An Early Encounter
It's early 2011 and I'm chatting with Brady Dommermuth, Creative Director for Magic. It's the initial design stages for what will become Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 and I'm kibitzing with various folks in R&D to gather ideas. Conversations with Brady are fascinating... he's been at Wizards for fifteen years and has worked on Magic for nearly all that time. Even though Brady's been thinking about worlds and words and images on cardboard for those fifteen years, and I've been obsessed with digital spaces and games during that same timeframe, it's amazing how every conversation with Brady is packed with chunky bits of ideas and insights that leaves one thinking, "Yes, that's an awesome idea." He drops these ideas casually but consistently, as natural as breathing. "Da di di da AWESOME IDEA da di di da AWESOME IDEA."
Firewing Phoenix | Art by James Paick
One of these ideas came during the end of our conversation. We were discussing the best way of establishing setting in a digital experience. Being old-school (a preferred way of saying "old"), I don't mind text in my digital games. Not a lot of it, mind you, and not as much as I used to, but I often prefer text as a means of receiving information over other formats. Brady is virulently anti-text in digital. (He's probably correct, but that's a story for another day.) At the tail end of this conversation, Brady mentioned an idea he thought was a much better "setting" vehicle than text—"Imagine you're facing the computer opponent, and he starts with two Wall of Stones in play..."
A humble beginning to be sure. But a beginning with definition. An inherent conflict, those walls o' stones; an obvious tension. How to get past these two hulking 0/8s... and what devious traps lie in wait while I prepare my attack? The mind, especially the gaming mind, yearns to discern the pattern, yearns to take data and actions and trends and resolve them into... beauty. The beauty of insight. Of comprehension. Of the dawning moment. "From chaos, order."
Brady was already floating away to his next conversation. I was rooted in place, mind furiously attacking the wondrous possibilities of decks versus patterns...
Following the Script
I've always enjoyed more heavily "scripted" encounters in digital gaming. Randomness and emergent game play has its place, especially in Magic, but there's a wonderfully different flavor to discerning the outlines of an intentional design behind the game you're experiencing and seeking to master that intent and then overcome it.
We were also looking for additional ways to punctuate Planeswalkers battles in Duels. Previous Duels games presented all the Planeswalkers battles as a single-note medley of duel after duel. Yes, the battles were awesome, but we wanted to explore alternative content in the campaign ladder that helped to emphasize Planeswalkers battles—by not being about fighting Planeswalkers. It's the same reason we jumped on board when Doug Beyer presented his plan for M13 to revolve around five legendary creatures—we could intersperse five legendary creature decks with the five Planeswalker decks to help the Planeswalker moments stand out more (helped by the use of video and the Planeswalker biography pages).
Talrand, Sky Summoner | Art by Svetlin Velinov
In digital design, like other forms of design, ideas are a cheap currency. You are inundated in them, especially in such august company as Magic R&D. Having good ideas is not a necessary skill for digital design; knowing how to filter those ideas, winnowing out the near-infinite "good ideas" to those that are correct for your game, is. It's always an auspicious omen that an idea is worthy of extended consideration when it's solving multiple problems facing the design team.
We wanted additional content that wasn't battling other Planeswalkers, that allowed you to use your deck in unscripted fashion, yet still presented a quantifiable puzzle for you to master and solve. We also wanted to explore a new form of content that could take root in Duels 2013, and potentially become part of our content arsenal for Duels games in the future.
Encounters were born.
Tick tick tick tick...
During the early brainstorm sessions, it was clear this was going to be a fun mechanic... at least to design for. Ideas flowed loosely and easily, with everyone visibly excited about the concepts.
We quickly had a number of Encounter ideas we wanted to flesh out. I'll give you their playtest names and see if you can match them to the actual Encounter in Duels 2013:
- Tick tick tick tick...
- Your Pain is my Gain
- The Power of Doubling
- Tim Brigade
- Better the Dragon you know...
