Cosmic Encounter, Part I
But wait, this is a Magic column. What does my wedding have to do with Magic design? A lot more than you might think. How is that? Because I used a technique in planning my wedding that I use for every set I design. That technique is a powerful tool known as the theme. Yes, I've already spent a column explaining why sets have themes but I've never properly explained how to use a theme to enhance a set's design. As a companion piece to walking through how to use a theme to design a Magic card set I thought I'd contrast against a real world application, like say, the planning of a wedding. Perhaps a wedding near and dear to my heart. Perhaps my own wedding to Lora (whose maiden name was Lora Montrose, for you trivia buffs). For each lesson, I'll start with an example from my wedding and then apply the same lesson to a Magic set, Shards of Alara in particular, as that is the set of the moment.
Lesson #1—Have a Theme
Lora and I love throwing parties. No, we really love throwing parties. It's one of our passions as a couple. What we learned long ago was how valuable a theme was to making an awesome event. First, it makes the event more memorable. One of my biggest complaints about weddings is that they tend to all be the exact same thing. I've been to dozens of weddings in my life and there are few things I can remember specifically from any one of them. The similarity makes them all blend together. Lora and I didn't want that for our wedding. We wanted people to remember it. We wanted to make an event as special and unique to the audience as it was to us.
Second, having a theme helps provide focus. It makes it so much easier to create something special. Partly this is because the theme will force you down new paths (I've talked ad infinitum about how much easier having theme weeks makes this column to write) and partly because the theme helps tie elements together to create something greater than the sum of its parts. Lora and I are party people. We wanted our wedding, our biggest and most important party ever, to be a truly unforgettable event.
Third, a theme adds flavor. In short, having everything be about the same thing gets all the pieces working in the same direction. Having a theme would allow us to tie all the elements of the wedding together and make it feel more cohesive. What this all means is that Lora and I knew we needed a theme for our wedding. It had to mean something to us and allow us the flexibility to do cool things. Luckily, this wasn't that hard to do:
Lora: Okay, we need a theme. Any ideas?
Me: How about games and puzzles?
Lora: Any idea for food?
Yes, my wedding's theme was games and puzzles. Surprise, surprise.
Magic sets go through a similar process. Themes do everything for card design that they do for parties. They make them more memorable; they make them easier to design; and they make them more flavorful. (I went into a lot of detail about the value of themes in my article I referenced above. Seriously, if you haven't read it and want to know more, give it a look].) The focus for this column is not why we use themes but how we use them. For starters, how do you pick out your theme when designing a Magic set?
The answer is to start broad. You don't need to know exactly what you're doing when you start. What you need when you begin a set is a broader theme to start with, something that gives the design a basic direction. For example, Shards of Alara design started with the idea of returning to traditional multicolor cards.
As you begin working with your broader theme, you start to figure out what paths look interesting. For Shards of Alara one of the main goals was trying to cover different ground than Ravnica, the last traditional multicolor set. The design team also had to be conscious of Shadowmoor as it was both the mini-block right before it and it had a multicolor theme. Ravnica and Shadowmoor had pushed towards two-color pairs (Shadowmoor also pushed towards monocolor). This put pressure on Shards design to examine playing with more colors. Since the traditional multicolor block prior to Ravnica was Invasion and it had gone with a push towards five color play, Bill and his team liked the idea of focusing in the middle on three-color pairings.
This led to the creative team finding a justification for three-color play which led them down the path of a world split into five in which each shard was missing two colors. So you can see, the theme started broad and then narrowed as the design evolved. The important part though was that the Shards design team began with a theme and then had the flexibility to allow the process to fine tune what that theme was.
Lesson #2—Make a Good First Impression
It's all well and good to say you have a theme; it's another to actually use it. Remember that your audience doesn't know what your theme is until you inform them of it. As the theme was a crucial part of our wedding, we knew that we wanted to hit everyone with our theme at the first opportunity. For a wedding, that meant the invitation.
Lora and I had a number of requirements for our invitation:
- It had to have a games and/or puzzle theme
- It had to hint at the playfulness of the wedding
- It had to feel like us
- It had to have some "splash" meaning that would make a powerful first impression
- It had to be memorable
We realized quickly that we wanted our invitation to look like a game. We toyed around with different ideas but in the end we decided to go with a classic—Monopoly. Why Monopoly? First, we wanted to hit our theme hard and to do that we felt we needed to go with something everyone would universally understand. Monopoly is one of the best-selling games of all time and has probably the most iconic, recognizable board of any game. Second, we felt like the structure of a Monopoly board lent itself well to parody. We liked the idea of customizing the board to reflect our lives as opposed to Atlantic City properties. Third, we loved the pun of calling the game "Monogamy". (Okay, I loved the pun.)
