Today's column is based on a podcast I did earlier this year. One of the most common questions I get is "How do you come up with your ideas?" The short answer is there's no one consistent way. Part of what makes Magic challenging (and fun—one of the reasons I've been doing this for over 23 years) is that it requires you to keep approaching the creative process from a different vantage point. To make this point, I'm going to talk about every set that I lead (or co-led) the design or vision design for (25 sets in all) and talk about where the basic idea for the set came from. As you'll see, each set started with a goal (which sometimes changed but, more often than not, was the guiding principle for the design).
Last week (and two weeks before that), I talked all about the Weatherlight Saga, so you might think that the design for Tempest was inspired by bringing that story to life. It wasn't. When we started Tempest's design, Michael and I hadn't even pitched the idea for the Weatherlight Saga yet. I started Tempest design with a simple goal—to maximize on the many ideas the team had created prior to the start of the design. You see, for both Michael Elliott and myself, this was the first Design team we'd ever been on, so we came with years of card designs we'd built up. Richard Garfield hadn't designed a set since Arabian Nights, and after several years away from Magic designing other games, he too had built up a reservoir of card and mechanic designs. Charlie Catino, the final member of the team, likewise hadn't designed for Magic in a while, since Visions, and also came to our first meeting with some card ideas. Thus, I started Tempest design by asking all the designers to turn in whatever card designs they'd created over the years.
That's how we started Tempest—by wading through hundreds and hundreds of card ideas and picking out the ones that we thought were both good and things we could build a set around. Slivers and shadow, for example, came from a set Mike had designed before he came to Wizards. Buyback was an idea Richard had thought up while trying to figure out different ways to tweak spells. I should note that this was at a time where we didn't design by theme and tended to find individual mechanics we thought were fun. When the Weatherlight Saga started up, Michael and I worked elements of the set into the story and not vice versa.
This set started with a premise, and not one I'd made. Bill Rose and Joel Mick came to me with an idea they had for a set where the cards had silver borders and weren't tournament legal. Remember, at the time, there was only one format in Magic, and it included every card in print (save ones that were banned). Bill and Joel thought there could be some fun designs that could be done if we didn't have to worry about their impact on tournaments. How I did that and what kind of cards I designed was left completely up to me. This meant Unglued's goal was to figure out how best to use the silver borders.
I got inspired from something back in my youth. When I was younger, I was a magician (I mostly performed at kids' birthday parties—I wrote about it here). I performed various card tricks, many produced by a playing card company that specialized in magic card tricks. One of the items they sold was a deck made up of quirky cards—things like a black ten of diamonds, or a three and a half of clubs, or a card that was a queen of hearts on one end and a king of spades on the other. The deck wasn't specifically a card trick but a bunch of cards with which you, the magician, could do whatever you liked. The deck was silly and had a lot of cards that parodied normal playing cards.
This inspired me to make Unglued into a parody product, something that did weird and silly things that Magic didn't normally do, with cards that would allow the players to do weird and silly things, too. I allowed myself to make cards that messed with the rules and played around with humor in ways we normally didn't. That led to full-art lands (based on an idea that Chris Rush had told me but never been able to make), token cards, and all sorts of goofy ideas, many of which would later find their way into black-border Magic.
This is the first set I led the design for that was part of a larger block. As it was the third set in the block, I decided to take all the themes from Urza's Saga and Urza's Legacy and find new ways to use them. I took the cycling theme and shifted it to "cycling from play" cards for which you could pay two to trade for another card, except from the battlefield rather than your hand. I took the echo mechanic and played around with cards that had effects when they died, which would encourage you to not want to pay the echo cost sometimes. I took the enchantment theme and the growing counter theme and wove them in as well. My larger goal with Urza's Destiny was to show how we could take existing elements and play with them in a different way than the previous sets in the block had.
The previous block, Invasion, had been the first to use a theme (multicolor), and I was interested in finding a different theme we could build the block around. Interestingly, I didn't start with the theme, but rather, like Tempest design, had my designers all turn in ideas for mechanics and individual cards. Richard Garfield turned in an early version of threshold, and I had been playing around with flashback. These seemed like the strongest themes, so it made sense to push toward the theme of the graveyard. The goal of the set ended up being to maximize a graveyard theme.
Meanwhile, I was also interested in taking some basic concept that the more experienced players had taken as a rule and mess with it to show that no strategy concept is a given in the game. The idea I took was card advantage. Caring about the graveyard meant that, at times, putting cards into your graveyard from your hand (and sometimes the battlefield) was advantageous, something that previously had seldom been true. In retrospect, this decision hurt the design as it forced less enfranchised players to do something they really didn't want to do—discard their cards instead of playing them. This ended up making Odyssey the Spikiest design I ever did.
