Each year, we have two "Best of" Weeks while we all take a holiday break. For the first week, I always pick what I think is my best design article, and for the second week I pick my best overall article. This year, there was a bunch of good candidates for best design column:
Story Time—I was asked to give a talk at Walt Disney Imagineering talking about how Magic design conveys a story. I turned that speech into an article.
State of Design 2014—Every year I take a critical look at the previous year in design. In this article, I talk frankly about Theros block.
Metamorphosis—Big change is coming to Magic and this article explains the reasons behind the upcoming change.
First Impressions—This article I talk about understanding how your audience initially perceives new mechanics.
My top pick, though, was an article on a concept I call lenticular design. I had promised for years that I was going to write an article on the topic and this year I finally made good on my promise. If you are at all interested in Magic design (or just game design in general) this article is well worth a read.
Over the last few years, I've used a term called "lenticular design." Each time I've used it, I promised that one day I would write an article all about it, explaining what exactly it is and how design uses it to make Magic a better game. Well, today is that day. If you like articles that dig deep into the nitty-gritty of design, you're in luck, because today I'm going to illuminate a very interesting but somewhat complex concept. Enjoy!
It Depends on How You Look at It
So, a few years back, we realized that the number of new players were dropping off. This is a pretty scary thing to realize because it's the first sign that a business is in its decline. Retention of your current audience is crucial, but people will always leave, often for reasons that have nothing to do with the product itself, and in order to maintain the playerbase, you have to add new blood.
We spent a lot of time solving this problem and the answer to it is what we now call New World Order. You can read here for the full rundown, but the short version is we decided to cap the level of complexity at common because beginning players on average buy fewer boosters and thus a great percentage of cards that are relevant to them are common. By making the threshold for complexity at common lower, we were simplifying the game for beginners, and thus lowering the barrier to entry, while still keeping the more advanced cards in the game.
While working on New World Order, I started to look at game design differently. I began to ask myself what impact each individual card was having on each type of player. There are a number of different filters I started looking through (a topic for a different article), one of which was complexity. I asked myself with each card, "How complex is this card?" While answering this question, I stumbled on a new concept.
I think when most people look at complexity, they think of it as a scale. They deduce how complicated it is in general and then they place it at the appropriate spot. What I realized was that complexity, that is how complex a particular card is for a player to comprehend, varied from person to person. If you showed the same card to a number of players, the complexity value would not be the same. Now, I know what you're thinking. Of course, complexity would change. The more advanced players would find cards less complex because they have a better grasp of the game fundamentals.
That was expected. What was less expected was the discovery of the following phenomenon: Some cards were more complex to advanced players and less complex to beginners. What? How is that possible? The key is that some complexity is hidden, because it requires certain knowledge to even be aware of it. It turns out that some cards appear on their surface to be very simple, but once you understand more about how to use them, they become more complex.
I dubbed these cards—ones where they were simple to the beginner but more advanced to the experienced player—lenticular cards. The term comes from a technique, sometimes used on trading cards, where multiple images are stuck on a card with a system that allows you to see different pictures as you tilt the card.
The example I first used when I introduced the concept of lenticular cards to all of you was Black Cat. To a beginner, Black Cat is a two-mana 1/1 creature that has a nice surprise when it dies (the opponent discards a card). To the experienced player, though, the card is all about the death trigger. The threat of the death trigger influences how the card is played, something the beginner is oblivious to as he or she doesn't yet think about causality of play decisions. (I'll get to this in a minute.)
So that is what a lenticular card is. This leads us to the next issue, which is how do we identify what elements cannot be seen by beginners?
The Complex Games
To understand this, we must first identify where the complexity lies in the game. As I have explained before, I believe Magic has three different types of complexity:
This first type of complexity has to do with understanding what a card does. Put simply, can you comprehend the function of the card once you've read it? What does it do? There are a bunch of different ways comprehension complexity can rear its ugly head.
