Welcome to the first week of preview season for The Lost Caverns of Ixalan. Today, I introduce the Exploratory and Vision Design teams, start the story of the set's design, and preview a cool new card. It'll be an adventure!
Before I begin today's story, I will first introduce you to the Exploratory and Vision Design teams who made it. (I'll introduce the Set Design team next week.) As is tradition, the vision design lead will do the introductions. For this set, that's me.
The goal of exploratory and vision design is to set up the Set Design team for success. There are three different outcomes you can have with a vision design handoff. Interestingly I led the vision design for three sets this year, and each followed a different outcome. First, the structure and mechanics that come out of vision design get refined by the Set Design team but fundamentally remain the same. Phyrexia: All Will Be One was a set where the finished product was pretty close, in the bigger picture, to what was handed over. All the mechanics and larger structure of the set carried through.
Second, you can have a set where some elements remain while others change. March of the Machine is an example of this category. Many mechanics in the set were created by Vision Design, but battles, one could argue the splashiest element of the set, were created by Set Design. The Vision Design team did identify the need for transforming double-faced cards that appear one per booster and represent the fight on the different planes. We even suggested it could be a new card type, but what we handed over was nowhere close to battles.
Third, sometimes Vision Design tries something and it just doesn't pan out. The result is the finished product doesn't look remotely like the vision design handoff. The Lost Caverns of Ixalan is an example of this last category. As you will see, a combination of us being a bit too bold in our design coupled with a major change that happen in the set design resulted in a finished product that looks nothing like what Vision Design handed over. I have many articles on the first two categories, but less on this last one, so today, I'm going dig deep into what Vision Design was up to and why it didn't end up working.
Our story starts a little over 20 years ago. Tyler Bielman, the then creative director (i.e., the person overseeing the Creative team), and I were pitching original Mirrodin. We had the idea for a three-block story that involved three new planes. One was Mirrodin. Another one was an underground prison, and that's my earliest memory of anyone pitching an underground setting. It would come up a lot, though. Every three or so years, we would gather to brainstorm new planes/worlds to create, and an underground setting constantly came up as a theme. In fact, in Great Designer Search 2, we had each of the eight finalists design their own world, and the only repeat was an underground world.
An underground world would always come up, but it usually lost out to other ideas. It was a setting I knew we'd get to one day (as I liked to say "Magic is a hungry monster"), but I wasn't sure when. Flash forward to us brainstorming the current batch of sets. We were talking through what new planes/worlds we wanted when underground world came up as it always does. Someone, I don't remember who, maybe it was me, said, "We always talk about doing an underground world. Let's just do it." We then added it to the schedule.
The original plan was that this subterranean world would exist inside a new plane. We did talk about it taking place beneath an existing plane. There were a couple of decent choices, with Ixalan feeling like the best one, but "No," we said. "Let's do a new plane."
Because the underground had been a topic forever, I'd done some thinking about it. I had wanted to do a "color matters" set, a theme we hadn't done since Shadowmoor, and had liked how one of the Great Designer Search underground worlds (the one made by Jonathon Loucks) used the dichotomy of dark and light as a theme. Maybe light could represent color, was my thought. Anyway, I had mentioned to Brady Bell, one of the senior managers who assigns members to each design team, that I had an idea for the set. He asked if I'd be willing to lead the vision design for "Offroading" (the set's codename). I said, "Sure."
When we started doing the research, we realized that underground stories led in a bunch of different directions. The first fork was the genre—action/adventure or horror. From my vision design handoff document: "In action/adventure, our heroes are on a journey that leads them through the underground, discovering new wonders and overcoming new threats. They come to learn about the world they've been thrust into and usually find it a wonderous place. In horror, our heroes usually come in search of some desire (or sometimes are running from a different threat) only to learn that the underground is a dark and dangerous place, one they must escape from with their lives."
In the last few years, Magic had done Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, Innistrad: Crimson Vow, and Phyrexian: All Will Be One. We also had Duskmourn: House of Horrors coming up in a little over a year. It felt like we had plenty of horror on our plate, so we decided to head down the action/adventure path. This led to our next fork. Action/adventure has been a popular setting in gaming. Underground settings tended to vary generationally. Older players tended to associate underground with adventure parties exploring hidden worlds. Younger players more associated underground settings with resource acquisition and the building/upgrading of items. Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms had explored the former, so we were interested in trying the latter.
