Making_Magic

If you think breaking expectations is the most important part of Magic design, you're in for a surprise.

Stating the Obvious

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The letter O!n Friday, May 7, the following image appeared on the front page of magicthegathering.com:


Shadowmoor Booster

It was the first sneak peak at Shadowmoor. (If you don't know what I'm talking about, check out my article Building Blocks for more info.)

On June 6, a new image showed up on the front page:

Eventide Booster

Just as with the Shadowmoor booster, the Eventide booster showed off the card frames (complete with art, names and mana cost) of fifteen cards from the expansion. (If you've seen this already, bear with me for a few paragraphs.) I am about to show them to you, so if you want to remain spoiler-free, I recommend leaving now. Click here to see the pack.

Just as with the Shadowmoor booster, the rare revealed its text when moused over. Click here to see it in all its glory.

Ooh, Super Maro. I like.

The biggest reveal of the pack is the existence of enemy colored hybrid cards, not just that they are going to be in the set but they are the only hybrids to appear in the set. (And yes, that's what a pack full of nothing but enemy-colored hybrids means.) Now perhaps the term "biggest reveal" is misleading, because the existence of enemy-colored hybrids is not exactly the largest of surprises. For starters, I've been teasing about it in this column ever since the hybrid theme became public. In addition, it seemed like the most obvious twist for the block to take. That's the topic of today's column. What role does doing the obvious thing have in design? My short answer: a lot! My long answer: keep reading.

Duh!

Sudden_Shock The main thing I want to address in this column is the myth that surprise is the most important tool in design's arsenal. It's not. Yes, Magic is about discovery. Yes, Magic keeps reinventing itself. Yes, Magic wants to keep its players on its toes. But those are all a means to an end, not the end itself. The goal of Magic's designers (as well as its developers) is to make Magic fun. We want you to play the game because you enjoy playing it. Surprising you is one way to make it fun, but it's not the only way, and, in my far from humble opinion, it's not the most important.

So what is the most important thing? Delivering what the players expect. What I'm talking about isn't just true in card design but in any art form. As my evil twin so eloquently stated (well, quoting me), "When design fights human nature, human nature will always win."

Humans crave familiarity. We are creatures of comfort. Communication theory, advertising, public relations... anything that directly talks about communicating with humans rests on this principle. People embrace old things and are afraid of new things. Now, give your new things context with old things and suddenly you're in business.

My favorite example of this comes from my Hollywood days. Let's say you're pitching an idea for a new media property. I'm going to talk about television, but the same applies to movies or music or whatever. You have to begin your pitch by explaining how your new thing is the combination of two popular old (a.k.a. existing) things. It's Gossip Girl meets Grey's Anatomy. It's Lost meets Heroes. It's Seinfeld meets Roseanne. Why is this necessary? Because it shows two things: one, that your idea is playing upon time-tested known quantities, and two, that your thing is new because it mixes them in a way that hasn't been done yet. It's new and different yet old and familiar.

People don't want something too new, too unfamiliar. They want a twist on something they already understand. Magic is no different. Imagine that someone came in and pitched the following set to me:

Mark baby, have I got the set for you. No instants. No sorceries. That's right, this set has nothing but permanents. And it has six colors, only three of which the players have ever seen before. Plus, there's no combat step. Creatures can't attack other players. They can only attack other creatures during a special new step. That's right, this set adds a whole new step to the game. Well, two new steps actually. There are cards that add an untap step to the end of the turn. You heard me. But wait until I tell you the best part: I've done away with life totals. In this expansion, you lose in a whole new way.

I'd kick them out of my office. I don't actually have an office but I'd go borrow one just so I could kick them out of it. What they were describing is not Magic. It would be surprising. Surprisingly unfun.

The most important part of design's job is meeting expectations. To use another Hollywood example, imagine going to see a murder mystery where no one dies. Aha, it's a twist on the murder mystery genre! No, no it's not. A murder mystery needs a murder. And a mystery. Imagine that instead of no murder, the mystery is never solved. The audience never finds out who did it. That would also be greatly unsatisfying. Formula—convention, structure, whatever you want to call it—is fundamental to art. The audience has expectations that have to be met. True, reinvention allows a little bit of shifting. There are great murder mysteries where convention is broken. One classic has the detective committing the crime. Another has no one committing the crime (the person died to a series of events in which no one person intended to kill the victim). A third has multiple people committing the crime, each unaware that others were simultaneously killing the same person. Twists are fine and enjoyed, but they come when the artists deliver the majority of what the audience expects.

What this means for Magic is that for a set to be popular it has to feel like Magic. Yes, there are other things it also needs to do, but if it fails on this basic foundation, the rest won't matter. Design has to deliver the game of Magic. This is so obvious, in fact, that the point is taken for granted. Of course, each new set will feel like Magic. How could it not? Interestingly enough, in the recent past, I think we crossed over that line for some of our players. Planar Chaos was one of the most experimental sets we've ever done. In it, we messed with something core to the game, the color pie. While some players loved that we were willing to break taboos, others felt like we had moved too far away from the center of the game. To them, Planar Chaos wasn't Magic. My point is that this line is thinner than it might seem. Design has to keep looking for ways to reinvent the game without drifting from the game's center. Our murder mystery needs to keep its murder and its mystery.

