Core Curriculum

Posted in Savor The Flavor on July 20, 2011

It's Core Set Week, and I want take the opportunity to talk about the kinds of decisions that get made in designing a core set, and the lessons we've learned from doing so. This article is not about any particular cycle or individual card—I'll pick back up on the card-by-card set flyby next week. (Or possibly some other week. Don't try to pin me down, man! I live the spontaneous, schedule-be-damned life of a Magic creative designer. *dons sunglasses, points chiseled chin into breeze*) (*clears throat, doffs sunglasses, humbly resumes typing article*) Instead of about individual cards, this article is about lessons. Principles. Philosophies. Making ourselves into smarter people. And it's about fulfilling the goal of what the core set is there to do.

As we on the Magic 2012 Core Set design team donned our Core Set Designer chapeaus, we reminded ourselves of the core set's mission. This reminder, much like a good chapeau, is crucial. As designers make Magic sets, little decisions assail the designers at every turn, so you've got to keep your goals clear. In fact, if we could formulate a concise, memorable vision statement that would sum up everything the core set is supposed to do, something like—

"The core set should provide classic Magic gameplay that's accessible to the beginning player through familiar fantasy flavor and staple effects."

—then we could hold that glowing statement in our minds and thereby gain the power to make perfect decisions throughout the design process.

And that is exactly how it happened. Everything went perfectly, we never questioned our initial assumptions, and we all remained the same people we always were. The end.

    What We Actually Learned

Okay, fine. We all grew as designers as well as human beings, we hit a few bumps in the road along the way, and our eyes were opened to a wider world beyond the blinders of our former experience. We lived a little and we loved a little, and so on and et cetera.

Day of Judgment | Illustration by Vincent Proce

But it's true. It's not as easy as formulating a goal in letters of fire and then just hewing to them throughout the process. Any creative undertaking is a parade of murky decisions made inside a deafening whirlwind of competing goals. And especially when you're working as part of a group of people (in the workplace, this is essentially always), there are multiple people who have input on those decisions, and everybody's sky is a different color so nobody agrees. Even a task as useful as coming up with a coherent mission statement can burn hours of card-crafting time.

Now that we've had our bumps and bruises, I'd like to share some of the lessons we learned while making M12.

    The team is not just there to design Magic cards.

The more we make these M10-style core sets, the more we learn about what they do and how they should function. Like all sets, designing an "M set" is more than tinkering with some cards, and being the "Creative Team Liaison" for such a set is more than telling the team what the power-toughness range of a Drake should be. (Drakes, by the way, should be blue, bigger than 1/1 and smaller than 4/4 or so, and have flying. There are exceptions—also known as CREATIVE FAILURES *slams fist onto table*—but that's the usual range.)

The design team has special Vorthosian criteria for core set cards. We're tasked not only to provide simple cards for new players, round out Standard with staple must-haves, and make Limited fun, but also to make the set feel like a collection of recognizable mainstays of the fantasy genre. Just like the design of M10, M11, and for that matter Alpha, we literally had a checklist of classic fantasy concepts to choose from—a dragon, a knight, a fire spell, a spell that turns you into a frog, and so on—and every card was either chosen or designed because it passed muster from this flavor-critical perspective. We were definitely there to spin out some fresh Magic card designs, but also to portray a world—a world that makes sense and connects with your expectations.

It's not just a matter of aesthetics—it's a matter of the way the mind works. Your brain doesn't connect well to the totally foreign. It needs some element of familiarity to latch onto, so it can compare and contrast and locate that new thing on the landscape of its prior experience. So what's the lesson for a Magic set that should be accessible even to newer players? How do you get people to enjoy your game? Line up the card functions with familiar flavor. Stuff should do what it seems like it should do. A dragon should fly and breathe fire. A spell called "Mind Control" should let you control the actions of a creature. A sword should increase your power and a shield should increase your toughness. Flavor isn't just fun—it's functional and practical.

    The core set should feel like the core set.

That's circular on the face of it, but it was still a good thing to for us designers to remind ourselves. The core set should contain the most straightforward versions of spells and creatures, without piles of extra mechanics to distract from the already-dizzying array of Magic cards out there. The core set tends to have at least two vanilla creatures per color, for example—dudes that just attack and block and get Auras and combat tricks played on them. We feel strongly that that sort of basic Magic game play needs to live somewhere, and the core set is it.

The core set is also a storehouse for staple cards that have no other place to live. This has just become the feel of the core set, after years of repetition. The number of cards in the set is already defined—we couldn't balloon M12 up to four hundred different cards just to jam in every single fancy new card we wanted—so work must be done to save room for core set staples.

"Um, these are lovely white rares, guys, but Day of Judgment isn't anywhere in here yet."

"Oh crap."

