By Mark Rosewater
Welcome to Things Are Not What They Seem Week. This week is all about taking a look at things that don't always match first impressions. I thought, for my article, I'd go back to an aspect that is one of the very first things players see when they approach a new card set and something that is often misunderstood early: the collector number. How exactly do we chose what order these numbers appear in? Why was a backslash chosen to separate the two numbers? Why did we chose to start at 1 rather than 0? All this and more will be covered in today's deep dive into the world of collector numbers.
To get things started, click here.
I did say it was Things Are Not What They Seem Week. That means I won't be writing 3,000-plus words on collector numbers. (And yes, I'm sure I'll get email from someone who was very disappointed.) My actual topic is all about bad first impressions. It's our goal to make sets that excite our players, but sometimes we make things that don't exactly create the buzz we were hoping for. Today, I'm going to talk about why that happens and how it impacts how we design sets.
So let me set the scene. Previews are about to begin. R&D grab snacks and sit down in front of computers. The work was done long ago (usually over sixteen months for me) and we're excited to finally get some feedback. What do players think of the set we slaved on for over a year? It's time to find out.
What you're hoping for when you read the response is a loud gasp of interest and thunderous applause. That's not exactly what always happens. Yes, many times players are very excited, but sometimes we get a different response. Often, players don't know how they feel about a new mechanic. It's not a negative reaction, but more of a neutral one. The equivalent of "Hmmm." Other times, though, the reaction is not positive. Players hear a new mechanic and, at first blush, they don't like it.
The first time you experience this it's pretty brutal. We pour our hearts and souls into each set and watching players be unhappy about something is tough, especially when, at times, they are very vocally unhappy about it. (Having a diehard, passionate fan base is a double-edge sword.) But here's the thing. Most sets have some component that is not met with universal praise. Why? Because of a decision we made long ago.
You see, there are two different ways to experience Magic (or any game really, but as this column is about Magic design I'll stick talking about Magic.) One is by playing the game. The other is by looking at the game (in Magic's case, this means looking at the cards or reading a spoiler list). What makes a game attractive between those two things is not always the same. Things fall into three camps. There are things that look fun and play fun. There are things that look fun and don't play fun. And there are things that don't look fun but play fun. (Okay, there is a fourth category—things that don't look fun and aren't fun but there's no reason to want those in your game.)
Obviously, the Category 1 (Looks Fun, Plays Fun) is the best and we try to get as many mechanics and cards into it as we can. The issue is that there are numerous cards and mechanics in Categories 2 (Looks Fun, Doesn't Play Fun) and 3 (Doesn't Look Fun, Plays Fun). How many you make in each of these categories comes down to an essential game design issue: Which do you give preference to—things that look fun or things that play fun?
I'm sure you can all guess where I'm going with this, so let me start by explaining why looking fun is important. One of the biggest selling points of a game is the game itself. I wrote an article several years back where I talked about the ten things every game needs and #10 was "a hook." Your game has to sell itself. If it doesn't look fun enough, it doesn't matter how fun it actually is. Games need to have splash in order to lure in players. This is also true of Magic. A big part of previews is to sell the next set/product.
But, and this is a big one, Magic has over twenty years behind it. We have a track record. Our player base is more entrenched than the average game. (Our average player length is over nine years, which is absurd if you know anything about the gaming industry—our average is longer than the average life of successful games, especially video games, let alone players.) When we put out a set, there is a lot of momentum that will get players to at least try it out.
The decision long ago was that we were going to prioritize playing fun over looking fun. Now, we have to be careful how many things we create in Category 3 and we try to limit how much of it happens per set, but we know going into previews that some portion of the set is in Category 3. Note that there are many different reasons why players don't think something new is fun and I'm going to get to that in a minute.
My point is that we can't always make a good first impression because sometimes we value function over form. It's a conscious decision because I believe the best way to achieve our goal, to get you to keep coming back, is to make the most fun game you've ever played. And keep making it again and again. I always say Magic is a hungry monster because it's constantly looking for new design space, which means we have to be willing to look even in places that might not seem like a great idea at first.
What follows is many of the different reasons cards have a bad first impressions. For each reason, I've listed a bunch of mechanics. I should point out that no matter what I list, there were always fans of that mechanic. I'm just pointing out that, in each case, the mechanic didn't create a great first impression for some.
