At this year’s PAX Australia last weekend, we caught up with Aaron Forsythe, the Director of R&D on Magic: The Gathering. Over the thunder of ten thousand dice in the tabletop section, he gave us some answers on release schedules, returning to fan favourite settings like Ravnica, and why it’s so important to crush cheaters.
Ten Copper: Let’s talk about the re-working of the release schedule, which is one of the biggest changes to Magic: The Gathering in recent years. Can you give me your perspective on that and talk us through it a bit?
Aaron: A couple of things going on there. One is that the core set was fashioned initially when we changed it in Magic 2010 to be the on-ramp set for new players, especially as they came off Duels of the Planeswalkers. Which we released simultaneously with the Core Set each year. So it’s meant to be this kind of starting point, very simple meat-and-potatoes Magic with no story attached, no new mechanics attached, just kind of a generic high fantasy feel.
But over time, we see what our players want is that while the kind of super-stripped-down boring set was cool for a couple of iterations, but people want more, they want more complexity, they want more new things and the Core Set was kind of deviating slowly from that. The set we just made, Magic 2015, with its story about Garruk Wildspeaker hunting you, there were some crazy cards made by external game designers, definitely more complex than other Core Sets we made.
At the same time we felt there was a fatigue problem with some of our blocks like Theros block which we just finished up, in that players have had enough of whatever we’re giving them, no matter how good it is. In fact it was the Greek-themed world that we did three sets for, but we see that interest in that after three sets just kind of wanes. So we’re killing two birds with one stone here, giving people more story and more interesting sets by replacing the Core Set, and then keeping the blocks short to two a piece to make sure we’re refreshing at a rate they like.
Now that does kind of leave us without a great first “intro to Magic” set which is what the core sets were trying to be, but in truth we found that we were getting new players all throughout the year. They wasn’t a large percentage influx more than normal during the summer when the Core Set was out, we were just getting new players constantly into Magic. So we’re re-working some of our ancillary products, our Deck Builder’s Toolkit, our Intro Packs, to be more welcoming and simpler for the new players there, and just have the booster releases be more focused on story and mechanics.
Ten Copper: It’s interesting, because you talk about how it was designed to be quite generic, but I would say that Commanders are taking a much bigger role in the game than they were years ago, that the lore of the game is getting more in people’s faces in terms of marketing — you’ve got a lot more named characters with back stories and so on. Did you find players were actually yearning for that sort of detail that you weren’t providing?
Aaron: Yes. They like the sets so much better when there’s something going on behind them. Magic 2010, 2011, 2012 — they were just “here are some cards”, basically. We started dipping our toe in the water with some of the more recent Core Sets, especially using storytelling through Duels of the Planeswalkers where you are assisting Chandra in Duels 2014, and fighting against Garruk in Duels 2015. People are really into that. So yes, we have gotten a lot of traction out of these Planeswalker characters as our ‘player analogues’ within the game. Our Jedi, our X-Men, whatever it may be, they’ve worked out better than we could ever have imagined. I’m sure you’ve heard that we’ve even got nibbles on a movie deal, because of how our lore has played out over the last few years! So yes, players are definitely asking for that and we’re trying to deliver it wherever we can.
Ten Copper: You told me a year ago that you felt Magic Online was the more advanced product and and Duels of the Planeswalkers was the ‘on-ramp’. But you’re getting rid of that Core Set on-ramp as well. So you had two on-ramps?
Aaron: Duels of the Planeswalkers is the very successful and doing-what-it’s-supposed-to-be-doing on-ramp. The Core Set was kind of… behaving like a normal Magic set and not necessarily being a great place to start, or at least the new player influx pattern was not working in that way. But Duels is working. We’re going to stick with that as an intro product, as the best way to learn how to play, in the comfort of your own home, without people breathing down your neck and pointing out all your mistakes! (laughs) Super-friendly, super low-key.
