Zendikar Rising Vision Design Handoff Document
When vision design finishes, the lead vision designer produces a handoff document meant to explain their vision and walk through what they've done for the Set Design team. These are the metaphorical blueprints that the Set Design team will use to go build the set. I showed the vision design handoff for Throne of Eldraine (Part 1 and Part 2) and Ikoria, and they went over well, so I figured you all might like to see the one for Zendikar Rising.
Before we jump in, let me just say a few things. One, I'll be making asides in the boxes on the right. Anything that isn't an aside is the actual document. Two, a lot can change during set design, so when things deviate, I'll explain why and how they changed in set design. Three, as this is an internal document, at one point I talk about how this set impacts future sets, but that isn't public knowledge yet, so I blacked it out. (Sorry.) I hope you all enjoy this truly behind-the-scenes document.
"Diving" Vision Design Handoff Document
Vision Design Team
- Mark Rosewater (lead)
- Andrew Veen
- Erik Lauer
- George Fan
- Tom Ross
I always like to start my vision design handoff document explaining the big picture of what we're doing. This is important because the Set Design team will change things along the way as they build the set, but we want to make sure everyone is headed toward the same goal. Recapturing the essence of the original Zendikar was always the driving force of this design.
"Diving" is a return to Zendikar. Here are the parameters we chose to work under:
- We're revisiting "adventure world" Zendikar, reminiscent of original Zendikar and Worldwake.
- There will be no Eldrazi, but there will be a nod to the impact of them having been there.
- The set will lean into "adventure world" tropes.
The key goal for the set's vision is to try and recapture what made the audience fall in love with Zendikar before the Eldrazi escaped and shifted the focus of the plane. A big part of this is steering back into the rich top-down trope space of "adventure world."
A World of Adventure
Here are the mechanics the Vision Design team created:
Creature – Kor Ally Warrior
Whenever Kor Blademaster attacks, it gets +1/+1 for each creature in your party until end of turn. (Your party consists of up to one each of Cleric, Rogue, Warrior, and Wizard.)
Draw a card for each creature in your party. (Your party consists of up to one each of Cleric, Rogue, Warrior, and Wizard.)
When showing off a new mechanic, I always make sure to include actual card designs. The reason for this is that it's the easiest way for everyone to get a sense of what the mechanic is and how it might be executed. Notice that here, I showed both a creature and a spell with party right off the bat to demonstrate the variety of how the mechanic can be used.
Party is a mechanic representing an adventure party gathering together. It's tribal, but rather than wanting you to have a lot of the same creature type, you're trying to get one of each of four class creature types (Cleric, Rogue, Warrior, and Wizard, specifically). Party is the mechanic that goes on Allies. Every Ally is one of the four class types, and every creature with one of the four class types is an Ally. (We're currently experimenting with the relevant class being listed last, after Ally, to be easier to locate on the card.)
It was 100% my intent for Allies to be a part of Zendikar Rising. I know from both our market research and my interaction with players that Allies are a fan favorite of the world. The problem was that party takes up the same flavor space as Allies (that is, they represent the adventuring party trope we want to hit) and both require creature type support. It was my hope that we could just cram everything on the type line and live with the extra text as a byproduct of making the set more backwards compatible with past Zendikar sets. Unfortunately, the text didn't fit when the creature was legendary, and it felt very odd for everyone but the legendary creatures to be Allies. We talked about adding "This creature is an Ally," but it was text that didn't mean anything within the context of this set (save Tazri), so sadly, we made the choice to drop the Ally creature type from the set.
For each color (other than green, which is handled differently) one of the four creature types is primary, secondary, tertiary, or absent. Currently, if the class is primary in a color, it has three commons, two uncommons, and a various number of rares of that class. If it is secondary, it has two commons, two uncommons, and various rares of that class. If it is tertiary, it has at least one common and one uncommon of that class. If it is absent, you have no cards of that class. Green isn't primary in any color but has a presence in all four classes.
It's common during vision design to map out a rough model of as-fan to give a sense of roughly how big of a space we expect a mechanic will take up. This is just an estimate though. Set Design will figure out the exact needs as they build the set. In the case of helping set up party, Vision Design guessed a little low. Common actually had four creatures of the primary creature type at common and three at uncommon (with red having four).
