Hello, everyone. Back in December, I wrote a two-part article all about variance and its role in game design. My intent was that it was going to be the last two articles before we took a break for the holidays. Apparently, I'm bad at counting, and I misjudged how many weeks I had left. This resulted in Part 1 being posted in December and Part 2 having to wait until all the previews and articles about Theros Beyond Death and Unsanctioned were finished. That took a while, so I heartily recommend you reread Part 1 before reading Part 2. Again, Iapologizefor the delay. I hope today's article will be worth the wait.
Back in December, I started talking about an important aspect of game design, something known as variance. I spent all last article walking through what variance was and why it can matter. (So, again, if you haven't read it, I urge you to do so before reading this week's article.) Today, I'm going to focus on how variance affects design and how design affects variance. Here are the lessons I've learned about variance from designing Magic for 24 years.
Lesson #1 – Variance makes games more exciting for all (okay, most) players
Part of what makes Magic so much fun is that games don't always play out the same. It's important for Magic designers to understand that variance is part of the secret sauce that makes Magic (and I would argue most other games) fun. Humans, within a place they feel comfortable, enjoy and crave surprise. They want to have things happen that they couldn't necessarily anticipate, especially in an activity where they're trying to mentally challenge themselves.
It's very easy to look at what I laid out last week and conclude that players who care about skill don't want variance. That's not true, though. Some of the Pro Tour's greatest moments came about because of a high-variance situation. For example, there's a very famous match between Pat Chapin and Gabriel Nassif in the semi-finals of the 2007 World Championships.
Chapin was up 2–1 (in a Best-of-Five match). Winning meant he would go to the finals. Chapin cast the card Ignite Memories and used storm to make five copies. Nassif was at 9 life and had three cards in his hand—a card with a converted mana cost of 5 (his own copy of Ignite Memories), one of 2 (Grapeshot), and one of 1 (Rite of Flame). If Chapin ever drew the CMC 5 card, Nassif would instantly lose. Here's what happened:
It was a dramatic, exciting and memorable moment because of the high variance. I bring this up because it's important to understand that at all levels, variance adds excitement to the game.
Lesson #2 – Too much variance sours games for all (okay, most) players
On the flip side, you want players to have a sense of agency. That is, you want the players of your game to feel like what they do matters. When you take that away from them, the game suffers. The best example of this is a card that's been designed, and rejected, numerous times.
Break in Case of Emergency
7, T, Sacrifice CARDNAME: Flip a coin. If you flip heads, you win the game. If you flip tails, you lose.
The idea behind this card is that it's the ultimate variance card. Who wins the game? Let the fates decide. Here's the problem. Barring something like Krark's Thumb (an artifact that helps you get better odds with coin flips), the card is just an outcome randomizer. When would you use it? When your chances of winning are worse than 50%. The most likely use case is that you wait until the turn before you're dead on the board (meaning it's clear you're going to lose on the next turn) and activate it. Your chance to win is basically 0% in the game, so the card ups your chances by 50%. If you lose, it doesn't matter; you were going to lose anyway. If you win, you've plucked victory from the jaws of defeat.
So why haven't we made this card? Because it takes away all agency. Why should a player work hard to win if half the time their opponent can win without doing anything? If games are an opportunity for people, in a safe space, to mentally challenge themselves, removing that challenge sucks all the fun out of the game as it reinforces that your actions don't matter, and we want our actions to matter. We want to feel as if the things we do in the game impact what happens in the game.
This is why we have to be careful not to turn the variance dial up too high. Even casual players whose primary goal might not be winning (for example, having a great experience hanging out with their friends) will become disheartened if they feel their actions serve no purpose.
Too little variance is bad, but so too is the opposite.
Lesson #3 – High-choice variance is much more palatable than low-choice variance
Players enjoy games playing out differently but tend to bounce off games if the agency is too low. The first solution to this problem is to take advantage of high-choice variance. That is, making cards and mechanics that change from game to game because you give players the ability to make different choices.
High-choice, high-variance cards can show up in greater number and at lower as-fans (aka on more cards in any one booster pack) because they tend to add variance without making players unhappy. The one downside is that they can add complexity as additional options create a more complex board and increase decision paralysis in less experienced players.
