Designing for Noncompetitive Environments

Posted in Play Design on November 3, 2017

By Melissa DeTora

Melissa is a former Magic pro player and strategy writer who is now working in R&D on the Play Design team.

Hello and welcome back to Play Design. This week we're going to talk about why and how we design cards for noncompetitive environments. Magic: The Gathering is a deck-building game, and there is more to the game than the matches themselves. There is lots of fun to be had in deck building and exploration of the formats we play, and Play Design's job is to provide enough options that there are a variety of decks, from the top-performing Grand Prix decks all the way to the off-the-wall fringe decks played at the kitchen table.

For this article I'm going to be grouping decks into three categories:

  • The top decks—these are the decks you will see time and time again. If you're preparing for a competitive tournament such as a Grand Prix, you better know what these decks are and how to beat them. These decks are very likely to win a Grand Prix or Pro Tour.
  • The next category of decks are decks that are strong, but not quite strong enough to consistently make the Top 8 at premier events. These decks are capable of winning a Grand Prix, and you wouldn't be surprised if you sat across from one.
  • The third category of decks are noncompetitive decks. These decks usually involve an off-the-wall strategy or combo, and are not strong enough to consistently perform well at premier events. These decks won't win a Grand Prix, but can win a less competitive tournament, like Friday Night Magic or Standard Showdown.

Last week, Adam Prosak talked about finding the strongest deck in a format. One of the major points of the article was that we aren't trying to craft an environment where the best deck is known. If play designers agree on which deck is strongest, we're going to make some changes, either to that deck or to other decks, so that the best deck isn't clear. What we are trying to do is craft an environment with lots of options and things to explore. As long as there isn't one best deck, decks will naturally fall into these three categories as they are discovered.

What are we looking for when we design for noncompetitive environments?

Many players, and a huge chunk of the audience of this article, play Magic competitively and think about decks in terms of what are the top performing decks at the highest levels. However, there are also many players who don't think about Magic in that way. There's a lot more to Magic than what deck won the last Grand Prix.

When crafting noncompetitive environments, there are many types of players we cater to. Newer players and players with smaller collections are more likely to play noncompetitive decks. They may not have the knowledge or resources available to build something more competitive, and are usually limited by their small collections. We also want to satisfy Johnny/Jenny players. Interesting build-arounds or harder-to-find strategies often fall into this category. Lastly, it's important to satisfy players who only play at the FNM level and lower. Many players do not want to play on the Pro Tour, but still want to play in a fun and casual tournament environment. We want to provide less competitive options for these players.

You might ask, why would anyone want to play a deck that isn't the "best deck"? Many competitive players have one goal when playing Magic—to win. However, Magic is a game that can satisfy more than just the most competitive players. Some players want to achieve or prove something. In video games, there are often achievements that reward you for doing something hard to do. While you can play through the game and ignore these achievements, some players want to get 100% completion. In Magic, we don't have achievements, but there's a social aspect in trying to prove to your friends that you can do something cool that not everyone can do. Deck-building challenges like this scratch an itch that playing the top decks doesn't.

One thing we look for when designing noncompetitive cards are strategies that are fun in small doses. For example, something unique that is really cool to do once in a while, but not fun if it shows up frequently at the highest levels.

One example of this is Mindslaver. Mindslaver is a novel, splashy effect, but is problematic when it shows up frequently. Taking control of another player's turn is both time-consuming and difficult to play correctly due to the endless number of factors to think about from both players' perspectives. When we made Emrakul, the Promised End in Eldritch Moon, we were focused on pushing story characters to be viable in top-tier Constructed formats. We knew that Emrakul was a powerful creature with an awesome, splashy effect, and we succeeded in our goal of making it hit competitive Constructed. However, we failed to realize that while getting Mindslavered is pretty cool and fun once in a while, it's unhealthy to have it happen three to four times in a game, and that inevitably led to Emrakul's ban in Standard.

