#897: ROE with Brian Tinsman
In this podcast, I sit down with Designer Brian Tinsman to talk about the design of Rise of the Eldrazi.
Posted in Making Magic on January 17, 2022
Welcome, everyone. Regular column/blog readers, or podcast listeners, have often heard me say "Magic is not one game, but many games." Today, I plan to dive a little deeper into what that means and share a core philosophy that drives how we design Magic. I'm hoping it will give you all a better sense of why we do what we do here at Wizards.
Let me begin by restating the above sentence in a little more detail. Magic is not a single game but rather a game system that shares a set of rules and game components (mainly cards). Our job as the creators of Magic is to make that game system as robust as possible so that each player can play the game in the manner they choose. That is, our main job is to enable all of you to play Magic the way you most enjoy playing it.
What makes this extra challenging is that all of you don't want to play the same way. Even when you're playing the same format, there's a huge differential in expectation. For example, two people could both play Commander, but the first is interested in one-on-one competitive Commander while the second is interested in super-casual multiplayer Commander. The needs for those two players barely overlap. So how do we meet the needs of all the Magic players in the world in a way that allows it to remain the game they love? Carefully.
Before I go more in depth into how we solve this problem, I first want to get everyone up to speed on how we got here in the first place. Richard Garfield, and his friend Mike Davis, come to Seattle, Washington, in 1991 to pitch his game Roborally to Peter Adkison, president of Wizards of the Coast, then a small roleplaying game company. Roborally is too expensive for Peter to mass produce, but he tells Richard he does have the means to make a card game with nice illustrations. This inspires Richard to come up with the idea of a trading card game. Instead of getting a whole game with your purchase, you get pieces of the game that you can then use in whatever combination you wish. As Richard would famously coin it: "it's a game bigger than the box."
It turns out that the modularity of a trading card game had another big consequence. It enabled a flexibility in how the game was played. The players could dictate what cards were allowed. The players could dictate deck-construction rules. The players could dictate how the deck was put together (for example, maybe you open booster packs and draft the cards). The players could dictate the number of players. The players could dictate the win condition. Magic's core structure turned the players into game designers and gave them enormous freedom to shape how they played.
The impact of this was seen right away. Within the first year of Magic's existence, there was a huge proliferation in formats, most of which were casually created. Wizards then started making multiple sanctioned formats, including a big push to make Limited formats a substantial part of the game. Almost 30 years later, Magic has continued to grow and evolve with more formats than any one player could possibly name.
So, the idea of Magic being a game system is nothing new. It's how Richard built it from day one. The challenge for those of us behind the scenes making it is that it keeps changing. Richard's creation continues evolving and reinventing itself. We can't build the game to what it was two years ago but what it will be two years from now.
In addition, we don't design solely for previous audiences but for future audiences as well. As the game evolves, so too does its player base—for most of Magic's life, it has grown in size. While this constant change keeps design from getting dull, it presents a lot of challenges. Here are some of the major ones:
The Priority Problem – Each player approaches the game through their own perspective. That is, the game to them is how they play, how they experience it. So, when they feel something is missing, or they want something new added, it feels like a pressing issue that must be resolved immediately.
As an example, for years, there was no legendary blue-red creature that focused on artifacts even though we've done numerous sets that had a blue-red artifact theme. For the player who needed that, a commander for their blue-red artifact deck, its absence was huge. I'd get posts on social media all the time asking how is it we haven't made this creature yet? When we made a set where it could easily have been included (Kaladesh, for example, used the blue-red slot for an artifact-themed planeswalker, Saheeli), they were upset that we hadn't included it. They're only asking for this one thing, why are we not responding to it?
The problem is that while each player has their own priority and is only asking for one or two things, we have millions of players who each have their own priority and are asking for their own things. That list is longer than the totality of cards in the game. Yes, we do keep track of common requests and are constantly looking for opportunities to do things we know players want, but there's always going to be a giant list of things we haven't got to yet. To the individual player who wants one of those things we haven't done yet, it feels like we're ignoring what's important.
