In the first few months of every year, I write a series called "Nuts & Bolts" where I talk about the fine details of designing a Magic set. The series was created to help amateur Magic designers, but it's also become a great way for any player to have a look behind the scenes of the many details of how we design Magic sets.
This is my fourteenth year doing a "Nuts & Bolts" column. Here are the previous fourteen (the column two years ago was a two-parter) with a short recap:
The first column is the most technical, explaining how we use a system to make sure everyone is always talking about the same card.
The second column introduces the most important tool in designing a set, something called a design skeleton. (It makes use of card codes, which is why that article came first.)
The third column talks about how you begin filling in your design skeleton, starting with the common cards.
The fourth column talks about filling in all the other rarities.
The fifth column discusses how best to use playtesting to gather feedback and make improvements on your set.
The sixth column talks about the concept of iteration and how you can incrementally improve your set.
The seventh column explains the three different stages of design, walking you through how your priorities shift as the set evolves.
The eighth column answers several questions about common problems that can happen in the early to mid-design stages.
The ninth column talks about how you can look at your set as a whole and figure out what fine-tuning it still needs.
The tenth column discusses how you interweave your mechanical and creative elements into a cohesive set. It discusses both top-down (starting with the flavor) and bottom-up (starting with the mechanics) design. I then go into detail about how to handle names, creature types, and flavor text.
The eleventh column talks about the importance of using art in later playtests and how to incorporate it into your set.
This twelfth column got broken into two parts. Both talk about how to make sure your set is working properly in Limited. The first article focuses on making sure your mechanics work for Limited play.
The second part focuses on building out themes for Limited play.
A lot had changed since I first talked about a key tool to building sets, the design skeleton. This article includes a default set skeleton we use with new designers.
Which brings us to this column. Today, I thought I'd tackle a question I get a lot about designing Magic. How do you take a germ of an idea and turn it into an actual set? Today, I'm going to walk you through what is known as ideation, the taking of a new idea (or ideas) and transforming them into something tangible. I'm going to walk you through how you get from "here's a cool idea for a set" to an actual set, well, at least the beginning structure of one. I'm going to be using original Ravnica block as my example of each step.
Step #1 – Get an Idea
The first thing we do when making any Magic set is ask the following question: "What's going to make this Magic set different from every other set?"
There are two main buckets we tend to pull from to answer this question. Bucket number one is mechanics. Is there something new mechanically we can use as a jumping-off point? Maybe there's a new mechanic we're interested in building around. Maybe there's a new theme that could make a compelling mechanical heart for a set. Maybe there's a way to combine a bunch of existing things to make something new for players to care about when building their decks.
Bucket number two is creative. Is there something we can creatively use to begin our design? Maybe it's a new plane to visit. Maybe it's a resonant trope space we can explore. Maybe it's a compelling storyline that might inspire us to build around. If we choose something from the first bucket, we call it a "bottom-up design." If we chose from the second bucket, we call it a "top-down design."
Okay, so what makes for a good idea? I would say the number-one quality I look for is something that excites me, the lead designer for the set. If I'm going to spend a lot of time and energy on making a Magic set, I want it to be something that I'm eager to work on. Design is hard, so it's crucial that you have something compelling. At Wizards, we also have to care about whether that idea has an enough universal appeal. Is there a big enough audience for the concept? But we're a company, so we have some different incentives than someone designing for fun at home. I would strongly urge you to focus on personal excitement over commercial viability, as the first is something you're an expert in and the latter most likely isn't. It's possible to do both (we do it all the time), but it's not something I think amateur designers should worry too much about. Designing at home is more about enjoying the process, so make the set you're excited to make.
A common problem I find with amateur designers is that they fret a lot about the idea. Is it good enough? Is it the right idea? Is there something better? I'm going to let you in on a big secret. The idea itself is not as important as the willingness to focus on it. To begin a design, you must have something to work with. That idea can, and often does, change as the design evolves. You're not beholden to the first thing you came up with, but if you lack focus, the design is going to meander and not coalesce. That means that what you want to do when you start is pick an idea and stick with it, for now. Start making the set the best thing you can for the initial idea, and if along the way, you get a better idea, you can switch to that. But at any one moment in time, you must have a single idea to focus on.
