June 15, 2015

Board of Education: Khans of Tarkir


I'm often asked what it's like inside a design meeting. Obviously, I've told stories about things we've done in design, but it tends to focus on key moments where "things" happened. While there are moments like that in design, it is not representative of what actually goes on the majority of the time. Meetings are a key part of design, and in those meetings we cover large swaths of areas all over the design. I've always wanted to find a way to give you snapshots of what a design meeting is like. I recently realized that I literally have snapshots.

You see, one of the most important tools in a design meeting is the whiteboard. Almost every meeting, we write things down to track what we're talking about. Then at the end of the meeting we take notes about what we talked about. In the era of smart phones, it's become common practice to take pictures of the whiteboard and post the pictures to the wiki as an element of the notes on the meeting.

It dawned on me that these pictures of whiteboards are a great insight into the design process, and I thought it might be fun to play archeologist by looking back and some pictures of whiteboards. I will be your guide, walking you through what you are seeing. If you all enjoy this article, there can be more like it as we have a lot of meetings and take a lot of pictures of whiteboards.

To start off with, I've decided to look back at Khans of Tarkir design. Sound fun? Then let's get started.

Board #1—Then and Now

One of the things I was most excited about doing a time travel block was the ability to make cards in different sets that had a relationship between them. This first board was us brainstorming the kinds of things we could do between the past (Fate Reforged) and the present (either Khans of Tarkir or Dragons of Tarkir). I should note that at this point we had no idea how long ago the past was in relation to the present so we assumed any amount of time was possible. Let's walk through the ideas we played around with.

Creature ⇒ Evolved Creature

The idea here was that we could show time through evolution of a creature. The old version had smaller versions of features which could be made bigger and more prominent. We knew this gag depended on there being a pretty big gap between past and present.

Famous Human ⇒ School Founded by Human

The idea here was to have a legendary creature in the past and then have a land representing a school (or some other institution) founded by the legendary person.

Famous Guy ⇒ Tomb/Statue

This was a slight variation on the last. We meet a legendary creature in the past and then see either their tomb or a statue of them celebrating their accomplishments. We liked the idea that the statue could be the pose we saw in the art of their legendary card.

Building Schematics ⇒ Building

This would be an artifact in the past and either an artifact or land in the present.

Small Tome ⇒ Big Tome

These would both be artifacts representing the same book, but it would be a cheap artifact with a small effect in the past (as the book has fewer contents) and a more expensive artifact in the present with a larger effect.

Memorial Statue ⇒ Field of Statues

The idea for this was probably on a land in the past we show the start of a memorial cemetery with the very first grave. We then show the same scenes on a land in the present, but now the land is covered with gravesites. This would probably have been a Fate Reforged to Dragons of Tarkir one because the forward progression is the better story.

Gorgon Baby ⇒ Field of Statues

In this version we show a little baby gorgon in the past, and in present day we see the forest of statues that is the gorgon's life's work.

Baby Spider ⇒ Section Lost to Spiders

The idea here is that we would see a small spider in the past pictured in a pristine surrounding and then in the present on a land is the same place but now decimated by all the giant spiders, with webs everywhere.

Young Creature ⇒ Older Version

We see a creature that's younger in the past, and in the present see the exact same creature but now very old. The idea here is that, depending on what time span we had, we'd pick the appropriate creature. Not too long? Maybe a human. Long time? Perhaps a giant turtle. The "H-D" signified we thought it would be a “Huey” (Khans of Tarkir)-“Dewey” (Fate Reforged) thing.

Landscape Ancient ⇒ Landscape Modern Day

This was the idea that we'd have two lands showing the same location, but changed over time. We were pretty sure the basic lands would be doing this.

Unique Dragon Skelton ⇒ Dragon w/ Skeleton Features

In the original timeline, we'd see a dragon skeleton that was unique and then, in the altered timeline, we'd see that same dragon and recognize the skeletal feature. "H-L" stands for “Huey”-“Louie” (Dragons of Tarkir).

Ancestor ⇒ Modern Day Descendant

Instead of showing the same creature if the timeline was too long, we could show a creature descended from the first. The idea was probably a humanoid that had a surname to help make the connection.

2 Creatures ⇒ Billions

The idea was to show a scene with two creatures all alone in a space in the past, and then show the same location in the present now being overrun by that creature.

