Interviews

Gavin Verhey talks designing Universes Beyond and the upcoming year for Magic: The Gathering

In between a busy schedule and convention chaos I was able to catch up with Gavin Verhey, Principal Magic Designer for a short interview at MagicCon Las Vegas 2023. Gavin is a well known figure for a lot of Magic players as he hosts a YouTube show called Good Morning Magic and is known to do mechanical design work that touches every aspect of Magic: The Gathering.

[Chris Wyman] At Gen Con we saw a lot of the new announcements for 2024? We are starting to see more details for Lost Caverns of Ixalan. What are you most looking forward to?

[Gavin Verhey] There’s some really cool stuff coming out in 2024. Right now, we’re at the end of 2023 and a set that I worked on that I’m very excited about is the Doctor Who Commander decks. Those come out in under a month. I’ve been working on those for years. So for them to finally come out is really cool. So that’s an upcoming thing I’m really passionate about. Looking into next year, there’s a lot of really cool sets. We’ve got Outlaws of Thunder Junction. It’s so weird saying these names out loud. We have Murders at Karlov Manor. Bloomburrow, and then Duskmourn: House Of Horror. Those are the four main line announced sets. I’m excited for all of them. I think they’re very cool. I did a lot of work on Murders at Karlov Manor. Of course I’m excited for you all to see that one but I think the thing that could be revolutionary, that I’m super stoked for the end of next year with Duskmourn: House Of Horror. It is a set that I can’t say very much about yet, but it’s a more modern take on horror. So you’ve seen Innistrad before, which is Victorian horror. That’s wonderful, but this is a modern take on horror with references to 80s, 90s, and 2000s movies that we all love. So stay tuned, it’s a year away from now, but it’s a very cool set.

[CW] I love Innistrad, I love horror. For me, I love getting more horror themed sets. How does design change when we’re able to return to a plane? Outlaws of Thunder Junction will be our first time seeing that setting while Murders at Karlov Manor is a return to a plane we know well, Ravnica. How does that change the design, do you get to dive deeper into a plane?

[GV] Totally, when you come back to a world that you’ve been to before, you kind of have to figure out what’s different this time. That’s the one place you start from. Now what we have learned over the years is you don’t want to change too much. A great example is Battle for Zendikar block. So, the original Zendikar block, you’re in this cool adventure world and there’s this awesome plane and you’re going out and you’re exploring and it’s high adventure. Then you come back at Battle for Zendikar and it’s all about the Eldrazi. It’s not about that high adventure anymore and players reacted with, “Oh, you lost a little bit of this for me.” We can’t go too far in that direction and in Murders at Karlov Manor you will see Ravnica as a backdrop which is where you’ve never seen it used before. It’s almost less of a Ravnica set and more of a murder mystery set. That’s really what I would focus on there. That Ravnica is really just the backdrop, it could have been any plane. Ravnica turns out as a great one for intrigue and mystery.

[CW] Because we’ve seen Ravnica and players know it. Now we go deeper into specific events?

[GV] Because we know what Ravnica is. If we chose Thunder Junction as the plane for a murder mystery set, you’ve never been to Thunder Junction before you have no idea what’s there. Murder mysteries require that kind of background knowledge of who the people are and what the area looks like.To make it truly compelling and the fact that we’ve been to Ravnica before makes it a great setting and you’ll see more of that when we get into talking about the set next year. It’s a very cool backdrop for the murder mystery. Outlaws of Thunder Junction, on flip side, brand new plane yeehaw. I’m excited to go there. People have asked for this setting for a long time.

[CW] I had heard about the rumored “cowboy” set years ago and I’m glad we’re finally getting to see it come to fruition. Jumping back to the Doctor Who commander decks, how challenging is it to capture the spirit of the properties and translate them into Magic cards?

[GV] It is both is and it isn’t, and that might surprise you to hear. With these fan-bases with The Lord of the Rings, with Doctor Who, with Warhammer 40,000, they’re huge, they’re rabid. They all have expectations and you have a lot of weight on your shoulders to make it a really compelling thing. On the flip side, getting to make cards for these characters, for me, making Doctor Who cards are a dream come true. It lets us create ideas and use designs we would have never found otherwise.