Magic’s hard to learn! We kinda struck gold with that one, with Duels, as a way to do that, and we are absolutely committed to doing Duels of the Planeswalkers. It’s going to be more thematically tied, just not to Core Sets going forward.
Ten Copper: You said then you’d do what you needed to do to stay competitive. Do you feel that you’ve stayed competitive in the digital space? Hearthstone this year has been insanely popular in terms of growth.
Aaron: Yeah it has, and there’s a lot we need to do to stay at the forefront of digital trading card games.
Ten Copper: Can you give me some examples?
Aaron: We want to implement League Play on Magic Online, that’s something we’ve been promising for a while. That’s going to give people the kind of ‘play on demand’ play they want, you don’t have to wait, you can just play and play and play meaningful games of Magic. That’s something our players have been asking for and Hearthstone delivers, and we know we can deliver, and that’s coming in the pipeline next year. We have all the right ideas, we just gotta make ‘em happen.
Ten Copper: I’ve seen a lot of talk on various internets about banning Treasure Cruise and Dig Through Time. I read quite an outstanding satire article on The Meadery which quotes you directly as saying you’re going to ban Khans of Tarkir completely.
Aaron: That is not an actual direct quote! (laughs)
Ten Copper: Of course, of course. So are they headed for a ban? Or are you going to unban cards that have similar effects?
Aaron: We are going to let our next batch of Modern Grand Prix play out with these cards in the format, and we’re going to let Legacy go for a while. We have our normal banned and restricted list change coming up prior to the Fate Reforged release, we’re gonna stick to that. To say we’re not looking at it would be — we are absolutely looking at what those cards are doing, they are definitely on our radar.
I don’t want to scare anyone in case we end up not doing anything, but I mean… Jeskai Ascendancy in Modern is a big deal. Dig Through Time in all of the Eternal formats is a big deal. Treasure Cruise in all of the older formats is a big deal. So yes, they kinda set off our alarm bells, but we’re going to get more data, we’re going to do our due diligence, we’re certainly not going to overreact to a tweet, or an article, or one single event or anything. We’re definitely not banning Khans of Tarkir!
These are some of the more powerful cards we’ve introduced to those formats in a while.
Ten Copper: Did you suspect this would happen?
Aaron: We suspected it going in. We don’t put a lot of time and effort into testing those older formats, we just kinda let things… we’ll see what happens, and we have the banned list as a ‘catch-all’ for any problems that may arise. They’ve caught our attention, we’re going to see what happens, and use that data to make the best decision.
Ten Copper: Let’s talk about returning to fan-favourite settings. Is this easier or harder than making an all-new setting, and what do you take into account when deciding what to revisit?
Aaron: What we take into account when deciding what to revisit is basically just ‘what people are asking for’. Between Mark Rosewater on his Tumblr and all the rest of us on social media, talking to people at events, we can tell what people really liked or have great memories of and we want to keep using the stuff that’s working and not always have to throw it out and make new stuff.
That said, having worked on Scars of Mirrodin and Return to Ravnica… it’s tough to go back. You’re not going to do exactly the same thing you did before, and a lot of that stuff is what people really remember, especially the really overpowered stuff from those different environments, like Affinity in Mirrodin for instance. We’re not gonna do that again. We can’t replicate the same mistakes. So coming up with stuff that feels like what you remember but is new is a lot more challenging than just saying “we have a blank piece of paper”.
I think we went into both of those sets thinking “This’ll be pretty easy! We’ll just, you know, do more of what we did before!” but it ultimately felt kind of like a bad photocopy, or a not-quite-good-enough implementation of what people expected and it took us a long time to get it right. I think we did a good job on both of those blocks, but it was a lot harder than we thought.
Ten Copper: People tend to gloss over the stuff they hated just as a natural function of human memory, so that means they’ll only remember the good stuff even more as a result of that.
