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Sliver Pâté

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The letter W!elcome to Magic 2014 Preview Week. This week, we'll be taking a peek at the new core set, and I'll be talking in detail about a popular mechanic that is returning. (If you've been reading the Internet or even just the title of this column, you should have a good idea what that mechanic is.) I'll introduce the design team, show you a preview card, give you a little history, and then answer some questions I've been getting about you know what.


The Core, The Merrier

As always, I like to begin by introducing you to the people responsible for the design of the set I'm about to talk about.

Mark Globus (lead)

So what does Magic 2014 have in common with both Return to Ravnica and Dragon's Maze? The lead designers of all three sets were finalists in the first Great Designer Search (Mark Globus, Ken Nagle, and Alexis Janson respectively). Mark came in 4th (Alexis 1st, Ken 2nd, and Graham Hopkins 3rd). Mark managed to parlay his performance in the GDS into a job in Wizards's digital department. From there, he got to know the members of R&D and eventually moved over to become Magic's producer (i.e., the guy who juggles all the moving parts to make sure the logistics work).

Mark still kept his hand in designing through working on numerous design teams. When it came time to pick a lead designer for Magic 2014, Aaron asked me, "How about Mark Globus?" and I replied that I felt he had earned the opportunity and that I thought he'd do a wonderful job. Which, by the way, he did.

One of the things I've always been impressed with by Mark is his drive to improve. For example, he wanted to get better at design, so he started making his own set merely as a means to practice and get feedback. One of the mechanics from his set, metalcraft, even got tweaked and used in Scars of Mirrodin. The big question wasn't if Mark would get to lead his own set, but when. And seeing his work on Magic 2014, the next question is what will he do next?

Tom LaPille

Every design has a core developer on it to make sure that the design keeps developmental issues in mind. While Tom does an excellent job of this he also has proven to be pretty adept at asking good design questions as well. One of my favorite things about having Tom on a design team is that he always manages to find new ways to examine design problems. Tom is also vigilant in making sure the designs make flavor sense, which is extra important for a core set.


Adam Lee

Most design teams also have a representative from the creative team. Usually, that person is the one doing the card concepting (i.e., figuring out what each card represents flavorfully) for the set. In Adam's case, he was also in charge of the names and flavor text. Adam is always a great addition to a design team not only for his flavor knowledge but also for his energy. He is always happy and excited and comes in every meeting eager to discover new things.


Shawn Main

This set got a chance for GDS1 to intermingle withGDS2. Shawn got his start at Wizards by coming in 2nd in the second Great Designer Search. The reason he managed to come in 2nd was that Shawn has a knack for getting a sense of a design and then finding new ways to approach it. Shawn also is one of the best top-down designers I've seen and the core set is a place that loves top-down design.


Ken Troop

Design teams have something we call the "fifth slot," which is a slot for someone whose day-to-day job is not doing Magic design, development, or creative. Ken's day job is overseeing R&D's Magic digital team that works on everything digital with a Magic component (Magic Online and Duels of the Planeswalkers being the two largest). The reason for having the "fifth slot" is that we feel it's good for Magic design teams to have some outside influence so that we don't get caught up in a group think. Ken is a longtime player of Magic so he understands the game well, but from a slightly different slant, which means that he asks questions that no one else does. I like having Ken on design teams because he has a habit of just cutting to the core of an issue. We'll spend many minutes trying to figure out the problem when Ken will speak up and say, "I think it's this."

Now that we've met the team, it's time to meet the preview card. Let me reveal ahead of time that it's a Sliver from the past with a new makeover to match the current Sliver functionality.

Everyone, meet Manaweft Sliver

My plan for the rest of this column is to answer your many questions about Slivers. Before I do that, though, I thought I'd spend a few paragraphs talking about the history of Slivers.

"What Are They? Chopped Sliver?"

Back in March, 2004, we had Sliver Week and I used my column to explain the origin of the Slivers ("Sliver Me Timbers"). For those who don't want to click the link, Slivers were originally designed by Mike Elliott for a set called "Astral Ways" he made before he came to work for Wizards. When I put him on the Tempest design team, Mike turned in a number of mechanics from that set including a series of cards he called Slivers. The flavor originally was that one character from the astral world got broken into fragments and fell to our world as Slivers. These creatures were each part of one being, which is how they worked together.

During Tempest, we re-flavored the Slivers as empathic shapechanging creatures that shared a group mind. The idea was if one Sliver learned how to form wings, the whole hive would also gain that ability. Interestingly, by the way, in the story there was a geographical limit to how far the hive mind reached, meaning that if it were far enough away, a Sliver did not get the bonus from the herd. The Slivers were a creature race Volrath discovered (it was never said from where) and he had been experimenting on them. (Metallic Sliver was an artificial Sliver he made to spy on the herd. That's why it only leeches abilities and doesn't grant any.)

