a series of interesting choices thoughts on game design from paul sottosanti


designing magic: FFL & dampen thought

At the start of my career in the games industry I had the pleasure of working at Wizards of the Coast (WotC) for five years, and had a chance to work extensively on Magic: the Gathering, a game that I honestly feel has one of the best core designs of all time. I also have a horrible memory, which is a boon because I can watch movies and read books over and over again and it's a new experience each time, but is unfortunate when trying to recall events from more than a few months ago. My goal here is to commit my memories of the experience of working on Magic to "paper" before I forget any more of it and also bring all of you along for the ride as well.

Apologies in advance to those I worked with if I've remembered anything incorrectly. I'll do my best. Also, if you haven't played Magic, parts of this series probably won't be as interesting to you. I'll try to generalize where I can.


The journey started in Pittsburgh where I was working as a web developer at a business called CombineNet. Taken straight from their website, here is what they offer:

"CombineNet, Inc. offers advanced sourcing technology and products. We offer the best-in-class sourcing solution delivered through our core product: CombineNet ASAP (Advanced Sourcing Application Platform), to improve the way organizations source their entire range of spend categories. CombineNet ASAP takes spend under management to the next level by driving significant value improvements to all sourcing events and by addressing spend categories that general sourcing suites and e-RFX tools cannot."

Sounds amazing, right? Yeah, I have no idea what that paragraph means either. Basically I was a Perl/HTML programmer creating front end interfaces that allowed shipping companies to create complicated bids as they tried to earn business from Fortune 500 companies that needed to move huge volumes of goods around the world. For example, they might offer 10% off all of their bids in the Atlantic if they won at least 30% of the bids in the Pacific, along with a myriad of other clauses. Every single one of those bids would then be run through a black box algorithm that would spit out "the answer" which would save the huge company many millions of dollars. Over time, I started taking pride in improving the usability of the bidding interface, to the point of spending more of my time on the user experience and the visual design than the behind the scenes programming. Soon I was taking on more of a graphic design role, which was actually a dream of mine as I had attempted to switch my major at Carnegie Mellon from Computer Science to Communication Design during my sophomore year. Sadly it would've required me to completely start over, and I ended up getting a minor instead.

Then I saw a posting on the Wizards of the Coast website offering a developer intern position. (Developer, in WotC terms, means a designer who's focused more on balance and idea refinement than on the original idea creation process.) It had been an even greater dream of mine to work in the games industry, but up to this point I really had no idea how to make it a reality, as I had no real contacts in the industry. I did at least have the advantage of having a small amount of success on the Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour, with a top 4 at a team Grand Prix and a top 32 at Pro Tour Chicago. I knew that was something Wizards valued and decided on a whim to apply. Long story short, I didn't get the job, but came close enough that I was recommended to Robert Gutschera, who ended up offering me a position as a developer intern for the non-Magic side of Wizards R&D.

It was a harder decision than you might think to decide to take the job. It wasn't because my paycheck would be cut in half, or because I'd have to leave many of my friends behind, or because I'd have to buy my first car and suddenly move across the country. It was because I'd just been told at work that we'd recently hired a local highly respected graphic design firm, and I was being sent to work at their offices temporarily to ensure a successful partnership. It was a perfect start to a successful career as a graphic designer. All of a sudden I'd gone from someone who played and wrote about Magic exclusively for months after college because he didn't know what else to do, to having two of my dreams coming true simultaneously. Still, in the end I knew I couldn't pass the internship up. It's not every day you get a chance to enter the games industry at a high profile company like WotC, and once you're in, the sky's the limit. It's just up to your work ethic, your knowledge, and your skills.

