Success doesn't always lead to improvement. Success most often leads to repetition, where people try to recreate what worked so well the first time. Failure, on the other hand, is a much better motivator when it comes to improvement. When something fails, you're motivated to figure out what went wrong and then change it. I bring this up because today I'm going to talk about a bunch of big lessons I've learned concerning Magic and how in each case one or more larger mistakes led me to the breakthrough. This will lead up to a big breakthrough I've had recently, based on a recent mistake, that I've yet to share with all of you.
Mistakes are a topic I've hit upon before. Back in November of 2002, I wrote an article called "Mistakes? I've Made a Few," where I walked through a bunch of mistakes (at a card level) I'd made. Then in November of 2003, I wrote an article called "Make No Mistake," in which I examined some of the biggest mistakes in Magic history. In 2011, I wrote a three-part article about my time working on Roseanne called "A Roseanne by Any Other Name," where, among other lessons, I explained how to cope with making a big mistake.
With that out of the way, it's time for me to dive into some of the bigger mistakes I've made while making Magic and the lessons that came from reflecting on those mistakes.
I've always been a bit of a rebel. When my teacher said that we shouldn't do something as part of a report, I always wanted to figure out how to do it. So back in the day, when I was about to start my fourth round of Magic design and my second large set design, I was obsessed with proving players wrong. You see, at the time, there was a lot of Magic theory being tossed back and forth. One of the big theories was about something known as "card advantage." The short version is that having more cards than your opponent was good and things that netted you card advantage (often trading one card for more than one card) would ultimately win you the game. What if, I thought, I made a set where the correct strategy was card disadvantage?
Odyssey would go on to be a graveyard-themed set with the mechanics of threshold and flashback that made you value cards in your graveyard. To play into this theme, I put a lot of cards that allowed you to discard cards as the cost of an effect. The trick was that the effect wasn't even the reason to discard the card. You might discard all seven of the cards in your hand, for instance, to give a creature first strike seven times, not because you even cared if it had first strike at all but because it got you to threshold.
The set did poorly, as just because discarding your whole hand was correct strategically didn't mean it was something the majority of players wanted to do. This, of course, led to the following lesson:
Make the players do something they inherently want to do, not something you, the game designer, force them to do.
As a game designer, you have a lot of power because you can encourage your players to do whatever the game wants them to do. Players will win even at the cost of doing something they don't enjoy. The problem is that the players have an even greater power than yours—they can stop playing your game. If you don't make the game enjoyable for them, they'll move on to a game that does. Odyssey taught me that with game design comes great power, but also great responsibility. (Who knew I had so much in common with Spider-Man?)
Champions of Kamigawa Block
Interestingly, I was not on the Champions of Kamigawa design team, but I was on the development team. When the set got handed over from design, it had a lot of different themes running through it. There was a top-down Japanese flavor, there was a war, there was a tribal component (built mostly around Spirits), there was a "legendary matters" theme. My big note as one of the developers was that the set wasn't focused enough and we had to figure out which aspect we wanted to put front and center.
I kept asking this question until the development team finally gave me an answer. They wanted to focus on the legendary aspect. After all, it was the Champions of Kamigawa. Okay, I said—if that were true, we had to pump up the theme, as it wasn't loud enough. The problem was, legendary wasn't something we did at lower rarities. At the time, it was done almost exclusively at rare (this was before mythic rare was a thing).
My idea was pretty bold. What if we made every rare creature legendary? I also advocated making some uncommon legendary creatures. If we were going to do it, we had to strongly embrace our theme. This idea proved to be a disaster.
There's a reason we limit how many legendary creatures we make: because we want them to be special. By making all of the rare creatures legendary, I guaranteed that we'd have to make some bad legendary creatures, because all of the rare creatures can't be good. Even worse, it didn't really help the problem at hand. You had to open up a lot of Champions of Kamigawa boosters to even get an inkling that there was a legendary theme.
This led me to the following lesson:
If your theme isn't common, it isn't your theme.
This idea is a simple one, but it wasn't until I made this big mistake that I recognized the issue. R&D can state whatever theme they want is the main theme of the set, but if the players can't see it, it doesn't matter. A theme is not just what you intend but what the audience recognizes. If our intended theme is hidden, then the players will pick out something they can see and assume that's the theme. And then guess what? That is the theme.
Time Spiral Block
This block started out as a block built around the theme of time. We had an interesting time-based mechanic (suspend), and I was eager to see if we could use time as an inspiration to build a block around. The time theme led me to divide the three sets in the block into the themes of past, present, and future. The past theme then pushed us toward a very nostalgia-driven design that encouraged us to bring back a lot of old mechanics.
