There’s No Business Like Snow Business

Posted in Making Magic on June 26, 2006

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 Week One of the Coldsnap Previews! Join us this week as we explore the “lost set” of the Ice Age block. I'm even going to preview a pretty good card. But not yet. This one requires a little set-up, so expect it near the end of the column. I've now lost a section of the audience that just had to scroll down. I've already come to terms that many of them won't be coming back. They've just used me for my preview. (Yes, by the way, columns go up in traffic during preview weeks.)

I don't feel so bad though, because they're going to run into something that's going to confuse the bajeebees out of them. You see, the preview card has a little mana symbol that they've never seen before. It looks something like this:

What is this? I'll get there. Just a little nugget to keep you reading. I will say this though. What that little symbol represents is revolutionary to design. I'll explain that too. In a little bit.

But first, tradition dictates that I introduce you to the Coldsnap design team, and I do so love tradition:

Bill Rose (Lead Designer): Bill and I started working at Wizards the same month (October of 1995 for the trivia buffs out there – also the same month that former R&D member William Jockusch started). Now Bill is the VP of R&D and I'm the Head of Magic Design, making Bill my boss' boss. What happened? Bill opted for a role with lots of management and a little design, while I opted for one with lots of design and a little management. In my mind, I won that one.

But seriously, Bill is an amazing guy. I can't think of anyone else I'd rather have as the VP of R&D (I have way too much “red” in me to have a job that requires real diplomacy – I do things like yell loudly in frustration in meetings). He makes it so I get to spend all my time focused on making Magic the best game it can possibly be. Luckily for me, Bill still finds time to occasionally focus on Magic design himself. Which leads us back to Coldsnap. Bill was the guy in charge of the design (a.k.a. the lead designer – as opposed to Head Designer, which is what I spend my days doing).

Bill has lead numerous designs in his time. Mirage, Visions, Portal, Invasion and Torment are all Bill's sets. Plus from the Urza's Saga block to the Champions of Kamigawa block, Bill was the Head Designer. (Bill is also the lead designer of Planar Chaos, which comes out in early 2007.) The original announcement for Coldsnap claimed I was the lead designer, but that was simply a misprint. While I was on the team, Bill was the man in charge.

Having Bill on a design team is always good times and as he and I hadn't been on a design team together since Torment (and before that, Invasion), I was happy to have him dipping his toe into Magic design again. I think all of you will be happy as well.

Aaron Forsythe: Over the years there are different designers that I tend to interact the most with. In the last few years, that designer has been Aaron. He on I were both on the teams for Fifth Dawn, Ravnica, Dissension, Time Spiral, Peanut (codename for the 2007 fall expansion), and Coldsnap. And we're scheduled to be working together on Butter (the follow-up to Peanut) and Rock (the 2008 fall expansion). Add into the mix that Aaron's becoming the new Head Developer (see last week's column if this is news to you) and you'll see that the two of us spend a great deal of time working together.

The reason I love working with Aaron is that he's good; real good. His first design team (Fifth Dawn) started out as a chance for him to get better perspective on the design process (at the time he had a position similar to what Scott Johns has now – although running a then smaller site), and ended up with him getting an offer to come work for R&D. Three years later, he's becoming Head Developer. (For some perspective, it took me eight to get to Head Designer.)

Aaron has an uncanny skill of just getting things. Plunk him in an environment and let him playtest for a little while and he'll size it right up. (This is, by the way, why I'm so optimistic of him in his new role.) Obviously having him on Coldsnap was a boon.

Devin Low: I'd call Devin the up-and-coming designer, except he's mostly already up and come. One of the roles of Head Designer is to foster fresh new design talent and give them the means and tools to improve. Devin has taken to the task like a sponge. He and I just finished working on Future Sight (the spring 2007 expansion), and he did a wonderful job on what you will one day see was a doozy of a design challenge. His role on Coldsnap was no less impressive. In fact, that little symbol I showed you earlier was Devin's brainchild. Keep your eye out for Devin's name in my column. I predict you'll be seeing it a lot.

Mark Rosewater: Yeah, yeah I'm on a design team again. Big surprise. On Coldsnap, I was just another team member though. Bill was in charge. I was just along to throw in my two cents (actually more like four cents) and help Bill complete his vision.