Mirrodin started with the following idea: it was going to be an artifact block. Invasion had been a multicolor block. Odyssey had been a graveyard block. Onslaught had been a tribal block. Block themes were now a thing, and there was one theme I was dying to do—artifacts. I got sign-off from Bill Rose, who was then the head designer, and got to work. I started with the following goal: what was the highest number of artifacts I could have in the set and still have it feel like a normal Magic set? The answer ended up being about half.
I then worked with the Creative team to help figure out what kind of world could support half the cards being artifacts. (It turns out an artificially made one.) Next, I worked with my Design team to find a suite of mechanics that would both care about artifacts and be able to go onto artifacts. The end result was the plane and set of Mirrodin.
This was my second design of a set within a block, and again the third set. Fifth Dawn, though, had a very different challenge than Urza's Destiny. With Urza's Destiny, I worked to find new ways to use the themes that had been in the first two sets. With Fifth Dawn, that wasn't an option. You see, Mirrodin ended up being a bit "bah-roken" (to use an R&D term), and Darksteel had only exacerbated the issue. Fifth Dawn had to feel like a third set in the block while not playing into any of the themes that had caused problems in the first two sets. My goal for this design was "what other themes could we play up?" (The answer ended up being caring about casting artifacts with a lot of different colors of mana.)
This set started with the goal "be like Unglued, but with a little broader humor." The Brand team had asked me to be a little less cerebral and a little more sophomoric. (Thus, the ass theme.) My other major goal was to try and capture what I thought had worked well in Unglued (a lot of the rules-bending cards) and less of what didn't (things like ripping up cards—players hated that). Finally, I wanted to try and see if I could find a theme or two that was a bit simpler so that not all the cards could be so wordy. (This goal led to the adoption of fractions, which ironically made the cards less wordy but more mentally taxing.)
This set started with the goal of being a multicolor block, but not being Invasion. This was the first time we were repeating a block theme, and I wanted to be extra careful that they felt distinct from one another. I wanted to prove we could repeat themes without making the blocks feel repetitive. Invasion was all about playing as many colors as possible, so I decided to go the opposite direction. Ravnica would be a multicolor set about playing as few colors as possible—that meant two colors, as playing one color isn't multicolor. The one other decision I made was to treat all ten two-color pairs equally. Previously, we had always treated enemy colors as less important than allied colors, but I felt that had just led to fewer deck options.
Brady Dommermuth, then the creative director, took my request and came back with the idea of a world of guilds where each of the two-color pairs connected to a faction that had an identity within the world. He felt a city world would be the best setting for the guilds. I loved the guild concept and then built the block around it, making the bold choice to split the factions 4-3-3 over the three sets of the block and building a large number of ten-card cycles to run through the block.
Future Sight was my third "third set of a block" design. Its design started with the goal of being about the future. The Time Spiral block was a nostalgia block with a time theme, and I'd divided the three sets into Past, Alternate Present, and Future. Future Sight was the latter. This meant a few things. One, we were going to have a timeshifted sheet, with its own set of frames, that would represent cards from the future (matching the past and alternate present timeshifted sheets from the first two sets). Second, we were going to have to find themes that played into the idea that it felt like the future. This led us to do a lot with scry (as it represented peering into the future) and cards with mechanics that made you look ahead or committed you to costs and effects that would happen on later turns.
This set started with the goal "be the mirror image of Lorwyn." In order to do a fourth expansion, a small summer set, we changed over the block from being large-small-small to being two mini-blocks that were each large-small. We then chose themes for each of the two mini-blocks such that each theme had elements that showed up in the other block while not caring about that theme. Lorwyn block, for instance, had a tribal theme, and Shadowmoor had creatures of those creature types. We ended up choosing for Shadowmoor to have a "color matters" theme that made use of hybrid mana, something we'd introduced in Ravnica. I was very interested in seeing how much hybrid mana we could fit in a set. (It turned out to be about half.) Shadowmoor's design was crafted around making "color matters" and hybrid as central as possible.
Eventide was the small set that went with Shadowmoor. Interestingly, Eventide's main goal was "be the mirror image of Shadowmoor in relation to color combination." Shadowmoor had focused on the allied colors, so Eventide's mission was to focus on the enemy colors. That meant paralleling Shadowmoor in execution while also finding a few ways to give Eventide its own identity. One of those ways was a mechanic, chroma, that we had hinted at on a futureshifted card (Phosphorescent Feast) in Future Sight. We had figured out a futureshifted card for each of the sets in Lorwyn-Shadowmoor block, and Eventide had been given Phosphorescent Feast. Chroma seemed like a great fit for Shadowmoor block as it had a monocolor theme. Eventide ended up with it because Shadowmoor had an ally dual land cycle finishing out Graven Cairns, another futureshifted card.
