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


what the future holds

My last day at Electronic Arts was officially last Friday. No need to worry; it was an entirely voluntary decision on my part and I hope to get a chance to work with the Maxis crew again in the future. Why did I leave? Well, there were a lot of contributing factors, but essentially it boils down to this: I was no longer excited about getting up and heading to work every morning. I realize that I speak from a position of privilege here; a lot of people don't have the luxury of doing what they love for a living, and are just happy to have a job in this economy. Still, I owed it to myself and to the people around me to make a change.

So what's next? A few things. For one, I'll have more time to update this blog, for another, I'm going to go back to my roots as a paper designer and work on designing some board games, and finally, I'm going to be trying my hand at indie game development. I've always loved the sense of innovation and exploration that's only possible in indie games, when you don't have shareholders to appease and huge budgets that have to be recovered. I've always loved the idea that you could make a game just to advance the medium, not to sell the most copies. I've always loved the way the community supports and rallies behind one another.

I'm also planning on brushing up on my programming skills; I've let them lapse a little bit over the years, and there's no room for pure designers when a team is anywhere from 1-3 people. I don't have any illusions of making the next Braid, or even anything as ambitious and impressive as Monaco or SpyParty. But I'm going to make some games, and put them out there, likely for free on this blog at first, and see how people like them. And I can safely say that I'm excited about that.

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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
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.)

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


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.)


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.


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.)


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

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.

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.


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.


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?


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.)


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...


on the spot interview and darkspore launch

Two quick updates:

1. I appeared on Gamespot's live video show, On the Spot (32:57 - 47:35), the other day to talk about Darkspore. Usually when doing video in the past I've had the luxury of re-shooting if anything goes wrong, but here the combination of 4 large video cameras plus a plethora of other equipment, a huge green screen, and the knowledge that some large number of internet denizens were watching my every word was quite intimidating. Still, I think it turned out well enough.

2. Darkspore launches on Tuesday! I feel like a proud father whose baby is about to get assessed by a group of stern looking judges immediately after birth (probably how pretty much everyone feels when launching a digital game, but working at Wizards didn't give me a whole lot of experience on that front). Waiting for reviews to start popping up on Metacritic is agonizing but I'm confident the game will put up a good showing. Can't complain about starting out with an 85.

I'll be staying on the Darkspore team to keep improving the game after launch, so I'll be reading any and all feedback eagerly. Hope you all enjoy it!

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elegance and armada d6

Elegance is a word that is used frequently in conversation by game designers, yet there has been very little written on the internet about elegance in game design. Some of that probably stems from the fact that it's hard to define. In fact, a high percentage of the discussion that does exist starts with a dictionary definition for that very reason. It's an easy launching point for talking about something nebulous. Mark Rosewater, the head designer for Magic: the Gathering, has an article on the subject, but even he seemed to steer towards writing rather than game design. (I'm not 100% sure, because for an article about elegance, the formatting was surprisingly tiresome and impenetrable.) He does follow the trend of starting with the definition, though, so who am I to differ:

Elegance is...

  1. refined grace or dignified propriety
  2. tasteful richness of design or ornamentation
  3. dignified, gracefulness or restrained beauty of style
  4. scientific precision, neatness and simplicity
  5. something that is elegant

Thanks, Merriam-Webster, for that fifth one. For the purposes of game design, the third definition speaks to me the most, with a touch of the fourth as well. So, dignity, grace, restrained beauty, style, precision, neatness and simplicity. Easy enough, right?

Jesse Schell also touches on elegance in his esteemed book, The Art of Game Design. "We call simple systems that perform robustly in complex situations elegant. Elegance is one of the most desirable qualities in any game, because it means you have a game that is simple to learn and understand, but is full of interesting emergent complexity." He goes on to say, "You can easily rate the elegance of a given game element by counting the number of purposes it has." This seems like a reasonable rule of thumb for approximating elegance, although I think there is slightly more to it than that.

