Back in December of 2003, I became the head designer for Magic. One of the things I decided I wanted to do was write an article at the end of every Magic "year" where I discuss all the sets that came out in the last year and talk about how I felt the design went. I modeled my article after the US State of the Union speech the president gives once a year. My first column appeared in 2005, as that was the year that the first full "Magic year" of sets I oversaw were released.
Here are the links to the last seventeen columns:
Here's how this column is structured. I'll begin by looking back at the year as a whole, talking about the highlights and the lessons of the year. I will then examine, in order, each booster release (with new content) and talk about the highlights and lessons of that set. Note, as always, I'll be talking more big-picture design than card-by-card comments.
As always, I begin with the same question: how was the last year of Magic design?
In general, I think it was a good year. I'm proud of the sets we made, and I think there was a lot of innovation and flavorful design. Interestingly, I'm least happy with sets that played things safe and happiest with sets we took risks on. Magic is an ever-evolving game, so it's interesting to see how it changes year to year. I feel like I'm walking away from this last year bolder and more excited to try new things. In my mind, that's the sign of a good year of Magic design.
Overall Magic Design
- We pushed the boundaries of what Magic can do.
If you had asked me ten years ago if we did some of the things we did this year, I would have said no way. One of the things that excites me most about my job is that it's always changing and never boring. I love that there's an endless supply of new challenges to take on. The key, though, is that we have to be smart where and how we do this, but I think R&D is mostly doing it right.
- We experimented with how to properly readjust the color pie.
The place this is most obvious is in white. For years, it was the fifth color in Commander, and we've spent years figuring out how to make white more viable in a way that's still white philosophically. This is the year that a lot of that work became public, and it's been great seeing the audience's reaction to it. The work isn't just on white though, but the other colors are a little subtler. I do enjoy that the color pie, the foundation of the game mechanically and creatively, can change along with the game.
- We adapted our design to the feedback of our customers.
Part of adapting the game is understanding how the audience wants to play it. Magic has gone through a lot of changes over the last ten years, but I'm proud of all the work R&D has put into understanding what those changes mean and how we've been able to shift our design to meet those needs.
- We need to be more conscious about backwards compatibility.
We're now designing for what I call an "eternal world," where the core of Magic play involves the full history of the game. This means we must be better about understanding how current designs play with older designs. It's not enough to make something cool in a vacuum. We have to shape it such that it complements what has come before it. This is probably the current force most likely to change the immediate future of design.
- We need to be careful with complexity.
As a side effect of moving toward an "eternal world," we've upped the amount of complexity we're allowing in each set. While I understand why we're doing it, I know we need to be vigilant to make sure we don't fall into old mistakes. A new player is always going to start the game from the same place. We must be careful not to leave them behind.
- We need to be more conscious of how we talk about our products.
A lot of the mistakes of this last year were not about what we designed but in how we communicated to the audience what to expect. Any design, even a strong one, can be led astray if the audience isn't properly prepared for what it is. We need to be better in understanding how to communicate what we've made such that the audience is expecting what we designed.
Innistrad: Midnight Hunt
- The new mechanics were mostly popular.
Decayed, disturb, and day/night all had their share of fans. Players enjoyed how each of them took a mechanical theme we've done before and found new space to play in. Decayed had a surprising amount of depth and was a flavorful addition to Zombies. Disturb was a novel tweak on aftermath, and finally gave Spirits a mechanic to coalesce around. Day/night did a good job of extending the Werewolf mechanic into an element that affected the whole game. There was a little criticism that day/night was harder to track in tabletop and some discussion around whether it was supposed to go away if no cards on the table cared about it. (It was something we spent a lot of time discussing in design.) There were people who enjoyed how coven cared about a new facet of the game (having different powers of creatures), but it got the most criticism of the new mechanics.
- The addition of witches and folk horror was appreciated.
One of the challenges in doing an Innistrad set is touching upon the classic tropes of gothic horror while also trying to add new horror elements to the plane. A lot of players enjoyed that Innistrad: Midnight Hunt added a new thing to the mix. While the mechanic of the witches wasn't super popular, the flavor of them was. There was a lot of positive comments about the visual aesthetic of the set that came from this new element.
- The revisit of old characters was enjoyed.
