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:
- Throne of Eldraine (Part 1 and Part 2)
- Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths
- Zendikar Rising
- Original Zendikar (Part 1 and Part 2)
- Strixhaven: School of Mages (Part 1 and Part 2)
- Future Sight
- Original Innistrad
- Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty (Part 1 and Part 2)
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
"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:
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."
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."
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.
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 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:
1. Using poisonous rather than infect
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."
2. The use of the corrupted mechanic
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.