Ten years ago, my then-boss, Randy Buehler, the director of Magic Ramp;D, asked me into his office. He explained that he was interested in making some changes with how Magic was designed. For the previous few years, Bill Rose had overseen design while also serving as vice president of Ramp;D. Bill was stretched too thin. Randy wanted one person dedicated to overseeing design. The person he wanted to fill that role was me. That's the story of how I became the head designer for Magic.
I started in the middle of Champions of Kamigawa block. The block was well under way so I just did what I could to help finish someone else's vision. The next block, though, would be the real start of my reign. Along with my promotion to head designer, I was also informed I was going to be the lead designer for the set, at the time codenamed "Control" (followed by "Alt" and "Delete"). You all probably know the set better as Ravnica.
As I was putting together plans for the "Control"block, Randy asked a request of me. For years, we had been doing our block designs year to year. While we always knew one year ahead, that's about as much advance warning as we got. Could I put together a five-year plan so Randy could get an idea of my long-term vision for Magic design? Sure, I said. My only change was to add one more year because I felt like "Control" was already somewhat of a known quantity (although, as we will see, it didn't go exactly as I thought it would).
What follows is a re-creation of my six-year plan. I tried finding the actual document but I couldn't, so instead I'm going to pitch to you all what I pitched to Randy. I will then explain what happened between that pitch and the reality of the set being made. Hopefully, that sounds like fun.
- Year One
We had long ago tagged this first year as a multicolor block. Invasion block had gone over very well. All our market research pointed to multicolor as the most popular block theme we had so the plan was to wait the minimum amount of time and then do it again. After much discussion, we decided that amount of time was four years.
The interesting thing going into "Control" design was that I didn't know how exactly we "weren't going to be Invasion" (as seen above, that was the set's defining quality—not to be the same as the last gold block). My one lead was the idea that instead of pushing toward playing as many colors as possible, we would instead push toward as few colors as possible—meaning two, as monocolored decks wouldn't pass the multicolor requirement.
I also liked the idea that we would treat all ten two-color combinations the same. The major reason for this goes right back to the thrust of this block design—don't be Invasion. The ally/enemy split was a key component of the Invasion block plan (which, by the way, was really the first block to ever have a block plan in the modern sense—even if a very basic one), so I felt it was important to downplay it to make this multicolor block feel different from the last one.
The guilds, hybrid mana, all the mechanics—none of that was yet a twinkle in my eye. Nonetheless, this year came almost pre-rubber-stamped. This block was playing in as safe a space as we had for block design.
A quick aside. When I took over as head designer, I was interested in bringing the concept of block design to Magic. Invasion had been one of our best blocks and I believed strongly that it was partially due to it having an actual block design, even if it was one we kind of backed in to. My thought at the time, though, was that the block plan would be figured out during the first few months of the design of each fall set.
This means that, for the six-year plan, I didn't talk about how each year's block plan was going to play out. Modern Magic design is all about block planning, and my seven-year plan (that's what follows this six-year plan) to my current boss Aaron Forsythe was very much about how each block would evolve. (But that's a topic for a future column.)
- Year Two
Printed Name: Time Spiral/Planar Chaos/Future Sight
My Pitch: A return to Dominaria with a time-based mechanical theme
My Original Articles On The Design: "Blast from the Past," "Needing a Little Time," "Plenty of Time," "Purple Reign"
During Saviors of Kamigawa design, team member Devin Low came up with the suspend mechanic. Brian Tinsman, the set's lead designer, liked the mechanic and put it into his set. Nowadays, I'm on most of the expansion design teams, but back then I would check in from time to time with the lead designer. When I saw the suspend mechanic I told Brian he had something bigger than would fit his set—an idea big enough for an entire block.
One of the important things about mechanics is making sure you're including one that fits the set it is in, sizewise. For example, guild mechanics from both Ravnica blocks want a number of cards in the mid-teens to mid-twenties range. The suspend mechanic was capable of a high-double-digit number of cards and possibly even triple-digit number of cards. It also was the kind of mechanic that could be easily evolved. All this meant that it pointed toward wanting to be a major block mechanic and not just a highlight in a third set.
