Last week I did a mailbag column where I answered questions about the design of Return to Ravnica. One of the most common questions I got was how did we balance recapturing everything that players liked about Ravnica while still creating something new. I've talked about this conflict a little in the past but I realized that there's an entire article worth of material about it. Today's the day I'm going to examine this age old conflict.
- Meet The Players
I've dubbed this conflict as 'Nostalgia vs. Innovation.' Let me begin by defining what exactly I mean by each of these two terms:
Humans are creatures of comfort, that is, we like what we already know. Why? Because it is hard wired into our brains. Why? Because part of making sure we survive, as a species, is avoiding things that might kill us. What's the number one thing that might kill us, species-wise? The unknown.
For example, let's go back to the caveman days where survival was pretty important. Even something as innocuous as a bunch of berries could be deadly. Why eat the same berries I ate yesterday? Because I know those berries won't kill me. To help us along, our brains make the old thing comfortable and inviting while making the new thing strange and scary. It aims us in the direction of safety.
When you get to Magic design, this desire pushes players to want to revisit things they've previously enjoyed. One of the most common questions I am asked is "When is [mechanic I personally enjoyed] coming back?" I've explained that once upon a time, we thought of keyword mechanics as disposable, something to be used once and discarded. Over the years, we've realized that mechanics are valuable tools that can be used again and again. In fact, we now make in an effort in every block – okay, almost every block – to reuse at least one keyword mechanic.
Now, we often use the return of an old mechanic or card or setting as a selling point of the set. We embrace it because we've learned that this desire for familiarity makes old things exciting for our players. (Well, old things they liked; poison berries shouldn't make you yearn for more poison berries.)
Note that nostalgia goes even a layer deeper. Magic is all about exploring new planes and discovering new things, but at the same time, it's about the game being close enough to what you remember that you are still playing Magic. We might dress things up differently each year but at the core, the game is the same game. Every year green will get a Giant Growth-like effect and land searching. Red's going to deal direct damage and blow up artifacts. The colors have identities that we have to stay consistent with because players want enough stability that when they play the new set each fall that they are still in a comfortable territory.
This drive for familiarity is very strong.
Curiosity is a potent human emotion, also hard wired into our brains. Why do we need it? Because adaptation is important. Part of survival is the ability to change as the need arises. To ensure that we have the information when we need it, our brain pushes us to seek out answers.
To go back to the caveman days, humans didn't always know how to use fire. I assume one day lightning hit a tree and set it aflame. A human came along and wanted to know more about this strange substance. Experimentation taught them that it could be used for light and heat. Further experimentation helped teach ways to apply it such as for cooking meat. As a species, we were much better off for getting fire but that would never have happened, if someone didn't have this quest to learn more.
In Magic design, innovation was at the core of what Richard Garfield intended when he made the game. Magic was created as a game "bigger than the box", one in which discovery was a driver. I've often talked about why Magic is popular (particularly in this column) and one of my explanations is what I call the Crispy Hash Brown Effect: (quoted from the article I linked to above)
I love hash browns. The best part for me is the crispy shell. After I've eaten through the scrumptious brown exterior, the rest is downhill. Yes, I like potatoes and I'll eat the inside of the hash brown, but once the crispy shell is eaten, I start to lose interest.
In my opinion, games are just like a crispy hash brown. The crispy shell is the discovery process of the game. The most fun part about learning a new game is figuring the game out. But at some point you crack it; you figure out the key things that are of importance. (You know, get the middle square in Tic Tac Toe; the corners are key in Othello, etc.) And from that point, the game shifts from a strategic one to a tactical one. You begin to memorize things. The early part of the game becomes more rote. As time progresses you learn enough to keep from being defeated.
It's not hard to see this process if you look back at games you've played. Think about games you once enjoyed that you abandoned. Why did you stop playing? Did they cease to be fun? It is my contention that most often a game becomes less fun because you've burnt through the discovery process. That said, some games handle this stage better than others. There are many classic games that have lasted a mighty long time, but staying with those games requires a fundamental shift in how you're getting your fun. It takes a lot more work to reach the same highs that you had when you started. You tend to rely more on matching up your skills against those of others. (Although to be fair, this also happens at Magic but at a much, much slower rate.) The game shifts from being visceral to being more cerebral.
This leads us to one of Magic's strongest attributes. In crispy hash brown terms, it regrows its shell. Because Magic keeps adding new cards, it keeps shifting what matters. The discovery process that takes days or weeks or months at another game takes an eternity in Magic. You never truly figure the game out because it keeps changing. You don't ever have to eat the inside of the hash brown. And if you do, you know that it's just a matter of time before you get your crispy shell back.
Why is Magic such a great game? Because it constantly evolves, always keeping the players on their toes.
