During the transition from vision design to set design, the vision design leads create something we call the vision design handoff document. It talks about the larger goals, themes, mechanics, and structure of the set to give the Set Design team an idea of all the work the Vision Design team did. I started showing these documents years ago, and you all really liked them, so I keep showing them. Here are the ones I've previously published:

As with all my vision design handoff articles, most of what I'm showing you is the actual document. My notes, giving explanation and context, are in the blue boxes below the text. This document, like most of them, was long enough that I've broken it into two parts.

"Quilting" Vision Design Handoff Document

Exploratory and Vision Design Teams

  • Mark Rosewater (Lead, Exploratory and Vision Design)
  • Annie Sardelis (Strong Second, Exploratory and Vision Design)
  • Dan Musser (Vision Design)
  • Dave Humpherys (Vision Design)
  • Doug Beyer (Exploratory and Vision Design)
  • Graeme Hopkins (Exploratory Design)
  • Jeremy Geist (Exploratory and Vision Design)
  • Michelle Roberson (Vision Design)
  • Mike Mearls (Exploratory Design)

Creative Worldbuilding and Story

  • Grace Fong (Design Lead, Worldbuilding)
  • Doug Beyer (Vision Lead, Worldbuilding)
  • Ari Zirulnik (Worldbuilding)
  • Jehan Choo (Lead Concept Artist, Worldbuilding)
  • Roy Graham (Story)
  • Taylor Ingvarsson (Lead Art Director)

As always, I start the document by introducing the members of the Exploratory Design, Vision Design, Creative, and Worldbuilding teams for the set. It's always our goal to make each set feel unique. One of the ways we do this is by adjusting our design teams so that it's always a different mix of people. Whenever I lead a set, I always have a strong second, as it's the best learning tool I have available. (We were helping Annie prepare for leading her own vision design for Duskmourn: House of Horror later in the year.)

"Quilting" is an expansion focused on villains and set on a brand-new Western-inspired plane. The takes advantage of the shift in the Multiverse cosmology (courtesy of the Omenpaths from "Marathon") to allow us to build a set with a theme where we can pull characters from across the Multiverse together. The set is a top-down design playing in the trope space of villains (including many heist tropes) and Westerns. Here are the goals for the set:

I always start my vision design handoff documents with a list of goals. Part of any vision design is getting everyone focused on the same target so that all the energy of all the designers is working in conjunction rather than at odds. The goals also emphasize importance, so if two goals come into conflict with one another, the Set Design team knows which one is the priority.

#1 – Introduce the concept of an interplanar theme set.

The new Multiverse cosmology allows us to make sets that we couldn't make before. "Quilting" is the first foray into this new design space. We picked a broad, exciting theme—villains—and created a plane and story where we could bring together some fan-favorite characters from across the Multiverse. If successful, this model can be reused with different themes.

Since this document, I have changed my language. I now refer to pulling things from across the Multiverse to match a particular theme a "showcase set." "Interplanar" ended up being a bit too broad of a term because most the space we were planning on with the introduction of the Omenpaths involved the interaction of more than one plane, so "interplanar" did a poor job of conveying the idea. This is the top goal because we were building something larger than the individual set. If the showcase theme ended up being something popular, it could provide the structure for many other sets. I am interested in feedback if you all like the idea of a showcase set. If the answer is yes, are there other themes you'd like to see?

#2 – Make a villainous set.

Heroes can be boring. The true standout in any story is the villain. "Quilting" allows the audience to take the role of a villain and experience it through gameplay. As you will see below, we worked hard to craft the mechanics to capture the many aspects that make villainy fun. Because the story is about a heist, we also played into heist tropes among our many villain tropes.

When designing a set, I always ask about the experience and emotion I'm trying to evoke from the player. Why is this set different from other sets? One way to do this is to think about what role the player is inhabiting. Outlaws of Thunder Junction had a very clear answer. You get to be a villain. You get to plot and scheme and make elaborate plans. You get minions. You have access to other villains and/or criminals. And you get to enjoy doing things that you might normally not. It gives you motivation and resources. It's frankly meaty stuff, which is a big part of vision design, making sure you're playing in space that will resonate with the players and provide a lot of unique design opportunities. Also, because we make a lot of sets, it helps give this set its own unique identity.

#3 – Capture a Western feel.