I told Brian we should save it for an upcoming block that could let it find its full potential. Ravnica was already locked in as a gold block and I didn't feel like suspend and multicolor had any particular synergy, so I saved it for the following block.
The reason Randy had me make the five-year plan (turned six-year plan) was to force me to think further ahead. I felt that suspend would make a good block mechanic so I worked backwards. Suspend, to me, was about trading mana for time. I liked the idea of time as a theme, so I decided that I would pitch the block as a "time matters" block.
The reason I pitched it as a return to Dominaria was (a) it had been our home plane and we hadn't been there since Onslaught and (b) I had the idea in my head that there might be some kind of temporal accident which led to the existence of the time mechanics (I had planned for the set to have more—we would later steal split second from Coldsnap design). If I was going to put the set on a plane where things from the past showed up, why not use the plane in the game with the most history?
Note that the whole past/present/future block theme wouldn't happen until we were in Time Spiral design. Also, while I had a hint that we'd have a little nostalgia—you know, the things from the past showing up—I had no idea how much of a role nostalgia would play. The idea of the timeshifted sheet also wouldn't happen until Time Spiral design, as we started embracing the nostalgia theme.
- Year Three
Printed Name: Lorwyn/Morningtide/Shadowmoor/Eventide
My Pitch: Tribal comes back but this time in a set optimized for the theme (including a world handpicked to maximize the tribal theme)
My Original Articles On The Design: "A Lorwyn/Lorwyn Situation," "Lorwyn at All Costs," "Lorwyn One for the Team," "And the Rest"
One of the goals of the six-year plan was for me to spread out our known popular themes. Multicolor was #1 and was being revisited in Year One. For Year Three, I suggested us revisiting popular theme #2—tribal. My pitch for this block was that Onslaught didn't maximize what the tribal theme could do. While I had focused on the tribal component of Onslaught, much of Ramp;D thought of the block more as a morph block than a tribal one.
My pitch was that we could build a world that maximized our tribal theme. In addition, by making tribal the center of the design we could create mechanics to go with it that would better highlight the theme. Also, in the back of my head, I believed there was a way to create an interesting tribal web by making use of both races and classes.
Note that when I pitched this block in the six-year plan, I assumed the set was Large/Small/Small. The reason? Every set was Large/Small/Small. The idea of changing up block structure hadn't happened yet. What led to it was the creation of the Coldsnap expansion. I wasn't very happy with the complete lack of synergy between Ravnica block and Coldsnap. I said to Bill Rose that the next time we were going to do four expansions in one year (not counting the core sets) let me know. I'd design a block where they made sense. Bill would hold me to my promise during the Lorwyn block. I didn't know that at the time of the original pitch, though.
It was that restriction that got me to come up with the idea of two mini blocks that mirrored one another. I knew the first one was going to be tribal (from the six-year plan) and came up with the idea that hybrid would be a good fit since each mechanic relied on things already on every card (creature type and color, respectively).
Interestingly, this year was an easy sell to Randy because I was basically saying, "I'm going to do more of a theme that we already know players like".
- Year Four
Printed Name: Shards of Alara/Conflux/Alara Reborn
My Pitch: We surprise everyone by coming back to multicolor after only three years; this set would be not-Invasion, not-Year-One
The idea for this block came from a discussion I had with Bill Rose. Ravnica block had been four years after Invasion because we had figured out years earlier that four years was the minimal amount of time before we could revisit a block theme. One day, Bill calls me in his office and says, "What if we were wrong?"
"We know multicolor is by far the most popular block theme with the players. Shouldn't we test to see if we can bring it back sooner than four years? If we're wrong, well, we gave it a shot. If we're right, we've just made things a lot easier."
This pitch was risky in that it was pushing boundaries. It was safe in that it was going to our most reliable theme. I didn't know where the set would be based. My only dictum in the pitch was it would be neither of the settings of the last two multicolor blocks. It's interesting to note that the idea of the shards—worlds where two of the colors didn't exist—came much later and was thought up by the creative team when they attempted to give Bill his "three-color world." (Not five-color; not two-color.)