One of Magic's greatest strengths is its constant innovation. The average length of play of a Magic player is pretty incredible, especially in contrast to most other games. I believe that this constant need to discover new things is what keeps players from growing tired of the game as quickly as with most other games they play.
Whenever a new set comes out, players always want to know what the new things are in the set. What are the new mechanics and splashy new cards? What does the set do that previous sets haven't done? How, they ask, have we innovated?
As the Head Designer, I am constantly aware of this need to create new stuff. I'm also the gatekeeper to make sure that we don't use too much because new content is not an endless resource. It is finite. (I should note that I'm talking about new elements not the newness that comes from combining old things in new ways. That, while possibly finite in a mathematically sense, is something I never fear running out of.) Every set, I make sure that we are finding new ways to innovate.
This drive for innovation is very strong.
- Battle in the Brain
Now that I've defined the players in our conflict, let's examine the conflict itself. Part of your brain says "Stick with what you know". Another part says "Seek out new things". These two drives contradict one another. So what's a designer to do?
I often talk about how game designers have to resist the urge to come in conflict with human nature. As I like to say, when you fight human nature, you're fighting a losing battle. What happens though when both sides of the conflict are human nature? What happens when two unstoppable forces collide head-on?
As Return to Ravnica just came out, I am going to use this set as an example of the conflict in question. Let's start with nostalgia. Rather than use words, I'm going to use a video to make a point about the popularity of the world of Ravnica.
What you are about to see is a video of us announcing the name of Return to Ravnica at a panel at PAX East last April. When the video begins, Brady Dommermuth, Magic's Creative Director, is about to show them a slide. You can't see the slide, so let me show you what was revealed. This:
The slide shows the name of the fall set and one picture of Jace and Niv-Mizzet. That's it. That's what generates the reaction in the video you are about to see.
Suffice to say nostalgia is a powerful tool. The original Ravnica block was much beloved and all it took was the knowledge that we were returning to this plane to set off a very strong reaction in our fans. This says that we are playing, both in the game and in Ramp;D, in very sacred space. If we're going to go back to the plane of Ravnica, we have some big shoes to fill.
The pressure for innovation isn't unique to Return to Ravnica. As I explained above, players want to know what is new with every new set we come out with. Going back to a familiar place doesn't mean the players aren't expecting something new.
So how did we balance nostalgia and innovation? Let me count the ways:
- #1: Know What's Expected
One of the very first things we did in Return to Ravnica design was to make a list of everything that defined the original Ravnica. Once that list was complete, we then went through it piece by piece. The question we asked with each thing was: do the players consider this a defining quality of Ravnica?
Let's examine a few things from that list:
In Ravnica block, we worked hard to differentiate the ten guilds. One of the ways we did that was to show the same thing in each guild playing up how that thing varied from guild to guild. One of these cycles for differentiation was the guild leaders. Each guild was run by someone. That guild leader was originally a rare and is now mythic rare (mythic rarity started in Shards of Alara block) legendary creature.
When we returned to Ravnica, would the players expect to see guild leaders? Absolutely! The guilds are still the focus and someone, or some group, has to be leading them. In addition, the success of the commander format put extra emphasis on legendary creatures, meaning there is more pressure to have high profile characters on cards. Guild leaders definitely had to be in the set.
Ravnica block introduced hybrid mana to Magic. It tied into the guilds in that each hybrid mana belonged to one particular guild, but there wasn't much of a thematic tie beyond that. Could guilds exist without hybrid mana? Definitely. Would the players expect hybrid mana to return? This question wasn't as obvious.
We do market research on each of our sets, using that allowed us to know that the highest ranking thing in all of Ravnica was hybrid mana. It even ranked higher than its gold cards. Also, hybrid mana is closely tied to Ravnica as that is where it first appeared. After some thought, we decided that it would be actively missed if we left it out so we chose to use it again but at the same low level we used during the first Ravnica block – a vertical cycle (one common, one uncommon and one rare).
Auras with enter the battlefield effects
This was a common cycle of cards that Richard Garfield put into the original Ravnica set (Faith's Fetters, Flight of Fancy, Strands of Undeath, Galvanic Arc and Fists of Ironwood). These cards made a big impact on Ravnica limited. Were they something that defined Ravnica? Not really. They gave a feel to the limited game but they weren't intertwined into the guilds in any way.
We asked ourselves if we wanted to revisit them but we decided that we needed to leave room to create new things. In the end, we asked ourselves, would players actively miss this cycle if it didn't return and we realized the answer was no. If there was no guild leader, the players would have revolted. No hybid mana, a significant amount of players would have been unhappy. No enter the battlefield auras, all but a few don't even blink.
Part of meeting nostalgia expectations was bringing back the things we thought players would expect. Part of meeting innovation was learning to cut things to make room for us to do new things.
- #2: Deliver the Old In a New Way
Once we figured out what elements were going to come back, the next step was to figure out how we wanted to execute them. Some, such as the shocklands, would return in the exact same form (just with new art.) Some, such as the guild leaders, would come back in similar form. Others though would return with a new twist.
