Thursday, April 2, 2015

Tesla Horizons: What's it Gonna' Cost?

As we've continued exploratory design for Tesla we've been looking at each of our options for mechanically representing Tesla's progress theme (as discussed here). Each piece examines what a few of the possible implementations might do to the surrounding set.

The first post looked at cards that improved themselves, tracking progress with the battlefield, and explicitly counting progress counters.

The second post investigated using lands and mana to track how far you've progressed.

The third post considered how we could track progress using the graveyard rather than the battlefield.

Finally, today we'll take a look at the last area we identified for tracking progress: the cost of our cards.

Long-term Investment

This isn't the first time we've played around in this area. The design space is deep, has the range to accommodate many different themes, and inherently matches the pacing dictated by the mana system. It sounds like a wonder that we haven't seen it used more before.

The main issue is that it entails a lot of comprehension complexity, in part because referring to a variable value is inherently texty, but mostly because the term "converted mana cost" sounds more complicated than it is to the point where many players assume any intuitions they form are wrong. There are no two ways about it: we need a new template. But it turns out it's not all that easy to find a good one.

Nonetheless, we've been pursuing variations of Iteration since before Playtest #1, and the designs in this post contain a few new approaches to rewording CMC.

We've continued to consider progress mechanics relying on converted mana cost evaluation as recently as the last post in this series.

You can read discussions of those particular mechanics in the linked posts, so for now let's discuss how else we might want to play in this space.

Being Up-Front

Iteration certainly looks like fruitful space to explore, but we'd be remiss not to consider other approaches hitting the same notes. The scaling hoop leads to a nice self-balancing mechanism, but that doesn't necessarily mean its worth the added complexity involved in checking it. We could be comparing CMC to a fixed quantity.

Or doing no comparison at all.

Groundwork doesn't feel like progress on a lone card unless it's growing like Iteration, but with high enough as-fan each subsequent card can feel like it's doing more and more in an Ally-like fashion. However, in that scenario I suspect the aggregated board complexity of each permanent triggering on a different subset of spells would do it in.

Advance has the potential to be really swingy, doing either nothing or too much. But if we can manage to get the variance within a reasonable range in a set with lots of artifacts, it does have the potential to grow along with your mana better than implementations with triggering thresholds because on turn five you can cast a two drop and a three drop.

Time is Money

There's no rule saying our mechanic needs to sit on the board and patiently await ever larger spells. We could look at the graveyard to see one subset of what's already been cast, or at the battlefield to see the other.

Manufacture seems to take a simpler tact than scaling with the highest cost, but I'm afraid that it doesn't engender enough of a feeling of momentum as is, and trying to track multiple thresholds gets texty quickly.

But there's one more place worth look for big spells: the hand.

The flavor here could use a bit of work, but in order to evoke progress each smaller spell is going to have to feel like a step towards the larger one. I'm not sure whether we can achieve that metaphor, but my first swing definitely didn't hit it out of the park. Assuming we get something similar to work, we get exciting gameplay with your opponent anticipating a big bomb, but at the cost of possible snowballing advantages when players curve out.

Over Budget

This post isn't exhaustive: one could, for instance, imagine a riff on Clash that always pushed more expensive spells to the top and cheaper cards to the bottom. That said, I think these are going to be our most fruitful avenues for pursuing a feeling of progress via Converted Mana Cost checks. If you feel otherwise I'd love to hear your reasoning. Whatever the case, for this week take a shot at designing for one of these mechanics or something else in this space.


  1. One way to mitigate the comprehension issue of "Converted Mana Cost" is to only look at Artifacts, since in most cases, their CMC is just their cost. It has the benefit of also being more flavorful, since while a big green creature may have a high CMC, it doesn't necessarily feel especially progressive, while a big artifact contraption usually will. The obvious downside is that it narrows design space, and gives the mechanic a significant deck-building cost.

    1. Yeah, Scout Ship plays into that. It's just a simple enough concept that I'm not ready to give up on a generally intuitive wording just yet.

  2. Good to note: Sorceries with progress don't count themselves.

    Pave Way {2}{G}
    Sorcery (cmn)
    Search your library for a land card and put it OTB tapped.
    Untap a number of lands you control up to your progress.

