Quite the Rarity

Posted in Making Magic on March 12, 2018

By Mark Rosewater

Working in R&D since '95, Mark became Magic head designer in '03. His hobbies: spending time with family, writing about Magic in all mediums, and creating short bios.

Today I'm going to talk about the impact of rarity on design. There are four main rarities (common, uncommon, rare, and mythic rare) and each one has different needs when it comes to design. I'm going to walk through each of the four rarities and explain what makes a card fit in that rarity.

Before We Begin

Let me start by explaining the different criteria that affect what rarity a card will appear in. I will then walk through each criterion as it applies to each rarity.

Complexity

This talks about how hard a card is to understand in one of three ways.

  • Comprehension complexity is about understanding what the card does. Can you read it and know how it works?
  • Board complexity is about understanding how that card interacts with all the other cards. Do you understand the relationship and impact between it and the other cards, especially cards that are public (mostly cards on the battlefield)?
  • Strategic complexity is about understanding the implications a card has on advancing the game state. Do you understand what role this card will have in helping you win the game?

The higher you are in comprehension complexity or board complexity, the higher the card tends to be rated in rarity. Note that being complex makes a card go up in rarity, but being a higher rarity does not necessarily mean a card must be complex. There are plenty of high-rarity cards that are simple, but are of a high rarity due to other reasons. Strategic complexity does not need to push up the rarity of the card provided it's simple in the other two types of complexity.

Wordiness

Wordiness is about how many words are written on the card. Much of the time, wordiness and complexity go hand in hand, but not always. Generally speaking, the wordier a card is, the higher the rarity it appears in. As with complexity, a card can be of a high rarity and not be wordy, it just doesn't often work the other way around. Wordiness tends to be pushed up in rarity because it has much the same effect as complexity. It makes the card harder to use and increases the intimidation factor of the card for newer players.

Size of Effect

Cards can range from having a tiny effect up to having a giant effect. In general, the larger the effect, the higher the rarity of the card. This is done for three reasons. One, larger effects tend to be more expensive; thus, you typically want fewer of them in your deck. This makes the smaller, cheaper effects you might want more of in your deck easier to get. Two, Magic is a trading card game; we want to have exciting cards at higher rarities to collect, and the bigger effects tend to be more exciting and splashy. Three, it has a big impact on how Limited plays. I'll get to this one in more detail in a moment.

Impact of the Card

This category is tied to the previous one. We want cards to be impactful, but we need to be careful how many highly impactful cards are in an environment. If you have too many, it makes the games super swingy. Pushing the impactful cards to higher rarities helps make the games more even-keeled in Limited because of card as-fans (the rate at which a certain card or subset of cards show up within an average booster pack) and in casual Constructed because of card availability.

Effect on Limited

Some cards are designed for Limited. Those cards want to be lower in rarity. Some cards are designed for Constructed and cause problems in Limited. Those cards want to be higher in rarity. The cards that are crucial to make Limited work will push toward common, and the cards disruptive to Limited will push toward mythic rare.

Narrowness of Effect

Some cards are very broad in their applications, while some cards are very narrow. The more niche you are as a card, the more you push toward the middle of rarity and away from the ends (common and mythic rare). Narrow cards push away from common because they have use in fewer decks, and push away from mythic rare as they tend to be hard to make splashy.

Splash

This category talks about how exciting a card is at first glance. Will this card get players especially excited about playing with a new set? If yes, the card tends to skew up in rarity. Note that this category tends to synergize with a lot of other attributes that also tend to push up in rarity, such as the size and impact of the effect. Low-rarity splashy cards tend to be things that are simple and super functional.

Appearance in World

This category ties to flavor. How often in this world do you expect to see this thing? Is it a creature that appears all over the place? Then it skews down in rarity. Is it something less frequent or even unique, like a specific character? Then it tends to skew up in rarity.

Association with Rarity

This final category ties into the fact that Magic is a game that's been around for a long time. Having so many cards creates inertia for certain effects. Sometimes something pushes toward a certain rarity because a lot of similar cards in the past have been that rarity. Breaking this connection tends to create unease among the players.

Now that we've talked about the categories, let's examine how they apply to each of the four rarities.

Common

Complexity

Let's walk through each of the three types of complexity.

Comprehension complexity – In general, we don't want common cards that are difficult for the player to read and understand what they do. The one exception we make is having a singular new mechanic that requires a little learning, but all the cards work the same way and once you get the first card, you get the rest.