Aaron: Right, over time your selective memory just picks out two or three things that you really latch onto. Like Ravnica is dual lands and Dark Confidant. There’s actually a lot more going on there, the Guilds were a huge part of it and I think we nailed that. The pre-release for that, I was nervous! I was like “This might not be what they want”, but it was. And kudos to the team that put the final design and development on there, they did a good job and that showed me that, okay, we can do it. It’s harder than we thought but we can do it.
Ten Copper: So what’s your favourite setting, if you had to pick one to return to?
Aaron: I have a soft spot for Magic’s kind of original setting, which is Dominaria. We returned there in Time Spiral, which I’ve said before is my kind of guilty pleasure favourite set. I often talk to our creative team about opportunities, to say “Hey, I know that place has a ton of baggage, I know it has a ton of history that we might not want to dredge up, but there’s cool stuff there!” It would be awesome to one day return there.
Ten Copper: What do people usually ask for when they ask for a revived setting?
Aaron: Ravnica, even though we did it twice, is always at the top of the list. Zendikar is always at the top. Innistrad is always at the top of the list. And then you’ll have pockets of people who just love the really esoteric stuff, the super-diehard Kamigawa fans, the super-diehard Homelands fans. I actually think it’d be kind of a cool challenge to redeem some of those sets like Fallen Empires and Homelands from way back that weren’t particularly good, I think there are creative elements there that are solid. We talked about “Should Innistrad be set on Homelands?” and I thought we could do it but the negative stigma with that being perhaps the most-maligned and weakest Magic set ever released was just not worth trying to overcome.
Ten Copper: You recently had to revoke a Rookie of the Year title and issue a 46-month ban, which is a very long time. I’ve seen some comments to the effect that that is a stronger stance than Wizards would usually take against cheaters. What do you think about that?
Aaron: I’m not part of the Penalty Committee or the Investigation Committee or anything like that, so I have a hard time putting it in perspective with other penalties that we may have handed out. But I will say that having watched some of the videos that people are using for evidence in these cases, it is important that we take a strong stance against this type of cheating. It’s rather insidious.
It’s nothing that you see happening in the game, right, there’s nothing on the table that the guy is cheating with. The guy doesn’t have extra cards in his hand, he doesn’t have extra life points… it’s very subtle manipulation of the deck that most players aren’t even looking to have to expect to guard against when playing. If we didn’t take a strong stance there, I think a lot of people would say “If this is happening at tournaments, I’m just terrified to go to them”. We really, really don’t want that. We don’t want tournaments to be a place where you have to be on edge, where you have to be hyper-vigilant about every hand motion, every gesture, every shuffle — it should be fun. It should be fun and it should be fair and we really need to make sure that this stuff gets stamped out.
Ten Copper: Maybe you should pay impartial people to come around and do your shuffling?
Aaron: The shuffle butler! We’ve talked about that. (laughs)
Ten Copper: The recently-announced Magic: The Gathering board game — I know you’re not working on it directly, but why is now the right time to get the ball rolling on a board game, and what do you think it will bring to the franchise?
Aaron: Well from Hasbro’s point of view, which is our parent company — they see the rabid fandom that Magic has and, as we talked about, the depth of the lore and the way that players get into those characters and the creative treatment we put on the game.
Ten Copper: So it’s kind of a response to that?
Aaron: They’re always like “What else can we do? What else will work with that?” and we’ve said, well, we’ve got this game we really like and we think it’s doing a great job, but they said they have a board game team that can do justice by Magic’s creative. We’ve worked with them on getting some of that stuff right, which characters and spells and cards and whatnot. And we’re excited about that! It is going to show off the creative in a way the card game cant, with the figurines, and the three-dimensional vibe to it.
We didn’t want to make a game that was just going to be, you know, worse than Magic, but in the same axis that Magic is! This is something that’s really, really different. It’s going to show off different things. And I’m excited that our parent company sees the potential in our brand, and our IP, and our characters, and wants to do more for them.
Ten Copper: Thanks Aaron!
Aaron: You’re welcome!
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