The themes don't stop there. The decorations, the invitations, the dinnerware, the music, the doorbell on our door (we have the ability to change our doorbell)—every aspect of the party is considered with the theme in mind. Having thrown a lot of parties over the years, what we've found is the more you commit to the theme, the more specialized each party feels and the greater the response from the partygoers.

Magic sets work almost identically. Take your theme and figure out how greatly you can imbue the set with it. Zendikar had a lands theme. For starters, we examined what mechanics we could use that tied into lands. Then we explored what land-related themes we could weave into the set. After that, we looked at what cycles we could do that tied into land. Next, we looked at individual card designs that tied into land. Was there anything land related that players had been asking for that we might be able to deliver on? Was there a way for us to execute on other aspects of the game that played up the land theme? For instance, Unglued and Unhinged had done full-art lands to popular acclaim, but we'd never done it in a black bordered set. Zendikar felt like the perfect place to roll that out, because it reinforced what the set was about.

A different example would be War of the Spark. Once we centered on the Planeswalker theme, we asked ourselves how to make that organic to the design. We figured out how to make more of them, how to put them at uncommon and rare. We walked through what new things we could do with planeswalkers (static abilities, triggered abilities, hybrid mana, etc.) We came up with a way to connect planeswalkers with their signature spell by tying them in with both name and art. We found ways to weave planeswalker relevance into other cards in the set, adding "or planeswalker" where it felt right. We made unique planeswalker-themed cards we couldn't normally make because the as-fan of planeswalkers is usually too low. We explored executions like "one in every booster pack" that would make sure the theme was loud and in players' faces.

The impact on Magic sets is a lot like the reaction to our parties. The more we find ways to customize the theme to each set, the more we carve out an identity for the set. It makes the sets feel special and memorable. Also, having a focus allows us to make players care about something they might not normally care about, and that gives the set a distinctive feel. It allows us to design cards that we might not normally be able to make. It also makes marketing the set easier and greatly increases the opportunity for player excitement as players tend to focus on "what's new" in the set.

#3: Details matter

When I talk about committing to a theme, I'm not just talking about applying it broadly—I'm also advocating digging deep. A lot of people don't think details matter because so few people will see them, but I believe the opposite. When people notice a detail, they see the commitment you have to your theme and it pulls them in. And while not every person will see every theme, every detail will be seen by someone.

For example, at the picnic-themed baby shower, we laid fake grass on our carpet and put down picnic blankets. We went and got plastic ants and put them on our fake grass. It took a while before anyone noticed the ants, but once they did, they were tickled by them. It became a moment at the party. It communicated to the party guests that we went all in.

I have two Magic examples. The first is the Un- sets. We always go to great lengths to sneak in as many jokes as we can in the silver-bordered sets. We put in little jokes in one card's art about another card. We put jokes in the foil treatment. We put jokes in the legal text on the box. We cram in as many jokes as we can because we know that at some point someone will find each of those jokes and it will enhance the set for them.

The same is true for Easter Eggs in Modern Horizons. The set was made as a tribute to the game's past, and it was a lot of fun sneaking in as many references as we could. Yes, not everyone will even get all the references, but it will make the set experience even richer for those who do.

You never know what will endear people to your party or set, so it's important that you commit to hitting it at every opportunity at every level. It's in that commitment that you will find the most appreciative fans.

#4: Build up traditions

Another similarity between our parties and Magic sets is that we're often called upon to revisit the same theme. For instance, Lora and I have certain parties we throw every year. In addition to our holiday cookie party and football party, we also throw an annual Fourth of July party and I always have a birthday party at a seafood restaurant. Magic sets, likewise, return to themes by revisiting the same world. We're not going to go back to Ravnica without guilds or Innistrad without dipping into Gothic horror tropes.

The trick here is understanding how revisiting themes can be strengthened by playing into the familiarity the audience already has. Let's start by talking about a few of our parties. This December will be our 24th annual holiday cookie party. The center of the party is a cookie decorating component. We prebake the cookies in all sorts of fun shapes (many holiday themed, but not all, as people love finding ways to add holiday motifs to unconnected items) and put out icing and a huge amount of cookie decorations. People can then put their cookies on a platter to be voted on at the end of the party with the winner earning a prize.

