"Odds & Ends" is my mailbag series where I answer player questions about the latest sets. I recently realized that I haven't done one all year, so I decided to do two columns (this week and next) to answer questions about all the premier sets from this last year (Phyrexia: All Will Be One, March of the Machine, Wilds of Eldraine, and The Lost Caverns of Ixalan).
Here's my post:
It’s time for me to write a mailbag column about all the premier Magic sets of 2023 (#MTGONE, #MTGMOM, #MTGWOE & #MTGLCI) . Please keep your questions about any of this year’s sets to a single tweet, one question per tweet. Thanks. #WotCStaff— Mark Rosewater (@maro254) November 3, 2023
As always, I'll try to answer as many questions as I can, but here's why I might not answer your question:
- I have an allotted word count, which means that there are only so many questions I can get to.
- Someone else might have asked the same question. I will usually answer the first person who asks.
- Some questions I either don't know the answer to or don't feel qualified enough in the area to answer properly.
- Some topics I'm not allowed to answer for all sorts of reasons, including previews for future sets.
That said, let's get to the questions:
Adding a new card type is a big step, so we wanted to be cautious with battles. The plan was to release them in March of the Machine and see how they were received before putting them in other products. I'm happy to say they were much adored by players, and we've gotten the green light to use them in future sets. I can't say where or when you will see them, but I do expect more battles to get printed in the future.
Battles were specifically designed for March of the Machine. We knew in vision design that we wanted cards to represent each of the familiar planes being attacked in the story and were willing to make a new card type if needed. Battles, as you know them, were designed during set design and turned out great.
While Sieges, a battle subtype, do require a double-faced card (DFC), battles inherently don't. We can design single-faced battles that have an effect and are destroyed by the opponent attacking them. You can think of them like planeswalkers with only static, triggered, or activated effects and no loyalty abilities. I don't know of any planned changes to the layout of battles.
Sieges, which are the only type of battle we've made so far, require double-faced cards (DFCs). We don't traditionally use DFCs in Commander decks due to a combination of their budget and production issues. That doesn't mean we never could, nor does it prevent us from making single-faced battles that could go into Commander decks. All this to say that it's unlikely, but there's always a chance.
Q: Battles (the card type) seem like something that will come up occasionally, but not often. What makes a set a candidate for battles? It's a game about wizards fighting, any set could justify it storywise. What do battles do for a set mechanically?
The key to finding the right set for battles is twofold. One, it must fit the flavor of the set. Magic is a combat game, so that's not a terribly high bar to clear. I do think we'd want the story to specifically have battles in it rather than just the gameplay being a battle. Two, battles have to be a good fit for the set mechanically. Again, as they rely on combat, that's not a huge ask. The bigger ask is that Sieges require double-faced cards, which are not in every set. Note that March of the Machine used them at a much higher as-fan (one per booster) than would be necessary in a normal set.
In general, I would look at how Sagas evolved to see what's the most likely pattern. I think they'll show up in smaller numbers, but high profile and super flavorful. If the public takes to them as well as they did in March of the Machine, I assume they'll start showing up more regularly, until they reach a point of being a deciduous tool that can show up in any number whenever they're needed. My gut, because they're a bit more complex than Sagas, says that their rollout will be a bit slower.
The major math tools can be converted to Play Boosters. The larger issue is that you build up a lot of intuitive sense for what will and won't work, and whenever there's a chance, you have to readjust. That said, we've focused a lot of resources on getting Play Boosters right. I'll be writing a "Nuts & Bolts" article next year digging into the differences.
For the foreseeable future? Yes. We have plenty of other antagonists to focus on.
Q: With MTGONE we had some really cool tokens that flipped with the incubate mechanic. Will we see more double-faced tokens in future sets as well? Or will this be used only sparingly and if it makes sense in the world/lore of said plane?
