here are many different aspects to card design (which is a big relief as I write a weekly column). This week, I thought I'd take a look at one of my favorites: problem solving. In many ways, designing a card set is like working on a big puzzle. No, more of a metapuzzle. Those of you that don't involve yourself in puzzle searches (one of Rules Manager Mark Gottlieb's passions, by the way) might not know the term. A metapuzzle is a puzzle made up of lots of smaller puzzles. The solution of each puzzle then form the clues needed to solve the metapuzzle. Note that some metapuzzles have more than two layers (although I've been told that each time you add a level you add a "meta"; for example, three layers is a metametapuzzle). A classic pop culture example of a metapuzzler would be Batman's archnemesis The Riddler. He often asked a series of riddles that Batman had to piece together to solve a larger riddle.
My point is that Magic expansions are like metapuzzles (or metametapuzzles, or metametametapuzzles, etc.). They have a series of smaller puzzles that are solved to help piece together the solutions to larger puzzles that are then assembled to crack the even larger puzzle and so on. What this means is that the skills required to solve problems are valuable ones for a designer to possess. In today's column I thought I'd walk all of you through some classic puzzles (which aren't specifically about Magic but which I've added a Magic flavor to). Note that for today I am restricting myself to logic puzzles, that is these are all puzzles that can be solved by reasoning out the answer. There are many other types of puzzles and Magic design tends to hit most all of them, but today's column to keep focused is going to just use logic puzzles.
For each one I will start by presenting the puzzle. I will then give the answer for those that think they've figured it out on their own. If you haven't figured it out though, I recommend you skip it (the solution will be hidden) and go to the next section where I will walk you through how to solve the puzzle. Finally, I will talk about how Magic design often uses the same tricks to solve its problems. Sound like fun? (If not, you might want to bail on this week's column and come back next week; I promise no puzzles.)
Puzzle #1 – Man O' Mana
You're playing Magic Online and you get exactly three lands in play: a Mountain, a Forest, and a Chaotic Taiga. The Mountain taps for . The Forest taps for . The Chaotic Taiga taps randomly for either or . Then a bug occurs that reassigns the card title, art and frame from each card to a different card. No card has its own title, art and frame. The bug then shuffles their position so you don't know which card is which.
Here's the challenge. Tapping only one land of your choice, can you figure out the true identity of each of the three cards?
How To Solve It
What This Has To Do With Magic Design
Magic design by its nature is very disorienting. Why? Because we are constantly trying to do things we've never done before. We revel in finding new veins of design that throw old convention to the wind. Part of what keeps the game fresh is that R&D keeps shifting how elements of the game are relevant. Things that are important can become unimportant and vice versa. Things that have synergy stop working so well together while things that never had any potency can suddenly rise in power. With each new environment, Magic design gets to rewrite whatever it wants.
I'll be honest. This aspect of design is one of the most liberating and exciting. But, and this is a pretty big but, it can cause a lot of internal confusion. It's much easier to create a new environment than it is to understand it. Often, especially in early design, we find ourselves having to solve problems that we've never had before. That is where the skills of this puzzle come in. How do you figure out the truth when everything is topsy turvy? Well, you start by figuring out what truths you do know and then you logically construct outward.
As an example let's look at the design of the flashback mechanic. Here's a popular flashback card from the Time Spiral block in case you're unfamiliar with flashback.
Flashback came about because while watching a feature match at the Pro Tour (back in the day when I attended all the Pro Tours, I used to run the feature match area) I thought up the idea of a spell that could be played exactly twice. I liked that it was a different way to add value to a card yet in a way that didn't become too repetitive. The problem was how exactly do you logistically allow a spell to only be played twice.
I began in the most obvious place. What if the spell returned to your hand (a la buyback) but only the first time you played it. That idea was wrought with problems. The biggest two of which were that it relied on hidden information to determine how the card would play and that it had huge memory issues. So I started looking for other answers.
The key to solving the puzzle was to examine what I did know. The spell had to go to the graveyard as keeping it in the hand caused too many problems. Could I solve my problem by dealing with what happens to the card after it goes to the graveyard? Yes, I could. I could allow the mechanic to play the card out of the graveyard. If it then removed itself from play, it would naturally restrict the play to two uses. Yes, it meant that I'd have to limit the mechanic to instants and sorceries (and pseudo-creatures using token-making technology) but that was an acceptable sacrifice as the solution so elegantly solved the other problems.
The key here is that I solved the problem by focusing on what I did know and then used logic to walk me through what other options were available.
Puzzle #2 – Atoga Party
A planewalker is traveling with a Mirari, an Atog and the Atogatog. He comes to a river. (Bad, Raging, Rushing, Underground—take your pick). In the river is a boat capable of holding up to two passengers. Here's the problem, Atogs are notoriously horrible boat rowers, which means that the planewalker must always be in the boat to guide it. But if the Atog is ever left alone with the Mirari, he'll eat it. If the Atogatog is ever left alone with the Atog, he'll eat the Atog. How can the planeswalker get all three items across the river?
How To Solve It
What This Has To Do With Magic Design
Much of Magic design involves walking down certain paths. The act of doing A often forces you to do B, which leads to C and so on. Why is this? Because Magic is a very mature game that has a lot of intricacies. In order to keep the weight of fourteen years from collapsing the game, Magic has built a very solid substructure; order to keep chaos at bay. While this substructure is most noticeable in something like the rules, design has its share of guidelines that shape what it can and cannot do.
This doesn't mean that design can't break its own rules, but it does mean that doing so comes with a substantial cost. It's a cost we often choose to pay but doing so does cause numerous headaches. That is where the skills to solving this type of puzzle come in handy. The goal to this type of puzzle is trying to find a solution within the parameters. I call this "in the box" thinking. How can you make something new work only using known parameters from the past?
