Magic Lessons

Posted in Making Magic on June 22, 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.

Little known fact: mana burn was almost removed from the game during the Sixth Edition rules change. How did it survive? Well, there was a mix of opinions about what to do with it, but one R&D person fought passionately to save it. His passion was enough to tip the scales and keep it in the game.

How did mana burn end up being removed ten years later? An R&D member fought passionately for its removal, building support and consensus among R&D. There were those who wished to save it, but this passionate R&D member managed to convince the majority that for the health of the game it was time for mana burn to go.

That passionate R&D member, in both cases, was me. How did I go from mana burn's savior to the ringleader of its removal? What changed during those ten years? I matured as an R&D member and as a designer (one might even say as a person). That maturity came from ten years of experiences that helped me learn many things about Magic and its design. These lessons made me look at mana burn and the game of Magic in a very different light. For my column today I am going to share these lessons with all of you. Remember, these aren't lessons about life (I did those already—here and here), but specifically about the game of Magic. (Then again, I believe everything is holistically connected, so maybe these are just more lessons on life.)


Lesson #1: Change is Inevitable

There's a famous saying: "You can never go home again." What the saying means is that what you think of as "your home" is not just a place but a set of memories from a specific time and place. You can't "go home" because there is no way to ever return to what once was. I never really understood this quote until I returned to my hometown (lovely Pepper Pike, Ohio, for those who seem to enjoy knowing all the minutiae of my life) a few years after college. I remember driving around and feeling that just enough things seemed different that the town no longer felt quite like the place I grew up. It was similar, in some ways familiar, yet it felt different. This was no longer my childhood home.

In college, I majored in communications (at Boston University's College of Communication). I spent a lot of time studying communication theory. Why do people watch the media they watch? How do you get an audience? How do you keep an audience? This is the kind of thing people creating communication need to know.

The core of everything came down to this: people hate change. Why? Because humans are conditioned, and I'm talking biologically here, to seek out the known. The known is safer than the unknown. Why try some new berries when the ones that I ate last week that didn't kill me are nearby? From a survival standpoint, the unknown is the path to death, and thus we are biologically built to fear it.

I always talk about how in design we try to not fight human nature. Well, humans hate change—shouldn't design just avoid changing anything? In some ways we do avoid change. There are certain constants to the Magic experience that we make sure to put in every set so that it feels like the game you know and love. Unfortunately, there's one gaping problem that's impossible to avoid: Magic, at its core, is about change.

I've often talked about the genius of Richard Garfield's original design for Magic. He managed to make a game that constantly adapted, that allowed its players to continually rediscover it. But this robustness came at a cost, and that cost was constant change. In order for Magic to be what it is, we have to keep putting out new sets with new ideas, things that challenge convention and turn old ideas on their ear. We have to continually fiddle with the rules and the color pie as each pebble in the pond makes new ripples.

What this means is that Magic is much like my hometown. It will never be what it once was because that time and place has since left. That's not a bad thing. I wouldn't wish stagnation on my hometown just so I could recognize it when I visit. I have to recognize it for what it is and not for what it once was.

... Which brings us to the lesson. Magic is going to change. It has to change. Change is what defines it. This means that things I know and love are going to leave the game. It means that cards will go up and down in power as the environment around them shifts. It means that the things that won you games yesterday might not win you games tomorrow. It means that as a Magic designer, I can't let my innate fear of change keep me from doing what is fundamental to the long-term health of the game. So what changed in my attitude toward mana burn in ten years? I stopped asking "Why get rid of it?" and started asking "Why does it deserve to stay?"

This shift is a subtle but crucial one. Ten years ago, my attitude was as follows: I love the game of Magic. How can I hold onto every thing I hold dear to the game? What can I do to keep it from changing, to keep it the game I love? I was attached not to the essence of the game but to the specific details of it. What I've learned since then is that it is not the details that matter most. Magic isn't shaped by what it is at any one moment in time but by the qualities that allow it to constantly reinvent itself.

What makes Magic the game it is isn't that tapped blockers don't deal damage. It's not that artifacts shut off when tapped. It's not that counterspells can't be responded to by instants. Players were attached to each of these details when the Sixth Edition rules were announced. The internet was filled with long posts about how each of these things represented what Magic was. Obviously, ten years later, we know that Magic can live without them.

Ten years ago I fought to keep mana burn because it was part of the game as I knew it. This time, I approached it from a very different vantage point. Instead of assuming it had to stay, I wondered what would happen if it left. After much thought I came to the following conclusions:


It freed up design space. The ability for players to lower their own life total (an unintended side effect of the rule) makes it very hard to use life totals as a means to affect spells. It also forces us to add extra text and occasionally keeps us from doing some cool cards. Mindslaver, for example, wasn't printed in Tempest because we didn't know what to do about mana burn; our inelegant solution in Mirrodin was just to say you couldn't do it. (I feel it's most often a failure when the answer to a problem is to say on the card, "Well, you just can't do this.")