    (Might be too strong)

  3. Icky Scepter {2}
    Artifact (unc)
    ~ ETB with two charge counters on it.
    Build — Whenever you cast a spell that costs five or more mana, put a charge counter on ~.
    {1}, {T}: Tap target creature that costs as much mana as the number of counters on ~, or less.

    1. I forgot to say earlier - I like build. It's blunt but effective.

    2. Agreed. I could see triggering on 4+. It feels a bit less "big", but still feels hefty and allows for more regular triggers without going full Rise of the Eldrazi.

    3. The bigger number allows us to use way splashier effects, and is a vital hint that this set is more 'top-end' than other Magic sets.

      But yes, 4+ would be fine too.

  4. Grind Up {2}{B}
    Instant (cmn)
    Upgrade (You may discard a card that costs more mana than ~. If you do, draw a card.)
    Destroy target creature if it's green or white. If you upgraded ~, destroy it regardless of color.

    Cyber Bear {3}{G}
    Creature-Bear (cmn)
    When ~ ETB, you may upgrade it. (Discard a card that costs more mana than it, then draw a card.) If you do, put a +1/+1 counter on it. It becomes an artifact creature.

    Douse in Flame {2}{R}
    Instant (cmn)
    Fuel (You may discard a card that costs less mana than ~. If you do, draw a card.)
    ~ deals 3 damage to target creature or player. If you fueled ~, it can't be countered, its damage can't be prevented, and creatures dealt damage by it are exiled if they would die this turn.

    Bionic Goblin {1}{R}
    Creature-Goblin (cmn)
    When ~ ETB, you may fuel it. (Discard a card that costs less mana than it, then draw a card.) If you do, put a +1/+1 counter on it. It becomes an artifact creature.

    That last one highlights the dark side of discarding land. Great in the late game, but if we make cards like Bionic Goblin, we'll encourage players to land screw themselves sometimes.

    1. THIS is a good mechanic. I am extremely impressed at both of these. Just WOW.

      Both of these serve completely different purposes, and I love them both so much. Unfortunately, there are (minor) issues preventing both from being perfect just yet. Or at least, issues we should think about.

      I love Upgrade, but it encourages you to ditch big spells, not cast them - and this set is supposed to be about dreaming big and actually casting big spells, right?

      Upgrade's good: It emphasizes big spells. Upgrade's bad: It emphasizes them in the wrong way!

      Fuel is good because it encourages you to curve out, and get the right hand to hit it big with the costly stuff. Its problems, of course, are that it never explicitly mentions 'more' - so it'd have to be a supporter mechanic to the 'progress mechanic', and not the progress mechanic itself - and of course the fact it heavily encourages you to discard land.

      If we changed fuel to say "nonland", we'd lose a lot of its value, but we'd also keep newbies from screwing themselves. Is that worth it? I don't know.

      I like both of these mechanics on their own, but as 'the progress mechanic', they aren't quite reaching our goal just yet.

      PS: "Put a +1/+1 counter on it. It becomes an artifact creature." I've been using this in my personal Tesla file for a while, and I love it. Thumbs up.

    2. What if we swap Upgrade's discard-and-draw for "put on the bottom of your library, then draw?"

      What if we only ever put Fuel on cards that cost 4+? Agreed that it doesn't say progress.

    3. Fuel on cards that cost 4+ would definitely make it feel 'bigger'. It would be an excellent support mechanic then.

      Putting on the bottom would help, as you theoretically can cast it later... but it's still pretty much the same thing. It treats big stuff as a resource, not as the goal.

    4. I'd definitely be happy to try Fuel with a nonland clause or only on CMC 4+ as a supporting mechanic.

    5. These are some awfully texty commons.

      What upgrade does is not "sticky". I keep scrolling up to reread it. It also actively sabotages you, making you discard the cards you need (the more expensive ones for later in the game) and replacing them with useless lands (and whatever else you draw).

      I get excited and say "oh, a free loot" but then realize I'm forced to discard the card I want to keep .

      Discard + Draw + Cost requirement + conditional upgrade just feels like at least one if not two too many pieces for a mechanic.

    6. Maybe we get rid of the cost requirement and just let players cycle any card for the bonus.

    7. It feels weird that you get to upgrade your card (by looting) and also upgrade the spell at the same time. It also feels weird to give one of Red's only abilities to every color.