Since the creation of the Play Design team last year, R&D has been more focused on keeping effects like this out of high-level Standard, while maintaining them at a rate that is fun for a noncompetitive environment. In Hour of Devastation, one card that we thought was super fun at a noncompetitive level was Crested Sunmare. We knew that there wouldn't be a competitive deck built around this card, but it still provided a deck-building challenge for players. The card was powerful enough for players to explore it, and there were many angles to explore, whether it was Horse tribal or a life gain strategy.

SaffronOlive's Sunmare White

Download Arena Decklist

Another example of a noncompetitive deck that we find fun and healthy is Marionette Master combo. We knew that Treasure in Ixalan would synergize with Kaladesh themes from the year before, and felt that Marionette Master provided a cool way to use Treasure. This deck is hard to build and the combo is difficult to set up. You need to play a lot of Treasure-producing cards, some of them with weak rates, and the deck is often inconsistent—especially if you are relying on countering the right thing with Spell Swindle.

If this deck were pushed for competitive Standard, it would potentially be problematic. Treasure is hard to interact with, and a resolved Marionette Master can win the game on the spot. However, the Treasure-producing cards and the Master itself have weak enough rates that this deck, while powerful, is not consistent enough to Top 8 Grand Prix week after week. Here's one of the Marionette Master decks that Conley Woods has been championing on his stream.

Conley Woods's Marionette Master Combo

Download Arena Decklist

One thing we like is when players find ways to use cards in ways R&D never anticipated. We are not trying to over-engineer our formats, and we want players to find things we miss. We want to provide lots of options and fun cards for which players can find many uses. The more fun options we provide, the more different decks and strategies will exist, competitive or not.

That's it for this week. Thanks for reading! I look forward to reading the feedback on Reddit and Twitter.

Until next time,

Melissa DeTora

Story of the Week

Written by Allen Wu

Magic R&D has occupied the same corner of the Wizards building for over ten years, affectionately known as the Pit. You can see the old space in the selfie I took when I came here two months ago, and while the cubicles were well-maintained, they showed their age. The different groups in R&D were also intermixed, since new hires were given whatever desks were free, and the playtesting tables were in the middle of everything.

A couple weeks ago, we moved to different corner of the third floor, closer to the windows. We got new cubicles and new tables, and each team was allocated its own section. Play Design used to have to be careful not to disturb other teams when we playtested, but now we can joke and dagger and discuss matchups in our own space. Facilities even dug up some oversized playmats.

Play Design feature matches can get boisterous.
Play Design feature matches can get boisterous.

We also got some sweet new couches and the nicest land boxes I've ever seen.

Note the casual Dragons in the background.
Note the casual Dragons in the background.

However, the most exciting part of the move isn't the playmats or the sofas. It isn't the adjustable desks, nor the ergonomic chairs.

Andrew Brown and Bryan Hawley made a bet to see who could grow the tallest plant in six months. The whole team went to a hardware store to help them pick out plants last week, and they'll compare heights come May 1. Bryan's plant is on the left in the picture below, and Andrew's is on the right.

The runners
The runners

You might notice that Andrew's plant is still in its pot from the store, inside a bowl from the office kitchen. Andrew proposed the bet when Bryan mentioned offhand he wanted to get a plant after the move, and we were all surprised. As awesome as Andrew is, I don't think any of us expected "nurturing a living thing" to be in his range. Not only that, Bryan is a quintessential gardener: careful, patient, attentive. Paul Cheon gave Andrew a 33% chance of winning the bet, which Dan Burdick thought was generous.

When Bryan repotted his plant at home and brought it back to work the second day, Andrew was startled that Bryan had bought a new pot and soil already. "I already had them," Bryan replied. He'd had them the whole time.

The loser has to wear suspenders and a fedora to work for a week, so I expect the competition will heat up as the stakes become more tangible. And I suspect Andrew has some tricks left to show us still.

In any case, one of our competitors is destined for office immortality.

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