Board complexity – We don't like having common cards that make it hard to tell what's going on in play. Most of our red-flagging (a way we denote that a card needs to move up in rarity unless the lead makes the conscious choice to keep it) has to do with board complexity.

Strategic complexity – This is not only fine at common (provided it doesn't have one of the other two types of complexity) but encouraged, as it helps to create depth for the more advanced players. We refer to this as lenticular design. (You can read more about it here.)

Wordiness

At common, we try to ensure the majority of cards have four or fewer lines of rules text/reminder text (we don't count flavor text for purposes of wordiness). We will have a few cards with five lines and a couple that run longer solely because of reminder text, usually on a keyword where the reminder text is always the same.

Size of Effect

Common usually has the smallest versions of effects. It will sometimes have medium versions, but almost never have larger versions.

Impact of the Card

We don't like having common cards that have too much impact. We don't do cards that can repeatedly gain you card advantage at common (usually things that destroy things or draw you cards). There are also lots of effects that we don't allow at common, such as tutoring, reanimation, permanent control change, spell copying, etc.

Effect on Limited

Common is for cards that are the backbone of Limited, things that are necessary to make the format work. If it's something that we don't want you having multiples of in most games, we won't put it at common.

Narrowness of Effect

Common doesn't do narrow effects. The only exception is where the set has a theme and, while that effect would normally be narrow, it's not in that particular environment.

Splash

Common doesn't tend to have splashy cards. The splashiest it gets are very effective, simple, small effects (often tournament-quality cards).

Appearance in World

Common is for things that are plentiful in the world. If, for instance, you would never see two of these things together, we wouldn't put it at common.

Association with Rarity

Effects associated with common (usually this effect is the only thing the card does; higher rarities will start to mix and match effects):

  • Artifact destruction
  • Artifact or enchantment destruction (Naturalize)
  • "Bounce" (Returning nonland permanents to owner's hand)
  • Card drawing
  • Card filtering
  • Creature destruction
  • Creature lockdown (Pacifism and Dehydration)
  • Creature regrowing (Raise Dead)
  • Creature unblockability
  • Counterspell
  • Damage prevention (Fog)
  • Direct damage
  • Discard
  • Draining creatures and/or players
  • Enchantment destruction
  • Fighting
  • "Flickering" (exile and return a creature to the battlefield)
  • Flier destruction
  • Forced blocking
  • Forced sacrifice
  • "Impulsive draw" (exile a card or cards, can cast until end of turn)
  • Land fetching
  • Life gain
  • Looting/rummaging (drawing and discarding, and vice versa)
  • "Milling" (putting cards from top of library into graveyard)
  • "Panic" (some number of creatures can't block)
  • Power/toughness pumping (Giant Growth)
  • Tapping creatures (including "freezing" them, where they don't untap)
  • Temporary stealing (Threaten)
  • Token making

Uncommon

Complexity

Uncommon gets to raise the bar a little on comprehension complexity and a bit more on board complexity. Things that we want to see in Limited or casual Constructed but usually not in multiples for complexity reasons tend to go into uncommon.

Wordiness

At uncommon, we start to see cards creep up to five and six lines of rules text and reminder text, with seven being the top. Usually, if you have to shrink the text to make it fit, it's not supposed to be at uncommon. (We will do it infrequently for cards on which we're trying to sneak in some important flavor text for story reasons.)

Size of Effect

Uncommon tends to get medium-sized effects and a few larger effects that are specifically aimed at Limited. Uncommon will also do smaller effects that are batched together.

Impact of the Card

Uncommon wants to be impactful for Limited, but usually is less so for Constructed, typically because those cards would cause problems for Limited. Uncommon tends to have effects that affect everyone a bit or one thing a lot. It doesn't tend to combine the two.

Effect on Limited

Uncommon is for cards that players tend to build around in Limited. One of its biggest roles is to have cards that, when you open them in a Limited event, will lead you down a path to explore. Casual Constructed works similarly to Limited; uncommon will have cards that encourage less enfranchised players to start building new decks.

Narrowness of Effect

Uncommon will have the narrow effects that have some relevance in Limited. Narrow effects that are useless in Limited get pushed up to rare.

Splash

Uncommon splash cards are aimed for Limited or casual Constructed.

Appearance in World

Items that appear at uncommon are things that you don't see all the time, but would expect to encounter with some regularity. In sets that care about legendary creatures, we will occasionally put them at uncommon, but usually those represent someone the average person might have the chance of meeting.

