Welcome to the first Theros Preview Week! I finally get to talk about the design of Theros. I was very proud when I handed off this set sixteen months ago and the fact that I've had to wait so long to be able to talk about it with all of you has been torture. Gladly, today is the day where I get to share with you the origin story of one of my favorite sets I've ever designed. And don't worry, I have a saucy preview card to show off as well.
In The Beginning
Our story begins many years ago in Aaron Forsythe's office. Aaron had tasked me with putting together the next six-year plan. Previously (you can read about it here), my former boss, Randy Buehler, had asked me to put together a five-year plan and I had so many ideas I liked that I turned it into a six-year plan. Following suit, when Aaron asked for a six-year plan, I showed up in his office with a seven-year plan.
Art by Sam Burley
Also in the room was Brady Dommermuth, who was at the time the creative director for Magic (aka the head of the creative team). Brady and I worked hand in hand on many sets. Together, we made the world of Mirrodin and created the guilds of Ravnica (I wanted ten two-color pairs and Brady turned that idea into the guilds I then based Ravnica block around, mechanically), as well as many other things.
Anyway, I was in Aaron's office with Aaron and Brady and it was time for me to start pitching my seven-year plan. Year one was Innistrad. That had already been designed (when I made the six-year plan, I had Gothic horror as penciled in for year seven) and was in development. Year two was Return to Ravnica. That was in design at the time and we'd known we were returning to Ravnica seven years earlier after the first Ravnica block was a giant hit. Year three was really the first new block I was presenting.
My idea for the third year was something I'd wanted to do for a long time. It took me a few years to actually figure out how to best do it, but I had an epiphany and discovered the key to how I wanted to make it happen. This pitch was me selling the idea to Aaron and Brady. A thumbs up from them meant it would become a reality. Aaron liked the pitch and said it sounded good. Then Brady spoke up. "I like the idea, Mark," he said, "But I don't think the creative team has the resources to pull it off."
I continued with my pitch and the rest of the four ideas all seemed acceptable to Aaron and Brady (a few were switched around and there was some tweaks but those are stories for future years). We then came back to year three. I explained that I didn't think Brady was giving my idea a fair shake. Yeah, there were issues, but I felt we could work them out. Brady held firm saying that a good idea isn't enough. It has to be a good idea we can execute. And with that, my block idea was rejected.
Here is the conversation (with my normal liberties) that followed:
Aaron: Okay, so we like everything but the block that's scheduled to start design in two months.
Me: I put it first because I thought it was my best idea. We're following up Return to Ravnica. That's a tough act to follow.
Brady: Maybe we should look at some of the ideas we keep talking about doing. For example, we've said for years we should do a Greek mythology set.
Me: It's tricky. Magic has so much Greek mythology in it already that we have to find a way to make it feel special.
Brady: Greek mythology had a lot to do with dreams and the dream state. Maybe there's a way to work an enchantment theme into it. I know players have been asking for an enchantment block.
Aaron: A Greek mythology set with an enchantment theme. That sounds like something the players would like. Do you think you could make something like that work, Mark?
Me: Give me a week to think about it.
A Band of Heroes
This seems like a good break in the story to introduce Theros' design team.
Mark Rosewater (lead designer)
Aaron and I decided that, at least for the near future, I'm going to be leading the design for all the first sets in a block. As I led the design for three out of the last four first sets, this really isn't too much of a change of status quo. As head designer, it helps if I'm always shaping the large expansion that sets the tone for the block.
As I appear constantly in design team bios and I have this column and my podcast and my blog and even a daily comic strip that's occasionally biographical, I'm not sure what else to say that you haven't heard numerous times. How about this: I'll tell a quick story about my youth and Greek mythology. It doesn't really have anything to do with the design but at least it's a new story and it's tied into the set's theme and you'll learn a little bit about me.
In ninth grade, we studied Greek mythology in school. It was pretty easy for me because as a kid I had a habit of choosing a topic and then reading every book I could find about it. Greek and Roman mythology had been one such topic. One day we had a test. One question asked what Ares/Mars was god of and there were two blanks. War was the obvious answer. For the second blank, I put warriors as I knew that many soldiers prayed to Ares/Mars and considered them to be their primary god. My teacher marked the second answer wrong. I went to see her because I was confused. I had read many books about warriors praying to Ares/Mars. When I asked her what we were supposed to put on the second line, she said we had only learned that Ares/Mars was the god of war. We were supposed to leave it blank.
