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Designer’s Diary – Phyrexia vs. the Coalition

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The letter h!is is a story all about how my life got flipped, turned upside down. How it became unmorphed, if you will. I’d like to take a minute, just sit right there, and I’ll tell you how I became the designer of an ancillary Magic: The Gathering product called Duel Decks: Phyrexia vs. the Coalition.

My tale begins many miles north of West Philadelphia, in a quaint Canadian town where a talented child can grow up to become a Pet Detective or an International Man of Mystery and a politically unskilled furniture salesman can grow down to become mayor. It was there, under a pall of seemingly perpetual hockey failure, that these decks were designed. Admittedly, it’s been a long time now and my memories are hazy. They might have been designed as far south as Buffalo and as far north as Ottawa. The hockey failure I am sure of, however.

It was a different decade, then. We were entering the tail end of the Naughties, which wasn’t nearly as exciting as it sounds. I was still a fresh-faced, 29-year-old curmudgeon, out of touch with youth culture. Now I’m a wizened 30-year-old curmudgeon, not to be trusted by people who get this reference. Luckily for all the interested readers out there, we don’t have to rely on my increasingly spotty memory for the recounting of this story, as conveniently I have kept the following diary. You will know that it’s time to turn the page when Squee, Goblin Nabob makes this sound ....

Day 1

My father’s family name being Millar, and my base-Chris name Christopher, my infinite throng of über-Johnnies could make of both names nothing longer or more explicit than ChMi. So, I called myself ChMi, and came to be called ChMi. In turn, and in no small measure out of spite, for while brevity is said to be the soul of wit, it is a rather witless attribute for scribes paid by the word, I took it upon myself to bestow the moniker "ÜbJo" to these forum-dwelling abbreviators. We’ll see how those ÜbJos like it.

I had been retired from the column game for Shards-and-a-bit when Magic Director of R&D Aaron Forsythe wrote a feature article announcing the exciting new changes to the core set beginning with M10. We lived in a pre-tweet world then, so it was by way of some now-dusty social networking tool that I expressed to him my enthusiastic endorsement of the new direction the core set was taking, while later blurting, seemingly at random, "I love Duel Decks!"

Clearly I had caught him in a giving-contracts-to-Canadians kind of mood, as he replied, "Wanna make some?"

Anachronistically, I said, "Does Jace, the Mind Sculptor have four abilities?"

End of story.

Day 2

They don’t advertise for deck builders in the newspaper. That was my profession. Ex-columnist. Ex-Johnny. Ex-deck builder.

My dirty secret is that the longer I wrote about combo decks in this site’s "Johnny" column (then House of Cards, now From the Lab), the less I liked playing that kind of deck. You don’t need any more proof than the fact that I never played this kind of deck on my own time, for fun. One reason had to do with the requirements of a column, the deadlines and the volume of, hopefully novel, ideas produced in a relatively short period of time. You couldn’t really savour the "good" ideas that worked, because there were so many "bad" ideas that needed to get better, and in a hurry.

It also seemed like the process had a low fun-to-work ratio, with a lot of time spent trying to get a deck to do one thing the same way every time. While it can be satisfying to be a Jack-of-one-trade, I grew to prefer big, random decks that could do a lot of different things and would play differently in each game. Partly as a consequence of getting older and running out of time, I gravitated towards decks that required a relatively low prep-time, had a high replay value, and helped to create a "fun" experience for all involved during the limited time had to play Magic. I had become a Timmy!

I imagine that settling into this mindset happens for other adults who play Magic. Why? Well, on numerous occasions, Magic‘s Head Designer Mark Rosewater has stated that a person, place, or thing’s greatest weakness is its greatest strength pushed too far. For him, as a game designer, this meant that his ability to think holistically, to see and make connections, could leave a set "overloaded with synergy," potentially leading to overly complicated game play. As he says, "in my desire to link things, I have a tendency to overlink." For me, it means that my greatest weakness is a debilitating excess of handsomeness. I guess you can’t win ‘em all.