First, a card can use vocabulary that's not understood. A good example here is Grip of Chaos from Scourge:
While advanced players are well aware of the stack, it's not a concept that the majority of Magic players clearly understand. The reason we tend avoid using the term in rules text any more is because our testing showed that it continually confused players. I often talk about how we have to be careful with how much vocabulary the game uses because it's one of the biggest barriers to entry. When language gets in the way, it can make a card very hard to comprehend. (This is, by the way, why we began using reminder text on basic creature keywords in core sets.)
Second, it can have text that is hard to process. Dead Ringers from Apocalypse is a perfect example:
What does Dead Ringers do, exactly? If you have two creatures in play, one white-blue and one blue-red, and I cast Dead Ringers, will it destroy them both? The easiest way to identify this type of complexity is to see how many times a player has to read something to understand it. If the answer is more than once, the card has some comprehension complexity issues.
Third, the text can require too many things to process. A classic example of this problem was the suspend mechanic from Time Spiral.
Suspend had multiple costs, dealt with another zone, required the tracking of counters, and took place over many turns. All of it added up to create something that overwhelmed many less-experienced players.
Fourth, the text can be perfectly clear but because the card seems to be doing something you would never want to do, some players will be confused. The classic example of this is the card One with Nothing from Saviors of Kamigawa:
One with Nothing has but three words of rules text, yet baffles a lot of players. Why? Because it's instructing players to do something they don't understand why they would want to do. What happens is that players read the text and because they don't understand how it would be used, they assume they are misunderstanding something and thus convince themselves they don't understand it even though they comprehend the words.
In each case, the less-experienced player reads the rules text and is stopped because he or she cannot grasp what he or she is supposed to do with the card.
This type of complexity is about how the cards interact with one another once they are on the battlefield. It's not that each card is hard to understand in isolation, the comprehension complexity on them often is low, but rather it's hard to understand how they all interact together. The classic example of this was Lorwyn and Morningtide, where the cards created this elaborate interconnectivity that made it hard for players to figure out what was possible on the board. It was very common for less-experienced players to walk into "on the board" tricks because they simply weren't able to track all of the possible connections between the cards.
Board complexity tends to boil down to several categories:
First is the subset of cards that affect other permanents on the battlefield. A classic example of this type of board complexity card that many players don't think of as being complex is Prodigal Pyromancer (and his predecessor, Prodigal Sorcerer)
The reason Prodigal Pyromancer creates board complexity is because in combat he has the potential to change the math of any fight. Because players don't know where he'll be used, they have to take in account each and every case he may be used, which makes the math significantly harder. For advanced players, who have learned how to shorthand the combat, adding in the additional factor is much easier and, thus, to many, doesn't seem like a big deal. (It happens to be a big enough deal that we no longer do the card at common. There's more reasons than just that one, but that reason alone is probably enough for the shift.)
Second is the subset of cards that are affected by other permanents on the battlefield. An example of this type of card is Wayfaring Temple from Return to Ravnica.
This type of card can be hard to track because it requires you to always be aware of other cards on the battlefield. For instance, attacking with Wayfaring Temple can get complicated when you attack with other creatures and have to factor in the Wayfaring Temple's power and toughness after combat has happened.
This type of complexity seems benign on the surface, because each card in isolation can often seem harmless enough, but as the battlefield fills with more and more of them they can quickly become very hard to track.
This last category is about how the cards are maximized through proper play. Magic is a game with a lot of decisions. Some cards are complex not because they are hard to understand or complex in combination but simply because they offer the player so many options. As an example, let's look at Fact or Fiction, originally from Invasion:
This card is very powerful, but only in the hands of a player who knows how to correctly use it. Not only do you have to properly split the cards, but you have to be able to both judge the environment and your opponent to make sure you are valuing each card correctly.
This category is the broadest, in that there are many different ways for cards to be strategically complex. In addition, cards change values based on which formats they are played in, meaning that a card might be strategically complex in one format and less so in another.