Working on Non-Magic TCGs

Even though my eventual goal was always to work on Magic, I'm actually quite glad that I was hired to fill a non-Magic role at first. Working on games like Duel Masters and the Neopets TCG gave me invaluable experience, because the teams were much smaller and I got a lot of one on one time with experienced designers as they taught me the ropes. It also expanded my horizons in terms of working with different game systems and gave me a different perspective to bring to the table when talking about Magic. And then there were the other perks: the occasional trip to Japan to visit high profile tournaments with huge numbers of kids, and the occasional oddball photo shoot for articles in Japanese magazines. For whatever reason, Japanese kids treated designers of their favorite games like rockstars, and never seemed to tire of reading about them or asking for autographs.

The Future Future League

From the beginning I was a regular in the Future Future League, an internal format that utilizes a mixture of recent sets and future sets to try and predict the upcoming Magic: the Gathering metagame. Since Wizards works 6-9 months ahead on future sets, every Magic player who starts at Wizards has a "black hole", a set that essentially never existed for them, because it wasn't released when you started and it's already finished by the time you get there. For me that set was Darksteel. I can't take any credit for allowing a broken card into existence (that honor will have to wait for Betrayers of Kamigawa), although I do have the dubious distinction of being the first person to put it in a Ravager Affinity deck, as noted in Aaron Forsythe's article on Skullclamp. Here was my eventual FFL decklist along with my terse notes:

4 AEther Vial
4 Frogmite
4 Disciple of the Vault
4 Shrapnel Blast
4 Arcbound Worker
4 Arcbound Stinger
4 Arcbound Ravager
4 Skullclamp
3 Myr Enforcer
3 Engineered Explosives
4 Blinkmoth Nexus
4 Glimmervoid
4 Great Furnace
4 Vault of Whispers
2 Darksteel Citadel

Awesome until Skullclamp was internally banned. Now it’s just okay, with Skullclamps being replaced by Spellbombs I think. Not clear that this is better than regular affinity anymore, especially if Force of Will stays the way it is.

Clearly I didn't yet understand the full power of Ravager Affinity, although to be fair our format was a bit different. "Force of Will" was my nickname for Disrupting Shoal when it was a Power Sink instead of a Spell Blast. Yeah, a Power Sink. As in, pretty much a hard counter at most points during a game. As an example of how much it warped the format, here's my regular Affinity list from the same period:

4 Thirst for Knowledge
4 Thoughtcast
4 Force of Will
4 Qumulox
4 Broodstar
4 Myr Enforcer
4 Frogmite
4 Chromatic Sphere
2 AEther Spellbomb
4 Arcbound Ravager
2 Scale of Chiss-Goria
2 Tooth of Chiss-Goria
4 Darksteel Citadel
4 Seat of the Synod
4 Blinkmoth Nexus
2 Tree of Tales
4 Chrome Mox

Ah, affinity. This deck is strong, especially because Force of Will is so amazing here. Could want more AEther Spellbombs if fatties continue to be good.

The Chiss-Goria pieces never caught on in the real world, and the lack of Shrapnel Blast is a little awkward, but the deck did need a core of blue cards to support the Shoal. "Force of Will" was almost better than the real thing in this deck, since most of the cards pitched cost 5-8 mana, and you could sometimes hardcast it for three or four mana. Decks like this contributed heavily to the card being changed to its current incarnation.

Another one that I played heavily was a Skullclamp/Tangleroot/Auriok Steelshaper combo deck. I don't remember the specifics of how it won, but basically it would use Steelshaper's Gift to find a Skullclamp, and then use some combination of Steelshaper and Tangleroots to make playing and sacrificing creatures essentially free. Myr Retrievers could continually cycle with one another or you could use them to return a Skullclamp that had been killed. Eventually, the level of artifact removal in the FFL got so bad that I had to start playing Ritual of Restoration in the maindeck just to keep a Skullclamp on the table. This was one of those decks where I remember it performing very strongly in the FFL but then the deck never seemed to show up in the real world.

