a series of interesting choices thoughts on game design from paul sottosanti

22Nov/112

indie interviews: ramiro corbetta on hokra

To my knowledge, it isn't yet common for games to be commissioned in the way that works of art were commissioned by patrons throughout history. Yet that's exactly how Hokra, by Ramiro Corbetta (with audio by Nathan Tompkins), came to be. Hokra is a 2v2 sports game where the teams are fighting over control of a single ball. When a player doesn't have the ball, he can sprint, and when he does, he can pass in any direction. Sprinting increases speed but removes the ability to change directions for a short while. Sprinting through an enemy player stuns him briefly and causes him to drop the ball. Scoring is achieved by maneuvering the ball into one of the team's colored zones in the corners, and counts whether or not the ball is currently in a player's possession. The first team to fill up the counter in their scoring zones wins.

I first played the game at IndieCade and instantly fell in love. A few simple mechanics (passing, zone control, sprinting, tackling) come together to make a deep and compelling multiplayer experience. The refined aesthetic calls to mind a top down view of a hockey rink and provides a simple backdrop for the competitive gameplay. If commissions to a single designer are going to result in games like this, I hope the practice continues to flourish.

Ramiro was gracious enough to take the time to answer some questions about the game below:

Hokra title screen

What inspired you to make Hokra?

When I began working on Hokra, I was just trying to program a simple passing mechanic. I had been playing lots of FIFA10 at the time (well, I still play it a lot), and to me passing is by far the most interesting mechanic in soccer games. So I put a square player on screen, then a smaller square ball. I was interested in getting the concept of passing in the direction you were pointing with an analog stick to feel just right, so I created simple 2D ball physics and a system where the longer you hold A, the stronger your pass will be. It was very straightforward, but that was the point. I wanted that feeling that when you made a good pass, you did it because you were very accurate. A friend of mine who is also into soccer was coming over one day, so I added a second square player and we tried moving around the “field” and passing the ball back and forth. The game (or, really, the toy) was already surprisingly compelling.

How did you settle on the victory condition of having the ball in your team's corners for a set period of time?

At this point, I decided that I should turn what I had into a proper game. Making it a two-on-two game was a no-brainer since I wanted a game about humans playing against each other and a one-on-one game wouldn't involve much passing. My first instinct was to make a game about scoring goals, or at least getting the ball to go through a goal, giving your team a point each time you did it. Before I even implemented that, I realized that in such a small field it would probably be more fulfilling to try to hold the ball over a “touchdown” zone than to just get it into a goal. I put the zones in opposite corners for symmetry. I assumed I'd come back later and change it because it wouldn't just work out. I really thought there would be a lot of iteration with the scoring conditions and the placement of the goals, but it turned out much better than I expected, so I stuck with it.

Why did you decide to make it a one button plus analog stick game?

Hokra gameplay screenshotThe next step was making it so that players would want to pass. As in real life sports, I wanted players to be slower when they had the ball. In order to do that, I allowed players who don't have the ball to sprint. At first, you'd press A to pass and X to sprint, but a friend asked me how come I was using two different buttons seeing as you can't pass when you don't have the ball and you can't sprint when you do have the ball. I told him I had thought about mapping both actions to the A button, but had never gotten around to it, which is a pretty bad excuse. I made the change on the spot (it was a one-character change in my code). Some friends still complain that sometimes you are sprinting toward the ball and you end up passing it by mistake (I've made tweaks to attempt to fix that problem). They ask me to go back to the two-button setup. I quite like the fact that you only press one button, though. The game was originally commissioned by the NYU Game Center for the 2011 No Quarter Exhibition, where lots of people would be playing the game for the first time, and they'd be doing it in a public space. Many of those people would not be gamers. I'm sure you've noticed that when people who don't play games that much are told to press the X button, they have to look down at the controller to figure out which one is the X button. I didn't want that problem to get in the way of people who were playing Hokra for the first time. Analog stick + A button makes the game more approachable. I'm always happy to make my games more approachable if I don't have to compromise on depth to do it.

Where did the name come from?

When I was first working on the game, I was calling it “the sports game.” Obviously that wasn't going to stick. As the No Quarter Exhibition approached, Charles Pratt, who curates the event, told me that he needed a name from me. After going through a bunch of ideas, including SquareBall (which I liked, but was already taken), I started looking at names of Indigenous Brazilian sports. I'm originally from Brazil, and there are a few words in our Portuguese that come from Indigenous Brazilian languages. I ended up finding this sport from northern Brazil called rõkrã, which is similar to field hockey. This isn't a sport I knew about growing up, but it's similar to field hockey (a coconut is used as a ball and it's played barefoot, which sounds pretty scary) and I liked how the name sounded. I changed the R to and H because, with an American pronunciation, Hokra sounds more like the original name than Rokra.

What's your favorite memory of playing or watching others play Hokra?

Playing Hokra at IndieCade. Image by Elliot Trinidad.I have two really good memories. Toward the end of the night at the No Quarter Exhibition, a game that was being watched by maybe 15 people got extremely exciting. There was a lot of back-and-forth and the crowd was really getting into it, making loud “uuuuuhhhh” noises whenever somebody did something special. The game was really close, and when it ended the crowd broke into applause. At that point I felt like I had gotten the spectator aspect of sports right.

The second memory happened when the Hand Eye Society guys invited me to show the game in Toronto. It was July 4th and I was in Canada with two other NYC game developers who were also showing their games. At one point we ran the Canadian Hokra Tournament, and once we had a winning team a couple of us stepped up to challenge them for the North American tournament. The whole bar was watching the game, and when the Canadian team beat us, the entire place broke into “O Canada.” Some of my Canadian friends said that Hokra sparked a rare moment of Canadian patriotism.

What game designers inspire you the most and why?

Fumito Ueda was a big influence when I was starting out as a game designer. Playing Ico made me realize that I definitely wanted to create games for a living. It's interesting that now I make games that are really different, thematically, from his. But I think that his minimalist design aesthetic is still a huge influence over how I make games. I think that it's hard to find a game designer who isn't influenced by Miyamoto's work, but I still need to mention him here because of how brilliant some of his games are. Finally, these days, I'm probably most influenced by a game designer who happens to be a friend, too – Doug Wilson. His games, such as B.U.T.T.O.N. and Johann Sebastian Joust, are some of the most interesting multiplayer games I've played in a long time. His work is not only absolutely amazing, but it's also really inspiring, affecting how I make my games more than anybody else's work does.

You have won a prize. The prize has two options: the first is a year in Europe with a monthly stipend of $2,000, and the second is ten minutes on the moon. Which option do you select?

When I first read this question I thought it was ten SECONDS on the moon, so going to Europe seemed like an easy decision. Now that I know it's ten minutes it's much harder, but I think I'd still take the European trip. As amazing as the ten minutes on the moon would be, I think my life would change more by spending a year traveling around Europe while creating games. That is if $2000 per month is even enough to travel around Europe these days.

20Aug/112

sprite wars, gamers vs evil, and PAX

After three ink cartridges, twenty five sheets of perforated business card paper, and a whole lot of work in Illustrator, the business cards are finally done. There are currently 50 unique cards, and I'll be bringing five copies of each to PAX (with the exception of a group of ten that lost one each of their comrades in the process, so those will be a bit rarer than the rest). I'm calling the game Sprite Wars, and the rules set is a fairly simple modification of Tic-Tac-Toe.

You're probably raising one eyebrow and muttering something like, "Interesting..." right about now. Why Tic-Tac-Toe, a game that no adult in their right mind plays with each other, that is solved and always results in a draw? Well, I had a few goals in mind for the game:

  1. Players should be able to learn it very quickly, ideally from just watching someone play.
  2. It should be playable in only a couple of minutes.
  3. It should only require a few cards per player.
  4. It can't require any sort of additional materials and should be playable on pretty much any small flat surface.

These are wildly different goals from most TCGs that you would find in your local store. Whenever I'm trying to make something that people can pick up extremely quickly, I find it makes a lot of sense to start from a game that everyone is familiar with and innovate from there. In this case, the image of little pixel characters surrounded by arrows pretty much instantly popped into my mind, which took me in the direction of using the rules and victory condition of Tic-Tac-Toe.

Sprite Wars

Those who follow me on Twitter might have seen me agonizing over the design of the front of the cards. I wanted something to ensure that people looking at the front would notice the back, ideally in an organic manner so that I wouldn't have to keep repeating "and look at the back too!" to everyone. Originally I had small text at the bottom saying "flip me over!", but it made the card feel cramped and I had to squeeze multiple things on one line. After a bunch of advice I ended up just going with some simple arrows on the sides; they don't explicitly tell anyone to turn over the card, but they hint at it and they nicely reference the arrows on the back that drive the gameplay.

That said, I now regret adding them. What I didn't realize is that I was going to have some issues with getting the printing to line up, especially on the fronts (which I printed second, regrettably after waiting a few days, giving the ink-laden paper time to warp). Without the arrows, small differences in alignment wouldn't have been noticeable. With them, it's sadly obvious, and worse, it "marks" the cards for the game because savvy players will be able to remember the arrow placement on their different cards and know what they're about to draw. Then again, this is just a free game on the back of my business cards, so it's really not that big of a deal, but it's a good lesson for the future.

Final business cards. Note that the photo quality sucks, and the fronts don't actually look washed out in person.

All told it probably cost around $60 or $70 in ink and paper for 240 cards, which seems like a lot, but for full color, double sided cards with 50 different unique designs, I'm pretty happy with how it turned out. I'll be giving them out at PAX this weekend, so if you're there, say hi! I'll be a part of two talks at PAX Dev: Practical Systems Design in the Context of Darkspore (scintillating title I know) and Design Doc Do's and Don'ts, where I'll be talking about everything but traditional design docs. At PAX itself I'll be spending a lot of time at the SpyParty booth, or perhaps at the Cryptozoic booth as well, where they'll have some early copies of The Penny Arcade Game: Gamers Vs Evil, a game that I designed along with some help from Mike Donais and Matt Place.

The Penny Arcade: Gamers Vs Evil box. Image courtesy of Gamehead.com.

It's firmly in the deckbuilding genre, and takes inspiration from games like Dominion and Thunderstone, but also adds its own twist to things with mechanics like facedown unique boss loot and player avatars that grant a special ability and determine the composition of your starting deck. I've been a huge fan of Penny Arcade for as long as I can remember, so it was a huge honor to design this game for them. Can't wait for people to get a chance to try it out!

17Aug/114

the curse of cooperation

Cooperative multiplayer is an oft-underused method of allowing people to play games together in a more accessible and casual manner. People are starting to warm up to it, though, and recent years have seen a surge of cooperative board games, as well as digital games like Starcraft 2 and League of Legends that are embracing co-op vs AI as a valid way to experience the game. There's something nice about winning or losing together with your friends, especially when one isn't in the mood for the intensity and cutthroat qualities of a typical competitive experience.

That said, there's a particular problem that's endemic to cooperative board games, which is that the game will present players with a puzzle, hoping that the group will work together to find a solution, and instead the single most skilled or most experienced player will end up playing for the entire group. It's just much simpler for a single person to execute a strategy than it is to get everyone on the same page and let them arrive at the best course of action themselves. Many games give each player a hand of cards, but in the absence of a rule that prevents discussing those cards, they often are just laid openly on the table to save everyone the trouble of having to continually ask what everyone else has. If I remember correctly, Pandemic actually recommends laying the cards down on the easy difficulty and then asks that players hold them in their hand on medium and above, but still doesn't restrict players from talking about them. That does help a little; players at least get to feel somewhat involved when they're asked how many red cards they have rather than simply told what to do.

Pandemic (image from Chris Norwood on BoardGameGeek)

Not to say that those games aren't well designed and enjoyable overall. The list of games suffering from this problem is quite long: Pandemic, Forbidden Island, Ghost Stories, Castle Panic, Castle Ravenloft, and so on. Both Pandemic and Ghost Stories are heralded as some of the best cooperative experiences out there, especially when playing with people of roughly equal experience and skill levels. Still, any designer thinking about the cooperative space should have this problem at the forefront of their mind.

Of course, many games have also managed to solve this problem, either intentionally or as a side effect of another mechanic. There are three methods of varying degrees of commonality:

The traitor - Betrayal at House on the Hill, Shadows Over Camelot, Battlestar Galactica, etc. Add in the fact that one or more players are secretly a traitor and suddenly players are no longer keen on playing the game for everyone else. Or rather, no one's willing to let their turn be taken for them. Then again, adding in a traitor does add a competitive element to the game, which you may or may not want.

Real-time aspects - Space Alert is the king of this category. Not only are there hidden cards, but there's also a strict time limit and an audio track constantly throwing new challenges in the team's direction. Knowing this, Space Alert actually has the players appoint a captain, and everyone still gets to contribute fully because there's simply no way the captain has time to order everyone around.

Hidden information plus restricted communication - For example, adding a rule that says that players can't talk about the cards in their hand. Games seem to be hesitant to pull the trigger here, and I can't think of an example at the moment, although I'm sure there must be one out there. My guess is that it stems from concern that players will have trouble interpreting a rule like this, or worse that they'll outright rebel against it. Richard Garfield talked about this in a podcast on cooperative games and also mentioned the idea of "communication as a resource", which I've been thinking about ever since.

With the cooperative prison break game that I'm currently working on, there are two phases: the planning and the escape. For the planning phase players are forbidden to discuss the game at all, and cards are played face down, but each player has two tokens that they can spend to show everyone else a card from their hand and describe where they're stashing it. The goal is for players to try to work together as best they can, planning what they'll need for the escape, with that limited channel of communication.

