How to design the most popular card game in the world

Magic: The Gathering's head designer and art director talk with CNET about the gold standard of card games, breaking their own rules and fans who act like Star Trek villains.

Luke Lancaster Associate Editor / Australia
Luke Lancaster is an Associate Editor with CNET, based out of Australia. He spends his time with games (both board and video) and comics (both reading and writing).
Luke Lancaster
5 min read

In 1993, Richard Garfield changed games forever. That was the year his revolutionary Magic: The Gathering was first published by Wizards of the Coast. Now, more than 20 years and 20 million players later, it's the most popular collectible card game in the world.

Even if you've never played Magic, the core turn-based system of using spells, creatures and other resources to combat your opponents probably seems familiar. Though we're entering the height of the tabletop gaming Renaissance, Magic might even strike you as a little passe these days, but that's because it's a victim of its own ubiquity.

That's ironic, especially since Mark Rosewater, the game's current head designer, calls Magic "a game that keeps reinventing itself every three months." He's not exaggerating. The lifeblood of the game, the reason it's been given the unflattering, if not inaccurate, moniker of "cardboard crack", is the constant release of new expansion sets of cards that reshape the game. April marks the release of Shadows Over Innistrad, bringing the total up to 70 sets since the game was first released.

Let's do some cocktail napkin math. Call it 200 cards per set, on average. The core set and 70 expansions puts that at more than 14,000 cards designed for Magic. One of Rosewater's mantras is "the role of design is to find what isn't there". After 23 years and 15,919 unique cards (OK, you got me, I looked it up), the search for untapped design space is getting harder and harder.

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The golden trifecta

Here's what you need to know. At its most basic, Magic is a card game where players, taking on the role of powerful wizards called planeswalkers, attack each other with creatures, weapons and spells until only one is left standing.

The core game is to this day based around three of Richard Garfield's ideas. Rosewater calls them the "golden trifecta", and they're as close to sacrosanct as it gets for Magic design.

  • Magic cards are released in randomised packs, so you'll need to trade or make do with what you open, like old-school collector cards. Or buy more packs.
  • Mana comes from land cards. You can play one land per turn, so long as you have it in your hand. It adds an element of chance and a very deliberate pace to the game, since more powerful cards cost more mana.
  • Spells and creatures come in one of five colors, and each color is a faction with its own strengths and weaknesses.
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The evolution of "Broken Concentration," from concept art to finished card. The original art brief called for "fragments of the anguished man across the broken shards of glass."

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Then there's that "planeswalker" thing. The game is set across dozens of different dimensions called planes. Each new set is themed around one of these planes, like the Greco-Roman flavour of Theros or the gothic horror of Innistrad -- the setting for the new expansion. There's also a whole mess of lore and story to the game, meaning that the team isn't just concerned with continually designing fresh mechanics. There's also an artistic component.

Any single card will have 30 to 40 people working on it before it finds its way into your hands, says Rosewater. Creating a full set demands the talents of well over a hundred artists, designers, developers and writers.

New ways to break old rules

"In Star Trek there's a race called the Borg," Rosewater says. "And what the Borg does is they gain information. So whenever you use a weapon against the Borg, they assimilate it. And now they know that weapon, it's no longer useful against them. And I feel sometimes that the Magic audience is the Borg. We've got to show them new tricks."

A deep that bag of tricks was doubly important with the new Shadows set. It was the first time Wizards had returned to the Innistrad setting (expansion No. 56, from 2011), one of Magic's most lauded releases of all time.

Shadows Over Innistrad is what they call "top-down" design, starting with a theme and designing flavourful mechanics to match. The flip side of that is "bottom-up," where they start with a mechanical idea and add in a story to match.

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Front and back of one of the new transforming cards.

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In the new set there's things like "Madness" and "Delirium," gameplay built on Magic's metaphor that your deck is your mind and your hand is your consciousness. You can balance the cost of sending yourself 'mad' by losing cards from hand to reap powerful benefits.

But one of the most visual, thematic mechanics in the new set is transforming cards. Rather than the usual card back, the cards are double sided. On the front, you'll have an unassuming citizen. The flip side is a hulking werewolf.

"When I first introduced transforming cards [in the original Innistrad] a lot of people were like 'What are you doing? Magic cards don't have two sides! You can't not have a back.'" Says Rosewater.

"And I'm like 'No no no! Werewolves and dark transformations. This will be awesome.' I had to fight to convince people that we were breaking a rule we had never broken before, but this was something good for the game."

Building worlds, millimetres at a time

"A card is -- it's just millimetres," says Jeremy Jarvis, Magic's art director. "About half of those millimetres are artwork." In that tiny amount of space, a Magic card needs to convey theme, game mechanics and story. And the art is just as important as the mechanics in telling that story. "And we get this little art box to convey it."

The art team bears the brunt of developing the look and feel of the world. They'll work from a world guide -- essentially a style manual on how a certain Magic set should look and feel -- and from written concepts for individual cards.

"We've evolved away from that original musty old spell book and the Ye Olde script," says Jarvis.

Jarvis has worn his share of criticism for that. "'Everything looks so same-y. What happened?' If you can't tell Michael Komark from Terese Nielsen [both Magic artists], it's not really about me being a bad art director, you're a bad art looker.

"When you look at a piece of Magic art you know that it is specifically Magic. Because of level of execution, because of design sensibility, because of the world building, because of the character design."

Under pressure

Board games and card games have seen a huge upswell in popularity lately, and you can bet it's a wave that Wizards wants to ride. That, couple with a return to the incredibly popular Innistrad setting has put the team under immense pressure to deliver.

Even though eager fans are just now greedily cracking open packs of Shadows Over Innistrad cards both in game stores and in Magic's free-to-play online version Magic Duels, there's no breathing room for Rosewater and company. At the time of this writing, he's working half a dozen releases ahead. It's very cloak and dagger, upcoming sets referred to by code names (the next three: Lock, Stock and Barrel) through to 2019.

"I make the same game year in and year out," says Rosewater, the man behind Magic. "I'm trying to find a way to say, 'Yeah, you've been playing Magic for a long time but you haven't been playing Magic like this.' Can we top ourselves? Did we catch lightning in a bottle the second time? I hope so."

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