Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Ieuan, the Baneslayer, or Why Nicol Bolas Sacs a Shinewend Every Time You Make Another Win Con, Part 2

(← Part 1)

So how does one become a better Magic designer? Well, first things first. As with any trip, mindset is paramount. No one wants to hear this, but try to entertain the idea that you might honestly be a bad designer. If you aren't, you'll be no worse for the wear on account of anything I say. But if you are, and there's at least a small chance you could learn something, it seems reasonable to make a real effort to check your ego at the door. If only for the duration of this article, accept that it's conceivable that, with respect to Magic design, you are as yet unskilled, and, perhaps buoyed by the praise of peers, you have been instilled with bad habits and specious beliefs.

Great! Now comes the hard part. Now we begin devising a simple framework with which you can more or less objectively evaluate individual card designs. (Cycle, set, block, and interblock design aren't until next semester.) It's going to be tedious and time consuming (which is probably why nobody does it), but this exercise will help your thought processes become more methodical, and hopefully will allow you to gradually overcome your incorrect learned behaviors.

Pick a small group of cards to analyze. At first, it's helpful to analyze similar cards so that you can more easily make comparisons and draw connections, but feel free to pick whatever cards you like. I'm going to analyze alternate win conditions. Win conditions are particularly interesting because there are so few of them, and they're a microcosm of the evolution of Magic's design.

For each card, wrack your brain and write down everything you love about it, and, more importantly, everything you hate. Many people find it distasteful to be negative, but you have to be able to tear a card to shreds, or you'll never be a good designer. If you can't identify problems, you can't avoid them, and you can't find their solutions. Be harsh and hypercritical, especially of your own work. Nothing that is sufficiently complex is perfect. You should be able to find legitimate fault with almost anything. Part of this exercise is training yourself to do so.

Note that I said "legitimate" fault. Initially, many of your complaints are going to be baseless and without merit, because your thought processes are flawed. For example, I recently read an amateur design review of Return to Ravnica that criticized the lack of reprints from the original Ravnica, and suggested that reprinting Last Gasp would have been a great way to evoke nostalgia. Before you read ahead, see if you can you figure out why this grievance and proposed solution have no bite.

Even generously accepting at face value that RtR needs more reprints, which is not a given, the problem is that Last Gasp does not properly evoke nostalgia for Ravnica. It's simply not a Ravnica card. Yes, it happened to be printed in Ravnica, but it quite literally could have been included without a second thought in every Magic set ever printed, save one. With just a moment's reflection, it becomes obvious that, of the individual cards in Ravnica, the ones that most evoke Ravnica – the place, the plane, and not generic memories you happen to have of playing Magic in 2005 – are those with guild mechanics, or those that play well with guild mechanics, or the Guildmages, or the characters and places from the story, etc.

A vast cityscape with ten guilds, each with its own mechanic that encapsulates the ideals of that guild and its colors, and cycles that show each guild's take on common themes ... that's what Wizards chose to bring back with Return to Ravnica, not a pointless reprint like Last Gasp.

So, be critical, but make sure your criticisms are substantive. If you have a friend you can do this exercise with together, that will help immensely. You can periodically compare notes and do your best to invalidate each other's opinions. No matter what you do, it will take quite some time for you to learn how to think in a precise, logically consistent, essentially inhuman fashion, but don't get discouraged. You'll be a heartless robot like me before you know it.

It's also important to step outside your own propensities and proclivities for a while, and honestly try to understand all of the reasons why anyone at all might react to a card. There's no way you can think of everything, but that shouldn't stop you from trying. If it helps you at times to think in terms of familiar personality profiles, like Mark Rosewater's player psychographics, or anything of that nature, then do so.

After you write down each like or dislike, try to distill it down to one key concept that captures the essence of that idea. After doing this for a few cards, you will have assembled a list of criteria that you can use to judge other cards. With each new card, you will always start with what you love, and what you hate (updating your list as necessary), but then, as a thought experiment, you will run down your entire list of criteria. For each positive criterion, you will ask, "Is this actually good, and if so, can I make this card have more of it?" For each negative criterion, you will ask, "Is this actually bad, and if so, can I make this card have less of it?"

You will start seeing patterns and recognizing common design mistakes. You will begin to get a good feel for how enhancing a card along one axis affects it along all the others. You will also start to identify "isolated" attributes that can be tweaked with minimal impact to others, and how some attributes are isolated on some types of cards, and not on others. Isolated attributes will ultimately become one of your most powerful design tools, because they will allow you to take virtually any design and make it strictly better from a design perspective.

