One of the side effects of having written over three hundred fifty columns is that I've touched upon this topic not once but twice. During Onslaught previews in an article entitled Cycling Cycling, I revealed that we were bringing back cycling and I explained why we reprint mechanics. Then three years later in an article titled Once More With Feeling, I wrote a design column about the importance of repetition. I now take you to my shoulders, where the little Angel Mark and the little Devil Mark have a conversation.
Devil Mark: It's Reprint Week. He has two excellent articles already written on the topic. To not simply reprint one or both of the articles is just spitting in the theme's face.
Angel Mark: The next two weeks are reprint articles. Two of the last three weeks were basically expanded reprint articles. The audience expects something new.
Devil Mark: Come on, Mark loves meta. A reprint article as a means to explain reprints.
Angel Mark: Mark also likes making his readers happy.
Devil Mark: The first article's from 2002. That's six years ago. How many readers have been reading this column for six years?
Angel Mark: More than you might think. Plus, some of the new readers go back and read the archives.
Devil Mark: You know how punchy he gets when he stays up late writing the articles. Mark needs his sleep.
Angel Mark: This isn't about Mark getting his sleep. You don't care if Mark is tired. He's more susceptible that way. You like him groggy. This is about avoiding work. If you reprint it, then Mark doesn't have to write it.
Devil Mark: Fine, two birds, one stone. What's your point?
Angel Mark: Between all the color interviews and the previews, Mark hasn't had many meaty design columns during the last part of the year. This could be his chance to go out of 2008 with a bang.
Devil Mark: Or Mark could do an offbeat column explaining how he uses photos of Sports Illustrated swimsuit models to inspire his card design.
Angel Mark: He doesn't do that.
Devil Mark: He could. You know how Mark loves his restrictions. What kind of a common red instant is inspired by a string bikini?
Angel Mark: Why do I talk to you?
Devil Mark: You act like boosting his hits is such a bad thing. Plus, the graphics are a gimme.
Angel Mark: Mark, write a new column about reprints.
So, after some thought, I've decided to write a brand new article about why we reprint cards. Since I've covered why we reprint mechanics and why we do similar things year after year (and if you haven't read the two columns I'm talking about and remotely care about the theme, I strongly suggest you read them—I felt Once More With Feeling was so good I made it my #2 pick for 2005) I thought I'd use today's column to talk specifically about why we reprint cards. That is, why do we use cards that have appeared previously in older sets into newer sets?
Before I start explaining why, let me first define some important terminology. When I talk about reprints, there are a couple of different types:
#1) Exact reprint – This is a card that has the same name (and thus the same Oracle rules text) as the previous version. An example of this category is the card Oblivion Ring. We printed it in Lorwyn and then reprinted it in Shards of Alara.
#2) Flavor reboot reprint – This is a card with a different name but all the same rules text. We chose to reprint the card but change up its flavor. The card plays functionally identical (and has the same Oracle rules text) with the sole exception that the names is different for things that care (i.e. you can play eight copies in Legacy, Meddling Mage would stop one but not the other, etc.). An example of this category is Battle Strain. The card, which appeared in Odyssey, first showed up in Stronghold with the name Heat of Battle.
#3) Creature type shift reprint – This is like the last category except that it was a creature and part of its creative reboot involved changing the creature type, which does change the card's functionality. An example of this category is Viridian Shaman. The card, which appeared in Mirrodin, is a reprint of Vision's Uktabi Orangutan except that the Ape was turned into a much more useful (for card interaction purposes) Elf Shaman.
#4) Template shift reprint – This is a reprint that is very close to identical, but some change in global templating philosophy has forced the template to differ from the original template and thus the new card works slightly differently. Due to this subtle mechanical difference, the card is given a new name. An example would be Barren Glory. The card from Future Sight is a near reprint of Unglued's The Cheese Stands Alone but because of the slight shift in templating, the two cards care differently when you have to have an empty hand and board to win. The Cheese Stands Alone triggers any time you meet the conditions, but Barren Glory matches up with every other black-bordered "you win the game" enchantment and triggers on your upkeep. (And okay, the creative team might not have wanted a black-bordered card called The Cheese Stands Alone.)
Also, here are some things that I consider tweaks and not reprints:
#1) Change in mana cost – A card that is becomes .
#2) Change in color – A card that costs becomes .
#3) Change in card type – An instant becomes a sorcery.
#4) Change in size of the effect – Mana cost remains the same but the effect changes in size.
#5) Addition of new mechanic – A card gains additional rules text.
#6) Card gains/loses cantrip – The card is identical except that it does or doesn't say "Draw a card."
In essence, here's how I separate reprints from tweaks. A reprint is trying as best it can to be as close as possible to the original. I allow some creative shifts because for the most purposes it has very little impact on the functioning of the mechanic of the card. Tweaks, on the other hand, are attempts to take a design and change it in some fundamental way. There is a fine argument that says that creature type shift reprints are in fact tweaks as they introduce a true change in how the card functions. R&D has discussed this at great length and we generally believe that flavor shifting doesn't have a huge impact on the card's function. Even changing the card from an irrelevant creature type to a relevant one only tends to matter in formats where we've recently pushed a tribal theme. For better or worse, I'm grouping the creature type shift in with the reprints.
"It's like I'm looking into a mirror."
Now that the terminology is out of the way, let's talk reprints.
Someday My Reprints Will Come
All right, you crack open your brand new pack and run across one of the four types of reprints I listed above. Why is it there? Why did R&D refuse to make a new card instead?
