The Needs of Cards and Beyond

Posted in Savor The Flavor on November 26, 2008

Gaming has never bubbled more feverishly in the brain-cauldrons of humanity. Board and card and video games permeate holiday wish lists. Card games devour hour after hour of cable channels and web site eyeballs. Fantasy and comic-driven blockbusters win Academy Awards and trample other genres at the box office. The demand for fantasy world after fantasy world has never been higher.

Quite simply, the world is savoring the flavor.

A big part of Magic's success is its flavor flexibility. Through its continual cavalcade of new worlds, it's naturally suited to meet the demand of a hungry mind. This is hugely important to Wizards of the Coast, because there are currently eight point five kersquillion forms of entertainment out there in the world right now (I counted). To become a lasting part of the gaming landscape for any amount of time, you, as an entertainment company, have to provide continual spikes of entertainment to the consumer. And you can't just crank out the same experience every time, even if it's fun—those hungry minds are addicted to variety. They want surprises. They want to be challenged, to be pushed to think in ways they haven't before. And occasionally, they want to have their what-the-heck meters jacked way past the redline.

Magic is a Gatling gun of variety. (Its formats even rotate.) Every year it empties a magazine of fresh new rules, mechanics, card cycles, card art, world detail, character detail, and creative text into the public's collective bullseye. And then, a year later, it has reloaded with a spanking-new batch of Magical ammo to put on another expectation-shredding fireworks display. This is good.

But it is also ... not so good?

    Variety vs. Familiarity

Your most loyal consumers are connoisseurs of variety, that's for sure. They're an expert on your game and, thanks to their experience with past surprises, they've got a tolerance built up to all but the nuttiest new ideas. They can withstand semiautomatic blasts of the Newness Gun with remarkable fortitude. They're like people who grew up eating spicy foods—they're inured to the capsaicin, so these days it takes a whopping pile of habaneros to trigger those precious endorphins.

Habaneros = intriguing new mechanics and challenging new settings. Strong flavors to savor. Did you ever watch Iron Chef, and wonder why they conjure up radish-foam chocolate-celery salmon-berry ice cream? It's because the judges are food critics. Connoisseurs. Longtime experts with very high oddness tolerance.

But at the same time, your consumers (and usually Iron Chef judges) still want the familiar. They want comfort chow. They want to sit down and order their favorite thing off the menu (attacking for two with a two-mana white weenie, say, or downloading a wallpaper of the newest setting's legendary dragon), knowing that it'll be the same experience they've always enjoyed. They want lots of things to change about the game, but without altering that special essence that makes them such a fan of it in the first place.

It's a delicate balance, and it's as much art as science to create new things that achieve that balance. We're constantly learning new things about what kinds of changes serve to juice up the happy-surprise fun-dorphins, and what kinds of changes are just weird and bad-tasting. We're learning what kinds of ingredients we can change and still generate a tasty result, and how to mix known ingredients in new ways and still bring a smile to the connoisseur's face.

We know, for example, that there's a time and place for each. There's a ratio that can change from one set to the next. Whereas Lorwyn and Shadowmoor delivered a very different flavor experience from the usual type of Magic set—with its Welsh-folklore-inspired faeries, ouphes, and noggles serving as a strangely subtle flavor for the discriminating palate—Shards of Alara delivers five cranked-up triple helpings of some of the most satisfying goodies that a fantasy fan could ask for.

I like hellions, for example. I like planeswalkers. I like shambling legions of undead. I like titanic creatures that rattle the planar crust. I just don't get tired of these things, no matter how many times we make them. They are comfort food to me, like Diet Coke, or the teriyaki joint I've gone to almost every Thursday for seven years. While I feel the effort to create Lorwyn's folktale tone was a whopping creative success, I was starved for my hellions and my zombies—but Alara brought them back in spades. Like everything else, it's a pendulum. Every block and its associated world must create its own balance.

The continuum of variety and familiarity is closely connected to another flavor axis: that of setting and story.

    Setting vs. Story

First off, let me point out that we think of Magic as being more than the trading card game. Magic's heart is the cards, certainly, and by Progenitus, the vast majority of my day is spent building the flavor of Magicqua trading card game. But Magic is a universe that goes beyond the cards. It's a collection of identifiable characters and worlds with a particular tone and flavor that lives and breathes even when your deck is waiting patiently on your shelf. By reading Magic novels, for example, you can enjoy Magic without ever touching a card (although, hey, might I add that the cards are quite worth touching—seriously, they kinda just feel right, you know?—and mmm, they smell good—sorry, what was I saying?). And we like that flexibility. We encourage Magic to be a card game to those who can't stop ripping booster packs who enjoy it in that way, and to be expressions in other media for those who obsess over the backstory plotlines who enjoy it in their own way. It's another version of the variety metric. More ways to enjoy Magic = more ways to tweak that gratification gland.

Setting and story are a continuum of Magic flavor that also represent more ways to get into Magic. Setting is the place and detail of Magic's worlds, as seen in the art and flavor of the cards, the style guide (which you've seen for Alara as the Planeswalker's Guide), the Multiverse section of, and much of this column. Story is the plot and conflict between Magic's characters, as seen in novels, web comics, and short stories.

