The first mini-article is called "New" and it explains mechanically what we look for when we try to advance an already-existing mechanic. Read "New" here.
The second mini-article is called "Improved." It talks about the first time I tried to bring back a keyword mechanic and the exploration of new design space I went through. Read "Improved" here.
If you so desire, you can fuse these two articles together and read "New & Improved" here.
Once upon a time, R&D thought of mechanics as existing in one of two categories. There were evergreen mechanics (flying, first strike, etc.) that were available to every set and got used most of the time, and there were disposable mechanics that would show up for a set—and later a block, once we established blocks—and then go away, never to be seen again.
With time, R&D's perspective changed. R&D started to understand that design space was a finite resource and we didn't have the luxury to just toss ideas away. Also, R&D realized there was some excitement that could be generated by bringing back old mechanics. They could actually be a draw to a new set. But this realization didn't happen overnight. It came about because there were practical problems to an actual set that forced R&D to reconsider some assumptions it had formerly made.
Once R&D decides to bring back an old mechanic, one of the first issues we have to explore is what design space there is to expand upon. How do you find that new space? And how do you know when what you find should be used? Today's column is going to explore these issues.
So let's hop into the time machine and head back to the design of Onslaught. Development was about to start and the set was still missing a mechanic. Onslaught already had its tribal theme and morph but we knew the set needed a spell mechanic, as the first two items rested heavily on creatures. Bill Rose, currently the vice president of R&D but at the time the head designer, asked my opinion of what should go there. After some thought, I said it needed a "cycling-like mechanic." That is, I felt we needed a mechanic that lived on spells and helped with general card flow.
Usually, when I'm trying to think of something, I get the idea in my head and let it percolate for a while. So that evening, while going about my business, some part of my brain was trying to come up with a "cycling-like mechanic." The next day I marched into Bill's office and said, "I got it. You know what's an awesome cycling-like mechanic? Cycling."
Be aware that at that point we had brought back unnamed mechanics. The "pitch" mechanic from Alliances (Force of Will being the most famous example), for instance, was brought back in Mercadian Masques, and cantrips seemed to show up every other block. We had never brought back a named, non-evergreen keyword mechanic, though. The idea of bringing back cycling was controversial.
I talked it over with the rest of R&D and the following agreement was reached. We could bring back cycling if and only if we had a new enough spin on it. It couldn't just come back; it had to reinvent itself.
The first question I always ask when looking for new design space of a returning mechanic is how much of its potential has it used up? Another way to think of it is this: imagine a meter that they use for fundraising that starts at 0% of the goal and ends at 100%. If the meter measures the total design space of the mechanic, how much percentage has been used? How high has the red filled up the meter?
I always say the best place to start searching for new designs is in the most obvious place. Yes, it's creative to find a hammer in a candy store, but how about starting by looking in a hardware store? As I like saying, "You don't look outside the box until you've established you can't do it with what's inside the box."
One of the biggest reasons I felt cycling was the ideal first keyword mechanic to return is that we had not used most of its potential the first time through. In fact, we had done something a bit strange when you take into account that we weren't planning to use the mechanic after the Urza's Saga block. When making the keyword, we added a number after it that specified the cost. Every single cycling card in the block was "cycling ."
Of course, that was the first place I went to when looking for new design space. We could make cards with a cost other than . We could make cycling cards with colored mana. My first attempt at selling the sexiness of this change was the common cycling lands that ended up in Onslaught.
Bill's response was "That's great. Of course we'll have different cycling costs, but I was talking about a little more substantial change."
The next step in exploring a mechanic's design space is to take a step back and figure out what the mechanic is trying to do. Usually, when designing cards, you need to get micro to examine what the mechanic is doing at a card-by-card level, but I find when you want to understand what design space you've mined, you need to get macro and pull back to be able to examine the mechanic with some emotional distance. The key to expanding design space is understanding the core of what the mechanic is up to.
