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


designing magic: ripple & planar chaos

This is the fourth part of a series about working on Magic: the Gathering during my five years at Wizards of the Coast:

Part One (Joining WotC, playing in the FFL, developing Champions of Kamigawa)
Part Two (Developing Betrayers of Kamigawa and the Jitte mistake)
Part Three (Developing Ravnica, unleashing Friggorid, and designing MTGO Vanguard)

The Lost Set

Coldsnap was always a weird product. The idea behind the set was that this old design file for a lost third set from the Ice Age block had been unearthed, and we were suddenly inspired to make a set out of it. Of course there wasn't any such file, and we were just filling a hole for the fourth set that year since core sets were every other year at that point. It was as good an excuse as any to make some new cards, but it had some unique challenges because it was a small set that was going to primarily drafted by itself.

At some point Randy Buehler, the lead developer, sent out an email with the following request:

"We would really like to try out more 'collect me' mechanics. Like maybe howling spells (When I resolve search your library for another copy of me) or maybe something else we haven't thought of. We know people will get 6-ofs in draft and we want to make sure that's a feature, not a bug."

I still have the printout of that email, and on it I had scrawled: "Ripple - When you cast this, flip top 5 cards. Any cards with same name can cast for free."

This made it almost verbatim into the set, even keeping the name, which is quite the rare occurrence. It was also my first mechanic. So what went through my mind designing it?

Well, I started out thinking about howling spells and how I wasn't a fan of them. As soon as you played the first one, the next three or four turns of the game were almost scripted as you searched up one after another. There was no variance, no surprise, and no excitement since you knew up front exactly how many were in your deck.

To get around this problem, I found myself going back to the idea of flipping from the deck, just like Erratic Explosion. From there it was obvious that you should be looking for matches, since the point of the mechanic was to allow multiples to shine, and it was just a question of what the reward should be. Putting them in your hand seemed fair, but fair isn't your foremost concern when doing straight design work. It's more about excitement and being over the top without crossing the line to absurdity. Playing the revealed cards for free fit that criteria perfectly.

Now the mechanic had:

  1. A random outcome. You could have three copies of a Ripple spell in your deck, get lucky and hit another, or you could have eight copies and completely whiff.
  2. A dream of going big. Since each spell that you got to play for free would also trigger, you could theoretically chain through your entire deck and cast every Ripple card.

The only thing left was the name. I'm remarkably terrible at naming. This once, though, I seemed to hit the nail on the head. I wish I could remember exactly what I was thinking. I know it either had to do with the ripples created by dropping a pebble into a still lake, or the idea that casting the spell sent ripples into the aether that triggered similar spells in the vicinity to also fire, but either way I must have been onto something because the name never changed throughout development.

In retrospect, Ripple wasn't entirely loved by players. The mechanic had a weird tension where the better the cards were, the less likely you'd be able to actually ripple them. So Surging Flame played pretty nicely in that people usually only had two or three of them. But if a player got enough of one of the weak ones, like eight Surging Dementias or whatever, there was a pretty decent chance that they'd wipe out their opponent's entire hand on turn two. (If you revealed multiple copies of the spell when you rippled, you could play both of them, and then each of them would ripple, so you'd get to reveal eight or twelve cards, which would probably continue the chain once or twice.)

Maybe the mechanic should have only let you cast one of the revealed matching cards, although it would've been pretty sad when you revealed three matches and had to put two of them on the bottom. Maybe it should've put all of them in your hand and only let you cast one for free. Maybe we should've played around more with the cards that had ripple and not had any that were egregious in multiples, like the wall of first strike from Surging Sentinels or the hand clearing of Surging Dementia. Even in hindsight, I'm not sure of the right solution. Design is hard!

As for the FFL, I remember testing Scrying Sheets extensively, trying to make blue beatdown with Vexing Sphinx work, trying out Tamanoa in my Searing Meditation deck, playing Skred in many decks, and trying to prove that Martyr of Sands was a mistake. I think the Martyr was a side effect of that same common feeling that white got screwed in cycles, especially when it got lifegain, so the developers set out to make the number matter. It was a lofty goal, but I realized not long after the set was finished that 21 life was a pretty absurd reward for a hand full of white cards. It didn't take long to find Proclamation of Rebirth from Dissension, and I had my favorite deck for the next six months. I played the deck enough and convinced enough people of the dangers of the card that Sulfur Elemental in Planar Chaos gained its odd combination of Flash, Split second, and "White creatures gets +1/-1", which could both shut down an active Martyr and also keep all future Martyrs off the table for good.

Time Spiral

I wasn't on either of the teams for Time Spiral, and I only “designed” one card for it: Deathspore Thallid (likely just a hole-filling for a black common Thallid). I didn't have the same encyclopedic knowledge and fond nostalgia of ancient card sets that guys like Aaron Forsythe and Devin Low did, mainly because I took a break from the game around Ice Age and didn't come back until Invasion.