"It Seemed Overcosted"
Examples: flashback (Odyssey), buyback (Tempest), bestow (Theros)
This category consists of mechanics that at first blush just didn't seem to do enough for the cost. "Why would anyone pay that much to do this effect?" There are a number of reasons people jump to this conclusion, so let me walk through them. (By the way, sometimes the answer is "you're right; this mechanic might be geared more for Limited play than Constructed.")
Misunderstanding of Card Advantage: Most players focus on the mana cost as being the cost of the card. There is another very important cost that many players overlook—the card itself. When you play a spell from your hand, you are giving up a card. This is easily glossed over because all spells cost a card, but all effects do not. Let me use flashback as an example. The flashback effect is essentially a second spell, but one that doesn't require a second card. This means that the mana cost for the flashback can be higher, yet still be of great value because of the card savings.
Above is Call of the Herd from Odyssey, the first set to feature flashback. For 2G you get a 3/3 token. At the time, that was a very efficiently costed creature (creatures have gotten a bit stronger since Odyssey). When you cast it at no extra cost you essentially get to "draw" a card, which is a 3/3 token for 3G. Now, a 3G card for a 3/3 token in a vacuum is not particularly strong, but many players overlook the whole "You drew it for free." If, for example, we had a card that for 2G made a 3/3 token and drew you a card, that would be amazingly good. Now Call of the Herd isn't quite that good because the card you draw is a weaker-than-average card, a 3/3 token for 3G. But given you've drawn it for free, it's a pretty good deal.
Time and time again, when we have cards that have added value but charge you significantly more for that value than a standalone card would, players balk. My point here is that often they shouldn't.
Bad Comparison to Existing Card(s): This is an offshoot of the last problem. I'll use Capsize, a card with buyback from Tempest, to explain this one. Capsize does the same thing a card in Legends called Boomerang did—it returns a permanent to its owner's hand. Except Boomerang costs UU while Capsize costs 1UU. One extra mana...for what? So you can spend three more mana to get it back? That's four extra mana to do the same thing, with the only bonus being you get it back so you can spend six more mana on the next turn?
Part of the problem with buyback happens to, again, be a card-advantage misunderstanding, but there's something more going on. Having never used buyback, the player can't really get a grasp of the advantage of the new ability, so focuses on the one he or she understands—the effect of the card. The player can bounce a guy for two mana or six. Working with the limited knowledge the player has, the side-by-side comparison makes Capsize look bad. Exceedingly bad. (For those who have never played with the card, it's actually too good.)
Not Understanding All the Value of the Card: I'll use bestow for this example. When you play bestow, you get two choices. You can play the spell as a creature or as an Aura. If it's an Aura, when the enchanted creature dies, the Aura falls off and becomes a creature, staying on the battlefield. The second option obviously is more expensive, as you get both the Aura and eventually the creature. Early reactions to bestow showed that many players felt the bestow cost was too high.
As I watched players talk about the mechanic, I realized that they either didn't realize they got the creature once the Aura died or greatly undervalued the creature. A big reason for this is that they are not used to calculating the value of a creature that comes later. Normally, when you cast a creature, you get it right now. Trying to put a value on something that was going to happen, but not until an undefined time, was hard for most players to properly evaluate.
This category all stems from the same problem. As many new mechanics are playing in a space we haven't played in before, it's very common for the value of a new mechanic to be misunderstood and often undervalued. The one way to change opinions comes from game play. While something might not seem to be worth it, once you actually get to play with it you start to learn why what seemed useless at first glance is actually quite good.
"It Seemed Like It Couldn't Be Any Good"
Examples: storm (Scourge), dredge (Ravnica), cascade (Alara Reborn), fading (Nemesis), vanishing (Planar Chaos)
This is an offshoot from the last category. There, it was a good effect that cost too much. Here, it's not a matter of cost but of the quality of the effect in the first place. A few examples:
Storm—A mechanic that copies a spell for each you played this turn? How many spells could that possibly be?
Dredge—I can mill myself to get back badly costed cards? Why not just put good spells in my deck?
Cascade—I get a card but it's usually only a cheap card and I can't even control what I get?
