Welcome to the first week of Gatecrash previews. I have a design team and a new mechanic to introduce so let's skip the chatter and cut to the good stuff.

Behind the Gatecrash

Let's begin by introducing you to the design team.

Mark Rosewater (co-lead)

One of my jobs as head designer is to develop the skills of my designers. The reason Ken Nagle led the design for Return to Ravnica was that I felt he was ready for his first large set design. Remember that, at the time, Gatecrash was scheduled to be a small-sized set. When we figured out that Gatecrash had to be a large set in order to make our 5/5/10 plan work, I was already knee deep in Dark Ascension, so I decided to keep Ken on Return to Ravnica and I would lead Gatecrash. It was going to overlap with the 2013 fall set (codenamed "Friends") but I had already scheduled Brian Tinsman to lead that set, so all was well. That is, until Brian chose to leave Wizards.

The problem I had was that leading a large fall set is the most complicated design we have. Only two other people in the building have led a fall design, Aaron Forsythe and Bill Rose (the director of Magic R&D and the vice president of R&D, respectively). Both of them had too many responsibilities to lead a fall set design. That left me. That's when Aaron came up with a plan. What if I started Gatecrash and lead it up until the time I had to start Friends? Then I would hand off the lead-design duties to someone else on the team.

Ethan Fleischer

Ethan is probably best known as the winner of the Great Designer Search 2. As we will see, the GDS2 would have a big impact on Gatecrash design. Ethan won a six-month design internship, which he managed to convert into a full-time Magic design job. Gatecrash was the first design team Ethan served on. In fact, when I put together the team, one of the slots was designated as "GDS2 Winner." Ethan's ability to turn his internship into a full-time job was partly due to his work on this design team, where he stepped up to the plate with his first at-bat and hit the ball out of the park. (I don't do a lot of sports metaphors but, hey, every once in a while...) While Ethan had a lot of potential, he wasn't ready yet to lead his own set, let alone a large set.

Joe Huber

When I talk about designers, I tend to mostly talk about the Magic designers, but R&D has many designers who work on things other than Magic. Joe is one such designer. Usually, when he's involved on Magic, it's working on the digital side of R&D, but we like to mix up the design teams and Joe was interested in working on a Magic design. (He had previously been on the design for New Phyrexia.) The fun thing of having a designer who doesn't work on Magic full time is that he or she brings a whole new vantage point to the design. There are many pluses to working so closely together, but one of the dangers is groupthink, where the whole group starts thinking alike. No problem of that with Joe. He came in and asked questions I had never been asked before. As we'll see later today, one of his best suggestions involved today's mechanic. While Joe had many designs under his belt, he didn't have enough Magic designs to lead a set, let alone a large one.

Dave Humpherys

The Gatecrash design team had only one Magic Pro Tour Hall-of-Famer on it. Not only was Dave the development representative (every design team has a core developer on it to help identify development issues down the road), he was also the development lead for Gatecrash. We don't normally have the lead act as the dev rep but Dave felt strongly that he would do a better job if he had a good understanding of what the design team was up to. No better way to do that than actually being on the design team. As Dave had never run a design team before, running a large set didn't seem like an option.

Shawn Main

Shawn Main didn't win The Great Designer Search 2, but he still managed to segue it into an internship and, later, a design job. What he didn't manage to get, though, was a spot on the Gatecrash design team. I've listed Shawn here and in the Gatecrash credits as one of the set's designers because even though he wasn't on the design team, he managed to design two of the guild keywords (the Boros battalion mechanic and the Orzhov extort mechanic). I believe in giving credit where credit is due, so Shawn is the only non-design-team member to get design credit. As Shawn, at the time, had been on zero design teams, leading a fall set seemed out of the question.

Mark Gottlieb (co-lead)

Gatecrash's final design team member was my former archnemesis (and thus ex-rules manager), Mark Gottlieb. Mark has been on numerous design teams and even led his own set with Mirrodin Besieged. It was clear if I was to hand off the reins to anyone, Mark was the man. So, before the design even began, I started meeting with Mark to help set up the transition. He served as the second for the first half of the design (an R&D term for the person who functions as the second-in-command on the design team and has more individual responsibilities) and we talked weekly about what I was doing with the set. The handoff went smoothly and Mark did a great job on the second leg of the design. (More on that as I tell the story of Gatecrash's design.)

Art by Chase Stone

Storming the Gatecrash

To tell the tale of Gatecrash's design, I'm going to start by showing you today's preview card. Without further ado, I'd like you to meet Experiment One of the Simic Combine:

Hmm, evolve seems a little familiar. Well, if ever there was a mechanic that I could walk you through its origin, it's evolve. For those who might not know or remember, evolve was the main mechanic from Epolith, the world created by Ethan Fleischer to win The Great Designer Search 2. This means that all the early work on the mechanic was captured during the GDS2. Today, I'm going to walk you through how evolve started and turned into the mechanic you just saw above.

