When I took over as Head Designer for Magic six years ago (wow, has it really been that long?), I decided that I wanted to use a column once a year (modeled on the U.S. President's State of the Union address) to check in on how I, as Head Designer, feel Magic design is doing. This would allow me to both give my thoughts about the last year's worth of designs and talk about the goals that will shape the year to come. This is my fifth State of Design column (you can read those for 2005, 2006, 2007, and 2008 if the urge strikes you).
I'll start where I always start by answering the following question: How was the last year for Magic design? The short answer is that it was good and players seemed to respond very positively. The longer answer is that we were using our most popular theme, so I had high expectations. I feel we hit all of our major agendas but as with any year, there were some lessons learned. I'll start with what I consider the three highlights of the year and then I'll discuss the three biggest lessons.
Highlights of 2008/2009
Let's begin with the areas where I felt design was on the top of its game.
The real home run of this year's design, in my not-so-humble opinion, was the creation of the shards. Let me start by giving huge props to the creative team as the idea of a world broken apart into five worlds, each devoid of two colors of mana came from them. I do feel that Design did a good job of mechanically matching the feel of each world. Each shard has its own agenda, its own tools, its own route for victory. As I talked about in last year's State of Design column, Design shines best when it is seamlessly intertwined with Creative. The shards are a perfect example of this done well.
I'll admit that I was nervous when Bill Rose first pitched the idea of a multicolor block built around three-color groups (how often in my column am I on that side?), but I feel Bill did an excellent job of making the three-color pairings an integral part of the design structure. When you play Shards of Alara block, the idea of using three colors doesn't just feel acceptable but rather natural. The design so cleanly pulls you to a place where you think in context of the three-color pairings.
The design though transcended its structure. The thing I love most about the design of the shards is that each one evokes so strongly the world that it embodies. My design style very much revolves around creating the proper feel for an environment (as I'm the creator of the Timmy/Johnny/Spike archetypes this hopefully doesn't come as a surprise), so I'm happiest when a design creates the proper emotional response. Each of the five shards, I feel, accomplished this challenging but rewarding task.
As a general rule in Magic design we try not to be too gimmicky. That said, nothing's off the table if it can, as they say, "deliver the goods." When Bill first pitched the idea of an all-gold set, I was intrigued. As I often say, multicolor is hands down our most popular theme. How far wrong can a set go that is nothing but the players' favorite thing? The answer is pretty far wrong. Yes, people love icing, but how popular would a cake made of nothing but icing be? Still, I recognized that the idea had great potential.
As I talked about during Alara Reborn preview weeks, my advice to Aaron Forsythe when he took the lead design of Alara Reborn was "It's going to be a lot harder than you think." Designers are used to having certain tools to work with. When a set design restricts access to many of those tools, it forces the design to solve problems that normally never pop up. Aaron and his design team (Mark Gottlieb, Alexis Janson and Brian Tinsman) stepped up to the challenge and created a very memorable set.
The real problem Alara Reborn creates for design is this: how do you top all-gold as a single set theme? We're working on it.
Magic 2010 and the Power of Resonance
While Shards of Alara block had its shares of design victories, I would be remiss in my examination of this last year of design without giving a shout out to what is probably the most revolutionary design of the year: Magic 2010. Aaron, as both Director of Magic R&D and Lead Designer of Magic 2010, set out to re-envision the core set, and in doing so has made R&D completely rethink a major aspect of how we design. (I'll get more into this in my goals down below.)
The response from the public has been phenomenal. In North America, we saw an all-time high in Prerelease and Launch Party unique attendance, continuing a growth trend we saw throughout the Shards of Alara block. There was also a significant influx in new players coming to M10 Prereleases and Launch Parties compared to the last few years. We're excited that so many of you like this new vision of what Magic at its roots should be. We've heard, and we are adjusting our designs appropriately. I'm proud of Aaron and his team (Brady Dommermuth, Devin Low, Bill Rose, Brian Tinsman, and myself) for an excellent design.
Lessons of 2008/2009
While we had our share of successes, that doesn't mean design was perfect. In fact, the key to constantly improving rests in seeing your flaws even when they aren't the focus of the public.
Make Sure the Players Can Play Your Theme
Hands down the biggest complaint I have about the design of Shards of Alara block was about mana issues. It is crucial that we give our audience the tools they need to enjoy the set's themes. This flaw showed up most strongly in Limited (especially in Shards / Shards / Shards Sealed play) where we didn't give enough color fixing to support the three-color play the set requires. Yes, this problem did lessen as the block progressed, but ideally we should have been in the right place to begin with. Latest Developments author Tom LaPille talked about some of the mana-fixing troubles in Shards of Alara here.
The good news is that we've learned from Shards of Alara and the next time we do a set with tough mana requirements, we'll make sure to not repeat this problem.
