Welcome everyone to Multiplayer Week. This week, we're going to be talking about the many ways to play Magic with more than two players. I thought, as this is a design column, that I'd take a look at some early card designs (many years prior to Commander and Conspiracy) that were created specifically with multiplayer in mind. For each of them I'm going to talk a little about the impact they had on the design of future multiplayer cards.
Before I begin today, I realized that I was not being a team player and completely forgot to write about my Khans of Tarkir design team back during my preview articles, so I want to quickly rectify that today. (Okay, I might not be that quick about it.) The delay in me catching it is due to the fact that I write so many weeks ahead of time now, so my articles can be translated into other languages.
Mark Rosewater (lead)
As I've written more than 600 columns, recorded more than 150 podcasts, and have written the equivalent of War and Peace on my blog, I'm not sure what more there is to say about myself. Khans of Tarkir is the eighteenth set I've led the design for and I'm a huge fan of time travel stories.
Several years back, Aaron Forsythe came to me and told me that he would like to hire a manager to help with the design team so I could spend less time managing people and more time overseeing design. I liked this idea a lot. My only concern was finding someone who I could work well with and who I felt would do a good job looking after my designers. Mark Gottlieb proved to be the perfect choice.
Mark has been on many design teams and has blossomed into one of my best designers. Also, he realized the folly of his ways and stopped being the rules manager, so he officially ceased being my archnemesis. He has a great mind for design and was a wonderful addition to the team. Mark was officially on the Khans of Tarkir design team because I wanted him to lead the design of "Louie," the large spring set for 2015, and we felt it would be best if he was involved in the block at the beginning because his set and my set…well, you'll see.
Every design team has a development representative to ensure it's making things that have an honest chance of being developable. Also, it's the development representative job to cost everything for playtesting. Zac has been my "dev rep" on numerous design teams and he is always a pleasure. While a developer, he's got some designer in him, and he consistently did a nice job of balancing providing new ideas while also making sure we weren't being too crazy.
Zac has since left Wizards to go do other awesome things. In fact, he left during the design of the set, which will come up in a second. I was sad to see Zac go because I enjoyed working with him and always felt his touch on any project he worked on. I was happy for Zac, though, because I know he is going to do many great things. Best of luck in the outside world.
Every design team, well every large set that starts a block, has a creative-team member. Usually, it's the person who is going to be the creative lead for the block in question. For Khans of Tarkir block, that was Adam Lee. Normally, the design team interacts with the creative team during design, but this set was a little more demanding than most. The exploratory design team had come up with the idea that this was a time-travel story so we had to work closely with the creative team to figure out what world this story wanted to be in, especially as it changed so much.
This was the first design team where I got to work directly with Adam, and he was an absolute pleasure to work with. Because we were carving out new creative space in many of our early design teams, Adam played a key role in helping figure out what the factions were and how they both fit together and made sense in the story we were telling. If you're enjoying the flavor of Khans of Tarkir and enjoy how the design intermingles with all the clans, Adam had a big hand in making that all happen.
On every design team I run, I have what is called a strong second. That person's job is to act as my second in command: running meetings in my absence and overseeing the updating of the file. In addition to that role, Shawn had also been one of the two main people in exploratory design who helped create the time-travel block structure in the first place.
For those unaware (although I talk about this every time I introduce Shawn), he was the runner-up in the second Great Designer Search. For that event, each finalist had to build a world. Shawn created what I thought was the most difficult world to execute in the Top 8, but I liked his attitude so I wanted to see what he could do. Shawn impressed me at every turn and that led to him getting an internship, which would later pan out into a fulltime design job. These last few years have done nothing but prove the potential that I saw in Shawn. You all have seen Conspiracy, a set that Shawn both created the concept for and led the design of, and next summer you'll see the next thing Shawn's been up to. Obviously, he was a great addition to the design team.
So partway through the design, Zac left Wizards of the Coast. That meant I needed a new development representative. What I got was something entirely different. Yes, Billy was a good dev rep, but he also proved to be quite the designer, contributing a lot of cards and ideas to the file. Billy has endless enthusiasm and a lot of talent and was yet another big boon to the design team. Unfortunately, like Zac, Billy has left Wizards to do other things. I like to think once you've been the development representative for Khans of Tarkir design, you have to move on because you've reached the apex of what the job had to offer.
It's still odd to me that Ken is the veteran of my design team. (Okay, technically Gottlieb has worked here longer, but not as a designer.) Ken was placed on the design team with a very specific and challenging mission—designing Fate Reforged. Usually, the small set is the easiest of the designs, but Fate Reforged is no ordinary small set. The entire block was built around a draft structure where two different drafts both hinge on Fate Reforged. This means the set has to act differently when drafted with the first set and the third set, yet the cards have to stay the same. But if anyone was up to the challenge, I knew it was Ken. Obviously, Ken delivered like he always does during Khans of Tarkir design. (Fate Reforged, too, but I'll talk more about that during Fate Reforged's preview weeks.)
