While the design of these products are interesting stories, I've decided instead to write about how we try to imbue everyday Magic sets with something for the multiplayer crowd. What follows are numerous things we can do or be aware of to try and make cards in our normal tournament-legal sets more multiplayer friendly.
Before I explain some of our multiplayer friendly tools, let me begin by mentioning an unspoken rule we have for our "normal" cards: All cards must make sense in a two-player game. This isn't to say the card has to be optimized for two-player play just that it makes sense—that is, it actually does something. Magic, at it's core, is a two-player game and we make sure that every card that comes out of a booster pack works in that environment. With that out of the way, let's dive in.
Here's how I'm going to do this. I'm going to show you a card (some of which actually exist and some of which do not) and then ask if you can think of a way to make it more multiplayer friendly. Note that I'm not trying to majorly change the effect of the card, just tweak it slightly to improve it for multiplayer play.
Draw two cards.
Okay, what do we do to this card to make it more multiplayer friendly?
Divination (multiplayer version)
Target player draws two cards.
I started with this example because I wanted to show how one of the most important tools for multiplayer play is something intrinsic to the game—targeting. Why? Because multiplayer play changes an important dynamic. In two-player play, I want to do positive things to myself and negative things to my opponent. As we are directly competing, there is little reason to help my opponent or hurt myself. (Yes, every once in a while there are practical reasons why you'd want to reverse expectations and that is one of my favorite parts of the game—and a reason I'm a huge proponent of adding targeting to cards.) In multiplayer play, the political element kicks in and all of a sudden there are many reasons that I'd want to allow someone else to draw two cards.
I started with targeting because it is one of the easiest, most invisible changes to make, which brings up a point I wanted to make. While there are definitely changes that highlight what the designers are up to, the vast majority of the changes I'm talking about today are relatively invisible to the average player. This means that designers are able to cater cards to multiplayer with minimal impact to the two-player game.
Day of Judgment
Destroy all creatures.
What can you change about this card to make it better for multiplayer play?
Day of Judgment
Destroy all creatures.
The answer is nothing. The card works wonderfully for multiplayer play as is. (I promise I won't do this again for the rest of the article. Every other card is actually changed.) The reason is that it doesn't limit its scope (i.e. it effects everything) and thus works effectively regardless of the number of players. The lesson with this card is that there is something even less obtrusive than tweaking card text and that is selecting cards in the first place that have added value in multiplayer play. Never forget that card selection is a powerful design tool.
Draw a card for each spell you cast this turn.
What can you do to make this more multiplayer friendly?
Apply Knowledge (multiplayer version)
Draw a card for each spell cast this turn.
This change is a subtle but important one. Rather than care only about your spells, you care about any spells (and raise the mana cost accordingly). Why is this important? Because scale changes in multiplayer games and cards that care about things that scale differently allow the cards to change value in a multiplayer game. How many spells you cast isn't something that changes much between two-player and multiplayer. The total number of spells cast in a given turn though could change dramatically.
Target opponent discards two cards.
What could you do to this card to make it more multiplayer friendly?
Mind Rot (multiplayer version)
All opponents discard two cards.
Unlike the targeting example, this version does produce text that hints at multiplayer play. "All opponents" doesn't really make sense in a two-player game, but it's easy to ignore and the effect itself works just fine. In multiplayer play, this card plays into the fact that players can have multiple opponents and gets to ratchet up in power.
The danger of this type of mechanic is that things that are fair one-on-one can become very powerful when a large group is playing. For example, in a two-player game, Mind Rot (the multiplayer version) nets one card in card advantage. In a large free-for-all game, it could be a twenty-card gain. Which brings us to our next card:
Target player gains 2 life for each creature on the battlefield.
What can you do to it to improve it for multiplayer play?
Wait, you say. Wasn't this card designed to be for multiplayer play? It was, but we've learned a valuable lesson from it. What is that lesson?
Congregate (improved multiplayer version)
Target player gains 2 life for each creature on the battlefield controlled by another target player.
The Mind Rot example was all about the importance of scale. This card is also about the importance of scale but in the other direction. It's great that certain characteristics go way up in number in multiplayer games. The danger though is that some things can scale too largely and too easily. Congregate is famous in R&D for being a card we made for multiplayer play that backfired. The card simply gained too much life.
While in a two-player game it was hard for the card to get out of control, in a multiplayer game, especially a large free-for-all game, it was happening all the time. Many multiplayer groups we talked with had banned the card. By limiting the card to a single player's creatures, the card still takes advantage of the extra players in a multiplayer game but it adds a restraint that keeps the spell in check.
Blow 'Em Up
Destroy two nonblack creatures.
Blow 'Em Up (multiplayer version)
Destroy four nonblack creatures.
The first thing I need to point out is that neither version of the spell has the phrase "up to". Both spells require you to have the number of necessary legal targets. With double black in its mana cost and a nonblack limitation on the targeting, the lack of "up to" can make this spell harder to cast than one might think at first blush.