Fading/Vanishing—I get a permanent but only get to keep it for a few turns? Normally, I get to keep it for the whole game.
In each case, the player saw the drawback and didn't see the value. Storm, dredge, and cascade, for example, all went on to be so broken that development has decided we can't make any more. (Well, maybe cascade.) Each, though, forced you to design an entire deck to take advantage of the mechanic. That's something that's hard for a player to understand at first glance.
Time helps this problem as well, because as decks start getting created that show off what these mechanics can do, other players begin to get an idea of what's possible. We want Magic to be a game of exploration, which means it's important for us to create mechanics that players have to investigate to understand how best to use them, but it also means that players might not "get" them when they first encounter them.
"It Felt Like Too Big a Hurdle to Use"
Examples: exalted (Shards of Alara), threshold (Tempest), the Pacts (Future Sight), madness (Torment), "domain" (Invasion), devour (Shards of Alara), metalcraft (Scars of Mirrodin)
This category is of cards that have effects players understand they want, but require jumping through a hoop that some of the players feel is too big of a burden. My creature can get bigger, but only if all my other creatures don't attack? My card gets better, but only if I can manage to get seven cards into my graveyard? I get a free spell this turn, but if I forget to pay for it on the next turn I lose the game?
Usually, the misunderstanding of this category is a misevaluation of how big and/or hard the hoop is to jump through. Exalted might seem like a huge disadvantage at first, but once you play with it you start to understand that you get to have the threat of a big creature every turn. Your opponent kills one creature only to have a new creature represent an equivalent threat.
This category is one we are usually pretty aware of in design. We knew that exalted was going to make a bad first impression because we understood the mistake in evaluation. After all, many of us went through it when we first played the mechanic.
"It Broke a Rule That Shouldn't Have Been Broken"
Examples: pitch cards (Alliances), split cards (Invasion), double-faced cards (Innistrad), flip cards (Champions of Kamigawa), level-up (Rise of the Eldrazi)
Even a game as rule-breaking as Magic has to draw the line somewhere. Something has to be off limits, and this new mechanic crossed over the line.
"You shouldn't be able to cast spells when you're tapped out."
"You can't change what a Magic frame looks like."
"You can't print on the back of a Magic card."
I often talk about how Magic is a game of change and humans, at their core, are afraid of change. This category demonstrates that, when you push boundaries, you make a subset of players uncomfortable. Here's the problem. The game has to push boundaries. It's what it does, and if we're not challenging the boundaries of the game, we're not doing our job.
Like the last category, this is another one where time is on our side. Players will be apprehensive but if the mechanic is fun (and strong), players will most often come around. Force of Will is a great example of a card that started as something that shocked players and now is considered one of the all-time classics of the game.
"It Seemed Too Weird"
Examples: morph (Onslaught), miracles (Avacyn Restored), Planeswalkers (Lorwyn)
Face-down cards? Cards that you play as you draw them? A whole new card type that doesn't even explain how it works? Sometimes cards are just a little too out there for some of our players. They like us innovating but, you know, within limits. I talk a lot about the importance of comfort in design. Mechanics like these sometimes push in the opposite direction, making some players uncomfortable.
This category is a lot like the last, in that with time things seem a little less weird. Planeswalkers, for instance, went from being a crazy new addition to being something so beloved that we made the conscious decision to ensure that every set has at least one. I should point out that what belongs in the last category and what belongs in this category will vary from person to person. Miracles might have seemed fine, but split cards freaked them out.
"It Looked Boring"
Examples: cycling (Urza's Saga), unleash (Return to Ravnica), scry (Future Sight), landfall (Zendikar)
This last category might be the biggest offense of all—the mechanic/cards just look boring. Usually it's because the effect it generates seems too little to be of consequence. I can pay two mana and discard a card to draw a card? I can make my creature bigger but at the cost of not being able to block? I can look at the top card of my library and put it back or on the bottom?
In many ways, this is the inverse of the first category. The cost is fine; it's the effect that's in question. Do I really care to do it? Is it worth my time? Like most of these categories, knowledge of their strengths comes from play. Cycling might seem inconsequential at first, but it only takes a game or two to respect what it does.