So how did our three-year return go? Not great. It turns out we were right about four years being the lower cap. We can go more than four years but Shards of Alara taught us we shouldn't go less. To make matters worse, I didn't think of hybrid as being multicolor. In my mind, at the time, it was this thing that wasn't gold cards, but I just missed that its multicolor nature would make the short turnaround feel even tighter. When people wrote me letters about how great it was that Zendikar didn't have much multicolor in it I knew for sure we had overstepped.
Another thing that happened at the time was that I was trying to spread out large-set design to many different designers. I knew I was doing Ravnica. I wanted Brian Tinsman to do Time Spiral, because it was using the mechanic I took from him. I thought Aaron Forsythe would be a good fit for Lorwyn; it was his first large-set design but I thought tribal had a lot of clear definition. Bill Rose told me he wanted to lead the design on another large set and he was interested in the second gold block, so I had Bill penciled for this. I bring this up because another part of this block's identity was that Bill had some ideas with multicolor he was interested in exploring. ("Your boss is interested" tends to work well when pitching.)
One of those things, by the way, was the concept of an all-gold set. That element wasn't locked in stone when I made this pitch, but Bill and I had talked about it so I knew it was a possibility.
- Year Five
Printed Name: Zendikar/Worldwake/Rise of the Eldrazi
My Pitch: Landsapalooza—i.e., "we finally do the lands matter set I have great faith in"
My Original Articles On The Design: "Achieving Zendikar, Part I," "Part II," "Part III"
A lot of my pitch was me explaining how we were going to revisit popular block themes from the past. Not every year, though, can rely on things we've done before. If Magic is going to stay vibrant, we have to have the occasional experimental year, allowing us to find new things for the players to love. That's how I pitched Year Five. I had an idea about building a block around land mechanics. I knew from talking to others, though, that no one shared my vision of a "land set," so I pitched this year to Randy not about my ideas but rather the need for trying new things.
I got Randy to agree that we needed experimental years and that he was willing to give me some amount of time to try whatever I felt had the best chance of working. Randy, like most of Ramp;D, wasn't all that enthusiastic about a "land block," but he trusted me and he said we'd work into the schedule dates by which I had to show my proof of concept.
Note that this block, like all the others, was planned as Large/Small/Small. It turned into Large/Small/Large because Bill had liked what the Shadowmoor year had done and felt we could afford a second large set about every other year (this was based on us keeping Standard at a certain number of cards). Bill was nervous about an untested theme, so he asked us to use the first two sets to do my idea and then try something completely different with the third set. The creative team later found a way to connect all three sets storywise, even though they were very loosely connected mechanically.
At the time of the pitch, though, none of that was known. It was just me trying to convince Randy that my crazy idea was actually good for Magic. Happily, I was successful.
- Year Six
Codename: "Lights"/"Camera "/"Action"
Printed Name: Scars of Mirrodin/Mirrodin Besieged/New Phyrexia
My Pitch: Phyrexia's back!
My Original Articles On The Design: "Something Wicked This Way Comes, Part I," "Part II," "Part III;" "The Untold Story (Well, Until Today)"
At the time of this pitch, in addition to my head designer duties, I was also the head of the creative team (at the time, this was Brady Dommermuth, Jeremy Cranford, Matt Cavotta, Brandon Bozzi, and Jeremy Jarvis). At one of our weekly meetings, I posed the following question to them: If you could go to any plane, what plane would you most want to go to? The answer they gave me was Phyrexia.
To be more accurate, New Phyrexia. You see, back during Mirrodin, we had planted the Phyrexian invasion. The plan was to go to New Phyrexia and during the course of the block we would reveal the truth—that New Phyrexia used to be Mirrodin!
Here was my pitch to Randy. If Magic was Superman, I said, the Phyrexians are our Lex Luthor. They are the definitive villains for the game. Not only were they a major part of multiple story lines (The Brother's War and the Weatherlight Saga being the big two) but they were one of Magic's true original creations. I also had plans for poison to return, as I felt it was a perfect tie to the Phyrexians. I didn't push this too hard in the pitch because I knew my love for poison wasn't universally shared, but I did bring it up as one of the components of the block.