Treefolk ⇒ Nonbasic Land

In the past, we meet a treefolk. In the present the treefolk has been turned into some giant structure, most likely a dwelling of some sort.

Spanking New Temple/School ⇒ Crumbling Temple/School

Show a new temple or school on a land, and then show the same one in the present, in ruins.

River ⇒ Canyon

This was one that assumed a longer gap between the past and present. We had a lot of land ideas we liked.

Volcanic Peak ⇒ Crater

We see before and after some giant volcanic event.

Landscape Natural ⇒ Landscape Civilized

The idea here was to start with a natural setting without any humanoids, and then come back to see they've turned it into a town or something.

For those familiar with the block, a number of these ideas actually made it through to the final product although with much tweaking along the way.

Board #2—Sultai

For those who remember my articles on Khans of Tarkir design, the Sultai were the last faction added. This board is us trying to figure out what the Sultai mechanic is.

On the left was us writing down as many words as we could think of that captured the flavor of the Sultai. A number of the words have Magic meanings (wither, intimidate, poison, conspire, etc.) but we weren't concerning ourselves with that here. We just wanted to get a sense of what the feel of the clan was so we could get a mechanic that captured that feel. It is very important when designing mechanics for factions to understand what emotional sense you are going for, because the faction keyword carries a lot of weight communicating what the faction is about.

On the right side was us writing down the needs of the keyword. This is important because, as I often say, "restrictions breed creativity." Knowing what restrictions we had actually made it easier to focus on what we were trying to make. Let's walk through the restrictions:

Feel Sultanate

As I said above, it's very important that a faction mechanic convey the feel of the faction. Note that we didn't have actual names yet for the factions so we called them by their source material. The Sultai were called "Sultanate".

Spell Based

Most of the other faction mechanics had been figured out and many of them were primarily on creatures. Also, Sultai's color and feel made us want to lean more toward a spell mechanic.


At this point in Khans of Tarkir design, the block was structured a little differently. We were going to have a bunch of mechanics in Khans of Tarkir, and then have proto-versions of some of them in Fate Reforged. That meant we were on the lookout for all our faction mechanics to have the ability to create a proto-version. Not all the Khans mechanics would get a proto-version since some of the proto mechanics in Fate would be hinting at mechanics in Dragons of Tarkir, but having the ability to do a proto-version was a plus for the Sultai mechanic.


Part of the cost of having morph, plus five faction mechanics, meant that all the faction mechanics had to be relatively low in complexity. As such, I spelled this out to keep us away from doing a complex faction mechanic.

8–10 Cards

Part of figuring out a mechanic is understanding how deep the mechanic has to be. The best metric for this is how many cards do you have to be able to produce? I spelled it out here to give a guideline. Eight to ten does not require a very deep mechanic.

Mechanical Overlap

I was working hard to make sure that each faction's mechanics worked well with cards from other factions. A three-color faction design means that there will be a lot of overlap in play, so we wanted to make sure we were picking a mechanic that could play nice with the other faction mechanics and morph.

Obviously, we would eventually get to delve as the choice for Sultai's mechanic.

Boards #3—Khans Block Structure

Now we get to a board where I was going over the block structure. It's a little different than what the block structure ended up, so I'll walk you through it. But first, let's go over the left side.

On the left, I'm listing different faction keywords. "Hunker Down" is what outlast was called in design. I believe this is an earlier version, where we were exploring the idea that if you gave up your attack, you could impact the effect you could produce. "Oppress" was an early Sultai mechanic. I don't remember all the specifics, but it forced your opponent to have to make painful choices about which permanents/creatures they could use. My notes below Oppress have me listing different ways the mechanic might work as we were still unsure. "Raid" was raid. It was created in exploratory design and didn't change all that much. Okay, we did toy with the idea that maybe Khans of Tarkir would have raid on creatures and Dragons of Tarkir would have raid on spells.

On the right, we can see how the block structure was planned as it related to the mechanics. The rough idea was that “Huey” (Khans of Tarkir) would be focused on 3-color, “Dewey” (Fate Reforged) would be primarily 1-color and “Louie” (Dragons of Tarkir) would be focused on 2-color. The idea of Fate being primarily 1-color would prove to be unfeasible.

Below the codenames, we see me listing what I believed the face-down mechanic was going to be. “Huey” was normal morph. “Dewey” was "recruit," the design name for manifest. And “Louie” was "auramorph." Auramorph was a morph variant where all the cards were Auras that attached to the appropriate permanent type when turned face up. Exploratory design liked auramorph, but the Dragons of Tarkir design team found it problematic when they started putting it through its paces in playtesting.

