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Designer Fun – Dealing with Double-Faced Cards

I’m sure you’ve seen the Innistrad previews by now, and are wondering how that crazy new Double-Faced cards thing is going to work out. As I promised last week, in today’s article I’ll tell you what I think about them, and give further insights into mechanic design in general.

Trust

When a new mechanic is first spoiled, or a new change to the rules announced or, I don’t know, a new system of tracking player success in competitive events comes along, players react to it, and they react strongly. Players have a deep emotional connection to the game. They love it so much that they fear something bad happening to it. Combine this with humanity’s instinctive fear of change and it’s easy to get overreaction when WotC shakes things up. Plus, Magic players are a smart bunch, and smart people question things.

My situation is a little different. I have not worried about any of the recent changes, mechanics, or announcements to come from the mouths of Wizards for years now. Why? Because I worked with them. I was in R&D during the planning of the M10 rules changes. I heard many discussions on what to change, and why each change was a good one. I playtested all the changes myself and, more importantly, I watched everyone else in R&D test the changes. I saw firsthand how dedicated they are to getting it right, and how much they care about Magic being awesome. To me, they will never be a faceless corporation, but a group of friends who make my favorite game. I trust them. I know they’ll only make changes that are good for the game because I know them and because I have seen how they make those decisions. Unfortunately for you, explaining it like this is the best I can do to transfer that trust.

Well, I suppose I can tell another story, maybe that’ll help?

Rise of the Eldrazi had some crazy card frame action in levelers, as you know. Perhaps not quite as crazy as DFCs, but definitely outside the norm. Levelers wanted to have multiple sets of power and toughness written on them, yet still somehow be legible and comprehensible. A lot of different mock ups were made in order to see if it could be done, and if it could be done well. It seemed like every day Brian Tinsman or Matt Place was talking to an artist or an R&D member who was not on the design or development team, working out the issues with the mechanic and its visual representation. There were dozens of variations of symbols, arrangements, and wordings tried in order to get something that would work and make sense. It didn’t stop there either, once we had a pretty good idea of what we might do, we printed out two or three variations side by side and shopped them around. We went to people outside of R&D and asked them how they would interpret the designs. We asked what did they think the cards did, how would they work. Many people put a lot of work into making sure the crazy idea of levelers would play well when they got into players’ hands.

So when I saw Double-Faced cards for the first time (at the PAX party), what was my reaction? “Cool, I wonder how they got it to work.” It was easy for me to accept that it must be awesome, because I knew they weren’t going to do something that crazy without extensive testing first. My next thoughts went immediately to how they were going to get away with it. I thought there might be spells that fetched these cards and put them into play. (I later read in Rosewater’s article that they did, in fact, try that method.) I briefly wondered if they’d gotten some crazy folding technology to work, or perhaps some kind of peel-away backing, but quickly dismissed those ideas as extremely unlikely. I even thought they might just tell everyone to use sleeves, but that seemed a little too far-fetched. So I tracked down some of my R&D friends, Dave Guskin and Mark Gottlieb and wrung the truth out of them. Which turned out to be… yeah, just sleeve them up. Oh, and use a checklist card as a proxy.

To really know how these DF cards would play, I decided to try them out for myself. A few days ago I wrote the names and stats of some of these cards onto both sides of index cards. I then proxied their names and costs into two decks and played with them, as if I was using the checklist method. In order to test any new mechanic, you should keep the decks simple. Use core set cards, small decks so your test cards show up often (but aren’t flooding your hand every game), and stick to basic attack and block style gameplay. If your mechanic doesn’t work well in normal magic, it’s not likely to work well in whatever crazy world you think you’re creating.

Here are the decks I made:

PAX giveaway halfdeck plus DF wolves
1 Daybreak Ranger
1 Mayor of Avabruk
3 Gatstaf Shepherd
2 [card]Tangle Mantis[/card] 1 [card]Garruk’s Companion[/card] 1 [card]Llanowar Elves[/card] 1 [card]Gladecover Scout[/card] 1 [card]Sacred Wolf[/card] 1 [card]Alpha Tyrranax[/card] 1 [card]Lead the Stampede[/card] 1 [card]Plummet[/card] 1 [card]Hunter’s Insight[/card] 1 [card]Titanic Growth[/card] 1 [card]Slice in Twain[/card] 3 [card]Mountain[/card] (to use the Ranger’s B-side)
9 [card]Forest[/card]

VS

Random Blue cards I had lying around that should interact well with the above
1 Ludevic’s Test Subject
1 [card]Coral Merfolk[/card] 2 [card]Maritime Guard[/card] 1 [card]Surveilling Sprite[/card] 1 [card]Scroll Thief[/card] 2 [card]Azure Drake[/card] 1 [card]Rusted Sentinel[/card] 1 [card]Chasm Drake[/card] 1 [card]Harbor Serpent[/card] 1 [card]Ponder[/card] 1 [card]Unsummon[/card] 1 [card]Diminish[/card] 1 [card]Divination[/card] 1 [card]Cancel[/card] 1 [card]Frost Breath[/card] 1 [card]Warlord’s Axe[/card] 12 [card]Island[/card]

I started out unsleeved, casting the proxy but putting the index card into play. Later, I also tried the in-sleeves plan.

Here’s what I found out:

-Flipping over the cards – even crappy little pen-on-index cards, is really fun. It’s much more fun than I expected it would be. I can see why they pursued this idea until they got it to work out.