The design takes advantage of an important quality found in multiplayer play—there's just more permanents on the battlefield. In a two-player game, the change weakens the card. It's a much bigger restriction that four nonblack creatures have to be on the battlefield. In multiplayer play, though, it made it stronger. Just as the number of permanents on the battlefield helps for cards that scale, so too does it help for things with multiple targets.
Destroy target artifact or enchantment. You lose life equal to its converted mana cost.
What do we do to make this more multiplayer friendly?
Rot Away (multiplayer version)
Destroy target artifact or enchantment. Target opponent gains life equal to its converted mana cost.
In a two-player game, these two spells are similar in that they both change the differential between you and your opponent. In a multiplayer game though this card takes on a whole new function. You no longer have to give the life to the player whose permanent you've destroyed. It goes from being a strict negative to being a positive. Now when you play the spell you get to make a friend. You get political advantage and get to remove a potential harmful permanent.
A big part of improving cards for multiplayer play is understanding how things are valued. This card demonstrates the importance of politics, a quality not found in two-player games but rampant in multi-player play. (Yes, some formats more than others.)
Whenever you cast a spell, you may pay . If you do, draw a card.
What do you do with this card?
Magical Experience (multiplayer version)
Whenever a player casts a spell, that player may pay . If that player does, he or she draws a card.
Magic historians will realize that I've changed the card into Odyssey's Unifying Theory. Why the change? Because I've turned the card from a card that attracts attacks to one that discourages them. The original card helped only you, thus it was a threat. The changed version helps everyone so instead of making people worried it makes them happy.
Symmetrical cards (cards that help or hurt everyone) are dicey in two-player games. Sure, one player can build his or her deck around the effect to gain an advantage, but in general, symmetrical cards aren't as sought after as cards with single-sided effects. The political aspect of multiplayer shifts the importance back towards symmetrical cards, especially ones with positive effects. (The advantage of symmetrical cards with negative effects is that they usually allow you to affect all the opponents with a single card.)
Creature – Beast
Let's try a French vanilla creature (R&D-speak for a creature with only basic creature keywords). How do you tweak this for multiplayer play?
Big Beastie (multiplayer version)
Creature – Beast
In two-player games, the first card is better. Why? Because getting to six mana happens a lot more than getting to ten. In multiplayer games, the second card has the advantage. Why? A number of reasons. First, multiplayer games go longer. The balancing of more players slows the game down as each player has multiple threats to worry about. While your opponent in a two-player game is always damaging you when given the chance, in a multiplayer game they will often divvy up the damage only hurting you some of the time.
Second, you have a lot more damage to deal in multiplayer games. In a two-player game you only have to deal 20. In a multi-player game with six players, for example, there's 120 damage to be dealt. Of course it doesn't all have to be dealt by you, but winning requires being able to do more damage on average. The tweaked Big Beastie can just do more damage and thus will be more useful in multiplayer play.
Lava Axe deals 5 damage to target player.
What tweak do you make to this card?
Lava Axe (multiplayer version)
Lava Axe deals 5 damage to each opponent.
The simple answer is to do a tweak I talked about above. Turn one opponent into all opponents. But I have a different, if a little less traditional, answer.
Soothing Balm (multiplayer version)
Target player gains 5 life.
In two-player Magic, direct damage is better than an equal amount of life gain. Lightning Bolt has always been better than Healing Salve. Lava Axe costs five while Soothing Balm costs two. Why is this so? Because direct damage helps you end the game where life gain merely allows you to stall.
In multiplayer Magic, this is reversed (for one shot effects at least). One shot direct damage spells are ineffectual because there are so many more threats to deal with. Lightning Bolt deals 3 of the necessary 20 damage (or kills one of an endless number of creatures). But in multiplayer games, as I explained above, you have a lot more damage to deal than 20. Also, stalling in two-player games doesn't net you any advantage. In multiplayer games, it can keep you alive as players go after one another.
Another way to think of it is that the math changes in multiplayer games. Your life going up has greater value than a single opponent's life going down. I bring this up to demonstrate that there are things you might have learned in two-player games that don't apply the same way in multiplayer games. Designing cards for multiplayer games forces you to readjust what kinds of effects matter.
Multiplay it Again, Sam
Today's column was not designed as an ultimate list of ways to improve cards for multiplayer games. It was merely a chance for me to demonstrate many of the kinds of things you need to think about. One of the joys and pains of designing Magic is that you are really making many different games and each audience values different things. To improve as a designer you have to get a better understanding of what makes each type of game tick so that you can give those players things that matter to them in their games.
As always, I'm curious for your feedback in the thread, my email or on Twitter (@maro254). In particular, I'm curious to hear from fans of multiplayer formats. What suggestions do you have for us to make better cards for your format? I very much want to know.
Join me next week when I'll have part 2 of my "How" mailbag article. Check out Part 1 from last week.
Until then, may you keep the peace while everyone else kills each other. (I mean that solely in game play.)