Fight Club, Part 2

Posted in Making Magic on February 14, 2011

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.

Last week was Battle Cry Week here at, so I decided to talk about combat mechanics. As I dug into the nitty-gritty of how they were designed I found that I kept hitting upon key points about larger Magic design issues. I realized I was touching upon one of my design truisms: In the micro lies the macro. The idea behind this truism is that good design permeates a set from its largest components down to its smallest. If you want to see what makes a game tick, you can just as easily look at the smallest details as the big picture. Today is Part 2 of last week's column. I strongly urge you to read Part 1 if you haven't, as Part 2 assumes you have.

    Putting Up a Good Fight

Last week was the first half of the combat mechanic subsets. Today is the other half.

    Effect If Creature Unblocked
  • "Curiosity – Draw When Deal Combat Damage To Player" (blue amp; green)
  • Frenzy (black amp; red, so far at least)
  • Infect (all colors but red ... so far)
  • Lifelink (white amp; black)
  • Ninjutsu (blue amp; black)
  • Poisonous (black amp; green)
  • "Specter – Opponent Discards When Hit" (black)

In Part 1, I started talking about combat triggers. We had effects that triggered off of attacking and blocking. This week we get triggers that happen when a creature isn't blocked. This subset actually covers several different types of cards. First are creatures that trigger if they deal damage (usually combat damage) to the opponent. The second grouping is creatures that trigger if they are not blocked. Each of these can either do its trigger in addition to the damage or in place of it. This subset of cards is known as "saboteurs" in Ramp;D speak.

I guess hypothetically we could make a creature that triggered off of not attacking but my designer instinct feels it's probably design space best left unexplored.

The value of saboteurs hits upon something I talked about last week. It's the role of a game designer to push the game in the direction that will lead to the most fun game play. I think a lot of novice game designers misunderstand the role of the designer. Game design isn't about making objects as much as it's about creating experiences. The objects you create all serve the goal of pushing the player towards the game play that will create the most satisfying outcome.

As an example, let's use this subset of cards. Saboteurs do two important things. One they encourage the first player to attack with his or her creatures. As I talked about last week, the game designer needs to create the inertia that keeps the game moving towards completion. Two, saboteurs encourage the opposing player to block. This is good because, also as I stated last week, creature combat is one of the most compelling parts of the game. The game designer wants the players to attack and their opponents to block. They accomplish this by creating cards that reinforce this motivation.

    Creature's Damage Has Additional Effect to Blocking Creature
  • Deathtouch (black amp; green)
  • Infect (all colors but red ... so far)
  • Lifelink (white amp; black)
  • Trample (all but most in green amp; red)
  • Wither (black, red amp; green)

The last subset included the creatures that had effects when they damaged the opponent. This subset's effects are triggered when they damage other creatures. This subset breaks into two parts. The first part is things that get its effect whether or not it damages a creature or player. (Note that these effects appear on both lists.) The second part is spells that only effect blocking creatures. This second subset functions much like evasion as it discourages blocking.

This brings up the question—hey, didn't you just say that you were trying to encourage blocking? The goal of Magic design is a complex one because the designer has to care about multiple things at the same time. Some creatures have to get through because you need to keep the inertia, which will end the game, but you also want to create choices for your players to create dynamic card interactions.

But wait, last week I talked all about how sometimes you want to limit choices. Now I'm saying you want to make sure choices exist. What's going on? The answer to this question is the same reason I haven't grown bored designing Magic for fifteen years: there's a lot of nuance. Choice is important to game design. My point last week wasn't that choices aren't important but that they aren't always the answer to game design problems.

Another way to think of it is this. One of the important roles of a game designer is to figure out which choices matter. You want to give the players some choices but not infinite choices. And sometimes, it's important to not give the players choices at all. It all boils down to what makes the best game play. With creatures, the answer is a complex one. You want creature combat because it is one of the most compelling parts of the game, but you also need to make sure that some damage gets through. The nuance comes from balancing these two factors.

The trick I always use when I consider adding choices is to question if the choice is doing good things for your game:

  • Does it create decisions that are fun to solve? Players tend to enjoy a choice between two good things more than a choice between two bad ones. Picking out your flavor of ice cream is fun. Choosing how someone gets to punch you is not. We do make some "damned if you do, damned if you don't" griefer cards, but we are careful to keep them from being too easy to play.

  • Do the players have all the information to make the choice? A common design mistake is to give the players a choice but not provide the information they need to be able to make the choice. This makes the players feel helpless and tends to frustrate them.