One of the things players seem to enjoy about revisits is getting to see old characters they enjoy in new forms. In particular, I got a lot of positive comments about Hal and Alana and Arlinn Kord getting new cards.
- Players enjoyed the premier of multicolor flashback and the new land cycle.
Players enjoyed seeing flashback return to Innistrad (it had been there the first visit but not the second) and liked the tweak of there being multicolor flashback cards. The new "slow lands" (started in Innistrad: Midnight Hunt and completed in Innistrad: Crimson Vow) were also a hit.
- Werewolves didn't get their due.
When we originally announced the set, we gave it the temporary placeholder name of Innistrad: Werewolves. That set the expectation for a product more focused on Werewolves than it ended up being. In addition, when compared to the other major creature types, players felt they didn't get to shine nearly as brightly. The Werewolves numbered fewer than the other focused creature types. They had only one legendary creature (although Tovolar got high marks), and none that reflected Werewolves now showing up in black. It only got a revamped mechanic rather than something new. The Wolves, which are supposed to be the Werewolves' allies, didn't get much. The Werewolves were the only major creature type not to get an accompanying Commander deck. With a few exceptions, they weren't particularly strong. And they were the worst draft archetype (more on this below). Not a great showing for a "Werewolf set."
- Day/night wasn't backwards compatible.
Tabletop's Magic focus is broader than it's ever been, with players wanting to play new cards with old cards. The fact that the old Werewolves and the new Werewolves don't play smoothly together was seen as a big mistake.
- The colors weren't of equal power level in Limited formats, especially Draft.
The colors weren't evenly balanced, with white, blue, and black being stronger than red and green (sadly, the main Werewolf colors). That led to certain archetypes, especially blue-black Zombies, being dominant.
- Double Feature was a big miss.
This isn't quite a design issue and isn't exactly about Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, but it was one of the biggest pieces of feedback I got about Innistrad: Midnight Hunt. Players believed Double Feature was unnecessary; they didn't like the black-and-white aesthetic, felt we misled the audience on what the contents were going to be, and were upset that it wasn't a crafted draft experience rather than just the two sets thrown together.
Innistrad: Crimson Vow
- Players appreciated having mechanics overlap between sets.
With the absence of blocks and no back-to-back sets on the same plane since War of the Spark, players appreciated that we overlapped some mechanics between Innistrad: Midnight Hunt and Innistrad: Crimson Vow. In particular, they liked that the disturb mechanic evolved between the sets.
- Blood was appreciated mechanically.
R&D has been designing more artifact tokens of late, and Blood tokens were the latest addition to that trend. The majority opinion seemed to be that Blood tokens played well and helped with deck smoothing. The biggest complaint about Blood tokens was about the flavor, which didn't seem like as big of a slam dunk as Clues, Treasure, and Food tokens had been.
- The Dracula cards were well received.
For the first time since Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths and the Godzilla cards, we did another overlay of another IP, this time Dracula by Bram Stoker. I got a lot of positive feedback from players who enjoy the book and felt we did a good job finding appropriate cards for the book's characters and settings.
- The wedding theme was fun.
As with any feedback, the audience doesn't always agree. Some players adored the wedding theme of the set and loved the numerous top-down cards it allowed. They also liked the general look of the set that helped give it a distinct identity separate from the other six expansions set on Innistrad.
- It didn't feel like a horror setting.
But others felt the wedding took over the set and distracted from the gothic horror feel that they associated the plane with. The tone was more celebratory than scary, and many fans of the plane of Innistrad said it didn't feel like the Innistrad they had fallen in love with.
- Training, Cleave, and Exploit were more miss than hit.
Both training and cleave didn't feel particularly suited to the overall flavor of the set. Training was seen as being kind of dull. Cleave was hard to process. Exploit sadly reminded players that the decayed mechanic that they'd enjoyed in Innistrad: Midnight Hunt didn't return. It wasn't that any of these mechanics played poorly, they just didn't seem to enhance the set for many players.
- The Limited formats were too "bomby."
There were several rares and mythic rares that weren't strong enough to see competitive play but had a large enough impact on Limited that they led to too many games being lost to the opponent drawing a particular card.
- The Vampires needed to be better.