When the actual escape begins, all restrictions on communication are lifted, but there's now a real-time element, with new obstacles showing up every fifteen seconds. Players have their objects in their hand and have to discuss what object or objects the group wants to use to solve that obstacle. Thanks to the timer combined with the hidden hands, players stay involved during this phase despite the open communication channels.

Initial playtesting has been good, and I'm confident that all players will be able to contribute throughout the game. Now to fine tune the rest of the mechanics...

14Aug/118

the pacifist and the pugilist

Last Thanksgiving, I was drafting with a guy named Zak Walter who had invented a deck of what he called "draft conditions". They had evocative names like The Astrologist or The Pacifist and each one had a limitation on your drafting or your deckbuilding. Now, I'll never get tired of just straight up drafting Magic cards, but it was an interesting twist to the process as battles become more about the archetypes (who wins: the Pacifist or the Pugilist?) rather than the players. It also gave people a reason to draft fun decks, gave them an easy excuse when they lost, and just made the whole night a lighthearted affair.

Not long after that I took the most memorable conditions from that night, brainstormed up a bunch of my own, added a few from Dan Kline, and made my first set of twenty conditions. These things really need a more evocative name: draft limitations? draft personalities? draft avatars? dravatars? I don't know. Anyway, Friday night I was drafting down at the San Carlos PopCap offices (where Plants vs Zombies was made by an extremely small team) and we tried them out for the first time. We had twenty conditions and twelve players so I gave everyone a random one and then put the remaining eight face down in the center of the table. If you didn't like your condition you were allowed to swap with one of the conditions in the middle, but you could only do this once.

Here was my initial set along with comments on how they played:

The Arkmaster - Each creature in your deck must share a creature type with another creature in your deck.

I have high hopes for The Arkmaster although no one had it on Friday. It forces you to make some tough decisions if you open a powerful creature early with a rare creature type like "Sphinx" and should make you reevaluate your priorities even for more common creatures based on their types.

The Ascendant - Each card you draft must have a higher converted mana cost than the previous card drafted, if possible.

Brad Smith had the Ascendant, and it seemed to work out beautifully, providing lots of interesting choices. If you're not excited about a pack, you can take the most expensive card, hoping to reset your restriction as long as the next pack doesn't have anything even more expensive. There was also a natural reset built in at the end of each pack with the basic land that's often a fifteenth pick, but your neighbors can wreak havoc with that by selecting it and passing you a spell last, forcing your restriction to carry into the next pack. Brad opened a Flameblast Dragon and then was able to pick up a Volcanic Dragon in the very next pack since there wasn't anything costing seven or more. He was undefeated and seemed to have a great time.

The Astrologist - Secretly write down a number before the draft. The converted mana cost of the cards in your deck must add up to that number.

Stone Librande had this one, and chose to write down 70. Despite a couple bombs like Grave Titan and Serra Angel, it ended up being too high, and he was forced to play two Stonehorn Dignitaries in order to stay at 40 cards. Those kept coming up against me when he would've preferred drawing cards with more action, and I was able to take him down in three close games. Otherwise his deck performed admirably.

The Banker - You must always take the most rare card out of the pack. (Foils beat cards out of the same rarity, otherwise you choose.)

This was inspired by the infamous MTGO "bottom right" drafts where you always take the card in the bottom right of the pack. No one had this on Friday, but I have a feeling it's one of the most harsh conditions, because you'll often spend a lot of time taking the worst uncommon out of every pack before you can finally start drafting commons. Might need a benefit to balance it out.

The Builder - Your life total is 5 plus one for each card in your deck with a converted mana cost greater than three.

No one had this either. I'm a little wary of it giving the player too much freedom right now. You can draft pretty much normally and still end up with 16-18 life, which should be plenty against the gimped decks of your opponents. I think I might change it to two life per expensive card and also increase the threshold to five mana and above. This one is a little weird because it's not a restriction as much as a temptation, but for now I'm giving it the benefit of the doubt.

The Celestial - Cards other than basic lands in your deck must have the sky visible in the art.

I enjoy the art based ones greatly, but this one does suffer from a lot of ambiguity. I'd say whether or not you can get away with using this one depends greatly on the group you're playing with. If they're easy going and are willing to trust the judgement of the player who has it then it's worth having.

The Compulsive - You can't draft a card that's the same type as the last card you drafted, if possible.

Laura Shigihara, who did all the music for Plants vs Zombies, had this one. I didn't get a chance to play her but I think her deck turned out well and she had a good time. I also enjoy how you can select the basic land to reset your restriction and open up your options for the next pack.

The Elitist - Each creature in your deck must have a keyword or ability word.

No testing on this one yet. Seems solid though.

The Explorer - Your deck can't contain more than four copies of any basic land.

I had this when I played at Thanksgiving and I had a blast drafting a five color deck. This time Tod Semple (the Plants vs Zombies programmer) had it and didn't enjoy it much. Part of the problem was that M12 doesn't have much in the way of mana fixing, and he's not a particularly seasoned drafter so he likes being able to focus exclusively on two colors and just ignore the rest of the pack. Experienced players will enjoy this one I think.

The Fatalist - Before opening each pack, you must choose either "first 4" or "last 8". You must pick randomly for those picks during this pack.

No one had this one, but after thinking about it more I'm planning on changing the "before" to "after" (decisions are often more fun when you have more info), "first 4" to "first 3", and "last 8" to "last 9". The goal with the last two changes is to make it more of an interesting choice; I think with 4 and 8 you'll pick "last 8" almost every time since that still leaves you 7 strong picks per pack. With 3 and 9 I think you'll have to mix it up.

The Individualist - Your deck can't contain any two creatures with the same power and toughness or any two non-creature spells with the same mana cost.

This one suffered from some poor templating (it's fixed already above) which caused some confusion, so I didn't get particularly good data on it. I think it's one of the more interesting restrictions though.

The Jester - After opening each pack, choose odd or even. All cards selected during that pack must have that converted mana cost if possible.

Dylan, Stone's son, had this one and seemed to enjoy it. He started leaning towards odd once he realized that the basic land often prevented him from picking freely when he picked even (we counted zero as even) though. Maybe zero should count as neither so that it's a more balanced choice.

The Librarian - The name of every non-land card in your deck must start with a different letter.

Seems like this will work although no one had it.

The Opportunist - You may take two cards out of each pack that you open. You must play all of your cards except for the last and second to last picks.

This was a disaster. First because the player misread the restriction and thought he could take two cards with every single pick, and second because I balanced it terribly. I don't know why I thought the occasional double pick was enough to offset having to play 42 spells in your deck. I just didn't do the math. I'm not sure how I'm going to fix this one but I'll probably start with changing the last part to "except for the last five cards of each pack", giving them 30-33 spells.

The Pacifist - Your deck can't contain any cards that have a weapon in the art.

George Fan, the designer of Plants vs Zombies, had this one and chose to go for a green/blue Turbo Fog deck after picking up an early Rites of Flourishing. He hit an early snag when he realized that Fog hilariously has weapons in the art, and then another when he saw that Merfolk Mesmerist is carrying a wand, but he stuck with it and got a second Rites and four Jace's Erasures. He defeated all comers until running into my aggressive Pugilist deck and then later falling to the Individualist's Elixir of Immortality.

The Painter - You can't draft a card that's the same color as the last card you drafted, if possible.

Straightforward, seemed to work well. Also can reset the restriction by selecting the basic land. There's quite the competition for those lands!

The Pauper - You can't have any rares or mythics in your deck.

Gives you a lot of freedom at the cost of having to pass up some powerful cards. Rachel Reynolds had this and drafted an aggressive mono-blue deck that unfortunately lost to the Pacifist thanks to two Kraken's Eyes.

The Pugilist - Your deck can't contain cards that prevent opposing creatures from blocking your creatures (anything that grants flying, intimidate, protection, landwalk, etc).

I gladly kept this one and drafted an aggressive W/G deck featuring Sun Titan, Dungrove Elder and Overrun. There were numerous cards I couldn't take but I was still able to put together a solid deck and ended up going 4-0. I enjoyed how it made for very interactive games and there weren't very many stalemates at all.

The Sorcerer - Your deck can't contain more than nine creatures.

No one had this one. The condition seems solid but the number might need a bit of tweaking up or down.

The Storyteller - Non-land cards in your deck must have flavor text.

Not a terribly interesting condition in a base set draft since almost every single card seems to have it. Overall I like it though.

So that's the initial set. Overall they were a success but I plan to come up with some extra ones and start rotating them in and out and tweaking them as I go. Feel free to take these and try them out with your group. If you do, let me know how it went!

5Aug/115

designing magic: planeswalkers & lorwyn

This is the fifth part of a series about working on Magic: the Gathering during my five years at Wizards of the Coast:

Part One (Joining WotC, playing in the FFL, developing Champions of Kamigawa)
Part Two (Developing Betrayers of Kamigawa and the Jitte mistake)
Part Three (Developing Ravnica, unleashing Friggorid, and designing MTGO Vanguard)
Part Four (Designing Ripple, the FFL during Time Spiral, designing Planar Chaos)

Future Sight

I wasn't involved in creating Future Sight, but I was a big contributor in a major debate that had started in one of our Tuesday Magic meetings, where everyone involved in Magic gets together to discuss the current major issues. The discussion revolved around the new card type that we were going to be debuting soon: Planeswalkers. The Future Sight team wanted to put a Planeswalker into their set, to increase excitement and foreshadow the "real" release of Planeswalkers coming in Lorwyn. I could see where they were coming from but it seemed like a terrible idea to me for several reasons:

  1. New things are exciting, but you only get that initial burst of excitement once. Why spend the Planeswalker excitement on Future Sight, a small set that already had a "hook" (these are cards from the future, some of which will become real later), when we could save it to sell our forthcoming large set? As much as people argued that the "real release" of Planeswalkers would still be Lorwyn, I knew that players wouldn't see it that way.
  2. Future Sight was already far above average in complexity and wackiness, thanks to a new card frame showcasing "future" cards like Steamflogger Boss. The set really didn't need a whole new card type for players to have to learn.
  3. The Planeswalker team needed more time. No one was completely happy with how they worked yet, and the balancing of a new card type was proving tricky. We had no idea of their power level and could've risked printing a completely unplayable Planeswalker or one that was far too strong.

In the end we compromised with referencing Planeswalkers on Tarmogoyf, a move that I think ended up being the best of both worlds. We foreshadowed Planeswalkers (and Tribal, for that matter) without actually showing our hand, which drove a lot of hype for the upcoming set. Of course, at that point no one had any idea that it would go on to become arguably the best green creature of all time.

Planeswalker Design

Around this time, Magic was going through somewhat of a creative reboot to make it more accessible and also better suited to supporting other potential media like books, graphic novels, or maybe even movies and TV. The goal was to have recognizable characters that could show up in multiple expansions (despite the different settings) that were relatable for players. Luckily, the IP already had an answer for this: Planeswalkers. And since the only way to get most Magic players to care about a character is to put a card depicting that character into their hands, it was time to add them to the game.

I was a part of the team tasked with figuring out what this new card type was going to do. Unfortunately I don't remember much about the process, but I do remember that one of the original designs had them following a list of instructions. They triggered on your upkeep I believe, and they would perform the first ability in the list on the first upkeep, then the second, then the third, and then they would wrap around and do the first ability again. We arrived at this because it didn't necessarily make sense to let you control another Planeswalker; it'd be like asking your friend to come play basketball with you and then having to direct their every move. With the ability list we encountered the opposite problem: they felt less like sentient beings and more like robots, especially when they performed an ability that didn't make sense with the game state, like giving a creature +4/+4 when you controlled no creatures.

We tried to get around this by giving them abilities that flowed into one another, like letting them create a creature before empowering it, but situations where the creature died in the meantime kept cropping up. Plus, it was sometimes hard to remember what step you were on, and marking them with tokens didn't work since you were already keeping track of their loyalty. Eventually someone hit on the idea of charging or granting loyalty for the abilities, and we changed it to let you choose which ability was activated. Then we let you activate them the turn you played them, which was a huge upgrade in terms of constructed quality and also just the overall feel. Suddenly playing a Planeswalker and having your opponent kill it on their turn didn't feel that bad.

Overall I think the Planeswalker card type was a huge success. I know that Richard Garfield has expressed concern about the amount of complexity that was added, and I agree with him that it's unfortunate that a new player can get a card that works so differently from everything else. At the end of the day, though, they provide some great gameplay, your opponents can interact with them (through burn spells or attacking them), and I think they've contributed to the recent success of Magic.

Lorwyn

The Lorwyn design team was Aaron Forsythe, Mark Rosewater, Brady Dommermuth, and Andrew Finch, with Nate Heiss replacing Andrew partway through. I can't say enough about how much I enjoyed working under Aaron. He's as well rounded as you could hope for: strong design skills, with the playskill and understanding of a developer, a huge knowledge of the game's history, and enough business sense that he's now been the director of Magic R&D for almost five years. What I enjoyed the most though is that he's one of those people who, at the end of the day, just wants what's best for the game. When everyone on a design team puts their egos aside and works as a unit towards that singular goal it can be quite the magical experience.

So much went on during Lorwyn design that I don't really know where to start, but I'll try to break it down into cohesive sections.

