Let's Start at the Very Beginning
My column today is going to explain an important truism of Magic card design: always start with the commons. I am currently leading my sixteenth set design. Each design started in the exact same way: I sat down with my design team and figured out what the set was going to be about, and then we started making common cards. Why do we always start the same way? What hold do common cards have over me as a designer? Why must all my questions come in threes? All this and more will be explained today.
To understand the importance of the common, all we need to do is open a Magic booster. (To keep our lawyers happy, let me stress that what I'm about to explain is the most common experience one has when opening a booster but that there is possible variance.) Inside the booster are fifteen cards—okay, sixteen if you count the token / tips and tricks card, but for purposes of this discussion we can skip it.
One card in the pack will be a basic land, three more will be uncommon cards, and one will be either a rare or a mythic rare. The remaining ten cards are common. That means that two thirds of all the cards in a booster pack are common cards. Why is this important? A few reasons:
Commons Make Up the Bulk of First Impressions
When you write a novel, you get to make your reader start with the first chapter. When you make a movie, you get to force your audience to begin with the first scene. Most creative endeavors allow artists some control over how the audience experiences their work. With trading card games, there is very little control. You have no idea what card a player will see first, and for each player, it will be a different card. You don't even get assurance that they see everything in your set. All you know for sure is that they will see at least some of it in an order you won't pick.
The only tool you have in controlling what they see is rarity. They will see more commons than uncommons, more uncommons than rares, and more rares than mythic rares. What this means is that if you have things that are important for your audience to see, you have to put them at common—and not just once. To have some assurance the players will see it, you have to put it at common on a significant number of cards.
This reasoning is where my "If your theme isn't at common, it isn't your theme" dictum comes from. Commons have the very important role of carrying the central messages of the set. This means the key mechanics, themes, and mood all have to be captured at common.
One of the major reasons to start a card design at common is to see if you can get across everything you need with only the commons at your disposal. If you can't, you'll be unable to communicate your set's themes to the players. The all-common exercise is a very handy way of making sure you pass this first test.
Commons Make Up the Bulk of Limited Play
In the beginning, Limited was seen as an amusing way to open your booster packs. With time, though, Limited has gone from being an afterthought to becoming one of the most common ways to play Magic. As such, it's something that design pays a lot of attention to. The end result is that the commons' most important role in modern design is to make sure that Limited plays well.
One of the major reasons to start design by creating the commons is that an all-common playtest is the quickest and easiest way of testing your Limited environment. Yes, there are some quirks when you play only commons (more on this in a moment), but it does a very good job of giving you a rough idea of how the Limited environment will play.
Commons Make Up the Bulk of a Beginner's Collection
Another important thing to keep in mind is that less experienced players on the whole have a lot fewer cards. This means that for them, usually two-thirds of their collection is common. That proves to be a valuable tool for design (and development) in that it is the only way we currently have to help ease them into the game. By removing concepts from common that we'd rather they not encounter too soon, we greatly lessen the likelihood that they'll run across them.
The livelihood of any game depends on the game's ability to keep bringing in new blood. Magic has an added issue in that it keeps producing new cards that constantly raise the overall complexity of the game. Without a valve to lessen complexity for the new player, we would be walking a path of inevitable obsolescence. Keeping commons in check helps us fight this ongoing issue.
While the exposure issue is the largest reason for wanting to start with commons, there are a few other issues as well:
Commons Are the Hardest Cards to Design
During my last Nuts and Bolts Column (Nuts & Bolts: Filling In the Design Skeleton), I talked about an important aspect of set design: start with the hardest part. The reasoning for this is quite simple: Every card you design restricts what the rest of the cards can do. You start with the hardest parts because you want to give yourself the easiest time when designing them. You want to load the restrictions on the designs that can most easily handle the limitations. Now weave that dictum in with another of my favorite design truisms—commons are the hardest to design—and you can see the logic behind starting with commons.
It's Easier to Add Complication than to Remove It
Another reason to start at common is that it matches how designers want to work on mechanics. You want to start with the plainest version to get a basic sense of how it works. Then you start layering on complications to give it twists and turns. Common is where you are going to want to have the simplest versions. By starting your designs at common, you naturally are progressing the way that designs want to move. As I like to say, the role of design is not to fight momentum but to use it to your advantage.
You Want to Examine Your Limited Environment in its Simplest Form First
This reason is an extension of the last one. When building a Limited environment it works best to start small and slowly add layers. If you add too many factors at once it makes the playtest too busy and thus hard for you to isolate what is and isn't working. By starting simple, you have just a few aspects to focus on allowing you to get a much better understanding of how your environment is working.
As you can see, there are many advantages of starting your design with the common cards.
Playtesting the Waters
Now that I explained why you want to begin with your common cards, let's talk a little about what an all-common playtest is like. In many ways it is unlike normal Magic, so it's important to understand the differences:
There Is Far Less Variance in Play
Of all the rarities, common's power level has the least amount of spread. Yes, there are good creatures and good kill spells but each of these is tempered versus higher rarities. Rare and mythic rare tend to have Limited "bombs" that simply never show up in common. Mass destruction and reset buttons likewise never show up in common.
