eading my first design team was something I'd been working toward ever since I started working at Wizards of the Coast, and my boss and mentor, Mark Rosewater, decided to try me out leading the small set codenamed "Countrymen." I had been on the design teams for Gatecrash, Theros, Born of the Gods, and Commander (2013 Edition), so I had a decent idea of what sorts of different approaches had been taken by various lead designers in response to various design challenges.
Art by Chase Stone
I've learned to create a lot of different things in my many years, and I knew that mastery of a craft is only achieved through lots of practice. I knew I would probably make a lot of mistakes during my first lead, and that the hand-off to development wouldn't be as polished as a set led by an experienced designer. I also knew that I would learn a lot from the process, and would come out of it better equipped to design sets in the future.
During Theros design, we put together a parallel exploratory design team to figure out what the larger block structure should look like. We decided that enchantment creatures would start showing up en masse in Born of the Gods, and that war would break out between the enchantment creatures and the mortals in Journey into Nyx. In order to sell the idea of a two-sided conflict, we knew we'd need a mechanic that encouraged you to build a deck will all enchantment creatures, and one that enabled a deck with nonenchantment creatures. We wanted to hold off on "enchantments matter" cards until Journey into Nyx for maximum impact.
We designed a "build around me" mechanic, constellation, to encourage you to play with a bunch of enchantments, but we also designed some individual cards to hammer home the theme of a war between gods and mortals. War isn't all about building up your army; sometimes, you have to annihilate the enemy! I present to you Extinguish All Hope.
Wrestling with Mechanics, Part I
Right at the beginning of the design of Journey into Nyx, we decided on our "enchantments matter" mechanic. We called it divinity, originally, but this was confusing, with a mechanic called devotion in the block, so creative came to rescue and called it constellation. The mechanic worked out fine, but there were problems with Limited play. Theros (and, to a lesser extent, Born of the Gods) didn't have enough weak enchantment creatures to float to the dedicated enchantment player in drafts. This brought to light the pitfalls involved in putting a build-around mechanic that encourages you to collect a lot of a certain type of card in the third set in the block. Development of Theros had already ended; it was too late to make changes to the first set in the block.
The biggest problem, for design, was nailing down the mechanic for the mortals. We wanted to encourage players to "go wide," with a big army, rather than "going tall" by piling a bunch of Auras on a single heroic creature. We tried an ability similar to Vorel of the Hull Clade's from Dragon's Maze, which we called enhance, in an attempt to knit the heroes and the monsters into a motley army. We played with this for a while, until "devign" (the period when the development team checks in near the end of design) began. Dave Humpherys, the lead developer, wrote up a document of the development team's major concerns about the set. A vote of "no confidence" for our mortal mechanic!
Oh no! The vastly different speeds of heroes and monsters was a problem, and putting the mechanic on instants and sorceries created weird timing situations.
I was pretty concerned about this. I'd need to come up with a new mechanic, and then figure out how to fit it into the set, and then change a bunch of the cards that worked with enhance into cards that worked with the new mechanic!
I quickly came up with mechanic a called resupply, which was kind of similar to the recover mechanic from Coldsnap, except it triggered when a creature entered the battlefield under your control, and didn't exile the card from your graveyard if you didn't pay the cost. This certainly encouraged you to play with a lot of creatures, and encouraged you to play with heroic creatures. I ripped the set apart and put the new mechanic in.
Of course, leading a design team isn't just about design. It's also about team leadership.
On my team were Mark Rosewater and Erik Lauer, two high-powered designers with a lot of responsibilities. I knew I would have trouble getting "homework assignments" back from them on time, because their time was taken up by the many teams they were on. I concentrated on getting them to design cards for me during our twice-weekly design team meetings. These two were great at suggesting solutions for problems that arose during design; they had a lot of experience between the two of them.
Matt Tabak, a member of the editing team and Magic's rules manager, seemed to have occasional bursts of intense work for his regular job, but sometimes he had time to do homework. Tabak is great to have on a design team because he is good at coming up with really novel ideas that nevertheless work perfectly well within the rules. Dan Emmons was one of my colleagues during my Great Designer Search 2 days; he was a member of the elite group of card designers the finalists dubbed Tweet Force Alpha. We could always count on the members of Tweet Force Alpha to design a lot of good cards for us, and that was true during Journey into Nyx design as well. Dan was a lot younger than the rest of us, in his early twenties, and he was relatively new to R&D, too.
