Last week, I started answering your questions about the premier sets of 2023. I had so many questions, I decided to make it a two-parter. That said, on with the questions.
The shift to a more Eternal world (i.e., where the number-one format in tabletop has access to most of the cards in the game) has made us revaluate complexity a bit. I do agree; cards from The Lost Caverns of Ixalan are on the high end for word count. R&D is aware of it, and it's a topic we've been talking about. Inertia tends to push us toward complexity, so it's important to stop and take account from time to time.
It's a tricky issue. It was the largest scope of story that we'd ever done, and in retrospect, I agree that we probably bit off more than we could easily chew. The story feeling rushed was a common complaint that we heard. We didn't want to spend an extra set on the war, so there are two likely avenues we could have explored if we were to do it again.
One, we could have pulled back the scope a bit or possibly implied it without showing as much. Maybe we just focus on a handful of planes that were representative of the war. This was a path early design explored but moved away from to capture the grandiosity of the war. That was possibly a mistake.
Two, we could have shifted things around to maybe allow Phyrexia: All Will Be One to represent the start of the war, including more of the Phyrexians' initial advantage. Perhaps the correct end point was to have the Phyrexians seem on the verge of winning, and then March of the Machine could have been more about the planes fighting back.
Regardless, we did learn a lot from how we executed the Phyrexian war story and are taking all that feedback into account for our next large storyline.
There was a time where R&D would take the highest-profile characters from the set and push their power to make them have the best chance of seeing tournament play. This practice backfired numerous times, so we changed our approach. We now design cards to match the character and let playtesting dictate which cards to push. Basically, we push the cards that lead to the best gameplay. If it's a key character in the story, awesome, but if it's not, that's okay, too. In short, we want gameplay to dictate power level, not creative elements. I should also point out that there are many different homes for a card, and high-level Constructed play is just one area. For example, Eriette has found a home in Commander.
We experiment with allowing older mechanics to appear in small amounts in new sets. We're doing this in two ways: One, we've chosen mechanics that have proven to be useful, simple, and popular (things like kicker, flashback, and landfall) and made them deciduous, so any set that needs them can have access to them in small amounts. Two, we've started to do what we call cameos where an old mechanic appears once in a set at a higher rarity. The rules for cameos require that they're relatively simple and don't have a history of balance issues. This means I'm skeptical we're going to see dredge or mutate anytime soon as a cameo.
Q: Did we really need evil candy as a major archetype in #MTGWOE when Universes Beyond stuff like Evil Dead and Doctor Who™ have already made MTG very silly? Couldn't we just relegate the jokey stuff to Universes Beyond?
Much of the audience likes the "jokey stuff." The reason the general tone of Magic has gotten lighter over the years has been in response to what the players have said they enjoy. I get that evil candy might not be your non-animated cup of tea, but we make it because there's an audience for it, and they, like you, get to have the things they enjoy be part of the game.
Universes Beyond is treated like any in-universe Magic product, by the way, in that the tone of the set matches the overall feel of the world/property. For some, that would mean it could be lighter, but for others, it wouldn't. Most sets can have some amount of humor, but what kind of humor varies based on the tone of the set.
The health of premier sets (what we used to call "Standard-legal sets," which is what I assume you're asking about) is a high priority. We have an entire Play Design team dedicated to it, along with Limited play, who put in a significant amount of time to ensure that Standard is fun and balanced. R&D is staffed such that every product has a team who has the time and attention to ensure it's the best that it can be. We work a long time on our sets because the quality of their play is of high importance.
It's a conversation we've been having. We're just not consistent in how we handle animal humanoids. Leonin are cat people with subtype Cat. Loxodons are elephant people with subtype Elephant. But cephalids are octopus people with subtype Cephalid. The question is, why do we sometimes use the animal word and sometimes make up a brand-new word? There are also issues with subtypes like Minotaur, which are technically cow or bull people, but at least we recognize the value of using resonant fantasy and/or mythological terms in that regard. Anyway, it's a discussion that comes up from time to time. Will we ever act on it? Maybe.
