Spin-Off We Go
Let's start at the very beginning. (I'm told it's the very best place to start.) What exactly is a spin-off? To explain, let me start by introducing a classic problem. You want to do a new thing, be it an entertainment vehicle, a game, a book, whatever. Here's a fundamental problem: Humans crave familiarity. We like what we already know. Humans also fear the unknown. The unknown is chock full of things that can kill us. How do you get humans to check out something new (a.k.a. unknown)? The answer is that you have the new thing use something known by the audience you're after. Perhaps you're using actors they know. Perhaps it is placed in a well-known setting or environment, or occurs during a well-known event. Or perhaps as a starting point you create something that already existed in a known quantity and moved it to your new thing.
A spin-off is when a new entity is created by taking an element of a known thing and giving it center stage. A classic example of a television spin-off was the show Frasier. For many years, Frasier Crane was a supporting character on the show Cheers. When Cheers ended, some of the writers created a new show centered around Fraiser. Fraisier was a brand-new show, but it had as its main character someone the audience was already familiar with. Yes, the show had a new setting and a new cast of supporting characters, but the audience walked in already invested in the main character's story. The unknown came packaged with something familiar.
While spin-offs show up just about everywhere from movies to books to games to songs to products, I'm going to focus today on two subsets, television and Magic. The first because it is probably the best known example of spin-offs and I happened to have some expertise on the topic. The second because this is a Magic design column and my readers rightfully expect some amount of Magic content.
Today I'm going to be talking about spin-off mechanics. I will define a spin-off mechanic as a keyword or ability word that riffs off of an existing keyword or ability word. The new mechanic refers to the old mechanic in some way, as it is building on top of it. It is taking the mechanic through some change substantial enough that it has warranted a new keyword / ability word.
It Takes Two
In television, there are three basic kinds of spin-offs. The first type is the kind where the writers take one or more existing characters on a show and create a new show around them. Frasier is a good example of this, as are Joey, Angel and Private Practice (spun off Friends, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Grey's Anatomy respectively). The second type of spin-off is where a new show captures the essence of an existing show following format and tone if not using actual characters or settings from the original show. CSI: [Name of City] and Law & Order: [Part of Legal/Police System] are examples of this type of spinoff.
There is a third type of spin-off that you don't see much anymore, but the purist in me feels obliged to mention it. The third type of spin-off is when a new show exists but rather than have it appear as a separate entity, the creators of the new show work it into their old show allowing the pilot (the name for the first show of a series) to exist as an episode of an existing show. One of the most famous examples of this happened on the show The Brady Bunch. One episode we meet friends of the Bradys who want to adopt a child, but when the go to the orphanage, they can't decide and end up adopting three different boys, all the same age but each of a different race. (How can the wacky hijinks not ensue?) This episode pops up from time to time in reruns and it sticks out like a sore thumb, because it's a Brady Bunch episode where the Brady Bunch shows up for about two minutes. (Making it stick out even more, the pilot was never picked up.)
I bring these three distinctions up because the methods of creating spin-offs on television is not that much different from how it's done in Magic. The first type of spin-off happens when a mechanic shows obvious extensions. The example I'll use for this is protection. Alpha introduced protection from each of the five colors (thanks to the lovely Wards and the two Knights).
At the time, protection only applied to colors, but it was very apparent that protection could be used to protect creatures from other attributes of cards, be it a card type (Angelic Curator), a subtype (Dragonstalker), or something of a bigger scale (Progenitus). Each of these was just a simple extension of the idea. These type of spin-offs happen pretty naturally in that the designers see a potential for an idea within a mechanic and then explore how to expand it. Note that these spin-offs require a name change, usually because the name explains what the mechanic does (such as protection or landwalk).
The second type of spin-off happens when the designers realize that an idea they are working on can be twisted to work similarly to an existing mechanic. The classic example of this was landcycling in Scourge.
