Posted in Latest Developments on July 27, 2012

By Zac Hill

Zac is a former game designer/developer for Wizards of the Coast and was the lead developer for Dragon's Maze. His articles have appeared in The Huffington Post, The Believer, and on Currently he serves as the chief operating officer of The Future Project, a nonprofit education initiative, and holds a position as a research affiliate in the MIT Game Lab.

I spent the last fifteen minutes earnestly and sincerely trying to come up with enough material to write this week's article about the spotlight-hogging Exodus rare Exalted Dragon, but alas, it's not to be. But as much as I want to ditch a land every turn to bash for 5, as much as I know I look to the color white to embody the wholesale fury and unchained rage of fantasy's most iconic harbingers of destruction, and as much as I yearn for any remotely plausible excuse to drop Trogdor the Burninator jokes—instantly dating my antiquated pop-cultural sensibilities—there just isn't enough there.


Exalted Dragon | Art by Matthew Wilson

Exalted Dragon

Instead, I suppose I'll talk about the exalted mechanic, how it came to be in Magic 2013, and what work it's doing there. First, though, I want to spend some time discussing combat mechanics more generally. Why is it that so many of Magic's keyword abilities have to do with how creatures interact in the red zone?

Round One. Fight!

A huge, huge percentage of Magic's total interactions happen in the combat step. It's the attribute of the game that most allows it to be so rich, deep, and interesting, and embeds tons of complexity inside a top-down sensibility ("Whoa! Things are fighting!") that's basically palatable to anyone who has sat down to play. You can get a long way toward a fun Magic experience with just a few Creature – Durdles, a Lightning Bolt, and a Giant Growth.

The reason this works so well is because each attack step presents the attacker with a relatively straightforward binary choice (attack or don't) that is nevertheless brimming with strategic robustness. A single choice of a single attacker can totally alter the landscape of the Game 3 or five or seven turns from now—and this is before we've even started to think about how you're going to block! All the permutations of which defender is assigned where, and in what order, present themselves at the moment the decision is made, allowing the relatively insignificant-seeming decision of whether or not to turn a dude sideways to bear a ton of weight in terms of how the game plays out.

All of that was quite a mouthful, but from a development perspective it really comes down to this: combat has a lot of "knobs," or ways to tweak it very slightly. Other elements of Magic don't have as many. Take, for example, a Runeclaw Bear. If you want to keep the card as a vanilla, tweaking any available number—the mana cost, the power, or the toughness—changes it into a completely different card that plays completely differently. This means that if you want to use the play pattern of Runeclaw Bear in a set, you're pretty much stuck with that specific card.

Now, think about the play pattern of "attacking and blocking."

Lightning Bolt | Art by Christopher Moeller

A key feature that makes Magic work is that we release new sets every year, but keep the core experience very nearly the same. That makes sense; if we wanted a totally different experience, we'd make a totally different game! At the same time, it's important to shake environments up in a meaningful way from year to year, or the game gets stale, dull, repetitive, and unimaginative. What that means is that it's very, very valuable to find ways to introduce new variables that keep 95% of game play constant, but add robustness to the other 5%.

Combat mechanics manage to do this by adding twists to "attacking and blocking" that revolve around one of the many, many knobs available to us. We can "turn up the volume" on one axis or another without altering the core play pattern that makes the game fun. You can see how this plays out in mechanic after mechanic. "What if your guys are better when they get in fights?" Boom, there's bushido. "What if you really hope your opponent doesn't block?" Well, there's bloodthirst and the saboteur mechanic, among others. Et cetera.

And when you're asking yourself, "What if I could get some benefit by attacking with one creature instead of my entire team?"

You get exalted.

Into the Core

It's probably unsurprising, given what I've just talked about, that the last couple core sets have featured combat mechanics. After all, the defining feature of Hypothetical Set Magic 20XX is that it's not localized to a particular plane, world, or game-play environment. It really is Magic at its core. As such, it's going to be the most likely set released in a given year to feel generic or understated unless we do something actively to mitigate that—after all, the whole premise is that we release one of these every single year! It makes a lot of sense, then, to add some richness and texture by very slightly shaking up the way that combat works from year to year. We get to add a new dimension to the same experience that lies at the heart of what makes the game great.

But why exalted, specifically?

One of the core components of Magic's recent success has been our obsession—as we've mentioned on this site hundreds of times now—with placing flavor first. An experience just is more compelling when you've brought it down off the lofty pedestal of abstraction and rendered it tangible.