Note that the decision to roll back the clock and start by returning to Mirrodin before the Phyrexians took it over happened during the design of "Lights."
- Looking Back
Writing this article, I was kind of surprised that every block actually had a decent component in the pitch. The seven-year plan went nowhere that smoothly (although more people were involved—the six-year plan was basically me and Randy, but I'll tell this story in four or so years). I also realized that much of the innovation of these six years weren't present in this pitch.
- The guild model
- The bonus sheet
- The dual mini-block year
- A five-world block
- A third-set reboot
- A nostalgic revisit of Mirrodin
None of this was in the pitch. Yet the inklings that got us to most of those things were here. It's fascinating looking back.
What's also interesting to note is that during these six years, design was redefined by the realization that we weren't locked into a Large/Small/Small block structure. This, in turn, would lead us down the path of the idea of the block creating an experience and a story that we could build around both mechanically and through what we now call experience design. It definitely was an interesting six years.
- Looking Ahead
We're now well into the seven-year plan (well, we are—you are in Year Two), so I'm curious how I will feel about it when I get to look back at it several years from now. As you will see, it was a bit more chaotic. As our designs get more complex, there's a lot more people to buy in.
That's all for today. I'm very interested in your feedback. Was this look back interesting? Would you like more peeks into how something got made in the very early stage? Let me know through my email, this column's thread or any one of my social media outlets (Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+).
Join me next week when I talk Rakdos and ruin.
Until then, may you have fun looking back through your own past.
- Drive to Work #10—Time Spiral
This week's "Drive to Work" podcast is the first one I recorded after the podcast began airing. I decided to talk about the set I got the most requests for—Time Spiral. The set is very divisive (loved by some and hated by others) so it seemed like an awesome topic for the podcast.
- Episode 10: Time Spiral (15.6 MB)
- Episode 9: Psychographics (14.0 MB)
- Episode 8: Cycling (14.0 MB)
- Episode 7: Alliances (14.0 MB)
- Episode 6: Gold Cards (16.9 MB)
- Episode 5: Ravnica (12.9 MB)
- Episode 4: Invasion (14.2 MB)
- Episode 3: Planeswalkers (15.0 MB)
- Episode 2: Zendikar (15.3 MB)
- Episode 1: Tempest (13.8 MB)
- Job Listings Strike Again
The feedback I've received says you like me listing job openings, so we're going to keep on doing them.
This time, we're looking for a Senior Graphic Designer. The job requires:
- A high school diploma or equivalent.
- Certified training or degree in an appropriate field.
- 5+ years experience in Graphic Design.
- Expert in required design software.
- Thorough understanding of print processes.
And asks for the following knowledge, skills, and abilities:
- Able to execute rough and final designs utilizing the designer's creative tools: photography, illustration, type, color, texture, and dimensions.
- Expert skills in using Adobe Photoshop, Illustrator, and InDesign (CS4 Suite) in the Macintosh environment.
- Experience with Microsoft Word, Excel, and PowerPoint desired.
- Excellent communication and presentation skills.
- Proficient organization, prioritization, and time-management skills.
- Adept in developing creative materials appropriate to the target customer, consumer patterns, usage patterns, and popular and economic trends.
- Expert in file-building techniques, including the creation of white underprinters and spot plates.
- Knowledge of advertising, promotional techniques, merchandising, point-of-sale, and exhibit strategies useful. Working knowledge of text and trade publishing a plus.
- Thorough understanding of print production including PDF file generation, direct to plate, color separation and four-color printing techniques required. Acts as subject matter expert for Graphic Designers and Associate Graphic Designers.
- Must be able to balance aesthetic and production considerations.
- Knowledgeable in electronic file management and proper archiving practices across large networks.
- Monitors and reports on emerging trends and technologies in design and production.
- Knowledge of Wizards brands, products, and promotional strategies required.
If this sounds up your alley, check the full listing here.