elcome to Eldrazi Week! Zendikar and Magic are getting to meet these ancient giant monsters for the first time (okay, Zendikar has met them once before) and we thought, what better way to welcome them than have a theme week in their honor? As is often the case with theme weeks for me, the obvious thing to talk about (in this case how the Eldrazi were originally designed) has already been the subject of an article (in my column On the Rise, Part I). Instead I thought I would tackle an interesting design issue that the Eldrazi brought up: designing elements that need specific environments to work.
From time to time I introduce you to R&D slang. Here's the R&D vocabulary word of the day: bio-dome. What does it mean? It refers to the environment when a set is only played by itself. With large sets this includes Limited, as large sets are self-contained Limited environments (at least when the set first comes out). Why does R&D need a term for this? Because sets are initially designed in the bio-dome. This concept is so important to remember that R&D has named it. I'll get to why later in the column.
When a design team starts out, the set is only played with itself. Why? Partially because the team has to understand the Limited environment and partially because the presence too many variables make it hard to understand what is going on in the set. If I play the set just with itself, I get a much better insight into (for example) the synergies of the set, how the mechanics are playing, the flavor, and numerous factors that would be clouded if I threw in cards from a completely different set.
Now we come to the paradox (or I should say "a paradox," as Magic design has a number of them): sets are sold based on their look and feel internally but are judged based on how they interact with every other set. In other words, players look inside a set when deciding to buy it but look outside a set when judging what the set has to offer. Why is this? Let's examine.
When a new set comes out, players ask themselves whether they want buy it. Is this set worth spending their hard-earned money on? To answer this question, they examine the set. What do players look for? According to our market research, you all want something new and different. You want a set that has new mechanics, new themes, and new cards. (Sets can re-explore old ideas as long as they bring new twists of those ideas to the table.) In short, players look for uniqueness in a new set. They want to be immersed in a new environment. They want to see Magic continue to evolve. The end result is that when a set is released, much scrutiny is put onto the set itself. The players look within the bio-dome.
But how does history look at a set? To understand a set's relevance, the players have to look outside the set. They have to understand how that set interacts with the environment(s) at large. Which cards saw play in tournaments? What new deck types did the cards inspire? What did the set have to offer all the different Constructed formats? This evaluation looks outside the bio-dome. How did things fare when they were exposed to the "real world" of Magic?
This brings us to the dilemma of the day. What happens when a design team creates a mechanic that can live in the bio-dome but not so easily outside it? What place is there in Magic for mechanics that thrive within their own environment?
There's No Place Like Bio-Dome
I'll let you in on a little secret. Designers love designing Limited environments. Why? It gives us control; starting from the ground up means that the designer has total control over what sorts of things happen in the environment. Take Rise of the Eldrazi as the perfect example. The set wanted to get giant expensive creatures onto the battlefield. How do you do that? First, you slow the environment down while giving tools to play the giant creatures earlier. Next, you have to go after the predators that are going to attack the thing you are trying to protect. In Rise, that meant changing what removal was available to make sure that your eight-plus-mana creatures weren't easily destroyed by one, two and three mana spells. Note how most of the removal, such as Vendetta and Heat Ray, has some built-in limit that makes it extra hard or painful to kill Eldrazi and other large monsters (be it levelers, creatures enchanted with totem armor Auras, or just other big nasties in the set).
Sometimes the way to handle threats is to power them down or even lessen their number. This is what was done with bounce (returning a permanent to its owner's hand), for instance. Rise has less bounce than a normal large set, and the bounce it has is slightly weaker. (And by weaker, I mean in context of other bounce spells—bounce is by no way weak in the environment.) The set also has to make sure that there aren't things more attractive than the thing you're encouraging. In Rise, this meant making sure to carve out space for the colorless Eldrazi to ensure that they wouldn't be eclipsed by other cards.
All this hard work gets thrown out though when you allow outside sets in. How do you slow down the environment when it has cards that push in the opposite direction? How do you get rid of predators that already exist in the environment? How do you lessen or depower cards that are already there? How do you preserve carved out space when other sets didn't carve it out?
