March of the Machine Learning, Part 2
Last week, I introduced March of the Machine's Exploratory Design and Vision Design teams and started telling the story of the set's making. Today, Dave Humpherys introduces the Set Design team and I continue telling the story of March of the Machine's design as it gets into set design. Also, I have two cool preview cards to show off.
Before I talk about March of the Machine as it went through set design, I'd like to introduce you to the Set Design team. As always, I have the set design lead introduce their team. For March of the Machine, that was Dave Humpherys. I wrote Dave's bio, and Dave wrote the rest.
Click here to meet the March of the Machine Set Design team
Dave Humpherys (lead)
I first got to know Dave when he was a pro player on the Pro Tour. Dave did well enough that he got inducted into the Pro Tour Hall of Fame. Eventually, he came to work for Wizards and has been leading sets ever since. Among his many leads (or co-leads): Avacyn Restored, Journey into Nyx, Fate Reforged, Dragons of Tarkir, Shadows over Innistrad, Amonkhet, Hour of Devastation, Unstable, Dominaria, War of the Spark, Ikoria, Kaldheim, and Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty. Many of those have been sets where I lead the vision design and handed off to Dave to lead set design. I have the utmost confidence whenever I hand off a set to Dave, and March of the Machine is another great example where Dave took a good vision design handoff and made it even better.
Now here's Dave with the rest of the Set Design team:
Jadine began co-leading play design with March of the Machine FFL (Future Future League—where play designers play with upcoming sets to test future Standard environments) and has continued in that role. Jadine was heavily involved with this set from the start of set design to handoff. I suspect I've had more conversations with her on cards and mechanics than anyone else in the building. I value her card designs and takes on my designs and those of others. Much like with Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, she put a lot of work into this set, both on larger mechanics issues and many of the smaller details, with a good perspective for process in making the best set we could for Constructed and Limited.
Ari is an excellent card and mechanics designer who suggested many new ways of doing what became the battle mechanic. She was instrumental in formulating a better way to highlight these conflicts across planes with her own ideas and building on pieces provided by others on the team. She consistently puts out some of the best card designs in each set I've worked on with her.
Andrew had been leading the technical side of play design and, as noted above, now co-leads it with Jadine. Andrew always comes into a set with many card ideas and is quick to come up with rules text that will mesh well with new mechanics in a set. He's a great source of constructive criticism on designs and always encourages us to take new looks at card designs. He also brings good ideas for experiments in process to help make the cards better through iteration.
Ken was also involved in the battle mechanic design, encouraging them to be attackable objects. He helped craft many of the initial designs to test. Even though he was only on the Set Design team briefly, you can see the inspiration from that work in many of the final designs conceptually and mechanically. Ken ran a workshop to provide many ideas for what we might try for the Praetor designs in the set. Ken is strong at designs off the beaten path.
Oliver is a play designer who excels at identifying cards that aren't playing well, articulating why, and coming up with new designs or modifications to the existing designs. Oliver brings excellent insights into how Standard and Limited are shaping up with our set and finds opportunities to build on any shortcomings.
Cameron is a designer who'd previously interned with our group and has returned to us as a full-time employee. He poured a lot of effort into the designs of the double-faced cards that transform into Phyrexians and battles. Cameron also helped bring a better focus to our team for casual gameplay.
Mark is a veteran card designer who excels at designs that speak well to their concepts. He's great at finding cards that don't feel like they're telling the correct story and creating better ones. He also has experience in leading design teams, which brings a valuable perspective. With lots of editing and rules experience, he's also excellent at helping us polish wording and seeing other ways to execute on cards.
To start our story, let's look at what the Vision Design team handed off to Set Design:
- Transforming double-faced cards (TDFCs) of normal creatures becoming Phyrexian with a Phyrexian mana activation for the change
- DFC tokens that could turn into Phyrexian artifact creatures (called cocoon during vision design)
- Different takes for a cycle of Phyrexian Praetors
- DFCs representing planes
- Backup (called boost in vision design)
- Legendary team-ups
- Bonus sheet
What I'm going to do is take each one of these things and then walk through what changed during set design.