For that reason, we've been involving more and more members of the creative team in the process of card design, culminating (for now) with Doug Beyer's appointment as lead designer of Magic 2013. Not only did he do an outstanding job with the design elements of the set, he ensured that as many cards as possible were brimming with flavor. Moreover, it was important to him that the mechanics of the set were flavorful as well, and weren't just words on cards. In the case of exalted, the idea was that both white and black could plausibly anoint a designated competitor to charge off into battle. In white's case, the story was very much the same as it was on Bant in Alara—which is why you see so many reprints from that world. Basically, its exalted heroes approach combat as a sort of ceremony, a ritual—its rites imbuing an individual with especial power. Black, by contrast, draws power from its supplicants, like a lord earning tribute from a host of vassals.


Knight of Glory
Knight of Infamy

Or at least that's my totally unschooled amateur developer-y non-flavor-dude summation of the thought process, which in all likelihood leaves out some grand insight of unparalleled profundity. This is what happens, Doug, when you leave your column behind—I can put words in your mouth and thoughts in your mind! Bwahaha. Haha. Ha... ah.

At any rate, exalted fit the bill for the core set's focus on top-down fantasy resonance. That's good and nice, but at the end of the day what was most important was that it played well.

Fortunately, we found that it did. Even more fortunately, it didn't just play well in the abstract—it fit very nicely with the patterns that new players are most comfortable with.

Risky Business

I've been playing Magic since I was eight years old, and I love to turn a creature sideways. Bashing face is in my blood. I count down the points of my opponent's life total like a kid counts down the days until Christmas. Nailing that 0 is the jackpot, hear me. But that's a behavior that's been battered into me over time, conditioned and wrenched and refined by thousands upon thousands of matches.

The fact of the matter is, attacking is hard. Things can go wrong. Creatures can get killed—and so can you, on the counterattack, if you're not careful. The net result of all of this, when taken together, is that newer players just do not attack hardly ever. Empty board? Doesn't matter. I've sat and watched this happen over and over and over again, and I empathize completely—you've waited several turns to cast the coolest creatures in your deck, and the last thing you want to do is run them straight into a Divine Verdict or Faerie Invaders or whatever, or commit them to an attack that leaves you vulnerable. It feels good to feel safe, after all.

Exalted works by mitigating the risk inherent in an attack. First, it boosts the creature, meaning it's far less likely to die in combat. Second, it leaves the rest of your team back to play defense, ensuring that you're not going to get blown out by anything. This leads to a very satisfying play pattern for the newer players, and eases them into an appreciation for combat that will grow and grow the more they play.

Staff of Nin | Art by Dan Scott

That's only "level one," though, because exalted is actually a very skill-intensive mechanic for more experienced players as well. Very straightforwardly, of course, there's the basic optimization of the mechanic itself: do you want to sneak a less important creature through for less total damage while leaving a bigger guy back to play defense, or do you want to hit as hard as you can on every attack? But that's hardly the whole story. It turns out that only committing a single creature to an attack exposes you to a lot of risks, too—they're just less visible than the combatants on the battlefield. Maybe you're not dealing enough damage to kill your opponent before he or she drops Staff of Nin and pulls ahead. Maybe your creature dies to a Searing Spear with exalted on the stack, and you've basically been "Fogged" for a turn on top of everything else. Just because you're heavily incentivized to attack with a single creature hardly means that's what you're supposed to do all the time.

There are also some counterintuitive applications of exalted that don't reveal themselves until you've played with the mechanic for awhile. To take just one example, it seems like on the surface that you wouldn't want to blend exalted with tokens, right? You cast Captain's Call, make three creatures, but can only attack with one of them—what a blowout. It's been my experience, though, that tokens are actively very, very good with exalted for a number of reasons. They allow you to "trade up" with real creatures and accumulate virtual card advantage. They allow you to play effective defense against larger creatures while still forming a relevant clock. And perhaps most importantly, they give you a viable Plan B to the countermeasures the set throws in to deal with exalted as a strategy. Fog Bank becomes a lot easier to deal with once you can start "going wide" after you've been "going tall," for example, and there's nothing like spoiling an opponent's efforts to finally get a sizable blocker in the way by hitting him or her out of nowhere with a Trumpet Blast.

Everything for Everyone

As you can see, we've been working very hard to blend the accessibility our newer players require with the richness and texture our experienced players demand, and this philosophy extends to core sets most of all. Combat mechanics like exalted are a huge part of how (we hope) we're managing to reconcile these two demands—creating intuitive, satisfying experiences that foster successful play patterns while sculpting opportunities for strategic complexity in the process.

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