The topic of today's column? Fun. I spent some time thinking about how to talk about fun and realized I should do it in a fun manner. (My article Elegance already tried being an article that wasn't what it was preaching—check out my column An Elegant Response to see what I was up to.) As I've explained before (in An Elegant Response no less) I tend to write down ideas for columns and then wait for the right place to use them. The technique I'm going to demonstrate today was one of those things I wanted to show off but I didn't know the topic. When I was trying to think of something fun to do, this idea popped up.
So what am I up to today? I'm going to talk about fun but I'm going to do so using a cool tool called a face-off. The idea of a face-off is this. Things are hard to judge in isolation. For example, imagine I took a person and photographed them against a white background. Then I ask you whether they are tall. It would be hard to answer. Now, I photograph two people against a white background and ask you who is taller. Much easier.
This basic principle is known as contrast. Humans have an easier time judging things in context of other things, especially on things that are more subjective in nature. This is an important tool for design because often when you are trying to understand something, it is easier when you use contrast as a means to help you understand how you quantify things. The point of a face-off is that you take things that are in the category you are examining and you pit them against one another. Who wins and who loses isn't really the point. The reason you contrast them is that the decision of why one tops the other helps you understand what you value in the concept you are examining.
Today I am going to do a face-off with Magic cards. The concept I'm going to be judging against is fun. Which card do I think is more fun for the game of Magic? Let me stress that I am going to be examining what I feel is more fun. This is super-subjective, so please be aware that what I am saying is in no way definitive—it is just me voicing my opinion. The act of forcing me to judge things against each other will make me evaluate what things I feel are important about the topic and let all of you see what the Head Designer of Magic thinks is fun. For this column I will examine what I find fun by walking through the exercise of using a face-off. For added fun, I'm even going to let all of you do the face-off exercise for each pair to see which card wins when all of you give your input. (I'll talk about the results from all of you in Part II.)
Face-offs work best when you have a number that is a power of two. I've chosen 32. (If you want, think of this as a single-elimination tournament.) I got the 32 cards in question by asking my twitter followers (I'm @maro254 for those who want to follow me) to name what they thought was the most fun card in all of Magic. I'm using the first 32 answers I received for the face-off. I'm also using the order I received them for seeding.
And We're Off
To start with, here are the thirty-two cards to face-off today:
1. Goblin Spelunkers
2. Pyromancer Ascension
3. Goblin Game
4. Gifts Ungiven
6. Warp World
7. Phantom Nishoba
8. Elvish Promenade
9. Doubling Season
11. Ink-Treader Nephilim
13. Fact or Fiction
14. Booster Tutor
15. Endless Whispers
16, Stuffy Doll
19. Ball Lightning
22. Day of the Dragons
24. Chain Lightning
25. Chaos Confetti
27. Thieves' Auction
28. Grizzly Bears
30. Pools of Becoming
Remember that each of these cards was selected because one of my Twitter followers felt it was the "most fun card in all of Magic."
And here is how the bracket looks:
As the point of this exercise is to use it to highlight how one thinks about the topic, I am going to go through each match-up and explain my reasoning for which card I chose as being more fun. I will then examine what that decision says about my concepts of fun. Note that I will go through the first round today, the initial sixteen match-ups, and the remaining four rounds in Part 2 in two weeks (next week is a theme week). That said, on with the fun-off!
Round of 32
I'm guessing that Goblin Spelunkers was chosen almost exclusively for its flavor, as a 2/2 mountainwalk is on the blander side mechanically. Shahrazad was picked as it is one of the more offbeat cards in all of Magic. As far as I'm concerned this match-up isn't close—Shahrazad should pummel Goblin Spelunkers.
Now comes the point of this whole exercise. Why? Well, the fun of Goblin Spelunkers rests on the novelty of its card concept. While humorous, this concept is always going to be the same, meaning its novelty will decrease with time. Shahrazad's fun rests mostly on the strange interactions it creates with its game play. These interactions will always be different so Shahrazad should do much better maintaining its level of fun. The lesson: fun game play will tend to trump fun creative. (As you will see below, a proper mix of the two is the most fun.)
We go from an easy match-up to a very hard one. Both cards play off of nostalgia, Stuffy Doll referring to a creature that showed up in the art of a number
Stuffy Doll has the advantage that most games you draw it you'll actually be able to play it. Gleemax's fun comes from trying to overcome a daunting challenge. When you actually do it and get the card onto the battlefield, you should be pretty giddy. I guess I'll side with the card that you actually get to use more, but it was a tough choice. The lesson from this face-off is that toys are more fun when you actually get to play with them.