#1 – Our End Goal Is Not Innovation. This was a point I hit upon earlier in the year. R&D's chief goal is not to push innovation. Our chief goal is to make the game as enjoyable as it can be. (Okay, technically, our chief goal is to sell cards, but R&D accomplishes this task by making the game as enjoyable as it can be, thus encouraging all of you to want to buy it.) To achieve this, we need to take whatever steps necessary to make the set as a whole play as well as it can, both with itself and with all the cards that came before. Thus, when we are trying to solve a problem, reprints are a valuable tool. We understand them, as there has been substantial "beta testing" (what some of you might call "selling the product to the customers"), meaning that we have a good sense of their power level and how they interact with other types of cards.
#2 – We Can Find the Most Efficient Version. While Magic has significant design space, its simple design space is actually quite small. There are a limited number of basic things cards can do. Fifteen years in, odds are we've found most of them (but not all—and finding those gems is very thrilling for a designer). This means when we're trying to find a card to fit into a set, odds are that they cleanest, simplest, most direct version has already been done. Sometimes that's exactly what we want to use. This isn't to say that tweaks can't often fill this role, but part of making Magic stand up to the test of time is the willingness to pluck cards from throughout time to build it.
#3 – The Players Know The Card. In Cycling Cycling (one of the required reading from above) I talked about how one of the big shifts in R&D's thought on reprints came about when we realized that if we handle our reprinting carefully that returning cards could actually excite players. Why? Because humans crave familiarity (I talked about this quite a bit in Once More With Feeling, the other required reading). People like it when things they once knew come back. It's like an old friend popping up. In general, it creates a positive experience. (Well, it has to be a "friend" you liked in the first place.)
#4 – The Players Understand the Card. Another problem that R&D is always facing is complexity creep. When you keep adding new facets to the game, there is the constant problem of the game becoming more complex over time (this is a fine topic for a future column, by the way). Reprints come with yet another huge bonus. The players already know what the cards do. When a reprint pops up, it doesn't tax the audience (well, at least those who recognize the card—for the rest, for all intents and purposes, it is a new card).
#5 – Conservation of Design Space. Why not make a new card whenever possible? Because new cards come with a cost. Design space is finite. The faster we chew through new content, the less that remains. There are not an endless numbers of simple tweaks. Sometimes rather than reinvent the wheel, we just use the wheel.
Reprints Among Men
For all the reasons above, R&D has made a conscious effort in recent years (there was a small time that we strayed from these beliefs) to keep a certain threshold of reprints in the sets. Knowing that we're on the lookout for good reprints, how exactly can we best use them?
#1 – Use Them to Show Contrast. When I designed Mirrodin, I very consciously reprinted Shatter and Terror. Why? Because Shatter had a reputation of being a weak, underpowered card while Terror was a Limited monster (which occasionally saw constructed play). But I knew in the environment we were crafting that Shatter would be the better Limited card (the huge percentage of artifacts both increased Shatter's range and decreased Terror's). The reprints allowed me, in a high profile way, to stress that the environment was different. It didn't function like blocks of the past. Here you would have to reevaluate what you knew. This category of reprints doesn't tend to upset players as the reprints bring with them very different game play.
#2 – Use Them to Make Players See an Old Card in a New Light. This category is similar to the last one. The difference is that the inclusion of the reprint isn't to show how different things are but rather to make players rethink about a card they know. In Odyssey, for example, we used a rather unknown Tempest card called Patchwork Gnomes. In a set so focused on the graveyard, Patchwork Gnomes' discard ability completely changed the focus of what the card was about. In Tempest, the focus was on the regeneration, while in Odyssey it was all about the discard. As with the last category, players in general are receptive to this kind of reprint.
#3 - Use Them to Bring Back Popular Old Cards. Another fine use of reprints is to find relevant cards of the past that fit the set's theme. Invasion, for example, allowed us to bring back a player favorite for Tempest, the multicolored Lobotomy. This category of reprints also makes players happy because they get to revisit favorite cards from the past.
#4 – Fill a Hole With the Cleanest, Simplest Version. One of the most common reasons to reprint a card is that the reprint does the job better than any other card we can create. There's a famous story that Woody Allen was trying to cast a part that was labeled as a "Daryl Hannah-like actress." Daryl Hannah heard about it and asked if she could play the part. Woody Allen agreed because obviously, no one was going to play a Daryl Hannah-like actress better than Daryl Hannah herself. The same scenario pops up a lot in design. We need a Naturalize-like card. What better to fill that role than Naturalize? This category creates mixed feelings with the public. These type of cards are ones that we've used quite often, and as such there is often some feeling of "Couldn't you just tweak this effect like you do in most sets?"
#5 – Use Them to Keep Things Simple. Often in R&D we talk about "complexity points." The idea is that any one set gets to only be so complicated before it lessens the overall experience. The concept of "complexity points" is to remind us that complexity has a saturation point. Each piece of complexity has to be measured against what the set is doing as a whole. Often a reprint is brought in because the rest of the set has used up our complexity points and we want to finish out the set with simple cards if we can. This is the category of reprints that most riles up a subset of players. The game isn't too complex for them, and thus they see any movement towards simplicity as a hostile act. While this topic is worthy of a whole column (and one day I'll write it), complexity is not synonymous with quality. Complexity for the sake of complexity seldom adds value to a game. Far more often, it actively damages it.
Reprints of Thieves
It's interesting to me how many different emotions reprints seem to evoke. They can make players happy or sad, angry or confused. I can get letters thanking me for returning an old favorite or condemning me for wasting cardboard. My goal with today's article was to point out that to R&D, reprints are a valuable tool that we actively strive to use, and are seldom an afterthought.
That's all I got for 2008. I'll be back next year with new content, including the first look at Conflux.
Until then, I hope you take some time to reread a few things. (Oh, and have a Happy Holidays.)