very once in a while I like to take a look back at one of my columns that made a big splash in its day and reexamine the issue from today's perspective. Today, the column I've chosen to look back at is one of my most read columns of all times known as "When Cards Go Bad" (aka the "Why We Make Bad Cards" article). If you haven't read it, you probably want to go do that first because I'm going to be writing today assuming you have. Also, for thoroughness, you might want to also take a peek at "When Cards Go Bad, Part 2", a Latest Development article that Tom LaPille wrote last year which reexamines the issue of bad cards from a development perspective.
Bad River | Art by Terese Nielsen
Bad to the Bone
Before I jump into the meat of the issue, I wanted to spend a few moments to talk about the history of the column itself. In the column "Turning Ten", I talked about how I put the website together. I knew that I wanted to create a stronger link between the players and those of us behind the scenes. One of the reasons I wanted to write a column was so that I could help players understand things with Magic that they might not be aware of.
"When Cards Go Bad" came about because of an "Ask Wizards" question. "Ask Wizards" is a recurring feature now but back in the day it was daily. One day, very early on in the site's existence, someone asked the following:
Q: "Why does R&D print ridiculously bad cards in sets, particularly as rares?" --Elliot Fertik, Philadelphia, PA
And the snowball started rolling.
I gave a brief answer trying to explain the complex issue of bad cards (my "Ask Wizards" response is in the original article linked above) which prompted a man named Nathan Woodall to send me an email entitled "You Have Offended Me, Sir". I realized that I had stumbled upon the exact kind of opportunity I had wanted the website to embrace, so I wrote my very first "issue" column where I explained in depth why design (and development) did something that wasn't obvious at first blush.
The column, which was the fifth one I ever wrote (of "Making Magic" anyway), was a huge success and really put the flag on the map of what the website and my column was going to do. The reason I've taken so long to get back to "When Cards Go Bad" is because I feel the original column did such a great job of covering the issue. The reason I finally decided to revisit it was that there are more issues to discuss as you dig a little deeper. So today, I am going to examine the same issue – why we make bad cards – but from a slightly different vantage point. Today I am going to put on my design hat and explain why sometimes bad cards are good design.
The original "When Good Cards Go Bad" explained why bad cards have to exist in Magic. Today's column is going to take the topic to the next level. I am going to examine design principles and show how bad cards fit those principles. As the original article gave seven reasons for why bad cards exist, I thought it only fair to parallel it and give seven reasons why bad cards are good design:
Design Principle #1: Games Are Supposed to Challenge the Player
Game (and puzzle) design is very different from most types of design. For example, let's say you're designing a lamp. You want every component of the lamp to be as obvious as possible. The switch to turn it on should be where you would expect it to be and the switch should be as simple as possible – most likely on/off. Every element of the lamp from how to move the light to what plugs in should be as clear and intuitive as possible. The goal of lamp design is to make the lamp easy to use.
Sindbad | Art by Julie Baroh
Game design though isn't about removing obstacles but adding them. Let's suppose that a game designer set out to design a game lamp. Well, how to turn on the lamp wouldn't be obvious. The switch wouldn't be where you expect it or even necessarily look like a switch. How the lamp moved or plugged in would not be simple and the reason being that the point of a game lamp would be for users to figure it out. (By the way, if you enjoy all this talk about the ins and outs of making a game, you might want to read my column exactly on this topic.)
The first reason why bad cards are good design is that we, the game designers, aren't supposed to make it easy for you. As such, we have a whole bag of tricks to make figuring out the game hard. One of those tricks is using first impressions to mislead. We know what has and hasn't worked in the past so we know what prejudices the players are going to have. This allows us to make cards that play into these prejudices.
A very good example of this was something I did during original Mirrodin design. I put both Shatter and Terror in the set knowing that conventional wisdom was that Terror was very good and Shatter was pretty weak. Except that wasn't the case in Mirrodin, In a world made of metal, and a set made of artifacts, Shatter was very powerful and Terror, which couldn't kill artifact creatures, was powered down (it was merely good instead of great). The point of including them was the realization that you often should draft Shatter over Terror, something that had never been true before.
In every set, we purposefully include cards that we know are much better than they appear just as we make cards that are worse than first impression. In order to do this, we need to have a wide range of cards exist because it's hard to have good cards that seem bad without having some bad cards that are bad.
