All Together Now
What does Apple's latest announcement have to do with putting lands into the red zone? Well, part of reading my column is seeing inside the head of someone who does a lot of Magic design and, well, this is how my mind works. I start thinking about one thing and then a new thing pulls my focus. Then my creativity kicks in and I start seeing how the two things connect. (Read my column on creativity, Connect the Dots, for why I feel linking things is key to creativity.) While the two may seem totally unconnected to you, having Apple announce the iPad the week I was writing this article (yes, I write a few weeks ahead) really made me approach my theme from a different vantage point. I promise I'll be talking about animating lands before the column is over.
For those that have been hiding in a cave for the last two weeks, Apple announced a new product: a tablet that falls somewhere in between an iPhone and a Mac version of a netbook. The reason this is important is not the product itself as much as all the talk that surrounded the announcement of the product. A lot of pundits were discussing whether or not the iPad was the direction of the future. As Making Magic is a design column, I wanted to give my take on the topic, because I believe it ties strongly into an important design concept that, believe it or not, ties into lands turning into creatures.
Let me start by stating for the record that I am a huge Apple enthusiast. I have never had a computer in my lifetime (including work computers) that was not an Apple product. I have more iPods than I know what to do with, and there is not a more ardent iPhone advocate in the Pit (600 apps and counting), although most of the people in the Pit have iPhones.
Why am I so gaga about the iPhone? Perhaps because it's this thing that keeps evolving, constantly reinventing itself. The designer in me is blown away by the concept of apps. Apple makes the tools, but the audience, or in this case the independent developers, uses those tools to create whatever they want. (Okay, within reason.) Does all of this sound familiar?
As a designer, I've always been very impressed with Apple. They understand the importance of aesthetics. They understand the need for simplicity. They understand the importance of intuition by the consumer. They understand that their job is to follow human nature, not lead it. Most importantly, they understand what their consumer wants out of their product and they deliver it.
Now let's get to the iPad. Two caveats. First, I'm not a technical guy, I'm a designer, so I'm going to be talking about it from a design standpoint. Second, I'm much more focused on the concept than the execution. While I have thoughts on the execution, the part that matters today is the concept, so that is what I'm going to talk about. What was this device created to do? Why? Design-wise, was that a good idea? Is the iPad the future?
What was it created to do? Combine numerous entertainment/communication devices into a single portable unit.
Why? Because Apple understands that the current push of technology is to unshackle it from locations. Once upon a time, you watched TV on your television and listened to music on your stereo and surfed the Internet on your computer. These things were anchored to places rather than people. Technology is breaking the chains that kept people locked down to specific places.
Design-wise, is that a good idea? I think so. I believe being locked to location was a limitation of the technology, not a desire of the user. Humanity has embraced portable technology so quickly that it seems clear to me that portability fits human nature.
Is the iPad the future? I pretty firmly believe yes. Why? Because it follows an important basic design principle, what I call convergence. Explaining this point is the key to today's column.
One to Control Them All
An important part of good design is understanding human behavior. You can embrace human nature and make it work for your design, or you can reject it and force yourself design to fight against it. I say this time and again in my column because it is such a fundamental design principle: you, the designer, cannot change human nature. It is a fight you are destined to lose. Note that this is not the same thing as changing habits. Humans learn to do certain things out of necessity (often the limitations of technology), and those habits can be changed if what you are offering plays into what they fundamentally want.
In order to follow human nature, you have to first understand it. Why does design need aesthetics? Because humans are drawn towards beauty. Why does design need simplicity? Because humans reject that which they cannot understand. The answer to every "why does design need ...?" question is a "because humans ...." answer.
