Topical Blend #4—Avoiding Peanuts, Part 1
As I child, I loved magic. I'm not talking about Magic, mind you, as the game was decades away from being invented. No, I loved magic; lowercase. Men and women dressed in fancy outfits making things appear out of thin air and then disappear back into thin air, or change into something completely different, or float, or explode, or do whatever magical things could happen when a magician got involved.
I was so fascinated that I decided I wanted to become a magician (little did I know). So I bought magic tricks and I took magic classes and I learned how to do magic. I even got a stage name—The Wiz Kid. For a number of years in my teens I performed at children's parties. I even got a part-time job working as a magician at a local restaurant.
Truth be told it wasn't my job. It was my friend Steven's job, but I was the alternative when he couldn't make it, which was quite a number of times, so I had many chances to perform at the Ground Round. For those who might never have heard of the Ground Round (I don't even know if the chain still exists), it was a family restaurant that showed old black-and-white movies on the wall, like from Our Gang or Laurel and Hardy. There was free popcorn and peanuts in the shell and you could even throw the peanut shells on the floor. It was a place that catered to kids, which was why they had a magician on retainer to come in and perform at the many children's parties they held there.
Today's column is all about my time performing at the Ground Round. I've talked numerous times about Malcolm Gladwell's book Outliers, where he identifies how someone gets to be great at something. The recipe—10,000 hours with constant feedback. Everyone tends to focus on the "10,000 hours" part and gloss over the second half—the "constant feedback" part. Doing something isn't enough to become truly great. No, you need to have feedback to guide you, so while you're putting in your 10,000 hours you're learning how to get better.
Why do I bring up feedback? Because my job as a magician at the Ground Round came with very effective feedback. Remember how I said they gave out free peanuts in the shell? Well, that was my feedback. You see, if your audience of young children gets bored of your magic act and there are buckets of peanuts in their shells within easy reach, guess how the kids express their unhappiness and boredom?
I don't know how many of you have even been pelted by peanut shells, let alone many of them thrown by a squadron of children, but it hurts. It hurts a lot. So I had plenty of motivation to learn how to make my magic show as entertaining as possible.
I often talk about my holistic view of life—how the skills learned in one area apply to the others. I believe learning how to make little kids happy at a birthday party helped me years later to make the player base of Magic happy. Yes, my magic helped my Magic. Today, and next week, I'm going to walk through ten lessons I learned and demonstrate how those ten lessons led to the best-designed cards of the last ten blocks. Note that the cards I've selected are based on my belief that these are the best-designed cards of each block—not the best overall or most powerful or most flavorful. The cards I selected are, I believe, gems of design. You can feel free to explain in the thread, email, or social media how my choices are completely wrong. Also, for those who care, I'll be going in chronological order.
Lesson #1—Show Them Something They've Never Seen
Every magician has an act. By that I mean, magicians have a series of tricks they can do. Usually, they have more than they need for a single show, which allows them a little flexibility to adapt, but, in general, most magicians have specific shows they do. A magician's show is geared for a particular audience. For example, my "set" (yes magician's use the same lingo as stand-up comedians) was designed for kids, young kids, ages 5–10. This meant I almost exclusively did birthday parties.
The beauty of this age range is that while they might be skeptical on the surface (and the young ones aren't even skeptical), down deep that haven't really figured out whether or not magic is real. That means you can catch them in moments of actual awe.
Here's how you use this to your advantage: Much of magic is what I like to call archetypal (you could use the term "formulaic," but I like the sense that it exists in the form it does for a specific purpose, which is to tap into how humans want to perceive things). That is, the audience knows what's going to happen with the trick before you even do it. For instance, if I roll up a newspaper into a cone and pull out a pitcher of milk, everyone knows what's going to happen. There is some amazement in you doing it, but it doesn't have any moment of awe. That is why every magician has to have a few tricks the audience hasn't already seen. Because when you pull out an object that doesn't correspond to a trick your audience already knows, the audience members lean forward in their chair. "Ooh, what's he going to do with that?"
Magic design follows the same path. A lot of what we do is archetypal in that Magic has set patterns it always follows. Yes, it's nice to see how the Giant Growth and Lightning Bolt variants conform to the new environment, but they are never going to wow you. You expect them. The design team has to make sure there is something in each set that is going to catch you off guard. They have to show you something you've never seen before. Because just as in a magic show, this makes the player want to learn more. "Ooh, how will that play?"
Note that in a Magic set, much like in a magic set, most of the material can be archetypal. Most of it can be what the audience already knows and expects, but somewhere you always have to have some unknown, some wow.
For Mirrodin block, my pick for the best design of the block is the card that best does this.
Lesson #2—Have Fun
During the first article of my Roseanne trilogy, I talked about how one executed a pitch. The number-one quality of a pitch, I said, was enthusiasm. If you want others to be excited by your idea, you have to be excited. The same is true for a performance. If you want your audience to be excited, you have to lead by example.
For those of you who have never performed a magic act, let me explain that it's very structured. Each trick has a specific way it is performed and you tend to perform it that way each time. The goal is to make everything seemed spontaneous (stand-up comedy is the same way—I'm sure I'll get to that topic one of these days) even though it's quite rehearsed. The thing that always helped me keep my energy was that I liked to infuse something new each time to keep the act fresh. That thing, though, wasn't the magic tricks. No, those required precision. The thing that got to vary was the interaction with the audience.