I went home that night intent on figuring out what cycling was really about. After much thought, it was clear: cycling is a mechanic about choice, about options. Basic cycling allows you to choose when you want to keep a card and when you want to trade it in, but the specifics of the choice weren't as important as the framework. Your card can do thing A or you may spend mana while the card is in your hand to get a different effect—that is, to do thing B.
It's important to remember that decisions previously made about the mechanic do not have to tie you down. This is why you want to see the big picture. You have to examine not what the mechanic does but what it could do. Remember that you choose to bring a mechanic back because it serves your set. Your set gets to come first. The returning mechanic shouldn't be calling the shots of your new design.
Once I saw cycling as a choice mechanic, I realized the next step was to figure out a different choice for the player to make. I toyed with taking away the card draw but decided the card draw was an iconic part of the mechanic. Instead of replacing the draw, I would add to it.
Keep in mind that mechanics are just as iconic as creatures. There is always something about the mechanic that defines how the audience perceives it. When tweaking the mechanic to find new design space, be careful that you don't strip from the mechanic the very quality that most defines it.
In addition, keep in mind that the goal of finding new design space is making it feel like an extension of the original version of the mechanic. Just because a mechanic physically can do something is not reason enough to do it.
"Okay," I said to myself, "What's the next most obvious thing you would want to trade in the card for?"
Interestingly, the card drawing kept pulling my attention. I knew it had to stay, as it was so identified with the mechanic, but how could I have an effect and card drawing and not have those two things feel disconnected? The answer turned out to be a simple mechanic we do most sets—cantrips. For those who might not be up on your R&D slang, "cantrips" are cards with small effects that draw a card when you play them.
What if you could trade in your spell for a smaller cantrip version?
A good test I have when I'm not sure if my new design space is organic enough to the mechanic it's enhancing is to show it to a Magic player without being labeled. I see if that player perceives it as an extension or a brand-new mechanic.
I showed my "cantrip cycling" cycle to Bill. His response was, "That's a good first step. What else do you have?"
Another good place to go when looking for new design space is to flip the approach on its ear. Instead of asking what your mechanic can do, ask what other cards can do with your mechanic. One of the advantages to having a keyword is that other cards can mechanically reference it. I should note that ability words (which look like keywords but are in italics and are followed by an em-dash—battalion is a recent example) cannot be referenced in rules text. Why? That's just how the rules work.
The next big step came when I asked myself, "What would a cycling deck looked like?"
I've talked before about two terms we use, linear and modular (spelled out in length in this article).A linear card, or mechanic, is one that behooves you to use other specific cards with it. An example would be Master of the Pearl Trident from Magic 2013 . In order to use it, you need to have other Merfolk in your deck. A modular card, or mechanic, is one that stands on its own and doesn't require any other card be used with it.
Cycling is a modular mechanic. If you like any random cycling card you can just plunk one of it in your deck. Its inclusion doesn't make you want to have other cards; not even other cycling cards. In my attempt to discover new design space, I decided to think about what a linear cycling deck would look like. What would make players put a lot of cycling cards into their decks?
That thought led directly to this card:
Usually, a good sign that you are expanding into interesting territory is that the new cards make the player want to build a different kind of deck with the mechanic than he or she did with the old cards. This both expands how the mechanic will get used and helps with the perception that the mechanic has changed in a fundamental way.
Lightning Rift was the thing that finally got Bill to give cycling in Onslaught his blessing, but my job wasn't done yet. New cycling costs and small cycling effects and cards that cared about cycling—that was all going into Onslaught. I still had to give some thought to what cycling was going to do in the second two sets. Luckily, after spending this much time thinking about cycling and all its permutations, I had a few ideas.
Another good place to look for design expansion is to other mechanics in the same set or block. Often, in design, we will look for design space where multiple mechanics merge or for space that plays well independently of the mechanics. As I noted above, remember to think of the mechanic not just as the cards it appears on but the overall impact of the mechanic on the set as a whole.