Finally, here's a deck you'll likely remember:

4 Sylvan Scrying
4 Reap and Sow
4 Rampant Snake (Sakura Tribe-Elder)
2 Mindslaver
4 Tooth and Nail
1 Darksteel Colossus
1 Platinum Angel
2 White Dragon (Yosei, the Morning Star)
1 Leonin Abunas
1 Duplicant
1 Viridian Shaman
4 Regrowth Guy (Eternal Witness)
3 Naturalize
4 Solemn Simulacrum
4 Cloudpost
1 Stalking Stones
2 Blinkmoth Nexus
14 Forest
2 Plains
1 Bojeisu, She Who Shelters All

This deck was amazing, much better than expected. The addition of Rampant Snake gives the deck some extra early defense. Can’t be countered land gives it a strong game against blue. Double white dragon is double time walk. Tutoring up Regrowth Guy means Tooth & Nail recursion. The biggest worry is the new existence of RFG wrath.

It's fun to look back at this with the benefit of hindsight, knowing just how strong Tooth and Nail strategies turned out to be in the real world. This was a time when decks based around huge creatures and nine mana sorceries weren't ever viable, as R&D had just started cracking down on counterspells not that long ago. Trust me when I say that for every deck like this one that I contributed to the FFL, I built ten more that were terrible. But throw enough darts at the wall and you're guaranteed to hit a bullseye once in awhile. "RFG Wrath" was Final Judgement, and I believe it might have been five mana at the time so it was seeing heavy play. It was eventually pushed to six since it could invalidate a lot of otherwise interesting creatures.

Champions of Kamigawa

I wasn't on either the design or the development team for Champions, but had played enough FFL at this point that I was on the "hole filling" list, an internal email list where developers would request card designs when they had specific requirements in the set that needed to be filled. It's a fun exercise because you aren't present in the room when your designs are evaluated, so the card literally must stand on its own. This makes you consider even the smallest details, like the placeholder name, if you wanted to improve your chances of getting a card in the set. To be clear, I don't mean to imply that cards would get into a set for frivolous reasons like an amusing placeholder name. But when you're not there to defend a design, anything that can help get across why it's cool is inevitably going to help. A flavorful design with an appropriately evocative name was a strong start.

With Champions I had some sort of beginner's luck as five of my designs made their way into the final set: Bushi Tenderfoot, Nezumi Graverobber, Villainous Ogre, Candles' Glow, and Dampen Thought. Bushi Tenderfoot was all about living the dream of smashing a big creature with your small one and having him grow up as a result. Of course, it's one of those cards where the idea is cooler than the reality, because generally he just doesn't get blocked if your opponent is at all suspicious. I'm proud of the Graverobber design and happy with where it ended up. The Ogre I barely even remember designing, but I'll always have a soft spot for Candles' Glow and especially Dampen Thought. Neither was a particularly earthshaking design, since Splice already existed and the question was just what to do with it. It was the deck that they spawned that I truly enjoy.

Basically, there ended up being a draft archetype in triple Champions draft that completely revolved around the Splice mechanic, and specifically Dampen Thought. The deck wanted few creatures as it had no interest in ever attacking. In fact, Quentin Martin managed to draft an entirely creatureless deck at a Grand Prix as highlighted in this Creatures? Why Bother? article by Scott Wills. Creatureless! In draft. That's crazy. A year ago Tom Reeve wrote an article called Finding the Dampen Deck. An excerpt:

Sometimes something happens to you in a draft that you couldn't see coming with a telescope, radar, or even a Magic 8-Ball. You come away from the table happy with your deck – you have a good curve, a nice selection of removal, a couple of bombs for the late game. You go back and forth over your last couple of cards. You sleeve up, shuffle up, and shake your opponent's hand.

Then you get hit by a truck.

Afterwards, dazed, you ask yourself if that really just happened. If that collection of twelfth picks that just stomped you into the ground really existed. Peer Through Depths? Psychic Puppetry? Dampen Thought?


Welcome to the wonderful world of the Dampen deck, where men are men, and opponents are confused.

