Developmental Prowess

Posted in Latest Developments on November 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.

It's Jeskai Week, and I want to talk about Jeskai's mechanic in Khans of Tarkirprowess. Looking at the individual clan mechanics of Khans, it is my favorite, and one that I think people have come around on a lot since it was first previewed. Today I want to talk about what works about the mechanic and what it tells us about making successful Magic mechanics.

Keeping It Simple

Khans of Tarkir had a lot of difficulties when it got to development. One of the primary goals of development is to make sure the gameplay is fun and balanced, but to also keep the complexity of the set at the level we believe is best for the health of the game. There is some amount of room for variance in set complexity, but we are just not looking to release another set on the level of Time Spiral or Lorwyn blocks in Standard. That means that, much like development needs to figure out where we need to push power in sets, design and development work together to figure out where can and need to push complexity for sets.

For Khans, this meant that a lot of the complexity of the set was taken up by having morph in the set at all. Morph has a lot of both rules baggage and board complexity, so we needed to make sure that the rest of the set was a little simpler to make room for that mechanic. If Khans of Tarkir didn't have morph, we would almost certainly have found either mechanics that were more complex for the clans or there would've been another overarching mechanic that took up the space that morph occupies now.

One thing I want to separate here is the notion of complexity and quality for mechanics. Mechanics do a lot of work for the game in terms of making it more interesting. Sometimes, like morph or prowess, they add some complexity to the board and that makes things more fun. Other mechanics, like kicker, can add some additional options when casting your spells to provide depth in decision making. Mechanics being complex increases the uniqueness of the mechanic, but that complexity needs to add enough to the game for it to be worth it. We've had many mechanics throughout Magic's past that are very interesting, but worked much better as words on a card than in actual gameplay, much to the detriment of the sets they appeared in.

A few examples of keywords that I think don't really live up to the space they take up in the game's complexity are kinship, radiance, fateful hour, and haunt. Many of these do interesting things, but are pretty complex and don't add enough to gameplay to justify their existence—again, in my opinion. That isn't to say that the world would be better if these didn't exist at all. But I think it would be better if we had managed to find mechanics that were both more grokable and had a more positive impact on total gameplay. This is one of the biggest challenges for both Magic design and development: finding ways to create mechanics that justify their space on the cards. It's more difficult than it might sound.

The Simple Joys

Some of Magic's best mechanics are its simplest and have become its evergreen mechanics. It's easy to take them for granted, but a ton of gameplay comes out of our most basic evergreen mechanics like flying, trample, haste, vigilance, and first strike. We use them so often that it is easy to forget just how much mileage Magic gets out of them. But I think if we went a single set without using them it would be very apparent about just how much work they all do for setting the basic parameters of Magic creature combat. They allow our other keywords to add just enough spice on top to keep the game feeling both the same and different, set to set.

In my mind, one of the ways prowess most greatly succeeds is that it's a very simple keyword, but it influences attacking, blocking, holding back cards and mana, and deck building. A single prowess card doesn't add the kind of complexity to the board that a morph creature will, but it allows the player controlling it to use cards like Defiant Strike or Weave Fate to save a creature in combat. Or it allows Jeskai Student and open mana to easily hold off two morphs with the risk of eating one of the attackers. Prowess creatures turn any instant into a combat trick, and embody what we were looking for in making the Jeskai feel like the clan of cunning.

A metric that we look at for our mechanics being really successful is how they influence deck construction in both Limited and Constructed. Landfall, for example, influenced Zendikar Constructed by pushing aggressive creatures in decks with fetch lands, but had little deck-building influence in Zendikar Limited—other than maybe playing more lands than most aggressive decks usually would. Prowess, on the other hand, gets players to think a lot about the mix of lands, creatures, and spells they put into their decks. I know that as we built prowess Constructed decks, we looked a lot toward cards like Raise the Alarm and Spear of Heliod to provide non-creature spells that were more than just card draw or removal.

Finding the Right Balance

One of the difficulties of working with prowess for development was getting the mechanic to the point where it was both appealing and of the appropriate power level. When we started working with prowess (then called kung fu), we based many of our early designs off of the +2/+2 landfall creatures in Zendikar, since the two abilities felt very similar on the surface. One major difference, though, is that when we were working with landfall in Zendikar, it was easy for our low-drop creatures to just read as though the landfall hit every turn. Steppe Lynx, for instance, just reads like a one-drop 2/3 because that is what it is for a large part of the game. It's very easy for players to imagine themselves playing a land every turn, and the fetch lands on top of that read obviously powerful. Beyond just looking powerful, they were powerful, since it was possible to curve out with landfall creatures and still get the landfall each turn. It's basically impossible to curve out prowess creatures while still getting a prowess trigger each turn.

When working with prowess, we found that people had a much harder time imagining themselves playing a noncreature spell each turn. And when development tweaked the cards to what we had expected to be about the right numbers, we got feedback that the cards looked very weak. Now, it's development's job to make sure things are of the right power level, but having it be correct and look weak isn't the space that we want to live in. One of the differences between prowess and landfall was that it was very easy for players to make one land drop per turn in Limited, but hard for them to make two, letting us get the cards at the right level for both Constructed and Limited. It was less common for players to get one spell per turn in Limited, and very difficult for them to get two or more. We attempted making prowess +2/+2 instead of +1/+1, but we quickly found that landfall being essentially at sorcery speed made a larger bonus much more palatable for Limited, and that the games where you do actually cast two instants in one turn made prowess stronger than we wanted it to be.

In the end, we found that noncreature spells and +1/+1 were the right stats for our prowess creatures, and instead of tinkering with the keyword, we found the right creatures to put it on. Instead of making our creatures look like the landfall creatures, we were able to give them very respectable bodies. Seeker of the Way, for example, is a little below what would be considered a Constructed-level creature without prowess, but gets to about the right range with the ability. We also tended to put a little more toughness on our prowess creatures to make your opponent's blocking decisions a little more difficult, and to allow the prowess trigger to save the maximum number of creatures possible.

In the end, I think we got prowess to the point where it is definitely a huge force in Limited, and we have enough shots at Constructed cards with prowess that I believe we will end up seeing it also having an impact in Standard. As it is, Monastery Swiftspear has already made a splash in Legacy—a format ripe with cheap cantrips. I wouldn't be surprised to see several cards with the mechanic to see play in Modern in the future.

That's it for this week. Join me next week when I discuss developing uncommons, as well as the benefits and challenges of that rarity.

Until next time,

Sam (@samstod)

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