Manaweft Sliver | Art by Trevor Claxton

Slivers first showed up in Tempest block, showing up in both Tempest and Stronghold. They then returned during Onslaught block in the middle set,Legions. (The article on Slivers stops here because at the time it was written that was all that had happened.) The Slivers next showed up in all three sets of the Time Spiral block. Magic 2014 is their fourth appearance. Few Magic mechanics that aren't evergreen have been used in four different blocks. (The only other one that pops into my head is cycling.)

The reason they have been used so much is that they've always been a hit with players. In fact, when I get asked about how to make popular linear mechanics (i.e., mechanics that push you toward including a subset of other cards—read this if you want to know more) Slivers are my go-to example.

With our history lesson out of the way, let's get to the meat of this column: questions from all of you about Slivers. I started by posting the following on my Twitter account (@maro254):

 

I got a lot of questions. Let's get to them.

One of the biggest pushes that R&D has had in recent years is to shift the mental energy of playing the game from monitoring what may happen to focusing on what is happening. I'll explain. The human brain is able to spend some amount of energy on mental processing. At some point, there is too much processing going on and the human brain redlines (i.e., exceeds the amount it can consistently process).

The human brain can only process so long while redlining, as it is very draining. One of two things tends to happen: (1) the human stops concentrating and much information is lost or (2) the human pushes on and the brain copes, usually by ignoring chunks of data and eventually tiring out the human.

As R&D has been trying to figure out how to improve the game, what we realized was that it was causing a lot of redlining. While some hardcore gamers might choose option (2) above, most people will choose (1), and that causes the game of Magic to get very confusing, because you can't follow everything.

To solve this problem, we thought about the issue like a cell phone that was draining too fast. How do you correct the issue? Figure out tiny things that aren't important that are draining it and turn those off. When we looked at Magic, what we discovered was that the game had a lot of things that made you have to constantly monitor the environment, even though the things you were monitoring for seldom happen. While each thing in isolation seemed insignificant, the combined nature of them was contributing to redlining. So R&D decided that we needed to turn some of these things off.

Meanwhile, we discovered another cause for mental aggravation—having to process things that didn't make intuitive sense. Here's how this works. When things work as you assume, it requires very little mental processing because your brain has already learned how to absorb it. But if things don't work the way you assume, you have to take mental energy to keep reminding yourself how they do work. This is another thing that seems innocuous in a vacuum but adds up.

So let's take a look at cards that grant abilities to other creatures of a particular race, what we in R&D tend to call "lords." (R&D defines lords as creatures that boost all creatures of a certain type. This is any ability, and not just granting +1/+1.) In Alpha, Richard made Goblin King, Lord of Atlantis, and Zombie Master. He chose to have them affect all cards of the appropriate type because he felt that intuition would match flavor. Why wouldn't all Goblins be influenced by the Goblin King on the battlefield?


The problem is that wasn't how most players processed the information. The default assumption when people play cards is that my cards are good for me and bad for you. It shouldn't be to your advantage for me to play a card and vice versa. So their cards, they feel, should help their things. A lord, by this reasoning, should only boost the appropriate creatures on your side.

What we found was that when a player's creature helped the opponent, he or she most often was skeptical. Why would it do that? Once that player learned he or she was in the wrong, he or she would learn the way it actually worked, but it required the player to now have to fight intuition. As I have stated time and time again, when you fight human nature you are fighting a losing battle.

You add all of this together and R&D came to the decision that lords are supposed to just boost your team. It's what the majority of players assumed and it's what most preferred. In general, players don't like having to figure out whether or not it is to their opponents' advantage for them to play a card. They prefer to have the ability to just play it without having to figure out whether it's helping their opponent more than them. This ties directly into the R&D redlining issue. It was something to process that didn't come up a lot (your opponent has to have a creature of the appropriate type on his or her side) and fought intuition.

So in Onslaught,the change was made to the lords. During Time Spiral, we thought about changing the Slivers, but the block was all about nostalgia and, as evidenced by the block, we weren't aware as yet of how much complexity had crept in the game.

Flash forward to the design of Magic 2014. We had talked for years about the Slivers being a possible choice for the returning mechanic in a core set. We knew the mechanic was fun and flavorful and was popular with less-experienced players, but it didn't work the way we wanted for a core set. Mark and his team said, "Let's just bite the bullet and do it. We're going to have to change the Slivers one day. That day can be now."

