Mana Action

Posted in Making Magic on May 23, 2011

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 Mana Week! This week we're going to be talking about the grease that makes the whole game run. For my column today, I thought I would expand upon a comment I made in an article many moons ago (June 5, 2006, to be exact). The article was called As Good As It Gets, and in it I answered the question "Why is Magic such a good game?"

I gave ten answers to the question (and really if you haven't read it, give it a look—it's one of my five-star columns,) but the first three are the ones that matter for today. When Richard Garfield made Magic he created what I refer to as the Golden Trifecta, three genius ideas that Richard rolled up into one amazing product. The three parts of the Golden Trifecta are the concept of a trading card game, the color wheel, and the mana system.

In my article Magic Design Seminar: Looking Within, I spend a lot of time talking about how a trading card game works. In it, I stress the advantages a trading card game has and what makes it so awesome. In my article The Value of Pie, I talk about why I believe the color pie is at the crux of the game and what makes it so valuable. That leaves just one piece of the Golden Trifecta that doesn't have its own article singing its praises. And hey, look, it's Mana Week! Perhaps it's time to explain what Magic's mana system does for the game and why it's so important.

Mana the People

As I said in my "As Good As It Gets" column, I feel the mana system is the Rodney Dangerfield of the Golden Trifecta, as it gets no respect. (For my younger readers: Rodney Dangerfield was a stand-up comedian with the catchphrase "I get no respect." You might know him from movies like Caddyshack or Back to School, or quite possibly you've just never heard of him.) My goal today is to explain why it deserves some respect. Without further ado, here are the many things the mana system does for Magic:

#1 – It Allows Magic to be a Trading Card Game

In almost every game, there are pieces that are stronger than others. A queen is better than a pawn, an ace is better than a deuce (usually), a marshal is better than a sergeant (scouts and spies can at least do things marshals can't). That's fine in a game where the designer controls the mix of pieces a player gets. Players use weaker pieces because they are part of the game and have to be dealt with.

In a trading card game, though, the designer doesn't have control over what gets played with. Players get to choose whatever pieces they want. In order for that to work, the game needs some way to make as many cards as possible matter. One answer to this is functionality (and the need for the color wheel, but that's a different article—see above). Different cards can do different things. But in order for a trading card game to work, it needs a lot more cards than mere functionality is going to solve.

Phyrexian Obliterator
Lost Leonin

This is where the mana system comes in. By making spells have a cost, you are able to make different cards important at different parts of the game. Why would you ever play a weaker spell? Because it's cheaper. It's something you can do during the early parts of the game. The mana system essentially allowed the designers to create numerous versions of each effect, because they can be sized and priced to matter at different times. Because of this, each card now has a different reason to be considered for your deck. This diversity of card usage is a key factor in making the entire trading card game work.

#2 – It Controls the Flow of the Game

One of the best ways to understand the value of something is to imagine a world in which it doesn't exist. So for this thought experiment, let's imagine that you can play whatever card you want whenever you want. How would the game play? Turn one, you'd play most of your cards—definitely the permanents that you can attack your opponent with and any proactive spells. The only things you wouldn't play would be reactive spells that would want to wait until they're useful.

As this is a trading card game, you would choose cards that bent towards this system. Most likely you would choose cards that overcome the two major limits in the system, turns and cards. For example, you'd be much more likely to play creatures with haste because the ability to attack the turn you cast the creature helps you accelerate the usefulness of your creatures by a turn. Likewise, card drawing would go from being very good to being completely insane as it would allow you to play even more spells.

The end result of this is that the game would probably end on the first player's first turn. Maybe the opponent has enough reactive cards to stop the first player, but the abuse of this system leads to games that end very quickly.

Now you can start to see what the mana system is preventing. Magic is more fun if only one or two cards get cast a turn, especially in the early game. The mana system allows a slow buildup as players get to cast larger and more powerful spells. The mana system serves as a release valve that helps ensure that something happens each turn, but not too much.

Most players don't think about the pace of the game because people don't tend to think about what just is. Magic plays the way it does because, well, that's what it does. When you peek behind the scenes, though, you start to realize that there are all sorts of ways the game could play badly. The mana system was created to help regulate the game play to the pace we all know and love.

#3 – It Helps the Game Become More Dramatic Over Time

In many ways this point is a corollary to the last, but it's so important to the game, I'm giving it its own section. To explain this one I'm going to start by explaining something I learned while taking drama classes as a kid. I attended the Cleveland Playhouse Youth Theater and, at the time, the lessons were broken up into different classes. You would sign up for numerous classes and then each hour you'd transition to a different class. One of my favorite classes I ever took was called stage combat.

