Hello, everyone, and welcome to the first week of Outlaws of Thunder Junction previews. Today and next week, I'll introduce you to the design teams, walk you through the story of the set's design, and show off some cool preview cards. Hope that sounds fun.

The Motley Crew

Before I get into the story of how the set was made, I usually like to introduce the people who designed it first. This week, I'll be introducing the members of the Exploratory Design and Vision Design teams. Next week, I'll introduce the Set Design team. As always, I have the lead of the teams do the introductions. For the Outlaws of Thunder Junction Vision Design team, that was me.

Click here to meet the Exploratory and Vision Design teams


Mark Rosewater (Lead, Exploratory and Vision Design)

As you will see when I start telling the story of the design, we wanted to pave some new ground with this set, so I decided to lead the vision design. As for my bio, it's me. I've been making Magic for a long time (29 years this October).

Annie Sardelis (Strong second, Exploratory and Vision Design)

Annie has been on a lot of design teams (including Dominaria United, Unfinity, March of the Machine, Wilds of Eldraine, and Murders at Karlov Manor; she also led the design of the Magic: The Gathering® – Fallout® Commander decks) but was about to do her first vision design lead with Duskmourn: House of Horror. Usually before that happens, I like to have the person work with me as a strong second on a set I'm leading just to help them learn the ropes of how vision design works. There's nothing quite like handling a file to get an understanding of all the changes a set goes through. Annie was an amazing strong second and would go on to be an amazing vision design lead for Duskmourn: House of Horror, but that's for a different article. A lot of the whimsy of the set started with Annie back in vision design.

Dan Musser (Vision Design)

We like having a play designer on Vision Design teams, and most of the time, that person is Dan. He and I have been on many Vision Design teams together. Outlaws of Thunder Junction had a lot of mechanics that impacted set structure in a way that required working closely with the Play Design team to get it right. It's important we make a set that Play Design can balance, and a lot of that happens way back during vision design. Dan, as always, does a great job of anticipating future problems from the earliest of ideas.

Dave Humpherys (Vision Design)

Dave was the set design lead for Outlaws of Thunder Junction. Whenever he leads a set design, he likes to be on the Vision Design team. Dave is well known for not changing a lot of the vision design, but that stems from the fact that he's so good at making sure what we're doing during vision design are things he can work with. Here are some sets that I've led and handed off to Dave: Dominaria, War of the Spark, Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths, Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, and March of the Machine.

Doug Beyer (Exploratory and Vision Design)

Doug was the creative liaison for the Vision Design team. Worldbuilding is going on concurrently with vision design, so it's important that we have good communication about our progress. Decisions from one group will often affect the actions of the other group. Doug and I have worked together for a long time, so it's a comfortable relationship. As always, Doug did a wonderful job making sure each decision we made would blend well with how the plane was being built.

Graeme Hopkins (Exploratory Design)

Graeme came in third in the first Great Designer Search. He ended up getting a job on the digital team, but I've made sure to include him on design teams whenever possible. He is truly a great designer, and I always enjoy having him on my design teams as his designs push in directions I might not have considered but most often enjoy.

Jeremy Geist (Exploratory and Vision Design)

Jeremy came in second in Great Designer Search 3 and is an up-and-coming designer in R&D. I think this was his first time on the Exploratory Design and Vision Design teams. I can't say enough for how much I enjoy his designs. He's a firehose of ideas and always delivers insightful executions of card designs.

Michelle Roberson (Vision Design)

Michelle came to us from the Casual Play Design team. I enjoy having different perspectives in vision design, as it helps us make the product for different types of players. With the growth of casual play, it's important to think about how our set's themes and mechanics will play in a casual environment.

Mike Mearls (Exploratory Design)

Mike comes to Magic from working on Dungeons & Dragons for many years. I've had him on numerous Exploratory Design and Vision Design teams. He thinks very environmentally and asks questions that help me think about the set more holistically.

Now that I've introduced the Exploratory Design and Vision Design teams, it's time to start telling the story of Outlaws of Thunder Junction's design. To do that, we need to go back to March of the Machine. In it, the Phyrexian war changed the nature of the Multiverse, opening up Omenpaths that allowed non-Planeswalkers to walk between planes. Doing so granted us the ability to make sets that we couldn't have made before, among other things.

My plan was to try and make one set each year that played into this new space. Outlaws of Thunder Junction was going to be our first foray into that. This is why I chose to lead the vision design for this set. I had several different ideas for new set structures. One of them was what I called a showcase set. A showcase set has a theme and uses the Omenpaths to get creatures (and possibly objects) from across the Multiverse that fit into that theme. The set would then showcase that theme.