The returning mechanics weren't counted as full mechanics for complexity purposes, as we felt most players would remember them. Once we said it was okay to bring back old mechanics, we just started bringing back more and more. Time Spiral had ten returning mechanics in addition to three new ones (well, two new ones and flash finally being keyworded). And that wasn't counting numerous mechanics like those on Slivers and Thallids and Spellshapers that weren't keyworded. Planar Chaos added in vanishing, a new twist on fading. Then Future Sight went bonkers. I made a series of mix-and-match cards that blended Magic mechanics from across time, bringing back a giant number of mechanics that hadn't even been in Time Spiral or Planar Chaos. I then made future-shifted cards with mechanics that might exist one day. All in all, Future Sight had almost as many mechanics as Magic had in total before the set came out.
The issue went beyond just mechanics, though. Part of doing a nostalgia theme was designing cards that were callbacks, mechanically and creatively, to old cards. Many of the cards didn't even make sense if you didn't understand the in-joke of what the cards were referencing.
The result? The heavily enfranchised players who got most of the references and did know the reprinted mechanics loved it. However, most players had problems. There were way too many mechanics to process and the in-jokes went over their heads. For the first time ever, tournament attendance was going up and sales were going down.
This led to this important lesson:
Every set is someone's first set.
It's so easy to forget what you once learned. Things that become second nature weren't always that way. At some point you had to learn it. If designers and developers forget that sets have to be accessible to new players, we run the risk of killing the game. New blood is essential to Magic's health because people will always leave for various reasons. If there aren't new players to offset that exodus, the game shrinks until it is no longer sustainable.
This block started with two simple themes. One, Onslaught block had been popular with its tribal theme and we wanted to do another tribal block. Two, Bill Rose had challenged me to come up with a way to do a four-set block, so I had with the idea of two mini-blocks (the precursor to the modern two-block model) where a radical event would change the world to justify two very different mini-blocks, each with its own mechanical identity.
The tribal theme in Onslaught was bigger than any tribal theme before it, but I recognized there was room to make it bigger. Not only that, I made an important realization. Since Onslaught, we had introduced the race/class model for creature types (things like Human Soldier). By accessing race/class technology, we could have creatures that have two tribal axes (the plural of "axis"). We could access races in Lorwyn (races went first as there were more of them) and classes in Morningtide.
I didn't realize my mistake until the Employee Prerelease for Morningtide. I was sitting across from an employee who was far less experienced, and the intricate web of tribal interactions was mind-melting to them. The Goblin Warrior could be affected by Goblin tribal and Warrior tribal, but the Goblin Wizard was affected by Goblin tribal and Wizard tribal. And then there was the Human Wizard. Goblin tribal would affect the first two but not the third, while Wizard tribal would affect the last two but not the first. Now add in ten more creatures and the board was impossible to digest for most of the players. For the first time, we saw people leaving the Prerelease after only one match.
Interestingly, Time Spiral block had taught us the importance of not overwhelming the audience, so we were very careful to make sure that we didn't use too many mechanics and kept word length to a minimum, especially at common. Lorwyn and Morningtide taught us that cards could be easy to read and understand in a vacuum and still be overwhelming when seen in play.
This led us to this important lesson:
There are different types of complexity, and we have to monitor each type.
This lesson led us to the idea of New World Order, the concept that we have to treat commons differently in order to lower the barrier to entry for new players. We broke complexity into three types—comprehension complexity, board complexity, and strategic complexity—and started to think differently about how complexity worked. (For more on New World Order and the three types of complexity, you can read my article on the topic.)
Battle for Zendikar Block
When I started working on Battle for Zendikar, I began with only one given—we were going back to the world of Zendikar. What that meant, what was going to happen there, and how the design was going to work was all left up to me. At the time, we hadn't yet embraced the new push for story (Magic Origins design actually started after Battle for Zendikar design, even though it was coming first chronologically, and even then, the realization of what Magic Origins was going to become didn't happen until halfway through that set's design), so I had nothing to work with regarding the story as I started up exploratory design.
I looked back at where the Zendikar block ended. The Eldrazi had gotten released from their thousands-of-years imprisonment and were causing great destruction to the world of Zendikar. The Zendikari gathered together their heroes to fight the Eldrazi—and scene. The block ended. What happened to Zendikar or the Zendikari or the Eldrazi? None of that was explained. That was a pretty big cliffhanger, so I decided that we needed to follow up on that storyline. For those who read my preview articles about the design of Battle for Zendikar (part one and part two), you'll remember that I walked through how we went about bringing the battle of the Eldrazi versus the Zendikari to life, but I didn't spend much time examining why the story had to be about a battle. The reason for that is that I never examined a different story.