When Brian Tinsman and his design team came up with the mechanic that would later be known as landcycling, it was in no way connected to cycling. The team had created it as a means to help with mana, as the set had a number of expensive cards they wanted to allow the players to actually cast. I pointed out to Brian that the mechanic could be executed as a variant of cycling. The essence of the mechanic was trading a card in your hand for a card in your library, just like cycling. I explained how it was similar and argued that in a block that had cycling (and more importantly cared about when other things cycled), we should try to connect them together. This is similar to how multikicker played out.
Do we ever do the third kind of spin-off? Not exactly although there is one thing we do that's kind of close. Sometimes if a designer has a mechanic idea they like but cannot get agreement on it from the rest of R&D, they'll create a single card that really shines and get it out in a set. The idea is that if the card gains enough traction perhaps it can be the thing we later spin-off. Also, every once in a while we'll preview an upcoming mechanic by showing you a tiny piece of it. Spike Drone from Tempest is a classic example of this.
Spin-Off Our Rocker
I've talked about what spin-off mechanics are. Let's dig into how we do them. What qualities must a mechanic have to be a spin-off mechanic?
1 – It Has to Be Similar Yet Do Something Different
For all the talk of similarity between kicker and multikicker, there is an important point to be made: multikicker does something kicker can't do. Kicker has two states – an unkicked state and a kicked state.
Multikicker has, if not an infinite state, at least a very large number of finite states.
In order to spin-off a mechanic first and foremost you have to be doing something that steps away from the original mechanic. If the original can do what the spin-off is doing then there's no need for the spin-off. The one corollary I'll add is that sometimes the original can do it but only in a clunky and/or texty way. When the spin-off can make the idea elegant in contrast to the original, that is also an acceptable time to spin-off.
2 - It Has to Play Different
From time to time we'll come up with a way to template one mechanic so it acts just like another mechanic. While it is entertaining from a puzzle solving perspective, we make a great effort to have each mechanic feel distinct. If Mechanic X is doing something well, there's no need for Mechanic Y if it covers no unique ground from Mechanic X. This ties into my long frustration with kicker in that it is so loosely defined that numerous other mechanics fit inside it.
An important part of deciding to spin something off is that the new design plays differently. Protection from instants has a different feel than protection from red. Plainscycling is distinct enough from cycling. So too, I feel, is multikicker from kicker. The big decision with kicker is always "now or later?" Do I cast the spell unkicked because I can and I want it now, or do I wait to get something better later? Multikicker is not about now or later. Most of the time when I play it, it's been about it being what I can get at the moment. Sure, I might prioritize playing other cards first, but multikicker isn't the "sit and wait" mechanic that kicker is. There is no end state. There is no moment to wait for. Multikicker shines because it's always usable when you need it.
Multikicker came about because I was looking for a mechanic that took advantage of all the extra lands that Zendikar makes you want to play. Kicker is okay in this regard, but it's no multikicker. Multikicker is a sponge that soaks up whatever mana you have ready. It was this distinctively different feel that made me sure that I wanted to spin it off.
3 – It Has to Be Grokable
For my non-Heinlein fans, grok is a term from his classic novel Stranger in a Strange Land. It means to understand something fully and intuitively—you don't just understand it, you "get" it. Spin-off mechanics need to have their difference be that understood. There has to be a simple one-line explanation of what's different. I've called multikicker "kicker without limits," but it's equally easy to say, "Multikicker is kicker you can kick as many times as you want."
One of the problems I've seen with spin-off mechanics in many designs is that they try to hard to push some change that isn't noticeable. If a player doesn't understand what's different about the spin-off right away, there's usually a problem.
4 – There Has to Be Design Space
Whenever you pitch a television series, one question you have to be ready for is "Are there one hundred stories to tell?" The number one hundred comes from the fact that this is roughly the number needed to syndicate a television series (that is, sell it to local television stations to play at a time of their choosing). You can strip it (Hollywood talk for playing it each weekday) for twenty weeks before having to cycle through it again.
