At the end of vision design, the lead of the Vision Design team creates a vision design handoff document where they walk through the vision for the set. This includes talking about larger goals, themes, mechanics, and structure. Thanks to feedback from my readers, this sort of behind-the-scenes content has proven popular, so I started posting vision design handoff documents several years ago. You can find previous documents linked below:

Because of the length of the document and the amount of commentary I wanted to give, I've turned March of the Machine's into a two-parter. As with all my vision design handoff articles, most of the text below is the actual document as it was turned in, with my notes in boxes for greater explanation and context.

"Marathon" Vision Design Handoff Document

Exploratory Design and Vision Design Teams

  • Mark Rosewater (lead, exploratory and vision)
  • Annie Sardelis (exploratory)
  • Ari Nieh (strong second, exploratory and vision)
  • Chris Mooney (strong second, exploratory and vision)
  • Dan Musser (vision)
  • Dave Humpherys (vision)
  • Mike Mearls (exploratory and vision)

I begin as always by introducing my design teams. You can read their bios in my first March of the Machine preview article.

"Marathon" is the completion of the multi-year Phyrexian storyline, much like War of the Spark was the completion to the Nicol Bolas storyline. As such, it's what we call an event set where we created the design to complement a large blockbuster-style story. In the case of "Marathon," it's an interplanar war. With the help of the World Tree, the Phyrexians have found a way to invade all the planes of the Multiverse. This set is about the Multiverse defending itself from the Phyrexian invasion. Here are the following goals for the set:

March of the Machine's design was very informed by the success of War of the Spark. We wanted to have a big capstone set to complete the Phyrexian storyline with a big splash. The design was set up such that I would lead the vision design and hand it off to Dave Humpherys, the lead set designer. This was the exact same handoff for War of the Spark.

1. Deliver on interplanar

Planes are to "Marathon" what Planeswalkers were to War of the Spark. It's giving us a chance to show off our cool Multiverse and let the players have fun picking and choosing their favorite plane. The plan is to have a mechanic that represents the planes and include one in every booster (more on this below). The richness of the Multiverse is a big part of this set's KSP. At every level in planning how the set was structured, we always looked through the lens of "showing off the richness of the Multiverse." You'll note that most card names are followed by a three-word code. We want the finished cards to let the players know what plane it's set on (probably through something like a watermark), but to make sure people could reference it in playtesting, we put it after the name. We felt it was important that even in playtesting you got a sense of the scope of the battle.

Even though the Vision Design team didn't get "plane" cards (which would eventually become battles) quite where we needed them, we knew they were a core part of our vision for the booster experience and that each booster should have a card to represent the totality of a plane. You'll also notice that Vision Design set up a means for each card to signify which plane it's set on. There were some discussions about using a watermark, but in the end, we decided that remembering plane-specific watermarks would be too difficult. We did end up using the various plane treatments for planar Booster Fun cards.

KSP, by the way, stands for "key selling point(s)."

2. Deliver on war

This event is a war, and the set must capture that. We accomplished this in a couple ways. One, we made sure that each side had a strong mechanical identity. The Phyrexians must feel threatening and invade in a way that feels cohesive. The denizens of the planes, whom I'm going to call the coalition, although that's not necessarily what we'll be calling them in the printed set, should feel like they're banding together for their lives. The seriousness of the external threat allows us to show creatures previously seen as enemies working together to save their plane. Two, we made sure the progression of the gameplay captured the magnitude of the conflict.

Usually when a battle is front and center in the story, the design wants to mechanically represent both sides. We spent a lot of time in exploratory design and vision design figuring out how to mechanically represent the Phyrexians and how to represent the "coalition." As you'll see below, this framework defines how the whole set is structured.

3. Differentiate the Phyrexians between "Lacrosse" and "Marathon"

"Lacrosse" allowed the players to visit the Phyrexians homeworld and get a taste of what it was like to be a Phyrexian. "Marathon" lets you to choose to be part of the Phyrexian invading force attacking the Multiverse. It's important to make these two experiences unique while also allowing players to mix and match elements of each if they desire. This is a tricky thing to execute properly. "Marathon" accomplished this primarily by focusing on two aspects not used (well, too much) in "Lacrosse": transforming and tribal. "Lacrosse" did not have DFCs, so that allows "Marathon" to do a bunch of cool things unique to it, using a flavorful tool that only it has access to. This also allowed us to do "transformation matters" as a theme (more on this below). Because "Lacrosse" had such a high percentage of Phyrexians (about 80%), it didn't have the ability to do a lot of tribal mechanics. The Phyrexian percentage in "Marathon" is much lower (around 30%), allowing us to build some archetypes around Phyrexians as a creature type.

