At the end of vision design, the lead of the Vision Design team writes a document known as the vision design handoff document, which talks about the larger goals, themes, mechanics, and structure of the set. I started showing these documents years ago, and you all really liked them, so I keep showing them. Here are the ones I've previously published:

As with all my vision design handoff articles, most of what I'm showing you is the actual document. My notes, giving explanation and context, are in boxes below the text. This document, like most of them, was long enough that I've broken it into two parts.

"Offroading" Vision Design Handoff Document

Exploratory and Vision Design teams

  • Mark Rosewater (Lead, Exploratory and Vision Design)
  • Ari Neah (Exploratory and Vision Design)
  • Cameron Williams (Vision Design)
  • Chris Mooney (Vision Design)
  • Dan Musser (Vision Design)
  • Doug Beyer (Exploratory and Vision Design)
  • Erik Lauer (Vision Design)
  • Mike Mearls (Strong Second, Exploratory and Vision Design)
  • Sam Jiang (Exploratory Design)

Creative Worldbuilding and Story

  • Doug Beyer (Worldbuilding)
  • Emily Mei (Worldbuilding)
  • Leah Miller (Worldbuilding)
  • Miguel Lopez (Story)
  • Ovidio Cartagena (Lead Art Director)
  • Roy Graham (Story)

The Vision Design team was a little larger than normal as there was a bit of flux. At any one time, I don't think there was more than five members, but numerous people cycled on and off the team due to other projects needing their attention.

"Offroading" is an expansion set completely underground. As of this handoff, the underground is on a plane we've never visited before. This theme has been something we've talked about for many years, and I'm excited that we've finally gotten a chance to do it. The Exploratory and Vision Design teams, along with the Creative team, put in a lot of time thinking about what would best capture this biome, including what trope space is the most fertile to mine (puns, as always, intended). Here are the main goals of this set:

Most of the time when we start vision design, we know what kind of world we're designing for. Sometimes it's a return to a familiar plane, and sometimes it's a new plane. It's not often that we design for one and have it printed as another. Even more odd, if we chose to make a change, it's almost always done during exploratory design or vision design. Planning the set around a new plane and switching to Ixalan after vision design handed off the set is a very big exception to how the process normally works and played a big role in why the set changed so much from this document to print.

1. Capture the essence of the underground.

The underground has been such a popular suggestion, inside and outside the building, because it's a world that comes with plenty of resonance to mine, has a lot of real-world imagery to tap into, and is relevant in popular culture. Early on, we discovered there was a fork in our path that we had to decide upon. Our decision in choosing that fork would then lead to a second fork that we would also have to choose.

I talk a lot about resonance because it's a key part of how we design cards that emotionally speak to players. What I talk less about is the need for visual references. Building a plane from the ground up is difficult. An important tool the worldbuilding team uses includes finding photographs from around the world that can serve as a jumping-off point visually. I always talk about how I like to start vision design from a new reference point. The Worldbuilding team is the same, but they're more focused on how it looks, so having photographs as an inspiration is key. A big advantage of the underground as a setting is that it comes with endless photos, many of which are visually stunning and have an extremely unique look and feel.

The first fork was the genre. There are two different genres associated with the underground—action-adventure and horror. In action-adventure, our heroes are on a journey that leads them through the underground, discovering new wonders and overcoming new threats. They come to learn about the world they've been thrust into and usually find it a wonderous place. In horror, our heroes usually come in search of some desire (or sometimes are running from a different threat) only to learn that the underground is a dark and dangerous place, one they must escape. Each of these could have led to a cool Magic set, but we had to choose one path. Between Innistrad: Midnight Hunt, Innistrad: Crimson Vow, Phyrexia: All Will Be One, and "Haunted House," we decided there was enough horror in the years surrounding "Offroading" and chose to go down the action-adventure path.

It's always important to do due diligence. Part of exploratory design is mapping out all the possible things you could do to help you understand what you want to do. Horror is a popular genre and is something Magic should make use of on occasion, but it's one of the more polarizing genres, so we must be careful how often we use it. I believe we under-use action-adventure as a genre, so our path was clear early on.