Before I wrap up my section, I feel compelled to point out that Coldsnap's design team has over a quarter century of Magic design experience. I believe that holds the current record for most experience of any design team (the only possible contender would be Ravnica, which had me, Mike Elliott, Aaron Forsythe, Tyler Bielman and Richard Garfield – this was a couple of years back, so everyone involved had a few years less of experience).

Snow Way!

That was the team. Most design teams are strong, but this one is particularly stellar. So we got the team together, what next?

Before I dive into the design itself, let me backstep to quickly explain how we got to Coldsnap in the first place. For three years in a row, we had a fourth set (first 8th Edition, then Unhinged, then 9th Edition). When looking at the 2006 schedule, we asked ourselves the question, did we want another fourth set? Not sure, Randy sent around a memo asking if anyone had any good ideas. My first suggestion was Un-set #3. Why? Because my first gut reaction to any opening in the schedule is to suggest another Un-set. But it became clear that two years was too short of a time span. Anything else?

The answer was a very strong yes. You see, I carry around a scrap of paper in my back pocket. Whenever I get a cool idea for Magic, be it a card, a mechanic or, yes, even the idea for a set, I write it down. Over the years I've come up with a number of ideas for one-of expansions. I'm a huge fan of the block system, but not every idea can fill up three sets worth of cards. Some ideas just want be a small set and be done. One such idea was the “lost set”.

As I haven't mentioned “Roseanne” in months, I feel it only appropriate to point out that my former life as a Hollywood scriptwriter occasionally influences me. One such influence is the love of Hollywood clichés. About a decade or so ago, television went through this phase where everyone was finding some lost episode of a popular series. One day while thinking about design, I stumbled onto the idea of a lost Magic set. More of a mental exercise than anything else, I figured out what set would make the most sense.

It only took a few minutes to come to the obvious answer. Every block has three sets except one – Ice Age. Yeah, yeah, Homelands was retroactively turned into the third set, but it's obvious that it has no place being there. Other than coming out chronologically between Ice Age and Alliances, Homelands has nothing to do with the other two sets. Not the mechanics, not the environment, not even the level of design. If a lost set was to be “found”, Ice Age was the right choice.

Flashback to that day in Randy's office. I say to Randy that I have some ideas for one-of expansions, my favorite being the lost Ice Age set. Randy was intrigued. Tell me more, he said. So I laid out my idea of using an old block for inspiration. We would use modern design technology to design a set from the past. Randy liked the idea and the ball started rolling and before we knew it, I was assigned to put together a team that would do just what I explained. As you will see, it proved harder than we originally anticipated.

Snow News Is Good News

Now it's time to get back to talking about the actual design. The first major meeting was an offsite at my house. (Design likes to sometimes just get out of the office for a day and my house has become a popular spot for such getaways.) So there were Bill and Aaron and Devin and myself sitting around my family room. The conversation went something like this:

Bill: Okay. We know we have to build off the mechanics of Ice Age and Alliances. That seems like the best place to start. What did Ice Age and Alliances do?
Me: Cantrips.
Devin: Every set has cantrips these days. Cantrips aren't going to seem special.
Me: We could do old-fashioned slow ones.
Aaron: That'll sell the set. Come back to the days when you had a wait an entire turn to get your extra card.
Bill: What else?
Me: Cumulative upkeep.
Aaron: Weatherlight already sort of plummed the “where can we go with cumulative upkeep” theme.
Bill: Next.
Me: There was a taxing theme.
Bill: Next.
Me: How about the ally color theme?
Devin: We're coming off of Ravnica. Which did it way better.
Me: Pitch cards?
Aaron: Mercadian Masques and Betrayers did pitch spells.
Bill: What else?
Me: There's Snow-covered lands.
Devin: That one didn't play out so well.
Me: That's the beauty of it. This time we can do it right.
Bill: What else?
Me: No, snow-covered could work. We'd have to go some different directions than the Ice Age team, but I bet we can find something there. What's our alternative? We have to do something from Ice Age.

Thus began our quest to make snow-covered lands work. Interestingly enough we went back and included most of the previous named items. Well, not all of them. But today's column is about snow magic, so let's stay focused on this path of the design. I'll get to other mechanics in future weeks. (I have to write a design column every week after all; I have to conserve.)