One of my ideas was to mix cycling with one of the block's major mechanical themes—tribal. For those unaware, Onslaught was the first block with a major focus on creature types (Beast, Cleric, Elf, Goblin, Soldier, Wizard, and Zombie, in particular), what R&D refers to as tribal. Cycling can go on any card type, meaning that it easily works on creatures.
The idea I had was to mimic what I called above "cantrip cycling" cards, but instead of putting cycling on spells and then having the cycling trigger a small version of the spell, this cycle of cards went on creatures and then produced a tribal effect tied to the creature type of the card. This would allow tribal decks to have cards that could double either as a creature, to support the tribe, or as a spell.
Here is the cycle that appeared in Legions (note that I had help on this cycle of cards from the lead designer of Legions, Mike Elliott):
The trick to merging two different mechanics is understanding the essence of what each one is about and then finding the Venn Diagram where they overlap.
The cycle worked because it both captured the essence of cycling, the ability to have options and trade a card in for something different, and the essence of tribal, finding a mechanical connection to the flavorful desire of putting like creatures in the same deck. The fact that cycling allowed the card to double both as a creature of the appropriate type and as a spell that cared about that type played to both mechanics' strengths.
The final trick I'm going to talk about today requires you to look not at what hasn't been designed yet but rather what has. Sometimes the key to finding new design space is to just look at the work you've already done to see if you managed to find new space while not even looking for it.
The last new take on cycling in the Onslaught block came about because Brian Tinsman, the lead designer of Scourge, was attempting to solve a completely different problem. Brian needed to find an elegant solution for mana fixing. He came up with this idea: What if there were some expensive cards that you could trade in for a basic land of the appropriate type? That way, early game when you couldn't cast the creature you could always trade it in for mana, but later in the game when you had plenty of mana, you could cast the large creature.
Brian's original idea was that you would exile the creature and then get a basic land from outside the game. That execution had a bunch of issues ranging from developmental ones to concerns with the tournament floor rules. In the end, Brian decided to just let you get the basic land from your deck a la our normal land-searching in green.
This is the point where I came into the story. I liked the mechanic but, as I looked at it, I saw something. The mechanic allowed you to spend two mana and discard a card in your hand to get an extra card out of your library. To me, that just screamed cycling. So I convinced Brian that the mechanic would feel more intertwined into the block if we changed the mechanic to basic-landcycling (swampcycling, mountaincycling, etc.). The fact that the block already had cards like Lighting Rift that cared about cycling made it click in nicely.
Here's what Brian came up with:
A secondary reason for wanting to take other mechanics and absorb them into the mechanic you are trying to expand is that it condenses and simplifies the set and block as a whole. As I've talked about with New World Order, part of simplifying the process is bunching things together so players have fewer different chunks of thought to process.
I was a bit frustrated that Bill kept pushing back on what new exploration of cycling was enough to bring it back, but I feel the exercise taught me a lot about what went into finding new mechanical space for an existing mechanic. Lessons I've used to bring back and expand many mechanics over the years.
If you follow the lessons I've laid out above, you too will be able to expand upon your own mechanics.
That's all I have for today. I hope you enjoyed my romp through the expansion of cycling.
Join me next week when I look at Dragon's Maze in a whole new light.
Join me next week when I examine what isn't there.
Until then, may you be on the lookout for something new
Until then, may you have stories from a different view.
Return to Introduction
Drive to Work #32—Future Sight, Part 1
During the Rosewater Rumble, only one set led to two upsets—Future Sight. Today, I talk about the design of this somewhat controversial set.
- Episode 32 : Future Sight, Part 1 (10.5 MB)
- Episode 31 : Lessons I've Learned, Part 2 (10.4 MB)
- Episode 30 : Lessons I've Learned, Part 1 (9.49 MB)
- Episode 29 : Creatures (9.57)
- Episode 28 : Planar Chaos (10.7 MB)