This past weekend at PAX AUS, I got to sit down for a chat with Director of Magic: the Gathering R&D Aaron Forsythe. I put the word out on social media to ask if anyone had some questions about Magic design, and received quite a few interesting ones. I chose the best three and added them to my arsenal of questions.
Note: Unfortunately, it appears that I recorded the interview on less than reliable technology (and so it was very hard to make out what was being said at times). As such, I’ve decided to transcribe the interview here instead.
[Matt] You were on the design team for Commander 2014, which includes something I’ve wanted to see for a long time: Planeswalkers as Commanders. What lead the design team to making the decision to make this possible?
[Aaron] So there were a couple of things. One is that, every year we make a new Commander product, we try to come up with some different thing to make it stand out from each years or each couple of years Commanders. So we did stuff like cards that have different abilities while they’re in the command zone, and then we tried to figure out what’s the next place to go here. So we had a look at forums and things like that from people who play Commander, where people are trying Planeswalkers as Commanders out and it seemed like an idea that was worth pursuing. So before we designed them, we ran the idea by the Commander rules committee to make sure they weren’t going to freak out about that, and they were willing to let us give it a whirl. And I think it turned out really cool. It creates an interesting dynamic because Planeswalkers get attacked and die and the fact that you can recast them means it was a lot more difficult to balance them out than in normal rules. Where usually you’d kill it and now it’s gone, suddenly you get to cast it again for full loyalty and actually use it more than it might have been able to be used if you didn’t kill it. So it was a challenge, but it think it worked out pretty well.
[Matt] I was reading somewhere that the new Commander Planeswalkers were designed top-down. Could you give and example and explanation of what that is?
[Aaron] Some of them were. I’m going to get into this more in our panel tomorrow about some of the history about how we got there. A lot of them we were designing to current major characters like Nissa and Liliana, and it was kind of the creative team after we had finished the designs who said “well I see we’ve got all these old Legends, why don’t we go back and use them as Planeswalkers as well?” so a lot of them got rehashed as pre-existing characters moving away from our normal Planeswalker line. So they were actually designed to be different characters before they turned out to be Planeswalkers. Now the Legends, which is the other cycle in the Commander product – Gisa, Geralf, Feldon, Jazal Goldmane, and Titania – were definitely the result of “let’s go back and read their stories and read the lore and try to match the designs with what these characters do” and that’s what top-down design is. It’s taking a concept that exists outside of the game and trying to make the game and the cards fit that concept.
[Matt] What leads you to decide which Legends or which Planeswalkers to use in certain products?
[Aaron] I mean, I guess a lot of it is just our own favourites or our own things which we wish cards had been made for. A lot of it also includes fan response. So if you take Gisa and Geralf, when Avacyn Restored came out a lot of people said “Where are the cards for these guys?” and we hadn’t even realised that they’d caught on to it in that degree, so we said “OK, next chance we get we’ll try to make cards for them.” Commander was that chance. A lot of us have been playing Magic forever and Ethan Fleischer who was the lead designer just loved the story of Feldon, so he was going to make that card come hell or high water despite whether or not anyone else had ever heard of that character. So you know, there’s a lot of kind of personal love put in to the characters to be chosen for any product.
[Matt] What are your thoughts about the way in which Hybrid Mana restricts colour identity? For example, Nightveil Specter would give devotion to black or to blue but could only be used in a deck that featured both of those colours. Do you think that could change?
[Aaron] In game play terms, it’s meant to be an either/or. It can be a blue card or a black card, but the colour identity of the card means that it is both so it limits what Commander it can have. We have arguments about this in R&D quite a bit. Mark Rosewater is firmly in the “hybrid should mean it can go into as many different decks as it can”, where I’m more in the “this is about aesthetic, about what the card looks like,” more than anything. This card is blue and black, I don’t care how you cast it. So this card can go in a blue and black deck. It keeps it all sort of neat and tidy in my mind, and it’d be that way with any other multicoloured card. That said, this isn’t our decision to make. This is a Commander Rules Committee problem not Wizards of the Coast’s. They’ll call us up on some things, but not on others, and at the end of the day they decided that they wanted to use hybrid this way, so that’s fine with us. And I kind of like it the way it is now. I’d rather cards be more compartmentalised than used in every deck.
[Matt] Do you know about Australian 7-Point Highlander?
[Aaron] Just from talking to people here last year and this year about it. They bring it up to me all the time.
[Matt] Do you think it would be possible for Wizards to look at sanctioning Australian 7-Point Highlander as a format?
[Aaron] We are certainly always willing to take in community created formats, when they reach a certain critical mass, and give them the official treatment – the official rubber stamp. So I think this format probably needs to grow its audience more organically than to have us kind of … I guess, I don’t want to say shove it down people’s throats. I just think these things go over better if they get really popular on their own. It’s obviously getting really popular here, but if you could just get it out in to the world and get more people interested. I don’t know if that means some web articles, or people streaming it on Magic Online. Just ease other people to the format and let it grow. Then absolutely, when it reaches a critical mass we can look at it. It sounds fun. How is it managed?
[Matt] It’s a group of Australian judges. I think they’re mostly Level 3s. I’d actually have to check with my judging mentor to find out for certain.
[Aaron] So it sounds like the same way that Elder Dragon Highlander became Commander. It’s got the same trajectory. It took them a few years to get enough grass-roots support for us to do something about it so if it keeps going then absolutely. Why wouldn’t we?
[Matt] Do you think the current community calls for Khans of Tarkir cards like Treasure Cruise and Jeskai Ascendancy (or more aptly Glittering Wish in that Ascendancy deck’s case) to be banned are valid or premature?
