During Shards of Alara previews, I talked a little bit about the design of exalted, but I didn't exactly tell the whole story. I'm going to do that today. Before I dive into how the mechanic was created, let's start with a little reminder of how Shards of Alara's design worked. The world was split into five (you know, the shards of Alara), so we tried something novel. Bill Rose (the set's lead designer in addition to being the Vice President of R&D) created five mini-design teams, of three people, each responsible for a different world. The team for Bant was headed by Brian Tinsman and included Ken Nagle and myself.
We spent a bunch of time talking about the essence of a world centered around white without the influence of either black or red. We felt it was a world of order and nobility—a place where things were done without chaos or selfishness. We knew that in Bant there would be conflict, but it would be orderly. Part of finding the mechanical heart for Bant rested in understanding how this principle would affect combat.
Eventually we stumbled onto the idea that all-out war was kind of messy and not white's style. We came up with the idea that when two sides have an issue, instead of sending out entire armies, they each would pick a champion to fight for their side. The winner would win the conflict for the whole team. (Note that this isn't exactly where creative went with Bant but in exploring the ideas it helped inspire us.) This idea would lead Brian in coming up with the exalted mechanic. How do you represent a single creature fighting? Make a mechanic that encourages fighting with only one creature and have the rest of the creatures back him up (I assume with magic but maybe a kind of spiritual support) in some way.
Here's the part of the story I never told and it's important to our topic of the day. I remember the meeting where Brian first told Ken and myself about the exalted mechanic. He had designed a few cards to give us a sense of the mechanic and asked what we thought of it. My response: "I don't like it."
Why didn't I like it? For starters, it seemed like a pretty big hoop I had to jump through. In order to use this mechanic, I had to only attack with one creature. That felt like too big a cost, especially for what seemed like such a small benefit—a temporary +1/+1 boost. Second, I didn't quite get the flavor. Why is the champion only being helped by some creatures? Shouldn't the spirit of any comrade backing him up inspire the exalted creature? Also, exalted just didn't feel splashy to me. It didn't seem like something we were going to be able to build an entire shard around.
And then I played with it.
Be aware, just because I said I didn't like something didn't mean I didn't want to play with it. There is only so far one can go with reading a card. To truly understand how a card or mechanic or a set works, you have to shuffle it up and play with it. My metaphor is if you're buying a car, you can spend a lot of time doing research on it and talking with the salesman, but at some point you have to drive it.
Once I took exalted "out for a drive" I learned something very important: the mechanic played well. Very well. What seemed like a weak ability was actually much stronger than I realized, especially when all the exalted cards worked together. It created a threat the opponent couldn't easily deal with because each new creature that attacked would get the same boost from the exalted creatures. In short, I overestimated the downside and underestimated the upside. Exalted was something we could build the shard around. Just one tiny problem—I believed the mechanic was going to create a poor first impression for many players, just as it had with me.
"I Don't Do Impressions"
I spend a lot of time in this column talking about what mechanics are. I talk about how they play and what they do and how they fit into the set and which player or players they're for. What I haven't spent a lot of time talking about, though, is what players will think of the mechanic when they first encounter it. You see, it's all well and good to make an awesome set, but you still have to make sure players discover that it's awesome.
What this means is that, when making a set, you have to think about how what you're making will be perceived. Now, there are several aspects to the perception of cards, but for today I'm going to focus on just one aspect—what I'll call the first impression. Will the item in question make players more excited or less excited for the set it's in? I'll walk you through the four different categories. (Note that, for this explanation, "last impression" means what we expect players to think after they've played with the item in question many times; how will they feel with experience of the card/mechanic?)
This is the slam-dunk category—looks good and is good. This category does a great job of selling the set both initially and long term. The other reason this is important is that you want to make sure your game has things the players can latch onto early and get excited about. Then, as the game progresses, the players feel happy that their initial reaction was correct. It feels good to be right.
R&D calls cards in this category "discriminator cards." This subset is all about looking good on the surface but not living up to that initial reaction through extended play. These cards are important in Magic because the game is about exploration. You don't want everything to be as it seems because you want players to have to learn. You want exploration to lead to growth. This subset also helps sell the set initially because it creates a positive first impression, which leads players to want to acquire the product.
This was the category where I felt exalted fell. It seems bad at first glance but through play you learn to appreciate how good the mechanic is. This subset is equally important to the last in that what makes exploration fun is learning that some things you believed were wrong. Growth is an important factor to any game because players want to feel like they're improving. They also want to feel as if the time (and money) they've spent is worthwhile. The downside to this subset is that it doesn't initially help sell the set. In fact, if too much focus is put onto this subset it could, in theory, lessen initial interest in the set. On the upside, the mechanic will be good at keeping players invested long-term.