The Setting

Lorwyn takes place in an idyllic world filled with rolling pastures and beautiful forests. Where possible, we wanted to convey that through the cards and make the player feel the happiness and contentment of the world. One of the earliest ideas I had was to have a world without killing. Black wouldn't get any "destroy target creature" cards, and instead removal in this world would be themed as tricks and pranks, with the occasional application of -1/-1 counters. Using -1/-1 counters was potentially important because we knew that the last two sets in the block (Shadowmoor and Eventide) were going to be an evil version of the Lorwyn world, after a Cataclysm-type event, and at the time all of the sets in the same block had to use the exact same type of counters. There was just too much confusion from trying to support multiple different types of counters on the same card, and by keeping them out of the same block we at least kept those situations out of most sealed deck and draft experiences.

This turned out to be a terrible idea. Not only did it have the anticipated problems of causing frequent stalemates (we thought we could solve that by seeding certain types of cards into the set), but the slow application of -1/-1 counters actually made the set feel more evil than most. You weren't just cleanly killing creatures, you were torturing them to death over multiple turns. We went back to the drawing board, and soon found ourselves bringing up the problem at another one of the Tuesday Magic meetings. We lamented the fact that we couldn't use +1/+1 counters, and people started throwing out suggestions, but none of them seemed viable.

Eventually, as a joke, I said that this would be so much simpler if +1/+1 and -1/-1 counters would just annihilate each other, like matter and anti-matter. In hindsight, I guess there's no great reason why I thought it could never work, but as a designer you tend to quickly get used to the editor and rules manager telling you that ideas just can't possibly work within the rules. It's not that they're not good at their jobs, or that they're trying to stifle innovation, it's just that they're the ones who have to deal with all of the corner cases and who have to clean up the mess if anything breaks, and they're naturally a bit conservative. To my surprise, though, I saw them seriously considering it, and pretty quickly they said that it could function as a state-based effect. It didn't take long for the room to agree that with the support of that rules change, Lorwyn and Morningtide could use +1/+1 counters, and Shadowmoor and Eventide could use -1/-1 counters. Suddenly everything was so much easier.

Race and Class

Early in the process we had a meeting to decide the plan for the first half of the block. Specifically, what would we leave for Morningtide so that it would feel like it's own set and not just an extension of Lorwyn? It was a unique situation because there were only two sets to worry about; Shadowmoor and Eventide were doing their own thing (focusing on color) even though they would take place in the same physical location. I started thinking about how we had just recently done the race/class update, where all cards now had a race (a card that used to be just "Cleric" would now be "Human Cleric") and all sentient races now had a class (instead of just "Elf" it would be "Elf Warrior"). I knew we should take advantage of that somehow, and quickly I hit on the idea of having Lorwyn focus on the races like a traditional tribal set and Morningtide focus on the classes, which hadn't specifically been done before. Since the cards all had two types, and each race would be confined to only a few classes, new possibilities would open up for existing decks when the class tribal cards showed up in Morningtide. The team was on board with the plan and it never changed again.

The Tribal Supertype

We now knew how Morningtide would set itself apart, but that still left us to figure out how Lorwyn was different. We had all played Magic during Onslaught and enjoyed it, and we knew that just printing a bunch of cards with specific races and some other cards that enhanced them wouldn't be nearly as awesome the second time around. One idea that was rolling around, that I absolutely loved, was to apply the creature types to other types of spells. Essentially, not only would we have Elves, but we'd have Elven sorceries, Elven enchantments, Elven artifacts, and even Elven lands. This would solve one of those age-old problems of tribal decks, that you couldn't play any spells at all without diluting the tribal qualities of your deck. If you wanted 40 Goblins, you had to have 40 creatures.

We set out trying to figure out how this would work. What did it mean to be an Elf Instant? Certainly we could make cards that said "Whenever you play an Elf, get X" but it felt like the Elf instants themselves should be tied to Elves somehow. Some options I put forth:

  • As an additional cost to play this spell, tap an untapped Elf you control.
  • Play this spell only if you control an Elf.
  • Tribalcycling (, discard this card: Search your library for a card that shares a subtype with this one, reveal it, and put it into your hand. Then shuffle your library.)
  • If you tap an untapped Elf you control as you play this, use the Tribal effect instead. (e.g. +2/+2 or Tribal: +4/+4)

We went through the pros and cons of each of the team's suggestions, and eventually settled on the final one from the above list and calling it Mojo. It allowed you to play the spells even if you hadn't drawn any creatures yet still rewarded you for having the right type in play.

Next we moved forward with designing Mojo cards, at least until we hit the next snag. Mark Gottlieb came to us and told us that "Instant - Elf", which was how we were planning on templating the cards, wouldn't work. The game rules didn't allow creature subtypes on anything other than creatures. We tried debating, but there were a lot of subtleties he was worried about, like old cards that said something like "put an Elf from your hand into play." You can read about more about this process in Aaron's article about Lorwyn.

Aaron fought bravely for it but eventually saw the writing on the wall and gave in. Back to the drawing board.

Of course, as you all know the set did in fact ship with Tribal cards. What happened? Well, a couple things. We tried some other options, like creating a little icon for each tribe and then putting those on the sorceries, but it forced awkward "whenever you play an Elf or [elf icon] spell" wording that everyone hated, so we abandoned that. I found the set far less exciting without our marquee mechanic, and ended up sending at least one impassioned email to Aaron to try to find a way to fit it back in somehow. Aaron asked Mark to keep trying, and he soon came through for us and found a way to make it work. If we created a new supertype called Tribal, and one of the qualities of being a Tribal card was that you could have the creature subtypes, the rules suddenly came together much more cleanly. We were back in business.

In the meantime we had decided that the Tribal spells didn't need a specific mechanic tying them together, and just triggering all of your effects that cared about creature types was enough. So Mojo was killed from the set.

Treasure

We also knew that the set needed something else to carry it, something that was outside of the tribal theme. Early on Aaron suggested a "treasure" mechanic. Basically there were cards that gave you treasure, and then you used your creatures to "explore" and find the treasure, which put cards into your hand. Cards like:

Torch and 10’ Pole

Artifact — Equipment
Equipped creature has “: Explore. (Reveal a random card from your treasure pile. You may pay that card's converted mana cost. If you do, put it into your hand. Otherwise, return it to your treasure pile.)
Equip

Phlogiston Vial

Artifact
, Sacrifice CARDNAME: CARDNAME deals 2 damage to target creature or player.
If CARDNAME is revealed while exploring, it deals 2 damage to the exploring creature.

One problem was that it was simply too high of a bar to have to assemble both cards that gave you treasure and also cards that could explore. Explore as a specific ability also made the mechanic parasitic, in that it only worked with cards from the set, which has become a death knell for many potential mechanics ever since the Kamigawa block. We worked through a bunch of problems with treasure, getting it to a pretty good place, but there was a lot of internal debate over the complexity of the mechanic. It really needed to show up heavily at common to be meaningful and interesting, which created a lot of pressure to simplify it. Eventually it was cut from the set instead, but not before inspiring the Hideaway lands.

Transcendence

I won't spend much time talking about Transcendence, because it wasn't around for long, but essentially it was borne out of the idea that one way to show the tranquility and happiness of the setting was to support an alternate path to victory from killing your opponent. I settled on a simple mechanic that was essentially the opposite of poison, where you accumulated counters, and if you got enough of them you won the game outright rather than losing it. This led to cards like:

Salvation Army

Creature – Merfolk
, discard three cards: Gain a transcendence counter. (A player with five or more transcendence counters wins the game.)
2/2

Creeping Fungus

Sorcery – Elf
Destroy target land.
Mojo – If you control more lands than that land's controller, also gain a transcendence counter. (A player with five or more transcendence counters wins the game.)

I liked it, but others felt it wasn't interactive enough, and Aaron decided to pursue other directions.

Theming the Tribes

Wizards employees aren't allowed to play in sanctioned Magic tournaments, so to scratch the competitive itch I had been playing a lot of the VS System card game from Upper Deck Entertainment. The Avengers set had recently come out, and one of the teams in that set was the Squadron Supreme. They were based around a mechanic where they grew incredibly strong when you managed to empty your hand (which was less crippling in that game than it was in Magic because you could put plot twists and characters in your resource row), and as such had a plethora of cards based around discarding. In a vacuum those cards would be quite poor, but in a well crafted Squadron Supreme deck they were devastating. While I'm not a fan of the VS System design in general, some of the most fun I've ever had playing a card game came out of drafting Squadron Supreme decks. I loved that they had such a strong identity and I greatly enjoyed the discovery process of figuring out how to make the deck tick. Many of the other teams in VS had their own theme that came through in the cards as well. One of my first pitches to Aaron was that we should use that as inspiration to make each of the tribes in Lorwyn feel unique and stand on their own.

I'll include a few of my early card submissions for each race below to provide a better sense of their proposed identity.

Kithkin

My initial proposal for Kithkin was that they should get bonuses for attacking and blocking together, comes into play effects that triggered if you'd already played a creature this turn, and some form of evasion (inspired by their great ancestor, Amrou Kithkin from Legends). We eventually simplified this down and focused primarily on "attack with three or more", which actually showed up later in the Great Designer Search 2 as one of Shawn Main's mechanics. The problem we found with it was that it was either a trickle or a deluge. If you only had two creatures who could attack, you sat there doing nothing and would likely lose, but if you found that third creature, suddenly +1/+1s, regeneration, and other keywords all turned on and your combat steps would be a complete blowout. There was no middle ground and therefore few interesting games. They lost that mechanic but they kept an overall identity of small boosts, large numbers, and evasion, and attacking with lots of creatures lived on in Cenn's Heir.

Kithkin Commander

Creature – Kithkin Soldier
When CARDNAME attacks, if there are three or more attacking creatures, creatures you control get first strike until end of turn.
3/3

Little Follower

Creature – Kithkin Soldier
When CARDNAME comes into play, if you've already played a creature this turn, put two +1/+1 counters on it.
2/1

Miniaturize

Instant - Kithkin
Attacking creatures can't be the target of spells or abilities this turn.
Mojo - Attacking creatures also can't be blocked by creatures with power 3 or greater this turn.

Merfolk

My proposal for Merfolk was that they were resource traders. Essentially, we would make a bunch of engine cards that turned one resource (life, mana, untapped creatures) into another, and if you assembled the right ones you could create machines that would slowly but surely give you an incremental advantage. This slowly converged to an emphasis on tapping and untapping, with rewards like milling your opponent, gaining life or drawing cards. We also added a subtheme of Islandwalk plus the ability to turn your opponent's lands into Islands. I love how the Merfolk turned out and drafted them at every opportunity when the set was finally released. Summon the School was a powerful card that made the whole deck come together perfectly.

Merfolk Tinkerer

Creature – Merfolk Wizard
Whenever you draw a card, you may untap target permanent.
1/2

Merfolk Healer

Creature – Merfolk Cleric
, discard a card: gain 4 life.
1/4

Merfolk Opportunist

Creature – Merfolk Rogue
Discard two cards: draw a card.
2/3

Goblins

We faced numerous challenges here. This was the first time Goblins had been primarily black, and aggressive Goblin decks had been extremely strong in Onslaught. We didn't want to add too much to those decks or have a similar metagame in Lorwyn. To that end I proposed that these guys would be the tricksters of the Lorwyn world. They wouldn't necessarily hurt you outright but they'd annoy you to no end by denying you resources or weakening your creatures. This didn't entirely work out, and we ended up using other tricks to keep them less aggressive, making cards like Mudbutton Torchrunner that were better on defense or with sacrifice effects than on offense, and other cards like Wort, Boggart Auntie that focused on bringing them back. The recurring aspect treaded on Zombie territory a little bit in exchange for some fun gameplay.

Voodoo Guy

Creature – Goblin Shaman
: Target creature loses all abilities until end of turn.
1/1

Hired Killer

Creature – Goblin Assassin
, : Destroy target creature that's already been targeted this turn.
1/1

Scary Voices

Instant - Goblin
Until end of turn, target player can't draw cards.
Mojo - That player also discards a card.

Elementals

Elementals were the only tribe that would be in all five colors, with the sentient "Flamekin" in Red and non-humanoid elementals in all five colors. This is where I initially suggested the "becoming tapped" mechanic should live, as at the time we had Mojo spells that played nicely with it. That got moved to Merfolk, and we eventually landed on Elementals being a combination of Evoke and activated abilities, with a subtheme of "use this ability three times in a turn". Evoke let us print a lot of expensive creatures that still had utility early in the game, and the activated abilities gave them a nice outlet for extra mana which made cards like Smokebraider and Soulbright Flamekin quite exciting. All in all, a success.

Anger Elemental

Creature – Elemental
Whenever CARDNAME becomes tapped, you may have it deal 1 damage to target creature or player.
3/2

Mist Elemental

Creature – Elemental
Whenever CARDNAME becomes tapped, you may untap another target creature.
2/2

Overflow

Instant – Elemental
Tap target non-flying creature.
Mojo - Tap all non-flying creatures.

Elves

This was a tough one. Elves hadn't ever been in Black before, and one of their more iconic cards was all about lifegain (Wellwisher). Lorwyn elves in particular were accomplished hunters. My first proposal was for them to be "more of the same with a slightly more evil twist" but late in design I hit upon a hunting mechanic that I liked. Many of the Elves would mark a creature (put a "hunted" counter on it) when they came into play, and then they would each have an ability that referred to hunted creatures, from outright killing them to whittling them down. We didn't use it though, possibly because of the counter problem (we were already using +1/+1 counters), and Elves ended up mostly focusing on creature tokens and +1/+1 counters. The hunting idea did, however, inspire Hunter of Eyeblights.

Elven Cheerleading Squad

Creature – Elf Scout
, : Target creature gets +2/+2 until end of turn. Play this ability only during your upkeep.
1/2

Dark Priest

Creature – Elf Shaman
, sacrifice an Elf: Put a 1/1 black Elf Horror token into play.
1/1

Mana from Heaven

Sorcery – Elf
Creatures you control gain ": Add to your mana pool" until end of turn.
Tribal - Elves you control gain ": Add to your mana pool" until end of turn.

