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 magicthegathering.com 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.
#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:
Creature – Orc
R, Sacrifice CARDNAME: CARDNAME deals 2 damage to target creature.
R, Sacrifice a goblin: CARDNAME deals 2 damage to target creature.
#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:
Creature – Human Soldier
T: Prevent the next 3 damage from any source to CARDNAME.
Whenever CARDNAME blocks, gain 3 life.
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.
Creature – Vedalken
T: Target player draws a card and discards a card.
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.
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.
#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:
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.
Q7) Improve the value of this card in an additional format:
Whenever you play a creature, draw a card.
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.