The Wasteful Problem – This is a corollary to the priority problem. When we design something that isn't for a particular player, it can frustrate them because we spent time and resources on something that doesn't advance what the game is for them. Un- sets are a great example of this. Unstable came out, got played by a huge number of players, and was reprinted four times, but there was still a large contingency upset with us for making the product. Why? Because it didn't add anything to how they played. To them, it was a waste. We could have made a product in its place that addressed several pressing issues that they felt were a higher priority.
This issue doesn't have to be as big as a whole product. It could be a mechanic, or a theme, or even a single card. As with the last issue, this isn't consistent across players. What is and isn't a waste is subjective based on what you value in the game.
The Contamination Problem – Part of identifying what the game means to a player includes identifying what it's not. Every player has a line of what is and isn't acceptable to them. When we create something that crosses that line, players will get upset because we've now introduced something to the game that feels out of place. With the popularity of eternal formats—that is, formats where almost all the cards can be played—this gets even more invasive, because now that thing they don't think has a place in the game is part of their format. Players can't control what their opponents play, so now there's a threat of that thing contaminating their format.
Again, the problem here is that what that line is varies greatly from person to person. Universes Beyond is a good example of this issue. Some players love the opportunity to dip into other properties in their Magic games. Some are fine with it as an overlay thing like Godzilla or Dracula. Some are okay if it's from a property that feels at home in Magic's fantasy setting. Some don't want anything that isn't a Magic character. Some even are unhappy when we do a character in a Magic setting with our own take on the card like Throne of Eldraine's Flaxen Intruder.
The Evolution Problem – Magic is an ever-changing game. Whenever we introduce a new component to the game that wasn't there before, there are players upset that the game is changing away from what they love. This is true of any new element.
When we first introduced the idea of rotation, of Sixth Edition rules, of foil cards, of a new card frame, of a new rarity, of Booster Fun, of new booster types, you name it, there were people unhappy with what Magic was becoming. This also includes things within the game. Players were upset when Alliances introduced cards you could cast when tapped out or when Lorwyn introduced planeswalkers or Innistrad introduced double-faced cards or Dungeons & Dragons: Adventures in the Forgotten Realms brought rolling a d20 to Standard. They even get upset when things leave the game—things like damage on the stack or mana burn or even tapped blockers not dealing damage. The running joke has become that every new change, additive or subtractive, is "the death of Magic."
Continuing the theme from above, what upsets people varies from player to player. One player could adore double-faced cards but dislike die rolling with a passion while another could feel the exact opposite.
These problems and more exist for every new Magic card, mechanic, theme, frame, set, product, etc., we make. And it isn't even as if we could do nothing. That too would upset players. There is literally no way to not upset people through either action or inaction.
Now let me get to the crux of the issue. The following two things are true:
So how do we continue making Magic without upsetting anyone? The answer is we don't. We can't. The combination of the above two points literally prevents it. But there is something we can do, which brings me to our guiding design philosophy:
Design Magic so that each player has the tools to make it the game they love.
That's one sentence, but there is a lot packed in it, so let me unpack it for you.
1. We must focus on inclusion over exclusion.
One of my game design truisms is "If everyone likes your game, but no one loves it, it will fail. (This is one of my twenty lessons from my GDC speech. Here's the video, and here are my columns on it.) The idea behind it is that the key to a successful game design is to include things that your players will love, even if those same attributes are hated by other players. You just have to make sure that the players who hate one thing can love a different thing.
The important part of the lesson is that players are more drawn to a game for things they love than are pushed away from it for things they hate, especially in a modular game like Magic where you have control over your area of engagement. In terms of our philosophy, this means that we prioritize having things over not having things. Magic must be defined by what it can be, not by what it isn't. So, when we find an element that we think some players will love, we include it, even if some other players will be unhappy with that element being part of the game.