It removed what we knew to be a problem for beginners. Mana burn has the problem that it needs to be introduced early in the rules because it is something that can happen once you start adding mana to mana pools but normally doesn't happen until more complex cards start getting introduced. As such, what we've found is that the majority of new players are confused by the rule because they don't understand its role. I made this point in my Origin Stories column several weeks ago to point out that this has been true since the days of Alpha. Mana burn is counter-intuitive to new players and has been for sixteen years.

It removed a rule that wasn't carrying its weight. When we first thought about removing mana burn, I asked my design team to play all their games without it so we could get a sense of what its removal would feel like. Note that we had altered nothing in the set related to this change. We just played the set as it was without mana burn. After a month, I asked my team to tell me their experiences. The result: not one of the five-member team in a month played a game where it came up. One of the best tests in screenwriting about the necessity of a scene is to remove it. If the story works just as well without it, it wasn't needed. We had removed mana burn from the game and we couldn't tell it was gone—not the best of defenses.

In a game that constantly changes, everything (be it a card, a mechanic or a rule) needs to defend its existence. In short, everything that can change will change. As a designer, it is my job to keep making these challenges to the status quo, because it is within them that new discoveries, and thus the future of the game, lie. Mana burn was put to the test and, quite frankly, it didn't stand up.


Lesson #2: Watch Out for Inertia

What happens in a world where people fear change? Things don't change unless forced. This is one of the guiding principles of communication theory. If you can get someone to turn engaging your media outlet (or product or behavior) into a habit, they will tenaciously hold onto it. What does this have to do with Magic? I just explained that the game, by definition, forces change, but it also forces habits. Can you see a potential conflict in the making?

Let me approach this from a slightly different vantage point. One of my jobs as Head Designer is to think about the welfare of the game. A key question that comes up is this: what is the thing most likely to kill Magic? Yes, such thoughts are a little gruesome, but it is important to understand the game's weaknesses. I've thought long and hard over the last fourteen years, and I've come up with an answer. I'll give you a second to see if you can guess what it is.

Is it design space? Will Magic die because it runs out of viable game space to explore? No, Magic's design space is much bigger than most people think. I have every confidence that I could design a block a year until the day I die (hopefully, far in the future).

Is it power creep? Will the constant quest of R&D to provide the bigger, badder, more powerful thing cause the game to collapse in on itself? No, Development's gotten pretty good at understanding what we can and can't do. I don't see the game spinning out of control as long as we have developers of our current quality.

Is it competition from other things? Might Magic end because something better comes along? While obviously this one's possible, many great games have coincided with Magic and we're still going strong, so this concern doesn't worry me.

What is the greatest threat to Magic, in my not so humble opinion? We stop getting new players. While we have excellent player retention, for various reasons, people do leave the game. Without a counter balance of fresh blood, the game would hit the point of diminishing returns and then Magic no longer becomes economically viable to produce.

But Magic is an awesome game. How would we ever stop attracting new players? The answer is what I consider to be the biggest danger to the game: complexity creep. Let me explain. The game keeps evolving. As it does so, it continues to add new elements to the game. Complexity can only grow. Here's the problem: The entry to the game is always the same. The beginner knows nothing. They have to make the jump from knowing nothing to knowing enough to play. But that line, "knowing enough to play," is a moving target. As the game gains in complexity, the line goes up. At some point the differential is too high and not enough new players can make the jump.

But things rotate out, you say. If a beginner sticks to Standard, then the vast majority of the game's complexity is hidden away where they won't see it. Ah, but here is the problem. New things drift from expansions to base sets. Some things even become evergreen, meaning they start appearing in every set. Inertia pushes the line up.

Shivan Dragon

How does R&D fight this? How do we keep the line within the appropriate range? The answer is twofold. First, we make the best use of intuition that we can. Second, we remove things. The first part of this answer works as such: How do you make it easier to teach new players? Make the answers what they would assume them to be. The reason flying is such a great mechanic is that its flavor explains itself. When I teach flying for the first time, I know the beginner's eyes will light up when I say, "It flies."

One of the greatest things Magic has going for itself is that its flavor does such a great job of matching what it does. Spells feel like spells and creatures feel like creatures. A lightning bolt is a lightning bolt and a grizzly bear is a grizzly bear. The more things there are that teach themselves, the less burden on the game to do so. This is why R&D works so hard to push the game away from things that we know don't make sense to new players. Even if they're just little things that "players get eventually," they add up and raise the line. As we start previewing Magic 2010 next week, you'll see this desire to make the game more intuitive ran throughout the design process.