At first blush, you might think we should be avoiding this category at all costs. It doesn't help sell the set either up front or in the long term. It sours players both coming and going. So why do we make cards and mechanics that fall here? Because you can't allow players to explore if all the options aren't possible. For example, let's say that cards that looked bad were always actually good. Well, then players learn that any card that looks bad isn't and then it's hard for you to create cards that can grow to surprise the players. It's also important for players at all skill levels to be able to recognize some cards as bad, and this category helps you make these kinds of cards as well. Finally, part of building a community is to give them something to rally against together. A common enemy makes allies.
Okay, now that I've laid out the four types of impressions, let's talk about how a designer wants to make use of them.
Rule #1—Understand Which Card/Mechanic Falls Into Each Subset
First and foremost, I've spelled out the four subsets because I feel it's very important for designers to be able to identify for each card or mechanic what subset it falls into. Be aware that some of this is influenced by decisions made by development, but more or less first impressions tend to do with how a card works rather than what it's cost is.
The reason this is true, I believe, is that very few players are any good at properly sizing up power level without outside influence. Instead, I believe most players will use other factors to judge cards, even though these things do not directly correlate to power level. Humans are notorious for valuing factors they are able to recognize over ones that actually correlate to the issue at hand. If people can't see the things they need to judge, they tend to judge on the things they can see.
Here are some of the major factors that lead to a good first impression:
a) Be clear: This might sound odd, but the very first bar a card has to clear is that the player has to be able to understand what it does. Humans are selfish creatures by nature and, as such, there is a direct correlation in the mind between comprehension and quality. If you can't understand it, there's a prejudice that it can't be all that good. For example, this is why players will skip a card with too many lines of text and just write it off in their mind as a bad card. Rules text length has no bearing on power level but it's something easy for players to digest, so they will use it to make decisions.
b) Make sense: The first category is about players understanding what a card does. This category is about the players understanding why they would want to do the thing the card does. For example, "Sacrifice all your creatures" is straightforward and passes the first category but majorly flunks this category. You get that the card sacrifices all your creatures; you don't understand why you would ever want that card in your deck.
As I said above, the human mind overvalues itself. It equates how it does in responding to something with the quality of the thing being questioned. The second a player has to stop to question what a card or mechanic does, the mind starts to make negative subjective opinions about the item being evaluated. The internal question "Why would I want to do this?" has sunk many a card's first impression.
c) Have all obvious upside: Players will spend a lot of time thinking about new cards, but first impressions happen fast. A player will get his or her first thought on a new card seconds upon learning of it. Yes, time will temper that thought, but the first impression is very much about the immediate visceral impact of the card.
Cards that do something obviously good clear that initial hurdle easier. "Oh, the card makes all my creatures much bigger and gives them trample. That's good. I know that's something I'd want to do."
Cards that require thought, especially if it requires some valuation on the player's part, tend to ring warning bells in the minds of many players. "I can only attack with one creature? Often I want to attack with more than one. This might cause me problems. And all I get is +1/+1 boost for the turn. That doesn't seem like much of a bonus. I'm not sure if I like this mechanic."
Let me stress again that first impressions are quick and based more on gut feel and intuition. Players will make a call on a card very fast and while that impression can be changed over time, once a card is locked as "bad" it takes a lot of energy to change it into "good".
d) Be flavorful: I've talked a lot about the importance of resonance. One of its many perks is that it helps bond a card or mechanic to a player faster. "Cool, this card is Jekyll and Hyde. I've always liked that story."
First impressions are looking to quickly latch onto something. It doesn't matter what that something is. If it's positive to the brain, it immediately pulls toward a positive first impression. If it's negative, it pulls toward a negative first impression. The important point here is that the card is seen as a cohesive whole. That means that every facet of the card, especially things like name and art, can have a huge impact on the first impression.
Cards that have good last impressions are a little trickier to identify. If first impressions are all about split-second decisions, last impressions are about taking time to slowly consider how you feel about a card or mechanic. Last impressions require a lot of play and reflection.
How do you know if your card will create a good last impression? Basically, this comes down to understanding what makes the game fun. If a mechanic becomes something that enhances game play and makes players want to keep playing it, it will create a positive last impression. Getting a good sense of this is simply something that comes with experience.
Now that you can identify which cards have a good or bad first and/or last impression, it's time to move on to the next category.
Rule #2—Make Sure to Have Cards/Mechanics From Each Subset
The first lesson is that none of these categories is bad. Each one serves a purpose and it's important that every set have some of each. As I often say, it is the constant discovery of the game that keeps players invested for so many years. The game never grows boring because it's in a state of constant flux. In order to keep that flux, it's crucial that players are kept on their toes. This is why first impressions are so valuable.