Before I continue, let me clarify something for the sake of making the topic easier to talk about. Early on, we realized that the term “snow-covered” was problematic. First, it creatively made everything that had the quality have to literally be covered with snow. This is a big problem in an expansion set in a winter setting. Did we have to tell our artists to not draw snow on things? Second the word “snow-covered” is clunky and long. If we used it, it would limit, for example, what other words could fit on the type line. (Remember snow-covered lands are also basic.) Thus we ended up turning the supertype into the word “snow” with the flavor that it was a type of magic based around snow and cold. For the rest of the article I'm just going to refer to “snow-covered” as “snow”.

We started by looking at all the cards that referred to snow lands. And as memory served, most of them sucked. To be fair, most sucked in Constructed; a number did matter for Limited. As we looked at them, Bill asked the team to question where the mechanic could go. Aaron wondered if there was any other way to make snow-ness relevant. I wondered why it had to be restricted to lands. And Devin questioned if there was some way to make snow lands matter in a different way. They produced mana, didn't they?

As we looked into Aaron's question, we realized that snow matters tended to play out the same in Ice Age. Snow-matters cards most often forced you to play all snow lands. It was very all or nothing. What if we made snow cards that pushed you in different directions rather than always in the same direction? Also, what if we limited snow lands in packs to make the resource something you had to worry about for drafting. (Quick aside – this set did something very interesting in design to address the drafting issues with it. I'm not talking about it today, but I will hit upon it in future weeks.)

This then led to my issue. Why couldn't the snow supertype appear on other permanents? Surely there could be snow creatures. If you thought of snow as representing a style of magic, enchantments were also an easy fit. And once you went this far, why leave artifacts out of the fun? The other advantage of putting the snow supertype on other permanents is that it opened up the design space for making snow matter.

This, of course, led us to Devin's issue. Was there a way to make snow lands have the snow matter in a different way? Devin thought it would be interesting to think about what kind of mana a snow land produced. What if the quality of the supertype affected the mana of any permanent produced by something that had it? Imagine snow lands producing snow mana. I said above that this idea was revolutionary. Here's why. Snow mana doesn't change the color of the mana. If a Snow-Covered Mountain is tapped, it produces snow mana but the mana is still red. The snow quality doesn't change the color. It gets layered on top.

My brain almost exploded when I first heard this concept. We've talked for years about making a sixth color of mana. But what Devin proposed was even more radical. Rather than make a new color, what if we made a new quality that could be overlaid over any color. We've toyed with this kind of thing in the past. We've made cards that produce mana that can only be used for certain things (Mishra's Workshop is the most famous example). We've made cards that create mana that when used imbues the spells they cast with certain qualities (Boseiju, Who Shelters All is an example of this category). We've even made cards that produce mana that have special properties (Sakiko, Mother of Summer is an example of this group). But creating a new quality of mana is tapping into a very fresh, and I believe very deep, vein of design space. This isn't the last you'll be seeing of supertypes that overlay qualities onto their permanents.

Another nice side effect of snow mana is that it allows us to do the thing that Aaron wanted. Cards with a snow mana activation require you to have some snow land, but doesn't force you to change all your lands into snow lands.

This all leads us to today's preview card. As you will see, the card isn't useless if you don't have any snow land, but it definitely gets better if you do. Ladies and gentlemen (although based on the surveys, mostly gentlemen – although I always love to hear from female readers just to know that you're out there and reading my column), let me present today's preview card (well, from my column at least – you might want to check out Rei's feature for another cool card).

A yeti! We're back in snow country. Remember that snow mana can be paid for by using the mana produced by any snow permanent (and yes take that as a not so subtle hint that some snow permanents that aren't lands might produce mana).

That's all the time I have for today. I have a lot more Coldsnap design to talk about, but that will just have to wait for future weeks. Like next week.

Until then, may you have fun playing in the snow.

Mark Rosewater

Latest Making Magic Articles


Thank You for Being a Friend by, Mark Rosewater

Two summers ago, I wrote five articles where I revisited the color pie philosophies of white, blue, black, red, and green. The color pie is crucial to Magic because it's the backbone for ...

Learn More


Looking Back, Part 2 by, Mark Rosewater

To celebrate the release of Modern Masters 2017 Edition, last week I started telling some design stories about some of the cards in the set. I didn't finish, so this week is Part 2 of tha...

Learn More



Making Magic Archive

Consult the archives for more articles!

See All

We use cookies on this site to enhance your user experience. By clicking any link on this page or by clicking Yes, you are giving your consent for us to set cookies. (Learn more about cookies)

No, I want to find out more