When a set moves from vision design to set design, the vision design lead creates a vision design handoff document in which they walk through their team's vision for the set. This includes talking about larger goals, themes, mechanics, and structure. I started showing these off years ago, and they were a big hit, so now whenever we get to a set where I led the vision design, I share the document. Here are the ones I've previously published:

The document was long enough (and I had a bunch I wanted to say about the handoff) that I've made it a two-parter. As with all my vision design handoff articles, most of the text below is the actual document as it was turned in with my notes in boxes for greater explanation and context.

"Lacrosse" Vision Design Handoff Document

Vision Design Team

  • Mark Rosewater (lead)
  • Doug Beyer (strong second, creative lead)
  • Ari Nieh
  • Bryan Hawley
  • Graeme Hopkins
  • Ken Nagle
  • Ovidio Cartagena

I always begin by introducing my Vision Design team. I have bios for all of them in my first Phyrexia: All Will Be One design article. I normally also list my Exploratory Design team and the Worldbuilding team. I'm not sure why I left them off, but here they are.

Exploratory Design Team

  • Doug Beyer (strong second)
  • Graeme Hopkins
  • Ken Nagle
  • Sydney Adams
  • Zak Elsik

(They also have bios in the link above.)

Worldbuilding Team

  • Fox Allison
  • Doug Beyer
  • Grace Fong
  • Roy Graham
  • Jenna Helland
  • Neale Laplante-Johnson
  • Miguel Lopez
  • Leah Miller
  • Emily Teng

"Lacrosse" is our return to New Phyrexia. It's the penultimate chapter in the Phyrexian war storyline. The challenge of this set was to deliver on the world of New Phyrexia in a way that satisfies the needs of our enfranchised fans, who are very familiar with the Phyrexians, and our less-enfranchised fans, many of whom are unaware of what the Phyrexians are (while they hit a major horror trope, they are a unique Magic creation, and thus a little less resonant in a vacuum). This led to the following goals for the set:

There was a big worry at Wizards that a Phyrexian storyline might be off-putting to some portion of the audience for two main reasons. One, their imagery can be intense. Two, they're a Magic creation, which means that some of our audience won't be familiar with them. Those two concerns were front and center in the creation of Phyrexia: All Will Be One, with the first item more of a worry for the art department. This led us to the decision that we'd only have one set where the Phyrexians would make up most of the set. Everywhere else, they would be present, but in smaller doses.

1. Deliver on a set that captures the essence of the Phyrexians mechanically.

The Phyrexians are Magic's oldest villain (first showing up in Antiquities, the game's second expansion) and have appeared in numerous sets over the years. We've made many mechanical connections to the Phyrexians, and "Lacrosse" vision design had to figure out which ones would lead to the best set while also meeting player expectations. Our goal was to capture the promise of a "Phyrexian set."

As I explained in my initial design article, I'm a huge fan of the Phyrexians and chose to lead this set's vision design because I knew making Phyrexian fans happy without upsetting the players who didn't like them or weren't familiar with them was a tricky tightrope for design to walk.

2. Design a set that is approachable to players who might be unfamiliar with the Phyrexians.

The trick to this goal is designing a set that feels cohesive and flavorful unto itself. Part of doing this included recognizing the trope space we were playing in, what we dubbed "alien horror," where the threat is something otherworldly and invasive. We used creatures like the aliens from the Alien franchise, the Borg from Star Trek, and the body snatchers from Invasion of the Body Snatchers as inspiration to tap into a new type of horror (in contrast to the more traditional gothic horror that Innistrad sets play with), one where an alien threat acts like a virus infecting those it comes into contact with. TV Tropes dubs this trope "The Assimilator."

In the early days, we could just pick broad themes. Innistrad was the horror set that could capture all the horror tropes. As we make more and more worlds, we're finding we need to find subsections of popular genres, such as horror. We talked about this early in design. What type of horror could this set be without stepping on the toes of Innistrad? Leaning into the archetype that the Phyrexians are based on got us to thinking of this set as "science-fiction horror."

3. Give the players a chance to feel the joy of playing the Phyrexians.

In the past, the Phyrexians have always been set up as "the other," the villain you're facing. Because this set represents a world conquered by the Phyrexians and is primarily filled by Phyrexians (they account for around 80 percent of the creatures in the set), we wanted the set to give players a chance to sample what it's like to be the Phyrexians. While we were mostly using mechanics the audience was familiar with (to meet the first goal), it was important for us to create an overall environment that felt new and fresh. The novelty of this set is not the component pieces, but how they fit together to create an environment the players haven't experienced before.