Faeries were heavily pushed in Lorwyn block and that led to several Constructed decks. While we sometimes connect creature types to mechanical elements (Faeries all fly as an example), we don't tie them to a specific power level. Faeries aren't, by design, preferable over other creature types. If we have a good design that happens to be a Faerie and we think it will play well with a more aggressive cost, we'll consider doing that, but as with named characters as I talked about above, we push cards because we think they will play well, not because there's an expectation that it should be pushed. I should also note that there was a Wilds of Eldraine Faerie Commander deck that had some additional Faerie designs.
Q: With the rise of Pauper in popularity and the reduction of common slots in Play Boosters, how does this year's set design compare in terms of downshift consideration and the philosophy regarding those slots in sets going forward? Will there be a noticeable impact?
Our philosophy with Pauper is as such: "design the commons we should make to create the best sets we can," and the Pauper format will adapt to whatever designs we've made. In short, we don't alter how we design our commons because of Pauper's existence. There are some supplemental sets with an overall higher power level and higher complexity to the extent that we feel comfortable downshifting some typically uncommon designs to common, which can affect Pauper, but again, it's because it serves the design of the set. (Note: we also will occasionally downshift rarities in reprint products.)
Will Play Boosters reshape how we think about and design commons? Absolutely. There are now going to be 80 commons per set instead of 101 (in the average set), and the commons will have to fill a slightly different role due to this change. We're going to make them better suited to main deck in Limited and less niche. They'll probably have modal effects slightly more often as we increase their flexibility. The shift in how we design Play Booster commons will definitely have an impact on Pauper, but it won't be due to the influence of Pauper itself.
None of the sets released in 2023 were designed with the knowledge that we were extending Standard from the last two years' worth of cards to the last three years' worth of cards. Murders at Karlov Manor was the first set we designed while this was known, and even then, it was amid play design. Outlaws of Thunder Junction was the first set where the Set Design team was aware of the change while making the set. I believe Bloomburrow was the first set where we knew the entire time.
That was not all coincidence. We've been trying to make the three-letter code a bit more memorable where able. Part of that means creating words where possible and words that are meaningful when the opportunity arises (such as Fallout's three-letter code being PIP).
Game design gets personal, so that's a hard question. I have a long-time affection for both the Phyrexians and poison, so I was super excited to get to make Phyrexia: All Will Be One. I think March of the Machine is one of the most ambitious designs I've ever done. So, one of those two, I guess.
Designing new planes versus returning to old ones is usually quite different. March of the Machine, while technically a return in the sense that we didn't go to a new plane, was nothing like a traditional return set and worked a lot more like designing a new plane. We had to tackle the question of scope. Nothing we'd ever done before was that big of a story, and trying to capture that feel of a multiversal war was a new experience. Also, The Lost Caverns of Ixalan, from at least a vision design sense, required building a new world, as the decision to have it be inside Ixalan happened after the set was handed off to the Set Design team. I guess what I'm trying to say is that this year didn't feel much different from my end because we didn't have four typical returns in a row.
Q: Are there any worries with making a set as ambitious and all-encompassing as #MTGMOM? Do you have any reservations that it might have an Avengers: Endgame effect, where it's what you've been building up to for a while, and consequently everything after feels dull?
I think one of the cool things about Magic is that we embrace the game constantly shifting. Each set is purposefully designed to be different than the things around it. You want creepy alien-like creatures that evoke a sense of horror? Great. Here you go. You want a giant multiversal war adventure set? Great. Here you go. You want a quirky set built around fairy tales? Great. Here you go. You want a Mesoamerican-inspired underground set? Great? Here you go.
I like that we can do something as large in scope as March of the Machine while also creating smaller, more intimate stories. I think the contrast of different styles and tones makes for a richer overall experience. So no, I'm not concerned that we can't top the grandiosity of March of the Machine, but I don't feel we must.
Q: Someone else asked this, but I wish to second it. The Aftermath set was a great concept. But pricing made it not worth the expense. Will you consider these types of sets in the future but tweaked for better results? I really loved the idea of Aftermath, just not the execution.