What if you have two ideas? If the two ideas connect to one another, it's okay, but it's important that you have one primary idea. If the two ideas fight, and ideas are apt to do that, you must know which one you need to let win. There's an expression that a ship can't have two captains. An important part about having an idea is that it serves as a focus to guide your decision making. This means one idea must sit above all others.
What was my initial idea for original Ravnica block? I wanted to do a multicolor block, as multicolor as a theme was—and still is— popular; but I wanted it to be different than Invasion block, the only previous block at the time with a multicolor theme. How could I do that?
Well, Invasion block pushed toward playing as many colors as possible. I would do the opposite. For it to be multicolor, that meant two-color. I didn't think just five pairs would be enough for the whole block, so I was interested in using all ten. Up to that point, we'd usually prioritized ally colors, making their themes more prevalent and usually stronger than enemy colors. I wanted to try a set where all ten two-color pairs were treated the same.
Put together, here was my initial idea for original Ravnica block: build a multicolor block around ten equally treated two-color pairs. Obviously, the design evolved from there, but that was the idea I started with.
Step #2 – Understand the Extension of Your Idea
Once you have an idea, the next step is figuring out what implications that idea entails. Ideas don't live in a vacuum. You have to understand what it is your idea is asking of your set, both mechanically and creatively.
The exercise we usually do early on is what I call the whiteboard exploration. Sit down with your design team (which might just be yourself if you're doing this at home, but feel free to bring in friends that might be interested in helping you brainstorm) and a whiteboard. By "whiteboard," I mean a place where you can write down ideas that everyone participating can see. At Wizards, at least when we're in the office, we use an actual whiteboard (and thus the term).
Ask the following question: "If I told a bunch of Magic players that we were making a set with our idea, what would they expect would be in it?" I should note that if your idea is more bottom up, you're going to find yourself writing more mechanical things on the board. If your idea is top down, you'll find yourself writing more creative things on the board. For instance, with original Ravnica block we were doing a bottom-up set, so most of our whiteboard was initially filled with mechanical things. A two-color set? Lots of gold cards. Dual lands. Large splashy spells. In contrast, when we did this experiment for original Innistrad, we got answers that leaned more into the creative: monsters, victims, lots of individual horror tropes, etc.
Then we make sure to push into the opposite direction. For original Ravnica, we ask what we thought people might expect creatively? This is what got us to write down things like different groups to represent each of the ten two-color pairs. For Innistrad, we asked what mechanical implications the idea might have? That's what got us to write down things like caring about death or transformation.
While I'm just giving a few examples above, when doing this exercise, you want your whiteboard to be as full as you can make it. Just spill out every possible thing that players might expect. The goal of this exercise is to create a large pool of concepts that you can start sorting through. Not every idea has to make it to the finished product, but the more you have to think about, the better your initial pass on the idea will be.
Next, have your team look at all the ideas and then pick their favorites. The technique we tend to use is to give each team member a certain number of picks (we usually use five) and then go up to the board and make a small circle next to that many items. When everyone is done, you record what items got picked and by how many people (and yes, still write down the things with zero votes).
This list, in order of votes from highest to lowest, is your takeaway from the exercise and will allow you to advance to the next step. I also want to note that this list isn't the be-all and end-all of your exploration. It's just a first stab at what you might want to do. If something is nagging at you because it's missing, add it. A big point of the list is to get you to start having feelings, good and bad, about choices. Feelings are great because they prompt you to make design decisions.
Step #3 – Explore the Implications of Those Extensions
Now that you have your preliminary list, the next step is to do a practical overview of it. Look at each item and ask yourself: "If we want to do this, what does it mean for the set?"
The goal of this exercise is for you to start to understand what is being asked of your set. Ideas have consequences; they are going to force you to adapt your set to accommodate them. This, by the way, is a wonderful thing because it gives you direction.
A common concern I've found with novice Magic designers is a worry that they're going down the wrong path. They freeze up from making decisions because there's this fear that they might be making the wrong one. My answer to them is that no decision is far worse than the wrong decision. If you make the wrong decision, you'll start building your set and eventually you'll discover why and how the idea isn't working. But that will give you information that you can use to figure out a different path. Making no decision doesn't advance your design and doesn't help you get to the right answer.
As an example, a playtest where everything goes wrong is a good playtest. You learn a lot from it, and it allows you to advance toward the right answers. A playtest that just goes okay but doesn't have any highs or lows is the worst kind of playtest because it doesn't give you any suggestions for what to do next.
