Complexity Creep

Posted in Latest Developments on February 24, 2017

By Sam Stoddard

Sam Stoddard came to Wizards of the Coast as an intern in May 2012. He is currently a game designer working on final design and development for Magic: The Gathering.

Hello and welcome to another week of Latest Developments. For today's article, I'm going to go a bit into the weeds on a big issue for Magic, namely complexity creep—the trend for the game to get more complex over time—and why that is bad.

Why Complexity Is So Hard to Manage

New World Order gets a bad rap. I read a lot of posts on the internet from Magic players, and there is a habit to blame everything on New World Order. Rares too weak? New World Order. Blue doesn't get Counterspell in Standard? New World Order. That's really not what New World Order is about; it's about keeping complexity in check at common and generally making our game simpler while keeping it fun.

One of the biggest struggles with complexity is that, to some extent, it does add fun for Limited. As a player who has been playing for almost 23 years, I enjoy being put in situations I've never seen before and navigating through incredibly complex board states. If we were just selling Magic to me, then we wouldn't need New World Order; we would need the opposite. But we're not just selling to me, and the continued health and growth of Magic requires that the game works for and is accessible to new players and people who just don't enjoy those levels of complexity. The fact is, we have plenty of formats that can provide me the kind of complexity I want and need, without also making Limited—the most accessible format—just as hard as Vintage.

It's development's job to also keep these things in check. If a set has a bit too much going on at the handoff, or if the mechanics lead toward non-New World Order situations (even if they don't read that way on the surface), it's development's job to cut things down. Now, we don't cut indiscriminately; a design file is basically an un-fleshed out idea of what the designers found fun. It's rare that a huge number of the cards in a design file actually make their way into the final product completely unchanged, but the ideas and play patterns that design enjoyed are what development attempts to recreate in ways that work outside of design's biodome. Development also tries to drill down on what design finds fun, and create cards that (hopefully) manage to recreate that in the simplest way possible.

Development is far from blameless when it comes to adding complexity, though. I believe the most common reason we end up increasing complexity in sets is in the name of balance. As we are going through Limited playtests, we try to make sure the colors are all at a pretty similar power level. When one color is too weak or too strong, we need to change something. Sometimes we add high flying to a flier ("can block only creatures with flying"), or we might create a targeting restriction on an ability, or we might add a timing restriction. Any of those in the abstract is fine, but they add up, and things do become more complex. If we are trying to keep words down, we might just add 1 point of toughness—since adding power is generally stronger. It might be that we only need a small nudge, and turning that 3/3 into a 3/4 gets the color closer to the point where we need it to be. The problem is our sets can trend more toward toughness-based stats than power-base stats. The great thing about power-based stats is that cards trade off easily, usually one-for-one, and the board doesn't get too clogged. Toughness often means that attacks become unprofitable, and board states get clogged. Sometimes, like in Battle for Zendikar or Theros, we want this to happen so that we can highlight some of the set mechanics that are more difficult to actually hit. But then it tends to seep into other sets without us thinking about it, and it just makes Limited environments very same-y. I don't think every set should be Gatecrash, but I do think we could use more sets that feel like that, with maybe a bit better color balance.

Complexity Creep in Action

If you look at the last few years of Magic set releases, you might notice that there has been a not-so-minor rise in the complexity level. We did a pretty good job after Magic 2010 of keeping things under control, but over time, our common word count started creeping up, and we ended up with more and more complex cards at common, more and more mechanics, and a lot of very fiddly text. However, let's just look at mechanics for one second: In the olden days of Magic, a large set would have two mechanics and sometimes a little extra oomph. Urza's Saga had echo and cycling. Invasion had kicker and domain plus split cards. Odyssey had flashback and threshold. Onslaught had cycling and morph. Small sets beyond those would usually add one mechanic or just riff on what we already had, and that basically worked. Of course, as we got further and further though Magic's design space, we found that our new mechanics were becoming less deep on average. In my mind, the best three mechanics Magic has ever created are flashback, cycling, and kicker, and they all appear in that five-year era of Magic sets. Those mechanics let you just do so much—maybe too much, if you are thinking about longevity of the game.

