Note that I'm aware that I have an ongoing series called "Nuts & Bolts" but that is more of a technical how-to manual, whereas this column is about the dos and don'ts of card design (and today a little bit about set design). Today, I am going to dip my hand into the role of card design in the larger role of set design but I am going to stay focused on the creative process rather than the technical ins and outs.
Also unlike "Nuts & Bolts," this series is not just aimed at designers, but anyone who is interested in the pitfalls of designing Magic cards. It's a chance for you all to learn some of the traps that designers can get themselves into. For those who haven't read the previous three columns, let me quickly summarize.
First, from "Design 101," here are the common mistakes I feel novice, and some not-so-novice, Magic designers make (obviously, click the links above if you want to get more detail about these lessons):
Mistake #1—The Card Is Too Complicated
Mistake #2—The Abilities on the Card Have No Synergy
Mistake #3—The Card Ignores Basic Design Rules of Magic
Mistake #4—The Card Doesn't Work Within the Rules
Mistake #5—The Card Is Undercosted, Overpowered, or Simply "Bah-roken"
Next, from "Design 102," are the things I felt Magic designers could do to get better:
#1—Know Magic History
#3—Design a Lot of Cards
#4—Know What You Want
#5—Play With the Cards
#6—Have Other People Play With the Cards
#7—Give a Set Time to Breathe
Finally, from "Design 103," some more advanced mistakes:
Mistake #1—Making the Audience Do Something They Don't Want To Do
Mistake #2—Making the Audience Do Unnecessary Work
Mistake #3—Don't Put Things They Care About Out of Their Control
Mistake #4—You Force The Players hand Too Much
Mistake #5—Making Cards Match The Wrong Audience
Today, I have four more mistakes to share with you, but before I can talk about them I must first talk about a book on creative thinking. No, I'm not talking about my favorite book, A Whack on the Side of the Head by Dr. Roger von Oech (although, as always, if you haven't read it I implore you too). Rather, I am talking about A Kick In The Seat Of The Pants, the sequel to A Whack On The Side Of The Head. While it's not quite as good as Whack, it's still well worth the read.
I bring up A Kick In The Seat Of The Pants because, in it, von Oech describes the creator as taking on four distinct roles. The explorer seeks out new areas for ideas, the artist crafts the ideas, the judge decides whether the ideas are worthy, and the warrior fights for the worthy ideas. I have decided for today's list of mistakes to take one from each of the creative roles. I will go in the order that the roles are used.
The Explorer's Mistake—"It Hasn't Been Done" Is Not a Reason to Do Something
People ask me all the time how I start making a set. Do I begin with a place or a mood or a tone or a mechanic or a cycle of cards or possibly even just a single card? Where do I start? The answer is there is no one starting point. Each set starts from its own vantage point. I have begun from mechanical places; I've begun from flavorful places. The correct answer is that any place is a viable jumping-off spot if it can provoke you into building from it.
This lesson is about the danger of choosing the wrong motivation in finding your jumping off point. It can also be the same mistake that makes you design a card that you shouldn't be designing. What exactly is that mistake? Making choices not on the design itself but on some criteria external to the design. What criteria? I'm glad you asked.
Game designers are by their nature game players. If you cannot enjoy the medium you are crafting, you will be a poor craftsman/artist. Because game designers are game players, they have a strong desire to challenge themselves. I believe for most game designers, game design itself is a game to them. It has all the markings of an awesome game. You have an end goal with lots of rules to structure what you can and can't do. The problem with this mindset is that it can force a designer to make choices based on the challenge rather than the task at hand.
In Magic design, one of the most dangerous challenges is "We haven't done that yet." Magic is an ever-changing game that in its twenty-year history has explored vast amounts of design space. Finding something the game hasn't done yet is intoxicating and definitely a "throw the gauntlet down" type of challenge. It's a trap, though.
First, if the game hasn't done something for twenty years, odds are there's a reason. Second, just because it hasn't been done doesn't mean it's good or it will be fun. But wait, we've done all sorts of crazy things. Yes, but in the case of our successes, we didn't set out to do them; rather, we found them because they were an answer to another problem.
