Everything New Is Old Again
A number of years ago, R&D realized we had an acquisition problem. We realized that the game's complexity was slowly creeping up and it was becoming harder and harder to learn Magic. To solve this problem, we came up with something we call New World Order. If you haven't heard of this, I suggest you read that article before continuing. This column assumes you've read it.
The core tenet of New World Order is this: commons make up a much bigger part of the environment for beginners because they own far fewer cards. If we can keep complexity down in common and put the rest of the material at higher rarities, we allow Magic to keep its nuance while also making the entry level experience much easier.
Today's column is about an important discovery R&D has made after using New World Order for numerous years. Much like with the Future Future League, we have figured out that we didn't go far enough. This has led us to re-explore what New World Order is doing and come up with a new plan that we have dubbed New New World Order (shortened to NNWO). To avoid confusion, we now internally refer to New World Order, the original plan, as Old New World Order (shortened to ONWO).
What is New New World Order and what impact is it going to have on future design and development? What role will Old New World Order play? Stick around and I'll walk you through it.
It's a New New Year
From time to time, we do market research where we use actual data to test how we're doing. What we learned was that the sets using New World Order were much easier for the new players to understand than the sets before New World Order, but our number crunchers informed us that there was significant room for advancement. In other words, it was accessible but it could be more accessible.
We were then challenged by upper management to see what would happened if we notched it up another level. You see, from time to time we do something we call parallel design. The way it works is we take an existing file, copy it, and rename it. Then we shift something in the environment, usually something a little radical, and playtest with that new environment. Often, we take what we've learned and go back to the original environment, but sometimes we like where the experiment took us and we stay with the new environment. This is what we did. We decided to try an environment with New New World Order. Obviously, it went well enough that we've chosen to stay in this new (or should I say new new) world.
The first thing we did was to notch up the belt. We took the line that New World Order drew in the sand for commons and moved it up to uncommon. All the same rules would apply, but now for uncommon. (See my New World Order article to see where those lines are.) Before the letters begin, let me stress that we too were skeptical, but I've learned time and again in design that you have to be willing to give things a chance, because some of the best discoveries are the ones you never see coming.
Now that Old New World Order was set for uncommons, it was time to start defining New New World Order for commons. The key to this was to look back at our years of focus testing and examine our long list of things that newer players have a problem with.
A quick aside before I begin. Please remember that New New World Order will work just like Old New World Order in that (a) everything I'm listing is a default, not a hard and fast rule; hitting any of the items below is what we call a "red flag," which means we just want to be conscious when we choose not to follow it, and (b) about 20% of commons are allowed to break red flags provided there is some larger scope to why we are breaking them. The best example would be landfall. Normally, at common we don't make you have to be aware of an outside trigger, especially one your opponent might use to affect his or her own permanents. Landfall was acceptable because there were enough cards with it and they were all consistent, so overall it became something players learned to be aware of. So please, don't freak out. What I'm about to outline isn't as extreme as it might seem at first blush.
With that out of the way, let's look over the list.
Power/Toughness Should Be Squared
Consistently one of the biggest problems new players have is understanding the difference between power and toughness. I can't tell you the number of times I've watched through a one-way mirror as players were baffled about what happens when their 2/2s are blocked by 1/3s. To help alleviate this at common, the default is to make all creatures have square stats (an R&D term for power and toughness being the same number—i.e., 1/1, 2/2, 3/3, etc.).
