Act of War, Part 2

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Welcome to the second week of the story of The Brothers’ War design. Last week, I told the story of the set’s vision design. This week, I’m going to discuss the set design. I’ll introduce you to the team members and then walk you through how the set went from the vision design handoff to print.

Band of Brothers

As always, I have the lead designer, in this case Yoni Skolnik, introduce their design team. (Although the last entry on Yoni was written by me.)

Ari Nieh – Ari stayed on the team as we transitioned into set design and for most of the team’s lifespan. We worked closely together when she was leading the Vision Design team, and it was invaluable to continue that partnership during set design.

During the first few months of set design, we worked closely together as we iterated on the mechanics created during vision design and tried different combinations of those options to manage the complexity of the set. Once we nailed down the suite of mechanics and themes, her role shifted toward making sure that the set continued to meet its goals of properly expressing the lore and themes of the Brothers’ War. It can be easy to lose track of such things as you dive deeper and deeper into the nitty-gritty of executing on mechanics and gameplay.

It was a joy to have such a good relationship with the vision design lead and to never have had to worry about any disagreements turning into a protracted conflict spanning many years months and causing untold destruction.

Bryan Hawley – Bryan continued from the Vision Design team for a month into set design. His primary role in design at the time was representing play design on Vision Design teams. It was very valuable to have his experience in managing the development of a vision into a fully formed structure. Getting this done quickly and efficiently was crucial for us to be able to playtest in a way that properly gives the feel of playing a completed set so that all the aspects can be examined in that context.

Chris Mooney – Chris briefly joined the team as it transitioned from vision design into set design. Our primary focus during that period was on broadening the mechanics and themes vision design handed off into a full archetype structure for drafting. Their biggest contribution was the addition of Soldier tribal to the set, sparked by a single Equipment that had a reduced cost to attach to Soldiers. That card stuck all the way from their first design submission to print and served as a basis for how we looked at the Soldiers archetype.

Zac Elsik – Zac was our play design representative after Bryan left, and he continued the work of balancing our set for Limited playtests and giving feedback on how our mechanics would work for Constructed. I’ve always really appreciated Zac as a play designer and card designer who was always ready to go outside the box. It was especially great to have him on the set at this point so he could pitch ideas about how to execute on aspects of the set that were rapidly shifting early in design, which can be a very challenging thing to process while thinking about Standard gameplay.

Dave Humpherys – Dave is a master set design lead and was crucial for helping me understand early critical feedback about the set being too complex and needing a more refined mechanics suite. At the time, he was also in the later stages of leading design for Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty, which was the prior Standard set with a major artifact theme. This was very valuable, as artifacts and cards that care about them are well known for creating challenges, and I relied a lot on Dave to back me up as I developed plans for how to manage those challenges.

Megan Smith – Megan was on the Set Design team for several months as we developed the Limited structure and began to define how to think about Constructed-targeted designs in the set. Her greatest contributions helped to shape our use of the unearth mechanic and our thinking about the (true) colorless cards in the set. Megan is a fan of Eternal formats, which brought a crucial perspective to our set that strongly aimed to have a “retro” feel.

As part of that retro feel, I knew I wanted to explore design space that was used early on in Magic but has fallen out of favor. A big piece of that was mana denial and prison effects. Megan was a useful ally in that exploration because she likes to play with those effects and, thus, is evil. As someone who dabbles in villainy myself, I appreciate unabashed enjoyment of being a jerk. Ultimately, the forces of good won, and very few of those effects made it to print. But worry not, fellow evildoers, we haven’t seen the last of Megan. (Muahahaha!)

Melissa DeTora – Melissa was on the team for the middle of design. I’ve always greatly appreciated having her on my teams, as she has the competitive strength of a play designer and a great understanding of casual and new players. That broader expertise allowed her to simultaneously work on making smooth, balanced Limited gameplay while keeping its complexity in check and getting ahead on Constructed-focused design and playtesting.

Design on the set was wrapping up as the new Casual Play Design team was formed, with Melissa as its leader. Although it was late in the process, it was great to work with Melissa and her new team to polish the set’s cards for Commander appeal and good gameplay balance.

Ben Weitz – Ben joined Wizards as a play designer and shortly after was assigned to our team about halfway through set design. Despite being a novice at game design, his deep insight into Magic gameplay immediately proved useful, and he hit the ground running. In addition to his quick development of design skills, Ben was valuable as a Brothers’ War aficionado, and it was serendipitous that he arrived just in time to make many large contributions to the set.