I bring up these three types of complexities because they will become very important in a second as I start explaining the basic rules we've learned about lenticular design.
The Basic Rules of Lenticular Design
With the setup out of the way, let's start talking details. Here is what we've learned so far about lenticular design.
A quick aside. I am going to start talking about what beginners do and don't see. This is not me belittling newer players. The motive behind lenticular design is that we want to find ways to add complexity to enhance the game for the more-experienced players without increasing the difficulty for the less-experienced ones. We very much value newer players. Our attention to lenticular design is us trying to make both ends of the spectrum happy at the same time.
Rule #1—Some Complexities are Invisible to Inexperienced Players
When trying to understand what matters to less-experienced players, the following appears to be true:
Novice players notice comprehension complexity immediately, because their main goal is making sure they understand what their cards do. Board complexity is invisible at first but it doesn't take too long for them to start looking at card interactions. The real ghost of complexities for less-experienced players is strategic complexity. Because it requires a lot of knowledge to understand context, strategic complexity can take players quite a while to start seeing.
Lenticular design uses this to great advantage. If you can keep your card low in comprehension and board complexity, you can sneak in quite a bit of strategic complexity. The key is understanding how exactly to do this.
Rule #2—Cards Have to Have a Surface Value
To sneak in strategic complexity you need to understand this rule. When newer players read cards, they need to feel they understand what they do. Once they do, they move their attention to the next card. This means that, when designing a lenticular card, you have to make sure it has a surface value—it has to appear to do something.
The corollary to this rule is that the card cannot have any text that does something the player cannot understand. If there is a sentence that doesn't fit the surface value of what the card does, it will pull the player's focus and he or she will spend time and energy trying to understand it, and the card stops being lenticular.
This doesn't mean that you can't have relevant strategic text, it just has to make sense to the novice player. Note that a lot of lenticular design comes from the fact that the player understands what the card does, functionally, but doesn't see the strategic ramifications of that ability.
Rule #3—Experience Is Connected to How Far Ahead a Player Thinks
How are you able to have relevant strategic text right in front of the new players' eyes without them realizing what it is? The key is understanding the blind spots of a newer player. The first blind spot is time. As players become more and more experienced, they learn to think further ahead. In fact, one of the thing that always blows me away about the best players is how they will make plays that seem nonsensical, and only many turns later do you understand why they did it.
Beginners are very focused because they are trying to learn the basics. As such, they don't think very far ahead. At first, their focus is on the moment, trying to figure out what they need to do right now. What card can they cast? What part of the turn is it? What life are they and their opponent at? With time, they start to think a little more ahead. They begin to plan out their entire turn.
But it's not for a while before they start to think about more advanced concepts such as, "I can play this card right now, but is there a reason I might want to wait to cast it later?" It is in this space that lenticular design tends to thrive.
Rule #4—Novices Tend Not to Think of Causality
The best way to explain this rule is with an example. One of the things I will do is watch newer players play to see what they are focusing on. It is through this observation that I learned an interesting thing about death triggers (a death trigger is a triggered ability that happens when a creature dies). Less-experienced players will play a creature with a death trigger and then just play it as if it was a vanilla creature, ignoring the death trigger. Then, when it dies, they treat the death trigger as a free surprise gift.
What they don't do is make decisions with the creature using the knowledge of the death trigger to determine how to use it. Let's take the following card, Festering Goblin, originally from Onslaught:
An experienced player will make attacking and blocking decisions based on the death trigger. For instance, he or she might use a Festering Goblin to block a 2-toughness creature because the experienced player knows the combat damage from the Festering Goblin plus the -1/-1 effect will kill it. The beginning player, though, doesn't tend to think of the death trigger as a result of blocking, so the idea that you could combine the creature damage with the death trigger effect never occurs to him or her.
This means that a helpful way to create lenticular cards is to add abilities that appear on the surface to be fluff. Often, this is done by making them flavorful. As long as they have an apparent purpose, the beginners will treat them as a bonus. But you have to be careful, which leads us to our next rule.