Zendikar started out with the goal "be a land set." I had come to the conclusion that there was a lot of design space in land-themed mechanics (mechanics that cared about lands or went specifically on lands), so I wanted to focus the theme of the block on lands. We spent the first few months designing as many land-centric mechanics as we could. That eventually led to numerous designs like landfall that ended up in the set. The adventure theme came later when the Creative team figured out what type of world would work with the land mechanics we'd made. They ended up with the idea of adventure world, and the Design team then designed some mechanics to match that top-down feel (Quests, Traps, and Allies).
Scars of Mirrodin
When we'd created Mirrodin years earlier, the Creative team had the idea to subtly plant the Phyrexians on the plane with the idea that our return to there would be the big return of the Phyrexians. The plan had been that we'd visit New Phyrexia and only at the block's end would we learn that New Phyrexia had formerly been
Innistrad began with the goal "make a world that's a top-down design of the horror genre." Our earliest meetings were us brainstorming what we felt players would expect of a "horror plane" and then figuring out how to design all those elements. Monsters was very high on our initial list, so the idea of having a tribal component connected to monsters was one of the first things we decided to do. The double-faced cards would come out of us trying to figure out how to make awesome Werewolves, which then led to the theme of dark transformation.
Dark Ascension was another small set. Its main goal was "make a set where the humans are losing to the monsters." We knew that the third set of the block, Avacyn Restored, was going to be Avacyn returning (she was going to finally get out of the Helvault) and would be about the humans winning over the monsters, so we wanted the second set in the block to push as far as possible in the opposite direction. Tom LaPille, the lead developer of the set, helped me realize that I needed to focus less on humans losing and more on monsters winning. Let the players focus on what was powerful and exciting.
This is the first set I co-led the design for (along with Mark Gottlieb). Return to Ravnica had already laid down the basic block structure (two large sets, each with five guilds, followed by a small set with all ten guilds), so Gatecrash's goal was basically "do what Return to Ravnica did except with five different guilds." The second Great Designer Search had just wrapped up, so I was also interested in making use of some of the designs that had come out of that. Two of the five guild mechanics (battalion and evolve) came from GDS2 (designed by Shawn Main and Ethan Fleischer, respectively).
With the success of Innistrad, we were interested in trying some more top-down design. Greek mythology had long been a source for inspiration that we'd wanted to build a set around, so we decided it was finally time. The goal of Theros was "create a top-down set based on Greek mythology while incorporating enchantments in some way." The enchantment component had been pitched by the Creative team, and I had been looking for a block to use enchantments as a tool, so I liked the idea of starting with that as a given. It was pretty early on that we adopted the idea that enchantments represented the influence of the gods on the world.
Khans of Tarkir
If you are familiar with the finished product, you might be surprised by the goal Khans of Tarkir began with—"design a large-small-large block such that the first and third sets would be drafted with the second set, but never with each other." We'd started doing large spring sets every other year, and I was looking for a way to make it feel unique from other blocks that had been large-small-large. Ethan and Shawn had just been hired, and I gave them a project of figuring out how to justify my goal. (This, interestingly, was the start of exploratory design.) After talking through numerous scenarios, we ended up with the idea of a time travel story where the protagonist goes back in time in the second set and the third set represented an alternate timeline after the actions of the second set. From this premise, we chose to use morph as the mechanic to represent the three states of the timeline (present, past, alternate-present). The Creative team then suggested that we use Sarkhan's home plane and that the change would be bringing back the Dragons to the world. That led to the creation of factions to represent the various warlord clans. Once we ended up with five (months into the design), I suggested we make it a wedge set.
Battle for Zendikar
We ended the last Zendikar block with the Eldrazi being released from their century-old prison. Upon the return, our goal was simple—"pick up the story from where the cliffhanger had left it." This forced us to answer the question of what had happened to the world with the Eldrazi rereleased? We knew we wanted a conflict, but to make it feel different than some of the recent blocks, we decided to tell a "rebel" story where the denizens of the plane where fighting an uphill battle to reclaim their world. As only two of the Eldrazi were left on Zendikar (Emrakul had been lured to Innistrad, although the players didn't know this yet), we decided to focus each set on a different Eldrazi titan, with Battle for Zendikar focusing on Ulamog.