Incubate tokens are from March of the Machine. They played well and were received decently by the audience (according to our market research). Double-faced tokens come with some production issues, so they're not something I expect us to use all the time, but it's a design tool that sets have access to if needed. Think of double-faced tokens as deciduous but on the "we'll use it more sparingly" end of the spectrum.
Q: I'd be interested to hear you talk a bit about the differences in the design process for the first two sets (which had to tie off a major story arc) compared to WOE/LCI (which could perhaps be a bit more flexible and open from a "this idea NEEDS to be in the set" perspective).
All four sets were tied to ongoing stories. Phyrexia: All Will Be One and March of the Machine were at the tail end of a multi-year story arc, and thus, were a bit louder in their storytelling. March of the Machine was the design most affected mechanically, as it was a top-down design telling the story. We've been making Magic sets a long time, so the intertwining of mechanics and story is something we've gotten pretty good at. I see the combination of the two a strength for design, not a weakness.
Q: With the heavy implementation of ward, will we see the effect on other types of cards or possibly an emblem/battle giving ward to a player? (I'm definitely not trying to say give us ward for players due to grief, definitely not for that reason.)
Ward can go on emblems and battles. It's just a matter of us making a design that wants it. Because we don't make specific emblem removal, the need for ward on emblems isn't very high. We also haven't made a lot of battles thus far, so the need for ward hasn't come up yet on those either.
As for players, the current rules technically don't allow it. In the rules, ward means "Whenever this permanent becomes the target of a spell or ability an opponent controls, counter that spell or ability unless that player pays [cost]." A player isn't a permanent, so they're not a legal target for a ward ability. That said, part of making Magic includes stretching into new design space. Players having ward wouldn't cause much confusion (i.e., players would intuitively play it correctly), so it's the kind of thing we could ask the rules manager to rewrite.
Note the bigger issue probably wouldn't be making the change in the rules but understanding what it would do to ward and how it would change interactions. We also would have to look at all current uses of ward on cards to see if the change might accidentally cause problems. It's possible that because it could only be a permanent, certain designs were made and certain templates were chosen. In addition, there are other concerns such as digital and tournament ramifications, which could be a huge ask. For example, this change would make a triggered ability without a source, which would be something digital has to address. All changes come with the due diligence of making sure we're not causing problems, either with existing cards or with any part of the process of making the game.
Because of that cost, we probably wouldn't ask for the change without some confidence that there's significant design space to warrant it. With all that said, I do believe ward on players, and maybe even on spells, seems like an addition we'd seriously consider when the right set comes along.
That's my long-winded way of saying "maybe." 😊
We did, in fact, scale back roles. The Vision Design team had as many as twenty at one point. There were ten in our handoff to Set Design. Set Design then cut that back to six. My takeaway from Wilds of Eldraine is that we didn't execute the tokens correctly. I think we needed to do more double-faced tokens, especially ones with roles on both faces. I believe having enough variety of roles was important (for flavor and gameplay), so my fix is more about making sure players have access to the play aides they need.
As I'm writing this answer, the public has not yet played with The Lost Caverns of Ixalan, so I have no data yet as to whether I expect the mechanic to return (at least based on audience response). Descend has a little more tracking complexity than an average mechanic, so it will have a slightly higher bar to return. I do think that "graveyard as barometer" is cool design space that evolves interestingly as the game progresses, so I'm optimistic.
The first challenge with poison was that it can create what we call a "silo effect." Once you choose to care about poison as your win condition, that's all you can care about. This happened in the Scars of Mirrodin block where drafters had to choose early in the draft whether they were winning with damage or poison, and then many cards became unusable in their deck. Was there a way to let players play cards that poisoned their opponent alongside cards that damaged them? Adding corrupted to the set was a big part of solving this problem.
The second challenge concerned execution. Scars of Mirrodin used infect, which was polarizing. Infect requires -1/-1 counters and has play design balance issues (as it makes poison connect one to one with damage). Poisonous, which we'd only used on a handful of cards, wasn't templated the way we preferred. That's why we chose to make a new version of poisonous called toxic.