What I did do was play quite a bit of FFL. Here's what I remember from that time period:

  • Our version of the metagame was quite different from what actually ended up happening. Mostly I think it was because we undervalued Teferi, which changed everything. In hindsight Teferi was too strong and warped the environment significantly. The worst thing about him was that he completely shut down Suspend and Madness, two of the major mechanics from the set.
  • We also missed the strength of Dragonstorm. We knew that printing Dragonstorm along with Bogardan Hellkite opened up the possibility for a deck, but we didn't think a deck based around a nine mana sorcery would be all that viable. We were wrong.
  • We played a lot more Spectral Force than the real world did, often combining it with Scryb Ranger.
  • Aaron Forsythe blew my mind one day with a Vesuvan Shapeshifter deck that did sick things in combination with cards like Fathom Seer. I don't remember if it had Brine Elemental though (the other half of the infamous “Pickles” combo that could lock your opponent out of the game).
  • We thought Serra Avenger was an extremely strong card and had it in most or all of our white decks.
  • Some decks that I personally tried to make work from this period (and failed): Mangara with Momentary Blink, White Weenie with Celestial Crusader, R/B madness with Jaya Ballard, and a Restore Balance concoction.
  • Greater Gargadon: this card dominated the FFL for several months. The extremely low upfront investment plus the inevitability of the huge attacker and the ability to blank your opponent's beneficial effects from cards like Tendrils of Corruption made it extremely popular inside R&D. We were all baffled when it almost didn't even show up in the real world, although some of that can be explained by the rise of Teferi decks. Eventually we felt vindicated when it did start showing up in a few decks, but it was still a little embarrassing that our predicted metagame was so off.
  • We also had Ancestral Vision in almost all of our blue decks. That one, at least, started getting playing heavily, proving that we weren't always off base.

Planar Chaos

My first official design team. For a year or two now I had been heavily involved in design on other games, having decided that the initial creative side of the process appealed to me more than the tuning and balancing side of things. (These days I do both, so I'm glad to have experienced both sides.) At some point I'd been asked if I wanted to do design for Magic. In a surprising twist of events, I said yes.

Working on this set drove home the importance of being able to convince others. It doesn't always matter how passionate you are, or how right you think you are, but if you can't win over the team, the set's going to diverge from what you think is best.

The team consisted of Bill Rose as the lead, Matt Place, Mark Rosewater, and me. Based on the past/present/future plan of the Time Spiral block, we were tasked with evoking an alternate present. To say I was excited about this would be an understatement. Immediately I set about brainstorming ways to make people feel like reality had taken an alternate path, at least with regards to Magic.

My favorite idea was something that I'm sure many Magic fans have thought about as well: a sixth color. Now, I don't believe that Magic should ever add a sixth color permanently. In an alternate future, however, Magic easily could have been designed with six colors from the beginning, and this was the perfect chance to dabble in it while having an easy out to remove it again when the block finished. I loved the idea of players seeing a box of Magic on the shelves and finding the familiar five color logo from the backs of the cards replaced with a six color version instead. (This would just be for the packaging; the logo on the backs of the cards themselves would have to stay the same of course.)

I wrote an article detailing the process of exploring the sixth color here: The Color Purple. (Interestingly, both [new mechanic A] and [new mechanic B] from that article still haven't seen the light of day almost five years later.)

We came up with some great solutions for some of the problems that arose. Bill's idea to reserve one common slot in every pack for a purple card to ensure that a critical mass was available in drafts was brilliant. Still, the idea as a whole never managed to gain a critical mass of support and was eventually scrapped.

My other major almost-contribution had to do with one of the other mechanics in the set: Vanishing. This was an updated version of Fading that I didn't think we should use. We had significant data at this point that pointed to the majority of players not liking keywords that were all downside; even if the card had a discounted mana cost or was more powerful than normal, that wasn't enough to offset the sadness of having the creature saddled by a drawback. Fading was a pretty obvious drawback.

I wanted to flip Fading on its head and make a different mechanic where the creatures got bonuses or triggered abilities when they ran out of counters, rather than dying. For example, imagine a Rukh Egg that didn't hatch by being destroyed, but instead hatched if it stayed undisturbed for three turns. Or a baby dinosaur with small stats that grows up into a huge beast in a couple turns. That way the player is excited about keeping their creature alive and looking forward to the future instead of watching its life slowly tick away. Unfortunately, Mark and Bill were sold on having Vanishing on the set, and I lost that battle as well.

We settled on playing around with reprinting existing cards in alternate colors, and went as far as having a playtest where every common followed that rule. I wasn't particularly enjoying it, but was having trouble verbalizing why. Randy, however, perfectly nailed it when he said that much of the fun of playing a new Magic set is evaluating the cards and trying to figure out the strength of each one. With this proposed version of the set, even though it was occasionally exciting to see an old favorite return in a new color, everything was already figured out. It was clear we couldn't sell a set based on this gimmick alone, although many of the individual cards did survive to see print.

Despite failing to shape much of the direction for the set, I did contribute some cards:

Erratic Mutation - My obsession with Erratic Explosion had continued unabated, and I suggested this tweaked version of it as a blue card. The upgrade to instant and change to +X/-X gave it some additional utility as an extremely risky spell to cast on your own unblocked creature, and made it a scary spell to use at the wrong time on an opponent's creature. All in all, a fun spell that had a nice amount of tension.

