elcome to the first week of Journey into Nyx previews. All this week and next, we'll be previewing the third and final set of the Theros block. As I write the design column, it seems like perhaps I should tell the story of how Journey into Nyx got designed. It even ties directly into my preview card. Convenient how that all works out. There's a lot to talk about, so let's get started.
Journey: The Band
Before I tell the story of the design, I would like, as usual, to introduce the design team.
Ethan Fleischer (Lead)
Five years ago, Ethan Fleischer was just another Magic player. He lived in Portland, Oregon, with his family of five and managed the philosophy section of the largest independant bookstore in the world (Powell's Books, for those who have never had the pleasure of visiting it). Ethan was in school learning animation when he heard we were running a second Great Designer Search (GDS). On a whim, he decided to enter it, doing far better than he had expected. Upon winning the GDS2, Ethan came up to Seattle for a six-month internship, which he would turn into a fulltime job.
When you first begin as a Magic designer, you are put onto a number of different design teams as well as the occasional development team. Ethan's first design team was Gatecrash, where he learned we were using one of his designs from the GDS2, evolve, as the keyword mechanic for the Simic. I then put Ethan on the Theros design team as what we call my "strong second," where I put him in charge of overseeing the upkeep of the file. Ethan was also put on the design team of Born of the Gods.
The master plan for having Ethan on every design team of the Theros block was that, come the third block of the set, Ethan was going to get his first design lead. There's really no easy way to work your way up to your first design lead, so I made sure he had as much knowledge of the block as possible and then tossed him in the deep end. (Okay, I was there as a metaphorical lifeguard.)
A first design lead can be very daunting, but Ethan attacked it with gusto. At my request, Ethan had done a significant amount of research on Greek mythology. Also, as part of the GDS2, he had built his own world and started created elements of the first large expansion of the "block" set on his world. These two things, combined with the experience of being on both previous design teams, I felt, gave Ethan the best chance for success.
I've led a lot of design teams, so when I talk about it I might make it sometimes feel like leading a design is run of the mill, but in reality—especially when it's your first time—it is anything but. Ethan did a wonderful job stepping up and delivering a beautiful completion to the Theros block. The reason I chose Ethan as the winner of GDS2 was that I enjoyed how he processed design. He's very good at seeing the bigger picture and understanding what elements matter most. Watching him lead the design for Journey into Nyx, I was happy to see I had chosen my winner well.
Dan is the most junior of the Magic designers. He first got attention helping out the finalists of the GDS2, but his road to Magic design was a very different one from Ethan. Dan joined Wizards of the Coast in game support (what used to be called customer service). Shortly after being hired, he came to me to ask what he could do to be a game designer. I told him to start with hole filling and if things went well we would advance from there. Well, things did go well—very, very well. Dan was then put onto some smaller design teams and eventually ended up on the design team of Dragon's Maze. Magic was doing so well that we had a new design team slot created and my first choice was Dan.
Dan has unbounded energy as a designer and will always give you lots of options. He also really enjoys thinking about the reasons behind the designs and I find him a boon to a design team because he always asks great questions about things that the design team really needs to think about. I had no doubt Dan would be a great addition to Journey into Nyx and he was.
My first interaction with Erik Lauer was as a pro player. He was the main deck builder, known as the "Mad Genius," of a very prominent Magic team known as Team CMU (named after Carnegie Mellon University, where some of the original members attended). Erik built the Necro deck that Randy Buehler used to win the first Pro Tour (Chicago '97) and would later Top 8 himself at PT Rome. Randy and I had become friends, and I later recommended him to Bill Rose for a job in R&D. Randy did well in the job, eventually becoming my boss as director of Magic R&D (Aaron Forsythe's current job). Randy was the one who brought Erik to R&D. Erik has also done well in R&D and is currently head developer, my equivalent on the development side.
Every design team has a developer on it, what we call a "development representative," or "dev rep," so Erik has had numerous chances to serve on design teams. Erik is quite smart and has a very logical outlook on how he perceives Magic. He is quite good at looking at how something is executed and being able to explain whether or not, in the end, it will accomplish the mechanical role the design team is attempting for it. Erik has also proven pretty good at making cool individual card designs.
