Faction + Fiction

Posted in Savor The Flavor on October 1, 2008

My inbox is buzzing like a hive of self-satisfied bees. I feel a little bit like someone overloaded the Compliment Cannon and fired it right at my eardrums. The reason? Simple, my friend! The reports are coming in from the four corners of the earth (and bare with me on that turn of phrase, as I realize that the earth is not the kind of thing that has corners, nor is it the kind of thing that, even if it had corners, would have four of them, which frankly makes little sense three-dimensionally) that Shards of Alara is a hit!

We're pretty freaking excited about it. It's safe to say that late September to early October, when a new block debuts, is always a giddy time around the Wizards of the Coast offices, and Shards has all the makings of an all-time favorite.

Today we talk about how some of the shards' identities came to be, in the context of a larger issue. Today we're talking about the power of factions.

    Pattern and Surprise

We Magic players love two seemingly contradictory things at the same time: patterns and surprises. On the one hand, we love to figure out the rules behind things, to grasp the principles underlying the things we see, and to see our shrewdness bear out. We love to categorize, subdivide, and self-identify. We love to have the game under our own control, to account for all the variables and to have things work out just as we expected all along.

On the other hand, we love surprises. We love to crack open boosters and discover shiny rares that we had never expected. We love it when card combos that we hadn't ever thought of before occur to us in the middle of a crucial game. We love preview weeks and the weird stuff that shakes out of the Orb of Insight. We love the little unpredictable elements of the game that keep creating new experiences every time we play.

Anything we do in Magic that brings together pattern and surprise is very powerful. I love five-card cycles, for example, because they satisfy our expectations while giving us little surprises along the way. We see Jund Battlemage, a red 2/2 creature with two activated abilities, and expect to see battlemages across all five colors. We find out that our instincts are correct, that there are indeed four other battlemages—but we still get to enjoy the discovery of what each one's abilities are, and which one or two of them do the most for our pet decks.

When it comes to the flavor of Magic, one of the most powerful ways to deliver both pattern and surprise is by setting up factions. (I don't mean this to sound like a widely-accepted term in the gaming industry, or even a unique use of the word. It's just what we call them when we talk about them here in the office.) By "factions" I mean categorization schemes built into the flavor of a setting that differentiate and integrate the creative elements, and ideally also the mechanical elements, of the set. And by that I mean—well, let's go a level deeper to get at what I mean.

    Together and Apart

Epistemology is the philosophy of knowledge, the study of how we come to know things. We're gonna do a little epistemology today (and/or some psychology, depending on where you draw the line)!

Hoo boy. We're at the deep end of the pool today, folks. Hang in there.

The human mind has a barrage of information hitting it every waking (and sometimes even non-waking) moment. To cope with this onslaught of sensory input, we use concepts to chop up the information into manageable units. This is crucial for us humans. We don't have great instincts or natural defenses to keep us alive otherwise, so we need to use our brains to divide up what we see into, for example, safe things and not-safe things, food and poison, friends and saber-toothed tigers.

We don't have to deal with many saber-toothed tigers these days, but we still have the same brains that evolved to help us do so. That means we're still naturally predisposed to dividing up the world into categories.

Sports teams. Biological taxonomies. Nations.


Factions are just categories, a.k.a. concepts. They help us both to unify many different things into one mental unit and to differentiate those things from all the other sensory chaos we experience. For an example, take Ravnica's guilds.

The Golgari are composed of a bunch of strange creatures. Plant-infested zombies. Elvish death shamans. Undead wurms and trolls. Gorgon triads. These things have similarities, but they're also pretty different things. The flavor of the guild gives us a conceptual handle (not to mention a word, which is also important) on which to hang all those different things, a way to see them all as, in some ways, alike. The guild also gives us a way to think of all those various creatures as distinguished from the other guilds and denizens of Ravnica. The category lets us quickly and easily pick out the Golgari things from the non-Golgari things.

The strength of factions delivers pattern and surprise together. They let us chop up all the Ravnica cards into guild categories, forming satisfying patterns, yet they provide the thrill of finding out that some new card you've never seen can be part of your black-green deck as well.

Shards of Alara, of course, is fundamentally a faction-driven set, too. The factions here are the five shards.

    The Lost Arc

We in the creative team learned early on that the set that would become Shards of Alara was going to focus on multicolored cards and mechanics. The designers wanted to explore new design space that sets like Invasion and Ravnica: City of Guilds hadn't, and the solution was to move up from two-color cards to focusing largely on three-color.

When the design team first pitched the idea to us, the thought of focusing strictly on three-color "arcs" was not part of the plan. By "arc" we mean a group of three colors that includes a color along with its two adjacent allies (such as green-white-blue, like Rafiq of the Many). This is contrasted with a "wedge," which is the other possible three-color pattern, formed of a color and its two enemies (such as white-black-red, like Oros, the Avenger).