    8. Who says we're giving it to every color?

    9. Unless you're only giving it to Blue and Red, it is at least some bleed. I'm way more concerned about my first point than the one about color though.

    10. Also, how about Upgrading is just "discard a card" but then sometimes the upgraded version lets you draw a card? I think moving the draw part of the loot from the reminder text of the ability to the text of the card makes this more grokkable, and I think the idea of "discard an extra card to power this up" makes intuitive sense.

      It is, unfortunately, difficult to squeeze upgrade-style mechanics onto common spells (an issue I've had in my own work). Look at Galvanic Blast, pretty much the simplest possible upgrade-style spell. It is already 5 lines long in a tiny text size.

      Of course, this can certainly just be at Uncommon.

      Soulblood Feast 4BB
      Instant - (U)

      Upgrade (As an additional cost to cast ~ you may discard a card.)

      ~ deals 4 damage to target creature and you gain 4 life.

      If you upgraded ~, instead it deals 8 damage to target creature and you gain 8 life.

    11. I love the simplicity of Upgrade just being "Discard a card," although Fuel seems a better name for that effect. It reminded me of Lighting Axe from Time Spiral. Here's a possible direction that card leads us down.

      Lightwrap (COM)
      As an additional cost to cast NAME, pay 5 or fuel. (To fuel, discard a card.)
      Gain 8 life.

      Treasure Dive (COM)
      As an additional cost to cast NAME, pay 5 or fuel. (To fuel, discard a card.)
      Draw three cards.

      Gout of Flame (COM) (AKA Lightning Axe functional reprint)
      As an additional cost to cast NAME, pay 5 or fuel. (To fuel, discard a card.)
      NAME deals 5 damage to target creature.

      Cordlash (COM)
      As an additional cost to cast NAME, pay 5 or fuel. (To fuel, discard a card.)
      Prevent all combat damage that would be dealt this turn by creatures you don't control.

      Scrapheap Guard (COM)
      Arifact Creature - Golem
      As an additional cost to cast NAME, pay 5 or fuel. (To fuel, discard a card.)

    12. And a Black one, which I forgot for some reason:

      Drain Battery (COM)
      As an additional cost to cast NAME, pay 5 or fuel. (To fuel, discard a card.)
      NAME deals 4 damage to target creature or player. You gain that much life.

    13. Fuel just meaning "discard a card"" seems silly. Why don't we combine it further:

      As an additional cost to cast NAME, fuel. (To fuel, discard a card or pay {5}.)

      And of course, we can use fuel for other stuff:

      Capekian Flammenwerfer {2}{R}{R}
      Creature - Human Artificer (U)
      {2}{R}, {T}, fuel: Capekian Flammenwerfer deals 5 damage to target creature. (To fuel, pay {5} or discard a card.)

      Or whatever.

    14. It might seem silly, but we live in a world where sacrifice a creature was just keyworded as Exploit. It seems like there's less design space for "Pay 5 or discard a card" versus "discard a card." But maybe not. I can imagine Uncommon cards that rewards you everytime you fuel. That still works with "Pay 5 or discard a card." Hmmm...

      Refueling Attendant (UNCOM)
      Creature - Surrakar
      Whenever you pay a fuel cost, draw a card.

      And of course, Masticore's ability bends well to your version of Fuel.

      Territorial Masticore (MYTHIC)
      Artifact Creature - Masticore
      At the beginning ot you upkeep, sacrifice NAME unless you fuel.
      2: NAME fights target creature you don't control.
      2: Regenerate NAME.

      You might be right, Inanimate!

  5. Iteration: I still like this, of course, as I was the one who suggested it. "base casting cost" is nice terminology.

    Progress, in my few experiments with it in my own time, is very difficult to balance for commons. I resorted to checking against a progress - "if you have 3 or more progress" - and that worked a lot better. I also changed the wording so the card included itself AND cards in your graveyard, so it worked better with a variety of stuff.

    Groundwork is interesting. I think the idea of progress is still present, especially if you change the name of the pseudo to be more explicit about it. For example, "Improvement" or "Aspire" or whatever would make it pretty clear.