[Aaron] The conversation is valid. They’re very powerful and kind of shook things up a huge amount. We have some Grand Prix coming up in the next few weeks that will show us just how much of an impact they made. It’s not reasonable for us to take premature action. I mean, we haven’t emergency banned a card since Urza’s block and this is not a situation that approaches that. Memory Jar, which we banned back then, was creating turn one kills in standard. We’re no where close to that. It is messing with the meta game considerably, and making people re-evaluate some things. It might be too powerful. We’re going to get some more data and take it through our normal processes. There’s a good chance something happens. I don’t know which card we want or whether we’re planning on banning it. I don’t know. But it’s been brought to our attention numerous times, so we are very very hyper aware of people’s concerns. But we’ve got our normal B&R (Banned and Restricted) cycle coming up prior to Fate Reforged coming out, so that’s when we’ll make our decision.
[Matt] I’m actually quite a fan of them, particularly because of the way they’ve shook things up.
[Aaron] Right, and it’s interesting to see people with different minds. We see eternal formats, or non-rotating formats, and people are like “I can stick to my pet deck, and play it forever.” So when new cards come out that really shakes that up, it upsets people because now Deck X that I spent so much time putting together isn’t good any more, and I can understand that. But at the same time, Magic’s about combining new cards and old cards and seeing what’s going to happen. We want to make a format that people enjoy playing. If that involves banning some cards from time to time, so be it.
[Matt] Standard at the moment feels very open. After a year of dominance by one or two decks, was that something that the design team was hyper conscious about, or did it not really influence design?
[Aaron] No, no, the design team was very aware of that and we were happy to see some of those cards rotate out. We are conscious that, if there’s cards that are super powerful like Pack Rat or Sphinx’s Revelation, to understand that we’re not going to try to trump them by making even more powerful cards. You’ve just got to kind of ride it out. And that stagnation is a lot of what lead us to considering a double rotation policy which we’ll be getting into in a couple of years. But yes, Khans of Tarkir kind of gave us the unique opportunity to create a diverse format since a lot of these aggressive cards were leaving. A lot of those cards were the ones that were powering up the Devotion strategies of Theros, so those were automatically going to be powered down as well. And then the three coloured nature of the set meant that we had five decks that we could work really hard to make sure had the pool to be competitive and the mana base to be competitive, and I couldn’t be happier with how well that was executed. All five of the decks – while some may be better than others – all five of them are showing up. All five clans are showing up in standard.
[Matt] I was really excited to see that there was a different clan showing up in each top eight, a different clan making a push.
[Aaron] And even cooler than that is that, like the Jeskai deck can be built a few different ways. The Abzan deck can be built a few different ways. It’s not just “here’s the list.” You can make it faster, slower, more controlling.
[Matt] Cards like Jeskai Ascendancy and Treasure Cruise aside, in the past few years there feels as though there is a definite push towards creature heavy combat, and board state being king. Is the general push away from instants like counter spells something that has been conscious or is it just a side effect of creatures being more prominent and limited design space?
[Aaron] Totally conscious. And a few years in the making. The seeds of it went as far back as Invasion Block, which is before I was even working for the company, and I’ve definitely been reinforcing that position. A lot of it is because when people first come to the game that’s how they play it. We don’t want high level competitive Magic to not represent what people think Magic is supposed to be. It shouldn’t be like “enjoy creatures and combat and the board state,” until you get to a certain level and then “forget about that stuff, now it’s going to be about combo decks and card draw.” People still like attacking with dragons. We want to make sure that’s still a real way to play. So yeah, playing to the board, making sure the best cards in the set are the coolest cards in the set, not Necropotence. Baneslayer Angel – that should be the card that people get excited about. Whether they’re new, old, whatever, the awesome card’s got to be what Magic is about, what we’re seeing on tables in tournaments and in streams whenever we play the game. So yes, it’s cool when Jeskai Ascendancy shows up, and it was cool when Ivan Floch won M15 Pro Tour with a deck that had no creatures in it. Time to time it’s totally great that we get to show off that deck and different ways things can go, but kind of the base-line expectation for how standard should go is creatures.
I mean, counter spells are fine in the right dose. I think 4-6 counter spells in a deck is fine. You want to avoid the twenty-four counter spell deck where nothing’s ever on the table and it’s super frustrating and boring. For Mana Leak – I don’t think the fact that it was a counter spell was the problem. It’s just such an easy one to throw in to so many different decks. People are happier when they have something resolve. Take for example now, where things like Disdainful Stroke are getting played that allow people to counter a spell that matters but also not just counter everything. You can feel really powerful when you start countering the right things and keeping the board clear. I think for a while, around Tempest in the mid 90s, it was too easy. There were so many counter spells and they were so efficient compared to what people were trying to do to kill you that creating Draw-Go kind of archetypes where you’ll never resolve a single spell for the entire game was very very frustrating. Like I don’t mind if Caw-Blade was one of the good decks in standard but it was basically the only deck. So dominant. So over represented. That’s bad no matter what deck it is. I don’t care if it’s the coolest green creature or whatever deck, if sixty percent of the field is playing it there’s a problem. Magic gets boring fast when two out of three rounds is the same deck every time. You want to avoid that.
[Matt] Ok, that’s it for all the questions I had for you.
[Matt] The only thing that’s left to ask is, without any spoilers, what sort of things can we expect at the panel tomorrow?
[Aaron] We do have some preview cards, and some stuff we haven’t talked about at all yet. There’ll be something to get the internet all abuzz. Last year when I was here, at the same time Wizards was at the San Diego Comic Con panel, and it was basically the same panel, except for maybe two or three different cards in it. This one’s all new, constructed just for this event.