What this all means is that there's less swinginess in an all-common playtest. When one player gets ahead, it's much harder for the other player to come back. The kind of spells you need to have a huge reversal just aren't in common. Likewise, the threats that your opponent has to deal with immediately are also missing in common.
There Is Far Less Variance in Cards
Another big change in an all-common playtest is there are simply fewer cards being played. This means that you're going to see a lot more repetition. The big green ground-pounder, for example, is always going to be the same creature, as common usually only has one. One of the ways I help lessen this is to institute a "two of" rule. No one is allowed to play more than two copies of a card. If they receive more than two, I let them trade in their extras for other cards in the same color. The one exception to this rule is when you are using a mechanic that cares about having multiple versions. Then I let them play whatever they get.
The Creatures Are Smaller
Another effect of only using common cards is that you miss out on things that don't show up in common. The biggest category of missing cards is larger creatures. Other than one green common and an occasional blue "serpent," there usually aren't creatures at common bigger than 3/3. (Yes, there are exceptions on a set-by-set basis.) The biggest effect of this absence is that creature curves are a little lower and it's harder to break through later in the game as the biggest creatures just aren't that much bigger than the smallest. The game can adapt to this change, but it does cause the game to pull in a few different directions than normal.
Removal Is More One-for-One
One of the things that has been moved out of common over the years is removal with built-in card advantage. Common still has plenty of destruction spells, but they are of the one-for-one variety. The impact on an all-common playtest is that it is harder to change the tempo of a game to your advantage. In other words, the player who gets ahead tends to stay ahead.
Certain Kinds of Cards Are Missing
With the exception of an artifact themed set, there normally aren't too many artifacts in common. Enchantments at common tend to be auras. Planeswalkers are multiple rarities away. The impact of this is that an all-common playtest has a little less variety in the type of cards that show up.
The big message of this section is that all-common playtests are not normal Magic. The reason design uses them is they are very helpful in giving the designers a sense of what the environment is going to be like, not in every detail but in a big-picture kind of way. As I talked about last week, iteration is crucial to design. As such, it's is important for designers to quickly get to a file that can be playtested. The all-common file is popular because it is the base minimum that allows the design team to start playing with the cards.
Let me end today by giving you some tips on how to design good common cards:
Keep It Simple
Your card should do one thing. If it's a creature, just give it one ability, whether that's a keyword, activated ability or a triggered ability. Sometimes it should even be a vanilla creature. This is the number-one area where designers fail when designing common cards. One of the techniques I use on my design teams is to ask my team to design only commons. Then I use the cards turned in to fill in common, uncommon, and sometimes even rare slots.
I can't stress enough how important it is for common cards to be simple. Magic has room for complexity, but the place for it isn't in common. The role of common is for you to take your ideas and boil them down to their essence, and even then, sometimes that essence still isn't common.
Keep It Short
Keep your card to three or fewer lines of text, counting reminder text. A real set has a few exceptions to this rule, but not many. In general, I think this is a good goal to shoot for.
A lot of designers like to shorthand what their cards do and not write out the actual text. A blue card, for instance, just says "Mill 4." The problem with these types of shortcuts is that they keep the designers from experiencing the cards as the players will. Often times, something that seems simple and easy isn't once you have to write it out.
I also advocate putting reminder text on the card as, once again, the designer has to see the card as it will be printed. It is very common for me to send mechanics to Del or Matt (the Head Editor and Rules Manager, respectively) in early design to get a rough template so that my team can get a sense of what the card will actually look like.
While text length might not seem all that relevant at first blush, we have a lot of data that shows that the more lines of text a card has, the more often it isn't understood.
Keep It Relevant
Cards at common have one of two roles. Either they are basic cards needed to make the game work and keep it comprehensible, or they are filling in the essence of the set. Ideally as many cards as possible do both, but plenty of cards fill one of the two roles.
If the card is not fulfilling the first role then it must be fulfilling the second. This means that when you design a common card, you have to ask, "Is this card helping define the set?" If the answer is no, then get rid of it. To be blunt, expansions don't have room for cards that don't advance the set, especially at common.
Keep It Flavorful
One of the best ways to keep a card simple is to let creative do some of the cards work. Flavorful cards are simpler because they bring with them built-in knowledge that player already has. In R&D we talk a lot about "resonance." We like cards that hit known tropes and do what you expect them to do. These cards are the easiest to learn because you've already learned most of the card before you've even looked at it. Yes, there are always going to be a few cards that are more function than flavor, but common is the place where you try to make sure flavor has a role on every card.
Keep It Common
This is an odd one, but it's such a common mistake that I included it. I am amazed how often designers will design a common card that just isn't common. Most often this is because the designer just didn't realize that some aspect of the game isn't normally done at common. One of the things I advise to anyone making commons is to spend some time looking at the commons from a recent set. For instance, click below to see all the commons from Scars of Mirrodin. Just take a few moments to really look it over.
Nothing I can write is a better education on what belongs at common than looking at the Scars of Mirrodin commons. I know all the GDS2 Top 8 spent a lot of time looking at the commons from modern sets when they were assigned to design commons for their sets. If designing commons is something that you're interested in, I strongly urge you to really take some time to look at the commons above.
That's all I have to say about commons this time around. I'm sure in nine years I'll come up with new things to say.
Join me next week when New Phyrexia previews begin.
Until then, may your commons look like commons.