A while back I promised you a glimpse into the world of concept push, where a specially picked team of Magic artists are air-lifted in for a couple of weeks to generate sketches and ideas for what a brand new world looks like. The most recent one was for codename: "Shake" (coming out October 2011). It was another look for me into how Magic gets made and it was one of the high points of my time here. Lots of excitement and plenty of creative, flavory goodness for me to baste my brain in. Artists come flying in from all over the place, we hole them up in the concept room where they have access to pens, pencils, movies, death rays, robots, and all the things artists need to create crazy-cool art. Then they are taken into the boardroom where they are briefed on the basic vibe of the set and what the creative team's vision is for the world—the creatures and the architecture. Then the artists go to work. Watching all the ideas get visually represented by some of the world's best fantasy paint-slingers is a real treat for me and seeing their efforts translate into the "Shake" world coming to life is über-cool. It's world-building at its best.
There's a giant wall where all the artwork is posted, and we all watch as new art appears daily. Ideas begin to germinate from the art and the creative juggernaut begins to roll—crushing the impossible into the possible, leaving behind great art to sift through and get inspired by. Ideas generated by the team get sent to the artists and ideas from the artists come back to the team. I was prepared to tell the entire story of who the artists were, and what was discussed at the meetings, and how the creatures in "Shake" were tossed about then eventually finalized. However, the censor-bots walked around the corner, clipboards and rulebooks clutched in their chromium claws. They froze me in a paralytic beam so I couldn't jam a pen into their neuroweb relay (my usual tactic with synthetic life-forms). They then began reciting statutes and clauses that prevented me from saying anything about the "Shake" world, other than the fact that it is codenamed "Shake" and it is a world. So, there you have it.
After haggling it out with them for some time, listening to their endless techno-babble about blah, blah, un-fun jabber, it all boiled down to the fact that (like boiled food) their censored version of this article would be flavorless and thus really not worth savoring. So, I decided that I had to pick another topic for this day's Savor the Flavor ... or I could defy the censor-bots outright! But I hear that would result in me being found dead in an alleyway. Doug has kindly told me that the censor-bots are not above using baseball bats and meat hooks to enforce the laws of their masters. I heed his sage wisdom and move on.
So, instead of telling you about "Shake," here are some reflections about the past weeks within these hallowed walls.
- I Love Mitotic Slime
If I were to think about a card off the top of my head in Magic 2011, Mitotic Slime would come leaping, dripping, and flopping slimily into the forefront of my mind. I have to say that it's found a special place in my heart. I would love to raise a farm of these special creatures. They truly are "the gift that keeps on giving."
Yeah, the big buzz are the Titans, that crazy angel and that other crazy angel. They're big and splashy and are the stars of the show ... oh yeah, the Protean Hydra has slaughtered me a few times, which has forced me to give it the "superbadness" stamp, but for all around joy and utility, my vote goes to Mitotic Slime.
Playing "The Slime" in the inter-office M11 league has been a delight as it is bursting with flavor. I imagine trying to smash the Ooze with a hammer and having it bust up into two Oozes and then frantically smashing those into two Oozes again. "Son of a ... what's it gonna take to kill you?" It's like playing the feverish, nightmare version of whack-a-mole. Every time I have summoned a fat, healthy Slime, my opponents always have some instant reaction about it: quick countermagic: "No way are you playing that!" Pacifism: "Take a nap, Slime!" Or a giant groan of misery as my happy Slime gets to live a life of multiplying mayhem. Ah, the joys. Technically, it's an Ooze as are all Magic's slimes, and it has been a real diplomat in having me rethink my relationship to slimes (Oozes). I could have a Mitotic Slime that could then get splatted down into 4 1/1 mini-slimes that could then be food for a Gluttonous Slime. Who knows where slimes could take you? Necroplasm? Experiment Kraj? When I think about cards from a design standpoint, I am generally a top-down thinker. I have an idea about some creature and what its powers are and then attempt to translate that into a card. To me, a great card is one that hits a home run in both areas of flavor and mechanics. Mitotic Slime does this for me in that I can actually visualize why it does what it does (nightmarish whack-a-mole) and it creates awesome game-states for players to tinker with and react to both offensively and defensively.
- On Squadron Hawks and Other Things
Another fun card in M11 that is flying under the Titan radar is Squadron Hawk. By a stroke of luck, I drafted three of them for my tournament deck, which was pretty sweet. Again, there's the effect when Squadron Hawk is played of my opponent groaning, the hawks might not be countered like the slime, but I find the groan sufficient to make me happy. I love how this card plays and how super versatile they are. They are awesome, little birds you can pump to become death-dealing flyers. They are fast additions to your creature count, bolstering other cards. They are a quick flock of chump blockers, or they can serve as tasty bird-chow for creatures that need snacks to grow big. Skreee!
When designing a core set, a card like Squadron Hawk is great because it is simple and straightforward—great for the beginning player—yet it can create all kinds of interesting states within the game. When I am playing a Magic game, I'm thinking of it in story form. I'm imagining all the spells being cast, creatures crawling out to do battle, elves sneaking through forests or goblins raging down from the mountains, hurling bombs and belching fire. Many times I have been in big trouble and drawn a Squadron Hawk. It's a "here comes the cavalry" feeling when I have three more in the deck. That's fun design to me when a card can turn the tide and make my opponent have to think a bit—and have him or her deal with a sky full of hawks.