- Killing you with Kindness
- 100 Meter Dash
- Welcome to Hell
- Discard is Fun
I'm sad there were other ideas chopped off along the way. I'm sure "Emrakul says Hello" and "Why Blue is Fun" would have been instant player favorites and I can't imagine why they didn't make the cut. [Self-inserted development note: Because we playtested them.]
As we designed the Encounters, we realized how easy it was to represent the wider spectrum of Magic game play to those newer players in our Duels audience. We believe the heart of fun Magic is creature combat... but we also recognize that a deep allure of Magic is having many other avenues of play to explore. Encounters allowed us to give casual players a taste of Magic they might not have encountered naturally in their early play—playing vs. mill, vs. re-animation, vs. sweepers and recursion. The first time you play against Howling Mine, you have this moment of "Wow, this is fun!" The first time you lose playing against Howling Mine, you have this moment of "Huh, I didn't know you could do that." Further, the ability to show players these avenues through repeatable and predictable patterns meant they could learn quickly and with confidence.
So we knew Encounters were fun to design, and they were easy to design, and they did a good job of teaching players about the possibility space of Magic.
Now all we had to figure out was a final question. Were Encounters fun to play?
There Are Some Who Call Me...Shawn
Life as an intern in Magic R&D is a strange combination of the wondrous and tedious. It's the dream job for those walking through the door, and they're surrounded by people and product they've been following and enjoying for years. And then there are days where the majority of your time you're "stickering" thousands of cards, a thankless and monotonous task, and overall you're low person on the totem pole for the worst jobs in R&D.
Shawn Main had come to us through the Great Designer Search 2 as one of two runner-ups. Always on the lookout for new talent, I interviewed Shawn during his visit to Wizards for the GDS and was impressed by his enthusiasm, flexible mind, and overall knowledge of Magic. If there are two qualities I value more than most, it's passion and flexibility—and especially when someone has both (the two attributes can be mutually exclusive in some individuals, which is why I prize the combination). Shawn was the perfect candidate for a digital intern position we had just opened up.
Being a digital intern is not that different from a "paper" intern in R&D. There's sufficient quantity of the tedious, the thankless, and the "Oh. Uh, I... can do that. Sure. I guess." But there's also plenty of moments where someone like me asks you, "We have this new content feature we're trying in Duels 2013, and we need you to own it. It's important. Are you interested?" Shawn's eyes widened and he smiled. Shawn had just top-decked Gisela, Blade of Goldnight.
Shawn participated in the early brainstorming and then we turned the various ideas over to him for pruning and selection down to our final ten. It was Shawn who ultimately determined which initial ideas to playtest and which were not going anywhere. It was Shawn who added new designs to the mix when we had holes to fill in the pool. And it was Shawn who determined how to execute each design—the specific cards, the heuristics, the changes depending on how the Duels engine and AI would handle the Encounter.
And it was Shawn who sat across from me, ten mocked-up Encounters in hand (with their tediously stickered physical cards), ready to playtest his creation so we could sit in judgment—was this just a neat idea, fun to design and talk about, but meh to play? Or was it something more? Sometimes it takes extensive playtests and lots of theorycrafting and intense arguments to determine whether something is worth keeping.
And sometimes it takes five minutes.
I was playing Garruk's Pack Instinct deck. Green is often our initial playtest color for Duels. It's always one of the first decks we offer to Duels players, and we feel green in general, and Garruk's sub-theme of big creatures in particular, has natural appeal to a significant portion of the new audience. My opponent was the Suntail Hawk deck, where the computer plays a Suntail Hawk on turn one. And turn two. And turn... I suspect the pattern is now apparent.
Flames of the Firebrand | Art by Steve Argyle
The Suntail Hawk deck was the first example I gave at Wizards and Stainless about how this new feature would work. It was simple and easy to grasp, and it perfectly illustrated the nature of Encounters. But when we sat down to think about its actual play, we realized it was easy for it to devolve into a very unfun state, especially if you had slow draws in spells or land. We needed confidence that a majority of draws in each deck would allow you to win against Team Hawk, because this was the first Encounter in the content campaign.
