Today, I'm going to talk about how R&D designs for casual play. This is a topic I've been meaning to touch on. Back in September, I did a podcast called "Casual Magic with Shivam Bhatt" (it was released in October—you can listen to it here) where we talked a lot about casual play, and it inspired me to write this column. As you will see, the topic is a bit more complex than you might think at first blush.
What Is Casual Play?
Before I can explain how we design for casual play, I must first define it—as it turns out, the Magic community (and R&D) uses the word "casual" to mean three different things.
Definition #1 – Lack of Experience
Magic is a complex game. There are over 20,000 unique cards in existence, and the comprehensive rules are the size of a phone book. There's a lot to take in. Some players, like myself, have played this game for a long, long time. They're familiar with many aspects of the game because they've put in the hours to learn. This definition of casual is about players who play the game but have yet to put in the hours necessary to grasp all the nuances of it. There might be rules they're not aware of, mechanics they've never heard of, or elements of the game that they simply don't know. This definition isn't about the community—they may or may not be involved in it. It's about how aware they are of all the intricacies inside the game of Magic.
Definition #2 – Lack of Enfranchisement
Magic is much bigger than just the game. It's a whole community. You can spend hours reading about Magic, or watching videos, or discussing deck tech, or dressing up and/or sharing photos of cosplay, or making and sharing memes on social media. Magic is what we call a lifestyle game in that it can be something that becomes much more than just an activity, something that helps define who you are as a person. Not every Magic player does that. In fact, most Magic players don't. For example, we did what we call a "deep dive" survey where instead of finding players through Magic channels, we sought out the general populace through a larger external search. This lets us see Magic players we never normally see. Many of those players didn't know what a Planeswalker was, they didn't know what a format was, and they had no idea who I am. This definition of casual is talking about everyone who plays Magic and doesn't take the time to connect to the larger community (or, at best, is only aware on a surface level).
Definition #3 – Lack of Competitiveness
Magic has an entire ecosystem built around competitive play. You can go to your local store, enter a tournament, and try your best to win as many games as possible, ideally winning the whole tournament. From that jumping-off point, there's an entire organized play system dedicated to allowing players to play competitively in tournaments. Top players can play for money at big events in front of a large viewing audience. But that competitiveness is not what drives some players. Some players enjoy other aspects of playing Magic. Perhaps it's the socialness of hanging with friends, the thrill of doing something that you haven't gotten a chance of doing before, the joy of making a cool deck and showing it off, or just maximizing how often you can do things that bring a smile to your face. This definition of casual embraces the idea that winning is not the only goal. And yes, even in casual groups, most players try to win. The difference is that success is not measured by whether they win and winning does not drive deck-building decisions as much as a desire to enjoy the experience of playing the deck.
It's important to separate out these different categories so that R&D takes different actions to support each group. I'll go through each one in order.
Designing for Casuals (Lack of Experience)
The key to designing for this group of casual players is being aware not to overwhelm them. This group is still learning, so you want to make sure they get to enjoy the game without it feeling threatening to them. If they have fun, they tend to come back. If they feel overwhelmed, they tend not to. This means when designing for this group, there are a number of things you need to monitor.
Cognitive load describes the ability for the player to hold all the information they need to be able to play the game. Overload them, and they will shut down. Also, because much of this information is new, it requires more brain space to process. Metaphorically, the way I like to think about this is that the players are a cup and the game elements we're adding are water. Drinking from the cup is like processing the information. If we let the cup get too low, players get thirsty and leave. If we ever overfill the cup, they get upset and leave. Our job is to put just the right amount of water in the cup. The key to doing this correctly is to watch how many different game elements we're requiring them to monitor. This includes basic game functions, individual card abilities, and mechanics.
New words are scary because they represent new concepts. In many ways, learning game vocabulary is like learning a new language and that's intimidating for most people. An important design tool we use is resonance. The more flavor there is to help the player understand a new word, the more vocabulary we can introduce. This means something like flying is relatively easy to pick up while something like vigilance can be much more difficult.
Not only are new words scary, but all words are. Something we like to monitor is the number of words on the cards we're using. When dealing with this group of casuals, usually less words is better. This is one of the big reasons we tend to lean more on vanilla creatures (no rules text), French vanilla creatures (abilities without rules text), and virtual vanilla creatures (creatures that are basically vanilla after the first turn they're played—things like creatures with simple enters-the-battlefield effects) in beginner products.
Number of permanents on the battlefield
Each card on the battlefield requires some amount of brain space to understand how it interacts with every other card on the battlefield. This problem grows exponentially as you add more cards, so it's important to include plenty of cards that aren't permanents and numerous ways to get rid of permanents (these two categories can overlap a lot).
Number of decisions per turn
Having to choose what to do each turn can be overwhelming if there are too many options. Part of handling this requires keeping check of how many creatures are on the battlefield. Another way requires making use of the mana costs to ensure that there are only a handful of cards players can consider playing early on. You want enough early drops to guarantee they have a few in their opening hand, but not so many that they have too much to choose from.
