Design Seminar: The 10 Mental Locks

Posted in Making Magic on November 10, 2008

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

One day Aaron Forsythe (Ramp;D's Director of Magic, my boss and longtime Latest Developments columnist) called me into his office to talk about Magic design. What was I doing to help advance the state of Magic design skills in Ramp;D? I explained the current system, which basically allows me to flag Ramp;D members (and even some non-Ramp;D members at Wizards) who I felt had potential and put them on Magic design teams where they could learn by doing. While Aaron thought that design teams were the best place to learn Magic design, he felt that it was a very slow system for teaching. He had an idea for how we could speed things along. How would I feel, he asked, about teaching biweekly seminars on Magic design?

I thought it sounded like a great idea, so many months ago, I began the seminars. Attendance was voluntary, but the class list was limited to members of Ramp;D plus any other Wizards employee who had ever worked on a Magic design team. The seminars were each two hours long, and I was free to teach whatever I felt was relevant. Today's column is based on one of those seminars. If I get positive response, I'll share other seminar topics in the future.

    Museum of Whacks

Let's start with a little trivia. How well do you know your columnist? Ready? What is my favorite book?

If you don't know this one, you really haven't been paying attention. The only trivia question about me that's easier is what sitcom I used to write for. My favorite book is a glorious book on creative thinking called A Whack on the Side of the Head by Roger von Oech, PhD. I mention it all the time in Making Magic because the topic of creativity comes up frequently and the book is such a rich source that I feel compelled to quote and/or talk about it.

The book has inspired not one but two different Magic related columns. The first appeared in Duelist #4 back in 1995 (this was before I was employed by Wizards, back in my freelancing days). It was called "The 10 Mental Locks of Magic" and can be found here in a series called Forgotten Lore, where we reprint old favorite Duelist articles on My second Whack inspired column is today. Yes, one of my favorite seminars used the framework of the book to teach some important lessons about Magic design.

Let me start then by quickly recapping the book. A Whack on the Side of the Head is a book about how to improve your creative thinking. In it, von Oech makes the claim that the number one reason people aren't creative is their own self-limitations. Von Oech claims that anyone can be creative. The key is to learn about the 10 mental locks that people impose on themselves that keep them from being creative. In my Duelist column I explored 10 mental locks that kept players from being as good as they can be as players. For my seminar I talked about the 10 mental locks that I felt most held designers back to doing the best card design that they could do.

That's what I'm up to today. I am going to share with you these 10 mental locks of design. I believe that with better understanding of the self-imposed traps that designers fall into, each one of you can have a better understanding of Magic design. Sound good? Then let's get started.

    Mental Lock #1: "Some players won't like it."

This first lock has to do with a common design pitfall—the desire to make the card more attractive to more players. Usually this happens when a designer realizes that there are small changes they could make to a card to add value to it for yet an additional group of players. The thought process is a simple one: why not make a few small sacrifices to increase the overall appeal of the card?

Here's the problem. In many cases, these "small sacrifices" are making the card less attractive to the initial group the card was designed for. Yes, you're increasing the group who might like the card, but you are lessening the number who will love it. Our job is not to make everyone like everything but to make everyone love something. Magic is filled with thousands of cards. Not every card can make every player happy, nor should it.

This means that the true goal of the designers is to make each card as attractive as it can be for the audience it's intended for. Don't worry if a particular card doesn't make some subset of players happy (or even if it makes them actively unhappy), that's what the designs of other cards are for. Cards have to be judged against the audience the card was designed for. If that audience is happy, the design is doing its job.

Note, by the way, that I'm not saying that cards can't be tweaked to broaden their appeal, but only that any tweaking shouldn't be done at the sake of the initial design.

    Mental Lock #2: "I love this card."

They say "love is blind," and that couldn't be more true when it comes to card design. One of the biggest mistakes card designers make is letting their own personal affection for a card cloud their judgment about it. Quite often I see designers leave a card in a file because they cannot bring themselves to take it out even if its inclusion is not harmonious with the set around it.

