Time Travel (and Other Perks of Magic Development)

Posted in Feature on July 25, 2011

By Kelly Digges

Kelly Digges has had many roles at Wizards over the years, including creative text writer, R&D editor, website copyeditor, lead website editor, Serious Fun column author, and design/development team member on multiple sets.

"People assume that time is a strict progression of cause to effect, but actually—from a nonlinear, nonsubjective viewpoint—it's more like a big ball of wibbly-wobbly... timey-wimey... stuff."
—The Doctor, "Blink"

The story begins like this: You crack open a pack at the Magic 2012 Core Set Prerelease. You thumb past Wring Flesh and Rampant Growth, nod happily at Incinerate, chuckle a bit at Thran Golem, and finally see the stern but compassionate face of Gideon Jura staring up at you from the back of the pack.

No, wait—I'm sorry. I must... I must be confused.

The story begins like this:

Tom LaPille, M12 lead developer and Latest Developments author, pulls me into a meeting room, grinning. "I have an open slot on the M12 development team," he says. "Would you be interested?"

"Absolutely!" I reply. (When a time traveler asks you to come along, you don't say no.)

M12 development hasn't started yet. None of the cards I mentioned from your booster are actually in the set. Over the coming months, Tom and I and the rest of the team will put them there.

You're out there, somewhere in the future, about to open your booster, and it's our job to make sure there are cards in it when you do. What strange circumstances prevail in our future, your present? What tools from the past can we deploy? We don't know yet, but we're going to find out—and the clock is always running in San Dimas, as the R&D "pencils down" deadline looms closer every day.

That's Magic development.

Quick Trip to the Past

Midway through the M12 development process, Magic R&D director Aaron Forsythe checked in on us to see how the set was shaping up. He gave us some excellent feedback, pointing out the things he liked and the places where there was still room for improvement.

One of the things he called out as a huge strength of the set was its very good deployment of reprints. We'd dredged up some old cards he had fond memories of, and, equally importantly, we'd deployed them for good reasons: top-down designs, support for set themes, and cards that we knew longtime players would remember fondly. Some of those reprints later left the set, but many of them made it—Goblin Grenade, Call to the Grave, Auramancer, and Volcanic Dragon, to name a few.

Mark Globus's design team spent a lot of their time designing new cards, as you'd expect. But a big part of designing a core set—a change from the old days, when it was all of designing a core set—is about choosing the roughly 50% of the set that consists of reprints. Of those, many will be continuations from the previous core set, but many more will not. Magic 2011, for instance, carried forward stars like Lightning Bolt and Baneslayer Angel from Magic 2010, but also found places for some well-positioned older reprints like Foresee, Fling, Nantuko Shade, and Leyline of the Void.

So the set that was handed over to us had plenty of the reprints, both core set staples and golden oldies, that you see in the finished set. In particular, I remember that Goblin Grenade was in the set when it was handed over, and we pretty much never messed with it. It had put smiles on so many faces inside the building that we knew it would be a hit outside as well.

Over the course of development, though, one inevitably finds that some reprints just don't work. Maybe they're having an adverse effect on the Standard environment in the Future Future League (as some combo-enabling cards did). Maybe they're proving oppressive in the Limited environment (as some defensive cards did, given that we wanted to make bloodthirst work). Maybe they just don't turn out to be all that exciting (as a few cards certainly did).

Often, the reprints that left the set had been added on the suspicion that they quite possibly wouldn't work. Trying them out is the only way to be sure. And like alternate timelines, they can generally be reverted with no ill effect.

Back to the Future

The reprint that I'm proudest of—probably the card in the set that I'm proudest of—is Thran Golem. During development meetings when we were discussing reprints, I would often sit silently for minutes on end, cruising through Gatherer on my phone looking for cards that would fit our criteria (in this case, a fun rare artifact creature). Occasionally, on my trawl through the distant past, I would suddenly yell out the name of some old card. (The team quickly grew used to this.)

On this particular occasion, "Thran Golem!" was the name I blurted out—and Tom grinned.