The Minor Tribes

There was another team in VS, X-Statix, that had some interesting gameplay. They were all about having exactly one creature in play, and many of their creatures had ways to sacrifice themselves or would allow you to kill off your other creatures. While I didn't want to be quite as aggressive about it, I loved the idea of Giants in Lorwyn as loners who thrived by themselves, and it fit well with the evocative gameplay of Giants flinging other creatures to deal some damage before falling to their deaths. We didn't end up going that route, instead rewarding players heavily for having multiple Giants with creatures like Thundercloud Shaman to mitigate the fact that they were so expensive.

Cave Hermit

Creature – Giant Warrior
CARDNAME gets -1/-1 for each other creature you control.
5/5

Misanthrope

Creature – Giant Warrior
While you control no other creatures, CARDNAME has Vigilance and can block two creatures at once.
4/4

Faeries ended up being largely defined by a card called Sickening Faerie in design. I left a comment on the record in Multiverse saying, "Very good but I think he's at the right level to be the premier common Faerie creature". Sure enough, the card ended up being printed as-is as Dreamspoiler Witches and provided many drafters with a reason to pick up other Faeries like Spellstutter Sprite. The theme of flying creatures with Flash fit them perfectly. They also picked up some of the trickery that we moved away from the Goblins.

Tricky Faerie

Creature – Faerie Wizard
: Until end of turn, you may play creature spells whenever you could play an instant.
1/1

Everybody Jump

Instant – Faerie
Target creature you control gains flying until end of turn.
Mojo - All creatures you control gain flying until end of turn.

The obvious qualities for Treefolk were huge amounts of toughness, keying off of Forests, and the Vigilance keyword. We gave them liberal doses of all three of these as well as some intriguing one-off designs like Doran, the Siege Tower and Lignify. One of the easiest tribes to design because their flavor fits so perfectly into Magic.

Branchwielder

Creature – Treefolk Assassin
When CARDNAME deals combat damage to a player, if it's untapped, you may tap it to destroy target creature.
2/2

Stirring of the Oaks

Instant – Treefolk
Untap all creatures you control.
Mojo - Creatures you control get +1/+1 until end of turn.

Changelings

These were created to solve a simple problem. With 8 different tribes, even with Tribal cards, there would only be 1-2 cards for each tribe in a given pack. This was rough on both casual players with a favorite tribe and drafters, so the Changelings were created as a way to let everyone fill in their decks with some additional options. Many of the power/toughness changing spells in the set were also themed as Shapeshifter magic, letting anyone use them for their creature type triggers. At this point I knew that I wanted a subtheme of "sharing creature types" (e.g. destroy two creatures that don't share a creature type, or move an aura between two creatures that do) in Morningtide, so I was excited to have them in the environment.

Clash

This was added very late in design after some all day offsite meetings at Mark Rosewater's house where we struggled to figure out what the non-tribal aspect of the set should be. Clash was nice in that it subtly rewarded Timmies for playing with expensive spells, yet everyone always had a chance to win the clash since their opponent could reveal a land. Yet Spikes strongly disliked the mechanic, because at the time you were told where to put the card, so there were no choices involved. We tried putting it on top, but it felt horrible when you needed a land, revealed a spell to a clash, and then had to wait to draw the useless spell. So we tried putting it on the bottom, but then everyone was sad when they were revealed a spell they were excited about and had to immediately lose it. The breakthrough was allowing the player to choose, giving it an element of Scry and appealing to the Spikes who could now use it to smooth out their draws.

Conclusion

I won't bother trying to identify specific cards that I designed; in fact, at this point I had stopped even keeping track. Not because I designed so many that I couldn't remember them all, but just because once you were heavily involved with the overall shape of a set the individual pieces seemed less important. I did notice, going through my old files, that I submitted the first two abilities for Chandra Nalaar, which is particularly cool because of how hard Planeswalkers are to design (most of them end up getting re-made during development). The printed ultimate ability is far better than mine though; I submitted "Destroy all lands." I didn't yet have a grasp of just how powerful the planeswalker ultimates could (and should) be.

And that, in a nutshell, was the process of Lorwyn design. If you have any questions about the design, or about specific cards, feel free to leave them in the comments and I'll answer what I can. The next post (the final one in the series) will be about Morningtide and the two digital games that I designed: ArtFight, and Alara Explorer. Thanks for reading!

21Jun/112

designing magic: ripple & planar chaos

This is the fourth part of a series about working on Magic: the Gathering during my five years at Wizards of the Coast:

Part One (Joining WotC, playing in the FFL, developing Champions of Kamigawa)
Part Two (Developing Betrayers of Kamigawa and the Jitte mistake)
Part Three (Developing Ravnica, unleashing Friggorid, and designing MTGO Vanguard)

The Lost Set

Coldsnap was always a weird product. The idea behind the set was that this old design file for a lost third set from the Ice Age block had been unearthed, and we were suddenly inspired to make a set out of it. Of course there wasn't any such file, and we were just filling a hole for the fourth set that year since core sets were every other year at that point. It was as good an excuse as any to make some new cards, but it had some unique challenges because it was a small set that was going to primarily drafted by itself.

At some point Randy Buehler, the lead developer, sent out an email with the following request:

"We would really like to try out more 'collect me' mechanics. Like maybe howling spells (When I resolve search your library for another copy of me) or maybe something else we haven't thought of. We know people will get 6-ofs in draft and we want to make sure that's a feature, not a bug."

I still have the printout of that email, and on it I had scrawled: "Ripple - When you cast this, flip top 5 cards. Any cards with same name can cast for free."

This made it almost verbatim into the set, even keeping the name, which is quite the rare occurrence. It was also my first mechanic. So what went through my mind designing it?

Well, I started out thinking about howling spells and how I wasn't a fan of them. As soon as you played the first one, the next three or four turns of the game were almost scripted as you searched up one after another. There was no variance, no surprise, and no excitement since you knew up front exactly how many were in your deck.

To get around this problem, I found myself going back to the idea of flipping from the deck, just like Erratic Explosion. From there it was obvious that you should be looking for matches, since the point of the mechanic was to allow multiples to shine, and it was just a question of what the reward should be. Putting them in your hand seemed fair, but fair isn't your foremost concern when doing straight design work. It's more about excitement and being over the top without crossing the line to absurdity. Playing the revealed cards for free fit that criteria perfectly.

Now the mechanic had:

  1. A random outcome. You could have three copies of a Ripple spell in your deck, get lucky and hit another, or you could have eight copies and completely whiff.
  2. A dream of going big. Since each spell that you got to play for free would also trigger, you could theoretically chain through your entire deck and cast every Ripple card.

The only thing left was the name. I'm remarkably terrible at naming. This once, though, I seemed to hit the nail on the head. I wish I could remember exactly what I was thinking. I know it either had to do with the ripples created by dropping a pebble into a still lake, or the idea that casting the spell sent ripples into the aether that triggered similar spells in the vicinity to also fire, but either way I must have been onto something because the name never changed throughout development.

In retrospect, Ripple wasn't entirely loved by players. The mechanic had a weird tension where the better the cards were, the less likely you'd be able to actually ripple them. So Surging Flame played pretty nicely in that people usually only had two or three of them. But if a player got enough of one of the weak ones, like eight Surging Dementias or whatever, there was a pretty decent chance that they'd wipe out their opponent's entire hand on turn two. (If you revealed multiple copies of the spell when you rippled, you could play both of them, and then each of them would ripple, so you'd get to reveal eight or twelve cards, which would probably continue the chain once or twice.)

Maybe the mechanic should have only let you cast one of the revealed matching cards, although it would've been pretty sad when you revealed three matches and had to put two of them on the bottom. Maybe it should've put all of them in your hand and only let you cast one for free. Maybe we should've played around more with the cards that had ripple and not had any that were egregious in multiples, like the wall of first strike from Surging Sentinels or the hand clearing of Surging Dementia. Even in hindsight, I'm not sure of the right solution. Design is hard!

As for the FFL, I remember testing Scrying Sheets extensively, trying to make blue beatdown with Vexing Sphinx work, trying out Tamanoa in my Searing Meditation deck, playing Skred in many decks, and trying to prove that Martyr of Sands was a mistake. I think the Martyr was a side effect of that same common feeling that white got screwed in cycles, especially when it got lifegain, so the developers set out to make the number matter. It was a lofty goal, but I realized not long after the set was finished that 21 life was a pretty absurd reward for a hand full of white cards. It didn't take long to find Proclamation of Rebirth from Dissension, and I had my favorite deck for the next six months. I played the deck enough and convinced enough people of the dangers of the card that Sulfur Elemental in Planar Chaos gained its odd combination of Flash, Split second, and "White creatures gets +1/-1", which could both shut down an active Martyr and also keep all future Martyrs off the table for good.

Time Spiral

I wasn't on either of the teams for Time Spiral, and I only “designed” one card for it: Deathspore Thallid (likely just a hole-filling for a black common Thallid). I didn't have the same encyclopedic knowledge and fond nostalgia of ancient card sets that guys like Aaron Forsythe and Devin Low did, mainly because I took a break from the game around Ice Age and didn't come back until Invasion.

What I did do was play quite a bit of FFL. Here's what I remember from that time period:

  • Our version of the metagame was quite different from what actually ended up happening. Mostly I think it was because we undervalued Teferi, which changed everything. In hindsight Teferi was too strong and warped the environment significantly. The worst thing about him was that he completely shut down Suspend and Madness, two of the major mechanics from the set.
  • We also missed the strength of Dragonstorm. We knew that printing Dragonstorm along with Bogardan Hellkite opened up the possibility for a deck, but we didn't think a deck based around a nine mana sorcery would be all that viable. We were wrong.
  • We played a lot more Spectral Force than the real world did, often combining it with Scryb Ranger.
  • Aaron Forsythe blew my mind one day with a Vesuvan Shapeshifter deck that did sick things in combination with cards like Fathom Seer. I don't remember if it had Brine Elemental though (the other half of the infamous “Pickles” combo that could lock your opponent out of the game).
  • We thought Serra Avenger was an extremely strong card and had it in most or all of our white decks.
  • Some decks that I personally tried to make work from this period (and failed): Mangara with Momentary Blink, White Weenie with Celestial Crusader, R/B madness with Jaya Ballard, and a Restore Balance concoction.
  • Greater Gargadon: this card dominated the FFL for several months. The extremely low upfront investment plus the inevitability of the huge attacker and the ability to blank your opponent's beneficial effects from cards like Tendrils of Corruption made it extremely popular inside R&D. We were all baffled when it almost didn't even show up in the real world, although some of that can be explained by the rise of Teferi decks. Eventually we felt vindicated when it did start showing up in a few decks, but it was still a little embarrassing that our predicted metagame was so off.
  • We also had Ancestral Vision in almost all of our blue decks. That one, at least, started getting playing heavily, proving that we weren't always off base.

Planar Chaos

My first official design team. For a year or two now I had been heavily involved in design on other games, having decided that the initial creative side of the process appealed to me more than the tuning and balancing side of things. (These days I do both, so I'm glad to have experienced both sides.) At some point I'd been asked if I wanted to do design for Magic. In a surprising twist of events, I said yes.

Working on this set drove home the importance of being able to convince others. It doesn't always matter how passionate you are, or how right you think you are, but if you can't win over the team, the set's going to diverge from what you think is best.

The team consisted of Bill Rose as the lead, Matt Place, Mark Rosewater, and me. Based on the past/present/future plan of the Time Spiral block, we were tasked with evoking an alternate present. To say I was excited about this would be an understatement. Immediately I set about brainstorming ways to make people feel like reality had taken an alternate path, at least with regards to Magic.

My favorite idea was something that I'm sure many Magic fans have thought about as well: a sixth color. Now, I don't believe that Magic should ever add a sixth color permanently. In an alternate future, however, Magic easily could have been designed with six colors from the beginning, and this was the perfect chance to dabble in it while having an easy out to remove it again when the block finished. I loved the idea of players seeing a box of Magic on the shelves and finding the familiar five color logo from the backs of the cards replaced with a six color version instead. (This would just be for the packaging; the logo on the backs of the cards themselves would have to stay the same of course.)

I wrote an article detailing the process of exploring the sixth color here: The Color Purple. (Interestingly, both [new mechanic A] and [new mechanic B] from that article still haven't seen the light of day almost five years later.)

We came up with some great solutions for some of the problems that arose. Bill's idea to reserve one common slot in every pack for a purple card to ensure that a critical mass was available in drafts was brilliant. Still, the idea as a whole never managed to gain a critical mass of support and was eventually scrapped.

My other major almost-contribution had to do with one of the other mechanics in the set: Vanishing. This was an updated version of Fading that I didn't think we should use. We had significant data at this point that pointed to the majority of players not liking keywords that were all downside; even if the card had a discounted mana cost or was more powerful than normal, that wasn't enough to offset the sadness of having the creature saddled by a drawback. Fading was a pretty obvious drawback.

I wanted to flip Fading on its head and make a different mechanic where the creatures got bonuses or triggered abilities when they ran out of counters, rather than dying. For example, imagine a Rukh Egg that didn't hatch by being destroyed, but instead hatched if it stayed undisturbed for three turns. Or a baby dinosaur with small stats that grows up into a huge beast in a couple turns. That way the player is excited about keeping their creature alive and looking forward to the future instead of watching its life slowly tick away. Unfortunately, Mark and Bill were sold on having Vanishing on the set, and I lost that battle as well.