Here are my primary aspects of elegance as pertaining to game design:

  1. Simple rules that create emergent complexity.
  2. Single elements used for multiple purposes.
  3. Conform to player expectations.

Conforming to player expectations can take a variety of flavors, but it includes all sorts of common situations like using white/green/blue/purple rarity colors in your loot system, making higher numbers the more desirable result, or making the shotgun deal high damage at close range but no damage at long range. Why is this a factor in elegance? Because it frees up the minds of your players for understanding the other aspects of your system. The more you can make them feel at home, the more brainpower they'll have for appreciating what makes your game unique. (This is actually one of the toughest aspects of making a sci-fi RPG; you can't rely on the common fantasy elements like zombies, goblins, swords and bows that everyone understands.)

Victory points, a common mechanic in German board games, aren't particularly elegant because they are divorced from the theme and they serve only a singular purpose. For example, as mentioned in my post about 7 Wonders, the most elegant potential victory condition in that game would be completing the construction of your wonder, as that's what players will expect based on the name and theme. However, that would mean that the wonders would all need to be perfectly balanced against one another, and would heavily warp the mechanics towards either hurrying construction of your own wonder or somehow delaying construction of another player's wonder. Through the use of victory points, Antoine Bauza was both able to create multiple viable paths to victory and also give himself built-in tuning knobs for adjusting the effectiveness of each one.

During GDC I had the pleasure of playtesting a prototype of a board game, Armada d6, from Eric Zimmerman and John Sharp. The game just oozes elegance out of every pore, from the components to the mechanics, and was the catalyst to me writing this post.

So what is Armada d6?

It's a battle for space colonization where the ships are represented by dice. The basic game can be completed in as little as 10-15 minutes (or longer, depending on the level of aggression), and there's an advanced game that adds more depth. There are six different types of ships, each denoted by a different face of the die, with the lower numbers representing the hulks of the battlefield, slow but strong, and the higher numbers representing their fast and sleek opposites. Each ship can move a number of squares equal to its number, and combat is resolved by each player rolling a separate die and adding their ship number to it, with the lowest total winning. Colonization is achieved by surrounding a planet with multiple ships whose values sum to exactly the colonization number of that planet (always a number from 7-9, displayed directly on the planet).

So in total, each of the player's core dice is used for:

  1. Marking the location of a ship.
  2. Denoting what kind of ship it is and by extension the ability of that ship.
  3. Defining the exact speed of that ship.
  4. Defining the colonization potential of the ship.
  5. Defining the inverse combat potential of the ship.

You could easily imagine a version of this game created by less seasoned designers where the six ships each have their own individual stats contained in a chart off to the side. Maybe the 6 ship (scout) turns out to be a little too good with a colonization potential of 6, so with the chart you could adjust its colonization down to 5, and maybe give it a point of speed to compensate. In a different situation, opening up that flexibility would be a great move. But here the payoff of having the ships conform to their directly visible numbers is so strong that it's clearly the right decision. And since everyone has access to the same ship options and there is a built-in way to reroll your ships, small imbalances are hardly even a problem. With the base components supporting five different purposes, using Jesse Schell's definition of elegance, Armada d6 is already off to the races.

As for simple rules that create emergent complexity, the game excels at both sides of the equation. It provides you with a clear goal (maneuver your ships with a certain summed value next to a planet with that number) and leaves it up to you to find the solution. Everything except for the special abilities is right there on the game board; since the speed and colonization potential are both equivalent to the visible number on the die, planning high level strategy is a breeze. The more accomplished players can start to explore the possibility space that the special abilities open up, with options like transporting other ships, free ship rerolls, or retrofitting to a ship that's one number higher or lower. Every turn is a puzzle with variable difficulty settings -- the easy level is focusing just on your ship numbers and moving them to a nearby planet, the medium level is starting to consider the ship abilities and how they affect your plans, and the advanced level is looking at your opponents and what they're trying to set up, and seeing if you can disrupt it with a few well-placed attacks.

