Leading a Horse to Water

Posted in Making Magic on October 5, 2009

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

Welcome to Landfall Week! This week we'll be exploring the ability word at the heart of Zendikar's "land matters" theme. Normally, I would use my column during a mechanic theme week to explain how we designed the mechanic. As I already did that during the first week of previews (Achieving Zendikar, Part I) I'm forced to tackle the theme from a different vantage point. I spent a day stewing on it and finally I realized what I had to talk about—Odyssey (the large fall set from 2001 for those who might not have been playing for eight years). As always, stick with me; I'll get us back to landfall.

Odyssey's Homer

Here is a list of all the large sets I've lead the design for (or am in the process of leading):

"Lights" (Fall 2010)
"Shake" (Fall 2011)

We'll take "Lights" and "Shake" out of the mix as I can't talk about them. ("The pain! The pain!") Of the six sets that remain, which set do I feel was the most important set to me as a designer? There are a number of answers to this. Tempest was my first design and got my foot in the door as a Magic designer. Mirrodin is the best selling set of all time. Ravnica ushered in what I've called the Fourth Age of Magic design. Zendikar is ... well, let's wait a few months and see. When I dig deep though, my answer is Odyssey.

Wait, isn't Odyssey the large set above that was the poorest received? Yes, it was. But the question I asked wasn't which large set I lead was the most important thing for Magic; I asked which was the most important set for me as a designer. The reason I choose Odyssey isn't because it's my best work, but because it's the set in which I learned the most as a designer. It is also the large set in which I made, I believe, my biggest mistakes.

I've talked numerous times about the importance of mistakes in the design process. Mistakes are where you learn. When you succeed, you are far less motivated to understand why, but when you fail, it's all you can think about. Mistakes force designers to reevaluate ideas they have accepted as true. Mistakes force designers to go down paths they might normally never have considered. Mistakes force designers to action. Odyssey made me a better designer because it forced me to do all of the above.

So what were Odyssey's big mistakes? Rather than just tell you, I want to first walk you though the mindset that I had when I made Odyssey. One of the things that I'd always loved about Magic is how it keeps making the players reevaluate what they know. Things that seem like bedrocks of strategy can change as the environment changes. I was very enamored with the idea that it was a Magic designer's role to mess with preconceptions.

I approached Odyssey with the goal of taking some sacred strategy truism and turning it on its ear. Which nugget of conventional wisdom did I set my sights on? Card advantage. For those unfamiliar, the idea of card advantage is, at its most basic level, the idea that the player with more cards will win. If I draw additional cards, I am gaining card advantage. If I spend one card to rid you of two, I am gaining card advantage. If one of my cards neutralizes many other cards, as long as it neutralizes more of your cards than my cards (including itself), I am gaining card advantage. Please understand that the idea of card advantage goes much deeper than my brief explanation, but I hope you get the general idea of its importance.

This leads me into my first design mistake.

Mistake #1 – I Designed the Set to Please Myself Rather Than the Audience

A designer has to understand his ultimate goal. My ultimate goal is to make my set as enjoyable as possible to as many players as possible to encourage them all to want to buy lots and lots of boosters packs of the set. While making myself happy is a fine subgoal (and is important in that creative quality is often closely tied to the creator's happiness with his work; essentially connected creators do better work), it cannot subvert the main goal.

I wasn't challenging card advantage because I thought it would make for better game play but because I enjoyed the intellectual challenge of making something so important not important in the environment I was working on. In short, my focus wasn't on the best interests of the game or its audience. This resulted in my second mistake.

Mistake #2 – I Tried to Force the Audience to Have Fun My Way

In Odyssey Limited, it was often the right play to discard your entire hand to give your 2/2 Patrol Hound first strike even though the first strike didn't matter. That's different. It definitely forces one to reevaluate card advantage, but it isn't fun. (I guess my caveat should be "for most players." Odyssey was designed to be super-Spikey, and I know it is beloved in certain Spike circles as a very skill-testing environment.) You know what most players like to do with the cards in their hand? Play them. You know what players don't want to do?

Mistake #3 – I Made the Players Have to Care about Something They Didn't Want to Care About

Here is the kind of moment that occurs quite a bit in Odyssey Limited:

Player A: How many cards do you have in your graveyard?
Player B: Four.
Player A: How many cards in your hand?
Player B: Two.
Player A: Your Crashing Centaur is how big?
Player B: 3/4.
Player A: At threshold?
Player B: 5/6 and can't be targeted. Perhaps one day they'll make a name for that ability.
Player A: And you can discard cards to give it trample?
Player B: Yes.
Player A: What does it cost to activate?
Player B: One green mana.
Player A: And how much green mana do you have available?
Player B: Two.
Player A: And the squirrel's a 1/1.
Player B: Yes.
Player A: And it turns into an 8/8?
Player B: Yes.
Player A: Do you have any creatures that you can sacrifice?
Player B: I have a Druid Lyrist.
Player A: It costs one green to activate?
Player B: Yes.
Player A: Do you have an enchantment in play?
Player B: No, but you do. Come on, do you want to attack?
Player A: I don't know yet.