The key to this type of design is being aware of all the things that the players have to process and then designing your product to dole out the information in bite-size chunks, or to keep with my previous metaphor, pour constantly, but slowly.
Designing for Casuals (Lack of Enfranchisement)
Of the three groups, this category requires the least deviation from designing normal Magic. They don't have the comprehension issues of the first group nor the desire for deviation of the third group. This group understands the game and enjoys playing it, although less often, on average, than enfranchised players play. There are a few things to watch out for:
They care more about resonance than nostalgia.
Being less invested in the community of Magic usually goes hand in hand with being less invested in the elements of the game outside the game. This group, for example, is less likely to know the story (or even that there is a story), so cards that play into creative elements that require pre-knowledge are less impactful for them. What they tend to enjoy most are cards that play into themes and concepts that they're already aware of, usually resonant concepts bigger than Magic. This isn't to say they can't enjoy things that are uniquely from Magic, but those things must stand on their own without the context of other cards or sets to make sense.
They have less need for novelty.
Because this group, on average, plays less Magic, they tend to chew through content at a slower rate. It takes a lot longer for them to get sick of something, so repetition of themes tends to be received better by this group. As you will see below, novelty can be very important to the third group of casuals.
They have less awareness of game history.
Besides playing less often, this group also tends to, again, on average, have played for a shorter amount of time overall. This means they're less aware when we're bringing something back from ten-plus years ago. The end result of this is that it's harder to excite them with nostalgia but things seem fresher.
They have less support for new concepts.
Finally, because this group isn't plugged into the community, they are more on their own when it comes to understanding new sets, themes, and mechanics. In general, this group tends to bristle when complexity gets too high because they don't have the resources to figure it out. This is why it's important that every set has some easily digestible and resonant concepts to make sure that this group has something we know they can enjoy.
Designing for Casuals (Lack of Competitiveness)
There are two major tools design can use to cater to this casual audience. The first tool is variance. Variance describes how much a game element plays the same from game to game, be it a card, a mechanic, or a deck. A competitive player will generally want variance to be low. The key to winning is having your deck be consistent. That means you want everything to generally play the same from game to game. You don't, for example, want a card to be weak in one game and overly strong in the next.
A casual player's goal is more about enjoying the game than consistently winning. Having the game play out the same from game to game is antithetical to that desire. It's boring. This is why, for example, Commander has 100-card decks instead of 60-card decks and is Singleton instead of four-of. The game is far less likely to be the same if you're less likely to get the same combination of cards.
From a design standpoint, this means you want to design cards that have an increased variance. There are several ways to do this. I'll use Unstable as an example, as the Un- sets are designed to be high variance because they're aimed at a subset of this audience.
Have a component that changes from game to game.
One of the ways to create variance is to make cards that depend on a factor that will most likely vary from game to game. For example, in Unstable, we made the card Gimme Five. It's a life-gaining cards that relies on you being able to high five as many other people as possible. This card can be very strong in some circumstances (for example, you're playing at your local game shop on a crowded game night) and very weak in others (you're playing alone with your sister at the kitchen table).
In black border, we can make cards that care about a game state (how many creatures you control, how many cards are in your graveyard, how many cards are in your hand, etc.) that will vary as the game progresses. The higher the variance of the thing being monitored, the greater the variance of the card. Also, the less the variance can be adjusted by deck building, usually the higher swings you will see in play.
Create cards that mix and match with other cards to impact how they work.
Another way to increase variance is to make cards whose effect is dependent on interacting with other cards. Yes, this is a core element of a trading card game (which, by the way, has a decent amount of variance built into its structure), but there are designs that can lean into this type of interaction. My example from Unstable is the host/augment mechanic where you combined a left side and a right side to make a new creature. The left side provided a trigger, and the right side provided an effect. With nineteen hosts and thirteen augments, you get 247 possible combinations.
In black border, you can see us doing this with mechanics like mutate where what you choose to use the mechanic on changes the nature of what you're making. The key part to this type of design is that you draw different cards in a different order, forcing you to mix and match things in ways that will differ from other games you've played. The more the designs change based on this interaction, the greater the variance you're creating.
Use a game element that involves high variance.
This category is about players making use of a tool that naturally brings variance. My example from Unstable is rolling a die. Go to Jail will exile an opponent's creature for some amount of turns, but you have no way of knowing how long that's going to be. Yes, you can understand the statistics of when things are most likely to happen, but you have no assurance of when it will happen.
In black border, we tend to shy away from most high-variance tools. We have the occasional coin flip card, but Play Design tries to keep those from being competitive. The one high-variance tool we do have access to is the library, as it's a high variance tool the game is built around. When we want to add a little drama, you'll notice we often make use of the library. Another common tool we use in black border, although in small doses, is randomness. If a card forces you to make a random decision, it's usually going to vary from game to game.