For conforming to player expectations, there is only one flaw: that combat both rewards lower ship numbers and asks you to roll low for success. I always strive to avoid this in my designs. That said, there are successful games that utilize a similar system (Axis & Allies) and the payoff of having the speed/combat potential tradeoff inherent in the ship's value is more than worth it here.

One potential upgrade in terms of elegance would be to eliminate the need for outside dice during combat by rolling the ship itself. Of course, there are three obvious problems with this: it requires you to remember where your ship was, it requires you to remember what type of ship it was, and it makes it harder to do the combat math since your ship's combat value is no longer visible when you're figuring it out. Three strikes is enough to convince me that Eric was correct in leaving it out, but it's a worthwhile thought experiment to consider.

In the advanced game there's a mechanic where you can unlock advancements, and each time that happens you could either research one out of three technologies randomly (chosen from a personal pool of five at the beginning), or add one to your maximum number of ships (plus deploy a ship immediately), or add one to your number of actions starting next turn. The problem I discovered during the playtest was that for the most part it was just better to take the extra action every time. Taking extra ships didn't help because you needed actions to take advantage of having more ships, and the technologies were of varying usefulness so a random one was too risky. This is a common problem with action-based games, such as Agricola, although it's handled rather elegantly and thematically in that game. Adding a member to your family requires constructing an additional room in your house, taking a family growth action that's restricted in availability, and has an ongoing upkeep cost of additional food, so the extra action ends up being reasonably balanced (although still quite strong).

But back to Armada d6. One of the proposed solutions was that you couldn't ever have more actions than you had ships (you started with three of each). We dismissed this quickly, but I want to highlight why, as it can be very tempting to add rules like this when designing a game:

  1. Rules like this are usually applied as a band-aid to mitigate a more systemic problem with the game. This is pretty much the opposite of elegance and leads to them feeling tacked on.
  2. These rules tend to be hard to remember because they often have no association with the theme or flavor of the game.
  3. They often restrict player choice. In this case the player will generally only take a ship upgrade with the plan of taking an action upgrade next, which puts them on a specific pattern and makes what should be a three-pronged choice into a binary choice instead. Ideally the three upgrade paths should be balanced more organically.

We also discussed increasing the power of the other upgrades to make the choice more interesting, as in letting you choose your technology or giving you two extra ships if you choose that upgrade. Eventually, though, another group of players (Jason Rohrer and Christina Norman I think) suggested another idea, which was to roll both the extra actions and the extra ships into the technology system, and rather then forcing the player to make a somewhat awkward choice about personal techs at the beginning, instead just place a global random selection of techs off to the side of the board. Players can choose the one they want when they earn an upgrade and then the chosen tech is replaced with another random one. That way players are a lot more invested in the tech choices of their opponents, they can try to race for desirable techs, and they can't just continually choose to take extra actions since they're limited by the current selection.

In conclusion: elegance is a truly desirable quality in a game, although it shouldn't be pursued to the exclusion of all else. Armada d6 is one of the most elegant games I've ever played and is clearly the result of a series of strong design choices. I know Eric and John are currently looking for a publisher and I wish them the best of luck, because I look forward to playing more!

(Photos by Richard Lemarchand and John Sharp.)


new blog design, darkspore enters beta

While I liked the old design, I'm sure I wasn't alone in getting a bit tired of reading the gray font on gray background. This is still just a stock WordPress theme but it combines a lovely font (Vera) with high contrast text and some solid design choices, so it was an easy switch.

Darkspore is currently in beta testing and we're in the oft-maligned crunch period of the project as we try to get everything finished up for launch. In this case, though, the extra hours aren't mandatory in any way, but the team is putting them in because we want the game to be as good as it can be. The posts on the private beta forums from players enjoying the game have been more than enough fuel to keep us going.