The answer is that you don't have the tools available to you inside the bio-dome. The biggest loss is the ability to subtract something. Everything you are doing is merely additive. You only get to add things; you cannot remove or replace something. This is an endless source of headaches.
In many ways this is more of a development problem than a design one. It's the developers' job to figure out how the set will impact Constructed. Designers are focused on making cards and mechanics that play well. We are not overly concerned with the specifics of which cards are tournament-worthy and which ones are not. Why not? There are three big reasons. The first reason is time. When we work on a product, we are so far ahead of the real world that we simply don't have any data that can help us.
The second reason is logistics. To understand an environment, you have to be able to examine everything that's available. Design doesn't have the luxury. When we're in the middle of designing something, it is by definition not done yet. The carpenters cannot stand back and see how the finished house is going to look. They'll have some idea of the shape and can make some educated guesses as how things will proceed, but in the end they don't know because until they finish, the other work cannot be done.
The third reason is one of focus. Design is more about making tools than figuring out how the tools will be used. Yes, we know that a hammer will pound things and a saw will cut them, but what items you make out of these tools is not really of concern to the tool maker. The tool maker just wants to make sure that the hammers and saws pound and cut appropriately. A Magic designer's job isn't about making absolutes, it's about creating potential. What I mean by that is that we design cards capable of doing cool things. What exactly those cool things are we leave to all of you. We'd rather design open-ended cards that inspire players to use them inventively.
Before I continue let me stress that I have no idea whether or not Eldrazi (and by that I mean the specific creatures and not the set itself) are going to have a big impact on Constructed. Development clearly did what they could to increase their chances, but a lot of the things they were up against , as I've explained, were factors out of their control.
The point of today's column is to examine why design makes things like Eldrazi that by their very nature challenge their ability to exist outside the bio-dome.
All Roads Lead to Bio-Dome
Why is the concept of the bio-dome important enough to R&D that we've chosen to name it? Because it exposes a major schism between design and development. Above I explained how a set is received versus how it is judged (initial reaction versus historical context). In many ways design is more concerned with the first part and development the second. Why? Because each is better set up to deal with their half. Design is very focused on what the set means within itself. The act of creation forces the artist to look inside. Development is very focused in making the set play well in the environment it is going to enter. The act of integration forces the artist to look outside.
Design needs to be inside the bio-dome for the majority of design. Development needs to move outside the bio-dome to do the majority of development. This difference is why the term exists and why the concept is so important to R&D. Language puts names to concepts that are important. (This is probably the most powerful thing about language, by the way.) For R&D, understanding the shift that happens between design and development was important enough that it begat a new vocabulary word.
This all brings us to the question of the day: Why does design create mechanics that are problematic outside the bio-dome? Here are what I consider the major reasons:
#1) Limited Is Important
In the beginning, Magic was a Constructed game. Sealed Deck (and later Draft) was introduced as kind of a novelty. But something interesting has happened over the last seventeen years. What started as an alternative way to play has become the default way for a huge number of players. To many players, Limited is what Magic is about. As such, R&D spends a lot of time on it.
What does Limited have to offer? Here's what I think are the major advantages:
One, it requires no advance preparation. You show up with nothing and are involved instantly in the game. Usually with age, time becomes a more limited resource. Limited allows players who love the game but have less time to still have a way to play. We know, for example, that the longer players are active in the game, the more likely it is that Limited becomes their main source of play.
Two, it requires very little initial investment. If you have three booster packs, you can draft. If you have six booster packs, you can play Sealed. It is this quality of Limited that makes it easier for someone to jump back into the game. The freedom to start playing without having to accumulate any other resources ahead of time also makes it much easier to play on a whim.
Three, it has a much higher variance of play. Many Constructed formats can get monotonous as you play the same decks against each other round after round. Limited, by its very structure, guarantees that every deck (yours and your opponents') will be different,.
Four, it is more skill testing. I've talked to many pros and the vast majority all agree that Draft is the most skill testing format in the game. The reasons are a combination of things. There is less ability to rely on what you've experienced meaning that players have to better understand how to adapt by feel. There is on average more decisions to be made per game (both because more of it is new experience to the player and also because the overall lessening of card power allows for additional permanents to stay on the battlefield, creating more complex board states). There is also a wider range of acceptable cards meaning there is a wider breadth of card knowledge required.
