Act of War, Part 1
Welcome, everyone, to the first week of The Brother's War previews. Today, I'm going to introduce the Vision Design team, walk through the story of the set's vision design, and show off some cool preview cards. So, let's get to it.
As is customary, I have the lead of the design team, in this case Ari Nieh, the vision design lead of The Brothers' War, introduce their team.
Mark Rosewater – You've probably heard of this guy. While Mark is most famous for his skills as a team leader, he's also a valuable individual contributor to any design team. As a master of the methodology of creativity, he can churn out novel, innovative ideas faster than any person I know. Mark is also deeply in tune with player desires and can reliably tell whether something we're planning will get the audience excited.
Emily Teng – As the worldbuilding vision lead for The Brothers' War, Emily oversaw the overall vision of Terisiare, its inhabitants, and the events of the story. Having worked with Emily on Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, I knew she was an expert in translating between game mechanics and flavor. She helped the team build the foundations for cards that told the rich, compelling story fans have long awaited.
Kazu Negri – Play designer Kazu brought a wealth of competitive experience to the Exploratory Design team. When we're exploring wild new mechanical space for a set, we always want to know how well these mechanics will "hit" in Standard and other tournament formats. Kazu helped me understand what was feasible to balance for enjoyable Limited and Constructed play.
Ken Nagle – As a longtime R&D veteran, Ken has developed strong instincts for what design space is fruitful. His ideas tap into a deep well of raw fun and compelling gameplay.
Noah Millrod – Noah is a versatile designer whose ideas are wild and inventive. I am always happy to collaborate with him because he will inevitably find clever angles on a design problem that other people wouldn't consider.
Ethan Fleischer – As an elder Great Designer with a wealth of experience leading sets, Ethan mentored me in my early days in R&D and helped me level up. On The Brothers' War, he was even more valuable than usual because he has read every single Magic novel! His encyclopedic knowledge of established lore helped us create a set faithful to the story longtime fans loved, with some juicy deep cuts to satisfy the elder Vorthoses.
Yoni Skolnik – Fresh off such bangers as Magic 2020 and Strixhaven: School of Mages, Yoni was the set design lead for The Brothers' War. More than anyone else, I needed to make sure that he was happy with the mechanical pillars we'd chosen, because his team would spend months polishing the rough card file to perfection with tools we handed off. Yoni's unique combination of logic and uncanny insight made him an ideal collaborator for hashing out these plans.
Bryan Hawley – As a skilled mentor of designers, Bryan has a profound understanding of R&D's design process throughout the pipeline. He can tell where sets are heading and how they may evolve along the way. Because of this, he's often assigned to the last month or two of vision design, right before the handoff. His feedback was invaluable in helping us stick the landing.
Ari Nieh – Soon after I started in R&D, under Mark's guidance, I built the prototype that got The Brothers' War greenlit. A year and some change later, I was equipped with a team of skilled veterans, the experience of managing Kamigawa's card file, and an unflagging desire to create. I was ready to start making a set that players would fall in love with.
The idea for The Brothers' War didn't start as a premier set but rather a supplemental one. After the success of the first Modern Horizons (Ethan Fleischer and I had pitched it at a Magic Hackathon), producer Mark Globus asked Ethan to pitch some more draftable supplemental set ideas. Ethan was trying to find themes that he thought would appeal to more enfranchised players but were things that might be problematic for a premier set. He latched on to the idea of heavy artifact themes. Those had proven challenging in premier sets, so he pitched The Brother's War and Mirrodin Pure. Ethan is a huge fan of Magic lore and felt there would be an audience excited by these set ideas.
A few weeks later, Aaron Forsythe and I were having our weekly one-on-one meeting (managers and their direct reports meet once a week) when he asked my opinion of the idea of a Brothers' War set. I said it was an amazing idea. Antiquities had teased the story, but it was through the lens of archeologists years later interpreting what had happened through items they dug up. The Brother's War is also a novel by Jeff Grub, but Magic had never really shown the events of the war on cards (with just a handful of exceptions). There were also several characters, like Ashnod and Gix, for which we'd never designed a card, that players had been wanting for many years.