We settled on playing around with reprinting existing cards in alternate colors, and went as far as having a playtest where every common followed that rule. I wasn't particularly enjoying it, but was having trouble verbalizing why. Randy, however, perfectly nailed it when he said that much of the fun of playing a new Magic set is evaluating the cards and trying to figure out the strength of each one. With this proposed version of the set, even though it was occasionally exciting to see an old favorite return in a new color, everything was already figured out. It was clear we couldn't sell a set based on this gimmick alone, although many of the individual cards did survive to see print.

Despite failing to shape much of the direction for the set, I did contribute some cards:

Erratic Mutation - My obsession with Erratic Explosion had continued unabated, and I suggested this tweaked version of it as a blue card. The upgrade to instant and change to +X/-X gave it some additional utility as an extremely risky spell to cast on your own unblocked creature, and made it a scary spell to use at the wrong time on an opponent's creature. All in all, a fun spell that had a nice amount of tension.

Shivan Meteor - I wouldn't be surprised if a couple other people designed the exact same card, as I remember the hole that we were filling was fairly specific. Still, I think I did submit it with the number 13. As Mark always likes to say, odd numbers are funnier.

Roiling Horror - This was part of a rare creature cycle with X-based Suspend costs that did something every turn they were suspended. I hit upon the idea of having a creature whose size depended on the difference in between your life total and your opponent's, and it was only natural to make the suspend effect drain a life. I believe the Suspend cost was actually at one point but that proved to be too strong. My only regret with this card is that we chose to say "an opponent with the most life". If it had been printed today it probably would've been "the least life" and been a tempting multiplayer card, and an interestingly political one at that since you would be trying to keep that low life player alive so that your creature wouldn't shrink.

Detritivore - R&D has an occasional obsession with punishing non-basic lands. It was our method of both giving tools to the folks who couldn't afford the expensive mana bases, and a way of making you think twice about playing the often "strictly better" dual land options. Detritivore was unique in that it was both uncounterable and repeatable land destruction, and as such ended up being so expensive that it rarely saw play.

Dash Hopes - My list of cards I designed has a question mark after this one, which probably means I submitted something similar but reasonably different and it may have turned into this. Not that it really matters. In any case, this card is a strange beast, as it uses red's "punisher" mechanic to justify "counter target spell" in black.

It's fair to say that I'm somewhat disappointed with the set we ended up shipping. I still wish we could've done something more to sell the alternate reality version. I wanted longtime fans to open a pack and be shocked by what they found. Not in a negative way, but in a way that's evocative of what could have been if Richard Garfield had just made a slightly different decision all those years ago, or if Wizards R&D had taken a different path a few years prior. Much like the TV series Sliders showed viewers a glimpse into parallel universe theory, where each world they visited had diverged from the one they knew in some strange but significant way. I wanted the set to feel like that. (Coincidentally, Wikipedia informs me that a group of parallel universes is called a multiverse, which is the name of R&D's card database and the name used to describe the game world. Intriguing.)

Future Sight

At this point I had returned to working on digital projects pretty much full time. Uncivilized: the Goblin Game was in full swing and there was an endless amount of design and scripting work to be done. My only contribution to the set came in the form of the Pact cycle, which I had actually designed months earlier for Planar Chaos during my alternate reality explorations. The idea was that we would take a card from Unhinged and print a functional equivalent in Planar Chaos, and I chose Rocket Powered Turbo Slug because it was a relatively normal effect and it played with time, which was a subtheme of the entire block. I submitted:

Speedy Slug

Creature - Slug
Haste
Reprieve (You may play this creature for free. If you do, you must pay this creature's mana cost before the end of your next turn, or you lose the game.)
3/1

To demonstrate that there was more fertile design space with Reprieve I also submitted:

Disagree

Instant
Counter target spell.
Reprieve (You may play this spell for free. If you do, you must pay this spell's mana cost before the end of your next turn, or you lose the game.)

The team loved Disagree but we couldn't escape the feeling that the mechanic was strongly tied to the future, which meant it belonged not in Planar Chaos but in Future Sight. There, it became Pact of Negation, and I was asked to submit some ideas for a potential cycle and to play around with other penalties rather than just losing the game outright. None of these ideas ended up being used but here were my thoughts on the process:

  • Cards must be instants and cost a decent amount to be interesting.
  • Should be effects you might want to surprise your opponent with while tapped out.
  • The penalties should generally be effects that the color could do to your opponent, but done to you on a larger scale (your spell is turning on you).
  • Penalties should be bad enough that you're almost always scared of them.
  • But, the penalties should also allow you to set up situations where you can just ignore them.

These are the designs I submitted:


Destroy target attacking or blocking creature.
Reprieve - Destroy all creatures you control.


Counter target spell.
Reprieve - Put your library into your graveyard. (or "You lose the game")


Deal three damage to target creature or player. Gain three life.
Reprieve - Discard your hand.


Untap and gain control of target creature until the end of the turn. It gains haste.
Reprieve - CARDNAME deals 8 damage to you.


Target creature gets +4/+4 until end of turn.
Reprieve - Target opponent may put four +1/+1 counters on a creature he or she controls.

In the end, the Future Sight team decided that the upside of giving players a way to cheat the Reprieve costs didn't outweigh the simplicity and emotional impact of the threat of losing the game. Editing and the rules manager made the call to rework the Pact cycle into zero mana spells with no keyword, just a trigger and a cost in the text box, and that's how they were printed.

Next time: I suggest something as a joke and it becomes an official Magic rule, working on the design team for the first new card type in years, and the design team for the tribal set of Lorwyn. (Part Five is now available.)

6Jun/115

designing magic: ravnica & mtgo vanguard

This is the third part in a series of posts about working at Wizards of the Coast on Magic: the Gathering. If you're new to the series, you might want to start at Part One.

Ravnica

I honestly don't remember Ravnica development that well at this point. I wasn't originally on the team, but was asked to join at some point during the middle of development by the illustrious Brian Schneider. I was already a huge fan of the set ever since hearing the guilds idea, especially since they reminded me of the four houses in the ancient Arena book which was a childhood favorite. The development team had almost all of the savvy and experienced developers from that time period: Aaron Forsythe, Henry Stern, Matt Place, Mark Gottlieb, and Brian. The combination of a strong team plus a beloved final product made this a great experience.

I only designed a single card in Ravnica: Shadow of Doubt. I simply followed these three handy steps on how to design a card that will affect constructed:

  1. Think of something that players often want to do in Magic.
  2. Make a card that says they can't do that. Bonus points if it's the first one.
  3. Cost it aggressively and/or make it a cantrip.

Seriously though, one of my favorite things about Magic is that whatever your opponent is trying to do, there's likely some card out there that's strong against it. I think my love for that stems from the format that I played against my brother growing up, where the loser of each match would get to change their deck however they wanted. It was endless fun tinkering with our decks to beat the specific challenges. Brother adds a bunch of flying creatures? In goes Hurricane. He switches to an artifact based combo? Time for Shatterstorm. So I was always looking for ways to give people additional tools when a certain style of deck was giving them trouble. The most recent apparent example of this from R&D is Torpor Orb, as a tool to counter decks that just abuse endless "enters the battlefield" triggers.

There was a lot of discussion about pushing the card to three mana. Eventually the decision was made to release it at two mana, and it debuted to some strong buzz on the rumor websites. I remember sending an (in hindsight, embarrassing) email to the department with a bunch of quotes about people's excitement for the card, thanking the team for letting it go out at two mana. Actually, there was some amount of embarrassment even while writing it, as I usually try to exercise more humility, but my exuberance carried through regardless.

A final aside on Shadow of Doubt: hybrid cards are really, really difficult to design. Primarily you only have these options:

  1. An effect or combination of effects that can be done by either color. These easily could've been mono-colored, so the main benefit of hybrid mana is that it makes them easier to cast. (Elvish Hexhunter)
  2. An effect from one color plus an effect from another color. These should really just be gold cards instead, so most of the time R&D manages to avoid them. (Spiteful Visions and Thoughtweft Gambit both tread this line)
  3. Something that references colors or basic land types, so that it's castable in a deck with only one matching color but more powerful in a deck matching both colors. These fit the concept well but tend to have a lot of text. (Batwing Brume or Selkie Hedge-Mage)
  4. Something that hasn't really been done before, so doesn't necessarily have an established color. (Enchanted Evening or Rosheen Meanderer)

Shadow of Doubt is the fourth option, which helped quite a bit. There aren't that many effects that both work within the rules and haven't been done before, so when someone found an interesting one it tended to survive.

Ravnica FFL Testing

Searing Meditation was one of my favorite cards from the set, and was the centerpiece of one of my more successful decks. I've always had a soft spot for these straightforward "build around me" cards, and have been enjoying abusing Rage Extractor in the triple NPH drafts on MTGO recently. I vaguely remember Searing Meditation having either no activation cost or only a single mana cost initially, but at this point we had learned enough from Rift Slide decks that it quickly went to two mana. Here was the list:

3 Terashi's Grasp
4 Lifening Rift (the playtest name for Searing Meditation, and a terrible pun)
3 Phoenix Angel (Firemane Angel)
3 Gifts Ungiven
4 Wrath of God
4 Pink Bolt (Lightning Helix)
4 Ghost-Lit Redeemer
3 White Shrine (Honden of Cleansing Fire)
3 Red Shrine (Honden of Infinite Rage)
3 White Shoal (Shining Shoal)
4 WR Egg (probably Boros Signet)
4 WU Land
4 RU Land
4 WR Land
4 WR Pain
3 Mountain
3 Plains

As you can see, I'd now been in the FFL long enough that I was starting to abbreviate heavily in my decklists. The same thing happens with your proxies; when I first showed up at Wizards, I would write out the full name and mana cost in appropriate colored sharpies, plus much of the actual gameplay text, and maybe even the creature type. Fast forward a couple years and it was more like a description/nickname instead of the actual name, and a mana cost, all in black sharpie. Brian Schneider at this point had slimmed the process down to the bare minimum: a single word (or sometimes number) written in ballpoint pen in the center of the card, which always made playing him an interesting adventure.

The next deck was all about keeping an eye on Blazing Shoal. We'd made the tough decision to print it in Betrayers of Kamigawa despite the threat of some (extremely rare) first turn kills, and now that the Ravnica team was interested in printing the first cheap double striker in history, it deserved another look.

4 Myojin of Infinite Rage
2 Bloodfire Colossus
4 Leonin Skyhunter
4 Double Striker (Boros Swiftblade)
4 Psionic Blast (Char)
3 White Shoal (Shining Shoal)
4 Red Shoal (Blazing Shoal)
4 Isamaru
4 Haste Flier (Skyknight Legionnaire)
4 Jitte
4 WR Pain
4 WR Switch
3 Metalland (Sunhome, Fortress of the Legion?)
6 Plains
1 L Plains (Eiganjo Castle)
4 Mountains
1 L Mountain (Shinka, the Bloodsoaked Keep)

Unsurprisingly this deck was powerful and volatile but far too inconsistent, especially with cards like Sickening Shoal and Last Gasp around to provide cheap creature removal.

Finally, this last deck was made to test out the power of the Selesnya guild backed by Doubling Season. At this point I had cemented myself as a primarily Johnny-style deckbuilder (with a generous helping of Spike), being most focused on discovering interesting interactions and combos. I mostly left it to Matt Place and others to build the true Spike decks that consisted of all the best cards in the format, and if my decks could hold their own, I knew they were worth pursuing.

4 Birds of Paradise
4 Selesnya Evangel
4 Savannah Guildmage (Selesnya Guildmage)
4 Sakura-Tribe Elder
3 More Counters Please (Doubling Season)
3 Spontaneous Germs (Seed Spark?)
2 Asceticism (Privileged Position)
2 Selesnya conclave (probably Chorus of the Conclave)
2 Meloku
2 Time of Need
3 Position (Glare of Subdual)
3 Umezawa's Jitte
4 W/G Dual
4 W/G Pain
4 G/U Pain
1 Island
4 Forest
4 Plains
1 L Forest (Okina, Temple to the Grandfathers)
1 L Plains (Eiganjo Castle)

Clearly we had now discovered the power of Jitte and had begun including it in many of our decks. I seem to remember the Doubling Season portion of this deck proving to be a bit "too cute", but it did show yet again time that token creatures plus an Opposition style effect was powerful. Many Japanese players ended up using a more focused version of that strategy at the World Championships that year.

The "Friggorid" Deck

One of the benefits of working at Wizards is a fully stocked Magic Online (MTGO) account with plenty of boosters and four of every single card in existence. The double edged sword was that we weren't allowed to draft, since they were sanctioned and paid out prizes, and employees winning draft queues could easily cause accusations of cheating from the community. So the only thing to do with the account was to build wacky decks and have fun battling in the casual or tournament practice rooms. As such, I was always on the lookout for fun decklists to try out.

In early December, John Rizzo, a favorite author of mine and friend from Pittsburgh, wrote an article entitled The Vase in which he included an extended decklist focused around the Dredge mechanic and Ichorid. I had played very little Extended at this point, but it sounded intruiging so I built the deck on Magic Online and took it for a spin in the tournament practice room. Suddenly I was crushing everyone. I tweaked the deck a little bit and then built a physical copy of it to bring to the World Championships in Japan where I was doing event coverage. (As an aside, traveling to locations like Yokohama was one of the great perks of the job, although doing coverage was also a demanding schedule at a time when what I really wanted to do was wander the event, hanging out with my friends from the tournament scene and soaking up information to bring back to Wizards. For that reason I think I wasn't always in the best of moods during the events, especially since I'm a slow writer and it felt like literally all of my time was spent cooped up in a back room working on the articles. So if anyone I worked with at those events is reading this, sorry about that! I'm usually much more pleasant to be around.)