- A Few Words About the Job
Part of my job is to think about things like Planeswalkers and their lives, what the individual planes are like and how they exist within the Blind Eternities. On any given day, one of these questions can get thrown at us and we have to come up with some kind of answer that not only is cool and interesting but also seamlessly weaves in with the already existing tapestry of Magic history. That's no easy task and it makes the life of a creative flavor-goob an interesting one. Gotta be prepared, and as a result of being here, my brain has become more and more flexible—a large part of that due to being around my creative cohorts. They help me unearth good ideas and reveal blind spots in my writing and they are a wealth of knowledge about the game's history, designing cards, and writing tasty text.
I spend some of my time just browsing through the massive, historical database of cards here, seeing how they were concepted, edited and finalized. This attention to detail has been growing steadily since I arrived here, not only in respect to the history of the game, but also to how I play Magic (but that is another tale). I have a fair share of red and green in my color wheel of life. I tend to want to blow down the doors, sweep clear the intricacies, and reduce everything down to brass tacks, but I am finding that often, this job requires a more white-blue approach to it—respecting the past, doing the research, making up tricky mind-candy and upholding the integrity of the Magic multiverse. Sure there are places to break the rules and explore something totally new and that's when you'll see me blaze a big ol' trail. Yes, my inner Garruk is ready and waiting to rage on out, bellowing like a branded bull—but he can't always have his way. He's actually enjoying his time right now just smelling the wildflowers.
- It Ain't Easy Being a Planeswalker
Part of this job is thinking about what it must be like to be a Planeswalker, and after talking at length about Planeswalkers with all the team here in Creative, I feel like I have a grasp on what they are. I feel like to be able to handle being a Planeswalker, one would have to go through three trials.
Say I was sitting here at my computer and all of a sudden my spark ignites. Pow! And off I go, shooting through the Blind Eternities, winding up in some strange alter-reality! Would that be totally, flippin' cool or would it be a screaming hell-ride into insanity? Have I gone mad? Have I died? Did someone put something in my latte? Oh no—cell reception!? Help!
In the beginning, all Planeswalkers start out as just regular ol' people on their home-worlds, but once the spark ignites, what happens to their minds? Can they handle the first initial shock of planeswalking, which usually manifests as a psycho-spiritual cannon-blast through time and space?
Many potential Planeswalkers have been reduced to blathering vegetables, lost in the Blind Eternities, or have just had their brains and hearts explode due to the stresses put upon them. That thins out the crop of spark ignitions that actually result in a Planeswalker. Only the ones that could handle the sudden transformation both physically and mentally would make it on to the next test. Namely, could they handle it socially?
A Planeswalker, if they revealed their power, could be either hailed as a god or reviled as a demon. Both outcomes have an equal chance of being the target of destruction as not everyone would see them in the same light—one group's god is another group's demon, and vice versa. Although hard to kill, it is not impossible to poach a Planeswalker from a distance or overwhelm one with teamwork. To reveal one's spark is risky business to say the least. Strike two on surviving the spark.
Lastly, if a Planeswalker could survive the incredible surge of power and manage to keep their special gift hidden, could they live a life, and not be entirely corrupted by it? Here's where we can see the virtues and dark aspects of each color played out to their fullest. Follow a Planeswalker's path, like Jace's, and you'll see his struggle with becoming an emotionless manipulator who uses his power to get what he wants or a wise and worldly mage who helps others and knows the difference between truth and illusion.
Each power of the color wheel can pull a Planeswalker into madness or can elevate him or her into being a fully realized individual, but each Planeswalker has to choose. It is a slippery slope and it takes a certain, special something to ascend to the heights. Will Chandra sink into impulsiveness and callous disregard for life or will she temper her hotheaded emotions with a bit of discipline or by thinking first and acting from wisdom? Imagine if you could throw a fifteen-mana fireball whenever you felt a bit miffed or really angry? Would you have the control? Or would it be inferno-party every time someone ruffled your feathers? What if you were Jace and could read or manipulate minds? Would you honor another's privacy or invent a reason why you need to know what they are thinking. Would you use your incredible gift to make someone think something ... why after all, you are special, you have been given this talent for a reason, and maybe you just know that you are smarter than everyone else is that's why you know the right thing for them ... just a little nudge of their simple minds and everything will work out fine. They won't know.
Ah, welcome to the deep end of the evil pool—the whispering of arrogance from the shadow side of blue.
Will Jace avoid this and choose otherwise? Will he avoid the trap of arrogance and learn to uplift others with his gifts of perception? This is what makes Planeswalkers so flavor-tasty. It's also what makes our own lives so tasty. Like us, I feel the Planeswalkers all face a great challenge and that is that they are confronted with the choice of either 'stepping out of' or 'indulging more in' self-centered activity. Their great power makes this especially difficult, as the temptation to dominate others, self-protect, and self-glorify is so incredibly potent in our psyches. Their challenge is to temper their power with wisdom or risk turning themselves into reactive slaves to their emotions, hatreds, fears and desires. All the trappings of destruction are there without them choosing. Anger arises not from a choice, but is built in. Greed arises not from a choice—it too is built in. Only choice allows one to recognize the trail of destruction and choose a different path than the one that is automatically laid out for them. That choice is real power.
Some Planeswalkers will make it. Some Planeswalkers will fail. Stay tuned in.
- Wrap Up
It was another great week here at Wizards. Designing, development, and world building—it's keeping my brain moving like Bruce Lee in the Game of Death. Just as I get past one unique set of problems, I have to move further up the pyramid to encounter another crazy puzzle. It makes for good surfing and I haven't encountered a wave that I haven't enjoyed or learned something from. I did manage to not let my inner Garruk run wild and destroy the censor-bots ... I actually made friends with them today because ... (cue Mr. Rogers music) we need to have surprises (bots come skipping in) and spoiling that surprise takes the wonder out of life (chorus of bots begin singing).
See, in working here I have learned that even censor-bots have a purpose.