One thing that's easy to forget once you're inside Magic R&D is how complex Magic is. It's not just complex to play well, it's complex to learn at all. When you watch someone play Magic who has never played before, you quickly realize your frame of reference for what's hard, what's easy, and what works is not relevant to the new-player experience.
Given that Duels is one of our best ways for attracting new players to Magic, it was imperative we had experiences in Duels that did not overwhelm them, that instead allowed them to exhibit mastery and enjoy themselves. The Suntail Hawk Encounter was our test.
Screen Capture of Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013
I fanned open my seven cards and saw Forest, Forest, Forest, Nature's Lore, Emerald Medallion, Brindle Boar, and Bountiful Harvest. A poor seven cards, even for Garruk's starting sixty, but I was curious how this played. How would it feel to get blown out by our simplest Encounter?
After a few turns of drawing more forests, I was about to find out. Four hawks were greedily pecking at my life, and my Brindle Boar was nervously aware of soon being turned into pork chops to keep me alive. My Bountiful Harvest, with its lifetime membership in the Bad Card Hall of Fame, was looking sadly necessary. And every turn another damnable Hawk was adding its name to the roster of my tormentors. Every single turn. A figure of swirling darkness hovered just outside the periphery of my vision. Her name was Despair.
And then I drew a Garruk's Packleader, and then a Garruk's Companion, and I suddenly felt this wild surge of emotion which resolved into that strange creature called Hope. For one more turn I stood on the precipice of disaster, and then another beautiful creature (with 3 power, no less) made its way to my hand. It was the Hawks' turn. Their turn to feel the constant brutal onslaught. Their turn to see their comrades' lives extinguished in a vain defense. Their turn to feel the growing certainty of defeat.
It was a heady five minutes.
The experience captured perfectly everything I wanted from an Encounter, but hadn't yet dared hope was true. From a single-player perspective, it had all the necessary stages of a great content experience—immediate confrontation and challenge, growing uncertainty and doubt as things look bleak, and a turnaround moment of great importance that evolved into a contented sense of mastery as I crushed my opponent.
It was, in short, fun.
Magic of Magic
Here's the top-secret secret about how to make a great digital Magic game. It's nearly foolproof. Please don't tell anyone. Ready? Lean close. I have to whisper. Make sure there's a lot of Magic in it. Magic is a wonderful game. It's really good.
Duels of the Planeswalkers benefits from being a very good, accessible, slightly simplified form of Magic. It does a lot of things right independent from just being a translation of Magic, and it certainly is an experience we've improved upon with each iteration, but the secret ingredient is lots and lots of Magic game play.
That means, as excited as we were about Encounters, we knew they were the appetizer to the main course—decks dueling against one another. The random possibilities of two sixty-card decks playing Magic against each other is immense and wonderful, even in the more constrained world of Duels. But just like Challenges have their place (and fans) in the Duels universe, we wanted to make a new form of content that felt fresh, that was a great tool for learning, and that provided more fun for our Duels audience.
Screen Capture of Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013
In order to make sure that Encounters were at the appropriate place, we made them skippable in the campaign ladder. We recognize that for some players, fighting a Suntail Hawk per turn is never challenging enough, and for other players, certain Encounters feel very difficult. So, you don't have to play any Encounter in the Campaign ladder to advance; you can ignore them if you choose. Because Encounters are not as replayable as randomized content, we took them out of the Revenge ladder (where you get to play against optimized and harder versions of the initial ten decks). And we're not done evolving Encounters. It's very probable that Encounters will continue to pop up in future expressions of Duels, with even more cool ideas and tricks as part of their arsenal.
Overall, though, Encounters have done everything we asked of them in Duels 2013: new game play, a cross between Challenges and decks, a great teaching tool, a way to show people the multitudes of ways to play, and become their own unique variant of their parent game—a gaming experience that is blessedly fun.