Double-faced cards ended up being a huge tool in communicating the Phyrexians mechanically. It allowed us to do iconic creatures from various planes that were Phyrexianized. It enabled us to do the incubate mechanic. It allowed us to make Praetors that turn into Sagas. And it let us make battles. Both "transformation matters" and "Phyrexians matter" were new themes for March of the Machine, and each let us make a draft archetype (green-blue and white-black, respectively).

The one important thing I didn't mention here: we were able to make plenty of single-faced cards that showed Phyrexianized versions of recognizable creatures from across the Multiverse, which is something else Phyrexia: All Will Be One couldn't do.

4. Be epic

War of the Spark demonstrated that there's a lot of value in having a giant, over-the-top finale to a multi-year storyline. We want "Marathon" to make the players happy while wowing them and creating a sense of wonder. The scope of the story is bigger than anything we've ever done. The entire Multiverse is at war. From day one of vision design on "Marathon," our goal was to make something truly epic. We wanted to create something that took our audience's breath away.

How do we accomplish all this? Our first step was to create a larger structure that reinforced the event we were trying to capture. It's an interplanar war. That meant we needed two sides. One side consists of the invading Phyrexians, and the other includes the denizens of the various planes of the Multiverse, i.e., the coalition. Each side would have its own mechanics and themes. I should note that we didn't choose to make both sides the same size (it's currently 70/30, erring toward the coalition) for one main reason—the denizens of the Multiverse banding together to fight off the Phyrexians is where the largest amount of cool new space lies, especially since the set preceding "Marathon" was "Lacrosse," a set focused specifically on the Phyrexians.

We did know from early on that we weren't interested in representing the two sides 50/50 (as we did in Mirrodin Besieged). This was a little controversial at first as the framework of the set is the war itself. The key to having a 70/30 split required understanding what makes this set novel and sets it apart from other sets in the arc. This is where the idea that the lens of the planes was so important (and why having a vision is key to a good design). In any design, there will be different aspects, and you must know what to prioritize when the two conflict. In the case of March of the Machine, a big conflict concerned whether to show off the Multiverse or show off the war. What was novel about the set was the fact that it was taking place across the Multiverse, so we felt the novelty came from the former more than the latter.

Here's how we mechanically crafted each side:

The Phyrexians

As I said above, we wanted to find a way to create a Phyrexian element that both captured the feel of the set's bad guys while also steering clear of what "Lacrosse" had done. The secret to solving this puzzle was to lean into what "Marathon" was about and look through the lens of the diversity of the Multiverse. What about the Phyrexians tied into the planes?

You can find the answer by looking at what the Phyrexians are as an enemy. They play into the trope of an invading force that seeks to genetically mutate all living things in their image. That means part of what gives the Phyrexians an identity is that they absorb other cultures into their essence. Was there a way to capture this mechanically? There was.

Transform (returning keyword)

Goldmeadow Squire LRW
Creature — Kithkin Soldier
4(g/p): Transform CARDNAME. Activate this ability only any time you could cast a sorcery.
Terror of Goldmeadow

Rotborn Thallid DOM
Creature — Fungus
4(g/p): Transform CARDNAME. Activate this ability only any time you could cast a sorcery.
Phyrexian Fungus
When this creature becomes CARDNAME, create two 1/1 green Phyrexian Saproling creature tokens.

Double-faced cards do a great job of telling a story, and the most common Phyrexian story is one of assimilation. This influenced our decision to use transforming double-faced cards (TDFCs) to show this assimilation. The front face will have iconic creatures from across the Multiverse. You can then spend an activation cost (using a cost with some Phyrexian mana) to transform the creature into its Phyrexianized version.

In the versions we made, all the creatures have Phyrexian mana of a second color. This allows us to take advantage of both aspects of Phyrexian mana (the cost reduction and the color avoidance). The back face is a creature with a mechanical tie to the second color, but something that's no more than a bend for the front face's color. Whether they stay in two colors or revert to one color is up to Set Design.