Vampires didn't have the quantity problem Werewolves had in Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, but they did have a quality problem. The Vampires were overall on the weak side and didn't give the players as much to build around in Constructed formats, especially Commander, as Vampire fans had hoped. The two biggest complaints were a lot of dissatisfaction with Odric, as he was a popular character with a mostly unplayable card, and the absence of a three-color legendary Vampire.
Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty
- It was the homerun set of the year.
While there were criticisms (which I'll get to below), this was, hands down, the best received set of the year. Returning to Kamigawa had been an enfranchised-player request for many years, so there was a huge amount of excitement when we did.
- Players enjoyed the core conflict of tradition versus modernity.
The set had to balance two different facets of the design (the desire to tap into Japanese themes the first visit to Kamigawa hadn't while feeling like the plane players had fallen in love with). The solution to this problem was to have two different facets of the plane reflect each desire and then make the relationship between those two sides the core conflict of the plane. Both sides of the conflict got rave reviews, with some players loving the nod to Japanese pop culture and others loving the more traditional elements.
- The throwback references were adored.
The set made a lot of references to the original Kamigawa block, and it was eaten up by the fans who had been long wanting to return. It was clear that all of us making the set had as much reverence for the plane as its biggest fans.
- It was a super-fun draft set.
Players enjoyed all the archetypes woven into the design, from Ninjas and mechs to Shrines and the harmony theme that allowed players to play a little of everything. There was a lot to explore, and players loved how each draft let you venture down a new path.
- The mechanics seemed much beloved.
Players seemed to love almost everything. Reconfigure, Saga creatures, the batching of Samurai and Warriors, the batching of Ninjas and Rogues, the return of ninjitsu. They even enjoyed Channel returning. Players liked that we revisited some mechanical themes while finding new mechanics that hit on similar themes, but better executed, than the original visit.
- Most of the players liked the execution of cyberpunk.
Magic's roots are in high fantasy, but as I said above, R&D is testing the waters in what a premier Magic plane is capable of. Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty pushed some boundaries and ended up with a lot of fans who believed it felt like a natural extension. This isn't to say there weren't those who felt it pushed too far, but they seemed like a small minority.
- There was much love for a lot of the Japanese versions of cards.
In particular, the basic lands and the cards done by famous Japanese artists were the things most called out.
- Players were sad we were on Kamigawa for only one set.
There has been a lot of discussion online about how long Magic should be staying on planes. There isn't much consensus, but most seem to agree that they would have liked Kamigawa to get a second set.
- The set didn't bring back elements certain players wanted.
The challenge of revisiting a plane is fitting in all the things that fans of that plane want. Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty had the extra challenge that we were adding a significant number of new things, which meant there were just things left out that players were sad to see missing. For example, I got a lot of feedback from players who wanted to see Spirits play a role mechanically as they had in the original block. This included seeing more Kami in the set. Others wanted the subtype Arcane to return. Still, others were sad splice didn't come back. Players enjoyed what was in the set, but a lot of players would have liked to see their personal favorite thing show up.
- It wasn't always clear when a creature was an enchantment or artifact.
While there were frames to help with this issue, many players reported being sometimes confused about the card types of certain creatures. I think this stems from the fact that the definitions of why something counted as an enchantment, or to a lesser extent an artifact, was a little fuzzy.
- Complexity was a tad high.
There was a lot going on in this set, and some players felt it was a little too much. This is the flip side of the positive note about all the draft archetypes. Most of the time, depth comes with complexity.
- Players weren't happy with Samurai's mechanical identity.
There were a couple complaints with this note. One, many Samurai fans didn't feel the exalted-like mechanical identity was a good fit for Samurai flavor-wise. Two, it didn't synergize well with all the old Samurai, which was a feel-bad. The one positive comment is that they did like the batching of Samurai with Warriors because it provided more options for Samurai deck builds.
Streets of New Capenna
- Players were excited to see the return of a three-color set.
Ikoria: Lair of Behemoths had a small three-color theme, but Magic hasn't had a fully dedicated three-color set since Khans of Tarkir back in 2014, and not an ally color one since Shards of Alara back in 2008. The popularity of the Commander format has increased the desire for more three-color cards, so players were excited to see Streets of New Capenna have so many new ones to explore.
- The family mechanics were mostly well liked.
The most popular faction mechanic was shield counters followed by blitz. Connive and casualty also had a bunch of fans. Players were also happy to see "creaturefall" finally get an actual name.