The thought here is that it makes no sense to remove a card that they feel is so good. The answer is that a good card can do bad if it's in the wrong place. Cards have to be evaluated in context of where they are being used. This means that evaluations cannot be about the card design in a vacuum. You have to judge whether or not this is the right card design for this set. Quite often, designers allow emotional attachments to override this consideration.

The thing to remember is that Magic is a hungry beast. It will constantly require new cards. If a designer has created something good, it will eventually find a home. With patience, that home will be one where the individual design advances the larger set design making it even better of a choice for inclusion.

It is crucial for designers to be emotionally invested in the work they do. This lock just reminds us that there is a time and place for that investment.

    Mental Lock #3: "We've done that already."

This mental lock ties right into one of my favorite expressions: you don't need to look out of the box until you've thoroughly checked in the box. Most creative people have this drive to do things that haven't been done before. Here's the problem—the vast majority of Magic design is doing things that have been done before.

Metaphorically, I feel like innovation is this rich frosting. It's sweet, it's flashy, and it gets much of the focus, but, in the end, frosting doesn't deliver without a whole lot of cake. Making that cake is the brunt of what design does. This mental lock exists because the creative lure towards the unknown is a strong one.

The key to combating this lock is understanding the role that repetition plays in design. (Don't worry—I already wrote an entire column about it.) There is a time and place for innovation. That place, though, is not on each and every Magic card.

    Mental Lock #4: "It needs more."

One of the things that happens as designers mature is they start to gain better appreciation of simplicity. They come to realize that cards that are short and simple and do one thing elegantly are the hardest to create. This lock represents the pull of the other side—the desire to layer effect upon effect. This desire stems from the same part of the brain that makes beginners pile numerous creature enchantments on the same creature. Bigger is not only better, it's also more exciting.

One of the things I ask my designers when looking at individual cards is this: could this card have less? Is every piece of the design holding its weight? If not, cutting the dead weight will strengthen the overall design. Remember the goal of each card is not to do everything but rather to do one thing well. (Perhaps you see a theme starting to form.)

The key to overcoming this lock is to keep the expression "less is more" in mind. Adding new elements more often than not hurts overall design. Thus, a designer has to be very cautious whenever he or she adds something to the card. If the advantage isn't plainly obvious, the designer seriously needs to consider not adding it.

    Mental Lock #5: "We'll figure it out later."

Design, at its core, is about structure. Things don't just "work out." Things are carefully planned. This lock plays into the hubris that good ideas inherently must work. Essentially the idea is that good cards when put together will manufacture their own inherent structure. I see the same thing happen all the time in writing—the idea that if you just put interesting characters in interesting situations, the stories should write themselves. In reality, nothing is farther from the truth.

Designs, like any creative endeavor, have to be carefully planned. Things "work out" because of the time and energy spent to make them work. To use another reference, I'll quote a famous play (although possibly better known as a sitcom), The Odd Couple:

Oscar Madison: Well, just keep pouring gravy on it.
Felix Ungar: Where the hell am I gonna get gravy at eight o'clock?
Oscar Madison: I dunno, I though it comes when you cook the meat.
Felix Ungar: [stares at him for a moment] You don't know what you're talking about, Oscar. You just don't know, because you have to make gravy, it doesn't come!

I think a lot of new designers think the structure, like the gravy, just "comes." No, you have to make the gravy. It's part of what makes design such hard work.

    Mental Lock #6: "It's too obvious."

This lock goes hand in hand with #3. Designers sometimes get so caught up in the intricacies of design that they forget a simple truth: cards work because they are fun to play, not because they explore interesting design space. Sometimes the obvious answer is just that—the obvious answer.

While it is fun to look at cards, their value rests much more in how they play then how they read. The parallel I can make is to story telling (hey, it's what I know). Archetypal characters (the gentle giant, the hooker with the heart of gold, the proud warrior, etc.) are far from original. In fact, their strength comes from the fact that everyone gets who they are instantly because the character conventions have been so firmly established. Archetypal characters are used so often because they get the job done.