Ethan wasn't on the Khans of Tarkir design team but he was the other person, along with Shawn, who worked with me on exploratory design. In fact, the idea of the time-travel structure came from Ethan. Ethan was the winner of the second Great Designer Search, and the exploratory design team was something I created to test then-interns Ethan and Shawn. The fact that it went so well that exploratory design is now a normal part of the design process, and that Ethan and Shawn are both now fulltime designers, stresses how well exploratory design went. Another big winner from exploratory design was Khans of Tarkir block.
Having a Multi Ball
What follows today is me talking about cards that were designed long ago with multiplayer in mind. I am going to talk about the cards chronologically, rather than in alphabetical order, as I want to show a little evolution about how we thought of and designed for multiplayer. I want to note that these cards were not ones designed for two-player play that we knew could be played in multiplayer play, but rather cards we made specifically for multiplayer play, sometimes at the expense of their playability in two-player games.
Syphon Soul (Legends)
To the best of my knowledge, this is the first card designed that flagrantly said that it was for multiplayer play. I understand that this can be played in a two-player game, but note that in the original text it said "all players except caster." Pluralizing "players" while excepting the caster in the rules text makes this card explicitly acknowledge the existence of more than two players being possible in a game of Magic. No card had done that before this.
Syphon Soul is a good example of the earliest take on multiplayer design: scaling. That is, it does an effect that gets more powerful the more players there are in the game. Spending three mana to drain an opponent for 2 is nothing special. Spending three mana to drain 2 life from each other player gets pretty good as you start getting more than two players, and gets downright scary as you start getting into double digits.
Congregate (Urza's Saga)
While on the surface it might seem like this card was designed for two-player games, as someone behind the scenes at the time, I know it was not. This card was very much inspired by Syphon Soul. We had received some positive feedback from players who played in multiplayer formats and we felt like it was time to try another card in the same vein. The card was designed to be playable in a normal two-player game, but the thought behind it was that it would be expandable, allowing for a huge effect in large multiplayer games.
Another reason I list this card is because, not only was it inspired by multiplayer play, but it also resulted in a lot of feedback from players of multiplayer formats. There were fans and foes of this card, but the foes clearly outweighed the fans. The problem was that in most multiplayer formats, Congregate was bonkers. Players would often experience three-digit life gains, which was a bit much for four mana. The fans of the card loved that there was a card that helped players stay in the game without severely punishing everyone else.
Congregate also shows a push from design into thinking about multiplayer through expandable effects. This idea would last for many years, and it's only in the last five or so years that we've started to question it.
The Teammate Cycle (Unglued)
Get a Life, Checks & Balances, Organ Harvest, Ricochet, Team Spirit
The next five cards were designed as a cycle for Unglued. I'm not sure how many people even realize it's a cycle. Let me explain how it came to be. Unglued started when Bill Rose and Joel Mick gave me a project to work on. It was going to be a silver-bordered set that wasn't tournament legal. The set was going to be a set of cards that didn't follow normal rules. I was free to figure out what that meant.
I spent some time thinking about what I wanted the set to be. I ended up being inspired by a wacky deck of cards. You see, in my youth I was into magic (that's magic with the lowercase m) and performed at children's parties. I owned a lot of various magic tricks, including a lot of different card tricks. One product was a deck of cards filled with odd cards. It had a 9-½ of Clubs, a black King of Hearts, and a double-backed card. The idea was the deck was full of weird cards that allowed you, the magician, to do whatever you wanted with them.
What if Unglued was that—a set filled with lots of weird and different things the players could do with as they wished. It had full-art lands and tokens and strange rules-bending cards and silly concepts. One of the things we had talked about but didn't want to do in normal sets were cards that acknowledged gameplay with more than two players. In particular, I was interested in the idea of teammates, so I made a cycle of cards that referred to teammates. Well, one of them, the red card, actually didn't get printed with the word "teammate" on it, but I'll get there.
I'm going to go in WUBRG order (white, blue, black, red, green—the order we put the cards in our files):
Get a Life
This card has confused a lot of players. What exactly is this card doing? You can exchange life totals with your teammate. Why would you want to do that? Wouldn't you and your teammate want to exchange life totals with your opponent and his or her teammates? The answer is this card was made for one specific multiplayer format—Emperor.
For those unaware, Emperor is a format played either three on three or five on five, where you and your teammates sit together and across from your opponents. Spells have a range of how far they can be used, so the players at the ends tend to do most of the fighting at the beginning. Having the ability to swap life totals between the emperor (the player in the middle who's not getting attacked with creatures) and one of the people fighting on the ends can be very valuable. Admittedly, outside that format, this effect is less useful.