Here's the breakdown:
Vision Design will also explore how structurally to handle a mechanic. In the case of party, how do you divide four things among five colors? We ended up using a system where we handled four colors similarly and one differently. This model was never changed and is how the set went to print.
Each class is thus focused in a non-green two-color pair:
You'll notice that four of the six dual lands in this set are these four color combinations.
We also worked to make each class have mechanics that feel connected to that class. In the current file, Clerics tend to do spells that positively affect you, Rogues do sneaky things that tend to hurt the opponent, often tied to dealing combat damage, Warriors do effects that help increase your ability to win combats, and Wizards tend to do spells that hurt the opponent.
This is a good example of us stating the essence of what we wanted (that each party member had its own mechanical feel) and then giving our first stab at it. This ended up being a bit too prescriptive, and the Set Design team pulled back to a "it's got to flavorfully feel right for the class" restriction. This feel was aided by the creation of Draft archetypes that leaned into each party member. We also chose not to go with watermarks as it's not how we usually use them (to play up factions).
More so than our individual choices, the most important thing is that if a player looks at the card in isolation, its flavor is evocative of its class. We might want to consider watermarks for the classes.
Because party was one of our major new mechanics, the Vision Design team spent a lot of time exploring different ways it could be executed. The reason we do this is to give the Set Design team a toolbox of execution for the mechanic, so they can create the set. It's understood that usually not every execution will be used.
There are several different types of party cards:
These are creature that are of one of the four party classes. In "Diving," 100% of these creatures will be Allies. These cards do not care about your party, they are just members of the party.
One of the strengths of the party mechanic is that every creature has to have a creature type(s), so it's easy to make most creatures matter for party if we want them to. The one restriction is that it's baked into the card concept, so you have to figure out what cards you want to matter before art is commissioned.
These are creatures that are both of one of the four classes and have an effect that scales based on the number of members in your party. These effects are always either triggered (most often as an "enters the battlefield" trigger or an attack trigger) or activated. Because the effect is on a creature of the class, it will, at worst, be "set at 1."
This was the meat and potatoes of the party mechanic. It got used a lot. The fact that it always had at least an effect of 1 was the reason it worked so well.
These are like the creatures but appear on spells, meaning they are "set at 0" such that they can at times be useless if you have no relevant classes on the battlefield. These start at uncommon.
The Set Design team used these as well and did include some at common, but it was used sparingly.
Party Threshold Spells
These are spells that have a boosted effect if you have two or more party members on the battlefield. These mostly show up at uncommon.
This execution didn't end up getting used. Set Design decided that the only threshold they wanted to use was a full party (see below).
These are a common cycle of instants and sorceries that are one mana cheaper for each member of your party. They all cost four and a color, allowing you to cast them for one mana with a full party.
This execution did end up in the set, but not as cycled as we presented above.
These are creatures that have a scaling effect but create a better version of that effect if you have a full party (aka all four relevant creature types). These appear only at rare.
The set also had these, and they did keep them only at rare.
The party mechanic was one of the two top-scoring mechanics in our playtest of future mechanics. (The other being the multi-faced lands that I'll talk about next.)
Modal Double-Faced Cards (MDFCs)
T: Add W
T: Add U
Counter target spell.
CARDNAME enters the battlefield tapped.
T: Add U
Vision Design is very good at exploring new design space, tapping into relevant themes, or figuring out how to capture a top-down feel. Power level? Not so much. We way underestimated how good the backsides had to be, given the choice the cards allowed. I just wanted to point out that a Cancel MDFC did exist for a few playtests.
These cards are a cross between double-faced cards and split cards. They are cards with two different faces, each of which can be played (unlike traditional double-faced cards where you can only play one side and transform to the second side). All three non-Core Standard-legal sets of next year ("Diving," "Equestrian," and "Fencing") will have MDFCs. "Diving's" particular execution will be MDFCs that are always a land on one side.