    Advance is way too fiddly for my tastes, and it only works on artifacts.

    Checking against a specific thing on the battlefield undermines the sense of the future we're going for, but it does emphasize 'achievement'. I think Manufacture, for that reason, is okay.

    Military loadout encourages you to hold back your spells, which is feel-bad and leads to boring gameplay. Also, the flavor is really difficult to see. It would be far more fitting to the flavor if it did something to the inspired card, not to the card inspiring, you know?


    In thinking about "if it did something to the inspired card", I realized, should we perhaps be facilitating the casting of bigger spells, instead of rewarding them?

    Maybe something like...

    Trailblaze {2}{R}
    Sorcery (Common)
    Trailblaze deals 3 damage to target creature or player.
    Foundation (As you cast a spell that costs more than this spell, you may discard/exile this card. If you do, that spell costs {2}{R} less to cast.)

    Since it has to cost more than the spell, you can't get free spells out of this mechanic, as far as I can tell. This basically converts any expensive spell into a pitch spell. "Discard" has more interactions - "exile" is safer. Playtesting would reveal which is necessary.

    I think Foundation is probably broken and I'm just not seeing it.

    We could also do something that doesn't care about cost, but the other important resource in Magic - cards!

    Radical Thinker {1}{R}
    Creature - Human Scholar (Common)
    When Radical Thinker enters the battlefield, aspire. (Reveal cards from the top of your library until you reveal a card that costs more than this. Put that card into your hand and the rest on the bottom of your library.)

    Or, if we wanted to streamline it:

    Alternate Aspire (Reveal cards from the top of your library until you reveal a card that costs 5 or more mana. Put that card into your hand and the rest on the bottom of your library.)

    This one was inspired by Jay's "cost cycling", but I'm going for, uh... "reverse cascadraw"? Okay, there's no good term for it, but you get the idea.

    Also, I keep on pondering cost reduction - "Spells you cast that are worth more than this cost {1} less to cast" - but I know that's broken. I wish I could figure out a way to make it less broken, but... I just can't see it. Any ideas?

    1. We once talked about Tesla being a battleship set. While that's not particularly compelling as a goal in and of itself, I quite like the idea of representing progress through the most basic of Magic's mechanics: the mana system.

      The rewards are big, expensive spells. The enablers are mana acceleration, and/or cost reduction. Super straight-forward. Super Magic.

    2. The trouble with Foundation is that Trailblaze is much better than Seething Song (except for Storm).

      Aspire is pretty sexy. Will have to balance for it being better than a cantrip. (But that's not as hard as balancing for cascade.)

    3. I knew I was missing something with Foundation. You're totally correct. It's pretty much a free mana ritual, which is ridiculous. Its limitation - only bigger spells - is relevant, but barely so. Thanks for the catch.

      I like Aspire as well. It's definitely tougher to balance than a cantrip. (I wasn't intending the common to be balanced, it was just a random design I threw together.)

      Yeah, I don't think Tesla needs to be a battleship set to encourage big spells. I've previously worked on a set that revolves around "bigger is better", and you got it on the nose - I rewarded big spells, and I enabled it with a variety of mana acceleration and cost reduction. I was totally going for that same flavor of "This Magic is bigger than you're used to!"

      I just realized, one mechanic I had might be interesting to pursue as a mechanic...

      Resource (When this creature dies, you may put a land card from your hand onto the battlefield tapped.)

      This mechanic isn't actually too broken, despite how it looks. You need a land in your hand when it dies, so the variance is just enough to keep it relatively balanced. And it makes for some interesting play decisions, since its death accelerates you, so players might just play around its death - or encourage it, of course, with their own cards.

      Also, I just got this idea when I was thinking about "smoothing out lands":

      Convert (Discard this card and skip this turn's land play: Put a Battery artifact token onto the battlefield with "{T}: Add {1} to your mana pool.")

      Okay... so I had to make up a turn. Big deal! :P You get the idea though. Basically, these cards can be a "land" whenever you need a land. Of course, they're actually an artifact, and not a land, which makes them much more interesting to play with. (And gives them more precedent, since land tokens want to be avoided.)

