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Stay awhile and listen: Mark Rosewater held court at SDCC

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A colorful battle with a beholder letting loose with his eyestalks. Image: Wizards of the Coast

Before players came to learn that it was actually quite good, Magic: The Gathering’s latest set of cards was very polarizing. Called Adventures in the Forgotten Realms (AFR), it’s a set based on publisher Wizards of the Coast’s other big property — Dungeons & Dragons. At San Diego Comic-Con on Saturday, head designer Mark Rosewater and lead designer Jules Robins shared a pre-recorded conversation (captured before the release of the Strixhaven set in April), a kind of post mortem for a set that now seems destined for greatness. In it, they talked about the key controversies that came along with its release, namely dungeons and rolling dice.

For a long time, the distance between Wizards’ two main intellectual properties was intentional, despite them both offering an appealing high fantasy experience.

“Don’t cross the streams,” explained Mark Rosewater. “Originally, the idea was let Magic be Magic and let Dungeons & Dragons be Dungeons & Dragons, and really for many years we kept them apart.”

Decades later the concept changed. Wizards’ James Wyatt led an effort to turn out free-to-download sourcebooks based on popular Magic sets — Plane Shift: Innistrad, Plane Shift: Amonkhet, Plane Shift: Kaladesh, and Plane Shift: Ixalan. The effort then expanded into full-priced physical and digital sourcebooks with Guildmaster’s Guide to Ravnica, Mythic Odysseys of Theros, and Strixhaven: Curriculum of Chaos (which is available Nov. 16). Later, it was a suggestion by Aaron Forsythe, vice president of Magic design, that gave birth to Universes Beyond. It’s a broader, collaborative effort to bring in different IPs to become Magic cards. Warhammer 40,000 and J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings books will be the source for the first two sets in that initiative, but AFR is effectively a prequel.

“What if other IPs appeared on Magic cards?” said Rosewater. “Once that conversation got going, one of the things that came up really quickly was, well, why not Dungeons & Dragons?”

Tomb of Annihilation ends with Cradle of the Death God, which allows players to great a 4/4 token with deathtouch. Image: Wizards of the Coast

Initially, the dungeon mechanic was intended to comprise a second, separate deck or cards. “Every so often you’d be about to move your marker and explore a new room and try to figure out where you were going in this dungeon as it spawned,” Robins said. It didn’t work out as playtesting made the variance tricky to manage, not to mention how casual and competitive Magic players would struggle to tackle the dungeons.

It was critical for the team to get this mechanic correct, since traversing through dungeons is an evergreen feature of D&D. Combining the flavor that D&D demands with a mechanic that wants to support both casual and competitive Magic players is a tough task. Through revisions, the team settled into something you now see when you crack open AFR Draft and Set Boosters.

“What if instead of the room having their own challenges, what if the Magic cards are the ones taking you through the dungeon?” asked Robins. The design team concluded creating three dungeons to offer the ability of choice, an experience you often see in D&D.

Sample cards included in the first dungeon decks.
Photo: Wizards of the Coast via YouTube

Adding to the individuality of the set, dice rolling is a new mechanic for black-bordered Magic cards and refers back to how you would play in a session of D&D.

“We start with again trying to capture things people love out of D&D, there is this amazing moment of tension where you’re going and trying to do something very important and you roll the D20 and see if it’s going to work out,” Robins said. The team toyed with the idea of removing cards from the top of your deck, or using dice with fewer sides to offset variance. However, they settled on using a D20 as it’s so iconic with D&D that it would be a missed opportunity to use anything else.

“When we were playtesting the die cards, die rolling was very polarizing,” said Rosewater. Dice rolling offers a high amount of variance which, during early playtesting, often determines the outcome of the game. Marrying the fun tension of dice rolling and not losing the game on the spot, was a tough yet achievable feat when it came to designing AFR.

Three cards without art.
Prototype cards used to test dice rolling mechanics in Adventures in the Forgotten Realms.
Image: Wizards of the Coast via YouTube

It took almost 30 years, but Magic and D&D have finally crossed the streams, unifying into something truly memorable. With these hurdles aside, it will be interesting to see how future Magic cards combine with other out-of-franchise IPs to make this collectable card game evolve even further. People may grouse about Universes Beyond licenses yet to come, about Space Marines and hobbits turning into planeswalkers, but with AFR the team seems to have earned some respect from fans. With the experience of AFR under the design team’s belt, they will be prepared to deal with the challenges ahead — similar to a journey in the Forgotten Realms.