Eventually the whole process will be entirely automatic, and you won't need to make or refer to any lists. You'll be so fast and fluent that you will be able to glance at a brand new card and rattle off the good, the bad, and the ugly, and if the card has even the slightest glimmer of promise, you'll be able to polish it into a gem, usually quite easily and in a matter of minutes. In part 3, we'll put this to the test, when I apply my analysis to redesigning some alternate win condition cards, with examples from both real cards and amateur designs. But first, I've got to break down some cards. (Try to stay awake.)

Here's the list of qualities (and their descriptions, in no particular order) I ultimately generated by analyzing my chosen cards. This is the end result of the analysis, but it's probably more useful to you to see the final product first:

  • Simple, Elegant – the card is easy to understand and accomplishes its goals in a simple and elegant way, for example, by having few words, by having no extra cases or exceptions, by being consistent in its representation of concepts, or by effectively relating to familiar concepts.
  • Arbitrary – the card makes you ask "why?" due to the inclusion of arbitrary or pointless words, numbers, abilities, or effects, especially where obvious, meaningful choices exist.
  • Messy – the game state, or just the state of the card, is hard to understand at a glance. This is most often due to excessive numbers of counters or a large numerical threshold.
  • Flavorful – the card's concept, colors, name, art, types, abilities, requirements, and effects all fit together. Where real world concepts are referenced, the card meets expectations and successfully relates to those concepts.
  • Clashes – the card's concept, name, etc., are superficially related, but correspond rather poorly upon inspection. It's kind of like an uncanny valley of flavor, the cringe inducing effect of singing off key, or every metaphor ever made by Thomas Friedman.
  • Harmonious – the card fits well within the context of its set and block.
  • Competent – if someone were to make a deck specifically to fulfill the requirements of the card, they would want to play the card in that deck. The card doesn't need to be tournament viable, but it should perform adequately at the kitchen table in a deck built around it.
  • Unique, Interesting – the card does something that hasn't been done before, or expresses an idea that hasn't been expressed before, or expands on an existing idea in a new way, or unexpectedly subverts an existing idea.
  • Exciting, Splashy – the card has a "wow!" factor that makes people sit up and take notice, for example, an unusually large creature, a big number, an unusual or dramatic effect, many colors, etc.
  • Slow, Boring – the effects of the card are slow, or banal, or the card promotes unexciting game play that leads to protracted games.
  • Late – by the time you could satisfy the requirements of the alternate win condition, you should have already won the game anyway. This doesn't need to be true in every possible deck, just "generally".
  • Disloyal – the card doesn't always help its controller.
  • Impactful – the card can be played with an immediate impact on the board in normal situations and doesn't often just sit dead in your hand or on board.
  • Enabling – the card helps fulfill its own requirements.
  • Dual Purpose – the card fulfills some generally useful purpose other than providing (or providing for) an alternate win condition.
  • Unreasonable – something about the card seems unnecessarily restrictive or mean spirited, or the card's requirements are much more difficult than they need to be. An alternate win condition should be a challenge, not Kobayashi Maru. Players want to feel like Kirk, but shouldn't actually need to be him to win.
  • Robust – the card itself (not necessarily its effects or requirements) is relatively hard to deal with. You are free to work toward your alternate win condition without being overly concerned that the opportunity will cease to exist. (Being an enchantment is sufficient for me to call a card robust.)
  • Interactive – opponents will normally have a way to work against the game plan suggested by the card, or the card is easy to interact with directly. This can be good or bad, depending on the card.

And here's the condensed card by card analysis from which I assembled that list, with brief explanations where needed:

Celestial Convergence

  • Robust – (because it's an enchantment.)
  • Interactive – opponents can work against the game plan by dealing damage or gaining life. To make matters worse, opponents, in general, are already trying to do this anyway.
  • Messy – seven counters is more than you can easily keep track of, or count at a glance.
  • Wordy, Complicated – tons of words, multiple cases.
  • Disloyal – can cause an opponent to win.
  • Not Impactful – remember, this means it doesn't impact the board when you play it.
  • Boring – has the potential to draw the game.
  • Boring, Slow – asks you to drag the game out for seven more turns.
  • Flavorless – convergence, omens, life total, and the art all have nothing to do with each other.
  • Incompetent – admittedly, this is somewhat subjective, but I think most people would agree Celestial Convergence is miserable even in celestialconvergence.dec.