    4. Woops, I meant "make up a term", not "make up a turn". you probably know what I meant though.

    5. Lots of interesting thoughts here, I agree wholeheartedly with your thoughts on Military Loadout. A twist:

      Component (You may permanently reveal a card in your hand that costs more than ~. That card costs 1 less to cast.)

      Trailblaze looks appealing, but I think is playing in some inherently dangerous space, but while we're here, another dangerous spin:

      Underly (You may exile ~ from your graveyard to pay for {1} when casting a spell that costs more than this.)

      There's at least a little bit of a hoop getting these into your graveyard, and in a world where we throw out CMC for something that works with Etherium Sculptor, this will never lead to free spells.

      Aspire looks great, but it's much easier to forego top end than bottom end, so I'm a little bit worried that this mechanic will serve as a full-on tutor too often in constructed. I'd like to try a variant in the spirit of Satyr Wayfinder.

      Really Radical Thinker {1}{R}
      Creature - Human Scholar (Common)
      When Radical Thinker enters the battlefield, aspire 3. (Look at the top three of your library, you may reveal a card that costs 3 or more. Put that card into your hand and the rest on the bottom of your library.)

      With the number always being one more than the card's CMC. This naturally lets you look at more cards when you're searching for something bigger, which is good since you can't afford to put as many of those in a deck.

      Resource looks pretty swingy, but Viridian Emissary played well enough that I'd be willing to try it.

      Convert, on the other hand, while it does a number of good things, doesn't really solve the land token issue. I wouldn't be comfortable trying to get players to track this.

    6. Component is EXACTLY what I was trying to get at. THANK YOU SO MUCH, JULES. Dang, this "permanently reveal" tech really can do a lot, can't it? :P

      I considered "underly" as well, and in fact, I really really like it. It doesn't look that broken to me.. but I might also just be crazy or bad at noticing that kinda stuff.

      I noticed the tutor issue as well, but I thought the mechanic deserved discussion nonetheless. I like your suggestion, but I had a problem reading it that I think a lot of people will - "3" is naturally associated with the "3 or more", so I didn't even notice the other "three" was connected until I saw your comment below. I assumed it would always look at only three.

      Looking at more cards in the library is actually really cool, especially since (generally) the aspire number is one higher than the CMC, so you're paying for the privilege, but also narrowing your window of success. That's very clever.

      Alternatively, we could consolidate aspire and simplify it as much as possible, if your version proves too fiddly. We could always have it look at 4 cards and get cards that cost 4 or more. That seems like a fair middle-ground that would be safe on a lot of designs.

      I agree that Resource is swingy - that is its largest failing. I think swingy mechanics are fine in small quantities, though. This would probably be a relatively 'uncommon' mechanic - think along the lines of Devotion in Theros, which showed up on two black and one green cards at common, and showed up on a cycle (minus blue) at uncommon. Yet you cannot deny that Devotion did have a major influence on Theros limited.

      I noticed that issue with Convert as well. I was more comfortable with it on artifacts, but yeah, it is totally an issue. Theoretically, the set could just print far more Battery tokens, to ensure people have Battery tokens on hand.

      Thanks for the valuable feedback!

    7. A 1R 2/1 that significantly better than cantrips is horribly broken. Augur of Bolas saw significant constructed play, and this is way better. I think Aspire is fundamentally undeveloppable if you want things to be at all sexy. Remember that Elvish Visionary and Shaman of Spring are cards that are (while unappealing looking) very reasonable limited cards. This suggests that a 2/1 with Aspire should cost at least 4. It also certainly can't be Red.

    8. Tommy: Yeah, I was just throwing around random stuff to put the mechanic on. It wasn't intended to be balanced at all.

    9. But I think the point is that you can't put the mechanic on anything interesting, since the cost is a part of the mechanic!

    10. Tommy: You're correct, and I realize now I forgot to say that. :P Yes, you make a very fine point - the mechanic, as you say, is probably undevelopable, which is a shame.

      I think Jules' Aspire revision more closely captures the intent I had in mind, and does it in an interesting and fun way. Would you agree?

    11. Jule's design is just as broken as yours was, and I fear it will probably be in a similarly unappealing place once development gets its hands on it. It is a little confusing that his reminder text for "Aspire 3" uses the number 3 twice and I don't know which 3 is the 3. I can guess though.