Let's take double-faced cards. We didn't start by saying, "Magic cards have always had a Magic back, what if we broke that rule?" We started by trying to represent dark transformations, as we realized that this was both key to capturing werewolves and hitting a major trope of horror. Double-faced cards were one of our ideas how to solve it. I tried many more straightforward solutions but when they didn't work, I tried double-faced cards, which ended up doing exactly what we wanted.
The key is that if we had started with double-faced cards, we might never have found something that worked, but by getting there because it solved our problem, we ended up with a tight mechanical-to-flavor fit. This way, when we ended up doing something radical, we knew we could support it because it was integral to the design.
The trick when you want to do something different is to keep it in mind as an option and wait for the right problem for when it's an elegant solution. Note that this might be a long time, but if you have enough ideas, some of them will find homes. There are many important skills to doing design—patience being an important one.
The Artist's Mistake—You Try to Be Too Literal
One of the lessons of creative expression is that while different arts use different mediums, the same set of rules apply. For this next lesson, I am going to start talking about painting. Let me stress that I have never taken a class in painting but I have had friends who are painters, and this following lesson came up when I was talking about something I was doing with my writing.
One of the things they have you do in art class is draw objects: a bowl of fruit, a vase, a model. Early on, the goal is getting you to try to capture something on paper that looks a lot like what you are drawing. Can you capture the image as faithfully as possible? Then, though, they start trying to get you to represent the image using less. A popular assignment is to get you to draw something using as few lines as possible. Why do they do this? Because they want you to understand that you don't need all the information to convey what something is.
Here's a similar experiment you can do yourself. Write your name in big block letters in pencil. Now start erasing bits of lines using the following criteria: Try to make sure your name is still recognizable. That is, if you showed it to someone else, that person could read it. What you will find is that you can actually erase quite a lot and still have the name be readable. Why is that? Because the human brain is very good at filling things in, especially things it's familiar with.
So what does any of this have to do with Magic design? A lot. Your goal when you are designing a card, much like a painter painting a picture, is to get your audience to recognize the thing you are making. It is not to be as thorough as possible. In many ways, card design is a lot like the line sketch from art class. You are trying to create an object using as few resources as possible.
Why is that? Because elegance is important in game design. The more you have, the more text is needed to convey it and the more complicated the card becomes. To quote Antoine de Saint-Exupery (a French writer and poet from the early twentieth century): "Perfection is achieved, not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away."
When trying to capture something on a card, especially in top-down design, remember that you do not need to capture everything, just the essence. The flavor of the card will help fill in the audience. They will not expect exact duplication but rather a feel that matches expectation. Let's say you are trying to make a slingshot. The audience doesn't start with "Well, what would a slingshot do?" Players look at your card and ask themselves, "Is this a slingshot?"
To get a "yes," you need to capture some essence of a slingshot—you do not need to capture every essence. The key to this lesson is figuring out the more important aspect and focusing on that.
The Judge's Mistake—The Card is Awesome but Not For This Set
A big part of design is killing cards. I've been designing Magic cards for eighteen years and still my hit rate of cards I make to cards that see print is under 5%. Why? Because part of figuring out what your set is about is trying different things. Not everything works out, but that's okay, because the act of creation is one of discovery, as you figure out what your set needs.
Killing cards is hard because the creative act is a personal one and you tend to get emotionally attached to the work you do. Note that this is perfectly normal. It's the emotional investment that pulls out the best work from many artists, but that means when it's time to be the judge of your own work, you have to make the tough calls.
In Magic design, a designer takes on all four of the roles I talk about above. The one I find that most designers have the greatest difficulty with is the role of judge. They can search out areas for ideas, they can make the ideas, and they can fight for them, but many designers have trouble figuring out how to separate their good card ideas from their bad.
This mistake, though, comes about when a designer identifies a card as a good design in a vacuum and doesn't see that it's not a good fit for the set it's in. The judging process is supposed to have two parts. First, you have to figure out if the card is a good design. Then you have to figure out if it's a good design for the set it's in. Quite often, I see card designers deem a card worthy of the first test and skip past the second.