Ben remained on the team for its entire duration, and as a play designer, he continued working on the set well beyond that. Even as the rest of the play design shifted focus to the next Standard set, Ben made sure that The Brothers’ War continued to be polished until the last day we were able to make changes. This dedication made me particularly grateful for his work.

Daniel Holt – Daniel joined the team very briefly to familiarize himself with it to lead vision design for the Commander decks. It was great to have him on the team as a designer and a fresh pair of eyes. In addition to designing Magic cards, Daniel is also an excellent graphic and UX designer, and I’m very grateful for his efforts navigating the mechanically complex requirements as he designed the frames for the prototype mechanic.

Andrew Brown – Andrew joined late in design to help polish the set for balanced play. Among the members of the team, he was the least familiar with the Brothers’ War lore and, as such, was a useful test case for seeing how the flavor of the set would land on someone who wasn’t familiar with its deep history.

Perhaps he was too unfamiliar, as over a month into being on the team, he asked in a meeting, “Wait, are Urza and Mishra brothers?”

This derailed the meeting for about five minutes as I and the rest of the team sat in stunned silence.

Corey Bowen – Corey was the last addition to The Brothers’ War team, coming in at a time when we were shifting to the late stages of Limited balance and Standard-focused design. When not leading amazing Commander products, Corey is a joy to have on Standard sets, as he is a wellspring of ideas and enthusiasm. He was especially useful at the late stage when it’s easy to get so lost in the finer details of gameplay. It was important to have his fresh perspective so that we wouldn’t lose sight of the exciting aspects of the set that have nothing to do with mana curves and archetype grids.

Yoni Skolnik – (Back to Mark) This is Yoni’s third time leading the set design of a premier set (Core Set 2020 and Strixhaven: School of Mages being the previous two). Yoni always joins the Vision Design team of any product that he’ll be leading set design on. I appreciate how Yoni is always willing to explore what can be pushed in vision design to test the boundaries of what’s possible and do his best to optimize those ideas in set design. As you will see in today’s article, The Brothers’ War had some complexity issues to face in set design. Yoni did a great job of figuring out what’s core to the design and cutting away the complexity that least added value to the set. I was quite happy with how The Brothers’ War design ended up, and I’m eagerly watching him work right now on a set that I led vision design on (code-named “Tennis”).

Big Brother

Let me start by reminding you of what mechanics were turned over to set design from vision design:

  • Meld (including five pairs at common)
  • Powerstones
  • Protype
  • Raid
  • Scrap – Scrap N (N, Exile this from your graveyard as a sorcery: Target artifact gains all its other abilities permanently.)

The main goal of vision design is to give set design the blueprint for the set and, ideally, all the tools needed to build a set from that blueprint. We’ve learned over time that giving the Set Design team more than they need works best because it gives them some flexibility when making the set. If vision design gives exactly what’s needed, problems emerge when things get cut, as they often must. So, the fact that the handoff has more mechanics than what was printed is a normal part of the process.

The most common start for a set design is to take the handoff from vision design, clean it up a bit, and play it. From those playtests, the Set Design team will get a sense of which elements of the design they’re most interested in expanding upon and which to trim.

I’m going to walk through each of the five mechanics above and talk about their evolution during set design. I’m going in the order that makes the most chronological sense for the set’s design.

Scrap

Scrap was the boldest inclusion in the vision design handoff. So much so, that the Vision Design team included unearth as a backup mechanic for it. This is a common tactic in vision design. Try something that pushes boundaries, but then come up with a viable (and most often safer and easier to execute) alternate mechanic.

Scrap was designed as a spiritual offshoot of mutate. The story of Urza and Mishra involves them digging up a lot of old tech that they then repurposed for their modern inventions and warfare. The idea behind it was that you’d have artifacts that then took on a second use after they were destroyed. Scrap was a cross between a Johnny/Jenny mechanic and a Spike mechanic. It allowed for a lot of cool combinations but also gave players ways to further optimize their cards. It played well and created neat gameplay moments. So, what happened? Two things:

The first was a complexity issue. The Set Design team played with all the mechanics and were having a lot of fun, but then they had a playtest with upper management, and the feedback was “too complex.” There was just too much going on. Scrap was, by far, the most complex mechanic, and it had an easy backup, unearth, that could fill its place both mechanically and creatively.