      I think the "more expensive" part is just too complicated. I'd settle on 6 or more, and then make Aspire mean "Reveal the top 4 cards of your deck, put up to one of those cards costing 6 or more into your hand, and shuffle the rest into your library."

      Unfortunately, that is an awful long reminder text for a fairly narrow ability. You probably only need to find one six drop through the whole game to win the game, unless you also have a mechanic that cares about whether you have a six drop in your hand or something.

      Drawing cards is super powerful, and makes for sexy cards, but when they made a whole set around efficient cantrips (Invasion) it led to a pretty miserable experience where every play was a two for one back and forth.

    12. Aspire N means, look at the top N cards of your library and choose one with CMC N+ to put in your hand.

      I like Aspire 4 much better than Aspire 4x6.

      We're proposing mechanics here, Tommy; it's not as helpful to critique a specific card design as the mechanic itself. I can design any number of awful cards with any mechanic; none of them disparage the mechanic itself.

    13. I'm not critiquing cards as much as developability, which is an important thing to look at whenever the mechanic itself looks at the cost (since cost is development's main tool). Inanimate asked if I thought Jule's version was more developable, and I said I didn't.

      What if instead of drawing the Aspired card it when on top of your deck? Something like:

      Goblin Tour Guide 2R
      Creature - Goblin (C)
      Aspire -- When ~ enters the battlefield, look at the top four cards of your library. You may reveal one costing four or more and put it on top of your library. Put the rest on the bottom in any order.


      This is still an awful lot of words, even if we put it in reminder text (which I don't think we can do).

    14. The designer in my loves component, by the way. Using revealing cards in your hand as a resource is awesome, and is something done by one of my favorite games, Mu.

      The player in me that often sets my cards down and picks them up and fans through them and sets them down again and who also plays on Magic Online is worried about accidentally losing track of which way my hand goes or what the interface would look like.

      I've never tested anything like that, so I can't say whether it is a problem or not.

    15. Tommy, you make a lot of good points. Thank you for the extensive critique, it's great.

      I actually like the 'scry for big' you just suggested. I would say we could probably resolve a lot of the "which numbers go where?" by just using Tommy's version of Aspire 4x4, which I feel is quite balanced.

  6. I've never tested resource and it sounds like Inanimate has, but in theory it should be pretty lame: Players have usually played all the lands in their hand by turn 4 and have lost 0 or 1 creatures by then, meaning resource will trigger and have an effect pretty rarely.

    In theory, aspire should add less cost to a card than cascade, since it doesn't cast it for you, but Tommy's got a good point that the more we increase the cost of the card to compensate, the stronger the ability gets: We could make a {2}{G} Elvish Visionary with aspire, and that would be a solid card (despite being a three-mana 1/1). Make a {3}{G} 2/2 and now you're fetching powerful cards. Make a {4}{G} 2/2 and you're fetching potential game-ending threats. The neat thing is, you could probably make a {1}{G} 1/1 and the fact that it might only get a three-drop makes the result fairly comparable to the {2}{G} version. But that's pretty much the entire range for aspire. 2-5 mana.

    Aspire N on the other hand, could go on anything.
    Aspire 4 (regardless of the card its on) is simpler and solid too.

    Component is commit for other cards and definitely worth exploring.

    Underly is scavenge with a mana restriction. The restriction is good for preventing free spells, but I'm not sure it's worth the added text.

    1. The set had other ways to get lands into your hand, and encouraged you to play 18 lands. So, Resource triggered a little more often than it normally would.

      It wasn't intended to be a 100% of the time trigger, but instead a minor addition to a card that gives it some value. It's a terrible flagship mechanic - it was a keyword on a few creatures that helped smooth out lands at times, and for that it was useful.

      I more mentioned it because I liked it and because it's relevant to the idea of 'smoothing lands' - I don't think it's a perfect fit for any set, but only a set that works around it.


      Aspire has the problem of having a much narrower range of cards, which leads to costing issues, as Tommy noted astutely. I do agree that Aspire N is way better, and as I said, Aspire 4 seems like the perfect middle-ground for any spell, if we decide to not change it up based on the spell.

      Component is my favorite of the suggested mechanics. We definitely should try it out.

      I think the restriction is good for letting us push Underly cards a bit more.