Welcome to Nicol Bolas Week! This week we'll be talking about one of the big baddies of Magic. I assume many of you are expecting me to explain the design of Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker but as most of the changes (and there were quite a few) went on during development, you'll have to wait until this Friday's "Latest Developments" to hear Tom tell that story. Instead I am going to focus my article today on an aspect of Nicol Bolas that I, as a writer and a reader, have long been fascinated with: the concept of villainy. My goal today is to look into what makes a good villain and then talk about how that translates into making legendary villain cards.
- Bwah Ha Ha Ha
When you break stories down to their essence you get the following: The story has a hero. In writing terms, we call that the protagonist. The hero has to want something. Some force (more often than not it's another person, but it could be a creature, the environment or even an element of the protagonist him or herself) is attempting to keep our protagonist from his or her intended desire thus creating a key component of all stories: conflict. That opposing force is known as the antagonist. In many stories, the antagonist is what we would label a villain.
Most of my column today is going to be talking about what makes a good villain. By "good," I mean a villain who makes for enjoyable stories. I'm not saying you have to like the villain (although some of the best villains are inherently likeable), but that he or she has to add value to the story being told. It is my belief that a great villain is crucial to a wonderful story (okay, to the type of story that requires a villain).
So what makes for a good villain?
- #1 – The Villain's Goals Should Directly Conflict with the Hero's
Most definitions of the word "villain" state that the person has to be malicious in nature, that is he or she is doing evil of their own free will. I like to broaden that definition because I think some of the best villains are not at all malicious in their intent. In fact, many of the most interesting villains are the ones that see themselves as the hero of the story. Instead I am going to define a villain as someone whose goals directly conflict with those of the hero. As the two goals are mutually exclusive, each is forced to deal with the other.
From a story standpoint, it is important that the hero cannot complete his quest without coming into contact with the villain. Quite often, the goal itself is the stopping of the villain who threatens things near and dear to the hero. Inherent in this definition is the fact that the hero and villain meeting is integral to the conflict of the story and not a happenstance encounter. The conflict is inevitable and not accidental. For the story to complete the two must meet.
As an example of this, let's take the story The Wizard of Oz. The hero is Dorothy Gale, farm girl from Kansas. (Quick aside/interesting fact—ask people who Dorothy is and most people will answer "The Wizard of Oz"; ask them who Dorothy Gale is and the majority of people cannot tell you.) The villain is the Wicked Witch of the West. What does Dorothy want? What does she desire? She wants to go home. What does the Wicked Witch want? She wants her sister's powerful magic ruby slippers that are now on Dorothy's feet (the magic keeps her from simply taking the slippers off Dorothy's feet).
At first blush, these might not seem to be in conflict with one another, but as we eventually learn, the ruby slippers are the means for Dorothy to accomplish her goal. Knowing that, we can see that, in fact, the hero and villain are in need of the exact same thing. True, they each want it for a different purpose, but the desires are set against each other.
What this means to card design is a little fuzzier. After all, things get less clear when the card set doesn't carry the burden of plot. Card sets nowadays are responsible for the environment and introducing the majority of the elements of the story but we no longer try to tell the plot on the cards. (We did attempt this during the Weatherlight Saga, and Tempest block in particular, but the results made us realize that doing so took a greater toll on other aspects of the creative than we were happy with.)
What this means is that we have to be conscious of how different characters interact. The classic story of this took place during Exodus development. Design turned in a card for Mirri, Cat Warrior, but the development thought it could be pushed a little more. Unfortunately due to the amount of text on the card we didn't have room for an entire other sentence, only a keyword. The development team wanted to make it harder to kill in constructed so they added protection from black. (Shroud wasn't an option as shroud was not yet a keyword.)
Development was happy as the tiny addition did wonders for the cards tournament viability. Just one small problem. In the Exodus story, Mirri was killed by Crovax. Crovax was printed as a legendary creature in Stronghold, the set before, and he was mono-black. Mirri's death was one of the key parts of the Exodus story. Having her card mechanically unkillable in the game by Crovax's card was a complete story disconnect. As such, development ended up changing her from a 2/2 to a 2/3.