Cookies

In addition to the cookie making and contest, the holiday cookie party has a lot of traditions:

  • I always start the party by making my dad's recipe for latkes (aka potato pancakes)
  • We have a slideshow of all the previous cookie parties as a screen saver in the family room complete with all the winning cookies
  • We always have the live game show
  • The last food of the night is always a dish we called "meat wrapped in meat"

Our Fourth of July party always has homemade ice cream sandwiches. Our football party has a bingo game we always play along with during the televised game. My birthday party always comes with superhero-themed party favors. Each of our parties has built up elements that regular guests can come to expect.

The same is true with Magic sets. If we return to Ravnica, you're going to see Guildmages and hybrid mana and split cards. If we go to Innistrad, you're going to get double-faced cards and the same monster tribes. If we go to Zendikar, you're going to have landfall, allies, and full-art lands. Part of returning to worlds is a promise of us revisiting the things we know players liked most about previous visits.

The key to this lesson is understanding the power of familiarity. Yes, you want your parties/sets to feel unique, but you also want to take advantage of all the work you've done before. Tradition can be a potent force, one you can use to your advantage. This doesn't mean, by the way, you shouldn't innovate when returning to something. My game show is different every year. Each return to Ravnica finds ways to tap into things previous ones haven't. You can use your previous work as a template that can be tapped to be both familiar or novel depending on what best allows the newest party/set to shine.

#5: Listen to Feedback

I often talk about the importance of iteration. You learn by doing things because you can use feedback to shape how you approach the problem the next time. With our parties, that comes from spending time after each party evaluating how the party went. Lora, for example, will always see what food was eaten. She will think about what kind of reactions each dish got. Sometimes she'll directly ask people about a particular food. It's not enough to innovate on the front end, you also have to evaluate on the back end.

I do something similar with the games. For instance, every Fourth of July, we play an existing game with a large group, usually 20–30 people. Not every game is suitable for that large a crowd, so I'm always examining what works and doesn't work to make sure that I'm picking the best games in future years (I try not to repeat a game). I've learned over the years, for example, that things work best when I'm facilitating the game rather than playing it. It also works better when everyone can participate at the same time rather than making people take turns (although, group games work okay where people just help their group). Over time, the games get better because I can apply all I've learned from previous years.

Magic design is very similar. I'm very active online with the community so that I can hear what they have to say about each set. I have things like my blog and all my online accounts so that I can be present to listen. If something works, I want to hear about it. If something doesn't, I also want to hear about it. There's also market research and lots and lots of various data that I can access, everything from sales to what cards get played the most online.

The point to this lesson is that the key to getting good at working with themes is not just committing to them up front but being vigilant after the fact about what worked best.

The Party's Over

That's all the time I have for today (however, you can check out my puzzle below for a little extra content). I hope you enjoyed hearing about my and my wife's passion for party-throwing and how it ties into my passion for Magic design. As always, I'm eager to hear your feedback be it through email or any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram).

Join me next week for my explanation of why diversity is integral to good game design.

Until then, may you find something you enjoy passionately creating.


Bonus Content

Below, you'll find a puzzle from our last Fourth of July party. The Red, White, and Blue puzzle form is something that's become a party tradition. Enjoy!

Red, White, and Blue 2019

The goal of this puzzle is to find ten red, ten white, and ten blue items from the ones listed below. Note there are ten answers that are not red, white, or blue. You may talk to other party guests, but using the internet is forbidden.

Red: 1. ____ 2. ____ 3. ____ 4. ____ 5. ____ 6. ____ 7. ____ 8. ____ 9. ____ 10. ____
White: 1. ____ 2. ____ 3. ____ 4. ____ 5. ____ 6. ____ 7. ____ 8. ____ 9. ____ 10. ____
Blue: 1. ____ 2. ____ 3. ____ 4. ____ 5. ____ 6. ____ 7. ____ 8. ____ 9. ____ 10. ____