The best example of this is the new cycle of guildmages. We'd decided that we wanted another cycle of guildmages and we decided that hybrid was going to come back. Obviously we could get the band back together and bring back guildmages in a very similar form, but doing so would only be delivering on the nostalgia. To make the set shine, we wanted to make sure that these key elements had some innovation.
At first, we started with hybrid guildmages but with a different twist. In Ravnica block, each guildmage had two activated abilities, one in one color and one in the other. Both activations had the same cost with the sole exception of the colored mana requirement. The first difference we thought of was to split apart the activations. Instead of having two equal activations, we came up with the idea of having one cheap and the other expensive. This way the card would have an early and late game use.
Then we played around with having a cheap activation and an expensive one but instead of one being in one color and one being in the other, we made both activations use both colors. Eventually the development team would take it a step farther making the creatures gold cards rather than hybrid.
I think the guildmages show another important compromise between nostalgia and innovation. Do something nostalgic but in a way that has some innovation. This way, the players get to see cards they expect yet also have a new element to discover.
The key lesson here is that nostalgia and innovation, while at odds, in many ways are able to work together. A key job of the designers and developers is finding these areas where both can be expressed.
- #3: Deliver Something New That Feels Like It Fits
The next trick is to find something that could have been in the previous incarnation but wasn't. Another way to be innovative yet nostalgic is to do something that feels at home in the environment yet never actually was. The best example in Return to Ravnica block is the charms.
As I explained in my first preview week for Return to Ravnica, I was very eager to find a ten-card cycle that we could do that we didn't happen to have done in Ravnica block. What was the lowest hanging fruit that we didn't pluck? The answer was clear to me – charms (aka modal spells where you have three options to choose from).
Charms have always come in cycles and have always been tied to color. Previously we had done monocolor charms and tri-color charms, but we had never done two-color charms. Clearly, there's no better set for two-color charms than the world defined around two-colored guilds.
The trick here is that I was able to innovate by taking two different nostalgic things, the guilds and charms, and mixing them together for the first time. They have the lovely quality of seeming obvious without actual precedence. That is, they are both familiar and novel, yet another way to mix nostalgia with innovation.
- #4: Wrap the Known in the Unknown
The biggest innovation of Return to Ravnica block isn't in the sets themselves but rather the block structure. The original Ravnica block innovated with the 4/3/3 breakdown where only certain guilds appeared in each set. At the time, that was a very radical idea, but the success of Ravnica turned what was once cutting edge into something expected.
Part of returning to Ravnica was trying to find a way to give the players what they anticipated: guilds chopped up and doled out during the block, but doing it in a way that wasn't expected. This was done by making a few key changes:
Large/Large/Small: The original Ravnica block followed what was at the time, the staple for Magic blocks – a large fall set followed by a small winter set and a small spring set. Since then, we have done Large/Small/Large but we've never had a large winter set. The reason starting out Large/Large worked out so well is that it allowed us to present all ten guilds in two sets. This will set up another change I'll get to in a second.
Sitting Out A Draft: Return to Ravnica, the set, is also doing something else we've never done. It is going to be drafted in the fall, then sit out the winter and be drafted again in the spring. We've reset the draft to a large set before (in Shadowmoor, Rise of the Eldrazi and in Avacyn Restored) but we've never brought it back once it's left.
Ten Guilds In One Set: The other big change is that by fitting all ten guilds into two large sets, we've allowed for us to make a set where every guild gets a little more. In Ravnica block, once you were done with a guild, that was it (okay, with one teeny cycle of gold split cards in Dissension), there were no more cards for you. Return to Ravnica allows everyone to get one more heaping of guild goodies.
Note that all these changes do not take away from the guild structure. In fact, they fix a few issues the guilds had the first time around. For example, if your favorite guild wasn't in the fall set, you never had the chance to draft where you could build a two-color deck of just your guild. The back-to-back large sets that are drafted separately allow you that chance for every guild.
By pulling the innovation from the micro to the macro, you allow all the details to be very nostalgia oriented while still giving the block as a whole plenty of novelty.
- Two Great Tastes
The major lesson of today is that not every conflict has to fight with itself. By being clever in how you mix and match your resources, you can find ways to allow both nostalgia and innovation enough space to shine. That's all I got for today.
As always, I'm interested to hear what you have to think of the topic. Feel free to give me your opinion in the thread to this article, my email or on any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+)
Join me next week when I look back at one of my most famous articles of all time.
Until then, may you enjoy both ends of the spectrum.
- Drive to Work #3 – Planeswalkers
This week, I carpool with artist and fellow Wizards employee and Magic artist, Matt Cavotta. He and I talk about how the Planeswalker card type came to be and all the steps that went into designing it from scratch.