Rest assured that I have a large queue of topics to write about at this point so when I find a pocket of time there will be updates aplenty.

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the seven pillars of drafting-based games

Some time ago I played Fairy Tale for the first time. It's a game designed by a former professional Magic player named Satoshi Nakamura, and it's based around drafting, which is a format that has fascinated Magic players since the game's creation. Drafting is the perfect mix of luck and skill, with infinite replayability because every draft presents wildly different situations and challenges. In fact, there are sites online where you can draft Magic over and over against AI opponents that learn over time from the picks made by humans. The only problem with these sites is that, as fun as drafting is, it loses something when there's no validation at the end of the draft as to how successful you were.

Fairy Tale takes a stab at providing a more casual drafting experience with some quick resolution at the end of each round and a simple victory point system for determining a winner. It's a fun game, but after playing it a couple more times a month ago I felt like drafting games deserved more exploration. The problem was, I didn't have a great sense of how to make drafting compelling as the main feature of a game. In both Magic and fantasy football, it's used simply to distribute resources, with other mechanics carrying the bulk of the weight. Like Fairy Tale, I wanted the bulk of the strategy and decision-making to happen during the draft, with the resolution phase just providing a quick injection of validation to the process.

I had an idea for a simple game almost immediately, so I created a prototype and played a few games. Cards were split into three types and assigned a base value, a bonus value and a conditional. You first drafted three packs worth of cards, then shuffled up your deck and played a modified version of War where you have three piles in front of you. (I wanted to try the extreme of not having any decisions in the resolution phase at all.) Based on the three cards you had visible, the conditionals of your cards might or might not trigger, which would determine if you got the bonus points. The highest total in each round would win a point card with a random value. One of the three types focused on low base values and high bonus values, another focused on the opposite, and a third was average in both.

Right around that same time I started hearing about a game called 7 Wonders that claimed to let seven people play a game in half an hour. Turns out 7 Wonders is a wonderfully crafted drafting game that advanced my understanding of this budding genre by leaps and bounds. Having played both it and my prototype around five times each now, here are my thoughts on the seven most important aspects to keep in mind when designing a game based around drafting:

1. Card types that do wildly different things so that the draft choices are not just straight comparisons.

My prototype: All cards had the same point numbers on them. This was simple but it made almost every decision into just a straight expected value calculation. The EV of each card was the base value plus the bonus value times the chance of succeeding on the conditional. The types could change that a little bit if you were setting up for a certain strategy, but not nearly enough. This was a disaster.

7 Wonders: There are many different card types (resources, science, military, civilian, commercial, guilds) and almost as many ways to score victory points. While this does add complexity, it's key to making the draft choices interesting. For example, think about a fantasy football draft where you're only drafting quarterbacks. It breaks down into a straight EV calculation to try and decide which QB will give you the highest number of average points each week. When you add in all the other positions, though, you have to think about what positions are being drafted aggressively, which ones you can leave for later, which positions generally score more points, and which ones have large point differentials between the strong players and the weaker ones.

2. Rare cards that can excite drafters and give them a direction.

My prototype: In the first version I tried balancing almost all of the cards against each other, but players had no obvious direction and weren't excited about any of the cards that they got. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fact that Magic has cards that are somewhat obviously better than others and also rare cards that are labeled as such are both key to making draft more dynamic and interesting. There's no better feeling than opening that "bomb rare" out of a Magic pack. That said, it is a little more dangerous to have overly strong cards in a drafting game where the card will automatically come up. There is a lot of variance in what cards appear in a game of Magic, and also a decent number of cards that can answer the bombs. Still, in the second version of my prototype I added a second deck of powerful and narrow rare cards and created each pack with five commons and two rares. This was a huge improvement.

7 Wonders: This is one area where I feel 7 Wonders falls a little short, although the double resource cards fill this role to an extent, and the starting resource and wonder requirements help as well.

