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State of Design 2011

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The letter A!s Head Designer, I write a column every year where I examine the current state of Magic design by looking back at the previous year to appraise what went right and wrong with Magic design. I then look ahead and explain what goals we have for the year ahead. This is my seventh State of Design column; you can see the previous six here: 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, and 2010.


I always begin by asking the same question: How was the last year for Magic design? To answer this question let me talk about something I talked about during my very first State of Design article. In it, I explained the three Stages of Magic Design and how Ravnica block was going to be the beginning of the Fourth Stage of Design. I bring this up now because I believe Scars of Mirrodin block was the beginning of the Fifth Stage of Design. Let me explain.

First Stage (Alpha through Alliances): This stage was about the focus on individual card design. Design decisions tended to be made on a card-by-card basis.

Second Stage (Mirage through Prophecy): This stage was the introduction of the block and the focus of design in thinking of Magic in terms of a year.

Third Stage (Invasion through Saviors of Kamigawa): This stage was the introduction of block themes. Blocks were no longer just a collection of mechanics, but contained specific things chosen to highlight the block's theme.

Fourth Stage (Ravnica through Rise of the Eldrazi): This stage was the introduction of block planning. Instead of picking a theme and continuing it through the block, design now planned out how exactly the block was going to evolve. This planning allowed for themes to be better set up and paid off.

Fifth Stage (Scars of Mirrodin through ???): Now we get to last year. What I believe Scars of Mirrodin block has done that shifts design into the next age is to radically change how mechanical themes are looked at and used. For the last two stages, themes have been used as the foundation to build the block on. Starting with Scars of Mirrodin, mechanical themes are now thought of as tools used to put a block together. Metaphorically, themes are no longer the canvas, but the paint.

To better explain, let's evaluate Mirrodin block against Scars of Mirrodin block. Mirrodin block was an artifact block. Every choice made in the set was to highlight the artifact theme. Scars of Mirrodin, on the other hand, was about something that happened on and to the plane of Mirrodin. There was an artifact component, but that was used not the understructure of the design; rather, it was a way to give mechanical identity to the Mirrans.


An easier way to see this might be to talk a little bit about Innistrad. What is Innistrad's design based upon? Nothing mechanical. Innistrad is about bringing the horror genre to life. Graveyard and tribal themes are mechanical tools to help do this, but neither of those themes drove the design. Both were tools to bring the design to life. (More on this next week as previews begin. Trust me, I'm dying to talk about the design of Innistrad.)

The Fifth Age of Design brings an entire new vantage point to how blocks are being created. I bring all this up because that is the most important aspect of the last year of design. We've radically changed how we do design and any year capable of pulling that off can't be too bad a year for design.

Be aware that the first of anything is rough. The Model T might have been awesome in its day, but with hindsight it had plenty of room for improvement. I don't feel this last year was without flaws (in fact, I'll be getting to some of them in a moment), but I'm very excited with the current direction of design. I don't think it's an accident that last year was our best year ever in the game's eighteen year life. (Yes, Magic is now legally an adult—in the United States, anyway.)


So how was last year's design? I'd say pretty good with flashes of greatness and a few areas with room for improvement.

Highlights of 2010/2011

Here are the three things that I feel stand out from the last year:

The War (and its Outcome)

In the early days, when Richard Garfield was first explaining Magic, he used to say that it was a "game bigger than the box." At first I assumed what he meant was that the game was larger than any one player's copy of it. When you buy Monopoly you got the entire game in the box. If your friend buys it, he or she gets the exact same game. With Magic, though, you and your friend are each getting pieces of a larger game, and not even the same pieces.

Over the years, I have come to realize that Richard meant something else as well. When I buy Monopoly I am purchasing a game for my friends and me to play. That's all it is, provided you're not into the competitive Monopoly tournament scene—a game to play. Magic, on the other hand, is about so much more than just playing the game. For example, add up the hours you spent on Magic in the last week—and I'm talking everything you did that was Magic related. How many of those hours were actually spent playing the game? You see, with Magic there is a lot more than the game itself. There is deckbuilding, metagame comprehension, community engagement, article reading, just talking about Magic. I believe the majority of players spend more time on Magic not playing than playing.


I bring this up because one of the big successes of design this last year has been to bring an experience to the design. Scars of Mirrodin block wasn't just about a large set and two small sets. It was about a war between two sides that many of you already knew well. Players picked sides and rallied for them. For the first time, there was a Prerelease about something more than just "Hey, look—new cards." Mirrodin Besieged's Prerelease was a success on many levels and I believe will be seen as the model of events to come.