There were a lot of potential themes, but there was a front-runner, a theme we'd almost used once before. Magic Origins is best known as the set that focused on the five Planeswalkers that would go on to be the first five members of the Gatewatch. In Magic Origins, we met each Planeswalker pre-spark on their homeworld and watched as they sparked and traveled to their first new plane. To capture the moment of sparking, we made a cycle of legendary creatures that had a planeswalker card on the back face. But before the set did any of that, it started as a villains set.

Core sets weren't tied to any plane, so they were the one type of set that had the ability to do showcase themes. Their biggest restriction, a need for simplicity, kept us from adding many legendary creatures to them, which was key to making many showcase themes work. The early design on the villains theme showed that it was pretty potent and fun, so I'd kept the idea of doing a villains set tucked away for a future day. Outlaws of Thunder Junction would be that future day.

The Creative team wanted to tie it to a story that was an archetypal villains story, and we agreed on making it a heist story. We also wanted a plane for this set, someplace new, so we went back to another theme we'd been looking to give a home—a plane inspired by the Western genre.

The idea of a Western-inspired plane came up many times. There was even a point at which we had two back-to-back sets planned on Vryn (i.e., Jace's homeworld) with a Western theme. None of those happened, so when we walked through which setting would complement a villains theme, the lawlessness of a frontier plane seemed like a great match.

A showcase villains set with a heist story and a Western-inspired plane was the kernel of the idea that got the set greenlit and on the schedule. Before exploratory design starts, we have something we call seeds meetings. It's a meeting the vision design lead and the creative design lead has with Aaron Forsythe and others (including me when I'm not the vision lead), to hash out the basic concept of what the set will be. It's a chance to get all the major stakeholders on board. There are usually between two and four seeds meetings depending on how well understood a particular set is.

Today, I want to share with you the brainstorm from one of the seeds meetings. This was the first time we investigated what types of themes we'd want to explore. The question we started with was, "What is the fun of being the villain?" Here's what came out of the meeting:

  • Being the leader:
    • A previously explored leader mechanic: When I ETB, choose a creature to be the leader, and grant that leader an ability. When you play another creature with this ability, you can choose a new leader.
    • This morphed into the Ring-bearer mechanic in The Lord of the Rings: Tales of Middle-earth™.
  • Having minions
  • Getting to use cool technology
  • Bounties—the more notorious you are, the bigger the bounty on your head, but also, it's a measure of how badass that villain is.
    • Literally a bounty—if you kill this creature, you get some Treasure.
    • Can you do this to your own creatures?
    • Sure, sounds like a color-pair strategy. :D
  • Villain has a past that comes back to haunt them.
  • Doing various kinds of crimes:
    • Stealing things, thieves
    • Arson
    • Murder
    • Blackmail
    • Destroying things in general
  • Roles in the villain team:
    • Gathering groups
    • An evil version of party?
    • Masterminds draw cards, etc.
  • Plans and schemes
  • Punisher mechanics (Browbeat, etc.)
  • Morbid or other mechanics that care about things dying
  • Pushing things "too far"—building an over-the-top supervillain device, grandiose "rule the world" plans, etc.
  • Fantasy villains:
    • Want to capture the ancient Magical item
    • Awaken every 1,000 years
    • Embodiment of evil
    • Evil wizard archetype
  • Most things you do to mess with your opponent feel villainous.
  • Monologuing, telling the hero your plans:
    • "Still had all these" is the Magic version of monologuing. XD
  • Villainy of the Wild West:
    • Taking advantage of the lawless frontier
    • Might makes right, power trip in the absence of law
    • When the outlaw steps into town, everybody knows their reputation—everyone goes inside and closes the shutters.
  • Reputation:
    • You did something so bad in the past and now everyone knows not to mess with you.
    • Can something gain reputation during gameplay?
    • What does it mean when a creature has a reputation?
  • What are creatures other than villains?
    • Henchmen/minions
    • Law
    • Innocent bystanders
    • Victims
    • Creatures and monsters
    • Drinkers in the saloon
    • General store owner
    • Mounts
  • Heist feel:
    • Variant of battles—my opponent has a thing, and when I hit the opponent N times, I get that reward.
    • Hot potato object like The Monarch—fun to take stuff from people.
    • Ticking time bomb—"I'm gonna set this bomb!" "But I'm gonna move it to your side!"
  • Wild West feel:
    • Forming a posse to do the insurmountable task
    • Getting to do things you can't normally do
    • Treasure, gold, mining—old mining town
    • Graveyards and cemeteries
    • Equipment
    • How much do we want rifles?
  • Spell space:
    • This place is going to have an easy time doing tropes in creature cards—what are the spells?
    • Explosions!
    • Distractions and trickiness
  • Super-elaborate plan with lots of teams doing lots of different things:
    • Jace as the mastermind, putting everyone in place to do what they're best at.
  • Globally appealing QXX?
    • Wild West is very specific to American—what can we do to globalize?
    • What are themes that are more universal?
  • "At least one villain per booster" would be a great KSP!