It all began with the first challenge. To make it to the finals, each contestant had to provide his or her own world for a block. Ethan created Epolith, a savage world that would evolve thousands of years between each set. The first challenge was to select a color and then make all the commons (eighteen cards in all) for the chosen color. Ethan correctly identified that the easiest color to show off his savage world was green.

Ethan's first card in his first submission was this:

Evolve—Whenever a creature with a power greater than CARDNAME's power enters the battlefield under your control, put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME.

My judge response was this:

MR: I told you this set was about evolution and you listened. One of the biggest additions is the evolve mechanic. (You learned an important design trick: if you want something to be clear, just use the word in your design. How do I know this set is about evolution? The mechanic is called "evolve.")

My first impression is that you should pick a single trigger, possibly one per color if you really need to have different triggers. Having different triggers made playing with the evolve cards way more mentally taxing than you want them to be. Multiple times I falsely thought it evolved differently than it did.

If I was going to hook evolve or even just green evolve into one trigger, I would choose the version on this card. It's flavorful and actually played well. It mattered in a way that affected how the games played out.

The other neat thing about this version of evolve is that while it has some linearity built into it (especially if your set cares about +1/+1 counters), you can also just toss one of them into your deck and it should work just fine. My biggest concern with this trigger is how much space does it have built into it. I believe there is enough, but you also have to conserve your design space. More on this in a bit. Evolve creatures really want to start small to allow them room to grow so the available space is kind of tight.

This design space becomes an important issue especially if you plan to use the mechanic throughout the block. I do admit that if the block is about evolution, my assumption is that evolve weaves its way throughout the block. I also assume it evolves along the way. I'm not sure if you have any idea how to evolve evolve but as we're only asking you to show stuff for this set it's not going to be something you're going to have to show.

I also like that the first card is about as basic as you could get. I see what Ken is saying as 1/1 is easier to track. I could see the argument though to start at 0/1 to give it more room to grow.

It's interesting to note how close Ethan's first card on his first assignment comes so close to today's preview card. (Although I didn't put Ken's judging comments here, he suggests the card be a 1/1.) As we'll see, though, he didn't quite understand what he had.

Also interesting is my comments about the limited design space of the mechanic. While it fits Simic very well, it also is the perfect fit for the space of a guild mechanic.

Card number three was this:

Cave Bear [Growing Bear]
Evolve—Whenever a creature with a power greater than CARDNAME's power enters the battlefield under your control, put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME.

My response:

MR: Evolve card number two. Another simple card which I appreciate. You also managed to make a strictly better than Grizzly Bear, a passage for any young designer. I am humored that as the creator of evolve this wasn't attributed to you, but I'll chalk it up to you trying to toss credit to your team, an admirable quality.

I think the fact that he made two cards with this trigger and only one of the rest was a subtle sign that Ethan knew this trigger was his strongest.

Card number seven was this:

Wing-grabber Tree Spirit [Arduous Arachnid]
Creature-Plant Spirit
Reach, Evolve—Whenever a creature with flying enters the battlefield under an opponent's control, put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME.

My response:

MR: Normally green will have one anti-flying card at common. I prefer reach, but it's up to each designer how he wants to do it. Is a second anti-flying card a sign of some larger issue in the set? Does green's enemy have a bunch of flyers?

I do appreciate that you're giving the evolve creatures low power to allow them room to grow. But wait, this evolve card doesn't evolve like the first two. I'm disappointed for two reasons. One I liked the trigger from your first two designs and two, you've gone from a relatively simple to follow mechanic to one that can quickly become mind blowing. If each evolve creature has to look for a different trigger, it quickly becomes a lot harder to process for several reasons.

One, you have to now process every evolve creature that comes into play and figure out what it is doing. Then as the game progresses you have to remember all the evolve triggers and what creature each one is tied to. This might sound simple on the surface, but it's not. I would recommend seeing if you can get away with a single trigger (and I like the one for CG01 and CG03). If not, you need to at least restrict all the common evolve creatures to a single trigger. Note that it might be possible to have each color with evolve have its own trigger by color. This helps delineate them to make them easy to remember.

With that said, I have a different issue. This is the third evolve creature you have in common green. Usually, we tend to stop at two. The only reason to go to three is if the mechanic is fundamental in playing up some key aspect of the set and this isn't something we do in most sets. (Scars of Mirrodin did do this with infect, though.) I can see evolve being your main mechanic so maybe you can get away with it, but I'll admit that I would want to see more before signing off on a third creature in common with the mechanic.

One of the most interesting things about watching how evolve evolved was that even though Ethan stumbled upon the correct answer early on, he kept on looking for other answers. One of the hardest parts of idea creation isn't making the good idea but recognizing it.