The reasoning behind this is a solid one. Good Magic cards are hard to make. When you create one, you want to get it into print. But leaving in a good card or even a great card or even an awesome card is doing your set a disservice if that good/great/awesome card doesn't have the room to live up to its potential.
How can you tell if your wonderful card isn't working out? Playtesting. Remember to judge your card not just on its own merits but in how it plays when you play it with the set you want to include it in. If the card lacks synergy or plays clunky or possibly doesn't even get played, that's a big clue that perhaps the right thing to do with your cool design is to put it aside and wait for a future set that it will serve better.
This is a particularly hard problem for novice card designers because they have no promise of seeing a set beyond the first one they work on. But if your goal is to make your set the best it can be, you have to be willing to let individual cards, no matter how great they are, go. It's one of the toughest things in creative works to do—kill something you love. But if a set can live without it, if it's not enhanced by its inclusion, keeping it in undercuts the rest of your set.
The Warrior's Mistake—You Can't Fight For Everything
The lead designer's job doesn't end when the set is handed over from design to development. It is his or her responsibility to look over development's shoulder and make sure that none of the changes being made to the set are destroying the vision. Be aware that it is development's job to be a second set of eyes and it's going to be aggressive in making the set the best it can be.
This means development might change mechanics or add mechanics or subtract mechanics. Cards will be pulled and switched. Color associations may be changed. A lot can shift. The trick for the designer, though, is learning what actually matters. A very common mistake for a designer's first lead is to try and protect every design decision. Obviously, the designers thought long and hard about each decision made, so if even a single change is attempted, they are very protective. This mindset is dangerous and will lead to a less successful set.
Here's why. Not every decision the lead designer made is correct. One of the reasons we have two different teams handle a set is that the development team comes in with a fresh perspective. It does not have the preconceptions that the design team picked up during design. For example, the design team might have reached a decision about something and then the set changed, making the earlier decision no longer valid. When you are so close to something, it's hard to always have the vantage point you need to understand these types of changes.
On the flip side, as the lead designer, you are going to understand the set in ways that the development team will not. It is your vision. Things that are obvious to you might not be to the development team. That is why it's crucial for you to be involved. The trick here is separating your biases that came from working on the set from your vision that needs to guide it.
The metaphor I like to use is that you are the architect. The development team is going to come in and restructure your building. You know where the bearing walls are, though. For those unaware of construction, a bearing wall is a wall that the house needs to support itself to stand. Remove a bearing wall and the whole house will collapse. You, as the lead designer, need to know your bearing walls. What is the key to your design that will make it collapse if the development team removes it?
Fight every change and you are robbing the set of the improvement that development will bring (and you'll create a lot of conflict). Fight none of the changes and the set could collapse because the foundation of the vision wasn't maintained. The key is to figure out what really matters and step in when that is threatened.
The lead developer is interested in hearing from the lead designer especially if you are very careful about your feedback. When something is changed, step back and examine whether it's for the best. All change is not bad. In fact, a good development team will find ways to improve upon the ideas of design. The last thing you want to do is interfere with development making your set better.
"Salt Makes Mistakes Taste Great"
It was fun getting back into the classroom. Today's tips were a little higher up than some of the previous columns, but I hope you enjoyed the different vantage point. As always, I am eager to hear your thoughts on the lessons I brought up today. You can email me, respond in the thread, or respond on any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+).
Join me next week for this year's State of Design column.
Until then, may you always continue to learn.
Drive to Work #47—Lessons Learned, Part 4
So a bread truck overturned on the freeway and I ended up with my longest podcast ever at 51 minutes. Luckily, I was on my fourth episode of my Lessons Learned metaseries, where I examined what I learned from each design I led and had plenty to talk about.
- Episode 47 : Lessons Learned, Part 4 (17.7 MB)
- Episode 46 : Instants and Sorceries (12.9 MB)
- Episode 45 : Meet My Dad (10.0 MB)
- Episode 44 : Making Magic (11.8 MB)
- Episode 43 : Mirage, Part 3 (12.5 MB)
- Complete Drive To Work Podcast Archive