Here's what happened when I did this exercise for original Ravnica:
- I need gold cards. That meant I had to redo my set skeleton to figure out how many I wanted at each rarity. It informed me that I was going to have a lot of cycles, so I needed to start thinking about what those cycles might represent. And since there were ten two-color combinations, maybe they're ten-card cycles.
As I did all this math, it brought up a big problem. I might not be able to fit all ten two-color pairings in a single set. Also, having a lot of gold cards would bring up my curves as, at the time, there wasn't yet a way to have a one-drop two-color card.
- I need dual lands. That meant I had to figure out how many dual lands I needed and at what rarity, again forcing me to redo my design skeleton. This also made me examine at what turns I expected different colors to be available, which affected how I wanted to design my gold cards, including what mana values I was interested in. It also made me explore how to support two-color and three-color play in Draft without enabling four- and five-color play.
- I need splashy effects. Tying into the lessons from the gold cards, a heavy gold set was going to ask for a slower environment. Again, I had to look at my design skeleton to understand the right range of mana values for my card slots.
- I need differentiation between the groups. This said that creative had to come up with an answer for what made each two-color pair creatively different from the rest. Probably that had to come from the environment to figure out what kind of world it was.
All these questions would lead to the foundations of the set. Brady Dommermuth, the then creative director, would create guilds in a city plane as the answer to the differentiation. That would lead me to solve my issue of fitting everything in by spreading the two-color pairs across the block. My need for one-drops helped lead me to creating hybrid mana. The needed cycles led us down the path of the guild leaders and started shaping how the guilds were like one another, which in turn started fleshing out the cosmology of the world.
From a practical standpoint, the exercise should end with you making a list of all the things that have to be done to execute on the implications of your idea. The cool thing about this list is that it's going to help you start to shape your set. For example, for original Ravnica block, all the exploration above made me take a long, hard look at my set design skeleton and begin answering questions about how many gold cards the set would have and how I wanted to handle my color fixing. It also got us down the path to making the guilds and splitting up the color pairs between the three sets.
Step #4 – Turn Your List into a Structure
You now have a list of all the major things you need to care about to make your set. The next step is to prioritize the items on your list.
The reason for this is two-fold. One, you have to know which task takes priority over other tasks. Two, there's a good chance it's not all going to fit, so the prioritization will help you when you have to start making hard calls about what to cut. From a practical sense, this is going to happen as you start to fit things into your set using the design skeleton (from last year). Things higher in priority will get added first. This ensures that you have the most flexibility with the items that hold the highest importance.
There is one caveat. Sometimes you will discover that one item on your list is way more restrictive than other items when it comes to design space. It's okay to prioritize that item in your design skeleton provided it doesn't displace items above it on the list. For example, in original Ravnica block, hybrid turned out to be a bit trickier to design, so we often would allow it to pick its effects first even though it was lower down on the list.
Another important part of this list is that it will often communicate the kind of thing the set needs without specifically providing that thing. For example, again from original Ravnica, the guild structure informed us that we wanted each two-color pair to have its own mechanic, but what those mechanics needed to be were left for the design team to figure out.
As with the initial idea, I want to stress that this list isn't definitive. Iteration of the design will help you figure out if you're missing something you didn't initially think about or if something you thought was important turns out not to be. The point of all these lists isn't to restrict your options but rather to provide you with focus to understand what the next step is in your design. As you discover things, you should be folding those discoveries into your set structure.
My goal today is to illustrate that going from idea to set structure is a path, one that can guide you if you pay attention to it. The important thing is that, at any one point in time, you always have something pointing you to your next action so that you're constantly evolving and advancing your set. The biggest danger of Magic design isn't going the wrong way, it's not having a path to follow.
That's the Idea
Today's column was a little less technical than last year's but is of equal importance when creating your set (in fact, the two parts, design skeleton and ideation, go hand in hand).
Join me next week when I test your knowledge of the history of Magic design technology.
Until then, may you have as much fun making your own set as we do making ours.
#911: Good Morning Magic with Gavin
#911: Good Morning Magic with Gavin
I sit down with Designer Gavin Verhey to discuss the making of his Good Morning Magic videos.
In this podcast, I explain the history of watermarks, talk about the various ways we use them, and explain why we can't mechanically care about them outside of Un- sets.