This match-up is interesting in that the two cards are fun for very different reasons. Doubling Season is all about taking a facet players like about the game—tokens and counters—and increasing it. Chain Lightning is about a card that creates a fun singular event. Doubling Season leads to a "guess what I did" story, while Chain Lightning leads to a "guess what happened" story.
Chain Lightning might have had a chance against a lesser opponent, but it's up against one of the fun powerhouses of all time. The lesson here is that a card that can create many instances of fun will most often trump the card that can make a fun thing happen once. (There are exceptions to this, of course.)
This match-up is oddly about Chaos Confetti fighting itself. Elvish Promenade is a fun card in that players like token making and Elf tribal decks but it's not enough unto itself to override the wackiness that is Chaos Confetti. That said, Chaos Confetti brings with it its own baggage. Sprinkling bits of card all over your opponent's side of the table, destroying all their cards in the process, is a cool memorable moment. Unfortunately it only comes after ripping up your card. Market research on Unglued showed that this was the least popular of all the mechanics in the set. Players, it seems, don't find destroying your own cards fun.
The real question in this match-up is does Chaos Confetti beat random unseen card? When I made Unglued I hoped it did. Having now seen all the feedback from the players, I have to say I don't think it does. The lesson here is that no matter how fun something is, it doesn't undo things that are actively unfun. Fun + unfun = unfun for most players.
One side of a fun card is that it leads to stories that players get to share with one another. Cheatyface is definitely a story-making card. It has some frustrating aspects for the other player, but unlike Chaos Confetti, its fun doesn't come at the expanse of the person who is supposed to be having fun. (Note that any card that effectively helps one person has the potential to annoy the opponent.) This isn't much a match-up because the other card seemed to get in based solely on nepotism. I think the person who suggested Grizzly Bears had lots of fun associations with his early times playing Magic (and the original flavor text probably didn't hurt).
So yes, Grizzly Bears has some nostalgia on its side, but that's not much to go on in the fun department so this fight is fairly uneven. The lesson for me here, though, is to remember that different players find fun in very different places.
Both Snakeform and Mindslaver are cards that remove something from your opponent. Snakeform makes their best creature a vanilla 1/1, while Mindslaver takes away their free will for a turn. Both can be fun to play, yet both can be frustrating to have played against you. The biggest difference between the two is that one tends to generate more stories and have more variety in play.
The lesson here is that the ability to generate variety often helps a card be more fun. Also, griefing your opponent (slang for making them have to do things they don't want) while fun in the shor trun, has the potential to become unfun in the long run.
Fact or Fiction's fun comes from its variety of game play plus its ability to let player's make choices. Shocker's fun comes from its ability to create randomness and thus unpredictability. That said, this is another not-close match-up in my mind. Shocker has its moments, but not as consistently as Fact or Fiction.
The lesson here is that choices are a big part of what makes things fun in Magic. Randomness also has a role, but behind choice.
Our first real psychographic battle. Gifts Ungiven is a fun Spike card in that it gives the player a lot of choices and the need to pick four different cards can at times lead to some variance (although to be fair, when Spike plays this card there's a lot less variance than when Timmy or Johnny play it). Radiate is a fun Timmy card in that it creates splashy memorable moments, especially in multiplayer games.
So who wins this match-up? It's a close call, but my gut says that Radiate has created more stories and more "everyone is screaming" moments. The fact that another popular Spike fun card, Fact or Fiction, just won in the other bracket makes me feel a little better to send Gifts Ungiven packing. This one is close though and I could easily see it going to other way on a different day.
Fork Training vs. Sheep Man—who will win? These are both fun cards but for very different reasons. Pyromancer Ascension is all about completing a challenge. Ovinomancer just does something silly: turning creatures into sheep (although to be fair, it's a practical silly thing). Both cards can be quite fun.
I believe the thing that pushes me in the direction I choose is flavor. Both are mechanically cool, but one is more flavorfully fun. The reason this differs from Goblin Spelunkers is that on that card, the fun of the creative didn't seep into the mechanic as it does on Ovinomancer. Fun creative intertwined with fun mechanic goes a long way to make a card have extra fun value.
Endless Whispers creates an odd environment that changes how players have to think. Counterspell is a surprise that makes the game zig when the opponent thought it would zag. While I can see the fun that Counterspell provides its caster, it gets seriously marked down for the fun on the other side of the table. One of the major reasons we've weakened counterspells overall is that the player feedback is pretty clear—it's not fun when you never get to resolve your spells. Kind of like Chaos Confetti, Counterspell loses more than Endless Whispers wins.