The next thing to note is that while we had the dragon attributes, the names were not quite the ones we'd settle on. Mardu was speed; Jeskai, cunning; and Abzan, endurance. But the other two were different. Temur started as strength, which would later be changed to savagery; and Sultai started as majesty, and that would change to ruthlessness.

The idea was that the large sets would each have morph (or a morph variant) and five faction mechanics. Then the small middle set would have its proto-version of morph, proto-versions of two “Huey” mechanics and two proto-versions of “Louie” mechanics. This meant that “Huey” would introduce six mechanics to the block, “Dewey” 3 and “Louie” 3. (We weren't counting the morph variant in “Louie” as a full mechanic.)

We kept this basic structure but decided that doing proto-versions of the khans/dragons faction mechanics weren't necessary. We could just do them normally. There was already so much going on and having more variants of mechanics just seemed like it would add complication. Also, we decided that it was odd for the middle set to not have five faction mechanics, so we added one from the first set.

At the time, recruit didn't allow you to play creatures face-down. Instead we had a separate ability—"formshift"—that allowed you to exile cards on the battlefield and replay them, which would let you turn face-down cards into spells. The idea was that we might put that ability in Jeskai as it would be white-blue, which were the flickering colors, and the ability was similar to flickering (but not the same, I'll talk about that in a minute).

Board #4—Face-Down

In several meetings, we were talking about all the design space of face-down cards. The board on the left is listing different uses.

Art by Raymond Swanland

1) Morph / Auramorph

These were the two morph variants for the present (aka large) sets.

2) Illusionary Mask/Camouflage, Turn Face Up/Turn Face Down

These are effects that allow you to play cards in a face-down state. The two cards referenced are two early Magic cards that first messed with face-down and were the cards that the rules team was solving when they came up with the face-down technology that led to morph.

3) Ixidron (Turn into Face-Down 2/2)

This subset of cards are ones that allow you to turn permanents on the battlefield face-down. It is referencing a legendary creature from Onslaught that first did this.

4) Recruit

This is the subset of cards that get cards from other zones and put them face-down on the battlefield. This is the subset of manifest.

5) Dies into Face-Down

This was an area we thought was deep enough that it could possibly be a mechanic. In the end we realized it was basically a shallower version of persist/undying.

6) Cost of activation

Another area we were exploring was permanents that as a cost turned themselves face-down. Imagine a 4/4 creature that had a good activated ability, but permanently turned it into a vanilla 2/2.

7) Turning face up/down triggers

This subset was cards that triggered when any card turned face-up/-down.

The board on the right was the same topic from a later meeting.


A card similar to the card The Abyss from Legends, except instead of killing a creature each turn, turned it face-down.

"Deathtouch" turns cards into FD (Face-Down) 2/2

The idea of this mechanic was anything it dealt combat damage to that it didn't kill got turned into a face-down 2/2. I believe the damage was removed so a 2-power creature with this ability didn't just kill everything.

ETB (Enter the Battlefield) — turn one of your guys FD

This was using face-down as a cost, but one that could often be used as a positive because either you're upgrading a tiny creature or turning face-down a creature that can turn face-up, possibly one with a turn face-up trigger.

Cost for Effect — turn cr. (creatures) you control FD

This was an area we had talked about on the last board where turning face-down is a cost for an activated effect.

Face up cr. you control dies into FD

This is another area we talked about on the last board, dying into a face-down 2/2.

Down below, I break up the face-down abilities into the three sets (H, D, and L stand for “Huey”, “Dewey”, and “Louie”.) The idea was we wanted each of the three sets to have some interaction with face-down-ness.



Obscure—I believe this was some ability where creatures could turn face-down to hide their identity.

Turn creature on—I don't remember what this category was

Battlefield face-down—This was turning things on the battlefield face-down, both your stuff and your opponent's.

FU/FD Triggers—These are cards that trigger whenever something is turned either face up or face-down.


Shadowy Rebirth (grave-face-down into play)—Exploring cards other than manifest that got cards in graveyard onto the battlefield face-down.

Recruit—Aka manifest

Moprher (library ⇒ FD in play)—Some mechanic slightly different than manifest that got cards in library face-down. It might have something to do with tutoring them rather than just coming from the top of the library.