This brainstorm was followed by a similar brainstorm in our first exploratory design meeting. The prompt for that brainstorm was "What would you expect from a villain set?"

  • Schemes
  • Heists
  • Foretell mechanic
  • Plotting grand multi-step plans
  • Criminal masterminds
  • Weakness, a blind spot, fatal flaw, Achilles's heel
  • Tools, weapons, doomsday machines
  • Backstabbing, betrayal
  • Stealing
  • Hideouts
  • Traps
  • You do something bad to your own creatures for a bonus, sacrifice, exploit
  • Treasures
  • Bribes, extort
  • Minion tokens (new creature token with text)
  • Debt mechanic
  • Some form of law and order as contrast:
    • The Law—As long as you have The Law on you, the first spell you cast each turn costs 1 more. [do something]: Give The Law to another target player.
  • Henchmen, goons, minions
  • Villainous hierarchy
  • Alternate-win conditions
  • Doing evil things to people (Mindslaver, stealing cards, etc.)
  • Disloyal creatures
  • Counterfeit resources (ex., Treasure that goes away)
  • Making bad choices
  • Being "wanted," building infamy, bounty
  • Showdowns, duels between villains:
    • Shoot-out (You and target opponent take turns revealing cards from your hands, until a player gives up. The player who has revealed the greatest mana value among cards they revealed wins the shoot-out.)
  • Villainous animals
  • Mutate mechanic, "sharks with laser beams"
  • A diverse line-up of villains, looks like a hodgepodge
  • Origin stories, when they go bad, their motive for being bad
    • Sepia-tone literal flashback cards
  • Vague deaths, unexpected returns
  • Cloning (decoys, misdirection)
  • Always on the run from the law (negative Monarch, get rid of it, hold it off)

Once we collected all this data (along with data from some other meetings), the next step was to make a list that prioritized all the ideas. Usually this is done by giving all the team members some number of stickers (about three to five) and having them vote for what components they thought mattered most. This led to a list of what things we thought were most important for a villain set. (Sadly, the list was not written down in our notes for me to share.) At the top of the list was committing crimes. That's kind of definitionally what a villain does.

As I talked about in one of my preview articles for Murders at Karlov Manor, I've been interested in finding more designs that allow us to write the words we want in rules text, to make the rules text itself as resonant as possible. As an offshoot of that, I asked my design team to try and figure out what the line "commit a crime" could mean mechanically.

We tried to write down spells that we thought felt like crimes. We then looked at them to see what they had in common. We found three things:

  1. They targeted the opponent and/or their stuff.
  2. They damaged the opponent and/or their stuff.
  3. They destroyed the opponent's stuff.

Let me make an aside into an issue Magic R&D has been dealing with for the last ten or so years. As Commander and other larger formats, like Modern, have become more popular, people are playing non-rotating formats with access to a lot more cards. When we design new themes, there's a desire for those themes to be playable in the larger formats. If the theme is too parasitic, meaning the things you need to play with only come from the current set, it becomes hard to build around them in larger formats, especially Commander with its singleton 100-card deck construction. This has resulted in us trying to find more ways to create new deck-building themes that have a backwards compatibility.

Defining "commit a crime" as a type of action, something many Magic cards do, rather than as a specific new mechanic, allowed us to define the term in a way that made many existing cards part of the theme. The version of crimes vision design handed off to set design was as follows: (Spells and abilities you control that destroy, target, or damage something you don't control are crimes.)

Both destroy and damage ended up causing problems. Destroy's issue was a rules issue. For example, let's say you cast the card Mutilate. You and your opponent each have four creatures with a power of 6 or less. You have seven swamps. How many creatures did Mutilate destroy? The answer is none. Mutilate didn't destroy any of the cards. All it did was reduce them all to 0/0. The game, in the form of state-based actions, destroyed the creatures. That seemed very non-intuitive.