Today's article is bringing to light another reality of game design, which is that you have to be very conscious of not only how your game/set plays, but also how it's going to be perceived at first glance. Here are a few final tips:
#1—Be Careful of How Much Category 3 (Doesn't Look Fun, Plays Fun) Is in Your Game/Set
Some of this is not only okay but actually good for a game, and especially a Magic set. You want to have moments of discovery and a good way to do that is provide elements that players will come to appreciate. That said, Category 3 is very dangerous to initial impressions of your game, which will directly correlate to how much initial buzz you create. This means that you have to be judicious with Category 3. Some is okay, but too much can be a problem. Note that new games have to be extra cautious.
#2—Be Even More Careful with Category 2 (Looks Fun, Doesn't Play Fun)
We try hard to keep this category as small as we can, but its lure is actually pretty strong. First impressions in playtesting are important and when you make things that get people very excited there's a lot of momentum to keep it. Also, knowing which is Category 1 (looks fun, plays fun) and which is Category 2 is not always as easy as you might think.
#3—Different Players Will Rank Things Differently
When thinking about what goes in what category, be aware that different mechanics/cards will go in different categories depending on who is evaluating them. For example, something might be in Category 1 for many Timmys but be Category 2 for most Spikes. What that means is if we're going to keep it in the set we need to cater it toward the people for whom it is Category 1.
#4—The Categories Are Fuzzy
I knew when I listed examples that many of them would generate this response: "What's Rosewater talking about? I loved that mechanic from the first time I saw it." Mechanics/cards might be in Category 2 unless paired with another certain mechanic and then it becomes Category 1. Mechanics/cards might be Category 3, but a metagame shift you don't see coming puts them in Category 4 (Doesn't Look Fun, Doesn't Play Fun). Game design is more art than science to me, and I just want to make it clear that while it's easy to make up categories, it's not always as easy to place things within them.
Okay, I hope today's column was more fun than collector numbers. As always, I enjoy having you see a different vantage point of design and today's is definitely something we have to work through all the time. I'm eager to hear your feedback on the article. You can email me or talk to me through any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).
Join me next week when we take a sneak peek at Commander (2014 Edition).
Until then, may you be willing to give your first impressions a second glance.
"Drive to Work #166—Design & Development"
One of the most common questions I get is "What's the difference between design and development?" I spend this podcast answering that question.
"Drive to Work #167—Onslaught, Part 4"
This podcast is part four in a six-part series on the design of Onslaught.
So You Want to Work at Wizards?
Readers always respond positively whenever I post job openings. It's good for us, as it helps us find Magic players with appropriate skills, and it's good for you, as it helps you find jobs inside Wizards of the Coast you're skilled at. As long we all continue to benefit like that, I'll continue to post them.
Today, we're looking at a brand manager position for Magic. The requirements are:
- Minimum of 5 years of progressive experience in consumer marketing and/or product development, preferably supporting a global brand.
- Experience in the video/digital game, hobby game, toy, entertainment, or related field strongly preferred.
- Knowledge of and passion for Magic a huge plus. Please specify any Magic specific experience/knowledge on your resume.
- Bachelor's Degree or equivalent experience required, preferably with a concentration in Marketing, Business, or related coursework.
- Master's of Business Administration preferred.
And asks for the following knowledge, skills, and abilities:
- Expertise in developing leading edge consumer marketing campaigns, integrating products, events, organized play activities, social media, web content, promotions, public relations, etc.
- Expertise in transforming a strategy and vision into actionable plans
- Excellent leadership ability within a highly matrixed organization: ability to provide clear and concise direction/feedback to stakeholders and the ability to influence others to adopt his/her recommendations
- Strong project management abilities; capable of prioritizing and handling multiple projects simultaneously, under tight time constraints and within budget parameters
- Well developed, verbal, written and presentation skills
- Proficient with Microsoft Office applications
- Experience working with international partners a plus
- Knowledge of the digital game and/or hobby game industries highly desirable
- Knowledge of and passion for Magic a huge plus. Please specify any Magic specific experience/knowledge on your resume.
If you think that sounds like you, see the full job listing here.
There are also a number of other Magic-related jobs posted online, so take a look and see if any of the other openings sound like they’d fit you.