Here's card number eleven:

Evolve—Whenever a land enters the battlefield under your control, put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME. CARDDNAME has trample as long as it has a +1/+1 counter on it.

My response:

MR: Now I'd say you're just getting greedy. The reason newer designers tend to make more creatures than we traditionally do is twofold. First, people falsely perceive the game as having a higher percentage of creatures (plus R&D has pulled the percentage down a bit over the last few years). Second, green common creatures are just a lot easier to design than green common spells.

My other issue with this card has to do with its evolve mechanic. Let's begin with the fact that this is the fourth creature with evolve in green common. It's too much. Like I said above, normally you'd have one or two. If the set really needs it, maybe three. But four is right out. You already have too many creatures, so at least it's an easier decision about what to pull.

My other issue has to do with the trigger. As I explained above, I am not a fan of evolve changing triggers from creature to creature especially in the same color in common. For what it's worth, this trigger is less flavorful for me as "evolution." I also agree with Ken that the trample ability is unnecessary.

To quickly recap the first design challenge: Ethan needed to represent the concept of evolution (as I stressed that's what I wanted to see when I reviewed his world the week before) so he created an open-ended mechanic that would allow his creatures to grow over time. The problem was that having too many different triggers made it hard to follow while playing. (And remember, we playtested the cards that were turned in, so I got to experience this confusion firsthand.)

Which brings us to the second challenge, where I chose a color and made each contestant build all eighteen commons of that color. For those who are curious at what point I started eyeing this mechanic for Simic, take a look at what color I chose for Ethan after he chose green for the first challenge.

In this challenge, Ethan made two cards with an ability called develop. After hearing my notes, Ethan decided he would focus the evolution in each color to one ability. Develop was his name for the blue evolution.

The key part comes in my notes for the first card, so I'm just going to show you that:

Ætherstorm Archaeopteryx
Creature—Bird Lizard
Flying, Develop—Whenever you cast a spell, if it's the second spell you cast this turn, you may put +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME.

My response:

MR: Okay, develop. Let's start by talking about the word (everyone's doing it). Develop is blue's version of evolve. That being the case, I think there's a better word for it: evolve. I don't believe we want one effect being used through five different colors and then want the players to have to learn five different words. As Mark pointed out, it's much easier to teach players that the set has an ability word that gets +1/+1 counters on creatures and that each color has its own trigger. Besides the mental learning issue, there is also a conservation of word issue. Using up every word that means evolve is going to make it very hard when we create a mechanic several years down the road that needs one of those words. Things evolving is a common theme in Magic.

Now let's talk about your trigger. Casting two spells has a number of limitations on it. The biggest being that it's very hard to do early. I'm worried that you don't want to do an evolve trigger that doesn't happen until mid game. If you keep this trigger, it will definitely warp your set as it will require you to bring down the converted mana costs of your spells, especially in blue, to make the trigger happen a little more than normal. Props to you, by the way, that you did exactly that in your submission this week. If any color gets the later game evolve trigger it's blue (or possibly white) so I'm not against this trigger. I also agree that it's pretty flavorful for blue. I just want to point out that it's going to shape your design more than you might realize at first blush.

Ethan spent the second challenge also exploring what design space evolve had. As this was a contest to show off design skill, I believe there was some motivation to explore other options. The message I was giving him here was to consolidate his evolution theme. Find what works and expand upon it rather than branch off into many directions.

For the third challenge, Ethan designed for partner Jon Louck's world. For the fourth challenge, Ethan was back designing for Epolith. This challenge asked him to design his dream booster. In it were three evolve creatures.

Ethan's first evolve creature:

Cave Bear [Growing Bear]
Evolve—Whenever a creature with power greater than CARDNAME's power enters the battlefield under your control, you may put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME.

My response:

MR: I like green evolve and the Bear seems like a perfect place to start in common. Of all your evolve triggers, the green one is my favorite by a large margin. It's very flavorful with your theme, it plays well and it isn't something we've seen before. If I was designing this set, I would figure out how much of this version of evolve I could do. This is this set's landfall, I believe.

Having let Ethan explore a little, I start pushing him toward figuring out the potential for his first version of evolve. My notes get even clearer on this point with his second evolve creature:

Hot-Blooded Raptor
Evolve—Whenever CARDNAME deals combat damage to a player, you may put a +1/+1 counter on it.

My response:

MR: So red evolves a la the Sliths from Mirrodin (or Whirling Dervish from Legends for the old folks). It has good play value and it feels red, so I like it. I like that you started with the simplest and smallest card for common.

My bigger question is whether you really need five different evolve triggers. When every evolve creature had a different trigger, I said that the most I would do is an evolve trigger per color. Note though that I said the most. That was what I thought of as the absolute top end. The goal of any designer is to always find out how little they have to use. I would never use five triggers if two would work. And I wouldn't use two if one worked.

