On my Drive to Work podcast, I do a recurring series called "Lessons Learned" where I speak in depth about each product for which I led or co-led the design or vision design and walk through all the lessons I learned from the making of each. Starting today, I'm creating an abbreviated version of that series here in my column to share the most important lesson from each design. (The first two will be this week and next, but I'll write others when I can find spots for them.) I will also link to the podcast where I talk about the lessons more in depth. (Note that early in the series I talk about multiple sets in each podcast; I then learned that I had a lot of podcasts to do and started giving each one its own full podcast.)
Tempest (October 1997)
Lesson: "Less is more."
Tempest was the first set for which I led design. I wasn't hired into R&D as a game designer but rather as a game developer. I didn't let that stop me, though, so when I learned that Richard Garfield was interested in being on another Magic design team, I parlayed that into my big break. I then added Mike Elliott, who had similar game-design desires, and Charlie Catino to the team. Mike and I had been building up Magic designs for years, and Richard hadn't done any Magic design since Arabian Nights, so the team had tons of ideas. Too many, in fact.
When I turned in Tempest's original design, Joel Mick, then head designer, said that I had way too many design concepts in the set, so I had to take a bunch out. For instance, the two main mechanics for the following year's big set, Urza's Saga, were cycling and echo, both of which had originally been in the Tempest design. I believe the next eight years' worth of sets had at least one card that had started in Tempest design.
The big lesson here was that designs are better when they're focused. Do too much, and the set ends up being about nothing. We have a lot of Magic sets to make, and we want each one to be distinct. That means it's important to figure out what the essence of your set is and then focus your design on that theme. Tempest went on to be a big success, but I think much of that came from us adapting to Joel's notes and fine-tuning what the set was about, down to something that allowed the players to understand and appreciate it for what it was.
Unglued (August 1998)
Lesson: "Embrace your own aesthetic."
Unglued happened because Joel Mick and Bill Rose came up with an interesting idea: what if we made a set that wasn't tournament legal? Most games of Magic are casual, and we had tons of ideas for fun designs that would cause problems in tournament play. They didn't know what else to do with it, so they gave it to me and said, "do what you want."
I ended up embracing a humorous slant that poked fun at the game. My background was comedy writing, and I'd always appreciated parody. I felt the tonal change matched the general nature of the design where we played around in mechanical space outside the norm. It also allowed the set to have a strong creative identity. Interestingly, the freedom provided by the nature of the product allowed me to experiment in spaces that normal Magic wasn't comfortable with.
Probably the best example of this was the full-art lands. Chris Rush had pitched me the idea for the lands on a plane ride to Gen Con. He loved the idea but couldn't convince anyone to try it out in an actual set. I thought they were cool, and the quirkiness of Unglued's aesthetic allowed me to do them. They obviously were a giant hit and eventually migrated to non-Un- sets. I carried this lesson to other designs where it empowered me to push the design closer to what it aesthetically wanted to be, even if that made the set less like previous premier sets.
Urza's Destiny (June 1999)
Lesson: "You have to make sure your core design concepts are loud enough."
Many already know that I was the only member on the design team for Urza's Destiny. Magic R&D was small back then, and we had several different products to work on, so I tackled this one by myself. The Urza's Saga block had its share of developmental issues, but I'm proud of Urza's Destiny's design.
My lesson for this set comes from a theme I put into the set, what I called "cycling from play." Cycling was one of the two named mechanics for the block (back in the day, believe it or not, we had just two named mechanics for a whole year's worth of sets). One of my tweaks on cycling was to put it onto cards that could use the ability when on the battlefield. Normal cycling cards allowed you to spend two mana (all cycling costs in the Urza's Saga block were two mana) and discard the card to draw a card. In Urza's Destiny, I made permanents that you could spend two mana and sacrifice to draw a card.
As the lead designer on the set who worked on the file every day for months, this connection to cycling was crystal-clear to me. I discovered when the set came out that it was far less obvious to the players. This is where I learned that how the players absorb your set is dependent on the way you communicate within it. If there's a connection to be made between elements of your set, either within the same set or with other nearby sets, it is the job of the design team to make sure those ideas are properly spelled out. We would get this lesson on another set, Mercadian Masques (which I didn't lead), where we didn't keyword our mechanics, and the number-one complaint of the set was that there were no new mechanics.
Odyssey (October 2001)
Lesson: "You need to break rules for a reason."
When I led the design for Odyssey, I was intrigued by the idea of challenging a preconception the audience had around a concept called "card advantage." The idea behind card advantage is that going up in cards is positive strategically and going down in cards is negative. Ideally, you'd want to play cards such that you end up with more cards than the opponent, counting any card in your hand or on the battlefield.
Richard Garfield invented a mechanic called threshold where cards got better if you had seven or more cards in your graveyard. We then put a lot of ways to discard cards into the set. One such card was called
When the set came out, I discovered that most players weren't enjoying our little "card advantage turned on its head" theme. Yes, there were high-level players who could appreciate it, but most players didn't want to do the things the set was encouraging them to do. They didn't enjoy discarding their card to give first strike to a creature that didn't need it. They didn't want to discard their cards; they wanted to play their cards. And so, the set did poorly.
This became one of the most important lessons I've ever learned as a game designer: players must enjoy the things you're asking them to do. Magic is a game. People play it because it's fun. When you set up your game so that it forces players to do something they don't want to do, you're doing them a disservice as a game designer. It's fine to break rules if doing so provides a better game experience. Breaking rules just to break them is bad game design.
Mirrodin (October 2003)
Lesson: "Listen to your gut."