Coalition Victory

  • Simple, Elegant – the effect is short, to the point, and easy to understand.
  • Flavorful – the idea behind the card and the mechanical effect match nicely.
  • Harmonious – the card meshes nicely with domain and caring about color, both Invasion mechanics.
  • Splashy – a gold card with all the mana symbols on it just seems cool.
  • Not Impactful, Incompetent, Late, Messy
  • Not Robust – you can waste all your effort assembling the win, not to mention eight mana, only to have Coalition Victory countered, or a land or creature destroyed in response, and you don't get to try again.

Chance Encounter

  • Simple, Robust
  • Clashes – the mechanical effect clashes with the name. They are superficially related, in that they both seemingly have something to do with chance, but winning 10 coin flips because you deliberately flipped (on average) 20 coins over who knows how many turns is not a "chance encounter". Quite the opposite, in fact. Compare winning one poker hand to being a winning player over 20,000 hands. One is chance. One is strategy.
  • Flavorless – the art is impenetrable.
  • Flavorless – 10 is a meaningless (and not stereotypically lucky) number. Meaningful numbers exist in this context.
  • Not Impactful, Incompetent, Messy
  • Unreasonable – winning 10 coin flips seems unreasonably difficult. This is admittedly subjective.
  • Late – you don't just flip coins in isolation. They are attached to spells and abilities that do things. Casting or activating (on average) 20 spells or abilities is going to win the game before Chance Encounter does.

Battle of Wits

  • Simple, Elegant, Robust
  • Flavorful – concept and mechanic match nicely.
  • Interesting, Unique – no other card motivates you to play gargantuan decks or can exploit it if you do.
  • Splashy, Exciting – as soon as you unbox your deck, the card draws attention to itself.
  • Splashy, Exciting – 200 is an awesomely large number in the context of Magic.
  • Impactful – generally speaking, you win the game the turn after you play it, and it's not often dead in decks that play it.
  • Flavorless – the Odyssey and 9th Edition artworks are poor. Those depict normal wizarding battles. The M13 art fixed this by being more abstract and "thinky".

Mortal Combat

  • Simple, Robust
  • Flavorless – the idea behind the card and the mechanical effect don't even seem superficially related. The requirement doesn't evoke combat, or even something like a Mortal Kombat style tournament, which the art seems to be depicting.
  • Not Impactful, Unreasonable, Incompetent, Late, Messy

Test of Endurance

  • Simple, Robust
  • Flavorless – the link between endurance and life total is tenuous at best. Life total is like toughness in creatures, which isn't really related to endurance at all. Elephants have more "life" than wolves but certainly not more endurance.
  • Flavorless – the art shows two normal looking dudes fighting normally.
  • Flavorless – 50 is an arbitrary life total, and a less arbitrary number exists in this context.
  • Not Impactful

Epic Struggle

  • Simple, Robust
  • Flavorless – amassing a vast army of creatures doesn't evoke an epic struggle as much as it does a swift and overwhelming victory.
  • Flavorless – the art shows two normal looking dudes fighting normally. Thankfully, this is the fifth and last of the "two normal looking dudes fighting normally" win conditions, which seemed to be all the rage in Odyssey block.
  • Not Impactful, Incompetent, Messy
  • Late – one of the worst offenders , it's almost inconceivable not to have won already by the time you get twenty creatures onto the battlefield.

Darksteel Reactor

  • Simple, Robust
  • Flavorless – the win condition is an arbitrary and purely game-mechanical construct. Counters, that are essentially devoid of meaning, accrue without any action on the part of any player.
  • Boring, Slow – even if you're going faster than one counter a turn, twenty counters is slow as heck and promotes protracted games.
  • Messy – accrues way more counters than you can easily keep track of at a glance.
  • Not Impactful, Incompetent

Door to Nothingness

  • Simple
  • Splashy – ten colored mana symbols is cool.
  • Splashy, Unique – an activated ability with "target player loses the game" is unique and cool.
  • Flavorful – literally removing a player from the game is a reasonable thing for Door to Nothingness to do.
  • Unreasonable – entering the battlefield tapped just seems like a slap in the face.
  • Not Impactful