Create cards with a lot of choices.
This category increases variance by allowing the person who uses the card to have a lot of options for what they'd like to do. For example, Spike, Tournament Grinder lets you get cards that have ever been banned or restricted in a Constructed format. That's a lot of cards. Magic has had a lot of formats in its 27 years, and a lot of cards have been banned or restricted in all those various formats. The one way this category varies from the previous three is that while it enables variance, it doesn't force it. You can play Spike and always go get the same card. It's possible to make cards like this where the category of choices varies from play experience to play experience, but it involves some mechanism to alter the choices. For example, imagine if Spike only let you get a card of the color of the last spell played by an opponent.
The reason I bring up this category is that some ability to create variance comes from enabling players to have variance if they want it while letting a more competitive player have the consistency. This usually comes from cards that are modal, have multiple states (with things like split cards or double-faced cards), or are open-ended enough in their targeting to allow the players a wide array of options.
Make use of minigames.
Another technique to create variance is to make use of a game within your game. Sometimes, that game is a subset of the game you're playing. For example, Unstable's The Countdown Is at One makes you play a subgame of Magic. Other times, the game you're playing is a completely separate game. For instance, in Unglued, we had a cycle of minigame cards where you were doing things like arm wrestling or having breath-holding contests. Because these minigames usually depend on factors (such as who you're playing against) that vary from game to game, they create variance.
In black-border Magic, these minigames tend to be shorter and revolve more around existing components of the game, but they do exist, whether you're playing the Goblin Game (Planeshift) or Thieves' Auction (Mercadian Masques) or Cabal Therapy (Judgment), they ask you to play a short game that impacts the larger game.
The second tool design can use is novelty. Novelty is the practice of leaning on things that the audience isn't used to seeing. There are a few ways to do this.
Care about an aspect of the game that other cards haven't cared about.
This category is about making cards that care about something no other card (or very few) has cared about before. For example, capital offense from Unglued cares about how many capital letters appear in a card's rules text. No card ever did that before, so when using capital offense, it requires you to think about the game through a whole new lens. For a lot of casual players, this is fun because it allows them to experience something they've never experienced before.
Black border does get to do things like this. It's just pulling from a smaller pool of what it can care about. (Because all cards with the same English name are the same in black border, it prevents numerous card elements from mattering—things like qualities of a name, which expansion symbol a card has, or what watermark appears on a card.)
Make a variable out of something that isn't normally a variable.
My example of this category is the card More or Less from Unstable. This card lets you change a number in rules text by raising or lowering it by 1. Normally in Magic, a number in rules text is a locked, unchangeable thing. You never have to think about what happens if a 1 becomes a 2, because it can't. But as soon as More or Less exists, the player gets to relook at every Magic card with a number in its rules text (of which there are a lot) in a new light.
Black border does dip its toe into this category. Early Magic, for example, had Sleight of Mind and Magical Hack that let you change color words and basic land types respectively. We just have to be very careful what types of things we allow to be changed in black border because we have to monitor whether allowing the change would break something.
Force the player to make an entertaining choice.
One of the ways to create novelty is to have the player make a decision they've never made before. The important thing to note is that the decision needs to be fun unto itself and doesn't need to be impactful on the game mechanically. Magic Word from Unstable is a great example. It forces you to pick a word. The card then makes you use that word as part of the function of the card (you have to say it as an activation cost of one of the abilities). What the word is, however, doesn't matter. Literally any word you pick functions the same as any other word. The cool thing about it, as someone who's watched a lot of Unstable games get played, is how much fun choosing the word is for a lot of players. Maybe it's an in-joke between them and their opponent. Maybe it's something that lets the player express something about themselves. Maybe it makes the opponent laugh. The point is the freedom to choose whatever you want, and the necessity to pick something creates a novel experience, something that can change each time you use the card.
Black border gets to do this a little bit. Goblin Game doesn't tell you what kind of item you have to hide. Some cards let you make a decision that sometimes doesn't matter mechanically but allows you the fun of making the choice. For example, Volrath's Laboratory from Stronghold makes you pick the creature type of the token the card makes. Occasionally it matters, but most of the time it doesn't. Regardless, getting to make that choice is fun for a lot of players.
The key to making this last group happy is providing them ways to experience the game on the vector that they find fun.
Casual Fun for All
I hope you enjoyed my digging into the topic of designing for casual players. It's something we have to think about a lot, so it was fun talking about it with all of you. As always, I'm eager to hear your feedback. Are there things you'd like to see design do to make the game more fun for you? Or do you have feedback on today's article or on any of my thoughts about what casual means? You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, Instagram, and TikTok).
Join me next week for a trivia column all about legendary creatures.
Until then, may you enjoy the casual side of Magic.
#791: Antiquities, Part 2
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