I recently discovered an old post in the League of Legends forums. Back in October of 2010, Zileas, one of Riot’s game designers working on League of Legends, made a post about design anti-patterns. These are design tropes often seen in games, but instead of being good ones, they are bad ones. It’s a list of what not to do in designing multiplayer online battle arena (MOBA) games.
Here’s a link to the original post. You don’t need to read it, as I’ll go over each point and convert them for Magic: the Gathering design, but it’s very interesting, especially if you’ve played any MOBA games.
Burden of Knowledge
This first one is a classic multiplayer game design mistake. Putting the burden of knowing what’s happening onto the receiving player, instead of onto the acting player. Imagine if you will…
Player A has some wacky power that he uses on Player B. Player B doesn’t have time to read the text mid-game; and there is no clear, simple explanation of what the wacky power does, so Player B has no idea how to react to it. The Burden of Knowledge is on the wrong player (the victim) to understand how the power works.
In Magic this is directly comparable to on-board tricks. When I attack into your three guys, two of which have “T: target creature gets +1/+1 until end of turn” the burden of knowledge is on me to realize all the possible ways you could block and pump so that I know if my attack is sound or foolish. I didn’t cast those pump-ability creatures, but I need to know exactly how they work, and know all the things you could do with them before I make my move. Instants with flashback are another good example of this.
The New World Order initiative took huge steps in stomping this mistake out of Magic.
You use a spell, but it’s complicated—did you use it the best way possible? How can you be sure? This is the problem of unclear optimization. The more wacky and complicated your design, the more likely it is to have unclear optimization. Let’s look at this table of results for playing a spell:
If the spell is easy to optimize, you’ll most often encounter the second and last cases. You’ll do it right, and feel awesome; or you’ll do it wrong, but that will be clear afterwards and you’ll learn something. Sometimes you’ll hit the first case, where you think you played well but didn’t—with simple cards that won’t occur very often.
If the card is very hard to optimize, the most common cases are 3 & 4—you tried but can’t be sure, even if you played well. The spell is unsatisfying most of the time, and since it’s hard to use well most players will screw up a lot and feel bad and/or confused. Too much of that and they’ll quit playing altogether.
Hard to optimize cards can be very fun for the best players, since they compete in that narrow band of near-perfect play, while those cards are super un-fun for the rest of us. I would predict that the stats on Modern players show that the format is favored by very good players, since a lot of the decks are a continuous stream of hard-to-optimize turns. New players would hate that format, and it would be unwise for Wizards to promote the format at introductory level events. (Not that they do or would.)
Use Pattern Mismatches Surrounding Gameplay
For MOBA games, this can mean putting a melee range ability on a squishy ranged caster-type character. The melee ability is dumb because the caster is never in range to use it.
An example from Magic is a 5/5 with a tap ability. Why would you tap it when you want to attack? This is why [card drana, kalastria bloodchief]Drana[/card] is a better design than [card visara the dreadful]Visara[/card]. You get to attack AND kill their guy (and deal extra damage, too), instead of having to choose.
If you think about this pitfall when designing a deck or drafting, it may help you avoid cards that look good but don’t have a place in your path to victory. For example, Delver of Secrets might be powerful, but it has no place in UB control—it’s a mismatch to the rest of the deck.
Fun Fails to Exceed Anti-fun
This is a big one. This is why Strip Mine, Sinkhole, and Stone Rain are bad design. The anti-fun given to the opponent far exceeds the fun you have playing them. This is a very important anti-pattern to avoid, and playtesting is the best way to learn if a card does not create positive fun, on balance.
Control Magic effects are walking a fine line in this regard.
Now obviously, most cards aren’t fun for the opponent, because you are using them to win, and they want to win too. Yet you’re both playing because the fun gained from playing at all is worth more than the zero-sum fun of winning vs losing. If all of the cards you use are anti-fun in excess of fun, you’d quit playing. This is what design needs to avoid.
This one is not very common. Nin, the Pain Artist is a good example of a card with conflicted purpose. You want to use it to draw cards, but also to kill creatures. What’s the purpose of that card? You might say it’s versatile—but that’s actually different. A versatile card has a clear purpose and is sometimes used in a different way. In many ways, most Magic cards are versatile—Lightning Bolt, Giant Growth, Path to Exile—their purpose is clear, but sometimes you Path your own guy because you need a land.