And that is why the Slivers now only affect your creatures.

Yes there are, but only at higher rarities. The design team realized it wanted Slivers to be both a Limited and a Constructed thing, so it figured out what it had to do to make each happen. For Limited, that meant focusing the choices to make sure that a draft strategy existed. This meant raising the as-fan of a few colors by making more of them and putting them at lower rarities. For Constructed, this meant making Slivers in all five colors to ensure that the colors with smaller numbers got better Slivers, so that for Constructed purposes there was a balance.

As this is a design column and not a creative one, it's not really my area of expertise. Doug Beyer talked about it in his blog, for those of you who would like an answer from a member of the creative team.

The answer is "they did have issues." The reason Magic currently has so many more people playing than when Time Spiral was out is because we've spent a lot of time and energy to keep the new players from leaving because things didn't make sense when they start to play. This is about far more than the lord issue, but the key to some big changes are lots of little ones.

Also, by the way, we did some focus testing and guess what we found? The majority of the players didn't know that their Slivers affected their opponents' Slivers. The old Slivers weren't a problem for many players because those players didn't understand how they actually worked.

There's a pretty simple rule. The more people like something, the higher chance we are to do it again. Why have we done Slivers four different times? Because players really like them.

While we knew we were bringing "Slivers" back in Magic 2014, we did not know whether or not they were going to be called Slivers. In fact, in the design file they weren't even called Slivers. Originally they were called "Heroes." Development then changed them to "Sleens" to make people understand they were a new creature type that was foreign and not Human ("Hero" implied "Human" to most playtesters).

Why did we eventually change them to Slivers? Because we kept having playtests where people would play them and then inform either Mark Globus or Dave Guskin, the lead developer of Magic 2014, that the mechanic felt too much like Slivers. When Dave informed them that they were the Sliver mechanic, they always asked, "Why don't you just call them Slivers, then?" We talked a lot about it and finally decided that we had created equity in the name and that it made sense to maintain the name.

There is, of course, a parallel universe where we chose not to call them Slivers and there is a contingent of players writing me letters asking why we didn't call them Slivers.

Yes, Slivers are the returning mechanic for Magic 2014.

It was an issue that was raised, but now that the core set can make new cards, we knew we could always update any old Sliver we wanted to print. So yes, there was a small loss but not something we felt was enough to stop the change.

We'll have to see how they do, but given their historical success, I doubt we've seen the last of the Slivers.

It's funny you asked that. Metallic Sliver in Tempest, the set that introduced Slivers, was supposed to be called Silver Sliver, but the art came back and it wasn't silver, so we had to change the name.

The issue came up but it's only going to matter in Constructed in formats where they overlap (Modern and back) and only when you have a mirror match. The vast majority of the time, in a two-player game, the new Slivers and the old Slivers are going to function identically.

No, it won't. That templating is unique to Slivers because of how they function. If I had three Slivers out and each only affected the other two, it requires a lot of memory to track what's going on. If the Slivers "affect all Slivers you control" then you just have to count up the total amount of changes and apply them to all your Slivers.

I try whenever possible to maintain both. When they fight each other, I will err on what makes the game play better because no matter how flavorful a card is, if it's not fun to play it's not fulfilling its major function in the game.

No. That is what we call functional errata (making the card work differently than its text states) and it's something we try hard not to do these days.

We are always looking for core set mechanics that we think are easy to understand and fun to play. Slivers fit the bill perfectly. This isn't to say one day we won't see Slivers again in an expert expansion, but that wasn't the need that came up first.

It is, although, the Plague Sliver was very contentious when it was made back in Time Spiral. I am more than willing to make the mechanic more intuitive at the cost of losing something that didn't, to me, even feel like a Sliver.

Almost none. R&D was all aboard on the lord change, and we believe in the importance of consistency in current design, so it wasn't an issue of if Slivers would change, but when.

I would like to thank everyone who took the time to send me a question.

Slivers and Onions

That's all the time I have for today. I hope you all enjoy having the Slivers back even if in their slightly new form.

Join me next week when I tell some stories about cards in Magic 2014.

Until then, may your hive mind work in harmony.




Drive to Work #40—Wizards of the Coast

This is another history-heavy podcast as I look back at the history of the company I've spent almost eighteen years working for.

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Mark Rosewater
Mark Rosewater
@maro254
Email Mark

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Working for Magic R&D since October, 1995, Mark Rosewater is currently the head designer. His hobbies include spending time with his family, talking about Magic on every known medium (including a daily blog and a weekly podcast), and writing about himself in the third person.

 

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