Be Careful with Our Sub-themes
If I could have changed one thing from Shards of Alara block, I think I would have pulled the five-color theme from Conflux. It's not that I minded people playing five-color in this environment. As a designer, I don't care what players do with the tools we give them, even if it's not following the central theme; part of a modular game is letting players do with the game whatever they can. Rather, I feel it sent a confusing message about what to do. While I enjoy some tension in play, I have come to the conclusion that blocks are less fun when they pull too hard in two different directions, especially when those two areas overlap significantly.
Be More Conscious of Synergy
While I enjoy the design of the shards, the designer aesthetic in me wishes we had had more time to better line up synergies between them. I wish all adjacent shards had the interplay that Grixis / Jund or Naya / Bant had. As the lead designer of the Esper shard, my biggest regret was that the shard isolated itself so much mechanically from the shards around it. (I am happy, however, with the public response to the Esper shard.)
The big lessons all boil down to a key central point: The design has to serve the block, not vice versa. If we set up expectations, we have to deliver on them. If we create conflicts, we have to make sure that they are ones that the players will want to embrace. If we force subsets upon the public we have to make sure there are synergies between those subsets. The design has to work at the service of what the block is doing. Our biggest mistakes came in places where we weren't serving the block as well as we should.
Now it's time to check in on last year's goals.
Goal #1: Give Things More Time and Space to Breathe
One of the experiments of this last year was something we did in Conflux. In it, we tried something in its design that we hadn't done in years: we didn't introduce a new keyword. (Okay, we did finally make domain an ability word—but that counts as bringing back an old one, not having a new one.) In its place, we spent that design space reinforcing the shards. Instead of making something new, we allowed the theme from the first set more time to breathe. Part of judging the goal is not just did we do it because to be fair when I made the goal, I knew were likely to try it. No, judging it has a lot to do with how it was received by the public.
Were all of you unhappy that Conflux didn't introduce a new keyword? I get thousands of letters, and the topic barely ever came up, so I would have to say yes, the experiment seems to have worked. Using the second set to provide "more" rather than "new" appears to be a viable strategy. Lovers of "new" need not worry, though, as part of what we're trying for this year, in Worldwake (the set after Zendikar) is finding a way to cross "more" with "new." You'll have to wait and see what I mean. (Don't worry, I know you'll remind me.) I'm giving this goal a thumbs up.
Goal #2: Embrace Flavor
As the first highlight of the year was the success of the integration of the shards between Creative and Design, I would have to say that we accomplished this task pretty well. It is crystal clear from the audience feedback that the connection between how each shard feels and what that shard does was key to why players liked them so much. Another thumbs up.
Goal #3: Don't Be Afraid to Diversify
We had five worlds that each did its own thing. If, for instance, you didn't like playing a linear deck built around having lots of artifacts, there were four other completely different strategies available to you. The big question though isn't did we diversify but did the players like that diversification. Were we able to do it in a way that connected with the players? Player feedback says yes, we did, so another thumbs up.
Three for three for the second year in a row (2007 was only two and a half). That's what I like to see. Now let's talk about our goals for this upcoming year. While I do that, I'm also going to give you a little taste of what you can expect from the Zendikar block. A quick spoiler warning for those of you who don't want to know anything about Zendikar: The upcoming sections are going to reveal a few new things about the block as well as bring some other publicly known information to my readers' attention. I urge you to stop reading now if you'd like to stay in the dark as to the awesomeness of Zendikar. I truly understand and respect that decision. For those of you who want to hear about what Zendikar block is up to, keep reading.
Goal #1: Explore Some New Areas of Design
I have spent numerous columns talking about the value of reusing resources. Many years ago we changed our mindset about design and stopped thinking of resources as disposable. As such, we have made an effort to bring back things people have enjoyed. The last few years have taken this attitude to heart. Lorwyn block brought back the tribal theme, Shards of Alara brought back the multicolor theme. Shadowmoor brought back hybrid mana although at least that hadn't been used as a block theme before.
While I do see the value of re-exploring popular old themes, sometimes we have to go out and find new themes to explore. How can we get new popular themes to repeat if we don't occasionally venture out into virgin design space. Zendikar was very much a chance for design to go somewhere we've never gone before. What is that theme? I'll give you a big hint.
Two weeks ago, we spent all five days of Magic Arcana showing off ten cool new Zendikar cards. But which cool new cards?
Click here to see two of them.
What do full-art basic lands have to do with Zendikar's theme? Let's just say our choice to do it came out of trying to maximize what Zendikar is trying to do. The decision was tied of Zendikar, not incidental. Two weeks from now previews will start, and I promise you all the info you could want.
I do want to note that even though we are purposely trying to branch out to new ideas, that doesn't mean the old ideas are being ignored. In fact, Zendikar is bringing back a favorite mechanic, which was made public two weeks back at Gen Con when Planechase was officially released. Inside the decks were four cards from Zendikar.