My job occasionally requires me dealing with a lot of frustration. I like to think of incidents like this as training.
One of the things I started doing on all my sets is to choose a core designer (i.e., one of the people designated as a Magic designer reporting to Mark Gottlieb and myself) to serve as my second. That person is in charge of maintaining the card file. I have found that one of the best ways to teach is to have a designer control the file on a design team where he or she is not yet the lead designer. This helps the designer learn the process in a hands-on way. Ethan was my second (development uses the term "strong second") on the Theros design team.
In addition to that role, I also gave Ethan an additional project to work on before the design began. I asked him to do a research project (in-depth research is one of Ethan's strengths) on Greek mythology and look for opportunities both with things Magic has done in the past and for things that it hasn't. If this sounds interesting, please go check out the feature article where Ethan talks about this assignment.
A third reason I wanted Ethan on the team was that I had tagged him as the lead designer for Journey Into Nyx, the third set in the block, and I wanted him to be on both design teams leading up to it to make sure he was as familiar as possible with the world and the block he'd be working in.
Ethan is a great designer and I am always happy to have him on one of my design teams. Having the additional role as the Greek mythology expert (okay, one of two—I'll get to the other in a second), made him extremely valuable to Theros's design.
One of the things we tend to do is to make sure that the lead designer of the next set is familiar with the block, so we always put him or her on the set prior to the one he or she is going to be leading. As Ken was the lead designer for Born of the Gods, that meant he needed to be on the Theros design team.
What's crazy to me is that Ken is now the most-experienced designer on my team (obviously other than myself). It seems like just yesterday I was having meetings with the judges during the first Great Designer Search, where the others kept wanting to eliminate Ken and I would say, "No, I see a lot of potential." Turns out I was right. Ken has matured into an excellent designer (is that better than great?).
Every design team has a development representative (what we tend to call a "dev rep"), which is a spot always filled by one of the core developers. Zac was one of my favorite dev reps because (a) he was good at always asking development-oriented questions that tended to help lead the design to good places, (b) he would always design a lot of cards, and (c) he was fun to have on a team. (You spend a lot of hours with your design team in meetings. Having a group that is fun to hang with is important.)
Zac has since left Wizards to go on to do other things and I miss him already. Luckily, he still does coverage for the Pro Tours, so I get to run into him every once in a while. Theros had a smooth handoff to development and part of that goes to Zak's role on the team. (The other part goes to Erik Lauer, Theros's lead developer, who asks great questions of the design team even when not on it.)
Jenna's primary responsibility on the Theros design team was that of a creative-team representative. Jenna was in charge of card concepting for the set (deciding what each card represents, flavorwise) and was well-positioned to make sure that our top-down design was melding the needs of both design and creative.
Jenna was our other expert on Greek mythology and she and Ethan would often go on about what did and did not fit into Greek mythology or what obscure thing we could squeeze in at higher rarities for the Greek mythology fans. On top of all that, Jenna also designed some very flavorful cards.
Billy's an interesting case as he wasn't even on the design team. So why does he get design credit? Because he's responsible for one of the mechanics in the set, and a very central one at that. I'll be talking about it and its creation next week. Billy is a developer, but one with a lot of design skills, so he always brought designs with a different sensibility. In fact, Theros had a major problem to solve, which Billy's mechanic was key to solving. Billy is soon moving on to do other things and he is going to be missed. It's not often we have someone with strong skills in both development and design.
So that was the team that brought top-down Greek mythology to life. I'll pick up the story where I was trying to figure out whether or not a block dedicated to Greek mythology with an enchantment theme was a good idea. (The above was a little foreshadowing: it obviously was.)
It's All Greek To Me
Aaron had given me a week to think through Brady's idea. A Greek-mythology top-down world with an enchantment theme. Could I make it work?