A method that I like to use is to send out emails to the team with a homework assignment to design ten or so cards to meet specific requirements. When the members of the design team send back their submissions, I go through the designs and choose the ones that fit into the set the best.
One day, Dan mentioned that he was having trouble coming up with designs for the latest homework assignment. I told him not to sweat it; I was more interested in quantity than quality, anyway. "Just send me whatever. Something will work." I immediately forgot about it; I was pretty wrapped up in the problems of the set itself.
Art by Johann Bodin
Later that week, I had my weekly one-on-one meeting with Mark Gottlieb, my supervisor. He mentioned that Dan had been unhappy about the brush-off he'd received, and didn't think that he was in a better position to fulfill my assignment than he's been before he talked to me. I realized that I'd blundered. I had a responsibility to my team members, to help them become better designers, so that Magic's future would be better than its past!
What was I supposed to tell Dan, though? I hadn't been a Magic designer for very long, myself! Well, I had over a decade of general experience more than Dan. Was there a way to explain my methods of breaking through creative blocks to him, using examples from my earlier life?
I met Dan in a meeting room with a white board. "A blank canvas can be really intimidating," I said. "It suggests nothing. Anything is better than nothing, when it comes to beginning to create something."
I made a random mark on the white board, a slightly curved line.
"You just need to start with something. Anything. It will suggest to you what else is needed in the design." I began adding more lines, until the figure of a dancing man appeared, the original line defining the curve of his torso.
"It's the same with card design," I desperately improvised. "Just start with something. Anything. A power and toughness, a creature type, an old card you like. Once you have something to start with, the rest of the details of the design will suggest themselves to you. They will be implied by the first thing you came up with."
Dan seemed to be satisfied with this, and in my next week's meeting with Gottlieb he indicated that Dan had appreciated my little demonstration. Whew! I had faked my way through, giving the appearance of being a wise and responsible team leader and mentor! My secret, that I was just a green designer who was stumbling in the dark, was still a secret!
Dan, by the way, ended up with more cards in the file when it was handed off than any of the other designers; he was a very prolific designer, and, as of this writing, he has led a design team of his own. But let's not get too warm and fuzzy; there were other problems ahead.
I handed off the set to development and took a vacation. Evidently, I hadn't done too terrible a job, because I was given a new set to lead almost immediately upon my return. My career was still intact! But Journey into Nyx continued its own journey, in development...
Wrestling with Mechanics, Part II
The Journey into Nyx development team was running into problems with the set. The number of mechanics that involved triggered abilities were getting out of hand in the block. Heroic triggered when you cast a spell targeting one of your creatures. Inspire triggered when one of your creatures untapped. Constellation triggered when an enchantment entered the battlefield under your control. Resupply triggered when a creature entered the battlefield under your control. In playtest games, board states were getting too complex.
The development team tried replacing resupply with buyback, a mechanic originally introduced in Tempest block. I was actually pretty horrified, as buyback creates repetitive game states. The card designs were much better than the buyback cards of old; there were no Capsizes or Constant Mists in the set, but I was still concerned.
Dave Humpherys, the lead developer, went on paternity leave for a few weeks, leaving Erik Lauer in charge of the set while he was gone. Erik had been with the set all through design, so he understood what the priorities were for the "mortal mechanic." He is also very good at discovering where the shortest line between two points lies, so to speak. He came up with a new mechanic, strive. The ability to target multiple creatures with the same spell did the job of encouraging players to put a bunch of heroic creatures onto the battlefield at the same time. An army of heroes! I was very happy with the solution.
After Dave got back from observing the adorable results of his biology experiment, he worked his magic on developing Journey into Nyx, finding the funnest things and making them funner, and cutting out the things that didn't work so well. I was very happy with how the set turned out, despite my lack of experience and occasional mistakes. The beauty of our two-stage design and development process is that it gives us opportunities to experiment and learn without jeopardizing the final product.
In this article, I emphasized the trials and tribulations of my journey, but overall it was a very pleasant and satisfying one. I hope you enjoy playing with Journey into Nyx half as much as I enjoyed making it! Have fun at the Prerelease!
Ethan Fleischer works for Magic R&D as a designer. He can sing, but not dance, and is an indifferent fencer. He lives near Seattle with his wife, three sons, and mother-in-law.