Making a Western-inspired plane has been on our shortlist for many years, but it has provided numerous challenges. Having been formed in the mid-twentieth century, Westerns contain many core tropes that have become dated and are inappropriate in a modern product. We needed to find ways to focus on the fun aspects of the genre while eliminating the troublesome ones. In addition, for a global product, the Western genre can be seen as a bit ethnocentric. This is why we focused more on the Western for the look and feel of the product and less as the focus for marketing and gameplay. That said, there are a lot of usable tropes that we were able to weave into the design.

The villain theme had its strengths and weaknesses. It was good structurally for providing player motivation and designing mechanics, but it was a bit weaker for individual card design. The trope space is not as deep as others we've used. This is why we set it on a Western-inspired plane. That genre gave us a lot of imagery and individual card designs. It did require a lot of caution, though, so we did work with cultural consultants to make sure we weren't touching on sensitive areas inappropriately. Marketing leaned into the Western theme a bit more than I had expected. My best guess for that is marketing tends to follow visuals, and the set looks more like a Western-inspired set than a villain-inspired set.

#4 – Lean toward themes that play better with audiences playing larger formats.

One of the biggest challenges over the last ten years has been a shift away from a premier-focused audience to one that's more focused on formats with larger card pools (Commander and Modern being the biggest). This has required us to rethink how we're crafting our mechanical themes. We still want to make mechanics that encourage new deck-building strategies, but we need to do it in a way that plays nicely with the larger formats. Our main mechanic, crimes, is a good example of this new strategy. More on that below.

I've talked about this in several different articles. The popularity of formats with larger card pools has greatly changed how we think of new mechanical themes. Backwards compatibility has always been something we've thought about, but its importance has increased. The current technique that's worked the best includes finding themes that can use components that already exist. Committing a crime and outlaws are a good example of this. A crime, outlaw deck, or subtheme makes players evaluate old cards in a new way. Also important, it gives the new set something players can build now and not something that they'll have to wait years to build. Does committing a crime sound fun in the context of Magic? The new set will give you the cards that care about the theme, and old sets will give you the components they care about.

The structure of our set mechanically is mostly focused on capturing a sense of villainy with a little bit of a Western feel. Here are all the main mechanics and mechanical components:

Crime (Spells and abilities you control that destroy, target, or damage something you don't control are crimes.)

Vault Guard
Creature — Human Soldier
CARDNAME can attack as if it didn't have defender if you've committed a crime this turn. (Spells and abilities you control that destroy, target, or damage something you don't control are crimes.)

Gallows Ghost
Creature — Spirit
At the beginning of your end step, if you committed a crime this turn, each opponent loses 1 life and you gain 1 life. (Spells and abilities you control that destroy, target, or damage something you don't control are crimes.)

Highly Dangerous Weapon
Artifact — Equipment
Equipped creature has double strike.
Equip 3.
Equip 1 if you've committed a crime this turn. (Spells and abilities you control that destroy, target, or damage something you don't control are crimes.)

Gallows Ghost's template changed and went from a 1/3 to a 1/2 but saw print as Raven of Fell Omens.

A goal of present-day design concerns finding ways to be as resonant as possible in our word usage while also being conscious of a need to introduce new deck-building themes that are applicable to larger formats. The main mechanic of the set, crimes, is a good example of how we're executing on this. Crimes are defined as "spells and abilities you control that destroy, target, or damage something you don't control." (I should note there is some talk about adding "exile" to this list.) This allows us to make cards that care about "if you've committed a crime this turn."

One of the goals of vision design is to present the grandest idea of how the mechanic can work. We want to think big and push boundaries. If you self-censor your ideas, you can remove things that might have actually worked if we'd tried them. The initial idea of committing crimes was to try and hit as many categories that felt like crimes as possible (which is why we reference damage and destroy in addition to target). The Set Design team then spent time figuring out which of those elements worked the best. The fact they we gave them multiple things to work with allowed them the freedom to take away things that didn't work. We handed off three things because we've found that's the sweet spot to remember. We talked about "exile" because it was a little weird to differentiate between "destroy" and "exile," as they're used somewhat interchangeably.

This mechanic can be used in most the ways that morbid is used. It can be used on a spell or ability to upgrade it if a crime has been committed. It can be used to allow an activated ability or trigger to happen if a crime has been committed. It can be used to grant an ability if a crime has been committed. The one thing the current version can't do is trigger "when" it happens as certain effects, like direct damage, will trigger twice because they both target and damage.

