Saving Space

Posted in Making Magic on June 13, 2005

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.

Welcome to Arcane Week! Yes, the first week ever dedicated to a card sub-type. Well, you know, other than creature types. And equipment, of course. Hey, at least we haven't had Basic, Urza's, or Shrine Week yet. So why exactly is it Arcane Week? Because Jay Moldenhauer-Salazar said so. No, really. You see, our illustrious editor, Scott Johns, came up with a clever way to stop having to come up with themes; I mean, empower his columnists. He's taking turns letting columnists pick the theme for the week. JMS had first dibs at the honor. And he chose Arcane Week. (See Jay's feature article this week for an explanation of why he went that way.)

Now I have nothing against Arcane Week. It's a great idea. In fact, I kind of already had my own personal Arcane Week during Champions of Kamigawa previews. I even wrote an entire column about the origin of Arcane (“Arcane and Able”). But it's kind of my thing that I always write on theme during the theme weeks. See, I was the impetus for the theme weeks happening in the first place and I feel it's my duty as a creative writer to find a way to always stay on theme. (For those trivia buffs out there, can you name the one week I was off-theme? Hidden Gem Week. I used that column to announce the existence of Unhinged.) So how do I write about Arcane again?

By writing about a completely different aspect of Arcane. I've already talked about its origin, so today I'm going to talk about an aspect that makes Arcane so intriguing to me as a designer: conservation.

It's Not Just For Water Anymore

So what does conservation mean in terms of design? To answer this I'm going to use a different craft, writing, to make an example. Conservation in writing means using the least amount of words to convey the greatest amount of meaning. For example, I could write “he replied with the kind of tone that told me that he did not like what I had just said”. Or I could just say “he snapped” or “he growled” or any verb that implies all the feeling I was taking fifteen plus words to tell you.

Conservation means thinking of words as a resource and only using as much as necessary to get the job done. Key to the idea of conservation is word choice and juxtaposition. It is the art of implying rather than emphatically stating. It calls for a writer to evoke a response rather than simply describe what happened. All this is also true for card design. I will walk through some of the basics of conservation for card design and while doing so demonstrate why Arcane is such a poster child for this aspect of design. In addition, for each section I will give you a chance to come up with your own solution to see how you would fare in actual card design situations.

#1) The Less Words You Use the Better – Let's start with the most basic principle of conservation: less is more. As poets have known for years, the less you say, the more power each word gains. You want to pack a punch? Do it in as short a space as you can. (This is one area, by the way, that intermingles design with templating.) Note that subtle changes in rules or functionality is acceptable for the sake of simplified language.

Q1) Shorten the following:

Destroy target artifact, creature, enchantment or land. Instead of putting it into a graveyard, remove it from the game.

Click here for the answer.

#2) Understand The Value of Placement – What words you choose are important. But how you place them is equally important. Learn the natural rhythm of the cards. Some areas, such as the text box, simply have more weight than others.

Q2) Shorten the following:

Mad Flinger
Creature – Orc
R, Sacrifice CARDNAME: CARDNAME deals 2 damage to target creature.
R, Sacrifice a goblin: CARDNAME deals 2 damage to target creature.

Click here for the answer.

#3) Learn What Doesn't Need to Be Said – One of the key components to conservation is learning when you are being needlessly repetitive. If an item can be removed from a card without changing the basic essence of the card, that item should be removed.

Q3) Apply this lesson to the following card:

Defensive Guard
Creature – Human Soldier
T: Prevent the next 3 damage from any source to CARDNAME.
Whenever CARDNAME blocks, gain 3 life.

Click here for the answer.

Cephalid Looter
#4) Find Depth in Combinations – Often times in art, it is not the pieces that speak the greatest volume but the combination of the pieces. Players don't look at abilities in isolation. If a card can do more than one thing, from the very start players are trying to find out how the multiple items work in conjunction. Be aware of the power of this connection. And remember this added bonus comes with zero words.

Q4) Add a second ability to this creature. Maximize the card by picking an ability that adds value to the entire card through interaction. As before, use as few words as possible.

Vedalken Looter
Creature – Vedalken
T: Target player draws a card and discards a card.

Click here for the answer.

Time Stop
#5) Hide Things In Plain Sight – This is where reminder text shines. You see, italics is kind of invisible. Players past a certain level are trained to ignore it. This is why keywords are so valuable. One word can represent multiple sentences of text. How better to conserve words than create a word that encompasses the definition of whole sentences.

The other common use of this technique is to take a card that it easy to understand in concept but confusing in execution. A good example of this would be Time Stop. “End the current turn” conveys the essence of the card without bogging down the reader with all the rules baggage that comes along with such a card.

Q5) Reduce this card down to its essence using as few words as possible.

Brain Exchange
Gain control of all of target player's permanents. He or she gains control of all of your permanents. Exchange hands with that player. Each of you gains control of the other player's library and graveyard. You will draw and discard from them accordingly. Swap life totals. All of these effects are permanent.

Click here for the answer.

#6) Make Use of the Natural Flow of Abilities – One of the advantages of having a game as complex as Magic is that over the years many shortcuts have been created. Make use of these shortcuts. If you need to have some effect happen, take a look around at what is already naturally going on. Often times, the cleanest thing to do is piggyback on other effects.

Q6) Shorten the following card's text using the natural flow of the game:

Rampant Guy
Creature – Elf Scout
0: Search your library for a basic land and put it into play tapped. Only use this ability any time you could use a sorcery and only use it once per turn.

Click here for the answer.

#7) Keep In Mind All Audiences – One way to make a card have extra meaning is to make sure that the wording used takes advantage of as many formats as possible. Designers have to always remember that Magic is in many ways a myriad of games, connected but each with its own subtle differences. By keeping this in mind during design, it's possible to up the value of the card without adding many, and sometimes any, words.

Q7) Improve the value of this card in an additional format:

Lovin' Life
Whenever you play a creature, draw a card.

Click here for the answer.

When Less Isn't More

Before I wrap up today's column, I want to stress that while conservation is an important element of design, it is not the only consideration. Often times, adding text is an overall gain for the card. Sometimes there is more impact if the card is longer or if an extra ability is added. The key to conservation is knowing when subtraction adds to the card, when saying less in essence says more. But sometimes you can say more by just saying more.

I hope today's diversion allowed you to consider one aspect of design that you might not have ever put much thought to. If you enjoyed today's column let me know and perhaps I will do more like it in the future.

Join me next week when I take a look at some current hot button issues from a different vantage point.

Until then, may you appreciate having less.

Mark Rosewater

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