The point here is that designs for legendary heroes and villains have to make sense with one another. Some players are going to view the cards through the story and if the mechanics don't line up with the creative it will create a disconnect. Our job as designers (and developers) is to keep such disconnects from happening. Card mechanics do not always allow us to perfectly match up the flavor, but it is crucial for us to at least not conflict.
- #2 – The Villain Should Have Some Connection to the Hero
The lifeblood of story is conflict. People simply getting what they want doesn't make for a compelling narrative. Our hero has to struggle to get the things he or she wants. That alone, though, is still not enough. The conflict has to take on a personal aspect. What the hero is after specifically means something to him or her on a level deeper than just accomplishing the goal. To make this happen, authors like to add a personal link in the conflict between the hero and villain.
A classic example of this is Star Wars. If you haven't seen the Star Wars films yet, I am about to reveal a major moment from one of the films. Please skip ahead to the next paragraph. I hope every one still reading has seen The Empire Strikes Back. Luke Skywalker is the farm boy (hmm, notice how many protagonists start on a farm—not an accident, by the way) up against the Sith lord Darth Vader. In the pinnacle scene, the two are dueling with lightsabers (a fight which Luke is losing, by the way) when Darth Vader adds a very personal twist to the conflict. Luke isn't just his adversary. Luke is ... his son. ("No. No. That's not true. That's impossible!") Luke's goal has now gotten even harder. He has to not only defeat a great evil of the galaxy, he has to come to terms with the father who abandoned him. Tough for Luke, but good for the story.
This lesson comes from another truth of storytelling: the hero's story is always a journey of self discovery. In accomplishing whatever goal he or she has, the hero learns something important about him- or herself. Giving the villain a personal connection to the hero is a good way of helping tie the larger lesson with the personal one. I should point out that sometimes the personal tie is symbolic. In the Wizards of Oz example above, for instance, the Wicked Witch represents someone else who the hero has conflict with.
What this means to game design is that we have to think of the designs of our heroes and villains in conjunction with one another.
- #3 – The Villain Should Represent What the Hero Opposes
I said above that the crux of all story telling is conflict. This means that writers have to take a lot of time to understand the conflict of their story. When you boil down any conflict, it is about two (or more) conflicting goals. Traditionally, one of these goals is held by the hero and the other by the villain. As storytelling is very much about symbolism, this means that the hero and villain don't just have goals, they represent their goals.
If a hero fights for freedom then he or she has to embody freedom. If a hero fights for justice than he or she must embody justice. The role of the hero and villain is to personify the conflict of ideas at hand. The reason for this is that the writer is trying to tell the same story at every level. The hero's overall goal and personal one are inherently interlinked.
My example for this section is Superman. Superman's main villain is Lex Luthor. Have you ever wondered why one of the most powerful superheroes in existence has a central nemesis without any superpowers? The answer is that he can't. One of the central core themes of Superman is that he is an alien, the last of his kind. He's a character who desperately seeks humanity, although he can never be human. Lex Luthor, on the other hand, is as human as can be (and thus has no powers to pull him away from his humanity) yet nonetheless lacks any sense of humanity.
Lex is the brains to Superman's brawn. He is the amorality to Superman's morality. He is the devil to Superman's angel. He is the destroyer to Superman's savior. He is the yin to Superman's yang. This is important because one of the central roles of the villain is to negatively define the hero. The hero is what the villain is not, and vice versa.
This section is a little harder to apply to card design as it's much subtler. That said, we do what we can. My example for this category comes from the story of the Odyssey and Onslaught blocks. In it we meet a brother and sister.
Kamahl is our hero. Jeska is his sister. Both are fighters and both have mechanics that represent it. The two cards are purposefully similar, in the same color with the same type of mechanics. But as the story progresses our heroes go down opposing paths. Kamahl moves away from his violent ways and embraces a path of life. Jeska, on the other hand, suffers at the hands of the Cabal and is transformed into a being of death. Which gets us to these two cards:
Brother and sister have gone from being similar to being opposites. (Oh look, another hero and villain that are related.) Kamahl is making life while Phage brings death to whatever she touches. Note how each card shifts into a color that is an ally of where they start, yet each goes in a different directions such that the two cards end up in enemy colors.
