To do this, I am going to begin by going back and looking at all the third sets through history to examine what each added to its respective block and how it advanced how design looked at third sets. Note that I am only going to be looking at sets that were part of blocks, which means I am going to skip ahead to Alliances,the "third" set in the Ice Age block.
Alliances (of the Ice Age block)
I'm starting here as technically this was the first "third" set of a block. I write the word "third" in quotation marks (you can imagine me making them with my fingers) because it wasn't actually the "third" set in the block. Alliances was the follow-up to Ice Age but it had nothing to do with the middle set, Homelands, that has only been grouped with Ice Age and Alliances by chronological release.
I am counting Alliances as it was the first small set to continue a larger set, and it did finish off the block. The important design lesson actually happened in development (Alliances was my first development team—and largest, with thirteen members; if you were in Magic R&D at the time, you were on the Alliances development team.) The design team was not very concerned with mechanically connecting Alliances to Ice Age. For example, in the handoff there was no reference to snow-covered land The few in the set were added during development. The lesson of this set was that the designers had to be a little more conscious about the role the set played in the larger context of the block. (Although, to be fair to the Ice Age/Alliances designers, the concept of a block didn't exist yet, so they were working in virgin territory.)
I'm sure I'll get a letter or two about Coldsnap. Wasn't that the third set? Only in a gimmicky way. Coming back over a decade later is not the same as being built to fit into the structure of a block.
Weatherlight (of the Mirage block)
Truth be told, Weatherlight is more of a precursor to Tempest block than a conclusion to the Mirage block. In fact, the Mirage story ends in Visions and the connection between Mirage and Visions to Weatherlight is the Weatherlight ship's tiny role in the Mirage story. Weatherlight not only has its own story but also has its own mechanical identity, the graveyard The set does have two flanking cards and two phasing cards but that was merely a token nod to the earlier two sets.
Weatherlight did pave the way for the concept that the third set had a need to make a mechanical shift. As you will see, this concept will guide the third sets for quite a while.
Exodus (of the Tempest block)
Exodus is the first third set that tries hard to feel as if it's in the same block as the first two sets. For example, Exodus didn't introduce any new keywords but rather evolved the two main ones, buyback and shadow, from earlier in the block. As this was the first block of the Weatherlight Saga, Exodus spent a lot of time fitting into the larger story being told.
Urza's Destiny (of the Urza's Saga block)
Urza's Destiny followed in the footsteps of Exodus. The set followed the story of the first two sets in the block as well as mostly expanded upon mechanics already established. It did, though, try to push the mechanics a little further. For example, Urza's Destiny introduced cards with "cycling from play" (unlabeled, which meant that the vast majority of players missed this connection) which tried to take cycling to the next level by allowing players to turn permanents on the battlefield into extra cards.
Urza's Destiny was also the first third set that found itself having to address problems created earlier in the block. Urza's Saga and Urza's Legacy were filled with broken cards, which restricted what Urza's Destiny was able to do. We'll see this problem pop up again, but with even worse ramifications, five years later in the Mirrodin block.
Prophecy (of the Mercadian Masques block)
Prophecy was the first third set that practically ignored the block it occurred in. The set was focused on rhystic spells and sacrificing land and only had the smallest of nods to earlier mechanics from the block. Prophecy was, in my opinion, one of the all-time lows of design (my pick for the second-worst designed set after Homelands) but it did demonstrate some things not to do with a third set.
Apocalypse (of the Invasion block)
Apocalypse was the first really successful third set. While putting together Invasion, Henry Stern and I both independently came up with the same idea—saving the enemy gold cards for the end of the block. This would allow us to focus on the ally colors in the first two sets and set up some expectation for the third set.
When I became head designer, my big push was for block design, where we thought about all three set designs at once as we plotted out the block. The concept of block design came from Invasion block, where we kind of walked into a block plan. The success of Apocalypse was a major factor in my embracing the idea of a block plan.
