Designing a worthwhile product is a daunting task. Drawing an idea out of your imagination and giving it substance is quite difficult. Making sure the product being designed actually has a worthwhile purpose can sometimes be more frustrating than simply brainstorming it in the first place; making something as intuitive as possible while maintaining uniqueness of function can sometimes be downright impossible. To put it simply, there are far more things that go into design than simply making something up.
Every week, readers of dailymtg.com are treated to an expertly written and explained article on the core values of design by none other than the king Magic designer himself, Mark Rosewater. Rosewater’s articles are always insightful, and reveal many truths about design that are not always immediately apparent. For me, there is no more poignant thought that he has put down than the fact that restriction breeds creativity. As a writer, I can attest to the truth of that statement. Hell, as a onetime college student, I can attest to that. How many of you out there have ever felt the oppressive burden of having a near infinite number of options in front of you with a deadline to select just one from the limitless sea of options? Does your decision process get easier when you limit the options? Is there more opportunity to fully explore the options in greater detail when the scope of decision is smaller? It’s that ability to explore on a micro level, which was lacking when we were worried about the magnitude of the macro level, that makes restrictions so important.
One thing that Magic designers do to restrict themselves, and honestly the only way they ever get any work done in a reasonable amount of time, is by setting themselves up with either a setting or theme in which they will be working. Zendikar was the land block. Invasion was all about domain and land types. Ravnica was a world of two-color guilds. The ultimate goal is to mesh the mechanics and themes of a block with the flavor of the world it’s built around. The flavor of a plane restricts the designers and mechanics to what is possible by the rules of this particular setting in much the same way that mechanics can help define the environment of a world.
One example I think it’s important to mention here is Mirrodin. In addition to being the name of the large set in that block, Mirrodin was also the name of the plane in which the set took place. It was a world of metal, where organic and metal elements were fused seamlessly in the bodies of the plane’s inhabitants. Elves and Leonin had metallic claws, hair, and patches on their bodies. Nim had those segmented metal faceplates. The beasts running the land had metallic horns and hooves. Even the land was metallic, with interlocking plates forming the vast, reflective Glimmervoid and an entire sea made of flowing quicksilver.
This sounds relatively similar to another world crafted by a different group of designers in a much earlier time, though it was a more decidedly…dark place: Phyrexia. Phyrexia was the first plane of metal, though it wasn’t a plane of multiple colors of mana like its counterpart Mirrodin. It was a plane of pure, unadulterated black mana, and at its center was the planeswalker who fashioned it, a planeswalker who saw flesh as imperfect and artifice as the only way for an organism to be truly perfect, to be compleat. His name was Yawgmoth. For the beginning of Magic’sstoryline, Yawgmoth has been the evil force to be reckoned with. He was the wizard behind the curtain. His world was one of integrated flesh and artifice, done so on a cellular level. Rather than a vast plane, spread out as in Mirrodin, Phyrexia turned in on itself in a series of spheres, much like a nesting doll. The deeper one went, the more compleat the inhabitants become, the closer they came to the semblance of their dark god who resided at its center.
These two planes are quite similar in composition, but differ wildly in ethos. What would happen in the insidious, pervasive Phyrexian influence found its way into the vibrant, multifacted plane of Mirrodin? This was a question that the designers and flavor gurus at Wizards set out to answer with their most recent release: Scars of Mirrodin. Upon revisiting the plane, it is clearly apparent that things are a little different, yet in small ways the same. This revisitation is simply another level of restriction the designers have placed upon themselves, and I believe the hardest one to overcome. Think of Scars as a sequel, a revisitation and continuation of the plot we last saw in Fifth Dawn, though advanced in the timeline. Think of how difficult it is to actually make a good sequel. How many have you seen compared to the number of terrible ones you’ve seen over the years? Sequels are not an easy order, and the design team knew this going in.