But wait, wouldn't having a world where every card is good make the process even harder? If every card was playable, wouldn't that create a lot more decisions? Actually, no it wouldn't. Why? Well, I'm glad you asked. You see, in early design, we go out of our way to purposefully make a flat power curve. We do this because the goal of early design isn't about a balanced environment but rather about getting all the cards played so the design team can figure out where the fun is.
As such, I have a lot of experience building from sets with flat power levels. Why isn't it harder to build? Because you can't go that wrong. If every card is playable, then almost any combination of cards will work. Would a top-level pro tour-caliber player have a harder time? Absolutely! When you're good enough to see minute differences or understand synergy issues, yes there are plenty of decisions to be made, but that is a teeny, tiny portion of the audience. Even then though, my deck is going to be a lot closer in power level to Jon Finkel's deck than in a normal environment.
Design Principle #2: Make The Players Do The Work
This design principle is a corollary to the last one. It plays into another important aspect of human nature, something known as "investment." The idea of investment is a very simple one. Humans care more about things that they feel they've had something to do with. Why? It's an important part of self-esteem. People need to feel they matter so they prioritize things they're personally involved with. It's all part of how the ego works, perfectly normal.
Bad Moon | Art by Gary Leach
The reason it's important is that if you want to get your players invested, it helps if you get them to do some of the work. If I, the game designer, spoon feed you information, it doesn't mean as much. But if the player figures it out for themselves, they become invested.
As an example, let's look at how R&D makes an effort to hide some of the better cards. By making cards that aren't good at first blush, we allow players to discover them on their own. Now they become invested in these cards because they found them. Bad cards enable this by creating the environment that allows discovery and thus investment.
Design Principle #3: Don't Overestimate Your Audience
Many years ago we did a survey where we asked the players to rank their own play skill. We gave the following five choices:
- a) Significantly below average
- b) Below average
- c) Average
- d) Above Average
- e) Significantly above average
Eighty percent of the respondents chose either D or E, but most chose D. What does that say? It says that a lot of Magic players overestimate their own play skill. I bring this up because I believe a similar phenomenon happens with game designers. We tend to overestimate the skill set of our players. We're so invested in the nooks and crannies that we sometimes forget that many players don't think about the game at the level we think about it.
We know that at any one time there are thousands upon thousands of new players in Magic. And we're not even talking about casual players that although they've been playing for a while still haven't figured out all the aspects of how the game works.
In short, as game designers, we have to drill our learning lessons very deep. Bad cards that might be obvious to a more advanced player might take months or even years for some less experienced players to figure out, and it's crucial that we provide the discovery process for every player, not just the top tier ones.
That's another important job of bad cards, making sure everyone, no matter how inexperienced, has something to learn. And remember, every set needs to have a card or two that even the most inexperienced player can recognize as bad.
Design Principle #4: Force Players to Improvise
Another truism of game design is that you can't give the players everything they need. Games at their core are about allowing players to challenge themselves. A good game designer gives the players some tools but not enough to easily complete the task. Why? Because the goal of game design is to force the players to seek out their own solutions.
Badlands | Art by Rob Alexander
This is important for two reasons. One, players don't feel challenged if you give them everything they need. I often talk about how the role of a game designer is to create obstacles for their players. A good way to do that is to be stingy with the tools. Make your players have to find their own tools. Make them work for it.
Two, the goal of game design is to make the experience fun. A big part of accomplishing that is providing your players with moments of emotional rush. A key part of that is the players taking ownership in their actions. Once again, if everything is spoon fed to them, there's no sense of personal accomplishment. Your job as a game designer is not to solve their problems but to enable them to solve their own problems.
How do bad cards play into this? Another way to challenge players is to make them play with cards that aren't very good. One of the most skill testing things you can do, for example, is not give the players enough cards in a draft and force them to play with cards "below the line" of what they would normally play. I ran a lot of formats at the Magic Invitational where I challenged the best players in the world by making them have to evaluate things they had learned to ignore.
I've talked once before about an experience I had during my sophmore year of college where I pulled an all-nighter building a float for my dorm. We didn't have enough people or supplies or time but somehow we did it and had a blast. The next year we joined with another dorm and had more people and supplies than we knew what to do with, and the experience was nowhere near as fun.
Gamers thrive on the challenge. The job of a game designer is to feed that hunger without lessening that challenge.
Design Principle #5: Make The Players Love Something
From time to time, I post design tidbits on my Twitter. One of my favorites was this:
If you make a game that everyone likes but no one loves, it will fail.