When we are making Magic cards we have a couple ways we can approach it. My favorite way and many designers favorite way, is what we call top down design. We have an idea for the thing and then we make that thing. So for example, if you’re on Theros and you’re trying to make a top down hydra. You can think of what a hydra does and can start with that as a boilerplate. With Universes Beyond we already have all that built out. The whole universe already exists. It’s just us picking the things we want to make and almost every card with a few exceptions is a top down card.

Picking characters from Doctor Who, we’re gonna make a top down The Valeyard, which is a card we’ve already shown off. Cool. This is a character that was all about putting people on trial and kind of ran a corrupt trial. That’s actually a really cool idea for a card. What’s something that has to do with a corrupt trial? We get to use the voting mechanic and caring about the voting mechanic, which is such a perfect flavor win. One of my favorite cards in the set is River Song. If you don’t know the story of River Song, she’s a very interesting character. So The Doctor is a time traveler, right? Just going all around time and space. He meets people in all kinds of strange orders. The first time he meets River, spoilers. The first time he meets River, is when she dies, and then, as he keeps meeting her, he keeps meeting her earlier in her history, while the first time that she meets him, she’s already met him all these times. They have this very interesting history going on, and as a result, we used the card mechanic that you draw from the bottom of your library. It’s this very unique thing where you’re picking your cards from a place you never get it from. A totally different direction and we would not come up with that kind of thing normally. Because of Universes Beyond, it’s great.

On the flip side, it does make some things challenging because there are characters that players love. Hey, we want to do this character that you love and to use Doctor Who as an example, let’s do one of the doctor’s companions. A lot of the companions are just people, normal earthlings that The Doctor picked up in their travels. What makes them special? What is a unique mechanic hook? The way we solved that problem was by taking like a moment from their story and trying to capture that on a card. The cards are not the overall personification of them, but it’s this character in this moment doing this thing. Which I really like. Kind of a long-winded answer but it is very challenging. It also actually makes it almost easier sometimes to have something to build off of.

Doctor Who Key Art

[CW] When we have the crossovers with our interest that’s where we can really dig in. I can see the passion you have for Doctor Who and that’s what I love. That’s one part of what makes Magic so great. The next Universes Beyond set of commander decks are the Fallout right? Any insights into those?

[GV] Fallout has been around for a long time and has a lot of history. It’s got that gaming crossover. We saw with Warhammer 40,000, it was awesome to get people who have one game into playing another game. With Fallout, we’re expecting a lot of the same. Also, there’s a TV series scheduled for Fallout to be released next year. I don’t know when it’s going to be released but that’s a really cool time potentially if it’s in the same year. The design lead for Fallout was Annie Sardelis and she is a passionate Fallout fan. She loves that franchise, and the way that I speak about Doctor Who she speaks about Fallout. Getting to watch her lead that product was amazing. There’s four commander decks and you’ll have to wait to see what the themes are and how they all work. Look, I’m a gamer, but I do have a black hole. I do have a weird missing spot in my gaming pedigree. I’ve never played a Fallout game. I don’t have any background for it. Playing Annie’s commander decks, I felt like I was playing Fallout or what I imagined Fallout was, and learning about the universe which is one of the biggest compliments you could ever give anybody. Because your card set of playing gave me the feel of Fallout and the feel of the world.It pulls on a ton of different Fallout games and I cannot wait if you guys to see it next year.

[CW] Once again, it’s that passion that everyone has for Magic. I’ve never been to a MagicCon before and I came in on Friday and was astonished. Everyone is here because they love this game and that feeling is going to stick with me.

[GV] I’ve been playing Magic for over twenty years. I’ve been working at Wizards for twelve. I’ve been to so many conventions around the world. Your San Diego Comic-Cons, your New York Comic-Cons, your Essens.To have a single room, in this case, two huge rooms dedicated to one game, it’s mind-blowing.

[CW] For people who are “Magic adjacent.” Maybe they have friends who play or they play casually. Why should they come to a MagicCon?