As I said above, my major role here was to be a support for Ethan on his first design lead. He and I met one-on-one each week to walk through how the design was going and talk through issues. As for my past history, if you don't know it, I have a large archive of articles for you to read.
Matt is a man of multiple hats. Most of you probably know him as the rules manager, the man who makes sure the wheels don't come flying off the game. When he's not busy managing rules, Matt is a member of the Magic editing team. He also is very tall and not so easy to high five.
Matt was on the design team for Dark Ascension. Things obviously went well and we invited him back for a second design-team stint. It's always nice having the rules manager on a design team because you often get questions where the answer is, "We should go ask Matt." Having Matt one chair over makes those talks pretty simple. Also, it's very nice to be able to get a rough sense of templates early on, and although we normally get rough templates from Matt in design, having him there speeds it along.
Because he comes from such a different vantage point from most of the designers and developers, he has a unique way of looking at the game, and as such, designs some very interesting cards. Forget for a second that he's my archnemesis when I say he was a pleasure to have on the team.
Third and Game
With the introductions out of the way, it's time to start talking about the design of Journey into Nyx. Well, almost. Before, I get to that, I need to talk a little about third sets. In fact, I wrote an entire article about third sets, where I went back and looked at every third set in history. Here's a secret about third sets I didn't talk about in that article: they're a pain!
Art by Greg Staples
Let me walk you through why:
#1: You have to deliver on what the first two sets established, yet you have to keep the block from getting stale
I talk a lot about the power of patterns. If there are three of something, and the first and second things act in a certain way, there are expectations that the third will as well. This means that players come to the third set with a lot of expectations. Yet, at the same time, the third set has to deal with fatigue. The players have already spent seven to eight months interacting with this block. They want things shaken up a little to add some newness. The third set has to be old and comfortable yet new and different. These two things are pulling in opposite directions, yet the third set has deliver on both.
#2: The first two sets used up a lot of stuff
Let's say you want to have a garage sale. You go through your house to find things you think will sell well. And then you use them in your garage sale. Now, the next time you go to have a garage sale (assuming you have one four months later), you don't have as much stuff to choose from because the first garage sale used a lot of the good stuff, but you find stuff and have a second garage sale. Now, three months later, let's say you want to have yet another garage sale. You're going to have some problems, because your house at this point is pretty picked over. Third sets forever have to deal with being third.
#3: You have to work with what's come before
Not only do you have less stuff to choose from, you also have more limitations on what you can do because you have to follow decisions previously made in the block. You also have to make sure that your new stuff is synergistic with the old stuff in the block, which just makes your options more and more limited.
#4: You've got a story to tell
When you're doing the large first set, you're working with creative to craft the story. By the third set, there's a story already and it's your job to follow it as best you can. Yeah, you can tweak things a little, but more often than not you have to make your mechanics work with what the story is.
#5: Development puts things off limits
By the time the third set starts design, the first set has been in development for quite a while and it's figured out a lot of things. Usually, that means development has figured out what problem areas the first set has stumbled onto and it warns you away from those. While having this feedback is very valuable, it's yet another thing restricting what you can do.
Once you examine all the limitations, you learn that you're going to have to be very creative because there are a lot of restrictions. The tale of Journey into Nyx design is the tale of a team sent on a quest with angry and fickle gods all around them. Can they find their metaphorical golden fleece?
"I Love it When a Plan Comes Together"
As head designer, one of my responsibilities is to look out for all my design teams. I'm well aware of the complications of doing a third set, having done numerous ones myself, so I always try to make sure in the block plan we do something to help out the third set. The key is carving out a mechanical space to allow the third set to have something all its own. It needs to be something that fits into what the block is doing but something we can do without for the first two sets—something useful but not critical. Finally, it's ideal if it's something enough players want that its absence will be noted and players will ask us for it.
Art by Raymond Swanland
The first set to ever do this was Apocalypse in the Invasion block. Invasion was the first multicolor-themed block. While working on the first set, we figured out that we could hold back enemy-colored cards. They were useful but not crucial. By holding them back, we were then able to give the third set a very strong identity. Now, not every set has something as meaty as enemy-color gold cards to hold back, but it was important that we found something.