Rule #5—Players Will Try to Use the Cards to Match Their Perceived Function
To explain this rule, let me show you two cards:
Both of these cards are 2/2 white creatures from Tenth Edition with "enter the battlefield" triggers that sometimes saw play in Limited. One is a good lenticular card while the other is not. Venerable Monk gives you life. The beginning player tends to over-value life, so he or she is quite happy to play it. While the more-experienced player will play Venerable Monk early (or late, if it's relevant to the board), he or she will sometimes choose to keep it in hand if drawn later in the game.
The reason is that the late game is all about "the clock." That is, players are making decisions based on how many turns it will take before they or their opponents are dead. Because the clock becomes so important, lifegain takes on a new role later in the game and players tend to withhold the information that they have the ability to impact it until the last possible moment, to try and get their opponents to act on false information.
Aven Cloudchaser, on the other hand, has a function that requires your opponent having something—an enchantment. The beginner recognizes the value of the ability, and thus waits for it to be useful, meaning he or she will hold the 2/2 flier in his or her hand until its "enter the battlefield" ability can be used. The experienced player will often recognize that the need for the 2/2 flier outweighs the enchantment destruction.
So why isn't this a good lenticular card? The beginner and the veteran play the card differently. Isn't that the point? No, because the card creates a bad experience for the beginner. By leaving the 2/2 flier in his or her hand, the beginner will become frustrated because he or she wants the flier but feels obligated to wait. The goal of a good lenticular card is to make a good game for players from both ends of the spectrum.
As such, it is important to remember that a good lenticular card has to encourage the proper behavior for each type of player. For beginners, it wants to encourage the player to use it. Beginners want action and want to feel like the game is moving forward. Also, you want to give them the tools to help push the game toward a conclusion. Getting creatures onto the battlefield is a start. For experienced players, in contrast, lenticular cards want to have strategic depth, most often meaning the cards will have different uses based on the state of the game.
Rule #6—Let the Players Play the Game They Want to Play
This last point is the final rule for today. The key to good game design is creating a game that maximizes the players doing what they want to do. Remember that it's the job of the designer to make the game head toward a state that will cause it to conclude. For beginners, that means you want them to cast as many cards as possible and have things happen that they understand and enjoy.
For advanced players, you are trying to give them the tools to win, but you do not need to be nearly as blunt. In fact, the more experienced players want to feel as if the designer is giving them the resources to create their own experience. They don't want to feel led down a path, but rather, given a giant map to explore.
The trick to lenticular cards is making cards that fill both roles. Make cards that don't get in the way of the beginner playing them but enable the advanced player to have options. Most death triggers fill this role. Enter-the-battlefield triggers that don't dictate action tend to fill this role. Certain activated abilities can fill this role.
You don't have to stop with creatures. Noncreature spells can be lenticular by having an obvious surface use but also having secondary uses that can be valuable.
For example, to a beginner, Rescue from the Underworld from Theros has a specific purpose. It very flavorfully reanimates a creature, but to a more-experienced player, it does more than that. For instance, it indirectly flickers a creature. There are many ways in Theros Limited to make good use of that ability. It is by hiding extra functionality in a flavorful card that the designer can work in lenticular cards into the design.
Two Ways To Look At It
Often, when I talk about making the game more accessible to beginning players, the focus is on simplification. Today's article is trying to demonstrate that it's much more complicated than that. Sometimes, it's not about removing the complexity, but hiding it. Sometimes, it's about finding a way to create a simple card to allow options for those looking to find them. Sometimes, it's viewing each card through various lenses to see how different players will perceive it.
The concept of lenticular cards is a complex one and it is still something we keep working to better understand. I hope with today's article to give you a little better sense of what kinds of things we think about and where we look to sneak in extra bits for the more-experienced player.
Join me next week when Journey into Nyx previews begin.
Until then, may one card make many happy.