This take on the modal double-faced cards pretty much stayed true all throughout set design (although they got moved out of common—more on this in a second). I do want to point out that R&D is experimenting with how close we can get to strictly better with the dual lands. We decided that while we do plenty to reward specific basic land types, we do a lot less these days that punish them, so their absence meant something mechanically. Will this impact future dual land design space? I'm not sure. That's why I labeled this as an experiment.
The lands are always lands that tap for a single mana of one color but do not have the basic land type (to keep them from being strictly better than basic lands). The common and uncommon MDFC cards have lands that enter the battlefield tapped, while rare has some lands that enter tapped and some that enter untapped.
Here are the current cycles in the set:
Land (ETBT)/Instant or Sorcery (These are situational spells that often don't make decks.)
Land (ETBT)/Creature (Creatures for mid- to late game.)
Both of these cycles exist, but not at common. They got moved up to uncommon. Set Design decided to not do any MDFCs at common, both for complexity at common reasons and as-fan reasons.
Land (ETBT)/Instant or Sorcery (Quirky card designs)
Land (ETBT)/Creature (Anti-color creatures with "hexproof from <color>.")
The former cycle still exists, but the latter was cut. Set Design decided to only have one uncommon MDFC with a creature on the front side.
Land/Land (These are the dual lands, and there are currently all ten two-color combinations.)
Land (ETBT)/Spell (These are Constructed slots with fringe Constructed cards.)
The current plan is for the commons and uncommons to be on one double-faced sheet and rare and mythic rare to be on another. We suggest having at least one slot dedicated to MDFCs.
The dual lands stayed, but four of them ended up getting moved off to Kaldheim. The latter cycle also stayed. In addition, the Set Design team added a mythic rare cycle that you could pay 3 life to have the lands enter the battlefield untapped. Set Design ended up keeping the same number of cycles Vision Design proposed but moved them around in rarity and changed what a couple did.
Whether all MDFCs go in that slot or just the commons and uncommons is still to be decided.
One of the things Set Design has to worry about is how a set will physically be printed. When issues come up during vision design (as happens with any double-faced cards), we'll take a stab at it and pass along our thoughts to Set Design.
Finally, there are some rules issues still to be worked out. The cards can be cast as either side and exist on the stack and on the battlefield as the chosen side. The outstanding rules issue revolves around what the cards are in other zones.
I lean toward them functioning like split cards where they are both cards, but there are some potential rules issues with this version. Eli and I are working with the digital teams from MTGO and MTGA to figure out if the split card version is possible. The fallback is a double-faced version where there's a dominant side that is what the card is in all other zones. If we go down that path, I would lean toward the dominant side Note from the editor: No really, we removed this text. You can't see it. It isn't ready for you. You may find out soon enough, but now is not the time.
MDFCs are a cross between split cards and double-faced cards. It was my hope that we could treat them like split cards, meaning they had the qualities of both sides in every zone other than the stack and the battlefield. I like for Vision Design to aim for the version we'd most like, acknowledge the obstacles in the way, and provide a backup if things don't work out. That's what happened here. The split card version of the rules for MDFCs were very complex and near impossible to program given realistic constraints, so we fell back to the double-faced rules which were already written and programmed. The blacked-out section is me talking about the future. As MDFCs were going to exist in Zendikar Rising, Kaldheim, and Strixhaven, with some variation in execution, we needed to consider all versions of MDFCs when finalizing how MDFCs were going to work.
I have been working with editing and the project architect to figure out how much information exists on each side about the other side. Things currently seem to be in favor of providing the name and mana cost, and then the card type and power/toughness if it's a creature.
This plan changed a little because of space issues. We ended up telling you the card type or creature type and the mana cost. For the lands, we told you what color mana they produced. As we do more and more with new frames, Vision Design has gotten involved in doing some preliminary work to understand how they'll look as far as it matters for purposes of function.
Landfall is synonymous with Zendikar, so it felt appropriate to bring back. We experimented a little trying new tweaks with it but ended up keeping it as players know it. There are a few cards that create an enchantment-like effect that last until end of turn. I'm not sure if this will read to players as something new though. The thing we discussed with Erik was being able to make cards that felt to be at a power level similar to original Zendikar as opposed to Battle for Zendikar. Erik felt that without fetch lands in the environment, this should be possible.