Transforming double-faced cards (TDFCs) of normal creatures becoming Phyrexian with a Phyrexian mana activation for the change
As I explained last week, the TDFCs came about because we wanted to show an array of cool creatures types from across the Multiverse being turned into Phyrexians. It played into our "planes as a lens" theme and allowed us to do something with Phyrexians that Phyrexia: All Will Be One didn't. Set Design had plenty of individual cards to design but didn't vary from the basic scaffolding.
They made two big changes. First, they chose to make all the Phyrexian mana activations another color (in vision design, we had a mix). This resulted in the decision to make multicolor back faces with a multicolor frame. This was done to add some layering to Limited and allow for more differentiation in Constructed. We designed back faces similar to how we design hybrid cards in that we wanted them to feel like the second color without breaking the color pie of the front face (as Phyrexian mana can be paid with life and thus avoid paying the monocolor mana). Second, they decided it would be fun to reference famous Phyrexian cards on the back faces of some of the legendary Phyrexian TDFCs, so there are several Easter eggs for the enfranchised players.
My first preview card today is one of the Phyrexian TDFCs.
Click here to meet Khenra Spellspear // Gitaxian Spellstalker
Khenra Spellspear // Gitaxian Spellstalker
I'll use this card to demonstrate how we made the Phyrexian TDFC cards. We take a creature native to a specific plane, in this case Khenra from Amonkhet. We show it to you on the front as you remember it from that plane. Then we transform it using Phyrexian mana of another color to turn it into a Phyrexian version. Altogether, the TDFCs do a good job of showing the larger Phyrexian threat to the Multiverse.
DFC tokens that could turn into Phyrexian artifact creatures (called cocoon in vision design)
This is another mechanic that didn't change too much from how it was handed off. The Set Design team had to work with the rules manager, as technically the rules didn't support a double-faced token. I should point out that this is a good example of how sometimes the rules can't handle things simply because no one has ever asked it to care, more so than it being a problem for the rules. The rules manager must go in and see what rules it would apply to and then change the rules to allow it, but it's a much lighter ask than trying to do something the rules actively don't allow.
The mechanic to create the token did change names from cocoon to incubate. It intersected a lot of themes (caring about Phyrexians, artifacts, and transforming, etc.), so Set Design spent a lot of time balancing them correctly. The biggest issue was whether to allow it to transform at instant speed. Most of the Phyrexian TDFCs changed at sorcery speed, so there was some discussion over whether the incubate tokens should line up with them. In the end, the Set Design team felt they played better at instant speed (there was a little bit too much tension transforming them at sorcery speed), so the decision was made to let them do that.
Different takes for a cycle of Phyrexian Praetors
The plan from the very beginning was to have the Praetor cards be rolled out slowly over time as we ramped up to the Phyrexian storyline. Vorinclex was in Kaldheim, Jin-Gitaxias was in Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, Urabrask was in Streets of New Capenna, Sheoldred was in Dominaria United, and Elesh Norn was in Phyrexia: All Will Be One. There was some talk that it maybe would be the only appearances of the Praetor cards, but others and I argued that we couldn't have a climactic final battle against the Phyrexians without them showing up again. Both cycles of them had been very popular, so we felt a lot of pressure to deliver something exciting.
The Vision Design team spent some time brainstorming and came up with several different ideas, mostly with TDFCs. You'll get a chance to see our favorite ideas when I cover the vision design handoff document in a few weeks. The Set Design team's favorites were the ones that transformed into Sagas. They were novel and felt grandiose, something worthy of the Praetors. Set Design decided to treat the final chapters of the Sagas like planeswalker ultimates. It took a lot of time and effort to get to them, so they wanted the effects to be memorable.