There are many ways for players to feel good about themselves, but one important way is when a player recognizes that he or she properly identified something before the facts were established. Whether it's recognizing a good card before it is identified as good or calling out a good card as actually bad before the verdict is in, both acts make a player feel better about him- or herself.
Each type of impression also fills an important void, so it's good that they all get represented in every set.
Rule #3—Have a Balance Between Good and Bad First and Last Impressions
We played with exalted and came to the conclusion that we had a bad first impression/good last impression mechanic. What this meant to the set was that we had to make sure it had enough good impression cards to offset this bad impression mechanic. Note that our thought was never to get rid of exalted. We understood its value. The thought was more about how the set as a whole had to be managed such that exalted filled its role.
A lot of time, I tend to focus on a single card or mechanic and talk about how that is designed in a bubble. This lesson is all about how some things cannot be done in a bubble. The overall impression of a set is based upon the impressions of all the things in the set, from the theme and mood to the flavor to the mechanics to the individual card designs. To understand how your set is going to be perceived, you have to take a step back and see how all the pieces hang together.
Since we're talking about Shards of Alara with exalted, let me use it as an example. Shards of Alara was about creating a world made up of five distinctive mini-worlds, aka the shards. Let's start by looking at the mechanics for each shard:
Bant: This was exalted. We already knew this mechanic had a big risk of creating a bad first impression.
Esper: All our data told us that players like artifact themes. Esper's artifact theme was pretty straightforward and had a familiar "artifacts matter" component. Also, the colored artifacts were something simple to understand but splashy. We believed this shard would create a good first impression.
Grixis: This shard's keyword mechanic was unearth, basically a flashback variant that went on creatures. We knew from our data that players liked flashback and generally enjoyed getting extra uses out of their cards. We were confident this would also be a shard with a positive first impression.
Jund: This shard's keyword was devour. This was another mechanic that had some risk at making a bad first impression. Many players don't like having to sacrifice things, so this mechanic was a little of a harder sell. Luckily, what it lacked in sizzle, it made up for in flavor, which we knew would help.
Naya: This shard had the problem that its mechanic, "5 power and up matters" wasn't keyworded and thus was harder to see at first glance. Our feeling was that this shard would be more misunderstood than create a bad first impression. (In retrospect, I think we made a mistake not giving Naya a keyword.)
Looking at the set as a whole, we felt we had two shards, and thus two mechanics, that would create a good first impression. We thought Jund's flavor would help its mechanic to be neutral. We assumed Bant would create a bad first impression with its mechanic but we felt it had the most resonant flavor—high fantasy. Naya we knew would be hard for players to grab at first.
What we liked about exalted was its great last impression. It would be something that could grow as the players played it more, which is something every set needs. You want elements of the set to grow on the players because you want the set to stay exciting beyond the first month.
I am over-simplifying to try and give you a sense of what I'm talking about, but hopefully you can see that it is vital for a lead designer to have a grasp on what dish he or she is making when all the ingredients get thrown into the same bowl.
Rule #4—Make Sure To Bribe Players in Limited to Try Out Bad First Impression/Good Last Impression Mechanics
In many players' minds, Limited and Constructed are two different animals that are mostly separated. For design, though, the two have an important relationship. For most players, Limited is going to be their introduction into the set. Prereleases are Limited. Most stores do Limited play when sets come out. Drafts are a very popular way to learn sets and acquire the cards. The reason is because players are eager to get their hands on the newest set and Limited allows the quickest way to get involved with it.
Understanding that Limited is the entry point for most players is crucial to helping transform a bad first impression into a good last impression. Here's how. Make sure some of the cards with the new mechanic are on cards you're going to be forced to play in Limited. (Obviously, this plan needs development buyoff as they are going to set pricing and power level.)
With exalted, for example, we made sure that enough of them had bodies good enough that you would throw them in a Limited deck regardless. Then when you got them into play, you would be forced to try out the exalted mechanic. Once you did, you would start realizing that it wasn't as much downside as you thought and that the upside and synergy were better than you thought. You would start to see the advantage of the mechanic and begin actively building Limited decks with it in mind.
This education through Limited will then seep into Constructed. Once a card or mechanic proves valuable in any format, you start shifting how you think about it. I enjoyed watching online discussions as players started winning Limited games with exalted and offered up that they had misjudged the mechanic.
Speaking of Last Impressions
I hope this look at exalted's design has helped you understand yet another facet that design and development has to worry about each set. While there are many factors that go into how a new set is perceived, the set itself has a lot of responsibility to help set the right tone out of the gate.
Join me next week when I explore a facet of my job I've never discussed before.
Until then, may you be willing to give a first impression a second thought.