3. Not having to memorize or continually look at a bunch of hidden cards.

My prototype: It was easy for me to fall into the trap of having a hidden pile of cards that you're creating as you draft the cards, since that's how Magic works. Worse, a lot of the cards you could potentially draft depended heavily on you knowing the contents of that pile to properly evalutate them. So players had to keep picking up the pile and sifting through it to remember what they had drafted.

7 Wonders: Uses an obvious but elegant solution of just playing the card immediately and resolving the effects. One of the great things about this is that you get immediate payoff from each card you draft rather than having to wait until the end of the pack or the end of the draft. You do lose some strategy in trying to figure out what your opponents are drafting, but that's a pretty subtle skill that isn't necessary for a compelling experience.

4. Not having to draft and/or play every card.

My prototype: The final card of each pack is discarded. I also tried having players draft all of the cards and then letting them cut some from their deck, but that was too much work for not enough payoff, especially since it just came down to EV calculations again.

7 Wonders: Turns out that the designer of 7 Wonders came to the same conclusion, as the final card of each pack is also discarded. On top of that each drafted card can be sold for coins or placed facedown as a section of the wonder itself, which allows savvy players to "hate draft" (taking a card that would be good for a neighbor) and also mitigates the bad feelings of getting a pack that doesn't have anything that they really want.

5. Cards that have different amounts of value to different people.

My prototype: I was actually reasonably successful here with the conditions. Someone who was trying to draft an "A deck" would value a C type card wildly different than someone else. There was some amount of skill in trying to find the underdrafted archetype.

7 Wonders: There are tech paths that are represented through certain buildings in the game allowing you to build other buildings for free. They aren't necessary to succeed (you can always pay for the building the hard way) but they provide a clear reason why one player really wants a certain card whereas another might not. Additionally, science gives victory points in a way where the value of the science buildings fluctuates wildly from one person to the next. And finally, military varies from being incredible (when you're slightly behind your neighbors) to useless (when you're either far ahead or far behind both neighbors).

6. The opportunity to change your strategy based on what other people are doing.

My prototype: Sadly, not much of this exists. At some point I added conditionals that depend on the active cards of your neighbors, which helps, but it's hard to tell what they're doing anyway. It's all far too subtle.

7 Wonders: There is a mechanic where players can buy resources from their neighbors, so right off the bat you're intrigued by what sorts of resources your neighbors have chosen to develop. Then there are markets, which allow you to buy more cheaply in either or both directions. And of course, science rewards you heavily for jumping in when it's underdrafted, and military rewards you for staying slightly ahead of your neighbors.

7. Players should start the game from different positions.

My prototype: This one didn't make it into my prototype design, but I think it's a strong tool for accomplishing multiple other goals as well as adding replayability.

7 Wonders: Each player is attempting to build a different wonder, which determines both a starting resource and also a set of costs and rewards for building stages of the wonder. As mentioned above, this helps give a starting direction and also helps with players having different value for cards. Completing your wonder would have been a more flavorful victory condition, but relying on victory points instead does allow the game to keep wonder building as an optional task, which means that wonder balance doesn't have to be perfect. If you get one you don't like you can just focus on other goals for that game.

So there you have it. If you can't tell, I found my prototype to be fairly terrible (although illuminating) and 7 Wonders to be relatively exquisite. I highly recommend it. One of my only complaints about the game is that you can't "table" cards in larger games. (Meaning to see a card early in a pack and then still have a chance of getting it later when the pack returns to you.) However, it's not clear if the benefits of tabling outweigh the disadvantage of players having to deal with much larger pack sizes. Magic gets away with fifteen card packs because of rarity and colors; rarity shifts the focus heavily to the rare when you first open a pack, and colors narrow the relevant cards pretty quickly once the draft gets going. 7 Wonders has neither, so a smaller pack size makes sense.

As always, I've rambled on a bit much at this point, so let me know in the comments if you disagree with any of these "pillars" or if you have your own ideas about the genre.