The short story of Arabian Nights development
Better Late Than Never
Skaff Elias, guest columnist
Friday, August 09, 2002
Hello, I'm Skaff Elias, game designer for Wizards of the Coast, and I'm pinch-hitting for Randy Buehler--again--during Arabian Nights week. You might remember an article I did regarding Legends development a few months ago. Whenever Randy and the other guys are feeling lazy, evidently they concoct some excuse to dust off us old guys to write their articles for them. Well, Arabian Nights is evidently the excuse for the week.
I was a member of the team that designed Ice Age, a team that included Jim Lin, Chris Page, and Dave Pettey. We were friends of Richard Garfield at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia, and we designed and developed several expansion sets for Magic: The Gathering. We had started the design of Ice Age before Alpha came out, and were called upon to help write the rules for Magic as well as design and develop new expansion sets. One of our first "jobs" was the development of Arabian Nights.
Arabian Nights has the distinction of being the least developed set ever. Most of Alpha was extensively playtested, and all the sets to follow Arabians were playtested not only by internal teams assigned specifically to that job, but almost always by outside playtesters as well. Arabian Nights was designed by Richard in a relatively short time, and no one at Wizards had really given any thought to the idea of a development team. This was pretty strange given the intense development that Alpha had undergone--it was constantly added to and tweaked for two years. While there were time pressures with Arabians that were unforeseen, the fact that there was no plan in place regardless of the time allotted was probably one of our bigger early mistakes. Fortunately, it all turned out okay (sorry for giving away the ending).
Arabians was done on a very tight schedule, and Richard was no longer near his playtesters in Philadelphia, having moved to Walla Walla, Washington to be a professor of mathematics. At some point very late in the process someone decided (I don't know if it was Richard or Peter Adkison) that maybe someone should take a look at the cardfile before it was printed. We felt a little out in the cold on the east coast when we got the call.
The call came so late that there was literally no time for playtesting. Our comments were due back in a very short time--a matter of maybe a week or so. Of course, all of us were graduate students or had jobs, and so we couldn't just drop everything for the project. We (the Ice Age team) got together at Peter's request and submitted our comments. I can remember being startled at the power level of some of the cards. We only had a few email exchanges with Richard, and many of our comments went unheeded, because no one was sure whether or not they were correct, especially Richard. The card I remember most vividly was Library of Alexandria. Originally you drew the extra card if you had a low number of cards in your hand (I can't remember if it was zero or one). We thought this was way too good--one of the best cards in the game. We had a lot of intense arguments and eventually compromised on the current version. At least you wouldn't be able to dump your hand and then start drawing. At the time it was exceedingly easy to do just that, and at least the card created some tension as to whether or not you should exercise some constraint in your play.
Antiquities' Strip Mine was created as a direct reaction to Library of Alexandria.
I can also remember thinking Rukh Egg was too powerful, although I don't remember the original version of the card. Probably it was a mana or two cheaper. Certainly the Egg didn't turn out to be the juggernaut that was Library of Alexandria. On a positive note, the Library did give the Antiquities team an idea for a new card; Strip Mine was created as a reaction to the Library, because at the time we didn't have the concept of banning or restricting cards. I believe we also thought Ali from Cairo was too powerful, but I actually don't think that one was changed, or at least not much.
All in all it's pretty surprising how good the set turned out to be given the lack of playtest and development. Richard's instantaneous, virtually solo vision was original, flavorful, and powerful--and despite the hurried schedule, had fewer broken cards than some of the "professionally" developed sets to follow.
Send comments to Randy at email@example.com.