Our traditional three-set blocks (we used to call them expert-level sets; that term isn't on Magic's packaging anymore, though) have the capability of reprinting staple cards that they need, and we think strategic, thoughtful reprints are a good thing. But the core set should still feel like it's filling in gaps of basic effects for Standard. Not every set can print its own Naturalize, but sometimes Naturalize is just the card that development needs.

There's also a new rule that the core set has to meet its quota of Salamander Rogues. I might be kidding. (Sort of yes, sort of no. Amphins may come or go, but I do think it's good to premiere new races from time to time.)

    Keep the Mind-Blow Quotient at appropriate levels.

The fun of the core set shouldn't come from blowing your mind. It should come from the classic feel of playing a game of Magic, which already has plenty of thinking built into it. You decide how you're going to attack. I decide how I'm going to block. You decide to cast a combat trick and I decide whether I should cast another combat trick. The core set is there to re-create the initial experience that made us all fall in love with the game, and to keep the mind-blow quotient of the cards themselves low. Even when the game is just vanillas and Giant Growths, your brain constantly flows with an underground whitewater river of subtle decisions. You don't need the added layer of crazy stunt mechanics or oddball counterintuitive environments to enjoy thinking hard and making clever plays. Magic is a complex game, and it's great to have a core set that can serve as the Stockroom of Straightforwardness by which the mechanical feats of other sets can be compared.

Mind Unbound | Illustration by Jason Felix

There's still room for the occasional Personal Sanctuary or Sundial of the Infinite to get your gears grinding, though. It's good to peg the WTF-ometer just from reading a card from time to time.

    Reprint strategically and beautifully.

As it's more-or-less half reprints, the core set is like a game preserve stocked with primitive exotics from another age, a place where species that may have gone extinct in the wild can be conserved in a safe habitat for the appreciation of future generations. Except that we also throw some new friends in there to mess with the ecosystem and shake things up. That analogy now sounds kind of evil to me, until I remember I'm talking about throwing the venerable Goblin Grenade into a set alongside relative newcomer Goblin Arsonist. Okay, that's still pretty evil. But in a good way.

Resonant, pleasing cards like Fireball, Gravedigger, and Levitation were designed well from top to bottom. They earn a place in the game preserve by their beauty as well as their function. We scour older sets for cards like this, always on safari for some specimen that can bring beauty to the menagerie.

    You should change the planeswalker lineup sometimes.

One of the biggest shakeups in M12 was the change to the planeswalker lineup. Instead of Ajani and Liliana, we see Gideon and Sorin. And although the characters of Jace, Chandra, and Garruk are back, they're all suited up in new versions. I love Liliana, and I might be the Earth's biggest Ajani fan, but sometimes the best thing you can do for a friend is let him or her get away from it all for a while. We're in a position where we have a lot of planeswalker characters now, and the core set is a handy venue for bringing back some who've proved themselves in the past.

And I'm very excited about the three new planeswalker cards in M12 and the position we've gotten to on those characters. It's taken a while to get here all the way from Lorwyn, but we're now in a position where we can rotate through new and different sets of abilities while the faces, the recognizable figureheads of the game, stay the same. We can still see Jace and Chandra and Garruk and evolve their characters through the story, throwing in supporting characters when needed, even as the card texts of our main protagonists evolve to shake up the game.

As it turned out, designing M12 was less a matter of holding one simple motto in our heads and following it to perfection than it was about good old work. It was about rolling up our brain-sleeves, getting our mind-hands dirty and doing the day-to-day iterations—trying things out and making the set better as we went. The mission of the core set is the same as it ever was, but we learned that, like in any creative endeavor, the work is not in crafting the clever one-line vision statement. It's in all the little daily lessons we learn from the misses and failures. As humans, we all have this strange gift of being able to envision something that we're currently unable to create. The magic is in how we learn lessons from the past in order to make ourselves smarter, to make ourselves into the people who can accomplish what we envision.

    Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "M12 from the Inside, Part 1":

Hello my name is Hiero. I was surprised that in M12 or even in other blocks Liliana Vess aka "Lilica" lol, has not appeared in another version, taking into account that other Planeswalkers already already in their second or third version (as is the case of Jace and Chandra). So is there any explanation for Liliana Vess not appearing in Magic the Gathering?

Liliana is definitely one of our main planeswalker characters, and we definitely have big plans for her in the future. We know that Liliana is the only one of the original five Lorwyn planeswalkers not to get a newer version, and that after all this time with the same version, a new design feels overdue for her. We also knew that when we put Sorin in M12, it would feel even more neglectful of Lili (Miss Vess if you're nasty). But if you're a Liliana fan, get ready. She will definitely find her way to the spotlight in the near future.

I mean...

Illustration by Karl Kopinski

Thanks for your question, Hiero! See you all next week.

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