Anyway, during the day when everyone was playing Extended at Worlds, I managed to find some time between rounds and challenged the pros to some games with the Ichorid deck. As mentioned before, I hadn't played much Extended at all, and didn't even really know what to expect from their decks, plus I was somewhat out of practice. As it turned out, I immediately started crushing them too. It was almost like the deck was playing a completely different game, and theirs just weren't fast enough to compete or couldn't interact with what I was doing. From there the hype really took off, and here's an excerpt from Ted Knutson's coverage at GP Charlotte on where it went from there:

In Japan, he kept smashing people with the deck between rounds, creating a buzz around a deck constructed by a guy known more for rants against intentional draws than deck design. Then Osyp Lebedowicz played the deck to a Top 4 finish in a Grand Prix Trial, and Thomas Pannell fell just short of qualifying for Hawaii with the deck in the Sunday PTQ at Worlds. Heavy-duty playtesting ensued in the following weeks, the deck was tweaked and tuned, and Mike Flores wrote about his own Top 8 PTQ performance with the deck this week, thus further ballooning the hype. When I talked to the pros last night, it seemed like more than half of them were playing the deck, and the dealer tables reported back that two of the hottest selling cards were Ichorid and Morningtide, two sides of the same recurring coin.

This was completely unprecedented. Now, I'm not the type to worry about losing my job. If you're good enough at what you do, you don't ask for unreasonable compensation, and you make yourself generally useful, a company that isn't going bankrupt is unlikely to let you go. However, there's an unwritten (or maybe it's written, not sure) rule in R&D that you don't mess with the real world. In other words, you don't give people undiscovered tech in the unlikely event that the FFL stumbed upon something that the rest of the world didn't. Because I had helped unleash a new deck on the scene that caused a major metagame shift, I was genuinely scared for a short while that I would be at least disciplined, if not actually fired. Luckily I think everyone involved realized that I was just as surprised as anyone else that the deck was as good as it was. I mean, what were the chances that there was a completely undiscovered archetype that would be one of the best decks in the format, given that the pros had been testing the format for months leading up to Worlds? In the end, to my great relief, it never caused an issue.

MTGO Vanguard

In late 2004, Rachel Reynolds was implementing all of the cards for MTGO but was looking for a side project as she still had some downtime between set deadlines. That project ended up being the Online Vanguard format. I was hugely excited about this and was named the lead of a small team tasked with designing the abilities as well as balancing the starting hand sizes and life totals. There were two primary reasons for my excitement:

  1. I'd always enjoyed the concept of Vanguard. Adding another layer of strategy and choice to the game, combined with the flavor of choosing a famous "character" from the game's fiction, resonated with me strongly. We already had collectible avatars on MTGO, so it made a lot of sense to give them some extra value by adding a gameplay effect in an optional format.
  2. I was a big fan of the old Shandalar computer game, and one of the many awesome things about it was the Astral set, a selection of cards that could only exist on a computer because of their heavy use of randomness, such as Aswan Jaguar. This was a chance to create some abilities that could only exist on MTGO.

I could write an entire post about the design process for the avatars, but I'll just focus on our major goals instead. We wanted the basic avatars that came with new accounts to have a simple ability that represented their color well, we wanted a selection of avatars with random effects that could only be done online, and we wanted to enable new and interesting decks that might not be strong enough in other formats. How did we do?

Well, decent. My favorite avatar out of the bunch was probably Akroma, with the following ability: "When a creature comes into play under your control, it gains two of the following abilities at random: flying, first strike, trample, haste, protection from black, protection from red, or vigilance." In our internal playtests you'd always hear people yelling "come on haste!" or "flying please!" and then swearing would generally ensue, either from their opponent when they hit or from the person with Akroma when they didn't. It had a low barrier to entry (all you had to was play creatures) and it tended to create interesting situations consistently, plus it matched the actual card perfectly.

Our biggest error was actually in the development stages. Elvish Champion was an avatar with the ability "You start the game with a 1/1 green Elf token that has ‘T: Add G to your mana pool.’" I was far too focused on the fact that the ability was only useful early in the game, and a single burn spell could easily set you back to playing an avatar-less game. To compensate we gave it 8 cards and 21 life, stats which are actually quite generous, and it dominated the early competitive Vanguard scene. It was somewhat inevitable that there would be a "best" avatar given the small size of the team, but it was extremely unfortunate that it happened to be this one, since it was so easy to slot into almost any competitive Standard deck without changing any cards whatsoever. Because of this we failed, at least early on, in our goal of making a unique format where different cards and decks would be powerful. The only consolation was that we had warned people up front that we'd be changing the stats if necessary. Eventually we removed a card and some life and gave other avatars a chance to shine.

The lesson here: when balancing objects in a system, spend some time thinking about if there are any that would be particularly damaging if they end up being better than you thought. (For example, a counterspell when a countermagic heavy deck is dominating the current metagame.) Either test those extensively, or if you don't have time, aim for a lower power level so that you have some extra room to spare if you're wrong. Or possibly both.

After the original batch was finished, I took on the responsibility of designing the two avatars for each new set release. The other design that stands out is Momir Vig and his ability of "X, Discard a card: Put a token into play as a copy of a random creature card with converted mana cost X. Play this ability only any time you could play a sorcery and only once each turn." It was inspired by a conversation I had with the programmers about an April Fool's feature that someone had once coded on a whim, where any spell that you cast would be replaced by another random spell with same mana cost. It didn't take long for me to realize that something similar would make for a perfect avatar.

The intent was to let you play a deck with a bunch of wacky situational cards that could be turned into creatures in a pinch, but the design ended up being incredibly successful in a way no one anticipated. It spawned its own format, Momir Basic, that was played with just the avatar and sixty basic lands. Hundreds of tournaments in that format have been run on MTGO, with the avatar rising in price to between $10 and $20 as demand fluctuated. Recently a Momir Event Pack was added to the store for $9.99 to ensure that people could find a copy of the avatar easily.

There was the occasional sentiment at Wizards that Momir Vig might be hurting profits by undermining people's desire to buy cards. I'm obviously biased, but I've always felt the opposite, that it was a clear win. I've heard plenty of stories of players creating MTGO accounts just based on the existence of the avatar. Yeah, some of those players probably never went on to buy any cards, but I'm sure many of them were tempted by the allure of drafts eventually. Along those lines, Momir Vig also did a great job of showcasing creatures from Magic's history, which could create demand for cards as people might go on to trade for those creatures to put them in their deck. And finally, it made a lot of money in straight up tournament entry fees.

Awhile ago Wizards stopped supporting the Vanguard format, and has discontinued giving the new avatars any abilities or gameplay effects. It's too bad, because it's sucked all of the fun out of collecting them for me, but I suppose they did a cost/benefit analysis and it came up short.

Well! So much for talking about Coldsnap, Time Spiral, or Planar Chaos in this installment. Next time it is. Thanks for reading! (Part Four is now available.)

29May/111

designing magic: betrayers & jitte

You can find Part One here, which covers how I got to Wizards of the Coast, playing in the Future Future League, and Champions of Kamigawa.

More Kamigawa Tidbits

"There's no shortage of ass in this set."

I saved this quote at the top of one of my text files from the Kamigawa era, with no attribution or context. At first glance you might think the unnamed developer was reveling in the saturation of bad cards we'd managed to fit into a single set. However, the actual meaning might be different. Around R&D creatures with high toughness are lovingly referred to as having a "big butt", so I think this was actually might be a comment about Kami of Old Stone in Champions or a reference to creatures like Moonlit Strider and Soratami Mindsweeper in Betrayers. Then again, it may well have been a reaction to the number of terrible cards that existed at that exact point in time. Hard to say, but I was amused regardless, both then and now.

Here's another tidbit from that file: apparently Waking Nightmare used to be called Hyakki Yako. Try saying that five times fast. There was definitely some back and forth with the creative team about the naming in these sets. Japanese words tended to be hard to remember, spell and prounounce for the Western audience, so it ended up being ratcheted back a decent amount. Names are actually a hugely important part of a Magic set. One of my friends at Wizards was once lectured for allowing both Quick Sliver and Clickslither to exist in the same set, because the similar pronounciations caused a bunch of unnecessary confusion.

Betrayers of Kamigawa

This was my first official appointment to a Magic set, so I was understandably excited. The team was led by Henry Stern, a rocket scientist, long-time Magic developer, and NPC in World of Warcraft. This was the first time that I realized just how much thought goes into every little decision made by a Magic development team. Every change to the file is discussed at length in a meeting beforehand.

Because of that process, many of the cards that emerge from development aren't designed by one specific person, but rather are created into a meeting to fill a specific hole, or are the result of a designer's card that has been tweaked heavily enough to be almost unrecognizable. There are three cards that I "designed" in Betrayers though:

Unchecked Growth

This one was relatively straightforward. There was a hole filling request for an uncommon "arcane giant growth variant". I submitted:

Spirit Helping Growth

Instant - Arcane
Target creature gains +4/+4. If it is a Spirit, it also gains Trample.

A Little Boost

Instant - Arcane
Target creature gets three +1/+1 counters. At end of turn, remove those counters unless it is a Spirit.

As you can see, the first one made it into the set after my six templating errors were cleaned up. I was still learning!

Patron of the Kitsune

Often when working on a set, you get to a point where the team has hit on a great idea for a cycle, and you've got one or two cards that are perfect for it, but the rest of them are less than ideal. For this reason it's not uncommon for hole-filling requests to go out for specific cards in a cycle. Honestly, I can't really take a lot of credit for this one as I don't believe I designed the Offering mechanic. I simply was a huge fan of Righteous Cause during Onslaught because it was an underappreciated card that could completely swing races when you played it. It was just such a fun card to have in play, and it incentivized attacking, which kept the game moving in a nice way. So I submitted that text as an option for the white Patron, and it made it in.

Patron of the Orochi

Here we wanted something that would synergize with green's mana creatures and activated abilities. I don't remember much about this one except that it was a bit tricky to settle on the correct clause to prevent infinite recursion of the untap ability. "Activate this ability only once per turn" does the job, although it's a bit clunky. These days R&D tends to hate putting tap abilities on giant creatures, since you really want to just swing with them, but at least you could use your Forests and activated abilities, then tap the Patron pre-combat to untap everything, and then attack. All in all, not my favorite card in the world.

And then there are a few other cards that I didn't design but that stood out during development for one reason or another:

Baku Altar

Early on in this card's life, I think it looked something like this:

Shrine to the Zasshu

Artifact
Whenever you cast a Spirit or Arcane spell, you may put a counter on CARDNAME.
, Remove X counters from CARDNAME: Put an X/X colorless Spirit creature token onto the battlefield.

The card was extremely flexible, in that you could make a free 1/1 off of any of your Arcane spells, or you could build up and threaten to unleash a huge creature at any point. For me, it was love at first sight. Unfortunately, it didn't take long until people reacted negatively both to the power level of the card and the difficulty of keeping track of the size of the various tokens. I continually defended the card in meetings and even wrote up a document with eight bullet points about why I thought we should keep it, but the tide inexorably turned. When you're on a team and everyone's against you have to be willing to give up. For posterity here's an abridged version of my list:

  1. It's a limited bomb in a category of cards that hasn't often been a limited bomb in the past (token generators).
  2. It's not an "I pay seven mana and drop this giant creature, now I can't possibly lose" bomb, which we often do (especially in this block), but more of a drop me early and use me over time to gain a slow advantage.
  3. It's a constructed card unlike any before it (except for small similarities to Squirrel Nest and Kjeldoran Outpost), so it won't feel like some other dominant card that people grew to hate.
  4. It will make the format a little more kind to artifact removal so it isn't just "If I don't play against a Mirrodin block deck, my oxidizes are useless." Most of the other artifacts in Kamigawa block are weak.
  5. It goes in a lot of different decks, both aggro and control.
  6. It's not an annoying effect. I've heard people compare it to Rishadan Port because of its ubiquitousness but it's not an unfun card. It doesn't lock anyone down or interfere with your opponent's fun. The only problem is the chump blocking, but there's already a ton of that in the format.
  7. There's a lot of skill in using it.
  8. It's not immediately obvious to most people how good it is.

I can see now that this isn't the most compelling argument I've ever made. Oh well! The only sad thing, in hindsight, is that I don't think Spirit and Arcane cards ever made much of a splash in Standard (with the exception of Ghost Dad), and a strong support card like this might have helped.

Sway of the Stars

This card was originally called Betrayer's Plan, which earned it the apt nickname of "Plan B" as it would get you out of pretty much any terrible situation. It also was passed off from design at a cost of four mana. Having played with Upheaval during Odyssey, I knew immediately that this was an absurd cost for the effect, because you could float mana and then cast a couple creatures afterwards. Even better, your opponent was now at 7 life. The card was quickly proven to be broken at four mana, and then six mana, and then seven mana. At eight it was questionable, but Mons Johnson and I stubbornly continued playing decks designed around it and it was finally pushed to ten mana to be really sure that it wouldn't spawn a tournament viable deck.