  1. This is the first color that babies see
  2. This game company publishes Vampire: The Masquerade
  3. The color of the September 11 remembrance ribbon
  4. The color of the M&M's character that was originally voiced by John Goodman
  5. This colorful baseball team's manager is Alex Cora
  6. These blood cells have nuclei
  7. Jaime Reyes is the secret identity of the latest version of this colorful superhero
  8. This police procedural starred Dennis Franz
  9. This type of gift exchange involves taking other people's gifts
  10. This colorful actress has won eight Emmys over eight decades
  11. In 2004, Harold and Kumar went to this colorful place
  12. This fictional dog was owned by Steve and then Joe
  13. This actor played Oz and Scott Evil
  14. This alloy has gold and either nickel, silver, or palladium
  15. Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, and Morgan Freeman star in this 2010 action film
  16. This colorful drink is made of vodka, Kahlua, and cream
  17. This colorful TV show was a sister show to Petticoat Junction
  18. Rock group best known for "(Don't Fear) The Reaper"
  19. Former name of YouTube Premium
  20. In comedy, working this color involves using adult language and topics
  21. Product _____ is a licensed brand to raise awareness for HIV/AIDS
  22. Color of Clyde the Ghost in the video game Pac-Man
  23. For many years, this color and "beautiful" were the same word in Russian
  24. The first mutant to join the X-Men in the comics
  25. This colorful seawater inlet lies between Africa and Asia
  26. The sclera is usually referred to by this color
  27. According to various international studies, this is the world's most popular color
  28. Based on various studies, this was deemed the safest car color
  29. Because this paint color was hard to come by, it was usually used only for depicting the robes of Jesus and Mary
  30. Because this color can cause nausea, it normally isn't used on airplanes
  31. The flag of Micronesia is mostly this color
  32. The e in the eBay logo is this color
  33. This classic Jack London novel was published in 1906
  34. This color of sky in the morning is a "sailor's warning"
  35. If you're of a noble birth, you are said to have this color of blood
  36. This is the most common eye color worldwide
  37. In Avengers: Endgame, the power stone is this color
  38. "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" appeared on this album
  39. This is the color of the largest animal known to have ever existed
  40. This political organization was founded in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton

Click to see the answers

Red

  • This is the first color that babies see
  • Colorful baseball team's manager is Alex Cora (Boston Red Sox)
  • Bruce Willis, Helen Mirren, and Morgan Freeman star in this 2010 action film (RED)
  • Former name of YouTube Premium (YouTube Red)
  • Product _______ is a licensed brand to raise awareness of HIV/AIDS (Product Red)
  • For many years, this color and "beautiful" were the same word in Russian
  • This colorful seawater inlet lies between Africa and Asia (Red Sea)
  • The e in the eBay logo is this color
  • This color of sky in the morning is a "sailor's warning"
  • "We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together" appeared on this album (Red by Taylor Swift)

White

  • This game company publishes Vampire: The Masquerade (White Wolf)
  • These blood cells have nuclei (white blood cells)
  • This type of gift exchange involves taking other people's gifts (white elephant)
  • This colorful actress has won eight Emmys over eight decades (Betty White)
  • In 2004, Harold and Kumar went to this colorful place (Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle)
  • This alloy has gold and either nickel, silver, or Palladium (white gold)
  • This colorful drink is made of vodka, Kahlua, and cream (white Russian)
  • The sclera is usually referred to by this color (white of the eye)
  • Based on various studies, this was deemed the safest car color
  • This classic novel was published in 1906 by Jack London (White Fang)

Blue

  • Jaime Reyes is the secret identity of the latest version of this colorful superhero (Blue Beetle)
  • This police procedural starred Dennis Franz (NYPD Blue)
  • This fictional dog was owned by Steve and then Joe (Blue's Clues)
  • Rock group responsible for "(Don't Fear) The Reaper" (Blue Öyster Cult)
  • In comedy, working this color involves using adult language and topics (working blue)
  • According to various international studies, this is the world's most popular color
  • Because this paint color was hard to come by, it was usually used only for depicting the robes of Jesus and Mary
  • The flag of Micronesia is mostly this color
  • If you're of a noble birth, you are said to have this color of blood (blue blood)
  • This is the color of the largest animal known to have ever existed (blue whale)

Other

  • The color of the September 11 remembrance ribbon (black)
  • The color of the M&M's character that was originally voiced by John Goodman (yellow)
  • This actor played Oz and Scott Evil (Seth Green)
  • This colorful TV show was a sister show to Petticoat Junction (Green Acres)
  • Color of Clyde the Ghost in the video game Pac-Man (orange)
  • The first mutant to join the X-Men in the comics (Jean Grey)
  • This is the most common eye color worldwide (brown)
  • Because this color can cause nausea, it normally isn't used on airplanes (yellow)
  • In Avengers: Endgame, the power stone is this color (purple)
  • This political organization was founded in 1966 by Bobby Seale and Huey Newton (Black Panther Party)

 
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