Five, it is immersive. Limited allows you to play in environments radically different from anything else you've played. You get to experience the designer's vision in its purest form. Another way to think about it is that Limited allows you to better experience the swings of the pendulum. As the game moves to new territory, Limited is the part farthest towards the end of the swing.
The first reason to create mechanics that thrive in the bio-dome is that the bio-dome itself is the home of a very popular way to play Magic.
#2) Design Space Is a Valuable Resource
While I have spent many columns assuring players that design isn't going to run out of ideas, I also want to make it clear that Magic design does not have the luxury of just throwing away huge swaths of design. Yes, Magic design has plenty to work with—as long as we use what's available. Bio-dome friendly mechanics need to be explored because almost all design veins need to be explored.
This doesn't mean that design is committed to every idea it explores. In fact, an important part of any design is figuring out what doesn't work for the design. A famous Hemingway quote is that "writing is rewriting." The same holds true for card design. The initial raw design where we come up with the ideas is less than five percent of what is done to create a set. Much more time is spent refining ideas than is spent coming up with them.
What this means is that Magic can't afford to not examine the bio-dome friendly mechanics. If an idea can create something that will thrive in any Magic environment, it is worth design's time to explore it.
#3) We Don't Know Everything
An important part of design is humility. (Yes, I see the humor in me saying that.) No designer is smarter than the design. A big part of evolving a design is listening to what the set is telling you it does and doesn't need. A great idea that doesn't advance the set needs to be removed while a seemingly lackluster mechanic that makes everything click needs to stay.
I bring this up because it's very easy to classify what thrives inside the bio-dome and what thrives outside it after the design is done. Hindsight, as they say, is 20/20. Another reason that we explore bio-dome-dependent mechanics is that it is not always clear when you are working on a design if that is what it is.
#4) We Can't Assume Failure
A key part of the creative process is what I call the "leap of faith." Ideas do not come pre-proven. At some point a designer has to take an unproven idea and try it. To give each mechanic the best chance, I like to approach with the attitude that any design challenge can be solved. That is, every problem has a solution if the designer can take the time to find it.
Yes, Rise of the Eldrazi was a challenge for development, but design shouldn't kill ideas based on any perceived problems they have. When designers self-censor they will often throw away good ideas. One only needs to look through history to find ideas that on the surface sounded crazy—that is, until someone proved the crazy idea to be true. Design cannot assume failure on the part of development.
Magic has the best set of developers it has ever had. That has come from years of technology advance with each team learning from the ones that came before it. There are so many aspects of the game that we take great care of that back in the day R&D didn't even worry about. As a designer, I love to throw down the gauntlet. I like to present development not with the safe and the known, but with the wild and unpredictable. That, in my opinion, is how we make excellent Magic.
#5) Design Has to Sometimes Embrace the Unknown
Should we do things like the Eldrazi? Hell yes! As I often say, the greatest risk to Magic is taking no risks. Magic is a game about exploration and adaptation. The reason people play the game for so long is that it is a living, breathing entity that keeps changing what it is. Players don't get bored because the game today was not the game yesterday and won't be the game tomorrow. If we want to let you explore, design has to be willing to go to some pretty wild places. Always remember that design explores a lot of place that you'll never see (nor want to, trust me).
Bio-Dome, Sweet Bio-Dome
I used my column today to talk about Eldrazi not in particular but more what they represent to me. As the head designer, I want to see my designers stretch in their designs. I want them to try things that might not fit into the status quo. I want them to explore areas that haven't been touched before. I want them to build things in the bio-dome that might be a bit scary to take out of the bio-dome. I feel Brian did all of these with the design for the Eldrazi, and I'm happy he did. It seems only right to use Eldrazi Week to applaud not just their design but the kind of design they represent.
Join me next week when I talk German industrial design. (No, really).
Until then, may you spend some time in you own bio-dome (hopefully without Pauly Shore).