elcome to Magic: The Gathering Commander Preview Week! This week we'll be previewing a unique product that represents something we haven't made in Magic in over seventeen years: a nonrandomized product with mechanically new cards. I'm going to talk today about why we chose to do that. I'm going to introduce you to the set's design team. I'm going to hit upon a very important issue for a subset of our players: wedge cards. (If you don't know what that means, I'll explain it when I get there.) And I'm going to show you a cool preview card. So kick back and enjoy a trip through one of this year's most unique products.
Commanders in Chief
As always, I like to start my preview weeks by introducing the design team.
Ken Nagle (Lead)
There is no designer in the Pit more passionate about multiplayer formats than Ken, so the choice of who to lead this team was a pretty easy one. I'm pretty sure Ken would have designed cards for this product whether or not he was on the team, so we decided to make Ken's life easier and just put him in charge of the design. I think it's important to have your designers work on things that require different design requirements than normal to let them stretch their design muscles. I believe this product's design was good both for Ken as a designer and for all of you who are interested in purchasing this product.
One of the things you'll learn, if you didn't already know it, is that the Commander format is very popular within R&D. Mark was another Pit member whose Venn diagram of designer and Commander player overlapped, so he was a great choice for the team. I've talked about this before, but I'll repeat it as his work on this set plays up this odd attribute. Mark is a pretty wacky designer for a guy who spent years making sure everything worked within the rules. Now that he has handed off the Rules Manager baton to Matt Tabak, Mark can get down to the business of making cards that make the Rules Manager cringe.
Scott has been at Wizards for a pretty long time. Why haven't you seen his name pop up more often? Because he doesn't work in R&D. Scott is the program manager in Organized Play. He's the guy who makes sure all the Pro Tours run smoothly (the tournament itself, as opposed to the larger event). Why is a guy who runs tournaments on the design team? Think Venn diagram. Yes, Scott is a Commander player, and not in a little way. Besides playing Commander for years, Scott is also part of the rules team that makes decisions about the Commander format. For those unaware, Wizards neither started nor oversees the Commander format. We don't make the rules. We don't ban cards. We help enable players to play it, but the overseeing of the format is done by an independent group. Scott is the only Wizards employee in that group, so he seemed like a good choice to include on the design team.
Ryan, like me, is a Head Designer. The game he oversees is not Magic, but a game called Duel Masters. Now many of you probably are unfamiliar with this game. The reason for that is that it's only printed in one language and that language isn't English. Duel Masters is currently made exclusively in Japanese. While the game is made for the Japanese market, the vast majority of the design work is done in our offices. Duel Masters owes its origins to Magic but we'll save that story for another column. Anyway, Ryan is a very talented designer and Magic likes having good designs so making putting Ryan on a design team was a pretty obvious choice.
I'm going to out Mark Purvis. Many of you might know from my column that Mark is one of the game's Brand Managers, but what you might not know is that Mark is... a Magic player. I don't just mean a run of the mill Magic player because all of the brand team obviously plays Magic. Mark is a diehard, longtime, collect-everything-he-can-think-of-collecting, play-every-format-he-can, lives-breathes-and-eats-Magic kind of player. He loves being on design and development teams, and it's great having someone around with a brand perspective, so he too proved to be a perfect fit for the team. (You can read more about Mark's time on this team in his feature article today.)
Now that we've met the people responsible for designing Magic: The Gathering Commander, let's talk about what they were designing.
Commander is a popular multiplayer format, and Wizards wanted to create a product to support it. That's pretty straightforward. The real game changer of this product is a different decision R&D made. For the first time in a long time, R&D has created new cards in a product that isn't a core set or an expansion. Why have we chosen to do that?
To explain, let's start by going back to the last time we did this. The very first Magic novel ever published, back in 1994, was called Arena. In the book was a page you could tear out and mail in to receive two unique cards available only through this offer.
Next came three books known the Whispering Woods trilogy (Whispering Woods, Shattered Chains, and Final Sacrifice), each with its own unique card:
While most of the cards were on the weaker side, one, Mana Crypt, proved to be a tournament-worthy card. Still, the book was sold through most book stores (in the United States, at least), so it was reasonably available to whomever wanted it—that is, if they were aware enough to know about the card and how to get it.