Set Design didn't end up using the enchantment-like landfall effects. Maybe next visit. Other than that, landfall stayed pretty consistent with the vision we set out.
Remnant of Force
Titan 8 (You may cast this spell for its titan cost rather than its mana cost.)
Return target nonland permanent to its owner's hand. If this spell's titan cost was paid, also draw two cards.
The nature of a land-based set is that you tend to play and get more lands onto the battlefield, so we wanted a mechanic that could let you spend the extra mana. (Note that a lot of the MDFC designs also do this.) Titan gives you an alternate generic mana cost, always seven or more, that allows you to cast a "kicked" version of the spell. We liked that the mechanic made a slight, subtle nod to the Eldrazi without us having to have any on the plane. This mechanic is the least intertwined into the structure of the set and could be replaced by a different mechanic that lets you spend extra mana.
I believe this changed to kicker pretty early in set design. (Usually, if I think there's a good chance of it being removed, I make it less intertwined to make it easier to remove.) The original Zendikar that we were emulating had kicker, and it just gave the Set Design team more flexibility in the kinds of designs they could use. My only sadness in losing titan is that I was hoping to have a more visible nod to the Eldrazi. We purposely didn't want them in the set, but I did want to acknowledge that their presence forever changed Zendikar.
Creature – Cat
2W: Monstrosity 2
5W: Monstrosity 4
When CARDNAME becomes monstrous, you may destroy target artifact or enchantment.
Monstrosity was brought back at Erik's request as he and Jenna felt it was a flavor win for top-down "adventure world." Andrew and I spent a little time brainstorming mechanical evolutions for monstrosity. We made two cycles of cards, one with creatures that have monstrosity and one with spells that care about things being monstrous. Each card in the cycle is trying something different to give the Set Design team a sampler of things they could use.
In vision design, Erik Lauer, the set's lead set designer, expressed an interest in possibly having monstrosity in the set. I had the Vision Design team take a crack at doing something new with it, and the favorite thing we came up with was having two monstrosity costs that allowed you to choose which upgrade you gave it and spells that cared about things being monstrous (I should have included a sample card). This helped fill in some of the mana sinks below seven that titan wasn't hitting. When titan became kicker, monstrosity was removed from the set. I should note that I didn't expect monstrosity to stay, but I wanted to give the Set Design team the best foot forward with it so they could figure out if it added value.
To give the Set Design team some additional material to work with, we designed some bonus content that is not currently in the file but can be added if needed. Here are the things we designed:
Part of vision design is exploring possible design space. We frequently create more than can fit in the set. Below were some cool things we made that, while not in the set at handoff, could be added if needed. To go along with my toolbox metaphor above, I think it's helpful when Vision Design hands over a few extra tools that might be handy.
Artifact – Trap
At the beginning of your upkeep, sacrifice CARDNAME and draw a card.
Whenever an opponent casts a second spell in a turn, you may put this onto the battlefield and draw a card.
4, or U, T, Sacrifice CARDNAME: Counter target spell.
This is a new take on traps. In original Zendikar, traps were a spell subtype that allowed you to play them cheaper if certain conditions were met. The new traps are artifacts (allowing them to better capture the flavor of a trap) that can be put onto the battlefield for free when a certain condition is met (something done by the opponent) as well as letting you draw a card. The traps then have a turn to be used before they are sacrificed and draw you a card. This allows the controller of the trap to spring the trap (it has two costs, a more expensive generic version or a cheaper colored version allowing anyone to play the trap but letting it be optimized in the right color deck) on the opponent or trade it in a turn later for a card if they don't need to use it. The sacrifice also keeps the player from hard-casting it and having a seal-like artifact sitting over the board. The traps were put into extra content as Erik was not a big fan of them.
I and a couple other members really liked this new take on traps. They were a little more complicated than the old traps, but the flavor was so good. Erik hated them, though, so there wasn't much of a point in keeping them in the file. I posted it here in the hopes that other members of the Set Design team might like them and convince Erik to change his mind. Obviously, that never happened. Looking back with the distance of time, they are a little clunky.
