The Evil That Designers Do

Posted in Making Magic on May 26, 2008

By Evil Mark Rosewater

Wizards of the Coast is out of the office for the Memorial Day holiday, and will return with new articles beginning Tuesday, May 27. In case you missed it, what follows is the article that ran in this slot last week. In the meantime, this week's feature article is already up for your holiday reading pleasure. See you tomorrow!

Hello. "Evil" Mark here. Yes, I’m back. It appears that the powers that be (a.k.a. Scott Johns and Kelly Digges) thought it would be just the most wonderful idea to reflect the duality of the Lorwyn / Shadowmoor blocks by having an Evil Twin Week. Idiots! You don’t invite evil twins in. Much like vampires, it never ends well. We’re evil. It’s in our name. Why don’t people get this?

Anyway, next week is Evil Twin Week. Why am I here now? For starters, evil twins don’t exactly follow rules. Also, Monday of next week is Memorial Day (an "American holiday" as Mark always patronizingly calls it every time he mentions it) so there’s no new Making Magic column. They just repeat this week’s. Not only are evil twins evil, we’re also smart. You try and cut us out, and we find a way in regardless.

So now that I’m here, what am I going to talk about? It dawned on me that last time I "guest authored" (by the way, I estimate that Mark has about seventy-two hours of air left, so I suggest any interested parties start looking), I didn’t optimize my ability to do evil with the column. For some inane reason, Mark has a lot of readers. Now I could give all of you an “evil” fish or I could teach you how to fish evilly (it involves putting a slow-acting poison on the hook). I‘m choosing the latter. Mark drones on and on about good design. Well, today it’s evil design’s turn.

Before this article is done, I’m going to teach you four ways to really annoy any players stupid enough to use the cards you’ve designed. Honestly, it’s like shooting fish in a barrel, you know after you raised the temperature to boiling and electrified it. But first I have to teach you one important lesson.

All right, here’s the lesson. You’re all gullible idiots. Just kidding. Let’s try again.

No really, you’re gullible idiots. Here’s how gullible. I’m going to do this yet a third time and you’re still going to click on it.

Now that we’ve firmly established that you’re gullible idiots, let’s move on.

Evil Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid

Time to jump into the meat of today’s article.

Ah, yes human psychology. You can always count on it to make people act like idiots. Why do you keep clicking? Because humans have to know the unknown. This leads us to today’s topic. Mark likes to talk about how designers have to take into account human psychology when creating cards. He likes to drone on about structure and aesthetics and all that junk. "When design fights human nature," he says, "human nature will always win."

I’m about to say something I almost never do: Mark’s right. I mean about this one isolated thing. He’s right that human nature is a potent force, but it's one just as easily used for evil. In today’s column I’m going to walk you through four different human psychological foibles that you can totally abuse to annoy players.

Psychological Foible #1 – Players Assume Things Work

Dash_HopesThere are a lot of unspoken rules in society. One of them is that things are supposed to work. If you buy a product, the expectation is that it will work. If you purchase food, the expectation is that it's edible. If you get a Magic card, the expectation is that it can do what it says it can do. Humans are disgustingly trusting. Here's how you get to abuse that trust.

First, you can design a card that simply doesn't work. The rules just don't allow it. The player will assume it works because they always assume it works and play it. At some point they'll run into a person with enough rules knowledge that they'll be informed it doesn't work, but they won't believe this person because it's written on the card so, of course, it has to work. The rules lawyer will start explaining the rules and the owner of the card will just keep pointing to the card. This cycle will go on for quite a while. Hours of entertainment. But this is the blunt use of this tool. I don't want you thinking that evil never uses any nuance.

Next, you can design a card where part of it works but the other part doesn't. This is similar to the first type of card but the fact that it works part of the time will only confound the confusion about the part that doesn't work. Still, this is not too subtle.

Here's where we get to the good stuff. Design a card with two parts that each work independently. Make the two parts imply that they work together but actually not. For example, imagine that Future Sight had the following card:

Notice how I've gotten you nervous to click. You still click, because you have to, but now you're just a touch hesitant. That's the kind of nuanced work evil can do. 