Non-creature Obscure—Using the mechanic to hide other permanents.

Dies Into face-down

Formshift—The exile and replay mechanic mentioned above. Note it is different from flicker because it would allow you to play instants and sorceries that were face-down, something flicker would not let you do.

Act Self as Cost—This would use face-down as a cost for activations.

We spent a lot of time exploring all the face-down design space to allow us to pick and choose what we wanted to use. In the end, we decided that the block had enough going on that we didn't need to mine all the space.

Board #5—Charms

This board is pretty self-explanatory. Design was taking our pass at the three-color charms. Development is going to weigh in on charms and will most often make a lot of changes, but design always does a first pass. It's important to write everything on the board, because you want to make sure to not duplicate effects within the same color. You'll note we often shorthand effects by card names of cards that have that effect.

The names to the left are the working names for the clans based on their source material. I should note that the creative team did some shifting of "which wedge was which clan" creatively. The Jeskai and Sultai never moved, but the other three shifted around.

Board #6—Empires

I thought I'd end with something a little spicier. Here is us working on a cycle of cards that never made it to print. This cycle was called "empires" in design. The idea behind it was that they represented territory that the clans were fighting over.

Here's how they worked. They were all enchantments that had a global effect affecting only you or your creatures. If the empire got a certain number of counters (I don't remember how many, as the number changed, but it was consistent among the cycle—for the sake of explanation, imagine it was 5), the enchantment had a "beginning of upkeep" trigger that was very potent.

Whenever a creature would deal combat damage to an opponent, they could forego the damage to add or subtract that many counters. That meant you were fighting to add them while your opponent was fighting to remove them. The letters on the left represent the wedges. I rewrote them so that the center color was on the right so we could match up effects.

This cycle might sound cool in a vacuum, but in playtesting what we found was that it would derail the game. Instead of anyone trying to win, you'd just fight over the empires non-stop. It was very flavorful, as that's what the clans do, but it didn't lead to good game play so it was eventually cut.

Hope You're Not Board

That's all the boards I have for today. I hope getting a peek into our design process proved entertaining.

This column was me trying out something new so if you liked it or didn't like it, let me know. Whether I do another "Board of Education" article will be based on the feedback I get to this column. As always, you can write to me through my email or any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week, when the previews of Magic Origins begin.

Until then, may you realize that someday someone might have to read your handwriting.

"Drive to Work" #234—Lessons Learned: Innistrad"

This is another podcast in my "Lessons Learned" series, where I look back at sets I lead and talk about the lessons I learned from doing them. This podcast is all about the lessons of Innistrad.

"Drive to Work" #235—Lessons Learned: Dark Ascension"

This is yet another podcast in my "Lessons Learned" series, where I look back at sets I lead and talk about the lessons I learned from doing them. This podcast is all about the lessons of Dark Ascension.

From time to time there are job openings here at Wizards of the Coast, and we are always interested in finding Magic players who might be interested. As I happen to have a lot of Magic players who read my column every week (many who express they would love to work at Wizards), I like to post the job openings here. Today we’re looking for a graphic designer, so if that’s a skill you have, please read below.

Digital Visual Designer | Magic Daily Articles

 Job Description:

Article Image Treatments—Read Magic articles on a daily basis and create immersive images, icons, charts, info graphics, humorous visual gags, and whatever else you can think of that will enhance the article and the reading experience.

Asset Production—Create eye-catching visual treatments for Magic wallpapers, Magic fan kits, and Magic social media assets.

Learn and Influence the Future of the Articles Section—Contribute your Magic knowledge in a visual way to the enhancement of the article content by suggesting new features, new image treatment guidelines, and the overall look and feel of the Magic articles.

You ‘re Funny, Show It—Whether it be a request or something your dreamed up in your Magic-minded brain, making humorous images for the articles is fun for you to create and for our readers to see and share.


2–5 years visual design experience.

Must be a Magic player—familiar with current sanctioned formats, casual formats, card sets, and art.

Must be able to work in a fast-paced environment with a daily production cycle while properly assessing work efforts against available time to complete them.

Expert level knowledge of Adobe Creative Suite required.

Proficiency in Microsoft Suite required.


Send your resume and a link to your portfolio to: seattle@creativegroup.com.

The title of your email should be: “Magic Daily Articles | Digital Visual Designer”

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