We had great fun figuring out what personal references we could swap into each property. Each section represented a different part of either Lora's and/or my life.
Dark purple—Birth places
Light Blue—Lora's childhood
Orange—Lora's early adulthood
Red—My early adulthood
Blue—Our new life (house and wedding)
The Chance, Community Chest and Property cards conveyed the actual wedding info (and no, that's not my phone number any more). The main message in the middle of the board was written by me trying to push our game theme as firmly as possible. We hired a graphic designer from Wizards of the Coast to design the invitation (interestingly enough that random Wizards graphic designer, Jeremy Cranford, would years later become Magic Art Director).
We really liked what we had done but we knew something was missing. One of our goals about our wedding was that we wanted it to be very hands-on. We wanted everyone to feel involved. Could we extend this hands-on approach to the invitation?
To see our answer, let me show you what our guests received in the mail when they opened up our invitation:
Yes, all our guests received a bag of puzzle pieces. Our invitation was an 80-piece jigsaw puzzle (we toyed with making more the puzzle even more pieces but 80 was the largest puzzle Kinko's had available).
Here's what our invitation looked like when you put it all together: (You can click on it to see a larger version.)Click to enlarge
Lora and I were very happy with how the invitation turned out. It accomplished every goal we set out above and it hinted at the craziness that was to come.
The same approach (with a few slight tweaks) is the way that I approach themes in a set. When building a theme, the designers have to be very focused on the first impression. Rather than an invitation, for a trading card game, this means the commons. Remember, one of the quirks of a trading card game is that the designers have no control over what order the public sees the set. What we do control though is the concentration at which our theme permeates each rarity.
If you want to ensure that your theme hits the audience as early as possible you have to make sure that it's properly intertwined at common. As I've told many a design team: If your theme is not at common, it's not your theme. What I mean by this expression is that things are what they are perceived to be. If you want your set to be about something, you have to let your audience know. Two thirds of every booster pack is common cards. If you're not communicating your theme in that two thirds, you're making it practically impossible to communicate it. Also, those two thirds will convey something. That thing essentially becomes your theme because that is what will show up when they are first exposed to the set.
Let's take a quick look at Lora and my objectives with our invitation:
- It had to have a games theme
- It had to hint at the playfulness of the wedding
- It had to feel like us
- It had to have some "splash" meaning that it would make a powerful first impression
- It had to be memorable
Let's convert these over to a Magic set: (which means I'm now talking about what common cards must accomplish)
- It has to include the theme of your set
- It has to capture the tone of your set
- It has to feel like Magic
- It has to have a "wow" factor
- It has to be memorable
This is, for example, why Shards of Alara has numerous cards that care about three different colors at common. We had to bring the theme down to the frequency that it would come out in (just about) every pack. This might answer the question why we have three-color "gold" cards at common. This is something we would never do normally, even in a traditional multicolor set, but this time our theme forced our hand.
Lesson #3—Carry Your Theme Throughout
If the theme is going to matter, you have to make it matter. For our wedding, we took our game and puzzle theme very seriously. Case in point:
Our "Save the Date" postcard
Our "Wedding Program"
Our "Thank You" notes
Our "Return Address Sticker" on our invitation
Our "Wedding Favors" (Monopoly-themed packs of gum complete with property, Chance, and Community Chest cards printed on bubble gum)
Our means of seating guests (instead of Bride Side and Groom Side, we had Even and Odd; every guest rolled a giant 6-sided die upon entering)
At our rehearsal dinner, we played Jeopardy with all the questions about Lora and myself. We turned our garter toss into a contest (the person who threw it the farthest won a prize). And our wedding ceremony came complete with a game, a wedding pool where guests could guess what was going to happen at the wedding and win $100. (My sister and my cousin split the money.)
Lora and I took our theme and ran with it. The effect of a theme is greatly diminished if you don't use it. And the more places you find to make the theme relevant the more potent the overall presentation becomes.
This rule couldn't be more apt for Magic design. If you want your theme to have potency you have to be unafraid to use it. Mirrodin was about artifacts. Ravnica was about the guilds. Lorwyn was about creature races. In each case the set understood its focus and applied it. The same is true for Shards of Alara. The set was about the shards. This meant that we had to find as many ways as possible in the design to make the shards relevant. This was one of the reasons I was so happy with our solution for Esper. By having all the creatures be artifacts, we managed to make every creature relevant to the shard without having to do anything other than add a word to the type line.