  • Does the choice matter? Another common design mistake is to give the players two choices that don't have any real impact. Players are smart and will figure out when a choice is only an illusion. Remember, gamers are intelligent (that's partly why they've chosen to game as a hobby), fooling them is a bad game design strategy because they will ultimately see through it.

  • Do the choices lead somewhere? Remember that the act of making a choice is not what is fun for players. What is fun is accomplishing something directly as a result of your decisions. Having the decision mean something is what's fun, not the act of making the decision. Players enjoy looking back and being happy that they were able to make the right decision. The moment of the decision-making is not where the happiness lies.

You'll see a common thread through all the above issues. The choice has to serve the game and the desires of the player. Choosing merely for the sake of choosing isn't enjoyable and will lead to bad game play. Your job as a game designer is to use choices as a limited resource that are put strategically where the game most needs them.

    Creature Damages At a Different Time or Multiple Times
  • Double Strike (white amp; red)
  • First Strike (white amp; red, occasionally in black)

In my opinion, what is the best combat mechanic of all time? First strike. It's straightforward, easy to grok, flavorful and has so many positive interactions. I was excited when double strike was created (by an audience member in a feature called "You Make the Card") because it just meant we got to get even more first strike into the game. In Unhinged design, we even had last strike (which allowed us to also make triple strike) but unfortunately the rules couldn't handle it so I had to take it out. (Possibly my greatest regret of Unhinged design.)

One of the things I like best about first strike is that it brings a sense of speed to the game. Many years ago Wizards put out a trading card game for Star Wars. Richard Garfield was the lead designer and I was lucky enough to be on the design team (yes, once upon a time I designed games other than Magic). The Star Wars TCG had not two, but three stats for every creature – power, toughness and speed. While Magic doesn't need the excess complication, speed did make for very dynamic combat.

The meta-issue this subset brings up for me is one of timing. Sometimes the best thing you can do is not to add anything but merely define the order in which things happen. First strike basically says, "Here's how we're going to alter combat. We're going to let the creatures go in a particular order."

This idea, while simple, is often missed in game design. You don't always have to add something to change up what is going on. Sometimes you need to look at what you are already doing and see if you can change how that works. Innovation isn't always additive.

    Alters How Damage Is Assigned
  • Banding (white but occasionally in other colors)
  • Bands with Other (no color should be subjected to this mechanic)
  • Protection (all colors but primarily white)
  • Trample (all but most in green amp; red)

Damage can have effects. Damage can happen at a different time or happen multiple times. This subset just lets players alter how damage is assigned. This can happen in one of two ways. First, it can prevent if or how much damage can be assigned to something. Second, it can grant the player the ability to assign damage he or she normally doesn't get to assign. The former usually isn't all that complicated (that can't damage this) but the latter has proven to cause all sorts of confusion.

The lesson we've learned with this subset is just because you can do something doesn't mean design has to. Open design space is like catnip to designers. They just want to play with it. Banding proved to be too much for most players so we got rid of it. Still, every once in a while a designer circles back around and starts investigating if there is some way to do at least part of what banding was trying to do. Each time so far the answer has been it can't be done in a way that players would intuitively understand. (This is not to say we'll never crack it, but I don't anticipate us cracking it soon.)

Good game design involves a lot of discipline. Part of that discipline is understanding when you should and shouldn't mess with some aspect of your design. Sometimes you need to get your hands dirty and make it work while other times you have to be able to just walk away. The game designer that never walks away is doing a disservice to his or her design.

    Power and/or Toughness Boost (or Decrease of Opponent's Creatures) In Combat
  • Battle cry (white amp; red)
  • Bushido (white amp; red, but occasionally in all colors)
  • Exalted (white, blue amp; green)
  • Flanking (white amp; red but occasionally in all colors)
  • Rampage/"New Rampage" (green amp; red)

Another way to affect combat is to change the stats of at least one of the creatures. This subset is all mechanics that change the stat of a creature as a result of it getting into combat. Note that all of them except bushido only work on attack. This is another example of the designers pushing the game towards completion. Strong defensive abilities tend to stall the game where strong aggressive ones make the game progress.

It's also interesting to note the progression of this subset. In the beginning, these type of mechanics tended to boost the creature it was on in combat, but the more recent mechanics, exalted and battle cry, are more holistic in that they have a relationship between the creature and other creatures you have on the battlefield. I have a feeling this trend is a telling one that hints at future mechanics to come.

    Can Alter Mid-Combat
  • Aura Swap (blue, well so far anyways)
  • "Firebreathing - +N/+0" (red but occasionally in other colors)
  • Morph (all colors)
  • "Rootwalla Boost - +N/+N, once per turn" (green)
  • "Shade - +N/+N" (black but occasionally in other colors)
  • "Toughness Pumping - +0/+N" (white but occasionally in other colors)

Like the last subset, this subset is also about creatures that can change their stats. The difference is that these changes are not dependent on being in combat. While occasionally this can matter outside of combat, the main reason of boosting a creature's power is dealing extra damage to another player or creature and the major reason of boosting a creature's toughness is surviving combat.

