Rotation Season

Posted in Savor The Flavor on September 29, 2010

By Doug Beyer

Senior creative designer on Magic's creative team and lover of writing and worldbuilding. Doug blogs about Magic flavor and story at

Hear that?

Can you hear that shattering, screeching sound? That sound, that sounds like a planet-sized ball of scrap iron being shoved with a galactic bulldozer?

That's what it sounds like when a world gets thrust aside. And no, I'm not talking about Mirrodin and its newfound struggle against Phyrexia. I'm talking about Alara, people! The moment is upon us, that reality-swiveling moment right after the Prerelease, when Standard is about to rotate and the new gives an interplanar hip-check to the old. Mirrodin and Phyrexia have exploded onto the stage, smiling through their pancake makeup into the spotlight of newness and glory, while Alara and all its denizens are just trying not to make the planks creak as they exeunt stage left.

It's serious stuff, guys! And not just for you FNMers and PTQers and other format-aware acronym-attendees. It's big-time stuff for us behind the scenes of Magic, as well. This is the time when we wipe the slate clean and get busy with the next world. This is when we wave away the dust from the previous year's explosive detonation, take a breath, and then begin to cram yet another cannon full of canon.

You know the sensation from your perspective. You've shed an earnest tear, you've moved your Alara cards into the Extended part of your brain, and you've cheered for the decks you hated to pass into oblivion. But what is the rotation like from inside Wizards of the Coast? How does it affect us on the creative team?

To understand that, first you have to understand what makes the Magic creative team unique.

The Style Guide: Also Known as "A Big Fat Cherry Blossom"

It's not that it's unique to be a creative team, or for Magic to have one. Plenty of other companies in the game industry have creative teams, or groups of people in the same role. Plenty of other companies gather together crack squads of artists to do concept illustrations and writer-ninjas to blast out details for their setting bibles. Just like us, the creatives start from some base assumptions provided by the game designers and turn those assumptions into girders for the rigid understructure of the world. Just like us, they riff off of one another, chaining their own hot ideas to those of their fellow team members, building each other's enthusiasm into a communal world-edifice. Just like us, they populate their world with cultures and creatures, weave its history into the loose strands of previously-established backstories, and geek out on making up oddball details like biannual holidays and predator ecologies and linguistic drift. Just like us, those creative designers feed the setting themes they're in love with back into the game design, influencing game play with the power of the visuals and concepts they've created, resulting in a unified singularity of flavor and mechanics.

Concept art by Mark Tedin

It's just that we do all of that every year.

I'm going to go out on a limb here and say that no other game does that. No other company would think it was even the least bit sane to work up the hundreds of concept illustrations and tens of thousands of words of writing that go into the style guide every year, only to round-file them all a few short months later, and start from scratch on a new one. Did I mention that none of that effort is even put directly on a single card? The style guide is just there to help direct the legions of still more artists, writers, and creators to generate even more content (card art, card names, flavor text, stories, comics, web sites, games, and other creative expressions) that tie in with the setting.

To give you a sense of the weight of the style guide, I'll tell you this: it is not stapled. It is spiral-bound, with heavy black plastic coils, because no staple exists that could contain its girth. When we send the style guide to creators electronically, we have to use special high-capacity transfer services, because the PDF clogs up people's email accounts. We know—we've tried. This thing is a pig.

And we undertake the creation of such a kingly hog every season.

And then we depose the thing, shoving it off its straining throne and kicking over the throne too, and then we crowbar out all the nails, and jackhammer the foundation, and grind away every molecule, until we're left with nothing.

We consider that expanse of nothingness for a moment. Somebody writes a haiku or something. Maybe we go out to lunch to give the departing setting a last hurrah.

And then we start over.

Except this Year, We Didn't?

That's how it usually goes. But then along came Scars of Mirrodin. For the October 2010 setting, Mark-of-the-Seattle-Rosewaters came to us with a vision for something new. His block idea involved a return to not one, but two planar civilizations that Magic had already explored—and abandoned—years before.

Wait. A merging of the artifact themes of Mirrodin with the poisonous corruption of Phyrexia? The setting of one block colliding with the villainous force of another?

What we should have said:
"Cool! Sounds good, Mark! Here is all the style guide material for those two blocks. Consider the Scars style guide done. We're taking the year off."

What we actually said:
"Intriguing. This could be one of our most ambitious world-building projects ever. Call the best people we know. We need to start now."

We never learn.

Yes, it's a setting we've visited before. Yes, we dug out all the old binders by Chippy and Dave Allsop that defined the look of Phyrexia, and we broke out the original Mirrodin style guide featuring the work of Mark Tedin and other giants of the illustration world. And having done so, we were this close to a really long vacation—just spiral-bind those suckers on top of one another, and we could have been phone-it-in cruise bums for most of 2009.