The trick, as this puzzle's solution demonstrates, is figuring out what the rules actually are. Often the thing that is blocking your solution is a restriction you've added that you didn't have to. This can be at such a basic level that you don't even realize you've added unnecessary complication. For example, this puzzle never tells you that you can't backtrack, but the forward momentum of trying to solve the puzzle often fools many puzzle solvers into ignoring that option as an acceptable choice.
An example of where this type of puzzle solving led to a particular keyword design is morph. Although for the record, this happen not in design but rather a rules meeting. The Rules Team (back in the day, there was a formal team that got together to discuss any and all rules issues) was trying to find a solution that allowed the Alpha card Illusionary Mask to work.
The way they solved the problem was to start at the beginning and find solutions to each problem as they faced it. Illusionary Mask needed to turn the cards face down, so they did that. This led to the next problem, which was that most qualities of the card were hidden information. This led to conversations like this one.
Heckle: Okay, I'll put a creature into play face down with Illusionary Mask.
Jeckle: Once it's in play, I'll Terror it.
Heckle: Sorry, you can't do that.
Heckle: I'm not required to tell you that.
Jeckle: Is it black?
Heckle: Can't say.
Jeckle: Is it an artifact creature?
Heckle: Can't say.
Heckle: Can't say.
Jeckle: What can you say?
Heckle: Not much really. Um, when it hits you you'll find out its power. Well, at least its power at the time it hits you.
The rules team figured out that having qualities that weren't known to everyone was a problem so they found a solution. What if being face down gave you a set of stats and qualities? Define the state of being face down such that everyone knows what it is. The rules team realized they had stumbled onto something big and came to R&D with their idea. With minor tweaking on R&D's end, that mechanic became morph.
The key to cracking this problem was understanding that a card's characteristics didn't have to be defined by what is printed on the card. Once this "mental block" was removed, the rules team found a simple and straight-forward answer. The lesson for design is to always understand the parameters of your problem. Often the thing holding you back most isn't the problem but the problem solver.
Puzzle #3 – It Takes Two
Yawgmoth, the utter incarnation of evil, attempts to clone himself. Unfortunately things go horribly wrong, as they so often do when cloning is involved, and Yawgmoth makes a good twin (as opposed to an evil one). The good twin of Yawgmoth looks just like him. The only difference is that he always speaks the truth and is inherently good. Yawgmoth, on the other hand, only talks in lies and is, at his core, a rotten, well, whatever he is.
The two Yagmowths (for the sake of the puzzle we'll call them Good Yawgmoth and Evil Yawgmoth) live together, appropriately enough, in a house at a fork in a very important road. One road in this fork leads to Phyrexia (a bad, bad place) while the other leads to Lorwyn (a much kinder place). You, the puzzle goer, have come to this fork in the road. You are allowed to knock on the door. One of the two Yawgmoths will answer, but you won't be able to tell which one it is. Remember that Good Yawgmoth always tells the truth and wants to help you. Evil Yawgmoth always lies and wants to cause you harm.
You may ask one question and then upon hearing the answer you must pick a road and go down it. With only one question asked of an unknown recipient, can you find the road to Lorwyn?
How To Solve It
What This Has to Do With Magic Design
The key to solving this puzzle is understanding how the two parts interact with one another. Understanding how two things interact? There couldn't be a more relevant aspect to Magic design. Magic is a modular game; that is, it is designed such that the pieces can mix and match. Many problems are solved in design by understanding these connections.
This type of puzzle taps into the need for designers to be holistic, that is to understand the design as a complete whole rather than just the sum of its parts. A good design doesn't just lump random items together, but rather finds ways to interweave themes throughout the design. To do this effectively, you have to understand how the basic elements of your design function with one another.
A good example of this from a past design would be the guild model in Ravnica block. While designing Ravnica we knew that giving the guilds strong identities was fundamental to making the block design work. The problem (a.k.a. puzzle) that presented itself was this: if the mono-colored cards were split among guilds then there wouldn't be enough cards for Limited. Remember that Ravnica (I'm talking specifically about the set here as opposed to the block) was broken up into four guilds. One fourth of the cards isn't enough to have enough playable cards in almost any limited format.
This meant that the monocolored cards had to serve two masters (well, in Ravnica, white, black and green did). The key to solving the puzzle was to find things that monocolored cards could do that played into both guilds it was part of. Let's take green as an example. Selesnya (green-white) was all about unfettered growth of creatures. Golgari (black-green) had a recursive element that put creatures into and out of the graveyard. The puzzle was to find where the two overlapped. The most obvious overlap was that both guilds used creatures. Yes, Selesnya was building a giant army while Golgari sacrificed them, but nonetheless the two guilds overlapped in their need for more creatures. This meant that things like token creation played especially well and thus were pushed at higher levels than normal.
The walkaway lesson from this puzzle is that designers cannot look at pieces (be they cards, cycles, mechanics, etc.) in a vacuum. Trading card games are all about interconnection. Part of designing an expansion is understanding what happens when your various pieces start combining with one another.
Riddle Me This
That's all the puzzles I have for today. If you liked this column and want to see more like it (or if you hated it and want to see less), let me know. I get email all the time asking how one becomes an R&D member, so I've decided to take more time talking about different qualities that go into being a designer. Is this an interesting topic for you, the reader? Please let me know.
As a final note, I should point out that if you have aspirations to become a game designer, puzzles are a good way to start sharpening certain necessary skills.
Join me next week when the onslaught begins.
Until then, may you enjoy the search as much as the destination.