Thran Golem was perfect. It was an old card that would have some nostalgia value for some players (me, for example), it appealed to Timmy (OK, also me), and it did a great job of supporting our minor Aura theme in a loud, splashy way.

When I checked through the rare artifacts in M12 a week or two later, I was sad to see Thran Golem missing.

"What happened to Thran Golem?" I asked Tom at our next meeting. "You seemed really happy about it, but I don't see it in there."

"Did you check the uncommons?" he asked me.

My jaw dropped.

At our very next Sealed Deck playtest, I found myself swinging with an 8/6 with flying, first strike, and trample, grinning like a maniac.

Tom nodded happily, and the card never moved after that.

Remember the Titans?

Tom LaPille recently wrote about the decision to include the five Titans in Magic 2012. The toughest part about making that call—at least for me as a relative R&D outsider—was that we were doing so before the Titans were even released. Thanks to the weird science of R&D time travel, we hadn't yet seen whether the Titans were a hit or a flop collectively, or which of them would turn out to be most popular individually.

Magic 2012 came out after Magic 2011 (obviously), but as time travelers, we didn't have the luxury of your so-called linear causality. We had to make our decision without the benefit of hindsight.

For a while, we even had just two of the Titans in—a plan I actually argued in favor of at the time—on the theory that breaking up the cycle would give us more flexibility to control how many of the set's mythic rares were new and how many were returning. We chose Frost Titan and Inferno Titan on the grounds that they were the most creatively resonant, "ice giant" and "fire giant" being well-established tropes in both myth and modern fantasy.

It started to become apparent pretty quickly how risky the two-Titan plan was. What if we chose wrong? What if the two we picked ended up being the runts of the litter? Or, if there were no runts and they were all roughly equally liked (which is how things seem to have shaken out), would we make anybody happy on balance by only bringing back two of them?

The future was uncertain, and after some more discussion, we determined that the correct number of Titans was either zero or five. And you already know what happened after that.

Always Changing Is the Future

Every time we reveal that R&D was seriously considering some idea that seems obviously doomed in hindsight (like, say, adding a sixth color), there's inevitably a chorus of people asking, "How could you think even for a second that was going to work?"

The answer is twofold.

First, we never know whether an idea will pan out until we try it. If split cards or morph or Lightning Bolt in M10 hadn't seen print, they'd sound crazy and unworkable in an article like this one. One of the jobs that design does is explore all the ideas, even the crazy ones. Once they've figured out which of the crazy ideas make for good game play, they can go ahead and ask which of them can actually be made to work. The better the game play, the more effort they're generally willing to put in. Most of the innovations in the game's history are the result of this process: ask a crazy question, find a non-crazy answer.

Second, bear in mind that when you jump into the time stream and look at the set at a single moment in the middle of the process, you're not looking at a set that R&D thought could be printed as-is. What you're looking at is more like a scratch pad—an idea space in which various possibilities will coalesce, be tested and argued over, and ultimately either crystallize or evaporate.

If that idea space plays host to some crazy ideas along the way, that's a sign that the system is working as it should.

The Jace of Things to Come

Another topic that Tom has also touched on is the brief presence of Jace, the Mind Sculptor in M12. At first the set had five all-new cards featuring the original Lorwyn planeswalker characters, but we quickly determined that that was too many. As the character lineup changed, we swapped in new-to-core-set reprints Gideon Jura and Sorin Markov. Meanwhile, Garruk, Primal Hunter and Chandra, the Firebrand were working out well, so we tweaked them a little but kept the broad strokes the same.

That left Jace in an awkward spot.

We knew that our new Jace would be five mana, because we didn't want him competing with either Jace Beleren or Jace, the Mind Sculptor (and we already knew we didn't want another card that could compete with Jace, the Mind Sculptor). We cycled through several different basic concepts, with dozens of different individual abilities. Nothing really sang to us, and we worried that Jace, the Mind Sculptor might just be an impossible act to follow.