What makes sequels so hard to pull off? The first thing is that you have to acknowledge that it’s a sequel and not simply a new entity. You do this by mixing in elements that are familiar to fans of the original. Scars accomplishes this by returning to some familiar elements from the history of these two planes. First are some of the mechanical and thematic throwbacks to the original visit to the plane of Mirrodin. First are the spellbombs. Spellbombs existed in Mirrodin in a very similar form to those in Scars. In both, they are one-cost artifacts that can be sacrificed for an effect and have the potential to draw you a card. There was one for each color, with the abilities providing some small boon in the appropriate area of the color pie. This time around, there has been a slight tweak to them. Compare Panic Spellbomb to its progenitor, Pyrite Spellbomb. In the original spellbombs, the sacrifice to draw a card was exclusive of the gained ability. You couldn’t have both. This time around, you have a slightly different option. Now, you can either sacrifice to gain an effect, or you can sacrifice to gain an effect and a card. This ensures that you always get to do whatever the spellbomb was intended to do, just perhaps a little more. I really like this change, as it not only makes more sense flavorwise (breaking a spellbomb sometimes draws you a card instead of blowing up to do something cool? I don’t get it), but it makes for a more interesting set of decisions in my mind.
Next up is equipment. Equipment is no longer exclusive to the world of Mirrodin, though it is the place it originated. What’s actually nostalgic about the equipment here is the callbacks to the equipment that were actually in the first set. You get Darksteel Axe, which is both a reference to darksteel and Bonesplitter. You also have Sword of Body and Mind to join the ranks of Sword of Fire and Ice and Sword of Light and Shadow. Little throwbacks here are like pop culture references for Magic players, and it makes the set even more attractive to some of the older players (like myself) that get the references.
The last major throwback that I want to mention is are Myrs. Myrs were originally kind of a minor player in the world, seemingly an undersupported “tribe” of sorts for artifacts. The most notable ones from the original set are the cycle of mana producers, such as Silver Myr, that have made the long trip through time to reappear in Scars. This time, though, they are joined by a bit more support than they originally were. There are a couple of seeming lords for the tribe, Myr Galvanizer and Myr Battlesphere, that provide them the extra support to push them into full-fledged tribe status. They have even picked up something new, the infect ability on Ichorclaw Myr, which brings me to my next point.
The last nostalgic throwback is the return of poison. Poison was the original alternative active win condition in Magic. In the past, it was never a terribly viable method to kill people as most creatures only gave a single counter and were so conservatively costed as to make them nearly unplayable. With the advent of infect, though, things have changed. Infect has strayed from the one per hit rule that most creatures used to follow. Now, you have the opportunity to put multiple counters on a turn at the cost of dealing actual damage to a player. This is a sacrifice that I can totally get behind. After all, if you have switched to a different method of killing your opponent, why would you care about a second? This is one of the reasons that infect draft decks have to be so linear in form. Who cares if your opponent is at ten life and five poison counters? You’ve got them at half dead twice when you should have been focusing on getting them to completely dead once! I have always been a huge fan of alternate win conditions, and poison is one that I am glad to see make a good, well supported comeback. Even better is that it works so well with the theme of Phyrexia, the invaders of the once pristine Mirrodin. That’s what Phyrexia does. It may kill you as a person, but a plane takes a little more work. Instead, it simply infects it, spreading corruption like a plague throughout the land until enough is corrupted that takeover isn’t necessary because it’s already complete (or compleat, depending on how you look at it).
These are perfect example of how drawing on nostalgia can make for good design of a sequel. By tugging on the memories, you are able to get and keep someone interested in something they may have otherwise either glossed over or at least appreciated considerably less. However, simple repetition does not a sequel make. Taking the same characters and having them run through the same shtick in a different setting is not a different movie, it’s the same movie with slight alterations. In order to create a true (and good ) sequel, steps must be taken to make sure that the nostalgic elements are faced with a different set of challenges than before. It is those challenges, the new elements of Scars of Mirrodin, that I’ll get into in detail next week. Until then, why don’t you guys let me know what your favorite and least favorite sequel are? I’m curious to see how many of them stick to my formula. Thanks for reading!