Looking at these last two subsets together, there is an interesting design dynamic going on. If you want to boost a creature's stats, you have two major reasons. It can do so because you spend a resource (mostly mana) to make it happen or it can happen because it triggers when you do something. If you spend mana, you can have it happen any time, but if you need it to be triggered then usually you don't need to worry about spending mana to do it.

The lesson here is that costs come in many forms. It's very easy to see mana as a cost, but it's less so to see something like an action as a cost. It's important though for designers to see this because almost nothing in the game comes without some kind of cost. While development tends to make sure the cost is a fair one, design has to be creative in figuring out how to find new costs. A good exercise for a novice designer is to take some random cards that have a positive effect and figure out what the cost is.

    Something Happens If Creature Dies
  • Haunt (white amp; black)
  • Modular (exclusively on artifact creatures)
  • Persist (all colors)
  • Soulshift (white, black amp; green)
  • Totem Armor (white, blue amp; green)

Of all the subsets I'm listing, this one is the second easiest one to be argued as not a combat mechanic. (I'll get to the easiest one in a second.) After all, there are many other ways to get a creature into the graveyard other than creature combat. Still, creature combat is the easiest way and this subset's existence can have a very big impact on combat.

Ramp;D refers to this subset as "death triggers." It's interesting to point out that they have recently become in vogue in design. You'll notice that in Scars of Mirrodin, death triggers were one of the six mechanical identifiers that made a card Phyrexian.

    Harder To Target/Kill
  • Absorb (white)
  • "Indestructible" (all colors)
  • Protection (all colors but primarily white)
  • Regeneration (black and green, infrequently shows up in other colors)
  • Shroud (blue amp; green)
  • "Toughness Pumping - +0/+N" (white but occasionally in other colors)

Now we get to the subset that really might not be a combat mechanic. I included it, though, because making creatures hard to kill does have a big impact on combat in that it encourages the creatures to attack and block.

This subset is a problem child in that while players like having their creatures harder to kill, it doesn't always make for the best game play. Remember one of the key things to make a game fun is having flux. That is, things need to change. A game that stays stagnant grows boring. One of the easiest ways to do this is allowing players to get rid of things. This is why destruction is such a key element of Magic game design. For example, much of the definition of the color pie comes from what colors can and cannot destroy.

Because of all that, cards in this subset are playing in dangerous space. Why do we make them then? Because they tap into a primal desire of the players. In a world where things can be easily destroyed players want answers. What this all means is that there is a delicate balance in design between creating flux and giving the players some safety blankets to comfort them.

    Affects Things In Combat
  • "Damage to/Destroy/Exile attacking or blocking creatures" (white)
  • "Fog" (green)
  • "Rangestrike – Activated ability, which damages attacking or blocking creatures" (white)

This last subset is mostly things that don't go on creatures. These are spells and effects that affect things in combat. Note that this is mostly in white's domain. It's also funny to note that the only nonwhite thing listed above, Fog, was temporarily put into white because it matched white's philosophy so well. (It was put back in green not because it didn't feel more white but simply that green mechanically needed it more.)

The one meta-issue this subset brings up is the value of restricting when a spell can be used. A mistake many novice designers make is assuming that having the ability to play your spell whenever is better than having its timing be restricted. This is why, for instance, first time designs tend to have lots of instants and very few sorceries.

In the design of most products the role of design is to get out of the users way. Make the product as easy and intuitive to use as possible. That's not what happens in game design though. Game design (and puzzle design) are all about putting obstacles in your player's way. Game designers are trying to make it hard on their end user because that is what game-players want.

The joy of a game comes from overcoming the obstacles, which means that designers can't be afraid of creating them. This means not letting the player do whatever he wants whenever he wants. Restrictions breed creativity, they also breed good game design. A game designer's job is not to give the player what he wants, but rather to make him or her work for it.

    The Fight Is Over

While I can sit and write about design all day, our time is up. I hope my turning a microscope on combat mechanics has helped enlighten some of the bigger design issues. I talked about a number of concepts in this two-parter. I am very interested in hearing which aspects you all would like me to cover in greater detail. Please email me or add a comment in this thread. (By the way, there seems to be some belief that I don't read my threads. While I may post to them infrequently, I always read the whole thing every week.)

Join me next week when I examine my allegiances.

Until then, may you sometimes look down to see up.

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