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A Story In the Cards: The Collaborative Wizardry Behind Making “Magic: The Gathering”

The massive collaboration and years-long process behind creating the new edition of venerable card game, Magic: the Gathering.

A Story In the Cards: The Collaborative Wizardry Behind Making “Magic: The Gathering”

A hunter stalks his prey through a forest. Both are planeswalkers, wizards who travel between worlds and duel each other. Years ago, a necromancer named Liliana cursed the hunter Garruk, turning him into a mindless killer. He has gained some control of this cursed rage, but can he master it completely before he kills again?

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Such is the narrative underpinning of the new release of the 2015 set for Magic: The Gathering, which puts the popular character Garruk back at the forefront of the story. It’s just the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of the popular game.

The premise for Magic: The Gathering is simple, sort of. Players control wizards who duel each other, using different kinds of magic: green is for nature, red is for destruction, blue is for mental magic, white is for protection, and black is for necromancy. Cards are played to summon creatures or cast spells, all with the goal of reducing your opponent’s health to 0 and defeating him. Complex strategies emerge where the special abilities of various cards play off one another.

This game of strategy is given new life each year. Publisher Wizards of the Coast release a base set in the summer and followed by an expansion block throughout the rest of the year. In July 2013, Wizards released Magic 2014, aka M14, and, subsequently, the Greek-mythology themed Theros. And the game was renewed again with the release of M15 on July 18. Such constant revitalization of the game’s rules and story elements is a complex undertaking that gets started years in advance.

Nik Davidson, one of the Magic designers, says this chapter marked a shift in the creative process behind the game.

“The Garruk story had been left hanging at the end of the Innistrad [card set],” says Davidson. “We learned about the conflict between Garruk and Liliana, we saw him cursed, and this gave us the opportunity to pick up that thread and answer the question of what happened to Garruk next. This marks a change in our philosophy of storytelling to be more about these characters and have more of these character throughlines between the digital and print sets.” Davidson, along with lead designer Aaron Forsythe, designer and developer Shawn Main, and Liz brand manager Liz Lamb-Ferro talk to us about multi-phase, collaborative process behind the latest iteration of Magic: The Gathering.


The Game

Wizards of the Coast’s game designers spend the initial months of development deciding on the base concepts of the set. Early on, the designers decided it was time to bring back fan favorite Garruk. And then the company did something it had never done before–use the story of the video game version of Magic, Duels of the Planeswalkers, to influence the core card game. Players would take on the role of a new wizard that is hunting Garruk, and in turn, be hunted by him.

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“We have this new model for Duels: Players start by picking two color combinations, which should lead them down a path to building a certain kind of deck. We wanted M15 the card set to enable 10 different paths to different kinds of decks,” said Aaron Forsythe, the lead designer of Magic 2015. “On top of that, we had a story that we wanted to tell, that involves the Planeswalker Garruk hunting you across various planes and interacting with different characters. And we wanted to build that into the card set as well.”

Wizards took that open concept of deck building and then added another layer of engagement with another new first for the card game, reaching out to guest designers to create cards. So two years ago the team contacted game designers such as George Fan (Plants vs. Zombies), Markus Persson (Minecraft), and Brian Fargo (Torment) to create cards. These celebrity-made cards would help influence the rest of the cards.

Yisan, the Wanderer Bard and Genesis Hydra

Shawn Main, designer and developer for Magic, says, “We got these external celebrity game designers and let them play with our game. And those cards push the boundaries a little bit and they define some things that are in the set, that we on the team had to work around. George Fan’s ‘Genesis Hydra’ is an awesome Green creature. So now what else does Green need?”

The outside perspective that the 14 guest designers pulled in for M15 have added significantly to the game, says Liz Lamb-Ferro, brand manager for Magic. “Fans will be excited about what they see, and those who have played Magic for a while are going to see some cool things. I think for new players, it will give them something quirky to hang their hat on.”

The Process

After basing the story around Garruk and the open gameplay concept adopted from Duels, the designers start making card concepts that fit into the worlds and story that have come together over two decades.

Forsythe says, “About two years before the set comes out we start having our first meetings. And those are all just about what space has been taken by the set just before this one that we can’t use. What is the wide open territory that we have to explore? What things do we want to accomplish? Then, over the next few months we whittle that down to the things we want to execute on. And then whittle it down to making cards a couple of months after that.”

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So as the designers create and playtest these new cards. designers and researchers must keep multiple considerations in mind as they put the set together: which cards from past sets do they re-publish for this new set? Does the set have cards that are useful to both new players and to veterans? What about cards that have a place in casual play at a friend’s house versus a huge tournament with a $50,000 prize?


“What we need to do with the core set is publish exciting cards. ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a cool leviathan? What would that do?'” says Forsythe. “We talk about what we have from before and what we think the set needs. Then everyone goes off and spends a couple of days hammering away on it. Then everyone hands in their homework. We talk through them and write them up on the whiteboard, playtest them, and then see if they are doing what we need them to do.”