While the three-color goals of Shards were being hashed out, the creative team had some goals of our own. In the back of our minds we were wondering whether we could divide up—categorize, factionalize—the Alara setting using something other than color-aligned regions (think the Oxidda mountain chain, or the forests of Krosa) or social groups (think the Golgari Swarm or kithkin). In fact, we were thinking of dividing the world up into worlds. Why? Planeswalkers!

Planeswalker cards, and the characters behind them, are still a mostly new feature of the game. While Lorwyn was their debut, we wanted the Alara setting to be a perfect showcase for their unique abilities. One advantage of having a setting composed of multiple planes is that planeswalkers get to planeswalk among them. They get to form that bridge between cultures that only a handful across the multiverse can provide. They get to be the only beings capable of experiencing all of the shards of this broken world.

Three-color groupings were an awesome way to divide up the setting. We knew we could build strong identities for three-color factions. But the idea of doing both "arc" and "wedge" was... daunting. We were already thinking of doing the equivalent of five entire style guides for the setting that was forming in our heads, and that already seemed crazy. But the designers, at least early on, saw no reason not to do "wedge" cards in the three-color set. We pleaded for them not to. It sounded something like this:

"Please focus on arc. Please focus on arc. Please focus on arc. We promise to give you something really cool if you do. But wedge cards would disrupt the whole thing. Seriously, wedge cards thrown in would make no sense, the way we're thinking of it. You can still do any two-color gold card you want, just not three-color wedge. Please?"

I'm not sure if it was just our pleading—in fact, I'm pretty sure that focusing on three-color arcs helped the playability of the set as well—but we were happy that we got "our" way. We were able to split the setting up into five entire worlds (not ten, ouch!) and devote our energies to devising the histories, cultures, geography, flora and fauna, and magical landscape of those worlds. We were able to delve deeply into the concept of missing mana, of worlds that were defined as much by what mana they lacked as by the mana that flowed in them. That one design concession made Alara possible.

    Factions in Action

The shard factions in the flavor of the Alara setting helped give rise to the mechanical themes of the set. That kind of correspondence between large-scale flavor themes and large-scale mechanical themes is hugely powerful. It helps your brain line up how the cards feel with what they do. It helps you figure out what decks to build with all those hundreds of cards, and lets you choose a favorite and get into the flavor of the set as you play. It helps you self-identify. It helps you identify your friends and your enemies at the multiplayer table or the tournament. It helps you be a part of the game—and that's the best thing a faction could ever do.

    Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,

I've been excited for Shards of Alara ever since I saw the first concept of a broken world. As a primarily Black mage I wanted to see what wonders Grixis would hold.

Forgive me for saying that I was slightly underwhelmed with your concept of a primarily black world.

It seems to me that Black on the outside is viewed as evil, depraved, and cruel and that's what you've chosen to model Grixis as. However to me Black represents the qualities of ambition, self sacrifice, and determination. While white doesn't want to kill or act immediately, black will do whatever it takes.

Green wins because it's bigger than you, blue wins because it's smarter than you, red wins because it's quicker than you, white wins because it's tougher than you, but black wins because black wants it more than you do.

In future Magic sets I hope that we will see more sides to the color black instead of just depravity. Just as we've seen in Shadowmoor and other sets how white isn't always "good" I hope we see that black isn't always "evil" because I think it would really shake up the world and expectations of the flavor of Magic.

Thank you for reading this and for your time. Magic is an excellent product and I can't wait to see more of Esper! Black and blue baby!

Thanks for your feedback, Kevin! You're absolutely right—black's identity is not "evil," but ambition, craving for power, and the willingness to do whatever it takes to get what it wants. But I would argue that while Grixis does have a lot of elements that contribute to the negative aspects of that identity, it also does some exploration of the positive sides of black—self-confidence, self-reliance, the will to act and even endure great hardship to get what it wants, the lack of respect for artificial restrictions and limitations, and great and powerful cunning. The necromancer barons and demon lords of the plane certainly display all of these characteristics, in a way.

But Grixis is not the same as black. As we conceived Grixis as a world cut off from sources of green and white mana, it naturally gave rise to a hellish world ruled by undeath and tormented by demons. Grixis is a culture driven by power in a world defined by death, which just doesn't leave a lot of room for the more constructive black figures. You won't see many black-aligned heroes here—even the surviving Vithian humans are often aligned with Grixis's blue or red aspects rather than black. While we don't always want black to be associated with evil, we wanted Grixis to be about the most ruthless aspects of power and despair, the greed of black fueled by the cunning of blue and the destructiveness of red, and the end result there is just not a very nice place.

But take heart, black fans. As you mention, there are other shards with black in them besides Grixis. There are certainly constructively ambitious figures in both Esper and Jund. And in future sets, we will continue to explore both the good and evil aspects of all the colors, even the color with perhaps the greatest image problem—black.

Shards of Alara Launch Parties are this weekend, October 3-5, at stores worldwide, and you won’t want to miss them. Get your chance to buy Shards of Alara cards as soon as they go on sale, play the new set with your friends, and get a foil, alternate-art Ajani Vengeant promo card!

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