A Magic Developer Talks Oath of the Gatewatch and More

Games Features
Share Tweet Submit Pin
A <i>Magic</i> Developer Talks Oath of the Gatewatch and More

A few weeks ago I had the benefit of sending some questions along to the Magic creation team. I asked specific, purposeful questions, and I expected that I would get measured answers in return that I would be able to cut down into a nice little feature about the upcoming Oath of the Gatewatch set.

What I got back were lots of wonderful and considered answers from Magic development team member Ian Duke. I tried for the feature score, but ultimately each answer that Duke gave me was too comprehensive to squish into a traditional feature format. In other words, the answers were too good.

Below you will find the full questions that I asked and the full answers that Ian Duke provided. I think they’re very enlightening about the state of Magic and how Wizards of the Coast is thinking about their gameplay, fiction and player base.

Paste: We’ve already heard from Mark Rosewater that the block change meant that the Battle For Zendikar design document was partially completed when handed over to development. Can you speak in specifics about the kind of work the development needed to do for this block compared to former blocks that were handed over in a more complete state?

Ian Duke: Battle for Zendikar block has brought with it two major changes for the Magic content cycle. Firstly, going forward, we’ll be releasing a 2-set block every six months. (Previously a “typical” Magic block was three sets released over the course of a year, plus a yearly core set). Second, with this new release schedule, the Standard tournament format will be rotating twice per year. Every six months the new block enters Standard and the oldest block in Standard rotates out.

Research & Development was working out the details of this schedule shift shortly after Battle for Zendikar transitioned from the preliminary exploratory design process and into the early stages of design itself. That did mean rethinking a little bit of what we had initially planned for the block in terms of rolling out the story and mechanics over two sets instead of three. In particular, it meant we could make a larger mechanical shift from Battle for Zendikar to Oath of the Gatewatch rather than a more gradual transition across three sets. But to be clear the vast majority of the design and development work on Battle for Zendikar and all the work on Oath of the Gatewatch was done with these changes in mind. It wasn’t as if we had fully formulated grand plans that were suddenly changed midway through the process.

For Oath of the Gatewatch in particular there was one more new change. Starting with this block and going forward, a draft that uses both sets will have each player use two booster packs of the small set (Oath of the Gatewatch) and one booster pack of the large set (Battle for Zendikar). Again, this meant we had more freedom to make mechanical shifts from one set to the next, because Oath of the Gatewatch could do more to support its own themes when making up two-thirds of the draft format.

Because of this change to draft, there are slightly more cards in Oath of the Gatewatch than there have been in previous small sets. Finding the optimal set size for the new draft format was one of the special challenges my team and I worked on during development.

All these changes combined meant we were a little more ambitious with both the number and scope of the new mechanics in Oath of the Gatewatch. In particular, the new colorless mana theme (costs that require colorless mana to pay for) was an exciting challenge for me to work on from a balance/gameplay standpoint, but I’m really happy with how it turned out.

Paste: Colorless mana costs have set the Magic community on fire. Can you explain why those costs were introduced in the second half of the block versus the first half?

ID: The major new mechanic in the set is cards and abilities that cost colorless mana. Colorless mana has always been around in Magic, but never before have there been costs that require you to spend colorless mana on them. Colorlessness is something was strongly associated with the Eldrazi in the Rise of the Eldrazi and Battle for Zendikar sets, and this felt like a natural extension of that theme. It’s sort of like the Eldrazi are so ancient and primal that they predate the notion of colored mana. This colorless mana theme was the first mechanic designed for the set way back in exploratory design, and much of the rest of the set was built around it.

Once we knew we were going to have costs that required colorless mana, we knew we’d need a new symbol to represent those costs. That’s the new diamond-like symbol, which caused quite a buzz in the community when it was first previewed.

We realized that this new symbol could be used not just for costs, but also to represent adding colorless mana to your mana pool. This would let players simply match the symbols when paying for costs just like with colored mana.

Previously we used the generic mana symbol (a number with a gray circle around it) to represent adding colorless mana to your mana pool. This is actually pretty confusing if you think about it, because generic mana in a cost can be payed for by mana of any color, but colorless mana can’t be used to pay costs of any color. In some sense, they actually mean opposite things, but were being represented in the same way. We decided this was the right time to fix that confusion. For players who were used to the old system it’s a little bit of a transition, but ultimately it will be a good change for the game going forward.

