Balancing the Colors: An Interview with Ari Nieh

Tom AndersonCommunity

I’ve got something a little different for you this week, readers. For a while now I’ve been hoping to feature more regular interviews here on CK, so you can hear from other key figures in Magic instead of just me all the time. Today, I bring you the first (but not the last!) of these interviews! 

Ari Nieh is a WotC designer who has become one of the more interesting voices of Magic on social media. He frequently joins in dialogues on game balance and the color pie from a position of greater insight into Magic design. And as the official Color Champion for white, Ari has become a key figure in WotC’s efforts to address player concerns around white’s role in the game — his recent panel at CommandFest showed Ari respects these critiques and has been working toward new solutions.

I had the pleasure of speaking with him about his role in R&D, the future of white as a color, and how new sets come together. Enjoy!

TOM ANDERSON: Thanks for speaking with us, Ari! 

The design process for Magic includes many moving parts and different teams — can you describe your role (or roles) within WotC specifically? 

ARI NIEH: Just to review for your readers, there are now four stages in our process: Exploratory Design, Vision Design, Set Design, and Play Design. Very roughly speaking, the first two comprise what used to be called “Design,” and the last two are what used to be called “Development.”

Exploratory Design is about playing with mechanics and flavor in the specified space in a very wide and shallow way- casting a big net to find new stuff. Vision Design starts fitting together themes, mechanics, and other evocative elements into a “proof of concept” cardset. Set Design executes the vision that’s handed to them by making most of the actual cards and iterating on them. Lastly, Play Design ensures that all the resulting play patterns are fun and balanced. 

I work primarily in Vision and Exploratory. I’ll sometimes serve on a Set Design team as well, usually in the early stages right after the handoff from Vision. The bulk of my work is on premier sets (that is, Standard legal), although occasionally I’ll design a product like Commander Collection: Green

I also serve on the Council of Colors, but that’s only about 5% of my job. Maybe 6% if you count tweeting. 

It might not be a huge part of your job, but being officially designated as white’s “color champion” has certainly raised your public profile! What influence does your role give you over white’s design? And how did you get to be in such a singular position to start with?

What happened first is that Gavin Verhey was too busy to be Black’s rep [on the Council of Colors], so Corey Bowen took up Black and I took Corey’s former seat as Colorless. The Colorless rep has fewer cards to review than others, so it’s a good role for people to start out in. Then Andrew Veen, the previous white representative on the Council of Colors, left Wizards for another opportunity. So I became the white rep, and Chris Mooney is now Colorless.

The role of the Council of Colors is to review sets for potential color pie breaks and advise set leads on how to manage these cards. We also make long-term decisions about which effects belong in which parts of the color pie.

So my job on the Council is, more or less, to discuss which future cards are okay in white. And in order to do that well, I spend a lot of time finding out where white stands in various formats, what people do and don’t like about it, and what its needs are looking ahead.

Responsibility for roughly a sixth of the game seems like a big deal, even if you’re not the sole person steering the direction of the color! white in particular seems challenging since the color has long been argued as weaker than the rest in various formats – especially Commander. Even in Standard few white decks succeed outside of the simple go-wide aggro mold.

What effects have you considered adding or emphasizing in white to give the color more depth and appeal? I’m an avowed fan of effects which attack or restrict people’s mana use – not to stop them playing the game, but to try and force them out of automatic play patterns and create tension. Outside of Legacy, white seems to have lost access to this taxing/Armageddon part of its pie. Do you think there’s a safe way to re-introduce this to modern set design? Can we see more Fall of the Thran

I don’t want to say anything about which cards will or won’t appear in future sets. But I will say this: mass land destruction is strongly disliked by most players. In Commander, the most popular format where Armageddon is legal, it is de facto banned by the social contract.  

Taxing, however, continues to be part of white’s color pie. Smothering Tithe, Tithe Taker, and Elspeth Conquers Death are all legal in Standard right now and do exactly that. 

Another suggestion is allowing white some access to counterspells — even in a limited or secondary form akin to black’s new enchantment removal. Currently, only blue and black have any way to interact with spells before they resolve, which is a huge part of the game when you think about it! And white has dabbled with some types of countermagic in the past. Do you see this as a good fit for white, or are there other tools you’d prefer to create for it? 

Instant speed interaction is a vital part of Magic as a game. White aggro isn’t going to be loved if all it does is cast a bunch of efficient creatures or anthems, pass the turn, and hope your opponent doesn’t have good enough answers. That’s why we print cards like Gods Willing, Selfless Savior, Unbreakable Formation, etc. 

A card like Spell Pierce in white (note that Force Spike hasn’t been in Standard since 7th Edition) would have massive implications for competitive constructed play. Of the colors, blue is fifth in small aggressive creatures, and white is first.

More generally, I’d say the approach of “here’s something we could give to white; would that fix its problems?” is backwards. We need to start by precisely identifying the problems and then coming up with targeted solutions. Sometimes those solutions will consist of shifting existing space from other colors, and sometimes they’ll be entirely new designs.

White also seems to be consistently rated low by Draft experts — although 2020 has begun to reverse that trend. Do you think people simply miss the point of white in Limited? Or are you taking a new approach to the color in set designs?