The second issue was that scrap made most sense on smaller creatures because its strength was in the ability that could be reused. The story of The Brothers’ War was fundamentally about a fight between giant artifact creatures. Scrap pushed in the wrong direction. It also played up the idea of invention, which, while part of the story, wasn’t where Yoni and his team wanted to focus. For all these reasons, scrap got pulled from the set and replaced by unearth.

Because vision design (and the demo decks before that) had made a lot of unearth designs, the Set Design team could quickly make the substitution. Unearth would also solve a different problem that I will get to next.

Raid

The Brothers’ War is a war story. It is, at its core, about conflict. Most the mechanics were about the building of the machines. The Vision Design team realized that the set also needed to be about combat and aggression, so raid was added as a simple way to mechanically encourage attacking.

The Set Design team liked what raid was doing for the set, but in their quest to simplify things, they changed scrap to unearth. In doing this, they realized that they had added some aggression. Unearth, by its nature, encourages players to make use of the cards they bring back from the graveyard, as they only last for a turn. If you bring back an artifact creature, why not attack with it? It’s going to die at the end of the turn anyway. Unearth added enough aggression that the Set Design team felt comfortable enough removing raid (although it did require other one-of card designs).

Meld

The Vision Design team handed off three rare and/or mythic rare pairs, one for Urza (white-blue), one for Mishra (black-red), and one for Titania (green). While the Set Design team redesigned the individual cards, those three meld pairs were always in the set.

The team also handed off five other meld pairs, all at common. Each one paired an artifact creature with a spell. If the spell was in the graveyard when you cast the creature or if the artifact creature was on the battlefield when you cast the spell, they melded. The pairs represented Urza and Mishra taking everyday objects and magic to create weapons. Unfortunately, it added complexity and variance, both of which would make it harder to balance, so they were pulled.

Talking with Yoni, he believes that common meld pairs are probably doable in a future set, but they require the set structure to give them a lot of support, which wasn’t something The Brothers’ War was able to do, partly because of a concern about complexity and partly because, like scrap, it was leaning more into the flavor of ingenuity than large artifact creatures fighting.

Prototype

The challenges with prototype revolved around how exactly the new mechanic worked and what the frame needed to look like. Was prototype more like kicker, a means to make a card better by spending more mana, or like split cards or MDFCs, two separate spells together on one card?

After much playtest and discussion, the Set Design team decided they liked the split card/MDFC option better. This means, if you cast a spell with its prototype cost, it has the mana cost of the prototype, which also means it’s colored. Much work was done with the frame to communicate that functionality.

Skitterbeam BattalionRootwire Amalgam

Powerstones

As a reminder, here’s what Powerstone tokens did as of the vision design handoff: (It’s an artifact with “T: Add C. You can’t spend this mana to cast spells.”). The initial idea was that you’d use the Powerstone token to activate your artifacts rather than cast them. In the story, the powerstones are the energy source that the two brothers use to power their designs. But as the Set Design team played with it, they realized it felt wrong that you couldn’t cast your artifacts with them, so they changed Powerstone tokens to this template: (It’s an artifact with “T: Add C. You can’t spend this mana to cast colored spells.”)

Remember, the vision for artifacts in the set, all the way back to the initial demo decks, was that they would have generic mana costs but would have many with mana in an activation cost, or a trigger cost, or an alternate mana cost that used a color. This template was used through most of set design, mostly because it was more focused on Limited where every artifact, save one (the device from the present that enabled Teferi to go back in time), had a generic mana cost. Once play design got involved, they had to start looking at how The Brothers’ War was interacting with other sets, and in most of those sets, colored artifacts were a thing. So, to play nicely with all those artifacts, the template was changed to its final form: (It’s an artifact with “T: Add C. You can’t spend this mana to cast non-artifact spells.”)

The other big evolution with Powerstone tokens in set design was the realization that they wanted all of them to enter the battlefield tapped. This was done for two reasons. One was a power-level issue. Instantly adding mana makes them stronger, which requires you to charge more for them and limits how and where you can use them. The second issue was a complexity one. When the Powerstone token enters untapped and provides mana, there’s a desire to try and optimize the mana, which makes the math more complicated to track. As the Set Design team was looking for places to streamline complexity, this felt like a gain.

Brothers’ Keeper

Now that we’ve discussed how the Set Design team handled what was given to them from vision design, let’s talk about some of the things they added to the file.