The card that actually caused all the problems wasn't one of the book promo cards, but this little guy:
Nalathni Dragon was a unique card given out at the 1994 Dragon Con convention. Dragon Con, for those unfamiliar with it, is a yearly convention held each Labor Day weekend in Atlanta, Georgia. Dragon Con tends to focus on what is known as "genre entertainment"—a.k.a. fantasy, science fiction, and horror—in all possible medi,a from film to television to comics to books to games.
As you can see, Nalathni Dragon was nothing special power-wise. The only really quirky thing about it was that it was the first, and last, red creature with banding. So why did it cause a fuss? Because if you wanted to get your hands on one, you had to fly to an event held in Atlanta, Georgia. (Remember that this predates eBay and other online sales sites; if you weren't there, it was almost impossible to get.) Finding a copy of a Magic book sold in your town might have been difficult, but it was doable. For most people, going to Dragon Con wasn't.
The players were up in arms. Not so much because of Nalathni Dragon, but because of what it represented. What happens when the next one-of-a-kind, have-to-be-there-to-get-it card was on the power level of Mana Crypt? Clearly, being a promo card didn't mean you had to suck. One day the powerful promo and the impossible-to-get condition were going to overlap.
Wizards heard the outcry of the players and made changes. First, they put a copy of Nalathni Dragon into the next copy of The Duelist (the Wizards-produced magazine dedicated to Magic that existed at the time) so that anyone who wanted had a chance to get it. Then they stopped making unique cards outside of traditional Magic sets. This wasn't a big announcement like the Reserved List; more of a change of policy that was demonstrated through action.
Note that the limiting of mechanically new Magic cards to products with booster packs wasn't as deliberate as it may now seem. Back in the day, the only products released for Magic came in booster packs. The idea of a fixed product that always had the same thing in it would come later. But as those new products came into existence, they were put on the other side of the line.
It's interesting to note that a fixed product is a very different animal than a Dragon Con promo. Anyone who sells Magic has access to fixed products (with the caveat that not all product is translated into all languages for logistical reasons). Players who want to get their hands on a fixed product need not fly to Atlanta; they merely need to travel to their local store.
Still, there was this divide between products that got mechanically new cards and those that didn't. The first product to cross the line was not Magic: The Gathering Commander, though. No, that honor belongs to Magic 2010. While the core set is sold in booster packs, before Magic 2010, no core set had mechanically unique cards. But Aaron Forsythe (the Director of Magic R&D, for those who are new to this column) realized that new content is an important tool in design and made the decision to pull the core set across the line.
It should come as no surprise that Aaron is also responsible for doing the same thing with Magic: The Gathering Commander. The set wanted things that just didn't exist. Why, thought Aaron, must the product be denied the power to make the cards it needed? He brought up the topic at a Tuesday Magic Meeting and R&D hashed it out.
The biggest con was that it had the potential of creating cards wanted by players who were not interested in the Commander format and thus had no reason to buy the product. Other than that, though, there weren't a lot of cons. And the pros were numerous, the biggest one being the ability to design the product to be exactly what it wanted to be.
Having had to work on both previous core sets and Magic 2010, I had the ability to see first hand what having the ability to design what you needed did for a set. I can't tell you the hours past core set design teams have spent agonizing about how to make something work when no existing cards satisfied a particular need of the set. Putting a card in because "it's the best we can do" is very frustrating. If new content could give the design team the freedom to make the set they envisioned, I was all for the change.
Are we doing the right thing? I'll be honest in saying that I think so, but I'm not 100%. The thing I do know, though, is that the key to keeping Magic healthy long term is the willingness of R&D to try things out. As I often like to say, the greatest risk to Magic is taking no risks. I'm very curious to hear the feedback to today's column, because I'd love to hear what all of you think about having new cards in a non-booster product. Is this something we should do more of? I'm very curious to your feedback.
Catching the Wave
Now I get to talk about a completely different aspect of the product. One of my jobs as Head Designer is listening to what all of you want. The reason I'm so public is that I want to encourage as many of you as possible to talk to me. I want to create a dialogue where I get to hear what it is that all of you want. (I'll stress as I always do that I read every piece of email, every tweet, every question, every bit of communication that comes my way.) My job is to provide cards and sets and blocks and products that you all want. My job gets a lot easier when I can hear directly from all of you what that is.