Here's an example Betrayer's Plan deck that I played, probably from when it was at eight mana:

4 Rampant Snake (Sakura Tribe-Elder)
4 Hands of Kodama (Kodama's Reach)
4 Eternal Witness
3 Pentad Prism
4 Condescend
2 Mana Leak
2 Annul
4 Hinder
3 Vedalken Shackles
2 Betrayer's Plan (Sway of the Stars)
3 Bribery
1 Spirit of Islands (Genju of the Falls)
1 Spirit of Forests (Genju of the Cedars)
13 Forest
10 Island

The Shoals

We played Shining Shoal extensively in R&D, to the point where we were actually a little worried about the power level by the time the set hit store shelves. I seem to remember that much of the reason for giving White that effect was that there was a feeling in R&D that White often got shafted in cycles, with something lame like lifegain or maybe damage prevention while other colors got removal or card drawing. Pretty much every White Weenie and White control deck in the FFL played at least a couple copies. In the end the concerns largely turned out to be unfounded and the card was around the perfect power level, strong enough where you had to respect the possibility but not strong enough to be ubiquitous.

I talked about Disrupting Shoal in Part One. We debated at length about adding another quality free counterspell to the game, but in the end decided that we couldn't pull the trigger. With the new Spell Blast version, we liked how it got far better the more blue cards you included, because you had a higher chance of matching up with the spell you wanted to counter. It also made you think twice about the mana cost of each card you included in your deck. The card was definitely way worse after the change but we thought it was a better card for Magic overall.

Sickening Shoal was both extremely strong and a nice card to have in the environment to ensure that creature based combo decks didn't get out of hand. The other nice thing about powerful Shoals was that they encouraged decks to include Arcane cards, which gave deckbuilders a reason to think about including Spiritcraft cards that would benefit from the triggers.

Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker

4 Mistmaster (Teardrop Kami, when he could target any permanent)
4 Grave Despoiler (Shirei, Shizo's Caretaker)
4 -1/-1 World (Night of Souls' Betrayal)
4 Chromatic Sphere
4 Sage of Lat-Nam
4 Myr Retriever
4 Glasscaster Kami (Kira, Great Glass-Spinner, probably wasn't a legend yet)
4 Wasting Spiritwave (Sickening Shoal)
3 Thirst for Knowledge
2 Ink-Eyes, Servant of Oni
4 Vault of Whispers
4 Seat of the Synod
8 Island
7 Swamp

All about the interaction of Despoiler and –1/-1 World. That got killed so this deck is no more, although there’s still potential to put the two of them together in a deck with Eternal Witnesses as well. This deck did some crazy things but had trouble actually winning.

Grave Despoiler eventually became Shirei, but at the time his textbox was something like:

"Whenever a creature with power 1 or less is put into a graveyard from play, you may return that card to play under your control at the beginning of the next end step."

This meant that, with Shirei in play:

  1. Sickening Shoal on an opponent's creature would almost always steal them to your side, since when the creature died it would likely have zero or negative power.
  2. Teardrop Kami was an Icy Manipulator on steroids (untap or tap, could be used once on each player's turn, free to use).
  3. If Night of Souls' Betrayal was out, Shirei would bring himself back upon dying.
  4. Myr Retrievers would bounce in and out of play, continually returning artifacts from the graveyard. They worked especially well with Sage of Lat-Nam, who was protected by Shirei but could survive Night of Souls' Betrayal.
  5. If Night of Souls' Betrayal and Shirei were out, your opponents couldn't play small creatures with beneficial comes into play effects like Eternal Witness, because they would start bouncing in and out of play on your side.

The interaction between Shirei and Sickening Shoal eventually forced the team to change Shirei so that he only worked for your own creatures, and the interaction with Night of Souls' Betrayal granting him immortality forced the "if Shirei is still in play" text, so this deck slowly drifted into oblivion.

Umezawa's Jitte

Sometime in the middle of Betrayers development, there was an innocuous card in the file that looked like this:

Umezawa's Jitte

Legendary Artifact - Equipment
Whenever equipped creature deals combat damage, put a charge counter on Umezawa's Jitte.
Remove a charge counter from Umezawa's Jitte: Choose one - Equipped creature gets +2/+2 until end of turn; or add to your mana pool; or you gain 2 life.
Equip

We had been told that Toshiro Umezawa and his Jitte were both central to the story, and there was some amount of pressure to make both of them respectable cards. The problem was, the above card sucked. It was practically unplayable. You had to play it, equip it, then get into combat, and after all of that you either got one shot of a Vulshok Morningstar's permanent bonus, or a refund on the equip cost, or a couple of life. It was truly terrible.

So, during some meeting when we were lamenting about the sad state of the card, I uttered these simple words: "Why not just make it give two counters?" Everyone quickly agreed, we playtested it for awhile, and we liked what we saw. Now you were threatening some serious mana acceleration when you managed to connect, your creatures grew fearsome, and the lifegain was meaningful. It was strong in Limited formats but far from broken, and still seemed mostly outclassed in Constructed. Perfect for our purposes.

Fast forward to very late in the development process. The set was essentially out of our hands at this point, but editing had realized that a certain card didn't work within the rules. It turned out that you couldn't have a modal ability where the different choices operate at different speeds. By that I mean, two of the three abilities would go on the stack at instant speed as normal, but the mana ability didn't use the stack at all, and the rules couldn't support that. We had an emergency meeting to come up with a replacement ability. It couldn't provide mana, and ideally it needed to be black-aligned. We tossed around a few ideas that no one liked, and then someone (I honestly can't remember who) suggested that it could give -1/-1 to opposing creatures. I remember considering this, and my (flawed) reasoning went something like "Well, a lot of constructed decks don't even play creatures, and the ones that do usually play sturdy ones, so that seems like it would be fair." Awkward...

Now you might be thinking, "Given that you knew upfront that there was no opportunity to playtest it, wouldn't you want to pick some terrible ability that's guaranteed to be safe?" Yes, you're absolutely right. I like to think that if the designer that I am today were in that meeting, then I would've said something exactly along those lines. But here's the thing: the card had been unplayable in Constructed for months at this point. Once you mentally write off a card, it can be surprisingly difficult to see it as a contender again. The same exact thing happened to the Darksteel developers with Skullclamp one year earlier.

In our defense, Adrian Sullivan in his post pre-release article wrote "When I put Umezawa's Jitte into my sealed deck, I thought it might be neat. Once I'd finished playing it, I couldn't believe how well it had performed. As I drove home, I began to think that this card was so good that I wanted to try it for constructed." We were still at the "it might be neat" stage. Because we knew going in to that meeting that it was a final change, and we all had other obligations and tasks anyway, we just didn't playtest it to make the leap to the further stages.

And that's how I contributed to the creation of one of the more broken cards in recent memory.

Saviors of Kamigawa

I don't have a lot to say about Saviors. I was only slightly involved in the FFL during this period, so most of my experience with the set came just like everyone else: through opening booster packs after release. I think I was mostly focused on other projects at this point. My only contribution to the set came in the design of Undying Flames. Again, this was one of those cycle hole-filling exercises where the mechanic is already set (in this case, Epic) and the team is just looking for a good fit. I had been thinking a lot recently about how fun cards like Erratic Explosion were, because they had this nice risk/reward tension where you decide what to target, and then everyone looks on eagerly as you get the payoff moment of revealing the amount of damage. You even have a slow buildup sometimes as you reveal land after land, and that feeling of relief as you realize you just saved yourself from drawing all of them. And if it's fun once, won't be fun to do it every turn for the rest of the game? (Well, not always, but in this case, yes.)

That's it for this installment. Next time: joining the development team for Ravnica, some of my FFL decks from the Ravnica period, my unwitting contribution to the rise of the Friggorid deck, and the debut of the Online Vanguard format. Check out Part Three here.

22May/115

designing magic: FFL & dampen thought

At the start of my career in the games industry I had the pleasure of working at Wizards of the Coast (WotC) for five years, and had a chance to work extensively on Magic: the Gathering, a game that I honestly feel has one of the best core designs of all time. I also have a horrible memory, which is a boon because I can watch movies and read books over and over again and it's a new experience each time, but is unfortunate when trying to recall events from more than a few months ago. My goal here is to commit my memories of the experience of working on Magic to "paper" before I forget any more of it and also bring all of you along for the ride as well.

Apologies in advance to those I worked with if I've remembered anything incorrectly. I'll do my best. Also, if you haven't played Magic, parts of this series probably won't be as interesting to you. I'll try to generalize where I can.

Pre-WotC

The journey started in Pittsburgh where I was working as a web developer at a business called CombineNet. Taken straight from their website, here is what they offer:

"CombineNet, Inc. offers advanced sourcing technology and products. We offer the best-in-class sourcing solution delivered through our core product: CombineNet ASAP (Advanced Sourcing Application Platform), to improve the way organizations source their entire range of spend categories. CombineNet ASAP takes spend under management to the next level by driving significant value improvements to all sourcing events and by addressing spend categories that general sourcing suites and e-RFX tools cannot."

Sounds amazing, right? Yeah, I have no idea what that paragraph means either. Basically I was a Perl/HTML programmer creating front end interfaces that allowed shipping companies to create complicated bids as they tried to earn business from Fortune 500 companies that needed to move huge volumes of goods around the world. For example, they might offer 10% off all of their bids in the Atlantic if they won at least 30% of the bids in the Pacific, along with a myriad of other clauses. Every single one of those bids would then be run through a black box algorithm that would spit out "the answer" which would save the huge company many millions of dollars. Over time, I started taking pride in improving the usability of the bidding interface, to the point of spending more of my time on the user experience and the visual design than the behind the scenes programming. Soon I was taking on more of a graphic design role, which was actually a dream of mine as I had attempted to switch my major at Carnegie Mellon from Computer Science to Communication Design during my sophomore year. Sadly it would've required me to completely start over, and I ended up getting a minor instead.

Then I saw a posting on the Wizards of the Coast website offering a developer intern position. (Developer, in WotC terms, means a designer who's focused more on balance and idea refinement than on the original idea creation process.) It had been an even greater dream of mine to work in the games industry, but up to this point I really had no idea how to make it a reality, as I had no real contacts in the industry. I did at least have the advantage of having a small amount of success on the Magic: the Gathering Pro Tour, with a top 4 at a team Grand Prix and a top 32 at Pro Tour Chicago. I knew that was something Wizards valued and decided on a whim to apply. Long story short, I didn't get the job, but came close enough that I was recommended to Robert Gutschera, who ended up offering me a position as a developer intern for the non-Magic side of Wizards R&D.

It was a harder decision than you might think to decide to take the job. It wasn't because my paycheck would be cut in half, or because I'd have to leave many of my friends behind, or because I'd have to buy my first car and suddenly move across the country. It was because I'd just been told at work that we'd recently hired a local highly respected graphic design firm, and I was being sent to work at their offices temporarily to ensure a successful partnership. It was a perfect start to a successful career as a graphic designer. All of a sudden I'd gone from someone who played and wrote about Magic exclusively for months after college because he didn't know what else to do, to having two of my dreams coming true simultaneously. Still, in the end I knew I couldn't pass the internship up. It's not every day you get a chance to enter the games industry at a high profile company like WotC, and once you're in, the sky's the limit. It's just up to your work ethic, your knowledge, and your skills.

Working on Non-Magic TCGs

Even though my eventual goal was always to work on Magic, I'm actually quite glad that I was hired to fill a non-Magic role at first. Working on games like Duel Masters and the Neopets TCG gave me invaluable experience, because the teams were much smaller and I got a lot of one on one time with experienced designers as they taught me the ropes. It also expanded my horizons in terms of working with different game systems and gave me a different perspective to bring to the table when talking about Magic. And then there were the other perks: the occasional trip to Japan to visit high profile tournaments with huge numbers of kids, and the occasional oddball photo shoot for articles in Japanese magazines. For whatever reason, Japanese kids treated designers of their favorite games like rockstars, and never seemed to tire of reading about them or asking for autographs.

The Future Future League

From the beginning I was a regular in the Future Future League, an internal format that utilizes a mixture of recent sets and future sets to try and predict the upcoming Magic: the Gathering metagame. Since Wizards works 6-9 months ahead on future sets, every Magic player who starts at Wizards has a "black hole", a set that essentially never existed for them, because it wasn't released when you started and it's already finished by the time you get there. For me that set was Darksteel. I can't take any credit for allowing a broken card into existence (that honor will have to wait for Betrayers of Kamigawa), although I do have the dubious distinction of being the first person to put it in a Ravager Affinity deck, as noted in Aaron Forsythe's article on Skullclamp. Here was my eventual FFL decklist along with my terse notes:

4 AEther Vial
4 Frogmite
4 Disciple of the Vault
4 Shrapnel Blast
4 Arcbound Worker
4 Arcbound Stinger
4 Arcbound Ravager
4 Skullclamp
3 Myr Enforcer
3 Engineered Explosives
4 Blinkmoth Nexus
4 Glimmervoid
4 Great Furnace
4 Vault of Whispers
2 Darksteel Citadel

Awesome until Skullclamp was internally banned. Now it’s just okay, with Skullclamps being replaced by Spellbombs I think. Not clear that this is better than regular affinity anymore, especially if Force of Will stays the way it is.

Clearly I didn't yet understand the full power of Ravager Affinity, although to be fair our format was a bit different. "Force of Will" was my nickname for Disrupting Shoal when it was a Power Sink instead of a Spell Blast. Yeah, a Power Sink. As in, pretty much a hard counter at most points during a game. As an example of how much it warped the format, here's my regular Affinity list from the same period:

4 Thirst for Knowledge
4 Thoughtcast
4 Force of Will
4 Qumulox
4 Broodstar
4 Myr Enforcer
4 Frogmite
4 Chromatic Sphere
2 AEther Spellbomb
4 Arcbound Ravager
2 Scale of Chiss-Goria
2 Tooth of Chiss-Goria
4 Darksteel Citadel
4 Seat of the Synod
4 Blinkmoth Nexus
2 Tree of Tales
4 Chrome Mox

Ah, affinity. This deck is strong, especially because Force of Will is so amazing here. Could want more AEther Spellbombs if fatties continue to be good.