Checks and Balances
Both this card and Ricochet demonstrate that, while I started making a "help your teammate" cycle, the designs drifted a bit. This card was me messing around with politics in a multiplayer game. The idea was that with this card on the battlefield, any spell could be countered as long as every opponent was willing to discard a card. As this is a pretty big cost, it would require a lot of negotiating between the other players.
While the rules text restricts this card to being used only in a game with "three or more players," it was designed to be played in a larger multiplayer environment. Of the five cards in the cycle, this one is my favorite and plays into the kind of multiplayer designs I'm more interested in—ones that acknowledge the role of diplomacy in any game with more than two players.
This card is also important because it inspired me to have a voting theme in Unglued 2, the set that was supposed to be the sequel to Unglued but never got printed. (I talk about it here.) Although the set never got printed, it did get playtested, and I realized that voting mechanics were fun. When Shawn Main came to me for suggestions on Conspiracy, I explained to him that I felt voting cards were a ripe place for multiplayer design, which led to their inclusion in Conspiracy.
For starters, I should remind you all that when Unglued was released back in 1997, black was still the king of fast mana (à la Dark Ritual). That chunk of black's color pie would eventually shift to red, but back then it hadn't happened yet. This card was based off a card from Alpha named Sacrifice that allowed you to sacrifice a creature for black mana.
For each of the cards, I was experimenting with different ways to make multiplayer cards, and Organ Harvest was all about the whole team working together to enable one teammate to do something potent. The idea was for the person playing Organ Harvest to have a number of potent but expensive black spells the teammates could help cast. If that black spell was a master creature-kill spell, the creature sacrifice wouldn't even be a major loss.
The flavor text, by the way, is making fun of a famous American television show called I Love Lucy from the 1950s. Ricky, Lucy's husband, would often say, "Lucy, you have some 'splaining [as in "explaining"—he had a strong accent] to do."
While I am very proud of Unglued's design, it's not without its flaws. How about this one? Ricochet is part of the teammate cycle, yet doesn't have the word "teammate" in its rules text. The rules text even works in a two-player game, so it isn't even clear this was designed for multiplayer play. (It was, though.)
The idea behind this card was to create a little chaos. I put it in red, partly for flavor but partly because Goblin Bookie was in red. Goblin Bookie is an Unglued card that lets you reflip coins and, more importantly, reroll dice. That way, you decrease the chances of anything bad targeting you.
While this card has some issues, it's probably the card in the cycle that has had the biggest impact on future multiplayer designs. This card helped cement the idea that one way to spice up multiplayer play is to raise the chaos (aka variance). Unpredictability tends to create more interaction and allows for fun moments of interplay between the players.
This card was designed for multiplayer variants where multiple players attacked at the same time. The biggest flaw was that I didn't push the effect enough. Overrun (+3/+3 and trample) might have meant something but +1/+1 is just way too tame. Also, interestingly, because it was so small, the ability falls into white not green. White pumps the team up to +2/+2 but once you get up to +3/+3 it becomes a green effect.
That's not the biggest miss of this card, though. Terese Nielsen, the artist of the card, turned in a sketch where all of the creatures wore matching jerseys as if they were all on the same sports team. At the time, I was trying to segment the set a little and in my mind the multiplayer cards weren't meant to be as silly (I honestly worried the cards might not be accepted by the multiplayer crowd if they didn't seem normal enough), so I asked Terese to take off the jerseys. I have since realized the grave error of my ways.
Imperial Mask (Future Sight)
Future Sight was the third set in the Time Spiral block and its big gimmick was that it had timeshifted cards from potential futures. The idea behind the design of timeshifted cards was to tease about areas we were thinking we might go. Imperial Mask was hinting at a future where we started playing around more explicitly with acknowledging that games were played with more than two players.
Imperial Mask is the only black-bordered card in all of Magic to have the word "teammate" appear in its rules text. Because that wasn't enough weird stuff from the future, the card also creates an enchantment token—the first time the game created a noncreature token. For those who love trivia, I had tried to create an artifact token (which wasn't a creature) in Fifth Dawn, but we ended up not doing it because we decided the game didn't need it yet. Obviously, since Imperial Mask first came out, we've started to embrace noncreature tokens.
I do like the idea that this card is doing something for you and your allies. If we ever venture into this area in a normal expansion, this is the space I will probably explore first.
That's all the time I have for today. Today's article ended up being a history article giving you all a little insight into how we thought about multiplayer cards back in the day. As always, I'm eager to hear your feedback either through my email or any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).
Join me next week for…well, telling you would spoil all the fun.
Until then, may you find another player to call a "teammate."
"Drive to Work #164 & 165—Onslaught, Parts 2 & 3"
This week's podcasts are Part 2 and Part 3 of my six-part series on the design of Onslaught.