One of the reasons I chose to perform magic for young kids is that I've always adored children. They have an innocence and creative energy I love. Interacting with kids is a joy for me, so I made sure in my act to always create a lot of interaction. My decision to include the kids raised my energy level (which starts high, for those who haven't watched a video interview of me) and brought an extra level of fun to the show. Fun is infectious and can take what might be an average performance and turn it to something electrifying.
Magic design is the same way. As you put together your set, you make sure to cover the bases, but you also have to make sure you include pockets of fun. The set has to have a few elements that just create the same kind of infectiousness. There are many ways to do this. One way is through card design.
My pick for Champions of Kamigawa block is a card that just exudes fun. It's just one of those cards that's hard not to love.
Lesson #3—Give The Audience What It Wants
There is a magic trick known as a mouth coil. You've all probably seen it but I'll walk you through it. The magician is doing his act when all of a sudden he's speechless. He gets an odd look on his face. He reaches into his mouth and pulls out a tiny bit of paper that looks kind of like a small streamer. Usually it's white. The magician starts pulling at this streamer. A foot comes out, then another foot, then another. At some point, the white streamer changes to another color and then another and another. The magician seems shocked that all of this is coming out of his mouth, but he keeps pulling and the streamer keeps coming. This goes on for as long as the magician can milk it. By the time he's done, he has pulled out fifty feet of streamer that has been constantly changing color.
Little kids love the mouth coil. Love it! If you ask them about the show after it's done, odds are they will talk about the mouth coil. I'm not planning to give away any actual magic secrets in this article but suffice to say that a mouth coil is a $2 disposable trick any novice magician can learn in a minute. It's a cheap, simple little trick. Did I ever do a magic show without a mouth coil? Never! I did shows where I did the trick twice (usually at the begging of the audience—as a general rule, by the way, magicians are never supposed to repeat their tricks) but I never, not once, did a show without a mouth coil.
Why? Because I knew it was what my audience wanted. My job as a magician was to entertain, and to do that I had to understand what my audience wanted and deliver it. Magic card design is exactly the same. There are things the audience loves and it's my job to keep offering it up.
My pick for Ravnica block was me taking this idea to the extreme.
Lesson #4—It's Important to Bring Things Back
It's easy to think of a magic show as just a collection of tricks, but that mindset misses what is really going on. A magic show is a performance. All the tricks are selected and ordered to create an overall effect. The audience doesn't think about pacing or set-up or juxtaposition, but a magician has to keep those in mind. Just as a band takes time ordering its music set, so too does a magician carefully pick in what order the tricks need to occur.
One of the best ways to help tie the show together is to create continuity by having one or more tricks come back later in the show. A common example would be to have something disappear only to show up again in a context the audience wasn't expecting. Having performed a lot of magic shows, I know that familiarity creates comfort. People naturally are drawn to things they already know because it makes them feel inclusive to what is going on. When you reuse an element from a previous trick, the audience gets to say to themselves, "Oh yeah, I remember that trick" and it bonds them to the magician.
You'll notice a recurring theme in my writing—the importance of emotion. Entertainment is all about evoking a positive response in your audience. What that emotion is can vary, but the means to doing it is constant. Magic design is no different. And for the same reasons listed above, players enjoy seeing things come back. We don't do reprints solely to save design resources, but because we want to bring out the same responses in our players that I did with my magic audience. "Oh yeah, I remember that card."
Time Spiral block was a block about nostalgia, so it might not come as a surprise that the card I picked for it is the only card I list in this two-part article that wasn't originally designed in the block in question.
Lesson #5—Embrace the Goofy
Whenever I performed magic, I used a lot of humor. Some of that humor was always directed back at myself. I always made it a point to make sure the audience was able to laugh at me. Why? Is this just good showmanship? Partly. But there's something much more important at stake going on. You see, magic tricks by their very nature are designed to wow the audience. You are doing things your audience can't understand and, if you are doing your job well, you are constantly twisting expectations. When you do this, you are putting yourself on a pedestal. You are doing things your audience can't.
The problem is that when you elevate yourself above your audience you become less relatable. It is crucial to bonding with them that they feel they can relate to you. Stand-up comedy, for example, is based upon the comedian finding common ground with the audience. In magic, though, you are forced to elevate yourself by the nature of fooling your audience. Clearly you know more than they do.
To offset this, I felt it was always important to add a little goofiness to my show. I would trip "accidentally" or I would make a simple mistake and then joke about it. I would purposefully do things to knock my myself down a peg. It was in those moments that I could make myself relatable.
Magic design has a similar issue. It's important in your design to let your goofiness shine through to help connect with your audience. I always want to make sure in any design I do that there are cards that seem to take themselves a little less seriously. They make the audience see that you too are having fun with the set.
My pick for my favorite Lorwyn card is one I believe succeeds because it is able to capture its own goofiness.
I hit my word count and haven't even gotten to the second half of the blocks. That means you'll have to come back next week to hear more about Magic and magic. I hope you've enjoyed this first half. As always, any feedback is appreciated.
Until then, may your feedback not sting so much.