We also talked about whether to deploy this new symbol technology in Battle for Zendikar. The benefit of that would be having the whole block use the same system. However, we though the change would be harder to understand without the context of Oath of the Gatewatch’s colorless costs. Maybe it would even tip our hand as far as what was to come. We decided that debuting the symbol change along with exciting new cards that make good use of it would better justify it to the community. Ultimately, we decided to wait until Oath of the Gatewatch to make the change.

Paste: The inclusion of both fetchlands and the battlelands in a single standard environment has afforded some very wide strategies when it comes to deck design. Decks that are fundamentally the best cards in four colors have dominated recently. Was this kind of wide standard what was intended by design and development, or is it merely an effect of standard being “solved” by the players in a very unexpected way?

ID: One of the things R&D tries to do is make different blocks interact with each other, powering up and down different strategies over time to create a dynamic metagame. The intent behind the battlelands was to combine with the fetchlands in Khans of Tarkir for six months before that set rotates out of Standard. It was in experiment with giving Standard a super-powerful manabase to see if players would enjoy that and what sorts of decks they would build. It was also meant as a sort of “last hurrah” for the Khans three-color cards (because they’d now be easier to cast) before they rotated out of Standard.

In retrospect, I don’t think the Khans cards necessarily needed a last hurrah, as cards like Siege Rhino and Mantis Rider remained near the top of the tournament metagame almost for the entirety of their time in Standard. Furthermore, fetchlands cause a lot of shuffling which can really slow down tournament play. Giving players incentive to play even more fetchlands per deck exacerbates this issue a bit. That said, I am glad that we continue to experiment with new and different Standard environments. Magic wouldn’t be nearly as fun if R&D wasn’t willing to take risks, and we take every lesson we learn forward with us as we continue to make awesome content.

Paste: Are there cards that are designed and developed as “build around” cards in that the teams have the idea that they will be synergistic enough to create new decks (rather than cards that sub in)? If so, can you talk about some of those cards from Khans of Tarkir and Battle For Zendikar?

ID: Absolutely! Some recent examples of build-around cards that worked well for us are Assault Formation, Hardened Scales, Ensoul Artifact and Demonic Pact. All of these led to cool, unique decks, some even having success at the Pro Tour level.

One thing we try to do when we can is “seed” build-around cards for a new theme in the sets that precede it. For example, Ghostfire Blade was designed in Khans of Tarkir to work both with the morph mechanic, but also with colorless Eldrazi and devoid, which we knew were coming up in Battle for Zendikar block. Steel Overseer is another such card from Magic’s past. When we make cards like this, it lets us temporarily power up strategies while those cards and mechanic overlap, without risking an overpowered deck that will dominate Standard for a long period of time.

You should check out the cards from our next set on OathoftheGatewatch.com. I’d love to hear what cards you and your readers are excited to build around.

Paste: What’s the card that design and development are most proud of from the first half of the Battle For Zendikar block?

ID: It’s hard for me to speak on behalf of the whole group and I’m sure each individual would have their own favorites, so I’ll just give you mine. From a development point of view, I think Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger ended up in a really good spot. It’s powerful and splashy and inspires new Eldrazi Ramp decks, but hasn’t shown itself to be imbalanced for Standard (at least so far!).

On a personal level, I really enjoy Bring to Light. It’s a good exemplar of the converge mechanic, and leads players to build decks with plenty of spicy singletons, which is always fun. It’s often difficult to get tutor cards to a good power level, so it always feels like a win when we do.

Paste: The “weirdness” of the Eldrazi is critical to the flavor of those cards and creatures. Is there a danger of losing that weirdness by giving them color identities with the Devoid ability? What are some of the ways that “weirdness” has been maintained?

ID: There’s certainly some danger that making too many simple, small Eldrazi takes away from their flavor of being strange and terrifying. It’s something we talked about a lot during the design of the block. That said, people often forget that even the original Rise of the Eldrazi set had small colored that weren’t particularly weird or threatening mechanically, like Nest Invader. Yet players still associate the Eldrazi more with cards like Emrakul, the Aeons Torn or weirdos like Spawnsire of Ulamog.

I think the key is that as long as the collection of cards overall conveys the flavor that you’re going for, you don’t necessarily need every individual card to do that on its own. Having some simple cards is important for various reasons, one of which is not to be too overwhelming for new players. There’s some room for cards like Vestige of Emrakul.

I think the ingest mechanic and Eldrazi Processors in Battle for Zendikar and the new colorless costs in Oath of the Gatewatch go a long way toward making the Eldrazi feel strange, alien and threatening.