Baby's Got Back
Target player draws a card.
Buyback 5
Flashback 3U

This card seems cool. You can keep drawing cards with buyback. You can draw an extra card with flashback. The best part though is that it seems these two abilities work together. For , you can play the card out of the graveyard for its flashback cost, pay its buyback cost as well, and put it into your hand when it resolves. Except, it doesn't work that way. Flashback removes the card from the game when—there's just no way around it.

Now we can see the true evilness at work. The player who owns the card will assume that the two halves work together. They have to. They're on the same card. How could they not work together? The rules lawyer knows they don't. But here's the best part: Even once the player learns that the two halves don't work together, they still play the card because even without the two halves working together, it's still a good card. But each and every time the opportunity to play the two halves together comes up, it will create an unhappy moment for the player. Not only do you get arguing, you get perpetual sadness, maybe even anger. The amount of ill will you can create is staggering.

Let's move on. We have much more evil to do.

Psychological Foible #2 – Players Need Every Piece of Text to Mean Something

Fool's TomeNow that we're limiting ourselves to cards that actually work, the next area ripe for abuse is the text. Here's how human nature works. If there's text on the card, it must mean something. All text has meaning. Why would the designers put text on the card that doesn't have value?

Now there are a number of ways to take advantage of this. First is to include meaningless text. I don't mean text that doesn't work; that was the last section. I mean text that works but will just never ever be meaningful. For example, protection from Dwarves in a set with no Dwarves. You should have seen the angry letters Mark got when people first saw Goatnapper before they figured out that all of the Shapeshifters in the set had changeling and thus were Goats. Players will search and search for the answer, getting angrier and angrier. Once they figure out that there isn't an answer, they'll gripe about the text every time they use the card. Oh yeah, make sure to make the rest of the card good enough that they feel compelled to use it.

Next is to include text that seems relevant but never really is. Imagine this card...


Valiant Knight
Creature – Human Knight
First strike, protection from dragons

The ability will feel very flavorful. That is, until the day that a Dragon beats them down while the Knight watches from below. I always like to see how long before you can get a vein in the forehead to pulse.

Now we get to the subtler execution: create a card with two aspects that basically overlap in function. Take this card, for example:


Basilisk Behemoth
Creature – Troll

This card will kill any creature it deals damage to in combat. You know, all the ones that 9 power of damage doesn't take care of. Here's the fun part: The above card as a vanilla 9/9 probably wouldn't upset anyone. Add the deathtouch ability and they get all flustered. Why? Because everything has to mean something. If text is on the card, it has to be relevant. Psychologically this ties into the same issues as the first foible. If it's there, it must be important. When they figure out it isn't, it just feels out of place and thus annoys them.

The final and sneakiest way to take advantage of this foible is to create two abilities that do have a connection to each other but cannot be played at the same time. For example:

Spitfire Elemental
Creature – Elemental Shaman
2RR, T: Put two 2/1 red Elemental token with haste into play. Sacrifice them at end of turn.
Whenever CARDNAME attacks, all other Elementals get +2/+0 until end of turn.

These two abilities work wonderfully together except without jumping through major hoops they can't be used on the same turn. Either ability by itself would be exciting, but by putting them together you constantly create the moment where the player gets frustrated that he can't use them together. This is a much subtler annoyance that to a connoisseur of evil such as myself gets extra brownie points. Be careful not to accidentally do something idiotic like make the first ability more expensive but drop the tap ability, as that would release all this pent up frustration we're working so hard to create.

Which brings us to the next foible.

Psychological Foible #3 – Players Assume Similar Things Work the Same

MorphlingHumans are fundamentally lazy. They want to think as little as possible. As such, society has been set up to lessen thinking whenever it can. One of the ways it does this is standardization. Similar things are designed to work similarly. No matter what phone you buy, it plugs into the same outlet in the wall. All devices that need batteries use the same small pool of batteries. All stoplights use the same three colors.

Magic is no different. When players learn that a particular kind of card works a certain way, they just assume that similar ones will have the same functionality. So much so that players will stop reading the newer cards once they get hints that it looks the same. Whenever people stop paying attention to the details, that's when evil can strike. Just ask the devil. It's his shtick.

Here's how we take advantage of this. Make a number of cards that all work the same, then change one or more of them to work slightly differently. The "slight" part is important. It has to stay in the ballpark of the other cards. "Close but different" can cause all kinds of headaches.