- There were a lot of cool individual designs.
A common response I heard about this set was that there were a handful of cards that really spoke to them, although what those cards were varied from player to player.
- Fans enjoyed the look and feel of the plane.
Streets of New Capenna, like Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty before it, stretched the boundaries of what a Magic plane could look like. The audience liked the visual aesthetic of the plane and enjoyed seeing the game trying something new. In particular, the large number of animal people was a huge hit.
- The plane was a little one-note, and the factions weren't distinct enough.
The critics of the plane felt that it was a little too much about crime. Where was the law enforcement? Does crime mean anything if it's not done in violation of something? Also, they felt the five families were a bit too similar to one another.
- There were issues with Draft.
There were some monocolor commons that were too strong, which led to the set getting a bit aggressive, making two-color decks more viable than three-color decks, which is disappointing in a three-color set. There were also some issues with color balance and swingy rares. I was also told it was a little too "samey" draft to draft.
- There were creative elements that weren't explained well, leading to some confusion.
The best example of this was the Angels. At the story's beginning, we learned that the Angels were driven from the city years ago, so it was surprising when so many Angles showed up in the set. That was because the end of the story led to the Angels coming back, but not enough players were aware of that, so the set seemed to be contradicting what they knew of the story.
- The tri-colored lands should have been called "Triomes."
This is more a naming issue than a design one, but I heard it a lot.
Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate
- The set had a lot of flavorful top-down D&D designs.
One of the fun things about doing other IPs is having the ability to capture cool aspects of that IP in Magic card form. A lot of the positive comments I got about Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate was how excited players were to see some aspect they love as an element of D&D now translated into Magic mechanics. The set also went out of its way to capture a few things that Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms had missed.
- The draft was a lot of fun.
In last year's State of Design column, I talked about the original Commander Legends, and one of the lessons was that there was a lot of room for improvement in Draft. Player consensus is that the design team did a great job of understanding what needed to be fixed and then fixing it.
- The commander designs were original and accounted for a lot of feedback from Commander players.
A big note we've heard from players is to stop designing commanders that usurp existing commanders in already existing decks and start making ones that force players to build something new. The feedback I got from Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate is that the commanders do just that.
- The players enjoyed a lot of the mechanical execution.
Backgrounds were generally a hit. Players were excited to see adventures in a D&D set (and party in the Commander deck). I got a bunch of compliments about initiative (although some were sad it didn't just let you venture into any dungeon). Players seemed to enjoy all the synergy between themes. And I got a lot of comments about how many of the cards iterated in neat multiplayer design space.
- It shouldn't have been labeled as Commander Legends.
The most common complaint I got was that players were expecting the set to be something that it didn't turn out to be. Many believed the label Commander Legends implied that it would have a lot of highly desired reprints for Commander. The lack of Commander reprints combined with Double Masters 2022 coming on its heels (with many of the reprints players hoped to see in Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate) irritated players.
- It felt more like Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in Forgotten Realms 2 than Commander Legends 2.
The set chose to mix two different components, and many players felt it did a much better job of matching one element than the other. This wasn't just an issue of reprints, but also a feeling that the set didn't have enough cards that would have a strong enough impact on Commander.
- The set didn't have Magic callouts, especially in the commanders.
Another frustration with the product being set in a D&D world was that it didn't allow Commander Legends: Battle for Baldur's Gate to deliver on something players loved from the first Commander Legends: a lot of throwbacks to old Magic lore. With Commander decks tied to premier sets, there are fewer opportunities to make commanders of favorite old characters, and there was sadness that this set missed out on that opportunity.
- There wasn't much mechanical innovation.
The set mostly brought back old mechanics, and even when it made something new, these were mostly tweaks of existing things. Some players were sad the set didn't innovate more mechanically.
The Year That Was
I've come to the end of this year's column. As always, the goal is to try to look back with an honest understanding of how our work was received by the audience. It's only by looking at the past that we can learn how to improve in the future. I want to thank everyone who took time to give me your feedback about any of the sets I talked about.
I'm curious to see your feedback on today's column and all my thoughts on sets from over the last year. Email me or contact me through my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok) with your thoughts.
Join me next week when I look back at the original Ravnica design handoff document.
Until then, may you have fun with all the stuff we made in the last year.