The front faces are iconic creatures from various planes (ideally creatures that are easily identifiable to a single plane) and will be whatever creature type the pre-Phyrexianized creature is, and the back faces will add the Phyrexian creature type. This will play nicely with the Phyrexian tribal theme in the set, oftentimes forcing you to transform before you can take advantage of the tribal reward.

I do like that this mechanic is making use of Phyrexian mana. It's something players associate with the Phyrexians that's hard to balance, but we feel as an activated ability, it can be managed. It also adds a life-as-payment element to the cards, which feels very Phyrexian and allows us to build around it. The Vision Design team did spend some time brainstorming what other things could be used for transformation if Phyrexian mana ended up not being usable. It's all pasted in the "Marathon" card design Teams channel.

Set Design would keep both the off-color and Phyrexian mana aspects of the activations. I wasn't sure that was going to happen as I'd also included Phyrexian mana in Phyrexia: All Will Be One, and a lot of that got stripped out during set design. Phyrexian mana is very tricky to balance. Also note that the Vision Design team will try to anticipate problems and work out solutions if they come to pass. We have a place where we keep notes from all our meetings, so Set Design can look at other tentative ideas if our main suggestion(s) doesn't work out.

Transforming Legendary Creatures (recurring theme)

Polukranos Reborn THS
Legendary Creature — Hydra
XX(w/p): Transform CARDNAME. Activate this ability only any time you could cast a sorcery.
Polukranos Re-Norned
When CARDNAME transforms, put X +1/+1 counters on it. When you do, exile target creature you don't control with power less than CARDNAME.

Toralf, the Enraged
Legendary Creature — God
Trample, haste
1R: CARDNAME gets +3/+0 until end of turn.
4(g/p): Transform CARDNAME. Activate this ability only any time you could cast a sorcery.
Toralf, Bloody Conqueror
Trample, haste
1R: CARDNAME gets +3/+0 until end of turn.
When CARDNAME transforms, search your library for three basic lands and put them onto the battlefield tapped. When CARDNAME leaves the battlefield, sacrifice three lands.

While the lower rarities will mostly be Phyrexians transforming the run-of-the-mill creatures, the higher rarity cards can show the Phyrexians impacting characters the audience knows and cares about. These cards can carry a lot of emotional stakes, which should make for very compelling and popular cards.

I'm always tickled when elements of our sample cards make it through the process. Polukranos's card design completely changed (to reference the Scars of Mirrodin card Wurmcoil Engine—a bunch of the Phyrexian transformations of legendary creatures made callbacks to famous Phyrexian artifacts), but Polukranos was kept as a character to be Phyrexianized.

Cocoon (new keyword action, making a new double-faced token)

Viral Hijack NPH
Counter target creature spell.
Cocoon 2 (Create a colorless Cocoon artifact token with two +1/+1 counters and "2: Transform this artifact. Activate this ability only any time you could cast a sorcery." Its other side is a 0/0 colorless Phyrexian artifact creature.)

Phyrexian Hatcher NPH
Creature — Phyrexian Insect
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, cocoon 3. (Create a colorless Cocoon artifact token with three +1/+1 counters and "2: Transform this artifact. Activate this ability only any time you could cast a sorcery." Its other side is a 0/0 colorless Phyrexian artifact creature.)

Another cool idea we came up with to capture the Phyrexianization of the Multiverse was a new artifact token (in the spirit of Treasure, Food, Clues, and Blood). The one new thing about it is it's a double-faced token. We're calling it a Cocoon token (that name and concept will most likely change). Cocoon is a keyword action that always comes with a number. You make a Cocoon artifact token with N +1/+1 counters (with N being the number with the keyword). Then for two mana, as a sorcery, you can transform the Cocoon artifact token into a Phyrexian artifact creature. We liked this keyword because it allowed us to get more Phyrexian-ness onto spells, it created another transforming component that we could design around (more on this below), and it added another component to Phyrexian tribal.

Vision Design will also take a first shot at costs, but usually they'll change through set design and play design. While there were a lot of individual incubate cards designed during set design, I'm proud that our first stab at the costs ended up being correct.