2. We must be willing to experiment more.
For many years, R&D's driving message was "this is what Magic is; stay focused on that target." Magic had a certain style, a certain look, a certain audience. It was our job as the designers of the game to deliver within that framework. Our outlook has completely changed, though. Instead of asking ourselves what Magic is, we now ask what Magic could be? Booster Fun is a perfect example. The Magic card frame, with some tweaks, has been consistent since the game's beginning. So, too, has the general look and feel of its art. Booster Fun asked the question, what would happen if we started offering something different, even things very different? Might there be players who would be interested in alternative kinds of frames or distinctive styles of art? The answer has been a resounding yes. Note, that doesn't mean we're getting rid of the frames and art as they have been. If that's what you enjoy, that still exists, but now we're offering more options to give players an even greater ability to shape how they can express themselves through the game. Part of making Magic better at being something players can love is increasing the choices they have available.
3. We must default to things being playable.
One of the common recommendations I get whenever we do something that someone feels is outside their definition of Magic is that we use an acorn symbol (formerly a silver border) for it. I think this comes from a misunderstanding of what the acorn symbol means.
One of the spectrums of play is the competitive/casual spectrum. The Un- sets explore designs that are appropriate for the casual end of the spectrum but cause issues for the competitive side. For instance, getting outside input from other people is a fun variable in a casual setting but is rife with concerns of cheating in a tournament setting. The acorn symbol is a tool to allow additional designs that don't have to adhere to the strictness required of playing in a highly competitive environment. Our default is to let players have access to as many cards as possible in as many formats as possible. The acorn symbol is not a subjective tool to gate off things some players might not like, because again, there's no constant to that line; it's a means to allow the game to include more casual elements without disrupting tournament play.
4. We must rely on the players crafting what they enjoy.
Another important point to this philosophy is understanding the player's ability to shape what matters to them. They can choose what format they play, including making new formats if what they want doesn't exist. They can choose what to put into their decks. They can choose who to play with, which can include larger agreements about what is and isn't acceptable for their playgroup.
We, as designers, are far less equipped to control an individual's play experience than that individual. Our choices have larger, sweeping impacts that prevent us from much of the nuance available to players. A big part of making things players love is trusting the players to gravitate toward those elements.
5. We must generate feedback that helps us.
An important part of the Magic design ecosystem is the two-way communication we have with our player base, but certain feedback is more valuable to us than others.
To help explain this, let me use a metaphor. Let's think of Magic design as a buffet. We've made a smorgasbord of dishes so that you can all enjoy a great meal. We have no intention that every diner is going to eat every dish. Our goal is making sure every customer enjoys what they eat. What's most valuable to us is knowing what dishes you loved. If you adored the prime rib, we'll make sure to offer it again, and maybe even do other carving stations. The fact that we had food you loved is why you'll come back and eat at the buffet again. If there was something you almost liked, that too is important. If the pasta carbonara would have been better with less pepper, that's good to know. Maybe we could try a less peppery version in the future. Telling us how much you hate chile as a food is much less valuable feedback. Yes, if enough people convey that they hate chile, we might consider not offering chile in the future, but if the chile lovers really enjoy our chile, we're less inclined to listen to the chile haters about the topic of whether we should have chile. Most importantly, if you found food you enjoyed at the buffet, the fact that there was chile you didn't like isn't as likely to be a factor in determining whether you return to the buffet.
6. We must understand what hurts the game.
None of this means that there aren't things we need to exclude. There are some things R&D needs to keep out of the game. They fall into two major categories.
First are bad game mechanics. The color pie, for example, exists for a reason. It's fundamental to how the game is structured that every color doesn't have access to every effect. Yes, there are plenty of players who might want us to make a card in a certain color that does something it's never done before, but doing so harms the integrity of the game system.
Second is avoiding things that violate our values. For example, we don't want to play into stereotypes or create cards that would make certain players feel uncomfortable, so even though there might be players who would enjoy those things, it isn't something we're going to do.
My goal with today's column is to take a step back and give you a larger sense of what R&D is trying to do with Magic. I hope it gave you a better sense of the challenges we face and the philosophy we have that guides us.
I'm always eager for feedback, but today more so than normal. What are your thoughts on the various things I said in today's column? You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok) and let me know your thoughts.
Join me next week for my first Kamigawa: Neon Dynasty preview article.
Until then, may you have an awesome meal.
In this podcast, I sit down with Designer Brian Tinsman to talk about the design of Rise of the Eldrazi.
In this podcast, I talk about the year of Magic in 2017.