-The two-spells, no-spells triggers on the werewolves are a most excellent pair of trigger conditions. It’s easy to flip them: just don’t cast anything. It’s easy, but not too easy, to unflip them (note the blue deck has lots of cheap spells to help it do this). At first I would try to flip my wolves by not playing anything and hoping the enemy wouldn’t be able to turn them back. Soon I felt it was better just to keep dumping cards and force the opponent to cast something each turn or risk my team flipping. When they ran out, they certainly weren’t going to have two spells to flip them back. Both plans were interesting, and very interactive. The whole experience was very fun and challenging in a new way.

-Ludvic’s Test Subject is a dumb design. First off, it felt too much like a leveler. Pay mana to add counters, and eventually it’s bigger. That’s fine, but it’s not really new or exciting. Second, since when is a 13/13 trample creature Blue? Totally out of color pie, I don’t care what the flavor excuse is (and I don’t really see one here). It could at least have turned into a 6/6 unblockable kraken, or something Blue actually might get as a creature. The only time it was even slightly interesting was when there was a choice between pumping it to 13/13 and casting a spell to keep the humans from flipping into werewolves. Note to self: levelers and werewolves might be cool in the same set. Note to the reader: I don’t like to call a design “dumb” because it’s not a productive description when you are trying to make new cards. To a coworker I would have said “inappropriate” or “mis-colored” design. Dumb is much splashier for an article on a website though, and it expresses my emotional reaction to the design as well. I’m both a little offended for Magic and disappointed in my friends that they made this card exactly this way. When you are making your own cards as a team with your friends (and you will be much better at it as a team) try to be constructive and specific with your criticism. It will make all of you better designers.

-Putting the DF cards off to the side and using a checklist to cast them is slightly awkward because the checklist only has the mana cost. You have to have them all memorized or else the opponent will notice you looking at your DF cards off to the side. I wish there were going to be cards that showed you both sides of the DFC, like a split card, that I could use to shuffle into my deck and use to cast the DFC.

-[card]Unsummon[/card] was super awkward with the checklist method. I’d pick up the index card… then put it aside and find the proxy and return that to my hand instead. I guess in real life you can just hold the DF card, since your opponent knows what it is, but I would expect players won’t want to do that at competitive events.

-When using sleeves, sliding the card out to turn it over… wasn’t fun. I felt it lost all the awesomeness of flipping the card over. It lost the elegance of it.

-The Mayor and Ranger are good cards. A bunch of werewolves in play at once is cool. I’m excited to play with them for realsies at the pre-release.

After trying them out I took a second look at some of the other ones. I anticipate that the triggered transformations will be more fun than the ones you have control over. Screeching Bat / Stalking Vampire will probably be okay, as the switch is restricted to the upkeep, and sometimes a 2/2 flier will be better, or sometimes you just won’t bother until you run out of things to do with your mana. Civilized Scholar is cute in that you can control one of the two transformations, but the other is a trigger. On an aesthetic level, it’s cute they used the planar chaos style frames for the B-sides (white text, and all that). A nice re-use of existing frame technology.

Overall, I’m confident the Double-Faced cards will be a lot of fun, but I do have some concern over how well they will work out with the sleeves and the proxying. I would recommend getting clear sleeves for your DFCs and using the checklists. Flipping the cards is way cooler when you don’t have to slide them out of their sleeves each time.

Finally, a few words about Planeswalker Points, Rules changes, and the difference between [card]Stoneforge Mystic[/card] and Double-Faced Cards.

I think Planeswalker Points are a titanic upgrade from Elo. Players should feel that playing more Magic is all-upside for them. Elo was an atrocious failure in that respect because it was often “correct” to avoid playing to protect a rating. Point accumulation is the way to go. I have not bothered with the math discussions of what place at one GP is equal to showing up and going 0-4 at three other GPs. I don’t need to. I know that almost everyone in R&D and Organized play went over the math and came to an agreement on the numbers. They don’t pick them out of a hat. They spend a lot of time thinking about them and they’re very smart people. I prefer to show them a little respect and give their plan the benefit of the doubt.

One of the big things that makes people worry about the newest “whatever” WotC has done, is that they can point to past mistakes and say “look at that mess, how do we know this isn’t like that, or worse?” When you say that about a particular card, you may very well be right. Some cards still make it through the defenses, and they’ve said (correctly) time and again that if they’re not walking the line, Magic won’t be as awesome. ([card jace, the mind sculptor]Jace 2[/card] and [card stoneforge mystic]SFM[/card] are excellent recent examples, of course, so all this is fresh in our minds.) When you say that about a whole mechanic, you’re a lot less likely to be right. The last mechanic to be busted was Affinity, and that was a long time ago. I don’t believe any of the current developers were in R&D when they released that (I think Aaron was on loan from the website dept, and for design, not development). They’ve had some less-appealing mechanics since then, sure, but nothing near broken. The mechanics of the last 5 years have been great. For the bigger stuff, like rules changes, Wizards has never really screwed up. Sixth edition rules changes greatly improved the game. New card frames have been great. I’m pretty sure players like that new “Planeswalker” card type. M10 rules changes were awesome, and I don’t doubt the Planeswalker Points system will be just fine as well. WotC doesn’t take risks in those departments. They really only take risks on a few cards each year, and most of those turn out A-OK.

Join me again next week when I talk about some other design topic, that I haven’t yet decided on. Maybe I’ll do a card design doctor column. So feel free to throw some card designs into the comments if you want advice on how to fix them. If I get enough I’ll do that next week, or the week after. Don’t miss it!

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