Judgment (of the Odyssey block)
Judgment continued the idea of the third set having a bit more structure. The shtick in this block was that the middle set, Torment, had more black cards than any other color while black's enemies, white and green, had fewer. Judgment then flipped this arrangement, having a set where white and green shined while black had the fewest cards. The Torment/Judgment split was focused more on the two sets than the entire block, but it was another of our early attempts at creating more intrablock cohesion.
Scourge (of the Onslaught block)
Scourge was another third set that tried a hard mechanical shift. The set was focused on "converted mana cost matters" and had a high-profile, although low-in-card-number, Dragon theme The set had more connections to the block than Prophecy had to its block, but Scourge was considered in retrospect to be too much of a mechanical turn.
Fifth Dawn (of the Mirrodin block)
Fifth Dawn was yet another third set with a sharp mechanical turn (it was a set in an artifact block that started caring about playing lots of different colors), although in this case it was the result of R&D figuring out that the block was having major power issues. As with many of the third set turns, the theme was figured out too late in design to put enough support cards in the first two sets.
Saviors of Kamigawa (of the Champions of Kamigawa block)
Saviors of Kamigawa continued the third-set sharp-turn trend. The set had a major "cards in hand" theme and introduced numerous new mechanics and ability words, none of which had anything really to do with what had come earlier in the block.
Dissension (of the Ravnica block)
Dissension was the first third set from the first full block I served as head designer. Block planning was in full swing and Dissension was the third piece of what I referred to as a "pie" block structure. The block was planned as one big structure that was then cut into three pieces. Dissension was the opposite of a sharp turn. It very much delivered on what was expected. The set had a few new tweaks, the biggest being a cycle of gold split cards, but it was much more about delivering the block experience than paving new mechanical ground.
Future Sight (of the Time Spiral block)
Future Sight tried a different approach in block planning. It was very much its own set with its own theme—the future—but it was an extension of the time theme that ran through the entire block. The set delivered on expectations but, unlike the Ravnica block, the players had much less of an idea of what to expect.
Shadowmoor (of the Lorwyn/Shadowmoor block)
I went back and forth on whether to count Shadowmoor as a third set because in many ways it isn't, but it is in one important way, so I've decided to include it. The Lorwyn/Shadowmoor block started with Bill Rose and me talking about a four-set block. He was curious if we could do one. My reply was that I would rather do two related mini-blocks.
One of the side effects of doing a second mini-block was that the third set, which had always been a small set, was for the first time a large set. The mere act of making that change sent ripples through the concept of block plans. Up until that point, blocks were not variable. Every block was large/small/small. The introduction of Shadowmoor completely changed how we saw blocks and was the precursor to what has been one of the biggest innovations during my reign as head designer: the block plan where we play with the composition of the sets in the block.
Alara Reborn (of the Shards of Alara block)
Alara Reborn tried a different tack for the third set.Bill Rose, the lead designer of Shards of Alara and the creator of this block, came up with the idea of doing an all-gold small set and then set out to make a block that would end up there. Note that this was different than things like Apocalypse or Judgment or Dissension, where there was some desire to set up expectations for what the third set was. The third set of Shards of Alara block was going to be more of a surprise.
This set was important because it taught us there was a different way to look at the third set. Rather than have it be defined by what came before it, like most third sets of the past, it could be used as a basis to build a block around.
Rise of the Eldrazi (of the Zendikar block)
Rise of the Eldrazi started with a simple block goal. It was going to be a large set completely separated mechanically from the two sets before it in the block. Rise of the Eldrazi was going to be a mechanics and draft reboot. The set was much beloved by the diehard drafting community but took a lot of criticism because there wasn't more continuity, mechanically (the sets were connected creatively), between the first two sets and the third set.