More importantly, Mark has observed that, by this axiom, Magic‘s greatest weakness is "[i]ts flexibility. It has the ability to be a different game to each person who plays it." This is a rare quality in a game. Through reading various board-gaming websites and community forums, it became obvious that there are Timmies, Johnnies, and Spikes in that world as well. The difference is that they are all playing different games. We should celebrate the fact that Magic is a tent big enough for us all (Melvin is the one in a jar of formaldehyde).

One consequence of this "flexibility," though, is that the limitless possibilities of the game can be intimidating for beginners and paralyzing for veterans. What do you do with all those cards? I can’t be the only one with dozens of unfinished decks that require a few trades to complete, or who has traded parts of one partial deck in order to partially build another.

Due to the nature of the game, constantly changing and collectible, Magic rewards you for your investment, but some people are content, or become content, to get to a certain level and stay there (with quarterly upgrades). Clever players have created whole formats that cater to this mentality, formats that offer a vast replayability and feature decks that are tweakable at your own pace, such as Elder Dragon Highlander and Cube Draft. Building a good Cube is kind of like building the last deck you will ever have to build. Sure, you will still need to change the oil, rotate the tires, and you can add new gizmos as they become available, but you don’t need to build something from scratch on a regular basis just to have a diverse play experience that makes you feel good about the years you’ve put into the game.

That’s perhaps a roundabout way of saying, "I love Duel Decks!" which I suppose I could’ve blurted out at random right from the start. Compare Magic to cooking. You might come home from work or school, look at the ingredients you have available in your fridge (in my case, beer and salad dressing), and think, "I don’t feel like making something tonight. Let’s order pizza." Duel Decks are that pizza. You know what the experience will be like, you know it will be good, and all the work has been done for you. If you think of Magic like Lego blocks, think of the Duel Decks as the kit with instructions to build, say, the Millenium Falcon. You might not be getting the full Lego experience, but at least you’ve got a Millenium Falcon to play with.

I like the Duel Decks for other reasons, of course. Jace vs. Chandra is the high-water mark for me, in large part due its elegant construction, with its symmetries and mirrors and the perfect encapsulation of blue and red through the chosen mechanics. I like that the decks are closed systems where cards that might not have "made it" in real life get to shine, cards like Quicksilver Dragon and Rakdos Pit Dragon. I also think that a large measure of the appeal of these decks is the return to innocence they allow. You can play a deck with a lot of one-ofs and two-ofs, like you did when you started playing, and not feel like you’re doing something "suboptimal." They offer many of the joys of Limited play but without the regret of a draft gone wrong, the paranoia about a misbuild, or the frustration of a bad matchup. Just like Millenium Falcon pizza.

Day 3.14

12:45. Restate my assumptions. Mathematics is the language of nature. English is the language of the Pro Tour. Goblinian is the language of Goblins (I’m guessing). But back to mathematics for a minute. Everything around us can be represented and understood through numbers. For those who play Fantasy Baseball, think of this as Fantasy Life. If you graph the numbers of any system, patterns emerge. For example, if you plot my ability to meet a deadline over time, the line of best fit resembles a frowning Kelly Digges.

So what about the actual market? The universe of numbers that represents the Magic economy. Millions of human hands at work, billions of minds. While that might seem to you to be a very odd hand-to-mind ratio, it’s just business as usual in the mostly armless world of economics.

One thing that was different about building these decks, as opposed to me cooking up something in my basement, is the fact that *gasp* we are trying to sell them afterward, and at a predetermined price. You want to provide an incentive for the customer to spend their increasingly sought-after entertainment dollars on your product. You are competing not only with other collectible card games but with things like Avatar, pogs, and the hula hoop. It’s survival of the fittest, man, and we got the Phyrexian Ghouls.

Yavimaya Elder | Art by Matt Cavotta

We tried to pack a lot of value into this product, and we tried to make it appeal to as many kinds of players as possible: hardcore flavour goobs and softcore flavour goobs, players who miss Invasion block and players who missed Invasion block, people who want to keep both decks together and people who only want to tear them apart, EDH and Cube Draft enthusiasts, Magic Online players, competitive players who like to add "bling" to their decks, gunslingers, funslingers, tappers and untappers, and wide-eyed youths who will look at the contents and say, "Cool ... Dragons." A vast network of players screaming with life. An organism, a natural organism. I guess. Hopefully there is something in there for you!