Another psychographic battle, this time Johnny's beloved Cytoshape against Timmy's beloved Overrun. Cytoshape has variety and cleverness on its side. Overrun has bluntness and a big effect on its side. This is another close call. I should point out that the close calls are the most important in this exercise, as they force you to figure out what you prioritize.
After much thought (and it's hard, as I have such a strong pull towards Johnny cards), I think I'm going to side with Cytoshape. My reasoning is that Overrun mostly just ends the game, and while the raw emotion of it is exciting, I feel like the thrill has to diminish over time. Your hundredth Overrun cannot be as fun as your first. Cytoshape, though, has variety helping it out. Your most exciting Cytoshape moment could happen at any time with any Cytoshape you cast. The lesson here is that part of what makes something fun is not knowing what is going to happen when the card goes into your deck.
This match-up is hard because neither card really stands out for me. Phantom Nishoba's fun comes at that the card simply refuses to die. Fecundity's fun comes at the fact that every death comes with a pleasant surprise. I'm not sure what to do here when neither card is speaking to me, so I'm going to side with Timmy ,as I sided with Johnny in the last match-up.
It's a battle of the "all our permanent are going away and then the wacky hijinx ensue" red sorceries. This match-up is tough in that both cards are a lot of fun, sort of the opposite of the last match-up. In the end, though, the decision is easy. No slight to Thieves' Auction, but it is up against one of the all-time most fun cards in Magic (based on player polling).
The lesson of these cards is that unpredictability can lead to a lot of fun. Also, radical change can also be very fun as long as it doesn't happen too often (one of the major reasons that both of these effects are sorceries and not constantly triggering enchantments).
Both these cards do big things. Ink-Treader Nephilim turns a Terror into a Damnation, while Day of the Dragons turns all of your creatures into Dragons. While previous reasoning says I should pick Ink-Treader Nephilim because it has more variety, my gut says go with Day of the Dragons.
Here's where face-offs start kicking in. Why does my gut go against the reasoning I've been assembling? The answer is that there's more to the issue of fun than I've pieced together yet. The reason I lean towards Day of the Dragons is how compelling the creative is. Ink-Treader Nephilim does something I have to work through to understand. Day of the Dragons just does something I get. That clarity of purpose and flavor has much fun-added value.
I'm a huge fan of Booster Tutor, because it is to me the pinnacle of what Un-design is all about (testing the boundaries of what the game can do). By allowing yourself to think in areas you don't normally you arrive at places that you might never go to. I personally believe we could print Booster Tutor in black-bordered Magic (I'm in the minority—the reason we haven't done it—although I did try hard to get it into Eighth Edition as the representative of Unglued). It has the randomness and variety that leads to many of our most fun cards. Ball Lightning, on the other hand, is much beloved and has become a card so iconic that we keep making variants of it.
Having played both cards many times, I don't find it all that close. Yes, Ball Lightning can have fun moments, but what makes it a great card is its play value not its sense of fun. Booster Tutor, on the other hand, tends to create a fun moment every time it's played. Part of this is the "breaking out the box" feel. Part of this is the surprise of what you will get. Part of it is the variety of impact the new card can have. When you play Booster Tutor, everyone is drawn into what will happen and that, to me, is quite fun.
The final match-up of this round is a doozy. An iconically wacky red sorcery versus the one Planechase planar card in the face-off—one with a meta-mechanic (an ability that depends upon other planar cards) no less. I'm honestly torn, so I'm going to make a symbolic choice. Planechase has been a move by Wizards to bring the fun of multiplayer more to the forefront, so I'll use my vote to make a nod towards this desire. This is another decision that could easily go the other way on another day.
Let's recap where our pairings stand:
Fun Fun Fun 'Til Her Daddy Takes the T-Bird Away
As you can see, this fun-off really forced me to examine what I think is fun. The contrast forced my hand and made me think about things that I might not normally have thought about. Be aware that a face-off can be used on any topic. The importance is that you pick the items to examine and the order they're paired against each other randomly, forcing you to create match-ups you would have consciously chosen. If used correctly, a face-off is a powerful tool to help understand how you see something.
In two weeks I will continue the fun-off. Until then, I'm giving you all a chance to play along. I will reveal the results in Part II.
Join me next week when you all get join me on an adventure.
Until then, may your match-ups provoke you.