And just like that, nine months have gone by and hundreds of cards have been dreamed up. It can take longer, up to 12 months, for new worlds like Theros. These theoretical cards get sent to R&D. The developers in the research group now apply the next level of polish: checking these cards against the existing cards, checking new rules to see if they are too powerful or too weak to be used with rules from the past. You don’t want too many cards of one kind of magic or the ratio of low- to mid- to high-powered cards to be askew.

“The design team is focused on the big picture and the blue sky exploration. The developers take the blueprint that design has laid out and get a lot more concerned with things like, when you are drafting a set is blue getting played as much as white? They are much more zoomed into the details, such as whether a card should use a 2 or a 3,” says Main.

Another six months have now gone by. Between designers and researchers, 800 or so different versions of cards have been made. Main says, “There is the dark side of iteration, which is that a lot of things that you love can be culled from the set as it improves. We go through many times the number of cards that end up in the final product. Everyone made one of those and everyone is probably attached to something that had to get the axe for some greater good.”

Through this process, the game has been narrowed down to the 269 cards in the set. Freelance writers come on board to write names for these new monsters and spells, as well as the flavor text on the bottom of the cards that help shape the setting.

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Throughout this whole process of the designers creating card ideas and developers fine-tuning them, playtesting is happening. And it’s not just the designers who are involved in this step. Lamb-Ferro says, “at Wizards, so many people that work here are passionate Magic players. R&D does opens it up on occasion for the entirety of the office to try it. Sometimes it does trickle out to the larger community to put their thoughts into it. It’s everybody from IT to finance.”

During the development process, concepts of the visuals of the card are now shared with freelance artists who are brought into the company to define the big picture look and feel of the set. Forsythe says, “We have a blue card that puts a creature on top of your deck. What would that be called in this world? And what’s an art description of that?”

The art director starts to send card ideas out to freelance artists in batches. 100 such freelancers will now make dozens of paintings for the new cards, with about two months for each artist to complete the art for their assigned cards. There is a lot of back and forth and revision to get a certain character or creature just right.

As art finishes, R&D’s developers are in the final three months of polishing and tuning, making sure everything from the rules to the text to the art come together perfectly. That group has now worked on the M15 set for nine months. From there the set goes to the production department for typesetting and the whole process to actually create a physical game. This happens at the beginning of the year, six months before release. And after manufacturing and packaging, the Magic 2015 card set will ship to the thousands of stores that carry the game.


The Story

From the text on the cards and the implied settings of the game, from the video game and other extensions like novels, the story of Magic: The Gathering has emerged. “A card set is not linear. We can’t expect you to line the cards up and read them all to tell the story. We hint at it in the card set. But the real bulk of the narrative has to happen somewhere else,” says Forsythe. “It is Duels of the Planeswalkers. It’s been e-books and website articles–deliver the story in other places that people can consume it. We want the card game to hint at this greater narrative and lead you toward other places where you can experience it in its full glory.”

Beyond the products of Magic, a big part of the narrative of each year’s release comes through the marketing of the game. Key art and descriptive text lets players in on the conflict with Garruk. The trailers for the card game and video game goes further.

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“We talk a lot about how we introduce the set to everyone. We have to look at what the story is and what are the things the player can hang their hat on. Sometimes that is a really challenging thing to do. It is a very complicated game and how do you make it understandable enough for the public to get it and be as excited about it as we are,” says Lamb-Farro.

Then there are the events. Before a set is launched, the companies holds what it calls pre-release events in gaming stores. Players see more unique art and text, they play in unique games with conditions rendered for this event. Players who engage in such events not only get to play the game, they get a unique experience with unique card rewards. M15 will have its own prerelease events focused on the clash between Garruk and the player’s wizard.

And through all of these different directions, from card text to game trailers to posters in the local hobby store, the worlds and stories are painted. And players become attached to it. Some prefer the green magic of Garruk and others like the black spells Liliana or they forgo either to accept the magics of other colors. They like the mythology of Theros or the horror of Innistrad or the flavor of another world. For many, this game just surrounds them.

“The virtue of playing magic is that you craft your own deck. You determine how you are going to play. You can decide how you are going about to defeat Garruk,” says Lamb-Farro.

Davidson says, “We really allow the Duels story to see the impact of the story you play through on the cards of the set. We answer a lot of questions by putting the player in the middle of the story in a way we haven’t really done before.”

Magic 2015: Duels Trailer

For a 21-year-old game like Magic: the Gathering, keeping the fanbase engaged is the key challenge. If they weren’t enveloped into the story and world of each set, they wouldn’t keep playing, and then the game could simply fade away.

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“Every set we are walking this fine balance between trying to be accessible and friendly and welcoming to people for whom this might be their first experience, and then how do we impress the audience out there that know down to the last detail the 15,000 cards that we have made,” says Forsythe. “It’s a constant internal dialogue that I have when I go through a set. We’ve been getting it right lately, which I am very proud of. But that doesn’t mean it is easy. It’s constantly a struggle.”

About the author

His work has also been published by Kill Screen, Tom's Guide, Tech Times, MTV Geek, GameSpot, Gamasutra, Laptop Mag, Co.Create, and Co.Labs. Focusing on the creativity and business of gaming, he is always up for a good interview or an intriguing feature.

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