It is easy to miss the nuance of such designs, but as I often say, players absorb far more than they consciously understand. Even if they don't see the path we took, the hero and villain have a better overall feel because of those design decisions.
- #4 – The Villain Should Be More Powerful Than the Hero
I don't believe this lesson is obvious at first blush. People want to root for the hero. Shouldn't he or she be the strongest one in the story? No, he or she can't be. Why? Because stories hinge upon the conflict. Our hero winning means something because it was a difficult task. If the conflict was something that could easily be overcome, then our hero wasn't very heroic. What makes a hero heroic is overcoming great odds to win. This means there have to be great odds. Things have to be stacked against the hero. To do this we have to make the villain stronger than the hero. Note by "stronger" I don't necessarily mean physically stronger—just that he or she has more resources at his or her disposal than the hero.
I believe the best stories start where the conflict seems impossible to win. As an example, I'm going to use the story of Flash Gordon. For those unfamiliar with it, it is a story based on a comic strip from the 30s. The story has been retold numerous times in movies, television shows, books and comics (I'm enjoying the take of the current comic). The basic premise is this: Flash Gordon, our protagonist, is transported through some means, along with love interest Dale Arden and scientist Hans Zarkov, to the planet of Mongo. Mongo is run by a ruthless dictator named Ming the Merciless. In every version of the story, Ming wants to destroy Earth and is attracted to Dale. Flash has to stop Ming before the Earth is destroyed. Oh yeah, and he has to save Dale from Ming's clutches.
While unusually physically adept (Flash traditionally has some sports background), Flash is just an average man from Earth. His enemy is the dictatorial leader of the planet. Ming the Merciless has huge resources at his disposal, including a giant army. At first blush, the task seems unwinnable for Flash—a single man against the most powerful man on the planet—but that's what makes it such a great story. How can Flash do it? (Hint: he allies with the many other people on the planet who also hate Ming.) That keeps the audience interested and invested.
What this means for Magic card design is that legendary villains must be powerful. Be aware, though, that there are two types of power in Magic. The most common usage of the term has to do with the strength of the card in comparison with other cards. Powerful cards in this definition are ones that see play because they are stronger than most other cards. The other definition of power has to do with how the card is once it's in play. In this definition, the difficulty of playing the card is glossed over; what matters is how powerful the card is while being used.
These definitions are important because what I said above about our villain is important. In the story, the villain has to be more powerful than the hero. But in the game, we want our hero to be a good card. Part of making an impression on players is having our heroes seen and talked about. This is why, for example, we've consciously chosen to make planeswalkers a powerful card type. The point here is the hero has to be a powerful card by the first definition.
You can see how the first definition can get us in trouble as it relates to the hero-villain relationship. If the villain has to be more powerful than the hero and the hero is already an aggressive card power-wise, we are setting ourselves up for trouble. This is where the second definition comes into play. If the villain is more powerful by the second definition, it still keeps the sense needed for the story without causing play issues.
Here's another way to think of it. In the Magic story, Jace is one of our heroes and Nicol Bolas is one of our villains. Which is a more powerful planeswalker card, Jace Beleren or Nicol Bolas, Planeswalker? The answer is how you look at it. If both are sitting in your hand, then odds are Jace is better solely because you're more likely to be able to play him. But if both are sitting in play, then Nicol Bolas is clearly stronger. (His first ability can destroy Jace, for instance.) He simply has a greater presence on the game. This is how design gets to have its cake and eat it too.
- "The Same Thing We Do Every Night, Pinky: Try to Take Over the World"
As you can see, the villain is a fundamental part of the story. Using a villain correctly requires the writer to have a good grasp on what his or her story is about. The same holds true for card design. Legendary villains have a specific role to fill. When designing them, you need to be conscious of how they fit into the set (and the game) as a whole.
We have a number of very exciting villains (some favorites returning as well as some brand new ones making their debut) coming up over the next few years, and I've found it fascinating how we've managed to give each one its own mechanical feel. I'm quite eager to see what all of you think when you get a chance to finally see them.
That's all I got for today. Join me next week when Alara Reborn previews start. There's gold in them there hills.
Until next time, may you find your own inner peace without having to be strapped down to a table with lasers.