The third challenge concerned how to have the rest of the set interact with it. There was a lot of reasons to want to use proliferate, but that mechanic tends to have issue with +1/+1 counters (as the counter that has the most inherent built-in value). That led us to using oil counters.
All in all, poison is a tricky mechanic to work with. It has a lot of fans, and because it was closely tied to the Phyrexians, we knew players would expect it, so we spent a lot of design time on Phyrexia: All Will Be One figuring out how to execute on it best. I'm very proud of how it turned out.
Q: I played a lot of #MTGWOE, but from the cards alone I couldn't really tell the "wilds" aspect (didn't follow the story). It did show us a lot of fairy tales and was a clear deviation from Throne's "Camelot" feel, but it didn't feel like "wilds" to me. Why not "Tales of Eldraine"?
Wilds means "not of the courts." It contrasted with the more civilized element of Eldraine that we focused on in Throne of Eldraine. You could think of it as more rural than city. Possibly there was a better word than "wilds" to convey that concept.
Here's a repeat mechanic that each set tried but didn't end up using.
Phyrexia: All Will Be One – Infect
The very first thing we tried in vision design was seeing if we could make infect work. It lasted one playtest, as all the issues around it proved to be too much to overcome (many of which I talk about above).
March of the Machine – Proliferate
One of the early things we talked about was whether we wanted to carry over a Phyrexian mechanic from Phyrexia: All Will Be One. Toxic, corrupted, and oil counters all required significant structural support, and For Mirrodin! felt odd off Mirrodin, so that left us with proliferate. We talked about how we could craft a different kind of environment so proliferate would work differently in the biome, but ultimately we decided it would also require too much additional support to be worth it.
Wilds of Eldraine – Read-Ahead Sagas
We knew we wanted to do Sagas (we also wanted to do them in original Throne of Eldraine but gave them up so Theros Beyond Death could use them), so we explored different Saga mechanics to see if there was any that made sense here, with read-ahead being the most likely one. In the end, we decided that the fairy-tale aspect was cool enough as a new thing and simple Sagas would work just fine.
The Lost Caverns of Ixalan – Meld
One of the executions for craft that the Set Design team tried was making use of meld. You get two component pieces and combine them to make a unified object. In the end, they realized they wanted more modularity and looked elsewhere.
Whenever we make updates to old cards, we're always interested in finding opportunities to reprint cards with the proper text. However, it must be a card that the audience is interested enough in us reprinting. This means that we will reprint some of the old tribal cards (or cards that reference it) with the kindred wording, but I doubt it will be all of them.
Q: Just curious about card type lines. The new Ixalan set has a "Legendary Creature — Skeleton Spirit Pirate," so in general, what's the longest card type line you can do without going overboard? Like how many text characters? I know you have to consider other languages, too.
When looking at what fits on the card type line, it's not about how many letters are in the word as much as it's about which specific letters. For example, you get a bunch of lowercase l's for one lowercase m. So, the longest card type line that could fit would just be a lengthy string of words with a lot of skinny letters.
The Lost Caverns of Ixalan not only didn't have a return set right before it like War of the Spark did, but we were revisiting a plane we hadn't revisited before. This required us to push toward having a little more Ixalan mechanical definition than we had to do with Ravnica. The mechanical heart of the set was still top-down underground exploration, but we complemented it with the best, and most adjacent, mechanics from the original Ixalan block.
Changing the word for the card type doesn't change how we feel about the card type. It's not something we want to use in large amounts, but I do think the name change will allow us to do the occasional one-off design in the appropriate product that we might not have done before.
"Answer Me This"
That's all the time I have for today. As always, if you have any feedback on today's column or on any of my answers, feel free to email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (X [formerly Twitter], Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week for part two of this column.
Until then, keep asking questions.