Not So Special Delivery

So far I've only talked about meeting prescribed expectations. Magic is "blah." The new set has "blah" in it addition to whatever else is being added. Another entirely different set of expectations is assumed expectations. If we do thing X, then thing Y will follow. In Magic, most of these types of expectations occur later in the block, in the second and third sets. For example, Invasion and Planeshift went out of their way to not use enemy-colored gold cards. Their absence set up the expectation that they would show up in Apocalypse, which they did, much to player appreciation. Ravnica had only four of the ten two-color pairs, creating the expectation that they would show up in Guildpact and Dissension, which they did, again much to fan appreciation.

It was never our intent to fool anyone. Shadowmoor's existence set up the expectation that Eventide would have enemy-color hybrids. We did that precisely so we could meet those expectations (as well as accomplish several other goals, such as giving each set its own feel). Delivering the expected can be very comforting. This isn't to say that we won't ever throw you all some curveballs, because we have done so and will continue to do so. Rather I'm saying that block evolution isn't relegated solely to curveballs. Sometimes the straight and narrow is just what the players expect and want.

To explain this phenomenon, I will go to another one of my backgrounds, comedy. A common hobby of stand-up comedians is to come up with a global theory of how comedy works. We (and I use "we" only because back in my college days I spent many an open mike Monday night fine-tuning my routine) sit around in the back of the comedy club for hours on end, and thus are forced to find ways to amuse ourselves. One common theory that gets espoused is that comedy is all about surprise. Here's the problem: it doesn't explain running jokes. A running joke is something that, once set up, keeps happening. A classic example is in the movie Young Frankenstein, when the horses neigh every time Frau Blücher's name is mentioned. (Quick myth debunking: "blücher" is not the German or Yiddish word for "glue.") A running joke is not surprising. In fact, it is the opposite. The audience learns to expect it. They know it's coming. Does that make it less funny? No, it appears once again that the opposite is true. Running jokes get funnier over time as the audience better learns to expect them.

Teletubbies!What I believe is going on behind the scenes psychologically is that the human need for familiarity is crafting a sense of comfort around it. This is why formulas, be they in humor or stories or card design, are latched onto so popularly. I found the craziest example of this in the most unlikely of places: the British children's show Teletubbies.

For those that are unfamiliar with this program, and I'm hoping anyone without kids is so blessed, it revolves around four childlike creatures with televisions in their bellies (that's why it's called Teletubbies). Most of the time the show follows around these four creatures acting very much like the one- and two year-olds the show was designed to appeal to, but every once in a while we get treated to a video playing on one of their bellies. Then after the video is done we are treated to another video—the same one we just watched! Yes, each video is played twice in a row. Why? Because the developers discovered that little children love (and I mean LOVE) repetition. It empowers them because they get to predict what is going to happen. My claim is that this never goes away. (Although luckily the desire to watch Teletubbies apparently does.)

What this means for Magic design is that we have to take this basic human quality into account. We have to set up expectations that can be met. We have to withhold things to come later. We have to lay clues for the players to find. We have to beware the allure to constantly surprise the audience. In addition, we have to enable the designs to have follow-up. Here are some different ways:

Block themes – As I explained above, Ravnica did plenty not just to sell itself but to build up what else was coming.

Block cycles – This is a popular trick where we take a cycle (most often a traditional five-card, five-color cycle) and stretch it across the block. A good example would be the alternative win condition cycle from Odyssey block (the most famous of which is Battle of Wits). In Shadowmoor and Eventide, we do this with ten-card cycles in which the five allied-color ones come first and then the five enemy-color ones come second. A few of these, by the way, are hinted at in the Eventide booster pack above.

Reflections – This is like the block cycles except there are just two cards and the two cards are opposite in nature. In Lorwyn / Shadowmoor these are done by taking the same card and doing the darker, twisted version. In a more traditional set, you might see a reflection done as an enemy-color card with a similar structure yet mostly opposite effect (e.g. protection from white vs. protection from black)

Legends / Planeswalkers – These are the two types of cards that allow us to show evolution, mostly because there is a means to show that it is the same character, yet evolved. The Weatherlight Saga used this technique numerous times to show how characters changed during the story.

Mechanic teases – The classic example of this was Spike Drone in Tempest, which hinted at a new type of creature that fully blossomed in the next set Stronghold.

Text reference – This is a technique that we haven't made much use of, but I'd like to do more in the future. The example is Darksteel's Shield of Kaldra that referenced Helm of Kaldra in its rules text even though the card did not exist yet.

Delivering on expectations can have just as much punch in design as surprise can. The trick is learning to balance the two so they complement one another.

Meeting Expectations

Goblin_Scouts The reason that expectations are overlooked stems from the fact that the audience is looking for differences and just assumes similarities. When you watch a romantic comedy, you aren't surprised when the two love interests begin the story not getting along. That's what convention says is supposed to happen, so it flies below the radar. It's the things that don't do what you expect that stand out.

My goal today was to point out that what the audience focuses on and what they need are not the same. The most important part of any design is the part that isn't supposed to draw attention. This is the part that does what is expected, thus allowing the small part that breaks convention to draw focus. To use my favorite metaphor, icing doesn't make the cake. Cake makes the cake. Icing makes the cake better and probably more memorable, but a cake made of just icing will satisfy very few (okay, there's this one weird guy I knew in college with an unnatural affinity for icing). Designers have to understand the value of the cake and the role of the icing.

And with that, I'll call it a day. Really, once you go to the "cake / icing" metaphor, well, it's time to wrap things up. What do all of you think about what I've said? I'd love to hear your thoughts in the thread. (And please word all your comments as cake / icing metaphors—I'm not actually serious, but even me saying this isn't going to stop the cake / icing flood that will result).

Join me next week as things get fishy.

Until then, may you know the joy of having your cake and, well... the eating it part is just gravy really.

Mark Rosewater

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