The next fork in the path was a generational one. Older players have more associations with underground adventuring being tied to adventure parties exploring hidden worlds, whereas younger players associate the underground with resource acquisition and building or upgrading of items. Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms had recently done the former, and as a department, we've been trying to find opportunities to branch out to players from younger generations, so we chose to go down the resource-acquisition path.

Here's something you don't often see in a vision design handoff document—me talking about player segments. We have a whole team dedicated to evaluating market research. Part of that is understanding where potential new audiences come from. Magic needs new blood, so it's good to know where the largest potential for new players lies.

One of the recent findings as of this handoff was that the group with the largest potential for new players was Generation Z (i.e., people born 1997–2012). This age group plays games at a higher percentage than any other age group (at least older than it) and statistically lines up with qualities that increase the possibility of enjoying Magic. This meant than when building new sets, I was to keep an eye out for opportunities to find resonance that spoke to a Generation Z crowd. An underground world was one such opportunity (a diamond pickaxe, for example, is more resonant to my son than it is to me), and it definitely influenced which path we took at this fork.

2. Create a set around gathering resources and building and upgrading items.

This then led to our second goal. We wanted the set to have some resources we can mine and then some means to use those resources to craft and improve objects. It was also important that crafting involved some sort of recipe, as that's an important element of the trope space we're trying to capture. Secondly, it would give the underground world some narrative purpose, as there would be things characters would want, which helps guide us toward conflict.

One of the challenges of vision design is making sure that we're working hand in hand with the Creative team when it comes to worldbuilding. We want to find mechanics that speak to the larger feel of the plane or world theme. Ideally, we want the characters to want to do things in the story that match what we want the players doing in the game. The idea of finding and upgrading resources played into this desire. When that thing also plays into the trope space of the genre or theme we're exploring, all the better.

3. Have a set where color matters.

One of the challenges of moving from the block model to a world of constantly changing sets is that it's hard to find themes that haven't appeared in another set within the last few years. Magic has a limited number of mechanical hooks to build around, at least ones inherent to the core of the game, and it can become difficult avoiding a feel of constant repetition. One of the themes that we haven't built around in a long time (since the Shadowmoor block) is color, and I've been looking for a place to use it. Underground worlds often have a theme of light being a resource, and we went into this design seeing if we could connect that to one or more mechanics where color matters.

One of the biggest challenges of being head designer in a world where most sets stand alone is that we chew through mechanical themes much faster than we did in years past. Add in Standard moving to a three-year rotation, and there's a desire to try finding mechanical themes that we haven't done for a while. "Color matters" was one such theme. While Magic has the five colors built into it, we've moved away from colors being as mechanically relevant in the evergreen space of the game, so it's not a theme that comes up as naturally as others (like, say, the graveyard or typal themes). I was looking for a space to do it, and an underground world with themes of light and dark seemed like an opportunity.

The key to creating this set's structure included finding a way to accomplish our goals synergistically, where they all led to a unified mechanical theme. That theme ended up being color, but not in the way we've traditionally done "color matters" in the past. This set is about splashing extra colors without splashing extra sources of mana. A deck that splashes red, for example, has ways to get red cards into the deck without having to run any red mana sources. This then allows us to care about cards of various colors being in certain zones (primarily on the battlefield and in the graveyard, more on this below).

When we started exploratory design, I was thinking that we'd hit the "color matters" theme more like we had in the past. Cards affect and care about cards being certain colors (such as how we did it in Shadowmoor block). As we figured out our craft mechanic, we realized it was more about cards being a certain color for purposes of meeting recipes than it was about affecting them on the battlefield.

How exactly do we accomplish this? We started by finding several useful tools, listed below in their volume of use.

Twobrid Mana

Cave Drake
Creature — Drake

Loam Gnome
Artifact Creature — Gnome
When Loam Gnome enters the battlefield, mill three cards. You may put a land card from your graveyard into your hand.

Skeletal Gear
Artifact — Equipment
Equipped creature gets +1/+0.
When equipped creature dies, surveil 1.
Equip (2/b)

Cave Digger
Creature — Dwarf Miner
T: Target creature with power 2 or less can't be blocked this turn.

Mushroom Feast
Put two +1/+1 counters on target creature.