Different ratios between setting and story work best in different expressions of Magic. In the realm of cards, setting is king. Magic the trading card game is a ravenous beast, a fiery coal engine constantly requiring fresh briquettes o' setting. Hundreds of cards per year need concepts, names, art, and flavor text. Visiting a new plane every year allows us to properly stoke those fires each time, giving new chunks of creative fuel for all that cardboard. Furthermore, the game requires new ways to spin the classics. Angels and dragons and sphinges (which, I'm told, is an alternate plural) need new variants on their familiar forms. Visiting a new plane every year allows us to give them those capsaicin-like twists while keeping a balance of familiar iconics. For example, Mirrodin dragons are furnace-hearted jet-beasts, while Kamigawa's are fickle lords of the spirit realm, while Ravnica's are conceited geniuses, Shadowmoor's are slumber-disturbed folklore monsters, and Jund's are food-pyramid-topping predator-tyrants. For another example, goblins have been moggs, boggarts, akki, and hobgoblins, depending on the setting, giving us new ways to spin the classic goblin without sacrificing their flavor essence. We love the settings that we visit, and we definitely long for them when they're gone. But the engine needs extreme amounts of newness fuel, and we find that in new settings. So we've gotta move on, and hope we can visit again someday, when they'll feel new again.

The churn of settings works well for the cards. But for other media, story is more important than setting for delivering Magic's flavor.

When a movie director thinks about "flavor," for example, she thinks about story. She thinks about characters, and how their motivations and idiosyncrasies bring them into conflict with one another, and how that propels the story. She's thinking about a beginning, an escalating middle, and a satisfying end.

Occasionally, the director thinks about a franchise. This just in: sequels make money, and it's all thanks to the power of familiarity. What's even better than a story that can sell a zillion tickets? A story that can sell a zillion tickets three times. Why do you think the marquee at your local megaplex is loaded with titles that end in numerals? That's the power of the familiar, the comfort food. The director of a franchise hopes that you'll enjoy the story so much that it'll pull you back, that the good investment you made in the first awesome installment will give you reasons to come back for more.

This is not a bad thing—in a way, it's the same principle that Magic depends on. Give people what they want, with some fresh ideas thrown in, and they'll come back. (I'd argue that Magic is much better at delivering a good balance of familiar-but-fresh than many movie franchises, but then, they only have three or so movies to figure out how to please their newly-formed audience, and Magic has had something like fifty sets!)

But most of the time, the movie director is thinking about the beginning, middle, and end of a single story. She wants to find a story that will resonate with viewers, one that will tug at the heartstrings and stir deep emotions. She wants the valiant knight vanquishing the monstrous enemy despite the overwhelming odds stacked against him. She wants the coming-of-age story, wherein the young hero blossoms into a strong, independent person despite rocky beginnings. She wants the audience to connect with the characters, for them to feel familiar and comforting to them, so that they will come away satisfied and tell their friends to go see it, generating big box-office revenue.


Note that the goals for a story (movies, books, comics) are actually, in some ways, at odds with the goals of cards. Cards want constant endless variety—new worlds, new terms to put into card names, new cultures and creatures to infuse the cards with life, a never-ending march of flavor—but stories want self-containment. They want closure. They want the hero to suffer to reach his goal, sure, but not forever—they want the story to end (happily, or at least bittersweetly, in most cases).

Cards and stories even see fantasy differently. From a card-game perspective, fantasy is an excellent genre for Magic because it allows for infinite possibilities. Nothing is impossible when magic's on the table (and Llanowar Elves and Hellkite Overlords and Phyrexian Dreadnoughts and Nectar Faeries and everything you could possibly imagine), meaning there is limitless space to expand. From a story perspective, fantasy is a powerful choice because of the appeal of the stories that occur in fantasy. Many writers use archetypal fantasy story plots (the hero's quest, for example, or a "chosen one" story) and cast off the traditional trappings of fantasy, generating stuff like Star Wars and The Matrix. For them, it's not the elves and dragons that count, but the structure of the beginning-to-end that often occurs in fantasy fiction.

The trick, as usual, is to find balance. Our constant struggle is to figure out how to balance the needs of cards with the desires of story, to weave detailed fantasy worlds to satisfy the insatiable beast of the card game while creating venues for characters to experience gratifying narrative storylines within those worlds. As Magic expands into broader and broader horizons, this balancing act will get trickier, doubtless. Thankfully, we have a powerful tool in our toolbox to help bridge the gap. That tool is planeswalkers.

    Letter of the Week

Dear Doug Beyer,

I've got a small debate going on with a buddy. We're debating about etherium. In the Planeswalker's Guide, it says that not every living thing is grafted with etherium, but on the planeswalker profile for Tezzeret, it says that it is.

My question is who is right?

I swear someone said in an article that there are creatures in Shards of Alara that mimic the look of filigree, to make them look more important in the classes between wizards and commoners.

Thanks for any and all help. :)

It's the goal of the council of mages known as the Ethersworn to infuse every living thing on Esper with etherium. That implies that there are some organisms that have no etherium—but still, their success rate is pretty high. As A Planeswalker's Guide to Alara says, almost every single being on the plane has etherium filigree, meaning that the Ethersworn miss little. But certainly the process (which is largely a mystery, but certainly involves powerful, almost plane-wide magic) takes time to work on creatures that may have just appeared in the plane, and might miss some creatures that are too small or delicate to support invasion—I mean enhancement!—by etherium.

We can't technically make sweeping statements like "all living things on Esper are infused with etherium"—after all, a planeswalker from another world might show up on Esper and create a counterexample, not to mention weird cases like microorganisms, which frankly I haven't thought about—but it's understandable if some pieces of text simplify the generalization for the sake of brevity.

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