For those who have never met me, I'm not a fighter. (Yes, that makes me a lover.) I've never thrown a punch at anyone. I've never fought with a weapon. I've never smashed anyone's skull into the ground. Well, I've never done these things for real, but I did all of them in stage combat class. You see, stage combat is all about learning how to fight for the stage. Note that you're not actually fighting. What you're doing is much closer to dance, with everything carefully choreographed. My opponent knows to block his head with his sword, because he knows I'm going to swing at it. When done well, stage combat looks quite real.

I bring up stage combat because it taught me the importance of what makes a good fight. Remember that stage combat isn't just about making it look real, it's about understanding how to make it as entertaining as possible. In short, I learned what made a good fight. Little did I know how much that knowledge would come in handy later in life.

In a nutshell, here's what I learned. A fight needs to start small and build. In fact, most fights are broken into sections for purposes of staging. Each section needs to one-up the one before it. For example, most stage fights start as what is called fisticuffs—that is, you hit each other with your bare hands. Small fisticuffs usually turn to bigger fisticuffs with larger moves getting thrown in. Then someone pulls a weapon into the fight. Sometimes it's a real weapon (swordplay is very popular in theater), but often it's just whatever is lying around turned into a weapon.

The first weapon leads the opponent to get a weapon as well. Often the weapons get upgraded over time as a fighter finds an even better weapon. Next, the fight usually tends to get upgraded in terms of where it's fought. Fights always start on the ground but seldom end there. One or more of the fighters is going to take higher ground, be it on a table, a staircase, or whatever other scenery the stage allows. Finally, one fighter makes some awesome move that you've never seen before to win the fight (the earlier in the play the better chance the bad guy wins, and the later the better chance the good guy wins).

During all of the above, one other important thing is going on. Who is winning the fight keeps going back and forth. One player will make a good move and start dominating the fight, but just as it seems it's over the other fighter pulls out some new stunt to turn the tides and then begins winning. Another thing that often happens is that one player will lose his or her weapon (almost always the good guy) and have to improvise. In a good stage fight, it's seldom clear who's going to win in the end because there is so much back and forth.

What I've just described is basically what an optimal Magic duel looks like. Players need to start small and build. The weapons getting used get more and more sophisticated. All the while there is a constant back-and-forth between the sides. One of the great beauties of the mana system is that it naturally does all of this. It helps optimize duels to become awesome fights.

It's funny because I think people sometimes think of the mana system as preventing good games, not realizing that they are merely focusing on the aspect that draws the most attention to itself. It's very easy to see how the mana system denied you mana. It's much harder to see how it created all the underpinning for every great Magic duel you've ever fought.

#4 – It Helps Players Make Choices

One of the most common mistakes made by inexperienced designers is giving the players too many options. This stems from a misbelief that more options make for a better game. (I have a lot to say on this topic, but I'll wait for my complexity article, which I'll write one of these days.) The key is to start the game with a few easy options and slowly raise the number of choices as the game progresses. There will also come a point where you want to stop increasing the choices because there's some critical mass of choices that decreases the game's fun.

Let's walk through how the mana system handles this issue.

Early turns: You can only play a handful of spells because they are the only ones cheap enough that you can actually cast them.

Middle game: You have a few more options but as these spells are more expensive you still are usually limited to one spell a turn.

Late game: You are able to cast anything you want and can probably cast multiple spells a turn, but because it's late in the game odds are you don't have that many spells left in your hand.

In each case, the mana system helps keep the player's choices in check. I'm sure to experienced players this may not seem like a big deal, but keeping the decision tree a manageable size is very key to the design of a good game.

#5 – It Cuts Down on the Number of Unique Cards in Your Deck

There is another common misbelief that more is better in game design. A game with twenty rules is better than a game with ten. A game with twelve pieces is better than one with six. This misbelief follows that more (pieces, rules, or whatever else) equals greater depth of game play. If there is more for me to keep track of, clearly I, the better player, will benefit.

The mistake here is that what makes a game enjoyable is not the same thing as what will allow a better player to have a greater chance of winning. In fact, in most cases the opposite is true. Most players don't want to learn a game that they feel they can never win. Part of a game being fun is that the player, any player, feels they have a chance to win. They don't have to be the favorite, just feel like there's a chance.