Here's an example I was able to sneak into actual Magic. (Yes, I too have an inflated ego; the biggest difference is that mine is much eviler and a little smaller. I mean, nobody has an ego as big as Mark—too bad Guinness doesn't track stuff like that.) It's known as the divvy mechanic in Invasion. You all probably know it as the mechanic on Fact or Fiction. You know, divide the cards into two piles and someone picks. Here's the genius of what I did. There's no constant as to who divides the piles and who chooses. It's different on each of the six cards. But Fact or Fiction is such a well known card that everyone just assumes that all the cards work like it, so they're played wrong constantly.

You can get even subtler. Try these two cards.

Mill Hawk
Creature – Bird
Whenever Mill Hawk deals combat damage to another player, for each damage dealt, that player puts the top card of his or her library into his or her graveyard.

Mill Sparrow
Creature – Bird
Whenever Mill Sparrow deals damage to another player, for each damage dealt, that player puts the top card of his or her library into his or her graveyard.

Can you spot the difference? Yes, the 2/2 cares about "combat damage," while the 1/1 only cares about "damage." Once a player learns one of them, there's no way they're going to even check on any other version. Of course, they work the same. And when it turns out they don't, they'll be pissed—both because it's confusing and because it flies in the face of what they assume must be true.

Lather. Rinse. Repeat. This trick can be used so many times. It's like a death of a thousand tiny paper cuts. Each one in isolation seems innocuous, but in number they completely undermine a player's confidence in the game.

One more.

Psychological Foible #4 – Players Need Patterns to Be Complete

RecycleHumans are structure junkies. It's just the way our brains are wired. We crave our patterns. Things have to work in a certain way. One of those things is called pattern completion. When people see things start to fit together, they are compelled to keep looking until they find them all. We can take advantage of that.

The simplest way to do this is make incomplete cycles. Not one or two cards—those might not be seen as a pattern. I'm talking about making four out of five. Make a cycle with four colors. You don't even have to put them in the same rarity or even name them alike. If they're close enough mechanically, the players will find them.

One of my favorite stories is how the Mirage design team (Bill Rose, Charlie Catino, Don Felice, Howard Kahlenberg and Joel Mick) did this by accident. So the team likes the idea of making tutors that put cards on top of the library. They think about what kinds of things players would want to search for: artifacts, creatures, enchantments, instants, and sorceries. They combined a couple of them to make the following three cards.

Enlightened Tutor
Mystical Tutor
Worldly Tutor

There were only three, so they didn't feel compelled to finish out the cycle. Then in Visions (note that it was the same design team), the team independently made this card:

Vampiric Tutor

White, blue and green in the first set. Black in the second set. It was pretty clear what was showing up in Weatherlight. Except it didn't, because the designers didn't see the pattern they'd created. Oh, but the players did, and they complained about it. They were pretty vocal too. So much so that not one but two different cards were made to fill the "red tutor" void. Can you name them?

Goblin Tutor

The point is that players want to complete the pattern. If you set it up and almost complete it, you can cause such sweet agony. Note that the pattern doesn't have to be a five-card cycle. Make the North, East, and South of something. Make creatures comprised of Water, Earth, and Fire. Find any pattern that suits your fancy and just leave one out. It'll gnaw on the players. The best part is that they'll expect it's coming and then get frustrated with each set as the final piece doesn't show up. It's the gift that keeps on giving.

Live Backwards

Infernal_Spawn_of_EvilI feel like I've spread enough evil for one day. That's the thing about evil. You really have to pace yourself. It feels good at first, but it catches up with you.

Anyway, take my teachings and go forth, my minions! Cause pain and suffering. Annoy others. Don't return library books. Participate in flame wars. Quote Pauly Shore. (Wait, I already said to cause pain and suffering.) Just do evil.

I'm not sure when I'll be back. I have my own author page now, so I'll probably have to write something else eventually. I hope you were properly annoyed. If not, I'll work on it next time.

Until then, may you choke on a chicken bone, have the Heimlich Maneuver incorrectly performed on you, break a few ribs, and then sue the person who tried to save your life for everything they have.

"Evil" Mark Rosewater

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