The Set Design team did make two mechanical changes. One, when the Sagas completed, they went to exile and returned transformed as the Praetor. In our original versions during vision design, the Sagas just went away when completed. Set Design made this change because it felt like too much of a letdown for such high-profile cards. Two, the Praetors don't technically transform into the Sagas but rather go to exile and return transformed. The former would allow for counters to stay on where the latter doesn't (which is important if you want the Saga to trigger a second time). It also keeps the Praetors from being able to attack the turn they change back, which was a play design concern.
DFCs representing planes
Now we get to the biggest change during set design. As I talked about last week, Vision Design handed off DFC lands that transformed into lands with subtype Plane. The front face of the plane tapped for mana and had an activation cost to become the back face. When it transformed, it had an effect, and then there was a secondary effect that was either static, triggered, or activated.
This version had a bunch of problems. Lands have a lower power budget, so it was harder to make exciting cards. Too many mana sinks limited design space. It was risky using land destruction as a Constructed safety valve. And finally, they just weren't feeling novel enough. As all this added up, Set Design wanted to try something new.
They started by figuring out what the requirements were:
- Each card had to represent a different plane.
- It had to capture the sense of a war.
- It needed to be novel (hopefully enough to warrant a new card type, but that wasn't essential).
The Set Design team did some brainstorming for something more unique. They were interested in cards that cared about combat, such as
The idea that most of the designers liked best from the brainstorm was a permanent that you could attack that your opponent defended. The earliest version of this mechanic was a permanent that you gave to your opponent, and then for each point of damage you did to it, it got counters. Each card had a few effects, usually three, that went off at different totals. The biggest problem with this version is that it lacked enters-the-battlefield effects, so it was basically blank if you weren't able to attack it, which made it unattractive to put in your deck.
The next big innovation came from the idea that the prize for defeating it could be on the back face of the card. March of the Machine already had TDFCs, so it was an easy thing to add. This would allow rewards that were very flavorful because they could represent things from the plane. Having a whole card for rules text complete with art would allow for an enticing total package. This would also allow the card to have an enters-the-battlefield effect on the front face to make it worth putting in your deck. The decision was also made to have it come with counters that were removed when it was damaged, as that played like planeswalkers and, thus, was more intuitive (this is what Vision Design's version did, although it was on your side attacked by the opponent). We felt this was substantial enough to warrant a new card type.
Once the mechanics were settled, the Set Design team worked with the Creative team to maximize the cards representing the battle on each plane. The back face usually referred to something that had to do with what helped the plane hold off the Phyrexians. It was most often an important part of the story (for the planes that played a larger role in the story).
To allow the back face to be a non-permanent, battles are exiled when defeated and then cast transformed. To address digital concerns, casting the spell is optional. Also, to address some play design concerns, a battle had to be destroyed through damage (or otherwise by removing counters from it) to transform. Destroying it with a spell or effect didn't get you the reward. I'm very happy with how battles ended up. They capture the flavor perfectly and open some interesting design space that I'm excited to explore.
Convoke was chosen during vision design to capture the flavor of the various denizens of each plane working together to stop the Phyrexian invasion. Although convoke shows up in all five colors, the Set Design team decided to focus it in blue and red as a draft archetype (more on that below). Blue has never had convoke before (although it did have one card in Magic 2015 that gave convoke to your artifacts) and red had just had two cards, so there was some new design space to explore. Set Design had to add in a little extra token-making to make sure the two colors, which traditionally have the lowest percentage of creatures, could take advantage of the mechanic.
Backup (called boost in vision design)
Backup was created (by Ari Nieh) as another means to show the inhabitants of the various planes working together. The final version kept the essence of the mechanic but had several mechanical hoops to jump through. First up, the original version of the mechanic granted any abilities on the creature to any other creature it targeted with backup. This meant that by granting abilities or through cloning, you could spread abilities that weren't naturally on the backup creatures. To fix this, the mechanic was changed such that it only granted text specifically called out by the card.