Day 4

Aaron gets me a job as a Duel Deck designer, after that Aaron’s pitching Phyrexia vs. the Coalition and saying, the first step to not failing epically is you have to read this wiki. For a long time though, Aaron and I were Facebook friends. People never really asked, did I know about Aaron Forsythe, but sometimes I would say I did just to build up my nerd-cred.

It didn’t take long for us to decide that we were going to do Phyrexia vs. the Coalition and that it would be an artifact-heavy mono-black deck pitted against a five-colour deck. I lobbied for Bears vs. Boars to no avail. I like how the asymmetry of the decks disrupts the all-monocolour pattern that had been established, while also throwing the Tribe vs. Tribe followed by Planeswalker vs. Planeswalker sequence out of whack. There was some concern about doing a third consecutive mono-black deck (after Demonic and Liliana), but we felt that this one would have a noticeably different feel than the previous two, though I certainly did miss Liliana’s Phyrexian Ragers.

Day 5

Way out west there was this fella. Fella I wanna tell you about. Fella by the name of Pro Tour Hall of Famer Michael Turian. At least that was the handle the DCI gave him, but he never had much use for it himself. Mr. Turian, he called himself "The Potato." Now, "Potato"—that’s a name no one would self-apply where I come from (and I’m Irish).

As the "designer" of this project, I worked very closely with its lead developer Mike Turian throughout my part of the process, partly, I’m sure, because I’ve never done this before while he is very experienced and partly because we had a lot of decisions to make and two heads are better than one (especially since we both wear glasses).

Calling the product, or "SKU" to use some hot insider lingo, Phyrexia vs. the Coalition severely limits the cards we can use. That is not true, at least to the same degree, when you call something Garruk vs. Liliana. In the case of latter, if Force of Nature isn’t working out, hypothetically, you can simply replace it with Plated Slagwurm. If Gerrard Capashen isn’t working out, you can’t just replace him with, say, Commander Eesha. Consequently, we spent a lot of time in the early going deciding which cards would get "promoted" to mythic rare and be featured in the packaging, which cards would get alternate art, and which rares would be in the deck.

Armadillo Cloak | Art by Wayne Reynolds

When we started the project, we were using the previous Duel Deck guidelines of three rares, one mythic rare, and three alternate-art cards in each deck. Oh, and we couldn’t use anything from Reserved List. As the rares that we had pegged for inclusion, or were considering, were all very flavourful but probably weren’t sexy enough to be displayed in the packaging, I hoped we could nudge the number up. For example, from a purely aesthetic point of view, Phyrexian Colossus and Legacy Weapon make excellent "cover art," in my opinion, with their matching mana costs and their text boxes indicating clearly what you are in for (dangerous machines vs. the united power of five colours), but were they cards that would excite players enough to buy the product if they saw it on a shelf? Our conclusion was that they weren’t.

Not long after that, however, Mike reported that one of the conclusions of a recent discussion between Brand, Creative, and Aaron was that we could up the number of rares in the decks to six (five ordinary rares and a mythic rare), since rare cards that provide good game play and lots of flavour, but aren’t "chase" cards, are an abundant resource. The other bombshell was that we could use a card from the Reserved List, provided it was the promotional foil in the packaging. Sweet!

Phyrexian Negator | Art by Jim Murray

At this point, Mike suggested we use Phyrexian Negator and Urza’s Rage as the twin promos, which is what we went with, but there were other options. I believe we briefly toyed with dubbing the product Urza vs. Yawgmoth, and in that case Urza’s Rage and Yawgmoth’s Will would have had a nice symmetry. I’m not exactly sure why we didn’t go that route, but I imagine it is because it is harder to portray such a conflict without physical representations of the parties involved (as in the planeswalker Duel Decks), but rather with their minions, contraptions, and intangible qualities. Urza, Planeswalker and Yawgmoth, Big Bad are much cooler than, say, Urza’s Stick-to-it-iveness and Yawgmoth’s Pluck.