Association with Rarity

Here are effects that don't tend to start until uncommon:

  • Card draw gaining you three or more cards
  • Creatures that have an enters-the-battlefield effect that kills creatures
  • "Curiosity" (saboteur effect leading to card draw)
  • Direct damage to multiple/all creatures
  • Global enchantments
  • Granting other creatures invulnerability
  • "Locking away" permanents (exiling for as long as permanent stays on the battlefield)
  • Reanimation
  • Regrowing anything from the graveyard to hand
  • "Specter" ability (saboteur effect leading to discard)
  • "Tutoring" (putting a card from your library into your hand)
  • Vehicles

Rare

Complexity

Rare is where the cards with the greatest comprehension complexity and board complexity go. Usually we allow one or two of what we call "head-scratchers" in rare. A head-scratcher is a card that players do not understand when they read it for the first time; they have to spend multiple readings figuring out how the card works.

Wordiness

Rare is the wordiest of the four rarities. Rare is where we're willing to shrink font size on a small number of cards. We are occasionally, but infrequently, willing to drop reminder text at rare.

Size of Effect

Rare gets to have big effects, but we tend to save the largest effects for mythic rare.

Impact of the Card

Rare can have cards that have a large impact on the game. Most "board sweepers," cards that wipe away most of what's on the battlefield allowing players to recover if they're behind, tend to go in rare.

Effect on Limited

Rare is where we put cards that are extremely strong in Limited but that we're willing to let happen with some regularity in a draft. These are what players tend to call "rare bombs," cards that allow the person who cast them to have a huge advantage toward winning the game.

Narrowness of Effect

Rare is the home for the narrowest of effects. If we have a card that has one super-narrow function, especially one that isn't relevant to Limited, we almost always put it at rare.

Splash

Rare cards get to be pretty splashy. We just have to save a little room for mythic rare. Exciting dual lands tend to be put at rare and not mythic rare. Rare also tends to have more of the splashy cycles than mythic rare (as the bar for using up five mythic rare slots is high).

Appearance in World

Rare is for things that the average person on the world wouldn't see very often and might never see. Legendary cards are usually split between rare and mythic rare.

Association with Rarity

Here are effects that don't tend to start until rare:

  • Alternative win conditions
  • Copying permanents
  • Counter doubling
  • Damage doubling
  • Extra combat steps
  • "Lobotomy" (removing all of one card from the game)
  • "Maro" ability (power/toughness equal to hand size)
  • Mass creature destruction
  • "Meddling" (name a spell that then can't be played)
  • Massive token creation
  • Permanent control change
  • Playing cards off top of library
  • Spell copying
  • Spell redirection
  • Tutoring creature from library onto the battlefield

Mythic Rare

Complexity

We allow advanced board complexity at mythic rare, but actually require lower comprehension complexity at mythic rare than we do at rare because we want players to understand what the mythic rares do. It's important that players get excited by the mythic rares, and players tend to get less excited by cards they don't understand.

Wordiness

Mythic rare is usually a little less wordy than rare, but is the second wordiest of the rarities. We allow mythic rare to occasionally drop reminder text on cards where the text wouldn't otherwise fit (more often than we tend to do at rare).

Size of Effect

Mythic rare gets the largest size of effects. Oftentimes, one of the ways to make a mythic rare is to take an effect we do and blow it up to a size we've never done before.

Impact of the Card

Mythic rares are allowed to be as impactful as they can be. There is no limitation on impact at mythic rare.

Effect on Limited

Mythic rare is occasionally where we put exciting cards that mess up Limited in a way we're unhappy with.

Narrowness of Effect

We tend not to do too narrow of effects at mythic rare for the same reason that we watch comprehension complexity: it's important for the mythic rares to be as exciting to players as possible (within the confines of what's good for the game).

Splash

Nothing is splashier than mythic rare. In fact, if an effect is super splashy, we most often move it to mythic rare.

Appearance in World

Mythic rare is for special things that the average person on the world has merely heard about. Planeswalkers always go at mythic rare. Most legendary creatures go in mythic rare. Mythic rare will occasionally do high-profile cycles (but the barrier is high).

Association with Rarity

Here are effects that don't tend to start until mythic rare:

Uncommonly Fun

I'm hoping today's column gives a little better insight into what we look for in each rarity. As always, I'm interested in hearing any feedback you have on today's column or on how R&D looks at rarity. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Google+, and Instagram).

Join me next week when I'll talk about what I learned from grading 94 design tests for the Great Designer Search 3.

Until then, may you see rarity in a new light.


 
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