Conspiring For Fun

Posted in Latest Developments on June 7, 2014

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.

Conspiracy Draft is a new way to draft Magic. New things are hard, so we put a lot of time into making Conspiracy (the set) as fun as possible, which meant that we had to work against some of the conventions of multiplayer games—that they were long, drawn-out affairs that came down to a lot of haymakers.

Not that I am against haymakers, or how multiplayer games generally work. The normal setup works well for Commander, but translating that straight to a more "normal" Limited format causes some problems. One of the reasons that Commander works is that starting at 40 life and having a 100-card deck (including your commander in the command zone) means there is always stuff going on, and people have time to get to the meat of their decks.

The problems with that play style are that Limited games only have 40 cards (so you can't make things go on too long) and we don't generally put the kind of haymakers that make those games interesting at common, and rarely at uncommon. If the games were just coming down to rares, then things wouldn't be very interesting—and if they generally came down to decking, they would also not be that interesting. We briefly discussed the possibility of Conspiracy (the format) using a higher life total, but decided that it would be best if we kept it in most regards more similar to "regular" booster draft and used the huge amount of design space available to us in the set.

Today, I want to talk about the three new mechanics in Conspiracy and how we used them to create a multiplayer experience that was fast paced, but still created enough interaction between the players to create the drama and intrigue that the world of Fiora represents.

Paliano, the High City | Art by Adam Paquette

Making Enemies

In one-on-one Magic, your objective is very obvious: to take your opponent out at all costs. When you start playing multiplayer, all of a sudden the need to survive becomes more important, and that means you often need to play politics. Taking one player out might be great, but not if it leaves you wide open to a different opponent. It's not important that you do the most damage, or draw the most cards—your goal is to be the last one standing.

This can lead games to stagnating, where nobody wants to commit to any action—just building up and making friends until the moment is perfect. Playing Conspiracy is also about making friends...of sorts. After all, the enemy of my enemy is my friend.

The feeling that we wanted to get for Conspiracy was one of intrigue and politics, full of backroom deals and backstabs. We needed something that people could discuss and agree on, and something that people could barter future favor with. Voting was one of the earliest additions to Conspiracy, and the one that is the furthest away from what we would do in "regular" Magic. The important thing for the many will of the council cards was that they encourage players to vote between things that would hurt (or benefit) them unequally—for example: each player sacrifices a creature or loses 4 life. The player with no creatures has a very strong opinion—sacrificing creatures seems like the best idea, but the player who only has one creature in play (and it is a good one) will naturally want to instead lose the life. Creating tension points like this helps to create scenarios where players will have a real reason to attack each other, which will naturally help the game to a conclusion.

Hunt the Hunter

In line with that, dethrone (called "king killer" in development) is designed to give players a very good reason to attack, even if they might normally be too sheepish to risk creating enemies in a normal multiplayer game of Magic. One of the ways we get players to do things in normal Limited Magic is to give them rewards, which we generally refer to as "cookies," internally. So, do a thing, get a cookie. It could be that you gain some life, it could be that you deal some damage. You know, cookies.

Depending on what the thing is, we can give you a better cookie or a worse cookie. We wouldn't, for example, usually give someone a huge reward for drawing a card, since that is usually its own reward. The harder something is to do, the larger a cookie we are willing to offer someone to go for it. As an example from another set, let's look at this card:

Oh, the red enchantment where you do the set's mechanic and get to shock something. It's almost a cliché at this point, but that's because it works. Cards like Burning Vengeance and Knowledge and Power do the same thing. We create these kinds of cards to add some variety to game play experiences and reward someone for doing something they kind of already want to do, but in a much larger way.

In a similar vein, dethrone rewards people for picking on the player with the most life. It doesn't naturally eliminate players from the game in the same way that attacking the player with the lowest life would, but it's nice because it tends to change from turn to turn. We weren't going for a game of "Kick the Ouphe," we wanted the game to keep moving, and targets continuously changing. As each player who is the "monarch" gets knocked down, everyone gets to the point where they might be eliminated in one attack. It creates a continuous movement of the game that you can't just gain life to get out of.

If you look at the creatures we put dethrone on, they are aggressive. No 0/4s, but instead they tend to be cheap and often have abilities that are best when attacking—like the Ophidian ability, or the second attack step on Scourge of the Throne. We didn't reward you for dealing damage to the player with the highest life (partly due to how confusing it could be), but attacking that player, which means you have a pretty big incentive to attack a different person each turn.

Keep the Party Going

Parley's original name was card party, because that is exactly what it did—it gave everyone some cards. This is important, because we wanted people to not constantly run out of cards and have the game become a big stall. Drawing a few lands in a row can be rough, but in a game with three other people, each of whom is looking for a moment of weakness to take someone else out, it can be a real death knell. The challenge was getting the cards to a point where you would play them. Sure, they replace themselves for you, but they put your opponents each up a card. So, the effects needed to scale and be strong enough that you would use the cards despite the inherent risks. That's why we made cards like this:

One five-mana 3/3 is a little below average, and two is pretty darn good. But Selvala's Charge can go a lot further than that. There is always the chance you will miss, but we needed that kind of risk to make the parley cards have the right power level, but also to play the most fun. You never know exactly what you are going to get from one.

The parley cards were the final piece of the puzzle to really getting Conspiracy to work. There were enough of them being played that people's hands tended to get refilled relatively quickly, and the action never stopped. Moreover, unlike a one-on-one game, where too much information can lead to games becoming dull, with each player knowing all the data, in multiplayer, the reveals would often paint targets on a new person's head and act as a way for the game to shift dramatically.

Coming to a Store Near Year

I've written a few hundred words here about Conspiracy, but the most important thing about the set is that you all have your opportunity to experience it. Conspiracy goes on sale...well, today, at a local store near you. I heartily hope that you give it a try. Being a developer, and on the Spikier range of players, I was blown away with just how fun the set was, and how much I enjoyed the multiplayer angle—something I really wasn't expecting. I've heard of people who want to draft this as a one-on-one format, but I honestly have no idea how that will turn out, as we never tried it in development. If that is how you want to try the set, by all means, go for it, but at least also do a multiplayer draft as well—just to see how it turns out. You might be surprised how much you like it.

One of the great things about the set is that it plays well with different numbers of players—something that can't be said for many sets. This is true mostly because (unlike most Magic sets) nobody has to sit out when there is an odd number of players. Many of the drafts we did in development were four- or five-person drafts, where each player constructed his or her deck and played a free-for-all game afterword. Anything more than five players gets a little more frantic than we thought was optimal, so if you have more than that, I suggest drafting and then breaking into two groups—two three-player games, a three- and a four-player game, two four-player games, etc. Heck, if you get a ninth, feel free to draft as normal and go with a table of five and a table of four.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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