This brings us to R&D's only other option, removing things. This is not something we do lightly, but it is something that has to be done. If we allow the game to add things, we also must allow it to remove things as well. Multicolor cards, legendary permanents, cantrips, numerous creature keywords, equipment, race/class, hybrid mana, planeswalkers—these are all things available to a designer for any set he or she designs, none of which existed in Alpha. The game has notched up considerably in complexity over the last sixteen years. What has been removed to keep the balance?

I find it interesting that whenever we remove something the common cliché for it is "R&D's dumbing down the game," yet adding new things to Magic is "business as usual." These forces are inexorably linked. If you want the latter, you have to accept the former. This is why R&D doesn't worry about lessening the complexity of the game. Inertia is pushing hard in the opposite direction. Until we start removing more things than we add, the complexity level isn't going down.

The number one reason mana burn was removed was that it could be. It happened infrequently and it stood relatively independent from other aspects of the game. To use a game metaphor, if Magic is Jenga, mana burn was that loose piece sitting high up in the middle, the one you take out early because you know it won't topple the whole tower.

Here's a different way to think of it. What if I assigned you the reader the following task (think of it as fodder for this article's thread): you have to remove a rule from the game for Magic 2010. Your goal is to have the least impact you can on the game, but you have to remove a rule that has some effect on game play. What do you choose? You, like R&D, do not have the luxury to say nothing.

Fighting inertia is hard, but if you don't, it will crush you in the end. As players this isn't the kind of thing you have to think about so these problems I'm talking about are rather hidden. If you want to understand our actions though, you have to understand our motivations and responsibilities.


Lesson #3: The Game Will Adapt

The comedian George Carlin has a great routine about people trying to "save the planet" that basically boils down to this: The planet is bigger and stronger and way more resilient than the human race. There's nothing we can do to affect it. Whatever we do to ourselves, the planet will be just fine. Why do I bring this up? Because I feel a lot of discussion about Magic has the same overtones. Thing X will "kill Magic." You know what? No it won't. Why? Because Magic is more resilient than just about anything we could do to it.

In fact, Magic is so resilient that I believe the following: As long as you keep the golden trifecta (my name for the three great innovations Richard Garfield used to create Magic—the trading card game genre, the color wheel and the mana system)—I believe you could take away any part of the game and Magic could survive it. (Note that I'm not saying we should or will do that, just that hypothetically one could.) Why do I believe this? Because I have seen the game adapt to all sorts of things. As Head Designer, I constantly dedicate brain space to thinking about how Magic would react if certain elements went away. One of the key parts of block planning, for instance, is to change up some basic aspect of the game and then learn how to make the set react to that change.

Change doesn't happen in a vacuum. Whenever things get added or removed, the game accommodates for that change. This is an important point to remember. New card creation is done with the new environment in mind. A lot of design is reacting to an environment and crafting the things that will make that environment robust. Yes, Magic changes whenever we add or remove something, but the game then gets to adapt.

I'm not just talking about mechanics. Complexity will shift. Strategy will shift. Tactics will shift. When one thing leaves, another fills its space. Trust me, R&D has been playing with these new rules for close to a year. The game still feels like Magic. In fact, the most interesting thing to me is how little change there's been. I remember the change from pre-Sixth Edition rules to Sixth Edition rules, and the M10 shift is not even in the same ballpark.

The point of this lesson is that the designers and developers have to have faith in the game. It is a living entity that constantly adapts. Whatever we throw at it, Magic is more than capable of rolling with the punches. The game will move on without mana burn. I know personally that I've been enjoying making some cards that can come out to play now that the cat's away.


A Final Thought

I don't just say I read all my mail—I actually read it. And my tweets. And my threads. I spend a lot of time reading what all of you have to say. I hear that some of you are upset. I understand that this change is an emotional one for many of you. My goal today is not to diminish any of those feelings. Rather, I hope today's column gives you a better glimpse into what motivates the need for the changes. I (and all of R&D) care a great deal about Magic. It is as personal to me as it could possibly get. Magic has brought so many wonderful things to my life that I owe it a debt I will never repay.

The priority of each and every R&D member working on Magic is to keep it as healthy as we can so that it can do for so many others what the game has done for us. We make no decision about the game lightly. Each little change goes through more thought and discussion than you could possibly imagine. Each choice we make is playtested and dissected and examined. We honestly care about Magic as much as all of you. The last thing we want to do is hurt the game.

For those of you who are unhappy, I beseech you—give the new changes a try. I think you will be pleasantly surprised with how quickly you get used to them, and you'll find yourself just playing Magic again.

Join me next week for the start of Magic 2010 previews.

Until then, may you know the joy of embracing change.

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