We do market research on all our sets. We often ask players to rank a set on a scale, and then we look at the top-two-box score, meaning how many people rated this with one of the top two ratings. It's a common metric used in data research. March of the Machine: The Aftermath has the lowest top-two-box score for a randomized booster product we've ever had. Ever! In the history of us tracking this metric, which is something like 25 years. And not even by a little. By a lot. So, I'm not super optimistic about its future. That said, we've made mistakes in the past which we were able to later redo with much better success. Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty is a classic example, but take note that it took many years to happen.
One tool we've been using for a while, what I call the "N per booster" thematic element (where N is usually one), was our most successful tool this year. Including a battle in every March of the Machine booster and an Enchanting Tales card in every Wilds of Eldraine booster are some examples. One of the biggest challenges of designing a trading card game is that you don't know specifically what cards players are going to open. How can you guarantee that the players will get your set's larger theme if you don't control what they see? Part of this is as-fan, using percentages to ensure your players get a certain amount of the things you want them to see, but we've learned we can do even better.
If you create a cool element that's core to the theme of your set and then guarantee that every booster opened will have something of that subset, something that literally has its own slot, you can create a strong booster-opening experience. What is the set about? The set is about this! That is the tool that excites me the most as a Magic designer.
The plan is to use them where appropriate. March of the Machine was a battle across the Multiverse, so Planechase made sense as an add-on to the Commander experience. If we come across a set where Archenemy fits, we're very open to using it.
Q: Which of the new mechanics, such as battles, toxic/corrupted, incubate, backup, Roles, descend, discover, etc., used in a set this year was seen as most and least successful from a player enjoyment standpoint?
Here are the top three keywords from each of the three premier sets this year as rated by the players. (As of the writing of this column, The Lost Caverns of Ixalan hasn't been played yet, so we have no ratings for it.):
Phyrexia: All Will Be One
- Proliferate – Proliferate has been popular in every set it's ever appeared in. Each set has created a different environment (Scars of Mirrodin, -1/-1 counters; War of the Spark, loyalty counters; Phyrexia: All Will Be One, oil counters) to allow proliferate to function a bit differently. Nonetheless, it's a beloved mechanic.
- Toxic – Infect, the previous poison keyword, was about as polarizing as mechanics come. It ranked both in the favorite mechanics of Scars of Mirrodin and the least favorite. Toxic proved to be a more popular poison keyword.
- Corrupted – Part of the success of poison in Phyrexia was the ability for players to mix damage and poison, and corrupted played a large part in that.
March of the Machine
- Convoke – Convoke is another mechanic that has proven popular every time it's appeared. It was in March of the Machine to represent the denizens of the Multiverse teaming up to save their different planes. (I didn't list team-up legendary creatures here as it wasn't a mechanic, but it also ranked highly).
- Transform – There were several different mechanics to represent the Phyrexians invading, but the most popular one was transforming double-faced cards (TDFCs). TDFCs, like proliferate and convoke, are universally popular. Players did enjoy the flavor of Phyrexians turning normal iconic creatures from each plane into Phyrexianized versions of themselves.
- Backup – This was the highest-rated new mechanic. It also represented the teaming up of the various denizens of the planes. Players liked the neat interactions that backup created.
Wilds of Eldraine
- Adventures – You can see the through line here. Players tend to like the things they liked in the past that we brought back. I should note that there's a high bar for what we bring back, so by nature, it's usually popular. Adventurer cards scored top ratings in Throne of Eldraine, and nothing has changed in their return.
- Bargain – Bargain was the most popular new mechanic. This is interesting, as additional costs are not historically the most popular mechanical item. I think they played well with Roles and felt less bad as you weren't losing a whole card.
- Food/Roles – I'm not sure if either of these technically count as a mechanic (although Roles seem closer), but they were the next two in line, so I'm including them here. Roles were the mechanical heart of the set and Food is flavorful (pun, as always, intended) and grants life gain, so players enjoyed them.
And with that, I am done with my mailbag columns. As always, if you have feedback about today's column or any questions I answered, 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 another article from my "Lessons Learned" series.
Until then, stay curious.