Shivan Meteor - I wouldn't be surprised if a couple other people designed the exact same card, as I remember the hole that we were filling was fairly specific. Still, I think I did submit it with the number 13. As Mark always likes to say, odd numbers are funnier.

Roiling Horror - This was part of a rare creature cycle with X-based Suspend costs that did something every turn they were suspended. I hit upon the idea of having a creature whose size depended on the difference in between your life total and your opponent's, and it was only natural to make the suspend effect drain a life. I believe the Suspend cost was actually at one point but that proved to be too strong. My only regret with this card is that we chose to say "an opponent with the most life". If it had been printed today it probably would've been "the least life" and been a tempting multiplayer card, and an interestingly political one at that since you would be trying to keep that low life player alive so that your creature wouldn't shrink.

Detritivore - R&D has an occasional obsession with punishing non-basic lands. It was our method of both giving tools to the folks who couldn't afford the expensive mana bases, and a way of making you think twice about playing the often "strictly better" dual land options. Detritivore was unique in that it was both uncounterable and repeatable land destruction, and as such ended up being so expensive that it rarely saw play.

Dash Hopes - My list of cards I designed has a question mark after this one, which probably means I submitted something similar but reasonably different and it may have turned into this. Not that it really matters. In any case, this card is a strange beast, as it uses red's "punisher" mechanic to justify "counter target spell" in black.

It's fair to say that I'm somewhat disappointed with the set we ended up shipping. I still wish we could've done something more to sell the alternate reality version. I wanted longtime fans to open a pack and be shocked by what they found. Not in a negative way, but in a way that's evocative of what could have been if Richard Garfield had just made a slightly different decision all those years ago, or if Wizards R&D had taken a different path a few years prior. Much like the TV series Sliders showed viewers a glimpse into parallel universe theory, where each world they visited had diverged from the one they knew in some strange but significant way. I wanted the set to feel like that. (Coincidentally, Wikipedia informs me that a group of parallel universes is called a multiverse, which is the name of R&D's card database and the name used to describe the game world. Intriguing.)

Future Sight

At this point I had returned to working on digital projects pretty much full time. Uncivilized: the Goblin Game was in full swing and there was an endless amount of design and scripting work to be done. My only contribution to the set came in the form of the Pact cycle, which I had actually designed months earlier for Planar Chaos during my alternate reality explorations. The idea was that we would take a card from Unhinged and print a functional equivalent in Planar Chaos, and I chose Rocket Powered Turbo Slug because it was a relatively normal effect and it played with time, which was a subtheme of the entire block. I submitted:

Speedy Slug

Creature - Slug
Reprieve (You may play this creature for free. If you do, you must pay this creature's mana cost before the end of your next turn, or you lose the game.)

To demonstrate that there was more fertile design space with Reprieve I also submitted:


Counter target spell.
Reprieve (You may play this spell for free. If you do, you must pay this spell's mana cost before the end of your next turn, or you lose the game.)

The team loved Disagree but we couldn't escape the feeling that the mechanic was strongly tied to the future, which meant it belonged not in Planar Chaos but in Future Sight. There, it became Pact of Negation, and I was asked to submit some ideas for a potential cycle and to play around with other penalties rather than just losing the game outright. None of these ideas ended up being used but here were my thoughts on the process:

  • Cards must be instants and cost a decent amount to be interesting.
  • Should be effects you might want to surprise your opponent with while tapped out.
  • The penalties should generally be effects that the color could do to your opponent, but done to you on a larger scale (your spell is turning on you).
  • Penalties should be bad enough that you're almost always scared of them.
  • But, the penalties should also allow you to set up situations where you can just ignore them.

These are the designs I submitted:

Destroy target attacking or blocking creature.
Reprieve - Destroy all creatures you control.

Counter target spell.
Reprieve - Put your library into your graveyard. (or "You lose the game")

Deal three damage to target creature or player. Gain three life.
Reprieve - Discard your hand.

Untap and gain control of target creature until the end of the turn. It gains haste.
Reprieve - CARDNAME deals 8 damage to you.

Target creature gets +4/+4 until end of turn.
Reprieve - Target opponent may put four +1/+1 counters on a creature he or she controls.

In the end, the Future Sight team decided that the upside of giving players a way to cheat the Reprieve costs didn't outweigh the simplicity and emotional impact of the threat of losing the game. Editing and the rules manager made the call to rework the Pact cycle into zero mana spells with no keyword, just a trigger and a cost in the text box, and that's how they were printed.

Next time: I suggest something as a joke and it becomes an official Magic rule, working on the design team for the first new card type in years, and the design team for the tribal set of Lorwyn. (Part Five is now available.)

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  1. I wonder if we’ll ever see [new mechanic A] and [new mechanic B] used. I still wonder what they are…

    • Neither has been used as a keyworded mechanic still. :) They were both the sort of thing that you wouldn’t want to show up in large numbers, which is why they were good fits for Purple and maybe not such a good fit in a traditional set.

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