Urza’s Rage | Art by Jim Murray

When I heard that one of the decks would be the Coalition, my first thought was "Battlemages!" probably because of an old Magic Arcana that showed how the Coalition symbol was sneakily featured in the uniforms of the Planeshift battlemages. As someone who likes completed sets, symmetries, vertical cycles, and other aesthetically pleasing qualities in a deck, I wanted to include all five of them, but the nonblack clause on both Stormscape Battlemage and Nightscape Battlemage would have led to some unnecessary hoop-jumping if we wanted them to be anything but frustrating.

Next, I wondered how to incorporate some heroes like Urza and the Weatherlight crew. Gerrard was an easy choice, but many of the other heroes are on the Reserved List, have difficult mana costs when combined (like Mirri, Tahngarth, Gerrard, and, say, Blind Seer), or have narrow abilities that would require some focus. Captain Sisay and Hanna, Ship’s Navigator fall into this category. Instead, to kill multiple birds with a single stone, we made the somewhat controversial choice to include all of the green Dragons from Invasion (Darigaaz, Rith, and Treva). It wasn’t like Gerrard was flying on Darigaaz’s back to save the Hometree from Yawgmoth’s private security force, so it’s a bit of a flavour stretch. Maybe they get in on the logic that the enemy of my enemy is my friend. Think of them as a sort of Coalition of the killing.

Instead of using the characters themselves, early drafts of the decks included cards like Sisay's Ring, Eladamri's Call, Orim's Thunder, and the Urza's Rage and Gerrard's Command that found their way into the final deck. Tahngarth's Glare wasn’t considered.
We also tried to include cards that named specific places from the story, like Yavimaya and Shiv. We also tried out some of the key villains, but Ascendant Evincar doesn’t play nice with artifact creatures and Tsabo Tavoc would have necessitated a colour splash which, in my opinion, wasn’t worth it. Other flavourful cards, like Legacy Weapon and Coalition Victory, were excised for game play reasons. It is hard for a mono-black deck to answer Legacy Weapon, and Coalition Victory is too much of an all-or-nothing card, which would do nothing 95% of the time and would produce a dissatisfying win the other 5%. A lot of "back" game play without the "forth."

Day 6

Call me after 3:30. That’s what I told Mike some minutes ago by email—never mind how long precisely. Some nosey people around here, I tell you.

I won’t talk too much about the playtesting process, as that was left in the very capable hands of the developers, Mike Turian and Matt Tabak. Obviously, I played the decks myself to get a sense of what would be fun (Battlemages!) and what wouldn’t (Smallpox!). Some things didn’t work out the way I hoped (a reanimation theme in the Phyrexia) and had to be scrapped. I learned other things. For example, did you know that the cycle of Skittering creatures (Skirge, Horror, Monstrosity) might be least fun creatures in the history of Magic? It is true.

One thing I will note, however, is that building not one deck, but two, is a unique experience. It’s one thing to build two decks with a similar power level, and quite another to build two decks that have an even matchup and back-and-forth game play. As Mike has stated elsewhere, in regular Magic, you are almost always tuning your deck to beat another deck. When you do that, your opponent will then tweak his or her deck to beat yours. And so on. You don’t want the matchup to be 50/50. The Duel Decks are like this metagaming frozen in time, where all of the between-game deck-tweaking happens simultaneously. If you make a change to one deck, it will upset that delicate balance. It’s a phenomenon I have dubbed "the butterfly effect." Put simply, if a butterfly flaps its wings in North America, becomes irradiated, bites a teenager, and causes that teenager to grow up to become a supervillain and try to take out his anger on the world that rejected him by building a diabolical weather machine, it can cause a typhoon in Asia. Same principle here.

Day 7

Finally! It’s been a long week, but the deck lists have finally been released to the public at Pro Tour–San Diego, with the decks themselves being wielded by a band of gunslinging Robotic Chickens. If you have a baby, that’s the way you want it to come out.

Until next time, have fun with Duel Decks!


Duel Decks: Phyrexia vs. the Coalition releases this Friday, March 19.


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