One of the tests we did was to gauge how hard each of the evergreen creature keywords was to grok ("grok" is a term from Robert Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land that means to totally get the concept of an idea because it seems so obvious). Here's what our testing showed (IN means the keyword doesn't cause a red flag):
- Of all the mechanics, this one is the one just over the line. Players tend to understand deathtouch in a vacuum but as soon as it mixes with other keywords (say trample or protection or first strike), new players start to get confused. Also, they don't understand that if it doesn't deal damage that the effect doesn't work. OUT
- New players question why a keyword exists that's only negative but they do play it correctly. IN
- Double strike
- The beginners generally get first strike but double strike is one strike too many. Note that we seldom use this ability at common so this isn't much of a loss. OUT
- This is one of the ones that surprised me. It seems so simple once you know what it does, but it just confuses the new players. I think this is where having instant as a supertype would help us. OUT
- First strike
- There are many humorous ways that I've seen new players mess up first strike but they tend to sort it out pretty quickly. IN
- I've often called this the best keyword in Magic because players tend to get the mechanic from the flavor. IN
- This requires the player understand the concept of "summoning sickness" (even if we don't use the term on cards). If we were cutting back a little more this might not make it, but players tend to work this one out eventually. IN
- New players don't understand targeting so hexproof was kind of doomed from the start. OUT
- Not actually a keyword (it's just an English word) but still confusing. Even players with a little more experience don't know all the cases that this saves the creature. Like double strike, we seldom use this at common now, so it's not a big loss. OUT
- New players don't get the artifact exception (and confuse colorless with artifact) but they tend to play it correctly. IN
- This is another one that you wouldn't think confuses beginners, yet it constantly does. The fact that each kind of landwalk gets its own unique name doesn't help. OUT
- This is the keyword that just squeaks in. New players mess up elements of it but they love the lifegain so they try to understand how it works. IN
- Some experienced players mess this one up so there's no way beginners are going to get it. OUT
- Even inexperienced players get "can block fliers." IN
- It doesn't help that the flavor of what this does and the actual mechanic have little in common these days. OUT
- Beginners have problems with trample alone and forget it when you start mixing it with other mechanics. OUT
- Once they get that attackers tap, they tend to get vigilance. IN
To recap, deathtouch, double strike, flash, hexproof, indestructible, landwalk, protection, regeneration, and trample are now officially red flagged at common, meaning they can only be there if we specifically sign off on the card on a case-by-case basis. What this will probably mean is we will choose one or two of them to concentrate on at common, probably chosen because of how they interact with the key elements of the block.
Certain Types of Cards Are Being Upgraded in Rarity
Part of Old New World Order was figuring out what types of cards needed to move out of common and up into higher rarities. With New New World Order, we had to once again reconsider what was appropriate for common. Here are a few of the things we have chosen to have default at uncommon. Remember that if it serves the set in question, a small percentage of the elements below can, on a set-by-set basis, be moved down to common. Let's get to them:
Equipment: We've always known that Equipment was a little on the complex side for common. It was flavorful, so we kept it in because we like to have resonant, top-down common designs. Part of this exercise, though, was making some tough calls, and when we sat back and looked at it, it was clear that Equipment was over the New New World Order line. Expect to see Equipment that used to be at common at uncommon and what used to be uncommon at rare.
Instants: Many years ago, we made a product called Portal, which was designed as an entry-level version of Magic. The idea was that Portal would be the game new players learn and they would then advance to the core set when they were ready. Portal didn't work out for a number of reasons, but as I like to talk about, failures can often hold successes. Portal only had three types of cards: land, creatures, and sorceries. We're not going that far. Artifacts do have some place at common (not Equipment, obviously, but vanilla/French vanilla artifact creatures or simple mana generators).
What Portal did do correctly was to remove the instants. Magic is hard enough to learn when you have to be wary of your opponent casting spells on your turn. Once again, let me stress that New New World Order only applies to common (and in a few special cases uncommon), so the card type of instants isn't leaving the game, just at common (and possibly in a few cases, uncommon).
Activated Abilities: One of the things that prompted us to create New World Order was a concern about board complexity—that is, how complicated it is to track what's happening on the battlefield. I'm not just talking about tracking what the cards can do but also how they interact with one another. How hard is it to keep track of what your options are—and your opponent's? To keep board complexity in check, New World Order put some red flags in place to lessen board complexity. New New World Order is just taking that idea to the next level.
A key part of this was realizing that cards that can affect other cards significantly complicates a board state. As we reexamined the issue, we realized that the problem went beyond cards affecting other cards. Merely having a creature with a function beyond attacking and blocking complicates things. To help with this, New New World Order red flags all activated abilities, meaning that mostly they will no longer be in common. As uncommon will now follow Old New World Order, that means that most activated abilities that affect other permanents will be relegated to rare and mythic rare.
Before you get worried, let me stress that "enters the battlefield" effects will still be a staple in common. Creatures with "enter the battlefield" effects are what we refer to as virtual vanillas, meaning that for every turn after the first, they function as simple vanillas. Virtual French vanillas, virtual cards that function after the first turn as French Vanillas (i.e., creatures with only creature keywords and no other text) will still be used at common, but more sparingly, while showing up more often at a higher frequency at uncommon.
Death Triggers: For a long time, we considered death triggers to be similar to "enter the battlefield" triggers. They both have a creature that functions mostly as a vanilla except for one turn. What we've learned, though, is that not knowing when that turn is coming is a big difference. As such, we've also red-flagged death triggers.
