Designer Fun – Designing Mechanics

Next week I plan to write about double-faced cards. I’m putting it off for a week for two reasons. The first is that I think an article about designing mechanics in general should come first, to prepare us for the discussion of any particular mechanic. The other reason… I’ll leave for next week’s article.

Designing new mechanics is one of the most important and most difficult parts of Magic design. Even harder than Planeswalkers!

For me, there seem to be two primary approaches to mechanic design. The “what can we do” approach and the “how would we represent that” approach. The former is nearly purely mechanical – finding some way the rules haven’t been broken yet and see what you can do with it. The latter way is what you might call top-down design. Think of some flavorful thing, and then work out how it would exist. Of these two methods, I think the first was used a lot in the past, and now the more top-down approach has come into favor and will be used the most in the future. I believe there are two major reasons for this.

First, it was easier to explore the mechanical space early in Magic’s history. Few rules had been broken, and there was tons of design space. Mechanics like kicker, flashback, cycling, scry, clash, hybrid mana, metalcraft, and split cards, among others, feel like they were designed as “things that could be done.” Few of them have much flavor, and several of them spawned other mechanics due to the richness of the mechanical design space they were exploring.

Now, with mechanical space well covered, it’s become much harder to think of a new mechanic whole-cloth out of the blue and not just end up with a variation of an old one. On the other hand, if you go for a top-down mechanic, you don’t have to think about the rules space directly, you just have to make the concept play out in a natural and fun feeling way. When combined with Magic’s recent (3 years) stride toward flavor-driven cards and sets in general, this method has become the strategy of choice for R&D.

The second major reason, I believe, is that mechanics arrived at from a flavorful top-down approach tend to be better mechanics. Compare Infect to Metalcraft – oh wait, maybe you need to know more how they came about. Infect started as poison, and gained the wither aspect when Mark and R&D tried to figure out, flavorfully, what it was like to poison creatures. Because of this, the mechanic feels great, and few people have complained that it’s similar to wither (even though they are so close). Metalcraft, on the other hand, came from “presence” a mechanic that counted permanents. It was created (by Mark Globus, I believe) as an exploration of the design space of counting permanents. Purely mechanical, and the artifact-loving flavor was mixed with it later in a desperate attempt to give the Mirrans a mechanic of their own. It’s not a bad mechanic, but it’s clearly less loved and less fun to play with than Infect.

I put it to you that flavor has to drive the mechanics of the future. Both because strong resonant flavor will prevent new mechanics from looking too much like older mechanics that they have something in common with, and because it creates better mechanics overall.

With this in mind, let us walk through an attempt at designing a new mechanic, using the “how would we represent that” approach. To do that, we need a top! We need a theme to start from. I wrote 10 themes on little pieces of paper and picked one out of a hat. The paper says “sharks.” Okaaaay, sharks. Let’s say the creative team has come up with a new sharky plane, called Sharkthos. It’s a Klingon sort of place, with a ruling military elite, lots of hunting traditions, that sort of thing. (Good thing I was never on a creative team, eh?)

We need a new mechanic for this set. We might bring back Provoke, as it’s combat / hunt oriented, or Bloodthirst, (assuming this is a few years from now). In addition, however, we need to find something new. Perhaps thinking about Bloodthirst inspires us to explore a more creature vs creature version of that mechanic. Something based on creatures hungry for each other’s blood instead of hungry for Planeswalker blood. What if the mechanic triggered off the injury of creatures instead of the injury of players? Like…

Creature – Merfolk Shark
Whenever a creature takes non-lethal damage, put a +1/+1 counter on Sharkyface.

Lethal damage is a thing, so non-lethal damage must also be a thing, right?

Immediately upon typing that I thought of a much more top-down ability. As we all know, when there’s blood in the water sharks suddenly appear, right? Blood attracts them. How could we make that into a mechanic?

Creature – Shark
Shark Attack – G (When a creature takes non-lethal damage, you may pay this card’s shark attack cost to put it onto the battlefield.)

Rules-wise, that might not be the best wording, but it’s fine for playtesting. It’s pretty interesting. Almost like the opposite of the Prowl mechanic.

In a real design process, I would keep going, trying to generate a few more shark-like mechanics. Maybe some sort of Feeding-Frenzy mechanic? Then I would cut down from a list of 6 to 10 mechanics to the best 2 or 3. This process, over-generating ideas and cutting down, does a couple of great things for you. It gives you mental exercise, forcing you to keep designing and exploring more angles. It also gives you more to choose from, often resulting in your choosing a better idea than if you went with the first one. (Of course, you’re free to choose the first one, if it was the best.)

Next, take the few good concepts and test them out. The free half-decks they give away at events are a good starting place. Throw your mechanic in there and see how it works alongside regular magic cards. Core set preconstructed decks are similar basic environment. Don’t wait until you have your entire set made to test out the mechanic. Yes, it will have to work in your set’s environment too, but mechanics that show well with core set cards tend to show well all the time. We’d have to design a bunch more Shark Attack cards to do this, so just pretend we did.

Before you start playing with the new cards you might want to write down some questions that you want to get the answer to. This helps guide your decision making and helps you evaluate the results. Especially if you do several tests in a row with different mechanics and need to compare them afterwards. Many of these questions will be similar from one mechanic test to the next, so feel free to reuse the basic ones. For the Shark Attack mechanic in our example, here are a few specific questions we might be asking ourselves as we play:
Is the trigger condition coming up often enough?
-Am I changing my play to get them to trigger more?
-Am I changing my play to avoid triggering my opponent’s Shark Attacks?
-Are other cards more or less valuable than usual because this mechanic exists?
-Is it fun?