If the previous act is impossible to follow, why not an encore? There was already a lot of public concern about the availability of Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and at that time it was still possible to think that JMS was a very good but ultimately fair card. By putting him in Magic 2012, we could send more Jaces out into the world and give people another year with a card that (again, at the time) they really seemed to be enjoying. With some trepidation, we put Jace, the Mind Sculptor into M12.

Jace, the Mind Sculptor

Yeah, that lasted about a week.

Tom, suspicious of the Hooded One's intentions, peered into the future, looking over tournament results both from the real world and from the Future Future League and talking at length with other developers. It didn't take long for him to reach his conclusion: Jace, the Mind Sculptor was not a card we wanted in Standard for another year. Out came "big Jace"... but what would take his place?

Jace Beleren

For another very brief period, M12 was host to none other than Jace Beleren. If we couldn't follow up Jace, the Mind Sculptor, and we couldn't bring him back, then we'd just have to go with a classic. It was a fine concept, but in practice it was a little ridiculous. Two sweet new planeswalker cards, two popular new-to-core-set planeswalker cards... and one lonely member of the Lorwyn five—solid, to be sure, but thoroughly unexciting.

We redoubled our efforts to find an exciting new five-mana Jace, and I'm happy with where we ended up. Jace, Memory Adept lives in a different space than either previous Jace, letting him live alongside them peacefully, and he goes all-in on milling, a plan that neither previous Jace has embraced outside their Ultimate abilities.

Jace, Memory Adept

And that's how M12 development came to feature Jaces past, present, and future.

Time Twisters

When Mark Rosewater revealed on Twitter that Oblivion Ring was in Magic 2012, I saw a few people demanding to know why we had bothered to reprint Oblivion Ring when the chief problem planeswalker—the aforementioned Jace, the Mind Sculptor—had been banned in Standard about a month previous. Rather like closing the barn door after the horse is out, isn't it?

Oblivion Ring

Maybe—from your perspective.

Now, I think it's pretty safe to argue that letting Oblivion Ring leave Standard in the first place was probably an error, and in fact one of the things R&D learned from the dominance of Jace, the Mind Sculptor was that easy planeswalker answers are an important metagame handbrake. That's why Tom put it in M12. So even if we'd known that Jace would jump on the ban-wagon, we still would have included Oblivion Ring in M12.

But there's a simpler reason we did so.

One staple of time travel literature—I'm thinking here specifically of Audrey Niffenegger's excellent The Time Traveler's Wife and its less mind-blowing but still very good movie adaptation—is that different people may experience the same events in a different order, or the same person may experience the same event twice.

From your perspective, Jace was banned, then Oblivion Ring was in M12. From our perspective, Oblivion Ring was in M12, then Jace was banned. These are both valid frames of reference; it all depends on where you're sitting.

Einstein would be proud.

Out of Time

During my time working on M12, the set went from five new planeswalker cards to two to three, with Jace in a quantum superposition all the while. It went from zero Titans to two to five, from Baneslayer Angel to Angelic Destiny, from a sad lack of Thran Golems to a happy profusion of them.

At the time, the process was long but fascinating, with dozens of meetings, hours of Sealed Deck playtesting, and incremental changes from week to week punctuated by the occasional shake-up. Looking back, it seems like it passed in the blink of an eye.

Like any time traveler with a changeable past, I sometimes get confused about what timeline I'm in, which of many branching timelines is the "real" one when all is said and done. I have, at various times since the set's release, insisted that Lord of the Unreal was a three-mana 2/3, repeatedly forgotten what exactly Vengeful Pharaoh ended up saying on it, and referred to Merfolk Mesmerist as "Brain Slug" (although that last one was real unlikely to end up that way).

In the end—or the beginning, from your perspective—we did it. You opened your pack, you played Gideon Jura in your Sealed Deck, and the flow of time moved on, uninterrupted. Paradox averted; timeline protected.

And me? I helped make a set that I'm tremendously proud of, shaped and (I think) improved it in a dozen subtle ways, and had a hell of a lot of fun along the way.

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