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.

Click here to meet the Exploratory and Vision Design teams


Mark Rosewater (Lead, Exploratory and Vision Design)

As you will see below, the idea of a set that takes place underground has been around for a long time. I had a concept for it that I'd come up with years ago, so I was happy to lead its design. Interestingly, due to several behind-the-scenes factors, it was the third set I led that would come out in 2023.

Mike Mearls (Strong Second, Exploratory and Vision Design)

Mike worked in Dungeons & Dragons for many years. When he made the shift to Magic design, I put him on several Exploratory and Vision Design teams, as he had a lot of experience with the mechanical execution of worldbuilding. His first Vision Design team was March of the Machine, and his second was The Lost Caverns of Ixalan. He was thrown in the deep end of the pool as a strong second for his second set, but he was up for the challenge. I also enjoy that Mike approaches Magic design from such a distinct vantage point, asking questions no one else does.

Ari Neah (Exploratory and Vision Design)

This was the last product Ari worked on. Ari was the winner of Great Designer Search 3 and was on many design teams (Kaldheim, Strixhaven: School of Mages, Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, Innistrad: Crimson Vow, Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, Streets of New Capenna, Dominaria United, Phyrexia: All Will Be One, and March of the Machine, on many of which she served as a strong second). She also led the vision design for The Brothers' War. Ari is truly a great designer and always had innovative takes on whatever themes or mechanics we were building.

Cameron Williams (Vision Design)

Cameron was originally a summer intern in R&D. Cameron did such a great job that we had him back the next summer again as an intern. That's when he was on this team. After he graduated, we hired him full time. Cameron is a fountain hose of ideas, always willing to design a large swath of cards to try a variety of implementations on whatever concept we're exploring. Cameron was on various design teams for Streets of New Capenna, Dominaria United, March of the Machine, and The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth.

Chris Mooney (Vision Design)

Chris is another Great Designer Search 3 alum. They have been on numerous design teams (Innistrad: Crimson Vow, Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, Unfinity, March of the Machine, and The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth among many other products, on several of which they were my strong second). Chris was the lead vision designer for Wilds of Eldraine. We only had Chris for a small part of vision design, as they were pulled away to another project. Chris is excellent at creating finely tuned designs that capture the flavor of what the card represents and has a good sense for how sets hold together.

Dan Musser (Vision Design)

Dan is from the Play Design team and is on most premier-set Vision Design teams (including March of the Machine, Wilds of Eldraine, and many more upcoming sets). He also worked on both Modern Horizons and The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth. Part of doing good vision design is making sure that the Vision Design team is creating mechanics that can be balanced downstream, and Dan is excellent at recognizing when we're doing that and when we have to tweak things for balance.

Doug Beyer (Exploratory and Vision Design)

Doug was the representative from the Creative team, as he often is. Doug has worked in R&D for a long time and has served on various design teams (Lorwyn, Shadowmoor, Zendikar, Magic 2011, Magic 2012, Khans of Tarkir, Kaladesh, Dominaria, Core Set 2019, Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, Innistrad: Crimson Vow, Wilds of Eldraine, and Phyrexia: All Will Be One, the last of which he served as my strong second). Doug led the vision design of Magic 2013 and the upcoming Bloomburrow. He was also the creator of Jumpstart. During vision design, the plan was for this set to take place on a new plane, so Doug was working with me to make sure that the creative of the plane and the mechanics were in sync.

Erik Lauer (Vision Design)

Erik started on the Pro Tour, known as one of the best deck builders of all time (where he got the nickname "Mad Genius"). He's worked at Wizards for many years and has led (or co-led) many development teams and Set Design teams (Magic 2010, Magic 2011, Mirrodin Besieged, Innistrad, Return to Ravnica, Theros, Khans of Tarkir, Battle for Zendikar, Kaladesh, Ixalan, Dominaria, Guilds of Ravnica, Throne of Eldraine, Zendikar Rising, Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, Innistrad: Crimson Vow, Dominaria United, and Phyrexia: All Will Be One). Erik is my equivalent on the set design part of the process. He is super insightful and has an amazing grasp of how mechanics interconnect.

Sam Jiang (Exploratory Design)

Sam was a member of the product architect team. He was interested in having a chance to see the process from the inside. It was interesting having someone who tends to think about the product in a larger context on the team, as he was able to ask questions that don't normally get asked in vision design.

Dig In

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.

Down Under

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.

Mox Pearl Mox Sapphire Mox Jet

Mox Ruby Mox Emerald

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.

Spectral Procession Advice from the Fae Beseech the Queen

Flame Javelin Tower Above Reaper King

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.

Click here to meet Throne of the Grim Captain

Throne of the Grim Captain
The Grim Captain
Throne of the Grim Captain // The Grim Captain
Throne of the Grim Captain (Showcase Legends of Ixalan)
The Grim Captain (Showcase Legends of Ixalan)
Throne of the Grim Captain // The Grim Captain (Showcase Legends of Ixalan)

We'll use my preview card to walk you through how craft works. You pay two mana to cast Throne of the Grim Captain. To transform it, you have to exile four cards: a Dinosaur, a Merfolk, a Pirate, and a Vampire. Note that these are the four creature types we cared about in original Ixalan. While we didn't keep the faction component, and greatly lessoned the number of typal cards, we did want to make sure that those four creature types showed up in enough volume. You'll notice that the final version of craft allows you to exile cards from the battlefield as well as the graveyard. Obviously, there is more value in using a graveyard card than a card on the battlefield, but we wanted to give you the access if you needed it.

Once you pay the craft cost, you then transform the card. Because you had a hoop to jump through, we could make the back faces of craft cards exciting. The Grim Captain, for example, is hard to deal with. Crafting also allows us to mechanically reference the cards being used for the craft. In the case of The Grim Captain, it allows you to bring the cards back to the battlefield, offsetting the downside of having to exile creatures on the battlefield. Throne of the Grim Captain // The Grim Captain is one of the odder of the craft cards, but I think it does a good job of showing a lot of the potential of the mechanic.

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.

Underground Rules

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.