Damage had two main issues. First, let's say I cast a Lightning Bolt on my opponent's creature. How many crimes was I committing? Two: one for targeting the creature, and one for damaging the creature. Second, damage was also weird in how it interacted with sacrifice. Let's say I cast Wildfire. My opponent, in response, sacrifices all his creatures. Did Wildfire damage them? No, because the creatures weren't there when the damage occurred.

In the end, avoiding targeting was the simplest from a rules standpoint and the hardest from a game standpoint. Also, most things that destroyed or damaged something of the opponent's targeted. Yes, it missed board sweepers, but there will always be a few things that slip through the cracks. Tracking targeting mostly hit the things we needed to, and the subgroup that it counted was big enough to build around. I also want to note that including abilities in addition to spells greatly increased the cards the mechanic counted. The other thing we found when playtesting the mechanic was that we had to limit anytime effects to once per turn, as there were costless activated abilities that could repeatably target creatures.

Another item high on our list was the concept of outlaws. Early in vision design, we explored making a brand-new creature type but ended up hitting the same issue I was talking about above with backwards compatibility. What if instead of making something new, we used a batch to connect creature types that felt like an outlaw, so of course, we went through the list of creatures and listed every one we thought could possibly be an outlaw. (Probably 10% of vision design is just making lists.) Here was our list:

  • Assassin
  • Barbarian
  • Berserker
  • Minion
  • Mercenary
  • Ninja
  • Pirate
  • Rebel
  • Rogue
  • Warlock

Rogue and Assassin seemed like the auto-includes. I added Mercenary because there was a new creature token we were including in the set (more on that in a minute). Assassin, Rogue, and Mercenary was the batch I showed to Doug Beyer. Doug was the one who suggested we add Warlock. It was important that the Creative team had the tools to flavor any creature card that design needed to be an outlaw. The list was missing a spellcaster. Assassin, Rogue, Mercenary, and Warlock were in the list handed off from vision design. The Set Design team would later add Pirate. Many on the Set Design team felt Pirates were the one most glaring in its absence, and The Lost Caverns of Ixalan had just added so many new Pirates, so it was added to the batch. Generally, we try to keep our batches between two and five, as they get too hard to remember if you make the list too long.

My first preview card cares about outlaws, so this seems like a good time to show it off.

Click here to see Double Down

0044_MTGOTJ_Main: Double Down 0317_MTGOTJ_ExtRM: Double Down

We changed the rules last year about how copy effects work with permanent spells. Now, if you copy a permanent spell, you get a token that's a copy. Double Down is having fun with this change.

The Mercenary token I talked about above was an idea Dave Humpherys pitched early in vision design. It was based on the card Traveling Minister from Innistrad: Crimson Vow.

Traveling Minister Mercenary Token

Villain sidekicks and minions are a trope of villains, and we wanted to capture them in gameplay. We liked the idea that they were more about helping the main villains than doing the villainy themselves, and the power-pumping ability did this job well. Dave had liked how the Traveling Minister played in Innistrad: Crimson Vow, so we thought we'd try it here. We put them in early vision design and liked them so much that they never changed. The initial plan was to use Mercenary only for the tokens, but the Creative team decided that there was a use for it on other creatures. (A creature tagged by design as an outlaw only has five options for a creature type, and many of them are specific to flavor.)

The one last villain theme I want to talk about today plays into the showcase theme I talked about above. The biggest value of having the Omenpaths was the ability to bring villains from across the Multiverse to Thunder Junction. That meant the set wanted to have a lot of legendary villains from other planes, one of which is my second preview card.

Click here to meet Satoru, the Infiltrator

0230_MTGOTJ_Main: Satoru, the Infiltrator 0298_MTGOTJ_Wanted: Satoru, the Infiltrator

We first met Satoru Umezawa on Kamigawa in Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty. This new version stays blue and black. While it doesn't call out ninjutsu by name, as his first card does, it's designed to play nicely with it. It also plays well with one of our new mechanics, plot, which I'll be talking about next week. Also, we made him a Rogue in addition Ninja so he'd be an outlaw.

The Set Design team worked closely with the Creative team to get the best mix of legendary villains to play into the villains theme. More than ten different planes are represented by the rogues' gallery of legendary creatures in the set.

The Plot Thickens

That's all the time I have for today. As always, I'm eager for any feedback on today's column, any of the mechanics I talked about, or on Outlaws of Thunder Junction itself. You can 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.

Until then, may you revel in your own villainy.