Concept Art by Adam Paquette
The idea of a Greek mythology set had been around since the beginning of Magic. Arabian Nights did Persian mythology (straight-up, not a world inspired by it). Surely Magic could handle Greek mythology. After all, Greek mythology was all over the game. That ended up being the sticking point. Greek mythology had minotaurs and pegasuses and centaurs and griffins and hydras and sphinxes and cyclopes and on and on. (By the way, I know a few of the creatures I just named actually were unique in Greek mythology, meaning there was exactly one of them, but a trading card game doesn't do well with just one of a creature type.) The problem was all those things were also already a part of Magic.
For years, the concern was that a Greek mythology set wouldn't have enough of an identity because so much of what Richard had built into the game came from Greek mythological roots. And then came Innistrad. Innistrad was about Gothic horror, but what we found was that the majority of what we used were creatures Magic normally uses. Four out of the five tribes in the set, for example, were Magic staples, and even the fifth, Werewolves, had been used in Magic before, if only on a handful of cards.
The lesson of Innistrad was that you can make up a set of things Magic normally does but they can be grouped and flavored to create a feel that is distinct from normal Magic. So I wasn't actually worried that we couldn't make a Greek mythology world have its own feel. In fact, I knew that not only could we but it wouldn't even be that hard. What I was thinking about was not if, but how. How could I make such a block feel right yet have a fun play pattern?
Layered on top of that was Brady's suggestion of an enchantment theme. Magic had only once before done an enchantment block and it got totally overshadowed by the power level of the sets in it. (I'm talking about Urza's Saga block for those unaware.) To top it off, the brand team at the time decided to call the block the "Artifact Cycle," so any hope of people recognizing the enchantment theme was out the window.
I really wanted to do an enchantment block but the key was that I wanted to find a way to do it that was different from the several other "card-type matters" blocks we've done. So, both Greek mythology and enchantments excited me, but each required some hook, something that would allow us to do something unique. Well, I had a week to figure out how.
Some Enchanted Evening
When Brady had first suggested the idea of enchantments, he said that there was a strong tie between Greek mythology and dreams. The gods often came to people in their dreams and there was definitely a dream-like quality to how the gods functioned. One could even argue that the Greeks formed a lot of their ideas on how the Greek gods behaved based on how they saw them in their own dreams.
Often, when I'm trying to solve one puzzle, I'll instead answer a different one. While thinking about the role of enchantments in Theros, I thought about this card:
The biggest challenge of Future Sight design was designing the future-shifted cards that showed cards from Magic's potential future. A lot of what we did was to pick extensions of things Magic already did but in a way that we hadn't done yet. Magic had artifact creatures since the game's beginning, so I figured one day we'd do an enchantment creature.
Note that the original version of Lucent Liminid had a static enchantment-like ability. Mike Turian, Future Sight's lead developer, removed it because the set had too much complexity and he was looking for ways to simplify it. (Yes, the set was at one point even more complex.) I fought with Mike because I felt the card didn't make any sense if it didn't have an enchantment part. It was just a creature, not an enchantment, and I felt strongly that an enchantment creature needed to feel like both. (This will become important in part two of our story.) Obviously, I lost that fight.
Ever since Lucent Liminid was released, I've always had it in the back of my head that I wanted to find a way to make enchantment creatures work, but that meant I had to find a reason for them. I didn't want them being enchantments just because. I wanted it to be a key component of their design and flavor. The enchantment part had to matter both mechanically and flavorfully. It was a problem that I had stuck away until such a time that the answer presented itself. Apparently, this was that day.
What if the enchantment creatures were the creation of the gods? This would give them a not-quite-real quality that would help make the enchantment play a role in the card. It also led to a few other ideas that I will get to next week, as I explain one of the new mechanics tied to the enchantment creatures. Note that this idea of the enchantment creatures being creations of the gods would later tie them into Nyx, which was the home of the gods created by the creative team.
The more I thought about this idea, the more excited I got. It would allow us to create a world similar to Greek mythology but it would be something with our own spin on it. Also, using enchantment creatures as the backbone for an enchantment block would allow us to solve one of the biggest sticking points of an enchantment block—how would black and red deal with the theme?
I went to Aaron the next day and told him I was in. I said, "Let's do a Greek mythology block."