The same can be said for simple and straightforward Magic cards. Giant Growth-type cards, for instance, are a concept as old as the game, yet their play applications are just as fresh as they were in Alpha. Yes, the game wants to throw fresh ideas at the players from time to time, but more often than not, the pieces that make the game work today are the same ones that did so yesterday.

    Mental Lock #7: "A little bleed's okay."

There is nothing more central to the game of Magic than the color pie. As such, designers have to show the color pie the respect it deserves. Bleeding for the sake of bleeding is, simply put, just bad design. But wait, there are plenty examples of design bleeding, so what gives? The answer rests in how such bleeding comes about.

The right bleeding is a result of things that make flavor sense (a.k.a are consistent with color philosophy) but don't conform with the modern mechanical color pie make-up—that is, they are things that could have been including philosophically but weren't due to execution. (To use my own terminology, these bleeds are the mantle and crust parts of the color pie.)

The wrong kinds of bleeds are the ones that bleed for the sake of bleeding. These are cards that get their novelty by trying to do something that they aren't supposed to. Usually the justification for these types of bleeds is tied into this lock. Designers see the necessary bleeds that come out of the other type of bleeding and just make a blanket statement that the game allows bleeding, so any bleeding is acceptable. This, my readers, is the path to ruin.

    Mental Lock #8: "It should work."

Humans love to procrastinate. Magic card designers tend to be human. As such, it is not hard to understand why certain elements of card design are skipped. Why waste valuable time now when someone else will solve the problem for you, you know, in the future? Why waste valuable time on something that somebody else will work out?

The problem is that it's not always safe to just assume things work. Often times in design, it is the inability to solve a "simple" problem that kills a card. The two best examples of this are rules interactions and templating. Both these things can sink what otherwise might seem like a perfectly acceptable card. Rules can simply not work, and templating can turn lengthy and ugly, at worst not fitting in the text box at all.

The lesson here is that designers do not have the luxury of just assuming things work. Part of exploring new ideas is doing the due diligence to make sure that you're not wasting your time on something that will be killed months down the line. Don't assume something can and will be worked out.

    Mental Lock #9: "It has to interconnect."

In lock #2, I explained how you have to be willing to lose a card, even one you love, if it isn't working with the set around it. This lock pushes in the opposite direction. The flaw here is when designers refuse to put anything in the set that does not intimately connect to everything else in the set.

The problem here is that structure is not the only need of a set. Excessive structure can cause complication issues, hurt modularity, limit deck-building options, constrain diversity, and simply make the set feel too constrictive. Water is crucial and life-giving. Have too much of it and you drown. Structure is very similar. Every set needs it in proper amounts.

    Mental Lock #10: "We'll add the flavor when we're done."

This mental lock makes the false assumption that flavor and mechanics aren't inherently linked. The best design comes from finding ways to grow organically out of the flavor. Build all the mechanics first and you get a stilted world without any internal logic. Build the world first and you get wonky mechanics. (This is because, as I've explained many times, flavor is more flexible than mechanics.)

The key is to find ways to build flavor and mechanics alongside one another. Allow flavor and mechanics to each have a hand in shaping the other. When flavor comes to a fork in the road, allow mechanics to choose the more appropriate path, and vice versa when mechanics finds itself with a choice. Flavor is a tool for mechanics (and mechanics is a tool for flavor), and a very important one at that. Sure, you could build a house without a hammer, but I guarantee it won't be as good as one where the hammer is allowed.

    Class Dismissed

Hopefully the take-away from today's column/lecture is that designers have to be very aware of what biases they bring to each design. While there will always be external obstacles, we have to be just as wary of the internal ones.

Before I wrap up, let me just say that I'm curious what you all thought of my seminar column. Would you like to see some more, or should I keep my lectures to every other week in Ramp;D?

Join me next week when Blue and I sit down for a little chat.

Until then, may you find some mental keys.

Mark Rosewater

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