When I was leading the design for Dark Ascension, I was very focused on capturing the feel of the humans. From a storytelling standpoint, they were the protagonists. But Tom LaPille, the lead developer for the set (this is before the vision design, set design, and play design model), reminded me that the coolest thing about the set was the monsters, not the humans. Because of that lesson, I always try to focus on the coolest thing about the set and whether it will be fun for players to be that thing.

Knowing that Phyrexia: All Will Be One was going to be mostly Phyrexians, I wanted the design to capture fun aspects of being Phyrexian. This meant it had to have a style of play and a feel that was joyous in the execution of using the cards. It was going to feel villainous, but it had to do so in a fun way. This was another tricky task for the design teams.

Here are the mechanics the Vision Design team has put into the set:


Scars of Mirrodin block strongly connected the Phyrexians with the poison alternative-win condition (you lose the game when you get ten poison counters), as it played into the Phyrexians-as-disease metaphor. The Vision Design team felt the audience expectation for poison would be high enough that we were obligated to find a way to make it work in the set. Our goal was to figure out how to use poison while solving some of the issues Scars of Mirrodin block had with it.

The infect mechanic was both flavorful and polarizing. While we spent a little time looking at infect in early vision design, I knew in my heart that it was unlikely to make it to print. My bigger goal was to find a way to salvage poison. I'm a huge fan of alternative-win conditions, and there's something about poison that makes it feel special.

The biggest problem was the "silo issue." Because creatures with infect dealt poison in place of damage, it was difficult to mix poison and non-poison strategies. You tended to go all in on one strategy and avoid the other. We wanted to find ways where poison and non-poison could mix within deck strategies. We found three ways to do this:

Scars of Mirrodin had a lot more proliferate in it as a way to create more crossover between the two sides, but we had to scale it down for play design reasons.

1. Using poisonous rather than infect

Corrupted Tyrannax
Creature — Phyrexian Beast
Poisonous 2 (Whenever this creature deals combat damage to a player, that player gets two poison counters.)

Poisonous N is a creature mechanic that gives a player N poison counters whenever it deals combat damage. Unlike infect, poisonous does not replace the damage but grants poison in addition to it. This means that a player is still damaging an opponent along the way while trying to poison them to death. Also, because the poisonous number is a knob that can be adjusted, Set Design and Play Design have more control over the ratio of damage to poison.

We put poisonous in black, green, and white. We chose black and green, as those are the natural fits for poison, and white to represent Elesh Norn's leadership (and it works well with white's creature-heavy nature). One of our ways to help white with a "go wide" poison strategy was to allow it to create a new creature token, a 1/1 Phyrexian Mite creature token with poisonous 1 and "can't block."

It's interesting how little changed between the vision design handoff and print with poisonous. Yes, it became toxic for digital and creative reasons, but the gameplay is almost identical. The three poison colors remained the same, as did their basic strategic framework. The Mites even made it all the way through, not only with the same design but the same name.

Another thing I want to point out is how important it is to keep Play Design's ability to balance the mechanics in mind. An idea can sound cool in a vacuum, but if we can't practically make it, it's not a good option.

2. The use of the corrupted mechanic

Dross Marauder
Creature — Phyrexian Warrior
Poisonous 1 (Whenever this creature deals combat damage to a player, that player gets a poison counter.)
Corrupted — As long as an opponent has 3 or more poison counters, CARDNAME gets +1/+2.

Corrupted is an ability word that means "If any opponent has three or more poison counters," the permanent or spell is upgraded. Its goal is to make an environment where poisoning someone is not all or nothing. There will be decks that want to poison an opponent but not kill them with poison. The Vision Design team explored different thresholds but found that three seemed to be the sweet spot. The corrupted mechanic shows up in all five colors, but we've focused it in white and black. The white-black draft archetype is built around the corrupted mechanic. It's the deck that often wins by poisoning you some.

While the basics of corrupted didn't change, the Set Design team did spend a lot of time figuring out how best to use corrupted. What the delta should be (the power level difference between your opponent being corrupted and not), what effects it should generate, and how it intermingled with other themes all shifted quite a bit. This is a great example of the difference between vision design and set design. In vision design, we try to figure out the big picture. In set design, the team focuses more on execution. Yes, the concept of corrupted was key to making the set work, but how exactly it needed to be used required a lot of iteration.