Another thing we like to do in the handoff document is explain what design space we've found that works best. The Exploratory Design team does its work to save time during vision design. In turn, the Vision Design team does its work to save time on set design. Often, we'll use other mechanics as examples, as most of R&D has a better sense of the design space of an existing mechanic. We'll also note issues such as the "direct damage triggers twice" problem that we ran across. Set Design explored the idea of cards triggering each time a crime was committed, but there are enough old cards with a zero activation that targets that it wasn't a viable play design-wise.

Crimes are a great example of how to play in new space using old aspects. The designation will make players care about a subset of spells that go all the way back to the beginning of the game but have never been grouped before. This will impact how players judge spells because they now can have a quality that was never relevant. As its inclusive of many old spells, larger formats will be able to use the theme fully right out of the gate.

I think it's important to walk through motivations for how a design is made. Set Design will usually redesign a majority of the cards, so you want to make sure they understand the reasoning behind the mechanic.

Plot (During your turn, you may pay COST and exile this card from your hand. Cast it on a later turn without paying its mana cost.)

Silver Knuckles
Enchantment — Aura
Enchant creature you control
Enchanted creature gets +2/+2.
Plot G (During your turn, you may pay COST and exile this card from your hand. Cast it on a later turn without paying its mana cost.)

Circling Buzzard
Creature — Zombie Bird
CARDNAME enters the battlefield with a +1/+1 counter if a creature died this turn.
Plot 1B (During your turn, you may pay COST and exile this card from your hand. Cast it on a later turn without paying its mana cost.)

Living Forgery
Creature — Shapeshifter Rogue
CARDNAME enters the battlefield as a copy of a creature you control that entered the battlefield this turn.
Plot 2U (During your turn, you may pay COST and exile this card from your hand. Cast it on a later turn without paying its mana cost.)

Other than no longer being a Zombie, Circling Buzzard made it to print as Blacksnag Buzzard. Living Forgery went through a lot of changes but ended up in print as Visage Bandit.

Plot is a mechanic that gives you an alternate cost that allows you to exile a card face up. You are then able to cast it for free on any future turn. This mechanic tries to capture the idea of plotting a master plan that will come to fruition on future turns. The mechanic works on any card type, but we are being very cautious about when we are using it on instants or permanents with flash as we don't want to create on-board tricks that the opponent can feel stupid walking into. The philosophy with plot is a lot like how we treat flashback.

The Set Design team ended up making zero instants or permanents with flash. They did create some cards that could give plot to existing cards, so they added the sorcery restriction. Other than that change, plot mostly stayed as it was handed off. Note again, I refer to an existing mechanic, in this case flashback, to give a lot of information without having to say a lot. We've made so many flashback spells over the years that everyone in R&D is pretty familiar with the issues.

Plot can be used in several ways:

  1. It can be used as a mini-suspend mechanic where I'm able to pay less for a card but have the added cost of time.
  2. It can be used as a mechanic that requires combining with some other element, and I can pay now but wait until the other component happens (with things like Auras).
  3. It can be used with mechanics that want to combo with mana; I can pay now, so all my mana will be free on the turn the spell is cast.
  4. It can be used on combo pieces so that I can pay for them over time and have them all happen on one big turn.
  5. It can be used to be more efficient with your mana as you can spend unspent mana, especially on early turns, for use later in the game.

Of all the mechanics in the set, this is the one that most enables quirky designs.

The Vision Design team really liked plot but understood that the mechanic wasn't as obvious when read for the first time, so I felt it was important to walk through some examples of when plot shined. I should also note that the vision design handoff is not the only thing the Set Design team gets. We also make a full file of card designs. This file acts as a proof of concept to show off mechanics, larger structural themes, and the general tone we're shooting for. When a mechanic has a lot of flexibility, we usually show that off in the cards we put into the file. I'll also make sure that the cards I select for the document show off the mechanic hitting a variety of uses.

"This Isn't Over!"

That's all the space I have for today. I hope you liked the peek behind the scenes. As always, I'm eager for any feedback, either on the handoff document or Outlaws of Thunder Junction. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (X, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).

Join me next week for part two.

Until then, may you have fun committing crimes.