The solution to this is to make high-choice, high-variance cards at lower rarities have fewer options. This can be done either by literally having less choices (do a two-mode card at common and a four-mode card at rare) or by making the choices easier to parse at low rarities (you're more likely to do one mode over other modes). You do have to be careful with the latter approach, though, as making modes where one choice is (almost) always the right call takes away the variance. R&D tries hard not to make these kinds of cards. If we're going to give you choices, we want all of them to be relevant some of the time, but it's okay, especially on low-rarity cards, if one choice is used slightly more often.
Lesson #4 – You don't need to add a lot to add high variance to your game
When I was fifteen, I volunteered to bake some brownies for a fundraiser at a charity event I was attending. I had never made brownies before (or really baked anything before), but my mom said she had a recipe and all I had to do was follow it. The recipe was handwritten and was a little bit hard to read.
Flash forward to later in the day. My brownies were cooling when my sister Alysse came walking by. She asked if she could try one of my brownies. I said sure. She took a bite and then immediately spit it out. Here was our conversation:
Alysse: How much salt did you put into that?
Me: A fourth of a cup.
Alysse: A fourth of a cup?!
Me: Yes, that's what the recipe called for.
Alysse: There's no way that's what the recipe called for.
(I grab the recipe and hand it to her.)
Alysse: It says fourth of a teaspoon of salt.
Me: No, that's a "c" not a "t". It's curved and there isn't a line across it.
Alysse: Yeah, I can see how it kind of looks like a "c." But it's not a "c," it's a "t." You know how I know? Because you'd never put a fourth of a cup of salt in a batch of brownies!
Me: So, you're saying they're no good?
The lesson I learned that day is that some things do a lot with just a little bit of presence. Low-choice, high-variance cards fall into the same category, especially ones that have a larger impact on the game. This is why we tend to have low-choice, high-variance cards show up less frequently but have a larger impact when they do. The philosophy behind this is simple. Low-choice, high-variance cards don't need to exist in a very high volume to have a big impact. This means we skew them up in rarity and as-fan but are more willing to increase their effects (something that also ties into them being at a higher rarity).
Lesson #5 – Variance can best be hidden in elements that are natural to your game
One of my game design truisms is that variance tends to make games fun, but the appearance of variance can turn certain players off, so one of the things game designers have to do is find ways to sneak variance into the game in a way that doesn't draw attention to itself. The easiest way to do this is to lean into the components of your game that have a natural variance built in.
The best example in Magic would be the library. Richard Garfield understood the importance of making games play out differently, so one of the things he built into the game was the idea of a shuffled deck. You get to choose what 40, 60, or 100 cards you're playing with, but you don't get to choose the order in which you see them in the game. Magic is a card game, so it was very easy to involve a deck. No one blinks when they first learn the game and it involves a deck or when they're instructed to shuffle it at the beginning of the game. That's just part of the trappings of a card game.
Magic designers can use that to our advantage. The library, as an example, is an accepted part of the game, so when we make cards that interact with the library as a means to add variance, the players tend not to react poorly. "Draw a card," for example, is quite high variance but isn't perceived to be a problem.
Lesson #6 – Giving players the ability to mess with the variance makes them happy
Another way to make variance cards more palatable is to put other cards in the set that allow the player to impact the item(s) setting the variance. For instance, let's say I put cascade into a set. Cascade is a mechanic that allows me to flip cards off the top of my library until I find a card of a certain converted mana cost and then cast it for free. At its core, the mechanic has a very high variance. Who knows what you might get? But if you stick in some cards that give the player ways to manipulate the top of their library, you give the player some hope that they might mitigate what they get. This feeling that they might have some control goes a long way to lessening the concern over the variance.
A second trick you can do, one which cascade also does, is build in ways with your mechanic to allow deck building to offset the variance. For instance, cascade goes looking for a specific subset of cards. If you build your deck so there's only one viable option, you allow the player to build around the variance. My one word of note is that you have to be careful not to make avoiding the variance too easy as experienced players will go to great lengths in deck building to remove the variance. Remember, lowering the variance ups the consistency, which is something competitive players are incentivized to do.
Lesson #7 – Be careful of symbols of high variance
Let's say I made the following two cards:
Pack of Wolves (version A)
Flip three coins. For each heads you flip, create a 2/2 green Wolf creature token.