My biggest lesson from Mirrodin concerns something I should have done but didn't. At the time, Bill Rose was the head designer (he hadn't become the VP of R&D yet). I'd been pushing to do an artifact block for a while, so Bill put me on the first set as lead designer. I've always been a huge fan of artifacts, so I wanted to see how far I could push boundaries. How artifact could an artifact block be? When I handed the set in, it was a bit overstuffed (the lesson I learned in Tempest took a while to fully sink in), so Bill asked me to remove a bunch of things. Some things, like energy, made sense to take out, but one thing he asked me to remove didn't feel right to me.
When my team designed the set, I was insistent on us including a lot of monocolor mana on the artifacts. I'm an instinctive designer, so it wasn't something I understood at the time. It just felt like the right thing to do. When Bill asked me to pull it, I fought him a bit on it, and I managed to keep a little of it in the set, but in the end, I took most of it out. That was a big mistake. Mirrodin went on to have major play design issues, and a lot of that came from the fact that every deck had access to every problematic card. We called it The Blob because there wasn't a way to tackle the problem by removing just one card.
What we eventually learned as a group was that colorless artifacts with all generic costs skirt one of the most important safety valves of the game—the color pie. When a card breaks, if it belongs to a color or colors, it greatly reduces how many decks have access to it. So, looking back at Mirrodin, I wish I'd spent more time figuring out why having monocolor mana was so important to me, and I wish I'd fought harder to keep it, which probably means removing something else from the set. The whole experience really made me realize that I have good design instincts and that I need to listen to them more.
Fifth Dawn (June 2004)
Lesson: "You have to plan ahead."
Fifth Dawn is the third set in the Mirrodin block. So, here's what happened. We designed it and turned it over to development. It was locked before Fifth Dawn design started. (Our lead times work differently now than they did back then. Small sets used to get a much shorter design window.) We figured out a bunch of Mirrodin's problems before the public saw it but not early enough to change it. It was early enough, however, to impact Fifth Dawn. The design team started with the instructions, "don't do most of the things Mirrodin did." We weren't allowed to push the "artifacts matter" theme or make good cards out of any of the main mechanics. We basically had to make a Mirrodin block without doing any of the things that defined what Mirrodin was.
Our solution to this problem was to make what we call a "hard turn," that is, introduce a brand-new mechanical theme that worked with existing cards but pushed gameplay and deck building in a new direction. The main theme we chose was "colors matter." We tapped into it with the sunburst mechanic. You were rewarded by casting your artifacts with a lot of colors of mana. Mirrodin did nothing to support this theme. We did manage to put a few things into Darksteel, the second set, but it wasn't enough to make Fifth Dawn's main theme work consistently in Limited formats.
The failure of the Fifth Dawn theme in Limited, along with the success of Apocalypse, cemented into me the importance of block planning. If we wanted to make the third set of the block feel like it belonged with the first set, we had to figure out in the very beginning what each set would be doing. Part of designing Magic is thinking about the bigger picture. You can't just think about what's in the set. You must think about the last couple sets and the next few (although the future is trickier to understand as we haven't made it yet). When I became head designer under a year later, the very first thing I did was reframe how we thought of blocks to take on a big-picture view of how things worked together.
Unhinged (November 2004)
Lesson: "You have to understand how your players will use a mechanic."
Unhinged was the second Un- set. It came out six years after Unglued. Of the four Un- sets I've made, it's clearly the worst design. Its main mechanic, gotcha, is one of the worst mechanics I've ever made. This lesson comes from the making of the gotcha mechanic. Gotcha came about because I made a few cards in Unglued that had a verbal component. You had to say something to make them work, or they forced the opponent to say something or suffer a penalty. One card was called Censorship.
You picked a word and then if anyone said the word, the enchantment dealt damage to them. (Yeah, the damage dealing in blue is very weird.) I played a few games with Censorship, and they'd always been fun. I would pick a word that my opponent said often and watched them try hard to not say it. So, when we were designing Unhinged, I decided to build a mechanic around it. To make the mechanic simple, I unified the effect to getting the card back. If your opponent did the thing they weren't supposed to do, you got say "gotcha" and get your card back.
We playtested the mechanic, and the design team had a lot of fun with it. Gotcha effects would come up, and we'd try hard to work around them. It ended up making for some memorable moments. Then one day, we had a playtest with some R&D members who were not on the design team. After the playtest, an R&D member named Rob came up to me. He said, "Are you sure about this gotcha mechanic? Doesn't it just tell players to stop talking?" (The majority of the gotcha effects involved saying a particular word or words.) I said no. We'd been playing it for months and that hadn't happened with us. The mechanic had been a lot of fun.
It turns out Rob was right. The correct way to play gotcha was to shut down the opponent. Don't talk, don't laugh, don't interact. I realized that the design team felt incentivized to make it fun. We wanted it to work, so we were playing it as we intended it. We never thought about what players would do if they prioritized winning over having fun. That was the big lesson here. Players trust the game designer to make a fun game, so they just do whatever the game incentivizes them to do. If the game encourages not talking, then they'll stop talking, even if that makes the game less fun. There is an inherent trust between game player and game designer. They put their fun in your hands, and if they don't have a good time, that's the game designer's fault. It was a bad game.
That was the big lesson. When designing a mechanic or a card or a theme or a game component, you must think about what you're incentivizing in the gameplay. If you have something that's fun, you must make sure that winning takes the player through the fun part. It's not the players' job to find the fun; it's your job as the game designer to make sure they can't help but experience it. And gotcha failed in that goal spectacularly.
More or Lessons
That's all the time I have today. My plan with this series is to do a second one next week and then do future installments when I find spots. As always, I'm curious to hear your thoughts on today's column and any of the lessons. You can email me or contact me through my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week for part two.
Until then, may you keep learning your own lessons.