Design has always been focused on game play. This last year showed that design can have an impact larger than just game play. (Have no fear, though—game play will always be our top goal.)

Magic: The Gathering Commander

When drilling for oil, there's something known as a gusher. That's when you hit a pocket flush with oil, that's fuller than you were expecting. Commander is the gusher of last year's design. It wasn't that we didn't know the format was popular. Obviously, we made a product specifically for it. We just thought the pocket of oil was not quite as big as it turned out to be.


I believe the last few years of Magic's success are due to multiple factors but a big one is the move we've made to start designing products for formats other than traditional two-player play. I often talk about how Magic is not really one game, but a whole host of games all living under a single unifying umbrella. As we've catered to more and more of these "games," we've noticed an uptick in people playing. I don't believe that's a coincidence.

From a design standpoint, Magic: The Gathering Commander is probably most important for the following: it pushed new card design into a space where it wasn't previously used. When every card created had to be playable in Standard, it put some constraints onto design that cut off other veins of design space. A new door is open and that is very exciting for design. Note that the two other times we designed things not for Standard (Unglued and Unhinged, I'm looking at you), we found some very interesting areas for design that later found their way into Standard-legal sets.

Proliferate

There was actually one more gusher this last year. When talking mechanics, I tend to refer to this as a breakout mechanic. I define a breakout mechanic as one that becomes so popular that we no longer talk about if it will come back, but when. Proliferate started as a very functional mechanic meant to do a specific job in the environment it was created in. We saw an opportunity to broaden the mechanic to make it more applicable in additional situations, (the full story is here) and it just took off from there.

One of the statistics we look at is what cards are most played on Magic Online. Proliferate cards just litter the top end of the list. It's a running joke that I love counters and tokens and my sets always have a high number of them, but data collected over the last few years has really hammered home that so do all of you. I'm not quite sure what environment proliferate will return in, but it's on my short list for coming back, so it's definitely something I'll be looking at each time I end up with a heavy counter and/or token theme (a.k.a. every set I design).


It's interesting to dissect the proliferate mechanic to see if we can tap into something similar with other mechanics. My best guess is threefold. One, as I said above, I believe counters and tokens are just popular. Two, I think Magic players in general enjoy affecting other things in the game, allowing for more cool interactions between cards. Three, I think having a mechanic that is very useful in many different types of situations is a big draw. Magic players like exploring and a mechanic that lets you do what you want to do with it rather than telling you what you have to do with it to make it work is refreshing. These are definitely lessons I will apply to future designs.

Lessons of 2010/2011

Those were the design highs of last year. Let's talk the lows.

The "Pick a Side" Problem

While the overall separation of two distinct sides for players to rally behind was successful, it did cause one design problem, something that showed up strongest in Scars of Mirrodin only drafts. While creating the factions for Scars of Mirrodin, there were a couple rules we had to follow.

One, you'll notice that when you take all the cards from the block and divide them by watermark, the piles are pretty close to even. This was done on purpose, because when the year ended we wanted both sides to have enough cards to build around. Making the two sides close to even meant that we had to pull back greatly on the Phyrexians in the first set. All this led to the rule that the Phyrexians could only have twenty percent of the cards in Scars.

Two, we wanted to make sure that there were a few draftable decks with Phyrexian themes. To pull this off, that meant we had to skew Phyrexians to just a few colors.

Three, to create the feeling of the Phyrexians' influence, we wanted to have the Phyrexian mechanics spread to new colors as the block advanced. That meant the two Phyrexian mechanics, infect and proliferate, got locked down to two and one color respectively.

Four, while infect added great flavor to the set, it was very linear in that it forced players to play a lot of infect together. I think a lot of the blame for this problem was put on infect's shoulders; while infect clearly played a role, it was one of a number of factors.

Add this all together and we have the following problem: The set pulls you in different directions. One of those directions, the various infect decks, proved to be the most powerful decks in the draft format, but because of the limited number of cards it was only good if a small number of players at the table drafted it.


In games we refer to this as the prisoner's dilemma. If you're the only one (or one of the few) to draft infect in your draft pool, statistically speaking, you have a much better chance of winning. But if too many people make the choice to draft infect, then none of you will have a strong enough deck and, statistically speaking, you're probably going to lose.

We like the overall flavor of having two factions, so this is a problem we're going to have to solve.