Why do I love this so much? It goes beyond just being excited for my card to have such an impact on a format. I'd prefer that every draft format has one or two possible options like the Dampen deck. Here's why:

  1. Adds interest to the late picks of the draft. Instead of everyone just taking the 8-9 good cards out of the pack and then ignoring the rest, suddenly you're thinking about what it means that the Peer through Depths is still in there. Should you move in and try to cobble together a Dampen deck? Should you hate it just in case? Do you take a sideboard card against it?
  2. Adds depth to sideboarding. Suddenly a bunch of cards that would otherwise be weak are relevant maindeck or sideboard options. Distress, Hisoka's Defiance, Reito Lantern and Thoughtbind all gained value because of the possibility of a Dampen deck at the table. Even rares like Cranial Extraction suddenly become slightly more attractive in draft.
  3. Violates the established norms. Normally in Limited formats removal is always a first pick, and you never take it out of your deck during sideboarding. Against a Dampen deck, maybe you do. Maybe the value of removal goes down a little because you might face a deck that has very few creatures, and you take an aggressive creature instead. I'm a fan of almost anything that makes you reevaluate your priorities when drafting.
  4. Creates extremely different pick orders. In a more focused format, everyone might agree on the top 10 cards of a color regardless of the deck they're drafting. I'm much more excited by formats where people have wildly differing pick orders even within the same color depending on the archetype they're drafting. That's when you get interesting choices like "do I take this Ethereal Haze now, since I want it more than anything else in the pack, or do I try to table it since I know no one else is likely to want a Fog effect?"
  5. Adds excitement to the draft format. There are few things more satisfying in Magic than beating someone with a pile of "terrible" cards. As the alternate strategy begins to be discovered, it generates a lot of buzz as people hear about it and start refining it.

I can hardly take credit for the existence of the Dampen deck. It's not like we knew it was going to exist and crafted the format to allow it. But I'm thrilled that I was a part of creating it.

As for seeing my first cards released into the wild: there's nothing quite like knowing that you've helped shape a game that you've played for 10 years, that thousands and thousands of players enjoy every day. For some context on how long I'd been thinking about making Magic cards: the card to the left is one that I created a little after I first started playing back in 1994. Yeah, you're seeing that right. I gave myself an artist credit for that epic colored pencil illustration.

Thanks for reading! My FFL recordkeeping wasn't nearly as thorough for the other sets, but there are plenty of stories to be told about my stints on the development team for Betrayers of Kamigawa and Ravnica, and the design teams for Planar Chaos, Lorwyn and Morningtide. Next part, coming soon: the Betrayers development team, my unfortunate contribution to the existence of Umezawa's Jitte, and tidbits about the rest of the Kamigawa block. (Part Two is now available.)

Comments (0) Trackbacks (4)
  1. yay! exciting series!

    For some reason, Magic design stories are always more fun then video game design stories.

    Probably to do with the amount of actual design done. ;)

  2. I’ve only just found this, and my thought process can best be summed up through the use of a numbered list;

    1) Oh, cool, article on M:tG design from a former designer!
    2) Hm, the FFL Ravager Affinity list looks well-tuned.
    4) Wait, you designed Dampen Thought?
    5) Wait, you designed Dampen Thought and then -quoted me talking about it-?
    6) Brb, fainting.

    On a non-numbered note, being there ‘discovering’ Dampen Thought at the time was one of the most exciting times in my Magical life. If I remember rightly the original idea came up over IRC, and then myself and Sam Gomersall tried drafting it in person at the London Games Club. Sam is the only person I’ve ever seen -force- the deck, finishing up Pack 2 with literally zero win conditions in his 30, only to be passed a Dampen Thought and two Glacial Rays early in Pack 3.

    Sigh. Such nostalgia!

    • Hey Tom!

      Glad you found this. I don’t think I ever got to the point of forcing the Dampen deck although I’m not surprised in the least to hear that Sam would. I always tried to move in on it when the first pack was heavy with good Arcane support cards so that I could build a good base with my late picks. Or if I got passed a late Dampen of course.

      Those were definitely exciting times. :)

  3. Oh, and… thank you.

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