The essence of this tweet is a very important design nugget. Players don't have to love everything about your game, but they have to love something. As I often explain, most human decisions are based not on intellect but on emotion, (sorry, Blue) especially when talking about things like fun which is itself an emotional response.
Bad Ass | Art by Thomas M. Baxa
The trick to making sure everyone has something they love is to be very broad in the type of cards we make. In other words, we have to make a lot of different types of cards to spread a wider net. The upside of stretching your designs is that you end up with a lot of very niche cards. Things that speak very loudly to a small subset of players. The downside of this strategy is that you end up with a lot of cards that are deemed bad by a segment of your players. One man's treasure is another man's trash.
The net result is that the game ends up with a bunch of cards that are loved by some but hated by others. Luckily, this works out okay because players are more motivated by love than hate. Why? One, because the human need to be loved is an actual physical drive while the need to be not hated isn't. Two, Magic gives the players a huge amount of control over what they play which means that players get to embrace what they love while ignoring the things they hate.
The number one response I give players when they ask "Why did you make this card I hate?" is "It's not for you."
Just remember that every card is loved by someone. And I do, in fact, mean every card here, because there are players out there who seek out cards that other players shun (more on this in a second. That is one of Magic's best attributes: there is something for everyone.
Design Principle #6: Give Players Something To Call Their Own
I talk a lot about how at its core game design is about tapping into the emotional needs of the players. I just discussed how they need to have something to love in your game. There is another emotional need that also has to be met. You have to make sure your game provides your players with the ability to "tag" it.
What tagging means is that you allow your players to put a psychological stamp on the game that makes them feel as if they've bonded with it in a way that is totally unique to them. To better understand this phenomenon, let me back up a second. Humans have a soft spot for imperfections. Aesthetically, we're drawn to the same things – symmetry, patterns, etc. – but a little part of us wants to find something that is uniquely our own. It goes to the root of our psyche and our need to feel that something about us is one-of-a-kind. This phenomenon has different names but the most common one is "guilty pleasure". There's an innate human desire to embrace something that "no one else really gets".
As such, humans seek out little things to call their own. This desire transfers easily to games and especially easily to Magic. Why are bad cards important? Because every player, whether they are even aware of this phenomenon or not, wants to find pieces of any game – cards mostly for Magic– that they can personally connect with, something that they can call their own. Popular cards don't tend to fill this need because people want to love something that has a personal feel. Everyone knows that this card is bad but down deep you secretly like it. Maybe it's not even that big of a secret.
Bad cards are chock full of imperfections and do a wonderful job of allowing players to make this connection. In fact, notice how many players publicly have pet cards that they identify with along with the caveat that it's not good, it's just something they like. Bad cards (and by bad cards, I really mean "cards that other players perceive as bad") do an excellent job of fulfilling this need.
Design Principle #7: Give The Player a Scapegoat
Individual ego showed up in principle #2 and it shows up here again. What's something every player is going to do a lot? Lose. The less experienced you are, the more it's going to happen. So what's a game designer going to do about it? There are a bunch of things. You can make the game fun despite losing. You can build in features to help make more games closer (with things like catch-up features and reversals) so that even a loss can feel close. You can sometimes even make losing enjoyable. This principle though takes a different approach.
Zodiac Goat | Art by Qi Baocheng
Make sure that you give your players scapegoats for their loss. By this I mean, make sure your game has components that the players can blame if they want to. Magic's mana system is excellent for this. So too is the "luck of the draw". Bad cards though provide another great scapegoat opportunity.
Notice how often a player blames their loss on a card. They didn't lose; the card made them lose. It was the card's fault. If only the card were better.
Sometimes the player's egos need an easy out and bad cards get to often serve that purpose. (I do feel obligated, by the way, to stress that probably the number one way to become a better player is to own up that you are the cause of your losses and not an outside force; only when you accept the impact you are having on your games is there any hope of truly improving.)
Bad cards do good work being bad beats.
Today's column was a pretty dense one. There's a lot of important design lessons packed into it. I hope you all enjoyed this different look at the bad card issue and as always, I would love to hear your take on this column. You can write to me in my email, in this column's thread or any of my social media (Twitter, Tumblr, and Google+)).
Join me next week when I talk about designing for Azorius.
Until then, may you find the good in bad.
Drive to Work #4 – Invasion
This week I talk about a set that I was on the design team for but did not lead – Invasion. My podcast goes back to Magic's playtest beginning to talk about how it influenced the very first multicolor block.