In addition, we needed to make sure that the block held together as a cohesive whole. Part of block planning is making sure that each set plays a role in the larger block. In the case of Theros, the block was heading toward a conflict between the gods and the denizens of the world. (This creative element would shift some over time, but during design, the conflict was an all-out war.) Part of figuring out the design for Journey into Nyx was figuring out what that conflict meant. It turns out that both problems had the same solution.
The key to designing a conflict is making sure that you give each side a mechanical identity. For Journey into Nyx, that would mean defining both the gods and the denizens of the world through game play. To do that, we started by looking at what the block had previously done. I'll start with the Gods.
The Gods: Well, duh. These indestructible enchantment creatures have been one of the main focuses of the block.
The Gods Equipment: These legendary Equipment are the first artifact enchantments in Magic.
Bestow: This mechanic of enchantment creatures that can be either creatures or Auras were creations of the gods.
Inspired: This Born of the Gods mechanic represents the influence of the gods on the mortals of the world.
Auras: Throughout the block, enchantments, particularly Auras, represent the impact of the gods upon the world of Theros.
Global Enchantment Creatures: Besides the Gods and the bestow creatures, there are a number of enchantment creatures with static abilities.
As you look through the gods' side of the equation, one thing comes through loud and clear. The gods are synonymous with enchantments in this block. That means, if you wanted to allow players to put together a deck representing the gods' side, it would have a strong enchantment component—a very strong enchantment component. In fact, when you stop to think about what a deck made up of the gods' side is, it seems it would be a deck of nothing but enchantments.
Art by Matt Stewart
This brings us back to the first point. Is there something Theros block really wants but that we could hold back for the third set? And the answer became obvious. What have players wanted to do from the moment we introduced an enchantment theme, including the first ever (well, ignoring one futureshifted card) enchantment creatures? They have wanted to make an all-enchantment deck. The existence of enchantment creatures makes this viable for the first time in the history of Magic.
So why haven't they? Because they needed something that we held back on. You see, there was something that the block wanted but didn't need, something useful but not crucial. That thing? "Enchantment matters" cards. Let me explain. Usually, when we do a mechanical theme, we include cards that encourage you to play a lot of that subset of cards together. For example, in Mirrodin, the first block all about artifacts, we included a lot of cards and even a whole mechanic that said, "Hey, put as many artifacts in a deck as you can."
We knew it was something players were going to want, but as we started creating Theros we quickly realized that it wasn't something we had to have. The set actually worked just fine without it. In fact, by not giving players something to make a deck full of enchantments, we encouraged them to combine different elements of the set together.
That's when we realized that if we were building toward a conflict, that perhaps that is the thing we could save. The final set wanted the gods' side to band together, which meant, finally, the story would encourage us to enable the all-enchantment deck. By holding back on the "enchantment matters" cards, we could save something for the final set, and something we knew a lot of players would eagerly want.
So for all of those who have been writing to me begging for some "enchantment matters" cards, I have some good news for you. Journey into Nyx not only has a bunch of individual cards for you, but we even have a whole mechanic. Which all leads us to today's preview card.
If you're eager to build an all-enchantment deck, have I got a card for you. It is called Eidolon of Blossoms and it's about time for you all to get acquainted.
I only get one preview, but I promise that there are plenty more "enchantment matters" cards in the set, including a number more cards with constellation. There are also more bestow cards, more inspired cards, more global enchantment creatures, and even some (gasp) noncreature global enchantments.
But Wait, There's More
This, of course, leads to the next question. All right, I've explained all about the god side. What is the mechanical identity for the denizens of the world? What does Journey into Nyx have to offer them? That's a great question. One I'll be answering next week with Week Two of Journey into Nyx previews. I'll show off the set's other new mechanic, as well as explain to you what all is going on with the nonenchantment part of the set. As you'll see, it's the more complex side of the story.
Eidolon of Blossoms | Art by Min Yum
As always, I'm eager to get your reaction to what I've showed off today. You can email me, respond to this thread or talk to me through any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).
Until then, may you have an enchanted evening.
"Drive to Work #110 & #111—Judgment, Part 2 and Part 3"
This week's two podcasts are the second and third parts of my three-part series on the design of Judgment, the third and final set in the Odyssey block.
Working for Magic R&D since October, 1995, Mark Rosewater is currently the head designer. His hobbies include spending time with his family, talking about Magic on every known medium (including a daily blog and a weekly podcast), and writing about himself in the third person.