Our data on Draft indicates that white’s power level has been fine for the past several sets. So, no, fixing white in Limited is not a high priority… However, we have already decided on some changes to white in Limited. 

Look at Captivating Unicorn from Theros Beyond Death. It’s the first common white 4/4 we’ve ever printed. Having the color with the most creatures be tightly constrained in statlines didn’t make sense, so we removed that rule. As the color pie shifts over time, it’s reasonable to expect other changes in white commons, which will affect Limited play.

Believe me, the Unicorn was noticed! As a lifelong white player, it gives me a lot of confidence to know that these sorts of “rules” are questioned or changed when appropriate. But what about your background as a player — does your design draw on your own experience playing white decks?

What’s your favorite Constructed archetype? GOAT card? And of course the most important MTG question in my mind – what’s your favorite basic land art?

This is a hard question, because I find all colors lovable in their own ways. Having a diversity of experiences is what keeps me coming back to Magic year after year. But if forced to pick, I’d go with Abzan — I can’t stay away from recursion!

In Standard and Brawl, I tend to like grindy midrange decks that out-value the opponents in the long game. In draft, I prefer aggro, since it’ll usually come together even if you brick on rares. In Commander, I like to passively build up resources and answers while appearing nonthreatening.

My favorite card varies week to week. Today, it’s Nethroi, Apex of Death, who is just delightful in Brawl. Getting to dump your whole graveyard onto the battlefield turn after turn is pure pleasure.

For basic land, I’ve gotta go with the Dog Plains from Jumpstart. I just want to step into the artwork and live there. And I’m not even a dog person.

Excellent choice! I did also want to talk about your role in Magic beyond the Council of Colors. You recently posted that you’re finishing up a stint leading vision design on a new set! That sounds like a tremendous achievement — can you walk us through what it involved?

Leading a set is very different from being a member of a team. When I’m a team member, I’m spending most of my energy coming up with ideas that fit the set lead’s vision; that may mean new mechanics, cycles, or individual card designs. We’ll spend meetings designing, discussing, or playtesting the stuff we’ve come up with so far.

As a set lead, I don’t have to spend quite as much energy designing myself. But I need to give appropriate assignments to my team on what to work on. And that requires lots of holistic thinking about what the set needs. Which mechanics work well together? Can my mechanics divvy up the color pie appropriately? What’s the overall complexity level? Is there enough novelty? How challenging are the mechanics for Play Design to balance for competitive play? Are the emotional and story themes of the set going to come through with the mechanics and structure we’ve created? Are the card concepts resonant, and will our partners in Creative be able to execute on them? Can Digital partners program the things we’re creating? Will Tammy, Jenny, and Spike each find something to love in my set? Will it have enough appeal to players who’ve been in the game for two weeks, two years, or two decades?

As you can see, leading a set through Vision is a tremendous challenge, and I’ve been excited to have this opportunity. Rosewater has done this a ton, so his mentorship was important for helping me find the best directions. I worked closely with my Creative Lead and Set Design Lead to ensure that they felt confidence in the vision. It’ll be quite a while before this set is in stores, but I can’t wait to see how players react to it.

I hope you’ll let us all know when it eventually releases — it’s always fascinating to know about the specific minds who worked on new cards, which otherwise feel like holy tablets being handed down to us from on high, fully formed! But people like yourself are working incredibly hard year-round to keep the game moving forward, and that’s worth recognition.

One particular part of Magic design which deserves applause is how WotC manages to simultaneously design sets for Sealed, Draft, Standard, Modern, Pauper, Commander, and more all at once! What sort of processes are in place to ensure that the different subcommunities within MTG will all have something to look forward to in a set?

The processes are different for different formats. Draft gets played a ton throughout a set’s lifecycle, and each Set Design team is smaller than eight people, so many other designers get pulled in to give feedback. After Set Design has the set basically finished, Play Design does a lot of game balance work on Standard and Draft. Our Commander experts have a scheduled set review to ensure we’ve got some appealing cards for that audience. We also have monthly “play days” where employees who aren’t necessarily Magic designers play sealed, draft, precons, etc. That gives us the perspective of a more casual audience.

For older formats we have to be pretty careful and deliberate, because there’s greater potential for powerful synergies. We strive to make cards like Arclight Phoenix which affect them in a fun and positive way.

But in general, the Set Design teams are knowledgeable about the different ways in which Magic is played, and will always be thinking about an audience when making cards. Part of the set lead’s job is making sure that there are cards and mechanics that will excite a wide variety of players.

Ari, I want to thank you for the effort you put in to share a detailed and candid perspective from within WotC — both in these answers, and on your Twitter. To close out this interview, what is one specific thing you wish the Magic-playing public would better understand about how the game is made?

Magic players give disproportionate credit to game designers because we’re the most visible employees. There are so many other Wizards whose skilled work is crucial in getting Magic cards into your hands! Worldbuilding, concept art, art direction, flavor text, production, graphic design, editing, marketing, packaging, QA, localization, consumer insights, and more. Have a look at the credits page for a Magic set sometime. It’s not the scale of a Hollywood movie, but it’s extensive!

(Thanks to Ari Nieh and Blake Rasmussen at Wizards for their efforts in making this come together.)