Flight of Fancy

Posted in NEWS on November 21, 2003

Whenever somebody new comes to work in R&D, they always wind up surprised at how many different issues we think about. I know I went through this and every time someone new gets added to the department, I get to watch them go through the same process of realization. At first, most people think that Magic R&D is all about testing the cards, figuring out which ones are too good (or too bad), and then changing their mechanics (including numbers) based on those games. That’s certainly an important part of what we do, but it’s only a piece of the job. To give you guys a peek at some of the other sorts of issues we debate, I’ll give you a rundown of a series of conversations we have had about flying that I have participated in over the years.

Back when I was still just a player, I never really thought about the art that goes onto cards. It was kind of cool, but I played Magic because I liked strategy games and the art didn’t have anything to do with the strategy. I used to think of the art as an extra optional piece of the game that other people probably liked. Since I got to WotC, however, my opinion has changed in a couple of interesting ways.

One realization is that the art actually does play an important part in gameplay -- the game just wouldn’t play as well without it. Most players use the art to recognize the cards, not the names. You glance across the table, see your opponent play the green dude with the claws, and say “Ugg … Troll Ascetic.” When you don’t recognize the art you usually have to lean over or maybe even pick up the card in order to read its name. This takes time and isn’t the most fun part of the game. If the game didn’t have art, that would happen every time someone played a card, which is why I’m claiming that the art makes the game play better. (The new frames make it much easier to read the name, but the art is still easier (and way cooler that “Sorcery #37b” too).)

A second realization I had about art after I started working for Wizards is that people make assumptions about game mechanics based on the art. Flying is the most obvious example of this. If a creature looks like it is pictured in flight, many players will assume it has flying. It doesn’t matter whether the rules text says “Flying” or not, players will make their attacking and blocking decisions believing that it does. Then their opponent will point out the mistake and everybody will feel dumb, or bad, or with true beginners they will sometimes actually have an argument about whether the creature really has flying or not. These situations are not healthy and we now go out of our way to avoid creating them.

Blinking Spirit

R&D already had a good understanding of this issue by the time I got here. After some early mistakes (like Whippoorwill and Blinking Spirit), developers started paying a lot more attention to whether or not the art for a card matched its mechanic. For many years now, developers have demanded that all creatures depicted in flight actually have “Flying” and that all creatures with the keyword “Flying” be depicted with an obvious means of flight.

That last half of this point has come under scrutiny recently. Everyone agrees that it’s bad to show something in flight that doesn’t have flying. We do argue sometimes about how exactly to treat hovering creatures (like ghosts or shades) that float across the ground. (We usually try to make sure that they are shown touching the ground. For example, Karona usually hovers slightly above the ground, but her loin cloth still touches the ground). In general, however, there is agreement that only creatures with flying should look at all like they might be in mid-flight. But going in the other direction is less clear. Does every creature with flying need to have an obvious visual means of flight? Is it confusing if something has flying, but isn’t pictured up in the air?

Some cases are easy: Clearly we don’t want to require that our artists depict every bird and every angel up in the air. That would constrain their choices too much and lead to weaker art for the game. In addition, we wouldn’t gain any advantage to gameplay anyway. Showing an Angel standing on the ground with her wings splayed out gloriously behind her works just fine because the wings are a clear indication that she can fly. If I glance across the table, I can’t help but see the wings and thus I will play correctly.

So what about a creature that’s standing on the ground, does not have any wings, but does having “Flying?” Vampires fall squarely into this category – Vampires in Magic usually don’t have wings, but they usually do fly. We could require that they have wings – that was the approach taken with Stalking Bloodsucker in Odyssey. Alternately, we could require that they either have wings or be shown in mid-flight. The real question, though, is do we need to? Do players actually get confused and make mistakes because they thought that vampire was a ground creature and then it turned out that it could fly? Repentant Vampire did not have wings and it was clearly on the ground, but I don’t remember hearing many complaints about him. On the other hand I did hear a couple of complaints about Ascendant Evincar.

Some people have argued internally that “everyone knows that vampires can fly” and thus they think our rule should be “Creatures with flying must either a) Be shown in mid-flight, b) Have an obvious means of flight (like wings), or c) Be generally understood to fly.” However, that third category is really hard to interpret. Vampires in “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” don’t fly, and neither did Krovikan Vampire.

Vampires have so much baggage from movies and other games that they probably only confuse the issue, so lets talk about Wizard Replica. After a glance at the art, most players think Wizard Replica is a ground creature. Clearly wizards aren’t “generally understood to fly,” but they are wizards after all and they’re perfectly capable of giving themselves flying by casting the appropriate spell. So there’s no problem with the flavor or continuity of Wizard Replica, but is there a gameplay problem. Are players confused by the art or making mistakes because of the art?

Wizard Replica

It seems clear to me that Wizard Replica situation is much better than the Blinking Spirit situation. On the one hand, it’s a lot more relevant to gameplay when you mistakenly think your opponent’s non-flying creature has flying. You could go the whole game taking damage from a creature that you didn’t think you could block (or not attacking with your own flyer) and you’ll be really unhappy if you later learn you lost the game because of that. Meanwhile, you’ll discover right away if you try to block Wizard Replica and then learn that you can’t (and you’ll only send in your 1-toughness flyer against an opponent’s Wizard Replica once). On the other hand, the most important difference between these situations comes up with new players. Whereas new players might argue for hours over whether or not Whippoorwill has flying, no one ever wastes any time arguing about Wizard Replica. The card states unequivocally that it does. There can be no confusion when the card has rules text that directly addresses an issue.

Fair enough, clearly the situation where a flying creature doesn’t look like it can fly is not as bad as the reverse, but it still might be something we should avoid. In general we do avoid it, and we make an effort to always tell artists whether or not the creature they are painting has flying. The one question left is whether it’s a mistake to ever let one through. Should we make it a hard and fast rule that all creatures with flying either have an obvious means of flight or be depicted in midair? Or is having that as a general guideline good enough? This is a tough issue because it fits flavor against function. It’s all well and good to say that flying creatures should fly, but what are we supposed to do when, for example, Matt Wilson turns in his art for Soul Collector. That art positively kicks ass, but she’s not flying and she doesn’t have wings (or any other obvious means of flight).

This is still the subject of active debate inside R&D so I’m not going to close my article with our solution – we don’t even have a consensus opinion, much less a clever solution.

Last Week's Poll

How many cards do you think should be banned from Extended on December 1?
3-4 2954 28.1%
9+ 2248 21.4%
1-2 1829 17.4%
0 1786 17.0%
5-6 1308 12.4%
7-8 391 3.7%
Total 10516 100.0%

Quite a diversity of opinions on this one, although it’s interesting to note that about two thirds of you want us to ban as many or more cards than we did after Worlds.