Pack of Wolves (version B)
Look at the top three cards of your library. You may reveal any number of lands from among them. For each land you reveal in this way,create a 2/2 green Wolf creature token.Put all the cards on the bottom of your library in a random order.
The first card is actually the stronger card of the two as you have a 50% chance with each coin flip of getting a Wolf. The second card, in contrast, only gives you about a 40% chance as that's the percentage of land most people play in Constructed decks. Experience has shown me that the second card would be better perceived (in isolation—if you showed them together, there would be plenty of people who did the math, and yes, the stronger card would win out). The reason is threefold, two points of which I just made. I'll cover those first.
One, the use of the library hides the variance a little bit. The audience is used to using the library to generate effects (more so than coin flipping), and it would just be seen as a thing Magic does.
Two, there are a lot more cards in Magic that allow you to manipulate the library as opposed to coin flips. There's even an entire evergreen mechanic, scry, that does it. This also lets players rationalize that it's less variance than it is.
Three, and this is the new one, coin flips have a much stronger association with luck. When you are choosing how to execute your mechanic, you have to think about the psychological impact of your choices. Coin flips are the poster child of random decisions. That means when your players see the card referencing coin flips, you're playing into their prejudices about variance.
I should note that I'm referring to the players who see high variance as a negative. More casual players might prefer the coin flip version because it's simpler and might seem fun. This is an ongoing balance we have to weigh because different players have different desires from the game.
Lesson #8 – Push low-choice, high-variance cards away from Constructed and Draft
One of the ways we deal with the fact that different players want such different things from the game when it comes to variance is to be careful about what kinds of cards we make high and low variance, especially low-choice versions. This means, for example, that we tend not to put low-choice, high-variance effects on cards we think will be relevant in tournament play. Note that this includes Booster Draft, which means we're extra careful about low-choice, high-variance cards at common and uncommon.
When we sometimes do them, we usually cost them such that they aren't Draft staples. What this ends up meaning is that we tend to do them at rare and mythic rare, usually at a rate that we don't think will draw the eye of tournament players. Also, this means that we're conscious of the psychographics when we make low-choice, high-variance cards. Spikes, on average, tend not to like them, while Timmies and Tammies lean toward being fans. The Johnnies and Jennies are a bit more exacting based on what the effect of the card is. They don't necessarily shy away from low-choice, high-variance cards but aren't inherently attracted to them either. It's more case by case. Knowing all this is yet another thing that dictates what kind of effects we use on the low-choice, high-variance cards.
Lesson #9 – When using high variance, especially at higher rarities, be bold
Another thing we've learned is that the group that most enjoys the high-variance cards tends to like a larger gap between the two (or more) effects. Part of what makes the variance fun for them is that there's excitement in what will happen, and the higher the differential, the higher the excitement. Also, this group tends to enjoy splashing more than other groups, so we also try to make sure our high-variance cards have a large potential, meaning if things go your way, you have the opportunity for something splashy to happen. This nicely ties into the fact that we want these effects on higher-rarity cards.
Lesson #10 – Understand that variance is an important tool
In college, I studied communications, focusing on television. I've always been fascinated with the medium, and my life goal, at the time, was to create television series. One of my pet peeves was how often I would encounter people who treated television as something inherently evil. My response was always that it's a tool. Yes, like any tool, it could be used to do bad things, and sometimes was, but it wasn't inherently bad. It had the capability to do positive or negative things depending on how you used it.
I bring this up, because, at times, I've seen variance treated the same way, as if it's inherently something bad in games. It's not. It's a tool. It can be used to make games better or make games worse. It matters how you use it. The reason I wrote this two-parter was that I wanted people to be able to step back and look at variance in a larger context when examining how it applies to game design. Like television, I see great potential when used properly.
That's all the time we have for today. I hope you've enjoyed this look at variance and how it affects Magic design (and game design in general). Again, I apologize for the lengthy gap between the two parts. As always, I'm eager to hear your feedback. You can email me or contact me through any of my social media accounts (Twitter, Tumblr, and Instagram).
Join me next week for this year's "Nuts & Bolts" column.
Until then, may you find the amount of variance that makes you happiest.
#717: Making Un- Cards
#717: Making Un- Cards
In this podcast, I talk about the challenges of making silver-bordered cards.
This is part five in my ten-part series on two-color philosophies. In this podcast, I talk about green-white.