3. The use of scaling effects

Creature — Phyrexian Angel
When CARDNAME enters the battlefield, gain 2 life for each poison counter all opponents have.

In addition to the corrupted threshold, there are some spells that simply get stronger based on how many poison counters a particular opponent has. These spells are all usable if the opponent has no poison counters but scale up the more they have. One particularly interesting variant are spells that cost one less for each poison counter an opponent has.

Two out of three ain't bad. There was a lot going on with poison, so the Set Design team decided to mostly stick with corrupted as a poison reward. Also, as scaling effects had to accommodate up to nine, it was hard to make effects that were balanced. My favorite execution was the cost reduction to spells because it allowed us to make spells that had a tighter power band.

The combination of these three things has led to an environment where poison is playing more roles than it had in Scars of Mirrodin block. Decks can aim to poison an opponent a little, a medium amount, or the full ten to kill them with it. This also allows for more mixing and matching of poison and non-poison cards.

It took a lot of work from Set Design and Play Design, but I think Phyrexia: All Will Be One did a good job of allowing a spectrum of poison decks to exist.

I just wanted to point out two other things we're trying with poison. First, we have some cards that give you some amount of poison counters as a cost of using the spell. We think these can be interesting in an environment where having different amounts of poison can matter environmentally.

Second, in blue, we've made some poison punisher spells, where the opponent is given two options, one of which is taking some poison counters. The idea is that the opponent is never forced to take the poison and thus can never die from one of these spells.

Offering to the Collective
Exile target artifact, enchantment, or creature. You get a poison counter.

Relentless Pressure
At the beginning of each player's end step, that player may return a creature they control to their owner's hand. If they don't, they gain a poison counter.

None of this stuff made it. Vision Design likes to overshoot a bit to give Set Design more options in what to use. Poisonous/toxic and corrupted provided all the tools needed, so a bunch of the other ideas were removed to lessen complexity.


Laboratory Incrementor
Creature — Phyrexian Wizard
At the beginning of your end step, if you cast an instant or sorcery spell this turn, proliferate. (Choose any number of permanents and/or players, then give each another counter of each kind already there.)

Scars of Mirrodin block also closely associated the Phyrexians with the proliferate mechanic. Like poison, it plays into the Phyrexians-as-disease metaphor. While infect was very polarizing, proliferate was mostly beloved by the players. It returned in War of the Spark to much fanfare. As with poison, we felt the audience would expect proliferate to appear in a Phyrexian-focused set.

Of the three P's that we felt players most associated with Phyrexia (poison, proliferate, and Phyrexian mana), proliferate was the piece we felt the safest about. Play Design spent a lot of time on it during War of the Spark, so we were confident that the set would have proliferate.

The key to making proliferate work in the set was figuring out what kind of counters we wanted to use. Scars of Mirrodin used proliferate with -1/-1 counters, while War of the Spark used it with +1/+1 and loyalty counters. After trying different things, we settled on oil counters, which are blank counters that carry no inherent mechanical capabilities. This would allow us to create a proliferate environment that was very different from either Scars of Mirrodin or War of the Spark.

The idea of no +1/+1 counters was a bit controversial when we handed the set over. Set Design even went so far as to put them in the set, but as they playtested, they realized the set worked better without them and took them back out.

Proliferate is primary in blue, secondary in green, and tertiary in red. Blue and green are the natural colors for proliferate from a philosophical and mechanical standpoint. We chose red as the third color as it wasn't a poisonous color and had more interaction with oil counters. I should note that the Council of Colors feels the ability makes sense within the world of New Phyrexia, but it wasn't something they wanted to see in larger formats, as it's not super red in philosophy. We agreed to keep proliferate in red as a tertiary thing meant primarily for Limited play.

Proliferate would stay in blue and green, but it moved from red to black during set design. I believe this was due to several factors. The two biggest being that black needed it more and color-pie concerns.

Note that I made sure in the handoff document to point out the color issues with the mechanic. It's important in a handoff to make sure that the team you're handing off to is aware of all the issues. We kept proliferate in red because it was achieving many things where the set was at the time, but I wanted Set Design to be fully informed when they figured out if it was supposed to stay.

That's all the time I have for today. As always, I'm eager for your feedback, be it on the document, my comments, or on the set of Phyrexia: All Will Be One. You can email me or contact me through my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).

Join me next week for part two of the vision design handoff document.

Until then, may people enjoy knowing the nooks and crannies of your job.