Aaron next asked if he thought it could be a premier set. I said, absolutely. We'd have to figure out how it fits into the larger story arc (Magic sets are usually set in the present), but it had all the component pieces to be an amazing set. Aaron said he too was hoping we could do it as a premier set but felt that we had to prove it before he was comfortable putting it on the schedule, so he assigned me the task of making a prototype. I had something like a month to make a playable demo that could show off the potential of what the set could be.
I turned to Ari Nieh, who had just started at Wizards after winning Great Designer Search 3 to work with me on it. Here's what I laid out as our plan of attack: We needed to have two 60-card decks, one for Urza and one for Mishra. Each deck could make use of a different mechanic. Urza's deck would be white-blue, and Mishra's deck would be black-red. The decks had to have a lot of artifacts. They needed generic mana costs but could involve colors in their rules text. Each deck would have one meld card of the brother who led the deck using each brother as a legendary creature and an object relevant to their transformation. Aaron and I had talked about having meld versions of the brothers, and Aaron was very excited by it, so I knew they needed to be in the decks.
For Urza's deck, I pitched a meld/host and augment variant where cards could have an A back or a B back. The A back was a trigger (like augment), and the B back was an effect (like host). You could meld any A back with any B back. This was an attempt to make a meld ability that could work at common. I like how it showed the creativity of Urza as an inventor. I think for this original prototype, the mechanic only went on artifacts. For the Mishra deck, Ari pitched bringing back unearth. The Brothers' War story was very much about digging up the past as a resource (both brothers used a lot of Thran technology). Mishra's deck also made some use of Phyrexian mana, as he was influenced by the Phyrexians.
Ari and I designed some cards using the mechanics and referencing cards in Antiquities, then Ari went off to build the decks. She talked to Mark Gottlieb, who was functioning as her manager, to get feedback. She talked to Donald Smith, one of the play designers, to balance the cards. She and I then played the decks. I gave her a bunch of notes. She played the decks with many other designers and got more notes. She tweaked cards to address the notes, and then she and I played one last time. At this point, I felt confident enough to play it with Aaron. He liked it. He showed it to Ken Troop and Bill Rose. They liked it. Then it was officially added to the premier set schedule. I asked Ari to lead the vision design as she'd done such a good job on the demo decks.
Exploratory design and vision design built upon what Ari and I had done with the demo decks. The meld/host and augment cards ended up going through several changes. Eventually, instead of just being all artifacts, we moved to a system where one was an artifact and the other was a spell. I believe the artifact was A side with the trigger, and the B side was the spell. When you cast the spell, if the artifact was on the battlefield, they would merge. While it was a cool mechanic, it ended up being quite parasitic and was something Play Design felt would be difficult to adapt for Constructed, tournament-level Magic. It also was a tricky mechanic to use in Commander. For all these factors, it was cut.
Unearth was in the file for most of early design. It was ultimately removed for another mechanic that I'll talk about in a minute, but it was turned over as a backup if that mechanic didn't work out (which obviously it didn't). Phyrexian mana also fell by the wayside as it felt unnecessary (and hard to balance).
Here are all the mechanics that got turned over in the vision design handoff:
This mechanic came about because we were interested in capturing the flavor of artifacts being in a different state of design. Prototype had two main functions we liked. One, it gave artifacts two different states that created interesting play options. Two, the second state could involve colored mana. Our goal had been to have all the mana costs be generic, but we wanted to avoid the normal artifact theme problem where all the most powerful artifacts went into the same deck. We decided we preferred the colored part being the smaller version, as that's what made the cards the most versatile, and thus we wanted it limited by colored mana. We came up with the name prototype, and it stuck.
Here's the template as it was handed off (pretty close, if a little hand-wavey):
Prototype N (You may cast this for its prototype cost. If you do, it's X/Y.)