Our previous visit ended on a cliffhanger, the cliffhanger implied conflict, and Magic is, at its core, a game about fighting. I never even considered any other possibility. Of course the return to Zendikar was going to be an epic battle between the Eldrazi and the Zendikari. What else could it be?
And that was my mistake. It was a pretty big one in retrospect. To understand it, I'll need to first fill you in on some facts about the block. Original Zendikar came about because I was convinced we could do a cool design built around land mechanics. Most everyone else was skeptical, but I'd earned enough goodwill that I was given some time to prove the concept. I succeeded and it led to us making a high adventure world inspired by things like Dungeons & Dragons and Indiana Jones.
Original Zendikar was very popular, as was Worldwake, the small set that followed it. But because there was some hesitance with my idea, the plan was to have the third set, a large set, take place on its own world. The creative team didn't have the resources to build a whole new world, so they came up with a story conceit for why the last set could reboot the mechanics yet stay on the same plane. This is how the idea of the Eldrazi came about.
Rise of the Eldrazi was very different from the first two Zendikar sets. It made use of what was called "battlecruiser Magic," where the gameplay discouraged faster strategies to allow for giant creatures (either straight-up goliaths like the Eldrazi or built-up-over-time ones like the level-up creatures). The unorthodox Limited gameplay was embraced by the enfranchised players, who still today list the set as among one of the best Limited environments ever made, but was firmly rejected by the less-enfranchised players, who were just lost. Basic strategies that had always worked became traps where less-enfranchised players would lose time and again. As a result, the set sold poorly, especially when compared to the very popular Zendikar.
We chose to return to Zendikar because the original set was so popular, but instead of embracing what made it popular, I embraced the very aspect that we knew was the least popular part about it. Even worse, to make room for the battle between the Eldrazi and Zendikari, I had to exclude all the adventure world tropes—the very stuff that I now believe was what made the first set so lovable.
Here's my analogy. I took my family to Disneyland. They had a great time. They loved all the rides and the characters and the treats. At the end of the last day, I was exhausted, so I took them to the Hall of Presidents so I could rest in an air-conditioned room. They were antsy the whole time because they could care less about animatronic presidents—except my wife, who actually found it interesting. Many years later, it's time to return to Disneyland because I know my family loved it. What do I do? I take my family to all the animatronic shows.
This brings us to my lesson:
When returning to a world, you have to return to the things that players loved about it the first time you visited.
Shadows over Innistrad is the perfect example of us embracing this philosophy. We didn't return to Avacyn Restored. We returned to Innistrad. Battle for Zendikar, in contrast, didn't return to Zendikar. We returned to Rise of the Eldrazi.
Looking forward, I know that returning to worlds is something we're planning to do half the time, so this lesson is a very important one for me to learn.
The day I stop making mistakes is the day I stop learning. I've learned not to be afraid of mistakes but rather to be willing to recognize them when they happen and take the time and energy to learn from them. Today was just another column trying to demonstrate that making Magic is hard and we don't always get it right, but we're trying our hardest and are constantly learning how to get better. That's especially true for me now, working on my 21st year on the game.
As always, I'm eager to hear your thoughts on today's column. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram). Are there mistakes we've made that you don't think we've recognized? Or are there things we think of as mistakes that you don't? If so, please let me know.
Join me next week, when I'll finally get around to telling you what our new introductory product is going to be.
Until then, may your mistakes bring you wisdom.
"Drive to Work #328—Meet My Daughter"
My drive to work has changed a bit, as I'm now driving my daughter to school each morning. As she carpools every day, it seemed only right to let her join me for a podcast. This is another in my "Meet My Family Member" series.
"Drive to Work #329—20 Lessons: Human Nature"
At the Game Developers Conference this year, I gave a speech called "Twenty Years, Twenty Lessons" where I talked about many of the things I've learned about game design from having worked on the same game for 20 years. This has inspired me to start a new podcast series called "Twenty Lessons, Twenty Podcasts," where I plan to go through each lesson for a whole podcast. I start today with Lesson #1: Fighting Against Human Nature Is a Losing Battle.
- Episode 329 20 Lessons: Human Nature (17.5 MB)
- Episode 328 Meet My Daughter (14.5 MB)
- Episode 327 GDC 2016 (19.9 MB)
- Episode 326 Creature Design (18.8 MB)
- Episode 325 Magic: The Puzzling (16.7 MB)