Kaladesh (co-designed with Shawn Main) started as a cool idea for Chandra's home world. Magic Origins was telling the story of five Planeswalkers (destined to be the first five members of the Gatewatch), and we had to show the home world and first plane visited by each of the five. Following all the clues we'd given about where Chandra came from, we knew we wanted an artifact-based steampunk-ish world. The Creative team built a world (or at least enough of one to be featured on cards), and R&D loved it, so much so that rapidly shifted our plans in order to visit there a year later. That resulted in us doing a lot of work to help make what we call a "throw-forward" where we toss out something for our future selves to catch and make cool. This meant Kaladesh's goal was "bring Chandra's home world to life." We knew that that meant an artifact component. Matching the world built for Magic Origins, we leaned into the idea of an inventor's world, which meant high synergy and a Johnny-Jenny sensibility. In exploratory design, this would lead to us finally using energy and making Vehicles, both things we'd talked about for years.
Amonkhet (co-designed with Ethan Fleischer) started with two simple goals—design a top-down Egyptian-inspired set, and design a set that captures the feel of Nicol Bolas. The reason we felt two goals were okay was that it seemed like they had a lot of overlap. Egypt had almost been the focus of a top-down block many years earlier (which became Champions of Kamigawa), so it felt like it was time to finally make it. Interestingly, the two themes actually pulled in different directions, but the two parts felt synergistic with one another. This is one of the few sets I've done where the story was a key part of the set design from the very beginning. We knew it was the end of the first act where our villain viciously defeats our heroes, so it was important for the design to capture that sense of things feeling discordant and dangerous.
Ixalan (co-designed by Ken Nagle) is an interesting set in that the goal I had signed up for when we first put it on the schedule was not the goal I had by the time the set started. The Creative team had built a world inspired by conquistador vampires, and my first take on it was to make it a three-faction world that was fighting over a singular resource riffing off of a mechanic Richard Garfield had made for the game Vampire the Eternal Struggle Trading Card Game (called "the edge"). Conspiracy: Take the Crown ended up using it for the monarch mechanic, and I had to start design scrambling to find a new goal to start from. My goal for Ixalan essentially was "figure out an interesting mechanical core for this cool world the Creative team built." I came to the conclusion that Pirates and Dinosaurs were the exciting new thing (with a cool new twist on Vampires), so I chose a tribal theme using the faction structure (of two two-color factions and two three-color factions) that I'd originally designed for Khans of Tarkir.
My goal for Unstable (beyond getting it made) was "make use of the new design technology that had come into existence since the last Un- set." The two things I chose to focus on were building a cohesive world and making use of factions. This led to the decision to make a mad scientist world based loosely on steampunk. That, in turn, caused the Design team to make five ally-colored factions and choose to finally tackle Contraptions.
The goal of Dominaria was a daunting one—"find a way to take the best of what Dominaria had been and deliver it in a form that felt consistent with how we treat new worlds." Or, in other words, recreate Dominaria in a way that brought it up to modern worldbuilding standards while still feeling like the world old-timers loved. This led to a lot of soul searching, but, in the end, pushed us to the idea of a "history world," a place where the present is defined by the world's obsession with the past. This led to historic, Sagas, and the legendary theme. This was the one set where I started design unsure if we were going to be able to meet the goal.
Guilds of Ravnica
Guilds of Ravnica (and Ravnica Allegiance, as the two shared a Vision Design team) started with the goal "reintroduce Ravnica in a way that felt fresh while incorporating what players loved about the plane." Also, we knew that it was the beginning of the third act of the Bolas story, and we wanted Bolas's presence to have an impact on the sets and the world. My initial idea was to shake things up a bit in how we structured the set, but I was convinced by others that because Milk (the set after Ravnica Allegiance) was doing something very different, yet still taking place on Ravnica, the first two sets needed to be guild sets as the audience knew them. We were about to give them something very different, so we wanted to start by giving them something they were comfortable with, albeit with a small tonal shift.
I hope today's column has shown you how varied the goals of design can be. There's no one single way we creatively approach our design. In fact, I think part of the secret to our success is that we purposefully approach every design differently. As always, I'm eager to hear your thoughts on today's column or any of the sets I talked about. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).
Join me in three weeks (we'll be on a holiday break until then) when I'll begin the previews for Ravnica Allegiance.
Until then, may you approach problems in your life from a fresh perspective.
This podcast is part of my guild series where I walk through the history of the guild through all three visits to Ravnica. In this podcast, I talk all about the green-white guild.
This podcast is part of my guild series where I walk through the history of the guild through all three visits to Ravnica. In this podcast, I talk all about the blue-red guild.