The Chiss-Goria pieces never caught on in the real world, and the lack of Shrapnel Blast is a little awkward, but the deck did need a core of blue cards to support the Shoal. "Force of Will" was almost better than the real thing in this deck, since most of the cards pitched cost 5-8 mana, and you could sometimes hardcast it for three or four mana. Decks like this contributed heavily to the card being changed to its current incarnation.

Another one that I played heavily was a Skullclamp/Tangleroot/Auriok Steelshaper combo deck. I don't remember the specifics of how it won, but basically it would use Steelshaper's Gift to find a Skullclamp, and then use some combination of Steelshaper and Tangleroots to make playing and sacrificing creatures essentially free. Myr Retrievers could continually cycle with one another or you could use them to return a Skullclamp that had been killed. Eventually, the level of artifact removal in the FFL got so bad that I had to start playing Ritual of Restoration in the maindeck just to keep a Skullclamp on the table. This was one of those decks where I remember it performing very strongly in the FFL but then the deck never seemed to show up in the real world.

Finally, here's a deck you'll likely remember:

4 Sylvan Scrying
4 Reap and Sow
4 Rampant Snake (Sakura Tribe-Elder)
2 Mindslaver
4 Tooth and Nail
1 Darksteel Colossus
1 Platinum Angel
2 White Dragon (Yosei, the Morning Star)
1 Leonin Abunas
1 Duplicant
1 Viridian Shaman
4 Regrowth Guy (Eternal Witness)
3 Naturalize
4 Solemn Simulacrum
4 Cloudpost
1 Stalking Stones
2 Blinkmoth Nexus
14 Forest
2 Plains
1 Bojeisu, She Who Shelters All

This deck was amazing, much better than expected. The addition of Rampant Snake gives the deck some extra early defense. Can’t be countered land gives it a strong game against blue. Double white dragon is double time walk. Tutoring up Regrowth Guy means Tooth & Nail recursion. The biggest worry is the new existence of RFG wrath.

It's fun to look back at this with the benefit of hindsight, knowing just how strong Tooth and Nail strategies turned out to be in the real world. This was a time when decks based around huge creatures and nine mana sorceries weren't ever viable, as R&D had just started cracking down on counterspells not that long ago. Trust me when I say that for every deck like this one that I contributed to the FFL, I built ten more that were terrible. But throw enough darts at the wall and you're guaranteed to hit a bullseye once in awhile. "RFG Wrath" was Final Judgement, and I believe it might have been five mana at the time so it was seeing heavy play. It was eventually pushed to six since it could invalidate a lot of otherwise interesting creatures.

Champions of Kamigawa

I wasn't on either the design or the development team for Champions, but had played enough FFL at this point that I was on the "hole filling" list, an internal email list where developers would request card designs when they had specific requirements in the set that needed to be filled. It's a fun exercise because you aren't present in the room when your designs are evaluated, so the card literally must stand on its own. This makes you consider even the smallest details, like the placeholder name, if you wanted to improve your chances of getting a card in the set. To be clear, I don't mean to imply that cards would get into a set for frivolous reasons like an amusing placeholder name. But when you're not there to defend a design, anything that can help get across why it's cool is inevitably going to help. A flavorful design with an appropriately evocative name was a strong start.

With Champions I had some sort of beginner's luck as five of my designs made their way into the final set: Bushi Tenderfoot, Nezumi Graverobber, Villainous Ogre, Candles' Glow, and Dampen Thought. Bushi Tenderfoot was all about living the dream of smashing a big creature with your small one and having him grow up as a result. Of course, it's one of those cards where the idea is cooler than the reality, because generally he just doesn't get blocked if your opponent is at all suspicious. I'm proud of the Graverobber design and happy with where it ended up. The Ogre I barely even remember designing, but I'll always have a soft spot for Candles' Glow and especially Dampen Thought. Neither was a particularly earthshaking design, since Splice already existed and the question was just what to do with it. It was the deck that they spawned that I truly enjoy.

Basically, there ended up being a draft archetype in triple Champions draft that completely revolved around the Splice mechanic, and specifically Dampen Thought. The deck wanted few creatures as it had no interest in ever attacking. In fact, Quentin Martin managed to draft an entirely creatureless deck at a Grand Prix as highlighted in this Creatures? Why Bother? article by Scott Wills. Creatureless! In draft. That's crazy. A year ago Tom Reeve wrote an article called Finding the Dampen Deck. An excerpt:

Sometimes something happens to you in a draft that you couldn't see coming with a telescope, radar, or even a Magic 8-Ball. You come away from the table happy with your deck – you have a good curve, a nice selection of removal, a couple of bombs for the late game. You go back and forth over your last couple of cards. You sleeve up, shuffle up, and shake your opponent's hand.

Then you get hit by a truck.

Afterwards, dazed, you ask yourself if that really just happened. If that collection of twelfth picks that just stomped you into the ground really existed. Peer Through Depths? Psychic Puppetry? Dampen Thought?

Really?!

Welcome to the wonderful world of the Dampen deck, where men are men, and opponents are confused.

Why do I love this so much? It goes beyond just being excited for my card to have such an impact on a format. I'd prefer that every draft format has one or two possible options like the Dampen deck. Here's why:

  1. Adds interest to the late picks of the draft. Instead of everyone just taking the 8-9 good cards out of the pack and then ignoring the rest, suddenly you're thinking about what it means that the Peer through Depths is still in there. Should you move in and try to cobble together a Dampen deck? Should you hate it just in case? Do you take a sideboard card against it?
  2. Adds depth to sideboarding. Suddenly a bunch of cards that would otherwise be weak are relevant maindeck or sideboard options. Distress, Hisoka's Defiance, Reito Lantern and Thoughtbind all gained value because of the possibility of a Dampen deck at the table. Even rares like Cranial Extraction suddenly become slightly more attractive in draft.
  3. Violates the established norms. Normally in Limited formats removal is always a first pick, and you never take it out of your deck during sideboarding. Against a Dampen deck, maybe you do. Maybe the value of removal goes down a little because you might face a deck that has very few creatures, and you take an aggressive creature instead. I'm a fan of almost anything that makes you reevaluate your priorities when drafting.
  4. Creates extremely different pick orders. In a more focused format, everyone might agree on the top 10 cards of a color regardless of the deck they're drafting. I'm much more excited by formats where people have wildly differing pick orders even within the same color depending on the archetype they're drafting. That's when you get interesting choices like "do I take this Ethereal Haze now, since I want it more than anything else in the pack, or do I try to table it since I know no one else is likely to want a Fog effect?"
  5. Adds excitement to the draft format. There are few things more satisfying in Magic than beating someone with a pile of "terrible" cards. As the alternate strategy begins to be discovered, it generates a lot of buzz as people hear about it and start refining it.

I can hardly take credit for the existence of the Dampen deck. It's not like we knew it was going to exist and crafted the format to allow it. But I'm thrilled that I was a part of creating it.

As for seeing my first cards released into the wild: there's nothing quite like knowing that you've helped shape a game that you've played for 10 years, that thousands and thousands of players enjoy every day. For some context on how long I'd been thinking about making Magic cards: the card to the left is one that I created a little after I first started playing back in 1994. Yeah, you're seeing that right. I gave myself an artist credit for that epic colored pencil illustration.

Thanks for reading! My FFL recordkeeping wasn't nearly as thorough for the other sets, but there are plenty of stories to be told about my stints on the development team for Betrayers of Kamigawa and Ravnica, and the design teams for Planar Chaos, Lorwyn and Morningtide. Next part, coming soon: the Betrayers development team, my unfortunate contribution to the existence of Umezawa's Jitte, and tidbits about the rest of the Kamigawa block. (Part Two is now available.)

8May/114

everything went better than expected

Four months ago, I wrote a blog post entitled why i'm skeptical about active reload in SpyParty. I then proceeded to play SpyParty, with an implementation of said active reload (or Action Tests, as it were), and things went altogether better than expected. Then I promptly failed the third and crucial step, which was writing about why. In my defense, I was shipping a game, which is an all-consuming time-sucking vortex if I've ever seen one. Still, better late than never, so this is happening. Right. Now.

(Those last two words were more to keep myself pumped up than they were for your benefit, gentle reader, but I'm leaving them in there just the same. As much as I love having a blog, I'm not the type to rush home and pound out an entry every night. When precious inspiration strikes, it must be kindled.)

First off: during the playtest, it became clear that Ian had "leveled up" several times in his Sniper skills thanks to manning the SpyParty booth at conventions like PAX, whereas my Spy skills had stayed about the same or even atrophied somewhat. So we actually ended up testing the case of the elite Sniper against a decent Spy, rather than two evenly matched players.

Second: in a discussion with Chris before we started playing, he compared the Action Test meter to the physicality of spy actions. It was sort of a throwaway comment that was almost tangential to the rest of the conversation, but it actually made me feel significantly better about the feature, perhaps more than anything else. Put yourself in the shoes of the actual Spy for a moment. You're trying to bug the ambassador at a party surrounded by twenty people, or trying to slip some microfilm out of a book without anyone noticing. Maybe someone's watching you closely, so you try to do it more quickly than normal. Maybe your nerves are acting up and your hands are trembling just a little. Seen in that context, the Action Test becomes almost a way of humanizing the Spy. He's no longer an infallible automaton; he can mess up just like the rest of us.

Chris also mentioned that Jason Rohrer had suggested a nervousness meter, and just to add another layer of deception and strategy, maybe the Spy could step outside onto the balcony for a cigarette, reducing nervousness but giving up valuable seconds and potentially tipping off the Sniper. Maybe the Sniper shining his laser sight in the room would increase the Spy's nervousness at the cost of showing where he's looking. The better off your nerves are, the wider the range for the postive result on Action Tests. I think this suggestion has promise, because again, it brings the Action Test out of the realm of a seemingly tacked on skill ceiling mechanic and into the realm of the fiction.

Now, some observations from the playtest:

It makes the Sniper look for behavioral tells instead of animation tells. SpyParty is at its worst when the Sniper is just staring at the bookcase, waiting for someone to play a certain animation. There are no shades of gray with animation tells; either the Sniper sees it, and they shoot, or they don't, and can't. Behavioral tells, on the other hand, are much more interesting and can lead to varying levels of suspicious without confirmation. The addition of Action Tests actually forces the Sniper to look for behavioral tells, because they can no longer rely on noticeable animations playing when the Spy completes an action. Related: as the Spy, it wasn't enough to just succeed at the Action Tests. There was one memorable game where I got a perfect result on 2 out of my 3 Spy actions, and Ian still took me out with ease thanks to some behavioral mistakes on my part.

It provides a nice shot of adrenaline based on the results. In a shooter with active reload, the stakes aren't all that high. It's the difference of a couple seconds, and it's happening constantly throughout the game, so there's no spike of intensity when you fail to pull it off. When a Sniper is staring right at you, the stakes are life or death every time, and there's a definite feeling of smug satisfaction every time you pull it off, and a shooting feeling of panic whenever you completely fail.

It does feel like the Spy needs some recourse when they are highlighted all the way up. This playtest with Ian was the first one where I felt truly dominated. Ian had my number, and there was nothing I could do to shake him. Even the slightest missteps would result in him highlighting me, and once I was fully highlighted, my only out was the Action Tests. It turns out that the AIs rarely if ever arouse suspicion from an elite Sniper on their own, which meant that waiting around and acting "normal" wasn't enough. I'd still be highlighted, and he'd still shoot me as soon as I attempted a mission. With Action Tests, though, a string of perfect results plus perfect behavioral play could theoretically allow me to pull off a win even under his watchful eye. (Not that it actually happened, but it's the hope that's important. "The player should always have hope" is a good rule for multiplayer game design.)

It's an opportunity for humor. SpyParty is a 1v1 battle of wills where every second counts and every decision is life or death. For players who are competitive, who can't just shrug off losing like it doesn't matter, the game can be rather intense. Those of you who have played a fair amount of 1v1 Starcraft 2 will probably know what I'm talking about. Adding some opportunities for humorous animations with the failed Action Tests can go a long way towards breaking that continuous intensity. It's something to blame when you lose, and something to talk about after the match.

Of course, it wasn't entirely upside. There were a couple potential drawbacks as well:

It makes the game more complicated for a new Sniper. It's no longer as simple as saying, "Here is what the Spy is trying to do. Here's what you're looking for." There are now three potential outcomes to each Spy action, and new Snipers have to continually question their information. It opens up the question of maybe having a beginner version of the game with no Action Tests, although Chris has been testing with new players and they seem to mostly ignore the Action Tests altogether, so perhaps it's fine the way it is.

Elite spies will have to practice the Action Test to keep their skills up. I've already put in probably about an hour of endless Action Tests, trying to incrementally improve my results. At the end of the hour, though, it felt more like one of those zen activities where being "in the zone" was far more important than rote practice. The randomness that Chris added to the system went a long way here. Still, adding Action Tests comes with the cost of adding a mechanical skill to playing the game that can potentially be incremented through repetition.

Still, given my previous post on the subject, from my point of view, the playtest was a wild success. Am I sure that Action Tests belong in the game? Not exactly. Something like the nervousness meter, or a UI treatment that somehow makes them feel less mechanical, would still help immensely. And honestly, how many games that are made these days can support a nervousness meter in the first place? Making SpyParty without a nervousness meter would be like making a Cthulhu game without a sanity meter. Well, that might be going a bit far, but I'm intrigued by the possibility.

Now to get back to practicing my Action Tests...