[GV] What i always say and it’s so cheesy but it is true is Magic would be nothing without the gathering. The gathering, the people all come together. The community is amazing. You walk through these halls and you see people of all backgrounds playing whatever kind of Magic they want. If you want to play really competitive, we’ve got a hundred thousand dollar tournament downstairs. You could be playing in it. It had something around 1700 players. That’s a huge tournament with people playing in it.

(Official numbers for tournament participation have yet to be released as of this writing.)

[CW] That is a huge endeavor to run something like that and it’s truly unique.

[GV] Huge event, right? You have The world championship with top level Magic players, you also have casual commander games happening on every table. You have fun booster drafts kicking off. One of the things I run at conventions that’s very unique. This is a convention only experience. I run what’s called the Unknown Event. They’re different every time and basically you, you pay money, you enter, you sit down and you never know what it’s going to be. It’s always something different. And the past few times I have had cards that I’ve designed that I’ve given out to people to play with. They’ve never seen before. So it’s a very special experience. They’re usually regarded as one of the most popular things at the convention. No matter what kind of Magic player you are. If you’re newer, if you’re reading this and you’re new to Magic, There’s places you can go to learn Magic better. People you can meet to get better at Magic. I have people coming to MagicCons, who do not play Magic, who are adjacent to Magic and they just love seeing the cosplayers, walking through the immersive areas, and even watching the panels about art. You don’t have to know anything about Magic to enjoy how cool the art is right and see the artist walk through how they create this stuff. So there’s a ton here even if you don’t play Magic and hopefully you come and say, ”That was awesome. I want to play Magic now.” Come on, check out for a day, it’s a great time.

[CW] What is your favorite thing you can’t wait to show people?

[GV] I’ll say a couple things, I’ll say first of all that the Doctor Who commander decks are a huge labor of love for me. They are truly something I’m deeply passionate about. I’m a huge Doctor Who fan. I have been for over a decade. One day I was at work and I got informed about the Doctor Who commander decks and I was going to lead them. My response was to laugh because I was like everyone knows it’s my favorite thing. Nice joke. Haha, what is it actually? I was like, no really we are doing these? I could not believe it. It was truly a dream project for me.So that has to be my number one thing. I’m excited about the slate of products we have next year. I’m really looking forward to Duskmourn. And there’s also some other things that have not been announced yet.That I can’t talk about that are coming down the slate. So we announced a lot of things but you don’t know everything. And there’s some cool stuff you learn about in the future.

[CW] For me, one of the big highlights of coming is seeing the Preview Panels. Being in the crowd as things are announced and the excitement that’s all around. The feeling of the room is amazing.

[GV] We are all united. We all fly under the banner of Magic and no matter where you’re from, what your background is, or who you are. We’re all Magic players and that sense of community is like nothing else in the world. I mean i’ve been all. I’ve been to over eighty countries, I’ve played Magic in stores in many of those countries. There’s nothing like it. You walk into a store in South Africa, in Japan, Western Europe, anywhere in the US, Canada, Australia, or New Zealand. We sit down and we play Magic. If I’m in Japan and I don’t speak Japanese, you don’t speak English, it’s okay. Because the cards do all the talking and that’s so powerful for me.

[CW] I know you are all over the place, but what is somewhere that if someone was new to Magic, what can they checkout?

[GV] I’ve got a YouTube show called Good Morning Magic.  I post there three days a week. If you’re brand new, if you’re deeply enfranchised in Magic, there’s tons of stuff there to go. We go deep into how Magic is designed. But if you’re newer we have a number of videos explaining some of the basics. What commander is, what different formats are things. Things to get you started. If you have any questions at all, you can also reach out to me on, basically, every social media platform @GavinVerhey.

Tabletop Editor | [email protected]

Chris began tabletop gaming in college and quickly fell into the addictive world of cardboard. Beginning with D&D and Catan he became an enthusiast of all things gaming; analog or digital. Chris, now a relapsed MtG player, loves connecting with people via gaming through RPGs, board games, and video games. A particular favorite is testing friendships through social deduction games.

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