I recommend exploring if the green evolve could just be evolve. If you find you need more, I would explore just one other trigger. If you only have two, then give the second another name.

The last evolve creature was black. In my judging, I basically said I didn't like it as I'm not sure it adds much to the story of evolve.

If it isn't clear, I knew by this fourth challenge that evolve was a mechanic I wanted to use in Magic. I gave Ethan a little rope to let him try some other options, but for the final challenge I wanted to see what Ethan would do when focused on making this version of evolve work.

Here are Ethan's evolve creatures.

Creature #1:

Cave Bear (common) [Growing Bear by Cardkeeper]
Evolve (Whenever a creature with power greater than CARDNAME's power enters the battlefield under your control, you may put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME.)

My response:

MR: Little did you realize how important Cave Bear would be to your design. This card was an MVP in the first submission you put him in and he remains so in this version. Hopefully, this submission has made you see the potential of this version of evolve. It played wonderfully in our playtests and if this was my set, I would clearly cement it as the main mechanic of the set. This card in particular seems like a great spot for evolution.

I knew we were going back to Ravnica and I was well aware that evolve seemed like a good fit for Simic. If it somehow wasn't clear enough, I was quite enamored with evolve.

Eohippus (uncommon)
Evolve (Whenever a creature with power greater than CARDNAME's power enters the battlefield under your control, you may put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME.)

My response:

MR: This card also played well. I'm not sure if it's too good, but development can figure that out. I do know that this card was exciting to draw in your opening hand and it definitely helped set up cool plays.

I like how as his set evolves this card grows closer to today's preview card (now a 1/1 instead of a 0/1). Obviously, as Experiment One also has an activated ability, development didn't feel it was too good.

Creature #3:

Fecund Maiasaur (uncommon) [Evolve Splitter by orcishartillery]
Evolve (Whenever a creature with power greater than CARDNAME's power enters the battlefield under your control, you may put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME.) Whenever CARDNAME evolves, you may put a 2/2 green Lizard creature token onto the battlefield.

My response:

MR: I like the evolution of evolve. This card demonstrates how you can make evolve relevant beyond the +1/+1 counters. I also like this type of effect because it helps set up mini goals for the player to keep working toward which makes for fun game play. I share Tom's belief that this card should be rare.

While I can't show you other evolve cards today, I can give you a hint at the kinds of things Ethan explored when he first tried to expand upon this mechanic show up in Gatecrash (and Dragon's Maze).

Ethan makes a few more evolve creatures (too many, actually; I criticize him for it), but the key points of my comments were made by the first three. My last note of interest comes at the end when I say this:

Design is all about finding your diamonds in the rough and evolve is clearly your diamond.

Art by Svetlin Velinov

Simic City

The reason I've spent so much time on the early part of evolve's design is that there isn't all that much to tell once we get to Gatecrash. I put the mechanic in on Day One, everyone liked it, and it stayed. (That would have been a very short column.)

Okay, there was one change. Evolve, as designed by Ethan, only checked that the creature entering the battlefield had a greater power. During design, Joe Huber asked one day, "Why only power? Why not also toughness?"

I answered that it was simpler to just have to track one number, but Joe made some good points. One, it would allow us more breadth of design not just in the evolve creatures themselves but also in all the other creatures supporting evolve. The previous version, for example, was pushing us to make more high power/low toughness creatures to allow cheaper creatures to trigger evolve. Two, it made toughness matter and that helped broaden the scope of the supporting cards. Three, and this is easy to miss when you're discussing an idea, it played better. (That's why I can never stress enough that talk only gets you so far in game design; you have to playest.)

Other than that change, though, not much happened with evolve. There's no stories of people demanding we remove it. There's no inspirations in the shower of how to make it work. There are no long tales of the twists and turns of the design. Evolve was just a wonderful idea that helped turn Ethan Fleischer from a Magic player into a Magic designer. Luckily, all of you will get a chance to play with it very soon.

A Fifth of Beethoven

I'm not sure which is the bigger clue that there's a Part 2 next week—the Part 1 in the title of this column or the fact that at column's end I've discussed just one of the five guilds, and only the keyword mechanic at that. Join me next week when I start peeking in on some of the fun toys of the other guilds.

Until then, may you find a clever idea that opens doors for you.

Art by Ryan Yee

Drive to Work

As I was a few weeks ahead thanks to the podcast's slow start, I decided to put out a new podcast each week during the break. That means if you're not following me on social media (and if not, you really should give it a try—Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+) or iTunes, there are three weeks of podcasts to catch up on.

My favorite article from 2011 was a two-parter based on an "Intro to Game Design" speech I gave to my daughter's fifth grade class. For this week's podcast, I decided to revisit that article and talk about the topic a little more in depth. If you are at all interested in basic game design, I urge you to give it a listen.