The Rare Commands

The set was about giant fighting machines. This meant the two major mechanics wanted to go on artifacts. When this happens in a set (the thematic focus wants to be on permanents), it’s common for the Set Design team to make a splashy rare spell cycle.

Commands (choose two from four options) first appeared in Lorwyn and have proven to be popular with the players, so we’ve done many versions. We hadn’t done a monocolor cycle since their premier, though, so the Set Design team thought about adding them. The big question was how do you make them feel like they belong here in this set? Once the idea came up that each one would represent a specific character from the story (white, Kayla; blue, Urza; black, Gix; red, Mishra; and green, Titania), the cycle came together.

Story Character and Moments

Vision Design had made a list of things they wanted the set to capture, but it turns out the list was a bit longer than that. The Set Design team worked with the Creative team to make an exhaustive list of everything from the story (mostly referencing the book) that the set needed to capture.

For the characters, that meant figuring out their colors and making them a card, or sometimes cards, that mechanically captured the essence of their character. For story moments, that meant finding the right spell to showcase it.

The Brother’s War takes place over seven decades, so there’s a lot of story to tell. One of the challenges of this was having to color balance the set when the story points were weighted in certain directions. This meant doing things like adding a new white character, Myriad, or emphasizing things like Argoth to make sure there were enough elements that could be put into green.

The Draft Archetypes

As with any set, you need to figure out your main draft archetypes—in this set, it was the ten two-color archetypes. Here’s how they shook out:

White-Blue (Soldier Matters) – Most sets like to have a creature type mechanically matter. As Yoni talked about above when introducing Chris, this theme came about because Chris designed an Equipment card that cared about Soldiers. It played well, and caring about Soldiers made a lot of sense in a set about a war. On top of that, we hadn’t done much mechanically with Soldiers for a while (Warriors have been getting most of the love), so it was something we knew the players had been asking for.

Blue-Black (Second Card Matters) – This is a blue-black control deck that rewards you each time you draw a second card. This theme is more often done in blue-red but does a good job of overlapping Gix and the Third Path, both of which were less involved in the war and more focused on doing research that advanced their own goals.

Black-Red (Unearth Combined with Sacrificing) – Black and red are the two colors that most sacrifice permanents, especially creatures. That combines well with unearth. This deck is more aggressive in nature. Attack with unearth creatures. After they die, unearth them and attack again, sacrificing them for advantage before they do. Wash. Rinse. Repeat.

Red-Green (Midrange Ramp with Powerstones) – Red and green are the two ramping colors. Powerstones help them get out midsized artifact creatures fast and attack with them. This is one of the archetypes that makes the best use of prototype because it has the ability to cast the more expensive versions of it. As such, it’s one of the decks most likely to play artifact creatures off color.

Green-White (Artifact Entering the Battlefield Matters) – This archetype uses an unnamed ability, nicknamed “artifactfall,” to take advantage of all the artifacts being played both in card and token form. It plays a lot of artifacts, gets rewards, and then runs you over with its swarm of artifact creatures.

White-Black (Power 3 or Less Matters) – This is another deck that plays with unearth, using it in conjunction with a theme that cares about cheap artifacts and creatures, getting them onto the battlefield from the library and graveyard.

Blue-Red (Noncreature Spells Matter) – Blue and red have the most noncreature spells, so this archetype plays into that, using them as a means to create advantageous tempo play. The flavor represents all the studying of the Third Path.

Black-Green (Graveyard Matters) – Black and green normally are the two most graveyard-centric colors. This archetype wants your graveyard full, so you can count all the creatures in it. Thematically, it’s playing in the overlap between Gix and Argoth, the two forces in this story most interested in death.

Red-White (Unearth Aggro) – These two colors have the cheapest artifacts to play and return with unearth. Their goal is to run you over before you can set up a proper defense.

Green-Blue (Big Powerstone Ramp) – Along with red-green, green-blue is one of the two Powerstone ramp colors that take advantage of prototype. Green-blue ramps a bit harder to play even bigger artifacts, so it’s a little slower than red-green but has a strong late game.

Oh Brother

That’s all the time I have for today. I hope you enjoyed hearing the story of The Brothers’ War set design. As always, I’m eager to hear your feedback on today’s article and on The Brothers’ War itself. You can email me or contact me through my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).

Join me next week when I start telling some card-by-card design stories from The Brothers’ War.

Until then, may you and your siblings get along.