Token Making: While token making doesn't have too many confusion issues, it does have what we refer to in R&D as a logistics issue. Players are expected to have their deck but they don't always have ways to represent their tokens. To help lessen this issue, we've decided to just move token-making cards out of common.
Shuffling: Our data research shows that newer players, on average, are bad shufflers. In addition, shuffling has always been a time issue and, well, we decided New New World Order was as good a reason as any to lessen how often it shows up.
The Spinal Tap Rule
After a lot of number crunching, we came to realize that there was a high causation between how many words a card had in its rules text and how often a player noted he or she didn't understand what the card did. The magic number (or should I say,Magic number) where comprehension dropped off the sharpest was at twelve words. The Spinal Tap Rule says that cards can "go to eleven"—that is, they may have up to eleven words of rules text. At twelve words, the card is red flagged.
Note that there is one special exception to the Spinal Tap Rule. Because it would be near impossible to always have new keywords with only ten words of rules text (the keyword takes up one word), common cards can have reminder text that exceeds ten words as long as there are at least ten cards in common with the same reminder text). We've started referring to it as the "Ten and Ten" rule.
New New World Order isn't just about what's leaving. We also spent some time talking about what should exist more at common. I'll be honest: R&D had some problem coming to a consensus. There's a difference of opinion on what exactly is best for the newer player. (As I always like to point out, I believe strongly that the diversity of opinion is one of R&D's greatest attributes.) The one thing we did all agree on, though, was that vanilla creatures are good for newer players.
As such, we decided that we are going to set a quota to make sure that every set has enough vanilla creatures. Our current goal is 20% of the commons. As with any goal, it will take us a few sets to make sure we're at the right amount, but R&D agrees that 20% is a pretty reliable guess.
The astute among you will point out that 20% will be twenty creatures in a large set. (Large sets have 101 commons.) Following the rule up above that all creatures at common have square stats and the normal limitations of size at common, there won't be a lot of wiggle room. Remember that 20% of the 20% are allowed to red flag, meaning they can have unsquared stats, leaving us with sixteen vanilla creatures to account for. That means we have the following to work with:
White: 1/1, 2/2, 3/3
Blue: 1/1, 2/2, 3/3, 4/4, 5/5
Black: 1/1, 2/2, 3/3, 4/4
Red: 1/1, 2/2, 3/3, 4/4
Green: 1/1, 2/2, 3/3, 4/4, 5/5, 6/6, 7/7
Artifact: 1/1, 2/2, 3/3, 4/4, 5/5
That's twenty-eight options for our sixteen slots, so I'm pretty confident we'll be able to mix it up from set to set.
Having sat through a lot of focus testing with new players, let me show you one of the most troublesome cards we've ever had>> Click to Show
Every time this card came up, it would cause problems. Can you guess why?
Yes, the name. Players just couldn't pronounce it correctly. That might seem like a frivolous issue, but it drew focus away from the game and often led to arguments. Players weren't figuring out the rules because they were busy debating whether the accent went on the first syllable or the second.
As we were putting together the New New World Order, we realized that this was another barrier for us to lower. So, here's what we did: We tested a bunch of random new players to gauge their reading level. (For those who care, we decided that 90% was our threshold—that is, the words were of a reading level of 90% of the target audience.) Testing showed that the threshold ended up at a fifth-grade reading level. (Yes, I too was a little shocked, but I attribute it to the recent success we've had with younger players.)
Anyway, any vocabulary that is above a fifth-grade reading level—and this includes all text, not just the name—is going to be red flagged and mostly moved to higher rarities. We debated if this should include flavor text and in the end decided that anything that could pull focus should just be moved out of common.
Brand New New
Whew! I know this might seem like quite a bit at first blush, but once you get in the habit of thinking less, it really is kind of relaxing. You know the sensation when, in the middle of the game, you can just tell your brain is trying to process too much information? Now you'll have less of that and, trust me, as someone who has lived in this New New World Order world for a while, you won't miss it.
Join me next week when we start Dragon's Maze previews.
Until then, may you be careful reading articles on April Fools' Day.
Drive to Work #27 – Bad Cards
Why do bad cards exist? I've tackled the issue a few times in my column but today I spend the full ride to work talking about it. Oh, and it looks like there might be some extra traffic.
- Episode 27 : Bad Cards (10.6 MB)
- Episode 26 : White (9.8 MB)
- Episode 25 : Homelands (10.8 MB)
- Episode 24 : The Mana System (9.92 MB)
- Episode 23 : The Color Wheel (10.2 MB)
- Episode 22 : The Trading Card Game Genre (9.81 MB)