Last Monday, Mark Rosewater posted an article on the DailyMTG site about how Magic’s set design philosophy has reached a new plateau that he refers to as “Fifth Stage Design”. The tools are the same, but the angle from which the goals of card, set, and world design are approached has changed.
Vorthos Gets his Day
The core of the new philosophy has to do with where a set or block’s focus originates. Old design methods began with a mechanical theme and built a world and story around it. Fifth Stage Design begins with a world and story concept and uses mechanics as a tool to illustrate it. This shift produces sets that feel more immersive and interactive for players; rather than simply playing the cards, we are able to participate in the story.
Scars of Mirrodin was the first block to fully implement the new design process. For the first time, instead of seeing a block that was “about color mattering”, about the graveyard”, or “about artifacts”, we saw a block that was about one civilization destroying another. Without alienating any of the other psychographics (Timmy, Johnny, Spike, and Melvin), they’ve given Vorthos some strong validation. Flavor is the starting point, and mechanical design serves it.
The Pressure is On
This focal shift doesn’t let mechanical design off the hook. If anything, the heat has been turned up on the mechanics; now they must not only serve utility, they must show an aesthetic connection to the story.
Veteran mechanics like Cycling and Kicker have been used and reused to help smooth out game play, but don’t necessarily do much to reflect flavor. The goal now is to let the soul of the set choose the mechanics and methods that best express it. When the story has a reason for a card to slide away and become something else, that’s when cycling will fit. When we see a world that hinges on the gravity of choices made, we could see kicker or split cards return.
What This Means for Me
I’ve designed before. I’m far from a veteran, but it’s always there in the back of my head. About eight years ago I started working on a project called Frontier on a whim. I’d gotten the idea of exploring what would happen if Magic started leaking into gold rush era Alaska. In a way, by starting with a question and looking for mechanical ways to express an answer, I was dabbling in Fifth Stage Design. The catch here is that while I had a pretty good idea as to how to make cards that represented pieces within a story, I wasn’t particularly good at structuring and balancing the cards themselves.
Some of this, I think, comes from the fact that I’m a professional visual designer. I have a degree in Graphic Design. It’s what I’ve been doing for over fifteen years to get a paycheck. I work in ink and paper to push a message out to an audience. Lately I’ve been doing a lot of packaging design, which is an animal all to itself. With not much more than shapes, colors, words, and pictures, it’s been my job to make you want to pick up whatever product my bosses are selling and put it in your cart.
Which is to say, I start knowing what I want the audience to experience: an urge to purchase the product in their hands. I then have to apply what I know about what will make that happen (color theory, information hierarchy, typography aesthetics, message clarity, and so on) in a way that guides the audience from point A to point B. You pick it up because something about it catches your eye. You examine the messaging. You let yourself buy into the notion that you will be happier when you own this product. You purchase the product. I get paid.
(I’m lucky in that since many of the projects I complete serve as a functional container for my clients’ products, you might actually keep my work around for a long time, rather than tossing it in the recycling bin when you get home. Not all graphic designers get that kind of visibility.)
Back to my point, I’ve been inclined to approach game design from an aesthetic angle almost from the beginning; it’s how I was trained.
Putting It To Work. Again.
I’m officially calling this the start of open viewing season on a project I started back in April. It’s the latest in a line of design exercises I’ve thrown at myself since my work on Shadowmoor. It’s far from done, but part of what I want to do here is strip back the covering and show how I’m working through the process of design, both in the story and the mechanical execution. I’ve got a great support team working with me, and (assuming I can stay disciplined with my blogging) you’ll get to know them and their contributions too along the way.
I’m going to break a rule here and send you to an outside link. I’ll eventually migrate all of the card content over to the Wizards Wikis here in the Community pages, but I’ve got to be honest, the tools there for developing and displaying card designs suck. During my work on my new set, which I call Soradyne Laboratories, I’ve become a HUGE fan of Alex Cross’s Multiverse site. His design tools there are fantastic, and I couldn’t have made the progress I have so far without them.
So there you go. My intent there is to create something that is rich in flavor and mechanically sound enough to have the feel of a “real” Magic set. My goal here is to help illustrate and document the process by which the design of Soradyne Laboratories — the set and the eventual block — has come to be.
Stick with me. I think my team and I are building something really cool.