Today's focus is on the human need for convergence. What is this? Very simply, it is the human desire to take as many things as possible and connect them together. These things could be objects, ideas, desires—whatever. Humans will try to converge anything and everything they can. They are more comfortable if their things connect in some way. Why is this? Here are some of the reasons:
Chunking – I've talked before about how humans think. A single item is easier to process than multiple items, so to help out, the human brain finds ways to group (or chunk) things together in a way that makes sense. As an example, if I asked you to name a thirty-digit number that you could easily repeat, how would you do it? You could pick a single number such as nonillion (one with thirty zeroes—yeah, yeah, it's a thirty-one digit number). You could pick a number that has an easy to remember pattern such as 123,456,789,012,345,678,901,234,567,890. Or most simply, you could pick a number that is broken into pieces where each piece is a recognizable number; for example the three phone numbers you use most along with 1 and the area code [i.e., 1(425)555-1717 + 1(425)646-0921 + 1(425)736-8432]. To help remember things, the human brain is hard wired to make connections whenever possible.
Pattern completion – Patterns are a key component of learning (and thus survival from a biological perspective). As such, the human brain is designed to prioritize pattern recognition. The end result is that humans crave patterns and are instinctively driven to seek them out.
Structure – Anther important learning tool is structure. If you can see how things are put together, it speeds along your ability to comprehend it. As such, the human brain is wired to hunt down structure in anything it encounters.
Collecting – Many years ago I wrote an article all about collecting. In it I made the claim that all Magic players are at some level collectors. Really what I meant to say was that all humans are at some level collectors. What about the human condition makes us feel compelled to collect things? Maybe it comes out of our need for structure. Maybe it's a pattern completion thing. Maybe it has something to do with the part of our brain than causes us to gather (you know, as opposed to hunt). I'm not sure. I do know though that the need to collect things drives deep into the human experience.
Aesthetics – Humans crave aesthetics because they are more appealing to them. Certain types of interconnectivity (things that seem to naturally belong together) are aesthetic and thus valued.
Higher sense of order – Many humans feel much more comfortable having a sense that there is some larger force to the universe (I don't mean in the Star Wars sense). These people tend to find larger connections comforting because to them it proves the existence of such a force.
All these forces work together to drive the human brain to want to converge things. Be aware that this need to converge gets played out in many ways. It's why people keep trying to create Grand Unified Theories (Hey Mike!). It's why stories have all the plots intertwine. It's why consumers just love objects that do a whole bunch of different things.
The reason I believe in the future of things like the iPad is that it plays directly into this need for convergence. My book, my game system, my DVD player, my browser, my typewriter, my photo album, my music player, etc.—it's all one thing. It's the reason the iPhone has become what it has, and I believe Apple is following along a logical path with the iPad.
In the Mix
What does this have to do with animating lands? A lot, because animated lands are just convergence playing out in the game of Magic. Let me explain. Convergence dictates that humans will take like things and group them. In game design, it means that the players will take the individual components and try to start smashing them together.
For example, think of any category you can break Magic into. The most obvious is color. Convergence says that players will start wanting to see cards that are white and blue, or green and red. The players wanted it, and Magic delivered.
With time, the same pressure led to this:
You could also break down Magic creatures into creature types. There was a pressure to start mixing them together, and voila ....
Just kidding. I think the real outcome of this convergence push was the race/class system that we've adopted for creature types.
Another obvious breakdown is card types. Convergence says that players will start wanting you to mix and match these. I'm going to spend the rest of my column today walking you through the options and how design has handled them thus far.
Because it's When Lands Attack Week, I've decided to focus on the combination of lands and creatures. Most of what I'm talking about has happened between any two permanent types you could name (well, except planeswalkers, as their complexity tends to discourage cross-pollination).
So Magic has lands and Magic has creatures. Convergence says players would like to see them combined. How can we do that? There are a couple ways. Let's walk through them, shall we?
#1 Dual Types
This one is pretty simple. How do you combine land and creatures? Just combine them—make a card that's both. Due to the nature of lands and creatures, this is a little more complex than it might seem at first blush. So much so that the only time we've done it was when it was reprinted from the future:
A lot of players thought that Dryad Arbor was a preview of a land block, so when Zendikar rolled around they expected to see it. Guess what? So did I. When I created the card during Future Sight, it was my intention that it was teasing a land block that I had already had on the schedule for some time. As the design team was still to be assembled, we had not yet stumbled onto the awesomeness that was landfall. I assumed part of a land block was the chance to finally join land and creatures.