Was it fun to worry about exactly how many cards were in each graveyard and in each player's hand, which cards had the ability to put themselves into the graveyard or allowed you to move things from another zone to the graveyard, and what would change when threshold was reached? Not for the majority of players, but if you wanted to win in that Limited environment, you had to keep track of it all. (This is the reason that the Spike players who like it are in that camp—tracking all that information and making the proper move does require a lot of skill.)

The big lesson of Odyssey was this: As a designer, I have two choices. I can move the design to where the players want to be, or I can move the players to where I want the design to be. In my opinion, doing the second is just hubris. (Free SAT vocabulary lesson—hubris is a Greek word for "excessive pride.") You are making yourself, the designer, more important than the players. You are making your wants the focus rather than the wants of the players.

In addition, you are making your work much, much, much harder. When you run against human nature with your game design, you can do one of two things. You can change your design, or you can change human nature. Hint: one of those is a lot easier. I was so caught up in how the game could force the players to change that I missed the big picture. Was I making the players make a change that they wanted to make? Was it fun? Did it make for enjoyable game play?

I walked away from Odyssey realizing that there was a whole layer of restrictions that I had been ignoring. My design has to play into the player's needs, not against them. To me this was a glorious realization for two reasons. One, as a creative person, I love restrictions. If you somehow haven't heard my mantra: restrictions breed creativity. Being forced to make hard choices makes for a better design. Two, I realized that I was designing for the wrong purpose. The purest design comes from the designer putting the needs of the design ahead of his or her own needs. This is a huge obstacle for designers (new and old), but once you can break through it, it is liberating.

I'm very holistic about how everything ties together. This message dovetails very neatly into another message I often spout: things that work against the larger picture have to be removed even if they are, in a vacuum, wonderful things. (No scene is worth a line; no movie is worth a scene.) The best individual card design has to be removed if it fights against the design of the set.

So what does this all have to do with landfall? Everything, because when we focused on land mechanics during the first part of design, I was faced with all the same challenges that Odyssey had except this time I made the right decisions.

Land Ho

Let's examine the three Odyssey mistakes one by one as they applied to our exploration of land mechanics.

Mistake #1 – I Designed the Set to Please Myself Rather than the Audience

Much as Odyssey set out to prove how it could turn card advantage on its head, Zendikar could have set out to prove how it could make land matter in ways it never had. As an example, let's talk about a space we explored, which incidentally led to the creation of landfall. We called the ability landshort, as explained in Matt Place's article today. The idea of landshort was that you could get more powerful effects from spells if you were willing to give up your "land slot" for the turn.

The concept of using the "land slot" as a cost is quite compelling intellectually. Designers are constantly looking for new resources to play around with. The very idea of gaining advantage by not doing something is intriguing, but intriguing to whom? Do players care about the unorthodox design space? Not really. Players care about the play of the game or the expansion or the mechanic or the card. Is it fun to play? Does it make for thrilling and compelling games? Does it offer cool deck-building opportunities? The concept is irrelevant to everyone but the designers. What matters is the execution.

The designers were very much pulled toward the idea of using the "land slot" mechanically, but as we played it, we kept our focus on what we should: Was it making for fun game play? The answer was no. Being unable to cast your spells wasn't so much fun. This leads us into mistake #2.

Mistake #2 – I Tried to Force the Audience to Have Fun My Way

We very well could have made an environment where the correct answer was to sacrifice long-term stability for short-term gain. If the landshort spells were powerful enough, using up your "land slots" would have been the correct play. Nothing we could do with the mechanic, though, could overcome the frustration of not being able to do anything if your one good landshort card was answered.

Grazing Gladehart
Geyser Glider

Landfall came about because we took a step back and asked ourselves what did the players want to do with their land. The answer was play them, because playing lands meant casting spells. The team realized that what we were intrigued by was the decision of when to play lands. Landshort obviously made you question when to play lands, but at the cost of making decisions that were unfun. What would happen, we asked, if we turned the decision on its head? What if the correct decision most of the time was to play your land, and only on the rare occasion would you want to not play it? (For example, if you are trying to combo your landfall effect with something else and you need to wait a turn to set that other thing up). This led to the design of landfall.