The "Color Pie? What Color Pie?" Problem

Over the years, R&D has learned that certain design actions always seem to burn us: drawing a lot of cards, skipping mana costs, having the storm mechanic on it, etc. Not respecting the color pie is quickly earning a place on that list.

In general I like Phyrexian mana, and I'm the one who moved it from the colorless mana to the colored mana allowing such bleeding to happen. In retrospect I wish we had been a little stingier on what effects we allowed anyone to do at the cost of paying life. (***cough*** Dismember ***cough***)


This problem is not isolated to Phyrexian mana, though. Every time the designers mess with the color pie, we are playing with fire. I understand that the game has to do some of it, but I really feel we need to be more careful.

The "Mark Loves Phyrexia" Problem

The conflict between the two sides was a big part of the block, so I was very interested to read about what sides the players were taking. I don't remember what site I was reading so I obvious can't credit the person who wrote this (also I'm paraphrasing as I'm writing from memory) but I came across the following post:

It's obvious the Phyrexians are going to win. Maro gave them all the good mechanics.

When I sat back and thought about that, I had to admit they were right. Sure, I wanted to give the Mirrans affinity, and I liked the idea that the Mirrans were fighting with the same weapons as when we last saw them, but at the end of the day, the Mirrans simply weren't as exciting mechanically as the Phyrexians.


I chalk this up to a few things. One, metalcraft, while interesting, just didn't have the depth of either infect or proliferate. It tended to boil down to "play a lot of artifacts," which proved challenging since many of the best metalcraft cards were colored. In addition, imprint turned out to be harder to reuse that I thought. In retrospect, I wish I had come up with some way to tweak it that reinvigorated it a little better.

Even when we went to Mirrodin Besieged where each side got a new mechanic, the Phyrexians still got the cooler living weapon to Mirrans' battle cry.

Note that I'm being introspective and extra picky. I feel metalcraft, imprint, and battle cry are all good mechanics, but if I'm going to look back at the past year and be honest, they don't stand up to infect, proliferate, and living weapon (which, by the way, were the mechanics in the block by all of you). Next time we pit two sides against one another (and it will happen), we need to balance not just the power level, but the interest level as well.

Three and Goals

With highs and lows out of the way, let's examine how we did against last year's goals.

Before I dive in, let me make the caveat that I make every year. The success of the goals is not us making them (which clearly we've already completed by the time I'm talking to you about them). It has to do with how our execution on said goal was received by all of you. Sure, we set out to do something. Now I'm checking in to see if what we hoped to do actually worked.

2011 Goal #1: Make the Block an Experience

I listed this above as one of the big plusses of the year, so this is definitely a thumbs-up. As I also explained above, I feel like Magic design has made another big shift to a place where each year's design comes with an experience. You're not just playing new mechanics and cards; you're visiting a new place (or revisiting an old place), and something is happening.


Also, I want to reiterate the success of the Mirrodin Besieged Prerelease (where every player chose a side). I think it set a standard that R&D, as well as the rest of Wizards, is going to be revisiting in the years to come.

2011 Goal #2: Combine Nostalgia with Innovation

I've talked numerous times about how the nostalgia from Time Spiral was successful with one portion of the audience while a failure with another portion. One of the experiments of Scars of Mirrodin block was to find a way to tap into nostalgia through some means that didn't turn off the less enfranchised player.

I feel we were successful (with many metrics showing that we were) because we managed to give the new set a context independent of the nostalgia. The conflict between the Mirrans and the Phyrexians could be enjoyed even if you had no idea who they were. The nostalgia was extra icing, not necessary cake.


I was also happy that we were able to take the feel of the Mirrans and the feel of the Phyrexians and graft onto them a mechanical identity that was not there last time we saw them. (This was more successful with the Phyrexians than with the Mirrans, as I explained above.)

All in all, a thumbs-up in this category although obviously with room to improve.

2011 Goal #3: Prove Poison Works

And now we get to the trickiest goal to judge. Purely from a number standpoint, poison (primarily in the infect mechanic and secondarily in the proliferate mechanic) did just fine. Infect was the number-one-rated mechanic from Scars of Mirrodin, with proliferate coming in second. Both mechanics are getting played heavily, they're getting traded heavily, and each has a legion of fans. So what's the problem?

The problem was that poison was very divisive. The players who enjoy poison really enjoy it, but the players who dislike it really dislike it. I don't necessarily shy away from things that are divisive, but at the same time, I always like to ask whether things have to be divisive. Could poison have been done in a way that would have made its haters enjoy it?