So what happened? Well, for starters, Dryad Arbor did spend some time in Zendikar block. Ken put it into the Worldwake design file. It was killed during development for numerous reasons. First, it was a stark departure with where most of the other creature-lands went. Second, it created a lot of wonky interactions that were deemed more confusing than fun. Third, Dryads didn't make a lot of creative sense on Zendikar.
Note that I'm listing these categories in the order that they normally show up in design. Dual types exist first because when you are thinking of combing two things, just combining them is the most obvious path. Creature-lands have some issues that kept them from happenin,g but in a general design sense note that a combined dual state is the obvious first place to go. If you move from land + creature to artifact + creature, this is much easier to see. Artifact creature is so natural that Magic just started with it as a key element of the game, and it is part of just about every set.
#2 Transformation of Others
The ability to turn lands into creatures did show up in Alpha. (Go convergence!)
Note that it first showed up as an external change. Why external rather than a self-transformation? Flavor is the major reason. Using magic to animate a land feels better than lands that animate themselves. The external spell feels as if the sentience comes from an existing sentient creature. A human wizard, for example, is choosing for whatever reason to turn the land into a creature. Self-transformation requires you to feel as if the land itself has some form of sentience.
The key to this section is that convergence will push you in design to joining things together, but there is still an aesthetic that has to be monitored. Design isn't a formula. You can't just think, you have to feel. A design that violates what feels right will get rejected for the same reasons that fighting human nature is an uphill battle. Players reject things that feel aesthetically incorrect. Note that this is subconscious so they often don't understand why it "doesn't feel right," but that feeling can sink a bad design.
If you watch the evolution of lands being animated into creatures, you will see it run rampant around design. Auras that animate the lands they enchant, creatures with activations that animate lands, artifacts that animate lands as a global effect, etc. The idea has resonance, so the designers have been able find myriad ways to use the effect.
This next category starts the card in one of the two states and then allows it to change, sometimes into a dual type sometimes just from one type to the other. Let's examine both directions of transformations.
This is the most natural. A land "wakes up" and is animated into a creature. The first design in this vein is very iconic:
For those who have never paid attention, note that Antiquities had four pictures for Mishra's Factory. Each picture represented the Factory during a different season. Mishra's Factory worked extra overtime, because it not only combined land and creature, but even threw in artifact as a bonus. Mishra's Factory was the first creature-land.
The card had such a strong impact that it defined what a creature-land could be. Every creature-land that followed was influenced by its design, many of them being direct riffs of it. In fact, I believe that the "When Lands Attack" theme of Worldwake owes its existence to Mishra's Factory. I know for a fact that our inspiration for making the Treetop Village cycle in Urza's Legacy was trying to bring Mishra's Factory goodness to lands producing colored mana, and the dual creature-lands in Worldwake very much owe their existence to the popularity of Treetop Village and crew.
This one is far less natural, and as such I could not find an example of us doing it. Be aware that I am talking about a creature that can turn into a land. Besides awkwardness of concept, this transformation has another hurdle: it doesn't play well. What is the advantage of turning my creature into a land? Access to mana? Ability to avoid a kill spell (which requires the creature losing its creature-ness when it becomes a land)?
This brings us to another important point about convergence and design. Just because you can do something is not reason enough to do it. A lot of designers make the mistake of confusing unexplored for interesting. Science might allow me to graft a horn to my head, but that doesn't necessarily mean I should run out tomorrow horn shopping.
Fighting the Converge
Let me end with the most important point of today's column. Convergence which stems from human nature pulls you towards combining things. Yet aesthetic, another attribute of humans, often makes such changes unpalatable. Yes, human nature is fighting itself. Wait, if you can't beat human nature, who wins this fight? The answer is that human nature will pull in directions that human nature might not like.
This is why convergence is important to understand for designers. Its pull is strong, and it can make designers do things they shouldn't. When used correctly, though, it is a potent force. That is why—in my not so humble opinion—the iPad will do a little better than all the pundits seem to think.
Join me next week when I do another Nuts & Bolts column (because you demanded it).
Until then, may you use the force.