I didn’t actually test it out (this is left as an exercise for the reader) but I can guess what some of the answers might be (only because I have years of experience, don’t try this at home – haha). Maybe it comes up occasionally, but I find myself making throw-away attacks to get the trigger. I certainly might be more interested in trading creatures than in making all-upside blocks if the Shark Attack triggers are powerful enough to scare me. I bet pump spells become a lot more valuable, as they not only save my creature in combat, but also create non-lethal damage situations for me to trigger a Shark Attack.

If Shark Attack is fun, if we like it, we can develop it more, find out what else we might use it for, and continue about designing our set. If we don’t like it, it’s back to the drawing board. Maybe we just end up with a single card that does something like this, and not a full mechanic. Don’t be discouraged by one failure, you’re sure to have many more failures. Don’t feel you’re a bad designer just because it didn’t work out – I’ve had so many failed cards and mechanics, and so has every game designer.

Once you have a mechanic for your set, the next step is applying it. The easiest way to screw that up is by dumping it over your set like a giant bucket of paint. You want to show it off, I know. You want to make sure the players see it, I know. You’ve got a million really cool uses for it, I know, but that’s not a license for bad design. Most mechanic should be used on 10 to 20 cards in a set. It doesn’t sound like very many out of potentially 300 cards in a large set, but if you haven’t studied it you might be surprised how few cards actually have the premier mechanic of a set written on them.

Cascade is a famous, powerful mechanic that defined Alara Reborn. In this 145-card set, how many cards had Cascade? Only 12. Five commons, five uncommons and two rares. That’s all! It simply doesn’t take that many cards to get a mechanic across. Take Flashback as another example. It has appeared in four sets yet it only appears on 68 total cards, an average of 17 per set. (Innistrad will be the 5th appearance, but as the entire set is not yet spoiled I did not include it in my count).

Try putting your mechanic on one common per color, and a few rares and uncommons to show off what it can do. Then, when the set overall is shaping up, see if you feel it’s making a big enough impact. If not, don’t just increase the number of cards it appears on. You might have to reexamine the mechanic to see if it simply isn’t impactful enough. If you think it is, then you can try 2 commons per color.

The counterpoint that I’m sure you will make, if you do a little searching, is Morph. Morph is the exception to the rule in many ways. In order for morph to work out, there need to be enough morphs that you have strong doubt as to which one your opponent has played. Not only do there have to be several it could be, there have to be several it could be that are worth playing and at least two that would make you want to make different choices if it were one or the other. Of the 46 morphs in Onslaught, only 18 are common, 3 or 4 in each color.

One last reason to be on the conservative side with a new mechanic is a that you should leave the player hungering for more. If the player feels like they didn’t quite get enough of the mechanic, they’ll want to play more with the cards that do have it, and they’ll have a more positive overall impression of it. If you explore every corner of your mechanic right away, not only are you preventing yourself from ever using it again, you’re overstuffing the player. They’ll feel bloated and sick, and they may never want to see another card with the mechanic on it ever again.

Next there is the matter of distributing the mechanic across the colors. Very few mechanics will be evenly distributed across all five colors. Don’t force it. In fact, if your set has a story with two or more sides fighting against each other (which just about every magic set in existence has), you should probably be splitting the mechanics unevenly to give the two sides a stronger sense of identity. Infect and Metalcraft appear only on their respective sides. In Rise of the Eldrazi, the Eldrazi and their spawn appeared in Red, Black and Green, while the plane of Zendikar defended itself with Totem Armor in White Blue and Green. Please note that a clear color-by-color split is not the only way of doing this. The two examples I just gave show us that too. Metalcraft appears in every color, but only on Mirran themed cards. Totem Armor and Eldrazi Spawn both appear in Green, because we decided that Green was the color both sides were using.

In Rise of the Eldrazi design we actually considered several possible splits, and used a combination of testing and discussion to figure out the best setup. This depended on the mechanics as well as the flavor of the two sides. White and Green are generally the best Aura colors, but Green is also the best mana generating color. Black and Red fit well with the sacrificing of the spawn tokens. Blue isn’t particularly interested in either of these mechanics, so we placed it where it would balance out the plan. That took care of Eldrazi spawn and Totem Armor. As for the levelers, the mechanic is too awesome to keep away from any one color, but you’ll note that Green and Red have only three levelers each, and none of them are commons. Blue and White each have seven levelers, and also each have a strong support card for the mechanic ([card]Venerated Teacher[/card] and [card]Time of Heroes[/card]). A rarity split strongly emphasizes this to the first-time sealed and draft player (because each common card appears in more packs than each rare card). Limited players will see mostly Blue-White levelers decks and Black-Red-Green Eldrazi spawn decks, thus leading them to feel Blue & White are the leveler colors.

Wow, I am so out of time. Just in writing this much I have realized there is an awful lot of material to talk about regarding the design of mechanics. Much more than I can fit into one article, and much more than I have time for before my deadline. I will be sure to pick up this topic again in the future.

I ended up talking a lot about the theory of mechanic design, and the application of mechanics into sets, but less about the actual mechanic design process than I wanted to. There are a lot of finer points to mechanic design that I will try to cover in the future.

See you next week!


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