Paste: From an outsider’s perspective, it seems that Design sticks to flavorful creation and Development sticks to mechanical synergy—design makes it fit in Magic and development makes it work in Magic. Is development even constrained by flavor, and can you provide an example from either BFZ or Oath when that happened?

ID: The division between design and development can often be difficult to articulate. For me, I view the process as much more continuous and less distinct than I think most people imagine it. I like to think of design and development as “initial design” and “final design” (or maybe “balance design”). We’re really thinking about many of the same problems – the main difference is when in the process we’re operating.

It is true that the design team tends to be more focused on big picture stuff – the set’s vision and mechanics and how it ties in with the story our creative team wants to tell. The development team tends to focus more on tweaking and tuning numbers and balancing things for tournament play. But those roles are hardly clear cut. And both teams design plenty of individual cards.

Flavor plays a huge role on both ends. For the design team, it’s often building the set from the ground up to match the flavor. For development, it’s making sure the cards we end up with match well with the sets themes and don’t contradict the art or story. All the art is being commissioned and worked on during the development process, so as we change cards we have to make sure not to deviate too much from the original concept. For example, if we find during playtesting that the limited environment doesn’t have enough evasive creatures, we can’t just add flying to a creature that was already concepted as a human soldier.

One example of creative elements influencing development is the card Bonds of Mortality, which shows the story of Nissa and Chandra working together to battle the two Eldrazi titans Ulamog and Kozilek. That card in particular went through a couple redesigns due to rules issues, but we always knew what story we wanted to tell with it. We eventually came upon a design that can take the indestructible keyword away from creatures, which fit flavorfully with being able to defeat the indestructible titan Ulamog.

Paste: Mana-creating creatures for a single mana have seemingly disappeared from Magic. Is that a design choice that the game is sticking to, or is it merely a phase of the game?

ID: It’s only been a few months since we had Elvish Mystic in Standard, so I certainly wouldn’t say it’s a hard and fast rule that we’ll never have one-mana mana creatures in Standard. It’s something we could do from time to time when it’s appropriate.

That said, one-mana mana creatures are very powerful and often make the game more about going first and having one in your opening hand. Magic is at its most fun when the games are dynamic, play out in different ways and aren’t decided early on, so we try to be careful with cards like that.

The other interesting thing about not always having a card like Elvish Mystic around is it lets us make a variety of other fun designs at a slightly less efficient level. I think Sylvan Caryatid, Rattleclaw Mystic and Voyaging Satyr were all interesting designs that saw significant tournament play. It’s natural for players to desire powerful cards (as a player I love powerful cards too!), but the hidden cost of always having the most powerful version of an effect around giving up a diversity of cool designs.

Paste: In a recent podcast, Mark Rosewater suggested that decreasing the amount of “clicks” in Magic Online created some constraint on design. How heavily is Magic: The Gathering Online considered when creating cards, and how constrained are the design and development teams by what is possible on the MTGO platform?

ID: We do take Magic:The Gathering Online [MTGO] into consideration when designing cards, but mostly in the area of small “quality of life” changes rather than dramatic redesigns of cards or mechanics. In particular, we try to template cards such that they reduce the number of clicks they take to use on MTGO and also to reduce the potential for a misclick that results in a catastrophic mistake.

As a fictitious example, we might take a card with convoke that destroys a target creature and change it to “destroy target creature you don’t control”. That way, you wouldn’t accidentally target your own creature when using it to pay for the spell via convoke. In this made-up case, one can argue that the slight reduction in strategic freedom (of not being able to kill your own creature) is outweighed by the card playing better in a digital environment.

It’s pretty rare that a card design needs to be dramatically changed or killed because it wouldn’t work on MTGO, though it does happen occasionally. In any case, players shouldn’t feel like they’re missing out on cool designs or that we’re making major tradeoffs between the physical game and the digital version. It’s really not like that at all.

Paste: If Battle For Zendikar is remembered for one single card, what card should that be? Which card exudes the set flavor of Battle For Zendikar more than any other one?

ID: My “traditional” answers would be Gideon, Ally of Zendikar and Ulamog, the Ceaseless Hunger. Both are powerful, format-defining cards and they do a great job representing the two sides of the conflict between Zendikar and the Eldrazi. My “goofy” answer is Void Winnower. It’s such a weirdo card, and I really like how it captures the alien, inscrutable nature of the Eldrazi.

Cameron Kunzelman tweets at @ckunzelman and writes about games at thiscageisworms.com. His latest game, Epanalepsis, was released on May 21. It’s available on Steam.