Phyrexian Tribal (mechanical theme)

Winged Invader NPH
Creature — Phyrexian Soldier
Whenever CARDNAME attacks, target creature you control gets +1/+1 until end of turn. If that creature is a Phyrexian, it also gains flying until end of turn.

Invasion Squadron NPH
Creature — Phyrexian Soldier
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, if you control another Phyrexian, CARDNAME gains haste and indestructible until end of turn.

One of the reasons we created the Phyrexian creature type with Vorinclex in Kaldheim was so that we could do something mechanical with it later down the line. Well, this is that spot. "Lacrosse" did a little with Phyrexian tribal, but because so many of the creatures were Phyrexian, it was more about flavor than anything else. The combination of the right number of creatures plus the transforming mechanics allows us to use Phyrexian tribal as a cool glue to tie together one of the Phyrexian archetypes (white-black). The tribal designs are designed to be more threshold one at lower rarities and more scaling at higher rarities.

Whenever we introduce a new creature type, there is instantly a demand for us to make cards that mechanically care about it. Even more so for Phyrexians, because when we introduced it, we went back and retroactively changed a lot of older cards. My initial assumption was that Phyrexia: All Will Be One would start making these cards, which would then be followed up by March of the Machine, but in the end, the theme would get cut entirely from Phyrexia: All Will Be One and introduced in March of the Machine. That's why I'm talking here as if it's a continuation of the theme. I handed off vision design for March of the Machine before Phyrexia: All Will Be One was even halfway through set design.

Transform matters (mechanical theme)

Essence of the Biblioplex STX
Creature — Elemental
Whenever you transform a permanent or a permanent enters the battlefield under your control transformed, put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME.

Compleat Rebirth NPH
Return target creature card from your graveyard to the battlefield. If it has a transform ability, transform it.

Having both the transforming Phyrexians and the Cocoon tokens allows us to make a "transformation matters" theme (currently in blue-black). Because "Lacrosse" isn't using any DFCs, this allows us to give the Phyrexian army a mechanical identity that wasn't just seen in "Lacrosse." Flavorfully, it plays into the fact that it's not until the Phyrexians invade other planes that they get to start Phyrexianizing things. (New Phyrexia had mostly been compleated.)

This theme moved from blue-black to green-blue. I think we had two main reasons. One, black had a lot going on and just didn't need the theme. Two, green-blue is always a tricky color pair, and it's one of the colors most likely to get "theme from this set."

Praetors (cycle)

Elesh Norn, the Time Bomb
Legendary Creature — Phyrexian Praetor
1W, Sacrifice three other creatures: Exile CARDNAME, then return it to the battlefield transformed.
Victory of Norn
Enchantment — Saga
I — Create five 2/2 colorless Phyrexian creature tokens.
II — Until end of turn, creatures you control get +1/+1 and gain double strike.
III — Permanents you control gain indestructible until end of turn. Destroy all permanents.

Elesh Norn, the Kind
Creature spells you cast cost 2 less to cast.
{w/p}: Transform CARDNAME.
Elesh Norn, the Unkind
Creature spells your opponents cost 2 more to cast.
{w/p}: Transform CARDNAME.

As the story evolved, we used Phyrexian Praetors to slowly ramp up the threat. The plan is for all five Praetors to show up in "Marathon," probably at mythic rare. The Vision Design team did some brainstorming (all of it is in the "Marathon" card design Teams channel) on what cool things we could do that still capture the feeling of the Praetors while introducing something new to their design. Above are two different takes on Elesh Norn.

We think this suite of Phyrexian mechanics and themes comes together to capture the Phyrexian flavor while allowing their threat to transfer well to gameplay, especially in Limited.

During vision design, we came up with a whole bunch of different ideas for what the Praetor cycle should be. Most of the design suggestions involved double-faced cards, as it allowed us to do things the Praetors never did before. From what I remember, we posted more of them in this document, but it looks like we just posted our two favorites (with the Saga version being our favorite—always put your favorite thing first). The second pitch followed the idea of the mirrored effects of the original Praetors but done in such a way that you could have just one at a time. It was thematic to the Praetors, but kind of boring, as we'd done that schtick twice already.

That's all the time I have for today. As always, I'm eager for any feedback on the article, the document, 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 for part two of this document talking about the design of the Multiverse's defenders.

Until then, may your games have a touch of Phyrexia.