Twobrid mana was first introduced in Shadowmoor on six cards. It's only ever appeared on those six cards, so it's something that the enfranchised audience is familiar with, but it's a vein of design space we've barely touched. We believe it will be an exciting thing to return to the game. Twobrid mana allows you to spend two generic mana instead of paying a specific color of mana. For color purposes, though, that card is the color(s) of the mana symbol(s).

Twobrid mana is a resource we've talked about using multiple times. It's been in probably three or four early designs only to be pulled out later in the process. It was more baked into this design than it had been in previous attempts. Twobrid is interesting in that it allows you to play cards that are in colors that you can't cast, although this is truer in Limited than Constructed, as one mana is a big difference in mana cost. Usually in Constructed, you must be playing the color, but it lets you cast it when you don't draw the right mana. I should also mention that I was wrong in this document—twobrid has been used other than in Shadowmoor, such as with Tazri, Beacon of Unity.

Note that there are two different types of twobrid cards—monocolor and multicolor. Monocolor will only use one color of twobrid mana, while multicolor will use two. While it is possible to design three-, four-, and five-color twobrid cards (Reaper King says "Hi"), the set will have all its multicolor hybrid cards be two colors.

Here are the rules we've laid out for how twobrid is going to work:

  1. If a card has twobrid symbols, all the colored mana symbols on that card will be twobrid, including activation costs and triggered costs. This is to make sure that the card is fully accessible to someone not playing the color(s).
  2. We're going to limit twobrid mana costs to no more than two twobrid symbols, and most of the time on monocolor cards, it will just be one. This is to offset having to balance the differential between the generic and colored versions of the cards.
  3. Color pie-wise, the cards are designed as if they are that color or colors. For example, a monocolor white twobrid card is designed as a mono-white card, while a multicolor blue-black twobrid card is designed as if it was a blue-black traditional hybrid card.
  4. The current plan is that every artifact in the set will be twobrid, the majority of which will probably be monocolor twobrid.
  5. The multicolor twobrid are being designed such that we expect you to be playing at least one of the two colors to play the card, while the monocolor twobrids are mostly designed to be playable in decks not running that color.

It's important in a vision design document to spell out what we're doing and how we're doing it. Execution is very important when figuring out how a theme is structured, so the vision design handoff document spells out how we plan to do something whenever possible. Set Design might change how it's executed (or possibly not use it at all, as in this case), but seeing vision design's take on the execution of it is important.

Colored Creature Tokens

Seller of Songbats
Creature — Human Druid
When Seller of Songbats enters the battlefield, create a 1/1 black Bat creature token with flying.

Usually when a card in the game generates a creature token, it's of the color that generated it. In "Offroading," we're going to be making more use of cards that generate creature tokens of a color other than themselves. The generated creature tokens will still be in color, color pie-wise, of the card making it, but the extra color will allow us to get more colors onto the battlefield.

Whenever you're exploring what we call an A/B mechanic or theme, meaning some things are category A, and other cards, what we'll call category B, care about cards and permanents that are category A, we need to make sure that we're producing enough cards of category A to make it work. This section is an example of that. We needed more off-color permanents. We often have cards that create tokens, but normally they're in the color(s) of the card creating them. By shifting the tokens to a second color, we find another way to help support our A theme (in this case, having off-color permanents).

Color Changing

Tunnel Mongrel
Creature — Dog
Whenever Tunnel Mongrel attacks, it gets +1/+1 an becomes the color of your choice until end of turn.

Pigment Alchemist
Creature — Merfolk Wizard
T: Another target creature becomes the color of your choice until end of turn.

The set will also have some cards that can either temporarily change their own color or change another permanent's color. The current plan is to not have any permanent color changing, as that would require extra bookkeeping, which we try to avoid.

Color changing, like alternate-color creature tokens is another tool to make our A/B theme work. Because color mattering isn't a theme we do often, color changing is a tool we use infrequently.

Deeper We Go

That's all the time we have for today. I hope you've enjoyed this peek at The Lost Caverns of Ixalan vision design handoff document. As always, if you have any comments on the document, my articles, or The Lost Caverns of Ixalan itself, you can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (X [formerly Twitter], Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).

Join me next week for part two.

Until then, may The Lost Caverns of Ixalan bring you many surprises.