Barren Glory

  • Simple, Robust
  • Unique – the win condition is quite bizarre.
  • Flavorful – the name, art, and requirement all match perfectly.
  • Interesting – in a first for the alternate wincons, Barren Glory doesn't even seem to be asking you to play Magic as we know it. It immediately grabs you and makes you wonder how you could ever fulfill the conditions, but not because it has an unreasonable numerical threshold or something of that nature. Rather, it's strange and wonderfully askew.
  • Flavorless, Unreasonable – the extra requirement of having an empty hand seems like an arbitrary and unnecessary restriction, all the worse because it doesn't contribute to the card's flavor. Why stop at empty hand? Why not empty library? Empty graveyard? Empty exile zone? Empty sideboard? They all seem equally pointless.

Helix Pinnacle

  • Simple, Robust
  • Splashy – at some point, a ridiculous numerical threshold ceases to be unreasonable and just becomes Herculean and epic.
  • Flavorful – there isn't any compelling correspondence between the effect and the name, but there is a certain benefit to borrowing virtually nothing from the real world. Anything goes. Who's to say that's not exactly what a Helix Pinnacle does?
  • Slow, Messy, Not Impactful, Incompetent
  • Inelegant – shroud is stapled on as extra protection because, unlike most other win conditions, you have to play this early and leave it exposed for many turns while you charge it up.
  • Boring – on a positive note, though boring, this is far less boring than its direct ancestor, Darksteel Reactor. At least Helix Pinnacle demands that its controller interact with it. Compare "gather 100 mana" to "wait 20 turns".

Mayael's Aria

  • Robust
  • Splashy – gold cards are cool, and there are some impressively large numbers on the card.
  • Harmonious – uses the Naya "cares about 5 or more power" mechanic, though this is secretly bad since that was far and away the worst of the Shards of Alara mechanics.
  • Wordy, Complicated – three cases, boy is that a lot of text.
  • Flavorless – yes, you have a lot of wiggle room when a card's concept is both purely mechanical and has no real world analog, but stitching together three disparate effects (get counters, gain life, win the game) based on arbitrary thresholds of essentially the same requirement (5, 10, 20 power) is too much. One arbitrary threshold, sure, that's par for the course in Magic. Three is a mess, as is this card.
  • Slow, Messy, Not Impactful, Incompetent, Late

Felidar Sovereign

  • Simple, Elegant
  • Splashy – a fairly large creature with two powerful keywords
  • Interesting – it's not unique, but fixing or upgrading older cards is interesting, as long as you do it well. "Here, have a Test of Endurance that isn't crappy and unfun." Mission accomplished.
  • Flavorful – 40 is a much better number than 50. It's double your starting life total. It's just cleaner and less arbitrary.
  • Flavorful – I have no preconceptions about what an epic cat beast with horns can do, and I'm willing to believe it can do this.
  • Enabling – the card asks you to gain life, and then helps you do so.
  • Enabling – vigilance ensures your life total won't stagnate by trading hits, as Felidar Sovereign can attack and still block.
  • Impactful
  • Dual Purpose – even if you can't fulfill the alternate win condition, Felidar Sovereign helps you work toward the normal goal of attacking your opponent and not dying.

Near-Death Experience

  • Simple, Elegant, Robust
  • Flavorful – the name, art, and effect match perfectly.
  • Splashy – winning the game when you are as close to losing as you can be (along the life axis) is epic.
  • Unique, Interesting – as with Barren Glory, there's nothing like it, and it subverts your expectations of the way Magic should be played.
  • Not Impactful

Laboratory Maniac

  • Simple, Elegant, Flavorful
  • Splashy – winning the game when you are as close to losing as you can be (along the deck axis) is epic.
  • Interesting – again, subversive.
  • Impactful, Dual Purpose

Azor's Elocutors

  • Impactful, Dual Purpose
  • Enabling – it's a fair blocker, so it helps you not take damage, fulfilling its own requirement.
  • Boring, Slow – the win condition is essentially "drag the game on as long as you can with as little combat as possible".
  • Clashes – filibustering is a pretty specific concept that doesn't quite fit the "don't take damage" mold used by the card. Other concepts in Magic seem much more analogous to the real world concept of the filibuster, which is to impede legislation by refusing to stop talking, thereby preventing a vote.

Continue on to Part 3, where we apply some of this analysis to fixing (and creating) card designs old and new.

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