You would think that once I know what you want it's easy to provide it. That's not always the case. Sometimes, for example, you guys say you want things that we believe would lessen your enjoyment of the game. Other times you ask for things that don't quite work in the rules. And occasionally you ask for something that just never quite finds a good place to fit. One of the things in that last category is what R&D refers to as wedge cards.
Let me start by defining my terms. In Magic, there are five colors.
You can combine those five colors into ten different color pairs: five allied color pairs (meaning two colors that are allies with one another)...
...and five enemy color pairs (meaning two colors that are enemies with one another).
You can also combine those five colors into ten different color trios. Five of those we refer to as arcs, in that they are three colors that are all next to each other on the color circle. Another way to think of an arc is a color and both of its allies. In Shards of Alara, the five arc trios were known as shards.
The second five trios we refer to as wedges. These trios link a color with its two enemies.
Ever since the Legends expansion, multicolor cards have been part of the game. They've even been a major focus of three different blocks: Invasion block, Ravnica block, and Shards of Alara block. During that time, we've managed to make a lot of cards with color pairs. We've made some trios, but far fewer than the pairs. And when we do trios we tend to push more towards the arcs, because we tend to weigh allied colors stronger, in number, than enemy colors.
What all this means is that we've just done a lot less wedge cards than we've done color-pair and arc cards. Why should this matter? The biggest reason is the same one I'm doing a preview week today: the popularity of the Commander format. One of the key parts of the format (and for those unfamiliar with Commander, the rules are available at mtgcommander.net) is that you need a commander, which can be any legendary creature. The colors of that legendary creature dictate what colors you are allowed to play with, so Commander players are very eager for legends with more colors in their cost.
Magic currently has eleven five-color legendary creatures (Atogatog, Child of Alara, Cromat, Horde of Notions, Progenitus, Reaper King, Scion of the Ur-Dragon, Sliver Legion, Sliver Overlord, Sliver Queen, and Karona, False God). It has zero four-color legendary creatures. (I'd errata the Nephilim to be legendary in a heartbeat if I was allowed to do such a thing.) In three-color, it's doing pretty well with the arcs, but the wedges are woefully small in number.
What this means is that we're always hearing a desire for more wedge legends (and to a lesser extent wedge cards in general). Here's the problem. While I can throw one or two legendary multicolor creature in any random set, I can't do anything en masse unless the set has a strong multicolor theme. Invasion predates Commander. Ravnica block was focused on the ten color pairs. Alara block focused on the arcs. We just haven't had the multicolor set that could focus on wedge legendary creatures yet.
Problems like this are among the major reasons that Aaron wanted to try mechanically new cards. Because what a set dedicated to Commander really wants is wedge legendary creatures. (The team talked about four-color legendary creatures, but there just wasn't enough room in the design.) With the freedom to give the set what it really wants, we were able to make a bunch of wedge legends, one of which I get to preview today.
One Plus One
The reason I asked for this preview card is because its design is very near and dear to my heart. Note that I didn't design any of the cards in the set. My preview card just hits close to something I did in my very first design, Tempest.
I created a spell that I called Meld. The idea behind it was that you took two creatures in play and melded them together. The original card made a creature that had a combined power and toughness as well as all of the two creatures' abilities. This didn't quite work in the rules, so what I ended up with was this card:
Not quite Meld, I know.
My preview card for today is Ken Nagle's take in trying to create a very similar card. Without any further ado, I would like to introduce you to The Mimeoplasm, primary commander of the "Devour for Power" deck.
Ken made a few improvements. First he got the creatures from the graveyard, helping remove the card disadvantage. Second, he used cloning technology to at least copy one of the creature's abilities, allowing the second creature to mostly buff up the power and toughness. And, as I promised above, it's a wedge legendary creature. I hope all the Johnnies (and some of the Timmies) have fun with this card. When I finally get around to building a Commander deck, this is one of the cards I'm eyeing for my general.
That's all I got for today, but join me next week when I finally talk about color bleeding in Magic.
Until then, may you dream of awesome wedge legendary creatures.