While we were pretty blunt with the theme in our wedding, Magic design does have the opportunity to be more subtle. One of the things I'm very happy with in Shards of Alara design is how often we were able to make a card relevant to one or more shards without having to hit the players over the head with it. My favorite designs were the ones where we took a card in a single color and made it relevant to every shard that color could be played in. As an example, let's take Puppet Conjurer:
The card is black so it can fit in three shards: Esper, Grixis and Jund. Let's take a look at each.
Esper – Esper likes this card for two reasons. First, it's an artifact creature. Second, it makes additional artifact creatures. Esper has plenty of ways to take advantage of that. One of my favorite Puppet Conjurer combos, which made it all the way through from design, is combining it with Etherium Astrolabe.
Grixis—Grixis is a world filled with sacrifice. Puppet Conjurer creates creatures that are already marked for death. Combine with cards like Deathgreeter for lots of fun.
Jund—Jund combines creatures eating creatures with rewards for death. Puppet Conjurer's temporary Homonculi provides the perfect fodder. (I know that Puppet Conjurer's blue activation makes this card less Jund friendly than it does with the other shards—the blue activation, by the way, was added in late development so I have lots of good memories of Puppet Conjurer and Hissing Iguanar.)
My point here is that making themes matter matters.
Lesson #4—The Little Details Matter
There are plenty of examples I could give for this lesson from my wedding but my favorite has to do with our cake. One of the rituals grooms are forced into is an event known as a wedding show. This is like a game convention but replacing cool game companies with businesses dedicated to extracting money from brides- and grooms-to-be. (One of the truisms I learned when getting married is that adding "wedding" to any service or good tripled the price.) Anyway, at one of them (yes, you have to go to multiple of these things) I came across a company called Mike's Amazing Cakes that specialized in making cakes that, well, looked like everything but cakes. At the booth they had photos of a working grandfather clock they made—OUT OF CAKE! I turned to Lora and said, "I know who's making our cake."
This left us with the decision of what to make the cake look like. Obviously it had to be game or puzzle themed. In the end we settled on The Game of Life board as we liked the idea that it reflected our future life together. Now let's look at the picture once again.
I'm not sure how easy you can tell, but every detail of the board was copied onto the cake, right down to the words on each square. Except the words on the board weren't the actual text of the game. Oh no. If we were going to personalize everything else, why stop at the cake. So I rewrote every square of the game talking about things that could happen to Lora and me in our future. The Game of Life, by the way, has a lot of squares. And Mike's Amazing Cakes, bless them, put every word I wrote on the cake. Lora stressed that I didn't need to go through the trouble. Who was going to bother to read the entire cake?
My response was that someone would read the cake and when they did, I wanted our theme to permeate every square. Here's the kicker. Numerous people came up to me and asked me if I wrote the words on the cake. When I said yes, they would say they thought so and complimented me on it. I later found out that just about everyone read the words that appeared on their piece. My time had not been wasted.
Here's the lesson for card design: Details matter. While everyone doesn't pay attention to everything, someone pays attention to everything (and by that I mean each piece of a design is appreciated by someone although that someone isn't the same person for each piece). It's the little things that tend to have the biggest impact. When you can bring your theme down to the tiny issues it makes your theme even crisper.
On both the Un-set designs, for example, I crammed the cards full of as many jokes as I possibly could. (Many of Unglued's jokes are explained here.) I knew the key to humor was exploiting each and every opportunity.
One of my favorites was in the layout for Rocket-Powered Turbo Slug; the Slug is running so fast that it mixes up the words to the flavor text. If you take the time to unscramble the letters to recreate the flavor text you get: "Did you go through all that trouble just to read this?" Did I have to go to that level of detail, a joke designed only if players are willing to descramble it? Yes, I believe I did. I believe the set is that much better a design for me taking the time to weave the theme down to the minutiae. Little things do mean a lot.
Ticket To Bride
Three thousand plus words in and I haven't even gotten to the actual ceremony yet. That's because I've got to save something for Part II. Join me in two weeks (next week is a theme week) when I explain how to weave the theme not just around the design but through it. If you think the trappings of my wedding were offbeat, wait until you see what happens after everyone takes their seat.
Until then, let me wish my darling wife the happiest of anniversaries. Ten down, many more to go.