Powerstones have a little bit of a parallel design to them. Ari came up with the idea of batteries when she was brainstorming the original demo decks but wasn't sure exactly what to do with them. Meanwhile, designer Zac Elsik created Powerstone tokens for Dominaria United. Ethan and Ari agreed that Dominaria United should introduce them and then The Brothers' War would make heavier use of them. Here's the version that ended up getting handed off in the vision design handoff:
Create a Powerstone token. (It's an artifact with "T: Add C. You can't spend this mana to cast spells.)
I'll talk more about their transition to their final form next week. The original plan was for them to show up in Dominaria United on a bunch of cards and have them return in The Brothers' War, but in the end, it appeared just on Karn.
The meld Urza and Mishra cards from the original demo decks were a big hit, so we knew we wanted to keep those. We added in a third one, Titania, so all five colors would appear on a meld card at a high rarity. Even though we got rid of the meld/host and augment cards, we were interested in having some meld cards at lower rarity. The vision design handoff did, in fact, have five meld pairs at common. We used the same structure we tried with the host- and augment-like cards. One of the pair was an artifact creature, and the second card was an instant or sorcery. The difference in this version was that you could cast them in any order. This allowed you to cast the spell, then play the creature, and as long as the spell was in the graveyard, the meld would happen. Flavor-wise, we liked the idea that neither the artifact creature nor the spell was related to war. The idea was that Urza and Mishra used mundane things and turned them into instruments of war. I'll talk next week about why this got killed in set design.
The story of Urza and Mishra is about them digging up items from the past and adapting them to their modern designs. Inspired by that, we came up with a mechanic we called scrap. It went on artifacts and allowed you to exile them from the graveyard at a cost and add those abilities to an artifact you controlled on the battlefield. Here's the template we handed off in vision design:
Scrap N (N, Exile this from your graveyard as a sorcery: Target artifact gains all its other abilities permanently.)
Scrap went on creatures and noncreatures, although always artifacts. The idea was that the cards function by themselves but allow you to bring back their abilities after they've been destroyed. Here's an example:
Netsnare Golem (uncommon)
Artifact Creature — Golem
Whenever this artifact becomes tapped, you may pay 2. When you do, tap target creature or artifact an opponent controls.
Scrap 2W (2W, Exile this from your graveyard as a sorcery: Target artifact gains all its other abilities permanently.)
As we had done with both unearth and prototype, most of the cards used colored mana for their activation. Scrap was a fun mechanic, but it had a lot of the complexity issues mutate had. Because we recognized that it might end up being too complex or have other execution issues (which it did), we noted that unearth was meant to be a backup for it.
The vision design brought back one additional mechanic, raid. The Brothers' War is all about artifact creatures fighting, so we thought it would be good to have a mechanic that represents the conflict. Both prototype and scrap were using alternative costs, so we liked the idea of having a simple combat-oriented mechanic. This mechanic was cut in set design.
Beyond the mechanics, there were a few other things the Vision Design team spelled out as important.
The expansion The Brothers' War was modeled after War of the Spark, as it was bringing a story to life in the set. War of the Spark, though, was only a day long. The Brothers' War lasted many decades. The Vision Design team, working in conjunction with the Creative team, divided the story into three acts:
- Childhood – We see the brothers growing up together and making a huge discovery that creates a schism.
- Adulthood – We watch as things escalate into a war that lasts decades.
- Final Conflict – We observe the ultimate event that ends the war and changes Dominaria forever.
These three acts weren't going to be represented evenly with the middle act taking up the most cards, as it represented the longest stretch of time.