Quest for Forbidden Power
Whenever you complete any of the following tasks, put a quest counter on CARDNAME. If it was the first time you have completed that task, each player discards a card.
* A land enters the battlefield under your control.
* A creature dies.
* An opponent loses 5 or more life in a single turn.
Remove three quest counters from CARDNAME and sacrifice it: Until end of turn, you may play cards from your graveyard. If a card would be put into your graveyard from anywhere this turn, exile that card instead.
Quests are enchantments that ask you to do a series of tasks to receive a reward. The designs are based on the quest designs from "Archery" that got removed during set design. The new quests change a few things. First, instead of having to do each task, the new quests require you to do any combination of tasks up to three times. This means you could do each task once, one task twice and another task once, or one task three times. The quests encourage you to do all three because each time you complete a new task, you get an effect. On all the quests, the first challenge is essentially landfall, which means any quest will eventually be completed in time. The quests ended up getting put into extra content because they were a) wordy and b) most likely required new frames and the new frame space was already being used by the MDFCs.
When we were making the original quests in Zendikar, we hit upon a different execution where you had to complete three different tasks to get your reward. That version, while flavorful, was wordy and required a new card frame, which wasn't something we were as willing to do back then. Throne of Eldraine took another stab at these quests, but they were too close to adventurer cards and that was the better mechanic for the set. Zendikar Rising vision design picked up the gauntlet (as quests are a natural fit for Zendikar) and came up with a new twist on it, but due to the factors listed above, they were never under serious consideration for inclusion.
Creature – Human Ally Rogue
1B: Add a +1/+1 counter to CARDNAME. When CARDNAME gets three +1/+1 counters, it loses this ability and gains menace.
The levelers were a new take on the leveling creatures from Rise of the Eldrazi. The goal was to make creatures that you can spend mana on to improve but without the complexity and frame needs of the Rise of the Eldrazi levelers. These new levelers have an activated ability that puts +1/+1 counters on them. Then, when they get three +1/+1 counters, it turns the ability off and grants them a creature keyword. This cycle of uncommons got put into extra content because Erik expressed interests in pursuing monstrosity and these were filling the same mechanical space.
These cards were in the file but got removed when monstrosity got added. I put them here because I knew there was a chance monstrosity would come out. I believe the reason these weren't added in when that happened was because there was enough stuff going on and the set didn't need it.
Red Monster Land
CARDNAME enters the battlefield tapped.
Whenever one or more creatures you control deal combat damage to a player, put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME.
As long as CARDNAME has at least five +1/+1 counters on it, it's a 0/0 Elemental creature with haste and menace.
T: Add R
3, T: Put a +1/+1 counter on CARDNAME
This is a cycle of rare lands. They enter the battlefield tapped and then get a +1/+1 counter when a certain condition is met. Then, when the land gets five or more +1/+1 counters, it becomes a 0/0 creature with haste (to avoid confusion about being able to attack) and a color-relevant creature keyword. These cards got put into the extra content section as they were a little too strong and fought a bit in identity with the creature and land MDFCs. We would like the Set Design team to explore novel ways to do creature lands.
One of the memorable things about Zendikar was the creature lands (aka the lands that could activate to turn themselves into creatures). The Vision Design team explored different ways we could do this. In the end, the MDFCs ate up most of the land space.
That's everything to convey about "Diving." The Vision Design team is very proud of what we've created and hope the Set Design team can turn it into an amazing set. If you have any questions, please feel free to contact me.
As I mention every time I do one of these, the vision handoff document is just one facet of the communication between Vision Design and Set Design. Usually, I'll come in and talk about the set with the Vision Design team and answer any questions they may have. Also, we always try to have at least one member of the Vision Design team be on the Set Design team to help with continuity of the vision.
And that is the Zendikar Rising vision design handoff document. I've been getting very positive feedback on these, so I plan to keep posting them in the future. If you have any thoughts on it or possible suggestions for other things you'd like to have me say about them as I annotate, please email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week when I answer your questions about Zendikar Rising.
Until then. May you have fun peeking behind the curtain.