You can click here if you'd like to see them.
As you can see, the returning mechanic is kicker. This is the mechanic I was talking about in my mysterious " [CENSORED] without [CENSORED] " quote. The second blank, though, will not be known until it premieres in Worldwake. The design for it started in Zendikar but got pushed back when we realized we had more cool stuff than fit in one large set.
A quick aside before we move on. The four cards above were selected because they were Zendikar cards that worked well in the decks they were selected for. They were not selected with the mindset that these would be the first glimpse into Zendikar and as such aren't entirely representative of what Zendikar is about. These four cards, while useful and in Zendikar, are not symbolic of what Zendikar has to offer.
Goal #2: Bring More Resonance to the Game
In the highlights of the year, I talked about the success of Magic 2010. While there are many facets to why the set is being received so well, a big part of it, R&D believes, has to do with our push towards making the cards more resonant. The idea being this: when you play with a card, if the idea it represents is something you already understand, it brings with it a lot more emotional connection. We tried very hard in M10 to make the cards ooze recognizable flavor. (We even did so with an Ooze.)
The big push for this upcoming year is to take the same sensibility and bring it to expansion sets. The idea is that if we are more archetypal in our card concepts, we can create richer, more flavorful cards. The best example of this from the cards revealed above is Whiplash Trap. We didn't make this card a Trap because it was the best flavor for the mechanic; rather, the mechanic was created because we felt the world of Zendikar needed traps. (And yes, you can expect to see a number of Traps in Zendikar.) Why did the world of Zendikar need traps? Because the type of world we were creating is the type of world where you would expect traps to exist. So we made them.
As you will see when previews start in two weeks, much of the design came from matching the world we wanted to represent. A world like Zendikar required the existence of certain things to match the archetype we were working with. Much of design for this set was figuring out what needed to be there rather than justifying what was. I should stress that even though we are playing with archetypes, the creative team took great effort to give it a Magic sensibility.
I'm hoping that when I write next year's State of Design column, I can say all our work in this area was a success.
Goal #3: Continue to Challenge Expectations
A lot of attention has been made on magicthegathering.com in the last few years about how we are trying to streamline the game and make it more accessible for newer players. Unfortunately, this has created the misconception that we are spending the majority of our time focusing on newer players. The reality is that ninety-five percent of our time is spent making the established players happy. Which brings us to this goal.
Part of the job of design is to keep the game fresh. We want to keep surprising you. In order for the game to constantly reinvent itself, design is forced to keep reinventing what it does. As such, one of our ongoing goals is to keep finding new areas to explore. Zendikar block will attempt to deliver in this area as well.
What I'm getting to is that the Zendikar block is going to be our second block where we fiddle with the block convention. (Lorwyn / Shadowmoor block being our first.) It is not going to be the large / small / small template that Shards of Alara and many previous blocks were. Instead, here is how it's going to work:
- Zendikar is a normal sized large set with the same number of cards as Shards of Alara (229 cards plus 20 full art lands)
- Worldwake is a normal-sized small set with the same number of cards as Conflux (145 cards). It is an extension of Zendikar's mechanics—with a few new twists, of course.
- "Prosper," the third set in the block, is a large set (228 cards plus 20 lands) taking place on the plane of Zendikar. A major event happens (the reason I'm not giving the name of the set yet is that it gives a big clue about what this event is) that forces the plane to fundamentally shift and leads to a new large set with brand new mechanics. Yes, "Prosper" while part of the Zendikar block creatively, will be distinctly unique mechanically and is designed to be drafted on its own. Brian Tinsman was the lead designer for "Prosper," and the set lives up to Brian's rep as a designer who loves breaking conventions. As I cannot get into details yet, it is hard for me to explain why we are doing this, but I promise that as we get closer to the release of "Prosper" I will talk about the method behind our madness.
As you can see, we are working hard to keep all of you on your toes.
Design Me Up
The recap is that I feel this last year was a good year for design but that we can't rest on our laurels. Instead, we are using this time to redouble our efforts to make Magic the best-designed game on the market. I say I love my job because it constantly gives me creative challenges. This upcoming year will deliver that in spades.
As always, I like to use my State of Design as a way to get my readers involved. I told you my impression of the last year's worth of design. What's your opinion? Agree or disagree, I want to hear. Did I miss some major areas that need addressing? Did I not give credit to some area that's making the game extra fun for you? I want to know. Unfortunately, our forums are down right now while we upgrade to a new system, but you can still get in touch with me via email or even on my twitter account. It is important that I hear how we're doing from all of you. Remember, I read every thread, every email, and every Twitter post directed to me. If you want the ear of the guy in charge of Magic design, you have it. All you need to do is take the time to use it.
Join me next week as I jump into the fun that is Planechase. Then the week after that, Zendikar previews begin.
Until then, may you have the chance to reflect on your last year.