Top-Down Designs for Events
There are a lot of big moments in the story, and we wanted to make sure those events happened on cards in the set. The Vision Design team made a list of all the things they wanted to see:
- Building the ornithopter – Excitement
- Splitting the powerstone – Jealousy
- Powerstone battle where Tocasia is killed – Rage, then regret
- Ornithopter bombing – Betrayal
- The sack of Kroog – Grief
- Gix comes through the portal – Dread
- Ashnod releases Tawnos – Love
- Ashnod's falling out with Mishra – Betrayal
- Loran rescues the Sylex from Terisia City – Desperation
- Final confrontation of Urza and Mishra – Vengeance
- Aftermath of the blast – Remorse
- Kayla leads the surviving citizens of Kroog – Hope
The Set Design team, working with the Creative team, would add in some other events.
Legendary Creatures and Associated Cards
The Vision Design team also made a list of which characters were important to the story and players would expect to see on cards.
Tier I: Top priority to showcase
Tier 2: Important to highlight
- Kayla bin Kroog
Tier 3: Should still appear but less important to focus on
- The Archimandrite
It was decided that Urza and Mishra would have a vertical cycle with an uncommon representing them in their youth, a rare representing them in adulthood, and a melded card that represented their state at the end of the war. All the other characters would get one card (with Loran getting two). In addition, many of them had objects, spells, locations, or story points key to them that should also be shown (see below). As with story points, the Set Design team, working with the Creative team, would add other characters.
Plot-Critical Objects and Locations
The Vision Design team spelled out objects and places they wanted to see on cards:
- Golgothian Sylex
- Mightstone and Weakstone
- Portal to Phyrexia
- Saheeli and Teferi's time machine
- Dragon engines
- Tocasia's camp
Again, other objects and places were added by the Set Design and Creative teams.
Reprints and Callbacks
Finally, the Vision Design team was interested in having several callbacks to Antiquities, the original Magic expansion that first hinted at the Brothers' War. Many of the cards were too weak or too strong to reprint directly, so many new versions that referred to them were created. A few that were appropriate were reprinted.
Finally, there were some miscellaneous designs made by the Vision Design team:
While The Brothers' War isn't a faction set, there were factions in the story that were color aligned.
- Urza (UWB)
- Mishra (RBU)
- The Third Path (WUG)
- The Brotherhood of Gix (BU)
- Argoth (GR)
This was a rare cycle of instant/sorcery cards that represented each of the five faction's goals.
Create five 2/2 red Warrior creature tokens with haste.
CARDNAME costs 3 less to cast if an opponent controls more lands than you do.
These were pairs of mirrored spells that represented the conflict between the brothers.
Urza's Patient Research
At the beginning of your upkeep, draw a card and put a research counter on CARDNAME. Then, if it has three or more research counters on it, sacrifice it.
Mishra's Impulsive Research
Exile the top three cards of your library. Until end of turn, you may play cards exiled this way.
These spells have similar effects but achieve them very differently. They made up a double vertical cycle (common, uncommon, and rare).
These are multiple spells, usually two or three, that show the passage of time and how Urza and/or Mishra are improving their weapons.
Artifact Creature — Thopter
Artifact Creature — Thopter
Whenever CARDNAME deals combat damage to an opponent, you may pay 1U. If you do, create a 1/1 colorless Thopter artifact creature token with flying.
All the above was handed in to set design. Next week, I'll go through the various changes that led to where the final set ended up.
Before I wrap up for today, I have three preview cards to show off, one from each act of the story.
First up is a card representing Urza and Mishra's early fighting that would lead to the death of their mentor Tocasia and the start of the war.
Next, we get to see a card representing the ever-growing armies Urza and Mishra needed to continue their war. I've gotten a lot of mail from players wanting more cards that mechanically care about Soldiers, and this card delivers on that front.
Finally, we get to see what happens to Urza at the end of the story when he becomes a Planeswalker.
That's all the time I have for today. I hope you enjoyed hearing about The Brothers' War's vision design. If you have any feedback on today's column or any of the elements I talked about, you can email me or contact me through my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week when I'll walk through the set design of The Brothers' War.
Until then, may you get along a little better with your siblings.
- Episode 978 Unfinity Design, Part 4
- Episode 977 UNF Flavor Text with Graham & Kathleen
- Episode 976 Unfinity Design, Part 3