This is another one that’s more likely to come up in deck construction than individual card design, though there are some designs that anti-combo with themselves. Bane of the Living is mostly anti-combo. It’s a creature, but it gives all creatures -x/-x, so most of the time it just kills itself. Non-bo-tastic!
If it doesn’t always work, it’s not reliable, and you feel really bad when you try to use it and it misses. The most obvious type of Magic design that makes this mistake is coin-flip cards. There is a little room for non-reliability in a TCG, but not much, so only a scarce few exist. Personally, I don’t think coin-flip cards are worth including at all. Another non-reliable card (that I was just reminded of) is something like Temporal Aperture. You might invest five mana (your whole turn) and get a land, or some spell that’s nearly a blank this turn. Other times you hit Griselbrand and the opponent extends the hand.
Can you think of a more pressing example? Yes, Delver of Secrets fails the non-reliability test. That’s one of the reasons it’s a frustrating card to play with and against. It also made it difficult to balance, because the balancing relies on the probability of what will happen over 1000 games, not when you missed every time through a couple of games in that tournament last week.
In Magic, the top-of-deck unreliables, like Delver, are mitigated by the existence of cards that let you manipulate the top of your library, so you can take steps to make them reliable—but that doesn’t quite solve it.
False Choice – Deceptive Wrong Choice & False Choice – Ineffective Choice
In general, a false choice happens when the designer gives the player a choice, but they shouldn’t have.
In deceptive wrong choice you present the player with options, but one of them is flat out wrong. Targeted card-draw is a deceptive wrong choice. You should never give your opponent free cards, it’s better to simply word that card so that only the caster can draw cards.
Ineffective choices happen when it just doesn’t matter. Both options are pretty useless, or wrong. Browbeat and Vexing Devil mostly fall into this category. They’re not 100% false, as in a few situations there will be a right answer, but the large majority of the time there is no right choice. Most of the time you’re facing mono-red aggro, and you can’t afford to take damage. Facing Browbeat, you have to guess if 3 cards represents more than 5 damage. Maybe it’s more a matter of tempo, and you give them the cards in hopes of gaining life or winning before those 3 cards can deal you the 6 or 7 damage that any two burn spells and a land are likely to deal you, but if their hand is empty you usually take 5. Either way, it’s an ineffective choice, and that’s why you rarely see that kind of design.
Power Without Gameplay
In video games, this happens when the player is given a strong benefit, but doesn’t really notice or care. Zileas’s example is a buff an ally gives you. You don’t notice or care because you’re not reading the other guy’s abilities during an action-packed game. Unless the buff is unbalancingly huge, you don’t recognize it, and therefore you’ve gained some amount of power, but without any feelings of satisfaction.
This trap doesn’t transfer very clearly to TCG design, especially in paper. In TCGs, you always know what is happening, because you, the players, are the executors of the rules. There’s no computer doing things under your nose. So if you got a small buff, you would know it and recognize it, because you have to—you are maintaining the game state yourselves. Also, TCGs use smaller numbers overall, so “small” is hard to do. +1/+1 is a lot in most Magic games, where +1 health and +1 attack is basically nothing in League of Legends.
However! There is a place where we see power with minimal game play, and that’s in incremental advantage. You might be subtly getting ahead, perhaps through card selection, or 1.5-for-1s, but a less experienced player will feel they played well and not understand when or how you beat them.
Or We Could **** the Player!!1111oneoneone
This is difficult to do in a TCG. It’s most common in player-vs-environment video games. Zileas expresses it pretty hilariously, so you can go read that (link at the top of this article). I’ve changed the order of presentation slightly, so this is his second-to-last one.
In short, it’s when you punch the player in the face just because you can. The player is here to have fun, and it’s your job as a designer to make it fun for them, not painful.
TCGs vs Video Games
In TCGs, not all the cards are going to be used. Plus, there are a ton of cards, so complete avoidance of all of these design anti-patterns is less critical than it is in a video game with less room to maneuver. Still, avoiding them, or at least minimizing them to only a couple of cards per year, is the best option.
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