New Phyrexia (of the Scars of Mirrodin block)
New Phyrexia tried yet another approach for the third set: set up a conflict and have the third set identify who wins. For the first time ever, we didn't reveal the name of the third set, instead giving two potential names, one if the Mirrans won and one if the Phyrexians won. Then, once the result was known, we used the third set to show off how the world of Mirrodin changed with the Phyrexian victory. To give enough room to do this, the set was made a little bigger than a traditional small set.
New Phyrexia is important in the advancement of third-set technology because it showed we could use the third set not as the setup to the final conflict but as the result. Many players might not known what happened once the Eldrazi showed up on Zendikar but they know who won the Mirran-Phyrexian War.
Avacyn Restored (of the Innistrad block)
Avacyn Restored was in many ways a second attempt at the Zendikar block large/small/large model. Here are the major changes: The third set had more mechanical carryover, although, in retrospect, even that proved still not be enough. Also, the story tie was a little less of a sharp turn in that the action of Avacyn Restored help resolve the major conflict of the Innistrad block.
Dragon's Maze (of the Return to Ravnica block)
Which brings us to Dragon's Maze. I feel this third set very much borrowed from what we've learned over the years, but was put together in a new way. Here are some of the things Dragon's Maze gets to offer as a third set:
Meeting Expectations: One of the things we've learned over the years is that the best third sets are ones where the audience gets to anticipate what's coming. You don't want the audience knowing everything (see below) but you want it to have expectations you can then deliver on. Dragon's Maze gets set up nicely because of the guild structure. The first two sets deliver the guilds and then the third set gets to deliver a little more. It gets to fill in the gaps left by the first two sets.
Having Surprise: Humans are fickle creatures. They want to know what's coming yet they also enjoy surprise. Dragon's Maze does this by taking advantage of the original Ravnica block structure and tweaking it. The "pie method" in Return to Ravnica block is squeezed into the first two sets (two large sets, to be fair), leaving the third set an open question. Yes, all ten guilds will be there, but as all the cycles have completed, it leaves some mystery.
Giving Something Extra: The original Ravnica block was a huge success but that doesn't mean it was without fault. One of the complaints of the earlier block was that after the set with your guild, you never got anything more (save a cycle of split cards in Dissension). This block plan allows us to deliver on everything the original Ravnica had yet still have a chance to give players just a little more.
Playing Up Story: Return to Ravnica and Gatecrash set the stage for the world. This freed up Dragon's Maze to take the brunt of the storytelling duties. Story works well as a hook for the third set because you have two sets to get the players invested in the world, which gets them eager to learn what's going to happen there.
Creating a Dynamic Draft Structure: One of the coolest things Dragon's Maze gets to do is to introduce a completely new way to draft the block. The first two sets are mainly about drafting a single guild. With Dragon's Maze, you now have the ability to start drafting multiple guilds together. This allowed design and development to stick a lot of cool interactions in the block that don't get revealed until this third draft happens. The third set also gets its own identity, which helps us make some cards that make more sense in the third set than in the first two.
All's Well That Ends Well
As you can see, it took us a while to find the proper way to handle third sets, and even then they're still difficult to do. I'm proud that Dragon's Maze managed to find a way to make it work in a way that borrowed from what came before but still had its own unique identity. I hope you all enjoy it as much as we did making it.
As always, I'd love to hear your comments on how you find Dragon's Maze as a third set and which third sets were your favorites. You can write to me in email, respond to this thread, or contact me through any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+).
Join me next week when I examine what happens when we re-innovate.
Until then, may you have a happy ending.
Drive to Work #31—Lessons I Learned, Part 2
Last week, I started a new meta-series where I examine all the sets I've led to see what lessons I've learned from them. This week, I talk about the lessons of Odyssey, Mirrodin, and Fifth Dawn.
- Episode 31 : Lessons I've Learned, Part 2 (10.4 MB)
- Episode 30 : Lessons I've Learned, Part 1 (9.49 MB)
- Episode 29 : Creatures (9.57)
- Episode 28 : Planar Chaos (10.7 MB)
- Episode 27 : Bad Cards (10.6 MB)