Mastering the Craft
We were mostly focused on the craft mechanic to capture the feeling we wanted. We wanted you to find objects and then use some resource to upgrade them to better versions. What we were upgrading seemed clear. The source material had lots of choices for things that could be upgraded, some objects, some creatures. The trickier part: what resource were we using?
This led us to another question: what action were we trying to replicate in gameplay? Underground genres, at least the ones we were tapping into, were about digging through the earth and finding valuable components that you could then turn into things. Okay, what exactly captured the idea of digging? We ended up with two things we liked. You could dig things out of your graveyard, exiling them. Or you could dig things out of your library, either exiling them or putting them into your graveyard. Both were flavorful, so we decided to take stabs at each. Today's story is about our graveyard exploration, but next week I'll talk about the library path.
Remember, I came into this design looking for a means to use color. Digging was very connected to precious gems. Five of the most iconic cards in Magic are precious gems called Moxen.
What if the items you were digging up were pearls, sapphires, jets, rubies, and emeralds? That seemed promising. The earliest version had you exile cards of a particular color to generate artifact tokens. Those artifact tokens were like Treasure except they only sacrificed for a single color. For example, a Pearl was an artifact token with "T, Sacrifice this artifact: Add W." We then made craft act like monstrosity. To upgrade, you had to spend certain combinations of gems. The gems had a second use, so that even if you didn't draw the proper card to craft, you could still use them to progress the game in other ways.
To combine with this "color matters" theme in the graveyard, we decided to make use of twobrid mana, first seen in Shadowmoor, where you can spend two generic mana or mana of any color.
Our plan was to make all the artifacts twobrid. This would allow you to include colors into your deck that you couldn't support with the basic lands you were playing (and it also lessened being punished for splashing extra colors). Also, having all the artifacts castable through generic mana felt flavorful.
In the third month of four for the vision design, we have what we call a Vision Design Summit where various stakeholders in R&D play with the set and give feedback. The play design representatives were very skeptical of the five tokens. Besides creating a lot of tracking, the mana advancement from having so many gems would be near impossible to balance.
Responding to this note, the Vision Design team moved to a mechanic we called mine.
Instead of turning colored cards into artifact tokens, it turned them into counters that went to you, the player. They no longer had a secondary ability. You could think of it as a variant on energy, with the exception that you had recipes to follow. The plan was that we'd have punch-out components that looked like the gems from the Moxen. This is where the file was at when we handed off the vision design. I'll note that right after the set was handed off, the Creative team made the decision to have the set occur on Ixalan rather than a new plane. This had a lot of ramifications on the design, which I'll cover next week.
Erik Lauer, who led the beginning of the set design before handing it off to Jules Robins, tried a bunch of different executions to make this structure work. There was a version where you generated one of three artifact tokens that each had a different function but weren't inherently tied to color. In the end, the set got handed to Jules with a big question mark about how to handle craft.
Jules and his design team decided to take a few weeks to do some more exploratory design. They asked a bunch of questions, one of which was, given no restrictions, what would be the best way to capture crafting? Also, they were concerned with how to make the plane feel like Ixalan, even though we weren't necessarily returning to the mechanical themes of Ixalan block. The solution kind of combined the two issues. One of the most memorable parts of original Ixalan were the transforming double-faced cards (TDFCs) that turned into lands. TDFCs seemed like a perfect fit for craft. You pay a cost and then transform the card into its better version.
Jules and his design team liked the idea of the graveyard as resource but stripped away caring about color. Instead, they chose for each craft card to care about different aspects of the cards in the graveyard. The lowest-hanging fruit, which was also the most flavorful, was craft with artifact. That's the most common use of craft. The Set Design team found that there were a bunch of cool designs (one of which is my preview today) that could craft other card qualities. The other decision they made was that when you craft a card it would become one of two things, either an artifact, which was a great flavor match, or on a couple cards, creatures. My preview is an example of the latter. The set also has some TDFCs that become lands, but those are never through craft. I'll talk more about them next week.
Creating the craft mechanic was just the first step in realizing what The Lost Caverns of Ixalan needed to do mechanically. Next week, I'll explore the many other components of the design and specifically talk about the challenges of making a "backdrop" set where we're revisiting a plane we know without repeating the core mechanical themes of the first visit.
That's all the time I have for today. As always, I'm eager for any input, whether it's on today's column, the craft mechanic, or The Lost Caverns of Ixalan itself. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (X [formerly Twitter], Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week for "Going Underground, Part 2."
Until then, may you craft a lot of cool cards.