This is an ongoing issue when making new mechanics. How much do you want it to be open-ended to allow shenanigans with past cards versus making something that's controlled enough to allow you to balance it properly? Normally, we err on the side of being more open, but if repeated playtests show it's causing problems, we'll revert to the tighter version of the mechanic. Such was the case with backup.
You can tell that the flavor of creatures teaming up with one another was a key theme as we have so many different mechanics representing it. This was yet another way. To show creatures teaming up, we thought of a device we've used several times over the years—legendary creature cards that show multiple characters on a single card.
Each of these pairings were characters that had a natural connection. They wanted to be together. Perhaps we could pair characters that normally wouldn't be together to demonstrate how desperate the situation was. Vision Design came up with some examples, but it was up to the Set Design team to figure out the pairings.
Dave and his team talked with the Creative team to see what asks the story had. The design team also made a list of characters based on player popularity and mechanical identity that would work well in combination. In the end, they chose to do all ten two-color pairs at rare and a cycle of wedge trios at mythic rare. Each of those fifteen cards was set on a different plane. My second preview card for today is one of the cards.
Click here to meet Djeru and Hazoret
This was our Amonkhet teaming (to go along with our other Amonkhet preview today). This team-up came about because the Creative team and Set Design team were interesting in teaming up Hazoret, the one surviving god of the original five, with someone. There was a red-white slot, so they chose a hero in white. Each of the fifteen cards got their pairings through different means.
The Vision Design team suggested the possibility of a bonus sheet in the vision design handoff. We suggested focusing on cards iconically from a certain plane, possibly all ones that included proper names. We thought it would be a cool way to show the breadth of the characters involved in the war. The set itself only has so many legendary creature cards, and even teaming them up left a lot out of the set. The final bonus sheet got closer to what we pitched, being all legendary creatures that participated in the Phyrexian war, complete with new art that shows them fighting.
The reason legendary creatures are a good theme for a bonus sheet is that they don't fit in a lot of other themes. We like our bonus sheets being thematic to the plane they're on, so it makes it hard to do characters that are specifically not from that plane. Even with the wide net of having the whole Multiverse, having to actively be in this conflict reduced our choices. A lot of older cards are of characters that wouldn't still be alive. Others have canonically died in the story. This ended up making the theme a bit rougher to put together than we originally anticipated, but we ended up with a cool bonus sheet.
A Well-Oiled Machine
Now that we've gotten through the mechanics, I want to end today's column by briefly going through the draft archetypes.
White-Blue (Knights) – This archetype is one of two that has a creature-type component. This is a combat focused deck that makes use of the Knight creature type.
Blue-Black (Graveyard) – This deck mills everyone and then takes advantage of graveyards being filled.
Black-Red (Sacrifice) – This controlling deck creates resources that it then sacrifices, especially artifacts.
Red-Green (Battles) – This archetype takes advantage of the new battle cards, including cards that aid you in interacting with them.
Green-White (+1/+1 Counters) – This is a go-wide archetype that makes use of +1/+1 counters to build up your army.
White-Black (Phyrexians) – This is the archetype that mechanically cares about the Phyrexian creature type and makes a lot of use of incubate.
Blue-Red (Convoke) – This archetype has the most convoke spells and makes use of its creatures to cast a lot of them.
Black-Green (Incubate) – This archetype is about playing bigger creatures and makes use of larger incubate tokens.
Red-White (Backup) – This archetype makes the most use of the new backup mechanic, allowing your creatures to team up and take out the Phyrexians.
Green-Blue (Transformation) – This archetype takes advantage of all the TDFCs in the set (including Phyrexian TDFCs, incubate, and battles) and mechanically rewards you for transforming.
That's all the time I have for today. I hope you enjoyed learning about the set design of March of the Machine. As always, I'm eager for your feedback, be it on today's article, any of the mechanics I talked about, or March of the Machine itself. You can email me or contact me through my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week when I start my card-by-card design stories from March of the Machine.
Until then, may you fight the good fight against the Phyrexians.