As designers and developers, we play a lot of Magic. It's not surprising that we have a habit of getting inoculated to complexity. Most of the people in R&D who are making Magic sets have been playing for fifteen years or more—quite a bit longer than our average player. It's easy for us to have that need for more newness in sets, and mechanics are an easy way to accomplish this, but not the only way. The high-water mark here for complexity that led to New World Order was Time Spiral block, which had around 40 mechanics. Between that and Lorwyn's "every card is an on-board trick" design, we were just not acquiring new players.

Our complexity creep in the last few years was much smaller than that, but it could easily have slipped into a similar level if we were not vigilant. And while there were a lot of rumblings within R&D about some of our complexity issues, each individual set had a very good reason to do what it did. Innistrad wanted double-faced cards, which are complicated (especially the first time), but we pulled back in other areas in that set to make it work. Then we got to Return to Ravnica block, and all of a sudden we have five mechanics in a set—which is fine, because each of those is a little more simple. Then Dragon's Maze ended up with eleven mechanics in one set. Theros came along with bestow, which was a very complex mechanic, but it was important for the story and to get enchantments to work. Khans of Tarkir block after that needed five mechanics for the first set, another five for the third set, and overlap in the second, along with morph on top of that.

I think Battle for Zendikar was the set where we realized that we had gone too far. We returned the Allies (with rally) and landfall, we needed devoid and colorless matters for the Eldrazi, plus ingest, Processors, awaken, and converge. And that's just the first set; Oath of the Gatewatch added surge, colorless-only mana, cohort, and support. At that point, we'd put about as many mechanics into Battle for Zendikar block as we did in Khans block, but we still had another entire block for the year! While Battle for Zendikar was a very popular block, it definitely didn't feel like an ideal spot where we would want new players to come into the game. When we removed the core set from our line up, we sort of understood that we also needed to make our main sets a bit simpler to compensate, but I don't think either Battle for Zendikar block or Shadows over Innistrad block really did that. Kaladesh did a better job, but I think we still have a long way to go there.

The Future

Just because we are making things simpler doesn't mean we are making them boring. Innistrad is widely regarded as the best Limited environment of all time, and if you compare it to our more recent sets, it was simpler. High-complexity cards can build a lot of interesting things into sets, but that doesn't mean that sets can't be interesting without those very complex cards. It's possible to make simple cards that play well with each other, that allow for fun and nuanced gameplay without a ton of text or overcomplicated board states.

In terms of raw mechanics, Kaladesh block is down to a much more sustainable level than we've seen in last few years, and I think at a point that is closer to our new norm than Battle for Zendikar or Shadows blocks. I think there are some problems with complexity within Kaladesh block—mainly that we underestimated how hard energy and Vehicles would be for less enfranchised players—but at least we weren't piling another four additional mechanics on top of that. We have been focusing, with future sets, on how to make a better Limited experience in a way that is more accessible for newer players while maintaining the kind of strategic depth that more experienced players want. Looking back at the last few years, I think we have been doing an excellent job making fun Limited environments, and I personally believe that we can retain most of that without making them too complex.

The other nice thing about how we are creating products now is that we have a place to put high-complexity sets, and I'll be talking about one next week: Modern Masters 2017 Edition. This is the set where the designers and developers get to go a bit deeper down the rabbit hole than usual and print some cards at common that would never fly in a Standard-legal booster release. There are some pretty exciting cards there at all rarities. It's my favorite Masters set yet, but as the lead designer, I will admit to being biased.

So, next week, I'll be talking about lead designing that set and the differences between designing and developing in the Masters sets world.

Until next time,
Sam (@samstod)

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