The very first playtest of landfall showed that we were moving in the right direction. Landshort was most often about making difficult decisions in which you always felt like you lost something. Landfall, on the other hand, always felt like you were getting something for free. It was liberating. It was fun.

This, interestingly, is a lesson I learned many years ago as a camp counselor doing arts and craft with six-year-olds. I came up with the idea of doing finger painting with pudding. I made vanilla and chocolate pudding and let the kids go at it. When we were done, I had a number of counselors question the activity. The end product, they said, was ugly, and not something we wanted to send home to the parents. My response was this: What was the point of the activity? What were we trying to do? My goal was to maximize the experience for my campers. I argued that having happy kids coming home and relaying what they did was far more valuable to the parents than a piece of art they could hang on their fridge. The point wasn't the art; it was the experience.

The trick to finding the right land mechanic hinged on the same lesson: providing the proper experience. We needed to find something that made players care about land in a way that they enjoyed. Landfall proved to be the right choice because it promoted game play that the players enjoyed and wanted to do.

Mistake #3 – I Made the Players Have to Care about Something They Didn't Want to Care About

Once we had figured out that landfall was our mechanic, we were far from done. The next important question was how we would use landfall. The first question was what colors to use it in. Often with a mechanic we will limit it to a subset of colors to help create definition. This wasn't as much a problem with landfall as the effects of landfall were open-ended, allowing each color to do its own mechanics. Design chose to evenly balance the mechanic through all five colors. Development tweaked it to have it show up slightly more in three colors (blue, black, and green) than in the other two.

The next issue was one of mindspace. This is a very important design concept that I haven't talked too much about. The idea of mindspace is that the amount of information a player can keep track of in a game is limited. If you overtax their mindspace, you begin to make the game uncomfortable for them. This dissatisfaction is not always conscious, but it has a huge impact on how players feel about a game. One of Odyssey's technical mistakes is that it overtaxed the mindspace of the majority of players; this, I believe, is one of the major reasons that a lot of players didn't like Odyssey.

When tracking mindspace, landfall has the advantage that all the cards share the same trigger. Landfall does require you to rethink how you play, but a major part of that is just learning to track and care about when you play lands. Anther way to help the mindspace problem was to limit what the mechanic did at common. One possible way to do this would be to greatly reduce the number of landfall cards at common as it would significantly lessen what R&D calls the "as-fan" (how often a particular card shows up in a pack "as fanned" given ten common, three uncommon, and a rare/mythic rare). Unfortunately, for the "lands matter" theme to work in Limited, we needed a substantial amount of landfall at common.

Plated Geopede
Surrakar Marauder

The next trick was to consolidate what landfall did at common. We did this in two ways. First, we restricted landfall at common to only affecting the card it was on. Uncommon, rare, and mythic rare landfall cards can affect other things, but in design, the commons all boosted themselves. (It is true that the landfall quests do ramp up to affecting other things, but the landfall part just adds counters.) Second, we made two cycles: a creature cycle that got +2/+2 (made in design) and a quest cycle (made in development). The remaining five common cards were an equipment that granted +2/+2, a creature that granted +1/+1 and three colored creatures (in the colors weighted toward landfall) that got a non-powerboosting bonus at landfall. (Development did include one common creature that affected something other than itself: Grazing Gladehart.)

Adventuring Gear
Quest for the Gemblades

The final trick to help make landfall easier to track came from the nature of the mechanic. Because landfall mostly works at the times you could play a sorcery, it caused the landfall effects to focus on effects more aggressive in nature. The net result of all this is that landfall is much easier on the player's mindspace and thus helps them focus and creates fewer "I don't know what to do" moments than Odyssey created.

This Landfall Is My Landfall

I talked during my preview weeks how the idea of a "lands matter" block sounded dubious to many Wizards employees when they first heard it. While I very much believed in its potential, my team still had to find it. I feel like the lessons of Odyssey block helped me guide my team towards a solution that maximized what the land theme could do. I believe the positive player response towards "land matters" comes from the fact that we found a way to do it that was fun. Looking back on many of the things we tried, the land design vein is fraught with many perils—deadly perils if you may—but that we managed to find the priceless treasures.

I am very curious to hear from all of you as you get a chance to play with landfall. How do you all feel about the mechanic? Does it deliver on the "lands matter" theme in a positive way? Inquiring minds want to know.

Join me next week when I look at individual Zendikar cards and tell stories (you knew it was coming).

Until then, may your mistakes lead to greater triumphs.

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