Hello and welcome back to Play Design. I have been on a hiatus from the column for a while, and going forward you will see fewer articles from me. Generally I'll only be writing articles when sets release to discuss Play Design's impact on them, or when I have something interesting to say. That said, you will still be hearing from me frequently, just not in weekly column form. I'll still be participating in Super Leagues and other official Magic streams and doing live coverage of Grand Prix. I'll be doing coverage at Grand Prix Hartford April 13–15, and of course will be in attendance at Wizards' hometown GP Seattle April 6–8, so feel free to say "Hi" if you're there.
Today I'm going to talk about my experience on the Masters 25 Set Design team. First, a little background on what was going on at Wizards when Masters 25 was in the set design process. Masters sets work a little differently than our major booster release sets. They are designed on a different timeline and earlier in the process than other sets. We finished up Masters 25 well over a year ago. Secondly, there was no Play Design team during the time we were working on Masters 25. Back then we were still in the transition period from design/development to the new vision/set/play design structure for how we make our Magic sets. However, several Play Design team members were working at Wizards in other roles, including Andrew Brown, Ian Duke, and Adam Prosak to name a few, so we still had many eyes on the product from a balance perspective.
Our team for Masters 25 was quite small—only three people, in fact. Yoni Skolnik was our lead, and the remainder of the team was Ethan Fleischer and myself. I was ecstatic to be selected for this team, because this set was very meaningful to me. Even though I haven't been playing Magic from the very beginning, I have been playing since the '90s and have experienced "old-school" Magic, and it was important for me to incorporate these nostalgic cards and deck archetypes in the set.
Our Draft Vision
In the early days of Magic, Limited was not a widely played format and certainly not a format that R&D designed for (Mirage was the first set for which R&D playtested a Limited format). In the late '90s, Sealed Deck was played at the PTQ level, and from what I've heard it was like the Wild West out there. Synergy was very low, creatures were weak, and cards in general—regardless of rarity—were high-variance and swingy. Removal was present but was not carefully selected to deal with the Limited format's best creatures. Balance was not considered at all. If you opened a Craw Wurm and a Terror in your Sealed pool, you were usually in great shape!
Constructed Magic was pretty similar. The internet definitely wasn't what it is today, so there was no netdecking. You heard about decks by word of mouth, from Scrye or Inquest magazine, or the Pro Tour text coverage that Wizards did on their website or at thedojo.com. If you were a kitchen-table player, your Constructed decks were usually a pile of cards you owned of the same color. Decks were usually well over 60 cards and certainly not four-ofs. I remember in my early Magic days I opened a Viashivan Dragon from a Visions pack. I had never seen a gold card before and I thought it was the greatest thing I'd ever held. I immediately built a red-green deck, with roughly all the red and green cards I owned. It was about 80 cards. I probably didn't win any games, but I still remember the feelings I had when I got that Viashivan Dragon into play.
This kind of deck building is very typical for new players starting out. Deck building is one of the hardest aspects of Magic, and is not something that new players find intuitive. (This is one of the reasons why Challenger Decks are as strong as they are. We want new players to play them right out of the box at Friday Night Magic even if they aren't sure how to upgrade them.) Many players just starting out either inherit a pile of cards from a friend or relative or buy booster packs, and then don't really know how to approach deck building. Things like color balance, mana curve, and creature count are some next-level strategies that new players starting out won't take into consideration. Color is the easiest thing to understand, so it's typical for new players to take all their green cards and Forests and play that as their deck.
One thing that hooks players in to Magic is discovery. Through opening packs and playing, players learn about cards and discover awesome combos and play patterns. We wanted to replicate that sense of discovery in Masters 25 drafts. For years, we have designed Limited formats based on archetypes and color pairs. Doing this helps give players an idea of what to look for when drafting and a clear direction in deck building. That kind of direction isn't present in Masters 25. There are no distinct Draft archetypes or color pairs; instead we rely on high-power two-card combos that will work in any type of deck. Here are some examples.
Horseshoe Crab – The most powerful thing you can do with this card is give it some kind of tap ability. I really like equipping the Crab with Heavy Arbalest, but that's just one of the many things you can do with it.
Cloudshift – There aren't many blink effects in Magic that return the creature to your control (as opposed to "owner's control"). Combine this with Act of Treason and you can steal your opponent's best creatures forever. Cloudshift is also good at flipping expensive morphs for surprise ambushes.
Phyrexian Ghoul – Find a way to make a large number of creatures and Phyrexian Ghoul can become lethal very quickly. Promise of Bunrei and Presence of Gond are a couple of possible ways to get many creatures onto the battlefield.
Kavu Predator – Find ways to give your opponent life to grow this guy. Invigorate is my favorite.
In addition to these simple Limited combos, another thing that was important to us was the feeling of nostalgia through gameplay. Many combos and strategies in Masters 25 are reminiscent of old high-level Constructed decks. While there are no traditional Limited archetypes present in the set, we wanted to create a feel of old-school Constructed play. We had a decent amount of rarity downshifts to support this plan. Here are a few of my favorites.
Ponza – When Balduvian Horde was in Standard, it was an absolute powerhouse. At the time, 5/5 creatures were extremely hard to remove from the battlefield, especially when backed up by land destruction and burn.
Draw-Go Control – Counterspells and utility lands like Quicksand and Mishra's Factory allow you to play the game on your terms. You win the game by slowly getting ahead on cards and then finishing off your opponent with one of your few win conditions, ideally Jace, the Mind Sculptor. One of my favorite card-advantage engines out of a deck like this is Brainstorm plus Squadron Hawk.
Pickles Lock – This was a popular deck back in Time Spiral Standard that utilized morph triggers with Vesuvan Shapeshifter. Brine Elemental was known as "Pickles," and triggering it every turn will lock your opponent out.
Something for Everyone
We make a lot of Magic products here at Wizards, and each of those products serves a different audience. There are products like Commander decks and Challenger Decks that are for players who are looking to get into those formats. We have our innovation releases like Conspiracy and Battlebond that serve our players who enjoy wacky formats and multiplayer. One of the greatest aspects of Magic is how deep the game is, and how the game can satisfy many different types of players in different ways. That said, one thing that was important to the Masters 25 team was ensuring the set had a little something for everyone. It's not possible for every player to like every card, but if there is a little something for every type of player, the set is a success in my mind.
Our goals included:
- Having a deep and repeatable Draft format, where players feel a sense of discovery as they draft and play;
- Reprinting cards for many types of players; and
- Giving the player a feeling of nostalgia through reprints, art, and gameplay.
I truly hope you enjoy Masters 25. As you open packs, look through the cards, and play, I hope you have the same feeling you had when you opened your first Magic packs and played your first games. Have fun with the set, and happy 25th anniversary, Magic!