It was at this point that I asked Ethan to start doing research on Greek mythology. Note that this was still seven weeks before the design was scheduled to begin. I checked in with him each week as he was collecting lists of ideas. Greek mythology played well to Magic's wheelhouse. It had good visuals, good creatures, good locations. It had everything a Magic set wants.
Then one day I was at the library with my kids. I was helping my youngest daughter Sarah find some books when I stumbled upon a book about Greek mythology for kids. I don't remember the name of the book but the subtitle was, "Gods, Heroes, and Monsters." I took the book home because I figured a kids' book was the perfect thing to point out what was the most resonant qualities of Greek mythology. That book, and its subtitle, would prove to be very important to the design.
For the first day of Theros design, I started with the exact same exercise I had done on the first day of Innistrad design (I used Innistrad design as an inspiration for Theros as the two were both top-down, flavor-driven sets): I asked my team to brainstorm everything they could think of having to do with Greek mythology.
A quick aside. When I say Greek mythology, I really mean Greek and Roman mythology. During all the early parts of design, I assumed we would use inspirations from both. The creative team asked early on if we could focus just on Greek mythology because they felt that there were enough differences between Greek and Roman culture that we might be able to save Roman for a future set (not necessarily a Roman mythology set, but one around Roman culture—gladiators, chariots, and such).
The team filled every inch of the board. Greek mythology was pretty deep. As we looked it over, I noticed that the things tended to fall into a few sections. The biggest was creatures—mostly monsters. The second was gods or things tied into the gods. The third was things connected to stories of myth, most of which dealt with heroes. The last was things tied into actual Greece, mostly having to do with clothing, weapons, and architecture. When I removed the historical Greek things, I noticed we had three groups—gods, heroes, and monsters. That, I decided, was going to be our inspiration.
I came into our second meeting and said, "I've come to a conclusion. If we're going to do Greek mythology and do it correctly, then there's no way to do it without gods. The very center of Greek mythology is the pantheon of the gods. If we're going to do our version, it too has to have a collection of gods. Not only that, but if we do a pantheon of gods, then it has to tie into the center of Magic and that's the color wheel."
Art by Zack Stella
I laid out my plan. We would have fifteen gods. Five monocolored gods that would be the major gods and ten two-colored gods that would serve as the minor gods. The colors would help give each god an identity that would tie the pantheon of gods to Magic. The design team loved the idea so I took it to the creative team. Brady gave me the thumbs up and we were good to go.
For those now wondering, the five major gods are in Theros. The ten minor gods will show up in Born of the Gods and Journey Into Nyx. The creative team did a great job of figuring out the different facets of the Greek gods and mixing and matching them to create Theros's gods, which had both a feel of Greek mythology and Magic's color wheel. Remember that the gods are not straight-up duplicates of the Greek gods but rather different components stitched together as dictated by the color philosophies. Also, not every choice made was the most obvious one, as the creative team came up with some pretty cool new ideas for gods.
I'm running out of time for today, so you're going to have to wait until next week for how the design team chose to execute gods, heroes, and monsters. I am not going to leave you completely hanging, though, as I have a god to show off<
Heliod, God of the Sun | Art by Jaime Jones
This is Heliod. His art was the one we showed off when the name of Theros was first announced. Heliod is the god of the sun and the embodiment of white. He lays down the rules and doesn't take kindly to anyone who disobeys him. (Note the spear in his hand. That's his favorite choice for smiting.)
Before I get to show off his card, let me explain one mechanic to you. It is called devotion, and in this block it always refers to a color. Heliod, for example, cares about devotion to white. Devotion is a tweaked version of the chroma mechanic from Eventide (teased originally in Future Sight). Next week, I'll explain why we chose to bring it back. The important thing to know now is that you figure out your devotion to a color by adding up the mana symbols of that color in the mana cost of permanents you control on the battlefield. (Chroma looked in different zones to count mana symbols in mana costs while devotion only looks on the battlefield.)
Also, if you're wondering about his frame, it's different because he's an enchantment creature and all enchantment creatures have the new frame. (Each color has its own version.)
With that out of the way, let's meet Heliod.
I'm sure you have a lot of questions about how we ended up making the gods as we did. Luckily for you, you can join me next week when, I talk about that in part two, along with how we captured the feeling of the heroes and the monsters.
Until then, may the gods be on your side... of the battlefield.