I've spent a lot of time exploring this issue and what I've come up with is this: while I think the execution of poison was good, it was far from perfect. When poison returns (and I do believe it will return one day—not soon, but someday), design needs to reexamine all the decisions we made this time. We will explore whether or not the game is supposed to give players a way to get rid of poison. We will explore whether it is supposed to be more different from life. We will explore whether having another enabling mechanic like proliferate is a positive or a negative.

What I'm trying to say is that there is enough negativity that I do not consider poison a rousing success. I believe we made a lot of advancements with it, but that the next time design uses it we are not going to start with the assumption that everything Scars of Mirrodin block did was right. As such, I'm going to give this goal half a thumb up.

Add everything up and design scores two and half out of three. Not bad, but obviously we can do better. And with that, we segue into our goals for next year:

2012 Goal #1: Establish that Fifth-Stage Design Works Beyond Scars of Mirrodin Block

One of the hardest things about making a change is not the initial change, but proving that the change is maintainable. Many things can work once; the trick is capturing lightning in a bottle a second time. That's the first big goal of the Innistrad block. Design has to show that it can take you on a journey again.

Just as the Scars of Mirrodin block was about the fight over the plane of Mirrodin, so too will Innistrad block follow a story that is intertwined throughout the design. You won't just watch what happens, you'll play it. You'll feel it. At least, that's the goal.

2012 Goal #2: Show that Top-down Design Can Be the Core of a Set

At the Magic panel at San Diego Comic-Con, I called Innistrad the "most top-down set I've ever designed." The reason I said this is that this is the first set I've ever designed where the core infrastructure of the set was the flavor. Yes, Zendikar had an adventure world theme, but at its center the set was about land design. Innistrad, at every turn, was designed to maximize the horror genre.

This goal is a simple one. We made a set whose design was dictated by flavor. Did it work? Was the set (and block) a success? Did it hit on all the metrics that modern sets are supposed to? We'll talk about it in a year.

2012 Goal #3: Prove [MECHANIC X] Works

Last year's State of Design came after previews, so I could talk more freely about the block's mechanics. Every year I try to make sure that we do a mechanic that's a little controversial, something to get Magic players to passionately discuss with one another. Innistrad is no different. This last goal is about that mechanic from Innistrad, which for today I've dubbed Mechanic X.

Was Mechanic X successful? Was it well received? Did it make for better Magic games? For those who can't stand the torture, I'll be talking about Mechanic X next week. And if a whole week seems too long to wait, I suggest you pay attention to social media this Saturday evening Pacific time. You see, the PAX convention is being held in Seattle that weekend, and Wizards of the Coast is sponsoring an Innistrad party that night.

If you're attending PAX, visit the Wizards booth to learn how to attend. If you can't make PAX, I'd check in on those who do make it. Last year we revealed the existence of the Phyrexians, the infect mechanic, and numerous other elements of Scars of Mirrodin. Trust me, if you care about Innistrad, you'll want to be at, or at least be following someone at, the party. I'll be there. And I'll be talking about Innistrad.

Design of the Times

That's all the time I have for today. I hope my look back at the last year of design was insightful. If you have any opinions on the last year of design or on my take on the last year of design, send me an email at the link below, write to me on Twitter (@maro254) or any other social media or respond in the thread to this article.

Join me next week when I finally get to talk about Innistrad (and Mechanic X).

Until then, may you know the joy of having work you're proud of.

But Wait, There's More...

I can't end just yet. Next week is the start of Innistrad previews, which means it's time for my preview teasers. This is something I started back in The Duelist (once upon a time, Wizards published a magazine about Magic, and these teasers started there). Here are a few factoids to chew on until the PAX party. As always, let me be clear that while everything I say is true, I'm purposefully not telling you everything. With that said, here are some things you'll find in Innistrad:

  • A card based on a silver-bordered white card
  • A token-making sorcery which makes more creature tokens than any previous token-making spell (not counting X spells or spells that make a variable number)
  • An enchantment that could let you play all your creatures for free
  • A spell that can deal 13 damage to multiple creatures for one mana (and yes, I mean 13 damage multiple times)
  • Many—and I'm talking more than a few—cards inspired by famous horror stories
  • A card that turns a loss into a win
  • A two-mana creature that lets you make a 2/2 creature each turn for two mana
  • A card that lets you exchange your life total with something you've never been able to exchange it with before

and...

  • A planeswalker with five loyalty abilities

I hope that whets your appetite. See you next week.

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