The basic question is true for a new mechanic: "Are there one hundred cards to make?" (I use one hundred only for comparison; there are numerous mechanics in existence that couldn't be stretched to one hundred cards.) Design potential may not be something you all think about much, but it's something I have to think about constantly. Whenever we make a new keyword, I have to have a ballpark of how many cards a mechanic can deliver. (Maybe a topic for a future column?)
Why? Because We Like You
I talked about the what and the how. Let's get into the why. Why do we make spin-off mechanics?
1 – Give People More of What They Like
Why do spin-offs exist in television (or in any medium)? Because, as I explained above, humans prioritize familiarity. What are you more likely to check out, a random new television show or one spun off of a show you watch probably with a character or two you already know? Spinning off mechanics is no different. If you like kicker, there's a high percentage chance you'll like multikicker.
2 – Familiarity Eases Learning
One of the things we've been much more conscious of in the last few years is how easy something is to learn. I think our push toward resonance has been partly because we've realized that when you come to something new with some knowledge, it makes learning the new thing easier. This is also true with keywords. Multikicker is pretty easy to learn if you know kicker. In fact, notice how every description of multikicker is in terms of kicker. We didn't introduce it as a mechanic that's infinitely expandable. We called it kicker without limits.
3 – Design Space Is a Valuable Resource
When do you throw out a tub of ice cream? When you've eaten all the ice cream. You don't just scoop out a few scoops and toss it away. That's kind of how a mechanic works. We don't toss it away until we've scooped everything out of it we can. Be aware that to follow this metaphor, we don't eat all our ice cream the weekend we buy it. No, we put it back in the fridge so we can have some ice cream goodness on weekends to come. The point here is that there is little value from a design standpoint to throw away usable design space. Spin-off mechanics usually allow us to reach some adjacent area of design that the original brushed up against but couldn't access.
Innovate For Me
Which all brings us to the final point I'd like to talk about with spin-off mechanics. Some people have complained about multikicker that it isn't a new thing. While they are technically accurate in that multikicker is a riff of an old thing, rather than a new thing, I think they are missing an important point. Magic design is not a game of miles but a game of inches. A lot of people commented on last week's Nuts and Bolts column (on design skeletons) that our processes seem so constricting, as if we were draining all the potential out of the game. I feel the exact opposite is true.
Art requires tight structure. Why? Because it's that tight structure that defines the art. (Also, restrictions breed creativity.) Maybe it sounds mundane to have every set have a common Giant Growth–like spell, but it's that quality that helps define green and thus define the game. Magic constantly shifts what it is, but that is only possible because so much of the game stays in the same place. People need their familiarity.
Spin-off mechanics are a great way to introduce nuance in a way that fits into the preexisting structure. Multikicker, while being similar to kicker (in many of the ways that matter most, like comprehension), is not kicker. It plays differently. It makes you use it in different ways. It forces you to play your game around it in manners that kicker never did. Frasier was not Cheers. Multikicker is not kicker. To quote myself: You don't have to change much to change everything. Part of good design is finding ways to alter the game without disorienting the audience. Spin-off mechanics do this very well.
Should all mechanics be spin-offs? Of course not. The game will constantly go off and find new veins of design space. This just doesn't have to happen all the time. In fact, we've definitely reached the conclusion that what the majority of players look for most in expansions of a block is the furthering of the block's themes rather than blue-sky innovation. Because of this, spin-off mechanics are an important tool in our design arsenal.
That's all I got on spin-off mechanics. As always I'm up for any thoughts on my thoughts. Feel free to let me know what you think in this article's thread or my email or on Twitter (@maro254). An important point of this column is for me to get out principles behind our designs so that players can understand where we're coming from. An important part of understanding these principles comes from questioning them and working out why we do what we do. The very positive response to my Nuts & Bolts articles shows that many of you want to understand the nitty-gritty of Magic card design.
Join me next week when I have some fun.
Until then, may you multikick it up a notch.