That said, please be aware that Magic is in no way starving for complexity. I've never heard of anyone playing the game who says, "There just isn't enough for me to think about." Magic has plenty going on. The fact that the mana system almost halves the number of unique cards in the deck is doing a great service to the game.

#6 – It Keeps Variance in the Game

Several years ago, I wrote a column called Kind Acts of Randomness where I explained how I believe randomness is an important part of making a game fun. (You can click the link to see me explain why.) Variance while connected to randomness is slightly different. Variance is about having different things happen each time you play. Games benefit from variance because players will grow tired of playing the exact same game over and over. Randomness helps create variance.

The mana system is one of the greatest sources of randomness and variance in the game. Let's explore why:

It mixes up when you can play spells – Game 1, you might drop lands on turns one, two, and three. Game 2, maybe you have a turn-one and turn-two drop, but your third land drop doesn't happen until turn five. The change between those two scenarios is merely drawing one land two turns later, but that little difference is a giant deal. Those two games play out very differently. In the first you get to cast your three-drop on turn three, waiting to cast your second two-drop on a later turn. In the second, you get a chance to cast your other two-drops hoping to stay alive until you get more land.

It greatly changes the value of the draw – It's late in the game. You have plenty of mana out but you've run out of cards. In scenario A, you draw an expensive bomb. In scenario B, you draw a land. The difference in the value of that card draw is huge. This creates tension and allows for very exciting game moments.

It restricts how many things you can do – Say you have three spells in your hand you can cast and three things on the battlefield you can activate. Because your mana is a resource, you don't have the ability to do everything, which means you have to pick and choose what to do. This allows even a static board to have variance because there is some flexibility in what the player will do.

The key here is that the mana system's inconsistency which is often pointed at as a bug is actually a feature. I often talk about how restrictions breed creativity but I usually talk about it in the context of design. It's also true in game play. One of the great joys of gaming is not having everything you need but finding a way to get your tasks accomplished with what you have. Players love to curse the "mana gods," but think about how many exciting games you've had because things didn't quite work out the way you were hoping and you had to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.

#7 – It Adds Skill to the Game

One of the biggest complaints of the mana system is that it lessens skill in the game. I'm going to argue that it doesn't. Yes, the mana system increases randomness and variance, which can lead to the better player sometimes losing. (This, incidentally, is another feather in the mana system's camp as far as I'm concerned; games in which the lesser player cannot win are not so fun for anyone other than the best players.) In exchange for the occasional disparity between the players' resources, the mana system gives a whole other area for the better player to master.

A very important part of being a good Magic player is understanding how the mana system works and how to maximize its use for your gain, especially in deckbuilding. In addition, the better players have to understand how to compensate when the mana system isn't going your way. In short, the existence of the mana system is yet another area where the better player gets to gain advantage on the less-skilled player.

Mana La Mancha

Before I wrap up for today, let me make one last comment about the elephant in the room: mana screw. I feel like judging the mana system on mana screw is the same as judging a car by its exhaust. Mana screw is a not-so-fun by-product of a wonderful system. As I show above, I do believe parts of it do good. The parts that don't, though, are merely the necessary evil of a far greater good. No matter how many times I say this, there are always people who don't believe me—and I'm sure if you check this article's forum thread you'll meet some of them—but I believe, as they say, the proof is in the pudding.

That's all I have for today. I hope you enjoyed my examination of what makes Magic's mana system so important to the game. I'm curious to hear what you all have to think. Feel free to email me using the link below, write a note in this column's thread, or tweet me on Twitter (@maro254).

Join me in two weeks when I assume command. Remember that next Monday is Memorial Day (a U.S. holiday that celebrates the memory of fallen soldiers) so there will be no Making Magic, or any other new content, on

Until then, may you have some drama when you're not expecting it.

Bonus Section:

Today you get a little bonus section as I want to talk about something I've been doing that you might have not been aware of. I've had a Twitter feed for a while now. One day, I got a new app for my iPhone (called Half Tone) that allowed me to make my photos look like they were from an old-time comic book. For fun, I posted a picture on Twitter. I got a good response and so I did another one. And then another one. Before I realized it, I had started a daily comic, called "Tales from the Pit."

I've been posting the comics every weekday for over a month now. You can see them linked on my Twitter or posted on a tumblr account I started as a place to post them all.

I've been having a blast making the comics, so if you enjoy the few posted here please check out all the old ones and check in each week day to see the new ones. As always, any feedback on the comics (what you like or don't like; what's funny and not to you) is always much appreciated.

See you in the funny papers.

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