Concept art by Chippy

But instead—masochism—we didn't. We hired Chippy, Dave Allsop, and Mark Tedin again, and then tacked on some hack named Wayne Reynolds, to work with Richard Whitters to do a new push of concept illustrations for this contested metal-world setting. And we ourselves (by which I mean Brady Dommermuth, Jenna Helland, Matt Sernett, Richard Whitters, and I) wrote over sixteen thousand fresh words about the Scars-era Mirrodin setting. We investigated how the novel The Fifth Dawn ended, and how the defeat of Memnarch would have affected the denizens of Mirrodin. We wrote about how the activation of the soul traps would have transformed the cultures there, and theorized that while the elder generations vanished back to their native planes, the younger generations—those truest Mirrodin natives, who we now call Mirrans—remained. We wove tales about a latter-day Mirrodin that shone under the newly dawned green mana-sun, a Mirrodin that had endured an era of a mad tyrant and the neglect of its creator, a Mirrodin entering a new chapter.

Sylvok concept art by Wayne Reynolds

And we wrote about Phyrexia. And we wrote some more. And we did even more concept illustrations even after the style guide was done. In fact, the Scars of Mirrodin style guide has two, count-'em, two follow-up supplements, sort of like separately printed appendices, that cover stuff that comes up later in the block.

So, yeah. Even though Mirrodin and Phyrexia were known quantities, and even though we still had a lot of the talent around us who were responsible for those settings' debuts, we still worked our tails off to make it new. Who needs vacation when you dig what you do?

The Staggered Exit

The oddest part of a set rotation occurs because of our different roles and responsibilities on the team. Once the style guide is done, lead concept illustrator Richard Whitters is more or less freed up to start playing around with ideas for the next setting.

Meanwhile, several of us on the team are concepting (writing art descriptions for) all the cards in the block, using that style guide to help steer the artists. Once that's done, art director Jeremy Jarvis executes the vision of the concepts by commissioning all the art out to illustrators. Once Jeremy has commissioned the last wave of the last set in the block, then he's more or less done with that setting and can transfer his attention to the next world.

Auriok concept art by Svetlin Velinov

True Conviction | Art by Richard Whitters

But the creative team is still not done with the setting. The creative text types (that'd be me, among others) take over and solicit card names and flavor text submissions from our teams of writers, and polish the set up all pretty to get ready for the big-time. Once that's done, we finally get to turn out the lights on the setting, and set our sights on the next world.

By then, we're already looking down the barrel of the next style guide, and some of our team members are already working on it. It's this strange, staggered assembly line that happens for our team every year. Since every member of our team completes his or her work on a setting at a different time, there's no point on the schedule where we actually survey what we've done. There's no true date of completion. So we have to make a point of taking a moment. We have to step back and look at it, and appreciate.

Nice thing is, this column sort of lets me do that. When you guys start to see the first glimmers of previews for the new world in September, my excitement gets re-ignited. I get to goob out once more about the journey you're about to embark on, and you get to see the rollout of all we've done. I get to see the setting again with fresh eyes—yours. That's when we're truly done.

Period of Rotation

What does set rotation mean to us? We could think of it as just another style guide in the bin, another busted branch heavy with its ephemeral white blossoms. But it's more than that. There's something a little inspirational in the eternal renewal that is precipitated by the passing-on of a world. Somehow the fact that we make ourselves experts in something that is so ultimately transient makes us delve into it all the more, the impermanence making our efforts all the more urgent. You, too, get to feel that exigency, the feeling that our time with Alara or Zendikar or Mirrodin is limited, but that there's a joy to be found during and because of its limited duration.

Plus, as Scars of Mirrodin has shown us, we're starting to find that there's life in those discarded worlds. If we can learn to take a new approach to those planes we've already visited, then well-loved settings that have passed on need not be forgotten. Sure, there's melancholy when we leave behind a world. But even those stereotypical cherry blossoms bloom every year, dropping fruits on the ground that can sprout into new seedlings, and in that there's a kind of immortality.

Letter of the Week

Today's letter comes from James. What did you bring us for Show and Tell, James? (Appropriately enough, it involves a Emrakul, the Aeons Torn.)

Dear Doug Beyer,
Regarding your article "Magic in the Connected Age":
I know this is quite late considering your article was posted around two hundred and four days ago but I finished this Flash animation about myr (the old model) and I decided it was relevant to this article, anyway the link is here.

Please watch it.
--James Horner

Nice video! I'll do you one better than watch it, James—I'm linking to it right in my column. BAM! I invite you all to check it out, too.

No need to wait for the article topic to be relevant to your Magic-themed creations, friends. Be like James—send it in! There's no statute of limitations on being creative.

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